Food Adventures

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Vino Italiano

I love learning about wine, especially wine that pairs with what I cook. But until a couple of weeks ago, most of my wine knowledge came from trying out different wines and deciding what I like or don't like or from going to wine tastings, where you can more easily compare different wines. Reading books about wine was not something I found useful; most books about wine are written in a language I find too technical. That has changed!

I recently discovered Vino Italiano by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, a wonderful and very readable book on Italian wine. Not only is the book written in a language that I find accessible, but it also presents information about the different wines in context: it talks about the region, its climate, food and people, and offers stories of both cooks and wine producers. The stories make the wine and grape information more memorable and easier to understand for people like me who do not enjoy the technical jargon of the wine world.

The book discusses the wines of all 21 Italian regions, including the most significant grapes grown and the most significant producers and types of wine. It also offers suggestions for wines to try (ones you can get in the U.S.). The discussion of each region ends with a brief discussion of the food of the region and a representative dish and provides the recipe, a perfect way for people like me to broaden their wine knowledge.

My favorite new discovery so far: Amarone. This more complex relative of Valpolicella, which has become the house wine around here, is made from grapes that have been dried a little, so it tastes a lot richer. The bitter note that gives it its name is subtle and pleasant. It's a wine that demands attention. Try it with meat dishes or cheese. It's divine.

So, whether you are just beginning to learn about wine or would simply like to know more about Italian wine, get this book and happy sipping.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover

I have been busy reading a number of books on Italian food and wine. First, let's talk about the new Faith Willinger book, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover.

This is part travel guide for food lovers, part storybook, part cookbook. Willinger tells stories about her friends (chefs, restaurant owners, wine consultants and couple of her family members), describes the food-related establishments they are associated with, and provides the recipes they make. Her masterful story-telling is combined with a great deal of useful information on interesting places to visit, ingredients to look for, and things to do.

The book can easily serve as a travel guide for foodies: there are enough restaurant recommendations to keep even the most dedicated among us busy for years. I look forward to planning many itineraries around the farms, restaurants, and food stores described in this book.

For now, the most interesting part of the book are the recipes. They range from simple to quite complex and from familiar (arista) to completely surprising (pasta with chicken bone sauce). Many of them have their origins in peasant cuisine and use leftovers and simple ingredients in new and creative ways. I can't wait to try the leftover beef and potatoes and the pasta with chicken bone sauce.

My favorite part is that Willinger is not afraid to adapt these recipes so they are more accessible to the home cook. For example, in the recipe for eggplant puree, she cooks the eggplant in the microwave, something many Italian chefs would disapprove of, but a technique that will make the home cook more likely to try the recipe.

Many comments about the ingredients and potential substitutions reveal once again Willinger's focus on quality and tradition. She not only describes the ingredients she uses and explains why they are appropriate, but also suggests what you can substitute if you are not lucky enough to live anywhere close to Italy.

What is the first recipe I tried? Tuscan brownies, of course. They are made with extra virgin olive oil and come out very moist and gooey, but also light. Because they are made with olive oil, they are supposed to stay fresh longer, but I won't have a chance to report on that because this first batch will not last long enough.

Stay tuned for more comments on Willinger's recipes!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cooking for One

I am currently reading a book titled Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, a collection of essays, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, about cooking for one and dining alone.

The authors recount periods when they frequently ate alone and tell of some interesting rituals they engage in when eating alone. Many of the essays also provide recipes. While all the authors seem to enjoy food (enjoy it enough to think and write about it), what struck me was the spectrum of attitudes toward cooking for one: from utter enjoyment (one essay discusses all the comfort foods that can be made using an eggplant) to something resembling discomfort, eating only to survive and barely remembering the meal. Many of the writers admit that they do not like eating alone and tend not to cook for themselves when alone. They see cooking and eating as a communal experience and, when alone, seem to get by on food that does not require much preparation. Now, I can understand that not everyone likes to cook and, if you are in that category, it is perfectly understandable that you will enjoy it even less when there is no company. But I am surprised when people who otherwise enjoy cooking—some even having built a successful career as chefs and cookbook authors—see dining alone as less worthy of their effort than cooking for company.

I also enjoy preparing food for others and will go to great lengths to construct a menu that I think my guests will appreciate and shop for the best ingredients I can find. But I also don't mind cooking for one and dining alone. Good food is one of my favorite pleasures and I refuse to forgo it because I happen to be alone. So, when Michael is out of town and all of my friends are busy, I gladly cook lunch and dinner for myself, complete with wine, dessert, and great relaxing music. I have been known to make risotto for myself and even pasta from scratch (with a sauce also made from scratch). Even on nights when I simply have a grilled cheese sandwich, I make it fancy: Tuscan bread brushed with high-quality extra virgin olive oil, good prosciutto, Cambozola or Parrano cheese, green olives, and a glass of Valpolicella. I sit down at the dining room table for 12, make myself comfortable, and toast to the day and to my ability to prepare a great dinner for 1 or 12.

Which reminds me: off I go to make pasta caprese for one.

Pasta Caprese (for one)

Note: I use durum wheat spaghetti because their simplicity pairs well with this simple tomato sauce and the rich buffalo mozzarella. Use the best ingredients you can find for this dish as there are only a few ingredients and, when they are of high quality, they can really shine and make a very satisfying dish (that is also incredibly easy to prepare).

100 gr. durum wheat pasta
1/2 14 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes, chopped (about 3 tomatoes)
1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly
2 oz. buffalo mozzarella (or the best quality cow's milk mozzarella you can find), cubed
3 leaves basil, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sugar

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, until the garlic becomes fragrant (make sure the garlic does not start to brown as that means it is burnt and it will overpower the dish). Add the chopped tomatoes and the sauce they were in. When the sauce comes to a boil, lower the temperature and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt to taste and a pinch of sugar.

In the meantime, bring to a boil a quart of water. When the water starts to boil, salt it with coarse sea salt and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Toss and serve topped with the mozzarella and basil.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Summer fare

Now, I know many of us have gotten used to having access to zucchini year round, but summer is the season for zucchini. Zucchini features prominently in Italian cuisine in everything from marinated zucchini salads to fried zucchini flowers to stuffed zucchini. Below is my recipe for stuffed zucchini. Note that many recipes for stuffed zucchini do not specify to boil the vegetable before stuffing it. That leaves the zucchini half raw and crunchy since the cooking time is not long enough for it to soften. For me, in this dish the zucchini needs to be soft, so I boil the zucchini before stuffing them. I also stuff them with ground turkey for a lighter dish. It is the perfect summer comfort food. Enjoy!

Stuffed Zucchini

4 large zucchini, boiled and cut in half lengthwise

1 pound ground turkey

¾ cup of fresh bread crumbs

2/3 cup of grated pecorino romano cheese

3 eggs

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. freshly ground pepper

freshly ground nutmeg


12 oz. can San Marzano tomatoes

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup water

Preheat oven to 350F.

Boil whole zucchini in water until a toothpick goes through to the center of the vegetable. Cool zucchini under running water and, when they are cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise. Hollow out the halves with a teaspoon (or melon baller) and set aside.

In a bowl, combine meat, cheese, and eggs being careful not to overmix. When the ingredients are combined, add the bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Distribute the meat mixture evenly among the 8 zucchini halves. Press meat mixture down into each zucchini half and shape it with your fingers, so it is smooth.

In a small bowl, break up the tomatoes, add the garlic and water, and stir. Pour the tomato sauce into a baking dish and place stuffed zucchini halves on top. Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes. Enjoy hot with some grated cheese.