La Cucina Stagionale

Blog for A Posto Personal Chef Services LLC in Newport, Oregon

Courageous Cooking

When Bruce & I lived in San Francisco, we would go to a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood on Sunday mornings for dim sum.  We had to go early as the place would fill up quickly with hungry diners waiting to eat those delightful little dishes.  We had our favorites, of course, and were always willing to try something new on occasion.  Once we moved to the Oregon coast, our weekly dim sum breakfast tradition became a memory as there are no restaurants that serve it here in the same way.  I always felt that making those dumplings myself would be too hard or too much trouble, so I didn’t bother with trying, or I should say I lacked the courage to try.  Whenever Bruce & I traveled anywhere on vacation, we would always look for a dim sum  restaurant to go to, but were so often disappointed by the lack of flavor and/or quality we were used to.

Late last year, I discovered a wonderful video class website called Craftsy.  They have all kinds of DIY classes you can take and cooking is one of them!  Top notch chefs teach the classes and you can view them again and again as often as you like as your access never expires.  One of the classes offered is an Asian dumpling class taught by Andrea Nguyen, a well know Asian food chef and author.  I bought the class and watched the videos and realized that dim sum is really no more difficult to make than ravioli which I have been making for over 30 years!  I was so excited that I immediately bought Andrea’s book Asian Dumplings to learn more.  I went to see Mai at Mai’s Asian Market here in Newport and bought all the ingredients I needed to make my first batch of dumplings.  Mai is a godsend here in our little town.  She has just about anything and everything you would need for any kind of Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern dish and I love her for that.

I started out by making Korean Mandu, a dumpling that is filled with tofu and kimchee and served with a tangy dipping sauce. The dough is a simple one of flour and water; however, I added rice flour to mine to make it extra chewy, used shrimp instead of tofu in the filling and they turned out delicious!  The shape of this dumpling is called ‘big hug’, but it also looks like an Italian tortelloni.

Korean_dumplings_cookedKorean_dumplings_raw

The next dumpling I made was Shanghai Soup dumplings, which are Bruce’s absolute favorite. They are filled with pork and a gelatinized soup that melts during steaming, so when you bite into it, you get a mouthful of soup along with the rest of the filling.  They are served with Chinese black vinegar and finely shredded fresh ginger.  The shape of this dumpling is called ‘closed satchel’ because it looks like a purse.

Shanghai dumplings_rawShanghai_dumplings_steamed

I was on a roll now.  I made shrimp dumplings next and upped the game by using wheat and tapioca starches instead of flour for the wrapper.  This dumpling is pure white and turns translucent when it is steamed.  I had always thought these dumplings were made with rice flour and making them could not be achieved at home, but I was wrong as they were so easy to make and delicious to eat!.  This type of shape is called the ‘pleated crescent’.

har_gow

My final dumpling was Japanese pot stickers or Gyoza.  Like Chinese pot stickers, they are fried, steamed and fried again to obtain a crispy bottom.  My mom made Gyoza when I was growing up with wonton wrappers, so I was familiar with making and eating them.  I made my own extra chewy dough with rice and wheat flours again. This shape is called the ‘pea pod’ and they were yummy!

Cooked Pot Stickers bottomPot Sticker up close

Since my exploration into Asian dumplings, I have made others too numerous to mention here.  All have been easy to make and all have been delicious.  The sky is the limit on the fillings just like ravioli or other stuffed Italian pastas.  I have realized through this exploration that the only thing that gets in my way is myself.  I left San Francisco for the Oregon coast in 1997 and have been pining for dim sum ever since.  Almost 17 years later, I discovered that I can make my own with as good or even better results as the beloved restaurant I used to frequent and I can have them whenever I want.  I thank Craftsy and Andrea Nguyen for showing me how easy it is to make my own Asian dumplings and I hope I have inspired you to go and make something you’ve been wanting to try, but just haven’t had the the courage to do so. Courage is all you need to master cooking any type of dish or cuisine.  Once you try it, you realize, like me, that it’s easy, fun and good to eat.  A presto!

For the Love of Food

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with food; good food.  I grew up in a house where my mother cooked from scratch, so I was exposed to whole foods at an early age.  My knowledge and experience grew exponentially when I moved to San Francisco in the early 80’s to go to college.  There I was exposed to a whole world (literally) of food options: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Russian, Polish, Italian, French, Ethiopian, Persian, Indian and that was just in my neighborhood! I quickly discovered flavor combinations I had never had or even thought were possible.  Salty fish sauce, spicy Thai basil, chiles that were so hot they made me cry, earthy cumin and coriander seed, tangy sumac and tamarind, and bitter greens such as dandelion and arugula made me realize that I could spend the rest of my life cooking different flavor combinations and never cook them all—what a wonderful challenge!

In those years since I lived in and moved away from San Francisco, I have been introduced to Turkish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Afghanistan, Lebanese, Moroccan, Mongolian, Tibetan and a myriad of other cuisines.  I have also learned that Italian food, my heritage cuisine, is not quite what my family or the rest America thinks it is.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from a small town east of Naples called Benevento.  It’s known for an anise liqueur called Strega which means witch in Italian.  Anyway, my grandfather came to America with recipes that he enjoyed in his hometown.  However, many ingredients were not available in his new home in northeast Pennsylvania, so he had to improvise.  The recipes that he gave to my mother who moved, shortly after she and my father were married, to San Bernardino, California were recreated with the ingredients my mother had available to her in her new home, which were not necessarily the same as what my grandfather used.  So to make a long story short, the Italian food I grew up with is vastly different from what my grandfather ate in his homeland, what he ate in Pennsylvania and what I ate during my travels throughout Italy.  It wasn’t necessarily better, it was just different.

I had the opportunity to study the food history of Italy while I was in culinary school.  We had a professor, Stefano Bentley, who taught us for an hour or two, once or twice per week, about the various regions—not even a tip of the iceberg of knowledge.  I found that class to be fascinating, so many factors influence a dish, besides season and availability of ingredients, such as religious beliefs, superstitions, taboos, traditions, changes in social class, etc.  I learned that there really is no such thing as standardized Italian food in Italy.  Here, yes, because we treat food as a product for profit instead of what it really is: nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls.  A famous chef perfectly stated what American restaurants are really about: ‘you take some food, fix it up, and then sell it for a profit.’  No server here in America would take away the cheese from you if you were trying to put it on a seafood dish, where they will do that in Italy because you don’t eat cheese with fish—period—end of subject.  There are some chefs here that are taking their food a bit more seriously and not allowing substitutions or a bazillion choices which we Americans love so much.

If I, as a chef, decide that white balsamic vinaigrette will perfectly compliment the fresh picked greens and ripe peach salad I am going to serve you in July, you can bet I will say no to ranch dressing on the side. I want the food I serve to my clients to taste like I meant it to taste.  Now that doesn’t mean that I am a food Nazi; I am more than happy to work with my clients to create food that fits their taste preferences and any dietary requirements they have whether I like it or not, but there are limits to everything. I once made a vegan tiramisu for a client for her birthday because she’s a vegan and wanted tiramisu for dessert.  Yes, it was terrible and no it really wasn’t tiramisu, but she was happy and that made me happy, but I most certainly would have said no to ranch dressing.  I would say no to ranch dressing for just about anything except maybe hot wings and celery sticks; it is pretty good with those two items.  Smile

So, back to my grandfather’s recipes which became my mother’s and then mine.  I decided that I really didn’t like her version of tomato sauce, so I made my own to suit my taste preferences.  I didn’t like her version of lasagne, so have made several variations of my own for the same reason.  I love the meatball, braciole and sausage recipes, so they are as is even today; I don’t mess with them.  Where it makes sense, I do my best to stay as true to the tradition and authenticity of all recipes be they Italian or any other culture, because that is how you learn about that culture—through its food.  Changing my mother’s recipes didn’t change the authenticity, because they were never authentic to begin with.

The same famous chef also stated that while there is no standardized Italian food, there is an standardized Italian expectation that the dish must be made with the best food that is available to you at the time you are making it, and I don’t think that expectation is solely Italian either.  It means if you can’t afford or don’t like ricotta cheese, find a different good quality cheese that you can afford and like to make your lasagne. Make your own tomato sauce and don’t buy one in a jar, because that stuff is what’s expensive.  Good tomato sauce can be inexpensively, quickly and easily made with a can of tomatoes crushed in your hands, some onion, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper.  It will not contain anything you can’t pronounce and will taste better than anything out of a jar.  Put some pride in what you are making as that is what you are ingesting into your body.  Food should never be considered a product or just something to take away the huger pangs; it is life!

Food touches all of our emotions, hopes, desires, dreams and nightmares.  It brings happy and unhappy memories; the smell reminds us of places we’ve been to and want to revisit.  It reminds us of parents, relatives, friends, favorite servers, favorite chefs, restaurants, bars, diners, drive-in’s and dives (just checking to see if you are still with me here).  Food that we love and hate makes us who we are.  I had a friend once who refused to eat capers because a jar of them fell on her head once when she was a child—OK.  I don’t like certain textures, like tapioca, and you can’t pay me enough to ever eat it—just don’t ask me to explain to you why I don’t like it.  I’m sure everyone has their likes and dislikes of various foods and when you really stop to think about it, unless you are eating something really heinous like fermented whale blubber (sorry, but that has to be heinous), the reason you probably don’t like it is more emotional than anything else.

My grandfather came to this country in 1917 with no money and only the clothes on his back. When he died, he had a wife, a house, six children and a vegetable garden.  He fed his family as well as he could every day.  Despite the fact that my father grew up poor, he loved good food and could recognize it easily. He clearly passed that love along to me, and I do my best to pass it to every person I cook for and now to you.  So go now and make something homemade from your pantry, garden if you are lucky enough to have one, or local coop.  Do it today or tomorrow and do it for the love of food.  Buon Appetito!

Food Memories of My Lab

Our 14 1/2 year-old Labrador Retriever, Talladega, passed this past week.  He had a very good life and left this earth in peace which is all anyone who loses a loved one can hope for.  Talladega came to live with us on September 18, 1999 when he was 3 months old.  He wasn’t into eating in his first few years with us.  We often had to coax him to eat by feeding him by hand.  His motivation back then was play, play, play and play he did.

BooBooBeach1

We never really fed Talladega people food per se, but we did save him scraps of whatever protein we were eating for ourselves and we cooked him his own steaks on his birthday, which he loved.  As the years went by, he learned to love chicken to the point where if he smelled it, he would come into the kitchen looking for his share.  He definitely was a carnivore as the only vegetables or fruits he would eat were edamame and raspberries.  He once knocked over a basket of raspberries at a farm stand at the Newport Farmers’ Market and was able to eat several before he was caught and another time stuck his head in a lady’s basket and stole one—oops!

Talladega was a polite and gentle eater.  He never inhaled his food, and he would gently take things from your hand with his front teeth.  I would share my fried egg yolks with him after I was finished mopping up the runny yolk with my toast.  I taught him how to eat the yolks from my fork without touching it with his teeth.  He was really good at it until he got older and lost some of his finesse.

Happy Dog

He didn’t beg in those early years; we would sometimes let him lie under the table while we were eating and he would place his paw on my foot to let me know he was there but that was it.  He was smart enough to know that if he did anything more he would be banished.  He always got rewarded with a piece of whatever protein we were eating for his good behavior.

We never  worried about Talladega jumping on the table or counter and trying to steal food as that just wasn’t his thing.  He did, however, lick a little kid’s ice cream cone once because it was really close and at eye level (couldn’t blame him).  He knocked a plate of cookies off of a table another time at an agility class, but not because he was trying to get to the cookies.  He was trying to get to the stuffed animal toy that was behind the cookies.  Yes, he loved to ‘eat’ stuffed animals.  He would rip them open with glee and spew the stuffing all over the floor.  He never ingested anything during these acts of violence, he just wanted to take the thing out!

Image016

Talladega loved to chew on rawhide sticks, but didn’t like doing it alone.  He wanted you to hold it for him and he would bark at his stick until you got down on the floor with him and held it.  He would put one of his paws over your arm and he would gnaw on that stick until you got tired of holding it or it was gone.

Dad holds it just right

Things changed dramatically when we got our pug Tojo.  Unlike Talladega, Tojo lives for food; it is his #1 priority in life.

Tojo071608

Well with the addition of another dog and a piggy one at that, Talladega decided it was time for him to become more assertive about food.  The first thing we noticed was the speed at which he finished his food—he started eating like a normal lab.  He also started begging, and then barking when he felt it was time to eat.  None of these behaviors were rewarded, but he didn’t care.

When we discovered that Tojo liked fruit, Talladega decided he wanted fruit too.  Oftentimes he would just chew it a little and then spit it out after we gave it to him, but by God, he was going to have some fruit because the pug was having fruit.

As Talladega got older, he began having some digestive problems, so we had to dial back on what and how much he was eating.  We switched him off of big rawhides to bully stick and other smaller chew sticks.  He still wanted someone to hold it for him, but they were so much smaller thus harder to hold.  He would be satisfied if you just sat on the floor and watched him chew the stick for a while.  Once you got up and left, however, he would stop.

BooBoo

The pug loves to chew as well and would often walk around with a partially chewed bully stick looking like George Burns with a cigar.  The day came however, when Tojo was introduced to Bonies which are chews much like Greenies except they are shaped like bones.  Tojo is a Bonie addict—he will chew nothing else now.

IMG_2849

Talladega stopped eating right before he passed which is a significant sign that a dog’s time on this earth has come to an end.  I tried feeding him by hand like I did when he was a puppy, but he was having none of it.  Talladega’s leftover food and treats were donated to the local animal shelter along with a dry dog food bin and biscuit bucket.  I’ve saved his stainless steel food bowls as I am not yet ready to part with them.

Now that he is gone, I will try to train Tojo to eat my discarded egg yolks from my fork—-we’ll see how that goes.

poser

In memory of Talladega (aka BooBoo) June 16, 1999-December 16, 2013

We miss you

What’s in Your CSA?

We invested in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) this year with a local farm in Toledo: Sitka Springs Farm.  The way it works (for those who do not know) is that you pay the farmer up front, usually in early Spring, for a share in the produce they grow during a specified time-period, usually Summer and Fall.  The farmer uses the funding they receive to plant the produce the shareholder will receive; it’s like having your own personal farmer!  Once the season begins, the shareholder receives a container full of fresh produce every week.  The upside is that you get freshly picked produce every week and the downside is that you get freshly picked produce every week.  A typical selection might be onions, garlic, shallots, kale, chard, collard greens, mustard greens, zucchini, peppers, potatoes, radishes, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli and various other items.  One week we got artichokes; another, chanterelle mushrooms; and another, a beautiful blue squash called an Oregon Sweet.

MP900177958[1]

Our challenge has been to keep up with what we get.  Onions, shallots and garlic keep well, so there is no problem there.  Hardy greens can sit in the fridge for a few days or a week or so with no harm, but others have a short shelf life.  Zucchini is always a prolific vegetable and this year I got very creative with it.  I made chocolate zucchini muffins, Korean zucchini pancakes, zucchini tarts, stuffed zucchini, grilled zucchini and the ubiquitous zucchini bread (but with pistachios—yum).  Peppers were also bountiful, and are not on readily eaten here as Bruce doesn’t like them—especially green bells.  I had to process the peppers in ways that they were hidden from both sight and flavor. I made pepper jam, pepper salsa, pepper enchilada sauce, roasted pepper tarts and added them to the Korean zucchini pancakes.  Smile

I’ve made the traditional kind of sauerkraut and a Mexican variation called Cortido with cabbage; I’ve preserved sour cherries; I’ve fermented carrots and beets, and yesterday, a rutabaga that was the size of a small child!

fermented rutabaga

What I love about my produce challenge every week is that I am learning new ways to  prepare various vegetables as well as how to preserve them for later use through fermentation, pickling, or other techniques.  We all get into cooking ruts, and even though I do my best to challenge myself with new techniques as often as I can, it’s easy to just whip up a vegetable dish I’ve been making for years.  For example, I love roasted greens, any greens, be they spinach, kale, chard, mustard greens, bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna or others.  I have a tendency to want to roast every bunch of greens I receive because it’s easy to do and they taste really good.  However, I have challenged myself to do different things with the greens this year. I simmered some kale and chard in coconut milk and Indian spices a few weeks ago.  I made an Asian noodle soup with chopped greens, tofu, and fish sauce that was delicious; I grilled chard and kale one beautiful afternoon and ate them with olive oil, lemon juice and anchovies.  I have chard, kale, and collards waiting for me tonight; I’m making grilled duck breast, so am thinking I’ll treat them like cabbage and make a warm salad with vinegar and onions.

steak!

In the picture above, I roasted the greens and topped them with sliced Spanish olives.  The red sauce on the steak is Romesco and was delicious with everything on that plate!

I’m going to miss my CSA when it ends on October 22nd.  I will have to go back to scrounging for nice produce from our local coop and the various grocery stores here, but I’ll be first in line come next year when our local farms begin offering shares for purchase.  I’ll be ready for those zucchini, peppers and that huge rutabaga—bring it on!

For more information on CSA’s and how you can get involved with a local farm, click here

A Posto had a Birthday on September 1st

Yeah!  We had our third birthday on September 1st.  It’s been a very busy year so far, and I am so grateful I was able to make my long-time dream of cooking for a living a reality.  Grazie Mille to all of those who have offered support, love, good karma, positive thoughts and taste buds throughout this journey; especially to Bruce, my husband, without whom I couldn’t have done any of this.

We’ve done the usual mix of wedding, birthday, anniversary and other types of celebrations.  The most memorable was a lesbian wedding we cooked for back in April on a miserable Thursday afternoon at a boy scout camp in the forest north of Pacific City.  The family and friends in attendance didn’t care that it was pouring down rain; they were there to celebrate the special day of two special people—a beautiful event.

I’ve increased the number of cooking classes I teach, both privately and at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City.  My ultimate goal is to become a full-time cooking instructor and I believe that I get closer to attaining it every year.

We implemented a mobile website in June, so we have a smartphone presence now; obviously an important investment with the myriad of smartphones and tablets in use on a daily basis out there.

We also continue to give back to the community as often as we can.  I’m lead chef for a farm to fork fundraiser dinner this upcoming Saturday in support of the Siletz Community Food Program.  90% of the food we are serving is coming from within a 50 mile radius—pretty cool!

I am excited to see where this journey leads over the next year; I haven’t missed my old corporate life yet!

Buon Compleanno A Posto!

Buon Compleanno A Posto!

Cucina bene; mangia bene (tonno favoloso)

It’s albacore tuna season here on the Oregon Coast.  Starting in mid-to late July, every summer, these beautiful fish migrate within 50-100 miles off the Washington and Oregon coasts.  The tuna are caught using hook and line methods, which minimizes bycatch.  All tuna species are warm-blooded so they must be handled very carefully once caught.  Here in Newport, there are fishermen that have special licenses which allow them to sell whole fish directly to the consumer.  For a small fee, the fishermen will fillet the tuna for you (highly recommended).  The tuna caught here on the Oregon Coast are smaller than the albacore tuna caught for commercial production.  These fish are younger and are usually between 10-30 lbs, and they have little to no mercury in them because of their youth and size.  An added benefit is is that they contain the highest amount of Omega 3’s over any other tuna species.

Tuna

Most of the locals home can the tuna they purchase; I just canned 15 lbs. myself last week with the help of my next door neighbor. The locals might grill 1 or 2 loins at the time they purchase the fish, but the rest goes into the canner.  Home canned albacore tuna is far superior in flavor over the commercial varieties sold in the grocery stores, but we are going to focus on discussing fresh tuna in this post.

canned tuna

There are few restaurants here that serve fresh albacore.  If they do, they wrap it with bacon and mask the flavor, or they overcook it.  Tuna is a very dense fish, much like swordfish, and it needs to be cooked medium-rare to medium in order for it to have good texture or to taste good.  Albacore tuna is best grilled, but can be seared or roasted with good results.  One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh albacore is to marinate it in soy sauce and wasabi, then roll it in sesame seeds and grill it.  I like to serve it with more wasabi and soy sauce, steamed rice and sautéed shiitake mushrooms and spinach.

Fresh Grilled Albacore Tuna with Wasabi, Soy Sauce and Sesame Seeds

Here on the Oregon Coast, we get fresh albacore tuna in the summertime which we can buy directly from the fisherman.  This recipe is one of our favorite ways to serve it.  We like it with steamed rice and sautéed mushrooms and spinach.  Serves 4.

Ingredients:

1 tuna loin sliced into 4 pieces (about 5-6 ounces each)
2-3 tbsp. wasabi paste
1/4 cup soy sauce (we use San-J Tamari; you could also use Bragg’s liquid amino’s too)
3/4 cup sesame seeds
Togarashi pepper

Method:

Mix the wasabi and soy sauce together.  In a non-reactive container (I use a large zip-lock bag) add the soy sauce-wasabi marinade and the tuna pieces; marinate for 2-8 hours.

Put sesame seeds in a pie plate.  Remove the tuna from the soy sauce-wasabi marinade (discard the marinade), season with togarashi pepper and roll in the sesame seeds.

Heat a grill on medium and grill the tuna pieces for 6-8 minutes for rare, and 10-12 for well-done.  Tuna cooks fast, so be careful.  Serve with more wasabi and soy sauce.

Wasabi Tuna

Tuna also does well simply grilled or seared and served with sauces such as Nuoc Cham, Romesco, Salmoriglio, Salsa Verde, and Green or Yellow Mole.   We’ve made Asian tuna  balls that have been served in lettuce wraps with Nuoc Cham, tuna tacos with green or yellow mole, tuna ‘mayonnaise’ (Tonnato Salsa)  served over pasta, tuna rolled in fennel pollen and panko and served with Romesco,  and  grilled with olive oil and served with Salmoriglio.

For more information on Albacore tuna, see the following links:

Oregon albacore Commission: http://www.oregonalbacore.org/index.htm

NOAA FishWatch:

http://www.fishwatch.gov/seafood_profiles/species/tuna/species_pages/pacific_albacore_tuna.htm

If you are lucky enough to visit the Oregon Coast during albacore tuna season, or have it available to you in the local fish markets, I hope this inspires you to try it if you’ve never had it or cook it in a different way if you have.  Buon Appetitio!

cucina bene; mangia bene (milk: the raw and the cooked)

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post and I apologize.  I’ve been really busy and believe it or not, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block.  You’d think that a chef, with so much food around all the time, would not have any trouble finding a topic to write about.  Well, I finally came up with one: raw milk.  Bruce & I are raw milk consumers; we’ve been supporting a farmer in Yachats: Triple D Ranch for over a year now.  Raw milk is hard to come by.  In order to get it, one must sign a waiver that indemnifies the farmer if you get sick from consuming it.  You must buy a ‘herd share’ or what I like to say ‘an udder’.  You pay an initial price for the amount of milk you want every week (we get 1 1/2 gallons) and then you pay a monthly price for the milk.  This is how the farmer stays out of trouble with the USDA which really cracks down on raw milk farmers.

People have been drinking and preserving all kinds of milk for thousands of years, and up until the 1800’s, with the introduction of pasteurization, the milk was raw.  It’s funny how our ancestors were able to consume all kinds of raw milk products without making themselves sick.  Anyway, this post is not about the political issues revolving around raw milk; it is about the delicious foods that can be made with it.

The first is cheese.  I’ve been making my own mozzarella for a couple of years with mixed results using pasteurized milk, but when I use raw milk the end product is amazing!  It has a yellowish hue to it because of the butterfat and it tastes incredible.

A version of mozzarella that I am really into at the moment is Burrata or ‘Buttered’ in Italian.  It is a type of mozzarella that has a creamy center that oozes out when its cut.  Both mozzarella and burrata are ‘pasta filata’ type cheeses.  Pasta Filata translates into ‘spun paste’.  Both cheeses, along with provolone and a few others are spun, stretched, and/or pulled during the cheese making process.  Most of these cheeses are made with cow or water buffalo milk commercially, but can be made with other types of milk at home.

burrata_uncutburrata_cutburrata_tomatoes

Whole milk ricotta is another cheese I’ve been making with the raw milk.  Ricotta means ‘recooked’ in Italian and is usually made with whey from other cheese productions.  I like to make it with whole milk because it has a richer taste and can be eaten as a dessert or for breakfast with a little fruit and honey drizzled over it.  Of course, when making ricotta, the milk must be brought to a very high temperature to form the curds, so it is naturally pasteurized during the process.  When I was in Italy during my culinary training, I was able to buy sheep’s milk ricotta from a local vendor at the Saturday market in Parma which is the best ricotta on the planet!  I ate it for breakfast as described above and it was amazing.

Ricotta

I made my own cultured butter this week by leaving some cream out to ferment (yes, that is what ‘cultured’ means when you see it on a label) overnight.  I put it in a mason jar and shook it until the buttermilk separated from the butter—it’s great exercise too.  I pressed out as much of the buttermilk as possible and then put the butter in a container and refrigerated it—easy and tasty.  The buttermilk can be drunk as is (it won’t look or taste like the commercial stuff), or it can be used to make cream cheese, crème fraiche or sour cream.

butter

My last raw milk adventure is kefir (pronounced ke-feer).  Kefir is a yogurt type of drink that is made with a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) much like kombucha.  Kefir originated in Russia and is getting a lot of attention these days for it’s health benefits.  The kefir that is available commercially is made with a culture as opposed to the grains, so it doesn’t contain the same enzymes or vitamins as the homemade kind using a SCOBY.  The grains must be acquired from someone who has them and fortunately, there are many sources available locally or via the internet.  I acquired mine from a family in Grants Pass that states their kefir grains come from Russia and have been in their family for years.  Once you start making kefir, the grains must be cared for (just like a pet) and if properly cared for, they will proliferate just like a kombucha SCOBY.   I made kombucha for over 2 years, but didn’t care as well for my SCOBY towards the end so it died.  I hope to do better with my kefir SCOBY.

kefir grains

So, you can see that having a source for raw milk is a great way to make your own dairy products.  Raw milk contains the natural bacteria to protect itself from spoiling during the fermentation process while using pasteurized milk creates a bigger risk for spoilage.  This is because the necessary bacteria and enzymes for proper fermentation have been killed during the pasteurization process.  I’ve had pasteurized milk I was trying to turn into mozzarella never develop because it was basically dead.  I am currently in the process of making cottage cheese (it takes 24-48 hours for the raw milk to develop curds) so will post again on the results along with the other dairy products I’ve made.    A presto!

cucina bene; magina bene (get to know whole grains)

Whole grains are ‘in’ right now and for good reason; they are full of vitamins, minerals and the all-important fiber.  they taste pretty good too.  I an often asked by cooking class students or clients what whole grains are, because, as usual, the media and marketing tend to confuse or misrepresent information.

The definition of a whole grain as stated on the Whole Grains Council website is as follows:

Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked), the food product should deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.

This definition means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.

The less processing that occurs with the grain, the better too.  You might read a label that breaks down and then reconstructs the grain such as ‘oats, oat bran and oat flour’.  Sure oats are present, but a label that reads ‘whole oats’ is better because all of the necessary components are present without any breakdown and reconstruction.

So what are some other whole grains besides oats?  According to the Whole Grains Council, the following are classified as whole grains:

  • Amaranth: Prized by the Aztecs. Contains 13-14% protein, is considered a complete protein due to the presence of lysine, and is gluten-free.
  • Barley: Used to make beer, yes!  Contains the most fiber of any grain and is found throughout the entire grain and not just the hull.  Barley can be cooked ‘risotto-style’ in place of rice for a delicious and nutritious dish.
  • Buckwheat: Not a true wheat or grain—it’s related to rhubarb!  BUT, it contains higher levels of zinc, copper and manganese over other grains, and it too is considered a complete protein.  Buckewheat is gluten free and it’s nutty taste is delicious in baked goods.  Of course, it’s most famous in Japanese soba noodles; one of my favorites.
  • Corn, including whole cornmeal and popcorn: Did you know that corn is really a type of grass?  You may be asking why it’s listed as a grain here.  It’s considered a vegetable when it’s fresh and a grain when it’s dried.  Cornmeal, polenta, grits and popcorn are all part of the grain family.  Corn has been abused by our food system, so be sure to buy organic, non-gmo and/or local corn products.
  • Millet: A popular bird food, but rarely seen on American tables.  Millet is very popular in India and China and believe it or not, was the primary grain in those places before rice came along. Millet is another gluten free grain and contains many antioxidants.
  • Quinoa: The new darling of the culinary scene, Quinoa is also considered a complete protein.  Botanically, it’s related to beets and Swiss Chard, so it’s not a true grain, yet it is the most important food of the people who live in the Andes.  In fact, it’s popularity has driven the prices so high in countries like Bolivia and Peru, many of the farmers can no longer afford to consume it themselves.
  • Rice, both brown rice and colored rice: Rice provides about half the calories for about half of the world’s population.  It originated in South East Asia and Africa, but is grown on every continent today except Antarctica, and there are literally hundreds of different varieties.
  • Rye:  Used to make rye whiskey.  It was considered a weed when it was first discovered.  Afterwards, it became the grain of the poor because it can grow in very poor soil.  Rye is very popular in Eastern European countries.
  • Sorghum (also called milo): Originating from Africa and probably arrived in the Americas with the slaves, sorghum is gluten-free and has been eaten for about 8000 years.  It doesn’t have an outer hull like other grains, so the entire grain can be eaten.  It can be popped like popcorn and the flour can be substituted for wheat.
  • Teff: A type of millet; it is the primary grain consumed in Ethiopia.  Teff has the amount of calcium amongst other grains and is also the smallest: less than 1 mm or the same as a poppy seed.  Teff is traditionally used to make the Ethiopian sourdough flatbread called injera.
  • Triticale: a hybrid of durum wheat and rye.  It is prevalent in Europe.
  • Wheat: Once a wild grass, wheat has been consumed for thousands of years.  Some ancient varieties such as einkorn and emmer (farro) are still consumed in Central Asia and Europe.  Wheat is used to make bread, pasta, rolled into couscous, eaten as berries in pilafs or soups, cracked and served as bulgur, etc.  Sadly, it is believed that modern wheat has contributed to the gluten intolerance we see affecting so many people today.
  • Wild rice: Not technically a real rice, but a seed from aquatic plants that grow in the Great Lake regions.  Collected by Native Americans using stick to beat the seeds into their boats, the rice is then dried by smoking it.  Wild rice contains more protein that brown or white rice.

Whew, a lengthy list for sure.  How many of these grains are you familiar with and have tried?  You can buy all of them from Bob’s Red Mill or most of them in bulk from your local health food store.

Here’s more info on whole grains from The Daily Meal: http://www.thedailymeal.com/beyond-quinoa-7-new-whole-grains-try-slideshow

I’ll leave you with an easy recipe for bulgur wheat pilaf which I love to serve with Chicken Piccata.  I know, it’s not traditionally Italian, but it sure is a delicious combination!  A presto!

 

Chicken Piccata with Bulgur Pilaf (serves 4):

Ingredients:

2 large lemons (preferably Meyer)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts sliced in half horizontally

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour or rice flour (for gluten-free option)

4 tbs. olive oil

1 small shallot, minced

3 cups chicken stock, divided

2 tbs. small capers, drained (salted capers are best but need to be soaked first to remove excess salt)

4 tbs. unsalted butter, divided

4 tbs. minced fresh parsley leaves, divided

1 cup whole grain bulgur wheat

3 green onions, sliced on the diagonal

 

Method:

1. Halve one lemon pole to pole. Trim ends from one half and cut crosswise into slices 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick; set aside. Juice remaining half and whole lemon to obtain 1/4 cup juice; reserve.

2. Sprinkle both sides of cutlets generously with salt and pepper. Measure flour into pie tin or shallow baking dish. Working one cutlet at a time, coat with flour, and shake to remove excess.

3. Heat heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot, about 2 minutes; add 2 tablespoons olive oil and swirl pan to coat. Lay half of chicken pieces in skillet. Sauté cutlets, without moving them, until lightly browned on first side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Turn cutlets and cook until second side is lightly browned, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes longer.  Transfer cutlets to a warm plate. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to skillet and heat until shimmering. Add remaining chicken pieces and repeat.

4. Add shallot to skillet on medium heat. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup stock and lemon slices, increase heat to high, and scrape skillet bottom with wooden spoon or spatula to loosen browned bits. Simmer until liquid reduces to about 1/3 cup, about 4 minutes. Add lemon juice and capers and simmer until sauce reduces again to 1/3 cup, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and swirl in 2 tbs. butter until butter melts and thickens sauce; swirl in 2 tbs. parsley. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve immediately.

5. Heat remaining 2 tbs. butter over medium heat in a saucepot.  Add bulgur, pinch of salt, and toast 2-3 minutes.  Add remaining 2 cups stock, bring to boil, reduce heat to low and cover.  Cook until the liquid has absorbed; about 10-15 minutes.  Fluff with a fork, add onion and 2 tbs. parsley and mix together.  Serve with chicken.

No More Radio

Just a short post on the status of my radio program: Cheftalk.  After doing it for a little over a year, I have stopped the program for various reasons.  I will continue to post to the blog with articles and photos.  Thanks to those who listened to the podcasts; I hope it was as fun for you as it was for me to host the program.  A presto!

cucina bene; mangia bene (for the preservation of fat)

So I just bought a pork belly from a local butcher and a hunk of fatback from a local farmer.   I’ve been making my own pancetta since my return from Italy in 2010 and am planning to make more with the belly.  Pancetta is really easy to make: just cure the belly (I use half at a time) with salt, sugar, herbs and spices for a week in the fridge; then roll it, tie it and hang it somewhere so it can cure for 2 plus weeks.  I use a bathroom shower for the curing as it’s nice and dark and has plenty of air circulation.  Don’t worry, I have another shower so I can sacrifice this one for the cause.  I check the pancetta every other day to make sure there is no green mold growing on it.  While no mold is desirable, white mold is tolerated while green must be contained.  White mold means flavor and green mold means ROT!  I dip a cotton swab in white vinegar and apply it to the afflicted area when I do find it as the acid in the vinegar chases the mold away.  Anyway, after two weeks in the shower, the pancetta is ready and it is delicious!  You can find the recipe I use here:

http://www.chow.com/recipes/10699-chow-pancetta

This is what the last one looked like:

IMG_2886

Here it is in the shower:

IMG_2673

Before I make another pancetta, I am going to try to make lardo.  Lardo is cured fatback which is sliced very thin and put on warm bread or pizza.  It is made anywhere in Italy pork is eaten, but it is most famous in two places: Toscana (Colonnata), where they use marble or alabaster boxes to cure the lardo, and Valle d’Aosta (Arnad).  Both are still produced today in very limited quantities and are D.O.P. products.  D.O.P. or Denominazione di Origine Protetta is one of several categories in a legal framework developed to protect and guarantee many traditional Italian agricultural products. D.O.P. helps to avoid confusion between products, protect producers, and guarantees the product’s integrity. Essentially, it is a type of labeling for agricultural products whose characteristics and nature are highly linked to a specific, defined geographic area where that product is produced, processed.

I was lucky enough to try lardo on several occasions while in Italy during my time in culinary school and I can tell you that it is incredible and why I’ve decided to try to make it myself.  I already make a spreadable lardo (lardo battuto) from rendered lard that has chopped rosemary, salt, pepper and garlic in it.  It can be used in place of butter and is also very delicious.

My piece of fatback is 4 lbs. and has some meat still attached to it, so I will have to trim it up a bit.  I just ordered a glass container for curing so I should be able to get started next week.  In Italy, it can take up to 6 months to cure lardo, but I’ll probably go about 2 months for my first batch to see how it tastes.  The longer you leave it in the brine, the saltier it gets so it’s best to undercure the first time around.  I want that ‘melt in the mouth’ texture and can’t wait for Bruce to make a pizza with it.

lardo pizza

Many countries besides Italy preserve pork fat.  When an animal was slaughtered in the past, it was used in its entirety including the fat.  Over time, these practices have diminished, but there has been a resurgence of late to bring back the ‘old ways’ (think of the nose-to-tail term) and making lardo is one of them.  I would much rather consume a fat that is free of GMO’s, preservatives, hydrogen, or anything that isn’t natural. I’ll be back with another post once I get curing.  In the meantime, try making lardo battuto……you’ll be so happy you did.  Buon appetito!

 

Lardo Battuto:

Ingredients:

1 cup rendered lard (preferably from a drug free pig)

1-2 tsp. chopped garlic

1-2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary and sage

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Method:

Mix all ingredients together and serve with warm bread, on crackers, or on pizza crust.  Try frying an egg or potatoes in it.  Add a spoonful to bean soup or to mashed potatoes.  The possibilities are endless.

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: