foods

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.
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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.

SUMMER 2014 MAY BE ENDING BUT HERE COMES EXCITING FALL!

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Well, as August ends, Italians are returning to work from their vacations (vacanze). Most Italians do not travel outside the borders of their country. It may seem that has been happening more often with the poor economy, but honestly, it’s always been that way for most Italians. They love their country. Within it’s borders are almost any type of environment you could want for vacations; mountains, lakes, two seas to explore the beaches of, as well as more art, monuments and historical locations than almost anywhere else in the world.  Why would they leave?   

I recall my husband talking to a co-worker shortly after our arrival in Rome. He told the guy we were going to Venice and he was very excited. The older man shrugged his shoulders (it takes a couple of years to develop the Roman shrug) and said have a good time. Mike asked if there was anyplace special that we should make an effort to see. The man responded “how would I know, I’ve never been there”. When Mike asked why in 70 years he’d never visited there. His response was “Why?” Everything I want is here in Rome. And, there are quite a few Italians who never venture beyond their province or commune. For us American’s it is hard to fathom that thinking. We love to go whether it’s in the US or abroad. We’re adventurers.

Which brings me to something I’ve been waiting to share with you. Some of the names have been changed to protect this man’s identity. I admit when I first received this accounting I was rolling on the floor laughing. Not only is this entirely possible wherever you travel, but can be expected in some variation on any trip to Italy.

This man, a Californian, decided to take his adult daughters on a trip to Rome. He’d only been there many, many years ago for a short trip and one of them had never been there. The last I saw of him was on the via Veneto where outside his lovely hotel I was giving directions to the next stop on his trip – Tuscany. He’d rented a car, it had GPS, he was confident.

His travel agent had worked out the full itinerary with directions. And, he said he followed the directions exactly. When they arrived it was getting dark, but it appeared the location was not at all as promised. It had all the amenities as promised, BUT. The pool was covered, filled with leaves and had grown green water. The chairs around the pool and tables were plastic and overturned on the lawns. All of them.  He was a little concerned  that it had an entirely empty parking lot that would hold 60 cars. They found the restaurant was closed and there was not much activity anywhere nearby. His daughters were the ones who realized they were in a hotel with the same name as their reservations, but hours driving time away from where they were that evening. . This after lugging overweight luggage up several flights of stairs (no elevators). Nothing could be done until the next day anyway, but it was not a happy evening.

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The next mornng they drove to the correct hotel, which was gorgeous. By then, things were a little tense between them since they had lost a whole day of our precious vacation.  He said they did spend lots of time investigating Montepulciano, which has become one of his favorite places.  A salvaged vacation after all the previous difficulties (yes they also had arrival problems in Rome, tour guide problems there, and more). Then came the last day of the trip.

One of his daughters became quite ill and had to go to the hospital in Florence. The other daughter returned to her home in New York on her scheduled flight. It turned out the hospital was quite helpful and kind. She was only really dehydrated and needed an IV for hours but was fine afterwards.

Of course, they missed their flight back to California though.  They were booked on Alitalia, on their   last day of their direct service to LA. There were no more direct flight from Rome to LA. (For the record I remain confounded that there is no direct flight from Los Angeles to Rome from late October until March !)   They had to leave the hotel in Florence with three overweight bags between the two of them. They still have no idea how they managed it, but they got the train, along with their luggage from Florence to Rome (near the airport for easier access). There were no available flights and he felt Alitalia was unhelpful.  It does seem like they could have arranged something with their partner airlines (Delta, Air France, or KLM).

They got rooms at the Best Western near the airport (where few other than travelers speak English) and it’s truly in a barren industrial area. He called on his cell phone every airline he could find (his cell bill was $1,800). His local Vodafone SIM had been used up and where he was there was no Vodafone place and he could not understand the texts he kept receiving from them instructing him what to do.

Alitalia told him he would have to change his reservations through his travel agent because that’s how he made them. (Of course, by this time he’d fired the agent.)  The agent was not returning his phone calls.

Finally, he truly panicked and just wanted to get home. There was literally no way to get out for days, unless they would take Air Nigeria to Turkey, then three stops in Germany, an overnight at Amsterdam, then New York and then LA.  Even panicked he knew he could not do that. So, like any good American, he “bought” his way out. He spent over $6,000 on airfare to take British Air to London and London to LA.  And, of course, that was not for first class flights. But, he had waited several days already and enough is enough. He missed four days of work and the vacation costs were much higher after his vacation was to have ended that it was for the rest of the trip.

Sometimes, it’s just that bad with traveling. Thank goodness it’s not often. And, much funnier when it happens to someone else. He said “Italy was beautiful but he was not ready to laugh about it yet”. Hopefully, enough time has gone by that when he reads this he’ll appreciate the experience a little more.Fall 2014 view

Being prepared is good. Knowing things will go wrong is even more important.

I’m readying for my fall trip –  think olio nuovo, fresh olive oil.  Honey, and new found products.  If you want to receive the newsletter on available products, please email me at:  expresslyitalian@aol.com.  

If you have any questions about how to use any products or suggestions about what I should try to find, let me know.    For sure I will be stopping at Campo dei Fiori for spices from Mauro Berardi and his”famous spices of the world” as well as Umbria and Tuscany for first pressing olive oils, the Maremma for Botarga and a few other specialties.    And I’ll also visit Torino for a chocolate festival and stopping to pick up some of that fabulous Sardinian honey and who knows what else.  I’m open to any suggestions.   Just let me know if you have any special requests.   I’ll be happy to do what I can to help.

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.