Friday, June 29, 2007

Mediterranean Farro Salad

I just love David Rosengarten. He used to host one of the greatest cooking shows of all time, "Taste" where he gave loads of context and lore to one particular ingredient and then demonstrated the technique for cooking one dish. A whole half-hour show and he only ever produced one dish per episode. But it was well worth watching. I know a lot more about Argentinian grass-fed beef, apple tarte tatin and the flavor umami that I ever would have without him.

He also taught me about farro before I moved to Italy and had a chance to actually taste it. Farro, or spelt in English or Triticum dicoccum in Latin is an ancient grain, given as rations to Roman soldiers and ground up and eaten like polenta by the poor. In more recent times, farro went by the wayside in favor of grains that yielded more kilos per acre than farro. About 20 years ago, however it made a comeback with inventive French chefs who tried to outdo each other in originality reaching back through the centuries to create dishes that were simultaneously "new" and traditional. Once farro hit France, it made it's way back to chic tables in Italy as well.

Here's my take on his recipe from the Dean & Deluca cookbook:

1 cup farro (or kamut or whole wheat berries)
1/2 cup crumbled feta (of any nationality you want)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion rings
1 crushed garlic clove
1/2 cup diced cucumber
1 roasted and peeled red pepper, diced
2 tablespoons of chopped kalamata olives or whole capers
1 sprig fresh mint minced
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
10 medium leaves of basil
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup the best olive oil you can afford
salt and pepper to taste

(from the original recipe, I've tweaked the amounts a bit and have added basil while taking away cumin and cayenne pepper. The hot pepper in combination with the piquancy of the feta created a flavor clash that actually kind of hurt the first time I made this.)

Place rinsed farro in a pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil and cook for 40 minutes or until grains are tender. Music to boil farro by: The First Taste by Fiona Apple Drain off water and pour farro into a large salad bowl. Add all other ingredients stir to combine and serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Emilia Road Trip

On our way to Regina and Alessio's wedding in the Emilia Region, Gabriel and I rented a car and once we got off the big, ugly circular highway around Milan, we took small country roads all the way to the little town of Ramiseto. Winding on our way, we first ran into the Oltrepo Pavese wine country and saw rolling hill after rolling hill full of green vines and tiny grapes. Come September, we'll have grape must out of these babies here and after a few months, Prosecco!!

When we were almost at our destination, we paused and had a little walk along the road where golden wheat was glistening in the afternoon sun. This may seem strange but where I grew up in the Mid-West where mostly corn and soybeans are grown, wheat fields seem so exotic.

Believe it or not at the restaurant parking lot where the reception was held, we almost parked on top of a patch of these wild strawberries. I ran out of the car and picked a handful to bring to the reception.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Wedding in Emilia

We've just got back from our friends, Regina and Alessio's wedding in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. I was so looking forward to this day to see such dear friends get married but also to experience my first real Italian wedding pranzo. And this being Emilia, a region known in Italy for its gastronomia. I knew it was going to be an event to remember. I won't bore you with photo after photo of insalata di farro (recipe coming up soon!), copious amounts of salumi and formaggi, gnocchi fritti, pizzette, between-course sorbetto, frittata, prosecco, mirtillo, and the 7 tiered tutti frutti wedding cake. No, I'll just focus on two dishes you may not have heard of before: ciccioli and the hunka-hunka parmesan.

In Italy, parmesan is not just a condiment to sprinkle on pasta. At big events, weddings included you'll often find huge 1/2 or 1/4 wheels of parmesan sitting on a buffet table with short, wide knife/spatula things to insert and twist off a hunk of parmesan. This is lovely to eat with a glass of wine or with a little balsamic vinegar drizzled on top.

Ciccioli, I must say was a mystery even to some Italians at the wedding. There were a few "cakes" of this fried, salted and pressed pork fat on the antipasto table waiting to be broken off and munched as a snack. This is not for the faint of heart (or for the faint of artery). But I must say it was delicious. Crunchy and satisfying, it's Italy's answer to Southern pork cracklins and Mexican cicharrones. fact, these little crunchy chunks of pork are the key ingredient to cracklin' bread.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Thé à la Menthe Algerien

About 15 years ago, I went to Paris for the first time and had a blast trying on vintage clothes at the "Marche aux puces de Montreuil" with my friends, Agnès and Laurence. We stopped at a catering truck parked nearby comically called, "Le Roi de Frites" (French-Fry King) run by a guy who also served the greatest North African Mint Tea I'd ever had up until last week. I loved it so much that when I got back home to Chicago I immediately grabbed some fresh mint from the garden and steeped it in just-boiled water for 10 minutes. The result was nowhere near. I tried with Celestial Seasonings' peppermint tea, which was certainly better but still not the real deal. I had no idea how to make mint tea taste like the stuff I had in Paris.

Then last weekend, we were invited to our friends', Sana and Maher's for a Lebanese/Algerian Sunday lunch. After the baba ghanoush, the hummous, the tabbouleh, the rice pilaf with sausage, chicken, pine nuts and raisins and the amazing super hot roasted green pepper dish whose name I don't remember, our hosts made us thé à la menthe, Algerian style topped off with toasted pine nuts.It was such a wonderful way to end a big meal. We sipped our the a la menthe and smoked a narghilé with rose-scented tobacco and spent a couple more hours relaxing and talking. What a way to undo the stresses of the week! Here are us two innocent Alices sipping our tea and flanking a couple of hookah smokin' caterpillars. I must say smoking scented tobacco from a narghile is far more pleasant that smoking a cigarette. The smoke, having filtered through a pool of water goes down cool and when you exhale, leaves a perfumed flavor/scent that's just so pleasurable I'm glad I don't have one of these in my home or I might never leave it.

Anyway, the important thing here is I got the recipe! I now make iced tea out of this thé à la menthe, which is even more refreshing. Here's the recipe:

2 cups water
2 scant teaspoons loose green tea (I use Chinese Gunpowder tea)
4 tablespoons of whole mint leaves
sugar to taste

Bring the water to a boil then reduce heat to the lowest setting and add the green tea leaves. Let simmer, not boil for 10 minutes. Strain and pour the clear tea back in to the pot. Add the mint and simmer for another 2 minutes. Add sugar and stir. Pour into a teapot and serve immediately, piping hot with or without pine nuts or chill and serve as iced tea. Music to chill out and sip thé à la menthe by: "Le Roi Soleil" by Kahimi Karie off Chicago indie label, Minty Fresh Records. So cool...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Asparago di mare A.K.A. Samphire

Mmmm... seaweed! here's a vegetable I would have run away from as a child if it had ever occurred to my mother to serve it. Having tried it as an adult, I can say that it's delicious. The English call it "samphire" and it grows in a few coastal areas including Norfolk, where I had it for the first time about a decade ago. Its also rather common here in Italy where it's called Asparago di mare (Asparagus of the sea). This is probably more for the looks of the vegetables than for the flavor. Samphire tastes of the sea, its stalks seem to be pumped full with sea water. This veg obviously goes great with fish and is for sale, in fact at fishmongers and never in the vegetable aisle.

To prepare, just drop into some unsalted boiling water until tender, about 4-5 minutes, then if you're a typical Italian, you'll drizzle on some really good olive oil. If you're a traditional Brit, you'll melt a pad of butter on top. Either way, it's a simple and delicious dish.

To eat: Samphire can be a lot of informal fun. It comes in clusters that resemble long, thin green hands (creepy, no? Just the thing for kids who hate vegetables. I can hear Calvin's mother now: "O.K. Calvin, it's time for fillet of sole with mermaid fingers!") If the samphire is on the large side, there is a filament at the "wrist" that you should hold on to as you put the samphire in your mouth and scrape with your teeth as if this were an artichoke leaf. If the samphire is small, you just eat everything.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pasta alla Norma

So who's Norma? Jamie Oliver has no idea but thinks she must have been, "a good old girl". Epicurious, however alleges that this classic Sicilian dish was not invented by an Italian lady named Norma but created for the 1831 debut of the opera "Norma" by Vincenzo Bellini. Despite the fact that "Norma" debuted in Milan at La Scala, I'm going to stick with the Epicurious story because, after all Bellini was from Catania, Sicily. You could imagine the home-town folks celebrating the success of one of their own. no?

This dish goes best with the round, firm-fleshed light purple Sicilian eggplants that are starting to pop up in the open-air markets around Milan.
Dinner for a hungry 2 or primo piatto for 4:

1 medium-sized Sicilian eggplant (about 1 lb)
1 tbsp salt
5 tbsps olive oil, total
2 med. garlic cloves chopped fine
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp oregan dried, of course
1 lb fresh or canned roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 pound (250 grams) spaghetti
5-7 medium fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup crumbled ricotta salata (a dry, pressed version of fresh ricotta, similar to feta (but drier) in texture.

First cut the eggplant into a 1/2 inch dice and place in a collander, sprinkled with salt. Let stand for 1 hour. Meanwhile, prep all the other ingredients.

Place 2 tbsps oil in a large frying pan. Sautee the garlic for less than a minute until it turns blonde, no darker. Add tomatoes, oregano and red pepper flakes and simmer until the tomatoes break down into a chunky sauce, about 15 minutes. At this point take them off the heat.

Put the remaining 3 tbsps of oil in another frying pan and add the drained and towel-dried eggplant pieces. Fry them on all sides, about 7-8 minutes. Music to fry Sicilian eggplant by: "Infranta, sì, se alcun di voi snudaria" from "Norma" sung by none other than THE Maria Callas. Transfer eggplant to the tomato sauce, and don't forget to hit those high notes.

Boil the spaghetti according to package directions and add it to the sauce once it's al dente. Flip the pan a few times to distribute the sauce onto all the spaghetti, sprinkle on the basil and ricotta salata and serve piping hot. Enjoy!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Lemon-Basil Flan

Marta of An Italian in the US has started a Fresh Produce of the Month event and this June, it's lemons. I was inspired to make a dessert with a simple syrup (sugar and water) scented with lemon zest and basil after spending a recent weekend in a small hotel with an accomplished chef in residence. His desserts were always complex and architectural with unusual ingredients. Lemon-basil syrup was one of these. In this flan recipe, I substitute the deep, rich flavor of burned sugar caramel with the bright flavors and colors of lemon and basil. Serves 12.

Ingredients for the custard:

1 cup sugar
4 cups milk
2 whole eggs plus 4 yolks
zest of 1 lemon
4 large basil leaves

Preheat oven to 400F. Place milk, sugar, lemon zest and basil leaves in a medium saucepan and bring to a light simmer. Simmer for 7-8 minutes, being careful not to let the milk boil fully. Take off heat and reserve.

Ingredients for syrup:

2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
3 large basil leaves
zest of 1/2 lemon

In a small saucepan, place the sugar, water, lemon zest and basil leaves. Bring to a boil and cook until all the sugar is dissolved and the boiling bubbles remain intact for a couple seconds before bursting. Music to simmer lemon-basil syrup by: The Lemonheads' 1992 hit single, "It's a Shame about Ray". This means the syrup is thick. Do not let the syrup brown at all. Take pan off heat, remove lemon zest and basil leaves and pour into the bottom of individual ramekins.

Preparing the flan:

Whisk the eggs and yolks together and slowly add the milk mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture through a mesh strainer into each ramekin. Place ramekins in a large baking dish and fill the dish with warm water to 2/3 up the sides of the ramekins. Place into the middle rack of the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes until the custard is firm to the touch and slightly browned.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving. To serve: run a knife along the edges of the ramekins, invert onto plates, shake a bit to unmold. The thick syrup will have turned thin in the oven and will make a pool surrounding the flan, like a fortress with a moat.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Weeds, Glorious Weeds

In the late spring and early summer the most glorious "weeds" sprout up in the most abandoned of places here in italy. Fallow fields and stretches of land along railroad tracks fill with red-orange poppies. This photo was taken in the rut along the tracks of the Greco Pirelli train station in Milan. To me, it's like magic but they seem to go unnoticed, maybe becuase they're weeds.

On the way to work ,I ride my bike past the Martesana canal which is a bit greener than most of Milan. Among the wild plants and trees lining the canal is this fig, full of fist-sized fruit not ripe yet but in August, watch out!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mrs. Field's Chocolate Chip Cookies

Did you ever hear the Urban Myth surrounding the Mrs. Field's Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe? The one where your friend tells you about his/her friend who is buying a dozen Mrs. Field's cookies and sees that they're selling the recipe as well? And then the friend-of-a-friend asks the clerk what the recipe costs and hears, "two-fifty" and says, "helluva deal! I'll take the recipe too and put the total on my VISA card."? And then when the friend-of-a-friend gets home and looks at the receipt (s)he sees that the "two-fifty" is actually $250.00 and not $2.50, tries to take it back to the store but of course they don't accept it since (s)he could have easily photocopied it so (s)he gets so mad (s)he gives the recipe away to as many people as possible in hopes of putting Mrs Field out of business? Have you heard that one?

Well, this is that recipe. My friend, Angela actually conned me into believing this story happened to her cousin (funny, she didn't mention which cousin...). I was shocked when I began hearing the same story from other people, but in the end, who cares? This is my #1 favorite chocolate-chip cookie recipe, it's crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside and it didn't cost me a dime.


1 cup butter
1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 regular sized semi-sweet chocolate bar
12 ozs. chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (I've actually never added these)

The day before you want to bake the cookies, make the dough. It benefits from a good night of chilling tightly covered in the fridge. Cream the butter and the sugars together in a large mixing bowl, then add the eggs one at a time mixing the first in thoroughly before adding in the next. Add the vanilla and mix. Set aside.

Whisk the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder together in a medium sized bowl. In a food processor place the oats and chocolate bar and process into a powder. Add to the flour mixture.

Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, scoop golf ball-sized portions of dough onto parchment lined cookie sheets and bake for 10-13 minutes, no more. slide parchment with cookies off the hot cookie sheets, wait a minute and remove to cooling racks. Makes 50 cookies. Music to chomp on cookies and get in touch with your inner child with: "Chocolate Chip Chamber Music" by Helen Richman. What are the odds she ISN'T related to musical man-child, Jonathan Richman? See him here singing "I'm a little Dinosaur"

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Raclette al Fresco

We came to this little hamlet in the mountains of Switzerland to celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday. Last Sunday, a bunch of her friends arrived to surprise her (she thought it'd be an intimate affair) and to eat a delicious, local raclette. What's a raclette, you ask? Cheese melted over an open fire covering tiny new potatoes (in the above photo, ready after their preliminary boil) accompanied by assorted cold cuts: pancetta, viande sechee, and jambon fumee and mini cornichon pickles. Not what you'd call a light lunch, but hey, it's Switzerland, and there were mountains to climb so we needed our strength.
The raclette cheese (yes, the finished dish as well as the cheese itself, are both called "raclette") is melts in front of the fire, each half on a piece of slate (this area is a source of slate for rooftops all over Switzerland) with the front part propped on a block of wood, so only the cut part melts and not the whole bottom. While this is happening, the guests enjoy some cornichon pickles, viande sechee and white wine.
Then the magic begins. Our hosts, the Berger family who run the Auberge de Pont-de-Nant, pass around a large bowl of steaming, whole new potatoes and we each take a few as a base for our cheese. The hosts scrape the melted layer off of one cheese half and serve the birthday girl first. Then they proceed with the other half and serve us all in turn. We get a small boel of cheese-topped potatoes, sprinkle on some coarsely-ground black pepper and dig in while it's still hot. The nice thing about this lunch was that the large number of people meant that each of us had time to sit, relax and digest a bit before getting another helping of such substantial stuff. In a party of two (the only other time I've eaten raclette), this meal can be a killer, too much too fast.
If anybody had gotten away without stuffing themselves with the raclette, they were caught by dessert. What could be better than having a cousin-in-law who's a chef in a luxury Geneva hotel? What, indeed? Jerome provided us with this Swiss chocolate bomb of a cake to finish things off.
What to do after such a formidable meal? Sit for an hour and sip black coffee and then start on a mountain walk. Start slowly at first, then later you'll find you have a lot of strength and energy to walk for miles.

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