Wines, vines and Italian tastings

February 25th, 2010

When a first sip is infatuating, I yearn to learn more. Such was the case with Primitivo, encountered over a plate of savory orecchiette at Pasta e Basta in Paris’ 13th.  First the dense – almost inky – robe, deep fruit aromas, then the wine’s structure persisted through the meal. The impact of this wine, so different from French wines, carried a complexity that intrigued me.  Where can this wine be found in context, I asked Armando, the chef at Pasta e Basta? “From Bari south to Lecce, and all along the Salentino, a rocky strip of southern Italy”, he responded.  So, serious travel is involved, and some time-juggling, but as  Italy continues its magnetic tug, why not plan on exploring this wine at the source: the heel of Italy’s boot.  Apulia, or Puglia, is the home of many ancient vine varieties planted along the the Salento peninsula in the sixth century B.C. – long before Roman legions marched past the trulli, clusters of white dry-stone huts.

The vagabond has found a guide for this wine and culinary adventure:  a bi-lingual ace photographer and host of a well known Lecce cooking and wine school, The Awaiting Table.  Silvestro Silvestori’s New Wine School and Cuisine classes have been covered by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. Their harvest season wine course this year runs from October 10 to 16, and includes visits to vineyards, a cooking class or two, and much discussion with local artisans – in addition to comprehensive wine lectures and tastings. Without further fanfare, I refer all and any wine tasting enthusiasts to www.awaitingtable.com

For more on Puglia, its cuisine and traditions, read Anne Bianchi’s superb, thorough Italian Festival Food, Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Regional Country Food Fairs, published in 1999 by Macmillan, USA.

Blini for carnival….and beyond

February 16th, 2010

Hot off the griddle, blinis for apéros or...supper

Often blini -  little two-bite disks of goodness – appear as cocktail party fare at Christmas and Easter, making an appearance on some platters for a Mardi Gras fest.  But a blin or two can be great comfort food any time. The vagabond has fond memories of these pancakes as an occasional late supper after a long day’s work in wintry Helsinki. Hopping off the tram in front of Sashlik, one of the city’s Russian restaurants, once I stepped through the brocade entry curtains, the February snow and slush seemed far behind.  No menu was necessary, as I knew what to order:  a side of buttery blini and a restorative bowl of beet borscht. With the blini, just a dab of smetana and chopped dill – and an icy thimble-sized glass of vodka.

These lingering images stir me on, and I return to blini-making.  Most of my recipes call for  several pounds of flour, six eggs, a half-pound of butter – too big a batch without a crowd to feed.  At last, a scaled-for-two recipe of such stunning simplicity fell out of a favorite cookbook and landed in my lap.  This will make about fifteen to eighteen small blini:  allow about three hours including cooking them – two hours for the batter to rise gives you time to clear the way, chop up the garnish and heat the griddle.

Easy blini:      3/4 cup /175 ml  milk, warmed

2 tsp. granulated yeast

1/2 cup/ 50 g. buckwheat flour

1 large egg, separated

1/4 cup / 25 g. plain flour + 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/4 cup /75 ml butter, melted

2 Tablespoons thick cream

2 Tablespoons minced dill (or dried if none is available)

1/2 cup/150 ml butter, warmed/clarified for cooking

Garnishes:  chopped green spring onions, chopped hard-boiled eggs, fish roe such as trout or – best of all – vendace, white fish roe/muikkun matti

Sprinkle the yeast over the warmed milk, let it proof for 10 minutes. Put the flours in a mixing bowl, make a well and plop the egg yolk in, then whisk in the milk/yeast. Set the bowl in a warm place to rise for 2 hours, wrapped in  a thick towel. Bubbles will form and let you know it is ready:  whip the egg white and fold it into this batter with melted butter, fold in the thick cream and dill (or use fresh dill as a garnish if you prefer). Heat a crêpe pan or iron skillet, dribble on some clarified butter (use the golden top layer, it tolerates high griddle temps) and drop 1 full tablespoon of batter for each blin; flip as bubbles begin to form around the edges. Keep warm (on a covered plate or in foil) or serve at room temperature with the garnishes.  And what to drink with your blini fest?  Sparkling wine, or iced vodka is the vagabond’s suggestion.

Cook’s Notes: Buckwheat flour is essential – but if you wish, use 1/3 rye flour, 1/3 buckwheat and 1/3 white flour proportions for heartier blini. The real deal is to have them “swimming in butter”, as a Finnish friend counsels, but that will be up to you.  Clarified butter has a higher smoke point, so it is worth the extra minutes to melt and separate it for cooking them without burning.  With the addition of smoked fish (delicate trout or peppered mackerel), lemon slices, sour cream and a modest beet and apple salad, blinis become a light supper.  Watch for more of the amazing buckwheat story in March.

For the apple of my eye…

February 13th, 2010

Apples, always there....for something special

What’s best with Valentine’s Day ever-seductive chocolate dessert? This time, the vagabond stirs up a creamy semifreddo of spiced apples with densely chocolate brownies.  Not a brownie fan?  If you prefer… a chocolate clafoutis, or cocoa-chocolate chip cookies…

Devilish Almond Brownies, a one-pan prep couldn’t be easier:

90 g./3 oz. bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped up

75 g./6 T. sweet butter, chopped up

185 g./3/4 cup sugar

2 large fresh eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract + twist of black pepper

30 g./1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped up

50 g./ 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 c. chopped candied ginger + 3 T. chopped almonds (plus some for top)

Butter an 8 inch baking pan, flour the bottom. Set oven at 177°F/350°f. and put rack in middle of the oven.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter + chopped dark chocolate, stirring ’til smooth – watch that  it doesn’t scorch.  Take the pan off the heat, let cool and whisk in sugar, vanilla, and eggs one by one, whisking as it turns glossy and smooth, then add the 1 oz. of chopped chocolate.

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir in the flour, candied ginger and chopped almonds (reserve 1 T. for topping). Pour into the prepared pan and spread evenly, then sprinkle chopped almonds on top. Bake for about 30 + minutes – until the top has puffed slightly and cracked; test with a BBQ skewer, no crumbs should be sticking to it. Let cool completely. Cut and serve with the creamy apples…

A dessert for Valentines, anniversary, or...?

The semifreddo begins a day in advance, making applesauce  in a heavy saucepan:

1 cup of water + 2/3 cup sugar to dissolve + 1/2 vanilla bean, split

4 – 5 apples, peeled & cored, sliced. Include some quince, if possible.

1/2 cup thick crème fraîche, a twist of nutmeg, 1 tsp. ginger

1/3 cup heavy cream, whipped to double volume

1 T. lemon juice

When the apples have cooked in the sugar-syrup until they are translucent, let cool and blend with a wand-blender, add the lemon juice and measure this to 2 cups applesauce. (It can be somewhat chunky if you like the texture). Fold in the crème fraîche and whipped cream, pour into a sorbet pan and freeze for 4 hours – then stir it up with a fork to break ice crystals. Freeze overnight. To serve, slice or scoop out onto plates with  squares or triangles of almond brownies.   The Brownies are adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, 1996. Having double-tested this, the vagabond’s village had an electricity cut just after the brownies were baked -  lucky timing.  But more important, even with only candle light, fragrant blossoms in the air…..

Jasmine in bloom - the ultimate mood enhancer...

Soup with a twist

February 9th, 2010

Lemons ready.... for soup

There is a point in winter when my soup répertoire sags a little. What root can be added, what spice and snap can I stir in?  A perk-up for chicken or vegetable soup is in order. When one eats soup every day (in provincial France, still very common), before or as the evening meal, there must be something beyond tourain (a garlic-infused broth with slices of yesterday’s baguette) or soupe au pistou (many vegetables in a savory broth, somewhat like minestrone).  These are basics – along with velouté de potimarron (winter squash purée) and châtaigne (chestnut cream) -  filling soups for workers’ lunches in auberges and restaurants routiers (truck stops) across the southwest. There’s nothing wrong with those if you are chopping wood or building a barn.  Let’s simply say I’m looking to lighten up a first course soup. To do just that I look south to Greece…. and find lemons.

Whether this Mediterranean combination of eggs and lemons is a silky soup or a sauce, Avgolemono wakes up any bored diner’s tastebuds. Whisk eggs and lemon juice, stir into a chicken broth, heat through and serve – what could be easier?  I first tasted avgolemono (stress middle syllable…avgo Le mono) in a Greek Taverna in Chicago – on Halsted Street as I recall,  it seems eons ago – where my papilles (taste buds) were duly impressed.  And it was an introduction to pastina, tiny oval pastas that look like rice.  Most recipes begin with: cook a three pound chicken, etc. , but you could easily base this on last month’s basic soup stock (post of January 22), and add a cupful of chopped chicken or serve salted chicken on the side.  As with any use of fresh eggs, temperatures need to be watched carefully so curdling doesn’t spoil the soup.  Use white rice or pastina - i prefer “langue des oiseaux“, birds tongues pastina available in specialty shops selling Mediterranean products.

To serve 4, once you have  heated 4 cups of broth in a small soup pot, toss in 1/3 cup of pastina or long grain white rice to cook, covered for 20 minutes while you whisk the avgolemono in a bowl:

2 large, fresh eggs, whisked for 3 minutes

juice of 1 or 2 lemons (2 if you like it tart) & thin lemon slices for garnish; 1 lemon yields about 1/4 cup juice

Add the lemon juice to the eggs, beating constantly – then gradually blend in 1 cup of hot stock from the soup pot, continue beating without interruption, and pour this mixture into the soup, stirring (for 5 to 10 minutes) as it thickens slightly. It should be satiny smooth and the pastina or rice translucent at this point. This last-minute trick depends on the cook’s concentration, stirring as the soup warms. Garnish each bowl with a lemon slice or parsley sprig.

Avgolemono as a sauce can be made in a similar way, using a double boiler or dish over (never touching the water) a pan of boiling water.  Myrsini Lambraki* suggests sauce proportions of 1 egg to the juice of 1 lemon, a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup or more of the vegetable stock whisked in to the desired thickness.  Separate the whites and yolks for a frothier sauce, and serve on fish, asparagus, courgettes, broccoli or cauliflower (this is superb).  A Greek friend warns – never serve avgolemono with tomatoes or garlic, but suggests topping each serving with cracked black pepper or minced Greek oregano.  That, or a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint on top will transport you to a taverna table overlooking the Agean.

*Myrsini Lambraki’s useful Cretan Cuisine for Everyone, published by Myrsini Edition in 2005, emphasizes vegetables and explains the principles of the Mediterranean diet pyramid.

The crêpe and the groundhog

February 2nd, 2010

A crocus catching sunlight on February 2

Forty days after Christmas, the end of winter and return of longer days are cause for celebration.  Whether you call it Chandeleur, Maslenitsa/Mavénitsa or Ground Hog Day, how do you welcome brighter days ?  It isn’t only about eating crêpes, though many do in France, but the old rhymes point to the same iffy weather prediction system based on ground hogs and sunlight:  if the ground hog sees his shadow, forty more days of cold weather will follow. Before tucking into a hot crêpe, a Frenchman might say….

à la Chandeleur, l’hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur (On Chandeleur, winter ends or gathers strength)

à la Chandeleur, le jour croît de deux heures (On Chandeleur, the day grows by 2 hours)

Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte (When snow covers all on Chandeleur, we will lose 40 days)

Rosée à la Chandeleur, hiver à sa dernière heure (Dew on the morning of Chandeleur, winter’s last hour!)

During the Chandeleur mass, commemorating Christ’s presentation at the Temple, candles for the upcoming year’s ceremonies were blessed – and some households would bring their chandelles for blessing as well. In Provence, this was the day to dismantle the crêche de Noël and tuck it away until Noël rolls around again. In many parts of the French hexagone, people still try to flip a crêpe with the right hand and flip a coin with the left…if you can do both, some may suspect you of lying.  And there are probably many more dictons and sayings about this mid-winter milestone.  Crêpes will still be tossed until Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday, and the vagabond is content with a glimpse of spring:  the first golden crocus in bloom, a cup of sunshine.

For Mardi Gras (16 February), watch for a new take on blini – with an eastern twist.