Sunday, July 31, 2011

Balsamic Bliss

I developed a completely new appreciation for balsamic vinegar while in Italy. I've always enjoyed it, and knew it was prized with many uses, but I had never bothered to get especially creative with it myself. Tasting how good it can really be made me want to try it in lots of new places and dishes, and the strawberry cake from the previous post - while not unique - was my first toe into the depths of what balsamic can offer baked goods.

The cookie recipe below is more of a plunge into a big, shimmery, syrupy pool of black-red balsamic bliss. When you know the "secret" ingredient (made totally unsecret by the title of this entry) the flavor is absolutely detectable but still subtle and balanced. But serve these to unsuspecting friends, and very few will realize what it is that makes these cookies so good. Try it, and have fun surprising them!

I've blogged about chocolate cookies before, and how much I want them to be so good, but they are so often dry, or bitter. This recipe is neither, as the balsamic lends a fruitness and a moistness to the cookies similar to what dates or apples might do, but with exceedingly more sophistication. And unlike cookies baked with fruit which can be thick, or doughy in the center, these are light, thin, and crisp around the edges, while still being chewy in the center.

Coffee is often added as a flavor enhancer to baked goods with chocolate, adding a depth without really imparting its own characteristics, and the balsamic works a little in the same way. There is no vinegar-y residue, but there is definitely more to the flavor than just enhanced chocolatelyness. If you use a good balsamic that you already like the flavor of, with a nice fruitiness and not too much acid, you will really appreciate how these cookies pick up those notes. It's almost like chocolate cookies with blackberry jam... in fact, maybe that would be a good idea too!!

Another benefit of these cookies is that the technique for mixing the batter is similar to brownies - it can all be done in one saucepan, so they're pretty easy. Following are some other ways I've found recently to use balsamic.

Chocolate-Secret-Ingredient Cookies a.k.a. Chocolate-Balsamic Cookies
I found this recipe on a blog which attributed the original to Alice Medrich and her cookbook "Bittersweet." You can google "chocolate balsamic cookies" to see some good photos - I didn't take one. Some of the versions call for an egg, which will make the cookie slightly more cake-like; I like them crispier around the edges so I did not include an egg, which can make the version vegan if you use margarine instead of butter.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup low-fat yogurt (I used fat-free vanilla yogurt, but you could also substitute sour cream)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (I almost wrote "good balsamic" but don't even bother buying balsamic that isn't already good and that you would lick straight from a spoon. It shouldn't go on your salad, and it shouldn't go in your cookies. It's worth it for the good stuff, you only need 1 T.)

Whisk together dry ingredients. In a medium saucepan, melt butter, then stir in the cocoa and sugars. Mix in yogurt, and liquids, then blend in flour mixture. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough on cookie sheet lined with parchment. (I don't usually bother with the parchment step, but I think it's worth it in this case. The cookies come out of the oven still soft, and you want to be able to move them to a rack to cool, without messing them up.) I like my cookies smaller, bite-sized, but you can use up to a tablespoon of dough for each if you like them bigger, just leave a couple of inches for them to spread on the sheets during baking.

Bake at 350 for about 11 minutes. They might not be look completely set, but you don't want to overcook them, as they will turn bitter, and they will continue to cook after removed from the oven. Slide the parchment sheet onto a rack to allow cookies to cool completely.

Salmon with Cherry-Balsamic SauceServes 2
Scale these quantities to fit your group, and your tastes. I figured about 6 cherries per person.
12 firm, ripe, Bing cherries
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

Grill or roast your salmon filets or steaks with just a bit of salt and pepper. While they're cooking, chop enough cherries to make a serving for each salmon portion. In a small saucepan, toss cherries with balsamic and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and keep warm until serving. Drizzle some vinegar sauce on the plate, top with portion of salmon, and spoon cooked cherries over.

Bing Cherry-Balsamic Salmon, served with a saute of carmelized onions
and savoy cabbage with capers, and onion focaccia.
Balsamic and Mushroom Quinoa
This was one of those use-up-whatever-is-in-the-fridge recipes, but I ended up really enjoying it. 
Red quinoa, cooked according to package directions (I don't think the red quinoa really tastes different, but it adds another visual element to the dish.)
Saute slivered onion in part butter/part olive oil over medium low heat until translucent and starting to carmelize. Add diced mushrooms and carrots and cook until tender. Deglaze with balsamic and toss in cooked quinoa until well-coated and heated through.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bread: Three Ways in Two Days

Being away from my kitchen for 7 weeks gave me serious baker's-withdrawal. I knew I would get tired of eating out for so long, but I didn't realize how much I would really miss baking and cooking while we were travelling. As soon as I was home, I couldn't wait to just make something! Well, once I got started, I couldn't really stop. I ended up baking three types of bread and a cake in two days, and three days later, more bread and cookies.

The first loaves I made where a honey-wheat sandwich bread. Will eats toast for breakfast every morning, and he prefers whatever kind of simple plain bread he can get so that he can cover it with butter and honey. I love good bread, and I think he ruins it that way, so I'm more than happy to buy him the cheap stuff for that purpose. In this case, it actually sounded easier to me to make bread from scratch than go to the store! That's how desperate I was to turn on the oven.

I used Nick Malgieri's recipe from his book How to Bake, and it really did come together easily. For all the baking I do, and fussing around I'll spend on frosting and cake decorating, and cutting out individual cookie shapes, I often find yeast-breads to be "too time consuming" so it was fun to feel that this was something I could produce on a more regular basis. Plus, one recipe makes two loaves, so you can either bake them together and freeze one, or even better, freeze the dough and bake it up fresh in a few days when the first loaf is gone.

The other thing about bread baking - that makes it less gratifying for me - is the waiting for it to rise. That is ultimately why I tested multiple recipes at once... before I could even bake one, because of the wait to rise, I had another batch already mixing, and rising while the first one went into the oven. I admit, there was ample gratification to have three kinds of fresh bread after a morning in the kitchen.

The next loaf - Rosemary Semolina - is a recipe I stored in my file years and years ago, but have never had the right flour. Right before we went to Italy, I had bought some semolina flour to "get in the mood" so I had it ready. My rosemary plant in my herb garden is growing out of control and this was an excellent way to trim it back a piece. These loaves are beautiful, and the bread itself is soft and tender with a dense crumb and a crunchy crust. It also makes excellent toast, but my favorite is to wrap it tightly in foil to warm it in the oven, and then serve with olive oil.

The final bread I want to share here was absolutely inspired by our travels: Rosemary Onion Focaccia. This recipe was one of the variations from Nick Malgieri's How to Bake book. Focaccia is really very easy, and comes together quite quickly.

Rosemary-Onion Focaccia
1 cup water at 110 degrees
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large onion (or I used 6 cipollinis)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Dissolve yeast in warm water, about 5 minutes, then stir in oil. Blend flour, salt, and rosemary in large bowl. Stir in yeast and milk. I use the dough hook of my stand mixer, just until moistened, and then beat for one minute, but this dough is soft enough I think you can pretty easily do it all by hand.
Cover bowl with plastic and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make topping. Heat oil in saute pan over medium heat. Add onions, thinly sliced and cook until starting to carmelize, but not brown, about 12-15 minutes. Season with salt and cracked pepper.
Oil a 12x18 jelly roll pan, and pat risen dough evenly. Dimple the surface with your fingertip and spread onion topping over. Cover again and allow to rise until doubled.
Preheat oven to 450. Bake 20-25 minutes, until golden. Slide out of pan onto rack to cook.
Foccacia is best eaten the day it is baked, though this made enough that even after taking it to a party, we were still eating it 3 days later and it was delicious after reheating in the oven.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fresh Strawberry Cake

Do you get sucked into buying the 4-pound case of strawberries and then find that they are already starting to spoil after just two days? And still have a fridge full of jam made to use them up quickly from the time before when you did that? Sure, fresh strawberries are excellent on green salads, made into a compote with oranges and orange liqueur for shortcakes, tossed with balsamic vinegar over ice cream, and just straight on their own! That's why I'm always sucked into buying them by the caseload, because there are so many delicious ways to use them. But that's only when they're fresh and good. When they start to go downhill, they need to be frozen, or cooked. So I came up with this strawberry cake to help get another couple days out of the bountiful loads of berries coming through my kitchen this month.

The first cake I thought of for a base to play with was Dorie Greenspan's French Yogurt Cake. But that has nuts in the batter and wasn't quite what I wanted in this case. But it did lead me to consider Ina Garten's Lemon Yogurt Cake which is ultimately what I modified to create the strawberry version below.

I absolutely love how this turned out. While it's not very elegant, it is still quite versatile, being moist and dense enough like a coffee cake to eat for breakfast, but sweet and cakey enough to really feel like dessert. The cardamom and strawberries together are a unique combination; spiced, but sweet, and tart. My preferred serving would be to take it to a picnic and serve in squares straight from the pan with whipped cream.

Strawberry-Cardamom Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 cup yogurt (I used Dannon Vanilla Light & Fit, but I'm sure plain, lowfat or regular fat yogurt would be even better)
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup vegetable oil

12-15 small/medium ripe strawberries, washed, hulled. and halved or quartered depending on size

pomegranate molasses

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients - flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom.
In a separate bowl, blend yogurt, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and oil. Fold in dry ingredients just until incorporated.
Pour batter into lightly greased 9x9" glass baking dish. Arrange strawberries atop batter, cut side down, in a decorative pattern, filling as much of the top as possible but without overlapping the berries.
Bake 30-35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Meanwhile, prepare glaze (recipe below).
While cake is still hot, use a pastry brush to brush strawberry compote glaze over top of hot cake. Return to oven for about 5 minutes, just to set the glaze.
Serve cake warm, or cool in pan on rack and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Strawberry Compote
I made a strawberry compote using up the remaining berries that were about to get too ripe. You can scale this recipe to taste and to make as much or as little as you want. I used the rest of the compote in spoonfulls on top of puff pastry. It would also be delicious as tart filling, or over ice cream. You could also strain it to make a sorbet.

1 1/2 - 2 cups washed, hulled, and quartered strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons balsamic vineagar

Mix all ingredients together in heavy saucepan. Mash berries with potato masher or fork. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil and cook uncovered until desired thickness. Compote will thicken slightly as it cools.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Roman Pizza and Cooking Like an Italian

When we arrived at our apartment rental in Rome and the caretaker was showing us around, she opened up the doors to the private patio and the first thing I saw was a small lemon tree sagging under the weight of numerous large yellowish lemons. Even though we were so pleased to be in an apartment instead of a hotel room, with a closet and shower that you can actually stand in, and a sofa and a dining room table, the thing I got most excited about was the prospect of being able to pick a lemon from that tree and make something to eat with it.

However, we didn’t actually get around to making dinner until our last day. And in between, we enjoyed some delicious pizza which is not to be overlooked. We were fortunately to eat at Dar Poeta
in the Trastevere, known by many to make the best pizza in Rome. We shared a “superbufala” which was fresh mozzarella, artichokes, olives, and tomato sauce on the puffiest, crispiest, lightest pizza crust. Their menu brags about how you won’t leave feeling full or heavy because their crust is so good, and I concur!

We also had good pizza at Taverna Parione. One was tomato sauce and mozzarella with sausage and the largest capers I’ve ever seen. The other was a white pizza with sausage, four types of mushrooms, mozzarella, and a salad of very lightly dressed arugula greens right on top. This made for a delicious combination, in a preparation I wouldn’t have thought of at home. Salad and pizza, of course! Salad on pizza, who knew?!

But enough with our pizzerias, as good as they were. I am pretty sure that I have never picked anything and made it into a meal. We have a fig tree in our yard which I cultivate every year for jam, and I have picked berries for jams and tomatoes for salads. I remember growing zucchini when I was younger, and the thrill of picking it when ripe after watching it grow for weeks, but then I didn’t have any responsibility for its preparation. Picking this lemon and putting it in my pasta was really a different kind of experience for me.

We were staying in Rome for 4 nights and knew that making a farm-fresh dinner had to part of our Italian vacation memory. We didn’t actually get around to it until our final night, what for all the exhaustion and timing of sightseeing. But when our pace slowed down slightly and we stumbled upon the market on our way to the Pantheon, but realized we did in fact have time to buy produce and take it back to the flat and still have time to sightsee, then we knew we were finally out of vacation mode and soaking up life in Rome.

I had read about agretti in a blog about a year ago and that was the first I’d heard of it. I hadn’t really been following the blog-o-sphere while I was travelling, but I just happened to see this post about agretti again (and how rare and wonderful it is!) So I felt tickled by fate when the very next day we saw agretti both at the market and in the grocery store. Of course we had to try it. On the morning of our market excursion, we found the agretti first and the stall owner shoved an enormous handful in a bag for me. Next, we found some cherry tomatoes on-the-vine, and some cipollini onions. Making the pasta decision was probably the hardest. They all look so good! I wanted one that would complement the agretti both in color and and shape. We decided on papardelle-like long flat wide noodles, flavored with porcini mushrooms and making the noodles a soft brown. A final stop for some pecorino cheese and we were on our way.

The preparation was really very simple (as it probably always should be when your ingredients on their own are fresh and delicious). I sliced the onions into wedges and trimmed the agretti. Next time, I will chop it more, or remove more of the main stem… it was delicious and the stems are not tough, but freeing individual fronds from their base would have mixed them more evenly into the pasta and given a more distributed taste sensation. I sautéed the two together in generous olive oil (happily a staple in the apartment, along with salt and pepper.) Agretti is salty on its own – if you get a chance to try some raw, you will be amazed! It is also crisp and much more firm than you would expect from its willowy appearance, and is to be cooked for 8-10 minutes which is why I put it right in with the onions.

Meanwhile, I boiled the salted pasta water, and when the vegetables were done, removed them from the pan and added quartered tomatoes to sauté while the pasta was boiling. Next came the lemon –although the rind was only pale yellow, and had some scars and lumps, when I cut into it, the flesh was the most juicy, seed-free pulp and the entire room immediately smelled of fresh lemon. I used juice from about half squeezed all over the vegetable mix. The tomatoes and pasta were done at about the same time, so I could combine them with the agretti and onions, plus some fresh black pepper, a little more lemon and lots of finely grated fresh cheese. Stir it all together and dive in.
Our favorite pasta of the entire trip.

This was such a fabulous meal to have saved for our last night in Italy. The most work was washing the pasta pan afterwards. We enjoyed it with a bottle of 2007 Chianti reserve and finished with some Perugian dark chocolate with orange. What a sweet taste of la dolce vita this all left on our palette!

Tuscan Treasures

By the time we got to Tuscany, it had become very easy to find good food. Not necessarily fancy, or even especially unique, but always good. I love pasta any day of the week, so to be where pasta is supposed to be a daily menu item was like heaven. And given that it is usually quite affordable, it became a go-to order for us.
One night in Florence, we ordered canneloni Florentine, which I've always
understood to be a stuffed pasta shell, so we were surprised when it was
more of a crepe, filled with a spinach stuffing and baked in a white sauce.

Osso buco, a traditional dish from Milan, was still delicious when
we had it in Florence as a secondi after the canneloni above.

Roasted rabbit.

This wasn't dinner, in fact, we didn't even actually buy any of this, but I love cheese,
and love seeing these gigantic wheels of delectable parmesagiano reggiano.
 For our last evening in Florence, we selected a casual restaurant which our guidebook described as having a "typical Florentine elegance." I don't usually think of casual and elegant in the same sentence, though it's not unheard of. Simple but delicious fresh food in Tuscany certainly meets the criteria though! So we splurged and both ordered a first and second course. We were stuffed (doggie bags are a no-no) but I was glad we were able to try each of these dishes, and overlooking the shear quantity of food, our choices were otherwise well-balanced as a meal and with each other. I started with the salad of the day: tuna and white-beans, which had a few greens and ample white onions dressed in a lemon and olive oil vinaigrette. The tuna was gorgeous, and a portion larger than what I even would have served for a main dish, but is a bit hidden by the beans in the photo below.

Tuna and white bean salad.
Will started with the pasta of the day,  which was loaded with fresh zucchini and tomatoes. What was so interesting about this is how many of the ingredients were the same as the pasta I ordered, but because of the drastically different shape of the pasta, how different both dishes tasted from each other. The shape of the pasta absolutely interacts different with the sauce, insofar as how much gets in your mouth at one time, and how the liquidy and chunky ingredients are balanced. The mouthfeel of the different shapes and textures of pasta - ridged, smooth, etc. - also play a huge role, so these two pasta dishes made for a fun experiement. We didn't realize how similar the ingredients were when we ordered them, but were glad to do the taste testing on the different pasta.

Stewed tomato and zucchini sauce on rigatoni.

Fresh tomato and zucchini sauce take on entirely different properties
when served over wide, thin, smooth noodles.

Pork scallopini with spinach. My favorite new condiment is balsamic vinegar,
especially on any kind of cooked vegetables. Popeye would be so proud to see us
slurping up this dressed spinach!!

We'd been toting around a bottle of San Gimignano Vernaccia wine for 2 days and finally decided to crack into it over lunch in the lovely park in Cortona at the edge of town which looks out over the mountain side and down to the lake the next valley over. The light, cool white wine was perfect for a mid-day refresher, and this awesome artichoke focaccia filled with tomatoes, fresh mozerrella, and argula made for a memorable picnic.

We we needed another pick-me-up that afternoon after hiking up to the mountain tops and around the backside of the hill on which Cortona rests, we ordered an Aperol Spritzer and "Tuscan Night" cocktail from the most reknowned bartender in Tuscany. Italians don't really drink alcohol without food, so there will always be at least a bowl of olives or crackers served with your drinks. If you order food from the menu, you often miss out on whatever snack they serve, and this bar made a really awesome plate of cold canapes that came with our drinks during happy hour.
The Aperol spritz (above left) is SO refreshing - a dash of sweetened Aperol liquer
which is a mild bitters (and has the bright red color) is topped off with prosecco or
another sparkling white wine and garnished with orange. The canapes consisted of toasts
with cheese and vegetables, crostini with mushroom-onion ragu, and a rolled and sliced omlette.

Can you read the sign? It says Mandorlato, specialty of the house: Marzipan, almonds, sugar, orange, citron. It was a dense (and rather dry) fruitcake, that I was disappointed to not care for at all.

Ricciarelli are cookies we saw all over Tuscany, and made much more delicious with a dip in chocolate, but are a soft yummy cookie made with marzipan which gives them a tender texture and subtle almond flavor.

Cingale is wild boar and they use it everywhere in Tuscany. I'm not a huge sausage fan
(actually I try to avoid it as much as possible) but Will loves it, and this was one of many
we tried throughout the trip. It was my favorite, incorporating pistachios and pine nuts
into the mix, and without too much overpowering garlic.
A giant mortadella (I think they are all this size, but it was the biggest sausage I'd ever seen) which
comes from Bologna, but we saw this one in a shop in Rome.

Ribollita is a classic peasant stew with thousands of different recipes to fit a particular cook
or their garden. It is vegetables and beans with leftover bread stirred in to give it a thick,
hearty texture. I'm disappointed at how unappetizing this photo makes it look because while
it's not supposed to be glamourous, it is really delicious.

Wild boar again, this time as pasta sauce. I have no idea how they made this rich, saucy sauce without a tomato base.

The best ravioli from the entire trip, in Cortona. These freshly made pockets were filled with mild
ground beef and those gorgeous shavings all over the top are truffles. I'm not sure I've had truffles
before - at least not ones this good, and in this generous of a quantity. The entire dish was outstanding.

Trieste - Meeting of Three Empires

Treiste is known for its unique inter-melded culture due to the significant influences of Italian (Venetian), Slovenian, and Austrio-Hungarian presences throughout its history. Geographically, it is located along a large bay at the Northernmost tip of the Adriatic Sea, and right on the border with neighboring Slovenia to the East, Austria to the North, and basically as far East as you get can in Italy. The food similarly reflects these influences, with lots of seafood, but also lots of stewed meats and sauerkraut and Viennese pastries.

We had selected to visit Trieste specifically for the food. It is known throughout Italy and beyond for not only their fine foods and wines, but for the care they take in pairing the right great food with the right great wine. So, while we were nervous in selecting our first restaurant whatfor to ensure we would have a good experience, we were also pretty excited that we couldn’t go too far wrong.

The restaurant we chose based on various reviews ended up not having a particularly interesting or unusual menu. So we were pleased when we asked about the special fresh catch of the day, and the waitress became rather more excited and telling us how special it was. We had no qualms about ordering it (it was only available for a minimum of two people, so we didn’t get to “share” anything else) and her wine recommendation of a white Malvasia from the Fruili-Venezia-Guilia.

She told us the special, and even though she spoke quite good English, she didn’t know how to translate the specific main ingredient, so after her amusing but only slightly useful hand gestures, we could only guess that it was some type of shellfish. Another table next to use was shortly thereafter served two servings of a lobster dish, so we were pretty sure that was what we were getting, but I couldn’t have been happier when our meal came out as crab! The word is granchio and the specific variety was grana sporetta. It was served over a large macaroni with a tomato, oregano, and chive sauce and it was completely fantastic. The wine was not one we had heard of before, but it really did complement the meal well. It was light and mineral, with a fair amount of fruitiness without being sweet.

For dessert, Will tried their panne cotta with chocolate sauce. We were very pleased with our Adriatic catch-of-the-day!
The next day we went in a completely different direction, far away from the sea and straight into the Austrian empire. The New York Times only has one restaurant recommendation for Trieste, so that’s where we headed… Buffet della Pepi (buffet doesn’t mean what it typically means in the U.S.) We ordered the all-meats selection with some body parts on it we don’t usually see on menus, and certainly don’t think to eat at home. I can’t say I enjoyed all of them, but I absolutely appreciated the opportunity to try them in a venue where they are known to be specialties. I did however love the caraway-heavy saukerkraut, thick moist caraway bread, and tangy mustard accompaniments. I don’t think I’m going to try for “head” or “tongue” again anytime soon, but it was fun for a day and you’ve gotta love their cheeky serving platter.
Can you read this menu? I had to try very hard to not let it scare me off,
but I wanted to eat like a local...

The 'buffet' - the serving plate is worth the price of admission.

Finally, the area is well-known for their pastries, and I consumed many. Most went into my mouth much quicker than it was possible to photograph them…. Linzer torte, ricotta cheese cake, croissants stuffed with raspberry jam or custard (because croissants aren’t rich enough unless you add a filling?), soft egg bread studded with chocolate chips and rolled around a chocolate-hazelnut filling, and of course struedels of all types, but especially apple. One of the favorite shapes is a pretzel, and you see breads, pastries, and cookies all wrapped into a pretzel round. The one we tried is filled with almonds, hazelnuts, figs, rum, and ameretto cooked into a thick paste stuffing.

My last word about Trieste actually applies much more broadly to all the areas of France and Italy we have travelled. That is that gelato (which actually means any kind of ice cream, even a pre-packaged paper wrapped ice cream cone, not just the high-quality, smooth, flavor-intense gourmet products we think of as gelato at home) – which we have sampled extensively! – has reflected the locale specialties in each region by the special flavors offered. We had chestnut flavor in Paris, calisson in Aix, and “opera” in Verona (a cream-flavored base with toffee hazelnuts and chocolate shavings.) In Trieste, we had Black Forest (chocolate with cherries) and Sacher (chocolate with apricot). What a great way to interpret cuisine! What flavor would Seattle be? (Coffee doesn’t count…)

Pasta and Panzarotti in Verona

Verona has a huge opera festival every summer which draw attendees from around the world. This is a lovely town to visit with some neat Roman ruins, interesting medieval and Renaissance history and architecture, and a significant river running around the edge of old town. However, we might not have made time for this stop if it hadn’t been for wanting to see an opera in an ancient Roman arena.

Since the town is flooded with opera-goers almost every evening for months, the city could easily “get away with” being a tourist town. But we really got the sense that this was an authentic Italian city in spite of all the foreign tourists. We were in a bit of a rush to get through dinner in time to get seats in the unreserved section of the arena, so we couldn’t linger over our meal the way we typically would try to do as Italians. And the restaurant our guidebook recommended didn’t open for dinner until too late for us to have time to eat, so we had to continue down the road a piece to an unknown venue. Nevertheless, I suspect that we would have had a great meal anywhere, because Verona just seemed like a place where the people cared about what they make and serve.

Again, in the name of time, we opted for pasta dishes, but both were excellent. Will’s wasn’t particularly photogenic, being simple tortellini with butter and sage, but it was delectable. Mine was not only delicious, but it was completely unique from what I have seen on other menus so far. Many of the pastas – being served in Italy as a primi (first course) instead of as a main dish, are simple (but delicious and thoughtful!) preparations of specific pasta shapes paired with a complementary sauce. However, the dish I ordered came with multiple additional ingredients – common for my own style of preparing pasta at home, but unlike what I have experienced yet in Italy. The pasta was called bigoli and were hand-rolled thick spaghetti-like noodles. The sauce was rich with eggplant, cooked down into a creamy coating, along with red peppers, pine nuts, raisins, and thick shavings of parmesangio.

For lunch the next day, we stopped for panzarotti. They are basically a calzone, except the dough is more breadlike as opposed to a pizza crust. They were delicious. The place we bought them served only these, along with a few foccacias and some risotto balls (also delicious!) They came in all different kinds of dough, as you can see by the colors in the photo. I ordered one in a plain pastry with a spinach, ricotta, and mozzerella filling. Will’s dough was speckled with olives and hot peppers, and stuffed with spicy salami, tomato sauce, and cheeses. They make for the perfect lunch, and even last in the backpack long enough for an afternoon top-off snack!

All the panzarottis lined up in the shop window. So many choices!

Mine was a plain dough stuffed with mozarella and spinach.
Will's was an olive and tomato dough stuffed with spicy meat and cheese.

We also sampled a risotto fritter.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


We have been so excited to get to Italy for months now… the pastas! The gelato! The wine! The cheese! The tomatoes! The fill-in-the-blank-delicious-things-to-eat-and-drink!

Our first stop was Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera. Some of the cuisine here is similar to what we were already getting exposed to in the French Riviera because, after all, Nice (on the French Riviera) used to be part of Italy. Pastas and seafood are a great way to go here. Focaccia is from this region too, making for great snacks and sandwiches. 
Foccacia with tomatoes, pesto, and fresh mozzarella. Others of my favorite
toppings include carmelized onions, or artichokes.
For our first meal in Liguria, we were in Monterosso al Mer, one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre at Ristorante Via Venti. We had a seafood ravioli in a seafood sauce… the raviolis were comprised of a white sheet of pasta and a dark sheet of pasta (typically dyed with squid ink, which doesn’t really add much in the way of flavor but makes the sheets an attractive contrast) stuffed with a white fish filling and served in a sauce with shreds of squid and flakes of fish. The other dish was house-made gnocchi in a crab sauce. The gnocchi were the perfect tender consistency, but of a much more substantial texture – almost grainy like cornmeal but without the crunch of any grain. The crab in the sauce was shredded so finely that I almost at first thought it was cheese, but it gave the dish a very light and of-the-sea aroma that paired nicely with the creamy potato dumplings.

Crab gnocchi from Via Venti.

Seafood ravioli - we loved how the two sheets of the ravioli were made from different pastas
- one traditional plain, and the other squid ink.
For snacks, we ate lots of gelato which was all made fresh daily at each place we selected, and so much less expensive than anywhere in France. We tried flavors from pineapple and mango, to “ambrosia” which was hazelnuts and chocolate in a cream base, and tiramisu.

Focacceria is our new favorite boulangerie. Focaccia is from Liguria (the Northwestern sea-side region of Italy) and a focacceria bakes it fresh with various toppings. Standard is just olive oil and salt, but more substantial versions can include onions, or olives, or tomatoes, or the version we tried had pesto and cheese for a great late-morning snack. It also makes great sandwiches when stuffed with meats, cheeses, or vegetables and grilled in a Panini press.

One thing I saw that I didn’t get to try was a lovely tart topped with figs, walnuts, and marcona almonds. I would love to try to recreate it at home. It also looked like it may have been glazed with honey. How about trying that with a lightly sweetened ricotta filling?!?

We tried two beverage specialties of the region, an orange version of limoncello made locally in cinqueterre, as well as sciacchetra, a wine made in this region from a particular kind of grape that has aged almost to raisin stage, giving it a very ripe, sweet, and pungent flavor that I can only describe as being close to port. It is quite expensive, because the grapes must be aged before the wine can be made, thus requiring more grapes to produce the same quantity of wine. All sciacchetra are made from the same type of grape, but other wise can vary just like any other wine based on the age, the vineyard where the grapes were grown, the winemaker, etc. Because it is so sweet and strong compared to other wine (it is about 18% alcohol instead of about 11%) it is served in 2-ounce cordial glasses as a digestivo – an after-dinner drink. We tried two versions – a cheap one and a more expensive one ($8 and $12) and noticed a significant difference in favor of the higher-priced variety.
Orange liqueur, made like limoncello but with arancia.
Our two glasses of sciacchetra, the slightly darker one on the left was the more expensive variety.
Both were the same age, but it had a smoother, less alcoholy flavor. It is traditional for this wine,
as with vin santo, to be served with a cookie. In this case, almond biscottis.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seafood from the Mediterranean: Cassis and Villefrache-sur-Mer

Cassis is a low-key beach resort on the Mediterranean, and Villefranche-sur-Mer is down the coast a couple of hours, just East of the large seaport of Nice. All the foods of this region are dominated by seafood, and there is significant Italian influence as well, as much of this area was once under the control of Italy, so pastas and pizzas can also feature heavily.

One night for dinner, we had moules Provencal, mussels cooked in a butter, garlic and herb sauce, as well as sea bass in a rich red bell pepper cream sauce, and prawns in an Herbes de Provence (generally chervil, marjoram, tarragon, basil, thyme, and sometimes lavender) butter rub. 

Salade Nicoise is another popular standby, and can take many forms, though generally includes a bed of greens topped with green beans, tomatoes, olives, hard boiled egg, and lots of tuna. Every bistro makes it’s own twist to this classic tuna salad from Nice, and we also saw these primary ingredients take many other forms than just salad, such as sandwiches, pastas, and my new favorite, pizza Nicoise!

Salade Nicoise, with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, hard boiled egg, olives, anchovies, and lots of
delicious fresh tuna. I am used to seeing Nicoise salade with potatoes and green beans, and that did
not seem to be a feature for the ones I ordered, but I think those ingredients were not seasonal,
and the salades probably vary with what is fresh.
My new favorite version of "Nicoise" - on a pizza! This one was heavy with
tuna, olives, red bell peppers, red onion, parsley, and anchovies.
The pizza above came from a very enjoyable restaurant in Villefranche-sur-Mer, La Grignotiere where we were also stuffed with this amazing spaghetti below. We could have shared either one of these two dishes and still both been too full for dessert, but they were so good that we were glad to have ordered two items to try. The spaghetti was topped with boatloads of just-caught prawns and mussels.