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

The White Ghost of Pasta

pasta al denteAmericans just don’t get pasta. They cook it and eat it all wrong. They vilify its nutritional benefits. They overcook it, over sauce it, over eat it and in doing so miss out on one of the truly great foods of the world. This versatile, healthy, satisfying food is misused and abused and yet keeps coming back for more as an all time favorite international ingredient.

True Italian pasta made by traditional, low-temperature, artisanal methods from wheat grown to regional specifications is a very precise art that produces more than a slippery mound of noodles drowning in a sea of sauce. To achieve the level of perfection that pasta is capable of you must prepare, serve and eat it correctly.

Preparing Pasta

Preparing pasta required lots of water – salted water. A one-pound box of pasta, about six servings, needs to cook in at least five quarts of vigorously boiling, salted water. Cramming a beautifully made pasta into a small saucepan is a little like asking a Ferrari to race on a go-kart track. Basically an invitation for disaster. In this case the unfortunate consequences are likely to be a gummy, overcooked pasta.

Recommended cooking times on a package or box of artisan pasta will generally give you good results if you follow the directions on pot size and amount of water. Experienced pasta makers look for the “white ghost”. When you cut into a strand of cooked spaghetti, it will appear cooked through, except for a white ghost, a tiny spot of not-quite-rawness, at the center of the strand. This is what is generally referred to as pasta al dente. It’s pasta that is tender but still retains a pleasant, slightly chewy texture. Timing, testing, draining, saucing and serving immediately ensures that your pasta is done right.

When preparing pasta reserve about 1 cup of pasta cooking water before draining. Drain loosely to keep the pasta moist. Never rinse the pasta, unless you’re using the pasta later and want to keep it from sticking. Add reserved pasta water slowly, a tablespoon at a time, to your saucepan with hot pasta and sauce. Combining the pasta and sauce in the pot not on the plate ensures a evenly sauced pasta with a consistent temperature and flavor .

Serving Pasta

In Italy pasta is eaten alone. It is considered to be a primo piatto, the first course followed by everything else. It is not a side dish nor does it have a side dish with it. Pairing your pasta with the right sauce is critical. Generally, larger pasta shapes work better with thick, robust sauces while skinny shapes, like vermicelli, suit light, seafood or cream sauces. Long ribbons of pasta go well with rich meaty sauces; think Bolognese. Twists with smoother sauces like pesto.

Know when to add cheese and when to leave it off. There are certain pasta combinations Italians do not use cheese on like those made with fish or seafood. As far as serving pasta on a plate versus a bowl, traditionally pasta was served on a plate or a shallow bowl (piatto fondo) that offers a curved surface against which to press the tines of the fork when capturing a bite.

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

A Rite of Passage for the Taste Traveler in Italy

cow chianinaThe white cattle Vacca Chianina (kya-NEE-na) of the Val di Chiana may be one of the oldest breeds of cattle. They were used as models for Roman sculptures. I have  seen them grazing in pastures outside the town of Citta’ di Castello in Umbria and the hillsides of Tuscany near Abazzia San’Antimo. They are very impressive for their stature (over 6 feet tall) and light pale color. The young animals can weigh up to 1540 pounds and provide the large cuts of meat needed for the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina. 

Italy’s bistecca may be one of the truest interpretations of wood-grilled meats and the rustic cuisine of the region. The notoriety of the Florentine steak dates back to the 1200’s, when the appetites of  English merchants visiting Florence were whetted by the meat being cooked in the town squares. Anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare, it is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed.bistecca Fondly referred to as the Tuscan T-bone, a bistecca fiorentina will be cut 1-3 inches thick (3 fingers wide) so when grilled a nice crust forms on the outside of the steak while the inside remains succulently rare or as they say in Italy sanguinoso. The meat is then thinly sliced, tagliata style, and as the steak is large (over 2 lbs.) and costly, meant to be shared.

chianina pasture

 

 

The strength, size and prized meat of the Vacca Chianina had me wondering how they are raised and cared for. As I mentioned I have seen the porcelain white cattle grazing in the fields of Italy and their visual presence is astonishing. Formerly a draught breed their growth rate can exceed 4 lbs. a day.  So how are Italy’s animal version of Japan’s Sumo wrestlers nurtured and cared for to produce such memorable meat?  Meat that is was so valued that the Etruscans sacrificed the Chianina’s ancestors to their gods and the Romans immortalized the breed in monumental sculptures. Like much of what Italians eat and drink the explanation for the goodness and flavor of the Chianina relates to local history and culture. Generational producers and a pastured landscape allows the cattle to graze and create the great muscles needed to produce this quality of meat. The philosophies that hold true to the Italian way of valuing the food they eat are translated into the way they raise and source their food.  For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food than Italy.

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.

carnevale-2

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.