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Cooking Italian

Fascinating Olive Oil Pt. 2

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I realize it has taken far too long to return to finish the Part 2 information on olive oil, but there have been good reasons.  Mostly my traveling back from Italy (bringing along  Mauro Berardi’s spices, porcini and all that wonderful Olio Nuovo from Farfa).  Then the holidays seem to move in more quickly every year.  Or, perhaps it is that I am slowing down somewhat?  Nope, that cannot be.
Looking back, it seems unbelievable that I am renewing my EU passport already.  While my husband and I managed to spend time in Italy (He mentored young film technicians for Technicolor Rome years ago) before we decided to move there for a couple years on his retirement.  After our return it was just too painful to think about not being able to frequently return to Italy (and especially visiting all our friends there), so Expressly Italian was born.  While I regret not beginning Expressly Italian’s journey much earlier,  my life as an art dealer/ consultant was fulfilling and good preparation for Expressly Italian.

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Our View in Belevedere di Riaino
 While in Italy we were living outside Rome (about 9 miles north of the center) in the country and made great efforts to see as much of the country as we could.  We traveled mostly throughout Tuscany and Umbria and I asked questions always.  I shopped every street market in every village because I was fascinated to find how different each was in personality as well as goods.   I learned to ask lots of questions even when you think you understand what you are being told.  There is not an Italian who is not very happy to have a conversation about food at any time, and if you express any interest they will tell you how their mother prepared their favorite dish, which week is the best to buy whatever product is in season and who is best vendor to buy from.
Living in Lazio I had the chance to watch the seasons change with pruning, cleaning, harvesting and of course, tasting.  Tasting is an art.   To properly taste olive oil (which many of the frantoio insist you do); first you put a little in the bottom of the glass (the glass is blue so you don’t get swayed by the color the oil, which doesn’t really indicate quality, but more about the variety of olives used).   You hold the glass in your palm (to warm it a little and bring out the flavor more), while covering it with the other hand.  Hold it and swirl it for a moment or two.  This traps the aroma in the glass.  The aroma is a very important part of the oil.  Now take a good whiff.  Do you smell grass, artichokes, berries, cinnamon or olives?  The word “fruity” in the context of olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, like green olive fruit, as well as ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass and herbs as “fruit” when you taste olive oil.  I still haven’t found those little blueglasses they officially use in the tastings, but one day I will.   images
Now, take a sip of the oil (a decent size sip).  You want enough to swirl around your mouth.  Think of the way they taste wine.  It’s the same. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back.  Now swallow some, or all of the oil.  Think about the after-taste, the pungency of the oil as it goes down your throat.  This peppery sensation is what gives great olive oil it’s little after-kick.  It’s a pretty addictive impact that can be quite quiet or enough to make you cough.  Everyone has their own preferences.
After you’ve done all this, then you should taste the oil with food.  Usually just a piece of bread is enough to tell you if this oil is for you.  Or potatoes, some mild food that will complement the oil, but still allow you to experience it.    So, now you know the ins and outs of tasting and can taste oil with any aficionado with confidence.

Taste

The Sabine hills are about 50 minutes from Rome, and have been producing olive oil for more than 2,500 years.  In fact, in Fara Sabina there is a tree called Ulivone Canneto which has been carbon dated to more than 2,000 years old that still produces enough olives to make about 150 kilo of olive oil a year today!  This tree made olive oil for the Romans, to Byzantines and modern-day Italians.
An archaeological discovery of the small flask of Poggio Sommavilla traced back to the seventh century BC is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is the oldest example of writings from pre-Roman times. It is a testimony of the olive culture of this area because in it are the remains of olive oil.
Claudius Galen (129 AD – 216 AD), the father of modern pharmacopoeia, called oil of Sabina “the world’s best known.”   And, although Sabina oil is not as universally known today, it is revered by those who have tasted it and experienced its quality.
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Sabina is slightly cooler than Tuscany and the hills make it ideal for cultivation of olives. The trees here are some of the largest in Europe and the distinct delicate flavor may be created by the warm winds whipping in directly from the south. There are various strains including Carboncella, Pendolfino, Moraiolo and Rosciola.  All are a golden yellow/green and harvested just before turning brown.
Sabina has a consortium of small growers and cooperatives, but my personal preference and practice is to purchase the oil directly from the frantoio of the grower.  Rosario presses his own olives from his own groves.   He also contributes to the consortium, but I love knowing exactly what I am getting and feeling like I can watch the olives be delivered and watch them be pressed and put into the lattine (tins).  It is really exciting and moves really quickly.  Sabina DOP  is available in many places, but I love knowing exactly how and when the oil is processed and how it is handled.  The drive to Farfa is beautiful and serene, although I have to admit I always seem to get lost in the hills on the way there.   I am confident that what I offer is as fresh, and high in antioxidants and flavor as possible.

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Some of the characteristics of Sabina DOP oil are:     Color:  yellow gold with nuances of green, Perfume:  fruity, notes of fresh herbs and artichoke;  Flavor: velvety, aromatic, peppery finish.

Olives of Italy

This map is from Eataly.
Each region, even village has different types of olives grown, so the oils are different.  In Italy there are 350 different cultivars of olives grown.   When you travel in Italy try to taste as many types as you can to give you an idea of which varieties you prefer which may give you an idea of what oils you might like.  And, taste oils as often as possible.  During harvest times there are often tastings available as well as sagre (festivals) for olive oils which are wonderful opportunities to try different oils.
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The Abbazia at Farfa
I hope this explains a little more of my fascination with Italian olive oils, and Sabina olive oil in particular.  It is so full of antioxidants, great taste and bright flavor, add a little zip to your life by drizzling it on everything you can.
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I Hope You Become as Fascinated As I With Oil pt 1

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I realize that I’ve written about olive oil before, but as I spend more time in Italy and have more opportunity to talk with producers, growers and cooks as well as tasting  more oils, the more fascinated I become with all the details about olive oil. The history, the benefits and the lies, as well as the rationale and need for DOPs.

The DOP is the designation the Italian national government has taken to ensure that all traditional products are held to a strict standard for quality, excellence and originality)   D.O.P – Denominazione di Origine Protetta.  In particular this applies to Extra Virgin Olive Oil and signifies that the oil has passed all the government tests for quality and acidity levels (extra virgin olive oils must be no more than 0.8% in free acidity and be cold pressed.  The lower the acidity, the better since it provides better health benefits, among the many reasons.

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These days we find that it is difficult to trust much of anything we hear or read about our food.  We are “sold” on health foods on the internet without much documentation, we are in farmer’s markets buying food that has been brought by people who have never been to a farm and have no idea what has been put on the food they are selling.  It is difficult to buy almost anything with much confidence that the label is truthful, the information accurate and the pricing fair.  That is one of the reasons I have spent so much energy and time asking questions, talking to growers and finding people and resources that I can confidently believe and relay what they say to you.  These are small purveyors not exporting, not supplying distributors, just growers or consortiums.  People I trust.

If you get bored or find this information too tedious I understand.   Skim, or just look at the photos.  It will be too much information for many, but it is here for those, like me, who want all the details.  Now, for a little more on olive oil.  Actually there will be a lot more.  This is just part 1.

The olive harvest starts with the Raccolta. — the harvest of olives from the trees.  They use  a giant-size plastic comb, or more often a mechanical mop top broom that kind of whirls around.   You grab the branch, pull down and comb. The olives fall out like knots from your hair and the leaves remain.

The nets lie around the trees on the ground to catch and hold the olives that are combed from the branches.  Once finished, the olives are carefully collected from the nets and poured into the cestini (baskets).  As the baskets are filled they are taken to the frantoio (olive press).   Each region has it’s own rules for their DOP registration.  But in general, the olives must be taken from tree to the frantoio witin 48 hours.  With olio nuovo in Sabina, it is usually more direct.  From tree to pressing within ten hours.  No storing.  Often the lesser quality olives can be stored up to three weeks before being pressed which means much of the nutrients and antioxidants and lots of freshness and flavor have already evaporated before they are pressed.

Here is the process for pressing the olives:

Step 1 WASHING

Water jets on conveyor belts remove large particles of earth and foreign bodies, followed by the removal of olive leaves and small un-ripened fruit.

 

Step 2  FRANGITURA

The olives get pressed to produce a pulpy, usually violet-coloured substance, with no addition of heat or water. Though it is now done by mechanical means, it was traditionally done by grinding one stone around and around inside another larger stone, often pulled by a donkey or a horse, differing from region to region. I have friends my age from Sardinia who remember growing up with their olive oil being made like this.

 

Step 3  GRAMOLAZIONE

This is the important step of adding a recipe of movement, heat and time together to separate the pulp into diverse particles, therefore helping the microscopic oil drops unite into larger oil drops: normally 27°C for 15-20 minutes to get a high quality and low extraction. Normally, for top-quality extra-virgin olive oils, it is good to get 15kg of finished product for every 100kg of olives picked, this can change for each harvest.

 

Step 4  CENTRIFUGATION AND EXTRACTION

This machine separates the different particles produced by the gramolazione into: oil, vegetal water, and the remaining sansa or pomace, which is what the pulp is called.

 

Step 5 SEPARATION

This final step takes the oil, adds fresh pure water, mixes them together and filters the water away which in turn removes further impurities from the oil.

 

The oil is then taken and filtered through cotton, and bottled.

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PART 2  is a little more about the history and my reasons for staying firmly in Sabina for the oil I bring back.  Hint:  I love the flavor.  Oh, and as you can see above, the Sabine hills are pretty spectacular.

Porcini Season – Tripping to Vetralla

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Vetralla

I am on my fall shopping trip to Italy and now that I have collected the olio nuovo from the frantoio in Farfa, and am a week away from collecting spice mixes from Mauro Berardi in Campo dei Fiori I have the opportunity to wander the countryside to visit some of my favorite places outside Rome.

Sutri

Vetralla is about an hour drive north on the Cassia through the lovely countryside of the Veii (through some Etruscan ruins). I take Cassia Bis since it is a more direct route and I love the caves of Sutri and often stop off at Ronciglione. Both are medieval cities with amazing history and buildings as well as fun festvals during the year. Ronciglione has one of the oldest Carnevale in central Italy. To open the festivities, the mayor gives the key to the city to the Carnival King, who rings in the week of madness that includes costume parties in the piazza, allegorical parades and a strange tradition of throwing pasta at passersby. The main event is a Palio competition initiated in 1465 by Pope Paul III Farnese, but unlike other Palio theirs features a riderless horse.

But, this week, my mission is porcini secchi. I cannot take fresh porcini back to the U.S. but my clients have come to realize the stiff dark cardboard sold there as dried porcini are nothing like real porcini. And the best I have found are from a small farm outside Vetralla where the family grows, harvests and dries them by themselves. I have never been disappointed and neither have my clients. They are worth every penny and my efforts to shelter them to get them home.

 Botte

The shopping I do for my clients is very personal. I spend lots time resourcing to find the best quality, most reliable people and ask lots of questions so I can answer lots of questions from clients. Every trip brings new people and resources because friends in Italy want to share their finds with me. Tourists would never have the opportunities to locate the places and people I do, so I love sharing my finds.

If you the chance do travel around more than the big cities of Italy. There is so much to see and explore. Every village has festivals and products that are unique. The more time I spend and areas I travel, the more in love I am with the whole country and realize there will never be enough time to explore all of it.

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Here’s an easy recipe for a porcini cream sauce using dried porcini to try.  It can be used on pasta or any meat dish or almost anything.

Porcini Cream Sauce       Makes more than 1-1/2 cups

  • 1 1/2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 cup chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1 cup beef stock or canned beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon all purpose flour

PREPARATION

  1. Combine porcini mushrooms and 1 cup warm water in small bowl. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 30 minutes. Remove mushrooms from liquid, squeezing excess liquid from mushrooms back into bowl; reserve liquid. Place mushrooms in another small bowl.
  2. Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until onion browns, about 15 minutes. Add Marsala and white wine. Increase heat; boil until most liquid evaporates, about 7 minutes. Add rosemary, mushrooms and both stocks. Pour in reserved mushroom liquid, leaving any sediment behind. Boil until liquid mixture is reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes.
  3. Mix butter and flour in small bowl to blend; whisk into mushroom mixture. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

If you are not on my newsletter mailing list, you can be added by requesting to be put on it by emailing me at expresslyitalian@aol.com or clicking inquiries above. If you have any questions I am always happy to try to help.

Fall is here and I head to Italy soon.

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As September is fast closing, I am eagerly looking forward to my returning to Italy for fall.  I have been hoping the weather there cooperates for great olive harvests throughout the country, but it does not look  like the weather there has been helpful there any more than inmuch of the rest of the world.  The droughts throughout much of Europe this year will have some impact on the harvests of olives and there is expected to be a slight lowering of expectations in the harvest from last year.  The quality of the oils may not be quite as good as last year, but we won’t be sure until October.  Some parts of Italy also saw some Mediterranean fruit fly infestations too.  Fortunately, where I get most of the oil I bring back, Lazio and Tuscany, were not much bothered.  However, I must also mention that the dollar is not doing all that well against the euro.  It has been holding steadily at $1.22 to 1 euro for quite some time and I do not expect it to change much for awhile.  So be prepared for everything to be a little more expensive.

I have not yet heard much about the honey harvests for the fall.  Last year when I went to purchase some of the fantastic honeys that I get from Sardina there were none.  The production was so sparse that there were none to buy.  I am hopeful that this year we will find a better crop and I can stock up on Stefano’s fabulous honey and olive oil soap too.

I love  fall in Italy and this year I have much to look forward to. I love each return trip to to my home away from home, visiting all my friends there.  So many dinners to re-connect,  introductions to new people, new products and new places to visit.  It is always exciting.  Always an adventure.

 

 

 

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Il Cavallino olive oil
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Stefania and Paola at Folle Casseruola

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visiting the many markets and connecting with all my vendor friends again is so much fun.

My regular clients will be putting together their wish lists of what they want me to bring back for them –  spices from Campo dei Fiori, scarves from Florence or Milan,   It is fun for them to know they will have porcini or black rice coming for them and trust that it is the highest quality possible.  I love being able to bring them their sun dried tomatoes or porcini knowing they cannot get anything comparable here.  And, of course there is Mauro Berardi’s spice mixes from Campo dei Fiori.  Known world wide, he is a master at mixing spices together for the most memorable spice mixes.   I have most of his most popular mixes available all year (and can always bring anything you order on my twice a year trips).  Send me emailSpezie Famosean email if you want to order any of his mixes by the ounce.

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Mauro Berardi – Spezie famose nel Mundo

 

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Drop me an email if you want added onto my mailing list for the newsletter to purchase items I bring back on my journey: expresslyitalian@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Summer in Rome

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Here I am in Los Angeles, having returned from Italy only a few weeks ago and already thinking about returning to Italy in the fall.  I am missing one of my favorite times in Rome.  Summer.  August in Rome is a really special time.  Any knowledgeable tourist knows if possible to avoid August in Rome.  It is really hot and humid.  There are still many places that close for some portion of the month (although less than in years past).  Anyone who lives in Italy knows that most people who can, leave the city for cooler, less humid climes.   But there are many of us who have lived there who love the month for the benefits of August in a city that seems so empty you can always find a parking place, a city that reminds you of less populated ages.  It is quite special.  There is a slowing of everything that allows you to savor the city even more than usual.

 

 

Then there is Ferragosto, the middle of August holiday, August 15th.  It is the celebration of the Assumption of Mary as well as the earlier Roman holiday of Emperor Augustus.  Since Roman times it was the official start of summer holidays and it still means most families take the holiday off for a trip to the country for a cooler day with a picnic to enjoy together.

If you are in Rome, the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto with live music and dancing in the piazze is not to be missed.    Many of the cultural locations, museums, tourist attractions, etc. do stay open even though they normally would close on this type of holiday.

There are still tourists around, although less than you might think since most are either just passing through Rome on a quick tour stop on cruises or a one or two day stay, so there are really much less than many other months.  It is an easy walking month for sure.  Just remember to keep an empty water bottle to fill at the many fountains as you walk through town, a good head covering and lots of sun screen.

Lupa at CapSat walk 3

Be sure to stop by Campo dei Fiori Market and say hi to Mauro Berardi for me and see how his bancarella has expanded.  He has Marco, his son, now with a booth handling sandwiches and meats like porchetta and other meats, as well as condiments.  But, as always, his spice mixes are his crowning achievements.  I always have them available here in the United States if you run low.  Just drop me an email and I will happily send you information on replacing them for you.  Expressly Italian is your source for unique Italian specialties that are not found in the U.S.  that I bring directly from the producers to you here.  Send an email to expresslyitalian@gmail.com for more information,

Trajan Market

Visiting Mauro Berardi and Campo dei Fiori in May

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It’s time to make a springtime visit to Rome again.  I love visiting Mauro and wandering through the market early in the day looking at all the spring vegetables.  I love  those lovely little roman artichokes, watching them being cleaned and dropped into the acidified water.  The women cleaning the puntarelle spend all day cleaning and dropping the puntarelle into buckets of water

Campo Dei Fiori
Spring markets

 

But of course, the main treat for me is meeting with Mauro, Marco and Maurizio at Spezie Famose nel Mondo the most famous and largest seller of spices in the market.  I am contacted by people from all over the world looking to replace the spice mixes they purchase from Mauro.  Fortunately I almost always have a good supply of the most popular mixes available.  Contact me to find out if I have the ones you are looking for.

I am off to Rome for the month of May so if you are looking for anything in particular don’t wait, send me a request by email to be sure I bring back what you are looking for.

In addition to shopping for spices with Mauro, I will be locating Olive oil.  I know there is oil available in Vetralla and hopefully I can acquire some additional oil from Farfa, where I brought back the fabulous olio nuovo in November last year.  I won’t know until I get there what there might be available.  I have read the articles about the weather problems, but since I deal directly with growers sometimes it can be misleading and my sources availability is quite different.  I also will have to wait until I arrive to find out if there is any honey from Sardinia left.  I know those harvests were also short this year.  I continue to bring back what is available –  sometimes it is mostly Girasole (sunflower) and millefiore (wildflower) but if you have a particular type you want, please let me know, since sometimes Stefano can locate it for me in his hidden places.

Do not hesitate to email me with any special requests.  I will be checking emails often.  I will shop Milan, Tuscany (Orbetello, Florence and a few small villages)  scarves from a few sources that are reliable with their italian fabrics and italian employees that are still priced affordably.  And, if there are any new items that are interesting.  It looks like the exchange rate will hover around $1.09 to $1.00 while I am there.  If you are not on my mailing list please drop me an email and I will be happy to add you to my newsletter so you know what it available.  Enjoy shopping Italy from home.

Summer Thoughts

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I have been more than a little lax in keeping up with posts this summer.  I only wish it were because I was in Italy, but no such good fortune.  But, as August progresses, I am already thinking of my next trip, which is for the month of October.    I am putting shopping lists together already.    Do not forget to email me if you want me to shop for you.

In the interim, I wanted to share with you the recent posting of one of my favorite food writers, Rachel Roddy.  Rachel lives in Italy (a British export) and has written a lovely cookbook, “My Kitchen In Rome”.  Her style is simple, home cooking.

Often in American cooking we forget the importance of even the most simple of ingredients.  An Italian cook would never waste leftover bread and breadcrumbs are an important part of many Italian recipes.  Of course, their bread does not have any chemicals in it and always breaks my heart to see anyone waste even a really stale piece of it.

Here’s a recent column of Rachel’s.   I hope you’ll try her suggestions.

A simple Sicilian-style mix of breadcrumbs and almonds complements a wide array of recipes, but I find it’s best incarnation is as a crust for a fresh fillet of fish – serve with a tomato, caper and onion salad for a light summer supper

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Fish in breadcrumbs with a tomato salad. Photograph: Rachel Roddy for the Guardian

Swordfish with breadcrumbs and almonds was one of the first meals I ate during my first visit to Sicily 12 years ago. I was in Catania, at one of the trattoria that seem to appear from nowhere once the fish market closes down for the day and scrubs up well for the night. The appearance of that slice of swordfish, seeming slightly suffocated by its topping, surprised me – especially after the wild excitement of the theatrical fish market that morning. It was like meeting up with your grandma after a night out with friends. But it was delicious pleasing – I still remember the flavour. Lots more breadcrumbs and almonds followed – not always together – on that trip, and those that came after I hooked up with a Sicilian. Sicilians use breadcrumbs all the time; a resourceful habit born of necessity and the idea that you never, ever throw away bread, which is now part of the fabric of their cooking. I have picked up the habit; I always have a big bag of fine, dry breadcrumbs in the kitchen. They’re almost irritatingly good at everything: stuffing, puffing, coating, topping and a tool to stop things sticSo, the place I borrowed the idea from was a restaurant in a town calledScoglitti, which is 30 miles along the coast from us here in Gela. The owners’ daughter, who is part French, is absolutely fabulous, with her red lips, denim hotpants and ankle boots. There is not much room for manoeuvre; she tells us in a deep voice that rolls from her lips: “I know what you want.” And you don’t doubt it. The antipasti start arriving, little dish after little dish: an oyster each; peeled, blood-red prawns that are some of the most plump and pure I have ever eaten; slices of raw tuna and swordfish; cubes of octopus and butterflies of anchovy; enormous, yellow mussels stretching like acrobats across their shells; tiny clams called telline,tasting like a liquor made from sea water; sardines rolled up so they look like little fat birds; and spatola with almonds and breadcrumbs served with sweet onions. Spatola is a long, flat fish as silver and shiny as a newly minted coin. At markets and in shops spatola are often coiled, making them look a bit like a neat drawful of glittery belts. Ours were served as long fillets cut into short lengths, topped with breadcrumbs and almonds, then baked until the fish had fallen into delicate, but firm flakes, the crumbs a comfy crust. It was were one of the least showy dishes, but one we appreciated a lot, homely and good. My son stashed clamshells to take home in his pocket; I put the idea in mine.

Rachel Roddy’s fish with an almond and breadcrumb crust recipe

A simple Sicilian-style mix of breadcrumbs and almonds complements a wide array of recipes, but I find it’s best incarnation is as a crust for a fresh fillet of fish – serve with a tomato, caper and onion salad for a light summer supper

Rachel Roddy

Publish

In the hope that this column is beginning to feel like a series, rather than string of unrelated episodes, I am starting where I left off last week, with breadcrumbs. More specifically, breadcrumbs with almonds, which makes them sound a bit fussy, though they aren’t. Quite the opposite in fact – a handful of crumbs, some chopped almonds and pinch of salt are easy and accommodating. Last week, I suggested toasting crumbs in olive oil, then putting them on pasta with slowly cooked courgettes, or their oversized Sicilian cousins, cucuzze. This week, I am going to return the idea to the place I borrowed it from, and suggest you put them on fish, which you then bake.

Swordfish with breadcrumbs and almonds was one of the first meals I ate during my first visit to Sicily 12 years ago. I was in Catania, at one of the trattoria that seem to appear from nowhere once the fish market closes down for the day and scrubs up well for the night. The appearance of that slice of swordfish, seeming slightly suffocated by its topping, surprised me – especially after the wild excitement of the theatrical fish market that morning. It was like meeting up with your grandma after a night out with friends. But it was delicious pleasing – I still remember the flavour. Lots more breadcrumbs and almonds followed – not always together – on that trip, and those that came after I hooked up with a Sicilian. Sicilians use breadcrumbs all the time; a resourceful habit born of necessity and the idea that you never, ever throw away bread, which is now part of the fabric of their cooking. I have picked up the habit; I always have a big bag of fine, dry breadcrumbs in the kitchen. They’re almost irritatingly good at everything: stuffing, puffing, coating, topping and a tool to stop things sticking.

So, the place I borrowed the idea from was a restaurant in a town calledScoglitti, which is 30 miles along the coast from us here in Gela. The owners’ daughter, who is part French, is absolutely fabulous, with her red lips, denim hotpants and ankle boots. There is not much room for manoeuvre; she tells us in a deep voice that rolls from her lips: “I know what you want.” And you don’t doubt it. The antipasti start arriving, little dish after little dish: an oyster each; peeled, blood-red prawns that are some of the most plump and pure I have ever eaten; slices of raw tuna and swordfish; cubes of octopus and butterflies of anchovy; enormous, yellow mussels stretching like acrobats across their shells; tiny clams called telline,tasting like a liquor made from sea water; sardines rolled up so they look like little fat birds; and spatola with almonds and breadcrumbs served with sweet onions. Spatola is a long, flat fish as silver and shiny as a newly minted coin. At markets and in shops spatola are often coiled, making them look a bit like a neat drawful of glittery belts. Ours were served as long fillets cut into short lengths, topped with breadcrumbs and almonds, then baked until the fish had fallen into delicate, but firm flakes, the crumbs a comfy crust. It was were one of the least showy dishes, but one we appreciated a lot, homely and good. My son stashed clamshells to take home in his pocket; I put the idea in mine.

I like it when a new idea, flung into the kitchen like a rubber ball, bounces around enthusiastically seeing where it fits, or doesn’t. First, there was pasta, then I used breadcrumbs and almonds to stuff aubergines and tomatoes, then came the fish: spatola, bream and mackerel. All three fish worked, but the mackerel was best: its thick, milky flesh is a good, sturdy match for the coarse, nutty crust. Fish and breadcrumbs need a foil, something to offer contrast: sweet, sour, salty, pungent. A salad of tomatoes, red onion and capers is a brilliant and typically Sicilian combination. If you wanted – or three more people turned up – you could bulk out the salad with bread too, or top it with some salted ricotta. Whatever fish you use, it all comes together quickly, but provides slow, good-flavoured food that satisfies but doesn’t sink you, which is what I ask for on these long, and fiercely hot, summer days.

Fish with a breadcrumb and almond crust

Serves 4
60g blanched almonds, chopped
1 unwaxed lemon
150g dry breadcrumbs
Salt and black pepper
A pinch of oregano (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil
4-8 fillets of fish (mackerel, bream, spatola, bass)

To serve
1 large red onion or several shallots
Vinegar
4 large ripe tomatoes
A handful of capers
Olive oil

1 Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper or foil and preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.

2 Peel and slice the onion into half moons, then soak for 20 minutes in water acidulated with 3 tbsp vinegar.

3 Mix the almonds, lemon zest and breadcrumbs with a pinch of salt, some pepper and the oregano, if using.

4 Brush the fillets with oil, then press the fillet side into the breadcrumb mix, so it is well coated. Lay the fillets skin-side down on the baking tray. Zig-zag with olive oil. Bake until cooked through and the crumbs are golden – which will take 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. – yYou need to keep an eye on them, and taste.

5 Chop the tomatoes over a plate to catch the juices. Drain the onion and capers, then mix with the tomatoes. Dress with olive oil and a pinch of salt, add a dash of vinegar if you like.

6 Serve the fish with the tomato salad and wedges of lemon.

  • Rachel Roddy is a food blogger based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard, 2015) and winner of the 2015 André Simon food book award.  You can find her column in “The Guardian” or at Rachel Eats on wordpress.

If you are running low on spices from Campo dei Fiori, I still have some available.  Email me at expresslyitalian@aol.com and tell me what you want.

 

Home Cooking Italian Style

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It is always a pleasure to have Italian casareccio (homemade food).    It is even more exciting to enjoy it here in the U.S. and made by a well known Italian cook.  Stefania Aphel Barzini has been in the United States giving cooking classes and having events for about a month.  She finally reached Los Angeles last week.  If you are not familiar with Stefania, take a side trip to her website:  www.follecasseroula.com.  She does cooking classes in Rome as well as special events and week long events in a few regions outside Rome.  And, if you’re planning on a trip to Rome, put her on your list of things not to be missed.   Her experience as a food writer, cookbook author and cooking show presenter shine through no matter what she does.

The first event in Los Angeles was sponsored by ArtBites.net.  Maite Gomez-Rejón’s company pairs art, history and cooking in tours and classes around the southland.  The cooking portion was to be a Tuscan lunch so Maite started at the Los Angeles County Museum talking of Florentine art and artists from the dark ages to the Renaissance. She is very knowledgeable about art history and food.  We then moved on to Surfas (a cafe/kitchen store in Culver City).  It’s a wonderful kitchen for classes and Stefania along with her assistant Paola made a magical afternoon that ended with a fantastic lunch.  They are all so experienced about foods, especially regional products throughout Italy I am always happy to join a class since there is always some new tidbit of information I have never before heard.

 

 

The lunch was a Tuscan luncheon and included a fabulous artichoke and potato soup, a panzanella salad and a couple kinds of bruschetta.  The meatballs in tomato sauce were unbelievably tasty and the peach upside down cake was a finishing treat.

When you travel finding a cooking class is  a great experience and wonderful way to connect to local cuisine and you will remember the experience a long time.

One of the best dishes Stefania prepared was Zolfini bean bruschetta.  Unfortunately, you cannot get these terrific beans here in the U.S.  They  are grown only in a limited area of Tuscany, and not exported.  But you can substitute northern navy beans.  Try this healthy, high protein antipasto.

Zolfini Bean Bruschetta

Toasted Bread (Italian)
2-1/4 cups zolfini or navy beans
a small rosemary branch
2 cloves of garlic
1 shallot. chopped
really good quality extra virgin olive oil
Sea Salt and Pepper
Sautè 1 garlic clove with the shallot and rosemary in a pan.  Turn into a crock pot, add the beans, cover them with water and let cook covered over low heat until beans are softened.  Depending on the age and size of the beans –  from 2 to 4 hours.  Purèe the mixture in a blender or use a stick blender.  Rub the bread with a garlic clove, then spread some beans over the top, add a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper.  Serve immediately.  So simple, so good and so good-for-you.

 

Having access to the wonderful foods of Italy that are not readily available in the U.S. is my mission.  Expressly Italian is your personal shopper from Italy to you.  I want everyone, whether you travel or not, to experience real Italian tastes.  Much of the year I have some of the finest extra virgin olive oils (including olio nuovo till it’s gone) and honey from Sardinia (one of the only places on earth with no polution.  I want everyone to share the excitement of the wonderful spice mixes from Mauro Berardi’s Campo dei Fiori market stall.  I am contacted by people from all over the world asking how to acquire  Mauro’s mixes outside of Italy.   I have  his most popular mixes available all the time.    If you are interested in knowing all the items I bring back from Italy twice a year or want me to bring something (duty free) back for you, please drop me an email at:  expresslyitalian@aol.com and I will happily add you to my mailing list.

My love of Italy, the people, the food fuels my life.  I hope you share my joy in the Italian way of eating.

 

 

End of the Year Reflections

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It has been a little over two years since I decided to fund my trips to Italy by introducing more people to the true flavors of Italy, along with true Italian cooking. What a learning experience it has been.    I have slowed it to two trips a year, each four to six weeks.  Every trip brings new experiences and amazing finds to share with people who have not been to Italy, or those who have not visited recently.  Much of what I bring no tourist would ever find.   There are times when I find it difficult to track some of the things I look for!

The last trip was to locate some of the most precious of olive oils, olio nuovo.  It is the  “new oil”,  the first extra virgin olive oil off the press each season.   There are many ‘rules’ for true olio nuovo.  The DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) is a government assigned designation that assures that products are produced locally according to pretty regid requirements.  The DOP olio nuovo (at least in Sabina – one of the first ever given) means that the olives have to be processed within 48 hours of picking.  (no sitting in trucks).  They are permitted only to wash them in water before processing and there are pretty stringent rules about the processing.    All this means that if you are getting real olio nuovo, you are getting the freshest,  least tampered with flavors of the olives.  There is an amazing difference both in taste, and the levels of antioxidants in these oils.  Few Americans ever have the opportunity to taste these oils since they are not really for export.  Obviously the nature of being only the first pressing, means a limited quantity and I have found Italians are not really anxious to share these rare oils.  They are rarely in stores in Italy, let alone elsewhere.

Last year, there was little olio nuovo available.  The places I spoke with said there was none available for other than the growers and ‘favored’ clients.  This year I was determined to bring enough back to share the experience.  I started heading to Farfa, where my personal favorite oil is found.  Farfa is only an hour or so from Rome in the Sabine Hills.  It is a lovely area of winding roads and groves dating back as far as 2,000 years.  Unfortunately, it is also an area of little reception for GPS or phones.  My hour drive took almost two since the GPS kept rerouting me in circles.  I finally found the frantoio (olive mill) I was looking for and arrived just as a truck load of olives arrived.  It was exciting to see  the process as well as taste the oil.  I bought what was on hand (not much) and headed out to explore the local museum of olive oil.  Then started the whole process again in Tuscany, Vetralla and Puglia.  Some fantastic oil this year everywhere.

oleoteca-farfa 20151017_130734 20151017_131640

Driving throughout the areas where there are frantoi gives you a really personal attachment to the oils.  Many of them are quite concerned that you know what you are buying.  Lots of attention is paid to tastings.  And, there are many surprising differences between these oils in different regions.  Many have a strong fruity flavor with a finish of citrus, or pepper or a little green flavor.    It has been a real learning experience and I wish there were an opportunity for everyone to experience these tastes.   So much of my searching is word of mouth, so I depend on all my Italian friends and my expat friends living in Italy.

The last stop on every trip is the market at Campo dei Fiori and a meeting with Mauro Berardi with his Spezie Famose nel Mondo – which truly are world famous spices.  It is astonishing to me how many inquiries I regularly get from all over the world about replacing spices bought at his stall.    Mauro, Marco and Fabrizio are very kind to me.  I get the freshest of the mixes, a few added scoops of the priciest parts of the mixes and each time more information about how to keep them fresh.  A few years ago Mauro insisted they would keep two years if kept in a plastic bag in the dark.  No glass, nothing else.  And, they did stay fresh that long, if they were around.  Through the last couple of years he has changed his mind about the best ways to keep them fresh.  Currently, they will last best if kept in plastic or glass, but in the refrigerator.  Certainly, the Puttanesca mix (which contains both sundried tomatoes and olives) needs to be refrigerated.

Each trip I find that the requests for his mixes grows and I have included pesto mix, bruschetta mix and bolognese to the most popular Campo dei Fiori mix, Puttanesca and Arrabbiata mixes and some others as special requests.  Since Mauro cannot ship outside Italy it makes me very happy to be able to keep people in spices here.

In between the oil and spices, there is always honey from Sardegna and condiments from Calabria.  And, the special requests of many clients for things I had not tried myself.  Each trip is different, and exciting learning experience.

I hope that I can continue personal shopping for many years to come.  I am grateful to all those who have found me and are experiencing the fun and flavors I can bring them.    It is a fulfilling and fun way to get myself to Italy often.20151018_091107-1 20151026_132649-1 20151031_133000-1

 

Summer Fun and Staying Out of the Heat

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This is one of the few times I am happy to be near the Pacific Ocean rather than the seas around Italy.  The current heat wave in Italy has been devastating in so many ways.  It is unbelievable to hear of tornadoes in Venice, or people dying at the beach from the heat, or just this week, 140 people in Piemonte dying from the heat, but that’s been the news for the last few weeks in Italy.  Well, of course, that and continuing chaos that the fire in May at Fiumicino has created.  No, the airport is still operating at only 60 percent of normal and no finish date for the repairs from fire damage in sight.

So, what’s the good news about summer?  If you are traveling to Italy in the next month or two, put L’Aquila on your itinerary.  It’s in Abruzzo, and the altitude means less heat and less humidity.  While it is still recovering from the tragic earthquake years ago, it is a beautiful, peaceful town.  To the north west there is also Aosta in Piemonte,in the east, Bolzano and Cortina D’Ampezzo.   In other words, if you are in Italy, enjoy the mountains.  No snow, but much cooler weather than the southern parts of the country.

All kinds of records are being set this year besides the heat.

 The tower, which was built at the city’s Fabbrica del Vapore, took five-days to construct and the process involved more than half a million coloured bricks and 18,000 volunteer workers, including many families.

Highlighting the significance of the project a Lego spokesperson told La Repubblica, “Each small brick was important in reaching the record, in the same way that all our daily actions are important in building a better future.”    I think that’s a pretty uplifting analogy for plastic blocks.

And, I understand, that even with Milan’s heat, that the Expo Milano 2015 is having staggering crowds. Some of the pavilions are experiencing wait lines of up to two hours.   I am certainly glad I went in May.  I still believe the opportunity to see this event is worth the many hassles.

And, whether you are here, there or anyplace in the world, it is a time to be thinking of light, fresh and easy to prepare food.  Especially those dishes that do not require heating up your home.  So salads are great, grilling is second nature to California and the combination of the two is heavenly.

The best summer salad?  Panzanella is the perfect salad for summer.  There are so many recipes you can put almost anything in as long as you use stale bread and the best ripe tomatoes you can find.   The recipe below  is one I have used a number of times, it is simple and really great.

Panzanella Toscana                                                                                                                  Serves 6

about 2 pounds of ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks or small wedges; about 3/4 pound bread (at least 1 day old), that you cut into cubes; about 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced and a dozen basil leaves, roughly torn and about 1 cup or so of arugula.   In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, bread, arugula, basil, and onions.

In a small bowl, vigorously whisk together 1/2 cup good extra virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar and 2 cloves of finely minced garlic drizzle dressing over salad. Season generously with salt and pepper, toss to combine, and let sit for at least 15  minutes before serving.  (This allows the flavors to blend and the juices of the tomatoes to soften the bread).

It always amazes me how truly fantastic tasting this simple combination is and how everyone seems to love it.panzanellaGive yourself a summer cooking break and try it yourself.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.