Thursday, September 28, 2006

Whaddya Think? Should I Eat 'Em?

After coming home from a future job reconnaissance mission at the Politecnico in Como (yeah, that's "Lake Como"; I'm planning on sipping Martini with George after each class), I found these tiny little mushrooms growing in the soil of my Cavolo lacinato (dinosaur kale) pot. They seem so innocuous, almost vulnerable that something is pushing me to taste them. About 5 years ago I bought a field guide to North American mushrooms that was meant to help me forage for morels and puffballs in the forests of Minnesota. Never did I have the nerve to take anything home to the sautee pan, not even one specimen that really looked like a porcini. So I'm now regretting my caution, scared I'm getting a little boring. Not to mention my great track-record with dangerous foods leads me to feelings of invincibility. I can take on 3 measly little mushrooms. Right?

These 3 guys don't look like they would hurt a fly, do they? For the moment they're waiting in my fridge. They have no scent whatsoever and you see what they look like, so what do you all think? Should I eat them? Unless someone with demonstrable knowledge of wild mushrooms gives me an unmitigated "YES!", they're going into the compost bin. Lemme know what you think.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Bruschetta With Fresh Porcini Ragout

Yesterday, I took my usual bike-ride to the Valvassori Peroni open-air market. All September, the number of stalls selling the prized porcini mushrooms have been growing and this time almost everybody had some to sell. Many of the veg-mongers were offering two different grades of porcini, at different prices, of course. I stopped at one run by an older gentleman and a younger guy, a place where I had bought a lot of things before. After you've been to a seller a few times they begin to treat you better, chit-chat, etc. I asked the young guy if the difference between the two grades of porcinis was due to a lesser number of little worms in the more expensive one. Since I've bought is produce before, he did not yell at me.

(CAVEAT! It's been a rare experience of mine to chop a porcini and NOT have to pick out any tiny white worms! I have accepted this as a fact of life and it is a testament to their deliciousness that I willingly battle and probably eat worms every time I buy porcinis at the market.)

Rather than yelling at me, he simply lied. The veg-monger assured me that there were no worms in either his cheaper or his more expensive porcinis. Not his, he only sells good produce! Now, I love going to Milan's open-air markets and fresh porcini mushrooms are my #1 favorite thing about Italy, and as Jerry Seinfeld so well put it, "Fruit is a gamble; I know that going in." Same goes for vegetables. So I say this with the best sense of the words: Veg-mongers are liars! They cannot be trusted! The best you can hope for is that they will lie to you with smiles on their faces! Now ok, you still get better fruits and veggies at lower prices at the markets, so it is still well worth the duplicity.
So I chopped up my porcinis (I got the more expensive ones at an admittedly great price, 15 euros per kilo) and picked out all the little worms I could find. Music to pick worms out of mushrooms by: The Pogues' "Worms" from the album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God". Then I followed this Charlie Trotter recipe for Roasted Mushrooms. The result (to the left) is a sort of chopped porcini ragout. It's soft, tender texture goes really well with the solid crunch of my grilled, homemade bread. It's delicious, and you don't even notice the worms!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Mexico on My Balcony

I have a little bit of Mexico growing on my balcony. The herbs, the one cuor di bue tomato plant and the one cavolo lacinato (dinosaur kale) plant take up one corner of my balcony and the rest teems with 4 poblano peppers plants and 4 tomatillo plants each 7 feet high. It's a jungle out there. After planting the seeds in March, watering religiously, caring for them, squashing parasites between my fingers, adding my own back-balcony compost during the growing season, and dreaming up recipe after recipe, the reward has arrived! I've finally taken my first harvest of poblano peppers! They're small but there are dozens and dozens.

Mexican ingredients are about the only thing I haven't been able to find here, in Italy. The Italian food shops plus recent immigrants to Milan from The Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America have seen to it to supply me with almost every food item I could ever dream of (not to mention many things I'd never heard of before, like delicious, "lardo". No, really, it's great!), and it's not so bad to carry the odd bag of dried chiles anchos, guajillos and pasillas, the canned chile chipotle and all the lovely spices on the airplane from Chicago once in a while, but fresh vegetables I have the duty/pleasure to grow myself.

So, today I opened my favorite Rick Bayless Mexican cookbook looking for poblano recipes to use my first pick and found "Chicken Breasts With Poblanos, Mushrooms and Cream". For just how much I love Rick Bayless, see here. Then I went and made a few changes. See, Bayless calls for baking chicken breasts. Baking them, which never in my experience turns out what you'd call moist. Maybe he was bowing to the U.S. American penchant for this driest, blandest of all chicken parts? I however, having no culinary empire to protect by writing recipes for the "grande publique", am free to do whatever I please so for me it was baked, bone-in, skin-on chicken legs and thighs (much juicier and so crispy when all you have to do is salt 'em and bake 'em!) So here's my take on Rick Bayless's recipe:

1 lb whole poblano peppers
2 chicken legs and 2 thighs (bone-in, skin-on)
dash of salt

3 cups roughly chopped oyster mushrooms*
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
dash of salt

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large white onion, in a large dice
3 garlic cloves finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried oregano
3/4 tsp dried thyme
6 large minced epazote leaves (I use the dried ones I imported on the last flight back to Italy, but use fresh if you've got a good Mexican grocery nearby)
1 cup heavy cream or Mexican crema
1 tsp salt

First, roast the poblanos whole on the highest rack of a 375F oven until they've blackened in some places and blistered about everywhere. Remove them and place in a paper bag to steam for a minute or 2. In the meantime, prepare 2 ovenproof containers (I used 2 shallow, medium-sized oval dishes), place the chicken pieces in one, salt them. Arrange the mushrooms in the other, drizzle 1 tbsp oil, salt and turn to coat thoroughly. Turn the timer on for 15 minutes, place the chicken in the oven then peel and seed the poblanos while they're still very warm. Music to peel poblanos by: Tucson, Arizona's own Calexico with "Banderilla" from the release "Even My Sure Things Fall Through" I find poblanos easier to peel than bell peppers. Reserve the peppers.

Next, make the rajas: pour the 1 tbsp oil into a medium frying pan over medium-high heat then add the onions cook for about 5 minutes stirring periodically until they have reached a good, medium brown color. Add the garlic, oregano and thyme, stir and cook another minute then stir in the poblanos and heat through. Whenever the timer rings, put the mushrooms in the oven (on a lower rack if they don't fit on the same one). Do not remove the chicken. Put the timer on for 30 minutes more.

Now make the poblano crema: Scrape the poblano mixture into a food processor or blender and puree while drizzling in the cream or crema. You want the consistency of thick cream soup so add water if the mixture is too thick. Reserve.

When your chicken and mushrooms are done (the chicken should be brown and crispy while the mushrooms should have 1. reduced in volume, 2. gotten rather soft and 3. accompanied by a nice, thickish juice that you may add to the poblano crema.

Finally, pour about 1/2 cup of sauce on each plate, put one piece of chicken on top and accompany with the mushrooms on the side. You may have extra sauce. Enjoy with fresh hot tortillas or some boiled potatoes, which will soak up your extra sauce nicely!
*Oyster mushrooms are so pretty and sooo good and at 4 euros a kilo at the grocery store...I LOVE ITALY!! Here, good food for cheap is a birthright. For my diatribe about that, see here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Panama, India and New Wave (the music, not the movies)

You know those memes where you're asked to name the 3 coolest, new blogs you've just discovered? Nobody's tagged me but I've got some for ya.

Do you love salsa music as much as I do? Have you ever longed to travel to the tropics and be driven on a musical tour meeting kind and interesting people everywhere you turn? Check out Alison's Panamanian travelblog Oh, and she's put up a whole bunch of downhome Panamanian soulfood photos to pique your food envy. For that matter, if there is anything you want to know about Panamanian salsa musician & actor, Ruben Blades (and I mean ANYTHING) go to Alison's Maestra Vida website

INDIA Want to experience India through the eyes of a young American traveller? Check out Good Karma Lindsey is spending a year in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (so far) and having the most colorful experiences. She expresses some frustration but much awe and presents things in a way where you have to read to the end. And you learn so much.

NEW WAVE How often do you listen to music of the 1980s in order to banish (of for only the 3 minutes each song lasts) the stresses of adulthood and revel (wallow?) in the glory that was the ME Decade? Paul Allen of the very music-centered Minneapolis has just the thing to push you down memory lane, a top 200 songs of the 1980s. Have you forgotten The Smiths? (That's them on the left) Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? Shame on you! Get on over to now!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Couscous With Merguez and Summer Vegetables

Today, I'm going to show you how to make a great summer couscous since my ancient, operating system refuses to allow me to convey a video of an escaping sea urchin (really cute!) onto blogger. It's all my fault, really. I've allowed my tech-genius of a husband to continue to extend the lifespan of my elderly computer which he does marvelously BTW, only sometimes there are limits to what this old relic can achieve (the computer, NOT the husband). So the seemingly endless saga of the sea urchin has come to an end and we cross the Mediterranean and head for Morocco. If you've never tried Moroccan merguez sausage before, by all means, do since it is delicious. I discovered it in Paris this summer, where it's as common as hot dogs are in Chicago and then I discovered that I can get it in Milan any day I want at one of the nearby halal butchers (not the at Egyptians' around the corner but at the Moroccans' down on via Padova)Actually, if you ask the Egyptians for merguez the look at you a little funny and say, "but we're Egyptians" since evidently that precludes one from selling merguez. The Moroccans, however break out into a big smile and say, "so, you like Moroccan food!" I love the halal butchers. See the end part of this post if you want to know more reasons why.

Here's the recipe:

½ lb merguez sausage chopped into ½ in pieces
2 small onions, chopped fine
2 tablespoons butter
1 tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
4 tsp tomato paste
3 cups chicken broth
1½ cups water
1 red bell pepper, in a ½ inch dice
2 zucchini in a ½ inch dice
2 (3 in) cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 cup canned fava beans
1½ cups couscous

In a large saucepan melt 1 tbsp of butter and sautee the red bell pepper and zucchini until lightly browned. Remove. In the same pot, melt the other tbsp of butter and sautee the onion until soft, then add the merguez sausage and brown evenly. Music to brown merguez by:Moroccan reggae artists, Ganga Vibes! Add the turmeric, cayenne, tomato paste, chicken broth, water, cinnamon, bay, cumin and paprika, bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer gently uncovered for 20 minutes until you have created a flavorful broth. Ladle out 1 cup of the broth and place it in a smaller pot. Return the zucchini and bell pepper to the large saucepan and add the can of fava beans (with their juices if the merguez-vegetable mixture is on the dry side). Bring the 1 cup of broth to a boil, turn off heat and stir in couscous. Let stand off heat 5 minutes.
To serve: Fluff couscous with a fork and pour it out onto a serving plate. Make a large well in the center and pour the merguez-vegetable stew into the center.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare con Limone e Mentuccia Romana (Spaghetti With Sea Urchin Roe, Lemon and Field Balm)

After cleaning 32 sea urchins we ended up with half a cereal bowl full of eggs for our pasta. Doesn't seem like much, does it? But a lot of work went into this meal, so we were determined to make it really good. Valeria knew how to use the sea urchins with an Italian flair. She was the expert of the day since she spent her childhood summers on the Island of Capri hunting "ricci di mare" on the rocks.

Normally we make an appetizer out of sea urchin roe just by laying them on some buttered toast and eating them along with iced Tsipouro in the courtyard before dinner. This time though, it was sea urchin pasta sauce.

The ingredients:

roe of 32 sea urchins
1/4 cup the best extra virgin olive oil*
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 sprig mentuccia romana (field balm) yielding about 2 tablespoons of leaves
salt and pepper to taste.
1 lb package spaghetti

Mix the first 5 ingredients in a bowl and reserve. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously and add the pasta stirring constantly until is begins to bend. Cook using package directions. When al dente, drain and place in a large pasta bowl, add the sauce and toss as gently as possible to avoid smooshing the sea urchin roe. Music to stir urchin roe by: The Screaming Orphans' (this one goes out to you, M.O.T.S.) cover of the Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man" on album "Circle". Look on the left of the page to hear it for yourself. Their soft and liltingly Irish version of this Pixies screamer is unrestrainedly hilarious! The roe will break anyway, but you're doing good if they stay in pieces rather than becoming a paste.

*The olive oil will stay raw in this dish, so make sure it's the best one you can afford since here, you'll really taste the difference.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

SEA URCHINS: The Killing and Cleaning Factory

Here's our catch of the day. 32 sea urchins looking pretty and decorative, some with their tan seaweed hats on. That silver tool that looks like a Chinese character though is the instrument of their demise. It's a sea-urchin guillotine.

See how it works? Like a regular guillotine (a humane innovation in the world of public executions, actually) this is very quick and I hope rather painless. When you see these guys "walking" around, almost looking as if they're planning an escape, you start to feel sorry for them. They actually seem cute.

Once they're opened, though, there's no brain visible. You see lots of sea water, a membrane with grey, sandy grit and 5 orange egg sacs lining the sides. That's it. Seeing this allays my guilt and discomfort about killing my own food. Not that it's very scientific to not see a brain and conclude that there isn't one. Nor does it make sense to feel guilty only when you see the death of your meal directly. Grocery shopping removes us from the scene of the crime as it were, not from the responsibility. I wonder how long it would take me to become a vegetarian if I had to kill my own food instead of paying somebody else to do it. Or maybe I'd just get over the guilt and get on with it.

Cleaning the sea water and grit from the eggs is not an easy thing. Since we had so many urchins, we resorted to rinsing them in water, which got most of the grit out and probably some of the flavor too. Here is a clean urchin with eggs ready for scooping.

Next episode: What we did with all those eggs: Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare con Limone e Mentuccia Romana (Spaghetti With Sea Urchin, Lemon and Field Balm).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hunting Grounds - Episode I of the Sea Urchin Trilogy

Foreground of this photo: yours truly; Valeria, sea urchin enemy #1 and Sue, my companion in the shade. Background: our sea urchin hunting grounds. We call this place "the lythos" (Greek for "the rock") and it's a great place to swim, sun-worship (if you're into that kind of masochism) and hunt sea urchins. You wouldn't know it by looking at this picture, but just under the water's surface, the rocks are teeming with them. Sue and I made for the shade and whiled away the time reading about the Greek islands of Skiathos, Skpoelos and Alonyssos, where Sue was destined next, and taking the odd photo of Valeria, Simone and Gabriel hunting.

Here are Valeria and Simone hunting for urchins with a simple knife to pry them off with and plastic bag to store them until getting back to the house. This is such a simple method compared to what I learned from Gabriel's family. I have always used tools made especially for the hunt: a long broomstick with what looks like a primitive prosthetic hand at the end of it. It's a clamp that you open and close with a long string as you hold the end of the broomstick, then a metal cage with a handle to keep your catch. Now, with such simple tools as a knife, plastic bag and snorkeling mask, Vale and Simo sure caught a LOT of urchins, 32 total!

Gabriel helped out too and here you see him (bottom with Simone, top climbing on the lythos. We also had different methods of determining which urchins to collect. They have to be female see, since it's only the eggs (caviar) that you eat. Valeria who grew up spending the summers on the isle of Capri and hunting these critters ever since she was a wee thing, distinguishes the females by their inky purple color (she says that makes can be brown or black). I learned to pick the ones that had a piece of seaweed or shell or other sea debris on top, as if they were wearing a hat. We learned this summer that whether you go for the purple ones or the ones donning "hats", you've got the females, in all 32 of our catch, we ended up taking NO males by mistake.

Simone insisted that the feeling of a sea urchin "walking" on your hand was cool and not creepy (I did not believe him at first) and had us try it. He was right, it was wild! Here are Simo and Vale with Sue, fresh out of the shade, urchin in hand.

Stay tuned for:
Episode II: The Killing and Cleaning Factory.
Episode III: Recipe: Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare con Limone e Mentuccia Romana

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Le Erbe D'Estate

Gabriel is an avid hiker. Now, when I say "avid" you might imagine hiking for 5-6 hours every once in a while, well you need to change your definition of avid in order to really get Gabriel. He spent his summers in the mountains of Greece and the rest of the year in the mountains of Switzerland. Hiking. For days.

The greatest irony of my romantic life revolves aroung hiking. One of my most painful breakups was with (from?) a very outdoorsy guy and after months of depression and loss, my first thought that the breakup wasn't really all that terrible was, "Hey, I never have to go hiking again!" I've always considered myself a very urban person. Growing up in Chicago means there's either the City (with things to do) or corn fields (with nothing to do) and I mean days' worth of corn fields. So when Gabriel invited me on our first hike, I was a little hesitant. As we were still in the "polite" phase of the relationship, I figured I'd tolerate marching around in the middle of nowhere for this guy I really liked.

But then something happened! Much to my surprise, it wasn't boring! You see in Europe (the first hike was indeed in Greece) you can't go very far without finding a village; the vast tracts of wilderness (or corn fields) just aren't there to the same degree as in the Midwest. And there's food everywhere! We walked along a mountain path and Gabriel taught me to distinguish the wild oregano growing all over the place! Throughout the rest of that year, I made dishes with my hand-picked, wild oregano and was so satisfied by the whole thing that I couldn't wait for the next summer. Above you see bay leaves on the left, oregano in the middle and (bought, not collected) garlic all drying for our culinary pleasure.

Now, every year we collect our supply of oregano on hikes to Milopotamos and Propan, and when I take the path to the swimming rock, I grab some stalks of wild bay leaves. But this year our Italian guests made a discovery all their own. It seems that the country house sits in the middle of a gigantic mentuccia romana patch! What's mentuccia romana, you ask? It's an herb that has a light minty flavor and is used in all sorts of fish dishes (see here for one from Gigliola). It's also what we Greeks and Greek-inspired folks have called "false oregano" for years! I don't think Greeks (at least in Pelion) use this at all (any Greeks out there who can tell me different, please do!) but Italians (the ones I know at least) go nuts over the stuff so we were eating all kinds of mentuccia romana dishes this summer.

P.S. Gabriel was surfing the internet last night and found what vlita (see previous post) is in English. It's a type of amaranth (and there are many edible varieties of amaranth). We think it's "Mediterranean Amaranth or Amaranthus graecizans L. but it could also be Amaranthus lividus or maybe Amaranthus hybridus.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

La Festa al Fresco - Wilted Vlita with Feta Cheese

Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice has asked me to bring a fresh ingredient dish to her festa al fresco. Just coming back from vacation in Greece where we lunched and dined al fresco daily, I had a lot of ideas to choose from. This simple warm salad, though is singularly tasty, simple and fresh.

In Greece, even the weeds are delicious! Vlita is one of many edible “volunteer” plants that pop up everywhere in Greece. If you know your stuff, you can eat different varieties of “organic field greens” (a.k.a. weeds) all year round. You can find numerous dandelion-like varieties in the spring but Vlita is the one that grows most abundantly in summer and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t taste just like spinach - without the bolting in high heat!
These days, though it’s mainly the older folks in the countryside who still pick the greens by hand as it’s not the most fashionable thing anymore. “Progress,” you know. You can still, however, buy the greens someone else has picked in open-air markets. Out at the summer house, vlita shoots up in any vacant square inch of the vegetable garden and none of us do anything to stop it. Music to grow vlita by: REM's 1982 "hit" (well, at that time they didn't really have hits, now did they?) "Gardening at Night" Michael Stipe was famous for mumbling his lyrics and when fans would try to copy them down, send them to him and ask, "Are these the words to X song?" he would invariably answer, "Yes" no matter what they had written. Once the vlita threatens to overtake the tomatoes and eggplants, we yank it out by the barrelful and strip the smaller, more succulent leaves to make “hortopita” (greens pie, just like “spanakopita” is spinach pie) see recipe here, or simply this delicious warm salad of wilted vlita with feta cheese sliced on top.

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) vlita or other organic field greens (sturdy ones for cooking)
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
*150 grams (about 5 ozs) feta cheese

Wash the leaves thoroughly in cold water and drain. In a very large stock pot, heat the oil over medium. Begin to add the greens with some of their water still clinging to the leaves and stir. Continue to add handfuls as the greens in the pot begin to wilt and the overall volume decreases. Keep stirring and flipping the bottom wilted leaves over the raw leaves. Once all the leaves are in the pot add salt and pepper to taste. Cook until everything is tender (this takes longer for vlita than for spinach). Take off heat and arrange in a wide, shallow bowl. Allow to cool a bit then *sprinkle or slice feta cheese on top. Serve as a side dish to meat along with some crusty bread. Any leftovers can be used as filling for hortopita.

*Note: another delicious variation (seen here if you look hard enough) is to omit the cheese and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top along with a generous squeeze of lemon.

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