Archive for December, 2009

Tips for packing food and wine in a suitcase

bubble wrap packing for wineWhen we posted What to buy in an Italian grocery store and What to buy in a Spanish grocery store, we neglected to mention how to get those delicacies home. International airline security restrictions limiting liquids, gels, and pastes (including most soft foods) to 3 ounces in carry-on luggage means entrusting your goodies to the gorillas who slam around checked luggage.

Leaving home, we try to fill our checked bags only halfway, taking up the extra space with bubble wrap and really large plastic bags. (A friend once suggested we have a bag fetish.) Hefty One-Zip 2 1/2 gallon bags are ideal. A few 1-gallon sliding zipper plastic bags are also handy. Small items like jars of anchovies, truffle oil, or pistachio butter from Sicily can go in the gallon bags after each is padded with some bubble wrap (the smaller the bubbles the better).

Bottles of wine and olive oil are a little trickier, since they’re bigger and make an unholy mess if they break. We haven’t had a suitcase ruined, but we did manage to saturate a Spanish rental car trunk with two liters of Núñez del Prado olive oil.

We tend to wrap each bottle in a plastic laundry bag (thank you, hotel), then in bubble wrap before inserting into a Hefty. Each of these mummy-wrapped bottles is packed strategically in the suitcase padded by lots of dirty clothes. Practically speaking, this means no more than 3-4 big bottles per suitcase to stay under the airlines’ increasingly strict weight limitations.

If you’re flying an airline that allows two pieces of checked baggage, you can also ship wine in its own box. Ideally, that would be a box with styrofoam shipping inserts (sometimes called a “wine shipper”), but we’ve had good success with a standard wine case and lots of bubble wrap (limiting you to about 8 bottles per 12-bottle case). Attach a secure handle, which can be made from strapping tape, and pray you’re not flying Alitalia, which requires you to sign a waiver before they will accept the box as checked luggage. (They won’t guarantee safe arrival–or even arrival at all.)

30

12 2009

Sonoma Christmas cookie

I like California’s Sonoma County because viticulture and winemaking haven’t yet overwhelmed traditional farming. Almost everything seems to grow there, and one great place to sample the agricultural traditions is Kozlowski Farms (5566 Gravenstein Highway 116, Forestville, California, 707-887-1587), one of the oldest family farms in the county. The farm store is open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

When Carol Kozlowski’s parents bought the farm nearly 60 years ago, they began growing apples and then branched out into raspberries. “We had an overabundance and began to make jam,” she says. “So we put a sign on the side of the road and that launched our business.” The family still grows apples and makes cider, but concentrates on developing new products and operating a farm stand stocked with about 100 different jams, jellies, salad dressings, chutneys, vinegars, fruit butters, mustards, barbecue sauces, and honeys. You can almost make a meal just from the samples. A bakery on the premises offers one of the Kozlowski family’s most inspired raspberry concoctions: a raspberry chocolate chip cookie that, while not quite as decorative as some seasonal cookies, is a big hit around our house at Christmas.

Kozlowski Farms Classic Raspberry Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients

1/2 lb. butter or margarine, softened
2 cups (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 10-ounce jar red raspberry jam

Directions

In large mixing bowl, blend butter with brown and white sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture and blend together well. Add chocolate chips.

Roll a rounded teaspoon of dough in a ball and set onto a greased cookie sheet. Flatten cookie slightly and push down center to create a small indentation. Fill these indentations with a dab of jam. Space cookies about 2 inches apart.

Bake 8-10 minutes in preheated 375 degree oven.

20

12 2009

What to buy in an Italian grocery store

Since so many of the regional Italian cuisines are based on food that is fresh, fresh, fresh, we’re limited in what we can bring back home. But there are some dry goods and conserves that turn out to be very useful in cooking Italian dishes. We’ve learned not to bother with colored pastas, which cook up to a gray mess anyway, because we can buy good imported dry pasta for about the same price we’d pay for it in Italy.

Here’s our Italian grocery list:

AnchoviesAnchovies.
Many Americans think they don’t like anchovies because they have never tasted good ones used with the restraint characteristic of Italian recipes. We look for anchovies packed in glass jars so we can make sure they are firm and whole. We also check the jar for an expiration date several months in the future.

Dried mushrooms.
Dried fungi, especially dried porcini mushrooms, are central to a number of pastas and risottos. Alas, purchasing in an Italian market doesn’t provide much of a price break over buying in US gourmet import stores, but because Italian cooks use a lot of dried mushrooms, the shelf stock is always fresh. Even dry, porcini should remain flexible.

RicesRice.
We buy arborio for most risottos, but always get some vialone nano for seafood risottos, and Roma for Roman rice dishes. They’re all strains of short-grained, oval rice. The less expensive riso originale (the more generic mother strain) is a good choice for soups or arancini, but we rarely buy it unless we have a lot of room left in the suitcase. The same one-kilo box of vialone nano we buy in Italy for two euros is nearly $15 in the U.S.

Bouillon cubes.
Bouillon cubes and soup bases differ from country to country-even the international brands like Knorr. Those sold in the Italian markets are seasoned to Italian taste, and work very well as a backup for having your own homemade stock. We like the Starr brand, especially the porcini mushroom bouillon cubes.

Mushroom salad.
Jarred marinated mushrooms provide an instant antipasto. We generally look for mixed “woods” mushrooms for variety of colors and shapes. Fior di Bosco is a good choice.

Tomato pasteTomato paste in a tube.
Often ridiculously expensive at home, the tubes of double-concentrated Italian tomato paste are a perfect solution for providing just a touch of tomato to a soup or a sauce. The flavor is typically richer and a little sweeter than canned tomato paste.

Herbs.
There are few dried herbs used in Italian cooking that we can’t buy at home, but we like the aromatic sweetness of Italian oregano for seasoning sauces and salads.

Salt.
Like the Spaniards, the Italians typically use sea salt to season their food, though their salt is usually more refined than the Spanish. Italian processed sea salt is usually found in both fino and grosso (fine and coarse). The coarse salt is intended for oven-roasting fish or meat, but can do double duty in a salt grinder.

MostardaMostarda de la Cremona.
The great cookbook author (and all-around generous soul) Michele Scicolone turned us on to this conserve of small fruits poached in sugar syrup until they become nearly translucent. A secondary seasoning with mustard syrup gives the mostarda a sweet-savory quality similar to a chutney, but even more beautiful to serve with a bollito misto (a ring of mixed meats). You can buy it in bulk at deli counters as pictured, but mostardas are also sold in jars (easier to take home).

18

12 2009

Meeting the master of meat

BrunoBassettoBruno Bassetto of Treviso, Italy, knows meat. The 61-year-old butcher set a Guinness World Record in October by crafting a salamella—a kind of fresh pork sausage—more than 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) long. I had the good fortune to watch him trim a piece of round and make steak tartare in seconds with a pair of huge knives. But beyond his obvious showmanship, Bassetto is also a master of charcuterie. In addition to fresh meat, his butcher shop (via Mantiero 22, Treviso; 011-39-0422-231-945, www.brunobassettocarni.it) also carries fresh and cured sausages, which range from slender little pepperoni to a great expression of the local Veneto sopressa (a soft, cured sausage about 3 inches in diameter). carne crudaIn late fall and winter, he also makes a cooked pork sausage that incorporates the surprisingly sweet Treviso radicchio. It’s worth a stop to pick up a sausage for a picnic in the surrounding countryside (he makes plenty that are short enough to carry) and to shake the big, strong hand of the master of meat.

14

12 2009

What to buy in a Spanish grocery store

SpanishpimentonWe love visiting fresh markets when we travel, but except for dried herbs and spices, most of the goods won’t make it through US Customs. Once we’ve snapped dozens of photos of mounds of vegetables and tables of glistening fish on ice, we head to a neighborhood grocery store (the kind where homemakers, not tourists, shop) to stock up on food essentials to bring home.

Here’s our Spanish grocery list:

Saffron.
Spaniards claim their saffron is the world’s best and price it accordingly. The larger the container, the better the deal. We usually purchase saffron in 20-gram boxes or larger. (A half gram is sufficient for a 15-inch paella.) Stored in an airtight container out of the light, it will keep up to seven years—or so we have been told. It never lasts that long for us.

Pimentón de la Vera.
The colorful tins holding this smoked paprika from Extremadura are almost irresistible. The earthy red spice with a mild hint of smoke is used to season chorizo and most forms of paella. It’s most commonly available as dulce (sweet) or picante (hot). The dulce, which is slightly hot, is the best to add a touch of warmth and deep coloring to rice dishes and soups and is the main paprika used in Spanish sauces (including Bravas sauce). The picante is at least as hot as most Mexican chile peppers, and should be used sparingly. If we plan to make a barbecue dry rub, we look for the less common ahumado, which has a strong smoky component.

Sea Salt.
Flaked sea salt is a current foodie favorite, but we prefer the coarser Spanish sea salt sold for roasting fish or fowl. It can be ground in a salt grinder to use at the table or tossed into liquids as a seasoning. Our favorite brand, Sal Costa from the Costa Brava, costs less than a half euro per kilo.

fishtinsCanned fish.
The Spaniards are canning geniuses, and their tinned anchovies, oysters, squid, octopus, clams, and sardines are the secret behind half the tapas served in the bars. The white anchovies in particular are so good that the Italians import them.

Olive oil.
Olive oil is a matter of personal taste, but Spaniards tend to concur that the best in Spain comes from Andalucía—either from Núñez del Prado, or from hill towns around Úbeda. Best bet is “bionatur” oil packaged in tins rather than bottles.

Bomba rice.
This heritage strain of rice introduced to the Valencia area from North Africa around 800AD is the premium rice for paella. It’s twice as expensive as “Valencia” rice, and worth every cent for its ability to absorb flavor and maintain its toothy texture.

Manchego cheese.
This aged ewe’s milk cheese is the pride of Spanish cheeses. We sometimes bring an entire three-kilo wheel home, but big vacuum-sealed wedges are also available in most grocery stores. It keeps fine for several days without refrigeration.

PouringhotchocolateValor chocolate.
Anyone who visits in cool weather soon discovers the soothing pleasures of Spain’s unusually thick hot chocolate. Valor is a common supermarket brand for recreating the treat at home. It’s even good without the accompanying churros.

09

12 2009

Bringing food through US Customs

Sometimes you can’t bring the taste of travel back home. We learned the hard way by trying to bring in a large block of mountain ham from Spain. Mind you, this was the choicest grade of jamón ibérico (from acorn-fattened black-footed pigs), and priced accordingly. The salesperson at the factory in Jabugo assured us that it would go right through U.S. Customs because it was vacuum-sealed.

When we declared the ham, Customs promptly confiscated it as if we were smuggling uncle Guido’s homemade country sausage. You can argue the validity of the policy all you want, but Customs people do not make policy. They only enforce it. One of us was already tired of pungent Spanish ham anyway.

To avoid disappointment, costly or not, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of the USDA and FDA regulations that U.S. Customs will enforce.

Meat is not welcome. In theory, this even extends to canned meat and meat derivatives, like sausages in tin cans, soup mixes, bouillon cubes, or jerky snacks. By contrast, most fish and fish products are welcome—even dried salt cod, should you wish to really foul up your luggage.

The regulations on bringing cheese into the U.S. are complex, but in the absence of extensive paperwork, Customs officials use a rule of thumb: Firm and hard aged cheeses are fine. Soft and runny cheeses are not. Fresh cheeses like ricotta and feta are out of the question.

Most fresh fruits and vegetables are no-no’s at Customs. In theory, many of them are permitted if you can prove where they were grown. In practice, they are almost universally confiscated. An interesting exception are fresh truffles. Truffles are OK—as long as not a speck of soil clings to them. Soil is strictly forbidden without a special import license.

In theory, the restrictions on food are supposed to protect American agriculture and ensure that foods meet U.S. health standards. Dry goods in general are OK, and they are the easiest to pack. Spices and condiments take up little space in your luggage, and they often concentrate some of the essential flavors of a cuisine. Customs frowns on rice from Asia and Africa, but we have never had a problem bringing home Italian and Spanish rice for making risottos and paellas. Specialty flours are no big deal. Ditto dried mushrooms and chile peppers.

This being the government, the rules are subject to constant change and there are many, many exceptions. For a full run-down on the regulations on any given day related to any product and any country of origin, see the databases at the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service of the USDA.

07

12 2009

Steaming mussels in Belgian witbier

Eric Cauwbarghs of Brasserie Kouterhof

Eric Cauwbarghs of Brasserie Kouterhof

As Belgians will attest, beer is every bit as good as white wine for steaming mussels. Chef Eric Cauwbarghs of the Brasserie Kouterhof, which is attached to the ‘t Wit Gebrouw brewery in Hoegaarden, Belgium (about a half hour east of Brussels on a commuter train), showed me this straightforward but aromatic way to make a hearty winter dish of mussels and vegetables. The brewery’s Hoegaarden witbier (white beer) is made with Curaçao orange peel and coriander, and the aromatics make a big difference in the flavor of the mussels. When I can’t find Hoegaarden witbier at home (it’s distributed selectively by Anheuser-Busch), I substitute another wheat beer and augment it with a little fresh orange zest.

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 pounds mussels
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 stalk of celery, cut diagonally in 1/2 inch slices
2 small crowns broccoli, sliced 1/4 inch thick on the long diagonal
1 large red pepper, seeded and cut in 1/2 inch strips
3/4 cup Hoegaarden witbier
1/4 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Directions

1. Scrub mussels in cold water, removing any adhering beards or barnacles and discarding any broken mussels or any that don’t close when touched by cold water. Reserve cleaned mussels.

2. Place olive oil in large sauté pan with tall sides. Warm over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 2 minutes.

3. Add garlic, celery, broccoli, and red peppers. Turn heat to high. Stirring continuously, sauté until broccoli begins to soften, about 2 minutes.

Mussels and vegetables

Mussels and vegetables

4. Add mussels to sauté pan. Add beer and anchovy paste and stir constantly over high heat until mussels open (2-3 minutes). Pour in cream and stir until warmed through.

5. Add sliced scallions and chopped parsley to pan. Stir well over high heat for another 30 seconds.

6. Serve with freshly cut bread, cold beer, and extra bowls for the shells.

01

12 2009