Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Happy Mardi Gras!!

I was so disappointed to find out that none of my students in class this morning plan to celebrate Mardi Gras. In Milan Carnival is not the bash that it is in Venice. In fact the Milanese "celebrate" it 2 days later than the rest of the Catholic world because in the Middle Ages, St. Ambrose petitioned the Pope to allow the plague ridden city, which had suffered enough already to have 2 days less of the rigors of lent. Anyway not much happens here except that there's a lot of colorful confetti on the sidewalks. Hope you all have a fun time tonight.

A couple of notes about the gumbo recipe from the last 2 posts: file (FEE-lay) powder is ground leaf of the sassafras plant. The sassafras plant used to be the flavoring of root beer before modern technology got a hold of the root beer industry. A surprisingly lot of people say file has great flavor which I can't corroborate since my first and only container of it has no taste. It thickens the gumbo, though. Maybe my batch is old or something. My own file also doesn't go all stringy ('file' is the French word for 'string') when I sprinkle it on while the gumbo is still on the fire. Maybe that's also due to the age of the stuff.

Another note is the blog I found while fact-checking my file comment. The site is called New Orleans Cuisine I found not only a pretty complete explanation of file powder but a recipe for smoked Andouille sausage, which you know if you have read the last post is really tempting for me since I have no access to any. But this guy actually finds a way to smoke his own sausage. I'm not there yet. Anyway, if you want to know anything else about New Orleans Cuisine, I suggest you go there. I plan to as well.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Balancing Act Gumbo Part II

Well, Saturday's Pre-Mardi Gras party was a lot of fun. We ended up having 8 guests plus us and all together we made a tiny dent in the giant vat-o-gumbo that I ended up making. I'd say this dish would be great for a big party of about 15-20 people , especially if you intend to serve anything else. We didn't even get to the Cajun Caesar salad. (Yeah, there actually IS such a thing.) One friend, Amalia (here's one of her recipes) who writes the cookbooks every Christmas, brought a big lasagna which was delicious. The cumulative effect of lasagne, gumbo and a yummy-enough-to-eat-even-when-you're-stuffed chocolate cake from Paola was kinda coma-inducing. I couldn't really move comfortably toward the end. With all that food, another guest said I should have been born in Southern Italy. I suppose the quantities are more normal there but at least I didn't force feed anybody or tell them they're too skinny.

So, my Balancing Act Gumbo which is halfway between David Rosengarten's Herby Green Gumbo and his Andouille Sausage Red Gumbo was predictably brown. And I'd say not as delicious as the Andouille sausage one (so if you can find some Andouille, replace the chicken with it!) but everybody said it was great. Maybe they were being nice but they said they liked it. Here's the rest of the recipe:

3 lbs shrimp with its seasonings (see yesterday’s post for details)
2 lbs chicken breast cut into 1 inch cubes
1 tsp chipotle chile en adobo, finely chopped
1 tsp mild paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground thyme
1 tsp ground oregano (I put the thyme and oregano in a coffee/spice grinder)
1 lb pancetta affumicata or bacon, cubed
¼-1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
3 quarts of shrimp stock from the shrimp shells or chicken stock
3 cups minced onion
2 cups minced celery
1 ½ cups minced green pepper
1 can chopped tomatoes, 15 ozs
1 red bell pepper in a 1 inch dice
4 celery ribs in a 1 inch dice
2 tbsp gumbo file powder
3 cups of raw medium grain rice cooked according to package instructions.

**So, the day before you start the following recipe, you took all day to peel 3 lbs of shrimp and then made 3 quarts of shrimp stock out of the shells like I did, right? You’ve got shrimp marinating in spices in the fridge and stock chilling on the balcony? No? If you’re too lazy or not crazy enough for that, you can buy 3 lbs of peeled shrimp and 3 quarts of ready-made chicken stock and this’ll turn out just fine.
Place the cubed chicken in a bowl and coat with the seasonings, refrigerate until ready to use. Slowly brown the bacon on a large frying pan. Remove the rendered fat to a 1 cup measuring cup. Once the bacon is brown and crispy, remove it and reserve. You should have a total of ½ cup –3/4 cup of bacon fat. Add as much vegetable oil as you need to make 1 cup total of oil/fat. Pour into the frying pan and heat over medium. Add 1 cup of flour and mix to remove lumps. Continue cooking and stirring periodically until the mixture (called a roux) turns a blonde-light brown color, about 10 minutes. In the meantime, heat the shrimp or chicken stock on the stove and the chop the onion, celery and green pepper in a food processor to reach a fine mince. Once the roux is ready, add the vegetables and mix thoroughly with the roux. Cook for another 5 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Once the stock begins to boil, add the roux-vegetable mixture to it by wooden spoonfuls. Mix each spoonful into the broth thoroughly before adding another spoonful. Add the seasoned chicken, red bell pepper, celery and the can of tomatoes. Cook for 20 minutes. Add the shrimp mixture and cook another 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Finally sprinkle on the file powder and mix thoroughly. Stir until the stew has thickened to your satisfaction. It should be as thick as a pureed bean soup. To serve, place a coffee-cup's-worth of rice in the middle of each of your wide, shallow bowls and ladle the gumbo around the rice. Make sure to provide Tabasco sauce on the side since this gumbo isn't all that hot.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Balancing Act Gumbo, Part I

This coming Tuesday is Mardi Gras and so this weekend, we're having some people over for Gumbo and King Cake. I love the opportunity to cook American food over here in Italy and especially food from Louisiana which is to me the best regional cuisine in the States. This blog started around Thanksgiving last year when I got to cook a Turkey dinner for some Italian friends. This gumbo experiment should be fun. I have only one problem: I have no way to get any Andouille sausage which is the key ingredient in almost all the gumbo recipes I've seen in books and online. Gabriel brought some for me from New Orleans a couple years ago and we made two classical gumbo dinners, which were easy and phenomenal, all because of the smoky Andouille. That recipe came from the Dean and DeLuca cookbook which was written by David Rosengarten. Next to the Andouille gumbo, there's a boring-looking recipe for "Green Gumbo With Chicken, Shrimp and Fresh Herbs". I by no means will experiment on my friends with a dish that looks boring from the get-go, so I'm going to do a balancing act between the great recipe (where I'm missing 1 ingredient) and the boring-looking recipe (where I have all the ingredients). I'm hoping that my "pancetta affumicatta" (smoked bacon) and a little added smoky chipotle en adobo (dried, smoked jalapenos in a tomato sauce) will replace the smokiness of the Andouille. At any rate, it should be better than the "Green Gumbo"

Here's my Balancing Act Gumbo:

The day before dinner time:
3 lbs medium shrimp, peeled, shells reserved
2 cloves garlic
1-1/2 tsps chopped chipotles en adobo
1/2 small onion
2 tsps sweet paprika
2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp dried basil leaves
1 tsp dried thyme leaves

Place the garlic, onion and chipotles in a small food processor and mix to a paste. Add all other ingredients and pour over peeled shrimp, mix to coat. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Shrimp shells
Optional: 2 sprigs parsley, 1 carrot, 1 celery rib, 1 small onion, 1 bay leaf
3 quarts water
Simmer everything in a large stock pot for 1 hour. Strain stock and refrigerate.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all the rest.

Shopping Therapy a Milano? I Don't Think So!

My cousin and her fashion design school classmate interrupted their study-abroad in London this past week and came to Milan for women's fashion week. I think they liked it, although Milan itself is nowhere near as beautiful or interesting as the clothes that came off the runway these past few days. Milan may not look as pretty as many other Italian cities, but there is a particularly ugly quality here that they unfortunately discovered. The girls' fashion design scene experiences were good but their shopping experiences were terrible!

The story begins when they were treated coldly as they shelled out upwards of 100 and 200 euros for boots and shoes at the snooty, Frenchified (NEVER SHOP THERE!) Les Amis and Le Solferino (NEVER SHOP THERE!). When they later realized what said purchases would do to their student budgets, they tried to return the totally unworn, undamaged footwear to the stores that had failed to inform them of their return policies. First they met with emphatic and unapologetic "no"s and then yelling (no kidding, they were actually yelled at!) when they asked for the phone number of the store owner (which they never got).

I realize that the kind treatment one gets in stores in the States is based on commission and is probably not genuine, but I guess I prefer that to the outright hostility that I have experienced in stores here. The concept of "shopping therapy", going shopping to make yourself feel better, implies a rather vacuous approach to life, but here I have found the reverse phenomenon: I have developed "shopping aversion" in this so-called shopping Mecca.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Tuna Tataki

One of my favorite dishes at Chino Latino in Minneapolis is called “Tuna Tataki”. It’s a barely seared rectangular strip of tuna that remains raw in the middle and is sliced into thin squares and served with a Japanese-style dipping sauce. Fresh tuna is really expensive, but making this as an appetizer will serve 4 people for not much more than the price of 1 fat tuna steak and will really impress your guests. What I make is similar to what we get at Chino Latino, so I think the ingredients below are close to the restaurant recipe.

4 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp seasoned Japanese rice wine vinegar (or sushi seasoning)
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp finely minced ginger
1 tbsp minced green onion or chives
1 dash cayenne pepper
Red tuna steak or tuna fillet cut into approximately 1” by 1” by 5” batons
Optional: thinly shaved carrot and cucumber strips ("shaved" with a potato peeler)

Whisk all the ingredients except the tuna and set aside in individual mini sauce bowls. Heat a frying pan over high heat with a teaspoon of light vegetable oil. Salt the tuna strips, place them on the pan and let them sear for 10 seconds maximum. (After you've eaten this once, you will be able do gauge how many seconds it takes to get the tuna done to your taste.) Turn them 90 degrees and sear again for 10 seconds. Continue until you have seared all four long sides. Remove from pan. Cut each strip crosswise into ¼ inch thin square slices and arrange on a plate on top of the optional carrots and cucumber. The slices will be beautiful with a rim of light pink and a deep red center. Serve with the sauce on the side.
There is an alternative sauce that I made up one day when inviting a group of Italian friends over for dinner. They had the choice of the dark brown “Japanese” sauce or the bright green “Italian” one. Here’s the “Italian” one:

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup flat Italian parsley leaves, packed
1 small or ½ medium garlic clove
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place the garlic clove and parsley in a mini food processor and process to small bits. Add the oil, salt and pepper and process to a smooth sauce.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Super Polo

I'm back on my foodie/anti foodie soapbox again. I've been thinking about Julie of the Julie/Julia project and this particular grocery store in Milan that I hate and I know she would too. A comfort for some Americans living in Milan is a market called Super Polo. It claims to carry "American products" but to me, this store is the worst of two worlds. The "American" products they sell include hot chocolate mix, brownie mix, pancake mix, blueberry muffin mix, and many other things that a lot of expats believe they can't get anywhere else. Problem with this is that you can make all of these things with ingredients easily bought anywhere in Milan, that is if you want to MAKE them. I'd have to argue that if you did make hot chocolate with cocoa powder and sugar rather than whatever's in that mix, you'd end up with a better cup of hot chocolate. Same goes with all the other mixes ESPECIALLY the blueberry muffin thing. But there are many Americans here who are spending 7 dollars a box on dessicated blueberries and miscellaneous powders, just adding water and eating their "American" experience. So the worst of two worlds? Bad 7-11 style pre-fab food at Whole Foods prices. The contempt I feel for the overprivilege of Whole Foods shoppers combines with the contempt/pity/bewilderment of people who are willing to spend crazy amounts of money on crap.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Flamiche – Quiche aux Poireaux

Inspired by the Julie/Julia Project, today I’m making a quiche with leeks. Julie raved about it and even said she has been converted into a leek lover whereas she had never even liked them before. I have vague memories of quiches being related to girliness and Frenchiness when I was a kid in the early 1980s when they (I suppose) became popular. I’m guessing the popularity came with the Alice Waters, Chez Panisse gourmet revolution and the girly reputation of quiche was the backlash. Gabriel never experienced those associations and eats Swiss cheese quiches by the handful whenever he’s back in Geneva. I’m sure there’s a McDonald’s somewhere in Geneva but judging by what people munch in the streets, the most popular fast food there is cheese quiche. Looking at the kind of butter and creamfest Julia Child suggested, I used a slightly less buttery recipe for the pie crust. It comes from Nella Cucina by Mary Ann Esposito. It calls for an egg to help bind the butter/flour mixture and uses about half the butter of other piecrust recipes; I omitted the sugar it calls for. The thing is I’ve never noticed the difference between this crust and more buttery ones, so why not use it? The filling is rich enough anyway: leeks cooked down in a bit of water and a lot of butter plus whipping cream, cheese and more butter. I’m not really a fan of low-fat (and certainly NOT of low-carb) but Julia Child’s original recipe seemed more appropriate for dessert than for dinner. So, I made the less-butter crust and I used half cream and half milk in the filling. I have a left-over salad of endive, gorgonzola and walnuts that should round out the thing nicely.
Next day: the result was pretty darn good. The crust was crispy, crunchy and the filling was eggy, creamy. The only thing about this dish is that it's French. This is to say that flavor comes mainly from fat and less from spice. But I love spice! Right now I'm craving a plate of Pad Thai with lots of chili peppers, lemon grass and cilantro!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Spaghetti al Pesto delle Lipari

I just made a great new pasta dish which is a neat twist on the traditional Genoese pesto sauce. Rather than a blend of basil, pine nuts, garlic and cheese, this version which hails from the tiny Lipari islands off the coast of Sicily includes a combination of nuts, mint and tomatoes. It has been sunny and clear for the past few days which makes me feel like summer can't be far away. So I'm now anxious to have a summer dish. I have no decent fresh tomatoes this sunny February afternoon, so I went with canned and the result was still really good. This recipe comes from Amalia, a wonderful English student of mine who is also an actress and a consummate global home cook. She is expert at myriad Italian, North African and Indian dishes but is also a big fan of Jamie Oliver and Martha Stewart. Every year she compiles and prints small cookbooks to give as Christmas gifts to friends and family. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the latest one that includes this recipe:

(for 4 people)
350 gr spaghetti (that's about 2/3 of a 1 lb package
2 tbsp sliced almonds
2 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp walnuts
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (use the best you can afford here since it will be eaten raw. You can really taste the difference.)
6 ripe San Marzano (plum) tomatoes or 6 canned tomatoes
1 clove of garlic
10 mint leaves
red pepper flakes and salt to taste

If using fresh tomatoes, blanch (boil for 10 seconds) them and peel off the skins, then slice them in half crosswise and squeeze out any seeds. Let them drain in a colander for 30 minutes. If using canned tomatoes, slice them in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds, drain for 30 minutes.
In a small food processor, reduce the nuts, the garlic and the red pepper flakes to a granular texture then add the tomatoes, oil, mint and salt and process to a smooth consistency.
Serve over thin pasta.
***Interestingly, this sauce really resembles an Arab-inspired Spanish dish called Salsa Romesco which has basically the same ingredients plus vinegar minus mint. I wonder if Arab travelers in and around Sicily left this culinary idea in Italy.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Spaghetti alla Bolognese

Here you see homemade pasta with Bolognese sauce. This has become Gabriel's staple pasta sauce. Back in Minneapolis, our friend, Bill T. decided to take his new, Italian housemate to an Italian-American restaurant for dinner to make him feel more at home. This was the classic type of pre-foodie Italian restaurant with checkered table cloths, empty Chianti bottles serving as candle holders and a lot of spaghetti and meatballs coming out of the kitchen. Giampiero the housemate, being from Bologna and homesick ordered the spaghetti alla Bolognese and then threw a fit at what was served him. Over the car ride home, poor Bill got a lecture on "real" Italian food and especially what Bolognese isn't, namely tomato sauce with hamburger in it.

This lecture (related to me later by a disconcerted Bill) worried me a little since I always thought that Bolognese sauce was pretty much tomato sauce with hamburger in it. So I was really glad to be invited over to Simone and Valeria's house one evening for a spaghetti alla Bolognese dinner and they explained what all else is in the sauce. Here it is:

2 carrots peeled
2 yellow onions peeled
2 ribs of celery plus the leaves
2 cloves of garlic peeled
4 oz pancetta
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground beef
3-15 oz cans of plum tomatoes
bay leaf
1 cup red wine
salt and pepper to taste

Place the first 5 ingredients in a food processor and chop until you reach almost a paste. When the vegetables are in very small bits this is called a "battuto". You may need to do this in batches. Make sure when you are processing the pancetta that you do it in combination with a vegetable so that it gets chopped and not just stuck on the blades. Heat the oil in a very large frying pan or a wide sauce pan over medium heat. Add the vegetable battuto and cook until all the vegetable liquid has evaporated and the mixture starts to fry in the oil and rendered pancetta fat. After the battuto has browned, remove it leaving any oil at the bottom of the pan and add the ground beef. Once the ground beef has browned very well, that is when it has become dark brown and crusty, return the battuto to the pan and add the tomatoes and bay leaf. When the sauce has come to the boil, reduce the heat to medium low or low and allow it to simmer slowly on the stove for about an hour. Check and stir the sauce periodically. Scrape off the dry sauce from the sides of the pan and reincorporate it into the sauce since it has a deliciously rich flavor. After about an hour, you will notice that your sauce has evaporated a lot and is becoming more solid. Now add the wine and continue to cook for another hour or so. Actually the longer and slower you cook this the better it will taste. Serve over any good, thick pasta (no angel hair bolognese, please)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

No Starbucks Here!

The last time Gabriel and I were walking in downtown Geneva, Switzerland (his hometown) we were shocked to see a big Starbucks on a main corner, a prime, prime spot in the city. Maybe to any of you who live in the States or any other place other than Italy, this might not seem so strange but to me, it was a revelation. When you live in Italy you enjoy the luxury of the best coffee* (O.K., in Spain the coffee is different but to my mind, just as good) on every streetcorner and for 80 cents per espresso - less if you're not in Milan. Great coffee is a common denominator here. Everybody from cool fighetti downtown suit-wearing business types to cleaning ladies stop off and grab at least one coffee every day. I don't know if Starbucks with it's $4 grande raspberry-mocha frappuccinos figures it won't make much profit with this 80 cent competition or if the Italian government is protecting the 100% small business coffee shop industry here (I know of no coffee shop chains in Milan, just mom & pop shops) but I'm so glad for my Starbucks-less existence.
Just as with great produce, coffee is something everyone expects in Italy and in the States it's often very expensive and thought of as elite. In Italy, coffee shops look a lot less elegant as those in the States and there is usually no cool jazz playing in the background either. I remember last summer hanging out with my friend Debbie having a cup of coffee in a Hinsdale, IL Starbucks while we were visiting from Italy. The place was full of well-heeled moms and their kids, not that I would expect a heterogeneous clientele anywhere in Hinsdale. I hadn't been in a Starbucks for at least a year if not, more and I was shocked by the seductive photos on the walls there. They depicted the many stages of coffee cultivation and production in a way that conveyed to me an attempt to justify the exorbitant prices. No matter how poignantly the coffee-picker's rough hands are portrayed on the walls, Starbucks coffee does not behave in a more fair way toward its producers than anybody who sells cheaper coffee. Those extra dollars you spend for a Starbucks coffee go into other pockets. Like at Whole Foods, I think the price goes into making the particular Starbucks clientele feel better about something.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cream Of Broccoli Soup

Ugggghhhh. After a couple days of stomach flu, I'm starting to think about food again. Slowly. I've made a lot of plain, white rice chamomile tea recently and yesterday I was able to upgrade to a simple and tasty cream of broccoli soup. This is the season for it anyway. I used all of the broccoli and took care to peel the rough, unchewable outer layer of the stems before they went into the pot. The broccoli florets are more tender than the stalk so make sure the stalk is chopped into a ½ inch dice to cook more evenly.

2 pounds of broccoli florets, chopped leaves and peeled, diced stems.
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour (or more - I'll explain later)
2 cups milk
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

In a large stock pot, boil the broccoli until it is soft. While the broccoli is cooking, melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat then add the flour to make a roux. The ¼ cup to ¼ cup ratio above will give you a liquidy roux ("roux" being fried flour and butter that you use to thicken sauces and soups). I feel like I can get more thickening action out of it with less fat by adding more flour to this and getting a kind of cookie dough-y consistency frying at the bottom of the pan. In any case, cook the roux, stirring constantly for 2 minutes on medium heat. Add the 2 cups of milk and whisk vigorously until all the lumps have been incorporated into a smooth, thick sauce. (So, now you've just made bechamel sauce! Congratulations!) Without draining the broccoli, puree it in the cooking water with an immersion blender (or "Cuisinart wand" or whatever you want to call that stick thing with the propeller at the tip) If there are a few pieces of broccoli left, I don't consider it a problem. Add the bechamel, stir, add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste and serve piping hot in big, big bowls!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Foodie-Anti-Foodie Manifesto

Reading the Julie/Julia Project reminds me of a bunch of things I’ve been meaning to talk about here that I haven’t gotten around to. Julie (and I) is (are) anti-foodie foodies. That is so say, we shun the holier than thou food snobbery of the Dean and Deluca or Whole Foods overpriced over-precioused fancy pants groceries. Don’t get me wrong. If I had the money to shop only at Whole Foods (never even stepped foot in D and D) I would; their offering of foods is seductive but what they have the nerve to charge for their food has a lot more to do with coddling the self-righteous whims of their over-privileged customers. I read in (I’m sure it was the New York Times) that their definition of service includes, opening 75 jars of different mustards so that 1 client could taste each and make sure he was getting just the right one. Imagine the sense of entitlement of that asshole who apparently had no qualms about making the store clerk open 74 not-good-enough mustards before he got to the right one! Not only is it criminal to encourage these rich bastards to feel that they deserve only the freshest hand-harvested springtime fiddlehead ferns for $28/lb but the Whole Foods permutation of the foodie revolution has left most of us in the dust. What good is it if only the very few have access to this? I have a friend back home who insists on only the best ingredients (at whatever price) and thinks cooking means doing as little to them as possible. To me, that's not cooking; that’s one step over from making reservations for dinner. See Julie’s brilliant foodie-anti-foodie manifesto that says it much better than I ever could.

Julie also seems to have it in for smug Americans living in Eurpoe who write about all the precious, wonderful food so readily available here. I hope I haven't made that impression. Actually, living in (way less glamorous than you might imagine!) Milan and seeing all the wonderful fancy-pants food that EVERYBODY buys and eats because it's reasonably priced has led me to question a lot more the whole American foodie revolution. Here it's no big deal. Most people here love food and expect it to be great. Even the lowest common denominator food. So I DO have the luxury to dine on celeriac and cardoons and red radicchio and fennel and pheasant that I know would be out of my economic reach back home. It's just that here, great food isn't a luxury. I wish I knew how to get that concept rolling in the States.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Julie/Julia Project

I’ve been reading a blog called the Julie/Julia Project which got the Julie part of the equasion a fat book deal and which started me on this trek you’re reading right here. Initially I started this blog out of a sense of injustice that somebody else came up with an unoriginal plan to do something I could have easily done myself. Julie set out to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. I remember having read that Martha Stewart had done the same and I don’t think it would have been all that tough. So I felt robbed and not a little self-critical that someone had done it before me. Such a simple idea and I didn’t think of it. Of course I know that if Julie had never gotten famous, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Anyway, all my resentment of Julie and her book deal has melted away after reading the first 2 months of her blog. She’s a brilliant writer. She writes about cooking and how she’s getting though it with her job and long commutes etc. and I can’t wait to see what happens next. She’s made Mastering The Art Of French Cooking into a page-turner. Somehow, she weaves her cooking descriptions with the pathos of her daily life. My hat is off to her.

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