Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli

Guidebooks to Italy have a maddening tendency to completely ignore one of my favorite areas for gastronomic tourism: the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeast corner of the country. Sharing a northern border with Austria and an eastern border with Slovenia, Friuli has both a dialect and a cuisine with strong Germanic influences. The local version of Italian is full of the hard Rs and the chewy “sch” sounds of central Europe, and the menus are laden with pork and a bevy of mitteleuropan dumplings masquerading as gnocchi. Many of the dishes draw their depth of flavor from cream, butter, or smoked fish.

Piazza Libertà, Udine

But most food in Friuli is based on whatever is freshest from the fields. Right now that happens to be asparagus. Friuli is famed for growing Italy’s finest asparagus, and during the last half of April through May, every restaurant from the elegant dining rooms in Udine and Trieste to the most casual countryside osterias goes mad for spargs, as asparagus is called in the local dialect.

Many preparations require no recipe. Wherever I go in Friuli this time of year, I find small bundles of lightly steamed asparagus wrapped in the local San Daniele prosciutto and browned in butter. Or just as likely, large plates of steamed white and green asparagus topped with shaved Montasio, the local aged cow’s milk cheese. (The Friulanos grow a lot of white asparagus, too, hilling it up with dirt in the traditional manner rather than growing under black plastic.)

I use the city of Udine as a base for traveling in Friuli, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite restaurant for contemporary cuisine, Trattoria Agli Amici (via Liguria 250, +39 0432-565-411). But when it comes to asparagus cookery, no one matches Trattoria Al Grop in the neighboring village of Tavagnacco (via Matteotti 1, +39 0432-660-240), now run by Simona and Silvia del Fabbro, the fifth generation of the family to operate their temple of asparagus in the shadow of the belltower of Sant’Antonio Abate. In season, they offer a nine-course asparagus menu.

Here’s an adaptation of their dreamy, creamy asparagus soup as made by their mother Angela. She cooks her own cannellini (white kidney beans) from scratch, but canned beans work just as well.

ASPARAGUS AND ORZO SOUP

Serves 6 as soup course

Ingredients

2 lb. fresh asparagus
1 16-ounce can of cannellini (white kidney) beans
1 quart beef stock, divided
1/3 cup orzo (rice-sized pasta)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light cream
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil for drizzling

Directions

1. Wash asparagus and snap off about 1 inch from tough ends and discard. Peel asparagus stalks from base to about 1 inch below the flower tips. Break stalks in half.

2 . Break top halves of stalks into short lengths, each about the size of the asparagus tip. Set aside.

3. Chop bottom halves of stalks into short lengths. Add to 4-quart saucepan with the beans and 1 cup of broth. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree in food processor or pass though coarse blade of a food mill.

4. Return puree to saucepan and stir in remaining broth. Add asparagus tops, orzo, butter and cream. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 15 minutes.

5. Serve with a fine thread of olive oil on top.

09

05 2010

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

Pressure cooker artichoke risotto

Castraure, or baby artichokes

Castraure, or baby artichokes

We’d always thought of making risotto as a laborious process that required standing at the stove and stirring for nearly half an hour, sometimes with disappointing results.

Not for Anna Maria Andreola, the pressure cooker queen of Venice.

Earlier in the day, we’d gone together to the Rialto market and bought gorgeous baby artichokes, which we trimmed as Anna Maria talked us through the risotto she was going to make. She sauteed the trimmed artichokes for three minutes in the open pressure cooker with a clove of minced garlic and a splash of olive oil. Then she added a teacup (about a half cup or 110 grams) of arborio rice per serving, and dumped in a half wine-glass of white wine and stirred. Once the wine had mostly evaporated, she added water to cover and fastened the lid on the pressure cooker.

It took about a minute to reach full pressure. Five minutes later, she quick-cooled the pot under the cold tap and opened it.

Artichoke risotto

Artichoke risotto

She stirred in a dollop of butter, a dribble of milk and a handful of grated Grana Padano cheese. In ten minutes from start to finish, we had a luscious artichoke risotto. The rice was perfectly al dente, the artichokes retained their integrity, and the dish was as creamy as any hand-stirred risotto we’ve ever eaten.

It was a revelation.

08

11 2009

Cucina Italiana moderna

Anna Maria cooks rombo in her Venice kitchen.

Anna Maria cooks rombo in her Venice kitchen.

Anna Maria Andreola’s kitchen at Le Mansarde B&B in Venice was not what we expected, especially in a lovingly maintained but traditional old stone palazzo that wore its two centuries proudly. The aroma of fresh bread greeted us at the door. She had dumped all the ingredients into a high tech bread machine that morning and set the timer so bread would be ready for dinner. Right next to the breadmaker stood her universal kitchen machine that weighs, processes and slow-cooks food. (It also serves as a mixer and a blender.) The counter also held a juicer and an electric ice cream freezer.

Silly us. We’d been expecting a big stove and nothing else.

We should have been prepared for the Italian predilection for kitchen gadgetry. Remember: These are the people who invented the classic espresso machines with their array of dials and levers. They also make much of the industrial food-processing machinery from giant cooking vats to wine-bottling lines. What’s a few appliances?

But Anna Maria’s favorite piece of kitchen equipment didn’t have a plug. It was the pressure cooker, and she preached its gospel like a late-night TV pitchman. Not only does it cut cooking time, she said, it also conserves flavors and vitamins. “I do everything with it,” she said, seeing our skepticism. “I would have had my children in the pressure cooker if I could have.”

07

11 2009

Cooking in Venice changed our lives

Crossing Gran Canal on a traghetto

Crossing the Grand Canal on a traghetto

Venice changed our lives. Really. More exactly, it changed the way we eat. After a week of cruising the Venetian lagoon on a rental houseboat, we spent several days in the city, staying with Anna Maria Andreola at the B&B in her family’s 18th century Cannaregio palazzo. (It’s called Le Mansarde, but has no web site. Contact Anna Maria Andreola at 011-39-041-718-826 or [mobile] 011-39-338-868-8935. Her email is cazzar.ola@libero.it.) One day she took us shopping and showed us how to make a Venetian meal.

From the B&B on Rio Tera San Leonardo, we headed straight to the Grand Canal and boarded a “traghetto,” a bare-bones gondola that crisscrosses the canal and saves walking long distances to a bridge. Anna Maria led us into Venice’s great Rialto market complex, armed only with a shopping trolley (basically a shopping bag on wheels). We could have spent hours just taking pictures of the pristine fish and meat and the colorful fruits and vegetables, but we were on a mission.

Rialto fish market

Rialto fish market

Anna Maria had been thinking about veal as the main course for dinner, but as soon as she spotted rombo (a kind of flounder) at her favorite fishmonger, a different menu began to take shape. With two filleted fish in hand, we strolled into the produce section and gathered cherry tomatoes to accompany the flounder. Tiny strawberries from the lagoon islands got her excited. “We’ll make ice cream,” she said. Then she found the best prize of all: a small basket labeled “castraure.” They were small, purplish baby artichokes, also from the islands.

“Risotto!” she exclaimed.

05

11 2009