Viva i Grissini !

January 28th, 2010

I fell for grissini in Turin one winter weekend, and although it was a few years ago, it was a memorable gastronomic crush.  Bakers’ windows,  steamed up from the warmth inside, all displayed individual styles – some straight, some knobby – of these long, crisp fingers of bread.  To call them “bread sticks” doesn’t seem quite fair, for they ran from delicate wands to thicker, shorter sticks studded with herbs or seeds. All variations are very crisp, wonderful for nibbling with a bowl of thick, hearty soup. Every winter I indulge in a nostalgic trip back to Turin via a batch of homemade grissini.

Savory wands, Grissini banish the winter "blahs"

If you can’t find frozen pizza dough, or if your favorite bakery doesn’t take orders for unbaked baguette dough, simply make your own. This can be made the day before, kept to cool-rise overnight and rolled out, shaped to bake for the next day’s lunch. If you do this, let it rest at room temperature before working the dough. It also can be rolled into a long log, sliced into rounds and patted flat to make pitas.  Simple, economical grissini can be on the table in under two hours. Begin by proofing (sprinkle yeast over the water, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes in a warm place) until the surface begins to show some tiny bubble activity :

1 teaspoon dried yeast sprinkled over 1 + 2/3 cup/14 oz/400ml warm water

4 1/2 cups to 5 cups/1 lb.4 oz. unbleached white flour – this will vary with the flour you use; allow more for dusting the work surface)  + 1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons each mixed herbs and seeds for rolling each wand: oregano, thyme, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, Hungarian sweet paprika, celery salt, crushed black pepper – choose 2 or 3, as you like – mixed on a plate.

olive oil for your hands and to brush over grissini before baking

Put the flour in a warm bowl, gradually pour the water + yeast in along the inside of the bowl, stirring to incorporate it without becoming lumpy – pinch any lumps with your fingertips and keep working it into a ball. Cover and let this rest for about 30 minutes. Prepare 2 large baking sheets by lining each with a piece of baking paper, preheat the oven to hot:  450° f./230°c. When the dough has almost doubled, oil your hands and knead, slapping the dough and turning it over until it feels elastic. Slice it into 6 parts, roll one by one into a long rectangle 1 1/2 inches/3 to 4 mm thick, and cut evenly into 6 parts. Pick each one up, roll and begin to twist – the dough will stretch – so cut each strand in half, roll in the mixed herbs and place on the baking sheet. Brush each with a little olive oil. Let rest while shaping all the grissini, then bake for 10 minutes - just as you put them in, spray the oven interior with a water mist (to crisp edges) – until lightly golden. Then turn off the oven, open the door slightly and watch closely that they are not too brown, but leave to crisp for about 10 minutes before taking them out to cool on a rack.  Depending on how thin you shape them, this should make 2 to 3 dozen grissini. In metal tins lined with aluminum foil, they will keep at least a week in a cool place.  Serve short ones with apéros to dip into a tapenade, brousse or soft cheese dip – save the long grissini to enjoy with  salads and soups… to chase away any winter blues or blahs.

Every recipe has its source, an inspiration to try a new angle. I must thank Alba Pezone for clarifying steps in making grissini, as found in Elle à Table, December 2009.

Soup for a chilly night

January 22nd, 2010

Roots, herbs...all go into the stock pot

Making Soup,  a few words on step 1:  Stock

Turnips with lilac shoulders, a stalk of crisp celery or two, a duck or guinea fowl carcass, maybe a ham bone, and don’t forget the carrots to give a winter soup color…with  sage, thyme and bay leaves. All of these flavor-giving basics are at hand when I reach for the soup stock kettle. Market day will provide more ingredients: leeks, a handful of parsley that the maraîcher always tucks into my sack, and yellow onions whose inner skins will be added for color.  I’ll use the inner, trimmed green leek tops minced up – save the most of the whites for the final soup, onions  will be quartered and stuck with cloves and carrots scrubbed but not peeled. Following Patricia Wells’ sound advice that vegetables cut in small pieces give the stock more of their flavor, I’ll chop them up, run cold water into the soup pot to cover all ingredients, turn on the heat to medium and begin the day’s simmering. The herbs tucked inside the carcass won’t float to the top with eventual foam, making skimming easier. Actually, any fresh veg you have on hand, from cores of cauliflower to broccoli stems will add flavor and nutrients, so use it all up. Lift the lid after ten minutes, begin to skim off any foam rising, then add 1 tablespoon sea salt and 1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar (to draw calcium from the bones into the stock) and turn heat to low.  After about four hours – or longer if you wish – strain the soup into glass jars and let the stock cool. Pull pieces of duck or pork off the bones for a spaghetti sauce or soup later. With a good layer of duck fat on top, the stock will keep about a week – if you don’t use it in a risotto first!  More about soup next week: pastinas, tiny noodles…and almond dumplings.

Winter comfort food: simple puddings past and present

January 15th, 2010

January’s brief, snowy white landscape has melted with winter rains, and I spotted a few snowdrops poking through along the walk to lift my spirits.  In these chilly days, the simplest puddings are so comforting, whether made of simmered semolina, cubed day-old bread or poached apples.

Slow-cooking rice smells so good!

But rice rises to the top of my puddings list, especially as north winds whistle around the sloped corners of our Périgordine roof. This moment calls for the tried and true, so I pull out old recipes tucked between tattered edges of my grandmother’s Newell, Iowa church guild cookbook.  I delve into pre-Beeton English recipes, in short:  making rice pudding stirs the historian’s curiosity. It seems that Romans with upset stomachs were given a gruelly rice pudding made with goat’s milk to asuage their discomfort. Rice is easily digestible, a standby for restoring strength to invalids through the centuries.  Cooked in almond milk with a little honey, rice pudding was a noble dish – flavored with saffron – in the Middle Ages. It is likely that both rice and saffron, along with cinnamon were brought back home by returning legions of pilgrims and crusaders. It took on importance as a Lenten dish, in fact it is something of a miracle: a handful of round rice and a liter of milk, cooked slowly, will feed a crowd.

Before launching into actual recipes we might use today, consider an earlier approach, that of John Evelyn, a cook* in Restoration era England. I have adapted the English version to current usage. This follows a description of preparing the intestine casings, as the puddings are stuffed into ‘gutts’, like sausages, and boiled:

“To make rice puddings:  Pick  half pound of rice clean, boil it in 3 quarts of milk till it is tender. Strain it through a colander, stir in ‘a penny’ of grated bread, a pound and half of beef suet shredded very fine. Beat well 16 eggs and 4 egg whites; 2 Nuttmegs, grated, beat a half pint of cream, add a little Rose water and  a pound of sugar, a little musk and Ambergreece. Fill the prepared gutts – but not too full. This quantity will make about 3 dozen double puddings:  boil them quickly.”

His high carbohydrate combination of rice, bread, suet and sugar suited the times when walking many miles and wood chopping were the norm in a day’s work – and finding 20 eggs was evidently no problem.  Every era, every country has set down its own preferred pudding recipes, to the point that one might devote an entire book to the subject. Middle Eastern rice puddings are delicately scented with rose water, Macedonian Lapa is a rice pudding covered with black poppy seeds, while in Hungary Teiberizs is often dusted with cocoa powder and/or cinnamon. Cinnamon is sprinkled through a lacy cloth over Portuguese Arroz doce, a rice pudding seasoned with lemon zest and almonds – never with vanilla, while French Riz au lait à la vanille calls for a vanilla bean steeped in the milk. In Normandy, the traditional Teurgoule is baked for hours in a shallow earthen dish to let a cinnamon-flecked crust form. The same approach to an English slow-baked rice pudding lets a crust form after pouring the hot milk and rice into a buttered baking dish – often made on Mondays while the household wash day claimed the cook’s attention, my English friend recalled.

Then there are the questions of raisins and whether to enrich the pudding with a couple of egg yolks. Some Scandinavians have adapted both, tossing a handful of port-soaked raisins into a Danish bowl of Risengrod, but not into the cold version with whipped cream, Ris à l’amande. You might say every cook has his or her own twist on tradition.  But they all say: start with round rice.  For the long-baked creamiest of puddings, short grained thirsty pudding rice takes its time to soak up all the liquid. Whether your liquid is whole milk, part cream or almond milk, use inexpensive round rice (not Arborio, better suited for savory risottos) – the best out of the 40,000 varieties of rice available in the world. Now, how do you make this picture of simplicity?  One recipe says:

Soak 4 Tablespoons of round rice in water (1 part rice to 8 parts liquid) for 20 minutes. Drain it; preheat the oven to 325°f. Heat 3 cups of whole milk with a split vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan, add 3 Tablespoons light brown sugar or light honey and a pinch of salt along with the soaked and drained rice. Butter a round or oval baking dish. Pour the hot milk/rice mixture into the dish and bake  for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Leave it uncovered if you want a crust to form.  After the first hour, stir in 1/2 cup golden or sweet Smyrna raisins (if you wish), and this is the time to add 2 egg yolks if you wish for color and nourishment. Then scatter flakes of cold butter and 1/4 cup of flaked almonds across the top; sprinkle grated nutmeg and cinnamon over all. Bake another hour or two; the pudding will continue to firm up after baking. Remove from the oven, let cool and serve at room temperature with a dollop of raspberry jam or cherries in a light syrup. Not only comforting, but economically in tune with tight budgets!

A few gift books for 2010 inspiration

*One of  Restoration England’s Renaissance men, John Evelyn was a landscape architect, city planner, author and scholar. Prospect Books, London published John Evelyn, Cook , The Manuscript receipt book of John Evelyn, in 1997. This jewel of a book arrived one day recently, a surprise gift from an English friend.

Note: For more on rice, see   www.foodsubs.com/Rice.html

Go Cooking: Lucca, Tuscany

January 13th, 2010

I wasn’t really looking for a cooking school when the phone rang yesterday, but after a conversation with one of the directors of Flavours Holidays, the seed of an idea was planted. Now that Flavours have added painting class holidays and pilates weeks, their range of appealing themes has expanded. In fact, painting with well known artist, Penelope Anstice in Sicily tempts the Vagabond to dream of being there. But the core of their well organized programs lies in Tuscany, enticingly near Lucca to be specific, where cooking classes roll with the spring and summer season’s market-fresh produce. That means learning to make not only ravioli filled with Tuscan greens and Pisan pine nuts, but stuffed zucchini blossoms as well – after a round in the market to find the ingredients; very Tuscan, very local.  So, if you are searching among the confusing lists of on-site cooking classes in Italy,  narrow down your options for a culinary getaway quickly.  For details about Flavours, run by an experienced team, see:  www.flavoursholidays.co.uk and www.flavoursofitaly.blogspot.com

Your vacation plans might focus on hiking, diving, fishing or…why not cooking?  Next month’s Go Cooking will be in the Périgord and a wine school in Puglia…stay tuned.

East of the sun, west of the moon….

January 8th, 2010

Where will your dreams drive you in this new decade – don’t stop to say “this year”, but allow a greater frame.  Still, there is an immediacy connected to travel:  to return to places just tasted once (say, hiking in Thessaly in the spring), let curiosity coax you to explore unknown or rather more remote (maybe Moldova at Grape Harvest fest time), or venture way off the map in Turkestan tracking down native textile traditions.  All of the above hold great appeal, as do the cuisines of these diverse parts of Europe and the Asian hinterlands – but hold the ghee, in tea or otherwise, please. What would you like to taste again, where would you listen to the sea again, or to survey a Piedmont vineyard-scape that lingers in your memory ?  Consider which season, think about what will be primo in local markets – and be ready for surprises – wherever you roam.

The vagabond invites you to share your travel dreams, with  food and wine as part and parcel of your Voyages Extraordinaires !

A slow season, to reflect & collect energy

January 3rd, 2010

What might the new year hold?  A minute to pause and look at both plans and habits brings up:  more slow travel, not to mention lingering over slow food, and on every market day, slow shopping.  What…slow shopping?  It has been almost a month since I pushed a cart around in a super market, rushing around to find things in aisles lined with hundreds of cereal boxes and buying temptations I don’t really need; then waiting in line. Not only was the experience (and the musak) exasperating, it drove me away.

During the last half of December, I found whatever we needed in the village where we live, with two of each…bakeries, groceries, butcher shops, and a drugstore for toiletries.  No need to back the car out of the garage and drive (count time and gas).  Shopping locally is not only an opportunity for contact with neighbors, but I can find whatever I need here, and be back at our gate more quickly than the drive to Carrefour or LeClerc supermarkets would allow.  So, to continue my “new habits” and do what I can to shop locally, 2010 is the year of no supermarket madness.  It will just take a little timing, going to the butcher when they open at 3:00 there’s no one else around when I try to pronounce Herring (my bête noire!), and to the grocer on Wednesday afternoon when fresh produce is in place. Thursday morning market day means fresh eggs, maybe a chicken and a cyclamen for the windowsill, fresh fish and…oh, the cheese. Actually, this also fits into a fitness plan for aerobics when I haul the bag and basket back up the hill. The only real slow aspect about village shopping is running into friends, but that makes shopping a pleasure!