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Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to Use Zucchini Blossoms


August is only a few days away which means the height of the season is approaching for one of my favorite edibles…zucchini flowers.   While by summer’s end most people are sick of zucchini, I never tire of its fabulous blossoms.   Yet, I’m always surprised at the number of shoppers who ask me at the farmer’s market, “What in the world will you make with them?”  Seems like even many of those that buy them often don’t know how to cook them.  I, on the other hand, have several ways to create culinary magic with these gems.

Let’s start with the basics.  First, zucchini flowers come in male and female.  Both males and females can be used in cooking, however, if you buy the blossom with a squash attached, you will need to cook them separately as by the time the zucchini is done the flower is way overcooked.  Next, be sure to choose blossoms that have not yet opened.  This is not only a sign of freshness, but it also makes the possibility of a bug less likely.  Last, blossoms are very perishable---use them within 3-4 days from the day they were picked.

How to prepare them?  I have several wonderful recipes but my fave is the way I first learned to eat them on the island of Capri in the 1970’s…sautéed in olive oil.  After taking a class in Italy solely on zucchini flowers and much experimentation in my kitchen, I think I’ve perfected this method.  My batter includes 3 parts cornstarch to 1 part flour.  I use a dark beer to liquefy it to the consistency of pancake batter.  Use extra virgin olive for sautéing as its flavor is a huge part of the final product.  Top with sea salt and you’ll have a little piece of heaven in your mouth.

If you’re fortunate to be growing zucchini, you’ll need several recipes to get you through August.  The simplest method I love is merely chopping up the raw flowers in a quesadilla with a little jack cheese.  Another winner, which I had at a Michelin star restaurant in the Rhone Valley of France, is stuffing the raw flowers with a little ricotta and fresh herbs, baking them in the oven until just brown, and serving with a fresh tomato coulis (your garden should also have an abundance of tomatoes by summer’s end.)

Cheers to summer and zucchini flowers!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Italy’s Primo Foodie Emporium


For those of us who dream of eating our way though Italy, I have the perfect place to do so...all under one roof.   Think Oz’s Emerald City meets Whole Foods on steroids.  Eataly (a clever play on words), opened in the city of Torino in 2007, is a mind-blowing food experience. 

It’s not surprising that this gourmand’s utopia is located in Italy’s Piedmont district.  Piedmont is the home of the Slow-Food movement, a kind of Noah’s Ark for the culinary world.  Slow-Food, now an international phenomena, was birthed in the 1980’s in outrage to the opening of the first McDonald’s in Italy.  Eataly exemplifies Slow-Food’s philosophy by showcasing artisanal culinary products from all parts of all of Italy…some of them rarely known outside their region…many were saved from extinction by the Slow-Food movement.

Housed in a former vermouth factory, the mammoth Eataly structure has been altered to 21st century sleek and sexy.   It’s divided into 8 sections:  pasta, pizza, cheese, meat, fish, wine, beer and gelato.  Each area comes with its own chef and tasting bar, and the well trained staff is more than willing to educate shoppers though a myriad of kock-your-socks-off tastings. 

If you’re joining Wine-Knows on the truffle tour to Piedmont this October, we’ll be stopping at Eataly for lunch.  The Torino store was such a success that branches have opened in Milan and just last month a gigantic one in Rome.  Not going to Italy?  No worries as Eataly has recently opened an outpost in New York City.

Don’t miss Eatly… bring lots of money, but every foodie must go to this gastronomic nirvana. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pesto Perfecto


Pesto pasta in the classical style of Liguria with green beans & potatoes 

Pesto, that ethereal basil-based sauce from Italy, has become almost synonymous with California cuisine…there are few restaurants featuring this genre of cooking that don’t offer something with pesto.  But, let’s get something straight from the beginning.   It’s pronounced “pay stow” not “pes stow.”

Pesto has its origin on the Mediterranean coastline of northern Italy in the region of Liguria (think Portofino, Cinque Terre and Genoa) where basil grows like a weed.  While today in American kitchens it is frequently made in Cuisine-Arts or even blenders, in Liguria pesto is still made the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle.  Having taken numerous cooking classes in this region of Italy, I’ve learned that cooks prefer the mortar method because they feel it results in a superior product---the mortar  results in improved flavor because of it doesn’t “bruise” the basil as much as the more modern devices.  Moreover, the mortar results in pesto with a more interesting texture.

Interestingly, basil is thought to have originated in Northern Africa, however, it was first domesticated in India.   Baslico (as they say in Italy) is abundant in Italian & American markets during the summer months.  As pesto freezes fairly well, the next few months are a great time to make a stash for the winter… when a pasta al pesto quickly takes me on vicarious trip to Italy’s sunny coastline.  Regardless of what method you choose to make pesto, here’s my winning recipe which is a compilation from a couple of different Ligurian chefs:

·        2 C firmly packed basil
·        1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts
·        1 tablespoon walnuts
·        Pinch of salt
·        2 medium cloves of garlic (Ligurians typically prefer less garlic than Americans; adjust for your preference)
·        ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
·        ½ cup freshly grated parmiggiano-reggiano
·        2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino 

Instructions:
Crush (in blender, food processor or mortar/pestle) the basil, nuts, salt and garlic.  Slowly add the oil in droplets to incorporate.  Last, gently add cheeses--do not over manipulate.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bordeaux ’s Other Wine

Gravel soil of Graves district

“A glass of Bordeaux?”   Many people would assume a red wine was being offered, however, they could be totally in error as Bordeaux produces some stunning whites.  Unfortunately, white Bordeaux is little known outside of France which is regrettable as a white Bordeaux can compete with the world’s best crafted wines.  Case in point:  the white wine from Chateau Haut Brion is one of the most memorable wines to have ever passed through these lips---and that’s saying something as I’ve had Haut Brion’s red on several occasions.
 
The best white Bordeaux is produced in the southern part of the wine area in the district of Graves.  Its distinctive gravel soil, for which it is named, is credited with much of the character and quality of both its white and red wine.  Graves' two main white grape varieties, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, are often blended.   While wine lovers are familiar with Sauvignon, not so many Americans know Semillon.   I love this varietal especially for the creamy texture it contributes, however, I also enjoy the apricot, peach, and pineapple notes it adds.  Because of the unique gravel soil, there’s no where else in the world that these grapes can even come close to producing the likes of a white Graves.
 
If  Haut Brion’s white ($900) is not in your budget, an excellent alternative is Smith Haut Laffite.  While its "blanc" is still pricey at $90, this primarily Sauvignon Blanc wine is no step-sister…it’s one of the best constructed Bordeaux whites that I’ve tasted.  If you’re looking for more moderately priced bottles, try either Latour-Martillac or Le Thil Comte Clary, both under $50.  Regrettably, you will probably need to turn to the Internet to find them as few wine shops in the U.S. carry them.  Try  www.wine-searcher.com/

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bellini---Venice's Quintessential Aperitivo


My local Farmer’s Market in San Diego county is brimming with just plucked-from-the-tree peaches in every size, shape and color-----their intoxicating fragrances stopped me dead in my tracks this weekend.  While I heard others talking about cobbler and jam, I was catapulted to Venice, Italy.  Peaches, especially white peaches, are synonomous with Venice’s most famous cocktail, the Bellini.

I remember the first time a Bellini crossed my lips.  It was the late 1970’s and we were in the garden of the fabulous Cipriani Hotel in Venice.  There was a wedding reception and all of the guests were drinking a pale pink colored drink in a champagne flute.  The waiter told me it was a drink made from sparkling wine and white peach juice, adding that the drink had actually been invented in the 1930’s by the owner of the Cipriani hotel.  How could I refuse?   I’ve been in love with this luscious aperitivo ever since.

The Bellini was named by Giuseppe Cipriani in honor of the famous 15th century Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini.  The original drink, only available during the summer when white peaches from the nearby hills were at their prime, also had a small amount of raspberry or cherry juice to give it color.  Prosecco, the area’s sparkling wine, completes the perfect mixture. 

If you can’t make the trek to Venice in the near future, here’s the next best alternative for a Bellini:  make a puree in a food processor from a white peach with a few raspberries. STRAIN the fruit (otherwise, the juice will separate from the sparkling wine when added).  Chill the strained liquid fruit.  Pour prosecco into a chilled flute, then add the liquid fruit----I use a 2:1 ratio (2 parts Prosecco to 1 part peach juice).   Stir the drink and serve immediately.

Viva Venezia!