June 23, 2008

Poppea's delight

I love figs. Nothing compares to their furious-red and sweet interiors. They are a perfect snack, very rich in fiber, and so sweet and juicy it’s like you’re eating the most perfect natural candy. When I was in Rome last summer I went to the market like three times a week and my fruit vendor reserved for me his best figs. Each time I went I had to buy more, because they are so irresistible.

Ancient Romans loved figs too. I can easily imagine the empress Poppea seductively enjoying her figs lying in the triclinium of her villa in Oplontis. Her villa is located near Pompeii, and it suffered the same fate as the Roman city: it was buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but because of that it is very well preserved. The majestic mural frescoes here are amazing. Among the spectacular frescoes, there is one depicting a plate filled with ripe figs. So, I’m pretty sure she liked to eat figs.

Ancients Romans used honey to sweeten and they loved nuts. So, when I visited Poppea’s villa I had the idea of recreating an ancient Roman dessert using figs, honey and walnuts.

Ingredients
Ripe figs
4 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp walnuts
1 Tbsp butter (or olive oil)

Cut the figs into quarters. In a saucepan warm the figs with the butter (or oil) over medium heat. Stir delicately. Add the honey and cook for a couple of minutes. Toss to coat and add the nuts just before serving.

For our modern palates butter works really well for this dessert; however even though butter was known by Romans, it was kind of a barbarian delicacy and not very suitable for keeping in the warm Italic lands. But if you want a more ancient Roman dessert, use olive oil.

Tip

Figs trees are magical. If you live in a Mediterranean country and you have a fig tree you’ll notice that the fruit comes without having a flower first. That’s because figs are actually edible flowers. So, figs really are flowers without a fruit. But not only that, figs trees produce flowers (fruits) twice a year.

Posted by Daziano at 7:51 PM | 8 comments  
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June 22, 2008

Caprese salad in technicolor


I don’t know if someday I’ll get use to the fact that in Québec you have to wait until mid-June in order to get local produce. In Italy, in June you have the impression you’re in the middle of summer. Despite the fact that here you have to wait until the beginning of summer to consume what in Italy you can get months before, the important thing is that local produce is finally here. And this includes tomatoes, in different shapes, flavors and colors! Have you noticed how pretty it is to mix tomatoes of different colors? Mixing traditional red tomatoes with yellow and orange ones, you can make an incredibly good-looking caprese salad!

Ingredients
Ripe red, yellow and orange tomatoes
Fresh mozzarella (use bocconcini for a twist)
Basil
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Tips

Did you know that tomatoes were originally yellow? That’s why in Italian we use the word pomodoro, which means “golden apple”. However, some people believe that the Italian word comes from the French pomme d’amour (love apple) because French people were convinced that tomatoes possessed aphrodisiac capacities.

The only problem with this pretty version of caprese salad is that you won’t have only the colors of the Italian flag.

Posted by Daziano at 8:36 PM | 5 comments  
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June 21, 2008

Unexpected fennel and orange salad


Sometimes in Italian cooking you can find some savory-and-sweet combinations that unexpectedly work really well. You know, prosciutto and melon, prosciutto and figs, strawberries and balsamic vinegar, and fennel and orange. The insalata de finocchi, arance e olive nere (fennel, orange and black olives salad) is another classic that you simply have to try. Usually I don’t give quantities in my salad recipes, basically because I think that the important thing in a salad is how you combine different flavors, and because salads are good for you and you can eat as much as you want. But, since this is an unexpected salad, this time I want to share with you the proportions you need for 2 people.

Ingredients (serves 2)
1 fennel bulb
1 large orange
Black olives
Olive oil
Lemon juice
Salt, pepper

Clean the fennel bulb and remove both ends using a knife. Using a sharp knife slice the fennel into very thin pieces (you can also use your grater or a mandoline if you have one). Set in a serving plate, add olive oil (about 1 Tbsp), lots of lemon juice (at least 2 Tbsp), salt and pepper, and mix. Peel the orange with a knife, removing all of the white part that covers it. Slice the orange avoiding the pith that separates each section. Put the sections right on top of the plate and finish garnishing with black olives.
Posted by Daziano at 6:29 PM | 6 comments  
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June 9, 2008

Making coffee the Italian way


Everybody in Italy loves espresso. In fact, if you ask for a coffee, you get an espresso by default. However, nobody in Italy has an espresso machine at home – unless you have a lot of money. One of the reasons is that good espresso machines are really expensive. Another reason is that people in Italy really love to go to a bar – that’s where you drink coffee in Italy (and that's why someone who prepares coffee is called a barista). In Italy, it’s part of the culture to take a break from the hassle of the day and drink a tiny shot of espresso at the local bar.

So, Italians don’t drink coffee at home? Of course they do. Every Italian has a moka pot (in Italian we simply say “moka”), which produces stovetop espresso coffee. How do you use a moka? Well, it’s really simple. Roughly speaking, the moka has three parts: the boiler (bottom part), the funnel and the container (the upper part which has the filter and where the coffee will be collected when ready).

Just fill the boiler with fresh water. Some moka pots show you the fill level, but others don’t. If yours doesn’t, the rule is simple: don’t pass the level of the valve!

Then insert the funnel in the boiler, and fill it with ground (espresso) coffee. Never press the coffee! Some Italians will tell you that you have to shape a kind of dome with the coffee, but again the really important thing is not to press the coffee. Attach the upper part and the boiler together screwing it on firmly.

Put your moka over low heat, leave the lid open, and wait until the coffee begins to appear. Turn the heat off once more than half of the coffee has already come out. Never leave the heat on after the coffee has come out: by boiling your coffee you will destroy it.

Before serving, mix the coffee directly in the moka container using a spoon. Serve on heated espresso cups. Moka produces stovetop espresso, and not real espresso. So, you won’t have the characteristic hazelnut crema foam. It’s not your fault; you simply can’t get it when using your moka.

Finally, you have to wash the moka using water only. No, no detergents. And simply forget the idea of putting your moka into the dishwasher. In fact, if you wash your moka with only water, every next coffee will taste better than the previous one!

Tips

Some people in English speaking countries use the word macchinetta. Macchinetta means tiny machine in Italian, and even though it’s true that the moka is a macchinetta which produces coffee, it’s a generic word that you can use for any little machine. What I’m saying is that if you use the word macchinetta, an Italian won’t think of a moka pot. You could be specific and say “macchinetta da caffè” (little machine that makes coffee), but if you simply use the word moka, every Italian will understand what are you talking about.

Italians love their moka pots. They are present in every Italian kitchen, I have mine in my kitchen, and some Italians even travel with their moka to make Italian coffee overseas (my friend Elisabetta is one of those Italians).

Posted by Daziano at 10:17 PM | 14 comments  
June 7, 2008

Crunchy prosciutto and juicy melon salad

Prosciutto e melone is one of those unexpected combinations that work extremely well, and it’s the a perfect antipasto, and the very simplest imaginable. So I wanted to transform this match into a salad.

Ingredients
Mixed greens (arugula and romaine will do)
Chunks of cantaloupe
Prosciutto
Parmigiano reggiano cheese

Slices of rosemary focaccia genovese

Basil Rémoulade
2 Tbsp basil Dijon mustard
½ cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Just put nice chunks of cantaloupe right on top of the mixed greens. Add the crunchy prosciutto and a touch of grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. Put some slices of focaccia on the side. Season with my basil rémoulade. A nice touch is to warm up the rémoulade in a saucepan just before adding the lemon juice.

Branching out
Spinach and crunchy prosciutto salad
Focaccia genovese

Posted by Daziano at 10:11 PM | 6 comments  
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June 3, 2008

Focaccia Genovese

Focaccia is the ultimate bread from Liguria, the magnificent region where the port of Genoa is located. Focaccia genovese, which means focaccia bread from Genoa, is always flat and never higher than 1 inch.

Ingredients
3 ½ cups bread flour
1 1/3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt

Salamoia (Brine)
¼ cup warm water
¼ cup olive oil
3 tsp salt

Topping
Fresh rosemary

Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water sweetened with 1 tsp of sugar. Check if the yeast is really active: after 1 minute the mixture has to have risen a bit, with some bubbles forming over the water. If the yeast is active, let the mixture rise until it doubles in volume (about 5 minutes). Prepare a hole in the flour (la Fontana), and add the active yeast. Stir with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour. When everything is incorporated, add the salt and the olive oil and begin to work the dough with your hands. When the dough is elastic, shape a ball, brush the ball with some olive oil, and place it covered in the fridge. The day after, punch down the dough in order to eliminate the air produced by the yeast. Knead the dough with your hands, shape a ball, and let it rise for at least 30 minutes in a warm place. Shape the focaccia: we want a disc about 1 inch high. Let it rise for 30 minutes, and then using your fingertips make holes all over the disc. Prepare the brine by simply whisking all the ingredients vigorously: water, olive oil and salt. Brush the brine on top of the focaccia, saturating the holes you made. Add the rosemary, slightly pressing it on top of the dough. Preheat the oven to 425F and bake for about 25 minutes.

Posted by Daziano at 10:06 PM | 8 comments  
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June 1, 2008

Fancy panzanella salad


There are multiple versions of bread salads in Central Italy. In Tuscany, and especially in Florence, traditionally they use old bread soaked in water to make their panzanella salad. But we can make a fancier version using slices of bread. We’ll use one day old ciabatta bread, which – as you know – is typical Tuscan bread.

Ingredients
Sliced ciabatta bread
Prosciutto-wrapped scallops
Romaine lettuce
Baby arugula
Provolone cheese, cubed
Ripe tomatoes, sliced
Black olives

Mix the greens and put them on a nice serving dish. Season with salt, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Add the slices of bread and then the slices of tomato, right on top of the bread. Add a nice quantity of olive oil over the tomatoes and bread. Finally add the olives, the cubed cheese, and warm prosciutto-wrapped scallops.

Posted by Daziano at 10:07 PM | 7 comments  
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Prosciutto-wrapped scallops

I love scallops. And I love prosciutto. So, picture this: prosciutto-wrapped scallops. It just can’t get any better than this! It’s a good idea as a side dish for a main course of fish, or to give an extra touch of sophistication to any salad (and an effortless way to impress your friends)!

Ingredients
Medium sized scallops
Prosciutto, thinly sliced

Just wrap the scallops with prosciutto. Half a slice of prosciutto will do. Since the scallops have a bit of a sticky texture when raw you don’t need anything to keep the prosciutto around each scallop. Preheat the oven to 375F. Brush each side of the scallops with olive oil and then season with salt (not too much because the prosciutto gets saltier when heated). Bake for about 15 minutes or until the scallops get golden.

Posted by Daziano at 9:49 PM | 1 comments  
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