September 26, 2010

Project Food Blog - Challenge # 2- Cooking out of the Comfort Zone

Thanks so much for those of you that voted for me and helped me make the cut.
Today's challenge is to create a dish out of our personal comfort zone and cannot be Italian or French.

In choosing a recipe for this week's challenge, I had to face one of the problems of being an expat. As an ex-Californian, I was raised eating a myriad of international foods which were available daily. Even now, I often crave Chinese food or Mexican . I have a fabulous pantry of small bags of herb and spices, a huge collection of various dried chilies from my trips to Mexico. I carried back a tortilla press, but without the Masa Harina, it is useless. I cannot always find ingredients I need.

When I knew I was moving to live in Europe, I wanted to be able to create foods I loved wherever I lived. I hung out at Nikko, my favorite Sushi bar in SF, and learned how to make dashi, sushi rice and how to form my own rolls and rice pieces. I bought a mat and a Japanese knife to travel with. Canned wasabi powder came with me when I moved. Even making American food here is a challenge, but over the years I have been able to recreate some of my favorites both savory and sweet from all over the world.

How I chose what to cook: 
Florence finally has shops opened by immigrants from Sri Lanka, China and Africa which provide  quite a selection of international products. I am now seeing okra, corn, bok choy, lots of different fresh chili and other fresh ingredients in the shops in the Central Market downtown Florence.

But it is an hour from home.

I try to shop local and seasonal, so recreating a dish where I would have to make a special trip was out of the question. Where I live in the countryside has a rather large Moroccan population. I have never been to Morocco but adore eating couscous and had bought a tajine from my door-to-door salesman, Abramo. I have asked him to also bring me spices instead of socks, t-shirts and tablecloths which he sells from the back of his car, but so far no results!

Recently I received a copy of Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share. What better place to start to reach out to another culture of cooking, but also staying in the Mediterranean.

my tajine and griddle for flat-bread

I had Abramo's daughter come once and teach me how to make a simple tajine so I could use the pot I had bought. She showed me a simple chicken with vegetable recipe which was lovely, but for my taste buds, a little too simple. For the challenge I wanted something that was clearly a Moroccan recipe with some of the mystery of the spice blends. My local COOP grocery store has some couscous spices and I also have some special blends I brought back from my last trip to the states, Ras el Hanout and Soumac.

I saw Lamb Tajine with Melting Tomatoes and Onions and loved the title; the long slow cooking with a tajine evokes melting meats, but never thought about the tomatoes.

Part of the project was also to stay as true as possible to a recipe. As a Tuscan cooking teacher I teach my students to learn how to cook and not to follow recipes. I have trouble following recipes now myself, but I stuck to the recipe as close was possible.

When cooking from a book, a series of questions arose:
  • how large are her onions?
  • How old is the lamb? 
  • Is it milk-fed or did she mean mutton?

I channeled my inner Paula and took to the task.

Assembling the spices was not so hard as I have Ras el Hanout and the Couscous spice in my pantry. As a pastry chef, I always have cinnamon, which is in the stew and added at the end to form a crust with sugar on top. The grocery store supplied me with red onions, which my town is famous for (but did she want white or yellow?) and young milk-fed lamb. The region I live in in famous for saffron, I bought a tiny package of threads for 4 euro.

When I was heating the lamb and the spices in the tajine, I was instantly transported out of Tuscany.
I added the water, covered the tajine and came upstairs to my computer to work for the 2 hour cooking time. I knew I was not supposed to touch it while cooking.

 The layered lamb tajine, lamb shoulder, saffron, cinnamon, raisins, onions and tomatoes 
ready for the two-hour slow covered cooking time

In wanting to stay traditional, I tried the suggested flat bread which Paola suggested, using another friend's recipe. I made Rafih Benjoullen's Moroccan Speckled Flat Bread.

Traditionally the stew is eaten by grabbing the meat in small torn pieces of the bread instead using a fork.  The recipe sounded a lot like the flour tortillas I made for Mexican food, but with a blend of whole wheat and white flour, oil instead of lard and a folding and layering technique, similar to making puff pastry. I was intrigued.

the dough was rolled out into rectangles and then slow cooked to get "black spots"

When the tajine was cooked, it is then drained of the liquid and the fat removed. The sauce gets reduced and then poured back onto the stew and lightly salted.

The only part of the recipe which I could not do was to finish the dish with a cinnamon sugar crust under the broiler. My oven blew out in a recent storm, so I could not brown in oven.

I remember the flavors from a pigeon bastilla I ate once in France, so I knew how special it would be to finish with this combination, I just added some brown sugar and cinnamon and cooked the tajine a little more to caramelize the sugar.


Paola recommended serving the tajine, layering the flat bread in pieces with the stew. I knew that the two of us were not going to be able to eat all of this at one seating, so I bordered the plate with the bread pieces and we save the extra tajine for another meal.

I adore slow cooking in clay for the flavor and ease in preparation and I have more than one meal!

Reaching out to prepare a classic recipe from another cuisine is very hard to do in a place like Italy, where even in Tuscany, trying to make a recipe from Sicily can be impossible due to the lack of regional ingredients. Italy was only united in the 1800's and still today, recipes don't travel.

It is a bitter-sweet thing that now we can get international ingredients readily, but I find that I am seeing small trattorias and other small food shops disappear and reopen as a Gyro's or Chinese take-away in downtown Florence. The air is filled with foreign smells and my Italy is disappearing.

This makes me sad.

Voting starts on Monday- here is my profile link down below and when voting starts you can click through the profile! Mille Grazie- Shukran

September 24, 2010

Tito's Oven Roasted Beans

It is that time of year- fresh beans are appearing in my markets and what I really love is when I find them already shelled. Florentines are called Mangia-fagioli, bean-eaters. Not sure if it is supposed to be offensive, but I adore beans and eaten with rice or grains become a perfect protein and one of the secrets of the Mediterranean diet.

 shelling beans can be relaxing- but if not, buy them already shelled

If you can't get fresh beans, try to by freshly dried beans from a reputable shop. Dried beans can be years old and hence take forever to cook. I am friends with Steve of Rancho Gordo in California and totally support the work he is doing with beans. Check out his site, he ships! He has also written a great book on beans. 

I was very lucky to work in Fiesole when I first came to Tuscany. I was hired as a waitress, as kitchens were run by the families that owned the place I worked. Tito, the father and head chef had owned one of Florence's oldest trattoria's which was down on the river. When Florence flooded in 1966, it was wiped out and the family re-opened in another spot, and eventually took over La Romagnola in Fiesole where I met them.  Cooking large quantities of beans stove-top can be hard, I adore this oven-baked version which also creates a cassoulet style crust on top of the beans. Stir them for even cooking.

Tito's oven-roasted beans
Roasting in the oven frees you from watching the pot cook and allows you to relax!
I use a large lasagna pan, but a nice clay pot would be fabulous or a dutch oven.
I prefer to cook these beans before I really need them, as I think they are much better the next day

The recipe is an idea, can be doubled no problem. Beans will double in volume when cooked. If needed, more water can be added. I like to have the rich garlicy broth for soups.

2 cups cannellini beans, rinsed ( if dried, rinse and drain and then soak overnight)
4-6 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 sage branch
1 head of garlic, left whole, but with the top cut off
salt, to taste

(Florentines don't like to eat a lot of garlic, save the roasted garlic and serve the cloves spread on toast for those that love garlic!)

Place all the ingredients in the pan except the salt and cook at 350 degrees until beans are tender. 
(Depending on the beans can be up to 2 hours)

Stir the beans once or twice during the cooking time, approx 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.
( watch a movie on TV!) The olive oil will create a "crust" on the top layer of beans, this adds some texture, much like cassoulet, but can also dry that top layer, which is why you want to stir.

Salt the beans at the end of the cooking time.

I like to make  a lot of beans, and then portion them and save in zip lock bags in freezer. Great to add to soups or for last minute meals.

September 22, 2010

Fall Foods- When Tuscany Shines

Everyday I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am. Tuscany is really at its best in fall. Not only is the scenery fabulous, incredible light, but the food and wine is really my favorite in fall.

 Panzano in Chianti half-way between Florence and Siena on the 222

This past week on our Chianti Experience tour, we started the week with the porcini mushroom and steak dinner which is a fundraiser for the swim team. Then the Greve Wine Festival on Sunday. We had Sunday lunch at Dario's and returned to do the MacDario experience on Friday and caught the Panzano wine festival. The weekend sagre, food festivals, abound now. Most start in the afternoon so don't go early. Weekly markets often open around 8am but close by 2pm. Timing is everything.

Cooking classes starting by shopping at the market, inspired by what is in season, it so easy to create great meals! Simple tricks to create food like Mamma makes. In Italy,when you go out to eat, you expect it to be as good as your mom cooks, not an easy thing unless you know how to shop.

We were just hit with a horrible flash flood, which isn't good for the grape harvest, but can be good for the olives and for porcini mushrooms, which grow under chestnut and oak trees on a hot day after it rains if it hasn't been windy; or so I have been told.

Fall is porcini mushrooms, white truffles, the grape harvest followed by the olive harvest. The fields are busy and hunting season has also opened. Shotguns are often our morning wake-up calls in the morning now. Usually I get some wild boar from friends or pheasant which I will use to make a ragu.

One of the favorite dishes in class was my Gnocchi Divini- light, eggless, potato gnocchi served in a parmesan cheese fonduta sauce, recreating what we had the first night out- but without the truffles.

 our potato gnocchi in parmesan fonduta

Parmesan Fonduta

Heat 1 cup of heavy cream. Do not let boil.
Add 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese to the hot cream and whisk.
Add salt to taste.
Off the heat, whisk in 2 egg yolks, one at a time.
Return to heat and whisk until the sauce thickens.
Serve with bread to clean platter! You will love it.
This is also great served on vegetables and flans as a sauce.
Let your shopping be guided by what is in season- support your local farmers and food artisans.

I so love sharing my market with people on my tours- here is a small taste of the tour I did for the BBC with Gary Rhodes.

if you haven't already done so, click on the Project Food Blog logo on the right hand side of the blog and Vote for my blog if you like it.

Mille Grazie!

September 17, 2010

Project Food Blog - Challenge # 1- Ready, Set, Blog

I love a challenge, so when FoodBuzz sent out their Food Blog Challenge I jumped in.
Follow a fabulous group of food-bloggers as we set out on this adventure.
The FoodBuzz team is giving us a weekly subject and YOU get to vote! 
This week is: why we blog and why we should be the next food blog star.

Voting will start on Sept 20 at 6am to Sept 23 at 6pm 
To Vote, click on my profile link  HERE

Why I Blog:

When I moved to Italy in 1984 from San Francisco, it was hard to stay in touch. Snail mail was so slow, it wasn't until the internet and email came around that I felt less isolated from friends and family.

 living in the Tuscany countryside can be lonely

Finally the internet opened up to the public. I opened my first website in 1997 and began sending newsletters out to those that signed up on my site, but I still needed a webmaster to process everything for me and limited my postings.

I was so thrilled when I heard about blogging. July of 2003 I began blogging on a slow dial-up here in the Tuscan countryside. Little by little, I have been able to get better connections, learn more from fellow bloggers, adding photos and really began to share my incredible experiences with the culture of food in Italy. Now I can keep my culinary diary online and have been able to meet and exchange information with fellow food-lovers all over the planet. 

my tiny kitchen means being creative; hanging pots and wine box spice racks

From my tiny home in the middle of olive groves, in my even tinier kitchen, I experiment and tweek recipes to share them with my virtual friends. What I adore about cooking here is that it doesn't take a large kitchen or fancy tools to make fabulous food. Its all about finding the best ingredients and cooking with the seasons. My mother-in-law said; "Spend more time shopping and less time cooking."
That is what I pass on to my students in my classes here in Tuscany. Good quality foods need little done to them to make a fabulous meal.

 come to Tuscany and join me for cooking classes

I try to share images and recipes from everyday Tuscan life, where food is truly the most important thing in life, from the market to table, meeting artisans and chefs. I bring you into my kitchen and introduce you to my students and my friends. Offering you an assaggio, a taste, of daily life. Passing on traditional recipes, simplifying the mysteries creating great food.

sharing my restaurant tips- like where to eat this

Follow the Project Food Blog and vote for your favorites, make new friends around the world and break bread with someone you love!

Voting starts on Sept 20 - Winners of each challenge go on to the next round.
Vote by clicking on my profile on the right hand sidebar of go directly here.

Join me at my Kitchen in Chianti and sit down and have a glass of wine.
Meet my friends and enjoy.

Italians say, " A Tavola non si invecchia"
One does not grow old at the table.
Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine.
It's almost like being here.

Why should I be the next Food Blog Star?:

I love to participate in events, but really.... in my own little world I am already so happy with my blog, I enjoy feedback from my followers and love to see the numbers grow weekly.
To me, I have already won!

September 14, 2010

My Market Days- Sharing My Friends

I have always adored traveling in September. In Tuscany it is when all my favorite food  festivals begin, which is why I love week-long programs starting now all through November.

This week we started with our first dinner at the Porcini Mushroom dinner run by the city swim team as a fund-raiser, not bad, why did I have to sell chocolate bars door-to-door?

Sunday we were at Solociccia, Dario Cecchini's meat restaurant ( no steak) in Panzano for a food orgy followed by the wine festival in Greve in Chianti. Confession: we didn't drink wine, everyone was in a food coma!

Monday was the market tour with tastings with Stefano Conti and Alessadro Baroni ( neighboring stands where I could easily set up a cot!)

 Alessandro Baroni on the left- Stefano Conti on the right,

Our spectacular lunch was at another "butcher"restaurant Cipolla Rossa right around the corner from the Medici Chapel.  I have not had a bad dish there but some of the things are so spectacular--- I have them everytime I return. I am sharing a recipe today for one of the dishes which is no longer on the menu, but I teach everyone I can!!! Spaghetti di Vino-- and it is DIVINE

Today we start our hands-on cooking classes at our villa and dining al fresco.

This is living the dream.

Here is my version of the recipe from Nicola, the chef at Cipolla Rossa in Florence.

Spaghetti di Vino

serves 6 Italian style portions for a starter or 2 American big boys!

1 pound of spaghetti (the best quality is from durum wheat and slow dried, with a rough finish that absorbs the sauce better)
2 cups red wine (try Merlot, a Cabernet might be to heavy)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and slice thinly ( not crushed)
2 small bird's eye chili

Most good spaghetti takes 10 minutes to cook. 
Cook in salted water for 8 minutes and drain. 

About half-way through cooking the spaghetti, start the oil mixture on low.

Place the sliced garlic and the chili in the cold olive oil, THEN turn on the heat.
This prevents the garlic from burning and really infuses the oil.

Place the drained spaghetti in the oil and stir. 
Add 1/2 cup of the wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed. 
Add another 1/2 cup of wine, stirring. 

This part is like making a risotto. Add enough wine to give the spaghetti a great color and flavor. TASTE while cooking!

September 11, 2010

Pleasures of the Season

When you live in Tuscany- there are many reasons to be grateful- today we went to an old favorite a tiny trattoria in a tiny village on a crest near our home.

When the owner came to take our order, she was thrilled to tell us that the first white truffles of the season were on the lunch menu.  WE ARE BLESSED!

Fresh tagliatelle tossed with butter and generously shaved fresh white truffles.
How do you follow a first course like that?

With grilled porcini mushroom caps of course- I adore September!

A real no frills trattoria-- but I am keeping this a secret place. Come to Tuscany and I will take you.

September 4, 2010

First Signs of Fall

The vedemmia, harvest, of the wine grapes is sign that summer is over and fall is on it's way. This year the harvest is a little late this year as summer was not that hot here.

Work has been done in the vineyards, smaller bunches of grapes cut off and thrown away to allow the other bunches to develop better. Large leaves are then cut off, letting more sun hit the grapes and allow the sugars to develop more too. White wine grapes are harvested first and then the grapes for the red wine. Some of the white wine grapes are used to make the precious Vin Santo, and they are put in special rooms to dry, then crushed and aged for several years. It is a precious nectar.

If you come to my class, ask me to take you to Metello, my neighbor, he has some 30 year old Vin Santo for sale.( also some fabulous art)

September is time for the wine festivals, tasting previous harvests and celebrating.
Chianti has a wine festival almost every weekend.

If you are coming- get ready to party with us.

Note- Festivals start Friday night--- around 5pm  but Saturday and Sunday are the main days

Greve in Chianti Sept 10 and 12
Panzano in Chianti Sept 17 and 19
Impruneta Sept  26 
Traditionally Rufina brings down a huge wine cart with almost 1300 fiaschi of wine on it, to be blessed in Florence at the Duomo, and a festival in Rufina. The site is not online yet for the actual festival info.

This year is also WINE TOWN FLORENCE- a wine tasting event downtown.

Prices of tomatoes are dropping and now it the time to be making your pomarola
mamma's tomato sauce.

I bought my first zucca, squash, to make my grilled pumpkin that Andrea loves so much.

The pumpkin is more like a kabosha squash, but I have also made it with butternut squash and regular pumpkin as well.

Zucca Marinata- Grilled Marinated Squash

Cut the squash into pieces that are easy to work with.
Remove the hard outside peel of the squash with a knife.
Cut the squash into thin slices.

Grill the squash either using a stove-top griddle or in the oven.
Use  a small amount of oil, either way.

Turn the squash when golden. I use a spatula as it can get very soft.

Prepare some paper-thin slices of garlic, mint leaves, white wine vinegar, salt and extra virgin olive oil.

Layer the grilled squash with mint, garlic and come chili pepper flakes if you like.
Lightly salt.
While the squash is still hot, splash with some white wine vinegar.

After you finish layering. Cover with extra virgin oil oil.

I like to move the bottom slices of squash to the top and let the newer pieces sit on the bottom.

You can serve hot or cold.
We can never wait so eat some right away and save the rest in the refrigerator and serve at room temperature as an appetizer or a side dish.

Next up- FIGS!