Monday, November 26, 2012

Italian Country Cooking by Loukie Werle

Title: Italian Country Cooking: The Secrets of Cucina Povera
Author: Loukie Werle
Photographer: Alan Benson
Publisher: Fall River Press (owned by Barnes & Noble, which would explain why I found this lovely book in a remainder stack for $12.98)
Copyright: 2007

Although I spend quite a bit of time reading and daydreaming about France and Paris when it comes to food (especially cheese), wine, fashion, art, history and scenery, when I read a book like this, I can't help thinking that perhaps I should daydream about using Italy as a home base for visiting France rather than the other way around.  Not that I haven't also long been a fan of Italian food, wine, fashion, history, art and scenery, but the daydreams usually have me somewhere in Paris and/or rural France.

The first section of Italian Country Cooking is devoted to pasta, which is probably my second favorite food after cheese, so I was hooked right from the start, and I want to make just about every recipe in the chapter.  Meanwhile, the gorgeous photographs make me want to shop for vintage rimmed soup bowls in which to serve these fabulous dishes.

The recipes in the second section focus on rice and grains.  Another win, given that I love risotto, with the bonus of a few farro recipes I want to try out with the farro I purchased before I really had any idea of what I would do with it.  Polenta falls into that category too, and now I have ideas for that as well, namely Lasagna di Polenta (polenta lasagna with three cheeses).  The Bomba di Riso (rice cake with provolone and sausage) is also on the "to try" list, once I figure out which pan I can use.

Moving on to beans and legumes, the Pasta e Ceci (chickpea and pasta soup) is a beautifully written example of how to really build a soup, layering in the flavors for a hearty result, and while I am very proud of my "improv" lentil soup, the Minestra di Riso e Lenticchie (lentil and rice soup)looks as if it could be equally good.  (Incidentally, I have discovered that the secret to really good lentil soup is to cook it longer than you think you should.)

Salads and vegetables are up next, and I dare you to resist the Asparagus Gratinati (asparagus and provolone gratin).  You will probably learn a thing or two about leafy greens.  I know I did.

La Vignarola (Roman springtime stew) has a detailed description for preparing artichokes which almost has me convinced that I can do it, but they still scare me a little, especially since the author does not offer suggestions of what to do with the outer leaves and so called "hairy choke."  I am wondering if I could maybe cheat and just buy artichoke hearts, except that I really want to try to cook something starting with a whole, raw artichoke.  If the artichokes do get the best of me, I could always console myself with Torta di Patate (potato pie with smoke mozzarells and salami).

Having cleansed the palate with salad and veggies, it's on to eggs and cheese.  Frittata al Forno (frittata with scamorza) offers incentive to (learn to) use the broiler, even in the midst of summer when tomatoes are at their peak.  Or perhaps try the recipe for a baked omelette which sounds more like a crepe.

Moving from the land to the sea, recipes for fish and other seafood, especially mussels and clams, are up next.  There is a swordfish recipe which promises to be "very lemony, herby and garlicky," and all I could think was "Sign me up!"

As an aside, the author does show a strong penchant for rosemary, which I don't care for, but I think a substitution could be made without undermining the recipes.  The same is true for chiles.  In fact, I think that almost all of the recipes could be adapted with ease to individual preferences and tastes, not to mention to what is actually available to hand.

Other meats follow in the next two chapters -- chicken, beef, veal, lamb, including several recipes for offal, and even a couple of recipes for rabbit and one for oxtails.  The final two chapters round out the meal, er, book with bread and pizza and desserts.

There are recipes simple and complex, vegetarian and meat loving.  Anyone with a love of hearty, classic Italian food should find recipes in this book to make, enjoy and share.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Small rant

Part of me is still hasn't recovered from the abrupt realization that the FDA is owned/run by massive pharmaceutical companies, and when I drove by a large, almost billboard-sized sign in a local farmyard (on my way to pick up some yummy, organic, locally grown produce) telling me that the country was going the wrong way and that I should do something about it come November 6th or God help us all, I risked driving off the road as I blinked in disbelief.  It was another "Seriously?!?!?!?" sort of moment.

I guess it is a sort of backwards way of saying God helps those who help themselves, but somehow I doubted that was the message intended by the sign.  Perhaps I should drive back and ask.

Here was a local farmer growing food and selling it to local consumers, which is a grand and glorious thing.  And yet this farmer thinks that a politician, any politician is going to improve his lot in life?  Really?

When did the amnesia epidemic break out?  Was it when elections weren't really won but rather decided in the courts after much wrangling and hemming and hawing and noise and bluster?  Every four years, and often it only takes two years, there is all of this screaming about how those who are in office are terrible and horrible and never did anything worthwhile and we should throw the bastards out.  And then if the bastards do get thrown out, they seem to only be replaced by new bastards.

Federal and possibly even state level government has ceased to be effective in any kind of widespread way.  What is good for or works in Maine is not necessarily good for Nebraska or Arizona or Hawaii.  It just can't be.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Olive Tapenade

Making my own olive tapenade has been on my list for a while, and had I known just how easy it is to make, I wouldn't have waited so long.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that olive tapenade was complicated.  Probably the price.  Little jars have price tags much higher than a regular can of olives, so I figured that there had to be special secret ingredients.

Today I picked up a store brand jar of olive tapenade, and when I was finished shuddering at the sodium content (46% for the green olive tapenade and 38% for the black per serving), I read the ingredients list, which turned out to be olives, olive oil, garlic, mushrooms, spices and salt. Since I already had everything else, I bought two six-ounce cans of pitted olives, one black and one green.

When I got home, I did a little research to find out what the "spices" might entail and looked at a few different recipes -- some called for sun dried tomatoes and others for capers and anchovies.

It turns out that this is one of those fabulous recipes where you pull out the food processor, throw in the ingredients, pulse to desired consistency and voila!  Yumminess.

I decided on:
6 ounces each of black and green olives, pitted and drained
4 or 5 small portabella mushrooms
1 small jar of oven dried organic sunburst tomatoes (somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 cup) and their associated 3 roasted garlic cloves, seasonings and coating of olive oil (which I had made about a week ago but had not yet figured out how to use)
1 anchovy filet packed in olive oil
1 tsp (total guess) Pasta Sprinkle

Once everything was pretty well blended, I added a little bit more olive oil, maybe a tablespoon.  There is enough moisture and oil to be had in the ingredients that you really don't need much.  If you prefer the spread to be a little more chunky and crumbly (think tabbouli salad), you could omit it all together.

I didn't feel a need to add any salt beyond what was in the ingredients, although a little flake salt sprinkled over the top after spreading the tapenade on bread or cheese (or both) would not be untoward.  Also, for those who like pepper, by all means grind in as much as your taste buds desire.

I considered adding my favorite magic cheese, but decided I could sprinkle a bit on later if the mood struck me.

Spread on freshly baked Italian bread, and yum!  No, let's make that YUM!!!  Also very tasty on Brie, with or without the bread.  Or stuffed into a small mushroom.

The difference between homemade and store bought is on an order of magnitude similar to that of making your own marinara sauce with organic tomatoes rather than opening a jar.

And did I mention how simple it is?  Open a couple of cans or jars, and the food processor does the rest.

If you like olives, you will be hooked in a heartbeat and thinking about the possible variations -- Kalamata, Spanish, California, etc., alone or in combination, with or without sun-dried tomatoes, capers, anchovies.  Play with the seasonings to see which olives like which herbs.  Maybe even add a chile for kick, if you are in to that sort of thing.

Now I need to go learn about olives.