Let’s Get Smashed in Bergamo

bergamo 2You like polenta right?  . . . and you like cheese.

Then you’re ready to smoosh the two together in a Northern Lombardian dish from Bergamo called schisola (schisol) which means “squished” in the Bergamascan dialect. Bergamo is located in the scenic Italian foothills, a 45 minute train ride from Milan. The town is both modern and medieval. Bergamo Bassa, (Citta’ Bassa -the lower city) is the modern part of the town. Bergamo Alta (Citta’ Alta – the upper city) is the evocative ancient part with a panoramic view of the Italian Alps.

Preserved in time, rich in its medieval heritage of art and history, Bergamo is known as the polenta capital of Italy using the ingredient in both savory and sweet dishes. Polenta e Osei,  individual cakes shaped like mounds of freshly turned out polenta decorated with tiny pecking marzipan birds (osei) on top, is a pasticceria specialty of the city.

To make schisola roll the polenta into balls, squish pieces of cheese inside (a Northern Alpine cheese is preferred) and then broil or bake them. No time to make these polenta meatball then try polenta taragna, another “enriched” version of polenta made with a mixture of buckwheat flour, which gives the dish a typical dark color. When polenta  taragna is nearly cooked sizable bits of fresh alpine cheese (Branzi, Bitto or Fontina) and butter are added and then served topped with melted butter, sage and garlic.

Recipe for Schisola polenta Schisola

2 cups cooked polenta
4 ounces Italian Alpine cheese, divided into 12 pieces
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus some for greasing the pan
¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
8 sage leaves

1. When the polenta is ready, let it cool, wet hands and form with the help of parchment paper 12 balls of polenta, each 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Make a depression in each polenta ball and press a piece of cheese into the dimple. Form the polenta around the cheese, rolling it between your wet palms into a neat ball. Place on a parchment-lined tray, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven (convection if possible) to 500 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with some of the butter. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, arrange the polenta balls on the sheet and brush each one with butter. Bake until the polenta lightly browns and the cheese just starts to melt inside, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a small skillet and add the sage leaves. Cook until the sage lightly browns, the butter turns golden and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan and turn light brown, 6 to 7 minutes.

4. Sprinkle schisola with grated  Parmigiano cheese, drizzle with brown butter and garnish with the sage leaves.

Adapted from Eating Italy by Jeff Michaud

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Meet Hugo – The Alpine Spritz

hugo

A recent trip to Ikea for a bottle of elderflower syrup was needed to complete my reminiscence of Hugo.  If you’ve traveled in the Trentino- Alto Adige region of Northern Italy you’ve probably met up with him at an aperitivo bar where he can always be found making everyone happy.  He is refreshing and light, popular and charming. Hugo is a palate pleasing aperitivo from Italy’s Sudtirol, a cousin of the edgy Venetian Spritz. Both are made with prosecco or white wine, sparkling mineral water (soda) and a flavor variant. In Venice that would a bitter aperitif like Aperol, variations made with Campari or Cynar.

elderflower

But Hugo (pronounced Ugo in Italian) comes from the Italian Alps that border on Austria and Switzerland where cultures collide in a tri-lingual mix of German, Italian and  Ladino, an ancient language spoken by about 30,000 residents. Alpine valleys are sprinkled with elderflower blossoms and made into a syrup used as the main ingredient for a Hugo, the Alpine Spritz.

Add ice cubes to a tall wine or water glass. Mix in 1 part sciroppo di sambuco (Elderflower syrup) with two parts sparkling mineral water and three parts prosecco . Stir gently and serve. Garnish with mint.

You might also want to try a new version of this Italian classic trending the internet this summer.

Elderflower Cordial Cocktail
1 ounce elderberry flower syrup
1 ounce Citadel gin
2 thick lemon slices – one to squeeze and one to garnish
6-8 ounces chilled soda water

Pack a 10 or 12 ounce glass with ice. Pour in the syrup and gin and squeeze one lemon slice over. Stir and top off with chilled soda water. Sip through a straw and godete – enjoy!

 

A Bundle of Rosemary and Red Wine

 

rosemaryred wine glass

It’s almost summer and that means a day at the grill. Italians love to cook over an open flame. Wood-fired pizza, the infamous Tuscan T-bone (bistecca alla fiorentina) and one of Italy’s all-time favorite dishes arrosto di porchetta allo spiedo (spit roasted sucking pig).

This recipe is right up my grill, a regional preparation from the town of Arezzo, located in the middle of four valleys in southeastern Tuscany. The locality and customs of cooking make it an evocative setting for sapori della Toscana, the flavors of Tuscany. The recipe is a grill friendly version of the traditional spit roasted whole suckling pig and uses the holy trinity of medieval spices (cloves, nutmeg, coriander and black pepper). Basting the pork with a bundle of rosemary and red wine as it grills prevents the meat from drying out and if a few needles fall into the fire or onto the coals, it adds a fabulously herbaceous smoke.

Porchetta con Spezie Medievali

(Garlic Studded Pork Loin with Medieval Spices adapted from The Italian Grill cookbook by Micol Negrin)

6 garlic cloves, peeled

1 ½ t coarsely ground sea salt

¾ t coarsely ground red and black peppercorns

1/8 t ground cloves

1/8 t ground coriander

1/8 t freshly ground nutmeg

2 fresh rosemary sprigs (leaves only) + a bundle of fresh rosemary sprigs for basting

3 pound boneless pork loin (with a layer of fat on top)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup red wine typical of Tuscany

Using a mini food processor or a mortar and pestle crush garlic with ½ t salt, ¼ t peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and rosemary leaves until a paste forms.  Using a sharp paring knife, strategically make a series of tiny slits into the top portion of the pork loin (6-8 in total). Using your fingers, press a small amount of the spice mixture into the slits. Rub the outside of the loin with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and the remaining spice mixture.

Heat the grill to a medium flame. Grill pork loin until that outside is browned and cooked all the way through to an internal meat temperature of 175 degrees.  While grilling baste the meat with the bundle of fresh rosemary dipped in the red wine, anointing the pork every 10-15 minutes. Remove the pork to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil to rest for 10 minutes. Slice on the diagonal.

Serves 4-6

Bravo Brodo

brodoThis post is all about the pleasures of a well-made brodo. In Italy brodo means broth and in its most basic form is an icon of Italian cooking. A foundational stock that is made from bones of beef, veal or chicken or the shells/ bony skeletons of seafood infused with fresh vegetables and aromatics. The most favored being cappeletti in brodo, a classic Northern Italian comfort food traditionally served around Christmas or New Year made with caps of fresh pasta swimming in a homemade chicken broth.

Recipes for a basic broth are culinary landmarks on the Mother Road of world cuisine. Anthony Bourdain calls it a blank culinary canvas, an enchanted liquid. He refers to meat brodo as the “dark universal stock”, a broth of bones that can be magically manipulated into soups (yes there is a difference between brodo and zuppa), stews, sauces and the hydrating medium for an Italian risotto.

Brodo di manzo (beef broth) starts with the roasting of  beef bones. Slightly rub beef bones with  a little olive oil, place them in a heavy roasting pan. Roast the bones for about 20 minutes; adding in a chopped onion and continuing to roast for 30 minutes more, or until bones brown. Roasting bones vs not roasting bones is a preference although most cooks/chefs believe that the initial roasting of bones caramelizes them and deepens the flavor.

Concerns about the fat content of roasted bone marrow? It’s been noted that marrow is 69% unsaturated fat. It’s also very nutritious, containing iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, trace amounts of thiamin and niacin and contains substances that boost and maintain our body’s immune system and helps our body stay healthy.

If you are bothered by all the fatty bits found in your brodo you can skim off the fat or let the stock pot cool and remove the fat on top. Or you can serve it alla stracciatella by quickly whisking an egg into the stock. Stracciatella is Italian for “little strands” and  whisking the egg forms little tail-like strands that attract all the fatty bits and other solids, drawing them out of the liquid, “clarifying” it, and making even the cloudiest stock clear to the bottom of the bowl.

As “bone broth” is in the news today, being beneficial for improving your skin, joints, immunity, digestion etc, having a stock pot of Italian brodo brewing in your kitchen is an old world tradition for a nourishing  and restorative winter.

 

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

An Italian Sponge – Simplicity that is Sublime

cake-venetianClean lines and high level function have been a hallmark of Italian design. In cooking simple ingredients well-prepared define Italian cuisine. The Italian aesthetic for simplicity in form and function combined with tradition is never better demonstrated than by the Italian sponge cake (Pan di Spagna), a simple, airy cake made with only 3 ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour…no baking powder, no butter and no oil!

The Italian sponge is used as a base for fillings and candied fruits and is key ingredient in hundreds of classic Italian desserts like zuccoto and Sicilian cassata. Pan di Spagna‘s light airy texture absorbs “like a sponge” (once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight) so it is often layered and soaked with a flavored syrups or spirits or used to soak up the juices from fresh fruit. It stacks wonderfully. Layered with a cream filling it is an impressive dessert but just as enjoyable eaten on its own sprinkled with powdered sugar.You will find its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture a perfect base for your Italian layered or rolled cakes and desserts.

I was introduced to the Italian Sponge by my mother-in-law Marion who used it to make Italian Rum Cake, a family tradition for celebrating birthdays and many special occasions. I have never made it as well as she or my Aunt Margaret who Americanized it as the chiffon but I have learned a few secrets to perfecting a successful Pan di Spagna.

  • Use extra large eggs at room temperature
  • Use cake flour if possible
  • Beat the egg whites until tripled in volume but not dry
  • Beat the egg yolks and sugar for no less than 15 minutes; it is during this stage that air is incorporated
  • The dry ingredients must be sifted together and added on top of the egg mixture, a little at a time and deliberately folded gently together with a spatula or wooden spoon. If you pour too much flour in too fast it will sink to the bottom of the bowl
  • While the cake is baking don’t be tempted to open the oven door or the cake will deflate quicker than a Patriot’s football
  • When the cake is done, turn off the oven but leave the cake inside with the oven door slightly ajar for about 10 minutes
  • Cut the cake only when it has cooled
  • If you plan on layering the sponge, soaking the layers with a flavored syrup or liquor, do so and then wrap the layers in cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight before spreading each layer with filling for the final assembly

There are many versions of Pan di Spagna. I have a version made with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling that I use in place of pastry cream or custard. It also eliminates the need to soak the layers in a flavored syrup or liquor as the creme is made with Piemonte DOCG Moscato.

Pan di Spagna with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling

Ingredients for the Pan di Spagna:

5 large Eggs
1 1/2 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cup Flour
(you can add 1 teaspoon Vanilla or  1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest) as a flavoring

Directions:

Let eggs come to room temperature before starting. Butter and flour a 9″ (23 cm) cake pan. Set aside.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour into a bowl; set aside. Separate the eggs yolks in one bowl; whites in another. Add the sugar to the egg yolks, and whip with an electric mixer until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Rinse the beaters off well,  whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. Then fold the beaten egg white into the yolk mixture. Add the flour a bit at a time to the egg mixture, and fold it carefully in. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, place in oven, and bake for about 20 minutes. When done, a toothpick will come out clean, and the top will be golden. Turn upside down on a wire cake rack to cool.

Assemble the Layers:

Slice sponge cake in half with a thin bladed serrated knife to form two layers.Combine stabilized whipped cream with the Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream (according to taste)   to make a filing for the layers. Retain some of the whipped cream to be used as a frosting. Place bottom sponge layer on platter cut side up, generously spread layer with filling. Top the cream layer with another layer of sponge cake. Frost the top sponge cake layer (and sides of cake) with remaining stabilized whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

You may have noticed that the Italian Sponge has a Spanish name. Pan di Spagna means Bread of Spain. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Gastro-historians credit the introduction of a Spanish influenced “sponge-like” cake to the Northern Italian table because the learned cities of the North like Parma in Emilia Romagna embraced a cosmopolitan cuisine and were influenced by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V (1714).

Others attribute the Italian sponge to Giovanni Battista Cabona from Genoa. Cabona went to Spain in the mid 1700’s as part of the domestic entourage of the ambassador of Genoa. The inventive young baker was asked to create a new and original cake for a royal Spanish banquet. Working with basic and simple ingredients, Cabona was able to create an incredibly light and airy cake, and gave it the name Pan di Spagna, in honor of the hosting country. The cake so pleased the Court of Spain that it was renamed Génoise, in honor of the Genoese creator. Throughout Europe it is still known as Génoise, while in Italy it has maintained its original name, Pan di Spagna.

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