Monday, June 25, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Seconda Parte)

Mercato Centrale in Florence, the largest market in the city.
In the first part of this series (click HERE to read it), I talked about our experience buying our food during our Italian sojourn a year ago. Due to the fact that we were not eating in restaurants very often (not just for financial reasons) and because we weren’t staying in hotels, we had to quickly become adept at finding our own grub in a foreign country.

Are you thinking that this shouldn’t be very difficult? Well, it isn’t – and is. First of all, we needed to speak Italian. Since Vicki is extremely adept with languages, she set out to learn Italian, something she’s always wanted to do anyway. She found a teacher, a native Italian from the state of La Marche on the Adriatic Coast, and spent many hours studying and listening to the point where she was pretty fluent after nine months. Case in point: she talked a gondolier in Venice down to a 40% reduction in his outrageous price for his services one evening – all done in Italian! So when it came time to deal with shop owners and vendors, she could negotiate all deals in the native language.

Vicki’s Italian teacher, Sabrina, also helped with alerting us to some customs when food is purchased. While Italians are pretty forgiving where tourists are concerned, it’s never good to put your foot in it because you don’t know the locals customs. So Sabrina told Vicki a number of things we should be aware of.

First and foremost is that it’s a pretty hard and fast rule that the vendor always serves the customer. This is really not an issue when you’re buying meat or cheese because these are kept behind glass. Where it is an issue is when you buy fruits and vegetables. In North America, we generally pick our own out. In Italy, this is just not done. The vendor handles everything for you. You may point out what you want, but the polite thing is to just tell them and let them select for you based on that. Per oggi means “for today”, so if you want a perfectly ripe peach to eat with your lunch that day, this is what you tell the vendor.

It was not a pleasant experience to watch some North Americans vacationing near us in Tuscany, buying fruits and vegetables in a small supermarket in Gaiole, ignoring the protestations of the employee in this section as they picked things out in the North American way. They didn’t speak any Italian, but it was obvious she was upset. The odd thing was that they seemed to own property in the area and somehow had never picked up on this custom. We decided, based on their behavior, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to alert them to this.

Another wonderful thing about Italy is that supermarkets don’t have the stranglehold on the selling of food that they do in North America. From what I gathered, this is changing, especially in the big cities in the north, but while in Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Venice, we only purchased in small stores, usually single-item places like butchers, bakers, and fruttivendolos (green grocers). These shopkeepers were quick to learn to recognize us and welcome us into their shops, to the point where prices were dropped a bit.

That was another thing Sabrina told us: don’t haggle. I would have thought this would be standard practice in a country like Italy, but apparently it’s considered to be in poor taste. That’s probably why the shop owners we dealt with on multiple visits dropped prices on their own accord. They obviously wanted to keep our custom, which is the usual reason for haggling anyway.

Obviously, the Italians value good service. If someone is picking out your lettuce for you, they have a vested interest in giving you what you want and making it of the highest quality. As I mentioned before, we weren’t let down. In one case we were advised against buying something because it “wasn’t of the best quality and we would be disappointed”. An alternative suggestion followed – and it was at a higher cost – but the vendor was also probably correct.

The other huge difference between North America (especially Canada where we have mostly government-run liquor stores) is that you can buy wine and spirits almost anywhere in Italy. Most shops that sell any kind of food also sell at least wine. It may not be a huge selection, but it will be there. We saw wine amongst cabbages, on shelves in butcher shops, with the post cards in a corner store, even once in ice next to some fresh fish.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hot weather calls for cold soup

Mechanical refrigeration has not been around all that long. To us who all have refrigerators and freezers, it seems inconceivable that at one time having ice in the middle of a hot summer was a really big deal. Mostly it came from ice that was harvested in winter from lakes and rivers, transported to ice houses where it was stored for the hot months by covering it deeply in mounds of sawdust.

My father owned a building (formerly a bank) in Mamaroneck, New York, where I grew up, and in its sub-basement was a huge tub, looking like a bathtub for Andre the Giant, where chunks of ice would be brought in several times a week. Blowers connected to air ducts for the building would take the cooled air upwards into the offices. I have no idea when it was last used, but it’s very impressive. The building opened in 1928, and obviously modern air conditioning didn’t exist. Most people still had iceboxes in those days, too.

What did people do when they needed to cool off, weren’t near open water to jump in, trapped in cities where you could only pray for rain to keep you from melting? Who wanted to eat hot food on days when the sidewalks are on slow roast – and what about those poor souls who had to cook?

[Sidebar: I worked one summer in the kitchen at the National Club located in the heart of the financial district of Toronto. It wasn’t air conditioned at that time (the kitchen) and it used to get up to 110° and more. I would drink pint glasses of iced coffee, 4 or 5 on an 8-hour shift and not pee once.]

One elegant solution to hot weather when it came to eating out was cold soup, served in special bowls surrounded by cracked ice. The most elegant of these soups is vichyssoise. It was created by French chef Louis Diat who was chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City (and we all know how hot in can get there in the summer!) back in 1917. Harkening back to a rustic hot soup of his youth spent near Vichy, potage parmentier, he came up with the idea of chilling it (and also adding a lot more cream, I'm sure). The result was a sensation – still is, when it’s made well.

But we’re not making that today.

Toronto at this moment is beastly hot, much like those days I remember at the NC. This weekend I found some beautiful local watercress, so instead of vichyssoise, I decided to make Vicki’s favorite cold soup, cream of watercress, mostly because I do love her and she really suffers from the heat, but also because today is our 42nd anniversary! (I can’t believe she’s put up with me this long – but she also says the same thing.)

Happy Anniversary Vicki. We fell in love at Playland in Rye, NY. Wonder if those evening breezes coming off the Long Island Sound are as cooling as I remember?

The soup today at lunch was lovely and very refreshing.

Chilled Cream of Watercress Soup

2 Tbs butter
2 cups sweet onions, sliced finely
4 cups potatoes, sliced finally
2 bunches fresh watercress, washed carefully
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 cup low-fat sour cream (optional but encouraged)

1. Melt butter in a two-quart pot, then sauté the onions until soft. Add the potatoes and sauté 4 minutes longer. Don’t let anything brown.

2. Add one bunch of watercress, salt and pepper and add just enough boiling water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are just done. Don’t overcook!

3. While the soup is cooking, remove the stems from the other bunch of watercress and finely chop the leaves. You should have about one cup of minced watercress at the end.

4. Using a blender or food processor, purée soup until it’s no longer lumpy, but also not too smooth. I use the blender lightly and then just sieve everything to get rid of any remaining lumps. You don’t want to take away all the texture.

5. Put the soup back in pot, add the milk and Tabasco sauce and bring up to serving temperature. Check for seasoning.

6. When ready to serve, put 2 tablespoons of the minced watercress in each soup bowl, pour the hot soup and stir lightly to spread out the minced leaves. Note: If you’re going to serve it chilled, stop after step 4, and chill the soup for several hours, or preferably, overnight. When ready to serve, stir in the milk and sour cream if you’re using that, then follow step six, except have the bowls really chilled. (I put them in the freezer.) I usually add a bit more Tabasco when serving it chilled because the sought-after bite is somewhat muted.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bruschetta Update

This past Saturday while down at the St. Lawrence Market, I scored some beautifully ripe plum tomatoes. Seems as if the grower (a friend) had potted some plants and had them on his sun porch. In the warm weather we enjoyed this March, they got off to a fantastic start, and he’s had them outside since late April. I managed to talk him out of three of these little beauties. So you know what I made for our first course on Father’s Day.

Stonemill Bakery down in the basement of the south market makes a fantastic sour dough multigrain baguette, so that covered the base. We used oil pressed from organic green olives that we purchased from our friends at La Porta di Vertine in Tuscany. (Those of you from Rye Neck HS will be interested to know that this is the winery owned by Ellen Ross and her husband. More on this at a future date.) Basil was covered by fresh-picked leaves from our own plants. A garlic clove, a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and that’s it – just marvelous! We just can’t wait until our own tomatoes are ready which, judging by their current size, we’re about six weeks away from that day.

Because we weren’t sure whether it was going to bucket any moment, we had to pan toast the bread indoors rather than outside over our wood fire. It tasted lovely but would have been that much better with a little wood smoke added to the flavor. That’s a lovely foil for the pepperiness of the olive oil. Try toasting the bread over an open fire if you get the chance. Coals from real wood (as opposed to briquettes) are best, either from wood or hardwood charcoal. I encourage you to try it.

We enjoy cooking and eating complicated dishes, but there’s a lot to be said about the goodness of simple food. Bruschetta made with the finest ingredients you can get your hands on fits that description.

[Sidebar: That beautiful platter was bought by Vicki as her special remembrance of our time at a villa near Gaiole in Chianti. The potter was a wonderfully warm lady with whom Vicki really enjoyed speaking, in Italian, of course. I wasn’t much good there, so I just browsed all the lovely hand-painted dishes, at a fraction of the price you would pay at the tourist traps in San Gimignano.]

For the complete recipe for Bruschetta, click HERE.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The ultimate in Italian barbecue(?): Bistecca alla Fiorentina

At Ristoro Di’ Cambi in Florence in June 2012
This past weekend I celebrated my birthday, and no, I won’t tell you how old I am. I prefer to think of myself as “well-aged”. Since I’m the main chef in the family, I decided to make my own birthday dinner.

As mentioned here already, a year ago Vicki and I were in Italy researching for the crime novel I’m currently writing and our one big meal out was in Florence where I had the best darn bit of beef it’s ever been my pleasure to negotiate: the justly famous bistecca alla Fiorentina. We went to a place that specializes in this iconic dish: Ristoro Di’ Cambi in the Oltrarno section of Florence. They did not let us down.

For some reason I hadn’t equated Italians with North American’s near fetish for cooking slabs of meat over charcoal. Stupid, I know, but there it is.

Nowhere to be seen, though, were those gleaming silver monstrosities you see lined up every spring at your local Home Depot. The only barbecues we saw on our trip were the very basic little round types with spindly legs and a grill on the top, the kind where you throw some charcoal in, light it up with a bit of paper and twigs, then throw the meat on. I asked an Italian about cooking outdoors using propane and he looked at me as if I were mad.

After using the fantastic charcoal available in Italy, I could see why. It burns clean and very hot. This same person told me that most of it is made with oak. We could certainly see evidence of this in groves of the trees on the sides of many hills throughout Tuscany, some under cultivation for centuries.

You need the best lump charcoal to cook bistecca properly. Briquettes won’t cut it because they don’t burn hot enough. Since the meat is very thick, by necessity, you need to sear it over very hot coals, then spread out the fire leaving most of it on one side of your barbecue, raise the grill several inches and finish the meat over a lower heat. If done correctly, it comes out with a deep mahogany color with no burning, and after letting it rest sufficiently before carving, the inside is rare at the center, more done at the edge, but not at all dry and with very little leakage of juices. In short, after having this dish a few times now, I believe it’s the best way to cook a steak.

First and foremost, in Italy the only proper beef comes from Chianina cows, a breed you see all over Tuscany, dotting the hillsides in small herds. This breed is quite large and grows rapidly. The meat also tends to be fattier than what we’re used to on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, it’s also grass-fed which makes a huge difference in the flavor.

The cut used for bistecca is what we would call a porterhouse. A porterhouse has a larger portion of the tenderloin than the related T-bone cut and on the opposite side of the T-shaped bone is the strip loin. In Italy, the thickness of the bistecca is dictated by the thickness of the bone, so with a big animal, the piece can be quite thick and large. Italian restaurants sell it “per etto” but you get the whole thing so you can expect a steak up to a kilogram. I’d suggest that one steak should be ordered for 2 or 3 people. It will be about 2 inches thick. Only use meat that has been well-aged, so you need to trust your butcher.

As for preparation, the meat is left to shine on its own. Seasoning is left to primo olive oil, salt and pepper and maybe a rub from a cut clove of garlic. All of this is supposed to be done after cooking, by the way. Some restaurants in Italy apparently serve it with wedges of lemon. That’s it. No fancy rubs or sauces, no herbs.

My birthday dinner. I got skunked on the asparagus!
My birthday dinner was for 6, so we were looking for two porterhouse steaks. The place I originally ordered from (Beretta Meats, a usually reliable organic source) messed up and had cut two 1-inch thick porterhouses which I could not accept and which they could not rectify (the person taking their phone orders should listen a little better from now on), so we were left scrambling. Fortunately, I remembered being told about an excellent Italian butcher on Toronto’s Bloor Street, so we went down there.

Gasparro’s is a wonderful place. I dealt with Nick, an enthusiastic man who knows what good food is and where to source it. His shop sells Mennonite free-range chicken and eggs, and the display was filled with cuts of beef, pork and lamb, all locally sourced, and store-made sausage. Nick talked me into buying two rib steaks he cut on the spot from a long rack, and I went for it because the 28-day aged meat looked fantastic with wonderful marbling throughout. After dinner on Sunday, we had to agree that Nick knew what he was talking about. While not strictly a bistecca alla Fiorentina, the meat was tender, juicy and delicious.

Anyway, you carnivores are probably getting a tad peckish at this point, so here’s the recipe.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine Steak)

1 two-inch, or traditionally, 3-fingers high porterhouse steak (2 pounds or more)
Olive oil (the good stuff only!)
large grain sea salt (we use a Welsh version, smoked over oak for extra flavor)
freshly ground black pepper
one garlic clove, peeled and halved (optional)

1. Make sure your steak is room temperature and completely dry. I take a steak this thick out of the fridge a good two hours before cooking. That way, the center is not really cold anymore. If it is, your finished steak is going to be dry and tasteless on the outside before the inside is even warm.

2. Build a really intense charcoal fire with the best lump charcoal you can find (it will burn hotter). Heat the grill for only a minute or two before putting on the steak to avoid having it burn into the meat. It should be about 2 inches from the coals. I rubbed ours with a bit of olive oil seconds before putting on the two steaks.

3. Cook the steak 3 minutes on each side, searing it well. Now, raise the grill about 2 inches, bank most of the fire to one side (with a few coals left on the opposite side), and put your steak at the cooler end. Cook each side an additional 5 minutes (assuming you want the steak rare – which you should!), and finally spread out the coals again and turn the steak up onto its end bone and cook another 6-7 minutes. This evens out the cooking as the bone spreads the heat into the center of the steak. It’s very important (unless you’re highly skilled at barbecuing meat) to watch the temperature at the center of the meat. For rare, you want it to be around 125°F, for medium 140°. If you want it more done than that, it’s up to you, but I can guarantee the results will be tough and dry, especially on the outside of the meat. You can’t trust the poke method to see if a cut this thick is done on the inside. I’m very good at that, but since this steak will be pretty expensive, I don’t trust myself to get it right. An instant read thermometer is a good (and cheap) way to get it right!

4. You will want your steak to rest for a good 10 minutes to get the juices to migrate back to the core of the meat, so this is the time to lightly brush it with olive oil, grind some pepper over it and lightly salt it. Using salt that’s not finely ground allows it to not completely melt, giving you small bursts of saltiness as you eat that are quite lovely. If you are using the optional garlic addition, rub the meat on both sides before you brush on the olive oil.

5. Remove the meat from the bone and slice it. Serve it on heated plates (especially important if you’re serving outdoors. Let the birthday boy or a favored guest nibble the meat left on the bone!

The traditional accompaniment in Italy is boiled canellini beans (yet another example of why Tuscans are disparagingly referred to as “bean-eaters” in the rest of Italy) that have been seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. For wine, an excellent Chianti Classico Reserva is a perfect choice, or maybe a Brunello, but you want something “hefty” – and good. Don’t cheap out here!

For my birthday, we served this with a few pieces of buttered spinach and cheese ravioli from our favorite place for fresh pasta, Bologna Pastificio (with freshly-grated Parmesan from Zito’s), and local asparagus.

For dessert I made a Beethoven Torte, but that’s a recipe for another day.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Prima Parte)

A year ago, Vicki and I were madly getting ourselves ready to depart for eighteen days in Italy, and this past weekend over radish sandwiches, we were remembering very fondly all the great food we ate – mostly prepared by me (since our trip was entirely done renting apartments for our accommodations) or meals we enjoyed the few times we dined out.

Renting apartments is a splendid way to really feel as if you’re living somewhere, even if for a few day. Since I, especially, enjoy cooking, it’s not a problem to visit a market, or search out food in small shops (and a few big ones, just to see what they were like).

I had my beautiful and talented editorial assistant on hand (Vicki), who astoundingly became fluent in Italian in nine short months, and she led our shopping expeditions, from the small salumeri (“deli” will suffice for North Americans) down the block in Rome, through the Marcato Centrale in Florence (where, I swear, one vendor had a large tray of various livestock penis’s for sale) to an old ship moored in a canal in Venice that sold fruit and vegetables to the neighborhood where we “lived” for four days. I took to calling her my “Little Linguini” because of her skill with the language. She talked us out of some tight corners…

As you might expect, the tomatoes, even in June, were uniformly wonderful. It became clear pretty early on that Italians won’t tolerate food that isn’t at its very best – especially tomatoes. I cannot imagine what they would say if they were served the appalling things North Americans call tomatoes during the “off-season”. From what we were told, June tomatoes come mostly from Sicily or the southernmost regions of the country where it gets warm early. Even small fruttivendolos had great tomatoes.

After a long day of sightseeing (and research, since I was contemplating setting my next novel in Italy), we’d stop for a few plum or San Marzano tomatoes, a panini roll and a sprig or two of fresh basil. With a can of fantastic olive oil we’d bought on our first day in Rome, I’d whip together some bruschetta. Vicki would uncork yet another terrific bottle of inexpensive but tasty wine, and we’d put up our tired feet for a few minutes.

Later on, I’d boil some pasta with maybe a fresh sauce of some kind accompanied by a salad of lettuce and more tomatoes. Maybe we’d stopped for fresh fish or some sort of chops. For dessert we’d have whatever fruit looked good that day, and maybe we’d stroll out for a bit of gelato later on in the evening. Our mobile larder always included a few cans of tomatoes, a hunk of guanciale (which I bought down the street from our apartment in Rome – and fantastic stuff it was), freshly-grated parmesan, a head of garlic, an onion or two, various kinds of pasta, some salami and proscuitto and a few of the amazing peaches or cherries that were in season. We also had our stash of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and a few other herbs. My suitcase still smells faintly of basil almost a year later.

And I almost forgot the melons! Italian cantaloupes are smaller than ours but ultra sweet. We shamelessly gorged on those every morning for our breakfast. All our fruit and vegetables were bought per oggi, meaning that the fruttivendolo knew we wanted to eat it that day. No matter where we stopped, none of them ever let us down.

Bread was another matter, surprisingly. We bought some really appalling bread in a few places – even from bakers. It was like eating dry cotton fluff. Whole grain bread (pane integrale) seemed to be in short supply as well. The best we found was in the Marcato Centrale in Florence, a marvelous round loaf called “pane panda”. We snatched up two and should have bought more, it stayed fresh for so long.

Anyway, there will be more parts on this topic as the summer goes on, so please stay tuned!

I’d like to leave you with the recipe we used for bruschetta. I asked a number of people in Italy about it, and most gave me the same ingredients and preparation instructions. You’ll notice that it’s quite simple: few ingredients, everything fresh, and possible to prep in about 5 minutes. Now, that’s a perfect recipe to my mind.

One note: Just about the very first thing we did on arriving in Italy was to purchase a small can of the best olive oil we could find. It was pressed from green olives and had a sharp spicy taste that was perfect foil to the tomatoes and basil. When that ran out, we bought a can of oil pressed from mature olives and it made a surprising difference to our bruschetta, more than I would have expected, smooth-tasting and almost “creamy”, if I can use that word to describe the flavor of olive oil. Most of the best Italian olive oil never makes it out of the country. When you do find it, you’ll likely pay through the nose. Do it. Bruschetta without the best olive oil you can find really doesn’t cut it.

Serves 4

3 meaty and perfectly ripe plum or San Marzano tomatoes
1 large fresh panini roll sliced diagonally, slices about 1/2-inch thick (or you can use a baguette)
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced in half
8 large fresh basil leaves
sea salt and pepper

1. Core the tomatoes, then chop into a 1/4-inch dice. If there are a lot of seeds, remove most of them, along with the pulp surrounding them. If there aren’t a lot, I usually don’t bother. Stack the basil leaves, roll them up widthwise and then thinly slice them.

2. Brush each bread slice on one side with olive oil. (I simply use my finger for this. It works well.)

3. Toast the bread on both sides on a grill outside, or if you’re inside, I suggest pan toasting rather than using your broiler. Suit yourself. Outside definitely gives you additional flavor, though, and it’s the traditional way to do it.

4.  Now rub both sides of each slice well with one of the garlic halves. You don’t want to be overcome with garlic taste. You just want it to be there.

5. Mound on the tomatoes, sprinkle with basil shreds, a grinding of pepper, a very slight pinch of salt, and a few additional drops of olive oil.

You can enjoy this with a chilled bottle of white wine, or red wine if you prefer. Either one works just fine. They can be a bit sloppy to eat (especially if you don’t chop the tomatoes finely enough). We feel that adding onion, sliced olives, or melting cheese on it, etc. really does nothing to improve this simple, rustic dish.

Shockingly, I can’t find a single photo of any of the bruschetta I prepared on our trip! The photo above is a generic one, since this year’s crop of tomatoes is at least six weeks off.