Posts Tagged ‘US’

An ancient wheat fights it’s way back into the limelight – oh, glorious Farro

Friday, November 20th, 2009

I love farro. Ever since living in Tuscany, farro is my preferred grain. In summer, we eat it cooked & cold with veggies and greens in salads. In winter, it is the base of warming stews and soups. And I love the earthy, hearty taste of farro cookies and cakes. Now, as days become shorter and the temperature drops (yes, even in Tuscany), there is nothing more scrumptious than the nutty-sweet taste of a farro cookie and a mug of hot coffee.
So I was flabbergasted just now, while doing research on farro for the introduction of Giovanna and Niccolina’s new Christmas cookie (which the Chicago Tribune rated “tasty to boot”, by the way), to find out that farro was considered a “health food” in the US. You do not know what you are missing!

Farro is spelt. Although there is a fair amount of debate out there if the Tuscan farro is really spelt or emmer (very close cousins), I can say to the best of my knowledge that farro is spelt. Farro is the mother of all wheat. It originated in Palestine in the bronze ages, it was found in the pyramids in Egypt and fed the Roman legions building their empire. And it has been a staple in Tuscan cooking and baking forever. I guess it is fair to say that farro is a very “stubborn” plant. It needs little and can thrive in harsh ecological conditions. Which is why it was so established as a staple crop in many areas of the world. It was even grown in the US, where it is said to have been introduced in the 1890s. But as agriculture advanced, high-yielding varieties were bred (also, high-volume commercial baking operations wanted varieties rich in gluten) and mankind learned to manipulate the land with a mix of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and other gadgets of modern agriculture. Those new varieties spread like wildfire and farro was replaced. Some areas, such as Tuscany, would not let go of their farro and continued farming this grain, which is as Tuscan as Chianti wine.
Luckily with a growing interest in more natural farming and more wholesome eating, farro is now experiencing a renaissance also elsewhere. For one, given its nature, farro requires less fertilizer than other wheat varieties, and is hence a natural crop for organic farming, although it will yield less than bread wheat (which explains while it is more expensive).
But it also has more protein than wheat and thanks to its tough husk, freshness and nutrients are maintained better than in other grains. So, I guess these factors make farro a “health food”. Well, then so be it! Eat healthy, live happy, enjoy your farro, and try this recipe for farro & raspberry jam cookies recently posted on Lucullian Delights (a very inspiring Italian themed foodblog) http://www.luculliandelights.com/2009/11/farro-and-raspberry-jam-cookies.html

If you do not feel like baking yourself, enjoy Giovanna’s and Niccolina’s handmade Spelt & Figs Cantuccione. You can enjoy it slice by slice just like that, or toast the slices a second time to make the classic Tuscan “Cantuccini” – biscotti as they are usually called in the US. Available online at www.piazzaitalianmarket.com/store


Pasta you can see the wheat in (with porcini mushrooms)

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Comparing Durum Wheat Pasta to another artisan Italian pasta widely available in the US during a comparative tasting last week, one taster had comment, which I want to share with you today: “you can really see the wheat”, she said.

I always put a standard pasta next to Durum Wheat Pasta pasta when doing tastings and in store demos, just because the texture looks different, the color is richer – the pasta looks more alive to me. But I never came up with these simple words. Yes, you can see the wheat!

So today, as Carlo and his staff are shelling this year’s grain harvest (which by the way was great in quality but not really satisfactory in quantity due to the heavy rains in early spring and the dessert like temperatures in summer. Side note: it amazes me how what is celebrated as the perfect climate by one crop farmer can be deadly for the other. In this case, the weather conditions were absolutely perfect for the vines, a notion not shared by Carlo and fellow grain farmers…), let me talk pasta.

Carlo’s pasta is made with a richer form of flour, the so called “semolato”, rather than the “semolina” which is the typical white flour. To explain the difference, let me remind you the composition of a grain kernel (from the outside to the inside)

- the protective skin is called the husk (or hull)
- then comes a layer of bran, which mainly contains fibers
- next is the endosperm, divided into two layers, of which the outer one contains proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and enzymes. The inner part of the endosperm (which is ca. 80-85% of the kernel) is composed of starch and gluten, a protein.
- protected by all these layers is the germ, the living cell of the kernel, and it contains antioxidants, vitamins E and B, minerals and proteins.

The classic white flour (“semolina”) is milled to separate the inner layer of the endosperm from all the other components, using only 60-64% of the actual kernel and loosing many of the positive properties of bran and germ in the process.
The semolato Carlo uses for his pasta is the result of stone-milling the grain and significant amounts of the bran, the germ and the outer layers of the endosperm.


The results are more complex taste profile of the pasta, which is easier to digest, contains more nutrients and shows off the wheat in the pasta itself! It is NOT a whole wheat pasta though, because it does not contain ALL the kernel. Speaking among us, we use the term “semi-integrale”, which could be translated into “partly whole wheat”. In any case wholesome, especially as Carlo follows strict organic agricultural procedures on his farm and also respects organic regulations during the actual production of the pasta: it is dried at low temperatures in order to maintain the proteins, vitamins and amino acids, which are heat sensitive.

Having said all that, how about a nice plate of pasta with porcini mushrooms, while they are still in season (for four people)

1 box of Scrumptious Pantry Durum Wheat Pasta Farfalle
½ stick butter
Scrumptious Pantry 100% Mission Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 garlic cloves
2 cups sliced porcini mushrooms (make sure the gills are white and not yellowish-greenish, which is an indicator that they are old!)
½ cup white wine
¼ cup chopped parsley
freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Melt half of the butter in a saucepan with a dash of olive oil, at low temperature add the slightly crushed garlic cloves to extract their aroma. Add the mushrooms, but be careful not to fry them! Add salt, pepper and white wine. Let simmer for a couple of minutes.
Cook the pasta in a separate pot (contrary to popular belief you do not need to put oil in the water, nor should you rinse the pasta with cold water. The latter would wash away the starch that is needed to have the sauce stick better to the pasta), when al dente drain, take garlic cloves out of the sauce, add the pasta, stir and let sit for one minute, adding the remaining butter and the parsley. Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese to your liking.


Autumn is here – let’s have Polenta!

Monday, October 19th, 2009

First, I need to apologize for being absent so long, but I was traveling all over the US for five weeks presenting the wonderful foods and wines of Italy and had no time left to write something worth your time. But now I am back and I promise that posting frequency will be back to normal asap!

When I left Italy, it was still summer: nice and warm, eating ice cream outside at 1am and wearing light summer dresses. I returned to a walk-in fridge. It is cold, foggy and absolutely no summer anymore. I am not even sure that this is even autumn - which would be in line with my earlier post about the loss of seasons. From not knowing how to create a breeze in our heat drenched apartments to turning on the heating - all in six weeks. Pretty impressive.

With colder weather comes the quest for all those nice autumn and winter dishes - risotto with porcini mushrooms! With white truffles! Or some nice, hearty polenta. Polenta is my favorite comfort food. I love the creaminess of the polenta (Italian for cornmeal), which goes hand in hand with a nice structure of the stone milled corn. This is important. Instant cornmeal is nothing I believe in. Too finely ground cornmeal is nothing I believe in either. My polenta needs to have a bite to it. And if that means that I have to stir it over a low flame for 50 minutes, than that is what I happily do. Plus, there is nothing more relaxing than zipping a nice glass of wine while observing at the bubbles in the polenta alining their tunes.

Try yourself with my favorite polenta recipe:

1/2 lb. Il Covone Cornmeal
10 fresh Italian style Sausages
2 cups mixed fresh mushrooms
1 shallot
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup parsley
2 leaves of sage
2 tbsp. of Cosimo’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt
freshly ground black pepper

Peel the sausage and cook the meat in an on olive oil lined pan over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Chop the shallot and sauté it in an olive oil in a separate pan. When the shallot is transparent, add chopped parsley, mushrooms. Add salt and pepper to taste. Once the mushrooms are soft, add the sausage and the wine, cooking over a medium-high temperature for about an hour.

To prepare the polenta, bringing 2 liters of salted water to boil. Gradually add the cornmeal, whisking it for five minutes. Continue to stir every four - five minutes with a wooden spoon at medium-low temperature until done (ca. 50 minutes).

Serve the polenta in a deep dish and the sauce in the middle (serves six)


Espresso Wars

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

The „Caffé“ – what in the US would be called espresso – seems to be a simple drink, but it is not. It is a religion, and its preparation a religious ceremony. The „Caffé“ is what moves the Italian nation. The fist staggering steps every morning are directed into the kitchen, to prepare the dense, black, strong liquid. No lunch, no dinner without „Caffé“ to celebrate the closing of a meal. Classically, the „Caffé“ at home is prepared in a “mokka” – a little coffeemaker which is sat on the stove. And this is where – as with every religion – differences begin. How to prepare a good „Caffé“? After five years of living in Italy and hearing my own „Caffé“ preparations being accompanied by frantic “mai che cavolo fai?” (“what the heck are you doing”) from my Italian friends every time I thought that I had resolved the puzzle, I called for a „Caffé“ summit. To decide on the issue once and for all.

The only thing not debated, are the ingredients water (bottled, not from the tap, as not to interfere with the pure taste of the „Caffé“) and ground coffee beans (from a bag of beans or ready ground coffee that is not open for longer than 3 weeks).

When it came to water levels, emotions started to run high. Discussion if the water container must be filled exactly below the little valve, exactly to its middle or rather filled completely led to loud voices waging back and forth and at a point I was wondering if tonight would be the end of some lifelong friendships. Through all the heat, no one was able to give me a reason for their choice – no explanations about physics and water pressure, but simply “e più buono” (“it tastes better”).

And the coffee? Press it firmly into its little strainer? Yes, said one. It becomes denser and stronger! Yes, but only if you take a toothpick and make three holes into it, added the next. Nooooo, interfered the rest. Pressing makes it too bitter, you have to fill the strainer loosely. Yes, said the next, but fill it over the top. You have to heap a little mountain of coffee on top – loosely. The remaining heads present around the table nodded. Yes, yes, a small mountain. I gave them an astonished look: would this mountain not be pressed down by the upper part of the mokka? Would that not be the same then pressing from the beginning? No, was the answer: that way it is “più buono”

And the cooking process? Have the water pass slowly to get denser and stronger, everyone agreed with that. But how could that be achieved? Well, turn the flame on its lowest, with the lid closed, said one. Noooo, said the other, turn the flame high, with the lid open, so the cold air can get into the mokka, and turn down the flame the moment the coffee starts to flow. Almooost said the third group: turn the flame on low, with the lid open and close it as soon as the coffee starts to flow.

I sat around the table and was desperate. Because over the discussion we had finished the meal, enjoyed the sweets and it was time to prepare the “Caffé”. Beaten, I pushed back my chair, got up and reached to my mokka. My hand was shaking when I picked up the water bottle. I poured, and sure enough, when I put down the bottle, I heard voices rising: “Ma nooooooooooo, che cavolo fai”?


It’s Christmas Time!

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

You might think I am joking, but I am not! Although it is only July, we have started to prepare for Christmas. Most importantly, we have asked us the following question: what would our American friends like to have made available to them?? As I have a pretty sweet tooth, Giovanna, Niccolina and I sat down together to think about a Christmas item that is true to Italian tradition, to Tuscany, can be transported all the way and does not need any preservatives? And something that Americans will also like to eat...If you are shaking your head at this point, wondering why this is so complicated, let me assure you: it ain't easy. Take for example the most classic Christmas cake of all: The Panetone. It comes traditionally from Milan, but has been sitting on dinner tables at Christmas all over Italy for many decades now. Because it is just so darn good. But unfortunately it is impossible to bring it to the US without compromising the natural ingredient list. The humidity, temperature changes, pressure... they would ruin the Panetone, if it were not for preservatives and other additives. Which we do not like in our food. So - no Panetone.

Next big Christmas cake is the Panforte: dried fruit and nuts, it comes from Siena and was once so valuable that it was used as currency: Sienese paid their taxes this way. Giovanna and Niccolina do a Panforte that any king would accept as tax payment even today, but for some reason it is really difficult to convince the American palate of it's yumminess.

So we took the most classic Tuscan cookie - the Cantucci - and varied the ingredients to give it a christmassy taste. Kamut flour, chestnut flour, spelt flour, walnuts, hazelnuts, chocolate, orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom .. you name it, we tried it!
We went through a lot of tasting (which we thoroughly enjoyed) and finally decided on a Cantuccione of …. no telling yet! It will be our November surprise! And if you have any ideas of ingredients for Cantucci, pls. let us know! We would love to hear them!


Bring out the extra virgin olive oil – Pizza with Cosimo

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

The beauty of living in an old Italian farmhouse with an equally old kitchen is to have a real wood fired oven. Cosimo, who produces the fragrant extra virgin olive oil we are bringing to the US, is fortunate enough to have one dating back to 1600 (pretty impressive!).

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a pizza bake out to celebrate….life. What can I say, it was a feast!

Now, pizza in Italy is a religion. And as it is with religions, there is room for conflict. In the south, especially in Naples, birthplace of the pizza, the dough is soft, with a high rising crust. In Tuscany and in the north of Italy, people will prefer the crisp, thin pizza. Take someone from Naples for pizza in Tuscany and he will be very unhappy all evening (no, I am not exaggerating - I tried unsuccessfully several times before giving up for good).

So the yeast dough is rolled out really thin, covered with a very basic tomato sauce (tomatoes, basil, salt) and whatever topping one might like. Talk creativity! Very popular also the "pizza in bianco" (white pizza), which does not have sauce. Only a thick layer of tasty gooey cheese and then lots of other treats (my personal favourite is a pizza in bianco with stracchino, a creamy cow milk cheese from Lombardia, and radicchio).

Cosimo (pictured here with his lovely wife Annick) prefers the simplest version of all, which relies on the pure taste of his extra virgin olive oil and nothing but his olive oil (well, maybe a pinch of salt): la schiacciata. The dough is rolled out finely, baked till it is cross and then the liquid gold Cosimo produces in San Miniato is generously poured over it. Add a pinch of salt and basta! If you are out for a treat, add slices of prosciutto.

One comment on food and drink matches: although Italy is one of the world's great wine countries, the drink to go with pizza is beer!

More on extra virgin olive oil in the January 11, 2009 post in this blog!


Homemade Ricotta!!

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Give me a taste of fresh ricotta - the creamy, fresh cheese traditionally from Sicily where it is done with sheep's milk - and I am in heaven. The perfect way to indulge: on a slice of bread with honey for breakfast, adding a yummy creaminess to tomato sauces, as softly melting cheesecake.... so many opportunities!

Now you can try to make it at home with this recipe I got from an old Sicilian Mamma living in the US:

Homemade Ricotta
1 gallon of whole milk
1 pint of heavy cream
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup white vinegar (she recommended Heinz)

Keep milk at room temperature for 3 hours. Add all the ingredients and let the milk boil at medium flame stirring once in a while for about 50-60 min. When the mix starts to bubble or separate, turn the flame off for few hours and let it sit so the ricotta rises. Then use a strainer to scoop out the ricotta leaving the water behind, squeezing it lightly with your hands or in a clean kitchen linen.

What to do now?

PASTA IN HEAVEN: CHUNKY TOMATO SAUCE WITH RICOTTA

1 box of my durum wheat pasta rigatoni shape (in The Scrumptious Pantry)
1 onion
1 celery
1 carrot
10 oz. ground beef
peel of 1 untreated lemon
24.5 oz. canned or fresh tomatoes
½ cup dry red wine (i.e. Chianti) – the rest is to be drunk with dinner!
1 tablespoon of Roberta’s sun-dried tomato spread (in The Scrumptious Pantry)
7 oz. fresh ricotta cheese
2 teaspoons dried basil (or a handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped)
3 tablespoons of Cosimo’s extra-virgin olive oil (in The Scrumptious Pantry)
Freshly ground pepper, salt and nutmeg to taste

Sautè chopped onion, carrots and celery in olive oil. When the onions are golden brown, add the beef and ground lemon peel and fry over medium heat for five minutes. Add red wine, and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add sun-dried tomato spread, basil, and canned tomatoes, stir till all ingredients are mixed well, cover and let simmer for an hour. When almost ready, boil salted water for pasta and cook about 9 minutes - drain pasta and add to the sauce. Let simmer for two minutes on medium heat, so the pasta can absorb the sauce’s aromas. Add the ricotta cheese and nutmeg to taste.