Friday, June 28, 2013

Dining in Tuscany

Tuscany is infamous for good food, and I've had some incredible meals during my stay there. The highlights for me have included fresh porcini salad with shaved parmesan, Tuscan fagioli bianchi (white beans) slow-cooked with sausage, pappa pomodoro (Florentine tomato-bread soup), and the best homemade lasagna I've ever had (made by la nonna - grandmother - of course.)

Dining in Tuscany is a slow experience, to enjoy the food and surroundings, and here were some wonderful meals:

A light evening supper of salumi antipasto (selection of meat and cheese), olive and tuna crostini, and arugula salad with salami, served with sparkling white wine. We ate outside on the terrace with stunning views of the Tuscan countryside at sunset.

Then there was the family feasting on weekends. We had a wonderful Saturday lunch in the Tuscan countryside, with family and long-time friends at their rustic country house in the hills. We dined outside under the cherry trees:

The antipasti was fresh melon with prosciutto, finocchiona (fennel sausage), roasted peppers, and an assortment of cheese. They used the table in the house to stage courses, all the plates prepped:

Next came the meat. First came the cacciagione - game meat - roasted birds (small wild birds similar to pidgeon or squab), cooked until crispy, their bones so thin you could eat them like crunchy chips. Then came slow-cooked fowl with sage, and tagliata, juicy steak cut into slides. Here's the cottage cucina (kitchen) where she cooked it all:

The contorni (side dishes) followed: chickpeas served with fresh olive oil they make on the property, salad of mixed greens dressed simply, and homemade bread made with walnuts. For dolci (dessert) we had homemade pannacotta drizzled with melted dark chocolate, and biscotti with Vin Santo sweet wine and grappa to finish.

This afternoon lunch took hours, to savor each dish and enjoy your fill of each course, and share good wine and conversation. No wonder Italians have espresso after meals - after eating so much food, you could easily fall asleep! It was an epic meal.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Italian Wedding

My first wedding in Italy was in Florence, with the reception at a Tuscan villa in Fiesole overlooking the city and the hills of Tuscany, so it's no surprise that the food was amazing as well. First came cocktails and appetizers, served by the pool in the grand backyard:

Drinks offered were white and red wine, Prosecco, and a cocktail made from fragole (fresh strawberries) and sparkling wine - light and refreshing. The bride and groom hand personalized labels on the wine bottles:

Then came the antipasto (appetizers.) A block of prosciutto, shaved to order, crostini with olive tapenade or anchovies, and fresh mozzarella served alongside a light tomato gelĂ©e in the shape of a rose:

Passed antipasto included fried zucchini flowers and sage, crispy golden and light and airy, you could eat a dozen, they were so good. Then came the dinner, served buffet style with an outdoor grill for meat made to order. For dinner guests sat, self seating, at tables on the terrace overlooking the city and hills beyond:

Bottles of red and white wine at each table, and floral centerpieces. For dinner the primi was ricotta gnocchi, soft light clouds, in a saffron cream sauce, and sauteed zucchini ribbons with oregano.

They also offered a Tuscan rice dish with eggplant, red peppers, peas, smothered in melted cheese. At the mixed grill they had spicy sausage (cooked rare the way the Florentines like their meat) and prime ribs on the bone. Dinner was a casual affair - eat as much as you want, whichever dishes you choose, and taking time to enjoy the meal.

Then came the cake: a classic Italian torta made from hundreds of pastries piled high and overflowing with whipped cream:

The cake was served with a strawberry sauce and fresh strawberries, and of course Prosecco. The dessert buffet also offered little cups of light mousse-cream topped with chocolate ganache, small chocolate espresso cakes (like Italian brownies on crack), candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate, boxes of fresh cherries and strawberries, and candied marcona almonds (also in the parting favors.) Espresso was made to order to enjoy with dessert, or more wine if desired. Naturally I sampled every dessert offered and it was all incredibly good, the perfect conclusion to a fantastic Italian meal. The first of my Italian wedding experiences, it was a night I'll never forget.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Learning to Cook Like an Italian

What better place to learn to cook real Italian food than Tuscany? I've lived with an Italian man for three years now, and over time have learned a lot about Italian cooking: always use the freshest in-season ingredients, letting them be the focus of the meal; good olive oil is the key to great-tasting food; and recipes are always guidelines rather than exact instructions. Much of Italian cooking must be learned rather than taught: there is a wealth of infinite knowledge to be learned from observing the Italian cook in the kitchen that is rarely expressed in formal cookbooks.

Sunday lunch in Italy is a sacred occasion, a grand family meal of many courses. So last week's Sunday lunch was my tutorial on the Italian classic zuppa di mare - soup of the sea. Here's what I learned:

1) Begin by prepping the seafood. Soak the vongole (clams) in a bowl of water, cut the polpo (octopus) and raw fish into manageable cooking pieces, and clean the cozze (mussels) - that part's the worst, in my opinion. Cleaning mussels took nearly an hour, there were so many. The kitchen was filled with raw seafood piled in the sink and bowls on every surface: the bounty of the sea, literally.

2) Chop the vegetables. Onions, more garlic than you think could possibly be necessary, carrots and celery - I was set to work on chopping vegetables, and then fresh parsley (there were three different kinds, some leaves half the size of my hands. Parsley in Italy is on a whole other level.) The base to the zuppa (soup) was of course onions, garlic, and tomatoes, simmering slowly to develop the flavor.

3) The first course was stuffed mussels. Garlic sauteed in oil in a pan on the stove, then crushed tomatoes, making a classic marinara sauce. Then they whisked a raw egg into the tomato sauce to thicken it, tempering the egg in a glass bowl with the warm marinara and combining. When the tomato-egg sauce mixture came together to the right consistency, it was then spooned into each raw mussel and tied with string to bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

The mussels came out of the oven bubbling hot, with the tomato filling lightly crusting the edges of the mussel shells, enveloping the savory mussel meat inside. We peeled the string off the shells, prying the shells open with spoons to devour the exquisite insides.

4) Next course: classic steamed mussels and clams with garlic, parsley and a splash of wine. Simple, to the point, and eaten with bread and fresh homemade garlic aioli, which could knock you out with one whiff of the pungent raw garlic aroma.

 5) Meanwhile, the zuppa was simmering away. After the vegetables went in the polpo (octopus) and white fish, then more clams and mussels, then finally topped with gamberoni and scampi (shrimp of all sizes), the lid on tight to infuse the seafood with the aromatics' flavor. The zuppa was served right out of the pot:

The broth was ladled over a piece of crusty toasted bread placed in the bottom of each bowl, to sop up the juices, and topped with the steaming hot seafood piled high:

The savory tomato broth and perfectly cooked seafood and fish was so flavorful, the taste of the sea infused in every bite. At the bottom was the broth-soaked bread, the dessert at the end of the seafood symphony. We enjoyed the meal with Tuscan wine of course, and finished with espresso and grappa. Cooking like an Italian also means you get to eat like an Italian: course after course of delicious homemade food, enjoying time together at the table as a family. It's the way to live life, I think - enjoy every moment.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Sicily is an island that has seen many cultures traverse its shores over the past few thousand years. These many different peoples have influenced everything from the architecture to the dialects to the food, which reflects its historical melting pot. Not simply Italian food, Sicilian cuisine has Arab, Greek, and Spanish influences, using all the natural ingredients of the land and sea surrounding the island.

The Ballaro Market in Palermo reminded me more of Marrakech than Rome. Piles of colorful fruits and vegetables - pale green squash two feet long, baskets of writhing live snails, pig's feet hanging from the tented stalls, tuna bellies larger than my torso, gleaming pink in the sun. We got some fresh bread and marinated olives and wandered through the marketplace spitting pits and perusing the spices and wares. The sellers' dried apricots and raisins, golden saffron and smoky cinnamon, and melon and citrus reflect the culinary influences of the Arab eastern Mediterranean. We shared an arancino - fried risotto ball with ragu in the center, a typical Sicilian street food, which was nearly the size of my face, for one euro. Then smoked ricotta topped with honey and pistachios:

Roasted warm cheese with a sticky sweet glaze and crunchy nuts on top - you had to lick the paper, it was so good. And of course I had to try a real cannoli, the famed dessert of Sicily, which was stuffed with the lightest cream imaginable, and darted with tiny candied orange peel, such a far cry from the heavier Americanized version of the treat.

And of course there's the seafood. In every seaside town in Sicily, there was an array of fresh fish and shellfish to choose from. First, in the coastal town Sferracavallo we had dinner at the Antico Posillipo restaurant near the harbor. Steamed mussels to start, then risotto con salmone (salmon), fish eggs, and radicchio:

Then I had pesce di spada con gamberoni (grilled swordfish with jumbo shrimp):

In Italy, less is more: the simplest preparation, with olive oil, parsley, and a hint of pepper and sea salt, lets the fresh seafood shine. We finished with limone sorbetto, but it was a frothy liquid rather than the ice-hard sorbet you'll find in the U.S., and a wonderfully refreshing end to the meal.

In Scopello, a small village near the Zingaro nature reserve, we went to the Trattoria di Scopello, down the road, where we were seated at the end of a table with other diners, in typical casual Italian fashion. There we had a fantastic seafood antipasto:

Polpo insalate (octopus salad), fish "meatballs", gamberetti (shrimp), and marinated eggplant that tasted like sausage, it was so meaty delicious

Then a fish platter feast:

Orata - whole of course, eaten right off the bone - with tuna, swordfish steaks, gamberoni, and squid

The next night we ate at a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the water, starting with calamari. For the primi, the pasta alla norma, a typical Sicilian pasta dish from Catania, which uses native eggplant in tomato sauce. This eggplant was cooked to such perfection, it was actually sweet:

For dinner I had the seared tuna, and it was the best tuna I've ever eaten. Now this is a strong statement to make, coming from me. I'm obsessed with tuna - I've had it in many different places for many years; if it's on a restaurant menu I will almost always order the seared tuna, I love it so much. And honestly it's often cold in the middle, with the flesh raw from the ice to the plate, and loses some of its flavor. But not this tuna. This tuna was warm, savory, so buttery that it melted in my mouth - I didn't even need a knife, it was so good. This tuna was the best.

The night ended with a pistachio cannoli to share, but there's no photo since I didn't have time to take one before we ate it. Enough said.

Our last night in Sicily we stayed by the salt fields near Marsala (which is of course where the wine gets its name.) We asked the lady selling salt where to go that night and she recommended the Cothon Ristorante, a family-owned place on a side street outside of the city, about as non-touristy as you can imagine. For ten euros we got a starter, entree each and pitcher of house wine, and everything was good. The cook brought us fried polenta bites when we sat down, crispy golden nuggets of heaven, and then I really wanted to try caponata, a Sicilian eggplant dish with vegetables and golden raisins.

I had the couscous alle pesce (fish) , a great example of the North African influence on Sicilian cuisine:

And the busiate pasta is a typical Sicilian pasta made in the seaside city of Trapani, which we passed:

Curly tendrils of soft pasta in a light sauce with cozze (mussels) - more seafood, of course.

Then there's the Sicilian breakfast that we enjoyed every morning during our stay. Pastries, cakes, even cookies are a breakfast food in Italy, apparently. A dangerous habit to form ...

Finally there's the granita, a Sicilian shaved-ice drink that is so light and refreshing it's addictive. We tried espresso and mandorle (almond), shown here:

The food in Sicily is arguably some of the best in the world - an incredible fusion of Mediterranean flavors all joined on one gorgeous island.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Cooking in Croatia

In Dubrovnik we rented an apartment in the old town walled-in medieval city, and decided to use the kitchen to make a home-cooked meal with fresh Croatian ingredients. In the outdoor market I found fresh produce, spices, and an assortment of typical things to the area, including honey, dried orange peel and lavender. We got a small bottle of Croatian olive oil and some parsley, and snagged a sprig of fresh basil that came as a garnish with breakfast at the cafe, pocketing it for later. (Also the butter packet. Classy, I know.)

Croatia borders Italy, of course, sharing the Adriatic Sea and all its bounty. So we got shrimp and some pasta from the market, and from the fresh produce stands selected zucchini and a red onion for vegetables, and garlic and lemon for cooking. For appetizers we got some Croatian cheese (similar to provolone), salami, olives, and of course some Croatian white wine.

Appetizers by our window looking out at the old city of Dubrovnik:

Given the ingredients we found at the market, for dinner I made shrimp scampi: dropped the pasta, sauteed the garlic in olive oil, added the shrimp, grated lemon zest, deglazed the pan with a splash of white wine, added the lemon juice and parsley, pulled the pasta from the water while still al dente, dropped in into the pan with the shrimp-lemon-garlic-wine sauce to cook through, added a splash of the starchy cooking water to thicken the sauce, poured it all back into the pot and finished with the stolen pat of butter and basil leaf sprig to garnish.

For the vegetable side dish I sliced the zucchini thin and caramelized the red onion in oil, adding more garlic, parsley, and a pinch of sugar to get the onions meltingly sweet, and browned the zucchini until soft and tender.

We realized we had no salt or pepper in the apartment - staples I rarely cook without - but with our garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs, the food still had a ton of flavor, all fresh and light. It was a lovely home-cooked dinner:

Croatian Culinary Tour

Croatia is a country of regions: the food in the northern, more mountainous inland region is drastically different from the food on the southern coast, with elements of bordering cuisines integrated throughout their diverse cooking traditions. The food is fresh, most of all, and a wonderful experience.

When we arrived in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, the first thing I noticed was that the air smelled of strawberries. The Dolac Market was filled with different kinds of fresh produce, fish, and colorful flowers, but the most pervasive scent was the overpowering sweetness of freshly picked strawberries ripening in the sun. A euro for a crate of strawberries, a far cry from supermarket prices back in the states.

Next we went to the Plitvice Lakes, further west in the countryside, and stayed at a family-owned guesthouse near the waterfalls. Our first night the owner Ana made us a home-cooked Croatian meal:

Pork cooked in a sticky sweet and savory sauce, risotto with carrots and fresh parsley, cucumber and tomato salad, bread, and freshly-squeezed orange juice

After a long day of travel we literally licked our plates clean, the food was so good. It is a perfect example of how Croatian food fuses the different elements from it's neighboring cultures' culinary traditions: the meat-heavy diets of Hungary and Slovenia, the risotto a variation of a classic Italian dish using the root vegetables available, and the salad style Greek. Croatian food has it's own identity, to be sure, but one that draws upon the disparate dishes of the region.

From the lakes we traveled south to the coastal town of Split, famous for it's Diocletian ruins and Mediterranean port style. We ate dinner (at 10 at night of course) at a restaurant by the dock where the locals all sit drinking beer and wine from the bottle - Croatia has some great cheap wine. It was there that I ate the best calamari I've ever tasted - including Italy, yes - this calamari was tender and fresh, not too heavily breaded, not a bit of "rubber" chewiness that can result in overcooking, just the perfectly prepared, perfectly seasoned calamari that you can ever imagine.

From Split we continued to Dubrovnik, the gorgeous World Heritage Site at the southern-most tip of Croatia. In Dubrovnik we ate (following a recommendation) at the restaurant Nava, which is a tiny little place tucked on a narrow pedestrian side street in the old town, away from the more touristy main strip. They were about to close the restaurant when we arrived later in the night, but the kind older Croatian woman took one look at three hungry young women and said, "okay, I'll make you whatever you want."

So we ordered the seafood platter, which was a feast for kings. Fresh fish cooked whole, crustaceans tucked in between, it was delicious - the Croatian coast, of course, is famous for it's fresh seafood caught in the Adriatic, and rivals any upscale restaurant in the U.S., I'll wager.

Adriatic seafood platter with orata (?), mussels, jumbo shrimp, and squid

Our last Croatian meal was lunch in Zagreb on the return trip north, at a cheap cafe in the city center. The place had two options: the soup with meat or the soup with only vegetables, and for a few euros you got a massive bowl of steaming delectableness, served with bread to sop up every last bit:

Croatian soup with: sausage, lentils, beans (similar to chickpeas), carrots and various other root vegetables - possibly celeriac, cabbage, and spices drawing from Bulgarian flavors, which has a Turkish influence. A generous pat of creamy polenta in the middle, garnished with fresh cherry tomatoes and cheese, radicchio, and toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch.

I will try valiantly to recreate this soup when I return back to the States, but may never be able to achieve its perfection. Croatia is a place, for it's food, scenery, sights and people, that I will have to return to in my life. It is a glorious combination of it's surroundings, and yet entirely it's own.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Slovenian Supper

Slovenia may sound like an obscure place to visit, and perhaps it is. But the breathtaking mountains and green crystal streams and lakes are a wilderness lover's paradise - and the food isn't bad, either. My first experience with Slovenian food was breakfast: Slovenian coffee with milk (amazing), and a pastry that looked like a croissant, but tasted just like kolache dough! (Kolache is a Slovak pastry my family makes every year for the holidays, honoring the traditions of my grandfather's heritage, and it should come as no surprise that the pastries in neighboring Slovenia would be similar, but needless to say I was excited.)

After a day of hiking we stopped at a restaurant - recommended by a local - in the small town of Bled, by the scenic lake. The menu had everything from pork to poultry, goulash (a Hungarian-style stew), and fish. We went with the mixed grill, which I envisioned would be kebabs with grilled onions and peppers, perhaps, and instead out came a plate of ... meat.

Grilled sausages, pork, chicken, and a spicy ground beef mixture with onions that was incredible. Now I'm not a big meat eater, but this Slovenian meat platter was just too good to pass up. The condiments included spicy mustard and ajvar, an Eastern European sauce made from tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, served with meat and fish all throughout Slovenia and Croatia. Perfect compliments to the succulent, savory meats, and after a day in the mountains it could not have been better.

The other food that naturally we had to try was the cream cake that's famous in the Bled region. Light and airy cream cake, what more can I say? It was divine.