Monday, April 30, 2007

Trout in the Bag (Literally!)

Trota al Cartoccio con Risotto di Asparagi a.k.a. Trout Baked in Parchment with Asparagus Risotto.

Here's an answer to the spring cooking challenge set by Julie, Cherry and Scott named "In the Bag: Cooking in the Month of May", which requires the use of the springtime ingredients trout, asparagus and spring onions. With ingredients like that, what's not to love?

Trout packet ingredients:
2 trout
2 square pieces of parchment paper
6 thin slices of fresh lemon
a few sprigs of chive
4 tbsps white wine
I started by pre-heating the oven to 400F and then prepared the trout. This was dinner for two so I just made two parchment packets. I placed each trout on the top end of a square of parchment paper, salted and peppered the fish inside the cavity and all around the skin. I prepared three very thin lemon slices and set them overlapping on the fish, then sprinkled a little minced chive on top. Music to season trout by: "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by XTC on the album "Oranges and Lemons". Then I folded the lower half of the parchment paper to cover the fish and began to seal the packet by making folds all along the rim. I started at the fish's tail where the parchment was folded over itself and created a tiny triangle-shaped fold. I moved up about 1/2 inch and made another triangle fold on top of the point of the first and continued that way until I had almost sealed the entire packet. Each successive fold anchors the previous one. When there was only a small opening left in the parchment packet, I poured in 2 tbsps of white wine to help steam the fish, and completed the folding process.

Asparagus Risotto:
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup minced green onion
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups chicken or fish stock
1 small pinch of saffron
1/2 lb asparagus, cleaned and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tbsp butter
salt to taste

Once the trout packets are sealed, heat the stock on the stove to simmering and add the saffron. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium and then add the green onion. Sautee for 1 minute (stir constantly; do not let burn!)and add the dry rice to the pan. Stir to coat each grain with oil and toast for about 2 minutes. At this point, put the trout into the oven to bake/steam for 20 minutes. Add the wine to the rice and let feverishly bubble until it's almost totally evaporated. Then add the saffron stock ladle by ladle stirring constantly and waiting until the stock has been largely absorbed before adding the next ladleful. This will take between 15-18 minutes. Once the last ladleful of stock has been added, stir until it has been absorbed, add butter and salt, mix and cover for 2 minutes. The final result should be creamy and liquidy enough not to stay in a mound when you shake the plate.

Take trout out of the oven, open one packet and check for doneness (20 minutes was perfect for my standard-sized trout). Let your guests open their trout packets and spoon in the risotto themselves.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Happy Liberation Day, Italy!

April 25, 1945 was the day all of Italy was officially delivered from World War II and the clutches of Fascism. It's a national holiday in Italy, one that is celebrated in two ways. One, by official ceremonies honoring the wonderful old folks who fought Mussolini's rule as Partisans and the American and British forces who came to sweep the last enclaves of Nazi power away. Two, by street demonstrations decrying tyranny around the world today. Guess who they're mostly protesting against (Here's a hint, they rhyme with "Tush" and "Claire"). Needless to say, from many Italian perspectives, the U.S. and British governments had a much better reputation back then than they do now. Our soldiers in WWII were given a job to do that won them genuine and undying respect in Italy that you still feel today despite the fact that most Italians would like to sing to Tush and Claire "Bella Ciao".

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tuscany, When the Rosemary's in Flower

Back to our drive through Tuscany. One of the loveliest things we saw that weekend was enormous rosemary bushes (3 -4 feet high) covered in tiny purple flowers. What I would have given for a leg of lamb to roast with all that rosemary abundance!

On our way through Chianti wine country, we ran into a big, scary pack of Vespa bikers. Doesn't this display just strike fear into your hearts? I'm imagining these guys parked all together in Sturgis, South Dakota just scaring the pants off of everybody else.

A tour of Tuscany is incomplete without an image of the gorgeous rolling hills where the grapes grow. Right now, the fields are laden with empty grape-vine trunks, no leaves or fruit to speak of yet. I'd love to be here in summer when this is all green and in fall when they harvest. Guess I'll just have to come back!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bye Bye Miss American Muffins

My boss at the Bicocca is going on maternity leave as of today so we're having a bon voyage pot luck for her. She's quite curious about American stuff so she asked me specifically to make "muffins, the real American kind" (as opposed to the muffin recipes that are popping up all over in Italian cookbooks these days - really, it's true!) I think she figured there was some sort of Real American secret recipe and as I'm a Real American, I'd be a muffin expert. I've made muffins about 3 times in my life but hell, I can follow a recipe as well as the next person. So I sent her a short list of muffin possibilities (Date Nut, Blueberry, Lemon Poppyseed, etc) and she chose the Chocolate-Chocolate Chip by Nigella Lawson. Isn't Nigella English, though? If so, I won't tell my boss.

Here's the recipe I nicked off of The Food Network Website:

Makes 12 standard-sized muffins Ingredients:
1 3/4 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tbsps cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
3/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1 cup milk
1/3 cup plus 2 tsps vegetable oil
1 egg
1 tsp valilla extract

**It looked like too much baking soda and powder for so little flour, and I have no baking powder at the moment, so here's what I did differently: I used 2 tsps baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt (for taste only) Since baking soda needs acid to work well, I replaced the 1 cup milk with 1/4 cup of plain yogurt and 3/4 cups of milk.

Pre heat oven to 400F
Combine the dry ingredients (the first 6 minus 1/4 cup chocolate chips) in a large mixing bowl. Mix the wet ingredients (the last 4) until smooth. Add the wet ingredients into the dry ones. Mix until the dry and wet are just barely combined. Overmixing can leat to less fluffy, denser muffins. Music to barely mix American muffin batter by: "American Pie" by Don McLean. Pour into muffin tins (either lined with muffin cups or VERY well greased. Sprinkle on remaining chips and bake for 20 minutes. Halfway through baking turn the pan to ensure even cooking.

Serve these to non-Americans who will think they're the most exotic thing they've ever seen!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My Dinner With Paolo

Dinner at Paolo's house is always a delicious, belt-loosening and often culturally enlightening affair. The food is great and can be enjoyed to the fullest when you've prepared yourself ahead of time by fasting for at least several hours before. Since Italy is so regional when it comes to cuisine, Paolo is almost as much of an immigrant to Milan as I am. Hailing for Naples, he keeps the Neapolitan delis here in Milan in business buying freshly flown-in mozzarella di buffala, wonderful, real "Italian sausage" like the one I know, babas, cassatas, and other assorted "imported" food. Paolo's also not much for light meals. See him at the upper left on his Flickr page. Hell, have a look at the cool black n' whites he's put out too. He shuns salads, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend who loves them and generally enjoys introducing his guests to the wonders of Neapolitan food. This gorgeous fresh mozarella sliced and eaten on its own (all the better to taste the real mozarella di buffala difference) was our antipasto.

This pasta was as delicious as it is enticing to look at. The sauce, rather than being a traditional Neapolitan dish I think was invented by Paolo. To reproduce it, fry some pancetta until crisp, don't toss out any of the rendred fat (it's delicious!), add a couple dollops of ricotta cheese, mix briefly, take off the heat and pour onto pasta al dente. Serve with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. It's salty, creamy and crunchy all at the same time. Very satisfying. After a hunk of mozzarella and this none-too-light pasta dish I was very satisfied and quite happy there was no secondo (meat dish) between me and the dessert!

We finished off the meal with these Neapolitan "Ministeriale" bon bons from the famous Scaturchio pasticceria. They are dark chocolate with a rum cream on the inside. Really good. They were first made by Francesco Scaturchio as an attempt to seduce a noblewoman. She loved them and so did the rest of Naples. Go here for a short history of the Ministeriale bon bon and a bit of Italian language practice.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tuscan Fiorentina

We recently took a drive among the rolling hills of the Chianti region of Tuscany. It strikes me whenever I go to another region of Italy just how different the food offerings are from place to place. We traded in our glasses of Oltrepo Pavese for Chianti glasses and a new attitude on red meat. Here in Lombardy, it seems that meat is not the great specialty that it is in Tuscany. "Roast Beef" is sold in thin slices that you're supposed to pan fry and people generally seem suspicious of rare meat, preferring a rather pinkish-grey tone to their steaks. (Fish, however is sublime.) So it was with great relish that we headed to Tuscany, the capitol of the Fiorentina (it means "from Florence") steak, a.k.a. the T-Bone! Yum. Now that I live abroad, eating a good, rare steak transports me back to Sweet Home Chicago, "butcher to the world", so I felt at home in Tuscany. Here are Giuseppe and Paolo about to enjoy their rare, 2-3 inch-thick Fiorentina. They serve them so large that the menu suggests Fiorentina as a main dish for two.

In Tuscany, they prize (and advertize) the razza Chianina breed of steer as much as we do the Black Angus. These big, gorgeous white animals have been bred in Italy since ancient times, were used for sacrifice by the Etruscans and then by the Romans; they have been beasts of burden and food for millenia. A few years ago, the Fiorentina was banned since part of the bone could contain spinal cord fluid and thus endanger the eater with Mad Cow Disease. One butcher and self-named glutton, Dario Cecchini held a funeral for the bistecca alla fiorentina as a symbolic protest against the prohibition. Luckily, they have gone a long way to reducing the risk of the disease and the steaks are now back on the market and absolutely delicious!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New York Times No-Knead Sourdough

Thanks to Andrew of Spittoon Extra for hosting "Waiter, There's Something in My...Bread" and spurring me on to finally work this recipe out. Any of you who follow the foodie world even a little will remember Jim Lahey's New York Times No-Knead Bread recipe that was published a couple months ago. It's the simplest thing in the world; the secret to great bread, it turns out is not work but time. It's one of those culinary miracles.

Thing is, it calls for store-bought dry yeast. For most of you out there, that's a boon, it means you don't have to go through the trouble of having a sourdough starter in order to make great bread. For me though, my bread starter and I go way back, I couldn't abandon it. So, I set out to apply some of the No-Knead Bread Recipe genius to the sourdough process I learned from Nancy Silverton.

Here's what I found out:
1. You really DON'T have to knead your very wet and sticky dough! I was a skeptic but it's true.

2. No shaping the dough by stretching it into a tight ball since the sides of the Dutch oven hold its boule shape perfectly.

3. Baking your risen dough inside a Dutch oven within your regular oven is the #1 way to get a great crust without schpritzing the oven with water in the 1st 5 minutes of cooking.

4. No need to score the risen dough before baking; it opens itself up in the (double) oven.

5. The New York Times suggestion that the bread should rise at 70F for 12-18 hours is unworkable for my sourdough. I've spent lo these many months fighting the stickiness factor caused by the heat and have eaten way too many sad-looking New York Times No-Knead Flatbreads as a result. I'm with Nancy Silverton on this one: Rise, then refrigerate!

Here's my adaptation to the New York Times No-Knead Bread recipe for sourdough

2 1/2 cups sourdough starter
3 cups high-gluten flour
2 tablespoons salt

Mix ingredients together just until you have a smooth, lump-free dough. Place in a floured proofing basket. Place that into a puffed plastic bag. Close the bag making sure it's full of enough air that the rising dough won't stick to the plastic. Let rest at room temperature until doubled in bulk (about 5 hours) place in the fridge overnight (12 hours). Pre-heat oven WITH DUTCH OVEN INSIDE for at least 45 minutes at the highest heat possible (my oven does 500F). Music to bake sourdough by: While Light, White Heat by the hottest band nobody'd ever heard of while they were still together, The Velvet Underground!! Take Dutch oven out of the oven carefully, remove lid and place a piece of parchment paper at the bottom (best to have measured this first) Pour out the dough and quickly close the lid and return everything to the oven. Bake at highest temp for 30 minutes then remove lid. The bred should be puffed and cracked at the top. Reduce heat to 400F. Another 15-30 minutes more and the bread is ready to take out of the oven and place on a cooling rack.

On top of the above revelations, the crumb is extremely elastic and I get much bigger holes (see image) than I used to with the regular method.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lamb and Vegetable Tagine With Dried Fig Couscous

Thanks to Meeta of What's for Lunch Honey for thinking up this great Middle-Eastern cuisine round-up! The Arabian Nights theme is actually perfect for me since I live in the largest Arabic-speaking neighborhood in Milan. There's a mosque around the block and a Halal butcher on every corner, so the cuisine is very accessible. Our Moroccan grocers around the block are the only Halal butchers to carry Merguez sausage (my favorite!), cracked Moroccan green olives and preserved lemons, so I go to them a lot. The other day, for a 10-person dinner party I made a lamb and vegetable tagine perfumed with preserved lemons, cumin, cayenne and cinnamon.

1 cup dried chick peas (or other beans. I actually used unorthodox black beans here)
1 bay leaf
2 lbs lamb shoulder
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cups diced onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
at least 4 cups stock (chicken, beef or lamb all work well here)to cover all other ingredients
4 medium carrots, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, roughly chopped
1 cup cracked Moroccan green olives
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsps cumin
2 tsps cinnamon
1 medium preserved lemon, minced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsps honey

The day before you make the tagine, soak the chick peas in water over night. The next day, boil them with a bay leaf for 2 hours or until tender. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven, heat the oil over a high flame and sear the lamb pieces on all sides. Remove from the pot and add the onions. Reduce heat to medium and sautee until they are soft and brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and immediately add the lamb pieces back into the pot. Add the 4 cups of stock or more to cover. Bring to a boil then lower heat to just a simmer (medium-low). Let simmer for 1 hour. Add the carrots and continue simmering for another 15 minutes. Add extra stock or water to keep everything covered. Add the drained chick peas, the olives, the potatoes, the honey and all the spices and cook another 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are done. Turn off heat.

Dried Fig Couscous

1/2 cup dried figs, in a 1/4 inch dice
1/2 cup raisins
5 cups chicken, beef or lamb stock
4 cups fine-grain couscous
salt to taste

Heat the stock with the fruit in it to the boiling point, take off heat and pour over the couscous. Stir to make sure all the grains have been incorporated. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

To serve, spoon out a mound of couscous on each plate and ladle the lamb tagine on top. Music to eat couscous by: the Italian song "Notti Arabe" by Amir. Check out the lyrics all about the sensuality of love and Middle Eastern food! Enjoy!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tsoureki (Greek Easter Braid)

Happy Easter to all of you Western Christians and Kala Paska you all of the Orthodox persuasion. This year the Julian and the Gregorian calendars coincide so both Easters are on the same day. Here is a delicious Greek Easter bread that anyone would enjoy, similar to challah, braided, coiled around itself, bedecked with Greek red Easter eggs and perfumed with the Greek spices, mastiha (a resin from trees that grow only on the Island of Chios) and mahlebi (the tiny stones of Mahaleb cherries). The flavors of these exotic spices liken cinnamon, cloves and ginseng, and their scent is heavenly.

For one large loaf:

1/2 tbsp mahlebi (or mahlepi) stones
1 tsp crushed mastiha resin
1/4 cup water
5 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 packages yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter
3 raw eggs total
1/2 cup sugar
a little vegetable oil for greasing
3 hard-boiled dyed eggs for decoration

Begin by crushing the mahlebi and the mastiha to a powder. Mix the yeast with the milk and proof for about 1/2 hour. Add the water and 1/2 cup of the flour to make a sticky mass called a sponge. Cover, and let double in bulk, about 2 hours.

Punch down and add the sugar, then two whole eggs, one at a time, being careful to fully incorporate each before adding the next, then add the white of the 3rd egg and mix. Reserve the yolk for the egg wash. Now, slowly add the 4 1/2 cups of flour, the mastiha, the mahlebi and the salt, mixing well to incorporate. Turn out onto a bread board and knead until you have a smooth, uniform texture. Grease the bowl then return the dough to it, cover and let double in bulk, again about 2 more hours.

Once the dough has risen, punch down and form into three even pieces. Roll each piece out on the board to long, even ropes (the length depends on you, I rolled really long, thin ropes so that I could coil the braid around itself into a pretty circle.) Pinch the ropes together and begin to braid, rather loosely, as this will puff and you'll need room to fit the eggs in. Music to braid your Tsoureki by: "Do You Love Coffee?" by Braid.
Place the braid on a baking sheet ideally on a piece of parchment paper and let rise again. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Once the braid is risen, fit an odd number of dyed-red eggs into the braid, brush with the egg yolk and bake for 30 minutes. If, after 15 minutes, the bread looks a bit too dark, lower the temperature to 300F and bake for another 30 minutes for 45 minutes total. Remove from the oven when you've achieved a rich brown color and the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. Enjoy with your Easter meal.

**Thanks very much to Julia of A Slice of Cherry Pie for hosting the Easter Cake Bake!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Seven Songs I Would Pick If I Could Only Listen To Seven Songs For The Rest Of My Life, Which, Yeah, Like Someone Is Going To Impose That...

...Condition On Me, And Assuming I Can Even Come Up With Seven.

I'm loving the title of this meme Loulou of Chez Loulou tagged me for. This is right up my alley, it's pretty limited, no top 100 or nor is it Your One And Only Favoritest Song Of All Time; it's doable!

Here's my committed-forever-song list: (click on the links and hear these beauties for yourselves!)

This is in no way ordered by favoriteness, just so you know.

1.) "Train in Vain" by The Clash. I got myself a fake ID just so I could attend "alternative night" at The Jungle in college and dance to this song. Sing along with this fun video

2.)"Here Comes Your Man" by The Pixies. Well, unsurpassable as they were, we knew they were on heroin, but this video proves it. And if you can crane you head away from the visuals enough to listen to this, don'cha just dig it when the bass is the principal instrument in a rock band. "Funky" just doesn't even cover it.

3.) "American Pie" by Don McLean. I never identified with a TV commercial more than when I saw some guy (selling who-knows-what) sitting parked in his garage, unable to get out of the car and into his house until "American Pie" finished.

4.) "Fuck and Run" by Liz Phair. Any of you ever regret a one-night-stand? No? Me neither! Listen to this and imagine what that must be like.

5.) This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads. I realize this is about somebody who's feebly putting a thin domestic blanket of calm over some serious problems, but still, it relaxes me.

6.) "Dreaming" by Blondie. "When! I met 'choo in a restaurant! you! could tell I was no debutante!". Says it all, doesn't it?

7.) "Love is Here Where I Live" by Everything But The Girl. Whether it's this soft and sweet (if cheesy) 1980s stuff or their more trip-hoppy current incarnation, I just love EBTG.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Barba di Frate (Monk's beard)

Here you have the "contorno" (side dish) from last night's dinner, some boiled potatoes and this delicious vegetable, barba di frate, a.k.a barba dei frati, agretti or monk's beard. It's a dense, heavy vegetable as muddy as spinach, so clean it well, and it's a bit of a pain to separate the edible green "leaves" from the hard, pink stem and root, but it needs only about 3-5 minutes in boiling water to turn out tasty and fresh. The "leaves" are naturally a bit salty in the way swiss chard is. Dressed simply with some lemon and a bit of the best olive oil you can buy, they're one of the most delicious springtime vegetable experiences. They're an excellent compliment to the trout "al cartoccio" (baked in parchment paper) that we had for dinner last night.

Barba di Frate was an Italian culinary revelation for me as I'd never seen it in the States but it seems that if you are willing to grow it, you can get the seeds here. To be honest, if I couldn't get this veg at the market, it would be one of those I'd take the time and effort to grow. It's really that good!

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