Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Eat, Sip, Travel: Sicily

                                   Ortigia island is part of the mainland city of Syracuse

Wine-Knows was to have begun its Sicilian food and wine adventure a few days ago, but COVID changed our course. To honor what might have been , I'm writing this Blog.

We were to have started our journey on the historic island of Ortigia (one of ancient Greece's most important colonies), where timeless beauty   abounds : dazzling squares flanked by majestic Baroque buildings with elaborate rot iron balconies, and a labyrinth of pedestrian only alleyways lined with palaces and simple fishermen's homes that wind down to the emerald Mediterranean.  Joined to the mainland by a short bridge,  Ortigia is a deeply atmospheric place of myriad architecture styles and a tapestry of cultures. 

                                  Capers are much more intense tasting than caper berries 

Capers are an important part of the Sicilian cuisine. The caper bush grows wild here and Sicilian capers are prized by gourmet chefs around the globe. Capers appear in some form or another on every menu (from antipasto to pasta, and from veggies to meat dishes). Yesterday we were to have visited Ortigia's market to taste the difference between capers and caper berries: caper, the bud of a Mediterranean shrub, is more intense, while the berry (which is the actual fruit of the caper shrub) are much more delicate.   T he island's most prized capers are not brined but preserved in salt. 

       Eggplant is used in Sicily's famous caponata, as well its other signature dish, Pasta Norma

Caponata is one of Sicily's signature dishes.   There's something magical in the mathematics of this sweet and sour stew of eggplant, peppers, celery, capers, onions and onions:   the whole is better than the sum of its parts.   Something special happens when the sweet tomato paste melds into the red wine vinegar and coats the veggies like a yummy blanket.

                                  Cassata, Sicily's hallmark cake, is studded with candied fruits

Candying fruit in Sicily is an art form and citrus is one of the most popular.   Catholic nuns, who sold sweets to support their convents, introduced the candying process to Sicily.   The island's two most famous desserts (cannoli and cassata) both use candied fruits.

       These arancini filled with ooey-gooey cheese were to have been one of the appetizers last night

Oranges are so popular that they have given their name to one of Sicily's most traditional foods, arancini ( “little oranges") .     T hese golf ball rounds (think meat balls), are filled mainly with rice but often flavored with chicken, beef, or even vegetables. 

                Pastry shops are filled with stunning miniature marzipan “fruit” such as these

Another important part of Sicily’s gastronomy is the art of marzipan.   A delicious paste made of ground almonds and sugar (Sicilian almonds are unsurpassed in flavor), marzipan is a serious business in Sicily.  In addition to fruit, marzipan also comes in the form of other food products such as ears of corn, tiny pumpkins, and even carrots.  Like cassata and cannoli, marzipan came from the culinary tricks of nuns in Sicily’s convents.

                         Feudi di Pisciotto is a jaw-dropping 18th century wine estate

One of our stops for two nights was to have been Feudi di Pisciotto, a boutique hotel located on a historic 400 acre farming estate.   Producing some of southeastern Sicily’s best wines, this estate’s winemaker was to host us for a private tasting followed by this  dinner at Fuedi’s award-winning restaurant:

  • Seafood Couscous (in homage to Sicily’s Arab rule for centuries). Served with the estate’s top wine, Cerasuolo (a blended light-tannin red)

  • Grilled swordfish with grilled lemons & purple cauliflower, capers & estate olive oil.     Served with the estate’s Nero d’Avola named after Gianni Versace

  • Minature house-made cannoli filled with local ricotta, chocolate & candied oranges.    Served with the estate's dessert wine named after another famous designer, Gianfranco Ferrè
The tour has been changed to next October, 2021. At the moment there are two spaces available:

Long live Sicily!          

Monday, September 21, 2020

Who Invented the Deli? The Answer May Surprise You!

                                              Deli and Italy are for many synonymous

Italy is home of pasta, vino, salami, mozzarella, pesto, focaccia, prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano, pepperoncini, panini, tiramisu…. and the deli, which sells all of these items.  The Italian deli is one of the greatest sensory shows on our food earth.  Pungent cheese mixes with the intoxicating smells of gigantic hanging hams just waiting to be sliced.  Lasagna fresh-from-the-oven causes a Pavlovian reaction.   Aisles are filled with a Noah’s ark full of olives, olive oils, capers, balsamic vinegars, and tins of San Marzano tomatoes.  And, let’s not forget the aroma of garlic---no vampire would get within 50 meters of an Italian deli.

  Labor-intensive eggplant parmigiana is  a perfect solution for Italians who don't want the hassle

Every city in Italy is replete with delis.  Their reputations are often based on their homemade ingredients which fill their display cases.  With both parents often working in Italy, the deli has become the Italian healthy version of fast food:  eggplant parm is a favorite item that can quickly be reheated.  Always popular meatballs, made from closely guarded deli recipes been passed down for generations, can become a speedy dinner by simply boiling water for pasta.   Many delis are also known for their seafood salad---calamari, shrimp and mussels dressed with olive oil and lemon (add a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine and this makes a perfect dinner for time-bankrupt Italian households).

Eataly is a deli on steroids

There are many fabulous deli’s in Italy.   Eataly in Turin (the brand’s original location) is totally awesome.  This is a food emporium extraordinaire----a deli combined with a butcher shop, bread seller, seafood market, pastry shop, wine store, pizza parlor, foodie’s gift store, general grocery store, vegetable market, and a culinary bookstore. 

                               Peck has a nearly endless supply of gastronomic sweets

In my opinion, however, the ultimate deli in all of Italy is Peck in Milan.  Located not far from the city’s famous cathedral, Peck has always been my favorite for takeout. Many times over the years I have taken the train from nearby Lake Como to pick up ingredients for a picnic dinner on the terrace of my hotel in Bellagio.   Peck’s seafood salad with lobster and scallops is off the Richter scale.  If I’m feeling really decadent I buy a small slice of foie gras with truffles.  But, Peck’s also sells pieces of magnifico rotisserie chicken which I often pair with their pepperonata, a stewed mélange of multi-colored peppers with hints of anchovy, garlic, olive oil and a drizzle of good balsamic.

All of this time I have assumed that deli was an Italian word.  Wrong.   Deli is from the word “delikatessen,” a German word.  In 1700 the word was first used by a German food company that sold bananas, mangoes and plums it had imported from exotic places like the Canary Islands and China.  The company, Dallymar, is still in business today and remains the largest business of its type in Europe.

                      Like many things in Italy, it's all about the heart & soul of the owners

Although the word deli is not Italian, I think it sounds Italian.   That made me think of the Italian word “delicato,” which stems from a Latin word meaning “giving pleasure, delightful.”    So in my mind I’m going to keep my notion of deli as Italian.  While the Italians may not have invented the concept of a store selling a cornucopia of exotic foods, to me the delis of Italy give great pleasure and are a culinary delight.

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 !