Thursday, June 20, 2013

everything it should be and nothing it should not

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I find it sort of incredible that my whole entire life has happened in at and around North America, specifically concentrated on the east coast and even more specifically mostly in Massachusetts; and then still, mostly on the south shore. And then I, Jess Benson formerly known as Jess Pithie formerly known as the Python formerly known as Porky Dickens and also currently known as Porky Dickens takes not one but TWO trips to Europe in the span of less than a month. Who brought Johnny Jet Setter to this cookout? Not me. No way.

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I’m actually kind of surprised I didn’t get flagged by US customs for being a suspected drug mule. They must have been able to spot my weak gag reflex and inability to lie from behind their desks so they didn’t even bother to get up. But anyways, I’m sorry for the absence last week, we were in Spain for our much anticipated and long awaited honeymoon. The trips were totally terrific and completely, opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum different and I have NO idea how I got this lucky to be able to have two such awesome travel experiences in such a short span of time, but please do not tell the people in charge, because they might come and take it all away!

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So I am back with a capital ‘B’ and I have been cooking at home quite a bit (read: broke). As always, I am prepared to share. What I’ve brought today is a terrific summer side dish. Yes, summer! Yay summer!! While we were gone it came! And since summer is the time of year where we wear less clothes but eat more hot dogs, I brought you something to serve along side (the hot dogs that is, not your unclothed body, weirdo). I love pasta salad but I’m often afraid of it because the pasta can be tragically overdone and the mayonnaise based dressing has usually been kicking it at room temp. for a while before I’ve gotten to it. So what I put together for my friend Michelle’s cookout a few weekends back was this: a rock solid delicious pasta salad packed with flavor from briny olives, sweet sun dried tomatoes, salty salami, delicious fresh herbs and veggies in a simple vinaigrette. It’s everything a pasta salad should be and nothing it should not.

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1 box rotini, penne or any other shape pasta
½ bag frozen peas
¼ lb. asparagus or green beans, trimmed into bite sized pieces
¾ cup sundried or slow roasted tomatoes in oil, drained and chopped
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped
½ cup diced dry aged salami
1 bunch basil leaves, washed, stemmed and torn 
1 bunch chives, minced
½ package feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup red wine vinegar
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Pinch sugar

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Set a large pot to boil. While the water comes up to temperature, clean and prep vegetables and herbs. Both the frozen peas and asparagus can cook in the pasta water and all three can be drained at once. This is a really simple time saver that essentially helps this whole salad to come together in the time it takes to cook a box of pasta. Once the water is boiling salt well and add the pasta, set timer according to the package directions. When 4 or 5 minutes are left on your timer, add the asparagus (4) or the green beans (5); at the 2 minute mark, dump in the frozen peas. Test a piece of pasta for doneness and if it’s nicely al dente, drain the whole pot. It’s okay if the green beans/asparagus retain a bit of crunch, you just want them to be lightly blanched and not raw.

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In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the red wine vinegar, oil, Dijon and sugar. Season with salt and pepper, clamp the lid on and shake vigorously to emulsify. Set aside, shaking again before use as needed.

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Drain pasta and veggies together in a colander and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Dress the pasta and veggies while still warm (but not scorching hot) with about 1/3 of your prepared dressing. Toss well and let cool down to room temperature. Add all remaining ingredients, another generous drizzle of dressing and toss everything together gently with your hands. Taste and adjust seasonings/ dressing if necessary. Store in the fridge until ready to serve. This is delicious chilled or at room temperature so feel free to make it just before you head out to your cookout or picnic. Bring any extra dressing and add if it dries out at all.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ciao Porky! Part II: APULIA

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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To read more about my wine trip to Italy, see Part I, here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.