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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Eat, Sip, Relax: Lake Como

                   This dream villa is one of the few on the entire lake that is directly on the water

An Italian friend sent me an email two years ago with photos attached exclaiming, “You have to rent this villa!”  She had seen it in an Italian magazine and knew I loved Lake Como.   I contacted the villa's owner immediately and the rest is least until Americans were banned from recently traveling to Italy.   I was to have spent two weeks here with two different groups of fellow foodies and wine lovers for some Italian-style dolce far niente (“the sweet do nothing life,” aka relaxation).   COVID-19 prevented us from traveling, but to honor what might have been, I'm cooking all the planned dinners at our home in San Diego.

Lake Como is replete with food specialties (and all can be easily procured in California).  Located in Italy’s Lombardy, there’s a cornucopia of local items that would thrill any gourmand.   Lombardy, Italy’s financial and industrial powerhouse, is one of the richest provinces in all of Europe.   It’s also a huge agricultural giant.  Finding high quality local ingredients for a magnifico dinner is as easy as saying “vino.”

                             Risotto Milanese uses the area's top-rated Carnaroli rice & saffron

Rice dominates over pasta in Lombardy and risotto is one of the area’s classical specialties.   The Po River, which traverses Lombardy, is the growing district for the most prized rice in all of Italy, Carnaroli  Tonight  I'm making a risotto Milanese (rice made in the style of Milan), an ethereal silky version made with saffron.

                                     Fresh funghi porcini on bite-size polenta with Tallegio

While risotto is very popular in the Como area, the nearby rugged foothills of the Alps lean often toward polenta.   The season’s first wild mushrooms from the nearby Alps were to have been available at the local outdoor markets.  No problem as I was able to track down some funghi porcini here in San Diego.  Last night in my appetizer I used polenta,  funghi porcini and Tallegio cheese.

              Tallegio & radicchio made for a great lunch  using leftovers in a sandwich

This cheese is one of Lombardia’s culinary super-stars.  Made from cow’s milk, it is a buttery and luscious decadence.   Although its smell is strong, the cheese’s taste is comparatively mild.   Tallegio melts beautifully, so it’s perfect for an ooey-gooey  warm sandwich.    

                    One of Lombardy's perfect bite desserts---figs stuffed with Gorgonzola

One of Lombardy’s greatest cheeses, blue-veined Gorgonzola, has already appeared on my table once this week stuffed in figs which have then been drizzled with Italian honey as a dessert.  

                                             Bresaola makes a perfect antipasto
A specialty of the foothills of the Lombardian Alps, this air-dried beef is immensely popular in the area of Lake Como.   Chocked full of flavor, the beef is first marinated in wine and spices prior to aging.  Sliced paper-thin like prosciutto, I used bresaola earlier this week in a simple but super yummy appetizer:  brescola, topped with olive oil & lemon juice, arugula, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and sea salt.  Delizioso.

                               Spicy mustard oil flavors this chutney-like condiment

This condiment is a classical Lombardian accompaniment to simple meat dishes… or even cheese.  Made from a cooked mixture of different fruit and mustard oil, it adds a zesty profile (think spicy salsa on tacos).  For anyone turning up their nose, don’t!   This stuff rocks.  I’ve purchased a small (and very pricey) jar on the Internet and plan to use it with a pork roast later in the week.

                                         Ferghettina is Franciacorta's best bubbly

I may have saved the best for last.  Franciacorta is a wine district located not far from Lake Como.  It produces Italy’s Lamborghini of sparkling wine.  Made in the same labor-intensive method used for Champagne, Franciacorta is expensive but is worth every Euro.   I’ve bought my favorite, Ferghettina Rosé, for tonight’s bubbles.    

Viva Lombardia  !    Viva Lago di Como !

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Eat, Sip, Relax: the Italian Riviera

I planned to be on Italian Riviera this week with three friends for a week of R&R at a glorious villa with forever views...until the EU banned Americans.   To honor this "lost week," I am writing about the experience I was to have had....and am spending the week cooking meals to pay hommage this trip. 

 Extending from the French border to Tuscany, the Italian Riviera was to have been a perfect spot to overcome jet lag.   With the exception of the Cinque Terre and the city of Genoa, this 200 mile coastline (known as Liguria to Italians) is dotted with romantic fishing villages, sandy beaches, and dramatic rocky cliffs.  Hillsides are covered with basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram…all of which provide the fragrance of the Ligurian kitchen.  While we’ve come to relax, we're all serious foodies who have also come to partake of the region’s delicious cuisine and its glorious white wine, Vermentino.

                    Trofie, a hand-rolled twisted pasta, with pesto is a classical Ligurian specialty

One of the foods that places Liguria in Italy’s Gastronomic Hall of Fame is pesto.  Pesto was invented in Liguria and the region’s small leaf basil has a cult following.
Is this local basil variety the reason why pesto always tastes so better on the Italian Rivera?   Or, is the reason the fact that many Ligurian chefs add walnuts to the mix of pine nuts?   Liguria’s prized olive oil (used by many Michelin star chefs) may also have a bearing--it’s much more delicate and sweeter than other Italian oils.  Perhaps, however, it’s the Riviera's drop-dead gorgeous seaviews and smell of the cool Mediterranean air that make eating a bowl of pesto pasta so pleasurable? 

                                            Foccaceria's often specialize in certain toppings

A close runner-up for catapulting the Italian Riviera into Italy's shrine for gastronomy is focaccia.   Like pesto, focaccia has Ligurian roots.  Visit the town of Recco and you’ll be welcomed by a huge sign proudly declaring it the place where focaccia was first created.  Walk into a foccacceria and one often finds a mesmerizing selection (the best are cooked in wood-fired ovens) such as carmelized onion, olive, cheese, fresh Ligurian anchovies, sun-dried tomato…and of course, pesto.

                           Nightly "aperitivos" on the villa's terrace will have to wait for another time

The perfect pairing for both pesto and focaccia is a glass of Vermentino.  I’ve written too many articles to count on this seductive Ligurian white varietal.   Reminiscent of a Sauv Blanc without the grassy herbaceous notes, Vermentino offers a luscious citrus profile...mixed with stone fruit (think peach), floral scents, and a characteristic almond nuance.   Vermentino screams the Italian Riviera.

                                      Amaretti are small, addictive almond biscuit-like treats

Ready for a delectable Ligurian dessert?  One of the most famous Italian sweets is amaretti.  In my mind, Liguria’s rendition is the best because it’s softer and moister than the harder, dry varieties from neighboring districts.  One of the most famous makers of amaretti in all of Italy is the Sassello company.  Located in Liguria, Sassello has been making amaretti since 1860.  These amaretti are easily recognized by their colorful paper coverings with fringed-edges, and their attractive Art Noveau tins.

Viva the Italian Riviera!  Liguria !