The Goat Whisperer

31 10 2010

One of my favorite parts of traveling is incredible people you meet.  Italy is obviously an amazing place to be, but the people here have made this place more memorable than anything.  Over a month ago, I got the opportunity to visit a goat cheese farm in the mountains near a small town called Anghiari.  My friend Tierney, a Chicagoan who built a second home in Italy 8 years ago, showed me the highlights of all things food and wine around her local towns.  She could not stop raving about her friend Brent, a local goat cheesemaker from the States, producing some of the best products in all of Italy.  Tierny is passionately obsessed with food.  I had no doubt that the cheese was going to be good, but I assumed that she must be exaggerating when she said, “Kasey, you have no idea.  You have never tasted a goat cheese this good in your life.”

Let’s just say that I was overly impressed by my first experience at the farm.  Brent Zimmerman, the cheesemaker-god, was one of the most humble, down-to-earth, talented artisans that I have ever met.  He is the kind of guy you just want to be around. Originally from Michigan, Brent grew up on a farm with a bunch of animals.  When all of his friends were playing with toy cars and video games, Brent was on his farm bonding with the animals.  Somehow he felt like he could relate to animals more than people.  About 20 years ago, Brent moved to Italy, after falling  in love with an Italian stallion in New York City.  The only way he could get a Visa to live in Italy was to start a business. Brent decided to do what he knew best…buy a bunch of land and animals and become a farmer. He had no idea that this move would lead him into cheese-making.  That is what I love most about his story.  The fact that Brent just followed the current of life, love and opportunity to find his purpose in life. I guess I hope the same thing will happen to me.

The first time I met Brent, I toured around his farm, bought some incredible cheese and actually got the chance to cook a typical Tuscan meal at Tierney’s house the following night.  The dinner was special because I got to see a different side in Brent.  The side that is absolutely hilarious, the worker that is tired from 12 hours of daily manual labor, and the person with a dark past that has fought to change his future.  That dinner made me want more time with Brent.  I was attracted to his energy, work ethic and approach to life.  After dinner, I asked Brent if I could visit the farm again and work with him for a few days.  He answered without hesitation, “whenever…call me.  As long as I am cheesing and the girls (his goats) are giving me milk, you can come whenever.”  I was pumped for the next visit.

Two weeks ago, I got the chance to return to Valle di Mezzo farm and spend a long weekend with Brent, his goats and my friend Kelly (who was visiting from the states).  This time, we were able to get our hands dirty in the cheese room.  The best part was not making cheese, it was actually listening to the stories Brent shared about his life, passion, and love for animals.  Within hours of our arrival, Kelly and I met Brent in his cheese-room dressed in white rain boots to our knees (to keep the room clean), surrounded by the distinct smell of fresh cheese. We talked with Brent as he made fresh ricotta. He was standing over a huge stainless steel vat of liquid. Brent used a slotted spoon to delicately skim fresh ricotta curds floating on of the liquid from the whey on the bottom of the tank. He layered the ricotta curds into waiting plastic forms, as he told us about the delicate process of cheese-making and how he fell into cheesemaking:

The rest of weekend was full of unforgettable memories and lots of cheese.  It felt like we were there for weeks….Working in a local farmers market, learning about the goats and cheese making, going to local chestnut festivals, drinking too much wine, eating delicious food surrounded by endless laughter.  There’s too much to tell.  I will have to write it in the next blog.  For now, I hope you understand how amazing it can be to discover a wonderful person that can make you see life differently and produce amazing food!

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Gnocchi is simply delicious!

13 10 2010

Gnocchi is one of those foods I always convinced myself I didn’t like.  Mainly because it always seemed so bad for you.  Or maybe because I hate ordering something at a restaurant that I know is going to make me feel so freakin full.  I also can not stand going to a restaurant and feeling like I need to unbutton my pants and lie down for hours when I leave.  On the rare occasions that I have ordered gnocchi, I haven’t experienced the wonderful pillow-like texture it is known for.  The gnocchi I have eaten has been dense and chewy.  I would rather order a simple spaghetti or eggplant parmesan any day.

Last week my roommate’s sister Luisa offered to come to my apartment with her boyfriend and teach me a few typical family recipes.  I mean, how sweet and thoughtful are Italians!  She chose to teach me how to make gnocchi because it is one of her favorite childhood recipes.  She has been making gnocchi since she was five years old for birthday parties, christmas and other special holidays.  I was pretty pumped for this experience for two reasons.  First, I really wanted get over my aversion to this famous dish and taste an authentic preparation.  Second, I am obsessed with making anything that deals with dough.  Pasta, bread, gnocci….you name it….I love the slow process of making simple ingredients into a dough and transforming it into something absolutely delicious.

I would love to share the simple recipe with you so can have a taste of what I experienced.  It’s much easier than you think and you don’t even need a pasta machine.  Gnocchi is all about boiling potatoes, making a simple dough, rolling it out and hand cutting.  This recipe completely turned me on to gnocchi for the first time.  Each dumpling came out light, fluffy and tender.  We tossed the gnocchi in a butter-sage sauce, dusted with grated Parmesan, and it tasted fantastic!

Gnocchi Recipe:

(served 4 for a first course)

  • 5 medium-sized yellow skinned potatoes
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1-2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • Approximately 3/4- 1 cup of AP flour (enough flour to bind the potatoes and egg yolk into a dough)

Procedure:

  • Boil the potatoes in a pot of salted water until they are very tender. Take the potatoes out of the water and immediately peel their skins off.
  • Put the potatoes through a food mill or a ricer and let the potato pieces fall into a medium-sized bowl.  In the bowl, add the egg yolk, Kosher salt and 1/2 the amount of flour.  Mix the ingredients by hand and continue to add flour until it comes together like a dough. (it should look and feel like a light bread or pasta dough) NOTE: It is important to work with the potatoes when they are still hot….if you let them cool off completely, the dumplings will stick to each other.
  • Flour down a clean, flat surface and cut the dough in 6 pieces.  Roll out each piece of dough by hand like individual long snakes (1/2 inch wide).
  • Cut the snakes of dough into 3/4 inch pieces (wide) with a knife.
  • Using a fork or a perforated surface (like a cheese grater with rough edges), press each piece of gnocchi against it with your thumb and quickly turn your thumb to make and make a delicate indentation in the dough.
  • Bring a pot of boiling salted water to a boil.  Boil the gnocchi in 2-3 batches in the water for 3 minutes each. (the gnocchi will float to the top of the pot and taste tender when they are ready)
  • Immediately put the hot gnocchi in a bowl with a seasonal sauce.  I recommend sizzling butter with fresh sage or tomato sauce with mushrooms.
  • Enjoy with some fresh parmesan cheese and a nice bottle of wine!

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Charcuterie at its Finest

10 10 2010

In the three and half years I lived in San Francisco I was exposed to a new food group…..some call it charcuterie, others say salumi, most Midwesterners would call this cured goodness salami.  All I know is that I love and appreciate the flavors, imagination and craftsmanship that goes into charcuterie like non-other.  As a Midwesterner and a frequent Colorado visiter, I always ate different forms of cured meat as a child.  Salami or chorizo were staples on our family camping trips.  I paid no attention to the quality or complexity of flavor in the salami on these trips, I always viewed this cured deliciousness as source of fat and protein on our long hikes.

When I moved to San Francisco I was finally exposed to the real deal food and wine scene.  The word charcuterie meant something important and gourmet in this scene.  It took me a few years to really discover all of the delicious products that defined this word.  As a food and wine pairing specialist at Cellar360, it was my job to discover unique cured meats, patés and confits to pair with wines.  In search for the best products in the Bay Area, I started to learn about the process of making salumi and all of its variations.  Charcuterie is part of a specific culinary repertoire originally intended on preserving meats.  Cured meats are commonly made of pork meat combined with a specific percentage of pork fat, salt, pepper and other seasonings.  Nowadays, it has become fashionable to play around with curing beef, duck, wild boar, fish and other exotic meats.  Nothing seems to be off-limits.

Many sources say that charcuterie is one of the top 10 food trends in 2010.  It seems crazy to think that preserving meat, such a mid-evil act of necessity, has come back in fashion.  The truth is, charcuterie tastes so freaking good, it has a terrific shelf life and an incredible amount of applications. It makes complete sense why it has come back in fashion.  Plus, chefs are discovering new and exciting ways to make cured meats more current like adding fresh truffles or local fruits and herbs.

Last week when I was in Florence with my mom, I came across the most interesting charcuterie shop I have ever seen in my life.  Not only was it aesthetically pleasing, it had the most bountiful display of high quality cured meats I have ever come across.  I literally wanted to stay in this shop for hours and taste every type of meat available. Instead, I took a good look around and decided to film my excitement.  I hope you can imagine how amazing this place was in real life.  For god sakes….when you walked in there was a wild boar on the wall!





Must-Buy Cookbook

9 10 2010


The time has come to buy one of the best cookbooks of the year! (and yes, the recipe for this  plum tart is in the book!)

Alright, so I am a bit biased (because one of my best friends wrote the book), but I would never endorse something I didn’t completely believe in.  This book is full of incredible recipes, but also wonderful photography and storytelling.  My dear friend Jessica Theroux, who I met working at my first restaurant in San Francisco, was awarded a fellowship from Brown over 10 years ago to go to Italy and film, photograph and cook with about 13 old woman in small villages of Italy.  Her goal was to capture authentic recipes and traditions that you will not find in any typical Italian cookbook or restaurant in the states.

I can honestly say, after helping test over 20 recipes for the book last winter, Jessica accomplished her mission.  This book is truly a work of art and a must have in your collection cookbooks in your kitchen.  For more specific information on the book, check out the website:    www.cookingwithitaliangrandmothers.com
The book can be  purchased on Amazon now at this link:
As the recipes have inspired me, I assure you that it is a great personal gift and an incredible gift for a food-loving friend. I just bought 5 copies and I can’t wait to read the finished product and gift it to my friends when I get home from Italy.