Archive | February 2012

Seeds from Italy

My seeds from Italy came in the mail! The packages are big and beautiful, with gorgeous photos and information printed in many languages. The new owners of the Seeds from Italy Company, Dan Nagengast and Lynn Byczynski, are experienced flower and market gardeners, so their e- newsletter is full of useful information and tips to make you want to start planting RIGHT AWAY! It also makes you want to try all 18 zucchini varieties and 31 chicories, not to mention the wonderful peppers, tomatoes, and beans…each essential to a particular regional cuisine. “In Italy, growing vegetables is not thought of as a separate activity from cooking”, they explain. Of course not!

Italian Seeds

I ordered fennel, so I can make fennel gratin…wild fennel, so I will have the seed for authentic Southern Italian flavor…two kinds of cima di rapa (broccoli rabe, or raab) for dragging through garlic oil (aglia olio)…three chicories for salad and braising…. my favorite sweet pepper, “Corno di Toro”…and borlotto beans for my favorite bean soup made with freshly shelled beans. I couldn’t resist the name, “Fagiolo rampicante borlotto lingua di fuoco”. They turned out to be the same bean I have been growing for years that is called “Tongue of Fire” in U.S. seed catalogs! Borlotto beans are also known as “cranberry beans” or “Roman beans”.

 Fresh Shell Bean Soup, or Soup au Pistou

BeansHow do you make this wonderful soup? Most places you will have to grow your own beans to have fresh shelled beans, unless you live around a lot of Italians. Any fresh shell beans can be used, but the Borlotto (or Cranberry) beans have a unique, almost chestnut-like flavor. The beans are ready in late summer or early fall; they are big and plump and beautifully colored with dark red streaks and speckles. The shelled beans freeze very successfully in tightly sealed freezer bags. If fresh or frozen beans aren’t available, dried beans can be used.

If you are using dried beans, soak 1 1/2 cups beans for 8 hours or so in water to cover by 3 inches. Drain and rinse before cooking. A quicker method: bring the beans to a boil in water to cover by 3 inches, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit 1 to 2 hours. Drain and rinse before cooking. Put the soaked beans in a large pot with fresh water to cover by 1 inch with one sprig fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 small hot chile, and 3 smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and partially cover. Maintain a gentle simmer until the beans begin to soften, 30 to 40 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp salt and continue to cook until the beans are tender but still firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Test several beans to check for doneness. The cooked beans will be added into the soup.

To make the soup with fresh beans, you will need 3 cups shelled beans. Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven with 1/4 cup diced pancetta or bacon (this is optional but recommended). Cook over low heat until the meat begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Add 1 large chopped onion, 2 diced carrots, 1 small diced fennel bulb, and 2 diced celery stalks. Stir to coat with oil and cook, stirring frequently until they soften, about 6 minutes. Add 3 or 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary, 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, a pinch of red chile flakes, and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir 1 minute. Add 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned), 1 1/2 cups diced potato   (or sliced green cabbage, if you prefer), and the shelled beans. Stir until the vegetables are heated, about 2 minutes. Add 1 quart homemade chicken or vegetable broth and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook, partially covered, until the beans are tender, 20 to 40 minutes. If you have started with dry beans, add the cooked beans and as much of their cooking broth as you like into the soup and simmer 5 to 10 minutes to meld the flavors. To thicken the soup, mash or puree some of the beans and stir them back into the soup. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve with Pistou and crusty bread.

ParsleyPistou, or pesto: In the late summer or fall, the pistou can be made with fresh basil leaves, but in winter or spring, I use parsley or a combination of parsley and sorrel or fennel fronds. Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, make a paste with 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of kosher salt. Add 2 cups fresh basil, parsley, or a combination of parsley, fennel, and sorrel leaves and pound or process to a rough paste. Add 2 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Cooking in Italy with Gina and Jessica

Gina and Jessica are the excellent cooks at Serra Gambetta. Gina is a potter and ran her own ceramics studio in the past. Her hands are even larger than mine, and she can make anything. Jessica is originally from France, but she has adopted Italy as her home and cooks with love and generosity. I was so excited to be welcomed into their kitchen–the original kitchen of the centuries-old farmhouse where Domenico’s family has turned the produce of their farm into wonderful meals for generations. In one corner of the kitchen is an open hearth where a small fire warms the room. Traditionally, beans were cooked in vase-like ceramic pots that were set just close enough to the fire to maintain a very low simmer (making perfectly-cooked beans). Another corner is filled with a mammoth commercial gas stove, capable of turning out food for many guests.

Cooking with Gina and Jessica in Italy

The evening I helped in the kitchen, the menu included crepes filled with zucchini and fresh ricotta, fennel gratin, pasta with broccoli, a cheese plate, bread, and a salad of diced tomatoes dressed with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and dried oregano. Gina braised the fennel while another guest hollowed out a loaf of whole wheat bread for breadcrumbs, Jessica made the zucchini filling, and I flipped crepes. This is a simple meal, totally dependent on the quality of the ingredients. The simplicity of the preparation allowed the vegetables to shine: essence of fennel, savory zucchini, tender broccoli, and bright flavorful tomatoes. A vegetable lover’s heaven.

Gina and Jessica cook like I do…a little pile of this, a big pile of that, a handful here, and a pinch there. There is no cookbook on the counter or measuring cups in sight. Measurements are approximate. Don’t hesitate to taste as you go, and make adjustments.

Zucchini Crepes with Ricotta and Parmesan

Crepe batter (enough for 12 eight-inch crepes): Lightly beat 2 large eggs. Add 1 cup milk and 1/2 tsp. salt. Gently whisk in 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour. Add one or two Tbs. water if needed to make a thin batter. Cover and let the batter rest for one hour.

Filling: Grate 4 or 5 medium-small zucchini (enough to make 4 to 5 cups). Toss with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and set aside in a colander to drain for 1/2 hour. Press gently and squeeze dry in a clean kitchen towel. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet. Add the zucchini, tossing well to coat it with oil. Cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently for 4 to 5 minutes. Finely chopped garlic may be added if you like. Cook the garlic 1 minute, then remove from the heat and set aside to cool. When cooled, mix with 1 cup fresh whole milk ricotta and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Taste the mixture and add salt to taste.

Cook the crepes: Heat a crepe pan or other skillet with a small amount of oil or butter. Have a small bowl of oil handy to brush or wipe the pan as needed. When the pan is hot, pour in just enough batter to coat the bottom, rotating the pan as you pour to distribute the batter evenly. Cook the crepe 2 or 3 minutes, until the edge pulls away from the side of the pan and the bottom is golden brown. Flip the crepe and cook the other side about one minute. Brush or wipe the pan with oil and continue cooking the crepes, stacking them on a plate until you are finished. Add water or milk to the batter if it becomes too thick to pour easily.

Assemble the crepes: Place a crepe on a plate and place a few spoonfuls of filling in the middle. Fold two sides in, then roll the crepe into a square. Place on a buttered baking pan, seam side down. Repeat until all the crepes and filling have been used. Place the pan in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Note: I think you could make a delicious winter version substituting winter squash for the zucchini. I would add chopped fresh sage leaves to the mixture.

Fennel Gratin

Gina made her gratin with whole fennel bulbs cut in half. Put the fennel into a roasting pan coated with olive oil (use a sauté pan or skillet for fewer servings). Sprinkle the top of the bulbs with salt and chopped fresh parsley or dried oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Add 2/3-cup water (or enough to bring the water level to about 1/2 inch), cover the pan, and simmer about 30-35 minutes, until tender. If the liquid is not evaporated when the fennel is done, raise the heat and cook until the liquid is almost gone.

Make the breadcrumbs: For 6 servings (3 fennel bulbs), mix 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs with 3-4 Tbs Parmesan cheese, 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh parsley, 1 minced garlic clove, and 2 Tbs olive oil. Spread the breadcrumbs on top of the fennel and bake in the oven, heated to 400 degrees F for 8 to 10 minutes.

Variation: Slice 3 fennel bulbs about 1/2 inch thick. Arrange them in a single layer in a roasting pan or large skillet coated with olive oil. Sprinkle the slices with salt and chopped parsley or dried oregano, thinly sliced onion, and diced roasted red pepper or chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Make two or three more layers until the fennel is used up. Pour 1/2 cup water into the pan, cover, and simmer 30 to 35 minutes, until the fennel is tender. Boil off any remaining liquid. Top the fennel with the breadcrumb mixture and bake in a 400 degree F oven to toast the breadcrumbs.

Roasted Onion

Whole roasted onions are wonderful partners for grilled meat, chicken, or fish. We had them plated with grilled steak and served with a green salad at Serra Gambetta. I would make this just for the wonderful onion-balsamic pan juices. Believe me.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. You will need one medium-size red onion for each serving. Peel, and cut the ends off the onions. Parboil 3 minutes, drain. Transfer the onions to an oiled baking pan just large enough for them to fit closely. Sprinkle the onions with coarse kosher or sea salt, dried oregano or chopped fresh thyme leaves, and balsamic vinegar (2 tsp per onion). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add water to the pan, 1/4 inch deep. Cover tightly with a lid or foil and bake until the onions are tender, 45 minutes. Put the onions on a serving dish and spoon the pan juices over them.

Italian Vegetable Garden

Olive Oil

Olive Oil: Virgin, Extra Virgin, and Delicious

Black Olives

Here is what I learned about olive oil in Italy. It carries the flavor of where the olives grow…sometimes peppery, sometimes herbal, sometimes floral, mild or sharp. It is a flavoring in and of itself. Actually, I knew that. The most memorable olive oil I ever tasted was the oil made from olives that Drew and I helped pick in Yugoslavia way back in the old days. We helped our landlord harvest his trees and took the olives to the local mill, where they were pressed into beautiful green, flavorful oil. It tasted alive.

Olive oil pressed on the farm where we stayed in Abruzzo was so peppery and sharp we were shocked. Serra Gambetta produces a golden amber oil, with an aroma of herbs and a slight taste of bitter almond. Stir it into some cooked greens or some boiled beans, drizzle it on bread or a bowl of chopped tomatoes…you have something good.

There are “ordinary virgins” and “extra virgins “in the world of olive oil. “Extra virgin” is made from the first pressing of raw olives and is the most flavorful. It’s useful to buy a few jars and do a side-by-side taste test to get an idea of the range of flavors. .”Ordinary virgin” is produced from a subsequent pressing and has less distinctive flavor (sometimes that’s what you want). Many extra virgin or virgin olive oils found in the supermarket are mild-flavored and affordable–I use them all the time for cooking. Really great olive oil is expensive, so I use it when it will really be tasted.

This is how you take care of good olive oil. Store it in a cool place–not next to the stove where it is handy! Air is the enemy, so if you buy it in a large container, pour it into several smaller jars (dark glass, please) once it is open.

Making an Ordinary Extra Virgin into Something Special

Green Olives in Italy

 “Ordinary extra virgin” sounds like an oxymoron, but there is a lot of it around.  Infusing ordinary extra virgin olive oil with other flavors can transform it into a drizzle-worthy condiment.

*The easiest way to bump up the flavor of olive oil is to infuse it with olives. Fill a jar half way with unpitted olives and fill the rest of the jar with olive oil. Screw on the lid and store in a dark, cool place. The oil will soon taste more interesting, and the olive are wonderful, too.

*Pour oil over sun-dried tomatoes and let them impart their flavor and color to the oil. I like to use this to drizzle on pasta, pizza or focaccia, make a tapenade, or dress a salad or cooked vegetables.

*Flavor oil with lemon zest and garlic: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove, the zest of 1 lemon, and a pinch of coarse salt. Gradually stir in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

*Infuse oil with tender herbs such as basil, chives, mint, or tarragon: Finely chop the herbs and pound them to a coarse paste in a mortar or small wooden bowl. Gradually stir in the olive oil. Use about 1/4 cup herbs for 1/2 cup oil. Infuse 30 minutes or so before using.

*Infuse oil with strong herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, or savory: These woody herbs need a little heat to extract their flavor. Use 4 to 6 Tbs chopped fresh leaves, singly or in combination, to infuse 1 cup extra virgin olive oil. Heat the herbs and oil together in a small pan over low heat until small bubbles rise around the leaves. Cook 3 minutes over very low heat. Remove from heat and infuse 2 to 12 hours. Strain before storing in the refrigerator.

*My favorite: Rosemary, thyme, red chile, and garlic. Chop the flavorings. Heat them gently in olive oil and steep 1 hour or so before using. Drizzle on grilled, roasted or steamed vegetables, pasta or polenta, bean salads, bread or pizza. I usually make this in small amounts and don’t bother to strain it.

Olive Trees in Italy

Winter Salads

Winter Salad In Wooden Bowl

Green is my favorite color, especially when it comes to eating. I love eating leaves of all kinds and mixing surprises into a salad. This is a recipe I gave to a friend, the artist Martha Kelly, to use while she was here taking care of my garden in the fall: Walk through the garden with a basket and pick leaves that look good to you. Mix them together in a bowl and toss with some extra virgin olive oil to coat all the leaves. Sprinkle on a little kosher salt and a few splashes of delicious vinegar. Toss again, and go eat it. It works beautifully.

I like to eat fresh salads every day, so I try to keep a supply of greens alive in my garden through the winter with the help of row covers and little tents. I have lots of different types of chicory (thanks to the seed pack of mixed chicory I planted and allowed to self-seed all over the garden). The young leaves of most chicory varieties are tender enough to include in salads, but my favorite for eating raw is called “Sugar Hat”. This variety makes a large Romaine-type head that is self-blanching and only mildly bitter. I also have endive and escarole most of the winter, as well as several kinds of mild-flavored Asian greens in the mustard family. Chinese cabbage and bok choi are very hearty and sometimes make it through the winter, and I can always count on “Tango” lettuce and arugula…and spinach, if I am lucky. Parsley, chervil, sorrel, mint, cutting celery, chickweed, beet greens, and other bits of green make their way into winter salads, too.

For me, salad has to be green. When the garden lettuce is tender and sweet, I like to make salad of leaves alone. But hearty winter greens tend to be more intensely flavored, and ask to be combined with some milder, sweeter ingredients to make the salad a happy experience. Here are a few ideas:

Endive, Avocado, and Grapefruit 

Salad In Round BowlMake vinaigrette: With a mortar and pestle, make a paste of 1 garlic clove and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Add 1 1/2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, 1 or 2 tsp. white wine vinegar, 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, the zest from the lemon, and a little freshly ground black pepper. Whisk in 5 to 6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Make the salad: Chop enough frisee or tender inner leaves of escarole or endive to fill a salad bowl (4 to 5 cups). Toss with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the greens. Taste and add salt if needed. Arrange slices of avocado and grapefruit segments (remove membranes) on top of the greens. Drizzle on more of the dressing and garnish with thinly sliced shallot or red onion and chopped fresh mint or cilantro leaves.

Beet Salad with Red Onion and Arugula 

Make the walnut vinaigrette: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Add 1 Tbs. sherry or cider vinegar, 1 to 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, and freshly ground black pepper. Whisk in1Tbs. walnut oil and 4 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Prep the onion: Slice a red onion very thinly and soak in cold water 1/2 hour. Drain.

Prepare the beets: Wash and trim 1 lb. beets, leaving the root tail and an inch of stem. Boil whole in salted water or roast them (put them in a baking pan with 1/4 inch water, cover, and bake in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven) until tender–25 to 45 minutes, depending on size. Do not overcook. When cool, peel and slice them into wedges. Sprinkle the beets with a little fresh lemon juice or vinegar and a little salt. Toss with 2 Tbs. of the vinaigrette.

Toast and chop about 1/4 cup walnuts.

Assemble the salad: Toss about 4 cups of young arugula leaves (or substitute a spicy mesclun) with enough of the vinaigrette to lightly coat the leaves. On a wide, shallow platter, make a bed of the greens, top them with the beets and onion slices, and drizzle on more of the dressing. Sprinkle with a couple Tbs. chopped fresh parsley or chervil, the toasted walnuts, and crumbled goat or feta cheese.

Mixed Greens with Roasted Winter Squash and Gorgonzola 

Red Head Of LettuceThis was a happy accident. I made a salad of mixed lettuce and chicory greens (radicchio and baby spinach would be lovely additions), topped with crumbled Gorgonzola. I had some chunks of roasted winter squash left from the night before, so I tossed them in with the salad. A great flavor combination! The sweetness of the winter squash was perfect with the bitter greens and sharp cheese.

Roasting winter squash: Peel and cut the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds, and cut the halves into 3/4-inch slices. Cut these into cubes. Toss the squash with a  couple Tbs. olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Spread the cubes out on a baking sheet and roast 25 to 30 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees F. Check after 15-20 minutes and stir gently so that the cubes brown evenly. They will be crusty brown on the outside and tender inside when done. I grow a Kabocha type winter squash called “Sunshine” that is dry-fleshed and flavorful. It roasts better than butternut for this use.

Escarole with Fennel and Black Olives 

We had thinly sliced raw fennel on top of mixed greens for many of our salads in Italy. Sweet, crunchy fennel goes very well with the slight bitterness of escarole and other members of the chicory family. Oil-cured black olives, Kalamata, or Nicoise…take your pick.

Make vinaigrette: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove and 1/4 tsp salt. Add 1/4 tsp. crushed fennel seed and 1 1/2 tsp dijon mustard. Stir in 1 1/2 Tbs.sherry or cider vinegar and 1 1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar. Grind in some black pepper and whisk in 5 to 6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

Prep the fennel: Trim the fennel bulb and slice it as thinly as possible to make about 1 cup.

Prep the escarole: Trim off the outer leaves and dark green tips. Use only the light green part and white ribs. Chop into bite-size pieces to make about 4-5 cups.

Mix the escarole with 2 cups baby spinach or other mixed greens. Toss with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the greens. Add the fennel and drizzle with a little more dressing. Top with about 1/3 cup coarsely chopped olives.

Asian Slaw with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette

Green LettuceI grow lots of mild-flavored Asian greens (various permutations of Brassica rapa), as well as Napa cabbage and a tender, open-headed cabbage called” Fun Jen”. I mix all their varying degrees of crunch and spice and shades of green into this salad.

Make the vinaigrette: In a small pan, heat 4 Tbs peanut, canola, or grapeseed oil and 2 Tbs. toasted sesame oil with 1tsp. red chile flakes, 2 Tbs. chopped fresh ginger, and 1 Tbs. chopped garlic until small bubbles rise around the spices. Cook 1 minute over very low heat, remove from the heat and infuse 1 hour. Strain the oil and whisk together with 2 Tbs. fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs. rice vinegar, 1 tsp. sugar, and 1/4 cup soy sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors–more vinegar? More salt? More sugar? More chile?

Spotted LettuceMake the salad: Mix together a total of 6 to 8 cups finely sliced Chinese cabbage, mesclun, finely chopped mustard greens, arugula, or other spicy greens. Toss he greens with enough of the vinaigrette to coat the leaves well. Add extra ingredients like shredded carrot, chopped cilantro, bean sprouts, sliced scallions, and chopped mint. Avocado?

This salad mixes very well with soba or rice noodles, or as a bed for tofu or fish. Drizzle on more dressing as desired and top with chopped roasted peanuts.