There are plenty first and even second timers coming to Umbria, Tuscany or Le Marche, who complain about the bread. There is no salt in the bread. It took me a few years to get used to it, but you know it works really well the very salty cured meats of the region and all the rest of just about everything else, which seems to be salted as the sea is salted.
The other thing is, without salt, the bread doesn’t go moldy, and you can make gorgeous salads with it. I love pappa al pomodoro, and if you have a favorite canned San Marzano tomato, use it until it is August when the fresh tomatoes are ready to step up the plate and have something to say for themselves. Get a little of the green gold going in your pan over a low heat. Add a few whole cloves of garlic and some fresh basil. Then the whole plum tomatoes with their juice (28 oz.). Cook just for five or ten minutes. Adjust the salt. Take the crust off the best loaf of country bread you can find. Rip it into the tomato sauce. Add a little more olive oil and torn basil, and adjust the salt. The bread should be totally soaked through with the tomato. You will be surprised how little bread it takes. Serve with grilled meat or fish, or as an appetizer with a bowl of marinated olives.
Somebody has got to tell the big boss of vegetables in the United States of America, to GET BABY GARLIC GREENS. I have never seen them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but if they are, they are going around incognito. Here in Italy, they are all over the place in April; tiny narrow greens that look almost like leeks, but instead have the most seductive aroma of garlic. You clean them, slice them, and saute in olive oil all on their own, and then drop them into beaten organic eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour all of that into a buttered omelette pan, and over a low to medium heat, let it set for a minute before gently lifting the eggs around the edges with a wooden spoon. When there is not too much liquid left on top, slide it onto a plate, cooked side down, then invert it back into the pan, and cook the other side only for a second, before serving. You want the frittata to be a little runny in the middle.
Right below the town of Cortona, lies Camucia. You can shop for food in Cortona if you have a little grumble of hunger, but if you wwant to get serious, you need Camucia, and there is no better place to find fresh wiggling fish, or parmesan that practically moos to you, than in the open market on Thursday mornings.
We bought beans and cheese and even flowers and underpants, and then our car broke down. Thank goodness in Camucia, people come to the market just because they love the market, with nothing in particular to do. There happened to be guy doing just that, standing and chatting and doing the market thing, who in the flash of an eye, when he saw us stranded, started making phone calls. It could have all gone very wrong, and we could have waved to our car for the last time as it drove away on he back of a truck of someone we had never met, but lo and behold, he was just a nice guy. He stayed with the car, and us until it was fixed many hours later, driving us here there and every where in his own car, and accepted no thanks in cash. The repair costs were miniscual. So tonight, he at least agreed to come to dinner with his lovely wife, and we are going to cook the feast that a true nice guy deserves.
My ladies have gone off to Florence today, and I’m hoping they try my favorite restaurant of all time called Auqa Due. You can order seven types of pasta in one go, and they come one after the other in dishes tiny enough to eat everything.
I don’t know what time they will come back for dinner, so I will leave it for them to warm up when they get here. Potato gratin with drizzles of olive oil and heavy cream infused with garlic and fresh sage, and my favorite ribs, braised in the oven with white wine and more garlic. For the salad I am going to toss bitter greens with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and serve it with a sweet gorgonzola.
There is nothing like a little lasagna made with mascarpone cheese added to the white sauce, the minute it comes off the fire to turn it from, yea, that’s good, to Lord have mercy on my soul, that is one good white sauce. When you make it, don’t forget to cook the flour and the butter over a low heat, whisking constantly, until the roux loses that raw flour taste. Sear off a few bones for your meat sauce to add to it while it simmers, and then layer the whole thing together–meat sauce, white sauce, Parmesan and noodles–with the best Parmesan you can find, and either fresh, or something like a Barilla noodle, that doesn’t have to be cooked before you put it in the lasagna.
I have to remember for the next olive oil tasting to have a pitcher of water waiting on the table, because it is not everyday that people are asperating oil into the back of the throat, and it can be a trick to make it go down smoothly. We only had one casualty, and even she held on tight to the medieval table until she got her breath back. I am always impressed with how my students are willing to try anything. The prize was, we all know now how to tell the difference between a good olive oil, and green gasoline dressed up in an olive oil suit.
From slow cooked sauces to drizzles on a salad, using a good olive oil can raise the flavor of your cooking by olympic leaps and bounds. It’s like the difference between the Italian you speak if you are trying to remember it from what you learned in the tenth grade, and the Italian you speak if you have a boyfriend who speaks only Italian. Am I right? There is a big difference.
Last night we had dinner at the majestic Villa La Macchia, the home of Chiara Scarpaccini and her family since before 1300. Dinner was absolutely Tuscan, and one of those meals that you know is going to be imprinted on your food brain forever. Tuscans have a way of making food so simply and with a purity that transports you to a hundred years ago.
The first course was nothing more than a soup made from the broth of the simmering chick peas, with a little rosemary, garlic, and short tube shaped pasta. Some of the chick peas were smashed to thicken it a little, and a tiny bit of tomato was added to the garlic in the oil at the beginning for flavor. The secondo were speidini, with pancetta, local sausage and veal, and every other piece of meat was threaded next to a sliver of onion or a crouton cut as large as the meat, to soak up the juices. The dessert was bread pudding infused with Vin Santo.
We ate so well, and laughed so much, I felt we were waking the walls.
I just drank way too much wine. We went to learn how to make torta al testo, a flat round bread made on a stone in the fire, with Francesca Carlotti. She doesn’t talk near as much as I do, so I figured if I drank just a little more wine, I could fill in any and all empty spaces. The flour was poured onto the board, the baking powder added to that with a pinch of salt, then the water, and knead, knead, knead until it was dough. And Faye talked the whole way through. Meanwhile, a stone cut from a much larger piece that came from deep within the earth, was heated by the coals. When the a sprinkle of flour was nicely browned within a second, it was ready, and the dough was rolled out with a rolling pin the size of a pool noodle. The move is a beautiful one. You spin the pin right up to your elbow. Dough on the stone, then an old lid from a pot ontop of that, and finally hot coals over the whole thing, until the bread is flipped to cook the other side. We stuffed it with prosciutto and capacolo. You don’t need anything more. I have to say, I’m happy.
Just when I thought I could count on the grocery store having mushrooms, there are no mushrooms. I love Italy for only having what is available, but at the same time it can make it hard to make a menu a few months in advance. Unless of course you are calm, cool and collected like myself–not–or you remember the ant and the rubber tree song soon enough to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and buy zucchini instead, before it is time for dinner. Mushroom risotto is good, but if you make yourself a rich, full of flavor stock with chicken bones, celery, carrot, onion, a little garlic, a bay leaf, some parsley, and a sprig of thyme, an innocent looking zucchini can make magic. Once the stock is ready, saute the onion and garlic until they are completly soft, about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, get a clove of garlic going in extra virgin olive oil, and add three or four thinly sliced, tiny zucchini. Season with salt, add a basil leaf, and cook them until they melt. To the onions, add a cup and a half of risotto. Stir for thirty seconds. Add a cup of white wine. Reduce to almost nothing, and then add a ladleful and a half at a time of hot stock, waiting until the stock nearly evaporates after each time, until the risotto is al dente. Fold in the zucchini. Turn off the heat. Add a few Tablespoons of room temperature butter, and a handful of cheese. Rip in some fresh basil.
It’s little Easter today, which I think is pretty cute. If you’re going to have a big Easter, you may as well have a little one. Nobody seems to know what to do with themselves though. They already ate too much yesterday, and cracked open the chocolate eggs to see what was inside. Mine had a giant paper clip in the shape of a tulip.
I am recuperating from yesterday. Everytime I light up the grill, I panic, and I swear panic sucks me dry like some kind of turbo charged vaccum cleaner. I worry that the fire is going to get too low with nothing left to cook on, or not be hot enough, with useless flames leaping over my poor chops, or that everything is going to stick to the grill and be cooked on the outside and raw on the inside. The thing is, if you get it right, grilling in a stone fireplace with scrub oak, and olive oil from the trees outside, makes meat worth suffering for. The lamb should be rosy, and the pork chop blushing. We made a mean ricotta cheese cake for dessert, and I hope they don’t mind that I nearly finished it for breakfast. How good is cold dessert off the serving plate with your second cup of coffee while you are watching the fog lift up from the mountains?
I know I sounded like a fool standing in the pouring rain as my group was heading off to Cortona for cream filled meringues, saying “I think I see the sun in the left hand corner of the sky over there; it’s coming, I can feel it.” It is the job of the leader to be positive, and sure enough, it was glowing by lunch time. They enjoyed their meringues, and then had lunch at La Grotta and I think they have great faith in my potential as a weather woman.
We made gnocchi for dinner with the first shoots of fresh sage on the top of a plant that I am sure is older than I am. Three fist sized potatoes with a half teaspoon of salt, and a cup of flour. I add an egg, even though they say you aren’t supposed to. Even a little parmesan cheese. Mash the tater and mix everything together ever so gently with your hand until it feels like a soft bread dough. Roll it out into snakes, touching it as little as possible. Cut it off into bits about a half inch long. Get it into boiling salted water, and take them out as soon as they reach the top of the water. Serve with a sauce of garlic sauted in your best olive oil, sage leaves, and butter whisked in right at the end, on a low heat. Sprinkle with a little more parmesan before serving.