Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mangia Bologna: Cooking with Carmelita of Cook Italy (Part 2)

Four weeks ago, I was shopping in cooking in Bologna, Italy. My how time flies. Fast forward one month, and some of the seasonal ingredients I found in the markets in Italy are finally available here in New York State, including the first asparagus of the season! Sadly, I have yet to make it to the Union Square Greenmarket in time to buy some (sells out too early). But regardless, I thought it was high time I shared some more photos from my Bologna adventure. When we last were in Bologna, I had: gotten up at the crack of dawn; walked to the Milan train station in the foggy, semi-dark; boarded a high-speed train to Bologna; navigated my way through the city to meet Carmelita; slurped down a cappuccino; wandered through the back streets snacking on chocolate and pork; tried to follow as Carmelita exchanged remarks with shop owners, in rapid Italian, literally and figuratively over my head; and, after poking around a butcher shop that displayed its wares au naturale, half contemplated becoming a vegetarian.
Too soon, we were at Carmelita's darling apartment to begin cooking. In fact, I admired her sun-filled flat so much, I think she should seriously consider entering Apartment Therapy's Small Cool contest next year.
Side note: I entered mine the first year of the contest, and while it was small, it was deemed neither cool nor cute. This was before I realized how design-savvy AT readers are and how architecturally-savvy and creative other entrants would be. Sadly, I have made just a few improvements in the years since, but what can I say, my apartment suits me! At least until September, as my goal is to move once my lease is up.
But I digress. Carmelita's apartment is very cool with a large window overlooking a nearby church and a tricked-out kitchen running almost the length of one wall. The large prep table also doubles as her dining table, with bench seating tucked underneath.
First on the agenda was making the pasta dough. I had never made pasta. I may never make pasta again. I don't know if I have the patience to get the dough just so (something about folding and kneading and avoiding pleats). But in case I do get ambitious, Carmelita did make me write down the correct proportions: 100 grams of [cake or pastry] flour to 65 grams of egg.
With the dough tucked in the fridge, it was on to the other prep. Like shelling fava. I had never shelled fava beans before either. Nor would I have known that you can/should peel the skin off the individual beans.
We blanched the asparagus with the fava (since they were going to be pureed together), as well as boiled the hollowed-out round zucchini. Apparently, Italians do not like their veggies cooked al dente, as we left both pots on the stove much longer than I would have at home. But eventually, the zucchini was drained and cooled and half of the fava and asparagus blitzed together with olive oil to make a bright green sauce.
Once cooled, we stuffed the zucchini with a luscious mound of ricotta (which had been pushed through a potato ricer) mixed with the tiny shrimp (which had been cooked and coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle), olive oil, salt, pepper and freshly ground nutmeg. Garnished with larger shrimp (which were kind of mangled as I was not really good at slicing them lengthwise) and served on a bed of citron, I was pretty impressed -- this four ingredient dish looked like something from a food magazine.
However, eating would have to wait as the work wasn't over! Although the clams had been soaked and cooked, we still needed to shuck them, not to mention chop the parsley and garlic that would join the clams to make a simple sauce for the pasta. Plus there were morels to clean.
But once all that was complete, we took a quick break and popped out to Carmelita's corner wine shop, which just happened to be the famous Enoteca Italiana, to get a nice chilled white to drink with lunch.
The shop, which I later learned is in all the guidebooks for Bologna, is quite small but has a nice upfront area perfect for sipping a glass of wine and people watching. The shop also has a really interesting and well-priced selection of regional and Italian wines, but I could not face the thought of dragging wine bottles with me the rest of the afternoon (Unfortunately, I somehow got lost and couldn't find the shop when I tried to return later in the day. Oh well - another reason to return!).
With wine in hand, we returned to the apartment to cut the pasta. I was not a natural, by any means, but after folding and flouring and rolling and flattening a few times, I started to get the hang of it.
While the noodles dried, we combined the shucked clams, reserved clam liquid and olive oil. Once warmed through, we removed the pot from the heat and added the garlic and parsley.
Then, it was finally time to start eating. We as we cut into the stuffed zucchini, Carmelita threw the pasta in boiling water, deftly flipping the cooked noodles into the clam sauce mixture just as I licked the last shmear of ricotta from my knife.
While I twirled the pasta and simple clam sauce (and debated if I should break the no-cheese-with-seafood covenant and ask if Carmelita had any parmigiano reggiano), she was back at the stove lightly sauteing the morels (which gave off a lot of liquid) before cooking the fish fillets using a kind of steam fry method.
Once cooked, Carmelita plated the fillets on a pool of the green asparagus-fava puree, surrounded the pool with the remaining fava and asparagus and topped the fish with morels (kind of apropos as I learned some refer to morels as a "dryland fish"). One last drizzle of olive oil, and it was done.
I begrudgingly left some pasta and clams behind in the bowl so I would have room to enjoy the fresh, clean flavors of the vegetables and the flakiness of the fish. Despite my best efforts, I was only able to eat half the fillet, but made sure I downed all of the spring vegetables. After all, I knew it would be a while before I saw any for sale in my local markets.
Before I knew it, it was after 3 p.m. After more than six hours of walking, shopping, cooking and learning, it was time for me to teeter off in search of a caffeinated beverage in hopes of reviving from food coma. I needed a second wind to explore Bologna.
If you plan to visit Bologna in the near future, I encourage you to check out Cook Italy. And if you cannot get to Bologna anytime soon, here is a rough overview of the ingredients and method for the dishes I enjoyed. Buno appetito!
The Springtime in Bologna Menu
Round zucchini stuffed with ricotta and shrimp, served on sliced citron
Ingredients
2 softball-sized round zucchini
1 c. Ricotta cheese
Palmful of small shrimp (approximately 1/2 c.)
5 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
Olive oil
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
Method
Slice stem and top from zucchini, cut approximately 1/4 inch from stem.
Using a melon baller or paring knife and spoon, hollow zucchini; chop and reserve flesh for filling.
Boil hollowed out squash and lids in salted water until soft; scoop from boiling water, drain and cool.
Bring water back to a boil, add small shrimp and remove as soon as they turn opaque (e.g., less than a minute!).
Bring water back to a boil for a third time, add larger shrimp and remove as soon as they turn opaque (approximately 2 minutes).
Grind/mash/blitz small shrimp until they are at a chunky, paste-like consistency.
Combine shrimp paste with reserved raw, chopped zucchini flesh, ricotta and a glug of olive oil.
Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Mound filling into zucchini, garnish with cooked jumbo shrimp that has been sliced in half lengthwise.
Fresh pasta served with a sauce of clams, garlic and parsley
Ingredients
Little neck clams
Fresh pasta
Garlic
Parsley
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Method
Shamefully, the method we used is a bit hazy (early wake up call + walking + wine = haze) but Cook's Illustrated's version, although calling for a few added ingredients, looks close. Not a subscriber? Try this link.
Fried steamed fish topped with morels served over an asparagus and fava puree
Ingredients
Fish fillets
Fava beans, shelled with waxy skin removed (or not, your choice!)
Asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
Morels, cleaned
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Method
Again, I blame the haze, but do remember the method being quite simple: cook shelled and peeled fava beans and asparagus until tender; reserve half, combine the other half with a glug of olive oil and blitz using an immersion or standard blender; saute the morels in a dry pan, set aside; fry steam the fish until opaque; serve on a pool of the puree, surrounded by the reserved fava, asparagus and morels.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Summertime in the City: Urban Gardening

Perhaps it was a little overly optimistic of me, but I planted a container herb garden this weekend. Union Square's Saturday market was awash with plants of all kinds, so I figured now was a good time. And figured weekend temperatures in the 80s and 90s couldn't hurt either.
With full-sun Southern exposure, I have had great success growing herbs in the past. I typically stick with those that "keep on giving," like basil, mint and chives as opposed to things like cilantro and parsley, which don't tend to keep growing new leaves throughout the season (at least in my container). My other tip? Miracle-Gro (I use the kind formulated for tomatoes). I always buy a mint plant, since they are apparently harder to grow from seed. And although I was tempted to try growing basil from seed this year (and even purchased a packet), by buying two $2 plants at the green market, I also got instant gratification: a small handful of the bigger leaves perfect for rounding out an Asian-style noodle salad. Now if those smaller leaves would just start growing... In this heat, I could really use a mojito or basil-infused cocktail.

Peanut Noodle Salad

This is a nice variation of the standard summertime pasta or macaroni salad and goes great with all types of protein - chicken, shrimp, steak, tofu. Feel free to make the dressing in advance but don't toss with the noodles more than a few hours ahead as the acid will sometimes break down the pasta.

Ingredients For the dressing .5 c. Lime juice 1 T. Peanut butter (creamy or chunky is fine) 2 T. Sesame oil 2 cloves of Garlic, peeled and roughly chopped 1 t. of Ginger (fresh grated or fresh from a jar, not powdered) 1 T. Low sodium soy sauce 1 T. Tomato paste (or sauce or whatever tomato product you have around 1 packet Splenda or 1 t. brown sugar* Hot sauce or Sriracha (to taste) *Depending on how acidic the dressing tastes, and what kind of tomato product you used, you may want to add a bit of sweetness for balance For the salad 8 oz. Soba or whole wheat spaghetti, prepared to packaged directions, drained and cooled .5 c. Snow peas or sugar snap peas, julienned .5 c. Zucchini, shredded and drained/water squeezed out .24 c. Carrots, shredded .5 Red bell pepper, julienned 2 Scallions, thinly sliced .25 c. Unsalted roasted peanuts, chopped 2 T. of Basil leaves and Spearmint leaves, cut into long thin strips (chiffonade) Method For the dressing, using a standard or immersion blender, blitz the first seven ingredients (lime juice through tomato paste). Sample and add sweeter and hot sauce to taste. For the salad, combine pasta and vegetables. Toss with dressing a few hours before serving. Serve chilled with hot grilled chicken, shrimp, beef or tofu.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Treats: Pancakes and Scones

Happy Easter Monday! Despite temperatures in the 30s and 40s (yes, I saw snow flurries Easter morning), warmer weather was definitely on everyone's mind as evidenced by some of the dishes we had over the weekend. Yes, there was lamb. Yes, there was ham. But we also enjoyed zucchini pancakes, as published in The New York Times Temporary Vegetarian column. I prepped everything ahead of time -- dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another, shredded zucchini draining in a colander -- and mixed the batter right before frying. A double batch easily made 30 smallish pancakes with batter remaining (which I used the next day with fine results). Served with a dollop of garlicky cucumber yogurt salad (subbing dill for the cilantro and Penzey's Greek seasoning for Penzey's Turkish seasoning), it was a perfect appetizer: flavorful, light and something you could eat with your hands! A visit home also meant a visit to the local warehouse club store, and the opportunity to score fresh berries at reasonable prices, albeit a heavy carbon footprint. However, thrown into a scone mix from Orangette, by way of Everybody Likes Sandwiches, the results were worth it: barely sweet, the dense, biscuit-like dough was a great vehicle for the juicy blackberries and strawberries. Sprinkled with some cinnamon sugar, these scones and a cup of tea made a great pre-Easter mass breakfast...and post-mass breakfast II...and afternoon snack. Note to self: when berries are back in season at the Green Market, double the recipe!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mangia Bologna: Shopping with Carmelita of Cook Italy (Part 1)

I'm pretty luck have a job that offers the perk of international travel. Over the years, I've been to some pretty nice places: Istanbul, Mexico City, Vancouver (actually, most of the international destinations pictured on the right sidebar). However, the one drawback is that my trips often come together at the last minute; leaving little time for planning, much less time to convince a friend to go along. Regardless, I *always* try to take a few vacation days around my trips (otherwise I would never get to see anything but the hotel) and have learned to have fun traveling solo. Last summer, while in Istanbul, I discovered a perfect solo travel activity: cooking courses. I attended a class at Cooking Alaturka and found that culinary tourism is a great way to break up a solo trip, and learn something about the culture and region in the process. Even with minimal time to plan, I knew I wanted to hit Bologna on my trip to Italy. A quick chowhound.com search turned up several culinary courses, but most were multi-day and expensive. However, one in particular popped up a few times: Cook Italy.

Run by the colorful Carmelita, Cook Italy offers a slew of courses, including a personalized one-day market tour and cooking lesson in Bologna. I emailed Carmelita on a Saturday night, confirmed the date on Sunday, went to my bank on Monday to send a deposit via wire transfer and departed for Italy that evening. The next foggy Friday morning, I hopped on the 07:30 Eurostar Italia and arrived at Bologna Centrale one hour later.

Bologna is quite a charming small city, even straight from the train station. It was an easy walk to the cafe (Terzi, Via Oberdan 10) Carmelita recommended as the meeting place.

I was Carmelita's only "guest" for the day. Although I worried it might be a little awkward, it was far from it! Carmelita, who has run the business for almost 10 years, is very knowledgeable and passionate about Bologna, food and Italy in general.

After a quick hello and coffee, we set off for the shops. First stop, a quick tour of Eataly Bologna.

Eataly Bologna, which only opened a few weeks before my visit, is an outpost of the larger Eataly in Turin. Carmelita told me the building, which was once a church and movie theater had been extensively remodeled. Picture a Barnes & Nobel meets Dean & Deluca, with extra cafes and food outposts for coffee, lunch or wine. With lots of books in Italian and English, including an extensive cooking section, Eataly is clearly designed for the Bologna yuppie -- highly designed and stylized, but, according to Carmelita, there are a few food gems mixed in with the products that may have earned shelf space more for their marketing and packaging. I was impressed with the interior: the casual spaces designed to grab a coffee or snack, the number of chairs inviting visitors to sit down and flip through a book or two, and the nice basement bathroom! With rumors circulating Eataly is coming to NYC next year, I will be curious to see if the concept is more similar to the Bologna store (likely, due to space issues) or Turin location. But with other shopping to do, we set off, peaking in Gilberto (good for all types of balsamic, according to Carmelita) before checking out the produce stalls. Since I had barely eaten a vegetable on the trip, I asked if our lunch menu could take advantage of the lovely spring produce. And it was lovely. While we're just seeing the first ramps of the season in NYC, Bologna was already enjoying purple artichokes, slender asparagus stalks and fava in velvety pods. The little stalls we visited also had some non-local products, including fruit (plastic wrapped pineapple not grown in Italy). But Carmelita, a fan of tracability, a least in terms of growing region, shunned the strawberries and went for things like morels and zucchini, as well as this interesting citrus fruit with an edible pulp: citron or cedro/cendrone. With the produce in hand, next up was protein. Carmelita took me into her butchers shop (to gawk), but as it was Friday and Lent I was all for a fish lunch (especially after seeing the meat in it's close-to-natural-state). True confession: I never liked fish as a child. In fact, my mother once tried to convince me a scallop was a vegetable so I would try it (it didn't work). But I've since learned to enjoy most shellfish and some other types of seafood. But not sardines, although I can appreciate the beautiful color of these fresh specimens. As well as laugh at the antics of these odd crustaceans (I have no idea what they are, but am glad we did not purchase any after seeing them alive!). video
We ended up with some shrimp (two kinds: the tiny salad-type and a few larger ones), clams and what I think was a bluefish, which was filleted in store (unlike what I usually purchase: filleted on a ship somewhere and then flash frozen and sold at Trader Joes).
Before going back to Carmelita's, we made a quick stop at her corner deli. And lest you think this was anything like the corner bodega or your deli at home, let me assure you it was not. "Deli" is too modest a term for this gourmet shop, where we picked up some ricotta and a sample of pork two ways (I did break the Lenten rule for the taste test!).
After all, how could I resist sampling some roast pork from this fine animal (distracted by the citron, I didn't notice it still had its head until after my taste).
Too soon, shopping was done and it was back to Carmelita's very cute apartment to get to work. The final menu included:
*Round zucchini stuffed with ricotta and shrimp, served on sliced citron
*Fresh pasta served with a sauce of clams, garlic and parsley
*Steamed fish topped with morels served over an asparagus and fava bean puree
Hungry yet? Then stay tuned for part two -- the cooking and the eating!

Mangia Milan: Gelato at Bianco Latte

Crossing multiple time zones can really mess with a person's system. While I typically have no problems with my sleep patterns, I do tend to lose my appetite for a few days after arrival. And when one is traveling in Italy, that's a real shame. But one Italian treat goes down very easy - whether you have just stuffed yourself with bread and cheese or have gone 24 hours without a proper meal. Gelato! My first free afternoon in Milan, I took a long walk from Piazza della Republica to the Duomo square and back. I passed many gelato shops, including Grom (which has two outposts here in NYC), but one shop in particular caught my eye: Bianco Latte. Perhaps it was the large, bright windows (an anomaly on the stretch of Via Turati I was walking down). Perhaps it was the crowd gathered in the front of the shop. But I think it was really the rainbow of gelato colors that drew me in to Bianco Latte (which translates to "white milk" in English). The first night, I was modest and ordered a small cone of yogurt and strawberry to eat while strolling back to my hotel. The yogurt flavor was very reminicent of my favor frozen yogurt in New York (Frogurt brand sold at Bloomingdales' 40 Carrots) and the strawberry tasted like fresh fruit. Suddenly, my appetite was back, but it seemed gluttonous to walk back for more. Day two was a large cup of yogurt, raspberry and a deep, rich raspberry-chocolate flavor. The gelato was so rich and the portion so generous, in fact, that I shamefully could not finish the whole thing. Sadly, I went to Bologna on day three, and did not make it back to Milan in time to visit Bianco Latte before they closed for the evening. But I made up for it the next day. First, with a refreshing medium cup with yogurt, grapefruit (icy and tart) and pineapple (So amazing that, as I was eating it while walking, I actually had to stop in my tracks to savor the flavor. It was that good). As it was my last day, and I was leaving for the airport before the shop would open the next morning, I threw caution to the wind and had one last small cone later that day before returning to my hotel. I went with the pistachio, which was salty and sweet at the same time. Mixed with roasted nuts, the pistachio was by far my favorite flavor. But it was also bittersweet, as it was my last taste of Bianco Latte! Bianco Latte also has a very nice counter for coffee and light snacks, including seats up front, as well as a sit-down cafe, and a takeaway area with salads (perfect for a light hotel room picnic). Despite all of the gelato (not to mention bread and cheese) I consumed over four days, I returned home down 2 lbs. Call it the jet lag diet! I just need to return to Milan and Bianco Latte soon to test it once more.

Next post: Shopping and cooking in Bologna.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mangia Milan: Carbo Loading

My last trip to Italy was right after college graduation. I spent two weeks backpacking from Lake Como to Naples and back up to Venice. With hardly any lira to my name, I was more concerned about paying for my train tickets and hostel stays than eating well. In fact (I'm ashamed to admit it), I ate a lot of McDonald's on that trip. Nine years later, I had the opportunity to revisit northern Italy. While circumstances had changed -- Italy was on the euro, I was staying at hotels vs. hostels -- I was still traveling solo and looking for ways to eat well on the cheap. But on this trip, I avoided McDonald's all together and found several quick, inexpensive options. There was one common thread: all involved two of Italy's staple food elements -- bread and cheese.

First stop, Princi Bakery. Prinic has been lauded by the New York Times and other blogs for its chic approach to baked goods. With several outposts in Milan, I visited the stores at 5 Piazza XXV Aprile (which uses a numbered ticket system for ordering, making for much better crowd control) and Via Ponte Vetero 10 (which has more indoor seating, including a communal table good for solo diners, if you can actually get them to take your order!).

The best thing at Princi? The focaccia, or pizza as they called it. Servers snip off large squares which they will heat (Italian="caldo") and snip into smaller squares making it easier to eat with a fork (only children seem to eat pizza with their hands). During my stay, I sampled focaccia with zuchini, focaccia with eggplant and the focaccia with spinach, tomato, brie and some other kind of cheese pictured here (it was my favorite). If you go, grab an extra piece to eat on the plane home. Hot or cold, it was delicious and a pretty good bargain at about €3.50 (prices based on weight; cash or debit only). Next up was a chowhound.com recommendation for wood-fired pizza. Sibilla, located on Via Mercato, 14 (a little up from the Princi on Via Ponte Vetero), has no exterior signage -- just the name "pizzeria" over its door. It is clearly a family place. In fact, I went on a Saturday afternoon shortly after it opened and of the five or so tables, I was the only one with no kids!

I asked my server what the most popular pizza was and without hesitation he said the margarita, so of course I ordered it. The pizza itself was fairly standard - good and hot, but they clearly used "cheap" cheese, making what could have been great similar to your average New York slice. However, the servers were friendly, service was prompt, portions generous and there was no cover charge. A Coke Lite, green salad and pizza cost me €14 (cash only).

For those overwhelmed by the Duomo crowds (or line of tourists snaking around the Duomo roof -- all I could think when I was up there was "safety hazard"), Luini is a good place to recharge with a quick snack. Luini was highly recommended in multiple guidebooks, as well as sites like chowhound.com.

People are gaga for its panzerotti, or little hand pies. Luini offers a selection of these treats in both sweet and savory flavors. I went in late in the afternoon, and pickings were slim. I ended up with a salami and mozzarella version for €2.50. It had been sitting in the case, and was room temperature, but still tasty. The dough was not greasy in the least (perhaps it had been baked vs. fried) and was a tasty snack on the go (especially since so few Italian snacks are meant to be eaten on the go -- in fact, most Luini patrons seemed to linger outside the door and finish their snack). I however was thirsty and decided the perfect way to wash down a panzerotti was with a cocktail, so I went around the corner to Zucca. The bar/cafe, which is on Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, has beautiful mosaics, and is well-positioned for people watching. Pay the cashier, belly up to the longer bar for alcohol or shorter for a coffee, give the bartender your receipt and wait for your drink. Or pay a cover to sit, relax and giggle at tourists. I am a sucker for local liquors (once, in Antwerp, I ordered an Elixir d'Anvers, a yellow, anise flavored beverage I sipped once and then traded in for a cosmo). So of course, I ordered a Zucca and soda. Zucca, which I gather is a rhubarb liquor, is quite bitter and reminiscent of sour root beer. However, for €3.50 (plus all the green olives, chips and Doritos I could eat), it was worth it just to stand and gawk, like any good tourist. Next up - Mangia Milan: Gelato.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mangia Milano

As I write, I am in the Milan Malpensa airport lounge waiting for my flight home - buono viaggio to me!
It has been a very eventful past five days -- after my work obligations were over, and I had semi-recovered from lack of sleep, I had a wonderful time meandering in Milan, as well as a blast doing a private market tour and cooking course in Bologna.
Despite having subsisted mainly on bread, cheese and gelato, between walking so much and only really eating one meal, one snack and one gelato a day (ok, yesterday I had two), I would not be surprised if I lost a little weight.

More stories and pictures to come, but here's a taste of what's ahead. Ciao for now!