Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lapin a la Creme

French food is so perfect for a chilly evening. It's often very substantial with lots of cream and butter. Well the traditional French cuisine is, not the 3 peeled baby carrots served with a raspberry coulis or somesuch of Nouvelle Cuisine fame. This lapin à la crème is from the annals of classic French cooking and it'll keep you warm, fortify you and stick to your ribs (thighs, butt, etc.).

1/2 cup "lardons" (unsmoked bacon or pancetta cut into 1 inch by 1/8 inch batons)
rabbit, cut into serving pieces, bone in
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 tbsp flour
1 cup white wine
water to cover
1 bay leaf
1 cup heavy cream (or as heavy as you heart/thighs will permit)

First put the lardons in a large pot over medium heat and allow then to get crunchy and all the fat to render. Remove lardons and leave fat. Place the rabbit pieces in one layer (you may have to do this in batches) raise the heat to high and brown on all sices. Remove rabbit pieces and leave fat. Now lower the back to medium and add the onions and carrots. Allow then to brown relatively slowly. Once they're brown add the flour and stir to create a roux (paste of fat and flour). Stir for 2 minutes to cook the flour then add the rabbit pieces and lardons back into the pot. Put in the bay leaf and add the wine. Cover just barely with water. bring to a boil over high heat then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Allow to cook this way for 1-1/2 hours partially covered. If the broth is too thin after 90 minutes, boil at high heat to get the sauce to the thickness of tomato sauce for spaghetti. Add the cream, allow to simmer for about 5 minutes and serve over something starchy like fettuccine, rice or polenta. Serve with a frenchy flourish. Something to eat Lapin à la crème by: Dinner theater: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

Monday, February 25, 2008

An Homage to our CSA, and How Do I Find One Nearby?

Bloggers in Italy, I need your help! Anybody know of a CSA farm (Community Supported Agriculture) in Lombardy?

Since December, Gabriel, myself and another couple have split a weekly 5-kilo shipment of winter veggies from Parco dei Buoi, an organic, family-run farm in Molise, Italy. If any of you out there live near Molise, I really recommend Parco dei Buoi. On the whole it has been wonderful: loads of fresh veggies without trips to the markets with the pushy crowds, my introduction to the glorious broccoletti, recipes for what to do with that bumper crop of spinach. It's almost ideal. The only problem is Molise is really far away. Milan's way the heck up near Switzerland and Molise's almost as far south as Naples. Isn't the point of community supported agriculture that you should actually belong to the same community as the farmer? More importantly, how can we look down our holier than y'all noses at everybody when we're only eating organic and helping support a family farm but not doing it locally?

But seriously, I really love this CSA experiment we've conducted these past few months but the farm sends a special truck all the way up here just to ship our vegetables and what do you bet the truck goes back empty. Wouldn't it be great if we could get the same deal from a closer farm? All the veggie-goodness with half the carbon footprint? Does anyone out there know of a Community Supported farm in Lombardy (or even anywhere in Northern Italy) that's looking for a few more customers? Anyone?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cinnamon, the Lesser Babka? I think Not!

"Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka. People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, "Oh This is so good. What's in it?" The answer invariably comes back, "Cinnamon". "Cinnamon". Again and again. Lesser babka - I think not." (Jerry Seinfeld from the "Dinner Party" episode of the eponymous show, which aired February 3, 1994.)

I have to agree with Jerry on this one although this LOOKS like lesser babka, that's mostly due to my photography skills. I made my first babka (a decadent, dark chocolate one) back in December and I froze half of the dough to experiment with Chocolate's Seinfeldian rival.

I found an appetizing-looking cinnamon filling from this Cinnamon babka recipe at Epicurious and got to work. Thing is as usual, I improvised. I figured a whole cup of white flour in a cinnamon filling would make it too cakey and not filling-y enough. I was wrong. You should follow this recipe to the letter and I'm sure it will come out better ("better", here meaning less runny and drippy all over the oven floor, and so smokey and fumey and...) Music to let your cinnamon babka filling run out all over the oven floor by: "Running Out" by Juliana Hatfield. Remember her? The Blake Babies? Thet early '90s famous romance with the sexy Evan Dando? No?

Monday, February 18, 2008


Pizzoccheri are buckwheat noodles in a "sauce" of cabbage, potatoes, brown butter with sage and fontina or bitto cheese. Sounds like an Italian/Irish/Polish fusion dish gone wrong, wouldn't you say? But it's actually a far Northern Lombard dish from Valtellina. And despite the apparent insipidness of the buckwheat, cabbage, potato combo, it is delicious and full of flavor thanks to the cheese, butter, sage and garlic! Obviously not for dieters, it's a good, stick-to-your-ribs kind of winter meal. We first had this in a mountain refuge after a 2-hour climb near Lake Como and let me tell you, the richness of the dish really hit the spot. I'm here to tell you how to make the noodles especially since I don't remember ever finding them ready-made in the States, and then I'll tell you the simple preparation for the finished dish.

The pasta:
2 cups buckwheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semolina
2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt

Any recipe I have ever seen for pizzoccheri noodles calls for simply flour and water. I find that buckwheat flour makes for breakable dough and so I insist on using eggs to bind the dough to make intact noodles. Combine the flours in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. In a cup, beat the eggs and add the salt. Pour the eggs into the well and begin to incorporate the flour by mixing in a circle and pushing some of the flour at the sides into the center. As you are mixing, you will be able to tell if the eggs are enough to incorporate all the flour or if you need some water to help. In any case, the dough should be very stiff and quite on the dry side. You do not want sticky dough so if you do add water, do it by teaspoons so you don't end up adding too much. Once you have a ball of dough, let it rest covered for about 1/2 hour.

Using a pasta machine, roll pieces of the dough into sheets. Process them through to the second to thinnest setting and lay them out to dry just a bit. Once all your pasta is in long sheets, it's time to cut them into taglaitelle. Roll the sheets through the tagliatelle cutter and lay them flat on your work surface. Do NOT roll the noodles into nests as with other pasta since these noodles will glom together at any opportunity.

Leave the noodles lying flat on the table while you prepare your other ingredients:

4 cups chopped cabbage
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 stick butter
10 fresh sage leaves, shredded
4 cloves of garlic, minced
10 ozs (approx. 300 grams) grated fontina or bitto cheese
4 ozs grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 350F. In a large stock pot bring abundant water to the boil. You will be adding all the ingredients except the sage, garlic and butter into this, so make sure there's enough water. Toss in a tablespoon of salt. Add the cabbage and lightly boil for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, raise the heat in the beginning to get the water boiling as quickly as possible and boil another 5 minutes, or until the potato pieces are just barely tender. As you are hanging around in these five-minute periods, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the sage and garlic. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is blonde and the butter itself takes on a light brown, nutty color and aroma. This is called "beurre noisette" Music to cook pizzoccheri by: the tune of the Italian National Anthem with the lyrics substituted by the directions on how to cook pizzoccheri. This, just in case you didn't believe this dish is really Italian. The last thing that goes into the pot is the pasta. Put it in, turn the heat up momentarily to get the pot boiling asap and stir to make sure nothing sticks. Boil for 1 minute and then check the consistency of the pasta. If it is al dente, pour all the contents of the pot into a large collander and drain completely. Pour half the cabbage, potatoes and noodles into a wide baking dish, taste for salt and add more if necessary, along with some pepper. Sprinkle on half the cheese and pour on the rest of the noodles and the rest of the cheese. Salt again if necessary. Now pour over the butter, garlic and sage sauce and mix everything to make sure it is all coated with the sauce. Place in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted, but not browned, about 10 minutes.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nothin' Says Love Like Southern Greens and Ham Hocks

Hey y'all, Happy Valentine's Day! Gabriel and I have just sent off one house guest and are welcoming another tomorrow so we've got one evening to celebrate Valentine's Day before becoming hosts again. This Southern greens and Ham Hocks dish, while made for our New Orleans Mardi Gras dinner, is so delicious, it will inspire passion so I think it's appropriate for Valentine's Day too. I could not believe how great they tasted. I have no access to collard greens here in Italy so I used the 2 longest-cooking greens we have: savoy cabbage and swiss chard. I also added some smoked pancetta cubes because I only had one small ham hock left, so this is another improvised recipe. A lot of online recipes call for simmering the greens in water but I went with chicken stock for fullest flavor and that really paid off. These were the most complex and delicious Southern greens I have ever had.

Here's the recipe:

4 ozs smoked pancetta in "lardons" (matchstick shapes)
1 onion, minced
1 green bell pepper, minced
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 ham hock
4 cups chicken stock
2-1/2 pounds of thick cooking greens such as cabbage and Swiss chard, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco sauce to splash as you will

In a large pot, heat the pancetta until it has rendered a lot of its fat and browned. Add the minced vegetables and sweat. Place in the ham hock and the chicken stock and simmer lightly covered until the ham hock starts to get tender, about 1 hour. Pour in the chopped greens, raise the heat to high and return to a boil. Lower heat and cook for 20-30 minutes or until the greens are tender. Remove the ham hock and shred the meat. Return the meat to the pot and season. Serve with love and your guests will go crazy over this, I promise. Music to go crazy over southern greens by: "Mad Over You" by Collard Greens and Gravy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New Orleans King Cake

I once read that the grand party season in Old New Orleans began with Epiphany (January 6th, a.k.a. Three Kings' Day) and ended with Mardi Gras. This makes sense to me. Coming from colder, darker northern climes, I have never had much use for winter after New Years is over. The idea that somebody'd hold a big party once every weekend until Lent (and Spring!) started, well...that sounds just downright civilized. But how to determine who'd hold all those parties? In New Orleans, it's the king cake. In ring form and decorated with purple, green and gold sprinkles, it hides inside a token, be it a plastic baby Jesus figurine, coin, bean or walnut (I prefer the pleasantly edible walnut). Whoever gets the piece of cake with the token holds next week's party. Clearly Mardi Gras brings all the revelry to an end at least for 40 days. This recipe turned out waaaay better than last year's king cake (I think I didn't even give you the bad recipe I'd followed). So this one's a keeper.

Here's the recipe:

1 cake of fresh yeast or 1 package of dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 stick of butter
3 large eggs
1/2 cup warm milk (warmed not over 110F)
2-3 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsps of sweet spice. I used 1 tsp nutmeg and 1 tsp cardamom, but you can also try allspice, cinnamon or ground ginger
1 tsp grates citrus zest. I used orange zest but any other citrus fruit would work nicely
vegetable oil
4 ozs (120 grams) cream cheese
1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
1-3 tablespoons milk
purple, green and gold sugar for sprinkling
one walnut half

First mix the yeast cake with the sugar, butter, eggs and milk breaking it up and allowing it to get foamy. Let the mixture settle for about 5 minutes then add the spices, zest, salt and 2 cups of the flour and mix thoroughly. If the dough looks too impossibly gloopy to knead, add up to one more cup trying to use as little flour as possible. The less you add the springier the cake will be. Pour a few drops of vegetable oil on the dough and rub it all around to cover. Return to the bowl and cover with a damp towel. Allow to rise for about 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.

While the dough is rising, make the cream cheese filling. In a medium mixing bowl, add the cream cheese and blend in 1/2 cup of the powdered sugar. Mix until the texture is smooth. Refrigerate until needed.

Once the dough is risen, punch it down and place on a cool, smooth surface. **Even though it takes more time, I like to chill my dough before shaping it. This is a brioche-style dough and thus very loose and sticky. Chilling it helps to make it easier to handle. This allows you to shape the dough using as little extra flour as possible. Roll the dough out to 2 to 2-1/2 feet long and 6 inches wide. Music to roll king cake dough by: "The King Porter Stomp" by Jelly Roll Morton. Spoon the cream cheese filling along the center of the dough strip and fold one side over. Now's the time to hide the walnut, baby Jesus, bean or coin in the cake. Just place it somewhere along the filling and close up the dough. Pinch the seam of the dough and bring the ends around to touch making a ring. Place the dough on a greased pizza pan or cookie sheet with a greased, empty can in the center to hold the ring shape. Place in a very large plastic bag to rise again for about 1 hour. Pre heat the oven to 350F.

Bake for 30 minutes or until uniformly golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely before decorating. Rub the whole surface of the cake with a little melted butter on your impeccably clean fingers. Begin to sift the different colors of sugar to make stripes of purple, green and gold. Then mix the remaining cup of powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon of milk. If the consistency is solid, att more milk by drops until you achieve a putty-like consistency. The frosting should be only just liquidy enough to pour. If it is too liquidy, it will drip right off the cake into puddles on the plate. Serve with a flourish and an eye toward the next party!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Eggs Florentine (kinda)

Boy have I been a bad blogger! Whew! Since getting back to Milan after the Holidays, I've been repeating a lot of my old recipes, muffuletta sandwich, flamiche, braised short ribs, etc., so I haven't had anything new to say to you all. Luckily, Gabriel came up with a great lunch dish yesterday of poached eggs on a bed of sauteed spinach, itself resting on buttered toast. Yum! It was like a delicious but healthier version of Eggs Benedict. The classic Florentine includes sauce mornay - basically a bechamel with cheese but Gabriel replaced that with simple grated parmesan. More flavor, less ooziness. Since we've been getting weekly shipments of organic vegetables (mainly spinach and spinachy things like Swiss chard) we need to do something with the veggies before the next case shows up at our door, so I give you Eggs Florentine (kinda)

for 2 people:

1 pound (450 grams) fresh washed spinach (seems like a lot but we really needed to use up this week's spinach)
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
4 eggs
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 large slices toast
1 tbsp butter
grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Sauteeing spinach: In large sautee pan, fry the garlic in the oil until is is blond, then add the spinach by handfuls stirring and turning the cooked bottom leaves over the raw ones at the top. Continue to sautee until all the spinach is completely wilted and the volume has reduced considerably. Leave in the pan off the heat until your eggs have been poached.

Poaching eggs: Gabriel did a bit of culinary blog research before attempting to poach the eggs. He found a genial idea (sadly I don't know from which blog) to place each raw egg into a tea cup and to drop the whole cup (right side up) into boiling water with vinegar and to allow the eggs to cook that way. The eggs stayed in the cups in the boiling water for 3 minutes. Note to serve hot Eggs Florentine: at the last minute of poaching, turn the heat on under the spinach again to re-warm it and place your bread in the toaster so that all three elements are as hot as they can be when you serve.

Assembling the dish: Place a piece of buttered toast on each plate. Sprinkle with parmesan. Arrange half the spinach on to each toast and then gently scoop the eggs onto the spinach. Shake a little salt and pepper over and serve immediately. Music to serve eggs Florentine by: "Eggs on a Plate" by Iggy Pop. Enjoy!

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