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!


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