Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This Month's Flavor: Italian

Last month I took you on a virtual tour of France’s culinary gems.  I also touched on my dilemma when asked about my preferred food ethnicity, how I find myself toggling back and forth between French and Italian.  The result will be this month’s flavor of the month feature centering on the delectable delights of Italy.

I am going to do something a little different this time, which will enable me to conquer two article projects in one.  Instead of a dissertation on the ingredients of Italian cuisine or a culinary virtual jaunt through Italy, we are going on a virtual pilgrimage to Long Island’s mecca of Italian cooking.  Before abandoning this post, those of you who do not reside on Long Island will be inspired as well.  There are similar havens to shop for authentic Italian ingredients and prepared foods in most metropolitan areas.  Once you finish reading this, I just know that your fingers will be typing ‘Italian markets’ into your search engine directories in a hunger-driven quest.

One of my favorite places to shop for my kitchen inventory is Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace.  Come on now, every good Italian has to have either an Uncle Tony or an Uncle Giuseppe!  When I check my pantry shelves and announce to Brian that we have to go visit Uncle Giuseppe, he jumps at the delicious opportunity.  A visit to this market is not just another grocery shopping chore, it is an experience where all of your senses are indulged.  The enticing aromas of Italian cooking emanate from every corner, Italian music fills the air, colorful displays of fresh produce and baked creations provide visual stimulation, and the samples for the shopper to taste … oh the samples!

As we stride through the parking lot, moving closer and closer to the doors that beckon, tantalizing aromas waft into the outside air.  Like dogs that have picked up on a scent, we excitedly follow our noses, press on and enter.  Immediately those fragrances are amplified; the initial experience is instant aromatherapy for anyone who savors good food.  A result of wise marketing strategy, the scents are lofting from the departments nearest to the entrance, a pizzeria and essentially a super-super sized Italian deli and pork store combination.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of the pork store, it is an Italian vendor that sells, well, pork.  The offerings come in the form of all the traditional Italian cold cuts, like salami, mortadella, capicola, prosciutto and pancetta.  Characteristically, whole salamis and sopresatas seductively dangle from the ceiling.  At Uncle Giuseppe’s, sopresata is made right in this department and there are often samples of it available to try. The deli prepares fresh meals daily, from pasta salads to eggplant rollatini; from chicken parmigiana to lasagna; chicken Milanese to fried calamari.  Every possible Italian appetizer, first course or entrée can be purchased here.  If you are going to opt for takeout some night, do it right.  This take out food is top quality.  The pizzeria offers several varieties of freshly made pizzas, paninis, calzones, pinwheels and strombolis.

As we move along we come to pasta headquarters.  Through a large window you can view fresh pasta being made and packaged for selling.  From traditional fettuccine to lobster-filled ravioli, fresh gnocchi and exotic tortellinis, you will be hard pressed to choose solely one or two pastas to add to your shopping basket.  Within view of the pasta section is another glass-encased kitchen where fresh mozzarella is being crafted.  When selecting a ball of the soft cheese for purchase from the display, you’ll note that it is still warm.  That warmth radiates into comfort in your hand as you realize just how fresh it is.  Ricotta is made fresh here as well.

On the subject of cheese, we round the corner and arrive at an impressive cheese department that offers a vast array of cheeses from all over the world.  If you love blues, they have gorgonzola from Italy, Rockford and bleu d’Auvergne from France and Cabrales from Spain.  Imported provolone, aged gouda, asagio, pecorino Romano, Comte, triple cream cheeses, they can all be found here … don’t forget to taste the samples!

The next section displays prepared ingredients for arranging on traditional antipasta platters, including such delicacies as stuffed roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms, prepared artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, caponata, etc.  The olive bar has over a dozen different olives to pick from.

The eye-popping produce department boasts colorful displays of gorgeous crimson orbs of tomatoes, boldly hued vibrant peppers, fresh herbs and luscious fruits.  The butcher department has all of the traditional meats as well as some hard-to find cuts such as the pork shanks that I required recently for a pork shank and fennel stew.  Italian sausages, both sweet and hot varieties, are freshly made on the premises.  Prime cuts of beef, ruby toned and nicely marbled, are arranged in perfect rows on display.  The seafood market at Uncle Giuseppe’s is an impressive layout that is reminiscent of an open-air seafood market in an Italian harbor.  Tubs filled with fresh clams, mussels and shrimp are lined up with trays of perfectly laid out fishes on their crushed ice blankets.   The seafood department also offers an extensive selection of prepared fish and seafood dishes ready for you to take home and heat up for a quick weekday dinner.

The bakery department always seems to be the most crowded as shoppers push their way to the front and center to take in the decadent cakes, cannolis, and sinfully attractive pastries.  Yes, samples abound here too!  This department makes fresh and tasty donuts in several flavor varieties including blueberry and pumpkin; as well as amazing apple fritters.  An entire section of the bakery is dedicated to aromatic freshly baked breads and rolls. 

The central portion of Uncle Giuseppes is filled in with shelves of nonperishable Italian ingredients, such as olive oils, balsamic vinegars, jars of various anti-pasta ingredients, plenty of dry pastas in a wide variety of shapes and flavors, cans upon cans of tomatoes and tomato paste and other dry ingredients such as polenta, biscotti, grissini and Arborio rice.

Naturally, I have saved the crowning attraction for last: the sweets department.  As you make your approach, your eyes, and you nose, will perceive the welcoming fountains of chocolate cascading and flowing.  Chocolatier display windows showcase quality chocolates and a gelato bar boasts several flavors of the creamy frozen treat.

This is not a shop to dash into for one or two items; such a feat of limitation is simply not possible.  Expect to stock up on all of your Italian cooking needs, perhaps make the plan to purchase one of the prepared entrees and stay for lunch in one of the café tables located at the front of the store.  Expecting company? Browse a few sections of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace, grab this and that for your shopping basket, and you can go home and put together a perfect platter to pick on like the one pictured above.  Oh, and did I mention the samples?

So what is the recipe to accompany this topic?  There are so many Italian dishes to pick from, and chances are I will share many of them in the future.  I’ve decided to pass along recipes for two basic pasta sauces that are staples in every Italian kitchen.  These two sauces can be made in large batches and then frozen for future use, enabling you to throw together a quick meal after a harried day.

The first is for the traditional Italian red sauce, or gravy as it is often referred, typically used for pastas as well as meats.  There are as many recipes for this sauce as there are Italian grandmothers.  If you don’t happen to have an Italian grandmother, this will at least get you started.

Basic Red Tomato Basil Sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic
½ onion, chopped
1 28 ounce can imported San Marzano plum tomatoes
¼ cup red wine
½ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Saute the garlic and onion for about five minutes.  Add the tomatoes, wine, chopped basil and Italian seasoning.  Stir ingredients, breaking up the tomatoes with the wooden spoon.  Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce heat to low.  Allow sauce to simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.  Check for consistency; begin adding the tomato paste, a spoonful at a time, until desired thickness is achieved.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Makes enough sauce for about one pound of pasta.

The next recipe is for pesto, which I adore.  You can read all about pesto in one of my past blogs:

Pesto can be used with pasta, tossed with vegetables and spread over fish, chicken or meat.

Pesto Sauce
2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 cup (packed) parsley leaves
1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup pignoli nuts
2 large garlic cloves
½ teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a food processor. Process until thoroughly chopped and blended.  Makes about 1 ½ cups sauce.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Eat Your Vegetables!

The government food pyramid recommends a healthy diet that includes three to five daily servings of vegetables.  For many years Americans held tight to a self-imposed aversion to vegetables.  In light of a few realizations, luckily, this trend has recently begun to recede.

For those members of the American baby-boomer generation, let’s take a journey down memory lane.  Follow the ghost of veggies past; don’t be afraid.  You are a child again, sitting at the family table with your faithful canine friend taking up his position under the table right against your knee.  Mom presents dinner.  We see a nice roast that she cooked for hours.  Some mashed potatoes, very good; but now what’s this we see?  A bowl of army issue-green hued textured mush.  Oh, and it smells!  It emanates a slight stink that hovers in the air.  Come to think of it, you smelled that an hour ago from your room at the other end of the house.  Oh my.  That dog’s going to eat plenty tonight!

This was the way with vegetables cooked by the older generations.  They knew only one way to prepare them – boiled, boiled and boiled some more.  Isn’t it funny how this generation of homemaking women, who had the time to put effort into preparing the vegetable course into something enticing, took the easy way out and just threw the green beans or Brussels sprouts into a cauldron, oh, um, I mean pot, and just boiled the color and flavor and crispness away?  Yet today, career women, and epicurean men, have embraced the process of placing as much preparation and culinary artistry into the veggie course as they do the rest of the meal.

Now let’s fast forward to the generation X’s and Y’ers.  It is now your childhood.  Those same vegetables are being plopped on your place setting and you, like your parents, coax the trusty living garbage disposal to your side.  This scenario continues, but less and less frequently as you become teenagers.  America is beginning to see the faint start of a food revolution.  Your parents have begun to discover new ways to prepare vegetables, whether through the television cooking shows on the public broadcasting channels or the cooking magazines that appear front and center at the checkout counter’s magazine rack.  As time marches on, new vegetables that you had never even heard of are appearing in our markets.  ‘What is fennel anyway?’ you may have asked at one point.  If your mother had merely boiled it to death, as her mother would have, you probably wouldn’t like that one either.  What you experienced, however, was a side dish that had some texture; it had flavor, and the flavor married well with the additional touches Mom used to cook it.  And so, those GenXers with parents who were willing to abandon their own parents’ way of cooking vegetables grew up to finally experience vegetables as they were meant to be eaten, and actually like them.  If you were one of these young adults who saw the light, chances are that your children are eating up their vegetables and poor ‘Buddy’ under the table isn’t looking quite so tubby.  Yes, children today will eat their vegetables if you enjoy them yourself and resist the urge to assume that they won’t just because you may not have as a young child.

Preparing tasty vegetables can be as simple of roasting them with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt of pepper.  Simple, yet delicious, as the cut sides of the vegetables caramelize during the roasting process, thus adding another facet of flavor.  Everything can be roasted, from fennel, carrots, parsnips, beets and Brussels sprouts in the fall and winter to asparagus and tomatoes and peppers in the warmer months.  Even cauliflower and broccoli florets can benefit from this treatment.

In my February blog on the foods of France, I shared a recipe for ratatouille, a versatile dish in which a medley of summer vegetables stew together, seasoned with herbs.

Salads are simple means of getting in some vegetables, and the ingredients to a salad are only as limited as you allow.  Absolutely any vegetable can go into a salad, and you can always make the salad more interesting texture-wise and color-wise with the addition of such embellishments as nuts, cheese, croutons, sliced apples or pears or dried cranberries.

Today, our markets abound with seemingly countless variety of vegetables from all over the world.  It is easy to get in our five servings a day, and there are endless ways in which to prepare any of them that beckons.  In the spirit of three to five a day, I will now pass along four easy vegetable recipes that are easy to prepare and will earn their rightful place on your menu alongside your best entrees.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Hazelnuts
½ pound thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound Brussles sprouts, stems trimmed
Extra Virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts

Cook the bacon in a skillet.  Set aside.  Halve the Brussels sprouts lengthwise and arrange cut side down in a single layer on a cookie sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes – you want the cut sides to brown.  Remove from the oven and place into a serving bowl.  Toss with the cider vinegar and the hazelnut oil, then stir in the cooked bacon pieces and the nuts.  Serves four.

 Braised Fennel with Apple Balsamic Vinegar
4 fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and black pepper
¼ cup white wine
½ cup chicken broth
1/2 cup apple balsamic vinegar

Chop off the finger-like stalks from the fennel bulbs.  Stand each fennel bulb on that cut side for stability and cut the bulb in half.  Remove the tough core.  Now cut each half into quarters or thirds, depending on the size of the fennel bulb.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat.  Brown the fennel bulbs in the skillet.  Once all of the cut sides have lightly browned, sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Add the wine and allow to reduce by half.  Add the broth, reduce heat to simmer and cover the skillet.  Allow to simmer until the bulbs are tender, about 10 minutes.  Remove the cover and add the apple balsamic vinegar.  Raise the heat to medium-high and allow to boil until the liquids have reduced and become syrupy.  Place fennel into a serving dish and spoon the balsamic mixture over.  Serves eight.

Warm Beet Salad
4 beets (red, gold or combination of the two) peeled, cut into 1-inch dice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 10-ounce package fresh baby spinach leaves
2 seedless Naval oranges, peeled and cut into segments
1 cup shelled walnuts
1 cup crumbled blue cheese

Preheat oven to 450-degrees. Place beets into a roasting pan, drizzle with two tablespoons olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss to coat.  Roast in the oven for approximately 45 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally.  Meanwhile, in a Tupperware container, shake the ½ cup olive oil, the vinegar, the ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper until well combined.  Combine the spinach leaves and orange segments.  Divide spinach and orange mixture among four salad plates.  As soon as the beets come out of the oven, divide them among the four salads, arranging on top of the spinach.  Sprinkle salads with the blue cheese and the walnuts, drizzle with the dressing and serve.  Serves four.

Zucchini, Yellow Squash and Patty Pan
2 zucchini, unpeeled, thinly sliced crosswise
2 yellow squash, unpeeled, thinly sliced crosswise
½ pound baby patty pan squash, unpeeled, halved horizontally
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup of assorted fresh herbs, chopped (such as parsley, basil, mint, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives … whatever you like and whatever you have an abundance of in your garden!)

Heat the olive oil on medium high heat in a large skillet.  Add all of the squash and sautee until very tender and some of them are starting to brown.  Add the garlic and continue to sautee for five minutes more.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Stir in the herbs.  Serves four.

There simply is no excuse now; summer is just around the corner.  If you have a green thumb, start planning a simple vegetable garden and get your entire family involved in the selection of vegetables to be planted.  If toiling away in the soil on a ninety-five degree day isn’t your thing, hang tight.  By mid-July the farm stands will be brimming with the most succulent, colorful bounty that your local growers have cultivated for your enjoyment.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Vanilla

While some may think of vanilla as plain or simple, pure vanilla provides a heightened aromatic experience when used in any sweet confection.  When the magic of pure vanilla is added to homemade ice cream ingredients, or to a batter for cakes, cookies or pie fillings, the flavor is pure bliss.

There is actually nothing simple at all about vanilla’s cultivation and harvest.  In a world where thousands of varieties of orchid flowers thrive, only one, the vanilla planifolia, produces something edible.  The vanilla bean is the fruit of this particular bloom, which opens for only for a few hours on one single day each year.  Buds are checked daily, hand-pollinated, and successful pollination results in one vanilla bean pod.  I would prefer not to imagine performing this intricate and tedious task for a living.  The pod will reach its six to ten inch length in six weeks, but requires another eight months to reach full maturity.  The pods are then hand picked and cured.  The curing process involves a quick dip in a pot of boiled water, followed by taking in some sun.  Hmm, a quick dip followed by sun worshipping, sounds very reminiscent of my days spent on the beach surrounded by an entire populace whose summer goal appears to be curing their own hides.  Once the pods are nice and hot, they are alternately wrapped in blankets to sweat overnight and laid in the sun to dry by day, a cycle that continues for several months.  During this time the beans ferment, taking on the characteristic aroma and flavor of vanilla, and the pod shrinks considerably and transforms into that thin, dark brown wrinkled specimen that we see in gourmet markets.  The entire process, from planting through curing, can last for up to five years.  The labor-intensive and time-consuming efforts are the justification for the not-so-frugal price tag.  The higher cost is money well spent, however, as will be evidenced in all of your baking projects.  Three quarters of the vanilla we see in our markets hails from Madagascar, located off the southeast African coast.  Vanilla beans are also produced in Tahiti, Mexico and Indonesia.

Vanilla beans can be purchased whole.  Seek out pods that are at least five inches in length, and avoid pods that appear dry or brittle.  When adding whole vanilla beans to a recipe, simply take a very sharp knife and slit the pod from end to end.  Then use the edge of the knife’s blade to scrape the beans into the mixing bowl.

The item that adorns the baking shelf in every household is that bottle of vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract should simply be the result of vanilla beans taking an intoxicating soak in a tub of alcohol.  The chopped beans basically macerate in an alcohol and water solution, which is then drained and left to age for several months.  When shopping for vanilla extract, be sure to check the label carefully.  “Pure” vanilla extract is the only extract that should be making any contact with your recipe.  Anything labeled “imitation” vanilla extract should be banned from your pantry.  Simply put, the composition of imitation vanilla extract is almost exclusively artificial ingredients and in fact very little actual vanilla.  The flavor is harsh and sometimes bitter.   The easiest pure vanilla extract to find for purchase is Nielsen-Massey Madascar Bourbon pure vanilla extract.  You can find this in Williams-Sonoma and in most gourmet markets where baking ingredients are sold.

If your only sampling of vanilla ice cream has been through corporate conglomerates, you have not had the sublime experience of that first blissful spoonful of homemade vanilla ice cream.  As with most ice cream recipes, you will need an ice cream maker.  If you have the cupboard or shelf space to store one, they’re not much larger than a standard food processor, I would recommend procuring one for the summer.  Making your own ice cream allows you to experiment with any combination of flavors that entice your fancy, and it’s a fun way to produce some sweet indulgence during the hot summer months without blasting the oven.  Once you have acquired an ice cream maker, start with this extremely simple recipe for vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla Ice Cream
1 1/3 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream
3 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine the milk and sugar using a hand held mixer until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the cream and the vanilla and continue mixing for another two to three minutes.  Transfer mixture to the work bowl of an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions.   Transfer into freezer safe airtight containers and freeze.

This can be served as is, either alone or as a topper for pies or brownies.  Another alternative that will take this recipe to the next level is to add a stir-in during the last five minutes of churning in the ice cream machine.  I once added chunks of peanut butter cup candy and that was a perfect marriage – literally, Brian was over the moon when he savored dessert that night.   A third option is to serve this ice cream with a topping that will compliment the vanilla flavor.  Make a raspberry topping by combining raspberry jam, pureed fresh raspberries and Chambord liqueur in a saucepan until the jam is melted and the ingredients are well mixed.  For an easy out, warm a jar of Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, until it becomes a pourable consistency and drizzle that as a topping.  Homemade vanilla ice cream is a work of art, but it can also serve as a palette for showcasing a combination of flavors with it.