Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 2: The Southern Salento

The southern part of the Salento region in Puglia boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscape in southern Italy. Here, you can head to an eastern, rocky Adriatic coast beach in the morning, then head west to the mostly sandy Ionian coast for sunset and aperitivi. And this can all be done in an hour's time. The water is the gorgeous turquoise green of the Caribbean, and then gradually deepens to a royal blue found in the most pristine waters of the North Atlantic. From the eastern tip of Puglia, you can look across the Mediterranean on a clear day and see Albania. I know from experience that you can pick up their radio stations as you drive along the coast heading south.

And it's here that you hit the most easterly town in Italy, the beautiful coastal mini-city of Otranto (pronounced OH-tran-to), which abuts the water and boasts a charming harbor, the city having served as Italy's main port to the East for 1,000 years. The beautiful seaside port belies a brutal history in the sack of Otranto in 1480, when the Turks and Venetians rushed the city with 18,000 troops and basically massacred everyone there, including the 800 survivors who were marched up a hill and beheaded for refusal to renounce their Christian faith. Some of these martyrs' remains are contained in a chapel in the nearby Cathedral. The Aragonese Castle (attributed to the 16th century Spanish) is another landmark in town that towers over the landscape. It's open for touring. Beyond this checkered history, Otranto and the Salento are lovely locales, packed with (mostly Italian) tourists and former residents-come-home in the summertime. 

The beaches in this area are gorgeous and bustling, and the coastline is a dramatic and stunning scape. You can see how this was originally a Greek outpost, just from the visuals: the Cerulean waters and arid land covered with ancient, craggy olive trees as far as the eye can see. The drives along the coast to the north and south of Otranto offer some of the best beaches in Puglia -- and arguably in all of Italy. To the north, there is the Baia dei Turchi (Bay of Turks), where translucent turquoise waters from tourist posters comes to life. Heading south, towns like Santa Cesarea Terme (home of a renowned Moorish resort) and Castro, with a small marina much like Otranto's, are worthy of stops down to the very tip of the Pugliese peninsula. And, they're not on the typical tourist radar.
There are also grottoes to be visited -- including Grotta Zinzulusa, most famously -- offering a subterranean glimpse into the rich cave formations of the region and, where there's water, an otherworldly emerald glow. The very southern tip of Puglia is capped by Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, with its lighthouse at the very end of southeastern Italian land -- and where you're only 44 miles from Albania. 

As for lodging around Otranto, like in most of Puglia, the masserie reign supreme. These former working farmhouses for communal living that dot the Puglian landscape have been transformed into the area's signature B&B/hotel, most of which have a central courtyard with a pool, and a functioning restaurant on the property, which usually uses local ingredients often procured on the masseria's land, from its garden, etc. One such lovely spot is Masseria Montelauro, originally constructed in 1878. Since then it has been a monastery, an herbal pharmacy, a restaurant -- even a discotheque. It now houses 32 rooms and suites refurbished in whitewashed Mediterranean minimalist chic, with wrought-iron beds, arched stone ceilings, flowing white curtains, and bathrooms in stone and marble. The on-site restaurant serves three meals a day (including poolside and room service), and uses Montelauro's own olive oil, herbs, and vegetables in the cooking. The pool in the middle of it all is the perfect place to while away the morning or afternoon, and then you can take a short drive to one of the coasts for a few hours at the beach, after breakfast or post-lunch. Part of the charm of Puglia is that, though it's an ancient part of the Italian peninsula, it's not jam-packed with must-see tourist sites. There are those, of course, but it's also about getting into the Italian rhythm of life, and vacation, which is decidedly slow. You may very well finish that novel you pack.

Across the region, on the western (Ionian) coast, there is the area around Punta della Suina ("Pig's Point"), a beach in an area of nature reserve where you walk through a small pine forest to get to the waterline itself. (That's a view of Gallipoli in the distance, by the way -- we'll get there in a minute). Here at Punta della Suina, there are stabilimenti (beachside establishments that include bathrooms, bars, and often restaurants or sandwich and pizza bars, from completely informal shacks to sprawling, mod-design aperitivo magnets with full-on DJs). Here, you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, indulge in a salad or a panino and a glass of vino or a cocktail, if you like. It's one of the charms of the area. There are also plenty of seaside trattorie where they serve local seafood dished up in various preparations. And this being Puglia, there is always a wealth of vegetable sides alongside the seafood stars. In short: you will not go hungry at the beach if you don't bring a picnic lunch.

Drive just north up the Ionian coast and you hit the famed town on the Golf of Taranto, Gallipoli -- which, fittingly, means "beautiful town" in Greek. The ancient city center ia an island joined by a bridge from the more modern (and much less interesting) part of town. The historic quarter is relentlessly charming, extremely photogenic, and definitely a must-see on any trip to the southern Salento. The perimeter of the old city is lined with sea walls, on top of which are perched pastel and whitewashed stucco houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops. The cobblestones streets of the old city offer much of the same: charming vicoli and back alleys from which echo the patter of sandal-clad feet, reminiscent of those historic towns of the Greek islands of Mykonos or Paros. You can linger for a serious gelato or granita, particularly at the entrance to the old city, by the port, or at Caffe' Duomo. There are some very lovely and stylish retail stores, including a personal favorite, Blanc, which sells everything from furniture and home design to women's accessories -- basically what you'd want your ideal Puglian trullo to look like, with you in it. The large space also contains a super-chic cafe' and lounge within its fabulous stone walls, perfect for a coffee or cocktail post-beach. Another amazing shop is Salamastra, a store specializing in fun shoes, leather and suede wraps and skirts trimmed in what's made to look like Pugliese eyelet lace, and jewelry made from lizards skins and leather. They also feature home goods made out of local shells, nautical rope and the like, inspired by the Salentino beachy style. The three co-owners also have a store in South Beach Florida. They divide their time between the two places, which is certainly a best-of-all-worlds scenario!

As for the food, Gallipoli's port is its pride, and it's all about fresh seafood here. Fresh catches arrive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, and opposite the port on the other side of the bridge, a fish market is set up twice a day until they sell out of goods. As to be expected in these parts, there are booths set up for the sole purpose of selling ricci di mare, or sea urchin. Some are meant to be scooped out and eaten on the spot, but many sellers clean the ricci at their booth and plop the little orange sacks into seawater-filled jars to preserve them.
These are sold cheaply for about 8-10 euros per small jar. We bought a jar and I added the sea urchin at the last minute to that evening's pasta, spaghetti con le vongele (with clams) -- it was a particularly rich and delicious Pugliese version! But the fish market in general is a gorgeous spot. You can bargain for great prices on the famous local red shrimp, beautiful scampi, swordfish...on all kinds of whole fish like branzino, and for octopus, calamari, and every kind of sweet shellfish you could hope for. So much of this delicious seafood is edible without cooking -- and here in Puglia, it's often best simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and some buttery-green unfiltered Pugliese olive oil, possibly a spritz of lemon. And that's it. Simple enough to do without lighting a stove, casually sitting there on your patio or terrazza or poolside at the masseria (or ask the chef where you're staying to prep it for you!). Add a little local rose' wine, and you're set. Southern Salento style.

photo credit: M. Sweeney
For more information on locations, lodging, and activities around the region, check out:
http://www.charmingpuglia.com/en

Masseria Montelauro
Uggiano Localita Montelauro

Strada Provinciale 358, 73028 Otranto
+39 0836 806 203

Blanc
Via XXIV Maggio, 19
Gallipoli LE, Italy
+39 0833 26349

Salamastra
Via Antonietta De Pace 90
73014 Gallipoli (LE)
+39 0833 261577
info@salamastra.com

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Capers

Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia. The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.

The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself. The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.


The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained. Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale ("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt. 

Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud. If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.
 

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca. The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine. Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebew word abiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in Naples...as it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.    






Monday, July 6, 2015

QUICK BITE: Borgoña, Chilean "Sangria"

I'm always looking for a new refreshing summer cocktail. And the search, of course, is half of the fun! In honor of Chile winning the Copa America this past weekend, I thought I'd introduce my readers to a delicious Chilean summer drink staple. While on a city tour in Santiago, Chile, my friend Jess and I were pointed in the direction of a very famous, time-worn dive of a bar/ restaurante favored by old men playing cards, eating overstuffed sandwiches and sipping on local wine cocktails. We knew once the the tour ended, we'd do a B-line for the place. It's called Bar Restaurant de la Union, and it seemed fortuitous that it was located on a street named for my home city: Nueva York. Once inside, we admired the dark wood paneling and the old-school waiters who looked like they'd been there since before Pinochet. We decided a snack was in order, so we enjoyed some delicious bocadillos (sandwiches)...and of course the drink that our guide had described to us as the thing to order here: Borgoña. This is a sort of Chilean sangria, refreshingly simple and using two star ingredients from Chile's rich earth: delicious red wine, preferably of the Carménère varietal, and frutillas, which is Chilean Spanish for strawberries. 

These strawberries, it needs to be stated, were some of the most gorgeous specimens I've ever seen in my life (and living in Rome for the better part of a decade, I know from gorgeous strawberries)! They most likely don't need any help in Chile, or in Rome for that matter, but if you can't find ripe, ruby-red strawberries where you are, you might want to add a touch of sugar to the mix. Now, like most things, this drink gets better the longer it sits with the fruit macerating in the wine. But you can also mix in the berries (sugar optional) just before you make a batch. Yes, "batch" is more realistic than "glass" -- this is not the kind of drink of which you make just one, if you know what I mean. And yes, there are variations on it. You can make it with white wine and strawberries, or white wine with peaches (great with a sauvignon blanc from Chile's Central Valley -- the peaches pick up the hints of stone fruit in the wine itself). This is called Clery or Ponche. You could add various kinds of berries, as well --- raspberries and red currants to tilt it towards tart, blackberries and blueberries to bring out the inky ripe berry flavors in the wine. 

The basic recipe is simple. Slice one cup of delicious, ripe strawberries, one bottle of Chilean red wine, and a tablespoon of sugar (optional). Mix with ice, or simply chill in the fridge, either for several hours or just 30 minutes, if you can't wait. And sip! That's it -- it's so simple, but so refreshing on a hot summer day. And it's the perfect drink to toast to the Chilean team, Copa America winners...and, while you're at it, toast the American Women's Soccer Team for a fabulous World Cup victory yesterday, as well! (Hmm...I may need to come up with a cocktail just for the women's soccer team....)


Bar Restaurant de la Union
Nueva York 11
Santiago Centro, Santiago, Chile
+56 2 269 61 821

Friday, June 26, 2015

RESTAURANT REVIEW: NOPI, London

It makes me quite happy that there is a trend in the western dining world in which Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Cuisine has experienced a surge in popularity -- or, as the real case may be, this cuisine is being discovered, for many, for the first time. Leading the way in this popularity is Israeli food, championed in America by the likes of Israel-born/America-raised Michael Solomonov, in Philadelphia, and in London, Jerusalem and internationally by foodie favorite Yotam Ottolenghi. It seems obvious that Israel, as a now-fertile part of the world, would have more to offer than just falafel and hummus (even if it is the most delicious falafel and hummus out there!).The Israelis have turned desert into functioning agricultural oasis, and the produce coming out of the Holy Land can seem, at times, like it's been touched by You-Know-Who.

Which is why it's so interesting that Yotam Ottolenghi has taken the food world by storm, by creating lush, interesting, abundantly-flavored salads and grain dishes and vegetarian-friendly fare (though not only)...in London, England, of all places.
It may be, though, because London's got the international audience and has been starved for market-fresh Mediterranean ingredients like Ottolenghi procures, that his eponymous cafes are such huge hits. Their success actually allowed him to open a couple of slightly more formal restaurants serving a more upscale, refined eastern Mediterranean Israeli cuisine, called NOPI. We enjoyed a delicious, multi-course dinner at the Soho location last month. I was, as expected, impressed.

The setting is a mod, spare white dining room upstairs. The subterranean level consists of an open kitchen and 2 large communal tables perfect for large groups or socializing your way through dinner. The sharing-plates thing adds to the communal nature of the dining experience here -- something at which I often roll my eyes these days (shared plates, again? Oh yes, server please explain to me how that works. 6-7 plates each, you suggest? Grrr). But here, since I really was tempted by practically everything on the menu, ordering lots of smaller-portioned plates "for the table" really did work well. 

We started with some nice homemade bread, and ordered cocktails immediately. My friend Helen had been sipping on a variation of one of the drinks on the list, doctored with vodka instead of tequila, and with plenty of passion fruit with seeds in the mix. (A plus: the bar was very accommodating). Once we placed our orders, the dishes started coming out when they were ready, bit by bit. First out? The courgette and manouri cheese fritters with cardamom yogurt were flavorful bites of Mediterranean vegetal, herb, and tangy flavors in one. It wasn't much of a wait before we were scarfing down rainbow chard with tenderstem broccoli and yuzu, as well. Of course, pretty much every time I see eggplant on a menu -- particularly when Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food is involved -- I need to order it. Here, it was a deliciously charred aubergine over a smear of almond yogurt (which seemed more like a miso, with its rich umami flavor), sprinkled with pickled chilis. It was fabulous. We continued with a plate of chickpeas, butternut squash, feta, and balsamic, a study in texture and sweet-savory-acidic-salty. We also enjoyed the hearty beef short ribs with a beer glaze and horseradish. We had scallops with apple, nettle, and lemon puree', and pork shoulder croquettes with kohlrabi, nashi pear, and basil mayonnaise. The classic simple staple on the menu is the chicken dish: a twice-cooked baby chicken, with lemon myrtle salt and chili sauce, in either a half or whole-chicken portion. We didn't have room for it, but I imagine it's perfectly cooked, seasoned, and balanced in flavor, with enough of a spicy bite to make it a standout. The beauty of the cooking here is the freshness, paired with an excellent, heightened sense of the interplay of texture, flavor, and elements of taste that the chefs employ. This, to me, is one of the most important skills in being a quality chef.

Sadly, we had no room for dessert. And that's a real shame, because pastry and "puddings" are a strong point of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, his partner. Next time, I'd go for something like the roast pineapple, macadamia nuts, lemongrass and coconut cream (Asian style) or stick with the strawberry mess, sumac, and rosewater (Middle Eastern fused with old English). We were able to finish up our cocktails and enjoy a trip or two to the over-the-top bathrooms downstairs: an Alice In Wonderland, hall-of-mirrors affair where they feel compelled to label the exit door handle. Don't leave the restaurant without a trip here!
And more good news: the restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, which are traditionally strong meals for Israelis, with elaborate spreads both savory and sweet. NOPI also features one of my favorite Israeli breakfast/brunch/lunch options: shakshuka, the egg and spicy tomato-pepper-onion dish of north African extraction that you find in every cafe worth its sumac in Tel Aviv. And much like I've done with Tel Aviv, I swear to return to NOPI and Ottolenghi's other restaurants. You should join me!

NOPI 

21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584
contact@nopi-restaurant.com


Friday, June 19, 2015

MARKETS: Ortygia Island in Siracusa, Sicily

The island of Ortygia, the centro storico (historic center) within the city of Siracusa, Sicily, is a gorgeous spit of land connected to the mainland coastal town by a narrow channel and 3 small bridges. It's a typically Southern Italian ornate, mostly-baroque confection of narrow streets and wrought iron balconies, fortresses and cathedrals, and plenty of ruins and underground tunnels. It's as Greek in feel as it is Italian, and of course Siracusa actually defeated Athens in 413 A.D., so perhaps what we think of as Greek is actually just, well, Sicilian. Regardless, the name Ortygia (also Ortigia, same pronunciation in Italian) means "quail" and comes from the Greek ortyx


"Quail Island" has an old Jewish quarter that's probably the most charming section of a tiny island filled with charm. The Jewish community here in Siracusa was the second most populous in Sicily after Palermo, and was an integral part of the population before they were expelled by the Spanish kings in 1492. Here in the Giudecca (Jewish section), the beautiful architecture that lines the narrow vicoli is a blend of Medieval and Renassiance, Hebrew-Israelite and Sicilian Baroque. You can even visit the miqvah, the Jewish baths restored and open, on a limited basis, to the public. Water is such an integral part of life here on the Sicilian coast, where you're surrounded by it, you're on top of it, and you sustain human life with aquatic life.


Speaking of, we're focusing on the relatively small-but-beautiful food market of Ortygia today, teeming with life and Sicilian salesmen calling out their wares. The local aquatic life is, of course, something of which to be proud: branzini so fresh they're still in rigor mortis, ruby-red tuna famous in these parts. There's Sicilian swordfish as well as abundant sardines, calamari and scampi and shrimp and octopus...all beautifully displayed for purchase and cooking for lunch or dinner (though admittedly, I'd had an amazing seafood couscous the previous evening that was so filling that I could barely fathom eating anything more than a juicy peach the next day!). The market itself is surrounded by inexpensive clothing and souvenir stalls, but the good part of the food market is mostly on Via de Benedictis, opening up onto the Piazza C. Battisti, abutting the shoreline, where there is also a famous specialty store owned by the Fratelli Burgio called Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti ("The Taste of Lost Flavors"). Here you can find countless local Sicilian cheeses, salumi, and specialty food items local to the island of Sicily. You can even ask them to make you sandwiches and put together a great picnic basket to take to the water or to the 4,600 year-old Greek ampitheater in town.
The market stalls offer spices sold from baskets, remnants of Sicily as a cultural crossroads. And in the general fruit and vegetable market, there are countless beautiful iterations of southern Italian produce, from numerous variations of eggplant and peppers and onions (including the torpedo-shaped red Tropea onions from Calabria, pictured here), to garlic and herbs. There are countless fruits available by the piece -- though they're so enticing, you'll want them by the bushel or the bag full, so yo can serve them by the bowlful (and they'd look even more delicious served in some of the stunning decorated ceramic pottery for which Sicily is famous. But I digress). Of course, each season in Sicily is reflected in the market, and I had the good fortune of being in Sicily in early August, when so many stone fruits and melons and berries and figs and fichi d'india ("Indian figs," what we call cactus pears) are abundant.

But of these fruits, possibly the most abundant and mind-boggling in its variety is the tomato. The market in Ortygia offered an impossibly vermilion collection of the most gorgeous tomatoes, in all shapes and sizes, I've ever seen. And the scent of them! They've never seen a refrigerator (nor should they), and the smell of ripe tomatoes, warm to the touch, sitting in the shade but in the Sicilian heat, vine-ripened....well, you get the idea. The photo at right is not enhanced in any way -- the red glow is as it was in 'real life'. You can see why I might wax poetic about this display. And speaking of tomatoes, another wonderful aspect of Ortygia's market is the variety of Sicilian-specific products featured in its stalls. We're talking about local oregano, hung to dry and sold like bouquets of dried flowers. We're talking about those peerless Sicilian tomatoes, sun-dried to concentrate their flavor, and sold alongside other salt-cured, -brined, or otherwise salt-forward products, including Sicilian capers and caper berries, olives, and frutta secca (dried fruit) which includes sultanas, almonds, figs, and the world-renowned pistachios from Bronte. Everything is lovingly displayed, and the sellers of these items call to passers-by (often in Sicilian dialect, mind you), highlighting the extraordinary quality of all the foods this proud island has to offer. My recommendation? Get it all, everything you may have room for, in your kitchen, your fridge, your bags. Regret is for suckers, not Sicilians.