Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Burrata or Bust

Yes, it tasted as good as it looks. Both the burrata and the tomatoes. Forget the plastic plate. It's the cheese here that matters. I had been yearning to find some burrata from the moment we arrived in Puglia last month. I had eaten it in that Southern Italian region for the first time years ago, and Puglia's reputation for producing the best burrata is definitely warranted. Burrata, made with mozzarella on the outside, and cream on the inside, has a buttery, rich flavor. Not surprisingly, the word burrata means buttered in Italian. It's become easier to find here in the states, but to savor it where it's made, still warm and oozing with creamy goodness, surrounded by the sounds, sights and smells of Italy, is an unforgettable taste sensation. So when we found ourselves in the white-washed town of Ostuni last month, I had burrata on my mind.

Up and down the streets we roamed, in search of burrata, before finding some at a little hole-in-the -wall that even boasted a trip-advisor sign. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but I was too busy scarfing down the lovely silken cheese to note its name.

The region of Puglia is largely unknown to most American tourists, who stick to the major cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. They're all wonderful places too, but there's a whole lot of beauty awaiting farther afield. For instance, Puglia boasts a unique UNESCO World Heritage site in a town called Alberobello, known for its conical shaped houses called "trulli." We stayed in this one (below) at the end of the row and it was completely enchanting. The town is definitely not undiscovered. There are tourists everywhere, but the majority aren't Americans.

Puglia also has miles of coastline with both sandy and rocky beaches to choose from. This beautiful beach was outside our hotel near Gallipoli and provided the perfect place to decompress for a few days.

But back to the cheese. On this latest trip, I ate more burrata and mozzarella than my waistline was happy about. But my feeling is when in Italy, throw caution to the wind and repent at home. So I forged ahead and ordered the mozzarella whenever I could. If I get grilled veggies with it, doesn't that balance the calories from the cheese? Don't answer that. I don't wanna know.

The best mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo, folks, not the "home on the range" type) is produced in areas from Rome, in the region of Lazio -- to Paestum (near Salerno), in the region of Campania. Paestum is also known for its three Greek temples, in a remarkably good state of preservation, considering they date back to 200 B.C. All along the roadway into the town, you'll see signs saying "latticini," the name for a place that makes dairy products,  including mozzarella. You won't get it much fresher, so go inside and buy some. It's best eaten within hours after it's made. But if you're in Paestum, visit the temples first. They are astonishing.

You can can get good mozzarella in Rome too. We found some great mozzarella at Obicà, a "mozzarella bar" in the Campo dei Fiori. They've got two locations in Rome, plus a handful of other locations around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dubai and London. This was what I ate for lunch at Campo dei Fiori location and the mozzarella and everything else were perfect. (See, I got the grilled veggies again. Shouldn't I be losing weight by now?)

Their salumi, burrata and flatbread are really worth seeking out too.

There's been an Obicà mozzarella bar in New York City for a while now, in a building atrium on Madison Ave., but it has a very limited menu. Last week, a new Obicà opened in the Flatiron district (They recently changed the spelling from Obikà because some people thought it was a Japanese firm.) It's got a sexy, sleek look to it and the menu is much larger than the uptown eatery. On our way to dinner at another place downtown, we stopped in to see how the mozzarella stacked up against the version we had at Obicà's Rome location. They import it twice a week from Italy, but it's not the same as eating it within hours of being made.

The verdict is that it wasn't exactly as transcendent as what we ate in the Campo dei Fiori, but it was delicious nonetheless. And the bellinis and aperol spritz were great too. I'd go back in a heartbeat to sample the fuller menu next time. 

At home with our unbeatable Jersey tomatoes, I'd say mozzarella eaten with these heirloom beauties picked from my backyard garden also has to be one of my favorite lunches.

Mozzarella is commonly used in so many cooked foods too, but for some reason, I am reluctant to cook burrata, since it's so ludicrously delectable in its raw state. But once I tried this burrata in guazzetto at Le Virtù in Philadelphia, I changed my mind. Spread this luscious melted burrata on toasted bread, and you're on another planet.

So I tried to duplicate it at home - easy as can be. It's hardly worth printing out a recipe, but I'm giving you one just in case. Cut some burrata and place it in an ovenproof bowl, along with some roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and some seasonings. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes and ecco -- a drool-worthy appetizer to serve with that prosecco.

Burrata in Guazzetto

printable recipe here

1 ball of burrata cheese

olives (green or black)

olive oil

roasted cherry tomatoes (or regular tomatoes)


Take one ball of burrata and cut into pieces in an ovenproof dish (right in the dish so you don't lose any of that milk). Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over it, then add the tomatoes, a handful of olives and some dried basil (or fresh if it's summer.) Place in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until everything is melted.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Coffee Semifreddo in Trieste

I ate well on my visit to Trieste last month - very well in fact - including the coffee semifreddo above (recipe at the end of the post.) I owe my culinary good fortune there to these two people - Chiara Giglio and Furio Baldassi. Chiara is a food blogger who lives in Trieste and writes "La Voglia Matta" and Furio is a journalist with Trieste's daily newspaper, "Il Piccolo." In addition to writing news stories, Furio is also a restaurant reviewer and knows all the best places to eat in town, while Chiara acted as our own personal tour guide. The enthusiasm she holds for her hometown was contagious, but then again it's easy to love Trieste, with its great food, historic caffés and beautiful sights. 

The night we arrived we were in luck. It was the first night of a wine tasting for Vitovska wines (see this blog post here for more info about those wines) The tasting was held in the Salone Degli Incanti, along the waterfront. 

The huge hall was once the site of a fish market, and was also used as a stand-in for Ellis Island in the Godfather 2 movie.

In addition to wines, we sampled lots of different foods, including these mussels resting on a bed of sweet and sour anchovy puree.

 You can't visit Trieste without stopping at Miramare, the 19th century home built for Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium.  Unfortunately, he lived only briefly in the castle before being assigned to reign as emperor of Mexico, where he was executed in 1867.  

Another beautiful castle to visit is Duino, built in the 14th century. Unlike Miramare, it's still inhabited by the owners, who open up many of the rooms to visitors. The elegant staircase was designed by Palladio, and you can also view the piano played by Liszt here.


Right across the way from Duino are the ruins of an even earlier castle that dates back to the 11th century. 

 Both Miramare and Duino are located on the rocky cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Trieste, where the waters were clear and inviting. 

 Trieste's port is a busy one, for shipping as well as a mooring spot for cruise liners. Standing guard at the water's edge are the statues of two seamstresses, or "sartine." 

 Trieste's Piazza d'Unità is the largest seaside piazza in Europe and is flanked by elegant buildings on three sides, and the Gulf of Trieste at the other. 

Sunsets can be spectacular as you look out to the Adriatic from Piazza D'Unità.

 While it's hard to tear yourself away from the water's edge, there's so much else to see in Trieste, including a stop at the castello San Giusto, named for the city's patron saint -- 

 And the cathedral of the same name, dating back to the 1300s. 

 Roman influences are evident throughout the city, including this arch, and remains of a Roman amphitheater.

The Irish poet and novelist James Joyce also lived here for a while, and the city has honored him with a statue by its Grand Canal.

 Trieste is also known for its coffee (Illy coffee was founded and is still based here) and its historic caffés, including this one -- the elegant caffé Tommaseo.

But just because you're at a caffé doesn't mean you have to order coffee. A glass of prosecco, which was born in this region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, is always welcome, and comes with a selection of munchies - a common occurrence at bars in Italy.

 And speaking of food, Furio directed us to a restaurant called Ego, where we enjoyed an exquisite meal, including a first course of these homemade orecchiette with the tiniest, most delicate squid I'd ever eaten. 

Another day we ate at "Trattoria Dei No," - again recommended by Furio. This dish of mixed seafood atop panzanella is a sample of the delicious food that awaits diners there.

 The seafood is great in Trieste, but so is the meat, since the city has long been a crossroads of Slavic and Italian culture. One place you'll find the Slavic culinary influence is the much beloved Buffet de Pepi, a 100-year-old restaurant featuring all things pork, including this platter of mixed cuts. It's not the way I normally eat, but it's an experience not to be missed.

 Back at home, I had to try to recreate the coffee semifreddo I ate at "Trattoria Del No." It may not be the same as enjoying it in Trieste, but until I get back to this beautiful city on the Adriatic, this will do just fine.

Coffee Semifreddo

4 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

3 - 4 Tbsp. instant espresso mixed with 1 1/2 cups milk 

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup coffee liqueur or rum or amaretto

1/4 cup chocolate covered candies or chocolate covered espresso beans, crushed

amaretti cookies, crushed, for sprinkling on top.

Beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and light yellow in color. Mix the instant espresso with the milk, then combine with the egg yolks. Place the mixture in a pot and cook over low heat, stirring all the while until it increases in volume to nearly double.

Remove from the heat and add the liqueur.  Pour into a bowl and place in the refrigerator until it cools. Once it's cool, whip the cream until it holds its shape. Fold into the cooled egg mixture, then stir in the crushed chocolate covered candies or espresso beans. Pour into individual molds or a rectangular loaf pan. Place it in the freezer at least six hours and preferably overnight.

To unmold, take a hot washcloth and place it on the bottom of the mold for a minute or two. Make sure you have a dish on the underside, so the semifreddo doesn't slip onto the counter. Don't keep the washcloth on too long, or you'll melt the semifreddo. Take a knife and run it around the inside rim of the container, and the semifreddo should slide out of the mold. Serve surrounded by more coffee, and with amaretti cookie crumbs on top. Sprinkle a little instant espresso powder on the rim of the serving dish.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jersey Shore Clambake

First of all, let's get one thing straight. If you're from New Jersey or the Philadelphia area, you're going "down the shore," NOT "to the beach." And shore towns in Jersey can vary in character from places that are noted for flashy boardwalk rides (Seaside Heights before Superstorm Sandy) --

photo from Jerseyboardwalk.com

 to quiet shore towns with manicured lawns and multi-million dollar McMansions (Spring Lake) --

Photo by Ron DeCicco 

 to shore towns whose streets are lined with old-fashioned "gingerbread" Victorian homes (Cape May).

photo from www.thenewestvegetable.com

But no matter where you go along the Jersey shore, you'll find great local seafood (OK, so the shrimp aren't caught here) - perfect for a summer clambake.  We were lucky enough to be invited to one such event at the lovely seaside home of friends - Mary Ellen and Jim -  in Pt. Pleasant.  

The lobster-themed table setting was a hint at the feast to come. 

Take a closer look at the beautiful, embroidered napkins. 

We arrived in time to see the whole process, which starts with an assortment of seafood and small potatoes. The recipe, from Ina Garten, also calls for kielbasa. Mary Ellen left it out and I was glad she did, because I'm not fond of the smoky taste of the sausage either. Throw in corn in you like, but you really don't need it. 

Don't forget the lobsters -- quick, before they get away.

The recipe starts out with a sauté of leeks and onions in good olive oil. Make sure you've got a huge pot to contain all the layers. First the potatoes, then the clams. 

 Pile on the mussels and shrimp next.

 Finish with the lobsters, pour in some dry white wine and place a lid on top (maybe with a weight as well, to keep those frisky crustaceons from clawing their way out).

 After everything is cooked, remove the lobsters and separate the tail and claws from the main body. Jim snapped off the claws and snipped their tips with kitchen shears to allow water and steam to escape, 

You could tell he'd done this many times before, expertly slicing the tails in half before placing them on the platters with the rest of the seafood and potatoes. 

 There were four of us at the table, but more than enough food for at least two more. This is only one of the platters. No complaints here, as we dug in with gusto.

This mesmerizing view of the bay (their "back yard") only added to the enjoyment of the meal. I think I could happily eat hot dogs and beans with a view like this, but I sure was glad to be eating the clambake instead.

Thanks Mary Ellen and Jim, for a fun night of terrific food and friendship.

See you "down the shore."

Kitchen Clambake

Recipe from Ina Garten

printable recipe here

1 1/2 pounds kielbasa
3 cups chopped yellow onions (2 large onions)
2 cups chopped leeks, well cleaned (2 leeks, white parts only)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 1/2 pounds small potatoes (red or white)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
2 dozen steamer clams, scrubbed
2 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, in the shell
3 (1 1/2 pound) lobsters
2 cups good dry white wine

Slice the kielbasa diagonally into 1-inch thick slices. Set aside. Saute the onions and leeks in the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed 16 to 20 quart stockpot over medium heat for 15 minutes, until the onions start to brown.

Layer the ingredients on top of the onions in the stockpot in this order: first the potatoes, salt, and pepper; then the kielbasa, little neck clams, steamer clams, mussels, shrimp, and lobsters. Pour in the white wine. Cover the pot tightly and cook over medium-high heat until steam just begins to escape from the lid, about 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and cook another 15 minutes. The clambake should be done. Test to be sure the potatoes are tender, the lobsters are cooked, and the clams and mussels are open. Remove the lobsters to a wooden board, cut them up, and crack the claws. With large slotted spoons, remove the seafood, potatoes, and sausages to a large bowl and top with the lobsters. Season the broth in the pot to taste, and ladle over the seafood, being very careful to avoid any sand in the bottom.

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