Tag Archives: Italy

Polenta: The Next Big Thing?

2 Jul

Not long ago, in the epicenter of Brooklyn’s culinary scene, I had a delightful dinner in a place called Osteria il Paiolo. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to some of the world’s hippest dining venues, is a multi-culti morass of righteous Jews, old-time Italians and Dominicans, and newly-converted food passionistas with young families and big dreams. It is also home to one of the only places I know that features polenta as its calling card, authentically made in an “il paiolo” — a large unlined copper pot — the traditional vessel in northern Italy in which to s-l-o-w-l-y stir ground cornmeal into boiling water and salt until thick and creamy. It is sturdier than porridge and more sublime than its humble ingredients might imply. I was no more than 19 years old when I first met its acquaintance during a trip to northern Italy. It was there that I had one of the my most memorable dishes of my life: A thick slice of Gorgonzola dolce onto which was poured a stream of hot buttery polenta across its girth. An exercise in simplicity, its creamy texture and unexpected melding of flavors and fragrances, was downright sinful. And while not the traditional form polenta usually takes, it remains a love-at-first bite memory.

While the good people of Tuscany are known as “bean-eaters” because of their culinary proclivity towards legumes, the Piemontese locals are known as polentone. Apparently, everyone in Piedmont eats polenta all the time, and have done so before the Roman empire! (At that time, polenta was made from other grains such as millet, barley, and farro. Corn, or maize, appeared in the 16th century.)

That said, I was excited to try the polenta, and all the other good things I had heard about, at the dining spot loosely translated as “the polenta pot.” It is an osteria which, in Italy, connotes a rather casual restaurant where the owner is also the host: Enter Alex Palumbo. Alex, a native of northern Italy’s Piedmont region, was primed to bring the signature dish of his family’s kitchen to slightly tonier environs. Amidst a sprawl of white table-clothed tables in an industrial modern space, one can dine very well indeed. In addition to the myriad ways to eat polenta, topped with tomatoes and quail, with shrimp and rosemary, with fontina, are exemplary antipasti and main courses — we especially loved the homemade sausage with savory cabbage served in a terracotta casserole, and my husband said his roasted quail, prepared with pancetta, cream and sage, was the best he ever had. Good, too, was the unusual pappardelle al cioccolata, chocolate pasta with a wild boar and vegetable ragu.

Unbeknownst to me, authentic polenta is made with only water and salt, not the butter and cheese we have come to expect. But along the way, the latter ingredients have become commonplace. And while the ingredients may be 1-2-3, the mastery is in the preparation: Polenta must be slowly stirred for up to 45 minutes for its requisite creaminess and flavor. There are huge copper paiolo pots that have electric motors attached, but at Alex’s osteria, everything is lovingly stirred by a mano (by hand.) Alex gets his heirloom polenta — which is coarse and toothsome — from a “secret source” in Italy and claims that no one else in New York (ergo the country) has it. At last count, the kitchen is stirring up more than 60 pound per month, up from 10 pounds when he first got started, not so long ago. Clearly, the locals are catching on.

In my own kitchen at home, I make polenta with tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano as one of my ultimate comfort dishes, and on occasion, indulge in that time-honored memory of gorgonzola topped with steaming polenta. Only now I gild the dish with a tuft of balsamic-tinged wild arugula and anoint it all with my best extra-virgin olive oil on top. And I am still enamored of Colman Andrews’ polenta with oranges and olive oil from his wonderful book, Flavors of the Riviera. The potential for polenta is promising, perhaps turning us all into polentone one day.

Osteria il Paiolo, 106 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (www.ilpaiolonyc.com)

A Radically Delicious Recipe: Torta Caprese with Espresso, Served with Lemon Mascarpone

4 May

Photo: Terry Brennan

 

Sweet Friday

I often write for a wonderful magazine called Real Food.  It is not available on newsstands but instead can be found in some of the best upscale supermarkets across the county. In the summer 2012 issue, out now, I created a cover story based on our trip to the Amalfi coast last summer.  Included in the story are recipes for a white bean, mussel and red onion salad made with a dressing fashioned from sliced lemons, another salad of grilled romaine with Roma tomatoes, chicken breasts with black olives, lemon and fennel, and little potatoes with sun-dried tomatoes baked al cartoccio.  The final touch is a a famous cake from Capri called Torta Caprese (adapted from Arthur Schwartz’s wonderful book, Naples at Table.) My version has added espresso powder and a hint of almond extract added to the chocolate-ground almond batter. I gild the experience with an unorthodox helping of mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) whipped and flecked with bits of lemon zest. Limoncello, anyone?

2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
12 ounces almonds
6 extra-large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon espresso powder
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
8 ounces mascarpone
1 large lemon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Using 1 tablespoon butter, butter bottom and sides of a 10-inch removable bottom cake pan.  Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper. Melt the remaining butter and chocolate in a heavy saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth, stirring often. Process the almonds in two batches, each with 2 tablespoons sugar, until very fine and powdery. Transfer to a large bowl. Stir in espresso powder. Set aside.

Beat yolks until light and thick, about 3 minutes. Add ½ cup sugar and beat 2 minutes longer. Add the melted chocolate and the almond extract to the yolks. Stir well. Stir in the ground almonds until thoroughly mixed. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt and ¼ cup remaining sugar until very stiff. Add beaten whites to the batter in 2 batches until incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake on a rack placed in the bottom third of the oven for 1 to 1-1/4 hours or until the cake is just firm. Cool and invert. Remove paper. Dust with 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar pushed through a sieve.  Serve with lemon mascarpone:  Beat mascarpone with 4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar. Grate the lemon zest and add to mascarpone with 1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice and a large pinch of salt. Serve with cake. Serves 10 to 12

Sophia Loren & NYC’s Best Pizza

20 Apr

A Vittorio De Sica movie from the 1960s, called L’Oro di Napoli, features a young, voluptuous Sophia Loren sensually flattening discs of pizza dough while her cuckold of a husband drops them into a primitive vat of very hot oil. They promptly inflate and are sold without embellishment to be eaten as a snack, or as what today we call “street food.”

The set for that movie was a real-life restaurant called Starita, where they’ve been baking or frying extraordinary pizza since 1910. But about 10 years ago, Antonio Starita, the shop’s third-generation pizzaiolo, hit upon an ingenious third-step — first frying the dough, then decorating it and popping the pie into an oven to warm the toppings and melt the cheeses.

Last summer in Naples, we forked over a fistful of Euros to a clueless cab driver while searching for this legendary pizzeria in the twisty-curvy district of Materdei. Like many pizzerias in Italy, it was closed for lunch. But a version of it recently opened on Manhattan’s easy-to-locate West 50th Street — and there he was, Don Antonio Starita himself, overseeing a grand parade of classically Neapolitan pizzas coming out of his wood burning oven and, oh, yes, out of his deep fat fryer, at the new Don Antonio by Starita.

His specialty is called montanara in New York and simply pizza fritta in Naples. The fried dough puffs into an amazingly soufflé-light disc and topped with an intense tomato sauce and imported smoked mozzarella di bufala known as provola, and then popped briefly into a volcanically hot oven. It is like eating an exceedingly flavorful pillow.

The secret? Palm oil. The palm oil is important because it can withstand the rigors of high temperatures without breaking down, adding a delicate crispness to the dough’s exterior. The dough downright floats with a bearable lightness of being.

We were a party of six celebrating culinary maven Arthur Schwartz’s birthday, (he is the author of the award-winning cookbook Naples at Table), and I can tell you that every dish was its own celebration. We began with a huge platter of angioletti, which are fried puffy thumb-sized strips of dough topped with marinated cherry tomatoes, garlic, excellent oregano, and arugula, which was, for me, one of the most original and delicious dishes I’ve had anywhere recently! Then onto pizzas chosen by Antonio, not all of them on the menu.

We went nuts over a two-layer affair stuffed with mix of sautéed escarole, pine nuts, raisins and ricotta, then topped with wafer-thin dough and fresh mozzarella. A splendid pie with grape tomatoes in tomato sauce with mozzarella and basil stopped all table conversation for a short moment. And for dessert there was a pizza slathered with ricotta, honey and almonds, punctuated with a lit birthday candle.

Fat be damned, you’re looking at a trend here, mark my words. I’ve run across a sushi bar selling slices of pizza dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. Fish-and-chips shops have been doing downmarket versions for years in (of all places) Scotland, but they’ve kept it a rather well deserved secret. Out in Denver, Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria has a montanara and a ricotta-honey dessert pie, but they’ll also fry any of their numerous pies in the same manner as Starita, right down to using palm oil.

Of course if you pile some mozzarella, salami, ricotta and tomato sauce onto a round of pizza dough, and fold it into a turnover, then you have a makings of a deep-fried calzone — which is what you get at Locanda Positano in San Francisco and numerous other pizza joints around the country — but these miss the point of crisping all the dough’s surfaces, making for an amazing depth of flavor.

In Naples where they’ve been frying dough for centuries, you get it Starita’s way or occasionally you run across a decorated thin-crust pizza that’s topped with a second layer of dough, the edges being pressed together and the entire affair gently submerged in hot oil. This is not an obscure product in Naples, but it sure has taken its time crossing the Atlantic.

Now a restaurant named after the dish itself, La Montanara, has just opened on New York’s Lower East Side. There, Giulio Adriani, who owns a restaurant in Rome and two places called Forcella in New York, is serving only fried pies, but he’s using sunflower oil.

Locating Starita in New York may be easier than searching the curvaceous streets of Naples hoping to find either Sophia Loren or great pizza, but getting in isn’t easy since they take no reservations and crowds form early, often waiting on the sidewalk for one of the restaurant’s 70 seats. Bring a bunch of friends so you can try several of the 70 varieties available. Or, you might consider that long-awaited trip to Napoli.

Tell them Don Antonio sent you.

Lidia’s Italy in America

22 Dec

Lidia Bastianich is one of my personal heroes and, in a moment’s notice, I would lead the campaign to make her our next Ambassador to Italy. (Mr. Obama, are you listening?) Nothing, of course, against our current Ambassador, but I can think of no one who is so recognizably respected. Lidia has all the makings: savvy business acumen, formidable intelligence, and the perfect demeanor fitting such a position. And I love the notion that political prowess may actually begin in the kitchen.

Lidia has introduced us, through her seven cookbooks, television shows, and as doyenne of a handful of Italian restaurants in America, to the complexities of Italy’s culture and to the simplicity of Italy’s authentic cuisine. For decades we have accompanied her on journeys across the culinary landscape of Italy and now, in her newest cookbook, Lidia takes us on a culinary exploration of Italian cooking in America.

And while you’d think there’s nothing left to say about Italian-American food given the thousands of magazine articles and dozens of cookbooks that have scrubbed this particular gastronomical cupboard clean, nugget after nugget of good food and delectable ideas pop out of the recipes and stories lovingly told by Lidia and her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, in Lidia’s Italy in America (Alfred A. Knopf).

Lidia Bastianich, who by most reckoning must be Our Lady of Italian Cooking, traveled the country, revisiting places where Italian immigrants originally settled and where, even today, there’s great resonance. From Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to San Francisco and California wine country, with stopovers in robust Italian enclaves like New Orleans (think muffuletta sandwich), Philadelphia, Federal Hill in Providence, Chicago (think chicken Vesuvio), Baltimore and Boston, she adds places and faces to what certainly is America’s favorite “foreign” cuisine.

I put the word “foreign” in quotes because, by and large, we eat domesticated versions of true Italian food here and in many cases we eat Italian dishes that never existed in the old country. Many of the dishes — spaghetti and meatballs and veal parmigiano –were invented here by immigrants who made good and creative use of products then available to them.

Most of the time-worn dishes in this book no longer appear on menus of trendy, upscale Italian restaurants. After all, when was the last time you went out for lasagna or veal marsala or chicken tetrazzini? — dishes that have been co-opted by the likes of Olive Garden. So you won’t find sea urchins or burrata or guanciale or lardo here. You will find perfectly clear recipes of all your old favorites along with some interesting twists.

She notes that, contrary to most recipes in Italian-American cookbooks, the steak in bistecca pizzaiola should be cooked separately from the sauce so that both retain their distinct identities; most recipes have the meat simmered in the sauce. She has the same advice for those old standbys, sausage and peppers and veal marsala: cook the meats separately from the vegetables, then toss together at the very last moment.

Lidia theorizes that pasta alla puttanesca soared to popularity here in the 1970s because authentic Italian ingredients such as cured olives and cured capers were just becoming available, so the dish delivered what she calls a “wallop of flavor” that keeps people making it right up to today. She explains that even though Thomas Jefferson had a macaroni-making machine and served his baked pasta doused with cheese, maccheroni al formaggio also has an Italian rendition, hers with sage, grated fontina, cheddar and parmesan cheese.

Although they’re authoritative, many of these recipes are nostalgic because they require an ingredient many of us no longer have: time — time to make and fill ravioli with sausage and ricotta, or to assemble the various components of a first-rate lasagna, or to pound thin, stuff, roll and braise braciole. Where are our grandmothers now that we need them again?

There’s one very up-to-date recipe for brined turkey breast, from the New York restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties, in which the bird is cooked very slowly in a quasi-sous vide plastic pouch, then smeared with a fabulous paste of garlic, oil, honey and vinegar and broiled until the skin crisps.

I asked Lidia which recipes best represent the Italian-American kitchen. She chose Fried Marinated Artichokes, Clams Casino, Penne Rigate in Vodka Sauce, Spaghetti with Meatballs, Chicken Cacciatore, Sausage and Peppers, and Almond Pine Nut Cookies as the “stellar expressions.”

I’m up for any of these dishes — or for her voluptuous eggplant parmigiana — next time Lidia plans to spend an afternoon at the stove.

The soulful pictures of Italian-American chefs, cooks, fishermen and butchers are almost worth the price of this lovely book. Ambassador Bastianich has a nice ring.

Speaking of Gelato

25 Aug

I saw an ad in the cab for the TV show Jeopardy yesterday with one of the questions relating to the origin of gelato — the Italian frozen confection that I tasted for the first time in 1973 on my maiden voyage to Italy.  It said that the first gelato was fashioned from honey and shaved ices, but that idea is so reductive as to be suspect. For your reading pleasure, you may google the history of gelato and ponder the various theories, but what I’m pondering these days is why gelato isn’t the way I remember.  We were on a bit of a quest for great gelato on our recent trip to Italy and experienced two extremes.  One of the gelatos we tried was commercial and sported neon colors of fruit flavors that one never encounters in nature, yet it had the sweet, dense, velvety texture I remembered.  The other gelato (the shop with the longest line in Naples) was “artiginale” and tasted so rich and creamy that it crossed the boundaries of gelato into premium rich, custardy ice cream.  I longed for the gelato that I once had in Sicily for breakfast, spooned into a morning brioche, and another that I had when I was a young lass in Florence studying cooking with Guiliano Bugialli.  It had tasted like nothing I ever had — as memorable as my first sip of Chateau d’Yquem.   I remember the intensity of the fruit flavor, the bracing yet soft chill, the velvety, but slightly elastic mouthfeel.  It was probably the first time I experienced the taste of gianduja, too — the brilliant marriage of hazelnut and chocolate.

Just this week, I treated myself to a romp around the West Village (I just adore Bleeker Street these days — the whole stretch, actually, from east to west) and found two very credible gelato palaces.  I will mention my favorite only.  Grom, located on the corner of Bleeker and Carmine, exceeded expectations.  Never mind that the adorable boy working behind the counter was from Venice and charming as all get out, and that he topped my cup of gelato with a bit more when I said it looked skimpy (I was hungry!), but he recommended two varieties that tasted like magic together.  One was their very robust espresso gelato and the other their “specialty” — crema di Grom, made with cream, “corn biscuits” from the Langhe region and bits of shaved Teyuna chocolate from Columbia.  I also sampled their cassata (with bits of candied fruit) and their white fig gelato, which was divine.   Sitting outside at a little cafe table, with the sun shining brightly through my plastic gelato spoon, and Italian spoken all around me, I must say that my trip to Italy had a delightful hiccup.  Sad that Faicco’s (the legendary pork store) was closed that day, I had a strange hankering for mortadella and buffalo mozzarella.

I don’t know how to make gelato and so instead I offer you another kind of intense, velvety frozen confection from Radically Simple — with a similiar mouthfeel and memorable flavor.

Chocolate-Chipotle Sorbetto
A bit of chipotle smolders behind a chocolate chill.  It’s very cool to serve a scoop of this in a glass with some cold milk poured around it.  Taste the mixture before you churn it — you might want to add a bit more chipotle and salt to augment the smoky flavor.

3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle powder

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, cocoa powder and 1-1/2 cups water in a large saucepan.  Whisk until smooth and bring to a boil.  Boil 1 minute, whisking.  Remove from the heat.  Stir in the chocolate, chipotle powder, 1/4 cup water and a large pinch of salt.  Stir until the chocoalte melts.  Pour the mixture into a blender and process 1 minute, until smooth.  Refrigerate the mixture until very cold.  Stir briskly and freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.  Serves 6

Chocolate Eggplant

23 Aug

Chocolate Eggplant at Trattoria dei Cartari

About one month ago, while perched atop the Amalfi coast nestled in a friend’s villa in Ravello, the conversation about chocolate eggplant ensued.  Our hosts, the consummate foodies, told us about a particular trattoria in Amalfi that served chocolate eggplant for dessert. But our friend couldn’t remember the name of the place nor did she know that some version of this unique dessert is famous, or typical, in that area — especially in spring and summer.  Knowing our friend’s taste for the discreet, we ambled along the main street of Amalfi (after sampling a cannoli at the well-known pasticceria Pansa), asking everyone where we could find it.  No one seemed to know.  That is, until we got to the Macelleria and inquired.  “Next door!,” the affable butcher said. “They have it at the nice trattoria next door but they don’t open until 6 p.m.” We waited.

While my husband loved his main course of butterflied sardines, that were lightly battered and sauteed (including a gossamer layer of cheese to hold them together), I devoured my dish of grilled provola in lemon leaves (another dish typical of the area) at the lovely Trattoria dei Cartari.  But I longed for the eggplant.  It arrived and certainly stole the attention of the two children sitting next to us.  For awash in a sea of dark molten chocolate strewn with pine nuts, were two thin slices of shapely eggplant, fried twice (as the waiter told us).  The eggplant had a texture that tasted almost like thick moist apricot leather, and I couldn’t figure out how it was done.  I must say that it was very, very good!  The slight bitterness of the eggplant played against the flavor of the not-too-sweet chocolate, accented with toasty notes of almonds.  It was worth searching for and yes, it was the place our friend frequented.  The next day, not fully satisfied that I understood the concept, we went to the shop of the most famous pastry chef of the Amalfi coast — Salvatore di Riso (Sal for short).  There, the chocolate eggplant was interpreted into a fudgey square of layered eggplant, thick chocolate (ganache-like) and candied fruit, flavored with liqueur (probably Concerto, a liqueur popular in that region), and served icy cold.   While festive and interesting, I preferred the simple, warm, almost earthy version we had in Amalfi.  However improbable it was, it was delicious.

I have not prepared the recipe I offer below, but searched for one that most closely approximated the dish we liked.   A recipe for Sal di Riso’s “Melanzane al Cioccolato” can be found at www.francinesegan.com.

Chocolate Eggplant (courtesy of the Canadian Food Network)

2 eggplants, thinly sliced lengthwise
coarse sea salt
flour for dredging
olive oil, for deep-frying
16 ounces bittersweet chocolate, in small pieces
1 cup milk
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped

Prep the eggplant by salting the slices and laying them in a colander for 30 minutes.  Rinse and pat very dry.  Dredge eggplant into the flour and fry in olive oil set at 375 degrees. Do not fry too many pieces at one time (it will lower the cooking temperature.)  Lay on paper towels to absorb oil.  (Note by RG:  you might want to fry it again to best approximate the texture we experienced in Italy.  You may also use lightly toasted pine nuts instead of the almonds.)  Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water until smooth.  Whisk in enough milk to make it creamy but still rather thick.   Pour over the eggplant and sprinkle nuts on top.   Let sit at room temperature or serve slightly warm.  Serves 6 or more.

Tastes of the Week

7 Aug

August 1 through August 7

A transitional week of tastes and flavors from Rome (bottom up) to Callicoon Center, New York!  Fun!

A wonderful, congenial and perfectly cooked pancake breakfast at the Firehouse in Callicoon Center, New York. We joined what must have been 600 breakfasters, from 7 a.m. till noon, for orange juice, fabulous pancakes cooked by fireman Bill Murray, over-easy eggs, flat round peppery sausages the size of bread-and-butter plates, and good hot coffee.  All for 6 bucks.  Nice gun raffle, too.

Visiting our daughter in camp near Jeffersonville, New York we fell in love with a cafe and inn called Samba, run by a Brazilian woman and her husband, an actor, director and former captain at the Rainbow Room.  Her food is exquisitely comforting and for dinner we enjoyed a fabulous salt cod brandade topped with sunny-side up quail eggs, thick slices of juicy pernil (pork), a wonderful seafood stew made with leeks, cream, clams, mussels and pollock.  Dessert was vanilla ice cream with a warm Brazilian sugar-banana caramel. Fab!

Steamed broccoli and chopped green cabbage tossed with flaked salt, extra-virgin olive oil and hot pepper flakes.
So simple and satisfying — the vegetables tasted almost sweet.  This was dinner at home one night.

Really good warm chocolate chocolate-chip cookies on the plane home from Italy.  Added cocoa powder to my favorite chocolate chip cookie
recipe this week and voila!

The definitive cacio e pepe (homemade pasta with pecorino romano and lots of cracked pepper) in Rome at the famous Antico Forno Roscioli.

One of the best meals in Italy was at the contemporary l’Antico Arco with a promising young chef who could really make it on the international
scene.  From Albania, and only 29 years old, Fundim Gjepali respects the cooking of the famous chef Arzak in Spain and himself is cooking pretty
sophisticated stuff:  fresh mozzarella with bottarga (a new trend in Italy), a warm elixir of ricotta and yogurt topped with asparagus, truffles and poached egg yolk, perfectly cooked risotto made with a local fish, and “meatballs” made from suckling pig.

“Trappizzini” — made at Pizzeria 00100 on Via Giovanni Branca — it is a fabulous stuffed bread (better than pizza dough) filled with the best
tripe we’ve ever had (there are a variety of fillings to choose from including chicken cacciatore.)  It is a made-up dish — between a sandwich and
a pizza — and it could become very popular.  It’s a little hole-in-the wall place that has already been discovered by everyone!

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