Friday, July 26, 2019

The Best Tapenade

                 The best of many versions I tried in France was one made with both olives & figs

I’ve recently returned from several weeks in Provence with two Wine-Knows’ groups who stayed at the villa where Julia Child wrote her hallmark cookbooks, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  One of the classical culinary stars of this French region is tapenade.  Tapenade is a finely chopped olive dish that is typically mixed with capers, anchovies, garlic, herbs and olive oil to form a thick paste.  Traditionally spread on a piece of bread, it is used mainly as an appetizer, however, I noticed in the last few years that many restaurants in this area are using it in other courses as well (e.g. chicken stuffed with tapenade, or a vegetarian dish studded with tapenade).

Tapenade is everywhere in Provence.  There are even dish towels and placemats with Tapenade recipes printed on them.  There are vendors at every Provencal outdoor market hawking free samples of the delectable treat.  I tasted tapenade in every flavor of the rainbow:  artichoke, sun-dried tomato, eggplant, and even hummus tapenade.  In every foodie shop I visited there were many different types available for purchase.  Some used the pungent local Ni├žoise olives, others used a mixture of black olives.  Some preparations featured only green olives, yet there were others that used a mixture of both black and green olives.

While I especially loved the artichoke and sun-dried versions, the one that really stood out for me was made with figs.  I simply couldn’t stop eating it.   I have tweaked several recipes and come up with my own fig masterpiece.  Do note that my recipe does not include anchovies.  While I love them, I felt they simply overwhelmed this version---regardless of how few I put in.   (BTW:  there is a traditional tapenade recipe featured in Julia Child’s cookbook but I much prefer the fig one as the figs add another level of complexity).

June's Fig & Olive Tapenade
  • 1/3 cup dried figs (cut in small pieces)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 C mixture of both green and black olives, pitted
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 1/2 tablespoon capers (rinsed to get rid of brine, then drained & squeezed dry)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme (plus more for garnishing)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Baguette (sliced)
  • Goat cheese (at room temperature)

Cook the figs with water on low-medium heat in a covered sauce pan for 20-30 minutes until they are soft.  Save the juice for thinning the tapenade

Put the drained figs, olives, lemon juice, mustard, garlic capers and thyme into a food processor.  Pulse several time to mix ingredients well and pulverize.  With the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil a half of teaspoon at a time to incorporate it into the paste.    Finally, thin the paste to the desired consistency with the left over fig water.  Taste for salt and adjust if necessary.

Serve over toasted baguette slices (brushed with olive oil prior to toasting), with goat cheese on the bottom, then topped with tapenade and fresh thyme.

Bon appetit!


Friday, July 19, 2019

Treasure Island---Sicily

                                      Magnificent wines & fabulous gastronomy await visitors

Italy’s Mediterranean destination-island is a treasure trove of perfect seafood, intensely flavored vegetables, superb olive oil, and world-class wines. Strongly influenced by its many conquerors---from the Greeks, to the Romans, the Arabs, the French and the Spanish---the island’s culture represents a unique crossroads of the Mediterranean.  Stunning island geography, along with a breathtaking tapestry of art and architecture (including two of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world), completes this Italian jewel.

Grapes are grown on the slopes of Mt Etna

One of the biggest show-stoppers of Sicily is its wines.  Prepare yourself for new varietals that only are  grown in Sicily.   Indigenous grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Grillo, Catarrato, Carricante and Insolia are not grown elsewhere.  Adding to the attraction is that many of these grapes are grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil which imparts interesting complexities.   There’s no problem ripening fruit in Sicily due to its idyllic year around climate.  All of this translates into lush, fruit-forward wines with a hint of minerality.  Simply put, Sicily’s wines are stunning and full of unique personality.

                                           Even the eggplant are special varietals

Sicily’s cuisine is different from any other Italian region.  In fact, the mainland Italians consider Sicily a continent.   The island’s culinary prowess comes from its vivid and diverse background of past conquerors who left their indelible mark on Sicily’s gastronomic scene.  Expect hints of exotic spices like saffron and cinnamon paired with local ingredients—lemons, blood oranges, almonds, fresh capers, and wild mountain oregano.  There’s an abundance of fish and seafood, with swordfish being one of the specialties.

    Vegetables are like you've never had them before 

Wine Knows will be visiting Sicily during their grape harvest in September 2020.  The trip is sold out.  If you will not be joining us but wish to explore the island's great quality/price ratio wines, here are my suggestions for the best producers, listed in alphabetical order:

  • Cusumano
  • Donnafugata
  • Occhipinti
  • Passopisciaro
  • Planeta
  • Tenuta Fessina
  • Tenuta delle Terre Nere


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Worth Its Salt

                                      Watermelon nibbles are a luscious summer appetizer

Beloved friends of mine gifted me with a culinary salt block and I became an instant fan.  Not only is this a magnificent serving vessel for a variety of foods, but the block of salt also cleverly flavors the food.  Seems like I’m not the only one enamored... there are a variety of books on not only what to serve on it, but even books on how to actually cook on the salt block.  While I’ve never attempted cooking on my salt block, I love to use it as a tray for hors d’oeuvres.  It’s a conversation piece and a fun way to start the party.

Now, a little about the salt tray.  It’s an actual block of salt from the Himalayan mountains.   Supposedly these pink-hued slabs of salt were formed between 550- 600 million years ago.  That in itself ought to jump start any get-together. 

There are several reasons I enjoy using the salt block.  The first is its intriguing story, and the second is its pink-marbled beauty.  I also enjoy the delicate flavor it imparts to the food on which it is served.  The only downside is that the block is very heavy.  Its weight of twelve pounds is daunting.  (I have the 12” x 8” block that comes with an attractive black cradle which makes it easy for carrying.  It does, however, come in smaller sizes.)

Some of my favorite things to serve on the block are foods that require a little salt.  In the summer-time, I use it for cubed watermelon topped with a few fresh herbs from the garden and a small amount of feta.  I also like the dramatic color and taste profile of using it to showcase cantaloupe melon balls speared with a piece of a black Mediterranean olive.  Both of these warm weather appetizers are exquisite with the salt block to play up the sweet-salty combination.  My final fave is large shrimp that have been quickly sauteed.

Bon appetit.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Seeing RED on the 4th!

                                                        Summer calls for lighter bodied reds

The 4th of July always signals to me the switch to lighter bodied red wines:  out with the highly structured Cabernets, those big Mouvedres from Bandol, the intense Malbecs from Argentina, and those California Zinfandels with soaring alcohol levels.    The heat of summer calls for easier drinking reds without a lot of tannin or alcohol.  Here are my favorite four to honor the 4th.

Pinot Noir:
One of the best summer reds is Pinot Noir.  A more feminine grape, Pinot has lower tannins than most other red grapes which means it’s easier drinking in the warmer temperatures of July and August.   Silky and soft, Pinot Noir can be a refreshing summer alternative to the more powerhouse big reds of winter.

Barbera is also a good choice for summer-time quaffing.  The grape has very little tannin and lots of fruit profile.  Mainly grown in the Piedmont district of Italy (home to the heavily structured Barolo and Barbaresco), Barbera works well with summer’s menu of simple grilled meats, poultry and fish.

One of my fave red wines to drink during the heat of the summer is Frapatto.  Grown primarily in Sicily, this gem of a wine is perfect as an aperitif or with a lighter main course such as poultry or fish.  When I think of Frapatto I think of strawberries as this berry is very prominent in both the varietal’s taste and aroma.   Serve it and I guarantee people will rave.

This grape, which is native to Spain, is also grown in France’s Rhone Valley.   Both countries make lighter-style red (unless the wine is aged in oak).   This low tannin wine serves up an impressive lineup of summer-time flavors of red fruit such as raspberry and strawberry (versus black fruit of the more highly structured reds).

Here’s to the RED white and blue!