Less is More

15 02 2012

Sometimes less is more when it comes to food.  The Italians definitely understand this concept.  Italian food is all about using the best ingredients in their truest form.  While I tend to complicate my recipes with a list of 15 ingredients, my new goal is to restrain this impulse and use less to develop big flavors.

What does that mean to me?  It means, sourcing food that is in season.  If food is in season then you don’t have to add all sorts of fats, sugars or spices to make it taste better.  It’s simply delicious and full or flavor to start.  I also try to use one unique speciality ingredient in each recipe for a “wow” factor. Last, I try to focus on delicately balancing flavors in a dish.  When I am using only four ingredients, they are all strategically picked to form a ying and yang balance.

A few weeks ago,  I was in Ann Arbor Michigan again with my close Italian friend, Cristiana visiting Monique, the owner of “Al Dente” pasta.  Monique proposed a challenge to me, “come up with a pasta recipe using only three main ingredients.  I want this pasta to be easy to make, economic, and delicious.”  I am not the most competitive person in the world, but I love challenges when it comes to food.  My mind started wrapping around flavor combinations that would not only showcase the pasta but make a unique statement.

That afternoon while we were walking around a fish market in Kerrytown, I passed by some high-quality Italian tuna in olive oil.  Immediately my mind flashed back to last year in Italy when was I was shopping for one of my first meals in Pisa.   I went into the best specialty shop in town and carefully examined the case of cured meats, cheeses, fish and antipasti.   What stood out to me was this huge chunk of gorgeous tuna sitting in a large bowl of golden olive oil.  Everyone in the store was buying a bit of the tuna, so I knew I had to try it.  I purchased about 1/2 lb. for 15 dollars.  The high cost assured me this tuna was going to taste a hell of a lot better than our fishy canned tuna “Starkist” in the states.  That night I made a meal, flaking the tuna into a pasta dish with some local ingredients.  The flavors of the tuna were savory and delicate (with no fishy taste at all) combined with the bitterness of arugula and creamy Parmesan cheese.  I was thrilled to discover how sexy and seductive tuna could taste with a simple pasta dish.

So my decision was made, right then and there in the Kerrytown fish market.  I was going to create an Italian flaked tuna pasta recipe with seasonal ingredients for Monique’s challenge.  I picked out some gorgeous pink turnips, fresh blossoming spinach, and imported  Tonnino Italian Tuna in oil and set out to re-create that magical dish inspired by the Tuscan market.

Monique, her friends and Cristiana all loved the pasta!  I hope this recipe makes you appreciate good quality canned tuna and inspires you to play around with new combinations of flavors.  Please let me know what you think!

Flakey Tuna and Roasted Turnip Fettucini:


6 large turnips, cut in small pieces

4 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, minced

6 oz. fresh spinach (or arugula)

6-7 oz. high-quality Italian Tuna in olive oil

1.5 Tbs. capers, minced

1/3 cup Parmesan, freshly grated

½ lemon, juiced

1 bag (10 oz.) whole wheat “Al Dente” Fettucini

Kosher Salt and Black Pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut each turnip in half horizontally.  Cut each half of turnip in eight pieces and put the small pieces on a sheet tray.  Repeat with the rest of the turnips.  Toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until tender and caramelized.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil from the jar of tuna.  When the oil is hot, add the minced garlic and sauté for 20 seconds.  Toss in the fresh arugula, seasoning with a pinch of salt and black pepper, and sauté for 3-4 minutes until the spinach is wilted.  Flake in the tuna over the spinach and add the capers and roasted turnips. Turn off the heat.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook for 3 minutes.  Before draining, add 1/3 cup of pasta water to the pan with the arugula, tuna and turnips.  Drain the pasta and add it directly into the pan with the other ingredients.  Stir over low heat for 2-3, adding the lemon juice, 2 Tbs. of olive oil, fresh Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste.  Enjoy!


The True Olive Oil Experience!

16 01 2012

Yesterday was an incredibly special “Culinary Gathering” co-hosted by my wonderful Italian friend Cristiana.  We met last year in San Casciano, her home town in Chianti, Italy.  She opened the doors of her life to me as we ate wonderful meals at her family’s home, toured her famous Tuscan farm and nursery, wine-tasted all over the region, met local pasta makers and olive oil producers and traveled to different regions of Italy together.

Yesterday Cristiana was in my home. It was quite an honor to share my life, my home and and especially my passion for food with her. We hosted an “Italian Culinary Gathering” to share the unique recipes from her Grandmother’s kitchen, “La Bruna”, with some of my most loyal clients.  The food was unlike any Italian food I have tasted in the US.  It was full of bursting flavors and unusual techniques that I have never considered in my approach to cooking.  Most importantly, this “Culinary Gathering” was full of love, warmth and appreciation for a fantastic culture.

I’d like to share with you a small clip of Cristiana teaching the class how to taste the olive oil from her farm.  It’s a tradition in Italy called “Fettunta”: The only way to celebrate the new olive oil of the year.

To purchase Maldon Salt check out The Spice House in Chicago or Evanston

Adventures in Goat Cheesing

4 11 2010

After spending four days on a goat farm in Italy, I can honestly only compare it to one other experience of my life: Wine Making.  Six years ago I had the chance to work the harvest on a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina.  I expected to work a few hours, maybe stomp on some grapes, drink wine all day and be merry.  My expectations were quite far from reality.  Wine and cheese making are completely glorified arts.  While the finished products are full of pleasure, most people have no idea how much hard work, manual labour and finesse goes into them.  Fortunately, my friend Kelly and I had the opportunity to “visit” a fantastic goat cheese farm (without doing the crazy work) in exchange for room and board.  Here are some highlights of the trip:

Brent’s (the cheese maker’s) Vegetable Garden: Along the side of Brent’s property,  lies a beautiful vegetable garden.  Let me preface with the fact that we were there in the middle of October so I was shocked to see so much life in the garden.  The vegetables that were growing were plump and succulent. The garden was sprouting everything you can imagine: cherry tomatoes, blossoming zucchini with yellow flowers, green and red peppers, lemon verbena, mint, basil, rosemary, chives, spring onions, cabbage, etc. We also discovered a luscious fig tree bearing juicy red fruit and olive trees with un-ripened green pellets waiting to be pressed into fresh olive oil.  Within 30 minutes of being at the farm, I discovered the beautiful garden and picked a huge bunch of lemon verbena to brew hot tea and a combination of zucchini, sprouting scallions, garlic, pepperoncino, thyme and chives to saute for an afternoon snack.  Gotta love seasonal gardens!

Pizza at a Dive in Small Town Italy:

Brent and his partner invited us out for a local dinner the first night of our stay. We went to this tiny town called Anghiari (with literally 4 restaurants) where they apparently know how to make some serious thin crust pizza.  It was honestly more similar to flatbread than what I know as pizza from Chicago.  It was also Kelly’s first pizza in Italy and she really hit the jackpot. Her order: homemade tomato sauce, creamy buffalo mozzarella, roasted eggplant, fresh pepperoni, gorgonzola, and arugula. It sounds like a lot of ingredients, but let me tell you this pizza stopped conversation.  I watched as Kelly’s eyes rolled back and she literally took a moment for herself.  It put a big smile on my face…having my friend really taste the essence of Italy in one delicious bite.

Selling Cheese at a Local Farmers Market: The next morning we helped Brent at the local Farmer’s Market in the center of a rustic cobble-stoned piazza in a nearby town. He was joined by about 20 other local artisanal farmer’s, each representing their own specific trade.  Consequently, all of the food was absolutely out of this world.  The market was filled with the ingredients of Fall: black and white truffles, firm sheep’s milk cheeses from Sicily, local Sangiovese wines, fantastically crisp pears and apples, green olive oils, almond biscotti, Porchetta, moldy salami’s and of course all of the fresh goat cheeses that we were selling.  Kelly and I took breaks from our cheese stand to buy ingredients for dinner that we were going to cook in the evening. We assisted Brent as he sold his artisanal cheeses, watching wide-eyed as he bargained with old italian women, conversed in the native tongue with a few Dutch and German expats, joked with young cherub italian children as he handed out samples, and bartered with the italian wine maker to trade his cheese for wine. To be behind the booth at a local Italian farmer’s market is an experience I’ll never forget. It was a truly amazing morning.

Best Cappuccino of my life:
During the farmers market, I experienced one of the best hot beverage moments ever. (I say “hot beverage” because I the wine moments I have had on this trip our countless) The cafe itself was adorable.  Not because it had cute tables, couches or a fireplace, but because it was filled with a warm yet excited energy.  The weather was absolutely freezing  outside and even though I was wearing 6 layers and a funny hoodie scarf, I felt chilled to the bone. That didn’t stop locals from being overwhelmingly friendly and seemingly joyful about being alive.  It was the kind of coffee shop you wanted to stand in and people watch all day.  The cappuccino was like the chocolate icing on a delicious red velvet cake.  It was the perfect mixture of dark Italian espresso, hot whole milk and the foamiest foam in the world.  The best part was that it was served with a freakin dark chocolate spoon!  I mean, come on!  My freezing hand-picked up that dark spoon of love and dipped it in right in the foamy coffee deliciousness.  The flavors were like an instant dark chocolate mocha in my mouth.  Kelly and I hung out at this spot for another 15 minutes, lingering over with our perfect cappuccino’s and marveling over the quick movements of the baristas.  Before I left, I told one of them,” multo bene (very good). Este cafe es perfectione!” The barista looked at me stunned and when she finally realized what I was saying she bowed and graciously thanked me for my compliment.  I guess Italian barista’s don’t get that kind of complement from their local customers every day!
A Seasonal Feast on the Farm:
The best part of  knowing how to cook is that it is universally appreciated.  It is my way of giving back.  Kelly and I felt so lucky to be having this experience on the farm that we offered to make dinner the last night for Brent, his partner, and Tierney. The night was filled with intimate stories, enough laughs to make your belly hurt, great food and too much wine. To start, we enjoyed some of the cured meats from the farmers market with crispy apples and fresh figs. Brent picked some huge pieces of fresh sage from his garden and fried them up, seasoned them with crispy salt and served them right out of the pan.  Kelly nearly died over the unique flavor of the fried sage chips.  For dinner we ate a salad of spicy arugula, roasted peppers, capers, anchovies, sliced celery, and shaved goat’s milk cheese from Brent’s farm, with balsamic and olive oil. As a side, I roasted small pieces of baby cauliflower and broccoli with Brent’s homemade chili and garlic oil. For the main course we had some artisanal pasta with some sautéed miniature chanterelle mushrooms, local pork sausage from the market, garlic, olive oil, and white wine. It was a serious feast, if you can imagine. We sat around the table, talked about life for hours and got seriously tipsy. Fantastico!