I just returned from touring vineyards in the Morellino di Scansano DOCG district in southwest Tuscany, and once in a while I had to stop to eat. One of the most memorable meals was at Trattoria Verdiana (Ponticello di Montemerano on the road between Scansano and Montemerano, tel: [011-34] 0564-602-576). It’s open nightly except Wednesday, and uses the produce from a 10,000 square meter garden as the basis for the menu. There, as here in New England, the growing season is coming to a close. So I was surprised and delighted when the amuse-bouche pictured above appeared in front of me. It’s a grape tomato (upside down) cut in half, filled with a dab of creamy burrata and a tiny basil leaf. The whole composition was then drizzled in a great local olive oil. It summed up summer in a bite.
Archive for the ‘Italy’Category
All good things must come to an end, and so too our cache of world-class cheese and ham from the Legends from Europe consortium. We had one 4-ounce piece of Montasio cheese remaining, along with four slices of prosciutto di Parma. And it was time for lunch.
We found a jar of fig jam and some slices of whole wheat sandwich bread in the pantry. Drawing on inspiration closer to home (the fig, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola pizza from Todd English’s original Olives, now Figs), we had the makings of a terrific grilled sandwich. If it were Italy and we had a panini press, it would have been a prosciutto and cheese panino and we might have skipped the fig jam.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s easy and delicious.
Leave it to the Italians to keep dessert simple. With its strong umami flavor (second only to Roquefort cheese in glutamate levels), Parmigiano-Reggiano makes everything around it taste better. Following the Italian example, we like to make a plate with a mix of nuts, dried fruit, and fresh fruit. This fall, for example, we paired chunks of a two-year-old buttery summer milk Parmigiano-Reggiano with lightly toasted walnuts, diced apple, and buttered slices of baguette.
The extra special touch on each plate was a small cluster of raisins that I brought home from Donnafugata’s vineyards on Pantelleria. The Zibbibo grape (Moscato di Alessandria) is one of the few things that grows on this windswept rock halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. (The other is capers.) The picked grapes are spread under muslin-topped hoops to dry from the heat and wind. Then the Rallo family presses the bunches to make Ben Ryé, an intense passito wine. When I visited the winery, Giacomo plucked a large bunch off the conveyor belt and handed it to me. “For the flight,” he said, but the grapes were so intense that I saved them for months – until the Legends from Europe presented us with all that delicious cheese.
The last time I was in San Daniele del Friuli, I was traveling with the restaurateurs of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani (GRI) on one of their annual pilgrimages to Italy to research products, find new sources, and generally take inspiration from the regional products. Since we were a fairly large group, we booked a meal at Prosciutterie DOK dall’ Ava (via Gemona 47, tel. 0432-940-280, www.dallava.com, open daily 10-10), one of the town’s full-service restaurants with a prosciutto-oriented menu.
It’s a funny place, since it’s outside the main village and near one of the prosciutto factories. It looks like a tourist trap, to be honest, and bus groups stop here. But the service and the food are both terrific and the prices, while not cheap, are pretty reasonable for top-quality prosciutto. We shared lovely plates of sliced prosciutto, prosciutto and melon, and prosciutto and asparagus, and we each ordered a small individual plate. Mine was as simple as it gets – fresh pappardelle tossed with prosciutto and hastily sautéed tomatoes.
Normally I reserve this dish for the summer months when I have a surplus of sweet, fresh tomatoes. I dip them in boiling water and slip off the skins, then chop them coarsely, and sauté in a little olive oil with shredded prosciutto. Tomatoes this time of year are nowhere near as good, so I’ve taken to using the Pomi brand of boxed diced tomatoes instead. A 750 ml box drained and three slices of prosciutto works out just right for two people. (Save the juice for making minestrone.) To make a really easy dish at home, I like to use Colavita brand dried pasta. The rigatoni 31 cooks up nice and plump to support the tomato and flecks of ham.
San Daniele del Friuli is a beautiful little community about 20 kilometers southwest of the big industrial city of Udine, located in the hill country where dry-aged hams are a tradition. Making prosciutto is the principal business of the town – perhaps followed by eating it. Even some of the flower planters in town are in the shape of pigs.
Although the Friulani love their asparagus (see my posts from May 2009), the only time I’ve ever eaten asparagus risotto in Friuli, it was made with white asparagus. The Friulani version was silken and smooth and very pale. Oddly enough, I had often been served cold steamed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, and Pat and I wondered why we’d never seen a risotto that combined the two. Since we had some extra prosciutto di San Daniele available, I thought I’d see how the delicate ham would be in risotto with Grana Padano, a more understated grating cheese than Parmigiano. Local asparagus isn’t in season, but I was lucky to get some plump, crisp spears that had just come off the plane from Peru.
We were pleased to discover that as long as neither the asparagus nor the prosciutto is overcooked, this recipe makes a risotto in which all the elements — the prosciutto, the cheese, the rice, the asparagus, and the stock — not only retain their individual flavors and identities, they combine into a delicious, harmonious risotto. We’ll certainly be eating it again.
This is another pressure-cooker risotto, but can be made conventionally by steaming the asparagus for five minutes, and cooking the risotto while constantly stirring and adding liquid for 20-25 minutes. If doing it conventionally, you’ll need another half cup of stock.
1/4 cup strong chicken stock
1 pound asparagus, cleaned and trimmed
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 cup arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine
1 cup strong chicken stock plus reserved liquid from steaming
4 slices prosciutto di San Daniele, cut into 1/4-inch squares
2 oz. Grana Padano cheese, finely grated (about 3/4 unpacked cup)
1. Place rack in 3.5 liter pressure cooker and add 1/4 cup chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Place asparagus spears on rack, close pressure cooker, and steam 60 seconds. Quick cool pot and remove asparagus. Cut into 1-inch lengths and reserve. Pour off steaming liquid and reserve.
2. Wipe out pot. Add olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until soft. Add rice and stir well to coat with oil. Turn heat up to high and add wine, stirring constantly until nearly absorbed (about 90 seconds).
3. Add chicken stock and liquid reserved from steaming asparagus; stir well. Secure lid on pressure cooker and bring up to pressure. Cook for 7 minutes before quick-cooling pot to remove lid.
4. Place pot back on low heat and stir. (The risotto should be soupy and the rice slightly too firm.) Add asparagus and prosciutto. Stir to mix thoroughly and continue stirring over low heat for 1 minute.
5. Remove from heat and stir in Grana Padano, blending well.
6. Divide risotto into two 16- to 20-ounce shallow bowls and serve.
The Legends from Europe folks passed along a packet of prosciutto di Parma, the most familiar of the Italian raw hams seen in the U.S. and the one most imitated by American and South American producers. To qualify for the PDO label as prosciutto di Parma, the ham must come from pigs fed a special diet and raised in a defined north-central region of Italy. Additionally, the ham must be cured in the countryside near Parma in Emilia-Romagna. Much of the intense flavor comes from applying just enough salt to keep the ham “sweet” and then aging it at least 400 days. (The photo above shows whole hams hanging in a chilled aging room in Italy.)
Parma prosciutto is the most intense of the Italian raw hams and stands up well to other strong flavors. It is often paired with melon and even combined with Gorgonzola cheese on pizzas. But melon is out of season, so I decided to try the prosciutto di Parma with some gorgeous but firm Anjou pears. I peeled the pears, cut them in eighths, wrapped prosciutto around each wedge, and roasted them for four minutes under a broiler.
Once they cooled, I arranged them on some local red-leaf lettuce tossed with a light vinaigrette and sprinkled on some toasted walnuts and a few crumbles of mountain Gorgonzola. The saltiness of the ham was a perfect foil to the Gorgonzola, and the slight crunch of the lettuce highlighted the crisp edges of the warm prosciutto. In fact, lightly roasting the prosciutto retains the flavor of the raw ham but adds a bacon overtone.
It made a great lunch.
With the advent of short days and cold nights, menu planning in my house switches from summer vegetables to the heartier foods of winter. So when the Legends from Europe promotional team (legendsfromeurope.com)came through Boston last week and bequeathed me a small cache of Montasio, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses and a few precious ounces each of San Daniele and Parma prosciuttos, I started recreating some of the great dishes I remember eating in northern Italy. I’m sharing them on the site as a series of four courses. All five products are registered under the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) program – a guarantee of regional authenticity. Accept no substitutes! So-called “parmesans” from Wisconsin or Argentina may be tasty cheeses, but they are not Parmigiano Reggiano by a long shot.
Of the products in the consortium, Montasio cheese is the least well known in the U.S. It is a distinctive aged cow’s milk cheese made in the foothills of the Alps in northeast Italy. It hails from the northern section of the Veneto and from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I was really pleased to get my hands on some to recreate one of my Friulian favorites, frico con patate.
The simplest way to make frico is to fry grated Montasio until it begins to crisp and serve it as a lacy wafer with a glass of white wine as a snack or an appetizer. But in Friuli, people like to add potato and onion to make a hearty eggless “omelet” like the one detailed below. I served it last week with slices of the last remaining garden tomato that’s been ripening on a counter since I rescued it from frost just before Halloween.
FRICO CON PATATE
Serves 2 as an appetizer
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 bunch scallions, white and pale green portions, thinly sliced
1 medium waxy potato (red bliss or yellow Finn), peeled and coarsely grated
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated Montasio cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine half the scallions with grated potato and add to omelet pan. Sprinkle salt over mixture. Cook, turning frequently with spatula, until potato is cooked through.
Combine remaining scallions with cheese. Sprinkle over potato and cook without stirring over low heat until Montasio melts and forms a lightly browned crust on bottom – about 10 minutes. Loosen edges with spatula and turn over to brown other side about 3 minutes.
Blot excess oil and divide in half to serve.
Chef Alceo Rapa is not just a great cook — he’s a terrific showman. When David had Rapa’s seafood risotto with Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani at Ristorante da Alceo in Pesaro (Le Marche) last spring, Rapa set off a bottle of spumante as if it were a fountain. The risotto used delectable shrimp from the cold waters seven miles out in the Adriatic along with Grand Marnier, parsley, fish stock, and blood orange juice. At the finish, Rapa added a teaspoon of sugar to the just-opened bottle of sparkling wine, and voila! Happy New Year!
Ristorante da Alceo, Strada Panoramica Ardizio, 119/121 – 61122 Pesaro, Italia. Tel: +39 0721-51360, www.ristorantealceo.it.
I confess to being a truffle snob—and an ignorant truffle snob at that. Following some pretty spectacular truffle eating and hunting experiences in and around Alba in November 2004 (see Truffle Pursuit under the ”Sample Articles” tab), I was convinced that nothing measured up to the white truffle (Tuber magnatum pico) and that nowhere in the world could compete with the white truffles of Piemonte.
Slowly but surely, I am learning better.
The people of Acqualagna, a small village of 4,000 in the hills of Le Marche, changed my mind when I paid a visit at the end of March. Located near the Furlo river gorge, the area has been known as a great truffle hunting ground for centuries. The white truffle—still the greatest, I am convinced—grows naturally in the woods, and it can be dug roughly from October into December. But what sets Acqualagna apart are its ”truffle grounds” (tartufaia) for cultivating three other noble truffles: the little white truffle or tartufo bianchetto (Tuber albidum pico) harvested January through April, the summer black truffle (Tuber aestivum vitt.) harvested May through December, and the true black or Perigord truffle (Tuber melansporum vitt.) harvested December through mid-March.
The locals still have to hunt the white truffle in the wild, but they cultivate the others. The root systems of certain trees, especially oaks and, to a lesser extent, chestnuts, are natural hosts for truffles. The trees and the fungus seem to have a symbiotic relationship. So farmers inoculate the roots of seedlings with truffle spores, plant the trees, and wait for three years or more. As the trees mature, they develop truffle clusters on their roots. It still requires a dog to tell the farmer where to dig, but the yield is great enough to support a major truffle products industry in Acqualagna.
Not every piece harvested is a winner, the red-headed truffle grower Giorgio Remedia (pictured here) explained. The best are cleaned and sold whole, while the smaller or more misshapen truffles end up being used to make truffle products. Remedia uses broken truffles to inoculate more trees or adds them to the food of puppies that he is training to become truffle hounds. (Hence, the term ”lucky dog.”) ”If they associate the smell with food, they go crazy trying to find more truffles.” In fact, he has to keep his truffle dogs penned lest they raid his oak orchards. ”I have enough trouble with the wild pigs,” he says.
Truffles are a passing glory—once they are removed from the ground they begin to lose their aroma, flavor, and texture. Ideally they should be used within a day or two of digging. But much of the dauntingly sexy aroma and flavor of truffles can be captured in products like truffle oil, truffle mashed potatoes, and salsas of mushrooms mixed with shaved truffles. The Marini family runs Acqualagna Tartufi (Via Colombo 2/A, Acqualagna, tel 0721-797-031, www.acqualagnatartufi.it), the dominant maker of truffle products in the village. Their truffle oils are rivaled only by Sacchi Tartufi of nearby Fano (Via Avogardo 19B, Fano, tel 0721-830-733, www.sacchitartufi.com). Sacchi also sells a mushroom/truffle risotto mix that cleverly combines dried mushrooms with its signature sachets of white truffle oil.
Fortunately for visitors, a truffle information center on Piazza E. Mattei, the main square of Acqualagna, sells the products of both companies all year. The piazza becomes an open-air truffle market three times a year during Acqualagna’s truffle fairs: the Regional Black Truffle Fair on the next to last Sunday of February, the Regional Summer Truffle Fair on August 14-15, and the National White Truffle Fair over the last week of October and first week of November. For more information about the town and its fairs, see the Acqualagna web site.
So how do we use the truffle oil? Let me count the ways…. First of all, a few drops go a long way toward making any number of soft, mildly flavored dishes taste sublime. That includes, of course, macaroni and cheese as well as mashed potatoes. A few drops sprinkled on French fries transforms them. Ditto a couple of drops on top of a hamburger. We use white truffle oil in the winter on tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, or with our favorite mushroom risotto (which also includes orange rind and fresh sage). The simplest way to (literally) spread the truffle flavor around is to whip a few drops of truffle oil with sweet creamery butter, then chill.
Ultimately, we did visit the amazing museums at Vatican City—and here’s our sneaked photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to prove it. (Yeah, like we were the only ones….) But we have to admit that we were originally waylaid by Rome’s greatest gourmet food shop. And who could blame us? Gastronomy is Italy’s other art. Or maybe its other religion.
When we’d finished eating lunch at Franchi (see previous post), we decided that it was a good time to stop in at Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196, Tel: 06-68-74-383, www.castronicoladirienzo.it, open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), reasoning that since we were already stuffed, we would be immune to the lures of the merchandise. It was only next door, and we’d still have plenty of time to get back to the Vatican.
The legend over the door reads Castroni Droghe Coloniali, but like some pop stars, the place is famous enough to go by a single moniker. And Castroni is indeed a name to conjure with. Since 1932 the flagship store in the Prati district east of the Vatican has proved that all gastronomic roads lead to Rome. On seeing the walls lined 15 feet high with gourmet goodies, David pleaded, “Do we have to go to the Sistine Chapel today?” Pat gave in, and we postponed the museum trip by a day.
Many ex-pats swear by Castroni for the tastes of home—the full line of Twinings teas, for example, or a broad range of Fauchon products from Paris, or good smoked Spanish paprika. But all the flavors of Italy also find their way to this wonderful shop. This year is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and while north and south, right and left seem no closer to real unity than they have been since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II himself, Castroni brings all the regions together for a gastronomic love fest.
There’s a modest bar with some casual food, so it’s possible to pop in for lunch and then to spend an afternoon just shopping. (Or drooling.) Bins hold virtually every variety of dried bean or chickpea grown anywhere on the peninsula. The store’s own brand of dry pastas include bags with mixed Roman monuments (maybe the ultimate gastronomic souvenir), and Castroni’s own coffee (whole bean or ground) makes an authentic-tasting Roman espresso—dark and syrupy with some high, almost lemony notes that suggest a lot of East African coffees in the blend. If you find the flavor addictive, the shop also sells a coffee concentrate passed off as an energy drink.
Had we demonstrated the foresight to bring an empty suitcase from home, we would have stocked up on all kinds of goodies that U.S. Customs would let us bring in, including the dazzling array of pestos from Abruzzo made of ripe Leccino olives, of asparagus, or of radicchio. Just add hot pasta and you have a stupendous meal. We also would have loaded up on duck liver and orange pâtés and the jars of small green peppers stuffed with duck liver mousse, not to mention hot-pepper-inspired salsas from Sicily and white truffle and porcini salsas from Umbria.
But since we were traveling light, we limited ourselves to squeeze tubes of tomato paste, mushroom cream, black olive puree, and mixed vegetables. (A squirt of the mixed vegetables paste into chicken broth makes it taste like minestrone.) We find them amazingly versatile in the kitchen, allowing us to add a dollop to eggs, salad dressing, soup, or a sauce to shade the flavor one way or another. (They also make great gifts for friends who cook.) In fact, the only thing we expected to find at Castroni but didn’t were the truffle products of Acqualagna in Le Marche, where the local motto is ”truffles all year long.” More on that next time….