Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Orleans King Cake

The official colors of Mardi gras in New Orleans are purple, gold and green. Here you see the side of a typically colored, typically doughnut shaped king cake. I was inspired for a lot of my Mardi Gras dinner by Danno of New Orleans Cuisine, who posted a gorgeous-looking king cake recipe on his blog. He planned to make a brioche dough as the basis of the cake. That's where he lost me. My culinary past is scarred with many horrendous results but none so painfully sticky as the time I made brioche. I swear that stuff is impossible.

So I went with this easy but ill-explained recipe that I'll never make again. Thinking I'd make my life a little easier, I went from bad to worse with this recipe. I think I added too much flour 'cause it was hard and heavy as a rock, not to mention purple, green and gold, which to the Italian eye didn't look traditional, it just looked ugly. Oh well, as Julia Child once said, "the good thing about cooking is that you can eat your mistakes".

Monday, February 26, 2007

Spicy Red File-Thickened Gumbo With Shrimp and Andouille

On Fat Saturday, the big Milanese "bacchanal" we served succotash, Southern greens, this Shrimp-Andouille gumbo and king cake. Then we loosened our belts and collapsed on the sofa. The gumbo recipe says it's for 8 people and since there were 9 of us, I figured I'd just eat a little bit. Well, after the greens and succotash as a primo piatto served with my homemade bread all 9 of us got through about half the gumbo if that. And then we exercized our gurgitational muscles on the king cake (recipe to appear around Wednesday).

In a sense I started making Saturday's gumbo on a visit to my local food co-op in early January. The precious Andouille was frozen in my parents' Frigidaire and then shipped in my checked luggage (along with dried epazote, corn husks for tamales yet to be made and reasonably priced aspirin) over to Italy and then re-frozen back here in Milan. I was a bit worried about poisoning someone with potentially tainted Andouille with the double thawing and the air travel and all, but as I write this 2 days later, nobody's called with stomach complaints so I guess all went well.

The gumbo recipe comes straight from David Rosengarten's Dean & DeLuca Cookbook, a great tome that offers classic dishes next to modern spin-off dishes that it seems Rosengarten & co. developed themselves. This "Spicy Red File-Thickened Gumbo With Crawfish and Andouille" is one of the classics.

Here's the dish:

Marinate 2 pounds of peeled crawfish or shrimp with:

1 1/2 tsp paprika
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder (I didn't have any so I just mashed one clove to a paste)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp onion powder (left this out since I didn't have any)
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Leave this mixture in the fridge for 2 hours while you prepare the rest of the dish.

2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup minced garlic
2 cups minced: onion, celery, red bell pepper
1 cup minced scallions
9 cups crawfish, shrimp or chicken stock*
2 28 oz. cans of tomatoes
2 bay leaves
2 tsps dried thyme
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 cloves (I was too lazy to grind them and too afraid to leave them whole and end up swallowing them, so I left them out)
1/2 tsp Louisiana hot sauce (I left the hot sauce for the guests to sprinkle on themselves)
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp lemon juice
1 lb andouille sausage
2 tbsps file powder (It's a thickener)
4 cups cooked rice as an accompaniment
whole boiled crawfish for garnish (I got 1 4 inch long langostino (or something) per person)

I heated the oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, then added the flour and allowed to turn a reddish brown while constantly stirring, about 7-10 minutes. This oil-flour mixture is called a roux. Once the roux was brown, I added all the minced vegetables and fried them for 5 minutes while I heated the stock (I used half chicken and half shrimp). Once the stock got to the boiling point, I added the vegetable-roux mixture by large spoonfuls and mixed. I added the tomatoes along with their juice, the herbs, spices and lemon juice. I raised the heat to bring the soup to a boil, then lowered it to keep it at a simmer for 20 minutes, partially covered. Then I added the andouille sausage and let simmer another 20 minutes. Music to simmer gumbo by: "Lester Bowie's Gumbo Stew" by jazz artist, Ari Brown. I guarantee, you'll be wiggling your hips to this one. I added the spiced shrimp and langostinos and cooked another 5 minutes. I took the pot off the heat and added the file powder and stirred until the soup thickened to a point halfway between chicken soup and Italian tomato sauce. I got 9 wide, low bowls, placed a scoop of cooked basmati rice (didn't have medium grain) at the bottom and poured the soup over. I fished out a langostino and placed it on top to make a lovely presentation (that I was too embarrassed to take a picture of in front of my guests, so you all are left with the murky pic above).

*If you peel the shrimp yourself, you can make the most delicious stock by simmering it with a mirepoix in enough water to cover.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Happy Fat Thursday! Pass the Muffuletta.

Well, by now the tourists have mostly filed out of Venice, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro: the streets are being swept clean and Carnival preparations are beginning for next year. But Milan is still going strong! Today the Office of International Mobility at the University of Milan-Bicocca lets its hair down and gets jiggy with a Carnival parade, fireworks display, masked ball, pot-luck lunch. Actually the lack of sequined dancing girls and heavy drinking at our lunch does speak to the subdued tone of a Milanese carnival. Still, it's great to live somewhere where Carnival is a recognized holiday.

In Italy, outside of Venice and Viareggio, Carnival is largely a kids' holiday. They dress up in costumes and attend small parades where float-riders toss candy to them. The holiday really reminds me a lot of Halloween.

This muffuletta sandwich is based on NOLA Cuisine's own version, except that I used my own homemade sourdough bread and had to improvise on the olive salad (really, a giardiniera as far as I'm concerned), also, Danno uses mortadella, which I detest so I went for the cooked ham instead. Also, the bland, Northern Italian "giardiniera sauce" that I added spices to in hopes of replicating the Chicago-style sauce, is a bust. My only consolation is that most of my colleagues are from the North of Italy and seem rather afraid of spice. Above is the finished product already wrapped and ready to go.

Here are the ingredients:

1 1-lb round loaf or boule
1/4 lb salami (I used "salame Milano Negroni")
1/2 lb coppicolla (gobagool) hot or mild
1/4 lb cooked ham, sliced deli thin
1/2 lb mild provolone, sliced deli thin
1 cup giardiniera sauce, hot or mild
5 big lettuce leaves

First, if your giardiniera is chunky, mince the vegetabes finely or whizz in your food processor.

Slice your round loaf through as if it were a huge hamburger bun. Spread 1/3 of the giardiniera over the bottom, and the other 2/3 on the top (makes for minimum oozing). Allow the oil to soak in for about 1/2 hour. Layer the meats evenly then the provolone and finally the lettuce. Bring to your office pot-luck and serve cut into wedges.

**One more boastful note about Chicago street food. The famed muffuletta sandwich is extremely similar to what is known in Chicago as an Italian sub. Salami, gobagool and ham with sliced tomato and shredded lettuce are layered on a length of baguette and dressed with "oil" the oil, however is suspiciously flavorful like the oil of giardiniera sauce. If you ever wondered, while watching The Sopranos, who Paulie Walnuts is referring to when he derides the "mayonnaisers", it's people who are out with the out crowd in terms of Italian-American culture and put mayo on their Italian sub rather than the ambrosiac "oil".

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Carnival!

Happy Carnival!! As I write this Venice is swirling, New Orleans is popping and Rio de Janeiro is chug-a-chugging to the samba beat while Milan...waits for Fat Thursday thru Saturday. Yep, Milan celebrates it's Carnival and beginning of lent a couple days later.

Evidently after Milan's long bout with the plague, Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, petitioned the Pope to let Milan have some extra days of fun before succumbing to the somber rites of lent.

So, I'm still marinating my giardiniera and planning for my New Orleans Muffuletta sandwich to bring to the office pot-luck on Thursday. On "Fat Saturday" we're having 10 people over for gumbo and king cake. Stay tuned for recipes. And don't forget to do a little Carnival dancing!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Where's The Giardiniera?

On Thursday, I'm bringing a big Muffuletta sandwich to work for a Carnival pot-luck lunch, and for that, I need some Giardiniera Sauce. My hunt for a great Salsa Giardiniera in Chicago would take 1.5 minutes and begin and end in just about any grocery store. Here in Italy, the purported home of the stuff, it's gotten a little more complicated. I have to admit to being usually judgmental of people who shy away from foreign food favoring the U.S. chain restaurant version. I want raw onion and cilantro on my al pastor tacos, not shredded lettuce and tomato. I want my spaghetti alla bolognese to be more than just tomato sauce with hamburger.

All that notwithstanding, I have to say after almost 4 years living in Italy, a few Italian-American products far surpass their cousins from the Old Country. "Italian Sausage", "Italian Beef" and case in point, Giardiniera sauce (pronounced in Chicago as /jar-din-AIR/). Back home we spoon a little of this sauce of chopped raw vegetables in spiced vinegar and oil over our Italian Beef Sandwiches, meatball sandwiches and our Italian subs. It can be hot or mild but it always has a certain hard-to-define anise-y oregano-y flavor that I can't get enough of. Oh and the vegetables are beside the point; you can't even taste the difference between a Giardiniera carrot and a Giardiniera cauliflower. What you taste is an excellent balance between rich oil, zingy vinegar, hot peppers and savory spices.

Again, as in my thwarted search for "Italian sausage" in Italy, maybe I'm just in the wrong region. Maybe Calabria is full of great Giardiniera. Today at the market, I at least got one seller to corroborate that something called Giardiniera with cauliflower, carrots, celery, hot peppers, green olives, spices and oil and vinegar does exist, and that it indeed comes from Calabria. So at least I'm not crazy.

I toyed with the idea of making my own Giardiniera but a lengthy online forum conversation about making your own Giardiniera vegetables under oil and the botulism that could result has swayed me from that culianry adventure. I've challenged the gods of botulism enough times this year. So I ended up buying this jar of "antipasto ricco" which is more or less the aforementioned veggies in a simple vinegar, oil and salt solution. I took it home and added red pepper flakes, dried basil (hoping to get an anise-y effect), and dried oregano. Wish me luck.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Black Bean Chili with Adobo de Ancho

My faith in Rick Bayless remains devout. A U.S. Southerner who seems to be single-handedly championing the cause of Mexican-Cuisine-As-World- Class-Fare, the sub-text of his cookbooks and cooking shows is that you should RESPECT Mexican food. When he calls for oregano in a recipe, he's sure to specify, "preferably Mexican" in opposition to just about all other cookbooks where oregano is "preferably Greek". Lard, for Bayless is "rich-tasting", which by the way it is if you render it yourself, despite what everybody else says. I can't help but think that to the degree that people in the U.S. grow in respect for Mexican cuisine (especially as equal in stature to Italian and French) they will grow in respect for Mexican people. When I taught Spanish in Mid-West universities, respect for Spanish-speaking people was a sub-text of what I taught too. So Rick Bayless embodies two of my great loves, Food and Latin America.

Which is why I whole-heartedly forgive him for the disaster that was last night's chili.

It came from page 49 of "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen" and it looked so promising, so relatively easy. Based on the ancho chile paste that I've made countless times it seemed like an opportunity to break another of my many childhood food taboos. Chili was always one of those things I was too picky for as a child. My mom never made it and it seemed like something gross that would come out of a can and could hide any number of icky things in it's deep, ruddy thickness I wouldn't have known I'd eaten until it was too late. So I was hoping, led by Bayless-in-whom-I-trust, to broaden my culinary horizons to the greatness of chili.

Well, it ain't happened yet. My virgin chili experience was exhaustingly heavy to eat; I felt like I had to catch my breath between bites. And believe it or not, the mashed potatoes I ate it with LIGHTENED the texture. So I'm wondering, what went wrong?

Here's what I did:
The night before I made the Essential Ancho Seasoning Paste:

8 lg garlic cloves, unpeeled
8 medium ancho chiles, stemmed & seeded
1 1/2 tsp oregano, preferably Mexican
1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
1/8 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2/3 cup beef or chicken broth (I had chicken)
1 tsp salt

I dry-toasted the anchos on my cast iron skillet (10 seconds max. per side) while I left the garlic cloves to brown at the edges of the pan. I soaked the toasted chiles in hot tap water for 30 minutes. I put the drained chiles, roasted, peeled garlic and all other ingredients in a food processor and whizzed until I got a thick, uniform paste. I scraped this paste through a mesh sieve and left the pristine seasoning paste in the fridge for the next day. I set my black beans a soakin' on the kitchen counter. All this was as instructed.

The Chile:
2 lbs ground beef/pork
1 lg onion, minced
bacon drippings/lard (rich-tasting, of course)
ancho seasoning paste
water + chicken broth
salt to taste
sugar ("a touch")
1 cup of tomato puree
2 cups of cooked black beans

I browned the meat in the bacon drippings in a big dutch oven over medium. I removed it, and added the onion. Cooked that over medium heat until brown and added the meat back. I poured the ancho seasoning paste in and allowed it to sear and get a little darker as suggested. I added water and chicken broth (ok, so it was supposed to be BEEF broth, but I didn't have any. Could that have made such a difference?) until everything was "floating freely" as explained. I added the tomato and set the pot over low heat and let it simmer for 3 hours rather than the suggested 1 hour. Music to simmer chili by: "Rusholme Ruffians" by The Smiths on the album Meat is Murder. (Look the lyrics are in English and in Italian for all you Italophiles out there! The lyric "my faith in love is still devout", translated into Italian reads, "La mia fede nell'amore รจ ancora intatta". And here's the actual music. I added the beans somewhere in there. Gabriel gets home pretty late, so I had the time and I figured it couldn't hurt... Was I wrong? Bayless said to stop cooking when "it looks like chili". Let me reiterate, I'm a chili novice. I stopped when Gabriel got home and the chili looked rich and delicious. I added the salt and the sugar (suggested to temper the pungency of the chile paste). And we ate the heaviest meal we've had in months, including the Swiss cheese fondue. So my question is: when does chile "look like chile"? How soupy is it supposed to be. Should you be able to float a dollop of mashed potatoes on top of it? Should I add a lot more chicken stock to the left-overs or would that be pouring in good food after bad? Any chile experts out there with some advice?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Dinner!

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody! It turned out as a result of a period of media-perpetrated Valentine's Day browbeating, which I wasn't even aware of, that we had a romantic Valentine's dinner at home. Gabriel, having been exposed to innumerable Valentine's ads on TV in Italy and in US online newspapers, was worried that he had already missed The Big Day and came home early (before me) bearing roses and fillets of sole. Now, roses are nice but fillet of sole (dear God, tell me they aren't overfished!) will win me over any day. So we dined on that plus Gabriel's signature creamy mashed potatoes and a squeeze of lemon.

I do feel bad that G., my kitchen man, made this meal partly out of a sense of responsibility, having heard the message time and again that you have to buy your wife things on Valentine's Day in order to show your love. This IS after all an invented holiday, but I'm still really touched. He's such a sweetie. Happy Valentine's day!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Coca-Cola Falvored Gelatin With Glaceed Black Cherries

Hah! Fooled you! Were you excited to read about such a tasty treat? If so, I'm sorry, I don't do jello, much less Coke-flavored jello so you'll just have to buy the new memoir, "All the Presidents' Pastries" by Roland Mesnier who is, you guessed it, an ex-White House pastry chef. The Coke-jello-cherry dessert is evidently an old family favorite of the Clintons. Read all about it or go to the "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" public radio show this week only and hear all about it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

5 Things You don't Know About Me - A Meme

Thanks, Scott from Needs More Garlic for tagging me on this one. Hmmm... I consider myself a rather transparent sort of person(not literally, of course) in that I don't really hide things and while this blog is more about food than it is about me, I feel like I've mentioned a bunch of little tidbits about my everyday life, so this might be hard. Let's see...

1. I've just discovered in my new job just how badly I write in Italian. I sound like a 5 year old and then sign: "Susan M. Campbell, Ph.D." Hilarious!

2. I almost became a fashion model: At the grocery store in college, a snakey man walked up to me and introduced himself. He reached into his pocket and, by the looks of him, I was sure he was going to pull out some drugs to sell or maybe a gun, but he actually just pulled out his card and that of a Chicago modelling agency. When he said he was a photographer, I figured he was a pornographer (see #3 about my anxiety). After my mom made sure the agency wasn't a front for a porn operation, she made me an appointment to see the talent agent. The inteview went rather well, considering. I was complimented on my cheekbones and skin condition and asked to come back one day when my Henna-dyed orange, shaved below the temples hairdo had grown out. By the time it did, I'd lost all interest in modelling. To this day, I'm sure I dodged a bullet.

3. I have clinical anxiety. I have to convince myself to calm down on a regular basis because you would NOT believe what my gut instinct usually tells me.

4. Some of my friends still call me by my high school nickname, Soup.

5. I'm claustrophobic. No problem in elevators or crowded rooms but put me in the back seat of a Volkswagen Rabbit where I can't stretch out my arms or legs and I flip!

So that's it. 5 confessions. I now tag Sara of Ms. Adventures in Italy and Angela of Type A All the Way

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cracklin' Bread Italian Style, Notes from Campobasso

Cracklin' bread, if you've ever heard of it, probably brings you notions of the rural South and of a past where concerns about weight and cholesterol were low on people's list of worries. A bread baked with cracklins in the dough is as delicious as it is dangerous.

Cracklins are sort of like pork rinds or chicharrones. Here's a definition: cracklin, cracklings
Also called gratons or grattons by the Cajuns. Cracklings are bits of roasted or deep-fried pork skins. You can make your own, or you may be able to find them at groceries. History: During slavery, after the slave-owner had rendered his pork fat, the skin was given to the servants. They would then deep-fry this skin and eat them plain or stirred into cornbread batter, which baked delicious cracklin' bread.
There are, in fact a lot of online recipes for cracklin' bread that come from the South.

It's interesting to note that this ultra-hearty food is international; cracklin' bread was a staple of Italy's past as well. There's an Italian bakery down on Halsted St. in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago that still serves delicious cracklin' bread. Here in Italy Concetta, a friend originally from Campobasso brought me back the beautiful bread you see here. Her hometown version, though contains lard (no actual pork rinds), raisins and candied peel, so it's something like a cross between a yeast dough powder biscuit and a panettone. Can you imagine such a thing? Salty, savory, almost bacon-y yet punctuated with sweet and zingy fruit. Let me tell you, a little goes a long way. It is as rich as rich can get and the calories that must be contained therein really let you know you're full once you've had a sizeable piece. Not for everyday consumption, it's still a little bit of history and a way to connect with our past.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fennel-Pancetta Ragout

Here is a quick dish that goes as well as a side dish for meat, a pasta sauce or a topping for creamy polenta. If there are only 2 of you, you use this to compliment a Sunday roast and then eat the leftovers over pasta on Monday night. Fennel bulb is diced large and sauteed with pancetta or bacon and garlic to create a rich-tasting dish.

1 tbsp olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs, stalks removed and fronds reserved
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup water, optional
4 ozs of lean pancetta or bacon cut into batons (1/2 inch long and 1/4 inch wide)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the fennel bulbs into about a 1-inch dice. Place the fronds aside. Heat the oil in a large sautee pan over high heat. Add the fennel and let turn a golden brown before you flip the pan. Music to flip fennel by: "Last of the Blue Diamond Miners" by bluegrass, rock, funk band, Stir Fried. You want the fennel to get a rich, tasty brown color which really enhances the flavor of the final product. Once the fennel is browned, add the minced garlic and stir well. If the vegetables begin to turn a dark brown shade before they are medium tender, add about 1/4 cup of water and let them "boil" until the water evaporates completely. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the pancetta and cook for another 10 minutes. Serve as you please.

Friday, February 02, 2007

'Tis the Season! (For Fresh-Squeezed Juice)

Early February brings most of us (in the Northern Hemisphere) few pleasures. 'Tis the season for not too many fun things (unless you count Groundhog Day). "The Holidays" are well behind us and Carnival/Mardi Gras is still almost 3 weeks away. But the outdoor markets and grocery stores are brimming with delicious citrus fruit, and with a little effort you can highlight your morning with some fresh-squeezed blood orange juice (yeah, that's just orange juice, no cranberries, pomegranates or actual blood involved here).

Gabriel loves him some fresh-squeezed orange juice (worlds away, I might add from the kind from the stuff at the supermarket both in nutrition and in flavor) so he buys the oranges by the crate (from a guy who sells out of his truck on the corner, if you can believe that!) He takes about 5 oranges for a really big glass, slices each at the meridian and squeezes them by hand on our low-tech plastic citrus juicer. That's it.

In coffee shops all around Milan this season, you find piles of oranges waiting to be juiced for about the equivalent of $3-$4 for a small glass. It's a great, healthy alternative to waking up with coffee, but since we're the do-it-yourself types, we, umm... do it ourselves. Why don't you give it a try?

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