Category Archives: Marvels and Mishaps

The ‘Crunchy Artichoke’ at Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba

the (crunchy) artichoke of your dreams

Easter is always a time of feasting and friends, yet Easter 2017 will go down as a personal record on both counts, thanks to some wonderful new people in my life and the chance to discover some of the extraordinary food, wine, and traditions of Umbria. This eno-gastron-amica weekend extravaganza, as I’m calling it, had my heart bursting, my waistline bulging, and my culinary curiosity on overdrive. Too many for a comprehensive list, the flavors and stories I encountered across that idyllic swathe of Italian landscape stretching from Perugia past Assisi and on towards Montefalco included Vernaccia di Cannarra and a funfetti cake called ciaramicola, made specially by a local pastry chef for Easter breakfast; Sagrantino and Grecchetto (enough said); the chance witnessing of a quirky tradition involving locals of all ages cracking eggs in the Montefalco piazza as part of an ancient local tournament of sorts (stay tuned); a gorgeous, sinfully creamy pâté (nonna’s cherished recipe, naturally); and an Umbrian Easter specialty called torta di pasqua that about changed my life (imagine the fluffy, soft sponge of a pandoro but savory and filled with cheese!). Oh, and then there was the whole ‘Christmas at Easter’ thing, a feast, well….precisely as its name suggests! Complete with Christmas pudding and secret santa.

Though not easy to label any one of the dishes I tasted in Umbria as the ‘best’, an indisputable contender was an intriguing and lovely-to-behold starter served at the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi. The carciofo croccante, or crunchy artichoke, caught my and my friend’s attention as we sat outside in the tiny piazza where once a small yet thriving vegetable market was held, now reduced to a lone vegetable vendor named Novella, known and by all accounts beloved by locals (I wanted her to adopt me).

Novella, vegetable vendor in Assisi’s Piazzetta dell’Erba

The solemn Good Friday procession making its way along the nearby medieval thoroughfare had dominated my attention until the moment that artichoke arrived. At the first bite, I knew it was something to consider more closely (and taste again), so the next day we returned to the Osteria, where chef Matteo Bini kindly took a few minutes from his busy day to tell me about this dish.  As its name promises, this artichoke is, firstly, crunchy. But then, like any masterful texture combination must do, it moves from an outer crunchiness to the tenderness of an artichoke cooked to perfection in the alla romana fashion: seasoned and steamed, in this case with the addition of capers and garlic. It is then filled with a potato mash flavored with anchovy, wrapped in filo dough, baked until the dough turns crunchy and delicate, and served on creamy pecorino fondue with pretty aromatic petals and herbs.

Nothing pleases me like young Italians succeeding in the world of food.  With this one delightful dish—which achieves that rare and brilliant balance of superb flavor combination, pleasing texture contrasts, esthetic flair and artistry—Chef Matteo, together with wife Francesca, brother Daniele, and the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba team, managed to catch and hold my attention. I will certainly be returning for my third (and possibly fourth!) carciofo croccante.

osteria in the little ‘greens square’

Chef Andreas Schwienbacher: Dreaming Big, with Flair and Focus, in Alto-Adige

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Tucked away in the northernmost part of Italy in the Valle Aurina (Ahrntal in German), the Alpenpalace Deluxe Hotel and Spa Resort is a dreamy, elegant locale that manages an at-once über-luxurious and family-like ambiance. Here in this paradise for lovers of all things Alpine—outdoor activities galore, fascinating architecture, customs, and history, and pristine everything—I had an opportunity to chat with Andreas Schwienbacher, the talented head chef of the resort’s restaurant.

Originally from Lana near Bolzano, 24-four-year-old Schwienbacher is the youngest head chef in a 5-star hotel in the Alto-Adige regionno small accomplishment and one he is justifiably proud of. Having dreamed of becoming a chef since age 14, Andreas worked in various restaurants and hotels around the world, including nearby Austria and far-flung Australia, before taking on his role at the resort. Like many chefs, Andreas gives much credit to his experience working in the kitchens of a Michelin-starred restaurant, perhaps even more so than his training.  

Talking with a professional chef is always enlightening, and tends to challenge if not upset altogether many of one’s homespun cooking preconceptions. A few minutes chatting with this focused, attentive, serious-minded young man was no exception. Some topics covered included molecular gastronomy spheres; the use of kaolin to create, among other things, edible ‘stones’ (small boiled potatoes coated in the clay-like, neutral-tasting substance); plates adorned with non-comestible items like pebbles and pine cones, to evoke the forest and natural splendor of the area; and beef (the very best must be imported from outside Italy, an inconvenient truth to we of the buy local mindset, but one I’ve heard attested to more than once by pro chefs).

The young chef’s dreams and future plans? To create an intimate, 5-table gourmet dining experience (a restaurant within a restaurant, if you will, opening soon). And to earn 15 Gault & Millau points one day. Ambitious? Have a look at a sampling of creations by this extraordinary culinary talent, and then decide.

A three-butter starter: chervil, truffle, French:

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A prosciutto ‘rose’ wrapped around a black-olive sphere, with summer herbs and flowers, a crunchy prosciutto crumble, and decorative touches from the forest:

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Beef tenderloin with baby carrots, a crumble of hazelnuts, butter and flour, a kaolin-coated new potato ‘stone’, and exquisite jus:

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Detail showing the (sometimes forest-themed) creativity and whimsy the chef puts into his dishes:

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Close-up of the truffle butter. Because truffle butter deserves a close-up!:

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Head Chef Andreas Schwienbacher (right) with Chef Garde Manger Michael Sartor

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Another look at that stunning prosciutto ‘rose’:

prosciuttorose2

And I’ll leave you with a pretty view, in case you still need convincing:

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

 

Orange Cream & Prosecco Cocktail

orange cocktail

orange cream heaven

Ingredients

for the cream
250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
2 Tbls sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange

per drink
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts fresh orange juice
1 part Schweppes tonic or similar

Instructions

Whip the cream with the orange zest, vanilla and sugar until thick and fluffy. You’ll have enough for at least 4 to 6 drinks. Keep cool while you mix the (cold) liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill the glass(es) and spoon in dollops of the orange cream. Garnish with orange zest (optional).

Mixed Berry Ice Cream Cake

on the plate

ice cream cake (of course!)

What to do with a leftover tub of homemade red currant ice cream? Make ice cream cake, of course! When completely cooled, slice a round sponge cake / pan di spagna into two disks. Wedge the first disk into the bakery paper-lined cake pan and spread a layer of softened ice cream on top. Proceed with the next layer of cake and ice cream (for my top layer I used whipped cream with mixed berries), and place back in the freezer for at least an hour. Remove and let sit at room temp for minimum 15 minutes before serving.

Grilled Eggplant Rolls With Caper-Basil Cream

involtini di melanzane

involtini di melanzane

To make these grilled eggplant rolls, brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and grill until soft, not crisp. You could also fry them in olive oil if preferred. Transfer them to a paper-towel-covered plate and lightly dust with grated pecorino romano or ricotta salata. Soften a container of cream cheese and blend it well with a handful of roughly chopped salted capers (rinsed) and a small handful of chopped fresh basil. I used two varieties, purple and Greek. When the eggplant has cooled, spread a scoop of the cream on each round and roll them up. Serve with herbs and a bit more grated cheese if you like. These are very good at room temp or even chilled.

Red Currant Ice Cream

perfect, gorgeous, homemade ice cream

Every year around this time our red currant plant starts yielding absurd quantities of fruit—or at least too much for two people to keep up with. In the past week I’ve given away a couple bags full and have frozen about a kilo. I’m not really into marmalade (both the process of making it and the texture annoy me), which leaves few options for how to make use of the copious amounts of berries currently all about the place. It turns out the hens don’t really like them, by the by.

Last year I made a refreshing (if a bit sour) and gorgeous-to-behold red currant sorbet. I’d started making my own sorbet a couple years back, after having purchased and been disappointed by one too many sickeningly sweet store-brought varieties, invariably full of glucose syrup—fine, technically it’s just sugar, I realize—plus the ubiquitous corn syrup, thickeners, stabilizers, colorings, and so on. With homemade sorbet you can pretty much achieve a ‘natural’ dessert and you control the sweetness level, something I find appealing. It’s much more economical. It’s easy. And there’s really no limit to the kinds you can make. So while contemplating a large bowl of currants, I thought about going with that recipe again. Then I remembered I had a carton of cream in the fridge! And minutes later I was busy making this ice cream. I hate to brag (really I do), but at times it’s just unavoidable—this ice cream is knock-your-socks-off good.

Ingredients

1 & 1/2 cups (about 250-270 grams) of fresh red currants
1 cup (225 grams) sugar
1/3 cup (about 80 mls) water
2 cups heavy cream (I used a 500-ml carton)

Instructions

Rinse the berries and remove all the little stems. Process the fruit until you have a thick, fairly uniform liquid, then strain once in a small-hole colander and then again in a mesh one. You won’t keep every tiny seed out; it’s okay, nothing to go all OCD about. The seeds are sort of cute (and besides, this is homemade ice cream). Set the juice aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, dissolve the sugar in the water, stirring constantly until you have a thick syrup. You don’t have to bring it to a boil. Let cool and then add the syrup to the fruit blend and combine well in a bowl. At this point, definitely test the sweetness. Currants are sour. I liked the sweetness achieved with this amount of sugar, but you could sweeten further if you wish. Place the bowl in the freezer for a few minutes while you whip the cream until very thick and pillowy. Gently fold the cream into the fruit mixture, then transfer to a sealable container and freeze. After about two hours the consistency is like a soft-serve ice cream. Freeze for another two hours if you want a more traditional ice cream consistency. Since this ice cream contains no fake-texture-preserving junk, it will freeze completely solid, so on successive days be sure to take it out of the freezer about 15-20 minutes before serving and stir it up a bit.

Ribes rubrum

Ribes rubrum

Grilled Eggplant & Swordfish Towers

on the plate

on the plate

Slice the eggplant into rounds and place them in a shallow baking dish or on a large platter. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried rosemary and thyme (or herbes de Provence) and let rest for about 15 minutes while you prep the fish. I cut the swordfish steaks into rounds to roughly match the eggplant rounds in size. Coat the fish with olive oil and dust with black pepper. Grilled the veg and the fish, salt to taste when cooked, then assemble the towers, layering with chopped tomato and fresh basil. I served these with a creamy, tangy caper sauce made from capers, mayo and lemon juice.

Melon Sorbet

so cool

so cool

To make this sorbet, I used the better part of two ripe cantaloupes. Place a large ceramic or tin bowl or pot in the freezer while you prep the sorbet. Roughly cube the flesh and place it in a food processor or blender. You can also use a hand-held wand mixer, in which case place the fruit in a large bowl. Process until you have a thickish liquid. Add about 1/2 cup of syrup (bring 1 cup of water and 1/2 cup sugar to a boil, stirring periodically; remove from heat and let cool before using) and 3 large spoonfuls of mascarpone (optional). The mascarpone doesn’t alter the flavor but does make for a nice pastel color and creamy consistency. Blend well, transfer to the chilled container, and cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Freeze for 4 or 5 hours, forking it every now and then. Remember to remove frozen solid sorbet from the freezer and let rest at room temp for about 30 minutes before serving. Fork it up and then use an ice cream scoop to serve. If you like, garnish with red fruits like the currants pictured above or fresh mint leaves.

It’s Prugnolo Day!

viva il prugnolo!

viva il prugnolo!

Prugnolo mushrooms are everywhere right now, dominating the local sagra scene but not only: Tomorrow night the folks at Pizzeria Valeri in Luco di Mugello are hosting a dinner event based on this cute little fungo. Check out (and like!) Valeri’s Facebook page for more info, and in the meantime have a peek at the menu:

Crostini al Prugnolo
Ravioli and Tortelli with Prugnoli
Pizze miste with Prugnoli
Prugnolo Gelato
cost: €28 per person, drinks included

Bar Pizzeria Valeri
Via Giovanni Traversi, 95
Luco di Mugello
Borgo San Lorenzo (FI)
tel: 055 840 1776

Alici alla Scapece: Tiny Fish, Big on Flavor & Long on History

a method by many names

a method by many names

Alla scapece is the southern Italian term for an ancient preservation method, one used for centuries throughout the Mediterranean region, which consists of frying small fish such as sardines or anchovies then sealing them in a marinade of oil, spices, and lemon or vinegar. Alla scapece, together with the Venetian in soar (as in sarde or pesse in soar), pesciolini in carpione of the Lakes Region in Lombardy, and escabeche in Spain, Portugal, parts of Southern France, and Northern Africa, all derive from the Persian sikbaj (or al-sikbaj), described by John Dickie in Delizia! as ‘a sweet and tangy Persian stew […] that became popular in much of the Muslim world.’ In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Daniel Jurafsky traces the evolution of sikbaj from its origins as a centuries-long favorite in the Arab world to its eventual morphing into the classic fish & chips of today. The link, interestingly, between these two distant relatives is the method of frying (in the case of sikbaj it was meat, not fish) then marinating in vinegar.  Apparently this is why we serve batter-fried fish with vinegar!

Okay, history lesson’s over. I tried alici alla scapece for the first time last year on the breathtaking island of Ponza, as a guest of chef Oreste Romagnolo, who runs not one but two amazing restaurants on the island—Orèstorante and Orèsteria (both establishments’ names are plays on their founder’s first name + ristorante and osteria, respectively). In Romagnolo’s version, the anchovies are fried then marinated in vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and mint. Served chilled, these anchovies were nothing like what you expect when…well, when eating an anchovy. Delicate, savory, not overly-fishy, and not too salty.

Romagnolo, an avid sailor, hails from Avellino. He’s been based on Ponza since 1995, the year he opened Orèstorante with his wife, Valentina, a sommelier and pastry chef. Some years ago he published a monograph, Orèstorante: Isola di Ponza 1995 – 2005 (out of print and virtually impossible to find) in collaboration with photographer Adriano Bacchella. Though a bit off topic, I simply cannot conclude this post without referring you to Bacchella’s site to get a glimpse of his stunning photography. And if you ever make it to Ponza, be sure to find one or both of Oreste Romagnolo’s incomparable restaurants. The man knows his fish.

A sign for Orèsteria, run by Oreste, who also owns Orèstorante, both located on Ponza