Italy’s beautiful Lake Iseo is the venue for artist Christo’s latest project, “The Floating Piers,” a 52-foot-wide, 2.7-mile pathway on the water from the town of Sulzano to the Monte Isola island, continuing along pedestrian roads from Peschiera to Sensole, then reaching to San Paolo Island. The project runs through July 3.
The artist describes the sensation of strolling along the floating piers as “walking on the back of a whale” and, yes, it is a long walk indeed.
If you are lucky enough to experience this, you’ll probably be hungry after your walk. There are many osterias along the lakeside promenade where you can enjoy the traditional dish of manzo all’olio di Rovato, or Rovato beef in oil. (Rovato is a small town located in the Franciacorta hills, close to the lake.)
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At the time of the Republic of San Marco, the meat market in Rovato, in northern Italy, was the most important one on the route from Venice to Milan. Merchants coming from Liguria used to bring the typical products of their land, such as oil and anchovies, which are central to this beef dish.
The dish can be accurately dated to the second half of the 16th century, when the recipe was written down by a noblewoman, Donna Veronica Porcellaga. It has been a family recipe for five centuries, handed down from one generation to the next, so that each family has its own version. It consists of three basic ingredients: olive oil, anchovies and the lean meat called cappello del prete (priest’s hat), usually used for bollito misto. Garlic, bread crumbs and some vegetables are also added. According to experts, the trick is to sear the beef quickly on the sides so it cooks slowly and remains tender, keeping all the juices in.
Rovato beef reinvented
Just like art, this 500-year-old recipe can be made in the traditional spirit — or it can be revisited with an innovative twist, as Christo does with his projects.
Three local top chefs have different takes on it.
Stefano Cerveri from Due Colombe in Borgonato di Cortefranca keeps alive the family tradition and remains faithful to Granma Elvira’s cooking, a classic version dated 1955 and enriched with a spoon of acacia honey.
Matteo Cocchetti from Dispensa Pani e Vini Franciacorta serves a slightly nontraditional dish, a beef filet cooked at low temperature with dried lake sardines and parsley sauce.
Finally, Vittorio Fusari, born and raised between the Franciacorta wineries, is a true philosopher when it comes to local cuisine. At magnificent Palazzo Lana Berlucchi, he serves an innovative version, vacuum-sealing the meat and slowly warming it up to 125 F, then taking off the packaging and slowly cooking it in his own extra virgin lemon-flavored olive oil at 150 F. The meat lies over a green bed made with broccoli, spinach and chicory, and served with baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives.
“I believe that a traditional recipe may be changed only if you respect it, know it well and love it,” says Fusari, “and that’s exactly the opposite of demolishing it.”
Cooking Time: 3 1/2 hours
Total Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes
Yield: 4 Servings
3 pounds of lean meat
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
9 tablespoons butter
3 anchovies in oil
6 fresh leaves of spinach
1 pound whole-grain wheat flour
3 garlic cloves
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1. Saute the anchovies in butter, adding the chopped onion and the garlic cloves.
2. Cut the meat long, making two pieces, and brown the pieces in the pan for 10 minutes. Add about 4 cups warm water and slow-cook the meat for at least three hours, removing the fat that comes to the surface.
3. Halfway through, add the oil. Mix a handful of cornstarch with a little water and add it to thicken the sauce.
4. Remove the meat and cut it into slices of about 3 inches. Strain the sauce into another saucepan, add the carrot and finely chopped spinach and, if necessary, a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken further.
5. Serve accompanied by polenta or a steamed potato.
Main photo: Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora
For many people the arrival of vine-ripened tomatoes marks the beginning of summer. But for me, it’s the mounds of corn at our farmers market. With countless ways to enjoy corn, one of the most delicious is to use corn kernels in an Asian-style congee or rice porridge.
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Certainly the easiest way to enjoy corn is to strip off the husks and place the cobs into boiling water or onto a blazingly hot grill. Featured center stage, a bowl of freshly cooked corn on the cob is wonderful. But corn is also an able supporting player when the kernels are cut off the cob and added to salads, soups, stews and pasta.
Congee, the best kept secret of the Asian kitchen
A meal in itself, congee is Asian comfort food. Putting good use to leftover rice, the most basic congee is a stew of boiled rice. Many cuisines have made the dish their own by layering in flavor with combinations of stocks, fragrant oils, fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.
Congee comes in many consistencies. Some feature the broth as much as the rice. Other versions have very little liquid and the congee has a consistency similar to porridge.
Any rice varietal will work nicely to make congee. Short grain, long grain, white or brown rice, it doesn’t matter. When the cooked rice is added to a liquid over heat, the starches thicken to create a sauce. Water can be used as the liquid, but a home-made stock adds much more flavor.
My congee borrows the general technique but is not an attempt to create an authentic dish as prepared in the Philippines, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam.
Because the starting point for congee is so flavor neutral, a variety of vegetables, seasonings and stocks can be added. A fine dice of carrots, green beans or broccoli works well, as does a shredding of kale, spinach or sorrel. Instead of olive oil, use sesame or truffle oil. Add aromatics such as raw garlic, fried garlic chips, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, saffron, pimentón or oregano. Homemade broth brings another level of flavor. You can use a dominating liquid like beef stock flavored with anise or take a more delicate approach using shrimp stock with a saffron infusion.
As an ingredient in congee, corn is an ideal companion because the firm sweet kernels contrast well with the creaminess of the boiled rice.
If lobster is not available, another protein can be used. Cooked or raw fish, crab meat or shrimp can be substituted for lobster. Or, shredded roast chicken or roast pork will pair nicely with the corn. A vegetarian version is easy to make by using homemade vegetable stock and fresh farmers market vegetables and herbs.
Cooking a lobster is probably easier than you might think. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Hold the lobster’s head submerged in the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid. Cook five minutes. Remove the lid, submerge the part of the lobster that is not yet red. Cover. Cook another three minutes. Transfer the lobster to the sink. Reserve the water in the large pot.
When the lobster is cool to the touch, hold it over a large bowl. Remove the legs, claws and tail, reserving any liquid to add to the stock. Discard only the dark colored egg sack. The green tomalley is a delicacy and should be saved to be eaten warm on toast.
Removing the meat from the tail is relatively easy. Use kitchen shears to cut the shell underneath lengthwise and across the top of the tail. The meat will come out without effort. Cracking open the claws takes a bit more work and sometimes requires the use of a hammer. The body meat is especially sweet and requires the use of a pointed stick to separate the meat from the cartilage.
Some of the meat will be cooked. Some will be raw. Both can be used in the recipe.
Place all the shells into the pot with the cooking water and simmer covered thirty minutes. Strain out the shells and reserve the lobster stock.
Refrigerate the lobster meat and stock until needed. The preperation of the lobster can be accomplished a day ahead. If all that sounds like too much effort, use the other proteins mentioned above.
Homemade stock is preferable to canned, boxed or frozen stocks, which are often overly salted and can have a stale taste. Homemade chicken stock is a good substitute if other stocks are not available.
Because rice varietals absorb liquid at differing rates, have enough stock on hand. Adjust the amount of stock as you cook until you have the consistency you enjoy. If you want your congee to have more soup, use six cups of stock. If you would prefer less soup, use four cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings as well.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ears corn, husks and tassels removed, washed, kernels cut off the cobs
1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, top and outer skin removed, roughly chopped
4 large scallions, washed, root end and discolored leaves removed
4 to 6 cups homemade stock, lobster stock if available or use chicken stock or water
4 cups cooked rice
3 cups cooked or raw lobster meat (approximately two 2-pound lobsters) or another protein
1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, each tomato cut into quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
1. Add olive oil to a heated pot on a medium flame. Sauté corn kernels until lightly browned.
2. Add chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.
3. Fine chop scallion green parts. Cut white part into ¼-inch lengths and reserve.
4. Add scallion green parts to the sauté.
5. Pour stock into pot, stir well and simmer five minutes.
6. Add rice. Stir well. Continue to simmer.
7. The longer the rice cooks in the liquid, the softer it will become. If cooked too long, the rice will dissolve creating an unpleasant texture. When the consistency is what you like, shred the lobster meat and add along with the chopped cherry tomatoes. Stir well. Simmer two minutes.
8. Season to taste with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne (optional) and sweet butter (optional).
9. Serve congee hot in large bowls. Top with white scallion lengths.
Main photo: Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
From a string of bad harvests to last winter’s international export-fraud scandal and the European Union’s recent decision to remove tariffs on the Tunisian competition, the Italian olive oil industry has faced its share of setbacks over the past couple of years.
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Nevertheless, the 24th edition of the Ercole Olivario — a prestigious national olive oil competition held in March in Perugia, Italy (which I attended as a guest of the Italian Trade Commission) — was a bright spot amid the gloom, going to show that the ancient art of harvesting and crushing olives into liquid gold (or green, as the case may be) remains alive and well.
Granted, very few of the 100 Ercole finalists export their bottlings to the United States. Such is the nature of craft production; farms like one I visited in Spoleto, Azienda Agricola Antonio Bachetoni, still prefer to sell their oil the old-fashioned way — on site and in local markets. A few, though, are available in the U.S., albeit in more or less limited supply. Good sources include Olio2Go, City Olive, Eataly, Famous Foods and Market Hall Foods.
Five olive oils to try
Located in Puglia, Italy’s top-producing region, this acclaimed mill relies on the softer Ogliarola variety and the more intense Coratina for bittersweet oils that show grassy, nutty and vegetal characteristics.
The most widely imported brand on this list comes from Sicily, where the Cutrera family makes a full range of DOP (protected designation of origin), organic and infused oils.
This Ligurian producer makes monovarietal oils from the richly fruity Taggiasca olive. Its Extremum CRU — golden and multilayered with herbal and vegetal notes — took home the top prize at the Ercole Olivario for non-DOP extra virgin oils in the “fruttato leggero” category (essentially “light-flavored”).
Pasquini makes IGP (protected geographical indication) and other extra virgin oils from the Frantoio and Moraiolo cultivars, which contribute to the green, savory, peppery qualities for which Tuscany is famous.
In the Sicilian DOP zone of Valle Trapanesi, this organic farm produces an extra virgin oil from a blend of three olives: Nocellara, Cerasuola and Biancolilla. Redolent of tomato plant and herbs like basil and mint, it’s known for its staying power — use sparingly.
‘Preserving Italy’: The book
Besides cooking and dressing salads with quality Italian olive oils like these, what else can you do?
Plenty. During the trip, I had the pleasure of getting to know fellow journalist Domenica Marchetti, who wrote the book on preserving Italy’s olive oil heritage — literally. Just released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions” is chock-full of recipes for pickles, relishes, sauces, jams, liqueurs and other Italian pantry staples; verdure sott’olio — or vegetables under oil — play a key role. I asked her for an introduction to the technique.
Ruth Tobias: What are some common uses for verdure sott’olio?
Domenica Marchetti: I use oil-preserved vegetables all the time. Because they tend to be vinegary (in spite of the fact that they’re submerged in oil), they make a great side to roasted or grilled meat — pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages. I like to fold oil-preserved asparagus, garlic scapes, peppers or zucchini into frittatas. Oil-preserved mushrooms, peppers and eggplant also make great toppings for pizza, because they counter the richness of the cheese. I dice them up and put them in insalata di riso (rice salad) and farro salad [as well as] egg or tuna salad. And of course they are great as part of an antipasto platter, with cheese and salumi.
RT: Can any vegetable be preserved in olive oil, or do some work better than others?
DM: Most vegetables can be preserved in oil, but the proper technique requires several steps: salting or semi-drying the vegetable to remove excess moisture, bathing it in a vinegar brine, draining and letting it dry out a bit more, and then submerging it in oil. These steps together make the vegetables safe for long-term keeping — though, just FYI, the USDA does not provide guidelines for preserving in oil and so doesn’t recommend it. For this reason, I store any homemade oil-preserved food in the fridge and use within three months.
Certain dense, watery vegetables, such as onions, carrots and celery, are better preserved in a vinegar brine to maintain their crunchy character; some, such as zucchini and peppers, are suited to both methods.
RT: Does the quality and/or character of the oil make a difference to the final product?
DM: Generally, the freshest oil is not used for preserving, because it’s not the best use of the oil. Rather, it’s reserved for drizzling on bread or grilled vegetables and meat. Older, mellower or milder oil is better for preserving, because it doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of whatever is being preserved. I used good (but not break-the-bank expensive) extra virgin olive oil for nearly all the oil-preserved recipes in my book.
Main image: Samples from a tasting of oils submitted to the Ercole Olivario competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ruth Tobias
By now, most consumers have heard about community-supported agriculture, or CSA. With a CSA you purchase a share in a local farm at the start of the growing season and, in return, receive a weekly allotment of fresh produce. This system, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, ensures farmers earn fair wages for their harvests and guarantees fresh, often organically grown, vegetables and fruit for their supporters.
While CSAs may have become commonplace, the public remains less aware of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Granted, CSFs have not been in existence as long. The first, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, began in Maine in 2007. As of September 2015, the number had grown to 39 in North America.
Supporting local fishermen
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Applying the CSA premise to seafood, CSF subscribers buy a share in a fishery. This payment goes directly to local fishermen. Direct payment usually cuts out costly middlemen such as processors and distributors. It also offers income stability for the anglers.
In return for this money, the fishermen provide a weekly or biweekly supply of fresh-from-the-boat seafood for their patrons. They also give peace of mind about food sourcing. With this system people know who caught their fish and where, when and how it was obtained.
Along with promising information and a steady market for their catches, CSFs allow fishermen to seek out unusual and abundant seafood. “They honor the diversity of catch of smaller-scale fisheries. These are the mainstays of fishing communities and have the smallest ecological footprint,” said Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorry has been a driving force in the creation and continuation of community-supported fisheries.
Dorry points out that while New England fishermen bring in roughly 60 species of fish and shellfish, supermarkets carry, at most, 12. As a result, only the longstanding favorites get purchased and consumed. Deemed bycatch or unwanted by consumers, the remaining species are discarded.
Instead of fixating on overly popular, exploited seafood, CSF fishermen seek out healthy sustainable stocks and sell all the fish they catch. They also target invasive species such as green crabs and Asian carp. They work with, rather than against, the environment, allowing overfished populations to rebound and reducing, if not eliminating, predatory alien marine life.
Regardless of the good that a CSF can do, consumers may still shy away from joining one. Intimidated by the thought of by receiving an exotic crustacean or whole carp to cook, some may opt for the usual imported shrimp or filleted farmed-raised salmon from the grocery store.
Although store-bought offerings may feel more familiar and manageable, they won’t be as fresh. Rarely are they local; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch, 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. has been imported. Along with possessing a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced goods, seafood shipped in from overseas tends to come from less sustainable fisheries.
Community-supported fisheries aim to educate
To combat this reliance on a chosen, foreign few, consumers must be educated.
“People haven’t had enough exposure to other fish. This is why we give a suggested recipe each day, so that people know what to do with their pollock, hake, sole, redfish or monkfish,” said Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a 4,500-member CSF in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
For members who feel squeamish about looking their fish in the eye, Cape Ann provides the choice of receiving whole or filleted fish. For more daring cooks it offers truck-side filleting demonstrations. On designated pickup days it sends all participants an email detailing the seafood and on which of the 17 participating fishing boats their portions were caught.
Whether you belong to a community-supported fishery or not, Marshall says the public should become informed and know where their seafood comes from. “Go to any restaurant and ask where your fish is from. If it’s not local, why isn’t it? We must start insisting that we eat fresh local fish,” she said.
CSFs part of the local food movement
Demanding access to local seafood seems like a no-brainer. So, too, does backing a community-supported fishery. It helps a region’s fishing community, fosters working waterfronts and boosts the area’s economy. It embraces seafood diversity, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and delivers extremely fresh food. Ultimately, it can provide a win for fishermen, consumers and the oceans.
For those curious about whether a CSF exists near their town, LocalCatch.org has created an online interactive map of “boat-to-fork seafood.” LocalCatch.org is a network of North American fishermen, researchers, organizers and consumers devoted to the growth and maintenance of community-supported fisheries.
Its locator presents information on CSFs, farmers and fish markets, boat-to-school cafeteria programs and small fishing crews that sell dockside and directly to the public.
Main photo: Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
A battle is raging over where to buy your fish in Seoul, and the outcome will determine the fate of one of the city’s most iconic food markets and tourist destinations.
The sprawling Noryangjin Fish Market, on the south banks of the Han River, has been where fish sellers, buyers and simply the curious have been congregating since 1927. It’s also one of Seoul’s top tourist destinations.
Conan O’Brien visited, and played with the squirting “sea penises” on American TV. A thousand Chinese tourists visit a day, according to Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Fox News rated it the third-best food market in the world, and when Conde Nast Travel ran a photo essay of the best markets in Seoul, 10 of the 20 photos were from Noryangjin.
Battle to remain open
Today, though, the market is quiet. There is graffiti on the top floors that reads “Demolition.” On the main floor, the fish sellers are wearing red vests that read “Together we fight.” Banners hang from the walls, and there is a militant atmosphere throughout the market.
Parent company Suhyup wants the fish sellers to move across the street to a new market. The new market is smaller than the old one, fully indoors and air-conditioned, and resembles a department store. It is also mostly empty, since most fish sellers refuse to move there, despite orders from Suhyup.
“After they built the whole new building, we didn’t get any notice or have any meetings,” said one fish seller, who refused to give his name but has been selling fish at Noryangjin for 30 years. “On March 16, 2016, we got a notice to move. After we checked the new site, we saw it didn’t match our needs, so we chose to stay and fight.”
Mixed reactions to new
Suhyup says the old building, now 45 years old, is unsafe and unsanitary. But fish sellers have a litany of complaints about the new building, chiefly that the allocated lots are too small. They say the floors are slippery (I almost fell twice), the aisles are too narrow, the rents are too high, they weren’t properly consulted and, most important for visitors, that it lacks any of the atmosphere the old building has.
The corporation, meanwhile, says the fish sellers were perfectly well consulted, rents and lot sizes are the same, and everyone signed an agreement to move as far as back as 2009.
“We have to face the fact they’re not going to rebuild the traditional site,” says Song Young-hi, a fish seller of 39 years who reluctantly moved to the new building. She complains the lots are too narrow, and that it’s “almost impossible” to display the fish. Still, she doubts the company will back down, and she has to make a living. “I have to do what I have to do,” she says. The dispute is now with the courts.
Modern, but will tourists come?
A favorite activity among tourists at Noryangjin is getting the fresh seafood cut up right in front of them and served in one of the market’s many restaurants. In the old building, all the restaurants have been shuttered and sprayed with graffiti, their electricity and water shut off by the company. In the new building, the restaurants are open, but with fewer customers.
Stella, a tourist from Toronto who didn’t want to give her last name, bought fish at the new market to eat at one of the second-floor restaurants. But she said she would rather have gone to the old market, and was under the impression the old one was closed.
“My friends showed me pictures of the old one. It seemed to have more choice,” she says.
In the old market, Achuko and Yoko from Japan look at crabs and discuss the two markets. “I like the new market,” Achuko says. “It’s so clean.” But, she adds, “It’s impossible to move all of [the fish sellers] there.”
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She admits the old market is more traditional. “The old one is cheaper and a bigger market,” Achuko says. “So Koreans like this style, I think.”
Jang Han Gi is a fish seller who splits a 24-hour shift with his brother. It’s hard work, but after 25 years, he’s used to it. He says there’s no way he’s moving to the new market.
“The customers prefer the open site and the open style of this building,” Jang says.
Jake Yoo, a local tour guide, agrees. He says there just isn’t time to visit both markets on a tour, and the old one wins with tourists, hands-down. “This is traditional-style here, and it’s better.”
Main photo: Fish sellers, in the old market, wear red vests that read “Together we fight.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner
“Never throw out leftover bread!” our Milanese mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers used to exclaim. Milanese cuisine has its roots in simpler traditions, and that includes reusing old bread to make exquisite dishes.
So if you happen to have bought too much bread, you have two options: Freeze it while still fresh and then remove it a few hours before use, or listen to my granny and try one of these six Milanese dishes.
Paan triit maridàat
This is a legendary peasant soup described in the 1450 cookbook by Maestro Martino, “The Art of Cooking.” Making the soup is simple: Boil broth, pour in bread crumbs made from old bread and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk eggs with grated Parmesan cheese, add a spoon of butter, pour into the broth, mix and serve. In Milanese dialect, the name means married bread crumbs, because the bread, tired of being left alone, has mated with the egg.
Stale bread and water are the inexpensive ingredients for this basic, frugal soup, exceptional for its goodness and simplicity of execution. Pieces of bread are soaked in cold water for a couple of hours (michetta is the best bread, but you can use any other kind). Then add butter, oil and salt and boil. To make it tastier, Granny used to add some beef bouillon and serve with parmesan. Variations and additions are accepted, like the use of chicken or meat broth instead of water, a beaten egg that is stirred in or a garnish of dried bay leaf. But the concept of a simple food remains the same.
That pink and juicy mortadella (Italian bologna) is the main star of these oval-shaped patties, made with milk-moistened bread, eggs, chopped parsley, grated cheese and garlic, then seasoned with a pinch of grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix all the ingredients, dip in bread crumbs and fry with a little olive oil and a bit of butter for a beautiful golden color.
The Milanese frugal cooking tradition continues with the combination of stale bread and leftover bollito misto (mixed boiled meat), or any other kind of meat, such as sausage, wurst or salami.
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Today, these meatballs are often brought to your table as a welcome pre-appetizer, or you can find them as street food. They are similar in preparation to polpette, but are walnut sized, rolled in bread crumbs and then deep-fried with sage and butter.
You can make a no-meat version, choosing to enrich these fantastic tidbits with fillings such as smoked cheese or fried zucchini.
This is a wonderful alcohol-drenched pudding, named after the British Queen Charlotte, who apparently loved to have apple trees in her garden. Charlottes are usually more complex, but the Milanese version is all about simplicity. Once the bread’s crust is eliminated, the inside is used to line the bottom and the sides of a butter-greased mold. The center is filled with apples, raisins, pine nuts, zest of lemon, white wine and sugar, and baked for an hour at 350 F. Respecting the tradition, I like to serve it in a flamboyant manner, so I sprinkle it generously with rum, light the top and impress everybody with a restaurant-like, flaming dessert!
Torta di pane della Nonna
This “Grandma bread cake” has a comfy and genuine flavor. The stale bread is cut into small pieces, mixed with raisins and left to soften in warm milk for 15 minutes. Then it is coupled with sweet cocoa, pine nuts, egg, butter, cinnamon, lemon peel and some amaretti biscuits. This mix is cooked for 50 minutes at 325 F. To check if it is ready, I do like Grandma used to do — insert a toothpick in the middle. If it comes out clean, I take it out, let it cool down, dust the surface with icing sugar and serve. Buon appetito!
Main photo: Repurpose old bread into polpette, made with Italian bologna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca
A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.
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While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.
The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.
“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”
What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.
Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”
In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.
The process is done in four stages.
“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”
Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”
The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.
While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”
Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”
Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.
If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.
Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant
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New garlic (not to be confused with green garlic, the kind that looks a bit like scallions or spring onions, with the greenery attached) has plump bulbs that are fully formed. The cloves are easy to peel and deliciously damp — in some parts it’s known as “wet garlic.”
Because this kind hasn’t been hung out to dry with a view to storage, it will not keep for long, so you need to use it up pronto. It works especially well in recipes that call for raw garlic cloves: New garlic is less pungent and peppery and more digestible than its aged cousin.
At the market in Saint Cézaire-sur-Siagne in Provence, France, in early May, the first of the season’s new garlic was on sale. I snapped up several heads and bore them home delightedly.
If you can get your hands on new garlic, here are three recipes to showcase its flavor.
Fava Bean Dip With New Garlic and Cream Cheese
This pale green hummus-inspired dip is great in early summer, when fresh fava or broad beans and new garlic are in season. The beans replace the chickpeas of regular hummus and there’s cream cheese instead of tahini, plus a topping of toasted seeds at the end for texture. You need to buy about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beans in the pod to arrive at about 8 ounces (250 grams) of shelled beans. Spread this dip on crusty bread or toasted pita or serve with chicken, veal, fish or crunchy-cooked spring vegetables (zucchini, radishes, baby carrots, sugar snaps and small turnips).
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: 12 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
8 ounces (250 grams) shelled fava beans (fresh or frozen)
A pinch of salt
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime or 1/2 a lemon
1 clove new garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces (50 grams) cream cheese
1 teaspoon za’atar spice mixture
A pinch of crushed chilies or piment d’Espelette
1 tablespoon mixed seeds (sesame, poppy, linseed, sunflower)
1. Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil, drop in the shelled beans and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until just tender.
2. Drain the beans, then pop them out of their leathery skins.
3. Place prepared beans in a food processor or blender, add the salt, cilantro, lime or lemon juice and garlic and process till smooth.
4. With the motor still running, drizzle in the olive oil; scrape down the sides and reblend.
5. Add the cream cheese, za’atar spice mixture and crushed chilies or piment d’Espelette and blend again.
6. Tip the mixture into a small dish or bowl and refrigerate.
7. Put the seeds in a small frying pan without any extra oil (they have enough of their own) and heat steadily, shaking the pan from time to time, till the seeds are golden brown and fragrant.
8. Sprinkle the seeds over the dip just before serving.
Salsa of Roasted Tomatoes, New Garlic and Chilli
A Mexican-inspired spicy salsa — the tomatoes, garlic, onion and chilies get a toasting on a griddle or in a dry frying pan (no oil) before they go into the blender, which intensifies the flavor and gives them a smack of smoke. Don’t peel the tomatoes, but blend them with their toasty skins. Serve with barbecued meats, tacos or quesadillas.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 0 minutes
Total time: About 15 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
4 ripe medium tomatoes
2 cloves new garlic, unpeeled
1 to 2 fresh chilies (serranos, jalapeños or bird’s eye)
2 scallions, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon salt
1. Rinse the tomatoes and place them on a griddle or in a dry, ungreased frying pan with the unpeeled garlic, chillies and spring onions.
2. Heat until the chilies, tomatoes and onions are lightly toasted and the garlic soft. The chilies will be ready first — remove them so they don’t burn. Keep turning the tomatoes and prop them up against one another, so they toast evenly. They’re done when little brownish-black flecks appear all over the skin and they are a little softened.
3. Remove all ingredients from the griddle or pan. Remove stems from the chilies, split them open, scrape out the seeds and chop roughly (use rubber gloves if you are sensitive to chili heat.)
4. Slip the garlic out of its skins. Do not peel the tomatoes.
5. Place chillies, garlic, tomatoes and scallions in the blender with 1 teaspoon of salt and blend till smooth.
Refrigerate the sauce till needed.
Creamy Sauce of New Garlic, Chili and Cilantro
A pale green sauce that’s done in a flash. For a quick supper, serve with linguine, adding a few lightly steamed vegetables. You can also pour it around chicken breasts or roasted quail or serve under white fish filets or salmon for a great color contrast.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 1 cup
6 cloves new garlic
1 cup (250 milliliters) whipping cream
A pinch of salt
1 fresh chilli, red or green, seeds removed, finely chopped (optional)
A small bunch (about 1 ounce, 25 grams) cilantro, leaves and stalks
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water
1. Slip the garlic cloves out of their jackets and place in a small saucepan.
2. Add the cream, salt and chili (if using) and bring to a gentle simmer.
3. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the garlic is quite soft.
4. Mix the cornstarch with the water.
5. Tip the sauce into a blender, add the cilantro leaves and stalks and cornstarch and blend till smooth.
6. Return sauce to the pan and bring to a boil again. Simmer for about 5 minutes, whisking with a small wire whisk, until thickened — no longer, or the sauce will lose its fresh green color. If too thick, add a little more water to give a lightly coating consistency.
Main image: New garlic. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style