Carnevale Colored Sweets

alkermesI bought my first bottle of alkermes in Florence at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.

The ancient recipe of alkermes has a colorful history. Originally formulated by a 9th century Persian physician in the court of the caliph of Bagdad as a medicinal elixir for the  elite, the incensual ingredients used in the Persian recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, ambergris, apple juice, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater. Kermes, a type of small insect found on Mediterranean oak trees, provided an intoxicating scarlet color.

The scarlet elixir of Arabic origin made its way to the formulary of the monks of Santa Maria Novella. Cochineal, another insect based powdered red colorant, replaced the exotic kermes in the Renaissance recipe refined by infusing neutral spirits with herbs and spices such as garofano (clove oil), orange, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and coriander.

carnevaleFavored by Caterina de’ Medici, alkermes became an essential ingredient in many Italian pastries including zuppa inglese and traditional Carnevale sweets like castagnole, sweet fritters rolled in sugar & drizzled with alkermes.

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The Rovigo Ermine Turkey – An Italian Inspired Thanksgiving

turkey-featherPart of our Italian family is from the Veneto and although Thanksgiving is not an Italian holiday I can imagine that, if it was, the Rovigno Ermine turkey would be at the center of the table. Tacchino, turkey in Italian, is eaten in Italy but it’s not prepared nor sold the same as in the US. I did have an excellent turkey dish in Emilia at a cooking lesson with my friend Rita made with a rolled turkey breast but a traditional Thanksgivingesque turkey is most likely only to be found on an American expat November holiday table.

rovigoThe Rovigo Ermine turkey (Ermellinato di Rovigo) came into being in 1958, a result of a cross of local birds to the American Narraganset. It differs from the Italian Common Bronze turkey (Comune Bronzato) by its flesh-colored legs, white skin, and ermine color. Although very rustic, the color and design of the bird make it more stately and unique. Well-imagined as stuffed, displayed, feathers and all at a a medieval banquet. Our intention would be little less dramatic and our presentation more in keeping with the traditional Thanksgiving bird. Trussed, stuffed, dressed and served with the usual side dishes but with a decidedly Italian twist.

Sweet potatoes and pumpkin replaced with Marina di Chioggia, chioggia-sea-pumpkinthe sea pumpkin of Chioggia near Venice, a bumpy, misshapen Italian heritage cultivare of pumpkin with yellow orange flesh and a fantastic taste that lends itself to many preparations. Cranberry sauce morphed into an Italian mostarda (recipe below) and brussel sprouts roasted with prosciutto and balsamic. Parmigiano Reggiano mashed potatoes piped Duchesse style, in homage to Caterina de’Medici, the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent whose marriage to King Henry ll brought Tuscan food customs to the tables of France.

All brought together with family and friends and the belief that preparing a well-laid table to share and enjoy with your family and friends in a relaxed and tranquil manner is a lost pleasure that must be found again and a reason to be thankful.

Amarena Cranberry Mostarda (Serves 6-8)

12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/4 cup yellow onion, minced
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup Morello Austera Wild Cherry Jam
1/2 cup Maletti aged balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup dried sour cherries
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely minced

Add all the ingredients, with the exception of the fresh thyme, to a heavy bottomed pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to bring the mix to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occassionally, until thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the fresh marjoram and let cool slightly before serving.

from CosituttiMarketPlace

Six 10 Second Decisions That Can Change the Course of How You See and Savor Italy

The endless possibilities of the day ahead. Travel is exciting, invigorating and in the best possible way unpredictable. Here are six 10 split-second decisions that I would not hesitate to make on your next trip to Italy.

Should I Stay or Should I Go  . . . Off the Tourist Flow?

If your destination is one of Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence or Venice) and you have an opportunity to travel outside the tourist flow – go. As spectacular as these cities are, the personal charm of Italy lies just beyond. Here is where the real magic begins.

Should I Visit an Italian Terme?

Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtues of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena is a perfect place to “get your feet wet” when it comes to the terme experience. You can check in to the local term or just walk down to a trickling hot spring to sooth your tried feet. Popular termes in the same region include Montecatini and Saturnia. I prefer Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme which is very accessible and family oriented.

Should I Do Some Outlet Shopping?

There are many outlet malls within driving distance from most major Italian cities with high end designs at outlet prices. Why would you not go?

Should I Forgo One Large Museum to Visit a Small Lesser Known One?

When you think of Italy you think of world class museums with an archival wealth of art and history. The Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice,
Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Italy is an open air museum. But don’t forget to seek out some of the small, lesser known museums. A good local museum will add to your understanding of the region and as you won’t have to queue to view exhibits, you can be in and out in less than an hour.

Should I Include a UNESCO Italian World Heritage Site in My Travel Itinerary?

These have been identified by UNESCO as cultural and national heritage sites of significant importance and value to humanity that deserve the protection of our world community. A cultural endangered species that should not be missed.

Should I Order the Region’s Signature Dish?

There is nothing more evocative than eating the food or drinking the wine in its place of origin. Food immersion is the best way to experience the true Italian lifestyle. Eat locally to eat like an Italian. Be a little adventurous and try the speciality of the house, the advice of the chef consiglo dello chef.

Pappardelle con Lepre or a Ragu’ con cinghiale. Truffles in Tuscany or Piemonte. Sugo all’amatriciana in Rome. Spaghetti Bolgnese in Bologna and gelato everywhere.

From Cesena to Rimini

map

The driving distance between the town of Cesena and the town of Rimini is insignificant, about 27 kilometers or 17 miles. But as far as the making of piadina, Emilia Romagna’s iconic unleavened flat bread, there is a significant measurable difference between the  making of this Italian flatbread sandwich between the two. Although Cesena piadina and Rimini piadina both share the same ingredients (O or OO wheat flour, lard (sometimes olive oil), a pinch of salt, baking soda or mother yeast and water) and both are cooked on a traditional testo (teglia), or griddle, the thickness of the piadina between Cesena and Rimini becomes thinner. 5 mm thick in Cesena to 3 mm (1/8″ thick) in Rimini.

This unique creation filled with local greens, salumi and cheeses layered onto a simple flatbread of freshly cooked dough is served at family tables and from small carts throughout the towns and villages of Romagna and neighboring cities (I have had it in Ferrara). The thickness and size is a function of the locale – softer, thicker and smaller inland, thinner and larger toward the coast. Extra virgin olive oil makes a lighter and crispier piadina. Lard from rendered pork fat or strutto makes a richer and softer piadina. The piadina is a staple of Italian street food and its regional variations are one of many that make seeing and savoring Italy such a gastronomic delight.

At Montetiffi, a village near Sogliano, 90 kilometres (56 mi) southeast of Bologna , original clay pots are still made to cook piadina. This craft dates back to 1527 when the pot makers of Montetiffi are mentioned in historical documents.

The Sister John Vianni Method of Working Clean

soaking-potWe hear a lot about “working clean” today – in other words working with efficiency and quality. Dan Charnas has written a new book about the life-changing power of “working clean” organizing your space and work using the culinary mise-en-place (setting into place) method. A system coopted from the culture of cooking that he believes will allow us to work better in life. Taught to all elementary chefs mise-en-place refers to having your ingredient list prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. Charnas thinks that his could be a worthy metaphor for life and that the principles of mise-en-place can help you manage not only your cooking but your own personal space, resources and work habits.

A sense of order that eliminates clutter. Having all your ducks in a roll equals working clean equals “clean” productive work.

If some of you think this has a monastic ring to it with a orderly sensibility it does. I experienced this first hand both in the realm of cooking and in lessons on life by Sister John Vianni during my sophomore year in high school. Working clean was the mantra of her Home Economics class which at that time (mid 1960’s) was run with a iron spoon. We were taught to prepare in advance and that there is a place for everything and everything has its place and God forbid anything should be out of place. A worthy habit for personal organization both in and out of the kitchen. Chefs from Thomas Keller to Jamie Oliver extol the virtues of a well-placed kitchen. Cooking and prepping at the same time generally leads to chaos in the kitchen. A great example of Italian-style mise-en-place can be seen in this recipe for Penne Puttanesca from a Williams-Sonoma article on The Secret to Cooking Like a Professional.

To approach the recipe in an organized fashion, pull out all the pots and pans you’ll need, a large pot for boiling the pasta and a saucepan for cooking the sauce. Set a colander next to the sink for draining the pasta. Organize your ingredients and tools, such as a cutting board, knives and measuring cups, on the countertop with small bowls for holding ingredients as they’re chopped. Be sure to set a large serving bowl nearby. Although the first step in this recipe says to warm the olive oil in the saucepan, don’t turn on the stove just yet. There’s some prep work to be done. For example, the list of ingredients specifies that the onion should be minced, the garlic sliced, and the tomatoes seeded and diced. After you’ve washed, chopped and measured out the ingredients, line them up next to the stove in the order they’ll be used: olive oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes and so forth. You’ll also want to start heating water for cooking the pasta. Now you’re ready to warm the olive oil and prepare the sauce.

You can take this one step further by having your sink filled with warm, soapy water to clean up the bowls etc as you go and wipe the counters. Then when you finish the dish and set the table the kitchen will be less cluttered and you can sit down to better enjoy your meal. Prepared, measured and organized. A mind-set that is a prelude to life. Sister John Vianni would be pleased.

Red Shrimp and Wine Glasses

Gambero Rosso Tre bicchieriIf you appreciate Italian food and wine then you have, at one time or another, encountered the Gambero Rosso (red shrimp). Not as a center of the plate entree but as a guide to the best food travel and wine in Italy. Unlike Pinocchio who wandered into the eponymous taverna where the villainous Fox and Cat trick him into paying for their supper, this Gambero Rosso won’t lead you astray when searching for the best restaurants and award winning wines when traveling in Italy.

Originally an 8-page insert about food and wine in a 1986 publication of Italy’s Communist Il Manifesto, Gambero Rosso, the “red prawn” has become the definitive guide to the tastes of Italy. Their annual 1,000-page guide to Italian wines, Vini d’Italia, is considered by many to be the Italian wine bible giving top wines, those considered extraordinary, a three glass (chalice) Tre Bicchieri rating. Gambero Rosso markers of good taste now include Three Forks for restaurants, Three Coffee Beans and Cups for coffee bars, and Three Leaves for producers of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Gambero Rosso has recently established Citte’ di Gusti, cities of taste,  where demonstrations, workshops, lessons and courses are offered for both professionals and amateurs with an interest and love of Italian food and wine. Gambero Rosso opened the first Citta’ di Gusto in Rome and now has centers in Naples, Salerno, Catania, Palermo, Torino and Lecce.

Italian Infused Water

Infused waters are all the rage. For those of us who are used to drinking from the tap, they make water interesting again with “spa” like benefits and healthy hydration. Store shelves and the internet are literally awash with brands, flavors, recipes and recommendations on the use and enjoyment of infused waters.

Italians discovered the benefits of water long before it was fashionable to carry around a spa water bottle. Their “infusions” were from underground springs that passed through deposits of limestone or volcanic rock absorbing nutrients and minerals along the way. A ubiquitous liter or two of bottled mineral water (d’aqua minerale) is served at the Italian table as an accompaniment to every meal. Either naturale (non-carbonated ) or gassata (with “gas” or natural carbonation) many Italian mineral waters have a devoted following. The “miraculous” waters of Italy’s iconic San Pellegrino have been appreciated since the time of Leonardo da Vinci, their mineral content thought to be of great benefit to one’s health and well-being. Today, within Italy, you can find over 600 brands of bottled mineral water, many of these are local varieties unique to the terroir of the region. Brands like San Pellegrino infuse flavors like lemon, orange, mint, grapefruit and prickly pear, Italian versions of our sodas. One of these, Chinotto, made from the Sicilian chinotto a small bittersweet citrus fruit similar to an orange is a distinctive acquired taste.

Using Italian culinary herbs like basil or rosemary you can make your own version of an Italian infused water. Place herbs in bottom of a jar or pitcher and muddle with a wooden spoon to release some of the essential oils. Fill jar with water. You can add agave, honey or a natural sweetener if you choose. Refrigerate overnight to intensify the flavor.

rosemary waterHere are a few Italian inspired combinations to try for approximately a pitcher (6-8 cups) of water. WASH FRUIT AND HERBS THOROUGHLY. I prefer using organic produce.

1 fennel bulb thinly sliced plus a few green fronds + 1 ripe but firm pear thinly sliced

4 slices lemon + 4 sprigs fresh mint (each 2 in. long, slightly crushed)
+2 sprigs fresh rosemary (each 2 in. long, slightly crushed)

1 cup strawberries (hulled and quartered) + 2 cups watermelon (cubed)
+ 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 cup strawberries (hulled and quartered) +2 lemon slices
+3 basil leaves

1/2 pink grapefruit (sliced thin) +2 lemons +1 cucumber (sliced)
+1/2 cup parsley

Pizza a libretto

libretto- foldAccording to the Decalogue of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana  a/k/a the 10 Commandments of Pizza, a true Neapolitan Pizza can be recognized by several distinguishing characteristics. Like the libretto (text) of an opera, the libretto of a pizza speaks volumes about that slice of pizza you are about to put in your mouth.

The libretto or the way a slice folds is one of the peculiarities of a true Italian pizza. The dough, the ingredients, the stretching techniques, cooking aroma, appearance and the libretto are all features of a true Neapolitan Pizza. With true Italian style and attention to detail the crust exposed by folding the pizza must be “1-2 cm high, even and puffed up, golden in color and with a very few burns and bubbles”. As far as a Neapolitan pizza is concerned, you want to see a lightly blistered crust yet without strong burns. The libretto checks the part underneath. pizza crust

If New York City is a measure of how most Americans eat their pizza than a poll taken by Slice  shows that over 60% prefer pizza a libretto. Folding their pizza more for convenience than a peak at the crust. Whether you eat pizza a taglia, (pizza in hand sold by the slice as in Rome) or a combination of knife and fork and hands and fold as an uncut single whole pie served in pizzerie all over Italy – don’t forget to check the way your crust folds.  Textured, slightly springy, golden in color with a smoky flavor, slight char and lightly blistered crust, part of an individual work of art and an authentic taste of Italy.

 

Chianti, Casks and Irises

iris florencePerfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.

In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.iris

The Night of the Red Underwear

red-underwear-2In Italy, New Years Eve, l’ultimo dell’anno, is celebrated with rites, rituals and events that are meant to bring good fortune, happiness and prosperity in the coming year. Derived from Roman celebrations in honor of Janus, the god of gates, doorways, beginnings and endings, New Years Eve in Italy is a time to put an end to the problems of the past and open the door to the possibilities of a New Year. And being Italian you want to ensure that you do so on the most fortuitous manner!

So wear something red, the traditional color of good fortune, on New Year’s Eve. If you’re Italian that would be red underwear! and eat grapes for good luck and prosperity and throw something old out the window.

Fill your table with regional Italian dishes that symbolize good fortune and abundance. Pork, coin shaped pasta and specialty sausages like cotechino and zampone served with lentils are traditional to the holiday. If you can’t find cotechino or a zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter), make your favorite sausage to serve with Giorgi Locatelli’s recipe for Herbed Lentil Soup

Then think about the wonders, beauty and blessings of the past year with a short “ringraziamento“, thanksgiving, and begin Capodanno 2016.