Friday, March 30, 2012

Field of Greens

Readers of this blog (or fellow foragers) may recognize the wild greens growing in the field above. I've written about them (with recipes) here and here. It's something any self-respecting Italian knows about. My parents taught us to forage for them when we were kids, and they have a flavor similar to broccoli rape. But they're even better -- and they're free for the taking!!
Typically, these greens grow sparsely in fields and along roadsides and it takes a while to find enough to make a meal. But there's a bonanza growing in a field near me,  as my late husband discovered a few years ago at this time of year. They're ready for the picking right now -- a couple of weeks earlier than usual -- so I hightailed it out there and came home with three bags full to put in the freezer.  Here's what they look like close up:
 Search the fields and along roads near where you live for these greens called Winter Cress, also referred to as wild mustard greens. Pick the ones that have tight buds, not the ones with the yellow flowers. When they're in full bloom, they provide beautiful landscapes (especially in Italy and along the Southern California coastline), but they're bitter and tough once the flowers emerge. 

You can saute them in a little olive oil to retain all the nutrients, or you can blanch them first, then drain them, and proceed to saute them in a little olive oil, garlic and red pepper. The blanching takes away some of the bitter flavor but still leaves a lot of vitamins. In order to store them in the freezer, blanching is necessary. I boil water in a couple of giant canning pots, and I place a huge bunch into each pot, stirring it around for a couple of minutes. Drain the greens into a colander, then quickly transfer the greens to a bowl of cold water to bring down the temperature. Squeeze the greens to remove excess water, making little bunches to put into plastic bags. Repeat the process, refreshing the boiling after using it twice, otherwise you won't get the harshest bitterness out of the greens. (Trust me, they'll still have some bitterness even with the blanching.)
Place the greens in plastic freezer bags, in portions of two, four or whatever you like. Then store in the deep freeze and you'll have them all winter long.
I still had a few bags from last spring, so I defrosted them and made this for dinner a few nights ago - beans and greens - perfect for any day, but especially for a Friday during Lent. Take note of the fork in the dish - it's more than 40 years old and is the work of my grandfather. I have a couple of them that he "shaped" at my house when he would come to visit. He had a penchant for bending the tines of forks, maybe to get more in his mouth. But you know what? I have found them to be extremely useful in smashing beans and other foods, and stirring items in a saute pan. Go Grandpop! 

Here's the recipe:

Beans And Greens

printable recipe here

1 can cannellini beans- about a 13-ounce can (or whatever kind of beans you like)

1 bunch of wild greens

1/4 cup minced onion or shallot

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

salt, to taste

a few shakes of red pepper

water, as needed

If the greens have been frozen, thaw them. If they're fresh, blanch for a couple of minutes and drain. Or use them without blanching if you like your greens really bitter. Then pour some of the olive oil in a pan and saute the onions until limp. Add the garlic and soften them too. Toss in the beans and smash them partially with a fork. Add the greens to the beans, the salt, the red pepper and a little water to help everything blend together. Taste for seasoning, then cook for a few minutes to meld the flavors together. Serve with crusty bread. Wine optional.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Philly Ramblings

OK, so there's no food in the lead photo, but that doesn't mean there isn't food involved in this post. Stay with me, you'll see. This is a shot of Philadelphia taken last Friday, March 23, when the temperature reached 80 degrees and people were walking about wearing shorts and t-shirts. This isn't normal folks. It's typically about 55 degrees this time of year here. As much as I wanted to spend the day outdoors, I had tickets to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even with the nice weather, it was no sacrifice to stay indoors amid all the fabulous works of art here.
If you have a chance to get to the exhibit before it closes on May 6, don't miss it. After that, it goes to Ottawa, Canada. You'll see some stunning works of art, like this one (field with wheat stacks):
and this one (wheatfields at Auvers under clouded sky) :
If you go, make a reservation to eat lunch at the museum's restaurant, Granite Hill. It's quiet, elegant and the food is good too. After the exhibit, there was still time to enjoy the nice weather, so I headed down to 9th Street, the Italian neighborhood. You'll still find plenty of stores selling Italian food and wares, but it's nothing like what it used to be when I was a kid. Over the years, other ethnicities have moved in as the Italians improved their economic lot and moved to the suburbs. 
I parked my car right next to a house whose facade looked like another work of art - all made from ceramic shards:
My first stop was Isgro Pasticceria on Christian Street, a business dating back to 1904. You can find all sorts of Italian pastries there, including these pesche alla crema, a confection you can make at home using this recipe.

I have a weakness for chocolate covered coconut-cream Easter eggs and the ones here, covered in dark chocolate ganache, were about the best I've ever eaten (next to this recipe).
These marzipan lambs were each made by hand by the shop's 92-year old matriarch.
Most of the shops are located around the corner from Isgro's on 9th Street. If you know Philadelphia, you know that murals are a big part of the city landscape. The Mural Arts Program was started in 1984 to eradicate graffiti and now there are more than 3,000 murals throughout the city. This one on 9th Street is a mural of Frank Rizzo, the city's mayor in the 1970s and police commissioner before that.
Fante's is a great kitchenware store that has everything a home cook could want or need - from espresso pots and gnocchi boards to the paper forms needed to make an Easter colomba you see here.
There are two cheese stores/delis almost next to each other - DiBruno Brothers (below) and Claudio's. Both have a large selection of great Italian products - cheeses, salumi, and other temptations.
I couldn't resist the burrata cheese from DiBruno's, wrapped in leek leaves.
Would you have been able to resist this creamy deliciousness?
Although each store had similar products and a similar look (this is Claudio's below), there were differences too. 
Among the items I bought at Claudio's was this lemon ricotta cheese. A slice of this tasted just like ricotta cheesecake, although there were no eggs or flour at all. Back at home, I ate it straight from the store with some sliced strawberries.
That was after the burrata cheese and roasted tomatoes, the prosciutto di Parma, marinated artichokes and olives.
Happy Springtime!

Do you have stories from your past you want to get down on paper? Have you thought about writing a memoir? What about doing it in Italy in a beautiful village and stimulating company, with great food each day and excursions to interesting places nearby? Then don't dally - sign up right now - there are a couple of spots left for "Italy in Other Words."

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tortelli Piacentini

This pasta shape has always intrigued me from the first time I ate this dish in Italy. They're called tortelli Piacentini and are found only in the area around Piacenza, where my relatives live. They're made in two versions, but it's this pinched and pleated version that I wanted to tackle on my most recent trip, and my cousins Lucia and Luisa were more than willing to help me in my quest.
We started with all the ingredients necessary for making the pasta and the filling - flour, eggs, ricotta, spinach, nutmeg, and parmesan cheese. Italians use a flour labeled "00" for making pasta. It's ground much finer, and makes a much more supple dough. There's even a "00" flour that is superfine - practically like baby powder. Apparently, there is a mistaken belief that "00" flour contains less gluten, but according to Jeffrey Steingarten, author of the book "It Must've Been Something I Ate," flours of various protein levels can be milled to the "00" category. Steingarten had different samples of flour analyzed by a lab and found that the "00" flours were higher in protein than many of the less refined flours. Flours labeled "panifiable" in Italy mean they're good for bread.
You could substitute regular all-purpose flour, but the texture is different. Italian "00" flour produces a more tender pasta but with a nice bite. Here in the U.S., it may be hard to track down in stores, but you can order it online in several places. King Arthur sells it (here) or  you could order the Caputo brand (here) that comes even in the superfine version.
My cousins started out rolling the dough by hand, rather than through a pasta machine. Since Lucia (on the right in the photo below) won the "Miss Tagliatella" competition in the region a few years ago, she had a reputation to maintain, so the machine stayed on the shelf while the rolling pins came out.
Here's a video on how they made the pasta dough and the filling. There's a little sisterly ribbing going on (in Italian of course) about whether it's better to use parmigiano reggiano or grana padano in the filling and whether it's better to roll out the dough by hand or use a food processor. In the video, Luisa mentions she uses 3 etti of flour. In the metric system, one kilo is 2.2 pounds (35.2 ounces) and there are 10 etti in a kilo, hence one etto is 3.5 ounces or about 1/4 pound.
After the dough was rolled so thinly you could almost read through it, they cut small circles using an old implement that's been in the family for decades. Of course you could use a cookie cutter or any other implement that makes circles.
A teensy bit of filling was added to each circle.
And then the pinching and pleating began.

Here's a video on how to shape the pasta.

At a certain point, they switched to making a kind of ravioli that sits at attention like a little package. This went a whole lot faster than the tortelli, as you can imagine.
 We also made some tortellini and farfalle -- but just for fun -- not enough to make a meal. In all, it took us only an hour and a half to make this amount of tortelli Piacentini plus a bunch of the ravioli. There was leftover filling, but Lucia used it the next day to make crepes filled with the ricotta and spinach.
Here's how they look close-up. These are called tortelli "con la coda" ... or "with a tail" to distinguish from the other kind of tortelli from the region. That one looks more like a candy caramel with both ends twisted to keep the cellophane shut.

We ate them that night as a primo (first course) simply dressed with butter, sage and parmesan cheese.

Here is the recipe with ingredients listed in both in Italian and in English.

Tortelli Piacentini

(my cousins also add a tiny bit of oil to the dough, something neither my aunt nor my mom used to use. It's your call).

printable recipe here

in Italian:

2 etti farina 00 per sfoglia

1 etto farina 00 (normale)

3 uova

4 tuorli

in English:

about 12 ounces all-purpose flour

or if you can get it:

8 ounces superfine 00 flour

4 ounces 00 flour

3 eggs

4 egg yolks

Mix the flour and eggs together. Knead until soft and supple. Let it rest at least 1/2 hour before rolling it out. Roll out thinly and cut into circles.


una manciata di spinaci, cotti e frullati

3 etti di ricotta

parmigiana reggiano o grana padano, grattugiato

a handful of spinach, cooked and chopped fine

12 ounces ricotta cheese

parmesan or grana padano cheese, grated

Mix the filling ingredients, then place a small spoonful near one edge of the circle. Start pinching the circle closed by bringing one side toward the middle. Then overlap with the other side and squeeze the two pieces of dough together. Continue squeezing and pinching the dough in the center, alternating to form a braided look.

Cook in boiling water, drain and serve with melted butter, sage and parmesan cheese.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Culatello at The Antica Corte Pallavicina

Culatello - If you've never tasted it, you've missed one of the great flavor sensations of Italy. Prosciutto di Parma is great, but culatello is divine. It's produced only in certain communities near Parma where the fog rolling off the Po River is crucial to the curing process.  In the map below, the region of Emilia-Romagna is highlighted in peach, with the province of Parma highlighted in red.
The Italian poet and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio was enamored of this cured meat and in 1891 wrote that culatello "is aged only in the square of land surrounding Zibello, where the air of the Po is often humid and good for the mold that preserves this fatless cut of meat."
The DOP on the label stands for "dominazione origine controllata" and that means that the government has given its seal of approval to the standards used in making and aging the culatello that is produced here at the Antica Corte Pallavicina - a 14th century property that once belonged to the noble Pallavicino family and that almost fell into ruins had it not been for Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli. 
Years ago, Massimo and Luciano's great-grandfather left the farm owned by Giuseppe Verdi, and came to work at the Corte Pallavicina. He moved from sharecropper to tenant, and worked the fertile lands here, raising silkworms, cows and pigs, planting poplars, fields of wheat and vegetable gardens. And curing pork in cellars along the Po River, using age-old methods. 
Inside the house, it's not hard to imagine what life would have been like at the court when it was inhabited by the Pallavicini. Would a curtsey have been required upon meeting the marquis in the sala dei mesi with its vaulted and frescoed ceilings from the 1500s?
Just think of what it must have looked like illuminated by candlelight on a multi-tiered wrought-iron chandelier.
You might have said daily prayers in small chapel decorated with frescoes, typical for houses owned by nobility.
The kitchen is impressive too. Pantry items are stored on a second level, where a door also opens to the servants' quarters.
Foods were typically cooked in large fireplaces like this one in the kitchen.
But nowadays, chefs making meals for visiting diners to the restaurant here use modern kitchen facilities. It's also possible to stay overnight here, since Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli spent the last 20 years restoring the complex to an agriturismo with six guest rooms. Click here to enter their website and find out more.
But on to the culatello, the reason for this post. About 5,000 to 6,000 culatelli are stored in this basement.
Some of them are earmarked for notables whose names you might recognize - such as England's Prince Charles, Monaco's Prince Albert, Italian clothing designer Armani, and French chef Alain Ducasse.
Culatello is made only in the coldest months - from October through February. The meat used for making culatello comes from only the most meaty part of the leg and butt - the part on the right side of the illustration below. The left side is used for fioccho, a less costly, but still delicious cured meat. With the leftovers of the thigh, strolghino is made, a sausage that had nearly disappeared from the regional cuisine, but that has made a resurgence thanks to the owners of the Antica Corte Pallavicina. The strolghino is aged no longer than 30 days before it's eaten. Coppa, prosciutto and several different types of salami are made here too.
For one week, salt and pepper are massaged into the raw meat as well as Fortana, a locally made sparkling red wine. The meat is then stuffed into a pig's bladder, and tied up with canvas rope. The culatelli are hung in this cellar, where the only temperature control comes from the opening and closing of a solitary window that brings in humidity from the Po River, necessary for the aging process. The aging can vary from 12 to 36 months and each culatello loses about 50 percent of its weight during that period, or about 4 kilos (8 1/2 pounds). 
Upstairs, there's a small area where you can buy some of the Corte's products. As you can see, culatello doesn't come cheap. Culatello nero, made from the prized black pigs, costs 110 euros a kilo, or about $142 dollars for 2.2 pounds.
My cousins and I had a tasting at the end of the tour. On the wooden platter below, from the left, you see the strolghino, the culatello, parmigiano reggiano and pieces of focaccia. 
Unfortunately, the culatello is not exported to the U.S. -- at least not yet. It is shipped to other European countries and Japan. 
Before leaving, we strolled around the grounds and were greeted by a few farm animals including this white peacock.
Its more colorful cousin wanted to make its appearance known too, although the cows didn't seem fazed.
And neither did the cat sleeping in a covered wagon.
A special thanks to my cousins Ivo and Lucia for taking me to Polesine Parmense, where we spent a delightful afternoon at the Antica Corte Pallavicina. 

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