Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Some Enchanted Evening

Wake me if you must, but it's been nearly three days and I'm still dreaming about Saturday night's dinner with "The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo," prepared in my kitchen by Joe Cicala, chef at Philadelphia's Le Virtù restaurant -- the same restaurant named yesterday by Zagat one of the "hottest Italian restaurants in the U.S." 

"How did this happen?" people have been asking. "Can I be one of the "Glorious Friends?"  

Well, it all started when Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee, owers of Le Virtù, and ardent promoters and supporters of this too-little known, mountainous region of Italy, held a fund-raiser for a project there -- maintenance of the tratturi, the centuries-old trails used by shepherds to transport herds during the seasonal migration.

My friend Helen Free, co-founder of "Italy, In Other Words," the workshop in Abruzzo that I now co-teach with Kathryn Abajian, suggested we get a group of friends together and place a bid. So we did. And we won!

l. to r. Chef Joe Cicala, Ciao Chow Linda, Francis Cratil, Cathy Lee, Doug and Helen Free

 Fifteen of us were seated around my dining room table, including our special guest -- Domenica Marchetti, author of many cookbooks, including "The Glorious Pasta of Italy." Domenica's mother hails from Abruzzo and travels there frequently for research and to visit family and friends.

The meal exceeded our expectations, beginning with the stuzzichini, or appetizers that were served before we were seated. Stay with me because this was a meal with many courses, and there's a recipe at the end for you too. Let's start with crostini topped with sheep's milk ricotta that was blended with saffron (Navelli is the town in Abruzzo noted for its production of the much prized pungent spice). Sprinkle with toasted almonds, drizzle with honey and you've got something you can't stop eating.

Have some potato croquettes too, oozing with cheese and tantalizingly hot.

What about arancini, crackly and crispy on the outside, giving way to soft and luscious nuggets of rice, small peas and cheese on the inside?  I got carried away with munching and forgot to take a photo, so the one below is courtesy of Stacey Snacks, a fellow blogger, friend and guest at Saturday's dinner. 

Do you know about arrosticcini, one of Abruzzo's iconic dishes? They're kebobs of uniformly cubed lamb grilled over an open fire. Traditionally, the meat is not marinated in Abruzzo, where the quality of the lamb is far different from what's available here. To compensate, chef Joe marinates his arrosticcini in olive oil, minced rosemary, peperoncino, garlic and lemon zest. 

I could have eaten a dozen, but I knew these were just the opening act so I restrained myself - barely.

We took our seats at the table, as Joe brought forth wooden boards laden with affettati, house-cured salumi made at Le Virtù - pancetta, guanciale, salame nostrano (a simple pork salame), capocollo,
cacciatorini (small pork salame), lamb salame, sweet and sour carrots
and onions and roasted peppers. I felt like I had been transported back to Italy, where many meals start with plates of similar cured meats.

Next came a soup so delicious it could warm the body and soul of any shepherd tending his flock in mid-winter. I'm not the only one at the table who was wishing for the recipe, and Joe graciously gave it to me. Its monochromatic color may not win any beauty contests, but let me assure you it could take first prize for flavor with its arresting combination of chickpeas, chestnuts and farro.  

Before I go any further, let me mention that Joe stepped aside from the stove long enough to describe each course as it was served. Meanwhile Francis, seen in the photo below toasting Domenica (seated next to him), talked about the different wines -- all from Abruzzo -- as they were being poured. 

Are you ready for the primi piatti? That's primi not primo, and piatti not piatto, because there were two of them. The first was a dish of gnocchi made not with the predictable potato, but with flour and water only, dressed in a creamy sauce of sheep's milk ricotta from Abruzzo and sautéed bits of lamb sausage. A dusting of pecorino topped the dish. 

Nothing says Abruzzo like maccheroni alla chitarra, a pasta made with a wooden, multi-stringed traditional implement called a chitarra. The pasta was tossed with a lamb ragù. If you weren't an aficionado of lamb, an animal that's been crucial to Abruzzo's economy since the Middle Ages, you might have struggled with Saturday night's lamb-centric menu. But as each plate was cleared from the table, I detected no lingering bits of food from unhappy diners. Had I been eating in private, I would have licked the plate clean -- or at least sopped up any remaining sauce with bread, "scarpetta" style.

How could you not when the food was so delicious? The main course followed the night's theme -- juniper smoked lamb loin, served with roasted potatoes and broccoli rape. It was succulent and tender enough to cut with a butter knife or even a sturdy fork -- and cooked to the perfect temperature.

Like any respectable Italian meal, there has to be a cheese course, and this was no exception. This was, in fact, a tour de force with cheeses imported from Abruzzo by Bob Marcelli, who was also a dinner guest and who explained each cheese and its characteristics. He should know what he's talking about since he owns Marcelli Formaggi, importers of products from Abruzzo including cheeses made on his family's farm. They were served with a selection of artisanal honeys from the region.

At this point you might be wondering if dessert was served and whether any one had room for it. The answer is yes, and yes. As with many special occasion meals in Italy, there is no rush to the process and the portions are not super sized as they are in the U.S. We started the evening around 7:30 and were still seated at close to midnight. So there was no need to move my belt by even one notch when dessert was served -- a creamy semifreddo made with fragrant star anise and pine nuts, served with pears poached in Montepulciano d'Abruzzo wine and drizzled with mosto cotto. 

But wait, there was still more to come -- a platter filled with Italian cookies - biscotti, ferratelle (Abruzzo's version of pizzelle), jam-filled cookies and struffoli -- all made in-house at Le Virtù. P.S. Joe's wife Angela is the pastry chef there.

As much as I didn't want the night to end, all good things, as they say must ...... what? they must? No they mustn't, dang it. Not if you live anywhere near Philadelphia they don't. You can get yourself to Le Virtù and experience these delights for yourself at the restaurant at 1927 E. Passyunk Ave. Want an even more authentic experience? Francis and Cathy are taking a small group to Abruzzo in April on a culinary tour. I can't imagine a better way to visit the region, unless you have relatives there. And if you've been thinking about writing a personal memoir, a food or travel memoir, join me and Kathryn in June for a week in the magical Abruzzo village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the Italy In Other Words workshop.

OK, I hear you. You don't live near Philly and you can't get to Italy this year. So here's something for you too -- Joe's recipe for that unforgettable soup is below so you can cook up a bit of Abruzzo right in your own kitchen.

It may not be as complete as Saturday's dinner with "The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo" but it sure beats frozen pizza or Chef Boyardee.  

Thank you Joe, Francis and Cathy for a night I'll be remembering for years to come and thank you "Amici Gloriosi d'Abruzzo" for your participation.


La zuppa di farro, ceci e castagne

Farro, chickpea and chestnut soup

From Chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù

printable recipe here

1/2 cup mirepoix (minced celery, carrots and onions)
1 tablespoon diced pancetta (or any other salame scrap)
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz peeled chestnuts
6 oz chickpeas (that have been soaked over night)
4 oz farro
1 gallon chicken stock (we also use rabbit stock)(I used about 6 cups when I made this - one gallon seemed like too much).
1 tablespoon minced rosemary

Sweat the mirepoix, pancetta, olive oil and chestnuts until the nuts are soft/tender, add chickpeas and chicken stock.
cook until the chickpeas are almost tender.
add farro and rosemary
cook until tender.
serve with pecorino cheese and drizzled olive oil

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Almost "No-Stir" Polenta and Mushroom Ragù

With daytime temperatures dipping to below freezing here in the Northeast U.S., it's time for heartier foods. Yea, I know, you're all sated from rich holiday foods, but if there's one thing I can't resist during cold weather, it's a heaping plate of polenta - with cheese, with sausages or in this case, with mushroom ragù. It's featured on many of the menus along the mountain huts in Italy where skiers pop in mid-day for a bit of sustenance for the rest of their run. It was truly needed last week while I was skiing in the Val Gardena, a valley of three villages in the northeastern region called Alto Adige. The snow fell practically non-stop and is continuing this week.

This is what the area looked like last week, when you couldn't even see the mountains in the distance.

Here's the same scene taken during a different ski trip, when the sun revealed the grandiose peaks.

[Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 702[3].jpg]

With such low visibility, the skiing was cautious and the stops were frequent, including one for a plate of this soft polenta topped with cheese and served with mushrooms on the side:

But you don't need to take a trip to the Val Gardena to enjoy this dish. In fact, I made a similar version, but with tomatoes, before I left for Italy, using dried porcini mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms. If you can't find the porcini, use any combo of mushrooms that suit your fancy.

After the mushrooms simmer in the sauce for a good hour, you end up with a rich and flavorful ragù perfect for slathering over the polenta.

I own a sturdy copper pot with an electric motor that stirs the polenta all by itself - called a "paiolo." Click the button at the lower left to get a demonstration.

 It is pretty nifty but not really necessary to making polenta. Last month I watched a TV segment of "America's Test Kitchen" featuring a way to make polenta without stirring (well, almost, except at the very beginning.) During Christmas week, I served both versions -- from the paiolo and the "no stir" method --  to some Italian friends, and they declared them equally good.

Most people use water in their polenta, but sometimes I add milk, especially if I'm having company. If you want to be really decadent, try using some cream too. In that case, just make sure you take an extra run or two down the mountain.

Mushroom Ragù

printable recipe here

1 oz. dried porcini

8 oz. baby bella mushrooms (or another variety you prefer)

2 T. olive oil

1/2 carrot, minced

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 of a 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup red wine

1 T. tomato paste

about 1 cup of the liquid from soaking the porcini mushrooms

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary

Rehydrate the dried porcini in two cups of warm water for about a half hour. Drain and chop the mushrooms, and strain the liquid to filter out any dirt or sand particles. Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil, and add the carrot, onion and garlic until softened. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until thick and rich. If it gets a little too thick, add more of the liquid from the porcini. Serve over steaming polenta.

Almost no-stir Polenta

From America's Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.

The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt pinch baking soda (I like to use a combination of milk and water - proportions are up to you.)

1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal

2 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving

ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.

2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)

3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste
with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing
Parmesan separately.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bagna Cauda

If there's one dish that's typical of Italy's Piedmont region, it's bagna cauda, sometimes spelled "caôda." Although bagna means "bath" in the Italian language, in the Piemontese dialect, it means sauce; hence bagna caudo translates to "warm sauce." Along with a glass or two of wine, it's the perfect way to warm up during the cold winter months. The origins of the dish are a mystery, but it was traditionally served by winemakers in the late Middle ages after they poured their wine into barrels. It remained as "cucina povera" or "peasant food" for a long time, but nowadays, restaurants all over Piedmont include this on their menus, including Antica Bruschetteria Pautasso in Torino, where I recently ate this lusty dish. It arrives at the table with two earthenware bowls -- one with a candle below that helps keep it at just the right temperature, as you ladle more in from the crock in which it's cooked.

The basic ingredients are olive oil, anchovies, garlic and butter, while some versions add milk or cream as well. If you're feeling really decadent and your pocketbook allows, you can shave some truffles on top. In that case, you've surely elevated it above cucina povera. Gather your friends around the table since it's a dish to enjoy with others before the main course, or just as an excuse to sit together and talk. Serve with crisp, raw vegetables, such as fennel, carrots, celery, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and wedges of cabbage. 

If you do find yourself at Antica Bruschetteria Pautasso in Torino, order the bagna cauda, and a dish of tajarin (Piemontese dialect for taglierini pasta) made with sausage and leeks. Just looking at the photo makes me long to be back in Torino. 

Bagna Caôda

printable recipe here

From "The Classic Italian Cookbook" by Marcella Hazan

3/4 cup olive oil

3 T. butter

2 tsp. finely chopped garlic

8 to 10 flat anchovy fillets, chopped

1 tsp. salt

1. Heat oil and butter in a pot over medium-high heat until butter is thoroughly liquified and barely begins to foam. (Don't wait for the foam to subside or the butter will be too hot.) Add the garlic and sauté very briefly. It must not take on any color. Add the anchovies and cook over very low heat, stirring frequently, until the anchovies dissolve into a paste. Add the salt, stir, and bring to the table along with raw vegetables.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013


 Fontina cheese, barolo wine, grissini -- all products from Piedmont, Italy that are as ubiquitous here in the U.S. as pierogi in Poland or chopsticks in China. But this drink - bicerin (pronounced bee-cheh-REEN - and roll that "r") - synonymous with the city of Torino  - is rarely found here in the states or even in other places in Italy. I'm not sure why because it's an unforgettable concoction that combines two items that most people crave - coffee and chocolate. On my trip to Torino this fall, I reacquainted myself with this frothy delight.

It's served all over the city, but originated (there's some debate about this) at Al Bicerin, a cafe whose origins date back to 1763.  Many notables throughout history have crossed the threshold of this cafe, including Alexandra Dumas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Giacomo Puccini, (who for a while lived in an artist's garret a short distance away, the inspiration for his opera 'La Boheme'). There are other historic cafes in Torino to enjoy a bicerin, but to skip a pilgrimage to where it arguably all began would be like missing out on a piece of history.

It's cozy inside, with wood-paneled walls and fewer than ten small tables, so don't be surprised if you have to wait outside for a short while.

You won't regret the wait, when this warm, luscious, layered delight arrives at your table in a clear goblet. The name "bicerin" comes from the Piemontese dialect meaning "small glass." Each one is made to order, hand whipped the old-fashioned way with whipped cream on top. 

If you do find yourself in Torino, don't miss this wonderful drink at Al Bicerin, located in the Piazza della Consolata. While you're at it, make sure to visit the Sanctuary of the Consolata, directly across from the cafe. It's a masterpiece of Baroque art and architecture and the spiritual heart of the city.

But even if you can't get to Torino, you can still enjoy a Bicerin in your own home with this recipe. 

printable recipe here

excerpt from the book "Romancing The Vine: Life, Love and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo" by Alan Tardi

"The recipe, according to the padrona, is ridiculously simple:

'Take one cup of the very best hot chocolate you can find,  mix it with one demitasse of the very best espresso (our private blend is 100 percent arabica and ground for us especially) and scoop a healthy dollop of fresh whipped cream on top. Serve it in a glass. Et voilà.' "

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stuffed Onions at Osteria Battaglino

 Have you ever eaten stuffed onions baked in their skin? Me either. I would never have thought to bake it this way - covered in a salt crust, then emptied out and filled with a mixture of ground beef, chopped onion and oozing raschera, a local cheese from Italy's Piedmont region. I ate this, along with other truly memorable dishes, at a restaurant called Osteria Battaglino, a small family owned place in Le Langhe, an area in Piedmont south of Torino. Le Langhe is noted for its big Barolo wines, wonderful cheeses and renowned truffles, all of which I consumed whenever I could on my trip this fall. 

The rolling hills and vine-covered landscape of Le Langhe makes driving a real stop and go experience. It was hard to resist the temptation to halt and take photos at every bend in the road. On the way to Dogliani, the town where the restaurant is located, this is the kind of scenery I drove by.

Dogliani itself is not on the typical tourist itinerary, but its streets do hold some charm.

I'm drawn to colorfully painted houses.

Back here in New Jersey, salmon or mustard-colored exterior walls would look decidedly out of place, but in Italy, they're ubiquitous and they're beautiful.

I had one purpose in stopping in Dogliani -- and that was to have lunch at Osteria Battaglino, owned by Marco Battaglino and Flavia Bergamo. I had read about the restaurant in National Geographic Traveler, and the writer mentioned that the food was so good, that if this restaurant were in a city like New York, people would be waiting for weeks to get a reservation. She wasn't kidding. Everything was exquisite and the service was friendly and fabulous. 

At one point when I was tasting the wine, Flavia said "If you don't like it, you can complain to the owner of the vineyard," who was sitting at a nearby table. No complaints were necessary.

There were no complaints about any of the food either, including the baked onion in the first photo and the little amuse bouche of roasted yellow peppers and anchovies presented in a tiny jar.

Here's one of the primi piatti I tried: tajarin - a specialty of Le Langhe - a rich dough made with flour and egg yolks and similar to tagliatelle, only thinner. Since it was the season for fresh porcini mushrooms, they were ubiquitous on the menu and plentiful in this plate.

I don't know what I loved more - the tajarin or this delicate and ethereal dish of porcini mushrooms and squash gnocchi that practically melted in your mouth:

I ordered roast veal as a main course. It was so well braised and tender, I didn't even need a knife.

I shouldn't have, but I did. Order dessert, that is. Hey, it was fruit, so calories don't count, right? This perfectly poached pear teamed well with the warm zabaglione puddled beneath it and the drizzle of sauce made from a wine reduction.

Maybe you can't get to Osteria Battaglino in Le Langhe, but you can certainly make the onion dish I ate. Chef Marco generously sent me the recipe, printed below in both English and Italian.

If you still needed some encouragement to travel to Le Langhe, here are a few more photos of the beautiful countryside and the fabulous food I ate there:

gnocchi with raschera cheese in the town of Bra, where the Slow Food movement began:

roasted rabbit with pasta and beans:

nebbiolo grapes - classic grapes for Barolo wines 

The castle in the town of Barolo

One of the many cantine for tasting and buying wines - Terre Del Barolo:

meat-filled plin, another specialty of the region, (similar to ravioli) at Leon D'Oro in Canale:

Risotto with white truffles:

The terra cotta roofs of La Morra:

And the hand colored etching I bought from the artist Pierflavio Gallina, with the beautiful words of Piedmont writer Cesare Pavese written in Italian at the bottom of the artwork.

The words are from "La Luna E I Falo," a book I read decades ago, and they have stayed with me since:

"Un paese vuol dire non essere soli, sapere che nella gente, nelle piante, nella terra c'è qualcosa di tuo e che anche quando non ci sei, resta ad aspettarti."

"A home town means never having to feel alone, knowing that in the people, in the plants, in the earth, there is always something of you, and that even when you're not there, it's there waiting for you."

Stuffed Onions

From Osteria Battaglino

Stuffed onions is a simple dish, although it takes a bit of work.

Use a white or yellow onion and place it in a oven-safe pan. Cover it completely with large grain salt (like Kosher salt, but it's also very good with a pinkish salt). Let it cook at about 400 degrees fahrenheit for about an hour and a half. Break the salt crust and extract the onions, then slide off a quarter of the onion at the top, horizontally. Use a spoon to partially scoop out the interior.

At this point, mince the onion that you have extracted from the interior, a small amount of ground beef (or sausage) that has been sautéed in a pan with garlic, rosemary and thyme. If you like, you can also add a touch of curry powder.

Fill the onion at least half way with this mixture and add some cubes of a good melting cheese. If you can find raschera cheese, that's what was used at the restaurant. If not, something like Muenster cheese would be a good substitute. Put it back in the oven for about 10 to 12 minutes at 400 degrees until the cheese is melted and slightly browned on top.

Serve, with some of the salt used in cooking sprinkled around the plate. Marco used a black salt.

In Italiano:

La cipolla ripiena è un piatto semplice anche se
richiede un po di lavoro...

Prendi alcune cipolle bionde e le metti in una
teglia da forno completamente coperte di sale grosso, qualsiasi tipo di sale,
molto buona con il sale rosa, e le fai cuocere a 200 gradi centigradi per un ora
e mezza circa. 

Rompi la crosta di sale e tiri fuori le cipolle, le tagli come
nella foto a tre quarti della loro altezza e le svuoti con un cucchiaino

A questo punto fai un trito con la cipolla che hai
estratto, un pò di carne macinata che hai precedentemente rosolato in padella
con aglio e rosmarino, e del timo di montagna...a piacere può anche andar bene
una punta di curry.

Riempi la cipolla per meno di metà con questo trito
e fino all'orlo con dei cubetti di formaggio dolce e fresco...raschera, bra
tenero o altri simili...a questo punto non ti resta che farle gratinare in forno
a 200 gradi per una decina di minuti e mangiarle...

È importante che nel piatto
assieme alle cipolle ci sia anche un po del sale di cottura.