Food Adventures

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Olive oil business

Recently, there have been several articles on the fraud in the olive oil industry and what that means to you as a consumer. There was this New Yorker article:

It discusses some disturbing practices in the olive oil industry. It claims that “in 1997 and 1998, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union” and that olive oil fraud is a major international problem.

I personally found this newsletter by Silvestro Silvestori, the owner of the Awaiting Table cooking school ( in Lecce (Puglia, Italy) much more useful: it summarizes some of the major problems in the olive oil industry, but also provides suggestions for what we can all do to make sure we do not unwittingly contribute to the disturbing practices described:

While it is disturbing to know that I might have unwittingly contributed to the less-than-ethical practices in the olive oil industry, what touched me was this other newsletter by Silvestro describing the effect of those practices on the people who have spent their lives growing olives and making olive oil:

Those of us who enjoy food tend to idealize the process of producing olive oil (and other agricultural products). While sitting at our computers and trying to meet another work deadline, we dream of green olive groves and the happy people who tend them. But, as Silvestro’s newsletter makes clear, the lives of the people who produce (or used to produce) this wonderful product are filled with hard work and some unpleasant choices. Come to think of it, it’s surprising there are still as many small olive oil producers as there are. I know I will think of this next time I decide what olive oil to buy.

p.s. You might also find this newsletter, which describes the process of making olive oil and some of the things that can go wrong, useful:

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pasta comfort

Here is a recipe for a pasta dish that has become one of out favorites this winter: it’s easy and quick, which makes it perfect for work nights, when you want something comforting and tasty, but have little energy for cooking. It is a mix between spaghetti caccio e pepe (the Roman dish make with dried pasta, most often spaghetti, and cheese and black papper) and a grilled cheese and prosciutto sandwich, two of my all-time favorite meals.

Viktorija’s cheese and prosciutto spaghetti

Serves: 2 people, with leftovers for lunch the next day

½ package spaghetti
½ cup prosciutto, chopped
3 Tbs. half and half (or heavy cream)
1 ½ cups cacciocavallo (or other firm yellow cheese with strong flavor such as Parrano), grated
Pecorino Romano to taste, grated
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta al dente (making sure to add plenty of salt to the cooking water). In the meantime, chop the prosciutto and brown it in a pan (Do not add oil; the prosciutto should have enough fat to brown and become crispy without burning). Add the half and half and when it’s warmed through, add the cooked pasta, and make sure it’s coated with the liquid in the pan. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the cacciocavallo, the Pecorino Romano and freshly-ground black pepper. The hot pasta should melt the cheese.

Enjoy with a nice glass of Italian red wine. We usually drink Valpolicella, our house wine.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Green Grocer Chicago

It’s still winter in Chicago (this week the temps are barely reaching 30F) and spring and the farmer’s market season feel far, far away. But, there is a way to ease the winter blues and remind yourself of what’s coming when the farmer’s markets start. And, of course, it involves delicious food.

A new grocery store on Grand Avenue (1402 W. Grand) carries some of my favorite products from the farmer’s market: Mint Creek Farm lamb, River Valley Kitchens salsas and sauces, and Tomato Mountain Farm jams and preserves. They also carry a number of other local and specialty products, including Metropolis coffee. (If you live in Chicago and have not tried Metropolis coffee, go looking for it as soon as you’re done reading this blog.)

Green Grocer Chicago ( is owned by Cassie Green and Gary Stephens. Cassie has a passion for food and has gone to great lengths to find products that are local and sustainable. She works with a lot of local small producers and you can often find some of these folks offering samples of their products on Saturday mornings.

Speaking of Saturday mornings, there are a number of courses on everything from nutrition to the basics of yoga and pilates (check out the schedule on the website).

One of the items on the wish list (a.k.a. mission statement) is “We want all people who enter the store to leave a little happier than they were when they came in the door.” And the folks at Green Grocer Chicago have certainly done that. On a stretch of Grand that lacks fun stores, this is truly a unique and heart-warming place. The minute you walk in, you feel like you are in a different world: warm, inviting, full of positive energy, and delicious food. Need I say more?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wild Boar (take 2)

The second cinghiale recipe I made on Saturday is a stew common to the Maremma area of Tuscany. Before I discuss the recipe and my notes on it though, a short geography lesson is in order.

Maremma is the southwestern part of Tuscany, including the coastline and the town of Grosseto. It is famous for chestnuts, wild mushrooms, and game since much wild life lives in the mountains and hills. More recently, the Maremma has also become popular as a wine-producing region (more about that in a different post). The town of Grosseto is one of the most famous places for wild boar in all of Tuscany and the recipe below is one of the traditional ones.

Cinghiale alla Maremma (stewed wild boar Maremma-style)
(recipe modified from A Culinary Traveler in Tuscany: Exploring & Eating off the Beaten Track by Beth Elon; The Little Bookroom, 2006.)

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary
2 pounds wild boar shoulder, cubed
1 ½ cups red wine (Chianti or other wine made in the Maremma area)
1 14-oz. can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
20 black olives, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil and the rosemary in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add meat and brown well on all sides. Add salt, pepper, and wine. When the wine is reduced to about half, add the tomatoes, lower the flame and simmer covered for about 2 ½ hours, until the meat is very tender. Add the olives, taste for salt and pepper and serve over polenta.

8-10 cups water
2 cups coarsely-ground polenta (found in the bulk section of grocery stores)

In a heavy pot, bring water to a boil, add salt and slowly whisk in polenta (to avoid lumps). Lower heat and simmer slowly for about 3 hours. If polenta dries out too much and is in danger of burning, add a little more water throughout the cooking.
Cook's Note: most recipes for slow-cooking polenta say to cook it for 40 minutes. This is not nearly enough. The polenta might be o.k. to eat after 40 minutes, but the flavor really develops after at least 3 hours. I am grateful to Bill Bufford (the author of Heat) for confirming my intuition about polenta; in the book, he explains that in restaurant kitchens the polenta cooks for hours. This encouraged me to try the ‘put it on the stove and forget about it’ approach, which works beautifully.

The recipe is perfect for Saturday or Sunday dinner: you can put both the sauce and the polenta on the stove in the mid afternoon and enjoy the fantastic smells for hours while you’re doing other things.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Cinghiale (wild boar)

When Chicago looks like this (picture taken on Friday), there is only one thing to do—cook wild boar! And that’s exactly what I did on Saturday. I cleared my schedule for the afternoon, consulted my trusty cookbooks for new recipes to try and the cooking fun began.

The first recipe was for pappardelle with wild boar sauce by Duccio Bagnoli’s recipe from the Apicius cookbook Innovations: New Appetites in the Tuscan Kitchen. Duccio (who was my instructor in the two courses I took at Apicius in the summer of 2007) offers a variation on the traditional Tuscan recipes for wild boar pasta sauce. Wild boar pasta sauce is usually tomato-based and made with red wine. Duccio’s sauce uses no tomatoes and uses white wine instead. All of this sounded intriguing and despite some misgivings I had while cooking, the sauce didn’t disappoint!

Pappardelle al Cinghiale (modified recipe)

1 ½ pounds of wild boar shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup white wine vinegar

Combine all the ingredients and marinate meat for at least 4 hours in the fridge.

Marinated wild boar
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium carrot, chopped finely
1 celery stalk, chopped finely
1 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
2 juniper berries
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp. flour

Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat and sauté the onion, carrot, and celery until soft. Add crushed juniper berries. Add the marinated meat (without any of the marinade) and brown well on all sides.

When the meat is browned, add the wine and increase the heat to evaporate the alcohol from the wine. When the alcohol has evaporated (when you can’t smell it if you lean over the pot), add the chicken broth and a little water. Lower heat and simmer for about 2 hours, adding more water if the sauce becomes too dry. Enjoy the sauce over fresh pappardelle.

Cook's notes: Because the sauce does not have tomatoes, it tastes clean and you can really taste the wild boar. It really lets the meat shine. If the sauce is too thick, you can thin it out by adding some of the pasta cooking water.
Order wild boar online from the Broken Arrow Ranch

This is the second year that I have bought wild boar from them and it has been excellent. I order shoulder since this is a good cut for stewing.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

A Mano (review)

A Mano
335 N Dearborn
Chicago, IL 60601

The menu at A Mano, the Italian trattoria owned by the folks who own BIN36, is quite extensive and versatile. It ranges from antipasti such as grilled baby octopus and marinated wild mushrooms, to a selection of salumi (cured meats), raw fish, and wood-burning oven pizza to first courses (including ribolitta, salads, and cotechino sausage), pasta and second courses (including both meat and fish). There is also a selection of side dishes and, most importantly, a gelato and sorbetto bar.

The restaurant, located in a basement space right underneath BIN36, also features an excellent selection of wines, possibly the most extensive selection of Italian wines of any restaurant in Chicago. And the wine was also the best part of an otherwise average dinner. Both the Amarone and the Valpolicella Ripasso we tried were excellent: rich and complex. The 5-page wine list contains something for every taste and will not disappoint.

Another memorable thing about the dinner was the wild boar, shredded and cooked in its own juices with sweet raisins. It was flavorful without being heavy and the fact that it wasn’t surrounded by a sauce made it stand out and make an impression.

The pasta (pappardelle) the wild boar was served over is a different story. It was somewhat leathery and didn’t combine well with the wild boar. The other pasta we tried, the gnocchetti with sweet butter and parmigiano, was equally unimpressive. The gnoccheti were somewhat slippery and didn’t have any flavor. The most flavorful ingredient on the plate, the shavings of parmigiano, was in short supply, which made the dish as whole quite devoid of flavor.

The pizza is good, but not great. The dough is a little too thick for my taste and the flavors of the pizza we had (Prosciutto di Parma with arugula and mozzarella) were unremarkable. The prosciutto, which should have been the star of the show, was overpowered by the cheese and could have been mistaken for any ham. For my taste, Spacca Napoli and even Frasca have much better pizza.

The meal was somewhat redeemed by the finish, a combination of three sorbetti: lemon, cranberry-apple and blood orange. The lemon was very lemony (even too lemony), but mixed with the blood orange, it yielded the perfect combination of sweetness and refreshing tartness. The cranberry-apple sorbetto was surprising, with a somewhat less even texture than the other two, and the prefect balance of the two fruits.

Overall, the experience was not inspiring, but I would go back for the rotisserie whole lamb (special on Thursdays), the whole roasted fish of the day, and more sorbetto. And, of course, the wine!

Tip: try to go early as the noise level is pretty high later in the evening.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Baccalà (salted cod)

Salted cod (baccalà in Italian) is one of those things people either love or hate. I had heard very few positive things about it; most people ate it around Christmas as kids (and some still do) and would rather not discuss the experience. Well, I have to disagree with them and put myself in the category of those who love it.

Until last July, I had not tried salted cod. Since it is one of the typical Italian ingredients (particularly popular in and around Venice), we studied it in the Tradition of Italian Food II course. Related to salted cod (baccalà) is stockfish. Baccalà is made from cod that has been cleaned on the boats right after it’s caught and then submerged in barrels of salt so it can be preserved for a long time. Stockfish, on the other hand, is dried on wooden grills at low temperatures (about 0 degrees Celsius or 32F), exposed to cold air and the occasional winter sun in Northern climates. As a result, stockfish (dried cod) is a tougher and tastes quite different when cooked.

I prefer baccalà: it is softer and juicier, with none of the texture of jerky. There are, of course, many ways to prepare baccalà and, while I liked all three that we tried in class, my favorite (perhaps because it was the most unusual one) is baccalà all vicentina. Baccalà alla vicentina (from the town of Vicenza in the province of Veneto) is cooked in milk. When I first learned this, I thought that maybe the people who hate baccalà had a good reason for doing so. The recipe calls for baccalà sandwiches, stuffed with parsley, garlic and parmiggiano. You sauté some red onions, add the baccalà sandwiches and, after browning them on both sides, add milk to cover them and simmer for about an hour. Easy enough! But baccalà and milk?!? Well, my first bite of baccalà alla vicentina convinced me to count myself amongst those who really like baccalà.

So, for my first baccalà-cooking experience at home, I decided to go with baccalà alla vicentina. It seemed like the perfect comfort food for a freezing day in Chicago: the milk becomes creamy and infused with the aromas of garlic and parmiggiano.

Since baccalà is very salty, before cooking it, you need to soak it in water for anywhere between 24 and 48 hours (depending on how salty it is), changing the water several times. In a pinch, you can leave the fish under running water for several hours; this does the trick. I put the fish in water in the fridge about 24 hours before I was going to cook it. I changed the water 5 times in the course of 24 hours. It was perfect!

After sautéing the baccalà, onions, garlic, and parsley in a little bit of olive oil, I added the milk (about 2 cups for .75 lb of fish) and simmered everything for an hour. Then, I sprinkled some parmiggiano and a little bit of ground nutmeg and put the baccalà in the oven so the cheese would melt.

The traditional way of serving the dish is on squares of fried polenta.