How to taste olive oil 101

There is a skill in sipping olive oil straight from the cup.  Ideally you want to have a thin glass bowl with no stem, and small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.  Smell the oil first.  The aroma should be very pleasing–of the fruit of the olive and fresh cut grass–it should go straight up your nose.  A lower grade oil will get stuck at the bottom of your nose, and lie flat.  Your lips and mouth will feel greasy and you might wonder what made you ever sip oil in the first place.  A sip from a beautiful oil will go right to the top of your palate and leave your mouth feeling clean and fresh.  If it is new it will taste peppery, but never rancid.  The color of a good olive oil can go from green to yellow, opaque or clear depending on the soil and how long the oil has been in the bottle, so don’t think so much about the color initially.  It can be the most confusing element since very often industrial oils have colorants and some very fine oil from Liguria, due to the sandy soil can be quite pale and yellow.  An oil is thick and opaque only at the beginning when it is still full of bits of olive and chlorophyll.  An extra virgin is determined by the pleasing flavor, and a level of oleic acids of less than 0.8%.

Try it, you,ll like it.

The importance of nearly

The beautiful thing about having wine with dinner every night is that there is inevitably some left over to cook with.  Last night I made a red wine reduction (2 parts wine to 1 part sugar and a little orange or lemon zest in a single piece with no pith until is nearly syrupy in consistency–as it cools it will continue to thicken.)  It is perfect to drizzle over roasted pears or underneath a chocolate souffle, but last night we had a ricotta cheesecake with the crunch of a buttery crust underneath.  The secret is to be gentle with the egg whites.  Instead of beating them beyond their strength, go only until they begin to show a mere suggestion of a peak.  Fold them (6 whites) into a pound of ricotta, 3/4 cup of granulated sugar, 6 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of sifted flour and some lemon and orange zest.  Pour this ontop of a crust of (do the crust ahead of time) 1 stick of butter, 1 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of sugar and a pinch of salt that you crumb together with your fingertips until nearly uniform. Bake the crust first at 400 degrees until golden, then once you have the ricotta mixture together and poured over the crust, turn the oven down to 350 degrees until a wet crumb clings to a knife inserted between the edge and the center.  It was divine.

Today is a free day.  There are some that are back to Cortona, and some that have already found tableclothes at the impromtu market in Mercatale and will go on to Passignao to take the ferry at 11:50 across to Isola Maggiore and back again.

How do you decide between Perugia and Deruta?

Sometimes there is no option but to have everything.

The ladies drove off in their van this morning and I am quite sure that there will be a flurry of activity in the town of Deruta at the Cama factory with Roberta, to witness the technique passed down for generations of hand painting plates, then into the shop of the famous Miriam and then as quick as a nine passenger van can go–off to climb the hill of Perugia to have lunch and a chocolate at the frescoed Bar Sandri, and then down into the dungeons of the quarter where the original Perugians lived before (and after) some power hungry person came and built ontop of them.

Tonight we will braise ribs and stir our hearts into a wild mushroom risotto.

The new group

has arrived, and it’s always hard to say goodbye to the last group and I can never believe that it could be so lucky to have such a wonderful group of people again, and then lo and behold, they arrive.  I decided last night that we should make the pasta for the lasagna as thin as paper.  When it’s that thin, there is no need to boil the noodles before they go in the pan with the meat sauce, the bechemel and the Parmigiano.  It was a beautiful thing.  We had left over pecorini from the night before, which went in with the Parmigiano with massive success.

For tonight, I have no idea.  They have left for their whole day and into the night wine tour of a major part of Tuscany, so there is no class tonight, just dinner and candles and wine.  I will check at Trabalza’s, a butcher good enough to convert any good vegetarian. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it.  I could go crazy and get sausages to grill over the fire and make wide nearly see through pancakes of chic pea flour studdes with rosemary.  Roasted tomatoes on the side. 

First, the group and I took a field trip to downtown Mercatale di Cortona, population 800, to the one operational grocery store across the street from the gas station.  (There is another grocery store behind the butcher, but sometimes the gentleman who runs the store feels like opening/ordering stock, and sometimes he doesn’t.)  After that and before class actually started, I seared off a whole chicken the size of a small turkey-on the fly-because with 10 people that have worked up a heathy appetite during the week, you never know if one chicken, the size of a small turkey will be enough.  Part of the meal can be admiring what is left on the platter and considering it for later that night. 

We had the chicken with more of the roasted peppers that are now in abundance, string beans with whole cloves of raw garlic, salt and beatuiful olive oil, and a first course of my now classic, pasta with fried garlic, whatever fresh herbs look good from the garden (or grocery), arugula leaves, tiny fried croutons, toasted pignoli, lemon zest, a little parmesan and a few spoonfuls of ricotta, all thrown together with a spoonful of the pasta’s cooking water, salt and pepper, when the pasta comes out of the pot (al dente.)

For dessert we melted 1 part best semi sweet chocolate with 2 parts barely whipped heavy cream to make a chocolate truffle cake, with more cream on top.  And then, everybody in the cars to drive like bats out of church, on their way to the party, we drove to Montevarchi, to the very, very top.  Li si trova una paese si chiama, Ventena.  If you weren’t sure yet what your Heaven might appear as, it could be Ventena.  All shades of brown and greens, gentle fog, olive trees, grape vines, fig trees ancient stone houses, hills that roll one into the other, illuminated on unexpected creases with the light of the sun.

Then, half the group couldn’t resist a run to the Prada factory, while the rest of us drank Champagne back in town before we met up for a lesson with Silvio Bonci in foccaccia and tartarughe.  We had dinner with his family behind the pastry tables and next to the ovens of the laboratorio.

It is already the last day and I can’t believe it.  How did it get to be Friday when it was only Saturday a few minutes ago?

Dinner on a Tuesday (Martedi)

I am debating what to make tonight.  Today is the day that my students get picked up by Pino and taken off to the wine region of Brunello (and leather.)  Montapulciano, Montelcino, and Pienza.
When they come home it is usually a few minutes past the time when appetites are ready to be sated.   Considering that and the frost, I am leaning towards sausages, with cannellini and tomato, because after that, there is no such thing as hungry.  It’s a matter of searing off the sausages, adding a little garlic, onion and sage until they are completely softened and delicious, and then adding a can of squished plum tomatoes.  When this has cooked for a good twenty minutes, add cannellini that you have made from dry by simmering them for a few hours first in water, olive oil, fresh thyme or sage and a clove of garlic, or if you are in a pinch, from a well rinsed can.  Let this go for another twenty minutes, tasting for deliciousness.  It will go well with stuffed zucchini or mushroom bruschetta and a crunchy salad of endive leaves, radicchio and watercress.  For dessert tiny little cream puffs.  Because when it goes from warm to cold outside you need little bites of gioa throughout the day–music or the sight of birds lifting through the fog from the fields, or a fire that finally roars from its own strength after the first half hour of encouraging it with tiny sticks and matches. 

Between Tuscany and Umbria

is a river called the Niccone, which looks more like a stream really , but maybe it’s just waiting for the right moment to swell to its full strength.  Maybe because I am 46 or maybe because I have had a year of certain people wearing some kind of psychodelic crazy glasses that prevent them from recognizing the truth when they see it, and instead of taking the glasses off to improve their vision, they hit the strobe light switch–my own stream banks have busted and my river waters overfloweth.  My moment has come.  

It’s best to eat well when this happens.  You are going to need plenty of reserves for the focus required and energy for the change in taking on the world in a whole new way.

I have a wonderful group of clear seeing, clear thinking students and we have been cooking up a storm.

We started the day with the wind whipping at our door, and scones fresh from the oven.  My group drove off to Cortona to see Santa Margherita, a sweeping view from the public gardens, the monastery of Le Ciele, the commune steps that stretch to the massive black and white clock at the top, and all the lovely shops in between.  Then it was back for rolling out the pasta, making a sauce bolognese, a bechemele, grating thick slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano, braising brand new artichokes with carrots in white wine, butter and herbs, and beating the eggs until they were sweet clouds of creaminess to layer between the lady fingers.


Creme Brulee

I am off to Italy tomorrow to teach.  As I got up this morning at nearly six to walk the dog, I heard Ferd say “Mom”? “Mom are you there”?  And so I leaned down to give him a kiss and to tell him that I was only taking the dog for a walk; that I would be right back.  But we both know that tomorrow when we get up it will be 3 weeks before I see him again, which feels like it may as well be 3 years.  I always get a sick feeling in my stomach and consider giving up being without him ever again until he is married with children and they are so sick and tired of me, that packing my things and myself into the trailer out back is the right thing to do.

I did the creme brulee test for when I have to fly from Italy to France (where Ferdinand and Jonathan will meet me.)  I am looking forward to heavy cream and the wooden staircase that spirals from the third floor to the first.  And warm croissants that are served with a small plate of chocolates if you order a cup of coffee as well.  Aside from the missing my family bit, I love my job.  My first responsibilities when I get off the plane in Rome are to buy 10 liters of wine from the commune of Cortona, pumpkins for the front door, and piles of soup supplies, fresh bread, salami, pecorino and fresh mozzarella to welcome everyone.  Next, I go through the house to check the towel situation, the chocolate situation (everyone needs chocolate by their bed) and fill the vases in the bathrooms with fresh herbs and flowers.  The wood for the fireplace is kept in the barn attached to the house, and I pile as much as possible into the wheelbarrow, wheel it over to the door below the upstairs living room, and then carry it up.  I check for candles, music, set the table, and then wait for everyone to arrive.  In France it will be very much the same–food, wine, fire in the fireplace, chocolate, but instead of eating breakfast in the kitchen, I am thinking we will have it in the orangery.  It’s nice to have as much sun as possible in the morning on a Fall day.  And of course the creme brulee.  The trick I found is to take them out of the oven, once they have a uniform jiggle.  You don’t want it to be loose in the middle, and you don’t want it to be cooked past the state of creaminess.  Remove them from their water bath immediately once they are done, or use the water bath to continue to cook questionable one for a moment longer, without leaving it in the oven.  Next, they must be chilled before broiling the sugar into a caramel on top.  Otherwise, the cream will boil, and you will have lost the efforts you made to be gentle in the first place.  I don’t go for the torch.  I kneel by the oven, and watch them under the broiler like a hawk.

Bring to the simmer, 3 cups of heavy cream with 1 vanilla bean.  When you see tiny bubbles forming around the edges of the pan, remove from the heat and allow to steep.  (Mr. Pepin throws in a piece of orange zest.  You could also try a small piece of fresh ginger.)  Whisk separately, 6 egg yolks with 1/3 cup of sugar, adding the sugar in a thin stream, while you whisk constantly, until thick—about 5 minutes.  Stir some of the hot cream into the egg, by adding it just a drop at a time.  When this is completed, you want to strain the mixture to remove any bits, as you pour the liquid into your ramekins (leaving room at the top.)
Set the ramekins into a baking pan and pour hot, but not boiling water around them, to come halfway up the top.  Bake for about half an hour.   Cool completely in the fridge, then cover the tops with a layer of brown sugar and broil or torch until bubbly and smooth.

That bag of Carrots

You know that bag of carrots sitting in the refrigerator.  The one that you always buy just in case.  And now you feel like you have a whole new bank of knowledge just from watching that bag of carrots, month after month grow mold spores that some scientists would look longingly at, wishing they had the patience to wait for such a colony.

Throw it away and buy yourself a new bag of carrots, and as soon as you get home, get them out of the bag, peel them, cut them into half inch bits and toss them into a pan that has been given a pour of olive oil, a whole garlic clove, a sprig of parsely, a sprig of thyme, a knob of butter, and two chopped shallots that have had a minute to get used to the pan before the carrots join them.  Give all of this a sprinkle of sea salt, a grind of black pepper, and a good saute for about 10 minutes over a medium flame.  Add to this, just plain water–enough to cover the carrots, and then cover with a lid to cook at a simmer.  When the carrots are completely tender, strain them, reserving the liquid.  Puree the carrots with a few spoonfuls of their liquid in a blender, and then reunite with the liquid.  Add heavy, organic cream to taste, along with a tiny grating of nutmeg and a teeny weeny pinch of ground red pepper.   Serve with buckwheat crepes on the side and small chunks of crisped pancetta and an endive salad.

On the list

The gas jets are on full and the cow is out back.  I am about to start the engines for a French test kitchen.  A girl has got to make a living, and if the world wants French, then French it is. When I was learning how to cook from the Great Marjorie Wolfson, she said–you can cook anything as long as you know how to make something taste delicious.  And so with that in my hat, on the 5th of November, I fly from Pisa to Paris, to teach a whole new country of food.

French News:  Excuse me madame, but are you French?

Faye:  No.

French News:  And you cook French?

Faye:  Yes.

French News:  And so, may I ask, when did you start?

Faye:  Today.

French News:   And you teach when?

Faye:  Next week.

French News:  You are not so worried, maybe even a very intense panic?

Faye:  No way.

French News:  Do you speak the language of French?
Faye:  In cooking, the language is love.  I love chocolate and I love transforming it into heaven.  I love cream, I love slowly simmered leeks and truffles and cheeses made with the dedication of a grandmother holding a newborn and boeuf braised in a deep red wine until it is tender enough to bring tears to your eyes.  And I know how to teach that.
French News:  Je l’aime.

Faye: I knew you would.

On the list for today:

Boeuf, Creme Caramel, Chocolate Souffle, Potato Gratin, and Beurre Blanc

The kitchen already smells delicious and my husband is looking happy.