When I left the house last night, fog was resting like a blanket of silk, low in the hills, and I stopped for a minute on my way to the car to take in the vastness of the sky. We had made roasted eggplant with a barely cooked tomato sauce, layered with mozzarella di buffala, fresh basil and parmesan. We went to searing off whole birds in the pan, and then stuffing them with rosemary, sage, garlic and thyme, and finishing them off in the oven, basting every ten minutes with cool water and pan juices. We had mushroom risotto, slowly stirring with all the love in our beating hearts, and chocolate truffle cake for dessert.
My group is having coffee and pastries at Bar Centrale this morning. I am waiting for them here on the computer. From here I will give them to Pino who lead them over winding roads towards Montelpuliano and great glasses of Brunello.
There is nothing like a lasagna made with homemade pasta that is so thin you can see through it. The lady at the alimentari told me I should try using the “00” pasta, which is closer to pastry flour than all purpose, and the noodles came out so satiny they were practically purring. That’s just not a perk that Prince from the blue box throws into the deal.
Start with two cups of flour in a bowl. Make a well in the middle. Drop in 2 eggs, 2 Tablespoons of your best olive oil and 3 Tablespoons of water. Beat the eggs together with the liquid until you no longer see any streaks of egg white, without disturbing the flour. Set the fork down, and fold the flour from underneath, working in a circle, on top of the egg to mix. When it is a ball of dough, sprinkle a tiny bit more flour onto the board or table, and knead the dough for five minutes. When it feels like a baby’s bottom, let it rest under a tea towel. Set up your pasta machine. Divide the dough into four parts. Flatten out one part at a time, and run it through the widest setting once. Fold the bit into threes like a business letter. Run it through the machine twice like this on the widest setting, then five more times folded only in half. Then, without anymore folding, run it through the machine, changing the setting each time, until you get to the desired thickness. Layer with meat sauce, white sauce and Parmesan, until you have three layers, finishing with Parmesan. Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees for half an hour. Uncover and bake for another five minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for at least fifteen minutes before serving.
It is sunny again and the group is off to Deruta to see if they can set a record.
My lovely ladies have gone, and I miss them already. It is hard to imagine that another 12 people are coming in the afternoon, and I will start from the beginning again, soaking my beans and waiting in line at Trabalza for packages of proscuitto and Finochiona. To entice my new group to the table I might slice some pears and serve them with a pecorino that I found at the market in Camucia last Thursday. There was frost on the ground last night, but it is no threat to us. The fireplace reaches from the floor to the ceiling, and there is plenty of Vin Santo to warm us from the inside out.
Eleven women and one man. In boca all’lupo.
I use one olive oil. That’s it. It’s true that I either have to fly to Italy and carry it back or buy it at my one source (Fairway Market) in NYC to get it, but it has fundamentally changed my cooking. It is the first thing that hits the pan, and the last thing to be drizzled over the top, and touches everything in between. Why buy the freshest fish or a beautiful can of San Marzano tomatoes and then an oil that you could grease your car with?
To know your oil, taste it. Pour a drop into a tiny glass with a flat thin bottom, swirl the oil around to release the aromas, warm it buy covering the cup with your hands, and then take a tiny sip with a little air sucked in, and taste what you taste. If it is a within a year old, it should give you a bite of pepper, the taste of fresh grass and the fruit of the olive. After a year it will mellow, but will always be pleasant tasting. It should leave your mouth feeling clean, never greasy, and the aroma should flower in the upper reaches of your nose, not sink somewhere around your nostrils.
There is only one thing that determines the quality of an oil–the chemical analysis. An oil made the way it should be, the trees properly pruned, the olives picked at the perfect moment–half green, half black–stored in well ventilated baskets, pressed within a maximum of three days–but preferably less–at a temperature that does not exceed the limits for cold pressing are all critical for success. The olives should pass their days before picking on well ventilated hills, the soil slightly sandy, and a climate that is not too intense or too humid. Extra Virgin olive oil must have an acidity level below 0.80%. There is really no such thing as a second pressing anymore. A very good extra virgin should read somewhere between 0.13% and 0.18% acidity. That is your guarantee.
After our lesson last night at Villa La Macchia where tradition lies hard and fast, and they dine on the same table they have dined for I don’t know, maybe the last two or three hundred years, because it looked fairly new, we were served roast chicken with grapes and melted onions, and a Tuscan cabbage simmered with vinegar, onion, garlic, a bit of tomato, salt and pepper. For dessert we had a bavarian cream made with fresh ricotta and topped with ruby red pomogranate seeds.
I love making gnocchi, tiny little pillows of hot mashed potato ever so gently folded together with an egg and just enough flour to hold the dough. I love them because a hand touches each and every one of them before they go into the water; it’s like eating little kisses. I know get all sentimental when I’m here, but what are else are you going to do, cooking on the top of a mountain with a massive fire in the fire place, olive trees and grape vines all around you and the fresh sage that you need to fry for your butter sauce, growing at your feet?
We made Monte Bianco for dessert, roasting the chestnuts until they popped, and then simmering them in milk. Then you melt the chocolate, add a little Vin Santo or rum, and press the whole thing through a ricer to make it look as much like Monte Bianco as you can. Whip the cream, and drop it onto the top.
I have new car now that I’m renting, the size of a premature mosquito. My car has a very particular French suspension which is quite nice when it works, but it is not nice at all when it doesn’t work. It feels a bit like being a basketball on the home stretch of the last chance for making it down the court before the buzzer sounds. In precious moments the ball tends to hit the wood a little harder and bounce a little higher I think.
All the food fit in the back since there is only me in the front, so no drama. The ladies didn’t come back until almost 8 o’clock from Montelpulciano, Montelcino, Val D’orcia and Pienza. They were even able to slip in gregorian chanting by eating a sandwich on the run and resisting the copper shop. I made a red sauce with garlic and fresh basil for their return, finished with a dallop of mascarpone and a shred of Grana Padano. For breakfast I grilled fresh pancetta (versus cured) over the hot coals of the morning fire in the fire place that stretches from floor to ceiling. The night before I had started a focaccia, which has a fantastic crumb if you let it rise in the refrigerator overnight.
I miss my Ferdinand. I long for him like the earth longs for water when it has forgotten to rain.
Last night we made a risotto with Amarone della Valpolicella, a salad of fresh fennel and parmesan, osso bucco with the classic soffritto of carrot, celery and onion that I first caramelized and flavored with a squeeze of tomato paste toasted in the pan, and for dessert we had apple tarts. Not because they are Italian, but because I love apple tarts.
As much as I wish that everything would turn out exactly as I wished it, it doesn’t always happen. I could wish harder I supppose, or I could cover the osso bucco with a little more foil than what I had to stretch across from side to side. If the pan isn’t covered tightly with just a slit cut with a sharp knife to let the steam escape, then the liquid escapes too quickly from bottom of the pan. The meat begins to dry itself like a hide left out in the desert sun and all hope for tenderness is lost.
I’m always trying to tell Ferdinand that the winner is the one who can make the most and even more from his mistakes, so I took the opportunity to stress a life lesson not be missed. Try, try again.
The truth is, I hate trying to be resourceful when my meat is parched. I would much rather hurl the dish and all its contents into the trash, down the remaining Amarone to drown my troubles and curse the flimsy no good aluminum foil this country has to offer.
I forgot to buy the onions. Can you believe it? And do you think there is a chance of getting an onion around here on a Sunday? No way. I had one onion last night, and in a mind numbing panic, I decided to use it for the beans, and sacrifice the meat sauce that I have to make today. Of course this morning I woke up thinking, what am I crazy? I can’t make a sauce without an onion. That’s like telling somebody you can give them a ride to the airport, but you have no car.
I know there is a garden somewhere near the house, and I’m just going to have to pray that no one is guarding it with life threatening weapons, and go digging.
This morning (before I dig) I am going to make French toast with caramelized apples and coffee in four little moka pots and hot milk in a massive heavy pan that I can barely lift, but it keeps the milk warm for ages, even after I have to steal the warming burner.
While I’m theiving, the ladies are off to Cortona today for cream filled meringues that the bakery on Via Nazionale makes only on a Sunday morning.
Whenever I have too much to do and it won’t fit neatly in my head, and it’s sliding off the pages of my calendar, I panic that I’m going to forget to put my clothes on before I leave the house or forget my English, which is a problem, because I don’t really have much of a command over any other language. The challenge here–and it is the same with cooking–if you are wondering where I’m going with this, is to decide before hand what can take the hit. This is especially true when you have 12 people coming for dinner who have traveled across a major body of water to get to you in Italy, and you have the compulsive need to have them taste nearly everything there is available to eat in this food crazy country, on the first night; or, when the big Thursday rolls around and you can’t do without the 21 traditional dishes that your family has collected over three generations, or maybe the 37 dishes an evil food magazine lures you into with pretty pictures of their family happily cooking and eating, all with nice teeth.
The thing is, if you don’t decide before hand that you can do without the pickled onions, without even thinking about it, you could be driving back to the grocery store at God knows what time because you forgot to the get the onions in the first go round and then back again because you messed them up and boiled them without the liquid, and then before you know it–somewhere on the highway to some grocery store way way far away because the first one has no more tiny onions–you remember that the turkey has not gone in the oven and the people are arriving somewhere in the next ten to fifteen minutes.
Before you start to cook, make a reasonable list of what you are going to make, and then make red marks with a big magic marker next to anything not show stopping critical.
Because I tend to freak on the first night that my group comes I make the simplest menu possible. If I forget any part of it, or the proscuitto takes flight out the car window on the way to the house, there is always something else to eat.
We are having cannellini with soffritto (white beans with slowly caramelized onions, carrots, celery and garlic), paper thin slices of prosciutto, finochiona, and mortadella, a few different pecorni, a tossed green salad, and an apple cake from the bakery. If something has to go, it will be the beans, the only thing I have to cook. And you never know, it may get down to that, but I’m going to try to keep the faith, keep my clothes on, and keep talking so that I have no time to forget.
Every Thursday in Mercatale di Cortona, Trabalza, the best butcher as far as the crow can fly, roasts a pig stuffed with fennel and garlic, rosemary and sage, ever so slowly on a spit. The skin is crisped and the meat is as tender as soft butter. It is served on a hard unsalted roll and there is nothing like it. I could have eaten ten of them, but I fell asleep as I was crunching down on the last bite. Thank goodness I was close enough to my bed to inch over to it after my head banged down on the table. Italy is as always, ready to deliver. I have already bought the wine from the local tap, and tomorrow, the day my students arrive, I will buy the rest. We are on top of a mountain this time, so I’m just hoping that everybody finds me. Once they are there though, that’s good enough. The veiws are spectacular, and I’ll keep the food coming.