cooking

Italy Revisited — TV Game Shows

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I am currently beginning to pack to return to California. Besides having to find creative ways to get as much back with me as possible without triggering the dreaded third suitcase cost of $240, I have been watching a little local tv.
I have never written about Italian tv because it really is something you need to see for yourself. It is a little hard to explain in any language. I have just been watching Stasera Tutto è Possibile (tonight everything is possible). Now I am the first to admit my Italian leaves much to be desired, especially with long conversations or talk shows, where it is normal for at least three people to be talking at the same time. And over the years I have watched many of these competition type shows, usually with a confused look on my face and my Italian dictionary in hand. There is one where if you lose you are dropped through the floor if you lose (caduta libera – free fall ; one where they spend hours imitating famous singers and are made to look as much like them as possible.

I am not kidding about hours, that program is three hours long. I have seen Elvis, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie and numerous famous Italian singers I am totally unfamiliar with. And listened to the panel critique the contestants ability to mimic not just sound, but looks, style and mannerisms of more famous folk.

Introductions to these varied people

On Stasera Tutto è Possibile, I have no idea what the point is, but they take this motley group and have them sing along with familiar music, like Abba or The Village People. Then they take the away the recorded music and you hear what they actually sound like, which is pretty awful since they don’t know the words or have much in the way of voices. Then by twos they pair off for segui le labiale (sort of read my lips) where one has headphones and tries to figure out what the other is saying. Following this they have sketch games with angled stages and weird(er) costumes. Did I mention you really have to experience it yourself. It is unlike anything on American tv. Although Stasera is 2 hours long I admit by the time they got to the sack races I gave up. It is not the first time either. It is fascinating but I have my limits.

Then there is l’Eredità. I did watch this every evening while living in Italy. It isn’t Jeopardy, but I looked at it as educational to sort of help my Italian. It’s got several round where the seven players are eliminated until there is only one left. The categories range from music to trying to answer questions to determine the theme to categories. They are building winnings along the way. The final round is called “La Ghigliottina” (The Guillotine). This is random choices between two words and the guillotine either cuts your winnings in half if you guess wrong or passes if you guess right. You usually lose much of your “winnings”After there are 5 words the contestant tries to ascertain the thematic connection to theother five words. If the word is correct, he wins the game. For years now, even if I know all the words I have never been able to figure out the theme word.
Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, almost all the shows have at least two or more young women in sexy clothing moving around usually with not much to do.

I highly recommend on your next trip to Italy forget whether you completely understand the language and tune in to the uniquely Italian spectacle of game shows.

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Eating well without being in Italy

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All the New Year’s resolutions are in place.  Now to implement them.  There is a world of difference between intent and accomplishment isn’t there?   Oñe of my personal goals is to become an even more aware eater this year.  That means not just thinking before stuffing a biscotti in my mouth, but to question ingredients even more.

Frankly, it is pretty disheartening to realize how compromised our food system is.   Price is no guarantee of quality.  Reputable stores do not assure you products are really as advertised.    It has become a major job and time eater just to grocery shop.  And it is not all that much better in Italy these days.  So what do we do?

pizzoccheri
Pizzoccheri – made with buckwheat noodles

Keeping it simple helps a little.  Eat mostly fresh foods,  the closer I can stay to traditional Italian cooking, especially cucina povera, (cooking of the poor) the better.  It is not difficult to find good pasta in the U.S.  Look for good quality, especially bronze cut pastas.  Always check the dates.  It should be about year ahead for dried pasta.  I find that Berilla is one of the best selling dried pastas in Italy.  Good enough for me.  The artisanal pastas are great ( I often see them at TJ Maxx or World Market), and the different shapes are always fun, but I do not find them necessary for normal cooking.  (And, again, check dates.  Sometimes those are the oldest pastas).

With a well stocked pantry (in an upcoming post I will give a serious list to help) you can always cook a great, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes.  Winter weather always makes me feel like Ribollita – the Tuscan bread soup.  It makes a huge pot that tastes better every day.   And, it makes me feel healthy.

Here’s a recipe I adapted to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix, and you can use Mauro’s Mix as well.

Ribollita  – Tuscan Bread Soup

This is a traditional Tuscan soup that stays good till you finish it. Days or even a week and it holds up perfectly. Supposedly it should be thick enough for a spoon to stand straight if you put it in the pot. I adjusted the recipe to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix or Mauro’s Mix  to ‘kick’ up the flavor a little more.   

1 onion finely chopped
1 leek sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 head kale or nappa cabbage or regular cabbage
2 stalks celery sliced
1/2 cup parsley leaves chopped
2 carrots sliced
2 zucchini sliced
1 small bunch basil leaves torn
1 10-ounce can cannellini beans or kidney or borlotti
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tsp Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix (to taste – you might start out with only 1 tsp and adjust)
1 teaspoon salt preferably sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil extra virgin
1/2 pound stale Italian bread
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Sautè onion and leek in 1/4 cup olive oil several minutes until translucent.
Add a cup of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the kale, other vegetables, and basil to the onions and broth.
Cook for 20 min., covered. Add the beans and the rest of the broth. Add tomato paste, oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook for 90 minutes. At this point it should not be thick. It is best to let the soup rest a day in the refrigerator. It does deepen the flavor a lot.
Put the soup in a pot and layer the soup with thin slices of day old bread. It doesn’t make any difference how stale, or whether it’s torn or sliced, or what kind (although a good Italian or French is best). Heat while stirring until the bread breaks up and thickens the soup. You can add more broth or water if needed (but I haven’t ever needed any).

When the soup is done, turn off the heat and stir in 1/4 cup olive oil. Taste for salt. Serve with fresh grated cheese on top. It just gets better and better. This is the typical cucina povera of Italy.  

Ribollita

It is unfortunate that we have to spend so much energy to decide what is good for us, but it is worth the time to protect your health.

I hate to continue to nag about olive oil, but it seems every week there is more evidence that so much of what is available is either mislabeled, overpriced or not even real olive oil.   If you did not see the expose on “CBS 60 Minutes” recently, look for the video online.  I know that much of the oils imported are not good, but I really didn’t think about the extent of mafia involvement.  I do know they send containers of oil to the U.S. which is then bottled here.  It can have sat waiting for customs in the heat for a month, which destroys most of the value of the extra virgin oil, but they still label and sell it as premium oil.   I used to hear that Europeans did not send their best oils because Americans did not know the difference.  Unfortunately, most Americans have still not tasted good olive oil.

A friend forwarded a newsletter from Brenda Watson, an author and expert on digestive health care.   She had lists of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ olives oil.    This was apparently originally from a Consumer Reports study.  I won’t drag on about the ‘good’ list.  The bottom line is always, read the label.  It should have the per cent of acid in the oil, the date of harvest and best use by.  And, it is important to know exactly where it comes from.  In Italy, the city is always on the label, usually the type of olives and to qualify as extra virgin the acidity level must be below  0.8%.  Don’t pay for any extra virgin not labeled as such.

The bad oils are a real disappointment.  Those are most of the best known oils available in our stores.  Do not think you are getting the health benefits of olive oil if you are using these:

Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway and some of the Whole Foods oils (other than their 365).

I bring back only olive oil that I can find at the frantoio (olive mill), where they follow the very stringent laws of Italy to produce their extra virgin oil.  As often as possible I bring the olio nuovo (which is the first pressing of the beginning of the harvest).  It is rarely sold in stores.  And, the on-line sales run into the same problems of temperature variations and delays.  And, their prices are higher than mine.   I still have this season’s harvest oils so if you want to experience the true liquid gold of Italian Olive oil, get in touch with me at expresslyitalian@aol.com, or leave a note here.

In addition to olive oil, I still have honey from Sardinia and dried Porcini from my last trip.  I am constantly searching out the finest, freshest products.  My last stop on every trip is Campo dei Fiori in Rome to meet with Mauro Berardi.  Mauro is generous with his time and they always pack me the freshest spice mixes.   If you are out, get in touch.  I usually have on hand his primary mixes.  I can always shop for you when I am there for some of the more unusual products from him, just let me know what you want and I’ll get it for you.

I know that having to spend so much energy reading labels is a drag.  I am finding that it makes such a difference in the flavor of what you cook though, it is well worth the extra time.  Be healthy!   Eat Italian.

 

 

 

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.

Real Italian Cooking

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Stefania Barzini is a widely known and respected food journalist, blogger, cook book author (she’s written seven!) and teacher.  She has wonderful classes she teaches (in English) outside Rome where she lives.  Her warmth and generous spirit are energizing for any cook, and her knowledge of Italian food from all regions of the country is truly impressive.fo at her fingertips.  And varied information it is.  Stefania lived in Los Angeles for a few years and gave cooking classes there.  She was integral to the beginnings of Gambero Rosso, the cooking channel in Italy as well as writing for their magazine.  In addition, Stefania has authored at least seven books:

I was fortunately able not only to meet Stefania on my last trip, but to take a class with Stefania.  She is not a restaurant chef; she does not care about perfect presentation; she cares about the ingredients, the taste and preparing it with love.   Her objectives are to use the highest quality ingredients, sharing her love of food and cooking, and sharing her knowledge with others.  She particularly enjoys teaching english speaking students which is even better for me.

Please check out her wonderful website http://www.follecasseruola.com.   This fantastic site is not just great looking,  it also has so much information you will have a difficult time deciding on which course to take.  I was interested in meeting her and did not care what class was available.   She not only teaches cooking for many regions of Italy, but also teaches some American cooking –  she’s got a class on barbeque and one on Louisiana (with Jambalaya and Cajun shrimp)and even a class on American breakfast!

Casa Barzini -  Cooking in the country
Casa Barzini – Cooking in the country

Stefania has so much knowledge at her fingertips.  And varied information it is.  Stefania lived in Los Angeles for a few years and gave cooking classes there.  She was integral to the beginnings of Gambero Rosa (the cooking channel in Italy) as well as writing for their magazine, among many others.   In addition, Stefania has authored at least seven books: A Housewife in Hollywood, the Splendors and miseries of American eating;  Dining with the GodsaditionsAnd, last year, she had published, “ One Hundred Fifty Years of our Country’s History told by Great and Small , Memories and recipes from the Aeolian IslandsSo we ate, Fifty years of Italian history between the table and custom and TraditionsAnd, last year, she had published, “ One Hundred Fifty Years of our Country’s History told by Great and Small Cooks”.  

Stefania has stories of  famous chefs of Italy and all about the regional cooking of Italy. It is truly an honor to have the chance just to chat with her.  She’s charming, kind, a great cook and a wonderful writer.

Stefania Aphel Barzini in her kitchen
Stefania Aphel Barzini in her kitchen

We are very fortunate that next year she plans on a teaching tour of the United States. I don’t know exact dates yet, or even the full itinerary, but New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles are definite. I’ve invited her to teach here and she is very happy to do that. I already have a number of people interested in signing up for the class. If you are interested, drop me an email and I’ll add your name to the list.

Normally her classes do not have more than eight people. I think we can get enough people for her to teach at least three or four classes, in the spring of next year.

The only class I could attend was a class on pasta.  You can never have enough practice with pasta making, so I was quite happy to be able to attend this class “Le Mani in Pasta” (hands on Pasta).   We cooked a Lasagna with Zucchini and cheese, Tagliatelle with Pine Nuts, anchovies and raisins and Gnocchi ala Romana (which is nothing like the traditional gnocchi.

It was especially exciting for me since the others in the class were an English woman and her parents.  Rachel eats is a blog I’ve followed a long time.  I never really thought about how she would sound in person.  In my head she had no accent, but in person . . .  I had to pay close attention to her speaking to understand her.  She’s also an amazing writer.  She’s lived in Rome for more than ten years and traveled writing about places and food, cooking and recipes.   Her just published book is titled “Five Quarters; Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome”.   I adore her writing and her blog got her enough attention to have a publisher approach her about writing a cookbook.  Check out her blog at https://racheleats.wordpress.com/

Stefania’s class was so interesting, I learned new techniques; more reasons to keep cooking Italian and how to enjoy the process from beginning to end.  Eating all that wonderful food is exciting as well as filling.

She uses all parts of the zucchini - blossoms and stems included.
She uses all parts of the zucchini – blossoms and stems included.
Lasagna with Stracchino cheese.  Another cheese I miss.
Lasagna with Stracchino
cheese. Another cheese I miss.

I cannot wait for Stefania to visit Los Angeles to join classes here.

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Gnocchi alla Romana is a semolina pasta that gets baked.  Really good!

Taking a class while traveling can be a disaster or an amazing experience. Please do try to check out the person giving the class, the class sizes and costs. Some are ridiculously expensive.   Stefania teaches and generously sprinkles the instructions with stories of her travels, the origin of the recipes and regional specialties.  And, hers are some of the most reasonably priced classes I’ve taken anywhere.  Please check out Stefania’s  website:  http://www.follecasseruola.com. It is both in Italian and English.  If you plan on being in Italy, check out her schedule and  take a class.  It is a memorable experience.

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Eating the prepared food is half the fun

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I love Gnocchi alla Romana and it is easy to make.
I love Gnocchi alla Romana and it is easy to make.

Expo Milano 2015 is close – Make a trip to see a World’s Fair

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This is an exciting time –  spring is bound to be hitting the whole country soon, Easter is almost here and the 2015 Expo Milano is almost ready to open!   This Universal Exposition which takes place every five years, each time in a different country.  This year, from  May 1  to  October 31, the 272 acres the Expo is on will be available for the world to enjoy.

Expo 2015 is themed “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” with a focus on sustainability and innovation. All 140 participating countries will showcase their unique cultural and culinary traditions, within self-built lots, to the 20 million expected visitors from around the globe.   Whew!  That’s a lot of people, but it is a great amount of space to cover. And that’s without considering that there is also all of Milan to see.  And, the Milanese have so many planned events in the city to entertain all the visitors it is a cannot miss trip.

expo map Milan

MSP_CDA_halfsize_1523

The layout of the Expo grounds are inspired by a Roman city of ancient times.  The city has allocated over 60 pavilions in this ‘village’ to participating countries which will line either side of the long central division. Italy’s exhibition area intersects to form a global meeting place called Piazza Italia. The space has also provisioned for event areas like the open-air theatre, Lake Arena and children’s park, as well as clusters for other official industry participants.

 

There is even a Google interactive map you can watch what is happening in real time. Check it out. Google Earth – Expo 2015 the EU pavillion – interactive map http://europa.eu/expo2015/node/115

I did not see that the U.S. Pavilion has a google map dedicated to it, but it is moving along quickly to completion.  The US Pavilion – Designed by award-winning architect, James Biber, the USA Pavilion pays homage to our rich agricultural history with an open design delimited by a large vertical farm that will be harvested daily. An homage to the barn is reflected in the design of the pavilion.

Located in central Milan for the duration of the Expo, the James Beard American Restaurant will showcase American cuisine, ingredients, and beverages with a rotating roster of American culinary talent. Thanksgiving dinner will be served every Thursday and Jazz or Gospel brunch every Sunday.

Leading up to Expo Milano and throughout the six months of the fair, the USA Pavilion will be programming daily activities, on the topics encompassed by our theme American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet. From conferences on global food security to cooking demonstrations, panels on technological innovation in the food system to conversations with top farmers and chefs, we’ll explore various aspects of food, food culture, and the future of our food system. Topics will cover a broad and diverse spectrum, including how to manage water resources, the importance of food labeling, healthy school lunch, traditional American cooking, and how can we create a burger that’s better for our health and better for our environment.

If you are planning on travel in Europe this year, be sure to put this on your itinerary.  It’s really a unique experience that cannot be repeated.  Being Milan, the city has really gone all out to provide an Expo experience throughout the entire city while the fair is happening.  There are art events, fashion events, tours, and so much has been already completed to make the entire city ready for the spotlight.

Among the most important events already on schedule, Milan will feature the biggest exhibition ever organized in Italy of Leonardo da Vinci with works of the Renaissance icon borrowed from Italian and international museums.

Another exhibition will be dedicated to Giotto, the Florentine painter who revolutionized the depiction of figure in the 1300s, with three of his masterpieces on loan.

International artists from avant-garde to today will represent the theme of motherhood that most of all embodies the idea of nutrition, central theme of Expo Milano 2015, in an exhibition, “The Great Mother,” gathering over 80 works of the 20th century.

Music will be central, Del Corno added, with extraordinary programs at Teatro alla Scala, that for the first time will stay open in August with a total of 140 spectacles during the six-month expo, and Piccolo Teatro, which will perform in many languages including English, Chinese and Greek.

“Milan will be a stage open to everybody,” the assessor went on saying. Duomo Square, in the heart of Milan, will host classic and pop concerts free of charge, while public spaces in the city from parks to trams will be animated by countless music performances, book fairs, street markets and thematic events including many dedicated to water.

The architecture of the fair is wildly impressive.   Here’s a photo of the entry gate proposal, I saw in Milan a couple years ago.   This is the only structure that will remain after the fair.  It’s by Nemesi & Partners and is a smog eating, almost zero energy building.  It is exciting and I cannot wait to see this in person.


Entry Gate Milan Expo
Nemesi entry Italy

 

 

If I sound excited, I am.  I have already purchased tickets for my upcoming trip in April (they have a ‘soft’ opening starting this month), but also for my fall trip, in September.

I’m leaving on my spring buying trip in late March! In addition to touring the Expo Milan, I’ll be shopping for all kinds of goodies to bring my shoppers.

Fresh Sardinian honey and propolis as well as some of his propolis soap and beauty cream is high on my list.    Honey from Sardinia is extra special since it is harvesting from one of the few pollutant free environs in the world.  No wonder it tastes so good.   Stefano has honey from a variety of locations on the island, since there are over 200 species of nectar producing plants, I get everything from Acacia and Ailanto to Malata and even Corbezzolo.  From the Maremma I will bring  some of their unique items like Colatura di alici da Cetara, and the purest fennel pollen available anywhere and some of the products from the organic small growers in the area like La Parrina and Terra Etrusco in Capalbio and near Il Poderino in Montiano.

And, of course, the important stop at Campo dei Fiori for spices from Mauro Berardi’s Spezie famose nel mondo (world famous spices).  Anyone who has visited that market seems to have purchased some of his spice mixes.  And, they are not available anywhere else.  He does not ship outside of Italy, but he is happy to supply me to bring them home and make them available to everyone.   The most popular are the Campo dei Fiori Mix and Mauro’s Pasta Mix.  Both of these have the same ingredients, except Mauro’s mix has no salt or pepper.  This mix enhances everything it touches.  Whether cooked or fresh, it adds a depth of flavor well beyond the ingredients listed.  I use it in almost anything I cook from salads (where I sprinkle a small bit on the lettuces) to soups, meat marinades, and any pasta.  If you’ve tried it, you are a fan, no doubt.

Every trip brings special requests and new finds.  If you are already on my newsletter mailing list, you’ll be kept up-to-date on my trip.  If you are not receiving the newsletter, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to add you to the list.

Don’t forget this is a great year to travel to Europe.  The euro exchange rate is lower than in many years, currently about 1.10 euro to a dollar.  And, Expo Milan is a unique experience never to be repeated.

 

A Word (or two) about Olive Oils This Year.

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Having recently, about two days ago, returned from an extensive trip in Italy, I’ve been reluctant to discuss olive oil production in Italy this year.  It was a little depressing, so I put it off.  Many of my blog and newsletter followers were eagerly awaiting my return for their olio nuovo and I hated to disappoint them.

But, here I am, back in California, and without their olio nuovo.  The sad fact is, there is little to no olio nuovo in Italy this year.  What little there is in most regions is being hoarded by families there.  Maybe Liguria has some, or Campania, (which is never mentioned without the comment “that’s a whole different thing”), but wherever I asked I was told with a sad shake of the head, ‘none this year’.  In fact, in Lazio, around Sabina, where I often get most of the oil I bring, they didn’t bother to harvest at all.  Neither did most of Umbria, nor much of Tuscany.  Everywhere I asked it was the same response.  The terrible rains that were all over Italy this year ruined their crops, which were likely to have had a light crop anyway due to a really heavy crop last year, but no one suspected this.

The rains caused immense damage, so the olives were tiny, malformed and became infested with a fruit fly.  According to an a news article I read just before leaving in Sabina a group of growers is trying to assess the amount of damages to ask for assistance from the government for their losses.

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The price of olive oil is set to soar after a widespread failure of the annual harvest in large parts of Italy.  A wet summer in combination with a fruit fly blight has led to some producers not harvesting at all this year. Production fell by up to 80 per cent in some areas of Italy, a farmers’ cooperative said.

Bad crop: The olive fly lays its egg in a hollow in the olive and when hatched the larvae tunnels its way out gnawing at the flesh destroying the fruit   Many farmers felt it was not worth the money or time to harvest at all.   The newspapers in England have projected increases in olive oil topping an additional 2 pounds per bottle before summer.

Paolo Calosi owner of a farm in in Sesto Fiorentino, Tuscany, where 1000 trees were hit by the fly, said: ‘Unfortunately this year we will not produce extra virgin oil because the fly has damaged all the trees.

This will produce a very acidic oil which cannot be sold as extra virgin.  ‘It will in any case have a nasty aftertaste with a marked woody flavour.’     This is truly a disaster.20131116_161648

So, what I bought was year old very good extra virgin oil that still has a life span of another year that it will retain it’s flavor.  But it was much more expensive that it would have been last year.  And, I know in my heart that by next summer, the oils will be 4 to 8 euro more per bottle than now.  There will be no more olive oil until next harvest in the fall of 2015.  And, I also have little faith in those importers being honest about the value and taste of what they’ll be delivering to the U.S. as extra virgin oil from Italy.  BEWARE!

Be prepared to pay more.  The oil I have is almost double what it was last year.  If it is not expensive, ask lots of questions.  If it is not due to expire in 2015, ask when it was harvested and where.  The only good harvests I found were in Livorno.  They had a bumper crop this year.  I’ve learned so much about the varieties and tastes of olive oils and I still have so much more to learn.   It is an elixer of health and should be used as a fresh drizzle on almost any dish.  Use the less expensive oil for frying, save the cold pressed, and olio nuovo type delicate oils for that fresh, fruity or peppery taste as you serve your food.  It’s worth whatever the money, just know what you are getting.

Extra virgin olive oil does not age well
Check the date on the bottle and make sure you are getting oil produced during the last harvest. Buy only the quantity you might need for the year to make sure you are not stuck with old olive oil when the new fresh one is out on the shelves.  The very best of the extra virgin olive oils retain their full flavor for only two years.  They are still usable for another year, just not as good.  In America, we are often using rancid oil without any idea it is too old.

Green colour does not automatically means top quality.  The most emphasized organoleptic characteristics of extra virgin olive oil is often the colour that should range between green and yellow. However, a deep green colour does not automatically indicates a better quality oil.  Professional olive oil tasters use blue or green coloured tasting glasses not to let the colour of the oil influence their final judgment. Focus on taste and acidity levels rather than colour when buying extra virgin olive oil.    And, remember, to each his own.  Everyone has their own taste preference.  Try several until you find just the type of olives you prefer.   When you think about it, it’s a very inexpensive way to improve your health, add flavor to your foods and experience new tastes.

Back to Los Angeles Again

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I know a month seems like a long time, but in Italy it goes by very quickly.   It was a challenge to get everything I selected back with me, but I did it!

Well, mostly.  Some will arrive in July.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most interesting things I found this trip were in the Maremma area of Tuscany.

If you haven’t visited this area of Tuscany, take the time to do it on your next trip.  It’s very special.  From it’s historical Etrurian roots and it’s fertile soil, to the still producing olives trees that are over 2,000 years old,  it’s fishing ports and beaches,  it is  a non-touristy, beautiful area  full of warm people and really unique ‘prodotti tipici’ (regional products).

I visited  Orbetello, Montiano, Talemone, Capalbio and Albinia.  I brought back some of  that liquid gold,  Colatura, which is the essence of anchovy, impossible to find even in other areas of Italy.  I also brought  Bottarga di muggine; some farro pasta; and some antique legume con ‘occhio.  And another rare product:  fennel pollen.    Fennel pollen is a spice mostly used in Tuscan cooking, not widely known elsewhere.  It is really that type of magical ingredient that can add a layer of flavor that takes a dish from good to great.  Fennel pollen has notes of licorice, citrus and a feeling of soft subtlety.    You can use the pollen to season meat with a dry rub of salt, or sprinkle on just before serving.  Light summery soups, gain headiness and depth with a light sprinkle at the table. In colder months,  roasted vegetables are enhanced by a sprinkling of fennel pollen while they are roasting.  The real trick with fennel pollen is not to overuse it.  A little really does go a long way, and even a pinch may be too much.   Go slowly, adding just a dash with care, and use it mostly towards the very end of cooking so as to preserve its delicate flavor. The fennel pollen I brought back is fine and pure,  and there is also  hand packed one is even more rare with absolutely no grit, just powdery flavor.

There are also some condiments made especially for Tuscan style cooking,  that rustic, simple but hearty real food they do so well.  I have ‘conserva di buttero’ (Buttero is the Tuscan cowboy who herds the cattle in the area).  It’s beautiful in color, rich in flavor and a perfect complement to meats or served along with cheese (especially Pecorino or Parmigiano).  It’s got peaches, peppers, red pepper flakes, lemon juice, apple vinegar and a little sugar in it.  Really tasty and a little piquant.

While I got some great preserved black truffles in Umbria, I found some thinly sliced summer black truffles preseved in oil in Capalbio that would be fabulous with eggs, or over meat or just on toast, or with almost anything.

These are some of the many specialties available.
These are some of the many specialties available.

                One of the true secrets of Italian cooking is that you don’t need to use                         great quantities of the flavors.  They are most effective when used in                           balance.  A touch of an herb, or a dash of a condiment is all that is                                necessary.  Subtle but dramatic taste additions make memorable dishes.

                 If you want any of these items or have any questions about these or any                  of the  typical products of this area, please email me at                                                      expresslyitalian@aol.com and I’ll be  happy to add you to our mailing                      list for our offerings or shop for you on my next trip for products you                        may already know.

                While we still have months to wait for new harvest olive oils, I do have                     olive oil from Montiano and Tivoli now.  Both are fresh, and fabulous                         tasting.    These are really special and if you’re not familiar with  pure,                       fresh extra  virgin olive oil, these are really so noticeably different than                   grocery store olive oils, you’ll never go back.    But be aware, these are     not for everyday cooking, or making common salad dressings, they are  to be prized.  They are  perfect for the splash of olive oil to brighten all  the flavors in a dish just  before serving. Or to dress a salad with just a  little lemon juice and the olive oil. Treat yourself.  You deserve the best and these truly are.

And, lastly, there is agrodolce available.  Agrodolce is a sweet sour sauce used in many Italian dishes.  While it usually is traced back to first being used in Sicilian cooking,  each region has developed its own take on this gastrique type sauce.   Agrodolce can be used as a finishing sauce for a variety of dishes.  Often it is used as a glaze or dipping sauce with antipasti.  It is also  a great addition to the cheese board  for both mild and strong cheeses.  And, of course, it’s great as a sauce on all kinds of meats.  I have raspberry agrodolce as well as  blackberry.  Both are fantastic.

The true sign of spring - those beautiful red poppies
The true sign of spring – those beautiful red poppies
There are still some of the original vineyards that use the wood supports for the vines
There are still some of the original vineyards that use the wood supports for the vines
Mamma got up, I backed up.
Mamma got up, I backed up.