Pomodorina belies canned tomato image

Spaghetti with Pomodorina and grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese Pomodorina is tomato sauce rethought, and it’s my most unexpected find on a recent research trip to Modena. We’ve already written about “What to buy in an Italian grocery store,” but here’s a product I’d definitely add.

Pomodorina has been the best-selling product of one of Italy’s best food factories, Menù, since it was introduced in 1967. It’s made only during the roughly six-week tomato harvest season and combines freshly harvested and cooked tomatoes with celery, carrots, onions, fresh basil, and some olive oil. Menù sells it as a base ingredient for sauces, but I discovered that some restaurants consider it good enough to sauce pasta on its own. That’s spaghetti sauced with Pomodorina above, and it was delicious.

Pomodorina sauce can Menù (http://en.menu.it/) is based in Medollo near Modena and launched as a salami factory in 1932. In 1941, the company branched out to make a ragù meat sauce and moved into a variety of ready-to-eat foods for the catering industry by the mid-1950s. Today it sells more than 450 items from its catalog to more than 30,000 customers that range from small catering companies and restaurants to large institutions like school systems, corporate cafeterias, and restaurant chains. Pomodorina is shipped to the U.S. for the food trade but not for retail sale. But in Italy, home cooks can have it too. You’ll find Pomodorina on the shelves of supermarkets, sometimes in the can (pictured here) and sometimes in a glass jar holding 750 milliliters, or about 28 fluid ounces.

I brought home a can and one night when we were in a hurry for dinner, I heated up the contents with absolutely no additions, tossed in some freshly cooked pasta, and served (as above) with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It was good enough that I’d serve it to company.

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07

04 2015

Recognizing real balsamic vinegar of Modena

La Vecchia Dispensa tasting bottles

La Vecchia Dispensa tasting bottles

Few culinary terms have been so abused in recent years as “balsamic vinegar.” A generation ago, the only people who knew true balsamic vinegar were either wealthy gastronomes or members of old-fashioned families in the Modena and Reggio Emilia districts of Italy’s region of Emilia Romagna — best known even then for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma.

Simone Tintori of La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro, Modena “It was a traditional family product,” explains Simone Tintori (left) of La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro di Modena (Piazza Roma 3, +39 059-790-401, www.lavecchiadispensa.it), a fourth-generation commercial producer of the two controlled types of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (aceto balsamico di Modena). “And everything you have been told about it is probably wrong.”

The two categories of protected Modena vinegar are IGP and DOP, and it’s helpful to understand the differences so you get what you pay for. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP must be made from wine vinegar and grape must (from any of seven grapes, but usually Trebbiano) and must be aged in wood in the province of Modena and bottled there. Furthermore, it has to pass taste tests by the consortium of traditional producers and must be sold in a traditionally styled 100ml bottle that cannot have any reference to age on the label.

The other protected type is Aceto Balsamico de Modena IGP (without the “Tradizionale”). The IGP is a geographic designation under European Union law. The permitted ingredients are wine vinegar and grape must, but the producer is also allowed to use grape must concentrate and to add caramel coloring. The vinegar also must be aged and bottled in the province of Modena and pass a set of laboratory tests before it can be bottled with the IGP label.

modena 1 The mechanics of making balsamic vinegar are not particularly complicated. Grape must and wine vinegar are combined. The most expensive products may have as much as 70 percent grape must with just 30 percent vinegar, while the cheapest could have as little as 20 percent grape must. The mixture is aged in wooden barrels—usually a sequence of increasingly smaller barrels for the DOP product and usually in large wooden casks for the IGP. Over time, some vinegar evaporates, concentrating the vinegar that remains behind. The barrels are used repeatedly over decades, so little flavor of the wood is imparted to the vinegar. The best of the products become almost syrupy in their viscosity, as the sugars from the original grapes become more and more concentrated.

While Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP tends to be fairly consistent from producer to producer (and generally costs $75-$200 for a 100 ml bottle), Aceto Balsamico de Modena IGP bottlings vary a lot in both quality and price. The least expensive use grape must concentrate, which is a little like making a marinara sauce using tomato paste but no fresh tomatoes. It’s tomato-y, but not the real sugo. That said, it can be a tasty and useful vinegar—just not the gustatory powerhouse of a DOP or a better IGP vinegar.

With a deeply concentrated mix of fruitiness and complex spice, the DOP vinegar is principally for use as a drop or two on a steak, roast, or hunk of incredible cheese. For salads and cooking, most of us are happy with the modestly sweet and tangy IGP product—if we can get a good one.

Modena 4 After visiting La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro (old castle), I went a few kilometers down the road to visit Antichi Colli in Castelnuovo, or “new castle” (Via Rio dei Gamberi, 2, +39 059 533 1332, www.antichicolli.it). A complex of vast stainless steel tanks with an attic of aging barrels, this large firm mostly produces IGP vinegars. Interestingly, they only use concentrated grape must in the lowest grade, which retails at about $10 per 250ml bottle. Their IGP vinegars go up in price to around $120 per 250ml bottle.

So what should you look for? First, look for the IGP insignia or the DOP seal. Second, reject any product stamped with the number of years it has been aged (if it has the seal and a claim of years of aging, it’s a fraud). Third, if you’re looking for flavor complexity, skip any vinegar that lists “concentrated must” or caramel coloring as an ingredient. They are legitimate, but usually lower-quality. Finally, taste it if you can. For salad dressing and the like, we use a Whole Foods-branded IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena that’s both reasonably priced and versatile in the kitchen (and is made with concentrated must). We keep the DOP for drizzling on really old Parmigiano Reggiano cheese….

Aging barrels at Antichi Colli, Castelnuovo, Modena

Aging barrels at Antichi Colli

25

03 2015

Carrot mac & cheese for grown-ups

closeup of carrot mac & cheese
We encounter a lot of great food when we work on researching and updating our Food Lovers’ books about the New England states. But a simple and delicious plate of carrot mac & cheese from Daily Planet in Burlington (15 Center St., 802-862-9647, www.dailyplanet15.com) stuck in our minds. We ate it one chilly night at the bar of this bohemian downtown favorite with a moderately priced contemporary locavore menu and wondered why we had never thought of it ourselves.

A quick Google search revealed that a number of cooks had thought about such a dish. But most of the recipes we could find used either grated carrot or puréed cooked carrots and seemed designed to fool the kids into eating a vegetable. The Daily Planet version was more elegant. The carrots gave the dish a pale golden color and a subtle earthy flavor that had not been smothered in an excess of cheese.

We never got around to coming up with our own version, but this cold and snowy New England winter had us craving comfort foods. One day in our local Whole Foods, we took a look at the fresh juices and had an inspiration. Did Daily Planet substitute carrot juice for the milk while making the base bechamel sauce? It would certainly explain the fresh carrot flavor and the grown-up texture.

We gave it a try, and found the following recipe makes a good carrot mac & cheese that doesn’t taste like Gerber puréed carrots.

CARROT MAC & CHEESE

Serves 2combining carrot mac & cheese

Ingredients

6 oz (1 cup) elbow macaroni
2 teaspoons butter
1/3 cup fine bread crumbs
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
14 oz. (1 2/3 cups) carrot juice
1/2 medium onion, finely minced
pinch of paprika
bay leaf
1 3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Set oven at 350°F. Grease deep 1-quart casserole dish. Set a large pot of water on high heat to bring to boil.

2. Cook elbow macaroni per directions until al dente.

3. While macaroni is cooking, melt 2 teaspoons butter and add to bread crumbs. Stir until crumbs are well-coated.

4. In a large saucepan, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter and stir in flour until well-mixed. Whisk in carrot juice and stir in minced onion, paprika, and bay leaf. Let simmer, stirring to avoid sticking on the bottom, until bechamel thickens.

5. Stir in 1 1/4 cup grated cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add macaroni to cheese sauce. Place half of mixture in casserole dish and sprinkle with half of remaining cheese. Spoon remaining macaroni mix into dish, and sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Cover with toasted bread crumbs and bake until crumbs are lightly browned (about 30 minutes).

18

03 2015

Irish whiskey tells the country’s tale

Boston Globe, March 15, 2015 - page M2 Judging by the job posting at Teeling’s Whiskey, the first new Dublin distillery in 125 years is finally getting ready to open its visitors center. The job? They’re looking for fluent English speakers with at least one other language to give tours. The center, located on Newmarket Square in the Liberties section of Dublin (that’s Dublin 8 for those who understand the city’s postal codes), will be open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Exactly when it first opens for business is still unannounced.

Meantime, Dublin hardly lacks for whiskey attractions, some of which we outlined today in a story in the Boston Globe travel section, “Even its whiskey tells an Irish tale”. The story includes the new Irish Whiskey Museum (inaugurated in January) at 119 Grafton Street (+353 1 525 0970, irishwhiskeymuseum.ie) as well as the Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Smithfield Village (+353 1 807 2355, www.jamesonwhiskey.com). Perhaps our favorite stop of all was the Palace Bar, an institution in its own right and one of the finest places to drink whiskey in all of Ireland. The Palace’s own whiskeys — a 7-year-old named The Fourth Estate to honor the journalist patrons, and a 14-year-old finished in sherry casks — are both made for the bar by Teeling. Here’s hoping they will be included in the tasting at the end of the tour.

15

03 2015

One more rave for 1,000 Foods

Fernando Canales stirs angulas in a cazuela in Restaurante Etxanobe in Bilbao
When Mimi Sheraton published 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List (Workman, $24.95) late last year, she probably had much the same experience as Tom Sawyer did when he hid in the rafters at his own funeral. Not that she didn’t deserve the praise, but she was variously lauded as the second coming of Brillat-Savarin, M.F.K. Fisher, and Julia Child, and every restaurateur to whom she ever gave a well-considered review hastened to return the favor. Mimi Sheraton earned all those accolades long before she wrote this book.

1000 Foods book jacket 1,000 Foods really is something of a masterpiece, but we’d liken it more to Remembrance of Things Past than to any more analytical tome. It is a memoir of tastes enjoyed, repeatedly sampled, and understood. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the 900-plus pages of text, and we’re looking forward to reading through a little at a time, savoring each bite. This single book is a distillation of one very perceptive writer’s ideas about what is worth eating.

We doubt we will ever achieve Mimi Sheraton’s easy familiarity with so many world cuisines, but we know Spanish cuisine very well and can quite appreciate the way she handled it. Her coverage ranges from the rarefied (a meal at the now-shuttered elBulli) to the commonplace (eating tapas standing at the bar with friends). La Pepica Valencia paella She treats both extreme delicacies such as angulas (glass eels, shown above with chef Fernando Canales at Restaurante Etxanobe in Bilbao) and more humble dishes such as sopa de ajo (garlic soup with a poached egg) with equal respect and enthusiasm. She offers a knowledgeable treatise on the pricey ingredient of saffron, and speaks lovingly and intelligently about the most famous dish to use it, Valencian paella. At right, a waiter presents a pan of paella at La Pepica in Valencia. As Sheraton notes, it is the place in Spain to eat the dish.

We can’t think of a single signature Spanish flavor that Sheraton missed, and we look forward to using the book as a guide to exploring cuisines with which we’re less familiar.

08

03 2015

Whiskey in a Jar from Dublin’s Quay 14

Gary Campbell mixes whiskey in a jar in Quay 14 in Dublin
The Morrison Hotel on the north bank of the Liffey in Dublin has a swanky, modernist feel, but the Quay 14 bar retains a nice clubby atmosphere enhanced by a crew of barmen who really know their craft. It’s a good spot for a drink and quiet conversation. In fact, one evening we had a nice chat with Gary Campbell, who used to tend bar in Greater Boston before returning to Ireland and shaking drinks at some of the nicer Dublin hotel bars.

Although we prefer our whiskey neat—the best way, we think, to appreciate Ireland’s great contributions to the world of spirits—he persuaded us to try one of Quay 14’s signature cocktails. It’s a variant on the whiskey sour. Made with Bushmill’s 10-year-old Irish whiskey and served in a small canning jar (until they ran out of them), it’s called “Whiskey in the Jar” in deference to the chorus of “Sporting Jenny.” If you have trouble finding pasteurized egg whites, you can usually get Organic Valley’s 16 oz. carton in most health food stores.

Whiskey in a Jar

Whiskey in a Jar at Quay 14 in DublinIngredients
50 ml (a shot) Bushmills 10 Year Old Irish Whiskey
20 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
20 ml simple syrup
1 pasteurized egg white
ice
orange slice

Directions
Add whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white to shaker. Dry shake to emulsify the egg white and lemon juice. Strain for any foreign objects.

Return to shaker with a handful of crushed ice. Shake and strain into glass and top with a thick slice of orange.

04

03 2015

Le Drunch targets Dublin Sunday late-risers

The Marker (right) and the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (left) Coming from Cambridge, Massachusetts, we felt right at home when we spent our last few nights in Dublin at The Marker Hotel, which sits on Grand Canal next to the architectural landmark Bord Gais Energy Theatre. (That’s the hotel on the right and the theater on the left in the above photo.) This corner of Dublin is known as the Silicon Docks, thanks to the presence of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, PayPal, Etsy, Eventbrite, and others. For those who know Cambridge, the Silicon Docks might as well be Kendall Square minus the robotics firms.

Samuel Becket Bridge in Dublin Docklands It’s a stunningly modern part of Dublin, as this night shot of the Samuel Beckett Bridge suggests. (Santiago Calatrava’s design is often likened to an Irish harp, but we think it looks more like the sails of a racing yacht.) Since most of the area has been developed since 2008, it’s not surprising that the buildings are largely big glass boxes with display windows on the ground level and offices above.

The Marker has an excellent yet surprisingly casual in-house restaurant called The Brasserie. Chef Gareth Mullins is justly celebrated and is a bit of a local celebrity, often appearing on Dublin’s Channel 3 to give cooking demonstrations. Drawing from a Maille popup restaurant concept in Paris, Mullins introduced “Le Drunch” (dishes 8€–16€)—short for drinks and lunch—every Sunday afternoon.

It’s been a big hit with Dublin’s digerati and other denizens of the neighborhood, especially young women seeking a stylish spot to chat over a light meal. It’s also popular with people headed to the theater next door. The dishes are elevated versions of homey food, such as terrific fish and chips. That’s a dish we usually eat in restaurants since we don’t have a deep fryer, but Mullins was happy to share the recipe for folks who want to tackle it at home.

The Brasserie’s Beer Battered Cod


Gareth Mullins advises keeping the batter as cold as possible — even adding ice cubes if necessary. A cold batter ensures that the fish cooks up nice and crisp.

Serves 4

fish and chips at The Brasserie, Marker Hotel, Dublin Ingredients
4 pieces skinned cod fillet, 200g (7 oz.) each
150g all-purpose flour (1 cup plus a tablespoon)
150g corn flour (1 cup plus a tablespoon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 bottle ice cold ale
1/2 cup flour with salt and pepper

Directions

To make the batter, mix the all-purpose flour, corn flour, baking powder, and salt together. Pour in the beer and mix together until just combined. Be careful not to overmix the batter. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To cook the fish, set deep fat fryer at 180°C or 350° F. Drag the cod through the seasoned flour and drop into the batter to thoroughly coat. Lift out of batter and carefully lower into the fryer. Deep fry for 8 minutes until golden and crisp. Take out and drain on paper towels.

Mullins serves the cod with deep fried potatoes (“chips” in Anglo-Irish parlance), marrow fat peas with mint, and homemade tartar sauce.

01

03 2015

What to buy in a Dublin grocery store

Dublin grocery store 1
Whenever we visit Dublin, we make sure to enjoy lots of incredible butter and cream since we can’t bring any home. (U.S. Customs frowns on such dairy products.) Fortunately there are lots of other good Irish foodstuffs that we can pack in the suitcase. For cheeses, we make our purchases at Sheridans Cheesemongers (see earlier post), but here are some of the things that caught our eye in a neighborhood Dunnes grocery store:

Irish soda farls

Pat’s mother still remembers her own mother, who hailed from Northern Ireland, making soda bread farls in a round pan on the top of the stove. First she would shape the dough into a circle and then cut it crosswise into four pieces, the so-called farls. This style of soda bread is flatter and more moist than the more common cake-style. Most grocery stores sell the farls already packaged in plastic bags. They remain fresh if we put them into the freezer as soon as we get home.

Odlums mixes

Odlums began milling and selling flour in 1845 and the company remained in the family until 1991. Its flour has been a staple in Irish kitchens for generations and the Odlums web site (odlums.ie) is full of recipes. But we generally just pick up a couple of mixes for brown bread or for brown, white, or fruit scones.

Flahavan’s Porridge Oats

The Flahavan family has been milling oats for more than 200 years, uses only local oats, and has perfected a technique to produce a fine flake that cooks up more quickly. Even if the oats weren’t so good, we would probably buy them anyway because we can’t resist the old-style packaging.

more food from a Dublin grocery store

Erin Meal Mixes

This Dublin-based company’s seasoning mixes for meats and vegetables include a number with a French accent, but for an easy to prepare flavor of the Emerald Isle, we opt for Shepherd’s Pie or Country Stew.

Lakeshore Duck Fat

We almost hate to admit how good French fries taste when they are cooked in duck fat. We don’t do any frying at home, but we agree with the Irish that a bit of duck fat gives roast potatoes or roast vegetables a richness that belies their humble origins. The manufacturer advises adding one tablespoon of duck fat per pound of vegetables, which means that a 200g jar will last for a couple of weeks in the winter. Better get two.

Marrowfat peas

mushy peas with fish and chipsThese green peas left on the vine until they have dried are the primary ingredient in mushy peas – the classic accompaniment to fish and chips (see photo at right). They’re available canned, but it’s easier to throw a bag of the dried peas into the suitcase.

Lemon’s sweets

You can find just about every type of Cadbury chocolate bar in Dublin, but for a treat with local roots, we look for Lemon’s. The company started out as a confectionery shop on what is now Lower O’Connell Street in 1842 and even made its way into James Joyce’s Ulysses. It has changed hands several times and experimented with a number of products. Our favorites are the Mint Iced Caramels, with a smooth center and a crisp coating. The company claims that it takes two days to make them from a secret recipe dating back to 1926.

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20

02 2015

Making fudge with an Irish accent

Tomás Póil sells fudge on streets of Dublin
With his engaging banter, Tomás Póil could surely peddle ice to Eskimos, but he doesn’t have to work nearly as hard to persuade the folks of Dublin to indulge in blocks cut from his big slabs of fudge. We ran into Póil at his Man of Aran Fudge booth at the street food market on Bernardo Square on New Year’s Day. (To find out where he’ll be on any given weekend, see www.manofaranfudge.ie). A surprising number of people seemed to be finding Póil’s sweets to be the perfect antidote to a night of overindulgent revelry.

Originally from the Aran Isles, Póil began making fudge in 1999 and hasn’t yet grown tired of coming up with new flavor combinations. In one, he tops a slab of brown sugar fudge infused with coffee and Irish whiskey with a thin layer of creamy vanilla to emulate a cup of Irish coffee. We found ourselves more taken, however, with the mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and coffee stirred into vanilla fudge.

Man of Aran's Bailey's Irish Cream fudge Póil shared rough approximations of the ratio of ingredients to make a 3 kilogram slab. We scaled them down to a smaller batch that fits into an 8-inch by 8-inch brownie pan (a bit over 1 1/2 pounds). Less is a good thing, since this fudge is so good that it’s hard to resist.

BAILEY’S IRISH CREAM FUDGE

This recipe is perhaps the easiest way to make a non-chocolate fudge, but it does require a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the mix. A candy thermometer is a natural, but we use an instant read high-temperature probe on a ThermoWorks ChefAlarm.

Makes 36 pieces

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/8 teaspoon instant coffee
2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

Line an 8-inch square pan with aluminum foil and grease with 1 tablespoon butter. Set aside.

Place remaining butter, instant coffee, and Bailey’s Irish Cream in a quart-size heatproof bowl (stainless steel is best). Set bowl on a wire rack.

In a large pot with a heavy, heat-distributing base, place sugar, cream, corn syrup and salt. Heat at medium low, stirring until all the sugar has melted (about 15 minutes). Raise heat to medium high and bring to a gentle simmer. Insert temperature probe or thermometer.

Continue to heat without stirring, using a silicon rubber spatula to push down the edges of the bubbling mixture. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches 238°F, the soft ball stage.

Immediately transfer the mixture to the heatproof bowl. Do not scrape the sides or the bottom of pot, and most important of all, do not stir while mixture rests and temperature drops back to 110°F (about 90 minutes, depending on room temperature). The butter, coffee, and Irish Cream will float to the top. Don’t worry about it.

When the mixture reaches 110°F, begin stirring with a wooden spoon and keep at it until the mixture thickens and loses its gloss. Immediately pour into prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Let fudge rest on the counter for 1 hour and refrigerate until fully set.

15

02 2015

Dublin gastropub’s inspired sweet potato soup

Front room at the Exchequer Pub in Dublin Pubs have always had some kind of grub to sop up the suds, but pubs all over Ireland began to take the quality of their kitchens seriously about 10 years ago. The turn toward better food was a matter of survival. Pubs lost a slew of customers after March 29, 2004, when Ireland became the first country in the world to ban smoking in the workplace — including restaurants, bars, and pubs. Once a few pubs introduced quality food with strong Irish roots, it became clear that the gastropub concept was the way to win new customers.

Two years ago, the Restaurant Association of Ireland began giving out awards for best gastropubs, and in the two competitions since then, one of the top contenders in Dublin has been The Exchequer, located on the corner of Exchequer Street and Dame Court (3-5 Exchequer Street, +353 1 670 6787, www.theexchequer.ie). It’s a cozy warren of several rooms, including two bars that stay open late, a small dining room, and a lot of high-stool seating along shelves under the windows. (That’s the bar at the Exchequer Street entrance above.) If you’re particularly fortunate, you might even score one of the old-fashioned sofas or armchairs in the bars. The waitstaff couldn’t be warmer (we got a big hug on leaving after lunch), and the menus run the gamut from steamed cockles and mussels with spicy sausage to a simple sandwich with the soup of the day.

One cold and misty day the bowl on offer was “sweet potato chili soup.” It’s a great example of the gastropub approach to reinterpreting traditional dishes with a few smart tweaks. In this case, the soup was a fresh take on potage parmentier, the classic leek and potato soup. The cook used sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds and added just enough ground chile pepper to lift the taste. With a little experimentation, we figured out how to make a satisfying version at home. We eat it with a slice of Irish brown bread (see previous post).

SWEET POTATO CHILE SOUP

Sweet Potato Chili Soup at The Exchequer in Dublin Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
6 leeks (white part only), well cleaned and chopped
2 large Garnet sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon ground Espelette chile pepper (ancho or New Mexican will do)
salt to taste

Directions

1. Over low heat, melt butter in soup pot and add leeks. Cook, stirring, until soft but not brown.

2. Add sweet potatoes and chicken stock. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook about 30 minutes until sweet potatoes are soft.

3. Remove from heat and purée until smooth. Stir in ground chile and heat through for another five minutes. Add salt to taste.

08

02 2015