Friday, October 30, 2009

Ghosts of Halloween Past

I Love Halloween 
It just might be my favorite holiday after Thanksgiving. Halloween has always been a big deal for me.  While I absolutely have always loved the gobs and gobs of candy, it doesn't compete with the crisp air and dressing up in silly costumes.  As I child I never was subjected to one of those "boxed" outfits with a plastic mask...nor a sheet with holes in it.  I always had a home made costume...raggedy ann, becky thatcher, hobo, clown, mummy...just to name a few.  As I got older my costumes followed news stories...baghwan shree rajneesh, monica seles with knife in back, a Benneton  ad, zsa zsa gabor just after attacking the police officer....
Once, as an executive of a large corporation I showed up at work in a costume...a "Got Milk" ad.  Other executives (mostly male), looked away, couldn't make eye contact, and were simply uncomfortable around me. Finally, one brave soul said, "hey you have something on your upper lip".  When I acknowledged that yes I did and it was milk, pointing to my shirt, he was still confused.  When I said it was Halloween, it was as if a fog lifted. Oh yeah..."great costume", was the response.  
Perhaps not the best career move for an up and coming young female executive.  
At the time I didn't care, and I don't care now.  If being an executive meant being stuffy, controlled and boring, then count me out. 
And they did.
Some of my most lonely Halloween moments were when I lived in England. At the time, Halloween wasn't popular like here in the US.  Yes we had a party, but the only trick or treaters that showed were a few teenagers asking for beer. 
After the requisite lecture, I gave them a candy bar.  
Since I've been married, Halloween has taken on a life of its own.  My husband might possibly enjoy Halloween more than I do.  His costumes are amazing.  Several years ago he spent months, sculpting a bust of his face, so he could make a mold, so he could make a Frankenstein mask.  We had decided to throw a party that year, so we transformed our tiny condominium into a dungeon and laboratory.  I was his bride...

The following year we went with a bayou theme and we each had a costume for Halloween (passing out candy) and one for the party.

On our way to pass out candy

On the Bayou

Earl from Earl's Alligator Farm checking out the vittles

This year we are not having a party, but are heading to a friend's house to pass out candy and provide some tricks of our own.  Next year is party year and we are already talking about themes and costumes.


The Chips are Up!

I was invited to a neighbor's house for dinner while my hubby was out of town and thought this little treat would be a nice hostess gift.
Truffled Potato Chips

Thinly slice 2 medium to large russet potatoes on the mandoline.  Watch your fingers...deep fried finger isn't as good as it sounds.
Drop in a bowl of cold and slightly salted water. Meanwhile, heat peanut oil in a deep pot on the stove, or a deep fryer if you have one to about 365 degrees.
Remove the potatoes from the water and dry thoroughly.  Working in batches, drop into the hot oil.  Once the chips begin to show color, drop a teaspoon of truffle oil into the pot.  When browned to your liking--remember after you remove from oil, they will continue to cook, crisp and color, sprinkle with a bit of truffle salt.--repeat.  If you don't have truffle salt, once all the chips are cooked, sprinkle with a bit more oil.
They are delicious!
**if you don't have truffle oil, or don't like truffle--these can be made with regular salt, rosemary salt, garlic salt, any combination of herbs and spices that you like.  I like my chips thin and crispy, but it is just as easy to make them thicker and crunchy.  They are about a thousand times better than store bought.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tuesday Night Supper Club

I've started a Supper Club. A Supper Club of 1.
In an attempt to get out of the rut of my basic standby meals, I am going to try a new recipe on Tuesdays.
Most of the recipes will be what I can put together with items from the larder (don't you just love that word?) The first time I ever heard it used in every day language was when staying in a hotel in Kirkland, Washington called The Woodmark.  They had this evening event called "raid the larder." It was a great take on the midnight snack.
The only other time I raided the "larder" in a hotel, was in Spain or maybe Portugal and I was in college.  But for clarification, I didn't actually go into the kitchen, I did however, participate in eating what was procured. This event was not sanctioned by the UN nor the hotel itself.  The daring participants accessed the kitchen and "borrowed" large tubs of  ice cream and a big wheel of cheese.  Mind you, this was well over 20 years ago, so don't hold me to the details.  What I do remember however is that we collectively finished off all the ice cream in the place....and then littered the evidence.  If I reveal any more, it might become an international incident, and I'm not one to get my fellow students in trouble.
Again, I was a bystander
...a bystander with a spoon.

So for my first Tuesday Night Supper Club meal I made risotto.

Risotto with Shrimp and Tomatoes
Serves 2 as a main course

2 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp unsalted butter
8-10 nice size shrimp--raw
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 cup carnaroli or arborio rice
2 oz sweet vermouth *
4-5 cups chicken broth--bring to a simmer on the stove
2 Tbs chopped chives
6-7 basil leaves--chiffonade
lots of pepper to taste
salt to taste
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1-3 Tbs cream **

Heat a high sided skillet over medium heat.  Meanwhile, peel and clean shrimp. Mine were frozen so I popped them into my chicken broth (which I also had in the freezer) to defrost but not cook.   Add olive oil to the hot pan and quickly stir fry the shrimp.  It is best to slightly undercook them at this point.  Remove from heat and set aside.
Add butter to pan and a bit more oil if it seems it needs it.  Toss in the shallots and cook until just translucent, do not brown.  Butter may brown a bit, but that is okay.  Toss in the rice and stir to completely coat in the fats.  Don't move too fast.  While you don't want to toast the rice to brown, you want to warm it up.  
Now the fun begins.  Let me start by saying...risotto shouldn't take you all day to make.  When making this recipe, I had it on the table in 20 minutes.
Pour in the vermouth*.  Stir with a wooden spoon..don't know if this is essential, but I have such great luck with a wooden spoon that I am passing that it on.  Make sure your fire isn't too high. It should be between low and medium.  Stir until the vermouth is almost gone. You want the liquid to be minimal, but not completely dry before you start to add the broth.  Be sure your broth is hot.  Begin adding it to the rice about a cup at a time.  Add the broth, stir until the rice is evenly spread in the pan and is beginning to absorb.  Then stir a bit more.  Then give it a minute by itself.  Then stir again.  Then give it a minute, then stir.  Once you see it getting tight, add more broth...and start the procedure all over again. After the second addition of broth, add the chives and tomatoes.  The stirring process gives you a bit of a gravy.  You know it is done when you take a bite and find the rice firm but not hard.  It should not be crunchy at all, but it shouldn't mush in your mouth.  Once it is done, add the cream**.  Stir to incorporate and then add the basil and parmesan cheese. Check for salt and pepper. Stir in the shrimp and let heat all the way through.  Serve and enjoy!

* I used sweet vermouth because I thought it would work nicely with the shrimp.  But you can use dry vermouth or white wine.  
**addition of cream is just a decadence that isn't essential.  Skip it if you want.

Also...I admit I do something with my risotto that isn't in any book...but it works for me.  When I see that the risotto is getting close--just the center is al dente, I add about a 1/4 of a cup of broth and stir once and walk away.  It can sit that way for 10 minutes or more.  Once I am ready to serve and plate, I fire up the burner again, add a bit more broth and finish the dish.
ps. you might see pearl onions in my photo. I added them to the broth and then threw them into the dish for fun.  Didn't love em...but if you wanted to roast them and add them, I think it would be delicious.

Email me if you want to be a guest host of the Tuesday Night Supper Club. I would love to hear what you do faced with a stove and a handful of ingredients.  I would especially love to know if you try a supper club dish and what you thought.
Eat up...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

adventures in truffle hunting

I've heard it said that golf is a good walk wasted.  That may be true, but truffle hunting is a great walk, enhanced.
Silvano and Marcello (our guide) 
I have said in a previous blog that I only discovered truffles as an adult. Before that I didn't know they existed, or that they were a precious commodity.  
Now I know both.  
And I think I know why.
Truffle hunting is a business.  Most hunters wouldn't allow anyone, let alone someone with a video camera along. The risk of another hunter discovering where truffles are hidden is great.  This is not a hobby, it is a livelihood, and I came to respect that as we took our wonderful and bit strenuous 3 hour walk through the woods. Due to this, I have chosen not to post the video of our adventure. Sorry. 

Silvano and his sons gather from the land what they can.  They hunt truffle, collect chestnuts and forage for porcini mushrooms. All of these things are available locally, essentially in their back yard.  Silvano has been a truffle hunter for 35+ years.  Every day, during the season, for 5 hours, he takes a walk with his dogs.  He directs them to areas that have been successful in the past, and he watches them closely.  An enthusiastic dog might swallow a truffle, if his master doesn't get there quickly enough.
Truffles are very expensive.  Fancy restaurants think nothing of charging $100 for a pasta starter with shaved truffle. A white truffle can cost you upwards of about $6000 a pound. So imagine my surprise, when we arrived at Silvano's home after our morning of truffle mania, to see a jar loaded with the stuff. 
 I turned to my sister and said, "am I dead?"

The smell of the ground, where a truffle lay, is intoxicating.  It smells like a symphony of heaven and earth. I just couldn't believe my nose when one of the dogs unearthed one.  As I approached the scene, I could smell the clear as day.  It was astounding.
After our beautiful walk in the woods, and our unearthing of 2 small truffle bits...we headed to Silvano's house for afternoon supper.

Our walk in the woods
sporti hanging out

What a beautiful place.  Can you imagine anything more beautiful?  Well, I can.  And it wasn't nature, it was nurture.  When we arrived at Silvano's house most of his family were there to greet us. He has 3 sons and two of them joined us for lunch, along with the most charming Beatrice--Silvano's granddaughter.  She was off school because of a strike.  Silvano's wife had been preparing all morning for our arrival.  The dining table was set with care and the kitchen was brimming with activity.  Everything Margherita put on the table was made either in her house, or in a house nearby.  She makes her own bread and her own pasta, by hand.

No machines.  There are chickens in the back for eggs.

Andrea, Silvano's son and Beatrice's father makes the family salami.  He gave us a great explanation on how-to and inspired us, for the time being. When reality set in...that we don't have a cantina or basement or any cool dark place to cure and dry it, we began to think of great places to buy salami.  So, one of the specialities of Bologna is the ragu bolognese.  I presented a recipe here.  Margherita served it with tagliatelle and truffles. She put a bit of fresh truffle in the sauce as it was near the end of cooking, and then Andrea shaved additional portions as it was served.  MY OH MY!
 And because everyone follows up pasta with potatoes...I know it is one of my favorite combinations.  We followed with a gratin of potatoes with truffle cooked in and more shaved truffle on top
What Margherita was trying to do was show us how to use the precious truffle.  When I told her that we have truffle ice cream, cookies, cheese, oil, honey, macaroni and cheese, etc, was if I was telling her that we par-boil kittens.  In this house, and in much of what I could ascertain in the region, truffles are meant to be eaten with only a few items.  Items that can stand up to the depth of the truffle, but will also allow the truffle to shine.  Putting it in macaroni and cheese is like taking a gold nugget and dipping it in silver.  I was schooled.  But I can't promise I will mend my ways completely.  I can honestly say I won't be making truffle ice cream or cookies, but I did make killer truffle potato chips the other night....

Andrea's handmade salami
the family gathered around the table
After a long lunch, with lots of laughter and stories being told, we were ready for dessert.  Again, Margherita came through with some delicious homemade delights.
She made a cookie called zuccherini.  My mom has been describing a cookie my grandma made when my mom was a little girl.  She had never been able to duplicate the taste or texture of that cookie.  Today, my mother was whisked back to her small kitchen in the Bronx.  The cookies were exactly as she remembered.  She was delighted when Margherita packed a bag of them for us to take back to our hotel with us!
This family was lovely.  They love food and they live life to the fullest.  They welcomed us into their home as if we were relatives. At one point in the afternoon, I just sat back and watched and listened. And I too was brought back to my childhood.  It felt as if it were Sunday afternoon on my Aunt Rose's summer porch.  The men and women breaking bread and celebrating life.  A memory brought back and revived.

Monday, October 19, 2009

an enchanted evening

I think the best way to discover a village, town, or country is to experience the people who live there.  This culinary journey I am on with my sister and mom provided that opportunity for us.  We are Italian and know what our American experience is as Italians. The food is always plentiful and good, the conversations always a decibel above what is necessary. But we have gotten lazy in some of our traditions, and it was nice to cook and break bread in Italian homes. It gave us perspective and renewed energy to cherish traditional recipes, to not waste anything, and to grow or find the freshest available ingredients.

I found a kindred spirit in Elena.  Elena owns an agriturismo in the hills of Romagna.  She lives among the olive trees in a 150 year old farmhouse with a very modern kitchen.  She is adorable and an amazing cook.  Shortly after we arrived, she had us working.  While her kitchen was modern, her utensils were not.  She doesn't own a whisk or a vegetable peeler.  I thought third degree burns were forming on my sister's hand while trying to whisk hot bechamel over a high flame with a salad fork.  She survived and so did the sauce.  We used it to make quite possibly the best lasagna verde al forno I will ever eat.

My job was to make the lasagna sheets.  It took me about 20 minutes of kneading and another 20 minutes of rolling before Elena gave me the thumbs up.  She was impressed with my technique, but not so impressed that I exerted myself so much, I looked as if I had just run a 10k.  It was very warm in the kitchen....that's my story and I am sticking to it!
Making and rolling dough by hand is not child's play.

We cooked for about 3 hours making a wonderful bolognese sauce, bechamel, pasta dough, chicken cacciatore and a tomato bruschetta appetizer.

I am a huge fan of Mario Batali and use his recipes quite often.  But I will tell you...his lasagna al forno does not hold a candle, not even a birthday candle, to Elena's.  She is a master.  Her lasagna is a minimum of 5 layers.  She likes 7, but we were a bit too heavy handed with the bolognese in the first 2 layers. We were unchapeoned and assumed the lasagna would only be 2 or 3 layers max.  What a mistake.  I loved this dish so much that I am almost afraid to make it again. Afraid I will taint the perfect memory.

We cooked, we laughed, and laughed a lot more. Elena is so charming. But what was enchanting about the evening was our meal.
Elena's farmhouse dining room looks like what is portrayed in old movies.  A man rides his horse up to the local tavern, it's raining outside and the dark doorway opens up to a dimly-lit but  inviting room with large tables topped with lanterns.  Wine and bread sit on the table and all around it seem genuinely happy.   Joining us for dinner was Elena's daughter.  She helped her mom set the table and serve the amazing dinner we enjoyed.
Our evening was not only pleasant but a great deal of fun. The conversation was lively and the food was perfect.  The wine was simple.  It didn't have to be an expensive bottle or the perfect match to the food, it just trailed along with our meal and that was fine with me.  The chicken cacciatore was delicious.  Chicken cacciatore was the very first meal I made on my own when I was a little girl. I never make it anymore and I know my husband would enjoy it.  I am putting it back in the rotation.  She also used all the parts I never use. The wings, the legs, the thighs. What a bore I am.  Those are going back in the rotation too.  And let's be honest, they are nice on the pocketbook.
After the food portion of dinner, we had dessert and digestives.  Dessert was a meringue semi-freddo.  My mom and sister passed on the dessert, big mistake. But I am not that rude, so I indulged freely.
Semi-freddo is a really simple dessert.  Using meringue simplifies it a bit more.

Then came the digestives.  Again, as in all households and restaurants we visited before it, out came the limoncello and nocino.
 And, a new favorite, and something that I am definitely going to make...brandied cherries.  The only sadness I have is that they take 3 years to soak. So, 3 years from now, I will be enjoying brandied cherries.  Maybe I will make a vintage version and a non-vintage version.  At any rate, I will have to wait until next year to obtain the fresh cherries.  I will worry about the aging process then.

This lesson and meal were very meaningful to me.  It showed me another way.  I made new friends, and I was sad to leave.  I intend on nurturing a relationship with Elena, as she is someone I want to know better.

Elena's Ragu alla Bolognese

1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 medium onion
1/2 lb ground pork
1 lb ground beef
1 cup red wine
1 cup tomato sauce
1-2 cups vegetable or meat broth
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mince onion, carrot and celery rather finely.  Put them in a pot with enough olive oil to cover the base of the pot.  Add a pinch of salt.  Fry lightly for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You do not want the vegetables to brown.  Add the minced meat and mix well until the meat browns a little.  Stir occasionally.  When the meat if cooked, add the red wine and let it cook into the meat and excess evaporate.  Add the tomato sauce to color the sauce and then flavor with a bit of pepper.  Cook the sauce very slowly for 2-3 hours, covered.  Stir occasionally and add hot broth if the meat begins to look dry.  Use this sauce for pasta or lasagna.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

a garden of her own...

If you have ever read Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence, you have visioned a beautiful garden surrounded by olive trees, a rustic table, set with a hodge podge of serving pieces and glassware.  A large jug of local wine sits in the middle, and a conversation flows where a foreign language comes to you as easily as your native tongue.

I have dreamed of owning a home anywhere, that can instantly transport me, the minute I step out the door.
I think our cabin in the woods will do that for me eventually, but its not quite there yet.  Or maybe, I am not quite there yet.

On our culinary journey, we met a wonderful woman named Antoinetta.  She owns a natural herb garden, that sits on several acres.  At the edge of the property is a small home, on the hills of Romagna, but overlooking Tuscany.
The natural herb garden subsists on its own.  Essentially, Antoinetta does not water or fertilize the property.  It gets the water that comes naturally, and grows completely wild.  Her plants do quite well and she produces enough to supply dry herbs to friends, family and local shops.  She also makes wonderful conserves and a surprisingly good digestive.
We toured the garden, tasting many different herbs.  Many of which I was familiar with and others I am not.  I was dropping the unfamiliar herbs in my pocket, hoping I could find a shopkeeper I could show them to and he would immediately whip out a packet of seeds.    Oh the smell of ridiculous dreams sure is sweet.

After our garden tour, we sat on the veranda at a farm table and drank local wine and ate some dishes made better by the inclusion of Antonetta's herbs.  She presented a few frittatas and a lovely quiche that were made from the same ingredients but tasted very different just by changing the herbs.  For dessert we were treated to fresh cheese with homemade conserves.  My favorite was a cherry-mint combination.  It was delicious end to a wonderful light meal.

As we sat, at the farm table, in the shade of trees, conversing in Italian about the wonderful meal, the beautiful day and how we could really adapt to this lifestyle, I forgot I was on vacation.  I felt at home, really at home.  It was a beautiful moment.

On the table sat a plate of aromatic oil that Antoinetta makes.  She shared her recipe and I, in turn, share it with you. I think it would make a wonderful Christmas or hostess gift for your favorite eater.

Be sure to use good olive oil.  If it starts good, it ends good!
Aromatic Oil
1 liter extra virgin olive oil
6 small branches marjoram
6 small branches oregano
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1 dried chili pepper
2-3 garlic cloves
1 Tbs sea salt
Put all the herbs in the oil and then add the salt.  Seal and place cool dark place (but not the refrigerator).  After 10 days it will be ready to use.  Use on vegetables, pizza or meat as a condiment, not a cooking oil.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

now we're cooking with gas...

I have been promising this afternoon excursion for days and have finally gotten my act together to tell you about it.
After a long day, we were treated to an evening cooking course in a restaurant located in Riolo Terme.  The restaurant's owner Nicola treated us to not only demonstrations of great food, he gave us wonderful tips that we can use at our next dinner party.  Basically, it was a course in how to feed a crowd and not spend your evening in the kitchen.  I think the information translates to a dinner party or trying to get dinner on the table in between carpool obligations.  I can say that I successfully employed a technique for his pasta with prosciutto and arugulaI made the sauce well in advance and when we sat to enjoy the appetizer, I threw the pasta in the water.  It boiled and the sauce reheated while I enjoyed melon wrapped in prosciutto.

Nicola was adorable.  Like chef Luigi, he is from Calabria.  My mother is also from Calabria, so it felt like I was in the kitchen with family. Nicola owns Ristorante Villa Golini with his wife.  The restaurant is quite large and sits on a large piece of property. It is equipped for catering and is a favorite location for weddings and large gatherings.

In the garden they have this 20 foot tall flashing firework-like neon structure.  It  looks very out of place in the bucolic setting.  It was a bit off putting and reminded me of spanish disco.  I half expected "boom, boom, boom" to be blasting from the speakers.  But once we entered the restaurant, and discovered Nicola's delicious food, my concerns disappeared.

One of the first things we made was a delicious pizzaiola sauce.  It can be used on bruschetta for an appetizer or on pasta or with veal, chicken, or  fish.  It is a great go to condiment and can be made well in advance.
Watch Nicola make it here...pizzaiola demo
The measurements aren't exact...and really should be done by your particular tastes.  But here is an estimated recipe
Pizzaiola a la Nicola
3 garlic cloves
2 Tbs capers
2 pinches dry oregano
handful of minced italian parsley
1/2 cup white wine
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Finely chop the garlic with the capers.  Heat a saucepan and then pour olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and capers and gently cook.  Add the white wine and allow the alcohol to cook off.  If you are feeling especially spunky, light the pan on fire to burn off the alcohol.  Add about 1 cup of prepared tomato sauce.  If you make your own great, if you don't add whichever is your favorite.  Toss in oregano and gently cook to soften the herb.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  It's ready to serve.  The less the cook it, the better.

The crowd favorite recipe was the garganelli with prosciutto and arugula.  It was delicious and something that I hadn't had before.  Cooking prosciutto can sometimes render it gamey.  But this preparation does anything but that.  As I mentioned, I made this last night...homemade pasta and all.  Garganelli is difficult to find, so you can substitute penne or even fusilli.  Also, last night I didn't have any arugula on hand, so I used baby spinach instead. It gave it a bit of a different flavor profile, but it was good, and I just added more pepper to supplement.

Garganelli Prosciutto e Rucola
1 lb pasta
2/3 lb thinly sliced prosciutto
2-3 Tbs cognac 
 big giant handful of arugula
1/2 cup tomato sauce (not pureed tomatoes, but actual sauce)
2 Tbs olive oil 
2 Tbs butter 
 a bit more arugula for garnish
parmesan cheese for garnish
Cut prosciutto in julienne and fry lightly in butter-oil mixture.  Only fry for a few minutes.  Add cognac and let the alcohol evaporate or burn off the alcohol with a flame.  Add the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the arugula.   At this point you can be done until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, drop the pasta in boiling, salted water.  Drain when they are al dente.  Put the pasta in the pan with the sauce and cook on the flame for a minute or two.  
When serving, place on a platter and top with a bit of parmesan and arugula
We made so many wonderful dishes and I wish I could have you all over for dinner to tasted the wonderful recipes.  I will continue to try these recipes at home and will post the results and any changes I make to them.
our host nicola
I know I have mentioned before how everyone we met makes a version of limoncello and nocino.  Well, the restaurants are not different.  Nicola's wife broke out the good stuff for us.  They both were delicious and a wonderful end to our evening meal.  For the record, our meal was...
bruschetta pizzaiola
garganelli prosciutto e rucola
veal scallopini with chives
grilled steak with herbs
roasted potatoes
roasted tomatoes
double berry semi-freddo with berry coulis
I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that we prepared everything in advance, in about an hour.  It helped that Nicola is a professional and was able to whip around his kitchen like a ballroom dancer. But I found that he kept everything very straight forward and simple and used great ingredients, which is a winning combination.
If you ever find yourself in the hills of emilia-romagna, follow the bright lights to ristorante villa golini and have yourself a wonderful meal.


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