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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comfort Food, Italian Style: Making Gnocchi with Chef Mirko Paderno

What’s your favorite comfort food? Do you prefer savory or sweet? Maybe a hot fudge sundae topped with whipped cream puts you in a Zen state. Maybe it’s a fresh-out-of-the-oven chicken pot pie with wild mushrooms or mac n’ cheese with extra cheddar. For Chef Mirko Paderno, a plate of freshly made gnocchi reminds him of home in Northern Italy. In his Vinoteca and Culina kitchen, he showed how to make gnocchi.
Often served in upscale restaurants as a fine dining dish, gnocchi is as basic to Italian home cooking as pasta. The sauces may change and the markings on the little “pillows” may differ depending on the region, but gnocchi is made with three basic ingredients: potatoes, flour and (most often) an egg.
Although there are a variety of opinions about how to make gnocchi, for Paderno if you can boil water and roll out a pie crust, you can make gnocchi. No special kitchen tools are required.

And, he loves gnocchi because of it's versatility. Perfect in winter with a hearty meat sauce or in summer with a light pesto or butter sauce.

Making gnocchi is his yoga
Rolling out the dough puts Paderno into a relaxed, Zen state.  On rainy days, he enjoys making gnocchi with his teenaged daughter.

A James Beard Nominee and a seasoned veteran of kitchens in Italy and Los Angeles, he began his culinary career at the Four Seasons Hotel Milan. With his appointment as Executive Chef at Culina and Vinoteca, he has come full circle, returning to the Four Seasons family. In between, he worked in some of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. Piero Selvaggio’s Primi, Cecconi’s, Oliverio at the Viceroy and DTLA’s Officine BRERA.

But when he was a teenager, he wasn’t certain what he was going to do with his life. That’s when he enrolled at the Cesare Ritz School in Marano. At the time, he wasn’t that focused on cooking. One of his teachers, Abramo Magnani saw talent in him. But Magnani told him point blank, if he didn’t focus and apply himself, his talent would never amount to anything. In one of those wonderful moments when a person’s life changes forever in a good way, Paderno accepted the challenge.
At Vinoteca and Culina, that determination has paid off. His reworking of the menus has created dishes that give local diners an authentic experience with modern Italian food. Unlike many hotel restaurants, Paderno makes changes to the menu depending upon the seasons, the availability of quality ingredients and feedback from his diners. He combines the California love of seasonal food with Italian regional touches. 

Reflecting that dual vision, Paderno worked with Sommelier Amanda Craig who created a wine cellar with a comprehensive selection of wines from around the world but especially from Italy and California. In a tasting flight I selected she paired an Arneis from Piedmont with one from Santa Inez and a Vermentino from Liguria with one from Arroyo Secco in California. The differences were marked. All were delicious.

Gnocchi Made with Cold Potatoes

For Paderno, two details are key to making the best gnocchi. The potatoes must be steamed over salted boiling water so the flesh does not become water-logged. And, the dough must be made with cold cooked potatoes so less flour is needed.

By using cold potatoes, the dough can be prepared before the meal, even the day before. But if hot potatoes are used, when the egg and flour are added, the gnocchi must be cooked immediately to avoid becoming soggy.

Paderno uses Idaho russet potatoes because they have a neutral flavor, the better to work with a variety of sauces. But he suggests using any potato you enjoy, even sweet potatoes or purple potatoes.

Paderno uses “00” flour which blends easily with the potato. If “00” is not available, use all-purpose (AP) flour.

The amount of flour used partly depends on the moisture of the cooked potatoes. Getting the right density takes a bit of practice. The gnocchi dough should be not too dry and not too damp. Like pastry dough, with a dusting of flour, the gnocchi should roll out without sticking on the work surface. Watch the video to see Paderno’s technique.

Serves 8

Time to prepare: 30 minutes

Time to cook: 30 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

2.2 lbs. Idaho russet potatoes, washed, skin on
14 ounces “00” or AP flour
2 tablespoons AP flour for dusting
1 extra large egg
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Place a steamer on the bottom of a large pot. Add water only to the bottom of the steamer. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil. Place potatoes in the pot. Cover. 

Depending on the size of the potatoes, cook 20 minutes or until a paring knife can be inserted into the potatoes easily. Add water as needed if more steaming is required. Remove when the potatoes are soft but not mushy.

Allow potatoes to cool. Peel and discard the skins or reserve to sauté for breakfast. Run the cooked, peeled potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill using a fine blade.

Sprinkle work area with flour. Place potatoes on the work area. Create a “volcano,” the way you do when making fresh pasta, with a depression in the middle of the mound. Dust flour over the potato and place a raw egg into the center of the volcano.

Using fingers, work the egg, flour and potato together until all ingredients are combined. Create a ball.

At this point, the dough can be wrapped in plastic wrap or placed in an air-tight container and refrigerated to use later or the next day.

Before cooking the gnocchi, make a sauce. That can be as simple as a butter sauce with a little pasta water or as complicated as a braised meat ragu.
Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Work in batches. Cut off a cup of dough at a time. Using both hands, fingers and palms, roll the potato dough back and forth until it takes the shape of a dowel, about 1” in diameter.

The dough is forgiving so if the dowel breaks apart, start over.

Once you have made a uniform shape, create individual gnocchi using a pastry cutter or chefs knife. The gnocchi should be approximately 1” long.
It is important to mark each gnocchi using a fork, your finger or a gnocchi board. The indentations will help the sauce stick to each gnocchi.

Fill a large pot with water. Add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil.
The gnocchi cook quickly, anywhere from 30-60 seconds. To determine how much time is needed, place several test gnocchi into the water. If the first gnocchi breaks apart, either the water is boiling too fast and/or the potato dough needs more flour, in which case you can return to the work area, gather up the gnocchi, sprinkle with flour, knead together, roll out and cut again.

If your gnocchi hold their shape, after 30 seconds remove one to taste. Then after 45 seconds. And another after 60 seconds. Decide which you like and use that timing to make the rest.

Working in batches, carefully drop a dozen gnocchi at a time into the boiling, salted water.

Using a wire strainer, remove the gnocchi from the boiling water.

Drain and add to the heated sauce, which can be as simple as sautéed San Marzano tomatoes with olive oil or a tablespoon or two of pasta water mixed with melted butter like Rodolphe Le Meunier’s salted French Beurre de Baratte.

Serve each plate of gnocchi hot, topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Chef Mirko Paderno, Vinoteca and Culina, Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90048 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Dress up Deviled Eggs With a Fresh Take On a Classic






Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Quarter-sized deviled eggs made with Italian parsley, anchovies and capers. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
What’s Easter without Easter eggs? Hide them. Roll them. And, best of all, eat them. Of the many dishes associated with Easter, deviled eggs have always been high on the list. Traditional deviled eggs are delicious but with some adventuresome spices, all those left-over hardboiled Easter eggs become devilishly delicious.
Our fingers stained blue, red and yellow, my sister and I loved dyeing and decorating Easter eggs. Ultimately our mother turned our colored eggs into deviled eggs with a simple recipe: peel and slice open the eggs, chop up the yolks, add a bit of mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper, then spoon the mixture back onto the egg white halves.
When we were kids that seemed good enough. But for my adult palate, deviled eggs needed spicing up. With experimentation, I discovered that hard-boiled eggs are a great flavor delivery system because they provide a solid, neutral base of flavor to which exciting flavors can be added.
Doing something as simple as adding cayenne or Mexican chili ancho powder gives the mild-mannered eggs a mouth-pleasing heat. Sweeten the flavor up a notch by stirring in finely chopped currants or borrow from Indian cuisine and mix in curry powder that has first been dry roasted in a sauté pan.
Turn the eggs into an entrée by mixing in freshly cooked shellfish. Grill shrimp or steam a few Dungeness crab legs, finely chop the savory meat and add to the yolk mixture. The result is elegantly flavorful.
This year I’m using a Mediterranean approach. Capers add saltiness and Italian parsley adds freshness. Finely chopped and sautéed anchovy filets are the secret ingredient that takes deviled eggs to another level.
Cut into quarters or halves, the deviled eggs make a visually arresting presentation. 
Caper and Anchovy Deviled Eggs
Always worth mentioning, using quality ingredients improves any dish. Nowhere is that more true than with deviled eggs. Use farmers market fresh eggs, quality capers preserved in brine and good anchovy filets. 
The easiest way to fill the egg white sections is with a disposable pastry bag. If one is not available, use a spoon to scoop up filling and a fork to distribute it into each egg white half.
The eggs and filling can be prepared the day before or in the morning. To keep them fresh, the eggs should not be filled until just before serving.
If desired, add a touch of heat with a pinch of cayenne. 
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Assembly time: 15 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Ingredients
6 farm fresh eggs, large or extra large, washed
4 anchovy filets, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, finely chopped
1 teaspoon capers, finely chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch cayenne (optional)
Directions
1. Submerge the eggs in an uncovered saucepan of cold water. Heat the uncovered pot on a medium-high flame. Bring to a simmer and boil five minutes. Turn off the flame, cover and leave the eggs in the hot water 10 minutes. Drain the hot water. Add cold water to cool the eggs.
2. While the eggs are cooking, heat a small sauté or nonstick frying pan over a medium flame. No need to add oil. Sauté the anchovy filets until lightly brown. Set aside.
3. Peel the eggs. Discard the shells. Wash and dry the eggs to remove any bits of shell. Using a sharp paring knife, carefully slice the eggs in half, lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place into a bowl. Set aside the egg white halves.
4. Using a fork, finely crumble the yolks. Add the Italian parsley, capers and sautéed anchovy bits. Stir together all the ingredients. Add mayonnaise and mix well until creamy.
5. Spoon the filling into a disposable pastry bag. If serving the next day or later in the morning, place the egg white halves into an air-tight container and the filled pastry bag into the refrigerator.
6. Prepare a serving dish. The deviled eggs can be served as quarters, halves or reformed as whole. If quarters, cut each halve in two lengthwise. Just before serving the eggs, cut off the tip of the pastry bag. Have a paring knife or fork in hand. Carefully squeeze a generous amount of the filling into each egg white piece. If needed, use the knife or fork to tidy up the filling on each egg. Any leftover filling should be eaten on crackers as a chef’s treat.
7. As the eggs are filled, place them on the serving dish and garnish with Italian parsley or arugula. Serve cold.

 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ugly Tomatoes Make Beautiful Meals

In the winter or spring farmers markets, you've passed them by with a disapproving look. Blemished fresh tomatoes. Discounted to a dollar or less, these unhappy looking suitors for your attention appear destined to become compost.
Occasionally you will see someone who has stopped at the bin looking through the misshapen mound and you probably think they are too poor to buy the perfectly red, perfectly shaped tomatoes grown in a hot house.

The truth is, there are treasures hidden there. Find tomatoes that are firm and only slightly blemished and you will have found diamonds in the rough. They lack summer's full-blasted brightness. but tomatoes grown during winter and spring's weaker sun grow thicker skins and develop a rich, deep umami flavor.
Oven roasted, these tomatoes find sweetness hidden deep within. The acid so prized in summer tomatoes is mellowed and sweetened in off-season farmers market tomatoes.

But treat these tomatoes with care. Brought home from the farmers market and left on the kitchen counter in the sun, they will quickly soften and turn bad. They are used to cold, so place them in the refrigerator and they will last days and even a week until you are ready to use them roasted as a side dish for braised meat, tossed with pasta, served on steamed rice or mixed into soups, stews and braises.

Roasted Winter/Spring Tomatoes

Check each tomato carefully. You want firm tomatoes. A few blemishes are ok because those can be easily removed with a sharp pairing knife. 

Heirloom tomatoes are especially flavorful.

Summer tomatoes can be roasted with a similar but different result. 

Serves 4

Time to prepare: 10 minutes

Time to cook: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Ingredients

3 pounds tomatoes

1 medium yellow onion, washed, skins, root and stem ends removed and discarded

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped

Directions

Preheat oven to 400F.

Prepare a baking tray with a small lip (about 1/2"). Lay a Silpat (non-stick silicone) sheet or a piece of parchment paper onto the bottom of the baking tray.
Using a sharp pairing knife, remove the stem and spot on the bottom where the blossom was attached. Remove any dark blemishes and discard.

Cut into 1" slabs. Place slabs onto the prepared baking tray.

Cut onion in half, cutting from top to bottom. Cut thin slices by cutting from top to bottom. Place in mixing bowl. Season with olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix with Italian parsley.

Spread onion-parsley mixture over tomatoes.

Place baking tray into oven.

After 15 minutes, using a spatula or flipper, turn the slabs over. Keep onion-parsley mixture on top to brown. Return to oven.

Remove after 15 minutes.

The onion-parsley mixture should have lightly browned. Carefully remove the slabs which are now very delicate from the pan. Reserve the onion-parsley mixture and all of the liquid that has accumulated in the pan. This is full of tomato-essence
flavor.

To use as a side-dish, reheat and serve in a bowl. The roasted tomatoes are delicious when added to soups, stews and braises.

If not used immediately, keep the roasted tomatoes in an air-tight container. They will keep in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for a month.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Old Favorites and New Discoveries in Little Saigon

Having written about Little Saigon over many years, I was looking at my last post from a year ago and realized I should update the entry. Many of my favorite restaurants have closed. To replace those, I have found others but I am sorry to see old friends depart from the Westminster culinary scene.

Certain foods cause people to become rhapsodic. Proust had his madeleines. I have pho ga. At Pho Vinh Ky, the large bowl of chicken soup and rice noodles arrives with a plate of fresh herbs and vegetables and a small bowl of dipping sauce.
Traditionally, the herbs and vegetables are added to the broth. Rau ram, ngo gai, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, purple perilla, a lime wedge and thick slices of serrano peppers add brightness to the flavors. I love the dipping sauce, nuoc cham gung, a mix of lime juice, dried pepper flakes, finely chopped fresh ginger and fish sauce. Everyone has their own way to eat pho. Mine is to eat the noodles first. Each spoonful flavored by the pungent, hot, salty dipping sauce.
If you haven't eaten Vietnamese food, you have missed out on one of the great Asian cuisines. Known primarily for their noodle soups, plates of barbecued meats piled high on mounds of broken rice or served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles and stir fries spiced with lemon grass, Vietnamese food has spread into the wider culinary community because of the popularity of pho (hot beef and chicken soups with noodles) and banh mi (crusty baguettes with spicy meats and pickled vegetables).With several large Vietnamese communities around the country, we are lucky to live close to Little Saigon in Orange County.

My trip to Little Saigon begins at Pho Vinh Ky with a large bowl of pho ga (chicken soup with noodles), only dark meat, and a Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. Arriving early in the morning, the restaurant is cold and mostly empty. The large window faces a small parking lot bordering busy Westminister Boulevard. A dozen Vietnamese men and women are also eating pho. Their heads bent low over the steaming bowls, chop sticks in one hand, a Chinese soup spoon in the other, they eat the more familiar, beef version of pho. 
Because we live an hour away from Garden Grove and Westminster, the epicenter of Orange County's Vietnamese community, instead of eating several dishes at one restaurant, I'll eat one dish at each of my favorite restaurants, taking home what I don’t finish and moving on to the next one. If you hadn’t guessed, that means I bring freezer packs and a small cooler for take-away because the left overs are delicious for next day-breakfast and lunch.

In between meals, I'll hunt out the best bargains at the local supermarkets. 

Here is the list of places I love going to in Little Saigon. Hope you have an afternoon to explore the area. A few weeks ago, I brought home two live Dungeness crabs from ABC (see below: a supermarket on Bolsa at Magnolia) for $5.99/lb. The shiitake mushrooms were also a bargain at $4.99/lb. at My Thuan.

RESTAURANTS

Many of the restaurants only take cash.  Most of them open for breakfast and stay open until late (which can mean 7:30am - 11:00pm; but often it means 10am - 10pm).

Pho Vinh Ky
8512 Westminster Blvd, Suite F
Westminister 92683
714/894-9309

Next to the Stater Brothers’ Market, west of Magnolia, east of Beach (Beach Blvd Exit on the Garden Grove/22 Fwy), Pho Vinh Ky has the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in the area. The light broth is clean tasting, the dark meat is sweet and the noodles are chewy. The interior is nondescript. The waitstaff is friendly even if they don't speak English. Besides the pho ga, the other dishes I would also recommend the spring rolls with shrimp and pork, crispy rice noodles with vegetables and tofu, BBQ pork with vermicelli, BBQ shrimp with vermicelli, the pork chop with broken rice and the BBQ pork with broken rice, topped with a fried egg.


Garlic & Chives by Kristin
Mall of Fortune Mall
9892 Westminster Ave & Brookhurst
Garden Grove, CA 92844
 714/591-5196

An upscale Vietnamese restaurant with affordable prices and an extensive menu. There are many familiar dishes on the menu like bbq pork with vermicelli and fish filet on a sizzling platter. The difference is the quality of the ingredients and presentation. Fancy enough for date night but inexpensive enough to bring the family, Garlic & Chives is one of my favorites especially because my wife loves their Grilled Fish with Turmeric and Dill. 

Brodard Restaurant
Mall of Fortune Mall
9892 Westminster Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92844
714/530-1744

Located inside the mall behind Garlic & Chives, Brodard is an immensely popular restaurant with a large dining room in the back and a smaller dining room adjacent to the area where half a dozen cooks prepare house special rolls filled with vegetables and rice noodles with a choice of meats, shrimp or tofu. The take-out counter is almost as busy as the restaurant. I have to confess I have never eaten in the restaurant. We always eat at Garlic & Chives and I run over to Brodard to order to-go bbq pork chop with broken rice and vermicelli with crushed peanuts and grilled shrimp or vermicelli and bbq pork.

Mint Leaf - Dim Sum
Located inside My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
www.mintleafoc.com

Visible through the glass doors leading into the north side of My Thuan Supermarket (see below), Mint Leaf serves a dozen dim sum as well as another dozen Chinese and Vietnamese dishes as varied as braised chicken feet and soy sauce noodles with vegetables. I always buy a serving or two of shrimp filled har gow, pork filled bao and shumai. I eat a few at one of the tables and bring the rest home for a taste treat that night.

Dim Sum - Giai Phat Food Co.
9550 Bolsa Ave. #123, 124,
Westminster, CA 92683

In a mini-mall there are a dozen other restaurants including a Chinese take out restaurant serving inexpensive, well-made dim sum.

T.P. Banh Bao 2
13067 Euclid Street
Garden Grove, CA 92843
714/539-4119

On the edge of the Vietnamese area of Garden Grove, just north of the 22 Freeway, T.P. Banh Bao 2 is tucked away in a corner of a mini-mall next to Dalat Supermarket (see below). There is usually a line of customers waiting to take home a package with a dozen bao. Serving freshly made bao with a dozen different fillings, the most popular bao is filled with ground pork. Delicious fresh, they freeze well. When re-heated, they taste almost as good as they did when they were first made.

Le Croissant Dore
9122 Bolsa Ave
Westminster, CA 92683 
714/895-3070
lecroissantdore.com

On the eastern end of a mini-mall with half a dozen small restaurants there is a French-Vietnamese bakery/restaurant called Le Croissant Dore that sells good Vietnamese style French pastries. One of the specialties of the kitchen is a bœuf bourguignon that’s spicy with unexpected heat. Served with a freshly baked baguette, customers eat in a small dining room within sight of the bakery counter or outside at half a dozen tables which are usually occupied by circles of men, talking and reading newspapers. The Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk is delicious but very strong.

Saigon’s Bakery
8940 Westminster Blvd
Westminster, CA 92683
714/896-8782
http://saigonsbakery.com

A few doors from My Thuan (below), Saigon's Bakery sells breads, rolls and Vietnamese pastries, drinks and sweets, which, for most items, when you buy two, the third is free. People stand in line to buy the foot-long banh mi with a dozen different fillings. The baguettes are perfectly crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside.

MARKETS

There are a great many supermarkets in Little Saigon as well as Korean Markets in Garden Grove. Each one is different although they carry many of the same products. The prices are also pretty much the same, but there are notable differences between them.

My Thuan Supermarket
8900 Westminster Blvd.
Westminster CA 92683
714/899-0700

A large supermarket with excellent fresh produce, dried noodles and frozen seafood, My Thuan has better prices than most of the nearby markets. My wife loves charred octopus salad with potatoes. My Thuan sells both fresh baby octopus and large frozen octopus. The fresh seafood, poultry and meat counters have all the cuts familiar to anyone who shops in Asian markets. The quality is above average. The prices are very affordable. The fresh shiitake mushroom price is the lowest in the area.

MOM Supermarket
5111 W. Edinger Avenue (the entrance is on Euclid)
Santa Ana 92704
714/839-3939

MOM has a good fish market but while they have live seafood, the prices are better at ABC; they have a fantastic dried and fresh noodle area and great selection of Asian sauces.

ABC Supermarket
8970 Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia
Westminster 92683
714/379-6161

Great for live lobsters (usually $7.99-$8.99/lb) and Dungeness crab ($5.99-7.99/lb), they have a large selection of fish, some in live tanks, fresh and frozen. The produce section is excellent, with shiitake mushrooms, leafy vegetables, citrus, onions, aromatic herbs and garlic as well as fresh poultry (chicken and duck), beef and pork. 

Bolsa BBQ
8938 Bolsa Avenue
Westminster, CA 92683
714/903-2485

Sharing the parking lot with ABC Supermarket are a dozen other businesses, restaurants and bakeries. Bolsa BBQ sells freshly prepared whole pig, chickens, ducks and delicious bao with hardboiled egg & pork.

Dalat Supermarket
13075 Euclid Street  at the intersection of Garden Grove Blvd & the 22
Garden Grove 92843
714/638-9900

The majority of dried noodles sold in Asian markets use lye. One of the few companies to avoid using lye in their noodles is found at Dalat: Twin Rabbit Vegetarian Noodles (Mi Chay Soi Lon) Product of Vietnam - dried wheat noodles: $1.19.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Long Day's Journey into Happiness at Savor Italy

Who doesn’t love a good plate of pasta? Or an antipasti with cheeses, meats and vegetables? I know, those aren’t legitimate questions because the answer is “Everyone!”

Italian dishes rank high on the short list of favorite food. A good Italian restaurant is a treasure in any neighborhood.

Recently I attended Savor Italy Los Angeles. The event was devoted not to a tasting of restaurant dishes but of products available for the home.  The one-day event was hosted by the IACCW (Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West) to promote imported Italian food and wine. For the 30+ purveyors, the event was an opportunity to interact with distributors and consumers. Most offered a tasting of their wines, olives oils, charcuterie and packaged baked goods.

With wine glass in hand, I joined the crowds at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club waking past rows of tables. Many of the companies had local distributors, but not all as the signs on their tables said, “Looking for Distributors.”

A catered buffet lunch was another way to shine a spotlight on Italian products with large platters of charcuterie, cheeses, olives, crackers, breads and olive oil catered by the attentive Elisabetta Ciardullo Criel of Think Italian Events. I filled my plate with Italian ham, mortadella, paper-thin flat breads, Gorgonzola, burrata and Castelvetrano Green olives while I looked for a nice glass of wine to go with my lunch-snack.

The fun of the event was not only in sampling wines and snacking on Italian taste treats but in talking with the people who were there to represent their products.
It was early in the day so I thanked Gian Mario Travella for the offer to taste his Freccianera Prosecco. Near closing time I did return to sample the amber colored, barrel-aged Grappa Invecchiato. Very delicious.

With a smile Andrea Grondona offered a taste of Grondona Pasticceria’s pan dolce (sweetened bread with bits of fruit) and the Baci di Dama (chocolate ganache filled cookies). Full of flavor and moist, I was impressed that packaged baked goods could taste so fresh.

A few steps away, Leo Melgar and Giancarlo Rosito stood behind the Rosito Bisani table with machines used in an Italian restaurant kitchen--a panini press, deli slicer, hard cheese grater for Parmesan and a pasta extruder. They had one home machine, The Reale 1 Compact Espresso Machine.

With a butter cookie in hand, a last gift from Andrea Grondona, I explained how happy I would be to have an espresso to go with my cookie. Being a good Italian with a love of hosting, Rosito led me upstairs where the Reale was set up. His strong cup of espresso was the perfect accompaniment for my butter cookie.

Upstairs from the downstairs

A mezzanine meeting room was set aside for presentations about Italian wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In that quiet room, speakers talked about the terroir that gave their products their unique qualities.

Smartly dressed wait staff poured samples as speakers talked through their Power Point presentations.

“Ready for bubbles?”

I arrived as Laura Donadoni was describing the terroir and techniques of the Franciacorta winery located in the north of Italy. As a server poured a tasting of the La Valle “Primum” Brut (75 % Chardonnay; 20% Pinot Noire; 5% Pinot Blanc), I settled in behind a flight of six wine glasses.

Donadoni asked us to raise our glasses so we could appreciate the fine bubbles streaming from the bottom of the sparkling wine flute. 

She regaled the gathered group of aficionados with details of weather, soil quality and harvest particulars that created the distinctive qualities of half a dozen Franciacorta wines.

When I returned for the 6:00pm wine tasting, Laura Donadoni had returned to introduce wines from Lugana. Very different from the morning’s sparkling wines, I liked the 2013 Lugana Doc Vendemmia Tardiva, a light dessert white wine. With its ginger, lemon zest notes, for Donadoni, the wine would be perfect at the end of a meal with cheese or with a dessert like panna cotta.

After we had a sip of the Lugana Doc Riserva, Donadoni polled the gathered group, “What do you taste? What notes?” With noses in their glasses and swirling before tasting, people called out, “Watermelon” and “Jasmine.” 

“Everybody, each one of us, can feel what we taste and smell based on what we have lived in our lives. It is very individual. The difficult part is to connect a sensation with a name.  Ok, now we can drink it.” The 2015 Lugana Doc CONCHIGLIA (Citari) had a clean flavor, light, with more acidity than minerality. Very pleasurable.

The 2014 Lugana Doc Superiore CA LOJERA (Ca’ Lojera) was fermented in oak barrels and that gave the wine a spiciness. We took in the aroma and sipped as she talked about how we could taste “wood” and white clay in the wine with a little “apple” sweetness. 

While she was talking, the A/V went blank. “It is telling me, ok, Laura, time to stop.” 

But with a smile she continued because she loved the wine and its layers of flavors. “It has a sweet lemon and almond flavors and a beautiful finish of apricot with a touch of minerality. The wine can age another 5 years with great benefit" and with that she ended her presentation to the audience's applause.

Oil and Vinegar

The final guided tasting of the day was not about wine but “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, Modena.” U.C. Davis’ Orietta Gianjorio is a juror and author,  a 3rd level, Advanced Sommelier, Certified Olive Oil Taster and Member of the Italian Registry (also a 2nd Level Honey Taster, 2nd Level Chocolate Taster, a Delegate for the Academia Italiana della Cucina, and author and International Judge.) Given all her titles, you can tell that Italians take their food very seriously!

Her tasting was not only designed to give us a flavor experience but also to introduce us to the vocabulary we would use to describe that experience.

The olive oil tasting sheet listed disagreeable and agreeable qualities. DEFECTS, it said would be rancid, fusty, musty and winey. AROMAS like green, ripe, citrus, mint, hay-straw and almond are good. And then there was a question about BODY. We would taste for mild, medium or robust.

The same was going to be true of the balsamic vinegars she had brought with her. Balsamic had a different set of descriptive words to communicate quality: DENSITY (thick, fluid, inconsistent, lipid, slightly veiled, cloudy), COLOR (light brown, dark brown, Brown, Amber, Dark Amber); SMELL (Intensity, Persistency) with aromas of raspberries, apricots, plums, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, cassis, black currant, blackberry and so on.

Gianjorio loves what she does and with the short time available to her, she had much to share. “We have an hour or more but you tell me when you are tired. I will teach you how to evaluate your palate when you taste balsamic vinegars and olive oil. I do this every day so I am used to it.”

She explained that a taster has to have good taste buds but also must practice tasting to be good at it.

But before we could do our tasting, she talked about fundamentals.

Extra Virgin Olive Oils

“Extra Virgin,” she asked, “What does that mean?” She polled the group. After a lot of guesses, she explained that it does not mean “first press or cold press.” Today olives are not pressed. Olives are washed, defoliated, then ground up with hammers inside a closed container. The change from open grinding was to prevent the olives being exposed to oxygen because once oxidation begins, the quality of the oil decreases.

After grinding, the olive oil is “massaged” before being placed in a centrifuge which separates the water from the oil. The water is discarded. The oil is filtered and graded.

To be labeled “Extra Virgin” the product must be an oil that is produced only with olives and was extracted with a mechanical not chemical method at a specific temperature (80-86 degrees). After production, the olive oil cannot be mixed with any other oil. And the oil must all be “new” oil not a mixture of old and new.

But that is not the end of the story.

Before labeling, the oil must be laboratory tested for free fatty acids because that will tell whether or not the oil was oxidized which would give the oil a rancid taste. And, finally, the olive oil must go through a sensory advisory panel (8 people) who certify that the olive oil is free of defects.

So “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is a label indicating a manufacturing process and the quality of the product.

I soaked up every detail of her talk. I tasted the olive oils and the balsamic vinegars and they were delicious.

At the end of the tasting, it was time to leave. Downstairs, the last of the tables had been stacked and ready to be loaded into trucks. People pushed brooms to sweep away the litter. Two people poured the last of a wine bottle into their glasses and saluted each other.

I walked out into the cool night air. What a good day spent enjoying so much great Italian food and wine.

What fun to “Savor Italy.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Best Ever Pasta With a Secret Ingredient

The holy grail of home cooked meals is a dish that takes practically no time to make, the ingredients are inexpensive and the results are delicious.

I found a pasta dish that fits all of those criteria.

The ingredients are basic. Olive oil, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and a green vegetable like asparagus. The seasoning is straight forward, just a little sea salt, black pepper and, if you like, a pat of sweet butter. By the time the pasta is al dente, the sauce is finished.
Anchovy filets are the special ingredient that creates an extraordinarily delicious pasta.

If you have enjoyed spaghetti alla puttanesca in an Italian restaurant, my recipe is similar but with more delicate flavors.

Even people who don't like anchovies by themselves fall in love with this sauce because the anchovies dissolve, binding together all the flavors. The result is an earthy, deeply satisfying dish.

Anchovies, a gift from the sea

Anchovies are a ubiquitous ingredient in Mediterranean cuisines. Stop in a neighborhood cafe in Northern Spain, as I did in the cathedral town of Burgos, and you will certainly have a tapas with an anchovy filet skewered along with a pepper, pickle and an olive or two. Those delicious filets are front and center on the dish, displayed in all their fish-filet-glory. With an espresso or an ice cold glass of beer, nothing is better for an afternoon snack.
Use high quality Spanish or Italian anchovies preserved in oil. Do not use salt preserved anchovies, ones wrapped around capers or filets with skin. 
Anchovies are sold in 2-4 ounce tins or glass jars. buy anchovies in larger quantities like Flott's 28 ounce tin. That way I always have them in the refrigerator to add to deviled eggs or tapenade. Kept in an airtight container and submerged in oil, the anchovies will keep for months.

Best Ever Pasta Sauce

Use a quality pasta like De Cecco or, if available, fresh pasta.  For this dish, I prefer a medium weight pasta like spaghetti, pappardelle, ziti, orecchiette or penne.  

Chopped fresh tomatoes can be used, but they are not as flavorful as roasted tomatoes which have an earthy sweetness. 

Roasted tomatoes can be prepared ahead and kept refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. 
During the winter at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, there are still farmers who bring tomatoes to market. Sold at a deep discount because they are misshapen and cracked. These "ugly" tomatoes are beautiful inside. With a little care and the discolored parts cut away, a roasted winter tomato has a delightful, deep-flavored sweetness.

To add crunch and visual contrast, add a lightly cooked green vegetable. Depending on what is available I use green beans, asparagus or broccoli greens. 

Serves 4

Time to prepare and cook: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound pasta, a quality brand or fresh
1 tablespoon kosher salt
10-16 anchovy filets depending on taste 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 whole large tomato, washed, pat dried, stem and any blemished skin cut away
1 pound asparagus stalks, washed, stem ends snapped off
1 small yellow onion, washed, root and stem ends and outer skin removed, chopped into large dice
1 cup brown, shiitake or Chanterelle mushrooms, stems trimmed, dirt removed, lightly washed and pat dried, thin sliced top to bottom
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch cayenne powder (optional)
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped for garnish
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 450F.

Cut tomato into 3 large, round slices. Line baking sheet with Silpat or nonstick sheet. Place tomato slices on sheet and place in oven. Cook 10 minutes. Remove from oven. 

Place large pot on stove filled with water to within 4" of the rim. Add kosher salt. Bring to boil. 

Cut asparagus stems into 1/4" rounds. Leave the last 2" of stem attached to the spear. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large frying pan on medium flame.

When the salted water boils add pasta. Stir well and stir every 3 minutes for even cooking. Do not cover. Place a colander in the sink next to a heat-proof measuring cup.

Sauté onions until translucent in the heated oil. Add mushrooms and asparagus. Stir well and sauté 3-4 minutes.

Push vegetables to one side of the frying pan to clear space for the anchovy filets. Add another tablespoon olive oil. Allow 1 minute to heat. Using a sturdy fork, gently stir the anchovies into the heated oil until they dissolve. Toss the vegetables in the sauce. 

Tear apart the tomato slices. Add the bits and pieces and all of the accumulated oils from the baking sheet into the sauté pan. Add sweet butter (optional) and a pinch of cayenne powder (optional). Stir to melt butter. Toss well to integrate the sauce and coat the vegetables.

Taste pasta after 10 minutes to confirm it is al dente. When you strain the pasta in the colander, capture 1 cup of pasta water in a heat-proof cup.

To prevent sticking, toss pasta.

Just before serving, transfer pasta into frying pan. Separate any that are sticking together. Toss to coat with sauce. If a little more sauce is needed, add 2 tablespoons pasta water and toss. Add more pasta water if more sauce is desired and stir.

Transfer pasta into serving bowl. Top with finely chopped Italian parsley and serve with freshly grated cheese on the side.