May 28, 2010
Altacucina held a lovely wine tasting on Monday, May 24 showcasing Italian organic and biodynamic wines. By chance I met Claudio Icardi a few days after the event. We discussed the wines at length and how he came to biodynamics as a philosophy and what it has done for his wines.
A word about biodynamic viticulture first. The field was started by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) whose philosophy eventually evolved into the biodynamic movement. It aims to take into account the entire ecosystem around a plant or a person. Practically what this means is that the vineyards are planted according to certain phases of the moon and other practices while pest management techniques are all natural without using chemicals or pesticides.
Claudio Icardi said that initially he thought it was all a bunch of silly ideas but that after practicing biodynamic viticulture and winemaking for a period of time, he became so convinced of its merits that he now promotes it throughout Italy and teaches at various universities. He also told me for the first five years he threw out the wine because it wasn’t up to the standard that he wanted. “I wanted to make a great wine not just an okay one. My model was Romanee Conti,” he added.
He likened traditional interventions in the vineyard as giving a medication to someone who was sick that took care of the immediate cause but not the underlying effect. That is the difference between the holistic approach and the traditional approach.
The end result of this all are wonderful wines made from traditional Piedmont grape varieties such as Barbara, Nebbiolo, Cortese, Moscato d’Asti and a few international varieties. The wines are imported by Vinifera.
May 26, 2010
Translating Italian food terminology is not quite as easy as one might think. As a language, Italian has many variations in terms of local words used for the same object or in the case, dish. This is the case for poultry or pollame, in my view. Pollo is the word for chicken and you can find many recipes for Polla alla Cacciatora or other similar everyday dishes. Pollastrina which is also a member of the same family can be translated as a hen or as chicken depending on your source.
Italians also tend to eat more game meats and fowl than the average American so words like fagiano (pheasant) and faraona (guinea fowl) are household names are is piccione (pigeon) and coniglio (rabbit). Some weeks ago the New York Times had a very cute bunny on the cover with an entire section dedicated to rabbit recipes. There was a slight uproar in certain corners because it was the first time people were actually talking about rabbit as a food in a national newspaper. No Italian would have been scandalized. This is the same for eating some internal meats such as kidneys (rognone), trippa (intestines) and fegato (liver). Not to mention brains (cervello) and other delicacies. If none of this strikes your fancy, go back to things like pollo which are easy to say and even easier to prepare. Check out this blog post for a great recipe.
May 24, 2010
The Spring season brings thoughts of gardening and planting. Many peopke plant herbs to grow and nothing is easier or more fun to have in the garden than Basil. Basil is used quite often in Italian cooking but also in Asia cooking, although it is a different cultivar. Italian basil is usually called sweet basil as opoosed to Thai basil or lemon basil.
Basil is usually added at the last moment because if it is cooked to long, the delicate flavors are destroyed.
Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto which is usually served on pasta or occasionally with bread. You can also use pesto as a way to garnish soup.
The most traditional pesto recipe is called Pesto alla Genovese. Here’s a fun youtube video of a chef explaining how to make pesto, a very easy recipe.
Pesto has a few main ingredients and then some alternatives. Some pesto recipes call for adding potatoes and green beans, others do not. The mainstays of pesto are olive oil, pine nuts, basil and pecorino cheese.
Pesto is perfect for the spring and summer and is a great way to feed many people at a party. It goes very well with Italian white wines such as Vermentino, Pigato and some Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige.
If you have no desire to make pesto, you can buy it at the Alta Cucina Store.
May 20, 2010
There are few foods as closely associated with Italian Jewish cooking as Carciofi alla Giudia or fried artichokes. This delicious dish can be found in any number of Roman restaurants but it is traditionally associated with the Roman Ghetto. Artichokes can be quite tough when cooking normal but this particular way of making them allows the heart, stems and inner leaves to be quite tender.
One Roman restaurant where Carciofi alla Giudia is always on the menu is La Taverna Del Ghetto near the Portico d’Ottavia in Rome. This restaurant, which is also kosher, is a hit with tourists of all religions and ages as it sits on a picturesque street in the old Roman ghetto behind the Synagogue and not far from the Tiber river.
Carciofi alla Giudia can be served as an antipasto or as a side dish. The hardest thing to do is to limit the number that one consumes. Artichokes are in season in the Spring, Summer and Fall. This great blog post from City Cooks gives clear instructions on how to clean and cook them in any fashion.
May 14, 2010
Il Cantuccio is a great little artisanal bake shop that just opened in the West Village in Manhattan. It offers a nice array of pastries including its famed Cantucci which come in a variety of flavors such as Cantucci with Almonds (original version), with Chocolate, with Prunes and with Apricots. Owned by three partners, Camilla, Simone and Leonardo, this lovely spot on the corner of Christopher Street really brought me back to Florence.
Camilla noted that Americans haven’t yet caught on to the joys of eating schiacchiata. Schiacchiata is the name for Tuscan flatbread. It comes in both sweet and not sweet versions. Schiacchiata all’olio is one of the most typical afternoon snacks in Florence. Schiacciata is more familiar to Americans with the name Focaccia.
It is delicious as a sandwich bread with prosciutto or other meats or cheese or on its own.
Il Cantuccio is a sister restaurant to one in Florence on the Via Nazionale. There is also a third location in another town in Tuscany called Campo Bisenzio. The bakery has seating and is open from 800am to Midnight. They serve coffee and other treats for breakfast or brunch as well.
Although they have only been open for 19 days as of this blog post, it already feels like a neighborhood hangout. Warm and friendly, Il Cantuccio is a great place for a coffee. They also serve an almond paste cookie not to be missed called Brutti Buoni – loosely translated it means ugly but good.
May 12, 2010
A few steps from Union Square, pizza, one of America’s favorite foods, has improved its nutritional profile by featuring a tasty whole-wheat crust. Where? At Piola.
Piola is a pizzeria that offers really authentic cuisine, hand made specialties and wood oven cooked pizzas in a youthful and modern environment. Simple, healthy, and delicious food, attentive service and a laid back ambiance definitely satisfy even the most demanding customer… (and in New York City the Italians are really demanding when it comes to savoring their traditional dishes). The first time I tried it, it was just out of curiosity, the waiter had asked so I figured why not! But then I found myself looking for it every time I went back. Thinking that I was doing something good for my body made me automatically feel good.
Whole-wheat dough contains vitamins, minerals and fiber, some of which are lost in the refining process when dough is made from refined and processed flour. The main reason that so many people prefer processed pasta, to whole-wheat pasta, is that the processed pasta has a slightly different taste and texture than the whole-wheat variety, and many people have become accustomed to it. Truth is, with pizza, especially thin crust like the one served at Piola, you cannot really taste the difference and as you enjoy it you are also taking better care of yourself. It does cost an extra dollar, but it’s no news, by now I know that eating healthy is a bit more costly, but it’s totally worth it.
One last note: Piola also serves Pizza Bianca (pizza with no tomato sauce reminder of how pizza was before the tomato was introduced to Italy), Pizza Napoletana (smaller and with thicker edges) the Classics and some International variations (like Pizza Copenhagen with smoked salmon, brie cheese, parsley and mozzarella)
May 6, 2010
Trippa or Tripe is often considered a delicacy in Italy despite having very humble origins, much like the craze for Roman peasant cooking that has taken New York by storm. In Florence for example Trippa alla Fiorentina is a very well known dish. Tripe is made from cow’s stomach and sometimes other internal parts. In Florence, tripe is often sold off of carts the way hot dogs are hawked on the streets of New York. A very famous version of Tripe in Florence is called Lampredotto, a well cooked version of the food. Florence isn’t the only place in Italy where tripe is well loved and tripe can be cooked in many ways as these recipes show.
Tripe is often cooked with tomatoes but it can also be flavored with mint, typical in Rome or cooked with an eggplant dish, a staple in Palermo or with parsley in Turin. Tripe is seen in menus throughout Italy and is used by traditional cooks and well as modernists.
In New York City, tripe can be found in many ethnic restaurants but it hasn’t yet created the splash that other parts of the quinto quarto or internal organs have. It will surely have its moment in the sun. It is just a question of time.