Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Real Italians Come to Dinner!

Molly suggested that we call their friends Cristina and Moreno. We were interested in meeting some Italians, to know people on a deeper level than the merchant-customer relationship that we had so far in Monte San Savino.

They showed up for dinner, and I had bought a pollo nostrale (an old breed, raised locally) for the main course. I had tried a similar local variety of chicken, rangy and thin, no breast to speak of, when we had exchanged in Revolon, near Padua several years ago. It had been a disappointment, tough and gamy. The butcher had suggested that I cook it in a skillet, marinating it with white wine.

I had never planned on buying another pollo nostrale, but had been shamed into it by the local butcher's son. I had pointed to two plump little birds, thinking they would cook up like oversized game hens. He looked doubtful. I said, "They aren't good?"

He said, "Well, they're only two months old...this one is a year old!" He pointed proudly to the scrawny pollo nostrale, it's breast bone straining to break through the thin skin. He went on. "The flavor is much better. These little chickens don't have time to develop the flavor."

I folded.

Going home with the chicken, I told myself I would salt it and cook it Marcella Hazen style with lemon; it would be fine...it would be enough...after all,it was a whole chicken, and it had two breasts and two legs...and we'd have other things, too...

I washed the chicken thoroughly. That reminded me of the time we raised chickens and cleaned them ourselves. This chicken had not sanitized by processing. It had a strong smell of butchering that wasn't appetizing. I'm an American, and although I buy my chickens in Santa Fe from Pollo Real, a local chicken farm that's as close to natural as possible, I haven't smelled a chicken that was so close to the barnyard in a long time. I told myself it would be full of flavor.

I dried the chicken and sprinkled it with salt. The salt bounced off. This chicken had skin that had dried thoroughly in the display case and was taking no salt. I rubbed it with lemon and sprinkled it again. Better. Into the refrigerator.

The next day when Cristina and Moreno showed up for dinner, I showed Moreno the chicken. He made approving noises. I said, "It's small." He said, "Oh, no! It's very large! How are you going to cook it?"

I told him about my plans for roasting it whole, and he said, "No, we split it, like this." Taking a pair of scissors, he cut the chicken down the backbone and spread it out flat. Inside I saw lung tissue and kidneys, something I always remove before roasting. I insisted on cleaning it, in spite of his protestations that it would be fine.

He salted and peppered the chicken heavily inside and out, generously dousing it and the frying pan with olive oil. Into the hot oven it went, skin side down, and after about 20 minutes, Moreno said, "Do you hear something?" I said no. He put his hand to his ear and said, "Listen." He knocked on the table then pointed to the oven. "It is the chicken. It wants to be turned."

The skin was golden, and he turned it. It cooked longer and he turned it several more times. He cut the chicken up into many, many pieces. He was right, cut up this way, a chicken could feed a village. There was a little blood on one of the joints which Moreno pointed to with the tip of the knife before dumping all the chicken back into the skillet. Although I would have eaten it as it was--it looked perfectly cooked, juicy with crisp skin--into the oven it went again. I asked him how long, and he said 10 minutes. I was nervous. All the Italian chicken I had eaten so far had been overcooked and dry.

After twenty fidgety minutes, I knocked on the table. I said, "The chicken wants to come out!" Moreno smiled. He leaned back and made a dismissice gesture with his hand and said, "It's in no hurry..."

When the chicken came out, it was done. Well. Delicious. And enough. And I learned just how a Tuscan cooks a pollo nostrale!

While the chicken was cooking, Moreno cooked the risotto I had planned, but that's another story.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Monte San Savino Sourdough

I've got to admit it. I don't like Tuscan bread. It's not just that it's unsalted; it also doesn't have enough texture for me. Friends far wiser and more experienced with Tuscan cooking than I point out that Tuscans don't really eat bread, they use it as a vehicle. It's perfect for fettunta, bruschetta, mopping up sauce, and in bread soups like pappa pamodoro and ribollita. A salted bread with too much personality just wouldn't be good for those uses. And I do like it those ways, I promise!

However, our family eats bread as a main course, as the mainstay of our breakfast and sometimes our lunch, too. We are used to homemade sourdough bread, thanks in large part to Peter Reinhard and Jeffrey Hamelman's wonderful books and the baking community at The Fresh Loaf.com.

It took me a long time to get the hang of making country-style sourdough loaves, and now I'm caught up again in a steep learning curve trying to bake bread in Itay.

Most Italian flours on shop shelves are made from soft wheat. Bread baking requires hard wheat, which develops a good strong gluten. In Tuscany, semola, grano duro, or Manitoba* are hard wheat, high gluten flours flours that are also used for pasta. For a more extensive discussion of Italian flours, go to http://www.practicallyedible.com/edible.nsf/pages/italianflours.

All the flour in the photos say "tenera" and are ground from soft wheat. Use them combined with straight Manitoba, which will add strength to the dough.

At first, I didn't have a starter, and the bread I made with yeast just wasn't as satisfying as the flavor we'd been enjoying with sourdough breads. So with the help of gaarp's tutorial on TFL, I made a starter in Monte San Savino. Now, if you have ever had a sourdough starter, you know that it's a lot like having a pet. Except that when they're young, they're more finicky than a cat.

I also had to learn the tricks of a new oven and baking equipment, because baking crusty country bread requires steaming and pizza stones and all kinds of rigamarole.

The first loaves had training wheels, but they rose. Then the starter went into hibernation, and I had nothing but flat, hard failures.

I was elated when it all came together and we got some decent loaves. Not perfect, but beautiful in my eyes; I felt like the proud mama.

Now I have a recipe to share and some Italian starter to take home!

Monte San Savino Sourdough
(based on 1.2.3-Sourdough by Flo Makanai on The Fresh Loaf http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/9346/123-easy-formula-sourdough-bread)

This recipe uses a starter that is made with equal parts (by weight) flour and water (100% hydration). The starter should be fully developed by feeding it 8-12 hours before mixing the dough.

165 grams sourdough starter
330 grams warm water
450 grams bread flour
45 grams farina integrale (whole wheat flour)
10 grams salt

Mix the starter and the water together and add to the flours. Mix until the dough makes a raggedy mass.

Cover and let sit in a warm place for 30 minutes to an hour. Knead well until the gluten is well developed (windowpane test).

Stretch and fold the dough (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1timJlCT3PM) then nudge into a ball, put in the bowl, and let rise, covered, for a 2 1/2 hours, doing two stretch and folds 50 minutes apart.

Shape into either one loose ball or two (for smaller loaves), and let rest for ten minutes. Using a spinning motion, tighten the loaves up. You should see the "skin" on the surface of the dough begin to look stretched and smooth. Let rise until almost doubled, then slash and bake with steam in an oven that's been preheated to 475 degrees for an hour.

Creating steam: Put a tray (or casserole, or pan) on the bottom of the oven before preheating. One minute before loading bread into the oven, throw 1/4 cup hot water onto the tray and close the door quickly. Load the bread, and throw a half cup of water on to the tray. Quickly close the oven.

Stretch and fold: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/8432/latest-video-back-home
This blog was posted at http://www.wildyeastblog.com/category/yeastspotting/
*All Manitoba flour is not the same. We bought a flour that is a mixture of Manitoba and other things that worked very well at the Coop; however, a straight Manitoba flour that we bought was too strong and produced heavy, ultra chewy, tough bread.
Be sue to read the label!

Farfalle with Porcini

Back before we left for Italy I got an e-mail from a friend with the 50 best things to eat in the world and where to eat them. One of the places listed Coco Lezzone in Florence, which the article (from The Guardian) said had the best down home Tuscan comfort food. Or something to that effect. I took note, and when we got to Florence, we looked it up. It was right around the block from our house, stuck in a tiny alleyway.

There was no sign, just a posted menu. It was a very traditional restaurant with long tables and home-style cooking. We had the juiciest arista di miale (pork roast) along with a pasta di funghi.

This is the pasta with porcini at Florence's Coco Lezzone. As I was eating it, I said several times, "This is delicious! Wait until you taste this! It's really delicious!" After I passed the plate to Chris, he took a bite and said, "This is delicious!" There's no other way to describe it.

It's the best version of pasta with porcini we've ever tasted, simplicity itself. This dish is a great example of how Tuscans use seasonal ingredients in the most direct way. Many versions are made with cream, but it's really not necessary. Florentines don't put Parmesan on porcini because it is too strong and overwhelms the delicate woodsy flavor, so serve it as is.

This version is full of buttery mushroom flavor, but it's not heavy. Though I know how impossible it is to come up with fresh porcini (and it's not October, and you can't run down to the San Ambrogio market), this is a recipe you're going to want to save and make when you do get your hands on these delicious fungi.

Farfalle with Porcini

Serves 2 generously

2 nice-sized porcini
a couple of handfuls of farfalle
1/4 cup (more to taste) good unsalted butter

Put on a pot of hot salted water and bring to a rolling boil.
Clean the porcini by rubbing with a damp cloth, trimming the dirtiest parts with a sharp knife. Cut it in 1 inch by 1/2 inch pieces. Melt a good chunk of the most flavorful butter you can find over medium heat in a roomy skillet. Add the porcini and toss. Add the farfalle to the pot and stir. Saute the mushrooms gently until they are soft and tender. Salt to taste. When the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a little of the pasta water. Add the farfalle to the skillet with the mushrooms with a couple of tablespoons of the water. Cook for a few minutes over low heat, just until the farfalle is covered with butter and the flavors have melded. Add more butter to taste. Serve hot.

The big beautiful mushrooms known as "porcini" in Italy are known as "Steinpilz" in Germany and by the name boletus edulis everywhere. They are rarely found fresh in grocery stores, but are sometimes found in markets near where they grow. In October, they are for sale all over Italy, where they make an important distinction between the ones that grow in their forests and the ones imported from other countries. In the U.S., they grow in the forests under conifers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Porchetta Monte San Savino with Mark the Food Hunter

Mark cooking in our kitchen in Santa Fe.

When Mark and Molly were in Santa Fe, they were eager to find out about northern New Mexican food, so I made calabacitas and red chile from Velarde.

Mark made porchetta Monte San Savino-style. (The town has a porchetta sagra (festival) each autumn, and they are striving for a denominazione for their particular style of porchetta. Molly made an apple tart, and Chris made his famous gelato to go with it.

Here's the way Mark made the porchetta, based on Aldo the butcher's method):

Porchetta Monte San Savino Style

Fennel pollen*
1 large head garlic,peeled and chopped
Rosemary, leaves removed from the stems
Olive oil
1 large pork shoulder or butt roast (4-6 pounds), butterflied, fat untrimmed
(If the pork doesn't have a nice thick layer of fat on the outside, buy enough from the butcher to tie around the roast.)
Unsmoked bacon or pancetta
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Butcher's twine

Spread the pork roast out flat with the fat side down. Salt and pepper liberally; spread with garlic herb mixture. Line the roast with the bacon or pancetta. Repeat
seasoning as on the roast. Roll up tightly and secure with twine.

Season liberally. Tie the additional fat slabs on the roast with some sprigs of rosemary. (We used sage out of the garden in the picture.) Refrigerate overnight.

Remove the pork roast from the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the roast in a roasting pan and place in the center of the oven. Roast for 2-3 hours, or until a meat thermometer registers 170 degrees. Remove from the oven and let rest for 30 minutes. Carve with the twine still in place. Serve hot or cold on a crusty bun.

*Fennel pollen is a terrific ingredient, one of those wild plants like nettles that Italians had always picked to add flavor to their food. Order it from www.chefshop.com or substitute pounded fennel seed

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arriving in Monte San Savino

I'm going to backtrack a little and set the stage for porchetta, Monte San Savino style. I'll also tell you a little more about our house exchanging experience.

The evening we arrived in Monte San Savino was after the day we drove through Lucca where I lost and found my purse. Lots of flailing around, rain, and upset. It was a long, intense day of driving. We wearily drove up the tiny road that snakes around the mountain to Monte San Savino, gradually feeling our spirits lift. We had crawled around the autostrata for hours, our little Peugeot circling Florence like a tortoise. Here's a picture of the car, which drives like a Ferrari (sort of)during an unscheduled photo break.

It was evening, the piazza was lit up, and no one was on the streets.

Mark Brownstein and Molly Kellog gave us directions to pick up the key to their house from the man at the Tabaccheria. Mirco and his wife are gorgeous; they could be the stars of "Monte San Savino: The Movie". Their shop sells wine, tobacco, olive oil, and lots of eye catching doodads. There's a salumeria case in the back where the make sandwiches. We bought some olio nuovo (this year's crop of olive oil), took our key, and bounced our luggage over the cobblestones to the house.

Home exchanging is always full of surprises. No matter how many pictures we look at, it's thrilling to travel across the ocean, arrive in a town a millenia old, and open the door to the unknown. We were so happy as we walked through the house, up the stairs, admiring the lofty comforters and stone fireplaces. We couldn't have been more pleased to end up in Monte San Savino at Mark and Molly's house, feeling comfortable, safe, and at home.

They visited us last summer in a hospitality exchange. It's an arrangement whereby the home owner hosts the exchangers. We have had several very enjoyable hospitality exchanges with interesting people; what could be nicer as a foreigner than meeting the locals and having them show you the town, introduce them to your friends, and feed you the local specialties? We have had hospitality exchangers who kept their distance, but when Mark and Molly visited us the summer of 2009 in Santa Fe, we became friends almost immediately. We picked them up from the shuttle (not ever having clapped eyes on them before) and chattered all the way home. The next day we set out to help them have a good time. We cooked together, and I learned how to make the most delicious pork roast, flavored with wild fennel pollen, garlic, and herbs.

One of the several shops in Monte San Savino that make porchetta daily.

Monte San Savino

Monte San Savino, near Arezzo, is described in only one of our guidebooks as one of the prettiest hill towns in Tuscany. It is only by good luck that we are here. I contacted a number of people about house exchanges, and Molly Kellogg was the only one who was interested. Her house was here, and I set about trying to find out about it. Most places had no information. I was worried. Our Italian teacher, Federico, said he had been here once to go to water park. That gave me the willies. Turns out that there is an entire modern town surrounding this old historical village.

Here is a great clue for future travelers in Italy: If you haven't heard of a place, if it isn't in the guide books, go there. The people will be glad to see you, they will be interested in you, they will be curious about you. That's a good thing, because you will get to interact with Italians rather than be part of the ever-changing parade of faceless, annoying tourists.

Molly and Mark's house here in Monte San Savino is divine. It's four stories tall, and a block thick. The block is two rooms wide--the green shutters one sees from the main street (the living room and master bedroom side) echo the green shutters above the front door (the kitchen and second bedroom) that one sees from the piazza on the main street. The street of Via Sansovino, where the front door is, is so narrow that Chris can stretch out his arms and almost touch each wall. Molly has alerted us that her neighbor across the street will be curious about us, and if we are hanging out our clothes in the morning on the line that stretches across the face of our building at third story level, she will come and hang her clothes out, too, and will ask us about where we live and our children.

The house is a pleasure to live in. Molly has a wonderful eye, and Mark has helped decorate. The furniture seems to belong here, along with the red tile floors and the white drapes and shutters on the inside of the windows. Branches of dried laurels make a nest on top of her sturdy old cabinet in the kitchen. In the corner table-high hearth, she's laid a fire for us, and it also is aswirl with dried laurel branches. Baskets and textiles hang on the walls, an old cradle nests kitchen utensils under the big prep table in the kitchen.

Because Mark (The Food Hunter) is a passionate cook, there's everything we need here to make our own meals except sharp knives. He has one sharp knife that's like a small, light cleaver. Other cleavers are sharp, too. I usually travel with a couple of knives, and I didn't, thinking that Mark would have that covered. It's hard to prepare carrots with a cleaver, and I've been working very, very carefully so that I don't cleave anything living...

Yesterday early afternoon we went to the fish shop down the main street, where the proprietress, Maria Louisa, sold us a branzino. It was the most expensive fish in the shop at 12 E, and it fed us both just barely. It felt terribly extravagant, but when I considered that it came from the Mediterranean, not far from here, and that we pay the same amount at home for fish that was caught in Alaska, I felt better about it. She had three fish, a bag of clams, a few shrimp, and some seppia and calamari left; the fish had come in Friday, and it was Saturday. I asked her if she would clean it for me, and she said, "Of course, and I'll take off the scales, too!" When she returned with the fish, I asked how to cook it, and she got a bright look on her face and said, "Wait a moment!" She scurried to the back and returned with a jar filled with green sauce in her hand. She opened the fish and salted it inside then spread some of the sauce in the cavity. She held the sauce out to me to smell, saying, "Parsley, oil, a little garlic, that's all."

She lay the fish on some foil, tied it closed with string, then spread more sauce on the top. She told me to open the foil, put a little more oil under the fish and to cook it in a hot oven.

We thanked her and walked home with our fish, proud as if we had caught it ourselves. With it we had an endive salad with sweet Abaste pears, fresh walnuts (cracked with the side of the cleaver on the already-distressed wooden table), and sweet Gorgonzola. For dessert, we walked around the corner and out the village gate to a gelateria.

La bella vita in bella Italia.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lucca, Lucca, Lucky

Our daughter Nelwyn and her husband Carlo vacationed in Italy when she was carrying their first child. They visited Lucca, ancestral home of Carlo's family, the Del Frates. Several months later, Nelwyn gave birth to little Lucca Blue Del Frate. Needless to say, she was enthusiastic for us to visit the city; it was both beautiful and meaningful. And we had promised to do so. Chris, however, was not of a mind to keep our promise for a couple of reasons. First, "You've seen one Italian hill town, you've seen them all!" This is not the attitude we take when we are 1) in Italy 2) asked sweetly to do an activity by a beloved child 3) have a once-in-a-lifetime, never to be repeated shot at either driving by or taking the exit! To be fair, I should report that the second reason was that it was raining.

We parked by the city gates of Lucca after our Trusty Tomtom had delivered us from a highly recommended restaurant in our guide book (never to be trusted again because of this vile meal). We never could have found it without the spy satelite, and that would have been a good thing. I won't tell the name of the restaurant, but I will say that the folks there have earned a magnificent crown in heaven because I was so distracted by their over-cooked beet greens and the squid with peas that was just as bad as you can imagine) that I left my purse there. I didn't discover it until we stopped for gas on the edge of town. More on that later.

The old gates of the city do, indeed, look like the gates of other well-visited Italian towns, replete with T-shirts, gelato, embroidered kitchen towels,c and coffee. The striking thing about Lucca is that the old city has a path on top of the city walls perfect for biking and walking, and it is as green in the park around the walls the Emerald City.

The rain was daunting, we were daunted. Having taken a serious look inside an olive oil shop that had samples of more oils than I could possibly taste and as many kinds of olive oil soaps and lotions as exist in the universe, Chris had gotten thrown out for taking pictures.

The nearby church has a stunning mosaic on the front. The inside is full of art, most stunning a simple Madonna.

We tried to get in to climb the tower, promising a Stair Master workout and a fabulous view, but we couldn't even find the door. We left. We didn't get gelato.

Luckily, we did need gas, and I needed to change my glasses. I looked for my purse. I couldn't remember taking it anywhere, loading it in the car, or when the last time I had seen it was. After taking the car apart and looking through all the luggage, during which Chris behaved like the true graciousness that has won him the lasting admiration of small children and our pets, we decided it really was missing. Luckily again, we had the restaurant's phone number in the no-longer forsaken guidebook. I called, they had it, and Trusty Tomtom took us back through the warren of streets to the inner modern city.

Now, I realize that most lady's purses are permanently affixed to their sides. My purse, however, is on a mission to be left everywhere I go. This particular peripatetic handbag has spend the night away from home in Encinitas, Baja California and Florence, Italy; and now it has spent a few hours in Luca. It's pushing its luck. Some day I'm going to drive away from it just so that I won't have to endure the looks of approbation and the mini-lectures from the exceedingly kind and honest people who have returned it to me. This was not the time, however, because it had money, passport, prescription glasses, and jewley. The wonderful thing is that this little adventure made both of us very happy. Nothing like narrowly escaping a disaster and having faith in human decency restored to put you in a good mood!