Food Adventures

Monday, July 30, 2007

Back home and cooking

Aaah, it's great to be back home even though the month spent at Apicius in Firenze was magical and full of excitement and learning. As you might imagine, the classroom learning was supplemented heavily with more experiential types of learning: walking through the market every morning and enjoying the smells, colors, and sounds, seeking out great food (good food is easy to find in Firenze, so I have raised the bar and now only seek great food), and tasting as many pastries, cheeses, gelato, and other delicacies as 24 hours in a day would allow.

Even the flight back was a gastronomic experience. I flew business class from Amsterdam to Chicago (thank you KLM!) and got treated to excellent service and some surprisingly good food and wine. Everything from the appetizer (smoked salmon with marinated cucumber and a 'Eigenheimer' potato salad with mini shrimp) to the main course (chicken medallions with tarragon sauce served with turnip, a red pepper compote, pasta and white beans) to the choice of desserts (fresh strawberries with whipped cream, cheese, or an apricot ice-cream treat in a shell of white chocolate) was excellent. Even the pizza with smoked salmon and crème fraiche was relatively good.

Now, it's time to start testing all the recipes I learned in class or imagined and adapting them so they can be prepared with the ingredients available in Chicago. After a night out on Friday, I immediately got back to cooking on Saturday night with some fresh made pici (a thick handmade pasta without egg, resembling irregularly shaped spaghetti) dressed with nduja ( I brought back a little jar of nduja after tasting it at a restaurant in Firenze, where it was served as part of the meat-and-cheese appetizer. The spread I brought back contains a lot less meat than the salami-like product we had at the restaurant, but it was perfect for dressing the thick pici, especially when reinforced with grated pecorino romano. Nduja is very spicy since it is mostly hot pepper paste mixed with pork fat and some pork meat. The fat coated the pasta and the heat of the peppers was perfectly counterbalanced by the think, chewy noodles and the salty cheese. What a divine meal!

Last night, I tested a trick I learned in class: roasted potatoes, restaurant-style. I love roasted potatoes and often make then on Sunday nights. But, in the past I used to cut them up and roast them in the oven in evoo. Depending on the oven temperature and the roasting time, sometimes they would dry out (unless covered with foil) and develop sharp edges, thus becoming less delicious. One of the tricks Duccio shared with us is that you blanch the potatoes first (cook them for a couple of minutes in boiling salted water), toss them in a pan with olive oil and bread crumbs, and then simply finish cooking them in the oven. Not only does the process take much less time than roasting in the oven, but the end result is much tastier: the potatoes are creamy and soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside (without being dry or difficult to chew). They are also less oily as you only use oil to quickly toss them in the pan. Another winner! With thin center-cut pork chops with a shallot balsamic sauce, some sautéed broccoli rabe, and a glass of good Sangiovese, it was the perfect Sunday-night dinner.

Interesting fact: according to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, broccoli rabe ( is not related to true broccoli. It is a bitter green in the cabbage family, often used in Italian cooking. In my Sunday-night dinner creation, it complemented perfectly the sweetness of the roasted potatoes and the balsamic sauce for the pork chops. As McGee eloquently says, it provides a "civilized dose of bitterness."

To sautée broccoli rabe, heat a couple of teaspoons of evoo over medium-high heat, add a half a bunch of the greens and quickly toss to cover the greens with the oil. Cook for 3-4 minutes, tossing regularly, so the greens cook evenly. Serve sprinkled with salt and a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar. Enjoy with a friend!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

School (part I)

It's 10 am on a hot July day in Firenze. There are 10 of us in the Advanced kitchen of Apicius. There are pots stewing on every single burner. The contents of each pot look very different even though we're using the same main ingredient: one looks like spinach tomato stew, another one has ground beef, still another looks like tomato sauce. The main ingredient is the star of Florentine cuisine and something tourists take pictures of every day at the market and the brave ones occasionally taste in restaurants—tripe.

That morning, we were greeted by a large mound of tripe on the stainless steel table of the classroom. It looked huge for an organ that resides in the stomach of an animal, yet it was only a piece of the whole thing. It had been cleaned, scrubbed, and boiled and was grayish-white in color and rough to the touch. As Ducio talked about tripe and its place in Italian cuisine (Florence and Tuscany are famous for it, but it is also used in other regions), many of us were trying to imagine tasting the dishes we would prepare at 11 am on a very hot day. Most of us, myself included, have no problem eating tripe; it's the thought of having 5 different versions of it at 11 am in 100F+ that was not very appealing. But once we started working on the different preparations and the aromas of the stews filled the room, others started peaking into the classroom to see what we were cooking. Many of them would come back later for a taste of the different versions. (The photos are of two different tripe stews, one with spinach, the other with tomatoes, and a tripe salad.)

This is my first course of the day: Tradition of Italian Food II. It focuses on the main ingredients used in Italian cuisine: truffles, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cured meats, cheese, honey, tripe, fish, etc. Each day, we talk about an ingredient (e.g., parmigiano or pecorino cheese, olive oil, truffles, etc.), taste several variations, and then prepare two or three dishes with it. It allows us to think about how that ingredient has evolved, how it differs from its close relatives, and how it can be prepares so it shines. Our instructor, Ducio Bagnoli, a native Florentine, is passionate about high-quality authentic ingredients and shares that passion with us every day: I can now distinguish not only prosciutto di Parma from that of San Daniele and Tuscan prosciutto, but also taste the differences in Pecorino cheese that come from the method and length of aging. (I have been using Ducio's book of Italian cheeses, which contains the descriptions of no fewer than 293 different cheeses produced in this country, to taste 2-3 different cheeses a week. It has been a great research project.)

Some of the ingredients we are learning about and working with are very famous, others less so but equally crucial. The first day of class, the perfume of truffles filled the room as we smelled, tasted, and used all types of truffle products (truffle oil, truffle paste, preserved truffles, truffle honey, truffle butter). Another day, it was prosciutto and we learned the method of production and differences between Prosciutto San Daniele and Prosciutto di Parma, for DOP products, strictly controlled with special designations from the EU, produced in a particular way in a limited geographic area. We also tasted a prosciutto di Norcia, a less famous, but equally delicious relative, and a local Tuscan prosciutto, dryer than most and with a stronger flavor.

Then there was the day we tasted cheese (probably my favorite) and talked about the differences between Pecorino produced in different areas and aged for different amounts of time. Pecorino is a sheep's milk cheese Tuscany is famous for (think Pecorino of Pienza), but depending on which part of the region it comes from and how long it is aged, it varies greatly in flavor. It is featured on the menus of most Tuscan restaurants and usually served with honey or pears. It is a great start to a meal, but I prefer it as a finish. It pairs wonderfully with a good Chianti. We also tasted and cooked with cheeses from other regions: parmigiano reggiano, grana padano, bitto, fontina. The flavor of each of there cheeses contributes greatly to the overall dish as we saw most clearly the day we prepared risotto with horse bresaola and bitto. Some of us made a variation of the recipe using fontina and parmigiano instead of the bitto and the differences were very obvious: the risotto with fontina was more flavorful and more unique, as the combination of the two cheeses perfectly complemented the flavor of the horse breasaola (Yes, cured horse meat is a delicacy and it has a distinct flavor that can't be compared to anything else and a tenderness and moisture that are somewhat surprising.)

While I get very excited about tasting and comparing balsamic vinegar, cheese, and even cured horse meat at any time, some days are less glamorous and it is harder to get excited about tasting the main ingredient that early in the morning as the memory of the cappuccino and bombolone is still fresh. Like the day we tasted lardo, lard that has been cured in spices in marble caves. Lardo is one of the stars of Italian cuisine and it is also becoming famous and appreciated in the U.S. Several famous chefs (e.g. Mario Batali) use is in their recipes and even make their own lardo with a unique blend of spices. It is usually served very thinly sliced on warm toasted bread, so the fat starts melting onto the bread, but sometimes it can also be served on bread that is not toasted. The lardo carries all the aromas of the spices it has been treated with and lardo from different regions and different producers has particular flavor combinations. Unfortunately, I find it hard to get excited about lardo (even great lardo). I can appreciate it when it is used in a dish to add flavor, but lardo by itself on a piece of bread is not something I would seek out. There are too many other tasty things to focus on.

Stay tuned for some stories about my other course, Tradition of Italian Food III (advanced).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

La Pentola dell'Oro

Every day, I think I'll be able to write about my classes and the things we're cooking, but then I discover another restaurant and have to write about it. These days, I am not easily impressed with restaurants. Not only am I in Firenze, where there are four restaurants on each corner, but I am also cooking a lot and tasting some great dishes. Sometimes, even when I eat at good restaurants, I realize that I could make those dishes myself and it's hard to be impressed. So, the list of restaurants I return to more than once is short. But last night I found a place I would definitely revisit, and soon.

I have a list of restaurants I have made over the years and this year I added La Pentona dell'Oro ( What I didn't write down is what I had read about this restaurant that made me want to try it. So, I might not have gone if I hadn't gotten an e-mail for Ryanna, an e-friend of mine who spent June in Firenze and highly recommended the osteria. She was right—this place is wonderful!

It's on a quiet street in the Santa Croce neighborhood (via di Mezzo 24-26/r), a short walk from the church. The minute my two dinner companions and I walked in, we knew we were in for a treat. One look at the place lets you know that your food will be prepared by people who care about tradition and quality. The stone walls are decorated with art and various objects from past centuries in a way that is tasteful and not done simply to please the tourist. Everyone, from the women in the open kitchen to the owner and the waitress greeted us kindly, with a smile, and the service throughout the evening was excellent.

The basement dining room with vaulted ceilings is peaceful, cool, and relaxing. There was music playing and that helped drown the noise of the conversation from the other tables, but not to the point where we could not hear each other. So, we settled in for a most pleasant evening and great food.

The menu is well composed and the descriptions of the dishes show the same respect for tradition as the rest of the restaurant. For example, one of the first courses, Crema de' Pomi d'oro, is not described, but rather explained with a quote making a reference to how much good this dish does to the stomach and health in general. Several of the recipes are described as being Etruscan, descendents of the ancient people inhabiting Tuscany. Others, such as il peposo del Brunelleschi (Brunelleschi's beef stew) also uses an old recipe where the beef is stewed with three types of peppercorns and pears. Many of the dishes make references to the Medici and other noble Florentine families and combine flavors in a way typical of those times. A true surprise for the palate and a reminder of the rich history of this marvelous city.

We started with Ouverture Pentola dell'Oro, the house appetizer that includes several typical products: Tuscan salami, finocchiona (the fennel salami typical of this area), Tuscan prosciutto, thinly-sliced pecorino cheese with zucchini salad, and four crostini (with chicken livers, olives, tomato paste, and herbs).

My pici di Montalcino were served in a sauce of cinta senese, the tasty heirloom pork that is making a comeback in Tuscany because of its exceptional quality. The sauce was full of flavor without being heavy and the raw cubes of tomato served not only to make the dish more pleasing to the eye, but also to cleanse the palate.

One of my dinner companions ordered the lasagnole al savor di noci, flat noodles about an inch wide in a sauce of ginger, fennel, and other spices, masterfully blended to give the dish sweetness without making it taste like a dessert.

The list of second courses (16-18 Euro) looks very good, but we had no more room. Maybe next time. Peposo (beef stew), porco cinghiale in dolce-forte (wild boar stew with pine nuts), cosciotto di agnello in coppo (lamb in aromatic spices), and pasticcio Mediceo (veal with aromatic herbs and fresh peaches in green ginger sauce) all sound very intriguing.

The wine list offers a number of choices and we enjoyed our meal with a bottle of Chianti Classico. The restaurant also has bottles of the house wine, both white and red.

The waitress spoke great English, explained the menu well, and was gracious to answer any questions. She was also the most pleasant waitress I have seen in a while: nice and attentive without being overbearing, with a smile that never left her face. She joked around with us in a way that made us feel like regulars. The finished the meal off with some lemon crostata and limoncello (on the house), both great.

On our way out, I told the owner that this was one of the most pleasant meals and promised to return. I will keep my promise.

Monday, July 16, 2007

La Giostra

As I am enjoying a quiet Sunday morning by the open window of my apartment, overlooking the cupola of the Duomo, I am still thinking about the wonderful dinner at La Giostra last night. This restaurant has been reviewed multiple times and all he reviews are glowing. But it one of those places to which no review (mine included) can do justice. It is an experience more than a place, something that has to be savored with all the senses.

After a long day of walking the hot, crowded streets of both Firenze and Bologna, I wanted a good dinner in a relaxing place. I was not in the mood for a loud trattoria with communal seating, which I usually love; I wanted a quieter meal. I remembered walking by La Giostra the previous night and thinking that it was a pleasant atmosphere with tables outside on the street (the street is closed to traffic). So, at 7:30, I called to see if I could get a table. The hostess said that unless I came over immediately, I would have to wait until 10:30. Not one to hesitate when it comes to good food, I said I'd be over right away. The restaurant is a 5-minute walk from my apartment, so I changed quickly and off I went. On the phone, the hostess had said that she only had a table outside, which I thought was perfect. It would give me a chance to people-watch, which is especially enjoyable when eating alone.

I was seated next to a young woman studying the extensive menu. The menu takes some time to study not only because of the extensive wine list and food choices, but also because it includes a brief history of the restaurant. I had already studied the menu online and knew what I was going to order. Still, going through the 15-page hand-written menu would require some time, so I settled in and started reading. In addition to the story of the restaurant, the menu includes a personal message from the chef/owner. I knew I would love this place, when I read the very first line: "Very Slow Food…! The Best!!!"

Five out of the 15 pages are dedicated to wine and one look at the list lets you know that this place is serious about wine. Unfortunately, no wine is served by the glass. When the waiter told me this, my face fell and my excitement about this dinner was somewhat dampened. He noticed that and said that he would see if he can get me a glass of red wine. "It might have to be Chianti," he added. I am not one to turn down a good Chianti, especially not when in Firenze, so I said that would be great. It turned out that Katie, the woman at the table next to mine, was also looking for wine by the glass. It also turned out that she is in the wine business, so she offered to order a bottle and share it. Even better, I thought, someone in the wine business ordering wine for me. I could go along with that! She told the waiter which wine she wanted and he was visibly impressed. Later he said that when someone orders Cabernet Merlot Insoglio, he knows they know their wine.

The wine list includes Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, San Giovese, Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, San Giovese Merlot, Cabernet Merlot, and Cabernet Franc-Sauvignon, ranging from 25 to 3,000 Euro, most in the 50-200 Euro range. There is also a selection of white wines, including Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco, Gewurtztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and some bubblies. The menu consists of a number of appetizers (from land and sea), about 25 first courses (again, both from land and from the sea), as many second courses and a number of vegetarian and side dishes, and, of course, desserts.

I ordered the Tortelloni all Mugellana con Ragu' Toscano and a salad of arugula and tomatoes, a perfect combination. The tortelloni were filled with potatoes and the meat sauce complemented them perfectly—rich and flavorful, without being heavy or overpowering. The evening started with a complementary glass of prosecco and an appetizer which the chef himself brought out and explained. On a large plate, there was a piece of salami (as he explained, made of beef only, with no pork), a piece of buffalo mozzarella served on top of a slice of tomato, a Tuscan crostino with rabbit liver pate (my favorite piece), a ricotta fritter, a slice of marinated eggplant and some marinated roasted red peppers, a slice of tomato bruschetta, and a piece of stuffed zucchini. All excellent and a wonderful way to start the meal.

The evening was spent in conversation with Katie, who turned out to be very interested in food (and wine, of course!), sipping wine, and having a very slow meal, just as promised on the menu. Unfortunately, after all that great food I had no room for dessert. Maybe next time!

A three-and-a half hour meal, a great bottle of wine, and an interesting new acquaintance—the perfect Saturday evening in Firenze.

Friday, July 13, 2007


My great love for this fluffy, rich pastry filled with pastry cream is well-known by now, so it's just right that I should post an update on my bomboloni research. Since I arrived in Italy 2 weeks ago, I have eaten at least one bombolone a day. I have limited myself in this way only because there are so many other delectable things to try, but the limit is not easy to abide by every day.

Despite my regular consumption of bomboloni and other Italian pastries, I have not managed to learn the art of gracefully holding a pastry in one hand, sipping a cappuccino, and chatting all at the same time, while getting no sugar on my face. I guess I am not truly Italian after all. While Italians seem to have to problem eating their pastries very gracefully while standing at the bar and having a discussion about one thing or another, my research involves a lot of lip licking and whiping sugar off my chin. Clearly, I need more practice.

Last year, I ate my bomboloni at Robiglio in Via de'Servi in Florence and this year that was the case until last Friday. That day, we had packed the suitcase and cameras as we were going to Giglio for the weekend and, when we left the apartment, Michael started looking for a taxi. "Without breakfast?!?," I asked, horrified. I am sure he thought we would stop somewhere once we picked up the car, but I was not ready to run the risk of not getting a bombolone. So, as he rolled the big suitcase down the cobblestone streets of Firenze, I decided to 'compromise' and have breakfast at the closest place I knew had bomboloni, Rivoire. What a breakthrough in my research work! One bite of Rivoire's bomboloni made it clear that they were better than Robiglio's: better ratio of dough to pastry cream and more yellow, sweeter dough. When fresh, they are like little clouds, fluffy and soft, and every bite is a real pleasure.

I could not believe that we made this important discovery by accident and decided to test further to make sure that our impressions had not been affected by the fact that we had dragged a heavy suitcase on cobblestone for several blocks. So, after returning from Giglio (where I also did some bomboloni research), as soon as Rivoire was open again (they are closed on Monday), I went back and I have returned every day since then.

In the mornings, Rivoire belongs to the locals: as Piazza della Signoria is waking up and people are going to work and deliveries are being made, the locals gather at the bar and chat just like in any Italian small bar. Later, Rivoire and Piazza della Signoria will be full of tourists speaking a variety of languages, but for an hour or so in the morning, there is a feeling of calm and the divine smell of pastry. As I stand at the bar and observe the exchanges between the barista and the regulars, I know that these will be some of my fondest memories of Italy and this magical city that is starting to feel like home.