May 23, 2013
Since we arrived in Tuscany, it’s rained almost every day. From what I hear, it’s been an unusually cold and rainy spring. And that’s saying something, because Tuscany is actually not the reliably sunny place we’ve been led to believe. Tuscans themselves don’t brag about savoring life under their sun; they know better.
Comparing May precipitation stats with Seattle, I see that Florence averages three inches compared to two for a city famous for overcast skies. The maddening thing is how changeable the weather is. The sun peeks out, like a temptress, and then 15 minutes later the skies open again.
I’m not complaining–well, maybe a little–but mostly just going with the flow (sorry, hard to avoid water imagery). Even under damp conditions, Tuscany is one of the best places on earth. So I add layers of clothing until the chill can’t get through, finishing if need be with the bubblegum-pink shell I had brought, optimistically, for bicycling. Not ready for that quite yet.
Compared to a visit a few years ago at the same time, seasonal vegetables lag far behind. Tender young artichokes, zucchini and greens are showing up in markets, but the seedlings have just been planted in the garden of the farmhouse where we’re staying. We’re months away from local tomatoes, but enjoying the juicy ones from Sicily.
After running a hand over a plush rosemary bush, I sniffed and wondered why the familiar aroma burst went missing. Our friend Allen, a gardening expert and food historian, explained that the rain has diluted those aromatic oils. The best he could suggest was to pluck the older, slightly more fragrant sprigs for cooking.
Allen also pointed out vitalba, a weed that according to Italian sources is poised between poisonous and medicinal. To make it edible, boil to deactivate the enzymes and then cook a second time. Often it’s battered and fried, probably to divert attention from the bitter taste.
The white acacia flowers now in bloom belong to the same category of “emergency foods,” one step down from cucina povera because they don’t necessarily taste that good. I bought honey made from bees fed on acacia flowers, but apparently you can also fry them or toss in salads. We can drive to the supermercato even in the rain, so I doubt we’ll get hungry enough to go acacia hunting in the woods.
I’ve started fantasizing about a visit to a terme, one of the thermal springs that dot Tuscany, and this raw weather is also extending the season for hearty, rib-sticking foods. The quality of beans is amazing here. At the weekly street market, we bought a big, sturdy variety of ceci (chickpeas) to make minestrone; the vendor said the smaller chickpeas from the Maremma (on the right) are best cooked alone and drizzled with oil to accompany roasted meat or poultry (the third variety in the photo are borlotti, cranberry beans).
Italian law forbids central heating after April 15 and, although we energy-guzzling Americans should take a lesson from their example, I hadn’t felt warmed clear through until two nights ago, when we built a fire in the wood-burning stove. The stovetop radiated so much heat that the meat sugo I set on top was soon bubbling. I mixed it with pici, the thick round noodles typical of Tuscany.
This part of Tuscany, in the Arno Valley, is known for the quality of its chickens.I’ve already made aquacotta, a vegetable and bread soup topped with poached eggs, and tonight my husband made one of his fabulous frittatas, mixing the orange-yolked eggs with sauteed onions and potatoes, pancetta and lots of parsley.
I’d give you his recipe, but honestly, I wasn’t watching. Instead I was listening to Corelli, sipping wine and watching the sunset. The weather had cleared. In the late evening light, the flowering plants were brilliant in their hues of yellow, fuchsia, purple. After all, it’s springtime in Tuscany.
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April 26, 2013
Looking for Louis Coluccio’s new store in Bay Ridge, we spotted “Italian Grocery” in old-fashioned stenciling on the brick storefront. ”Are you sure that’s it?” asked my son-in-law.
But even from a moving car, I had also seen A.L.C.’s stylish round logo. The Coluccio family is into its third generation as Brooklyn grocers and importers of Italian products. The original 60th St. store, founded half a century ago, feels like a bit of a time warp, but Louis is a young guy in his thirties and with A.L.C., he’s clearly aiming to integrate the old with the new.
As we walked into a deep, brick-lined interior that once housed a butcher shop, Louis emerged from behind the counter. ”Do you want to taste a really spicy soppressata?” he asked. We did, and found it delicious.
An employee offered translucent slices of Prosciutto Toscano, new to the American market. Cured with garlic, juniper and pepper, it’s a little darker and saltier than its Parma and San Daniele cousins, with a more earthy, intense flavor. We also sampled Garda, an aged raw-milk cheese from the Italian Alps, a fantastic Lombardy blue cheese (goat) called blu di capra, and house-made scamorza.
Prosciutto Toscano at A.L.C.
With a nod to Brooklyn boosterism, A.L.C. sells dough from Di Fara Pizza and pickles made within the bourough limits. Customers can order sandwiches or prepared foods to eat on site or take home.
Why this somewhat gritty-looking neighborhood? As Louis points out, Bay Ridge has a strong Italian heritage but is also emerging as a hip part of Brooklyn. He thought a neighborhood store like his could appeal to both kinds of customers.
The visit made me think about what makes A.L.C. different from Eataly, a mash-up of Italian products, restaurants, beer garden, cooking classes, books and kitchen goods. When I go, I confirm that they’re still stocking my cookbooks. Then I wander around until my head is spinning. Finally, I sit down at the seafood bar and order the daily whole-fish special.
Eataly is fun, but as a customer, you feel anonymous. Even if you live or work in the Flatiron District, they don’t really care about building a relationship with you. It’s not a neighborhood store, but a destination for Italophiles far and wide.
A.L.C. is more welcoming, a friendly neighborhood grocery that happens to be well stocked with Italian foods–some that arouse nostalgia and others you’ve never tasted before. If I lived anywhere close, I’d be in and out all the time.
Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, with stores in Manhattan, Paris and Parma, suggests yet another future for the Italian grocery: an elegant balance between retail and restaurant. Thanks to the partnership between Parmacotto, an Italian salumi producer and importer, and Cesare Casella, a seasoned chef originally from Tuscany, you can trust the authenticity of what’s behind the deli counter and what’s on the plate.
Meeting a friend for lunch at the Upper West Side location, I expected simple fare–freshly sliced salumi, marinated olives and so on. Those are available, but we gravitated to more elaborate dishes glimpsed on nearby tables.
Perfectly executed caponata with bread was followed by a warm salad of julienned vegetables with baby squid, farro prepared risotto style with spring vegetables, and my favorite, mezzi rigatoni all’ amatriciana–the deeply satisfying sauce made not just with the obligatory guanciale (cured pork cheeks) but eight other kinds of salumi. Even the sauteed escarole made me homesick for the cooking of the Italian nonna I never had.
The Italian grocery closest to my daughter’s Park Slope home is Russo’s Mozzarella & Pasta, an outpost of the East Village store. I didn’t see any reinvention happening here–just Italian basics wrapped up by Latino counter staff–but they do make a mean broccoli rabe, fennel and mozzarella sandwich.
The Ploughman, an artisanal cheese and charcuterie shop in Park Slope, is a good place to load up for a picnic or aperitivo time. To go with our Taleggio and mixed olives, we took home a couple of draft brews in returnable Mason jars. Local is part of the formula here. For instance, this weekend they’ll be pouring a full-bodied Cricket Hill beer from New Jersey in honor of the 17-year cicadas expected to hatch out.
Boarding my flight at LaGuardia, I wondered what’s new at Di Palo, a Little Italy establishment renowned for its 200-plus cheeses from Italy. A few years ago Enoteca Di Palo opened next door as Lou DiPalo and his son Sam set out to build a comparable reputation for regional Italian wines.
I also wished I had found time to check out Brooklyn Larder, known for sustainably produced cheeses, salumi and other foods.
But I’ll save those stops for another visit, reassured as I am that New York’s neighborhood Italian groceries are thriving in varied and interesting ways. Meanwhile, I might try to replicate that amatriciana.
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April 8, 2013
In the Piemonte region of northern Italy where Margherita Aloi grew up, this potful of spring greens in broth, thickened by fat rice kernels and potatoes, is known as a “cleansing soup”…especially for women.
I’ve never been altogether sure what “cleansing” means, but it likely has something to do with the greens, rich in digestion-enhancing fiber, and with the idea of giving the female reproductive system a tune-up during the season of rebirth.
Anyway, it is a wonderfully nourishing spring dish, and I love the idea of a soup made by women, for women.
According to Margherita, who eventually became a Connecticut chef, this traditional soup made sense not only because greens and young onions are spring crops, but because this was the time women were working in the rice fields. A woman could make a big batch ahead of time and then at night, when she was stanca morta–dead tired–simply heat it up.
Before automation, women were considered perfect for rice-field duty because they had the small hands (and patience?) to plant and cultivate the seedlings. For a glimpse of gritty realities guaranteed to blast away nostalgia for that hard-scrabble era, I recommend Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro), a neo-realist film of the ’40s.
As a simple meal made with inexpensive ingredients, Margherita’s spring greens and rice soup is squarely in the cucina povera tradition, and I included the recipe in Piatto Unico, my cookbook on Italian one-course meals. Its comforting flavors remind me a bit of my mother’s potato soup. Hers was a more rudimentary soup–just potatoes, onions and water, seasoned with a dollop or two of butter plus salt and pepper.
My mom told me that, living on an Army base during World War II, she and my dad ate potato soup toward the end of the month while waiting for the next paycheck and round of ration cards. But she remembered early marriage as a happy time and that association may explain in part why she went on making potato soup throughout her life.
The other reason, I think, is that she craved the honest flavors of that soup. And I feel the same way about this greens and rice soup. I like to combine mild greens such as chard, spinach or beet greens with bitter varieties like dandelion greens or kale. This week I chose beet greens and dandelion greens at my Florida farmer’s market, along with organic nasturtiums to float in the bowls.
Spring Greens and Rice Soup
(from Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal; based on recipe from Margherita Aloi)
12 ounces to 1 pound spring greens such as baby spinach, chard, dandelion greens, watercress, and edible flowers (choose at least two varieties), washed well, tough stems removed
2 cups cleaned, thinly sliced leeks or spring onions (white and tender green parts)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or a combination of butter and olive oil
2 cups peeled, medium-diced russet potatoes
3 quarts chicken broth or water, or a mixture
1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 bunch asparagus, trimmed, cut in short lengths (optional)
1 small hot red pepper, seeded and slivered, or hot red pepper flakes to taste
Sea salt or kosher salt
Best-quality extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1 to 1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. Leaving small leaves whole, thinly slice the other greens (makes about 10 cups).
2. Heat a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Combine the leeks and garlic with the olive oil, stirring until coated. Cover the pan and cook, stirring often, until they soften but do not brown, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the potatoes and cover with broth (if using water, add 1 tablespoon salt). Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until barely tender. Stir in the rice and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the asparagus, hot red pepper, and shredded greens. Season with salt and simmer just until the greens are tender (add more water as necessary for a soupy consistency). Serve the soup warm, topping each serving with a thread of olive oil and sprinkle of cheese. Pass the rest of the cheese at the table.
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March 26, 2013
Pizza rustica has nothing to do with pizza. Also known as torta pasqualina or Easter pie, it is a southern Italian specialty. Creamy ricotta (or basket cheese) and salty salami in a flaky crust, that’s pizza rustica.
“Pizza rustica is so old-fashioned it’s cool again,” says David DiBari, chef/owner of The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where Easter pie stays on the menu year round. “Growing up, I remember friends or family usually brought one to our house during Easter.”
Like other festive foods in the Italian canon, pizza rustica could be made in advance and carried to someone else’s home during a religious holiday. Both filling and crust are rich with eggs, symbolic of rebirth during the Easter season.
Individual tart pans or a springform pan are showier options, but I just use a deep-dish pie plate. Though pizza rustica is traditionally eaten at room temperature, as a snack, The Cookery serves theirs warm, as an appetizer.
No one ever brought my family a pizza rustica–no use whining, I didn’t grow up in an Italian-American household. But I did have the good fortune to see how pizza rustica is made in The Cookery kitchen, and here are the recipes for pie and crust.
Chef Dave DiBari’s Pizza Rustica
Makes one 9-inch pie
1/3 pound hot soppressata in one piece
1/3 pound sweet soppressata in one piece
1/3 Genoa salami in one piece
1-½ pounds whole-milk or part-skim ricotta (preferably a high-quality brand such as Montena Taranto or Calabro)
2 eggs plus 2 yolks
1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
All-purpose flour, as needed
1 pound Rich Parmigiano Pastry Dough (recipe follows) or other pie dough
Preheat the oven to 350°F. To soften casings, place the two soppressatas and salami in a bowl. Cover with warm water and let stand for 5 minutes. Remove the meats, one at a time, and score the outsides with a knife. Strip off the casings. Cut the meats lengthwise in ¼- inch slices; cut each slice lengthwise in ¼-inch strips and then crosswise in small dice.
To prepare the filling: Combine the diced meats, ricotta, 1 of the eggs and the yolks, the parsley and the grated cheese in a medium bowl. Mix well until the mixture has the consistency of egg salad.
To roll the dough: Scatter a generous amount of flour on a pastry board or counter and on the rolling pin. Roll the dough in quick strokes from 10 to 2 (on a clock), turning it a quarter turn after each series, until the circle is about 14 inches in diameter. To judge whether the dough is thin enough, lift an edge and hold your hand under it with a light source behind; you should be able to see your fingers. Trim the edges with a pastry cutter.
Loosely roll half of the dough around a rolling pin. Using the pin to support the dough, unfold it over the pan. Gently lift the edges of the dough, allowing it to settle into the pan. Once it is positioned, press down, allowing the edges to drape over the sides of the pan.
Turn the filling into the pan, packing it down with your hands. To form a decorative border: Lift a couple of inches of the edge with both hands and pleat so the dough rests diagonally against the surface of the pie. Lift and pleat the next section, and so on.
Lightly beat the remaining egg. Use your fingers to stroke the egg over all of the exposed crust.
Bake the pie in the lower third of the oven for 45 minutes. The crust should be golden brown. To further test doneness, gently shake the pie from side to side to make sure the ricotta filling is set. Final test: Insert a knife 1 inch from the center (it should come out clean).
Cool the pie on a rack before slicing.
Rich Parmigiano Pastry Dough
Makes 1 deep-dish pie shell (9 inches)
2-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padana cheese
1 teaspoon whole fennel seed
¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 pinch ground hot red pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small cubes
1 whole egg plus 1 yolk
1/3 cup heavy cream
Combine the flour, cheese, fennel seed, salt and (if using) hot red pepper in a food processor bowl; pulse until well blended. Add the butter and continue pulsing until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Through the funnel, add the egg and yolk, pulsing until incorporated. Gradually pour in the cream, continuing to pulse until a ball of dough forms. If the mixture fails to form a ball, add water a tablespoon at a time (up to ½ cup) until it does.
Gather the dough with one hand, sprinkle with flour and knead briefly on a board or the countertop; form a ball, flatten it, and cover or wrap.
Let the dough stand for at least half an hour before proceeding. It will be quite moist, but not to worry. You’ll be using plenty of flour when rolling it out and I think you’ll find this dough quite easy to work with. It can be held for several days in refrigerator, or frozen indefinitely. Before using, let the dough come to cool room temperature.
Note: You may also be interested in Katia Amore’s recipe for Chocolate Chicken, a Sicilian Easter dish.
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March 5, 2013
Carpano Antica vermouth in a Duncan McClellan glass
I’ve always loved Italian vermouth and liqueurs, known as amari, that teeter on the tightrope between bitter and sweet. They vary from one another in color, alcoholic strength and proprietary formulas of infused herbal and fruit ingredients that can number in the dozens.
Vermouth on the rocks with a twist is a standard pre-dinner libation for me. Occasionally I’ll treat myself to the more assertive flavor of Punt e Mes and lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of Carpano Antica. Packaged in an ornate tin, the latter costs 38 dollars a bottle compared to about 22 dollars for Punt e Mes and less than 10 dollars for standard brands like Martini and Cinzano.
When I lived in New York, summer was the time for Campari & soda or a prosecco spritz tinted a brilliant orange by Aperol, a less alcoholic aperitivo made by the Campari company. Now that I live in Florida, the Campari-Aperol season goes on all year long.
I enjoy the unique flavors of these drinks but also their histories and weird make-up. Campari, for instance, originally got its ruby tint from crushed cochineal insects (vegetarians, breathe easy–they’ve stopped that).
Grapefruit-Aperol Gin Cocktail
Combine these bittersweet beverages with gin as a base and you cross over from aperitif to cocktail, a world of more powerful drinks that have their own appeal. Part of the attraction, for me, is that quite often I already have the amari on hand.
The grapefruits in my refrigerator sparked a memory of the Salty Dog, a gin drink that was a ’70s favorite for me. Skip the salt-crusted rim and splash in some Aperol to create a whole new drink, with just a little bitterness to complement its sweet-sourness (recipe follows).
Mixologists have been having fun with the Negroni, whose standard formula calls for equal parts Campari, red vermouth and gin. Campari is the constant but choosing distinctive brands of the other two components can make a difference. New York City’s I Sodi uses Hendrick’s (a Scottish gin infused with rose petals and cucumber) and Punt e Mes in its Punt-e-groni (visit their site for the recipe). Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, also known for its Negronis, likes Plymouth gin.
Punt-e-groni at I Sodi
In Jacksonville, Florida, Restaurant Orsay makes its Negroni with Carpano Antica. I wondered how much it would matter, but in a side-by-side tasting, the good stuff prevailed. Carpano gave the drink a long, complex finish entirely lacking in the ordinary red-vermouth Negroni.
The Orsay bartenders also tamed that tiger of an amaro, Fernet- Branca, by putting it in a gin cocktail.
First, let’s just say that Fernet-Branca is a class of its own, infused with over 40 roots, herbs and spices–seemingly, whatever the original maker could dig up. It’s a shock-and-awe kind of drink that some swear by (mostly men, in my experience) and others swear at (including me). I do a micro-sip of Fernet every few years just to confirm it still tastes nasty and medicinal, and it always fulfills my expectations.
That’s why I was so surprised that I liked Orsay’s Blackfriar Cocktail.
The ingredients were right there on the menu: Plymouth gin, Fernet- Branca, lemon juice and demerara sugar syrup. Judging by the cocktail’s color and taste, Fernet was a relatively minor ingredient–and I found afterward that many mixologists recommend using just a dash or two as a substitute for Angostura or other bitters.
When I put one together back home, I found myself upping the Fernet quantity a little. My husband is a Fernet fan and I agreed that it deserved to play a starring role, though not to dominate the drink.
There’s no end in sight for my bittersweet cocktail “research.” All I need to do is segue from gin to rum or brown spirits. Already I’ve seen references to Campari mojitos, a Fernet Old-Fashioned and a promising combination of rye whisky, Punt & Mes and maraschino liqueur.
I think I’ll go cut up some fruit garnishes.
Grapefruit-Aperol Gin Cocktail
Makes 1 cocktail
5 ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (1/2 large grapefruit)
1-1/2 to 2 ounces gin
1-1/2 ounces Aperol
Half of an orange slice
Stir together the grapefruit juice, gin and Aperol. Pour over ice cubes in a short glass and garnish with the orange slice half.
Fernet-Branca Gin Cocktail
Makes 1 cocktail
(based loosely on Restaurant d’Orsay’s Blackfriar Cocktail)
2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce demerara or turbinado sugar syrup*
1/4 ounce Fernet-Branca, or more if you dare
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Lemon zest garnish (cut with a vegetable peeler)
Stir together the gin, sugar syrup, Fernet-Branca and lemon juice. Pour over ice cubes in a short glass. Garnish with lemon zest.
* To make the syrup: Combine 1/4 cup demerara or turbinado sugar with 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Cool; leftover syrup can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator.
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