Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last Night's Dinner

A nutritious Japanese dinner: Sesame-crusted pan-seared tuna (near raw, the way I like it,) steamed brown rice and my Asian salad creation, shaved daikon and carrot tossed with seaweed, orange slices, and a orange sesame vinaigrette made from a spoonful of orange blossom honey, a dash of rice wine vinegar, a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice, pinch of salt and pepper, and topped with a few toasted white and black sesame seeds.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fun Food Finds at Russo's

Yesterday we went to Russo's in Watertown, a specialty food market with one of the best selections I've ever seen in the region. They had an extensive produce section, with eggplants larger than my head and a variety of fresh greens, including some more obscure Asian plants that are great for vegan cooking. My first find:

Daikon, an east Asian radish used in Japanese cooking. It can be pickled for carrot salads or braised to create a scallop-esque consistency, having a mild flavor that retains the outside flavors of a dish.

My next find:

Dried kiwis! I love dried fruit as a healthy alternative to feed my sweet tooth, trying dried pinapples, mangos, apricots galore, but have never found dried kiwis before. They were really delicious (and addictive ...)

Russo's also has a great gourmet cheese selection so we got some gorgonzola dulce, "sweet" gorgonzola with an almost tangy flavor to the creamy cheese, and some ricotta salata, a more unusual sheep's milk cheese. I liken the stiffer texture and saltiness to feta - perhaps the Italian version of Greek feta, one could say - unlike the soft ricotta cheese that Americans associate with the name. We bought a bunch of fresh basil and made fresh pesto with pignoli and some ricotta salata as a spin on the traditional Parmesan, having a lovely pesto pasta for our Sunday dinner. I'm officially hooked on Russo's and will definitely be back.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Just Try It!

New Foods I Sampled in Italy:

  • Trippa: tripe - made from various parts of the cow's stomach, as well as from sheeps, pigs, goats and deer. We tried a tripe sandwich from a street vendor tucked away in the winding medieval streets near the Duomo in the city center, which sells the assorted salumi, sausages, and lampredotto sandwiches that Florentians like to eat for the on-the-go lunch. The food of the real man rather than the flocks of foreign tourists, sandwich carts can be found all around the city if one knows where to look. Frankly I found the tripe to be rather unappetizing, with the gummy, slimy, chewy consistency that can be most closely compared to tough calamari with tiny (unsettling) gills that remind of the intestinal origin. Tripe is boiled for hours before "edible" - a testament to the fact it was first cooked in the days when medieval peasants, on the verge of starvation, cooked every single part of an animal for sustenance, and out of habit which grew into a culinary tradition, Italians have the penchant for the taste of it centuries later. Try it at your own risk.
  • Lampredotto: typical Florentine peasant dish made from the fourth stomach of the cow. Sampled at roadside food truck where the locals sat around on surrounding picnic tables picking their teeth, and the cook had massive plumber's cleavage as he leaned over the grease-covered grilltop to turn the meat. Originally a poor person and workman's sandwich from the medieval days, lampredotto can be found at sandwich vendors throughout Florence but rarely elsewhere in the country. Typically cooked in water with tomato, onion and parsley, the meat has the stringy, fleshy consistency that one envisions when picturing intestines, with fatty ridges and an unsettling purplish undertone to its color. As I stared at the Lampredotto floating in the hot liquid that sunny afternoon, overwhelmed by the pungent aroma, I felt somewhat nauseous (this could also be attributed to the bottle of red wine I drank the night before, mind you.) I tasted a small bite of the thinly sliced cut of meat and found it has an intense, distinct flavor that's very difficult to place, let alone describe, and could be likened perhaps to calf's tongue. Clearly the salty meat is an acquired taste, for its loved by Florentines - men in particular - yet there seems to be no demand for replication elsewhere in Italy. After observing enthusiastic discussions about the merits of lampradotto revered as some kind of delicacy, I deduced that one can only truly love it if raised on the dish, developing the palate for the incredibly particular flavor and texture, and becoming intimately accustomed to the food over time. Not to mention - no pun intended - you must have the stomach for it.
  • Pesce all'Acqua Pazza: literally "Fish in Crazy Water" - fish is cooked in a pan filled with hot water and basic seasoning - garlic, herbs, tomato, salt seasoning - creating a broth that's rich and flavorful, soaking into the mild white fish and saturating the meat. I had the pesce di giorno, "fish of the day" in a tiny clifftop village on the island of Elba, and the fish really did taste that it had been freshly caught in the Mediterranean waters hours below and then served to me on a platter, head and all. Normally I don't enjoy food with faces, seeing the eyes of my dinner looking up at me, but this fish was so fall off the bone tender that I had to devour it. A fairly simple cooking technique that could be replicated at home, the real key to good pesce all'acqua pazza is fresh, good quality fish. Not so crazy.
  • Horse: really I ate this by accident, as it was on an antipasto plate of mixed salumi that we had at a tiny restaurant in the small town Massa Marittima in the Tuscan countryside. I thought it was pulled pork; it has the same look and consistency. The osteria where we had lunch there was totally authentic, about five tables crammed in a tiny kitchen with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling; in Italian "osteria" literally means a place where the owner hosts people, denoting a homey eatery where patrons are often served family style. This particular restaurant, on a tiny overlooked sidestreet/walkway in the provincial town, is in fact an award-winning hidden gem that follows the slow food cuisine movement. (Slow food, as discussed in earlier posts, is the idea promoting farming plants and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem to preserve traditional regional cuisine. Though now an international food movement, it naturally began in Italy.) We followed the antipasto platter of assorted meats with a local pasta dish made from farro, a typical wheat grain in the Grosseto region of Tuscany, cooked in a rich cream sauce with a strong cheese evoking gorgonzola. Essentially the most incredible mac 'n cheese ever. I highly recommend the place - Massa Marittima has the antique charm of the medieval Tuscan villages but is far less touristy than the more well-known San Gimignano. We stopped there on a whim and found it purely delightful.
  • Crema di limoncello: I had become familiar with the Italian digestive liquer limoncello fairly recently before my trip to Italy (through, I'm ashamed to admit, a Giada di Laurentis cocktail) and really like the strong lemony flavor. Crema di limoncello, I learned, is made essentially with liquor, sugar and cream. It's cool and creamy, of course, and we drank it on the beach at night so for me the experience was positively magical.

Pesce al Giorno

Authentic seafood meal on the island of Elba: Mediterranean fish cooked in hot tomato broth, "pesce all'acqua pazza" - Fish in Crazy Water - with soft cherry tomatoes, potato, and fresh Italian herbs

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flavors of Gelato

I was lucky enough to visit the best gelaterias in Florence with my local expert, from the traditional "been there for ages" city center shop, to the more recently opened, fast-growing popular Grom, to the "off the beaten track" gelateria so hard to find that it may be the city's best-kept secret. Of the gelato flavors we sample in Italy these past weeks these were the top:

Most decadent: cioccolato
Fruitiest combination: peach and raspberry (still want to try the classic peaches and cream combo ...)
Best berry: blackberry with lavendar
Most frequently sampled: pistacchio (at no less than three different locations, though it should be noted that someone had gelato every day)
Most creative creation: amaretto crema with almonds and caramel swirled in
Most intense flavor: crema topped with real balsamic vinegar
Most bizarre: gorgonzola and basilico
Richest/My all-time favorite: nocciola

*Also sampled granita, which is the real "Italian ice" and typically comes in lemon or coffee

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tour of Tuscany

Having just returned from Italy, I am reassured that the country has some of the best food in the world. Here's a "day in the life" of my dining in Tuscany:

Breakfast: espresso or cappuccino with a fresh almond croissant so soft and flaky it melts on your tongue, dipped in homemade jam of apricot, blackberry or peach. Wash it down with arancia rossa juice, bloodred orange, which you rarely find elsewhere in the world.

Lunch: A streetvendor panino (not to be confused with the American use of "panini" which indicates the plural, or more than one sandwich) - thinly sliced cheese and an assortment of salumi meat to choose from. Pedestrians can be seen eating gelatto at lunch or all hours of the day, really - it's socially acceptible to have an ice cream at 10 a.m. in Italy - and for good reason. It's to die for.

Dinner: antipasto of meats and cheeses or fresh mushroom salad with shaved parmesan. I sampled some rare mushrooms while there, including porcinis with the sunny yellow color and lightness of an egg. The primi piatti, or first course is traditionally the pasta course; here I tried the Tuscan classic papa pomodoro as well. The second course is for meat and vegetables, followed by cheeses and fruit. There is a plethora of vegetables and fresh fruit on the typical Tuscan table, so meals are far more wholesome and nutritious than the average American meal. All great dinners - an epic event nearly every night - are followed by an espresso or digestive liquer with biscotti to dip in. My favorite dessert? Tiramasu, of course.

Some Italian family home-cooked meals I had while there:

First course: gnocchi with porcini and meat ragu.
Second course: fresh tomato salad.
Fruit and cheese course: (enormous!) grapes, buffalo mozzarella.

First course: spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and spinach.
Second course: steamed zucchini, sliced prosciutto and mortadella.
Fruit and cheese course: pear and gorgonzola.

First course: fresh pesto rigatoni with pine nuts and parmesan.
Second course: bistecca fiorentina, cooked over coals in the brick oven fireplace.
Fruit and cheese course: fresh figs and "claudie" fruit, as I called them, with scacciata.

*All served with preceding fresh mushroom salads and Tuscan bread and olive oil on the side.

My Sunday lunch in the Chianti hills:

Antipasto: grilled summer vegetables - eggplant, zucchini, squash.
First course: tortelloni filled with cheese and potato in rustic tomato sauce.
Second course: brasato (typical regional stewed beef) and sauteed spinach.
Dessert: tiramasu followed by limoncello.

All with wine, needless to say. How delicious it all was ...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love

As many of you know I'm embarking on a culinary adventure to the land of pasta - finally back to the mecca of deliciousness, here we go! - beginning in Florence and traveling to the assorted Mediterranean island, Tuscan countryside, and medieval towns Siena, etc. How appropriately timed that I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love in which she travels to Italy, India, and Bali (my fantasy in a nutshell) to do just that and in Italy she - surprise, surprise - EATS! My plan, likewise. Of course in the pursuit of epicurean exploration I aim to try new foods that have yet to grace my tongue, pull an Anthony Bourdain and venture in the pursuit of the most authentic regional cuisine, the culinary epitome that is Tuscany. And what better place to do it in, really?

In addition to the obvious trifecta - pasta, pizza, gelatto - I intend to experience those dishes that are most classically Tuscan, sampling the specialties of each place I visit. I begin in Firenze, which is known for its excellent meats, including the more exotic-seeming boar, rabbit, and deer. The staple of Floretine cuisine, of course, is the bistecca Fiorentina, which they serve thick and "al sangue" (rare), just the way I like it. I will also embark upon the trippa experience - tripe - and may even venture to try the fegato, chicken liver typically served on crostinis. The classic Italian meal begins with the antipasti, in Tuscany often sliced meats and fresh bread with their infamous olive oil, followed by the primi piatti, zuppa e pasta, and then the secondi, the meat course, with vegetable side dishes and dolce and espresso to finish it off. Not a meal for the weak stomach, the real Italian deal.

When we travel to the island of Elba (as in Napoleon's idyllic exile) my primary culinary concern will be to experience the fresh fish from the Mediterranean. From baccala (cod) to grilled calamari, the seaside restaurants and fresh fish stands will had seafood galore. And of course one must have gelatto on the beach ...

In the Tuscan countryside I look forward to visiting vineyards, and tasting the wine from the famed Chianti region with the equally typical Pecorino cheese varieties. I particularly enjoy the frequent use of white beans in Tuscan cooking, such as white beans with sage-infused olive oil and in riboletta soup, and the emphasis on fresh, local ingredients in the farm-filled region. The seasonal vegetables drive the meals, and everything is cooked in the light extra virgin olive oil, taking on a flavor that's rarely truly replicated anywhere else in the world. Finished with fruit and honey or castagnaccio, sweet chestnut cake, it's no wonder the Tuscans prefer an aperitif to digest after their meal. And I truly cannot wait.

As Eat, Pray, Love suggests, the indulgence of eating pure decadence leads to self rejuvenation, which in turn paves the way for subsequent spiritual and emotional rejuventation as well. In this long-awaited, much-needed vacation I intend to do just that, nourishing the body and then the mind. So cheers to my love affair with food - our relationship is getting serious so we're taking a romantic trip together - and to my own "no carb left behind" journey.

Buon appetito!