Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

An Italian View of Zucchini

zucchini

Fritters, sun-dried, zucchini flowers fried and stuffed (Fiori di Zucca), sautéed with olive oil and Italian herbs. Italians love zucchino, the diminutive of zucca “squash”. When grown properly it is tender and palatable. The thin skin need not be removed like its invernale (winter squash) cousin and can be eaten raw or cooked.

Italians love it. Every garden grows zucchini and depending on where you are in Italy they are at their height and plentiful all three months of the summer. Italians use zucchini in many ways: on top of pizza, inside lasagna, baked into focaccia, in soups and as a contorno, side dish. Our Nonna made them simply with onions and tomatoes sautéed in olive oil with basil and oregano.

Italians literally relish in the natural verdant flavors of zucchini and typically don’t feel compelled to turn this vegetable into something it is not such as a dessert mixing in cocoa and chocolate in a sneaky attempt to get their kids to eat more vegetables. They don’t feel the need to conceal its texture, treat it as a second class ingredient or masquerade its flavor. They like it and accept it as it is. There is not one recipe in The Silver Spoon, Italy’s most iconic cookbook, that uses zucchini as a dolce. Perhaps the closest interpretation may be as an ingredient in Verdure Agrodolce, a sour and sweet mix of vegetables in a vinegar and sugar base flavored with herbs and garlic.

However when zucchini is baked into something sweet, like this recipe from a family feast for Italian Cinnamon Zucchini Bread  from Boston’s famous North End, pretty much anyone can get behind this Italian summer squash.

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Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

To Please the Taste of Italians Combine Art and Science

 

 

table quotes

Together with Collodi’s Pinocchio and Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Pellegrino Artusi’s          La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene is one of Italy’s most read books. With over 700 printings it is one the most referenced books on the science and art of cooking and eating well.  Known as the “great-grandfather of all Italian cookbooks” it has been in print continuously since 1894 and translated in hundreds of languages.

The common matter that these three books share is one of instruction and advice. As Pinocchio learns how to prove himself through the pages of Collodi’s book, Pope Francis recommends Manzoni’s book to engaged couples for guidance before marriage. Artusi, though not a trained professional cook realized a need for a book of instruction and began classifying Italy’s great culinary and cultural tradition of  regional, domestic cuisine and what it takes to become a good cook. And what we learn from his writings is that cooking is both an art and a science.

ARTUSIArtusi believed there is a science or technique to the “art of making something as economical, savory and healthy as possible”.  That technique is as important as the ingredients used in preparing a dish and affect the dish as much as the ingredients themselves. Artusi knew that to please the taste of Italians you need to combine la scienza e l’arte . Time, temperature and proper combinations are the science and the cooks’s intuition the art.  He advises his readers with an air of scientific authority to make a dough more tender and digestible, add a little lard when mixing the flour with cool water and salt and “the schiacciata will puff up better if you drop it in a skillet when the fat is sizzling but which you have removed it from the fire”.

These tips on technique should not fall on the deaf ears of a cook. According to our Italian cousin Andrea who recently graduated from a culinary course of study in Milan, one should always chill your blade attachment and blender bowl in the freezer when making pesto to avoid damaging the tender basil leaves from the heat generated by the motor of the food processor.  The science behind the art of making a great pesto!

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

Artusi’s Solemn Sacred Less Than Penitential Menu for Good Friday

Good Friday (venerdi santo) is a solemn, sacred day in Italy and when it comes to food the menu for a ‘pranzo di quaresima‘, a luncheon meal for this final Lenten observance has a long and important tradition that goes back to the recognized bible of Italian cooking, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Generations of  Italians have grown up with the book of Artusi as a main guide to cooking. Written in 1891 with over 700 printings it is one of Italy’s most read books, together with Pinocchio, and a copy was present in almost every Italian home. Today there is a center in Artusi’s hometown of Forlimpopoli dedicated to his work.

book artusi

Artusi wasn’t a chef but a merchant from Romagna who after a successful career decided to retire and dedicate his time to his hobbies –  writing and cooking. He collected and compiled recipes and insights on the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food from various sources, friends and relatives codifying and classifying the tradition of Italy’s domestic cuisine gathering together hundreds of regional Italian recipes and experimenting with them. He recognized the long and important tradition of foods eaten on holidays and seasonal celebrations especially those at Easter time and those eaten just before Easter. On the last few days of Lent when only “lean” foods were to be eaten, ones that Italians call “magro”.

The menu for “il pranzo di quaresima”  doesn’t seem to be so lean or penitential as the ingredients are quite rich and lavish in this day and age. The meal begins Minestra  –Zuppa alla Certosina, (Carthusian Soup) a fish and tomato soup that originated in a Tuscan monastery, the beautiful Certosa del Galluzzo which sits on top of a hill just outside Florence on way to Sienna.

artusi-book

This is followed by a course Artusi refers to as the Principii, –  Baccalà montebianco con crostini di caviale , pounded codfish with cream, a garnish of raw truffles and croutons or crostini of caviar. Followed by Lesso –  boiled/poached Pesce con salsa genovese, fish with a Ligurian pesto sauce.

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Gnocchi alla romana

Then an interposed Tramesso of Gnocchi alla romana, discs made from semolina flour topped with butter and melted cheese. Next an Umido (stew) of Pesce a taglio followed by Arrosto grilled Anguilla (Comacchio eel).

eel
Grilled Comacchio eel

For dessert, Dolci of Pasticcini di marzapane e gelato di pistacchi, marzipan filled pastry tarts and pistachio ice cream.

A Lenten feast that gives real and lasting joy in sharing ourselves at the table.

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy, Travel, Videos

Italian Bread Winners

The fascinating story behind two legendary Italian breads.

Coppia Ferrarese,a bread whose twisted shape was first served at the ducal banquet tables of Ferrara.

pane coppia-ferrarese

Coppia Ferrarese is a regional bread particular to the province of Ferrara in Northern Italy.  With IGP (protected geographical indication ) status similar to Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma you know it must be special. The name comes from the shape of the bread made by the coupling of two pieces of dough  twisted together to form the distinctive four-point X shape.

Type “O” soft wheat flour, pure pork lard, extra virgin olive oil, yeast, salt and malt are used to make this golden-crusted, aromatic bread. The history of bread making in Ferrara dates to 1287. Historical references in the late 1600’s talk about the bread of Ferrara, highlighting its goodness and strange shape, types of flour used for the special process and the contribution that it gave to the fame of regional gastronomy.

 

 

Pane Carasau, also known as Carta di Musica (sheet music) because of its extremely thin paper-like quality.

pane carasau

The inhabitants of the island of Sardegna eat a fiber rich diet of fava beans (high in folate) and a type of nutritive wafer-thin flat bread known as Pane Carasau or  Carta da musica. The bread is named for its cracker-like crispness (in the Sardinian dialect  “carasare” means toasting) and its large and paper thin shape similar to a sheet of music.  Remains of this type of bread were found in archeological excavations of nuraghi (traditional Sardinian stone buildings) dating to before 1000 BC. Traditionally a bread of shepherds, who carried it in their saddle bags, it could be preserved in the long months (up to one year) they were away from home. Here is a link to a remarkable documentary of the making of Pane Carasau.  The bread is baked in 7 stages and requires 3 women  to make it. The ovens used in the baking must be at 840°-930°F to achieve the characteristic puffiness and flavor.

State side versions (although not as authentic) were once available at Trader Joe’s  as Pane Guttiau – Sardinian Parchment Crackers or you can make them with the following recipe.

Pane Carasau – Sardinian Crisp Bread

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 1 12teaspoons salt
  • about 1 13cups lukewarm water
  • about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
  • sea salt, to taste
  1. Combine first 3 ingredients in large bowl. Slowly mix in enough lukewarm water to form moist soft dough. Knead in bowl until dough is no longer sticky. Knead dough on lightly floured work surface until smooth, about 15 minutes. Cover with plastic and let stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes and up to 1 1/2 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F Very lightly dust 2 large baking sheets with whole what pastry flour. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Pat 1 piece into disk (keep remaining dough covered). Roll out disk to 13-inch round, lifting and turning often. Transfer to baking sheet. Bake until edges begin to turn up and bread is still malleable, about 3 minutes. Turn bread over and bake until bread bubbles in spots and is golden in places, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to rack.
  3. Brush oil over bread. Sprinkle with sea salt.
  4. Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield 8 sheets. Serves 16-32.

Sardinians call pane carasau – pane guttiau when sprinkled with salt and a drizzle of olive oil and then warmed  for a few minutes.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

Italian Sentiments For Valentine’s Day

 

 

 

 

Il giorno di amore is 7 days away and you’re shopping for the perfect Valentine’s Day card. Because just buying and signing that card and giving it to your loved one doesn’t quite cut it show how much you really care by adding your own personal Valentine’s Day message.

And because no other language is more romantic than Italian here are 7 sentiments of affection to write in that card for an Italian inspired Valentine’s Day. Pair that with a sparkling bottle of Franciacorta, a slice of Tiramisu and a cuddle on the sofa to watch Heath Ledger in Casanova for a perfect Valentine’s Day.

love quote 6       love quote 3

quote love

love quote 5

love quote 2

love quote 4

love quote color

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy

Italy’s Aqua Cottura

pasta boil

A key ingredient common to all Italian pasta dishes is l’acqua di cottura, the residual water that was used to boil the pasta. Literally translated to mean “the water of cooking” or cooking water which they consider to be liquid gold. The water used to boil your pasta is makes your pasta dish more delicious and helps the sauce adhere to the pasta better while also improving the flavor and texture of the sauce. L’aqua cottura adds moisture and makes the pasta creamy without adding too much oil or grease.

The magic of pasta water is due to the starch the pasta releases as it cooks so its important to use a good quality artisan pasta. Use only as much water as you need to cover the pasta as it boils (typically 1 pound of pasta to 4 quarts of water at a rolling boil). As long as you give the pasta a few vigorous stirs during the first two minutes of cook time the noodles will not stick together. This is essential because it is at this moment when the pasta can clump together as the first layers start to soften and release starch. Time according to package instructions and when the pasta is done the starch content will be concentrated in a ghostly glaze in the pasta water.

Drain but retain a few tablespoons of the water to add to the pasta as you finish it with the sauce in a separate pan. The sauce will adhere to the noodles in a beautiful marriage of the two and you will have a flavorful pasta with a thick, creamy sauce.

Posted in Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy, Travel

What Do Anthony Bourdain and I Have in Common?

butcher sample

What do celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and I have in common? Absolutely nothing until I spent a Sunday afternoon in late October drinking wine and sampling porchetta and salumi at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Now I am part of a select confraternity of those whose motto is “meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista” translated to mean “it is better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist”.

MUCCA

This old Tuscan proverb only holds true if you are privileged enough to access and eat meat that according to butcher and shop owner Dario Cecchini have come from animals that have

  • lived a good and healthy life with ample room to grow and thrive
    experienced a humane and “good death”
  • been processed by a good butcher who knows the right way to bring out the best qualities of the meat
  • prepared and cooked by someone who in Dario’s words “can dignify the animal and all those whose labors led it to the table”.

Lofty and solemn words from an Italian butcher who is somewhat of a celebrity himself (Elton John, Sting and Prince Charles buy from him). So much so that Bourdain, never at a lost for a snarky comment, is at his deferential best when he visits Cecchini at his shop in Panzano.

My visit was much more chaotic. I was part of the Sunday afternoon meet, greet and tasting frenzy that surrounds an a gratis sampling of Cecchini’s work. Like attending a gallery showing of a famous artist, fans press through the doorway of the little butcher shop located on a side street off the main piazza. They are offered a wine pour of Chianti from a traditional Italian fiasco and upon entering jostle themselves to a sideboard for a sampling of traditional Chianti salami with wild fennel pollen, lardo made with olive oil, white wine, sea salt and herbs (which Cecchini calls Chianti butter) and Tuscan porchetta that is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.

The logical extension of attending Mass in Chianti on a Sunday morning would be to end up in Panzano in the afternoon. The views from the town are inspiring (Panzano has been called the Tuscan hill town with one of the most beautiful views of Chianti). The townspeople are warm and welcoming and a stop to sample or eat at Antica Macelleria Cecchini (there is a small restaurant next door with convivial tables ) is an uplifting experience that will make you realize the respect and reverence we should have for the food we eat.

The incensual aroma of herbs, meat, oil, wine and herbs wafts through Cecchini’s shop on my visit lingers into the late October afternoon. Cecchini spontaneously sings opera arias and quotes Dante. I pass by and glance at the master of Italian butchers. He smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Some people call Tuscan lardo “Crema Paradiso” .              I would submit that a trip to Panzano’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini comes as close to gastronomic heaven as one can be on earth.

 

Posted in Art and Design, Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy, Travel

A Venetian Shadow

venice canaletto-veduta-del-canal-grande-

Just returned from from Venice whose fatal charm is still as strong as ever despite the crowded vaporetti and tourist hype. The reflected light off the water still shines as unique and beautiful reflecting onto the colors of the buildings and still magically morphs into shadows. The light of Venice is legendary. Canaletto’s 18th century scenes of  Venice’s Grand Canal play on the reflections of light and shadow. In Venice the Italian phrase bere un’ombra means “to drink a shadow” and un’ombra, “the shadow”, they are referring to is a glass of wine.

venice san marco

In the past, Piazza San Marco was filled with vendors of all kinds. At the foot of the massive Campanile across the square was a wine seller. During the day, he used to adjust his stand to stay in the shadow of the bell tower and soon “let’s go in the shade” became an in-the-know way of saying “let’s go have a glass of wine”.

The movable wine shop is no more but “drinking a shadow” remains the traditional phrase for drinking a glass of wine in the seductive city of Venice.

 

wine and venice

However un’ombra is not a typical bicchiere di vino, (glass of wine) drunk with a meal but a small glass typically ordered with *cicchetti, an assortment of appetizers or tiny snacks served at a Venetian bàcaro, a tavern or wine bar unique to Venice. Un ombra typically is an inexpensive, young wine ( vino sfuso)  sold for around 1 euro a glass in bars  served with a delicious cicchetti it is an essential Venetian ritual for a person’s health and well-being.

Small Bites in the Shade

crostini and pesto

Pesto Genovese & Sun-Dried Tomato Crostini

8 ounces Mascarpone cheese, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup La Bella Angiolina Ligurian Basil Pesto
1 jar Italian Sun-Dried Tomatoes packed in extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf of rustic Italian bread
In a mixer or with wooden spoon, blend softened cheeses until smooth. Gently fold in pesto or place a dollop on top. Spread on bread slices and top with a piece of  roasted or sun-dried tomato.

polenta and cod

Grilled Polenta with Cod Fish Mousse

10 oz. dried salt cod
4 cups milk
1 medium yellow onion, halved
1 rib celery, halved
1 clove garlic, crushed
1⁄2 cup olive oil, plus more
1 1⁄3 cups Biancoperla white corn polenta
24 small radicchio leaves
2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley

Place cod in a 2-qt. saucepan, and cover by 2″ with cold water; boil for 20 minutes. Drain cod, return to saucepan, and repeat process twice more. Transfer cod to a 6-qt. saucepan and add milk, onion, celery, garlic, and 10 cups water; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until cod is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain cod, reserving 1⁄4 cup cooking liquid; discard vegetables and skin and bones from cod. Process cod and cooking liquid in a food processor until smooth. While processor is running, drizzle in 1⁄2 cup oil; continue mixing until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt and pepper; chill cod mousse.

Cook polenta according to package instructions. Transfer to a greased 12″ x 9″ rimmed baking sheet; smooth top and chill until set. Cut polenta into 2″ x 3″ rectangles; brush with extra virgin olive oil. Grill polenta, turning once, until slightly charred, about 4 minutes. Top each rectangle with radicchio leaf and a dollop of cod mousse; sprinkle with parsley. (adapted from a recipe at Saveur Magazine)

*the word cicchetti is derived from the Latin ciccus meaning very small

Posted in Lifestyle, Recipes, The Foods of Italy, Travel

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

Posted in Lifestyle, The Foods of Italy

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.