May 19, 2006

Shop Local... Eye Candy

In my cooking classes in Florence, Italy where I moved in 1984, there was no other way to shop than daily... and local.

Florence has two fixed market places, built in the late 1800's when Florence was made the capital of united Italy. The Central Market, which is right outside my kitchen-studio window, is a two story huge building, resembling a French train station and the smaller but similar San Ambrogio market near Cibreo Restaurant in the Santa Croce area.

Each morning I open the windows for a peek at what the market has to offer, and am inspired to shop as soon as possible to not miss out on seasonal specialites.
As often is the case, I shop first with my eyes, and have to admit that my eye does wander from what's on the counter.. to what is behind the counter!

I was walking around the market the other day with my camera and taking some portraits to share one of the reasons I love the market.

Morning coffee/news/Italian lesson with the Boys at Claudio's

My Italian improved by shopping the market, first by eavesdropping at conversations at the bar when I had breakfast, to picking up recipes when I stood in line.

I am really blessed, besides fabulous seasonal food, which everyday encourages me to SHOP LOCAL, like the movement on the net I read about on Chez Pim
seems like she and I also have some good reasons to frequent your local farmers market!

If not for the quality and choice of food, as Pim says, it also is a great place to meet people, from the vendors to the clients. Shopping the market takes an extra effort, may cost a little more as the products often come from small farmers, so anyone shopping there must be a similar person to you. One that cares!

I remember when I lived in San Francisco, the Marina Safeway was the place to shop, now as Pim says, Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Market is the place to be!

Look for a farmer's market near you, shop it, support your local farmers... say thank you.. maybe hug one! I guarantee it will improve the quality of your life and your happiness.

Stefano from my little market within the market

Massimiliano, my fish purveyor and recipe advisor.
Can you blame me for not LOVING the market?

Here are some of the seasons best...

Fresh garlic and beautiful zucchini blossoms
( we only fry the males, who don't produce zucchini's)

Fresh red onions from tropea, I think I am going to make my first Panzanella salad of the season next week.

Frais du bois, wild strawberries
to be served with Panna Cotta and 25 year old Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

Cooking with what is in season makes life so much easier.
All you have to do is not alter the flavors.
Often all you need for meat, fish and vegetables is extra virgin olive oil and sea salt,
for fruit, lemon and sugar.

Treat yourself to a wonderful day... and shop your market and eat local.

May 14, 2006

Cooks night off

Last night we took a night off from cooking and headed out to nearby San Gimignano.
One of my favorite simple places to go is Osteria del Carcere

We started with a local spumante from the Falchini winery and shared a crostoni with saffrom infused sheeps milk ricotta. For our first course.. I had Zuppa di Cipolla, a lovely Tuscan onion soup made with the new red onions from Tropea and then thickened with bread cubes and some fresh tuscan pecorino cheese; much lighter than the French version. My husband went right for the meat! Elena and Riba have based their menu on many of the dishes created by Dario Cecchini, which is how we met over 10 years ago when they opened.

They have recreated a wonderful dish that even Dario doesn't do anymore... a pistacchio and orange stuffed turkey breast, roasted and then served with a warm orange sauce. Still one of my favorites.

After, still having some red wine left ( also by Falchini) we opted for a cheese course.( pictured above)
Tiny tastings of several local cheeses, both sheep and goat accompanied with fresh fava beans, olive oil, honey, a green tomato and orange confit, my red pepper jelly ( that I created for Dario) and a sweet wine jelly.

The portions were just right that we could still go for dessert, my favorite part of going to Le Carcere. Elena makes them all herself and I HAVE to have them all!

Last nights selection was: Zuppa inglese, Chocolate Caprese, Lemon Caprese ( both based on a almond cake from the Island of Capri on the Amalfi Coast) and a saffron pinenut cake accompanied by a lovely Vin Santo, Tuscany's dessert wine.


Mille Grazie Elena and Riba!

May 5, 2006

Seasons best…Primavera

Living in the countryside has me much more in touch with the seasons, as everyday there is something new going on, expecially in spring. Winter seems never ending and when spring arrives, it explodes!

The green valley in front of my house

Vines climbing up, young grape bunches, just flowers now

Yesterday's cherry blossoms ... today's cherries.

It is the light more that anything that excites me, highlighting the emerald green hills in the morning, and in the evenings creating glowing castles that make me want to paint or break out my camera.

Inspired by Tana and her small farm blog, I thought I would let you know what is happening in the hills near my home in Certaldo. I will try to document some of the local producers and interview them.

Certaldo is a beautiful hill town, built all in red brick. It is very tiny and full of atmosphere, not really a tourist town as there is really a living village and not a series of shops.

Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, was born here and it is possible to visit his house. The old town hall is lovely, covered in ceramic crests. For food lover’s, Osteria del Vicario, received its well deserved Michelin star and is a lovely place to stop for lunch, with it’s wonderful outdoor dining, overlooking the valley.

Certaldo and the surrounding valleys are also Chianti wine producing villages, not Chianti Classico, which is limited to the hills where it originated, Radda, Castellina and Gaiole.
The hills are lined with vineyards, olive trees and farm houses, still working farms. My neighbors the Tinti’s still sell their wine in bulk, Vino Sfuso, if you go by with your demijohns!

I found a fabulous old demijohn the other day at the garbage cans… and oops… found it’s way into the trunk of my car and is now in the garden.

They are so beautiful with the handwoven cord coverings on the top and the woven basket holding the large 25 liter bottles.

We have fabulous memories of hauling a demijohn up three flights of stairs filled with wine from Montalcino and filling the bottles, topping them off and corking them to store for drinking at a later date always ending up in drunken bliss.

Judy: “ Ahh, this bottle has too much wine in it.”
Andrea: “ Just drink some of it to even it off”

Judy: “ Oops, this one doesn’t have enough.”
Andrea:” Add more from one of the bottles.”

Judy:” Oops, now it has too much again.”

Repeat this for 25 liters of wine.. and you get the idea!

Now that I am teaching full time and we are buying bottled wine, no more rolling on the floor, but am tempted to go and pick some wine up from the Tinti’s for the summer for home use and start the season off with a good laugh!

When I go down to the village to shop, my vegetable lady, Paula, is also a valley girl, living at the bottom of the hill where I come down from, I pass the family farm daily. I could stop and buy my vegetables from the farm, but would miss out on the local gossip I get my shopping in the village.

The market is also green right now, fresh fava beans, artichokes, asparagus, peas are all filling the shelves and our tables.

The first tomatoes from Naples are also coming in, looking like small pumpkins and still lightly tinted green and acidic to the bite, these are perfect for salads.

Salad making is an art in Italy from the selection of the greens to the dressing.

Lettuce or wild greens?

Extra virgin olive oil or course but red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar or a blessing of 12 year old traditional Balsamic Vinegar?

Salt… from Sicily, the Himalayan mountains or a lovely fleur de sal?

So many choices to please our palates.

Personally, I love wild greens with mostly oil, a pinch of salt and no vinegar. The greens are so full or flavor, it really only needs to be gilded with the oil.

Often on the side I will dress the salad tomatoes with oil, salt and red wine vinegar (made from my left over wines) and left to marinade.

Right now I enjoy marinated tomatoes even for breakfast.. can’t get enough of them.

As soon as spring arrives, it seems that summer sneaks right in.
My husband noted that the fireflies should soon be out!

Take time to enjoy the moment.. Carpe Diem and seasons gifts to our tables at their best.

Go to your local farmer's market..and hug your farmer or your produce guy.. here's mine!

Stefano Conti in the Mercato San Lorenzo