Dec 17, 2011

Canederli | Knödel ~ South Tyrol matzah balls


Imagine lying on a flowery Alpine meadow while inhaling the resinous scent of mountain pine, and enjoying the salubrious effect of a chalice of local wine. This is a typical relaxation treatment in one of many wellness centers scattered in the mystical Alto Adige territory, and where for an entire summer week I took some time off to embrace the power of the mountains and nature.

In seven days of pure bliss my tense body was wrapped in damp hay, massaged from head to toe with balsamic ointments, emulsions made from freshly pressed apple juice and wrapped in cotton sheets soaked in salt and apple vinegar. An entire week of bathing in mountain pine waters and lazy soaking in tubs of whey sourced from the farmstead just around the corner. The renovation phase was finally topped with a "Vinotherapy" wine bath. This local – and now very popular – pamper supreme begins with an initial body scrub using crushed grape skins, followed by a brief nap wrapped in a crisp linen sheet, followed by a hot bath, a glass of red wine and a massage with grape-seed oil. Not to mention the food that comes with it all.

I'm a lover of all soups, whatever the season, and in the seven days of spa heaven, I OD'd on Knödel, or Canederli. These scrumptious dumplings made with leftover bread, are tremendously similar to Jewish matzah balls, likewise cooked and served in stock, and consumed preferably in front of a blazing fireplace.

200 gr (1 cup) stale bread
1 egg
20 gr (2 tbsp) butter
80 gr (5 tbsp) speck, diced (Optional)
1 small white onion
1 tbsp chives
50 gr (1/4 cup) unbleached flour
100 ml (3 fl oz) boiling hot milk
1 sprig fresh marjoram
1 pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Prepare good meat stock, important for best results. No bouillon cube this time, sorry.
Dice the bread and soak it in the boiling hot milk, allowing the crumb to absorb milk for 2 hours. It should bloat but still remain sufficiently pliable, not completely melt.

Finely chop the speck (if you're using it), onion and cut the chives and marjoram.
Wilt the onion in some butter, simmering it gently for a few minutes. Let it cool.

Mash the pulpy bread with the tines of a fork or in a food mill. Add the onions, flour, the chopped speck, part of the chives and marjoram, and the egg. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and knead well with your wet hands, shaping the mixture into several dumplings the size of golf balls, and set aside.

In a large pot, heat the skimmed meat stock with the remaining chives and marjoram. Toss in the canederli and cook for 6-7 minutes. Serve 4-5 balls in each individual deep soup bowl, swimming in the steaming clear broth.
Pair with a stuctured red.

At the above-mentioned spa in Val di Non where I was pampered for that divine week of nourishing treatments, the chef (who happened to be the chief masseuse’s husband) made his knödel as one single fist-sized orb instead of the usual several per bowl.


Dec 14, 2011

Seadas - Sardinian fritters


Seadas, or Sebadas, are traditional cheese filled fritters particular to the island of Sardinia.
They are the region's most famous dessert, but originally seadas were enjoyed as a main course, especially by shepherds.

The recipe for these remarkably original cheese fritter calls for a final drizzle of bittersweet corbezzolo honey. Corbezzolo is Italian for strawberry tree, an evergreen Mediterranean shrub whose flower nectar lends the signature bittersweet flavor to this specific honey.

Corbezzolo ~ Strawberry Tree
The pairing of these salty, crunchy, sweet and melty elements provides very interesting flavor and texture combinations.
Here's the recipe for sensational seadas:

200 gr (1 cup) semolina flour
500 gr (1.1 lb) all purpose flour
500 gr (1.1 lbs) Fiore Sardo or fresh Pecorino (not too aged)
Zest from 2 large organic lemons
250 ml (1 cup) water, warmed
3 tbsp white wine
50 gr (1/4 cup) butter, softened (ideally rendered lard)
2 tsp salt
1 egg white
Vegetable oil for frying
Organic corbezzolo honey
 
Dissolve the salt in the warm water, and in a large bowl, add it to semolina, flour, wine, butter (or lard, if you're using it) and knead well. Final result should be a soft and springy ball of satiny dough. Let it rest covered with a kitchen towel while you prepare the filling.

Blend the grated cheese with the lemon zest. This ingredient is what gives this traditional dish its siganture aroma.

Roll the dough flat with a rolling pin, or with a pasta machine, about 1/8-inch thin. Using a saucer or a cookie cutter, obtain 3-inch discs. Depending on how thin you manage to roll the dough, I'd say you'll come up with about 10-15 discs.

Divvy up 3 tablespoons of the cheese and lemon mixture onto half of your discs.

Wet the outer rim of each prepared disc with some egg white and lay the remaining discs to cover. Crimp down the edges with the tines of a fork or with a crinkled pastry wheel.

Fill a large cast iron skillet with vegetable oil for frying, and heat. Fry 2 seadas at a time until slightly golden. To make the floating pastry pocket puff up, carefully ladle some of the boiling oil on it.
When the first bubbles appear on the surface of the fried dough, remove with a slotted spoon and rest on paper towel to blot.

Warm the corbezzolo honey (I take the metal cap off and nuke the jar in the microwave for 30 seconds), drizzle on the seadas, and serve at once.


Buon appetito.

Dec 12, 2011

Winter carb fest

Chilly weather is the Italian invitation for starch-dependent menus. Though they're consumed with abandon year-round, winter gives carbs an even bigger welcome mat.
Some pasta dishes are particularly well suited to the colder months, most not necessarily dependent on seasonal ingredients. They include hearty grain and vegetable soups, richly dressed ragùs, and the best of all gourmet comfort foods, risotto.

Here are three of my favorite stalwart winter primi piatti, with a little bit of history and recipes.
Continue reading ➔

Dec 3, 2011

Carpaccio - Harry's Bar, Venice

Carpaccio was for a long time the most popular dish served at Harry’s Bar in Venice. It is named after Vittore Carpaccio, the Venetian Renaissance painter known for his use of brilliant reds and whites in the minute detail of his infinite perspective landscapes.

Giuseppe Cipriani, the Bar's historic owner, invented and named the dish in reference to the Venetian painter, because the colors of the dish reminded him of his paintings. It was 1950, the year of the great Carpaccio exhibition in Venice.


The Harry's Bar Carpaccio dish was inspired by capricious Contessa Amalia Nani Mocenigo, a local regular at Harry's Bar. Her doctor had put her on a strict diet recommending she eat only raw meat.
The original Harry's Bar delicacy is still made by covering a plate with the thinnest possible slices of raw beef and garnishing them with a secret dressing that is drizzled over the beef in a crosshatch, Kandisnsky-style pattern. It is proverbially called the "universal sauce."


I was raised on a strict Harry's Bar diet of Carpaccio and Risotto Primavera, myself. Those were the days when going to Venice for the weekend was a given, and money wasn't an issue. The source of our family's financial ease was the talented work and infinite generosity of my grandfather Vittorio De Sica.


My fondest memories of him are not glamourous, nor show business-related, they are personal. The vivid images and toasted coffee aroma of our Sunday afternoons spent together still linger in my mind when I think of him. Nonno would nap after having lunch with us, wrapped in a brown cashmere plaid throw, lying on the day bed in what later became my bedroom. I'd be the one to wake him, softly tiptoeing in the dimly lit room, carrying a tray with a small demitasse of espresso, which he'd sip quietly.

The bottom of the cup was my prize, a tiny ring of coffee-tinted sugar that had not quite melted. I'd draw the drapes open and we'd play for a half hour, during which I would frequently show him my latest dance coreographies. My clumsy pirouettes, that would usually land me on my rear end, would obviously make him chuckle, but he never showed it, giving my performance the professional judgement of an unbiased director. Nonno would often tell me where to improve or applaud the less disastrous ones. Then he'd leave, cloaked in his grey flannel suit, elegant and smelling of blue Pantène hair cologne and weathered leather, like his gloves. A wink and a smile on the doorstep and he was gone, 'til the following week.

My grandfather's successful career ended too soon. Cinema lost one of its greatest modern film making artists in 1974 to lung cancer, and my playful Sunday afternoons with Nonno were no more.

with mom and Nonna Titta on the Grand Canal

I don't care if I don't go to Venice for the weekend any more. I've never been a fool for fancy clothes or elegant hotels. I love to travel and eat, and I still do that, on a shoestring. And since I could charm my way through a restaurant kitchen from age five, I managed to snatch the secret Carpaccio recipe. For free.

1.3 kg (3 lb) beef sirloin, whole
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise
1–2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, adjust quantity to taste
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2–3 tbsp whole milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

First of all, make the carpaccio "universal sauce," which is the focal point of this dish. The above-mentioned quantities yield about 250 ml (1 cup). Any leftover can last about 3 days, stored chilled in a closed container.

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and add the Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice, and blend with a whisk.

Add enough milk to thin the sauce, so it just barely coats the back of a dry wooden spoon. Taste and adjust seasoning, with more Worcestershire sauce and/or lemon juice if necessary.

OK, now the tricky part.
According to tradition, the best carpaccio is made with beef sirloin, and the flavorful meat must never be frozen before slicing. Of course it's easier to slice barely thawed beef, but we're not taking any shortcuts today.

Carpaccio can also be made with beef tenderloin filet, which has a milder flavor than sirloin and is much easier to handle. Ask the butcher to trim the meat for you. You may even be able to convince him to slice it, but do so only if you plan to serve your carpaccio an hour or 2 later, tops.

If you decide to slice the meat yourself, please be careful, I nearly lost a fingertip once.
Trim every bit of fat, gristle, sinew from the sirloin, leaving a small cylinder of tender, lean meat.

Chill the meat for 30 minutes, then using a long-bladed razor-sharp knife, slice the meat paper-thin and arrange the slices on individual salad plates, covering the surface completely. Makes about six servings. Some folks like to sprinkle some shaved Parmigiano at this point. I don't, preferring to maintain the flavors and simplicity intact.

Drizzle the universal sauce decoratively over the meat, and serve immediately.


I quite like this with a properly stored Valpolicella: light in body, low in tannin, and redolent of tart red cherries.

Buon appetito.

Dec 1, 2011

Mayonnaise | Maionese

Image © ecosalon.com
Homemade mayo rocks. Better tasting and definitely wholesome compared to the crap commercially sold in a jar or worse, in a tube.

The difficult part in making it at home is not having it separate while you add the olive oil as it thickens. In Italian we say our mayonnaise is impazzita, "gone crazy" when that happens. 

To avoid this, some experts suggest to make it alone, without exterior noises, or disturbances. Some even push it as far as saying not to make it during your menstrual cycle. 

Nonsense, I make it all the time, with kids playing soccer in the living room, or with heavy metal blaring in the background. Here's how I prepare it, foolproof and craziness-free.

1 egg yolk
1 tsp white wine vinegar
2 pinches dry mustard
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
150 ml (3⁄4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon

olivewood thingy
Put the egg yolk, vinegar, mustard, and a little salt and pepper in a medium mixing bowl and whisk until foamy and thoroughly blended. I use one of these ➸   
but a silicone whisk works well too

Tricky part.
Add 50 ml (1⁄4 cup) of the olive oil, a few drops at a time, whisking constantly. 
Gradually add the rest of the oil in a thin, steady stream, continuing to whisk as the mayonnaise thickens. 
Add 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice, and adjust seasonings if necessary. But the less you mess with mayo, the better.

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