Mar 31, 2010

Roasted olive salad

On Tuesdays my farmer friend and agriculture guru Franco sells his produce on a small makeshift stall at my local produce market. He drives his minivan 25 Km from his coastal country farm, delivering us freshness and health once a week, all year long. This is as local and organic as it gets. 

As I walk up and elbow my way to the front of Franco's crowded display of vegetables, fruits, flowers and freshly laid eggs, I notice the hand painted sign. It reads: "Open on Wed-Thur-Sat too. Thank you, spring."

And indeed I see why Franco has decided to triple his effort, the bounty on sale is virtually amazing. Baby spring zucchini topped with flowers, redolent red peppers, slender eggplant, bright green cratefuls of garden greens–trimmed and already washed, juicy cherry tomatoes the size of a fingernail, fave, chickory, deep purple artichokes, the very last puntarelle of the season, asparagus, radicchio tardivo; and then crisp apples, the curiously fuzzy local kiwi variety, blood oranges and stout pears, warming in the sun. 

When it's my turn finally, Franco smiles, snaps a pod and shells me a tiny handful of exquisite fresh baby peas. The sweet, green globules burst in my mouth bringing back forgotten sensory memories.

Needless to say, even if Franco will be around the neighborhood more often, I ended up buying a large weekly supply of fruits and vegetables. I usually never shop with a list in mind, I just let the ingredients at hand inspire me.

So besides the produce and the bunch of lilacs that now make my house smell like paradise, I also bought some of Franco's homemade roasted black olives.

I soaked them in water and rinsed them well, letting them drip dry.

Tossed them in a bowl with a little olive oil, cracked black pepper, a wee pinch of salt and omitted the peperoncino flakes I usually add to the dressing, because my son wanted to taste them.

Then I chopped in a slice of mandarin orange complete with its rind, and skewered a fork in the largest clove of garlic I could find, and used that to stir.

I then let the whole thing marinate for a few hours and later enjoyed a delicious aperitivo of zesty citrus-flavored roasted olives with a glass of Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a lovely red wine from Le Marche region.

The bread is still warm. Birds chirp and the sun is shining.

As Franco so plainly puts it–thank you, spring.

Mar 25, 2010

Zuppa Pavese recipe

According to tradition this dish was born in 1525, on the day King François I de Valois was defeated by Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire during the Battle of Pavia.
Zuppa Pavese recipe

The king pronounced the historical phrase "Everything is lost but honor." According to legend, there was at least one other thing His Majesty hadn’t lost––his appetite.

He stormed the Pavese countryside, famished, in search of something to eat. Finally he arrived at a farm called Cascina Repentita, where a peasant woman was brewing a soup. The king told her who he was and that he was very hungry.

The woman placed a piece of old bread and some cheese in a bowl, covered it all with broth and then, thinking that this food was perhaps not noble enough for a king––even a defeated one––she went to the henhouse, picked up two eggs and broke them into his soup bowl.

After eating the peasant woman's Zuppa Pavese King François judged it "fit for kings," and upon his return to France had it included in the court's royal menu. How's that for an endorsement?

Ingredients for 6 serving:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoon olive oil
Italian style bread, cut in six 1-inch slices
6 cups rich chicken or beef broth
6 free-range eggs
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano, plus more on the table

Heat the butter and olive oil in a skillet and sauté the bread browning it on both sides, then remove and place on paper towels.

Meanwhile bring the broth to a vivacious simmer and keep it there.

Heat individual soup dishes or bowls in the oven, place a slice of bread in each bowl, and crack an egg onto each slice of bread, being very careful not to break the yolk.

Dust with Parmigiano, salt and pepper to taste; once all eggs are placed on the toast, carefully ladle the very hot broth in the bowls (not directly over the yolks, or they'll break). The heat of the stock will cook the eggs. 

Zuppa Pavese recipe

If the eggs are not cooked to your taste, place bowls in a hot oven for a minute or two. 

What wine to pour with this dish? Pinot Nero dell'Oltrepò Pavese, of course.

Mar 22, 2010

Fried sage recipe

Frittura mista noun; Italian assorted fried platter, similar to Japanese tempura. A mixture of vegetables, herbs, meat, cheese and fish which are dipped in a light batter and quickly deep fried.

In my frittura mista platter–along with crisp morsels of ribbony mozzarella in carrozza, tasty calamari and shrimp fritters, feather-light fried zucchini blossoms, tiny chicken nuggets, a handful of sweet potato French fries, and golden fried artichoke hearts–I always include a batch of deep-fried sage leaves.

The key element in proper frying is the batter. It must be very cold and fluffy, while on the other hand, the frying vegetable oil should be very hot. Quantity is also important, don't spare on the oil, glug glug away. The more the better.

1 cup large sage leaves
1/2 cup unbleached flour
1 glass of beer, chilled or 1 glass of chilled sparkling water (I use either Peroni beer , or San Pellegrino water)
Oil for frying
Sea salt

Wash the leaves under cold running water and pat dry with a paper towel.

In a mixing bowl, blend a glass of chilled sparkling water or beer, flour and a small pinch of salt until fluffy. Blend using a wire whip to mix and tweak quantities in order to obtain the perfect "pastella" (batter). It should runny, not thick. But not watery. Also, don't over-blend. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a deep skillet, frying pan or a wok. Ideally the correct frying temperature should never be below 180° C (350° F). If you don't have a cooking thermometer (I don't), the best way to tell if the oil is hot enough, is checking to see if the heat has made it less syrupy. It should rather be more on the liquid side. Gently swirl the pan and see: if circle ripples form, the oil is ready for frying. You can also try dropping a droplet of batter in the oil to see if it sizzles.

Dip the leaves one at a time in the chilled batter and deep fry in plenty scalding olive oil in small batches. They will puff up and turn golden quickly, 40-50 seconds on each side. Pick them up with a pair of tongs and briefly park them on paper towel before serving hot, sprinkled with more salt if need be.

Buon appetito!

All images courtesy of Autumn Azure for Home Cook Project

Mar 17, 2010

Melanzane al gratin - Eggplant crumble recipe

I wonder why some call it eggplant. It's more pear-shaped than egg. Eggplants are purple, lightweight and shiny; eggs–whether pink or white–are neither. I must admit (reluctantly) that the borrowed French name aubergine sounds so much better.

Creamy lush aubergines tucked away under a blanket of crunch: my savory Mediterranean twist on a British classic is melanzane al gratin, a sort of savory eggplant crumble.

Ingredients for 6

3 purple eggplant
2 white onions
150 g (3/4 cup) Parmigiano, grated
150 g (3/4 cup) very cold butter, possibly salted
150 g (3/4 cup) unbleached flour
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 180° C (356° F - mark 6).

Wash the eggplant under running water and dry them accurately.

Cut crosswise into slices 1/2-inch thick. Make a layer of these in a sieve and sprinkle with salt. Continue layering and sprinkling with salt until all of the slices are used. Top with a plate and a heavy weight, like a pot.

Place the sieve over a bowl or in the sink. Let this stand for 1 hour to drain off the bitter juices. Rinse off the salt and dry the eggplant slices with paper towels.

Addendum: Salting the eggplant slices draws out their bitter juices. If the eggplant is very fresh, this step is not essential, but if you are unsure about their provenance, it's a good habit against a disappointing dish. 

Dice the leached eggplant slices and do the same with the onions. Pour them in a fairly high-rimmed baking pan with the oil and vinegar, season with salt and pepper and mix to coat well.

Cut the butter in flecks and work into the flour and grated Parmigiano cheese with your hands. The warmth of your blood will sensually melt the butter and allow it to absorb the powdery textures into a coarse crumbly blob. Don't get too carried away doing this or it will turn too creamy and not serve its purpose.

Sprinkle the obtained crumble in one uniform layer over the dressed veggies in the baking pan.

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the topping appears golden and crisp. Check often, as cheese tends to brown suddenly. Should this happen soon before the cooking time has elapsed, lower the temperature to 150° C (300° F - mark 5) and wait. On the contrary, should 35 minutes into baking not show any signs of golden hues on the crumble, raise the heat to 210° C (410° F - mark 7) while you slip into something more comfortable.

Let the crumble cool 5 minutes before serving.
Image © Sunfox

Mar 11, 2010

Scrambled eggs with brie, walnuts and truffle recipe

In my cuisine/lifestyle manuscript (sitting in a drawer, waiting for a brave publisher to give it life), besides illustrating traditional Italian dishes, typical holiday food and a wide section dedicated to comfort food, or those recipes that satisfy nocturnal cravings and healthy kids' appetites, there is a chapter titled "seduction." 

I am not limiting this to the pleasures of the alcove. When I cook for others–be it for a single special individual or for a significant group–I want to play and tease, making my guests and their appetites feel loved and tickled. I want to attract them, tempt them into the guilty pleasures of the dinner table, and see the abandon in their eyes as they indulge in a third helping. I use my culinary seduction weapons (apron and wooden spoon, mostly) to astound and revive indolent couch-bound friends, or see a smile surface on a gloomy face. I like to provoke with food, it gives me the power to balance out lost harmony. Anyone who loves to cook, has then certainly pursued undecided suitors on a special date with a challenging dish. Offered large portions of plenty as a peace sign to grumpy in-laws. Or fed noisy dinner guest a meal to remember just to enjoy the silence as they speechlessly ingested. That, too, is the 'kitchen burlesque' I advocate.

So it's only natural for me to believe that the noblest form of persuasion and beguiling titillation is through the art of cooking a perfect meal. Food is sexy, period. The obvious oysters, copious amounts of caviar eaten with fingers and fountains spilling gallons of chilled champagne? It may be surprising to some, but many sensual foods and preparations are, on the contrary, affordable and quite unsophisticated.

Were you aware, for example, that anchovies are a potent aphrodisiac? On a par with chili peppers, pine nuts, anise, basil, carrots, pistachio nuts, almonds, arugula, sage, turnips, parsley, and one of the supposed intimacy-spoilers, garlic? Also, think pomegranate kernels loosely scattered on rare grilled meats, lightly steamed asparagus wantonly dribbled with melted butter, or the amazing texture of avocado which has been stained with balsamic vinegar.

Choose a few key luxurious flavors for your seduction repast, well studied lighting, a fine bottle of wine, alluring music and attire, and even a plate of scrambled eggs can count as foreplay.

Soft scrambled eggs with brie, walnuts and truffle recipe

Fifteen minutes to assemble, five to prepare. Leaves you all the time you need for a relaxing bath, lighting the candles and rubbing lemon juice and olive oil on your skin. For an orgy of four, prepare:

6 free-range eggs
100 g (1/2 cup) walnuts, shelled and lightly toasted
150 g (3/4 cup) brie, room temperature
1 small truffle
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and white pepper to taste

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper.

Cut the brie in thin matchsticks and finely chop the walnuts except for a few. Play a soft ballad in the background while you do this.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet, and pour in the beaten eggs. Stir in the slivered cheese and ground walnuts. Add a few truffle shavings and stir with a wooden or plastic whisk (to avoid scratching the bottom of your pan) for a brief moment.

Remove the skillet from the stove and continue stirring to melt the cheese and obtain a soft creamy texture. Serve warm garnished with more shaved truffle, and the remaining walnut meats. Don't forget the wine.

And this was only the appetizer... 

Mar 8, 2010

Branzino al sale recipe

Branzino, which is also known as spigola (sea bass) is a tasty fish, with relatively few, easy-to-pick bones and firm flesh that handsomely holds its shape when cooked.

Image © ionino

This is one of the most effective ways to cook branzino. The chemical simplicity of this dish is astounding: what salt and heat perform on the sea creature is a miracle, extracting unimaginable juices and delicate flavors. It tastes wonderful, completely non-fat and looks stunning served on its baking oven tray. Considering that best results occur with bigger fish, you may want to share this with others in a communal food orgy. This is all you need: 

1 branzino or any local large fish (sea bass, yellow tail, bream, red snapper––whatever's fresh that day), weighing 2 lbs minimum
4 lbs of sea salt
1 black olive, pitted

Have your fishmonger clean the fish for you, eviscerating it but not removing the head nor scaling it, you'll need the scales to hold the skin together and the head for taste and show.

Preheat oven at 200° C (400° F).

In a large mixing bowl wet the salt with 1/2 cup of water or until it feels like snow. Mix with your hands and get a free scrub treatment. 

Blanket your oven tray with parchment paper and a 1/2-inch layer of dampened salt. Lay the fish in the middle of the tray and start piling on the rest of the salt, covering it completely. Shape the salt to follow the contours of the body of the fish, packing down firmly. This will be the crust that will form during baking. It will prevent the heat from drying the fish during cooking, and will not make the flesh too salty, to the contrary. 

This genius cooking procedure assures deliciously moist meat, fat free and perfectly seasoned. If you like, you can draw fish scales in the salt and place half a black pitted olive as the eye. 

Bake, undisturbed, for 25-35 minutes, depending on oven power. If you use one, insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the branzino: when cooked, the temperature should read 135 degrees. 

Remove the pan from the oven and take it directly to the table. Let the fish rest for 10 minutes, while guests admire your genius. With the back of a large spoon, give the salt shell a good whack and start peeling the crust away. The skin will come off with the crust. 

Spoon the fish off the bone, and serve. Group elation will surely follow.

branzino al sale, baked in a salt crust
Method images @

Mar 4, 2010

Salsa di Cipolle - Onion compote recipe

On those evenings when I decide to make fondue bourguignonne, this savory compote is always a hit. The coupling of lightly cooked morsels of beef and these sensual onions au vin is emotionally touching.

3 medium red onions
1/2 lt (2 cups) good quality red wine

Trim away papery outer shells and peel the onions clean. Thinly slice them while holding a chunk of bread in your mouth to prevent teary eyes.

 Image © coingourmand

In a saucepan over low heat, simmer the onions in a tablespoon of butter. As the onions begin to sweat and become translucent, they will dry. Add small quantities of wine, little by little, allowing it to evaporate and stain the onions.

This operation requires a little patience, so relax, observe the beautiful deep burgundy color in the saucepan and inhale the fumes until you've used up all the wine.

Image © cucinaconleli

You're welcome.