Monday, August 23, 2010
Last month I heard some depressing news from my friend Nancy Jenkins. She told me that our good friend Salvatore Denaro had closed his restaurant Il Bacco Felice in Foligno. It’s hard to explain in words how great this place was. In theory it was just a small enoteca, with about eight tables crowded together. But I’ve had some of the best meals of my life there.
Much has to do with Salvatore himself. Full of energy and enthusiasm for life and for food, Salvatore (who is from Sicily) would welcome you in as if you were family and were coming home after a long trip. And just for you, he had prepared your favorite meal (even if you didn’t know yourself what that was).
I would love to share recipes with you, but they would seem absurdly simple. A grilled steak drizzled with olive oil. Panzanella made with old bread. Cannilini beans dressed with sage and cracked black pepper. But what made these dishes so extraordinary was the attention Salvatore paid to the ingredients themselves. What didn’t come from his own orto, he sourced out meticulously, only using what he considered to be the best. But there was nothing fancy about it. You wouldn’t find ancient balsamic vinegar or fleur de sel or any other ‘gourmet’ ingredients. Instead a bowl of olives brought to the table would be briny and salty and, well, just the best olives you’ve ever had. A pesto would reach new levels when he substituted pistachios brought up by a friend from Sicily for pine nuts.
So you can see why I was so sad about his closing Bacco Felice. The reasons for the closing seem complicated (Salvatore has never been good with money) and his future seems a bit hazy. He was cooking at a restaurant in Spello over the summer, but that didn’t work out. He’s currently staying at Caprai, doing I’m not so sure what. And he says he is heading to NYC to do a stint at Sara Jenkins new restaurant. But in any case, he was happy to let me know a friend had just opened a new place in Bevagna, Trattoria di Oscar (will post on that in the next few days) and met us there for lunch.
The meal was superb. But the highlight? A crate of heirloom tomatoes Salvatore brought me from, fresh from his orto. While Salvatore may have lost his restaurant, and doesn’t have a home at the moment, he still manages to maintain his very large vegetable garden. I was sorry we didn’t have time this week to stop by and eat lunch there, amidst the zucchini, but was very happy to create my own version of Salvatore’s tomato salad back here at home.
Heirloom Tomato Salad
Ok, so it seems like a non recipe. But all of Salvatore’s recipes are like this. The trick, of course, is in the ingredients. This is what you do with truly super wonderful incredible ripe tomatoes.
Core tomatoes and then cut in half inch slices. Lay carefully on a large platter. (Do not cut in chunks and put in bowl: I’ve had so many horrible mushy tomato salads prepared this way. The tomatoes lose all their juice and just turn into a mushy mess).
Drizzle with olive oil, salt generously and top with chopped basil. Do everything at the very last minute (Yes, mom, this means you. You cannot prepare this in the morning so it’s ‘ready.) Enjoy!
Sunday, August 22, 2010
I know that everyone else’s copies of Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking and More Classic Italian Cooking are as worn out as mine is. My two volume paperback edition is stained, tattered and torn. I used it almost every day when I first moved to Florence in 1988, and still continue to use that, as well as the updated edition I keep in Todi. But like me, most people tend to rave on and on about the Bolognese or the Lasagna or the Drunken Pork Roast...or really, any of the many other heavy, northern Italian dishes she made so easy to recreate in homes everywhere.
My friend Rebecca, loves her copy too, and uses it in the summers when she takes time off her busy new york lawyer life to cook in her house in Todi. So it’s really nice to see that after all these years both of our daughters are turning to our cookbooks. The other night we went to dinner at Edward and Rebecca’s house, and Charlotte, (Edward and Rebecca’s daughter) made a gorgeous light and fluffy Almond Cake, straight from Marcella. It’s not the sort of dessert you’d expect a 12 year old to decide to make: delicate, sophisticated and perfect with a big whollop of freshly whipped cream.
But she discovered something that both Rebecca and I figured out a long time ago: Marcella is a great source for very easy, rustic cakes with few ingredients that are perfect after a heavy Italian meal. While Marcella's main dishes tend towards the heavy, her desserts are surprisingly light. Both Rebecca and I make Farmhouse Pear Cake all the time, but neither of us had tried our hand at the Almond Cake.
Yesterday was our last day of the season in Todi, and like every other year Domenico realizes, at the very last minute, that we have a tree full of almonds to deal with - with barely any time to do so. So he quickly picked a basket and Sophie decided to recreate Charlotte’s dessert. While the dessert is fairly easy, Sophie had to first crack open enough nuts to make two cakes (she wanted to make one for my friend Jane in Rome, who loves our almonds). After slamming the hammer on her thumb only once, she managed to make two gorgeous and delicious cakes. I’m sure the process is even easier if you just head to Trader Joe’s and pick up a bag of almonds.
Torta di Mandorla
(from Marcella Hazan: More Classic Italian Cooking)
6 to 8 servings
10 oz of un-peeled almonds (about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 egg whites
1/2 tsp salt
Peel of one lemon
6 Tablespoons flour
An 8 or 9 inch spring form pan
butter for greasing
Preheat oven to 350 f. (185 c.)
Grind almonds very fine, but not to paste, using food processor
Add the sugar to almonds, mixing well.
Beat egg whites with salt till they form stiff peaks.
Add sugar almond mixture and grated lemon peel to egg whites, a little at a time, mixing gently so as not to deflate whites.
Add flour, a bit at a time, gently.
Thickly grease pan and line bottom with paper.
Marcella says to bake for one hour, but Sophie's cake was done in about 40 minutes. So keep checking until toothpick comes out clean.
Serve with whipped cream, as well as berries if you like.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Domenico Minchilli , my Italian architect husband, has been a bit envious of my blogging the last few months. While he thinks he has time to blog on his own, (and certainly has lots to blog about), I suggested he take a trial run by guest blogging here. Here follows his photo essay on following the making of a chair by the tappeziere extraordinaire team of Luciano and Renzo Luciani:
"Making a Chair on Via Baccina in Rome"
by Domenico Minchilli
The clients wanted to find a chair like one they had seen in a magazine. This is often the starting point for commissioning a bespoke piece of furniture.
After I make a series of drawings, a specialized carpenter- fustarolo- builds the frame of the chair out of wood. This is the frame sitting in the upholsterers shop, waiting to be turned into a chair.
The first step is to form the base. A series of jute strips are nailed on the bottom of the chair, in a cross pattern. Then heavy steel springs are laid on top of that, covered by twine to keep them in place.
A layer of foam covers the springs, and begins to soften the edges. Burlap is used to form the first layer of the surfaces of the side of the chair.
Another layer of jute and springs goes along the back of the chair. Foam and then canvas covers the arms.
The final layer is the fabric.
While some of the fabric is sewn by machine, much of it is applied and finished by hand.
The chair, finished and in place in the client's home in Umbria.
Renzo and Luciano Luciani
Thursday, August 19, 2010
We’ve had our house in Todi for 20 years. So, you’d think I would know every square inch of country side around our home. The butcher, the baker...there’s even a candle stick maker (well, he makes honey and sells the wax). But the other day, on our way up to the house, we took a back road - a sort of short cut - since I was hoping the little super market in Collelungo would be open.
So, driving along a not-so-small road I see a sign that says “Caseificio.” Cheese maker. You’ve got to realize that we are only about 8 kilometers from the house where we’ve been spending weekends and summers for 20 years. And I never knew. I turn to my husband - who comes this way often, to meet his friend Edward for coffee and to buy the Herald. He sheepishly says “Oh yeah, I meant to tell you about this.” Like, when? In another 10 years?
So, we swerve off the asphalt road, onto a very bad dirt road that soon turns worse. And soon enough we are blocked by a herd of sheep. I know for sure we are on the right track. (Although I was a little perplexed by the extremely cute wild boar who seemed to think he was a sheep dog. )
We finally arrive at the ‘caseificio’, which is in fact a very nondescript suburban-looking house. Not a soul in sight, so I hop past a huge, and ancient sheep dog who barely blinks and eye, and ring the doorbell.
Soon enough the signora is taking me around back, down a steep staircase leading to a cellar. A large cheese cave, where stacks and stacks of pecorino cheese are laid out on slats, at various stages of the aging process.
That day I scooped up a plump wheel of aged pecorino, flecked with red pepper flakes. But this Sunday I went back since Sunday is the day of the week they make ricotta, and I wanted to make a crostata.
This time we had the full tour, including not only seeing baskets of ricotta being ladled out, but a trip up to visit the sheep and meet Pino, who must be the only sheep-guarding wild boar in Umbria.
Azienda Agricola Giuliani is located in in Collelungo, just past Izzalini near Todi in Umbria. Once you drive into Collelungo, from the direction of Izzalini, drive past the bar (which is on your right) and take the first dirt road on your left. There is a sign that says Caseificio Aperti. It’s the first house on your left. The only house on your left. And really, it’s just a house with no sign of it being anything else. Just knock on a door and someone will help you.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Usually the words supermarket wine means jugs of horrid plonk with screw on tops. Even in Italy, where you can get pretty great wines at affordable prices, the choices of high end wines - or even interesting wines - in supermarkets is usually pretty limited. Unless you head over the mall at Collestrada and hit the IperCoop.
This is my brother-in-law Phil’s favorite outing when he comes to visit us in Todi, which he’s doing this week. I’ll let him take it from here:
“I’m not the kind of person that usually hangs out in malls. And being from New York, I don’t buy wines in supermarkets. I’m more used to my local, Rochambeau, where I hang out with the staff and talk wines. But once I land in Italy the first thing I do is head straight for one of the ugliest shopping centers in this area of Umbria, Collestrada.
While my daughters want to head directly to Benneton, and my nieces want to buy make up, I make a bee line to the IperCoop which, strangely, has one of the best selections of wine in this part of Italy.
This is a HUGE supermarket, that sells just about everything, from spare car parts to house dresses to....super tuscans. The wine section is set in one corner, and is usually oddly empty.
Since we are in Umbria, this is where you can get all the various Sagrantinos. But since this is a pretty tough wine to drink in the summertime, I branch out. I love the fact that you can buy wines from all over Italy and that they are reasonably priced. And the organization by region makes it extremely easy to find interesting wines from each area.
The whole adventure has a bit of an element of treasure hunt, because you can find real gems amidst the more mass produced wines. And it’s a great feeling of satisfaction when you find something like a Valentini Trebbiano D’Abruzzo.
Also, I find things I would never be able to get in the states.
Since the vast majority of wines under ten euros, I allow myself to go a bit overboard. Yesterday I went really wild and bought a Barolo for 30 euros, which would have cost over 100 $ in the States.
The only wines I saw at the same price in the USA were the Gaia wines. 285 euros a bottle. They had a selection of the Super Tuscans, but we didn’t really look at those. It’s not like they have deep coverage from all the regions, but a bit from each.
If you’re looking for wine store service in terms of expert help or packaging, you need to go somewhere else (like Montefalco). It’s a supermarket, no one knows anything and this is the third year in a row that the check out cashier was unable take off the wine lock on the more expensive wines.
The most interesting wine I got yesterday was the Valentini Trebbiano. Unfortunately I managed to drop it on the terra cotta tiled floor in the kitchen before we could drink it, so..... I guess I’ll have to go back and get another bottle - or ten - tomorrow."
Here are some of the other wines Phil picked up:
Monday, August 16, 2010
Yesterday was Ferragosto in Italy. For those of you who don’t know, this is the most important holiday of the year. Although August in Italy is pretty much closed for vacation, Ferragosto brings the entire country to a stand still. What does the holiday celebrate? Well, it’s either the Assumption or the Ascension of the Virgin. I realize I could look this up on line, but I swear, every year no one can remember which it is. Ascend? Or Assume? And what does either mean anyway? As you can imagine, being the good little Italian wife that I am, I focus on the meal, and leave the religious underpinnings to the experts.
Ferragosto is also the time of year when my sister and her family come to visit. While my sister Robin is pretty much a non-meat eater, my brother-in-law Phil can manage to work the word ‘pork’ into almost any conversation. Actually, any great meat will do. It used to be a tradition that he and Domenico would make the 2 hour drive from our house in Todi up to Tuscany to visit the master butcher Dario Cecchini for bistecche. But lately I’ve found an amazing butcher closer to home.
Located about 5 minutes off the E45, at the Ripabianca exit, (that’s near Deruta, you ceramic fans), Fattoria Luchetti is more of a farm, than a butcher. Not only do they raise Chianina cows, their Cinta Senese pigs are legendary. While the place is a serious organic working farm, the butcher shop is as vast and fancy as any in Rome or Florence. A huge long case makes decisions of what to buy very difficult. Huge, gorgeous bistecche fiorentine are cut to order. Pork roast, roast beef, ribs, sausages, lamb chops...they even make prepared lamb kebabs.
But come Ferragosto there is only really one choice: Arrosto Porchettato. A long beautiful pork filet is lovingly wrapped in pork belly, spices and a thick layer of pork rind. All is tied tightly, ready to be slipped into the wood burning oven. In other words, a porchetta, but not the whole pig.
I’ve learned over the years to cook the roast in the morning, and let it cool down. This way the fats firm up, and I can slice it into perfect, beautiful portions. Then, after a generous spooning of pan juices, a quick trip back into the oven to it up for dinner.
If you are anywhere near Luchetti, I urge you to go. The meat is excellent, and ridiculously inexpensive. Most cuts are 10 euros and under a kilo, and the most expensive (the steaks for instance) are only 13. I always stock up, freeze my bounty, and bring it back to Rome. You should too.
Tel: 075 870 7143
NOTE: Hours are odd:
Thurs, Friday, Saturday: 8-1:30, and 3:30-7:30
Saturday, August 14, 2010
The woman who helps keep our home in Umbria in order, Marisa, lives a few fields down the road from us. While I am very happy to have her helping hands keeping the house clean, what I really appreciate is the fact that she has a working farm. Chickens, geese, rabbits, sheep and pigs. And dogs. Little cute dogs who are raised by her son, Ludovico. I’m very happy to buy meat from her, and farm fresh eggs. But what really get’s me excited are what the dogs bring in: Truffles!
Yesterday Marisa gave me two dozen eggs in a basket and A KILO AND A HALF of truffles! Yes, you heard that right. A kilo and a half. That’s three pounds.
These are black truffles, from Umbria, harvested late summer, and called scorzone. These are very different from the white truffles of Piedmont, or even the fall/winter black truffles from Umbria. While their perfume is strong, the taste is much less intense than other types of truffles. Still, if you know how to use them correctly, and aren’t scared of using them in abundance, they are just as delicious.
Marisa’s was a huge gift, and to keep them fresh they went right into the freezer. I’ll be doing various things with them in the days to come (truffle pizza tonight for instance). But this morning, since we have the eggs I thought I’d whip up an incredibly decadent breakfast.
So, if someone gives you eggs and truffles, here’s your recipe:
Scrambled Eggs and Truffles
1/4 of a large black truffle
2 Tablespoons heavy cream
salt & pepper
Mix eggs with cream and beat, adding a bit of salt.
Heat about a tablespoon of butter in a pan, and warm it over very low heat. When the butter is melted and warmed, grate in about a tablespoon of truffle and let it infuse in the butter for about two minutes. Pour in the eggs and give it a swirl. Keep the heat on very low, and try not to over stir. When the eggs are just barely set, turn them out onto a warmed plate. Add a bit of freshly ground pepper, some sea salt and SHOWER with more grated truffle.
Gobble up yourself, or serve to very grateful family member or houseguest.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Usually when you say the words "hotel food", you just want to run the other way. But in Italy, at least when you are talking about Agriturismi, the words take on a new meaning. Agriturismi, for those who don’t know, are small countryside hotels that are located on a working farm. The movement started about 20 years ago, and has enabled some farms to add just enough revenue to survive and even thrive.
Since we have our own home in the Umbrian countryside, we don’t get the chance to visit agriturismi that often. But over the Fourth of July our own house was rented out, and our friends Laura and Jim were throwing a big party at Laura's home that we didn’t want to miss. So we checked in to the Agriturismo Faina.
The little apartment we had was just fine, but we barely spent any time there since we were too busy partying down the road. But when we checked out on Monday morning there was one thing I definitely wasn’t going to miss: the small - but excellent - offerings of the farm’s products.
Unlike many agriturismi, which just pay lip service to the idea of ‘working farm,’ the Fainas have a huge spread of 400 hectares and produce not only olive oil and wine, but chick peas, honey, and walnuts.
Besides two jars of honey, I snapped up three packages of chick peas, which are a tiny variety that they’ve been experimenting with. After an overnight soak back in Rome, I set them to boil and promptly forgot about them, heading out the door to go shopping with Sophie. We could smell the pot burning from two blocks away.
So, this week I broke open my second bag, and managed not to burn the house down. Here’s the extremely tasty, and vegetarian, stew I made with them. I served a carrot salad on the side, which was pretty, crunchy and refreshing.
As always, ingredients are key. While I always have a can or two of chickpeas in the pantry, I would never think of using them in a dish where the texture and taste of the chickpeas are so important. Using dried legumes is not only better tasting, it’s also much cheaper. And not hard. (Ok, I did almost burn the house down, but that’s my problem).
Chickpea, Peppers and Tofu*
1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas
1 large onion
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 large red pepper
1 large yellow pepper
1/3 pound firm tofu
salt & pepper
dried red pepper, either Aleppo or Urfa
Soak chickpeas for at least 6 hours. Drain, and place in pot of water. Lightly salt, and boil until tender. Drain.
Chop onion and garlic and saute in olive oil till softened. Add chopped peppers and cook till softened, adding salt, pepper and red pepper to taste. When everything is about done, add chopped tofu and heat through, letting the flavors meld. Taste and correct for seasonings. Add parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve.
*Obviously the dish is fine without the tofu.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
I clearly admit I know my way around an Ikea way too well. Here in Italy we waited a long long time for one to open and now, with two in Rome and one soon to open in Umbria, I am all set. My office owes a great debt to Ikea, as does recent updates to our house in Umbria (sheets, towels and various kitchen gadgets).
While I can load up a cart with way too much stuff I really don't need as well as the next girl, what I always save room for is the food department. In Rome it's located in an area after you check out. My sister tells me it's not that good in the States? But maybe she just doesn't appreciate it because you can get all those weird Swedish packaged foods almost anywhere. Here in Italy they are still a bit 'exotic.'
Of course I always load up on smoked salmon, herring and deer proscuitto. There are also cookies and mustards. But what really weighs me down are the vodkas. At 9 euros a bottle it's not only cheaper than anything I can get at the local supermarket, it's also better.
I'm also a sucker for brightly colored jars of stuff. Jams, yes. But last time I was there I picked up a bottle of Saft Flader. I didn't know what it was, but since it had a gorgeous photo of elder flowers on it, I thought "why not?"
You know those Ikea Hacker sites where people post the wonderfully creative things they do with boring Ikea tables? Well, I think my 'hack', using Svensk Vodka and Saft Flader is oh so much better.
I've been wanting a gimlet ever since it got hot out. I refuse to use Rose's Lime Juice, but was all out of fresh limes. I also didn't feel like making sugar syrup. My solution was the Ikea Elderflower Gimlet. Here follows the recipe. Enjoy!
Ikea Elderflower Gimlet
2 1/2 oz of Svensk Vodka
3/4 oz of Saft Flader*
1 oz of lemon juice
Pour ingredients into shaker, add ice. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Of course, ideally you want to garnish with a fresh Elderflower (Sambuca here in Italy) but since they only flower in May/June, you'll have to use something else. I used a sprig of jasmine which was awful pretty (and added to the wonderful perfume).
*I'm not sure that Ikea carries this in other countries. A brief search turned up this source for Elderflower Syrup: German Deli.