Bring on the Fall

28 09 2010

The best part of my daily routine in Pisa is going to the local markets.  It has become more exciting each week because the vendors are starting to recognize me, I have learned most of the food words in Italian and the seasons are changing.  Yesterday as I browsed the stands I literally could not help but smile like a little girl in a gelato shop and I thought….”fall is finally here”.  The centerpiece of each stand was no longer the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes or summer squash but rather the earthier flavors of fall beets, turnips, celery root, chicory lettuces, chestnuts and wild mushrooms.

I love when the seasons change.  It feels like a new set of watercolors has been gifted to me by mother nature and I am free to play with a new canvas.  These flavors are special to me because they remind of specific memories that happen only this time year.  I fondly remember my first fall in San Francisco working at one of the most seasonal restaurants of the city, discovering what ingredients were specific to the fall.  I had no idea how good Golden Beets or Swiss chard could taste and I definitely did not know all of the different things I could do with them.  In San Francisco I remember thinking, “god this is how the food tastes in Europe.  So amazingly fresh!”  Now that I am here in Italy, I must admit that everything actually tastes better. The set of watercolors that I get to play with here makes me appreciate my passion for cooking like never before.  When you have the luxury of working with best ingredients, you really don’t have to do much.  I use simple technique, my love for food and basic combinations of flavors to create beautiful meals.

I can honestly say that I was really happy with the dinner I cooked last night.  I worked with Squash Blossoms, a delicate summer ingredient, that I have never cooked before.  When you run a restaurant, you tend to cook what you know and what your are comfortable with.  Here in Italy, I am not interested in only cooking what I know, I cook what I want to try.  Here’s a little video of the appetizer I decided to make with the squash blossoms:

The rest of the meal was full of Fall flavors….Here is the menu:

  • Stuffed Squash Blossom with fresh ricotta, Buffalo mozzarella, chives, oregano, lemon zest and sautéed zucchini
  • Bitter Fall Salad with tender green lettuces, speckled radicchio, endive, toasted hazelnuts and oranges with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette
  • Braised Pork Belly with red wine, mirepoix, and sage served over slow cooked Sicilian Lentils
  • with braised Lacinato Kale and roasted red onions with rosemary
  • Bolgherian Red Wine (blend of Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese)

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Under the Tuscan Sun

21 09 2010

Anyone that knows me would describe me as a romantic.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love food so much.  Food is sensual and enjoyable in so many ways that words can’t describe.  As a romantic food-lover I see it as my duty to watch all movies that fall under this category.  One of my favorites was definitely “Under the Tuscan Sun”. As a woman, how can you not love the idea of taking a trip around Italy and spontaneously getting off your tour bus, falling in love with an Italian villa in and buying it.  I mean, how romantic can you get?  After seeing that movie years ago I remember thinking “Do Italian towns like that actually exist? ”  If so….I want to go there!

Last week I finally made my way to the town where “Under the Tuscan Sun” was filmed.  I was invited to stay at a restored farmhouse on 60 aches of land in the
mountains.  This house overlooked several incredible Italian cities including Arrezzo, Castigleon and Cortona (the actual town the movie was filmed in).  Thanks to the networking gods of Glencoe, the town I am from, I was put in touch with a the owner of this farmhouse.  Tierney and I met for coffee in Chicago before I left and she invited me to stay for a long weekend at her house in Italy.  Tierney lives a pretty amazing life, splitting her time 50:50 between Glencoe and this magnificent home in Tuscany.  She runs a unique bed and breakfast business called “Tierney does Tuscany” (www.tierneydoestuscany.com), in which she hosts clients in one of her three bedrooms and customizes Tuscan adventures based on their specific interests.  She knows all of the locals in these towns and has more connections than you could believe.  Tierney is good friends with local goat cheese farmers, mushroom foragers, honey makers, pottery teachers and wine makers (all of whom I met when I was there). She literally knows all of the best farmers markets, restaurants and current festivals and sees it as her job to take her clients to them.  You could probably imagine how excited I was when Tierney invited me up for the weekend!

As you would expect, everything on my wish list for Tierney had to do with food. My first full day at her house was a Saturday which meant market day!  Tierney warned me to get excited because we were not going to just any old market, we were hitting up one of the best in the region.  I have to admit, it was actually a bit overwhelming.  I thought Tierney might have been hyping up this market, but when we arrived, my jaw dropped.  This was no joke. (it blew the Ferry Building Market in SF out of the park)  The market was literally seven blocks long and sold everything related to food that you could imagine: live chickens, fresh bread, wild mushrooms, cured meats, herb and lettuce plants, artisan cheeses, exotic fruits…..you name it, it was there.  Before arriving at the market we decided, that we were going to buy anything that looked gorgeous or interesting.  It was my job to figure out how to make these fantastic ingredients taste good (um, kinda and favorite thing to do)

We bought so much food that it took three loads of carrying bags to get the ingredients to our car. Our food adventure did not stop there.   Next, Tierney took me to a local grocery store to buy the proteins that we might need to make our produce purchases into actual meals.  She insisted that an Italian grocery market is a cultural experience.  How could I say no to this?  The grocery store was unbelievable.  It literally had every type of meat, fish, cheese and produce that you could ever think of cooking.  I was most fascinated by the protein section….the meat looked more fresh than Whole Foods and cost about a fraction of the price.  Plus, there was a huge variety. After debating on buying wild boar, quail or rabbit I decided to buy a whole rabbit and figure out a rustic Italian preparation to make for dinner.  I thought, “when do I have the chance to cook a whole rabbit”? When we finally arrived back at Tierney’s house we were laughing at how much we bought.  We both agreed that it was THE MOST manic shopping spree we had ever had in our lives. (at least we weren’t in the Prada outlit)


The meals for the next few days were full of delicious local ingredients from the farm to the table:

Day 1 lunch:

  • Fresh sliced cantaloupe (lightly salted with fleur de sel) with hand-cut prosciutto
  • Cherry tomatoes, sliced in half with fresh snipped basil, thin olive oil and salt bread crisps and Tartufo Pecorino cheese
  • A light Sauvignon Blanc

Day 1 Dinner:

  • Sautéed Padron Peppers with chanterelles, shallot and garlic
  • Roasted Celery and Summer Zucchini with shaved Parmesan
  • Crispy whole Branzino fish stuffed with herbs, lemon, garlic and white wine with fresh focaccia bread
  • A local Chianti Classico

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Lunch Day 2:

  • Crispy fried eggs (fresh that day from chickens)
  • Goat’s milk Ricotta (make the day before on the goat farm) drizzled with chestnut honey (from the honey-maker we met) and toasted walnuts
  • Tomatoes with Tierny’s olive oil and fresh basil
  • Light Tocai Italian wine

Dinner Day 2:

  • Round 2 of Padron Peppers with Chanterelles, shallot and garlic
  • Stuffed Whole Rabbit with garlic confit, crispy pancetta, fennel tops, oregano, sage, sliced lemon and white wine-seared in pork fat and roasted
  • Crispy purple spring onions
  • Local chianti Classico and beer


Let’s just say that this region of Italy was another slice of heaven!





Livorno!

18 09 2010

In Tuscany, no one would argue that Livorno is the best place in the region to taste and buy seafood.  Lucky enough for me, this seaside town is only a 15 minute train ride from Pisa.  My friend Marlene and I went early this morning to buy an assortment of seafood for the seafood stew I am making this evening. Check out my videos!

The finished Product:  Cioppino





Anything Made By Hand Tastes Better

16 09 2010

I am pretty certain my career as a foodie has taken a turn from chef to artisanal food hunter.  For those of you who don’t know about artisanal food let me try to paint a picture: it is food made my hand using traditional methods, it is made slower than commercial foods to enhance flavor, it is a passion to the creator and it tastes much better.  My first introduction to artisanal products was in San Francisco when I worked at Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building.  I was exposed to the most fresh farm produce as well as speciality products imported from all over the word.  At first I had no concept that the pastas, jams, olive oils, vinegar,  grains, spices, and salts could be so precious.  One of my favorite producers of artisanal products sold at the Ferry Building Farmers Market was June Taylor. (http://www.junetaylorjams.com/)  June was born in London and grew up in a family where everything was grown in their garden and eaten fresh.  She started her company over twenty years ago in hopes to preserve her traditional roots and share the flavors of fresh seasonal marmalade, jams and preserves with the foodies of San Francisco.  What I admire most about her craft is her quality control.  All of her fruit is cut by hand, cooked in small pots, (usually over 20 different pots at a time) and produce yields as low as  8-10 jars of jam per pot.  This makes the cost of her products more expensive, but once you taste her products it is hard not to fall in love.  To June “a food artisan is someone who is completely and wholly integrated into the creation of their product.”

I have discovered there are many people like June producing incredibly high-quality artisanal products in Italy.  Italian’s are not only devoted to taste and quality, they truly want to preserve traditional methods of cooking.  Last week I was in a small town in Chianti called Strada and I was introduced to an incredible brand of artisan pasta called Pastificio Artigiano.  My friend Cristiana made an appointment for a tour and chat with Giovanni Fabbri, the owner of this artisanal pasta company, and I knew I was in for a treat.

From the photos it might seem like Giovanni is a bit of a crazy man.  His eyes bulge out when he speaks, he uses his hands to describe everything and his voice gets loud when he talks about wheat or gluten.  I think all of this comes from his incredible passion.  Pasta is his life and even when he explained the process of making his pasta in Italian, I could feel his excitement and complete devotion to his craft.

When we arrived, the only question he asked was if I was a journalist or chef.  After that, he  got right down to business, explaining his specific process of making pasta.  Giovanni made a big point that the raw ingredients and the technique were the two most important parts of making an excellent product.  His team grows specialty planted durum wheat, a varietal from the 1800’s, and they grind it by hand to make flour. (check out the photo on the right) Once they make the flour, they mix it with water to make the pasta.

The most fascinating things I leanred from this visit were the difference between commercial and artisanal pasta in Italy.  Giovanni explained that most commercial producers often import large quantities of wheat from other countries to make their pasta because it is cheaper.  They also make their pasta in the most efficient way, mixing the raw ingredients by machine and drying it for 2-3 hours at a very high temperature before it is packaged.  Giovianni’s pasta could not be more different from this approach.  After he slowly makes each type of pasta by hand, he puts it in a special pasta refrigerator to dry it at a controlled temperature for 3-5 days.  The temperature of drying the pasta is very specific, not too high, because he wants to preserve the complex flavor of the wheat and the quality of the gluten.  He explains that when the gluten in pasta is dried at a very high temperature it burns and the pasta looses essential nutrients, vitamins and flavor. Also, the gluten in the pasta is what absorbs the sauce after it is cooked, which makes his pasta more succulent.

After spending a few hours touring the pasta facility, I wanted to wrap my arms around Giovianni, give him a tight squeeze, and thank him for doing what he loves.  It was so refreshing to meet someone as passionate and devoted to preserving tradition through food. Instead of letting us pay for the visit, Giovanni gifted us 15 different packages of his pasta to try. How Italian is that?  This experience made really think about getting into the importing business in Chicago.  I would love to share the fabulous ingredients I am finding with everyone in my home town.  Stay tuned….

Giovanni shows us where he dries his pasta in the special refrigeration units….check out all of the stacks of drying fettuccine on the right!

Giovanni is very excited about this one!  He is holding one of the copper discs that he attached to his huge pasta machine to make Spaghetti noodles.  To his left are 25 discs that create the other unique shapes of his wonderful pasta






Pappa al Pomodoro

14 09 2010

I was always a good student growing up.  I studied hard, memorized the facts, and then took the tests.  I executed well on the exams but if you ask me to recall anything I learned from history or english class in college I would have little to tell.  The two things I never forget are the people I meet and anything related to food.  When I say I never forget food….I literally can recall special meals that my mom cooked for me when I was five, the ingredients in a dish I had at my 16th birthday or a recipe technique I read from a Savour magazine two years ago.  My heart and soul soak up food memories and new ideas like a sponge.  I guess it’s just how I was made.

When you are planning a trip to Italy, it seems like everyone has a suggestion for you about where to go and the food you “have to try”.  Pappa al Pomodoro, or Tuscan tomato-bread soup, is one of those dishes that I knew I could not miss. My best friend Bree, from culinary school, went to Italy for her honeymoon and came back with a some serious food stories.  I vividly remember her describing this Tuscan tomato soup with the juiciest tomatoes in the world absorbed by chunky pieces of bread and coated with the flavors of fresh basil and garlic.  The description made my mouth salavate ….I knew this was a dish on my list.

Last week when I was visiting different regions in Chianti, my friend Cristiana introduced me to a beautiful town called Greve.  This town had a different feel from the others I visited.  It was far more sophisticated and chic then the other rustic villages nearby.  Some might notice a snobbish vibe while walking around because the stores are pristine, the prices are high and the streets are full of high-end wine shops and restaurants.  I felt like I was in foodie heaven.

A local in a town nearby suggested that we try “Osteria Mangiado Mangiado” for lunch.  I typically don’t throw down thirty or forty dollars for lunch in the states, but when in Greve I thought “why the hell not”.  The menu enticed me from first glance when I saw the “Pappa al Pomodoro” and other local specialties.  I choose the famous tomato soup for my first dish and  also ordered a Porcini Risotto with a glass of local Chianti Classico (it was a bit intense, but I can not help to over order these days). Let me just say, the first taste of the Pappa al Pomodoro blew me away.  This was not a typical summer soup.   It was more like a thick, summer stew with robust, clean tomato flavors that seemed to burst in my mouth. I savoured every bite, closing my eyes and feeling as if I could taste all of the flavors of Italy….tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil. The other thing I truly appreciated was that this was a simple peasant soup.  This soup was constructed so that the peasant farmers would never throw away ingredients in their kitchen.  Pappa al Pomodoro became an efficient and hearty summer soup that was made to use the leftover scraps in the kitchen.

As a chef, this dish reminded me of how important it is to stay creative when you have a limited amount of ingredients or a low-budget.  I have developed some of the most interesting dishes by combining leftover ingredients to create something new and different.

Check out this link for a good Pappa al Pomodoro recipe:

http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/city-guides/florence-recipes/





Chianti=Heaven on Earth

9 09 2010

Read the rest of this entry »





My Artichoke Obsession Continues….

5 09 2010

Ever since I was a little girl, artichokes were my favorite food in the entire world.  I guess that might have been an indication that I was far from a picky eater and might become a foodie later in life.  I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and she would ask me what I would like for dinner.  I always begged for artichokes and she would shake her head and laugh because most kids my age craved chicken fingers and mac and cheese.  I was lucky to have a mom that loved to cook and knew great food.  She definitely passed on her appreciation of food to me.
My last day in Rome I decided to hit up the Jewish Ghetto to obviously connect with my Jewish roots but more importantly (sorry dad) to eat the food.   We all know that Italians love their food and family so i thought it would be interesting to check out the Jewish scene here.  When I read about the typical food of Rome, the fried artichokes in the Jewish Ghetto were mentioned several times. I thought this was pretty odd because artichokes never seemed particularly Jewish to me, but I couldn’t wait to taste what all the hype was about.

I sat down and checked out the menu.  I think about 4 of the 8 options for antipasti were made with artichokes (again, this made me very happy).  I knew I had to try the fried preparation and I asked the waiter, in seriously broken Italian, if he could suggest another typical item of the region.  He pointed to the baked anchovy and endive tart on the menu.  This was definitely something I would never order back in the states, but that is exactly the reason I choose it.  My goal in Italy is to eat anything and everything out of my comfort zone to be inspired and truly get a feel of the place through its food.

The fried artichoke was served first and I couldn’t help but smile when it was put in front of me.  Nothing could have looked more gorgeous to me that this fried vegetable (it sounds funny but it seriously looked like a crispy sunflower) .  The stem and the stingy tips of the artichoke were cleaned so every bit was edible. I dove in, squeezing a wedge of lemon over the top, and devoured some of the outer leaves first.  They were perfectly crispy, fried to perfection, and they tasted exactly like artichoke chips.  Then I cut into the heart of the artichoke, obviously the best part, and enjoyed its perfectly tender and juicy taste.  The only issue I had with eating the artichoke was that it was almost too pretty.  I felt like I was ruining a well constructed piece of art with every bite, which made me eat it slowly and admire its taste and beauty.

I was sure that the artichoke was going to be the centerpiece of my food experience that afternoon, but I must say, the anchovy dish blew me away. I don’t know what I was expecting because I have seriously never eaten a dish solely based on anchovies in my life. When it was served, I sat and looked at the plate, admiring the rustic preparation and realizing that it was not a tart by any means.  I actually wasn’t looking forward to eating another bread based entrée, considering my last few days were filled with pizza, delicious sandwiches and pastries.  I took a bite, closed my eyes and enjoyed the new mixture of flavors.  I couldn’t believe how savory, delicate and creamy the anchovies tasted.  I expected to be overwhelmed with a fishy and salty flavor from the anchovies and bitterness from the endive.  It tasted nothing like this. I learned that slowly cooking anchovies and endive softens the flavor and creates a lovely mixture that can be served as a main dish, a topping on bruschetta or pureed into a delicious dip. I asked the waiter if there was any Parmesan or cream added to the anchovies, but she shook his head, waved his pointer finger (very Italian) and said “absolutely not”. He was almost offended that I asked this question.  I realized this was another example of simplicity at its best. All you need is a few quality ingredients, good technique and a lot of love to create beautiful food.