Friday, October 24, 2014

BOOKS: Massimo Bottura in-person & Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef

Massimo Bottura is, for a chef who trained, lived, and worked in Italy for many years, like I did -- well, he's a deity. But for me, it's not just because he's a three Michelin star chef, with a CV that includes time working with Ferran Adria' and Alain Ducasse. And it's not because he hangs around with the current culinary hipsters like Rene Redzepi, or Wylie Dufresne and David Chang (both of whom were at the 92nd Street Y event I attended last week: Dufresne in the discussion with Bottura, and Chang in the audience, serving up some friendly heckling). For me, it's more of a big-picture thing. By that I mean that he's an excellent, creative chef who intellectualizes food but is also quite playful. He knows the parameters within which he's working (conservative, traditionalist food culture in Modena, Italy), and he pushes the limits to make these traditionalists reconsider what he's doing with Italian food. He's not the first or only chef to work this way, but he's among the very few who do it well, and successfully. He's also greatly inspired by art in its many forms, and is a great collector of modern art. Hell, he's argued his cooking philosophy with Bob Dylan. In some ways, he's the culinary counterpart to his buddy Maurizio Cattelan -- playful, sometimes cynical, counter-cultural, he strives to change what you think you know about his artistic medium (in this case, food). Bottura even titles his dishes, as if they're opuses -- and indeed they are: edible art.
Take, for example, his "Bollito Not Boiled," which is what he created after much thoughtful consideration of the traditional (northern) Italian dish, bollito misto, which originated in the area of his home town. This is normally a series of different boiled parts of the cow, often including tongue and other "off cuts," served with the broth and a salsa verde (green sauce) and sometimes a number of other condiments like mostarde and various piquant potions. When it's good, it's really good, and when it's not done well, it can, to say the least. But though it made sense centuries ago, economically, to boil meat to get the broth and extend the food for several meals this way, today it's often on menus as a matter of keeping tradition alive. Bottura wanted to challenge this. He'd worked in New York City for a time, and his wife is from New York, so he recreated this most traditional of Italian dishes as an ode to the time he spent in the city's Central Park. So. He takes various cuts of meat and cooks them sous vide to elicit the most flavor and best texture from the meats. He shapes these like little skyscrapers, placing them on the plate with a salsa verde (green sauce) foam for the trees, and a peperonata lawn with little anchovy people on it. It's cute and quirky and sticks to the core flavors of the dish while turning it on its head. He explained this all to us, an audience filled with New Yorkers, and his love of and enthusiasm for this city was clear.

I was lucky enough to meet Bottura in person and have him sign my copy of his book -- in Italian. He was very sweet and laughing and enjoying everything the whole time, which was really refreshing -- especially since he's on a mega book tour, and he's been running around for weeks like a crazy person, with engagements all over New York (cooking with other top chefs from Italy and the U.S. for Eataly NYC's

Identità Golose).

His book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, is filled with anecdotes about his most famous dishes, and the thought process and technical work that goes into them. It's not a cookbook in the traditional sense. And while I own many cookbooks, I don't read them for their recipes or accuracy in measuring out ingredients, and I don't recommend cookbooks based on these criteria. But I rarely follow recipes. Instead, I look to cookbooks for inspiration, for interesting ingredient pairings, for general procedures if there's some new dish or cooking method I'm trying out. I peruse the stories behind the food, the history of dishes in cultures about which I'm curious, places maybe I've recently visited or am longing to explore. And then I create, based on this information, co-opting it for my purposes, re-working a point of something I found of interest in a recipe or a food story. I realize I am not your average home cook, so if you're looking for practical recipes and time-tested accuracy, look to Mark Bittman or Julia Child, or Nigel Slater, all of whom are fabulous in their own ways. But if you're excited, like I am, to take a peek into the mind of a creative genius, then Bottura's book may interest you. There are recipes in the back for everything, but that's almost besides the point.

I'm loving it so far, though I have more to go. And I am looking forward to devouring some of his iconic dishes on my next Italian sojourn, when I will, per forza, eat in his amazing Trattoria Francescana in Modena. My stomach is already grumbling...

Monday, October 13, 2014

SEASONAL FOODS: All things Orange

It's October -- a lovely month, my birthday month, probably my favorite month of the year. The weather has cooled off from the steamy days of summer, but it's still great weather for walking and exploring the city (or country!). I correlate October with other "O" words, especially ORANGE. When I think of this month and the real beginning of autumn, I think of orange leaves, sunsets, sweaters, brilliant flaming fires in the fireplace, and above all else, delicious orange food. What does orange food offer? Besides a great variety of delicious fruits and vegetables, many of them seasonal to autumn, orange foods boast carotenoids, which are fat-soluble nutrients that produce the orange, bright yellow, or red color in the foods that contain them. The best known carotenoid is beta carotene, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A when it enters our bloodstream. Orange foods are, on the whole, anti-inflammatory and full of nutrients that fight aging and skin issues, they help sharpen our vision, they aid in weight loss with a high fiber and low caloric content, and often help our digestive and immune systems. They help fight cancers and cardiovascular disease and basically amp up our systems to work at their most efficient. 

Trips to the farm stand this time of year are wonderful: this is when harvests are at their most bountiful, and a stroll through a well-stocked farmer's market provides a sensory explosion (more on this later in my seasonal "MARKETS" blog post). October offers a vast variety of orange and orange-tinged foods, many of which are outlined for you below, along with their key nutritional benefits, and some ideas on dishes to prepare with the excellent orange primary ingredients... 

Carrots: Rich in vitamin A, they help ward off various types of cancer, they prevent macular degeneration, slow down cellular aging, and keep skin clear. I love roasting whole baby carrots, tossing them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses and some sea salt, and baking them at 400 degrees until charred on the outside.

Papaya: This fruit is known for the wonders it works on digestive health, and serves as an immunity booster. It also contains digestive enzymes that make all food go down a lot easier. Try it out of hand, or in fruit smoothies. Green papayas are great in Thai salads, though they don't share the same healthful properties as regular papayas.

Butternut squash: This dense, orange squash is high in fiber and potassium, and helps build and preserve bone strength. It's incredibly versatile, and little do most people know, but the canned "pumpkin" sold across America for pumpkin pie? It's really a butternut squash puree. You can oven roast the peeled pieces of the squash for a homemade puree for baking if you're a DIY-type. Or use the roasted butternut in salads with vegetables, grains, and fruits.You can whip the roasted squash in a food processor to make a topping for crostini, as in the photo here, where I've made many of my clients' fall favorite: butternut squash crostini with crispy pancetta, parmigiano, and sage. You can also boil the peeled butternut squash with some veggie stock until it's soft, and then use an immersion blender to turn it into a healthy and nutritious soup -- no cream needed.
Pumpkin: There are many varieties found across America and Europe, but the typical pumpkin that's good for eating is on the small side and is more squat than round, or cylindrical like the butternut squash. Pumpkin keeps your eyesight sharp, aids in weight loss, and its seeds protect us from heart disease - -and they're a delicious snack when roasted. One of my favorite dishes of the season is pumpkin ravioli (which can also be made with butternut squash), with the roasted puree filling hand-made fresh pasta dough. I cook them simply with a butter and sage sauce, and top with either parmigiano and toasted hazelnuts, or with a crumbling of amaretti cookies to bring out the sweetness of the pumpkin. And speaking of sweetness, pumpkin sweets are a fabulous way to make desserts a tad healthier in the autumn months. Menus all over are stuffed with pumpkin donuts, pumpkin spice cupcakes and layer cakes, pumpkin panna cotta, and one of my personal favorites, pumpkin cheesecake. The photo at right is dressed with a cinnamon sour cream topping, candied rosemary, sugared pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), and pumpkin seed brittle.

Sweet potatoes: These tubers are rich in Vitamin A, which is anti-inflammatory and keeps skin clear. Roasted in the oven is a great, simple way to have them, and peeled and fried is a healthier alternative to french fries. But I love them peeled, grated, and turned into sweet potato latkes. Perhaps it's the innate Jewish mother in me, but I think these savory little pancakes are delicious, especially as I serve them at cocktail parties, with a chipotle sour cream and topped with wasabi caviar. They certainly lend themselves to sweet iterations -- hold the onions in the latke prep, and add a dash of cinnamon instead. Top with homemade apple sauce or pear butter.
Cantaloupe: Though this is mostly a summer melon, you can still find it into the fall. It's high in vitamins A and C, and in beta carotene. It's great on its own, blended as a cold soup, or sliced and wrapped in some prosciutto for a light lunch.

Apricots: These are also mostly a summer stone fruit, but you can sometimes find them into the autumn months, and you can certainly find them dried throughout the year (though obviously sugar content rises in the dried version). This fruit is high in iron, fiber, and potassium. And they work really well both with sweet preparations and as a savory accompaniment to meat and poultry dishes.
I make crostini with ricotta, herbs, and fresh apricots. I use fresh or dried apricots in North African meat tagines and a dish I make that my parents flip for, a Moroccan chicken I make with apricots, almonds, chick peas, and North African spices over couscous. I also do a brined, grilled pork chop that's juicy enough to stand on its own, but it's brought up to another level when served over an apricot-red pepper sauce, brightened with citrus and vinegar and a pop of spice. I serve it all with wilted kale for a delicious meal in the summer or fall.

Golden beets: All beets are wonderfully healthy for us, but golden beets are particularly healthy (and beautiful!) and full of fiber and potassium, and they prevent constipation. Another plus: their color is lighter and stains less than the traditional magenta beets -- an added benefit if serving them in a "white tablecloth" setting. They can be roasted, blended into a soup (golden borscht!), or served sliced raw into a salad. They pair well with bitter greens like arugula, and their sweetness also pairs well with cheeses, from goat cheese to a potent blue cheese.

Guava: This tropical fruit is orangey-pink, and has high levels of lycopene, making the fruit heart healthy and anti-cancer, particularly effective in preventing prostate cancer. It's also high in potassium. This is great as a juice on its own or mixed into smoothies.

Mangoes: This fruit is high in beta carotene, and helps to prevent prostate and skin cancers. It's great, when ripe, to eat out of hand, or to serve sliced with some coconut rice pudding. The sorbet is actually a really healthy treat as far as desserts go, and you can find mango in fruit shakes and Indian lassis (kefir yogurt-fruit drinks), which do wonders for your intestinal tract and also supply probiotics to keep the good bacteria in your tummy in good health.

Turmeric: Though technically not a food you'd eat on its own, turmeric is a rhizome (like ginger) that seems to be the wonder-food of the year. Its anti-inflammatory properties are well-established, and it helps to prevent kidney and cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. In its powder form, it's a part of most curry mixes, and it's sometimes dubbed "poor man's saffron" because it lends its bright orange-yellow color to dishes like rice and stews where saffron is too costly. But it's also great used like ginger as a flavor base for meat and fish stews, soups...even juiced with some apples, lemon, and ginger to make a great post-workout replenishing drink. 

And of course, in speaking about orange foods, I'd be remiss not to name the one food actually named for its color: the orange. Fall is not prime season for this citrus fruit, but drinking a glass of orange juice has become how so many Americans start their days, and it is very versatile, especially when its season rolls around in early winter. It doesn't have the A-vitamins many orange foods have, but it's quite high in Vitamin C and folate, so it's great to incorporate into the diet of women who are expecting, or hoping to expect in the near future. You can use orange zest to liven up dishes, its juice to cook into sauces and soups, as a stand-alone drink, or as part of a smoothie or even a cocktail. The possibilities are vast.

I know I'll be getting my fill of ORANGE FOODS this autumn, and happily so. October is the peak month for so many delicious food items that if we remember to eat in season, we'll be that much closer to eating a healthy, well-rounded diet. Just remember: O. October. Orange. It's simple. Get it while you can! 


Thursday, October 2, 2014

ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 1: The Salento -- Lecce area

I remember a couple of years ago, while strolling the streets of London, a bus drove past me plastered with an image of a sunny coastline and a voluptuous, bronzed, Latin-looking model in a bikini, with the word "Puglia" written in large letters at the top. I chuckled at the idea of the region of Puglia spending countless euros on an advertising campaign touting the charms of a region I would prefer remain a secret -- especially from the masses of tourists looking for, as it's often been deemed, "The Next Tuscany."
No. No, no, and no! First of all, Puglia is nothing like Tuscany. I love Tuscany, and I love Puglia, but they're more dissimilar than they are alike. Tuscany is rolling hills and vineyards and farm land for miles, all central Italian greenery and picturesque landscape. Puglia is a different beast, more ancient Greek than Renaissance chic, more arid-by-the-sea than lush fecundity. Where Tuscany has diminutive olive trees planted alongside its grape vines, the land in Puglia is covered with large, old olive trees with craggy, knotty trunks that look like they've been around for millennia (and they likely have). The land is mostly flat, and you're never very far from the sea, whether it's the Adriatic on the east coast, or the Ionian on the west (interior) coast. So much depends on the wind for the weather, and locals are acutely attuned to it. 

The locals, in fact, are a very interesting facet of daily life in Puglia. They are deeply entrenched in tradition, and speak a dialect closer to Greek than any recognizable Italian. They are reserved with strangers until they get to know you a bit, and then they treat you like family. They are religious and superstitious, they celebrate countless festivals and holidays. There is a sense of civic pride and the streets are clean. And though there is some organized crime here, they say it never really took hold in Puglia as in other regions in the south, because la gente parla: people talk, and so secrets can't be kept so well.

As for the local cuisine, much depends on the wild vegetation and aquatic resources of the "heel of the boot" -- where, incidentally, about 70% of Italy's olive oil is produced. And this oil is good. Very good. It's used to saute' vegetables and to make breads and pizzas. It's drizzled on pastas and seafood fresh from the turquoise waters of the nearby Mediterranean. It's stirred into soups and stews, and even churned into gelato. For the most part, this is cucina povera (cooking of the poor) at its most innovative. The local grains are turned into world-famous breads -- the "Pugliese" loaf is even hawked as far away as Citarella in the east end of Long Island. Even the burnt flour from the process of prepping wheat fields after the "good stuff" has been cultivated isn't wasted on the less fortunate here, who have traditionally turned this burnt grain ("grano arso") flour into a darker, chewier, slightly toasty-flavored pasta. As fate would have it, this has become the newest, dare I say 'hippest' pasta for in-the-know italophiles and restaurateurs, though it's still fairly hard to come by stateside. So take advantage if you see it on a menu in Puglia, and try it. 

This Pugliese town is known, outside of Rome itself, as the capital of baroque in Italy. It's also the unofficial capital of the Salento. The local sandstone is soft and therefore more easily sculpted, and artists have taken advantage of this to create intricate, elaborate carvings in the architecture. The piazza del Duomo is a breathtaking example: accessed by a narrow entrance, you enter and as the piazza opens up, you're confronted with a cathedral (12th century), a palace (15th century), and a seminary (18th century) that seem to shine so brightly during the day that they reflect the sun, and at night, seem to glow from within. The basilica di Santa Croce is another baroque gem in Lecce's town center. 
Also of interest is the 2nd century A.D. Roman Amphitheater in piazza Sant'Oronzo -- subterranean and excavated in the 1930's to expose a perfect horseshoe amphitheater with seating for 15,000. In the photo here, it's set up for a summer concert series, a unique experience if you happen to be in town. The city itself is a small, elegant, lively, laid-back university town with boutiques, bars, and restaurants aplenty.
There are a few elegant hotels in the historic center from which you can explore the area. The Patria Palace Hotel is a well-located traditional upscale Italian albergo with gorgeous green Murano glass chandeliers and a fabulous rooftop terrace overlooking the Santa Croce basilica. The Risorgimento Resort is a more modern and stylish spot with a restaurant, wine bar, and rooftop garden. Airbnb also offers a number of great options in and around Lecce, for those travelers who want to feel at home in an apartment or B and B without the services of a 4- or 5-star hotel. These lodgings can be a great value, too.
As for food in Lecce? There are plenty of great options, mostly for food that tends toward the casalinga (housewife) style. It's homey, it's hearty (pasta with beans, potatoes, and mussels is a delicious local specialty, but an Atkins nightmare), and it's often vegetarian-friendly. Both Alle Due Corti and Cucina Casareccia are restaurants that seem like a relative's home -- albeit a relative who's superb in the kitchen. Dishes like orecchiette (the Pugliese regional pasta, "little ears") with cime di rapa (turnip greens), and the vegetable dish of cicoria e fave (sauteed chicory greens and pureed fava beans) are classics of the area. 
Seafood tends to be prepared very simply, either crudo (raw) as in a tartare or carpaccio, or a simple local fish like sarago, cooked in a salt crust and filleted and served with local, top-quality olive oil. For breakfast, try the deservedly-famous pasticciotto leccese, a sort of mini-pie with an almond-flour crust and a creamy filling, ranging from almond cream to Nutella. 

BEYOND LECCE  The small towns surrounding Lecce (many of which have "Lecce" in their names), range from charming hamlets to antique ghost towns, and many are worth exploring. Getting out of the city of Lecce allows you to see the countryside of the Salento, and out to the beaches -- both the dramatic, rocky eastern coastline and the western, interior Ionian coastline and its sandy beaches. I recently traveled to the Salento to attend the wedding of some dear friends of mine in Muro Leccese.  They rented a few houses next to each other for their guests arriving from all over Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The houses felt more like they were plucked from a Greek island, or from the medina in Morocco, mazes of limestone and white stucco, narrow hallways and staircases, lemon trees and creeping bougainvillea. The wedding itself was held at the nearby Botanical Gardens, La Cutura, in Giugianello (province of Lecce). This gorgeous former estate is home to the largest collection of succulents in Italy, and was a truly enchanted setting for the wedding, with dinner and dancing afterwards.
The following day, I prepared a brunch for about 100 guests in the kitchen of those rented villas -- a task that was challenging, fun, and something I couldn't have done without the incredible help of my (mostly) willing help (grazie a tutti quanti)! We served both local dishes (orecchiette with sausage and turnip greens) and dishes from elsewhere in Italy and overseas. It was a sweltering, mostly-sunny, collaborative, memorable afternoon with my trusty crew/amore/dear amici. And of course, the days leading up to that afternoon in prep -- many market trips, searching, inquiring, schlepping, organizing, cooking, more schlepping...a true authentic experience in the mezzogiorno!

And where did we come to rest our weary heads after a long day trekking around the Salento? I wouldn't stay just anywhere. I prefer the likes of Salindia Boutique Bed and Breakfast. It's extremely personal but you are still "hosted" in a Pugliese home. My lovely friends from Rome, Monica and Marcello, run Salindia ("Sal-" for Salento and "India" for Monica's Indian heritage). The married couple set up shop in Caprarica di Lecce, a small village of 2,000 inhabitants roughly 15 minutes south of Lecce. They found a run-down 17th century farmhouse (actually two, which they connected), saw the potential beauty there, and painstakingly refurbished this plot of land in the center of town, turning it into a little heavenly oasis within old stone walls. Their eye for detail is exquisite, and they've managed to stay true to the local whitewashed Greco-Roman aesthetic while intermingling with Italian modern and antique Indian craft. And it works beautifully. There are engraved wood four-post beds draped with Indian silk in the bedroom suites (there are 2), modern bathrooms with deep glass bowl sinks and counters, and stone spa showers with rainfall shower heads. In the common spaces, there are poured cement floors and B+B Italia leather sofas juxtaposed with the original stone fireplaces from 1685, Indian wooden antiques, and colorful mirrored poufs. There is an enclosed back garden for relaxing among the fruit trees and caper bushes, and in the front off of the modern dining room and kitchen, there's the enclosed cortile with a turquoise pool and plenty of space for soaking in the sun. All of this is just steps removed from one of the main streets of the town, though you'd never know it from the inside. And speaking of, you'll get some great insider's advice for things to do and see in and around the Salento, from Monica and Marcello. At the height of the summer season, there always seems to be a sagra, or festival, happening in one of the surrounding towns, or in Caprarica itself. And throughout the rest of the year, there are seasonal festivals and always lots of music of the Salento in the air -- the famous tarantella dance and the pizzica music that accompanies it. (More on this in my next Puglia post).

A note to travelers: renting a car is a must in Puglia to get around, unless you're planning on staying for only a few days in the center of Lecce. But that would be a shame. Rent a car, explore, see the coast, see the city, see the small towns and countryside. It's not Tuscany, it's different. It's Puglia. And it's still, for now, deliciously under-the-radar.


SALINDIA Boutique Bed and Breakfast, Caprarica di Lecce. 

** Alle Due Corti, Lecce. Via Prato 42. (0832) 24.22.23.
Cucina Casareccia, Lecce. Viale Costadura 19. (0832) 24.51.78 * Lecce restaurant*
Botanical Gardens "La Cutura",

Friday, September 19, 2014

SEASONAL INGREDIENTS: Basil... + Pesto alla Genovese

Quick, hurry! Before summer is officially over in a few (not-really-that-short) days! For anyone who has grown her own basil this summer, whether in the back yard or on a windowsill or -- if she's lucky enough -- in her own lush, expansive, dedicated herb garden: it's pesto time.
Pesto, as a sauce, originates from the Italian verb pestare (to pound or crush), which gave rise to the word pestle, as in mortar-and-pestle -- the instruments originally used to make the sauce. In Italian cuisine, pesto refers to any sauce made with a mortar and pestle, and has myriad iterations. From the northwest coast of Liguria, and the city of Genova, where pesto alla Genovese originates, to the island of Sicily, where the local pesto is most often red (from tomatoes)...a pesto sauce can mean many things to many different people. Today we're focusing on the world's most famous pesto. Made with only a few top-quality ingredients, at their seasonal peak, pesto alla Genovese is the essence of Italian cooking in a simple condiment. 

The basil pesto made famous by the Genovese uses the local ingredient par excellence: basilico genovese, a DOP item (denominazione origine protetta -- meaning the origin and varietal of the basil is protected under Italian law. Meaning it's the good stuff, the real thing). This is crushed with garlic and European pine nuts, plus a little salt. This paste is made into a sauce with the addition of olive oil -- in Liguria, it's the golden, relatively mild and fruity variety made from local taggiasca olives. A grated cheese is added at the end, either parmigiano-reggiano or a pecorino or both.
The cheese you use will determine how salty the end result is, so waiting to add most of the salt until the end is advised. In Genova, this sauce is most commonly served with a local pasta called trofie, a twisted short pasta, and often tossed with boiled potatoes and green beans as well. Of course, the traditional way of making it with a mortar and pestle is the best way to appreciate the process -- but it's the modern day food processor that allows you to make the sauce in a snap.

With the abundant crops of basil throughout the late summer, now is the time to turn the beautiful anise-scented leaves into a perfectly summery sauce that freezes well and lasts for a month or two even in the fridge, as long as it's covered with a layer of olive oil to seal it off from the air. Spread on late summer heirloom tomatoes, this pesto adds the perfect touch to a light September lunch. You can toss it with pasta, serve it with grilled meats, spread it on tomatoes or drizzle it on top and bake the tomatoes. You can use it alone or mix it with mayonnaise for a great sandwich spread or dip. And you can even stir it into vegetable soups as the French in Provence do with their soupe au pistou. Any way you use it, pesto alla Genovese is a great way to use your late summer basil, and to keep enjoying it for months after summer officially ends.

Arrivederci, estate! (Farewell, summer!)


(8+ servings)

8 cups basil leaves, washed and dried
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup toasted pine nuts
Approximately 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, very good quality (from Liguria if possible)
½ cup grated parmigiano or pecorino cheese, or a mix of both
salt to taste

- In a food processor or blender, turn the switch to on and drop in the garlic clove so it is finely minced.

- Turn off the blender and remove the top, and add about half of the basil leaves. Return top and blend, adding about half of the olive oil. Now add half of the pine nuts. Add salt to taste.

- Continue this process, balancing the flavors until you reach the proper flavor and consistency you’d like. It can be a bit more liquid rather than thick, because you’ll be adding the parmigiano cheese which will thicken it a bit.

- Remove from food processor/blender and pour into a bowl. Stir in the parmigiano cheese.

- When adding to cooked pasta, mix the pesto with some of the pasta’s cooking water to thin. Use also as a sandwich spread. Keeps in the refrigerator for weeks: cover the sauce with a film of olive oil to seal it from air (this way, it won’t turn black). Wrap/cover tightly.