Foodie Tuesday: Ripe and Sweet

I can still remember my first tomatoes.  No, that’s not a euphemism, and okay, they weren’t the first tomatoes I’d ever tasted, but they were definitely the most memorable.  I was seventeen, and newly arrived in Italy that late-August day to begin my year as a foreign exchange student.  At lunchtime, my host mother set a large ceramic bowl of quartered tomatoes on the table.  The tomatoes were freshly picked from the garden behind the house, still warm from the sun, and dressed lightly with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.

I sat at the table, jet-lagged and bewildered, and savored the sweetness of the tomatoes and the peppery, herbaceous olive oil.  The flavors were at once foreign and familiar, simple and nuanced.  This, I felt sure, was the very taste of summer—no—of happiness itself.

Spanish panzanella

Spanish panzanella

Now that we are careening headlong into prime-time tomato season (seriously, how are we already in the third week of July!?), here are a few incredibly simple and delicious ways to enjoy summer’s tomato bounty:

Spanish Panzanella
With a couple of simple twists (frying the bread in olive oil to fend off sogginess, adding anchovies and capers for a salty kick), my favorite food writer, Diana Henry, lends a touch of the exotic to what is traditionally an Italian bread-and-tomato salad.  Recipe here.

Summer Soup with Pistou
A(nother) Diana Henry recipe, from Plenty.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you only own one cookbook, Henry’s Plenty should be it.  Straightforward, creative, and eminently practical, Plenty contains recipes for every season and every palate.  This vegetable soup is hearty but not heavy, and the last-minute addition of fresh tomatoes imparts just the right amount of brightness.  The recipe can be found at the bottom of this post.

tartines

Summer tartines: tomato and goat cheese and avocado with lime and black pepper

Lunchtime Tartine
I know.  This is decidedly not a recipe.  It’s certainly not cooking, for heaven’s sake.  I’m including this tartine, though, because its simplicity is matched only by its tastiness.  Spread leftover pesto or olive tapenade on a slice of whole wheat country bread, preferably one with a chewy crust, and dot the surface with goat cheese.  Top with cherry tomatoes, then sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and pepper for a rustic lunch that’s filling but won’t weigh you down on a hot day.  (The last time I made tartines for lunch, I also made one topped with smashed avocado, a squeeze of lime, and lots of black pepper; the mellowness contrasted nicely with the tang of the goat cheese and tomatoes.)

There are so many ways to make the most of tomatoes.  I mean, I haven’t even mentioned caprese yet.   Summer is flying by, though, so however you plan to prepare them, get thee to a farmer’s market and pick up some ripe, sweet summer tomatoes, then mangia!  Mangia!

 

Summer soup with pistou

Summer soup with pistou

Diana Henry’s summer soupe au pistou, from Plenty
Gently cook 1 leek, 1 large potato, and 1 celery stalk, all chopped, in olive oil for 5 minutes, stirring.  Add 4½ cups chicken stock, season, and cook for 10 minutes.  Add 2 zucchini, chopped; 8 oz. green beans, trimmed; 1¼ cups cooked drained navy beans; and 12 cherry tomatoes, quartered.  Cook for 5 minutes, uncovered, then add 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley.  Put 2 bunches basil, 3 garlic cloves, salt, and pepper in a blender, process and add ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Top the soup with spoonfuls of pistou and grated Parmesan.  Serves 4-6

Foodie Tuesday: Venetian Sunsets

Thanks to recent heavy rains and a storm surge (which seem to be going around, these days), more than half of Venice is under water.  I thought today would be a good time to revisit and celebrate La Serenissima and her many culinary wonders.

My first visit to Venezia was on a misty November day in 1995, with a group of girlfriends from the Italian high school I was attending at the time.  I fell in love with Venice immediately and eternally, although I am embarrassed to say that my first meal in Venice as a seventeen year old exchange student probably consisted of pizza and Coca-Cola.

A couple of years later, I escaped the tedium of my college life and returned to Venice on winter break.  My American friend and I were tired, cranky, and hopelessly lost in the Dorsoduro.  I had nearly fallen into a canal earlier that day, and both my ego and right hip were badly bruised.  Rain began to fall as we found ourselves surrounded by schoolchildren on their way home.  A girl of about ten was walking close by my side in the narrow calle, and I was surreptitiously taking advantage of the shelter of her umbrella.  As my friend tried to (not so gently) pull me out of the girl’s way, the girl admonished him, “No, no, la tenevo proprio sotto! (No, no–I was keeping her under my umbrella on purpose!)”

The view from our suite on the Grand Canal.

I returned to Venice this February with my husband for the second leg of our European honeymoon, my heart nearly bursting during our ride, via water taxi, to our hotel.  We stayed in a nine-room palazzo on the Grand Canal, and upon learning that E. and I were on our viaggi di nozze, the proprietors upgraded us from our small interior room to a suite–a suite!–overlooking the Grand Canal.  Every day we’d throw open our shutters and gaze in awe at the sun glinting on the water as Venice began her day.

Fish fry at the Rialto Market.

We spent many hours happily perusing the Rialto Market, wishing we had a kitchen so that we could cook some of the bounty we admired: silvery fish, purple-tipped artichokes, and overflowing baskets of lettuces and radicchio.  One sunny morning, we were fortunate to discover an Italian fish fry about to take place in the market’s adjoining piazza.  Fritto misto and white wine at 11:00 am?  Yes, please!

Every day we’d get happily lost for hours in Venezia’s dreamlike, labyrinthine calle.  No matter how many museums we visited, however, or how many times we stopped for cicheti, E. and I always made it a point to return to our hotel before sunset.  We’d sit on the terrace, sip a cocktail, and watch the sun set over the Rialto bridge. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Aperol Spritz?

Like so many Italian inventions, the Aperol Spritz (or just “spritz,” if you’re Venetian) is simple, elegant, and unlikely to ever go out of style. Aperol is a lower-alcohol cousin of Campari, tasting of bitter and sweet oranges mingled with rhubarb and various herbs.  Some might argue that the Aperol Spritz is a decidedly summertime cocktail, but oranges are a winter fruit, after all, and Prosecco is never out of season.

My heart is never far away from La Serenissima.  As these autumn days grow shorter and we lean ever more sharply into what portends to be a harsh winter, I will continue our honeymoon tradition of an Aperol Spritz before dinner.  And I will dream of Venice and her sunsets.

Aperol Spritz
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash club soda
Pour over ice, garnish with a slice of orange, and let yourself be transported to Venice at dusk.

Foodie Tuesday: Veni, Vidi, VINO

As many of you know, I had the immense good fortune to spend nearly a year living in northern Italy when I was 17.  I fell completely, irrevocably in love with la bella Italia, learning to speak Italian, forging lifelong friendships, and eating and drinking with (occasionally too much) abandon.

One of my Italian host sisters, Cristina, is a sommelier.  Her dual citizenship means she’s living the dream of splitting her time between the U.S. and Italy with her husband and young son.  Cristina was kind enough to offer some tips and insight into exploring the varied and wonderful world of vino Italiano.  

What makes Italy’s wine and winemaking philosophy unique?

 As [is true of] most of the Old World wine philosophy, Italian wine is made to be enjoyed with food.  The whole experience of wine is never meant to be by itself; there is always food with wine, and this food has to be specific to the region and type of wine.

To give you an example, last year I went to a Wine festival in Valtellina, north of Lake Como.  For something like $15 we had access to 20+ wineries, each serving at least 4 different types of local wines in these Roman-era cellars, which you could only reach by walking down several flights of stairs.  Everywhere there was free food served to accompany the wine: salami, prosciutto, cheese, bread, etc.

Many Italians keep “house wine” on hand, often traveling to wineries to bottle their own sfuso.  When it comes to everyday wine drinking, what are your favorite red and white varietals, and why?

My answer depends on the season.  This summer all we had in the house was Vinho Verde from Portugal. It’s a wonderful light, crisp, and slightly sparkling white wine. It goes great with almost anything you eat, especially BBQ and spicier summer foods.  Now that the seasons are changing I am finding myself drawn to light-bodied Pinot Noirs from various regions. As the weather gets colder I will try to get some good Tuscan wines on sale, as well as Argentinian and Spanish wines.  All under $12 of course.

Brooklyn Wine Exchange; Photo from the Village Voice

Unfortunately, nothing compares to vino della casa (house wine) that you can get sfuso directly from the local vineyards, so I just resort to buying great wines at affordable prices.  Fortunately, there are a lot hidden treasures in the best wine shops.
*A word from Hilary: If you happen to live in Brooklyn, you will find no better resource for wines both exotic and familiar than Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street. They even have a “$12 & Under” table of affordable, delicious wines from around the globe.

Are there any Italian grape varietals that are perhaps not well known but deserve wider appreciation?

I would say there are a lot of varietals that are not well known outside of Italy and definitely deserve attention.  Some of these are not necessarily grape varietals, as much as location-based varietals.  To name a few: Tocai Friulano from Friuli, Lugana from Lake Garda region, once again Franciacorta wines,  Sauvignon from Italy (known as Sauvignon Blanc in other regions), Muller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco (much better and much more interesting than Pinot Grigio in my opinion), Lagrein and so many more….

Autumn is here; what are your favorite varietals for fall’s heartier braises, stews, and pastas?

Fall is a great season for wine drinking (not that the other three are bad) because it is warm enough to still enjoy whites and rosés, while it is already cold enough to open up those mouth-filling reds.  Of course, I can never go without a nice Prosecco for all those holiday gatherings with lots of appetizers.  I also enjoy Pinot Noirs in the fall because they can be light but comforting at the same time, while pairing very well with all the roasted turkey and poultry of the season.  I also like to change things up a bit sometime with a nice rosé.  I can also assure you that bottles of Rioja will be always present in my house, along with Valpolicella, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and Tuscan reds.

Cristina, grazie mille for your time and expertise!  Now, let’s all raise a glass of Italian wine and toast autumn’s arrival!

Words & Music #4

If, as the flaneurs claimed, walking around Paris is an art, then the city itself is the surface on which they create.  And since Paris is ancient, that surface is not blank.  Artists paint over their old work or that of others, just as medieval scholars scraped back the surface of vellum or parchment to use it again.  Such a sheet, called a palimpsest, bears faintly, however often it’s reused, the words of earlier hands.  And we who walk in Paris write a new history with each step.  The city we leave behind will never be quite the same again.

–John Baxter, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

Foodie Tuesday: Pasta & Pops

I woke up one recent morning feeling dull and heavy, as though my body had been filled with sand.  The skies were clear and I’d certainly gotten enough sleep, but disorienting dreams had dogged me all night and I was riddled with the sensation that something was just…off.  Clouds rolled in and the sunny day gave way to a summer squall.  As evening drew near, I was decidedly blue, not to mention hungry.

I pulled a half-empty box of pasta from the shelf and, noting the relative emptiness of the refrigerator, decided to make spaghetti aglio e olio.  While the pasta was cooking, I softened thin slices of garlic and a pinch of red chili flakes in a glassy pool of olive oil.  When the pasta was cooked al dente, I added it to the heady blend of olive oil, garlic, and chili, then tossed in a handful of almost-wilted parsley.

I placed a long-neglected CD in the stereo.  Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues filled the room and I felt my own blues begin to lift.  Yet again, I became sure of two things:

1. a big plate of pasta never fails to soothe, and

2. the best remedy for the blues is…the sound of the blues.

While Pops played on the stereo, I twirled the spaghetti on my fork and took a bite, savoring the taste–and sound–of comfort.

Foodie Tuesday: Let them eat (wedding) cake

Okay, friends…super-short Foodie Tuesday post this week. I have my reasons:

1. I am boarding a plane tomorrow. Early. Said plane will wing its way to Sonoma, California, where I am getting married. I’ve been more than a little swamped with details, and while I have cooked some meals and watched some cooking shows, I’ve mostly been dotting i’s and crossing t’s in preparation for my wedding.

2. I am now officially contributing to a couple of food blogs. Remember a few weeks ago, when I wrote my inaugural Foodie Tuesday post on “Extra Virgin”? Well, I sent it to Gabriele, who in turn invited me to contribute to his blog, Under the Tuscan Gun. UTTG is a great resource for down-home Tuscan recipes, Italian food lore, and guest posts from a variety of authors. I’m honored to be a part of the Under the Tuscan Gun community. My author page is here, but I highly recommend looking around the whole site; you might wind up with a great dinner recipe for tonight!

And with that, Dear Reader, I bid you a fond “Peace out.” I’m goin’ back to Cali, yo. See you in a couple of weeks!

Wine country, here I come!

Foodie Tuesday: Constant Craving(s)

I’m preoccupied with spring. It’s entirely likely that my obsessive fixation on sunshine and 70-degree weather is rooted in the fact that both seem to have RSVP’d “No” to April. Ah, well. Until the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is fully bedecked with blooming tulips, I’ll continue to summon spring as best I can in my kitchen. Below is a list of some epicurean delights I’ve been craving (and savoring!) lately, all of which evoke spring’s lush, temporal beauty.

1. Fava Beans
I can’t stop with the favas! This early in the spring, fava beans taste mild and, well–green–with a pleasantly subtle bitterness. There’s something bucolic and picturesque about fava beans, despite (because of?) the rather protracted shelling, blanching, shocking, and re-shelling process. A couple of glasses of wine into a Sunday afternoon, with Italian canzoni emanating from my stereo, I can imagine myself returned to a life I’ve never lived: I may be shelling fava beans in my Brooklyn apartment, but in my mind I’m at home in the Tuscan countryside, watching the rolling brown hills turn green and preparing for Pasqua. I told you, this is after a couple (oh, fine…a few) glasses of wine. Hannibal Lecter was on to something: fava beans do go beautifully with a nice Chianti.

2. Peas
Since my parents are reading this blog (and, let’s face it, they may very well be the only people reading this blog), the inclusion of peas on my list of spring cravings will doubtless come as a shock. I’ve never been a fan of peas. In fact, there are pictures of me as a baby, grimacing as I spit peas out of my mouth. But. Around ten years ago (Jesus), I worked at a French restaurant in Seattle, and one spring our chef introduced a salad of watercress with barely blanched, tiny, sweet peas tossed throughout. The whole business was finished with a medallion of goat cheese and a dressing that I couldn’t replicate if my very life depended on it. Remembering that salad, I’ve started introducing petites pois into my gastronomic forays. They’re even part of the menu for my upcoming wedding. And don’t even get me started on the pairing of sugar snaps with Sahadi’s hummus. Sweet(pea) mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!

3. Roast Chicken
Roast chicken was one of the first things I learned how to make. Lucky thing, too. The dish immediately calls forth images of home, comfort, and effortless sophistication, yet it’s almost laughably easy to prepare. Salt, pepper, and a little olive oil will result in a moist, tender bird with crispy skin. Fresh parsley and thyme, along with lemon zest and copious amounts of butter, will result in a brush with nirvana. When I was 22, I was seduced by a very romantic and very complicated chef. Using his roast chicken and impossibly long eyelashes, he lured me down a rabbit hole of bad decisions and emotional turmoil. Had I known at the time that a perfect roast chicken was a decidedly unromantic, uncomplicated proposition, I doubt I would have been as easily duped.

4. Rosé
I don’t really have to elaborate on this, do I? Nothing bespeaks indulgence, elegance, and frivolity (springtime’s daughters, all of them) more than pink wine. A glass of Bandol rosé is a Provençal sunset in liquid form. And if God made anything more luxurious and enchanting than a flute of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé, She kept that shit for Herself.

5. Asparagus (and Eggs)
Eggs, whether poached, hard-boiled, fried, or scrambled, are the perfect dance partners for asparagus. The woodsy pungency of steamed young asparagus fairly cries out for a baptism of molten, silky egg yolk and a sprinkling of sea salt. And on my more motivated mornings, I revel in asparagus and goat cheese scrambles. Something about seeing a bunch of asparagus stalks in my fridge, standing up like so many soldiers, fills me with good cheer.

I could go on, I really could. Mint, fennel, rhubarb, lamb, and countless other springtime delights each merit rhapsodic praise. But I have to go be a singer today, then I’m meeting up with my fiancé and his family for Passover seder at Sammy’s Roumanian. Who would have ever believed it? This German-Norwegian-Anglo-Saxon Catholic girl (from Alaska, no less), is celebrating Passover. Stay tuned, as the Sammy’s Seder is sure to figure prominently in an upcoming Foodie Tuesday post. Until then, may all the delights of spring–however belated her arrival–be yours.