Wednesday, April 29, 2015

QUICK BITES: Il Maritozzaro, Roma

Rome is no longer the late-night, curfew-free city it once was. In many ways, this is a sad change, and my friends and I often reflect on the crazy times we had in bars that stayed open until the owners wanted to go to bed, and in clubs that opened at 4:30 or 5 a.m. where you danced until noon. Times have changed, and alas, so have we all, to some degree. But the great thing about Rome is that it never completely changes, it never morphs into a city that's unrecognizable, like so many urban centers. It is in many ways, as its nickname suggests, The Eternal City. And one of my favorite holdovers from my late-night jaunts around the Eternal City still exists:  Il Maritozzaro near the Trastevere train station. 

For the uninitiated, a maritozzo is basically a freshly-baked brioche bun, torpedo-shaped like an oversized hot dog bun, but faintly sweet and fluffy and light, and barely warm with a few crisp, buttery corners. When you order one, the barman behind the counter fills it with freshly whipped cream, smoothing it out along the top like delicious, decadent spackle.The original version of the brioche, intended as an offering for newlyweds (hence its name) also contained raisins and dried fruit and orange zest and probably resembled panettone more than anything, but I prefer the simplicity and beauty of the maritozzo in its current form.
The Maritozzaro even makes other pastries, including the standard breakfast fare of cornetti (sweetened croissants) and cream-filled donuts. These are fine, but not why I come to the Maritozzaro. I suppose you could pair your maritozzo with a turbo-charged espresso or for breakfast with a cappuccino. It certainly qualifies as a morning waker-upper (though you might need a nap once it's consumed!). But I prefer to think of the whipped cream-filled delicacy as a dreamy, end-of-the-evening indulgence, after a few too many glasses of vino and some limoncello. On a crisp Roman evening, it doesn't get much better. 

Il Maritozzaro
Via Ettore Rolli, 50
00153 ROMA
+06 581 0781
 


Thursday, March 19, 2015

RECIPE: Lenticchie e Salsiccia

It's a classic central Italian pairing: Lenticchie e Salsiccia. Lentils and sausage. It reminds me of trips out to Umbria, usually in the fall or winter, and sometimes early spring. We'd spend a Sunday afternoon in Orvieto, enjoying the gorgeous churches and small shops, as well as some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants, in this hill town an hour outside of Rome. Or, we'd head out for a weekend in the country to a friend's house on the Tuscan-Umbrian border, just taking in the view and building fires and looking up at the stars after a full-table feast of simple, local fare. Or we'd visit friends in Citta' di Castello, not far from Lake Trasimeno, sharing a lunch al fresco with lots of local, juicy, dark Sagrantino di Montefalco wine.


Umbria is Italy's only landlocked region that doesn't share a border with another country. Its name echoes ombra, the Italian word for "shadow" -- and it seems to have always been in the shadow of its better-known neighbors, like Tuscany and Lazio. But the region has so much going for it, including the beautiful topography and a history as rich as its cuisine. One of its famous local foods is the Umbrian lentil, which is tawny brown and roughly the size of the tiny green French Puy lentil. Umbrian lentils are often featured in local dishes, and are a great foil for the rich game featured so prominently in this region. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention another great Umbrian contribution to Italian cuisine, which is the concept of the norcineria. There's no direct translation for the word, but it's basically a 'meat emporium,' including and especially pork products, fresh and cured. Norcia is a town in the province of Perugia in Southeast Umbria, nestled between Spoleto and Ascoli Piceno (in the Le Marche region). 
The town is famous for its meat emporiums, and so this kind of shop all over central Italy has taken on the moniker norcineria. I did once make it to "ground zero" in Norcia on a trip to my ex's childhood home near Ascoli Piceno, and we picked up some delicious pancetta and a few other items to cook for dinner at his mother's house. But the important thing is not procuring these meats in Norcia itself, but rather the significance of the quality norcineria, wherever you may find one. I often went to the Norcineria Viola in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, as it was close to home and they had a great selection, offered up assaggi (samples), and the owners were a hoot. 
If you're lucky enough to be cooking the following recipe in Italy, a norcineria would be the prime spot to pick up some delicious, house-made sausages. And if you don't have a go-to 'meat emporium' -- well, a butcher (preferably Italian) or Italian specialty store would be second-best. But anywhere you trust the sausage makers qualifies; the quality is key. And a tip: generally speaking, though Tuscany is the next region over, this dish does not use Tuscan-style sausages, which contain fennel seed. Try and use sausages without that anise flavor...if you're sticking to tradition, that is.


LENTICCHIE E SALSICCIA 

4 TBS. olive oil
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, chopped into small dice (1/8 inch)
1 celery stalk, chopped into small dice 
2 cloves garlic
3 cups Umbrian lentils (or Puy lentils), washed and sorted through to clean
2 sprigs rosemary
8 Italian sausage links, sliced in half lengthwise
1/3 cup hearty Italian red wine, Sagrantino if possible
1/2 cup water
Flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Salt + pepper to taste

For the lentils:
- Warm the oil over medium heat in a wide saucepan with some depth (and one with a fitted lid). Add the garlic cloves and infuse the olive oil for a minute or so. 
- Add the chopped carrots, celery, and onion, and cook to soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and cook another minute. 
- Add the lentils, stir well, and cover with cold water until submerged and with a bit of water above the lentils. Bring to a boil, add a couple of small sprigs of rosemary, and cover. Turn down the heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.
*Lentils can be cooked in advance to this point*

- When the lentils are almost ready, or you're reheating them, heat a grill pan or a frying pan over medium-high heat, and add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. - Brown the sausages on both sides, making sure not to crowd the pan (we want them seared, not steamed).
- When sausages are fully browned, toss in the red wine and the water and let the liquid cook down and bubble up for a few minutes. Then cover, an cook for another 10 minutes or so.
- Plate the warm lentils on a serving platter, and then place the sausages on top of the bed of lentils. You can either use the wine gravy as is, or add a spoonful of a dijon mustard and whisk that into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour the sauce over the sausages and lentils, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

SAVEUR Blog Awards Nominations

It's that time of the year, once again: time for the nominations for the SAVEUR Blog Awards. These awards encompass a variety of categories, but I'd be honored if you'd nominate me for Best Culinary Travel Coverage, Best Writing, and Most Delicious Food. Admittedly, I'd be happy with any nomination, of course. But if my travel stories have inspired you or helped you on your journeys near or far, I'd love to hear about it, and for you to show your appreciation. And if my recipes have sparked an interest in cooking at home, for yourself or for loved ones, then that's motivation enough for me to keep doing what I'm doing, and hopefully to continue to improve the blog -- both its written and visual content.

The categories are as follows:

Then you simply write a sentence or two (or more, if you feel inspired!) about why you're nominating my blog. My blog's url is:

www.bluaubergine.blogspot.com

So...let's get out the vote! The online polls close this Friday, March 13th. So vote soon, vote often, and spread the word to friends, family, colleagues, and all those you know who are inspired by food and travel, and who enjoy reading about all the delicious treasures the world has to offer!

Nominate here:

http://www.saveur.com/article/contests/blog-awards-2015-nominate

Thank you all so much.

Friday, March 6, 2015

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Il Sanlorenzo, Rome, ITALY

I recently tried to describe a certain category of Italian restaurant to someone who had spent very little time in Italy. The category is the upscale ristorante di pesce, or fish restaurant, and all over the Italian peninsula, this kind of restaurant stands out to me as its own special genre. The Italian fish restaurant also happens to be one of my favorite kinds of places in the world to enjoy a great meal.

I'm not talking about any old fish place. Sure, I love seaside spots where you can actually see the water your dinner came from, quite possibly caught just hours earlier. Italy excels in this type of dining experience too, though I've been lucky enough to have enjoyed plenty of great seaside restaurants around the world, from the Aeolian Islands to the Amalfi Coast to Venice, Thailand to Tel Aviv, Uruguay to southern France, Maine to the Florida Keys. I'm also not talking about the beloved seafood shack, where you can enjoy home-style specialties like lobster rolls and clam chowder, Old Bay-dusted crabs and fish and chips. I love those spots too, in all of their rubber-boots-in-sawdust-covered-floor glory. (I can still clean a crab, peel a shrimp, and deconstruct a lobster faster than most -- skills I learned as a young girl). No, I'm talking about the elegant, refined dining of an Italian ristorante di pesce, which may be at the beach or in a port, but is just as likely in a metropolitan city like Rome or Milan. 

My favorite spot in all of Rome for fine fish and "fruits of the sea" (frutti di mare) is a spot tucked on a back street off of Campo de' Fiori, and just down the street from my old beloved apartment on the edge of the Jewish quarter. In fact, it's the old site of what used to be called Sotto Sopra, location of the second incarnation of our American brunch in Rome --  a story for another time and another blog post. The space it occupies, meanwhile, is a gorgeous, cavernous bi-level restaurant with a raised, glassed-in kitchen and arched cathedral ceilings hung with beautiful chandeliers. The subterranean area (once the dungeon-like downstairs of a messy discoteca) is perfect as a wine cellar and temperate spot for sipping some of Il Sanlorenzo's delicious vintages. But beyond the vibrant, sophisticated atmosphere, the important thing here is the food -- and above all, the quality and freshness of the seafood itself. There is a display when you walk through the entrance featuring the day's fresh catch, which may include any variety of local white fish (branzino, turbot, gilthead bream), tuna, swordfish, crustaceans galore (the Mediterranean offers a wealth of shrimp varieties we've never seen in the States), mussels and clams, sea urchin, squid, octopus...and the list goes on. Much of it comes from the waters off the coast between Rome and Naples, though some items may come from Sicily and Puglia, all the way north to Venice.

The most talented Italian seafood chefs know that the best thing they can do to top-quality fish and seafood is to do very little. Let the delicate flavor of the fish shine through. Which is why a dish in the tasting antipasto of crudi (raw items) like the tartare trio is so enjoyable. We tasted three types of fish -- yellowfin tuna, sea bass, and amberjack -- cut into a small dice and mixed with extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of citrus, and a few fresh herbs. That's all the fish needs. The raw antipasto continued with one of my personal favorites, the carpaccio di gamberi rossi. They flatten the famous red shrimp from southern Italy into a paper-thin disc on the plate. It's then dressed with little more than olive oil, sea salt, a zest of lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice. It is beautiful on the plate and on the tongue. We proceeded with possibly my favorite of all elegant sea creatures: scampi. Don't be confused -- these are not the shrimp in 'shrimp scampi' (which makes no sense in Italian, by the way: it means 'shrimp langoustine' and does not exist as a dish in Italy). 
These are crustaceans of their own category, known in various parts of the world as langoustines, or Dublin Bay prawns, or in Italy, scampi. They are the sophisticated cross between a shrimp and the most tender baby lobster you can imagine. They can be cooked gently on a grill or in a saute' pan, or lightly poached, but to me, they're best raw. Like the red shrimp, their delicate briny flavor is best experienced with a soft, pliable texture that you can only have before they're cooked. There's not much meat for all the work required to get at it, but patience is rewarded with unique flavor. I think it's worth it. The final plate of our raw appetizer tasting was, per our request, some delicious, fresh-from-the-sea ricci di mare, or sea urchin, shown in this posting's opening photo. Again, it's not about quantity of substance, but rather the briny, unctuous punch packed into the tiny, flame-orange pockets of the prickly shell. These are actually egg sacks and offer up a creamy, custard-like saline treat you scoop out. To note is that all of this was accompanied by some delicious, wire-thin grissini, and washed down with a delicious, crisp rose' champagne. To me, the best accompaniment to fine raw seafood is often something sparkling.

The pastas on offer here are delicious and well-balanced -- memorable is a long pasta with lobster in which the pasta is cooked in lobster stock for an added layer of flavor. We split a primo so as not to throw our meal completely off course, which was a lovely tagliolini with a ragu featuring my beloved gambero rosso, both cooked and raw, with fresh uncooked tomato and herbs.  It was light and silky and the perfect portion.

Often, when a meal features spectacular antipasti, by the time you get to your secondo (main course), it can be a bit anticlimactic. Not here. There were so many options to tempt, and I know from past experience here that the simplest of dishes (a salt-baked spigola [sea bass], for instance) is anything but plain when done well. We decided on one simple main, and one less so. A delicious piece of Mediterranean sea bass was perfectly cooked, skin crisped, and set atop a bed of wilted greens and served on a clean, oven-roasted tomato consomme. We also thoroughly enjoyed the swordfish, marinated in soy and charred on the grill, which was plated on a brilliant spiral of sweet-and-sour vegetable sauce, garnished with frigitelli (small sweet green peppers) and pistachios. The two mains complemented each other well, and proved to be substantial enough that there was no way we had room for dessert! It's a shame because desserts here, too, are accomplished and decadent. But we had many more hours to go in our evening, and we didn't want to weigh ourselves down after an already grand meal. It turned out to be a good choice, all of it. My boyfriend said then, and continues to claim, that he felt as good after that meal as any meal he's ever eaten. It's quite a statement, but one with which I agree. Il Sanlorenzo makes you feel pampered with good service, well-fed and overwhelmingly happy with a delicious, fresh Italian seafood feast, and sends you off into the night, elated and satisfied. And really, what more could anyone ask of a great meal?

Ristorante Il Sanlorenzo
Via dei Chiavari 4/5 Roma
+39 (06) 686.5097
www.ilsanlorenzo.it
info@ilsanlorenzo.it
Closed Mondays.

Friday, February 27, 2015

MARKETS: L.A. Farmers Market

Farmer's Markets right now are, one could say, trending. And though we're using a very 21st century term for a much older concept, we can be thankful that there's been a kind of movement in this country to get back to the basics that once made this an agrarian nation. California is of course responsible for a large segment of America's produce. But when we think of Los Angeles, southern California's metropolis, we generally think of urban sprawl and smog, and Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu. But not...farms. And yet, the Los Angeles Farmers Market -- coined "The Original" -- is a venerable institution that has been around since 1934, when L.A. was decidedly less urban. At the corner of Third and Fairfax, its central location makes it a Los Angeles landmark. It's a market housed in a building structure that allows it to have an open courtyard feeling inside, while the merchants and restaurants within are based in covered permanent structures.

It's a destination where you can source great produce, poultry, meat, and seafood, and stay for lunch at one of the great stalls or restaurants housed in the market. Both Farm Boy Produce and Farm Fresh Produce offer great fresh fruits and veggies, including items you'd find not just in California, but also south of the border, and in Asia. Puritan Poultry offers fresh chicken, turkey, and exotic fowl, and Farmers Market Poultry specializes in delicious turkey and quality eggs. Marconda's Meats offers top-notch butchered cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, as well as homemade Italian sausages and cold cuts. Tusquellas Seafoods is the place for staples like shrimp, tuna, salmon, cod, and snapper, as well as fresh daily catches -- and some cooking tips for anyone who asks. Little Spain is a gourmet market with a tiny restaurant tucked into its back interior patio, and offers all the wondrous foods and specialty ingredients found in Spanish cooking. In fact, there are several specialty-item stores. Dragunara Spice Bazaar has a mind-boggling array of spices and spice mixes, as well as specialty salts (a personal favorite). T (The Tea Shoppe) has an exotic array of teas, particularly from Asia -- heavenly for all of those tea purists out there.
And Zia Valentina is a spot specializing in the fabulous frozen Sicilian treat called granita (the original frozen treat before Italians made the leap to gelato), as well as specialty Italian baked goods and healthy shakes and nibbles to jump-start your morning. There are several delicious bakeries, including Normandie Bakery (classic French style), T&Y Bakery, Short Cake, and Du-Par's Pie Shop (a real American throwback). And for old-fashioned American frozen goodness, there is Bennett's Ice Cream and Gill's Old Fashioned Ice Cream

And then there are the restaurants. With a generous seating area and so many delicious spots from which to choose, I could happily eat here 3 times a week if I lived in the area (luckily for my waistline, I do not). The restaurants in the Farmers Market are a reflection of the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles itself. Of course, you have Mexican food, sushi, pizza, Chinese, deli, and vegetarian food. But you also have Korean, Brazilian, Middle Eastern, Cajun, Greek, Texas BBQ, Spanish, and French cuisine featured here. I decided to try the Southeast Asian restaurant called Singapore's Banana Leaf, on a recent visit. They offer a mix of Singapore-style Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian cuisine -- because that's how they eat in Singapore. This delicious mash-up proved satisfying, filling, and delicious. For under $10 a plate, any one dish would serve as a great lunch. But I suffered from eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome, and was curious to taste a couple of dishes. I started with the Rojak salad, a tasty tossing-together of cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts, apple, tofu, and spinach. The spicy peanut-tamarind dressing brought it all together in the hot-sour way that makes food from this part of the world so interesting...and more-ish.
I followed that up with Mee Indo Style -- that is, pan-sauteed noodles with two satay sticks and a fried egg on top - -with spicy peanut sauce on the side for dipping, of course. If I'd been hung over it would have been beyond perfect, but as it stands, this lunch was pretty fabulous. A limeade to help wash it down was the best accompaniment I could have asked for.

There are other, non-food-related stores at the Farmers Market, including Zara, a sunglass store, and a new Havaianas store, to satisfy all of your Brazilian flip-flop fantasies. The Grove L.A. is literally steps away from the Farmers Market, too. It's a popular gathering spot if you need to make a run to the Apple Store, Nike, or Nordstrom, or to see a movie or grab a bite to eat in one of the pretty eateries in the main square. I prefer just enjoying the Farmers Market for what it offers. When L.A. can feel like a nameless, faceless sprawling metropolis, it's merchants and farmers that gather in one place, like this, that remind us that we're a community, first and foremost. That's enough for me. That, and maybe a scoop of ice cream.  


L.A. FARMERS MARKET 
Monday - Friday: 9 am - 9 pm
Saturday: 9 am to 8 pm
Sunday: 10 am - 7 pm
Telephone: (323) 933.9211
Toll Free: (866) 993.9211
www.farmersmarketla.com

Friday, February 20, 2015

FOOD PORN: A Look Back, 2014: Sweet Endings

Ahhh, dessert. There's no better way to cap off an enjoyable, delicious meal than with a little bit of sweet decadence. For me, if at all possible, it's in the form of chocolate. That's me, that's how I am and have always been. But occasionally, if it's done well, I love a good cheesecake or creme brulee', a carrot cake or an apple pie. Or, as in the case of the above photo -- taken in real time as I served this dessert to clients this summer in the Hamptons, no photoshopping necessary -- a good fruit tart, especially in the summer. 

Herewith, more samples from my photo gallery of sweets. They're mostly plated desserts, some single serving and some are whole pies or cakes or tarts. But they're all homemade, from scratch, and made with love. I'm not a pastry chef, specifically. But I love making delicious desserts (always have), and I think the way to make a client's meal memorable is to end it on a high note.

Some of my clients are kosher, some are vegetarian, some are lactose-intolerant or gluten-free eaters. I enjoy catering to specific tastes and relish the challenge of creating delicious food within guidelines. But my favorite type of food-specific eaters? Dessertarians, of course!


Flourless chocolate cake with fresh strawberry sauce

...and plated, with caramel sauce and raspberry truffle and pistachio ice creams

 

It's only right that I would start out the tantalizing photo stream with chocolate galore. Flourless chocolate cake is always a favorite, and it's so versatile. The chocolate fondant cake is also a classic, and this version with a molten center and a caramelized outside is particularly decadent. I paired it with homemade banana-caramel ice cream, a caramelized banana slice, blackberry sauce, and a meringue kiss.
The chocolate truffletorte is as rich as they come, with a thickened ganache consistency and shaved white chocolate on top. I paired it with a white and dark chocolate-dipped strawberry and edible flowers, and sprinkled strawberry rock crystal candy around the plate for whimsy. It's a serious chocolate-lover's dessert, with a wink.

Valentine's Day is always a time we think of sweet treats, and clients hosted some fun, romance-themed dinner parties in 2014. A simple, but moist, red velvet cake with classic cream cheese icing strikes a chord with many. My version definitely falls on the side of chocolatey, deep red -- not the electric red version that's simply vanilla cake with a ridiculous amount of red food coloring.
But that's my personal preference, of course. A departure from the classic is the rosewater panna cotta I served together with the red velvet cake. This was a creamy, light, subtle dessert with hints of the exotic. The panna cotta itself is tangy, the strawberry sauce bright and sweet, and the balsamic reduction a counterpoint to all of the above. Rosewater turkish delight and candied violets as garnish elevate the final dessert futher, adding texture and nuance. I loved how this all turned out!


Individual Apple Crumble
Apple-cinnamon tart

I love good old American apple desserts, in pretty much any form. One of my favorite ways to enjoy fruit desserts is by making them into crumbles. I make them all summer long with berries and stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, and pluots. Come autumn, I go for apples and, upon occasion, pears. There's something about the combination of these fall fruits with cinnamon and warm spices that screams perfection in sweater weather. I also love cheesecake. It's a no-chocolate "exception" dessert for me. I love both the classic New York version as well as the Italian/Roman ricotta version. They bridge the continental divide that is my life in cooking. They also make for damned tasty endings to great meals, and they're light enough so they don't weigh on you. I love a classic with strawberries, but I also love throwing some chocolate chips in with the batter and making these mini ricotta cheesecakes. I like to whip some cream and add some crushed pistachios to it, and top it all off with some berries (here, raspberries) and mint. Light and delicious!

Pine nut tart with grapefruit-rosemary sorbetto
Pavlova with red fruits and passion fruit sorbet

Sometimes desserts are a challenge to pair within the context of a meal. Sometimes, the meal dictates the invention of a new dessert that just works. Often these are "compound desserts" made up of several elements that work better together as a whole. The desserts above and here all fall into that category. A chewy, caramelized pine nut tart laced with rosemary in its caramel base is accompanied by a bracing grapefruit-rosemary sorbetto. Gluten-free diners on Valentine's Day shouldn't miss out on all the pleasures of decadent desserts: to wit, a meringue pavlova filled with pillowy cream and red fruits pairs perfectly with a tart passion fruit sorbet. It was a multi-course Moroccan meal that spurred me to invent a dessert worthy of the previous courses. The solution was a light-as-air citrus cake on a meyer lemon yogurt cream, marinated figs and dates in spiced syrup, caramelized figs, and an orange-mint salad. Gorgeous, light, and a great complement to the spirit of the Moroccan food. 
And then there's the beauty of the berry, in its various forms. I love the classic strawberry shortcake, like the one above -- closer to a lightly sweet biscuit, stuffed with fresh organic whipped cream, and lashed with ripe, juicy berries. There's the more ascetic but incredibly flavorful dessert I created of a strawberry-balsamic sorbetto, packed with flavor, over minted sliced strawberries and paired with a pistachio tuile and a touch of whipped cream -- a bit of an Italian-modernist version of the strawberry shortcake.

In a class of its own? The simple, dignified elegance of a chocolate-dipped berry, here used to top a shadow cake. This magnificent dessert is a cake my mother used to pick up from a local bakery for family birthdays when I was a child, when she didn't have time to make a homemade cake. It's a layer of chocolate cake and a layer of vanilla, with chocolate buttercream in the middle, regular buttercream on the outside, and a chocolate ganache glaze on top. I doubled down for a client's birthday, here, and made the cake 4 layers, alternating between chocolate and vanilla. The ganache is extra rich, and the chocolate-covered strawberry trim is my over-the-top invention...for which I refuse to apologize. This cake was what the Italians would call "una bomba" -- a bomb. And it is. A delicious, decadent bomba. And that's what dessert, of course, is all about.