Tuesday, June 4, 2013
At noon on Sunday we loaded up into the bus, which more than any hotel room, would be our home for the next week. Our driver for the week was a man named Bruno Grasso. I know a few things about Bruno and these are them: he loves wraparound sunglasses, he speaks no English, but still gets all the best jokes and he possesses bus driving skills so powerful, that he may not even be a mortal being. The very last night of our trip I was seated next to him for dinner. As I mentioned his English skills are nil and I speak zero to little Italian. We both speak Spanish rather poorly, so we communicated with entry level Spanish and lot of hand gestures (the number and scope of which on my part most likely increased with each glass of wine I had). But enough about that, here’s the one thing I want you to know about Bruno Grasso: homeboy knows how to drive a bus. This may not mean much right now, but it will eventually.
We drove south from Rome towards Naples, hanging a left past Mount Vesuvius to hook diagonally southeast across the lower half of the boot, heading towards the heel. Our destination was the Rivera Winery- our first, and one of my favorite, visits. Rivera is located right in the middle of Puglia, which comprises the heel of the boot and the part of Italy that is nearest to Greece. For years, Puglia has functioned as a bit of an agricultural ‘mine’ for Italy’s biggest exports. Supplying the rest of the country with bulk grapes for low cost wine making, wheat for pasta and olives for oil; most people come through this particular area to catch a ferry to the Greek Isles and only in recent decades has Puglia become a winemaking region that’s coming into its own and worth exploring.
We were lucky enough to be visiting the very first winery that, three generations ago, had the foresight and vision to get out of the bulk production game and see if they could grow some estate-driven, proper wines worth putting their name on. The Rivera Winery is run by the DeCorato family. We were greeted by sons Sebastiano and Marco, and their parents Marilla and Carlo in their stone courtyard. Much like their wines, the members of the Rivera family were all, in their own ways, both elegant and approachable. The men, looking sharp in their perfectly tailored pants and slick suit jackets, welcomed us; first, Carlo in Italian and then Sebastiano in English. At the family run vineyards we visited typically the parents speak little English and the sons or daughters, who handle marketing and exporting, speak perfect English with a terrific Italian accent. It’s kind of a clear generational line as far as language goes and I find this rather sweetly symbolic. The elder generation stays rooted in the land and winemaking traditions typical to where they have lived their whole lives; the children are responsible for expanding the wines' place out in the world.
Following our tasting and tour we were treated to a meal that was prepared by Mama Marilla herself, who looked so chic in her crisp white shirt I would have not believed she had been working in the kitchen all day if I hadn’t peeked in the window as we walked by and seen her hard at work with my own two eyes.The food served was simple and satisfying and paired beautifully with each of the wines they presented. Before being seated for our full meal we sipped their Sauvignon alongside some crunchy donut-shaped taralli flavored with ground sesame seeds and indulged in a lot of their delicious, bright green olives. These olives are somewhat like Sicilian style olives in that they retain a more verdant green color and meaty texture by being cured in ash rather than brine. They are fresher tasting and more textured than typical brined green olives and I hammered back so many that I was quite confident I would wake up the next morning with my eyes sealed shut.
Once seated, we had a lovely four course meal which started with a barley ‘risotto’ dotted with thick, salty mussels, followed by (my favorite of the night) orchiette in a smoky tomato sauce. For the main course we had slow braised rolled beef (a bit like braciole) in an onion sauce with wilted local greens. This was followed by a sampling of two local cheeses, one cow’s milk, one sheep’s, and a dollop of Marilla’s ‘burnt’ orange marmalade. After cheese we were gifted yet another plate, this time with a crumbly piece of almond cake with a drizzle of creamy sauce and a few gigantic red strawberries. This meal, as with every meal for the rest of the week, ended with espresso and grappa. In case you were not aware, Grappa is Italian for “unnecessary shot of grain alcohol following your meal,” some nights I indulged and some I didn’t.
The next morning we spent a few more hours out in the Puglian countryside with Sebastiano, who gave us a tour of the famed Castel del Monte, which is not only a very cool 13th century castle, but the emblematic symbol of the Puglian region. It was a stunning sight, well preserved and unique in its architecture and surrounded on all sides by breathtaking views of Puglia. The hilly landscape was bright green, dotted with bursts of bright red poppies and to the east you could see all the way to the shore of the Adriatic. On the way up to the top of the hill we had hit a traffic jam of sheep being herded by a gang of local mutts and a weathered shepherd in a well worn hat, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
Following our guided tour of the Castel we stopped for a few moments in some of Rivera’s vineyards, to admire the tiny baby bunches of Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes and kick our heels in the gravelly soil that is the very source of their excellent white wines. As we loaded the bus to head out onto the road again, Sebastiano climbed in with a fist full of wild grown arugula snatched out of the vineyard. The pungent smell filled the bus and left me wishing I had a plastic bag to snag some for the road and make a salad for lunch. Southern Italy was beautiful and bucolic. The Rivera family made us feel entirely welcome, fed us well, showed us the sights and then sent us on our way, the peppery scent of fresh picked arugula plucked from a hillside vineyard filling the bus. We could not have asked much more from our first visit than that.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Our first full day in Italy we were free to explore Rome. After dropping my bags, stretching my body out and taking a long and excellent shower, I headed back down to the lobby of our hotel to link up with someone or some people to go explore the city. A group of sales reps from our distributor were heading out to explore the city, so I tagged along with them. They seemed like a good group to hang with for the day and they generously let me, a total stranger who could have been SUPER annoying, into their fold quite nicely. The first order of business was a round of Aperol Spritz. If you’re not familiar with this drink you should get to know it. Aperol is a bitter, bright orange aperitif which, in this particular cocktail, is poured over ice and topped with Prosecco and a splash of soda water. It’s fluorescent-colored, refreshing, relatively low alcohol and shamelessly Italian. I liked them before my trip, now I’m almost annoyingly obsessed. A Spritz is also one of the only ways, we found, that you could actually get an Italian bartender to give you a normal sized portion of ice. A few themes became apparent over the course of our journey: salami is inescapable, coffees are tiny and Italians hate ice. Getting ice cubes was almost as much of a challenge as getting solid wifi. Being that I was on a trip, I cared slightly more about the ice than the wifi.
All over the cities in Italy there are tiny shops, a bit like convenience stores, with lottery tickets, cigarettes and semi-grumpy looking proprietors, much like any corner store you might tuck into anywhere here. The difference is they also have a full bar stocked, an impressive cappuccino machine and usually a bakery case with some swoon-worthy cannoli and cakes on display. These are the spots where most people pop in to have their coffee in the morning. They drink it at the bar, standing up, out of actual glassware; I’m not even sure getting a café to go is an option. It’s the sort of thing that is not rushed. This respect for food, drinks and meal times and tendency not to rush was something I saw quite a bit throughout the trip. And this propensity to give meals and the sharing of meals the time and respect they deserve was admittedly my favorite thing about Italian culture. At these bars, they also give you snacks whenever you order a round of drinks. I don’t know if this is a sort of legal thing, or simply an extension of the cultural more that food is meant to share; but you know I was into it, because nothing pairs better with drinks than snacks.
We wandered through the city, exploring various piazzas and squares, tucking into a basilica here and a church there. The most humble looking church door, or crumbling brick structure would hide behind it seriously stunning architecture, sculpture and art. They know how to do churches there, and I’m just talking the everyday walk around churches, I didn’t even get to the Vatican. The other thing that I found so cool about Rome (and this is going to sound incredibly pedestrian and semi idiotic) but it’s SO ANCIENT. Like worn, weathered, hella ancient columns every which way you look. You wander around one corner and there’s a cordoned off section of ruins with stray cats poking around; you grab a gelato and turn 180 degrees and all of the sudden you’re in the hulking shadow of the parliament building; or craning your neck at the expansive beauty of the Pantheon. The depth and breadth of the city’s historical place is absolutely everywhere you look.
For dinner that night I met up with another faction of our group, including Dan (the one friend I knew prior to the trip). About 10 people including us headed to Trattoria Gigetto in the section of the city that was formerly the Jewish Ghetto. As we gathered around the table for dinner the energy in the air was electric. It was Saturday night and we were in Rome, at the start of a whirlwind week of wine, food and fun. Everyone breathlessly shared their Roman experiences of the day and practiced enthusiastically shouting “Buena Sera!”
As we pulled our chairs in and the last two people arrived at dinner, two ice buckets filled with about 8 bottles of Frascati (the local white) were placed at either end of the table and a hulking platter of fried artichokes, squash blossoms and salt cod was plunked down next to me. As I looked over the heads of the people across from me, I saw weathered columns and the remnants of an old brick aqueduct. My chair wobbled on the cobblestone sidewalk and an old man with a guitar played Volare (I couldn’t even make this up). It was so f*cking Roman I almost just about died. Dan and I toasted to our good friend Tim, my boss and the reason I was able to come on the trip. The week was just getting started and everybody was ready to roll.
We had three hours the next morning before our bus departed for the first winery visit; so I linked back up with my buddies from the day before. We swapped stories about the prior evening’s dinner experiences as we walked the 30 minutes through the city to the Colosseum. Like all great monuments, the Colosseum is, um, pretty awesome. Now I use the word awesome a lot. I think it’s because I’m a bit of a valley girl in my speech patterns. But I do love that the wonders of the world, like the Grand Canyon and here, in front of me, the Colosseum are places where the only possible descriptor is “awesome”, because they truly are. We came upon it walking up a hill on a narrow side street and then there it was hulking at the end of the road: massive and strong. Despite the fact that part of it is crumbled it is by no means a crumbling structure. It dominates its surroundings, colossal as it is, and grounds everything in sight. Banking its right side were a few gentle hills and more relics and ruins. We drank in the view for a bit and then hopped the metro back up to our hotel. The crowds were too thick and our time too short to take the tour inside. Back up by the hotel the bus was waiting and we hit the road for a five hour drive all the way down to Puglia.
So that was Rome, experienced in a flash of about 36 hours: fueled by espresso, Aperol, adrenaline and the infectious energy of new people embarking on a shared experience. I have to say, it was an excellent start.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
It's been several days since I landed back at home and I feel like I am just now shaking the crust off. Eight places in eight days and a constant stream of gorgeous vistas, warm hospitality, glass after glass of wine, and plate after plate of cured meats. My salami tolerance is through the roof right now.
I'm sorting through all my notes and photos trying to make some semblance of order to the story of my trip to Italy. It was a non-stop barrage of movement, food, wine and people. I documented it copiously and I'm still sorting out how to best give the details of the trip here without writing 95 pages and providing you with 517 photos of stainless steel tanks and oak barriques.
It was a blast. It was a whirlwind. I'm happy to be home but sad it's over. Until I've worked out what to say and how to show it here, enjoy a couple stunning views and unashamed examples of 100% XXX NSFW food porn.
Ciao, dudes. I'll be back with words and photos (probably more than you're even going to want).
Posted by Jess at 8:40 PM
Thursday, May 9, 2013
I’m so into the new Justin Timberlake song that I should probably be arrested; or at the very least, taken into custody. Anyways, now that I got that out of the way I should tell you something: I’m going to Italy. Like, tomorrow. You can’t see this from where you’re sitting but I just did an embarrassing chair dance/ jazz shoulders move that I normally do right when the food comes whenever I’m out to eat. I do believe that to say I am pumped about this trip would be the understatement of my life to this point. I mean, it’s Italy. And I think, I thiiink they might have pretty good food there. So I hope the entire continent of Europe is ready for the aftershock of one jazz shoulder shake after another, because Porky Dickens is going continental.
I’m headed out on an incredibly cool eight day educational wine tour with a distributor and importer we work with at the store. This is hands down the most radical “work” opportunity I have ever gotten. I mean when I was an office manager there was this one time the free gift with our Staples order was a pump top coffee pot and I got to keep it. That was pretty cool; but this is slightly better. When I decided to make the move to completely change directions in my career, I never even thought that I would get an opportunity like this. I didn’t even know they existed! I’m totally humbled by the chance and was sincerely so superstitious about it actually happening that I hesitated to even tell most people until I received an email with plane tickets attached. This is happening. Life is happening and I am super pumped about it (high kick!).
So today, I’ll leave you with pizza. Of course pizza! Not just because I love pizza deeply, but also, because it's Italy. I know it's not like I haven't covered pizza ad naseum on here before. I've told you how I like to make it in summer, how sometimes I use a skillet or even fire one up with a salad on top. So I had to ask myself: is there such a thing as too much pizza? And you know, I’ve never been able to answer that question thus far in my life, so I’ll assume the answer is no. I also have happened to have made this or some form thereof at least three times in the past two weeks, so it’s fresh on the brain. This is our go-to weeknight pizza, with a chewy, puffy Sicilian style crust. The process is more about technique and temperature than anything else; this pizza is deceptively simple, yet ridiculously good. So enjoy it my friends, I’m gonna go gain some weight. Ciao!
WEEKNIGHT SICILIAN PIZZA
Store bought or homemade pizza dough
Crushed tomatoes (San Marzano or Pomi are good brands)
Shredded mozzarella cheese
The crucial steps to making this pizza delicious all revolve around two themes: temperature and technique. With temperature: take a “more is more” approach, cranking your oven as high as it will possibly go and letting your dough sit at room temperature until its almost so expanded and bubbly that you get worried about it. With technique (i.e. dough wrangling and topping) take a “less is more” approach, you don’t want the whole thing getting bogged down and soggy. The end result will be a puffy, bubbly, chewy, thick-crusted pizza that is light and airy and so easy to eat that two people will very handily crush it in one sitting.
Heat your oven as high as it will go: 500 degrees if you can; 475 if not. If you have a pizza stone, you can feel free to use it here. I do not have one, so I really don’t have a lot of experience with them. While your oven heats, let the dough sit out at room temperature. Once the oven is fully preheated, then begin to prepare your pizza. To stretch the dough: lightly flour your countertop and hands and gently press the ball of dough out into a small circle. Then, take that circle in your hands, hold it vertically and just pass it from hand to hand, letting gravity and the weight of the dough stretch it out. If you’re good and meticulous, you may even end up with a circle, mine always looks a little ragged and oblong. You want the edges to be thicker than the middle and the dough in the middle should be thinned out to about ½ inch or less, but not so thin that there are holes in it. If you do get a hole simply pinch it shut with your fingers. You have to be patient while shaping your pizza: doing it this way the dough won’t tighten up and snap back, but will gently ease out into its shape. Whatever you do, don’t use a rolling pin.
Grease a cookie sheet with about one tablespoon of olive oil and place the dough on top. Take two or three tablespoons of crushed tomatoes and spread onto the dough in a thin layer. A crucial trick that I read a few years back is to use just unseasoned, uncooked crushed tomatoes, not a cooked sauce. That’s what pizza parlors do and they’re the experts, right? Sprinkle a little bit of garlic powder, salt and pepper on top of the sauce and then top with shredded cheese. Don’t get nuts with the cheese. Remember: less is more. Pop the pizza in your oven and let bake for anywhere from 12 to 18 minutes. Check it periodically. If you had a wood-burning pizza oven, you would have pizza in less than five minutes, but since we’re all using conventional ovens, it takes a bit more time. Ideally your cheese should be melted and bubbling and the crust should be golden brown. Use tongs to peel one edge up and check to make sure the bottom is cooked and remove it when it looks ready. Scatter torn basil leaves on top and devour immediately, maybe with a salad if you're feeling virtuous and definitely with a cold beer.
Top with whatever else you would like, just don’t get crazy heavy-handed with the toppings. Some of my favorite go-tos: sautéed mushrooms and onions; sliced kalamata olives; sliced banana peppers; or, swap the sauce for basil pesto and top with blanched broccoli rabe if you want to get funky with it.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
This happens to me a lot because I work in a fancy grocery store. I see something in the produce department, while I’m rattling by with a bunch of empty wine boxes on my cart, and it lodges itself into my creative culinary subconscious, because it is simply too adorable not to cook. Such is the case with these Sicilian eggplants. Up until last Tuesday my favorite small thing from Sicily was Sophia Petrillo. She still ranks high without a doubt, but these tender, flavorful, sausage and veggie stuffed little globes of yum are holding a serious spot in my heart right now. I guess because they kind of saved me last week, by pulling me away from the news and into the kitchen, offering a very necessary (accidental Salt n Pepa reference and it stays!) reprieve from the mire of last week’s headlines.
I had prepared the bulk of this meal on Tuesday morning, where in the silence of my sunny kitchen, chopping and stirring, blanching and roasting and yes, even doing the dishes, made me feel a little bit of peace on a very sad day. And then later in the week on Thursday night, after I had said my piece, had seen the photos and refreshed the news feed for the millionth time, I shut it all off: TV, facebook, boston.com. All of it (thank god, because I guess I needed to reserve energy for Friday. Holy shit. Friday. I can’t even believe it still). Then I turned on some music, opened some wine and invited a friend over to eat. And this is what we had. This is a fairly simple dish but it does take a considerable amount of time to prepare. It’s not a throw together dish, but something to make when you’ve really got time to devote to your food. Or maybe you just need a few hours to avoid the TV.
TWICE BAKED, SAUSAGE STUFFED SICILIAN EGGPLANT
3-4 Sicilian eggplant (or equal amount graffiti or Japanese eggplant)
Olive oil (approx. ¼ cup, divided)
2 links sweet Italian sausage
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc) (optional)
¾ cup pureed tomatoes (I like Poma brand)
Pinch crushed red pepper
1 cup cubed day old bread
¾ cup milk
¼ cup parmesan cheese
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf Italian parsley
¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Basil for serving (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Heat about two tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Squeeze sausage out of casings and into pan; brown, breaking up into smaller chunks with a wooden spoon. While the sausage browns and your water heats prep your vegetables:
Use a large knife to cut a “lid” off of your eggplant; then working carefully, edge a paring knife down into the meat of each eggplant. Score slices vertically and then horizontally down and use a large tablespoon to scoop down into the center of each eggplant, removing the flesh in ragged chunks. Reserve the eggplant flesh for use in your stuffing. You’ll want about a ½-¾ inch rim around the edge of each eggplant. Prepare the remainder of your veggies and finely chop the reserved eggplant, checking your sausage periodically for a stir.
Once the sausage is sufficiently browned, remove from pan, chop through with your knife and set aside. If needed, add a few more tablespoons of oil to your skillet and then add onions and red pepper, sautéing together for a minute or two, until fragrant. Add eggplant and turn heat to high. Pour in wine, if using, and boil until the wine is reduced, scraping the bottom of the pan to free any browned bits of sausage or onion that are stuck (this should take just a few minutes, maybe 4-5). Reduce heat back to medium; add garlic, crushed red pepper, tomato puree, sausage and a generous shake of salt and pepper. Set to simmer, cover and let cook; stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are tender: about 15 minutes.
While your vegetable mixture simmers, blanch the eggplant shells. Salt boiling water generously, with about a handful of salt, drop the eggplant shells in, using tongs to submerge them (they float!). Blanch for about 2 minutes and then remove and set to drain on towels. At this point you might get sad because they have turned from a beautiful lilac purple to a sad brown/pink color; but console yourself with the knowledge that their color would have turned at some point or another during the cooking process.
Once your vegetable-sausage mixture is cooked through, remove from heat and set aside to cool. Place the bread crumbs into a small bowl and pour the milk over to absorb. In a large bowl, combine the cooled veggie-sausage mixture with the parsley, parmesan cheese and finally your bread crumbs, squeezing out any excess milk from the crumbs before adding. Salt and pepper and toss together with your hands to combine.
Coat the bottom of a small baking dish with a bit of olive oil and then use a barbecue brush or your fingers to paint each eggplant shell with a nice slick of oil, both inside and out. Nestle the shells close together in your pan and fill each with a generous pile of stuffing. Top the stuffed ‘plants with shredded mozzarella. At this point in time, you have two options to choose from. The first option, which is what I did, is to essentially twice bake the stuffed eggplant. I’m not sure if this is entirely necessary but sweet mother, it is delicious, so I’m suggesting it here. If you think that baking a simple dish not once but twice is straight crazy and you’re like “Jess, ain’t nobody got time for that”, please proceed to option 2.
Option 1: Cover pan tightly with foil and set to bake in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove pan, let cool and store in the fridge until you’re ready to serve, later that day, the next day; or, in my case, two days later. I would not advise waiting over three days, but speaking from experience can tell you that two days in the fridge didn’t hurt them a bit. When ready to serve: bake in a 375 degree oven for one hour, tightly wrapped in foil. Remove foil, and set pan under broiler to brown and melt cheese on top, for about 2-3 minutes. Scatter fresh chopped basil on top, if using. Serve immediately with a mixed green salad, or a side of pasta in tomato sauce.
Option 2: Cover pan tightly with foil and bake in a 400 degree oven for one hour. Remove foil and broil, 2-3 minutes until cheese on top is browned and bubbling. Scatter fresh chopped basil on top, if using. Serve immediately, perhaps with one or both of the sides suggested above.
Extra filling and what to do with it: I ended up with quite a bit of extra filling and my guess is you will too. In the interest of not wasting this goodness I rolled them into very loose, squishy meatballs and set them on a parchment lined baking sheet and popped them into my already heated 400 degree oven. They only took about 10 minutes before they were deeply browned. They were a little loose and a little rustic looking, but I tossed a few of them on some lightly dressed arugula for a really nice salad. The next day for lunch I heated a couple of these little hockey pucks and had them on toasted bread with crumbled goat cheese, a few leaves of basil and some arugula and that was a pretty nice time as well.