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As we flew over Iowa and I looked down at the patchwork of cornfields, I wondered what would keep our interest on our drive back to Atlanta.
The harvest was a few weeks away so the farms were devoid of activity and people as is often the case in farm regions I have been in. I had my ITunes ready for a long drive with my favorite music.
We picked up some fruit, fresh bread and pastries at a wonderful and very large farmers market in Des Moines and purchased cold cuts and drinks at a local market for a picnic lunch. We might not find a restaurant on the way back and we thought we would find a nice area to stop for lunch. As it turned out we drove down a small country road and enjoyed our lunch along side a corn filed. Well how appropriate was that.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t as dull as I had expected. The beauty of the barns, silo’s and movement in the sky was mesmerizing. As in other trips where we encountered farmland or vineyards, it is quite, peaceful and farmers have meticulous respect for the land. The clean shiny silos and white barns provided breaks of interest as well as the human element that sometimes gets lost in long distances of endless landscape.
The striking difference from the farmland I’m use to seeing in Switzerland, France, Germany and even Italy was the flat the terrain. Yet the deep green corn reaching for the sun, white barns with silver metal roofs glistening in the sunlight, and round metal silos created unique images.
Life seems timeless, as if nothing had changed.
Yet we know that these farms are hi-tech and provide food around the world. Iowa produces more corn than most countries and corn can be found in many products such as animal feed, starches, oils, sweeteners and even ethanol (Iowa Corn Growers Association).
I have found that if you look hard enough, you often find beauty in unexpected places.
There was no doubt what we would choose for lunch during our visit to the San Remo food market. The markets in Italy are a visual and gastronomic experience. Red, ripe, sweet tomatoes, huge bunches of basil, garlic and fresh olives filled our basket. How better to enjoy a beautiful village but to experience the local markets and fresh food. Next to the bread stand for fresh crusty Italian bread and a stop at the cheese vendor left only one more thing to buy. On the way back home we visited our new friend in the local store to purchase a bottle of wine from the vineyards of Dolceaqua. We were climbing the stairs to our apartment in anticipation of a lovely fresh tomato salad with basil, garlic and olive oil from the local olive groves. This is one of the advantages of renting an apartment rather then staying in a hotel. We were happy and content enjoying our lunch and the view of the village. How better to spend a vacation in a beautiful village experiencing the local markets and fresh food.
The first sign of spring in Europe is when asparagus begin to show up on restaurant menus. Asparagus are considered the king of vegetables and some restaurants open only during the season serving asparagus with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit Sauce Hollandaise), slices of ham and fresh strawberries for dessert. Once the season is over, these restaurants close.
Having lived in Germany for several years, we would see fields of white asparagus packed in dirt with the tips peeking out of the ground during the spring. They are deprived of light, which keeps them from turning green.
White asparagus are thicker and juicer but I think more fibrous. Some restaurants in Germany serve them in their water, not my favorite. A chef friend of ours, Rolf Messmer, owner of the Au Major Davel Restaurant & Hotel in Cully Switzerland (www.hotelaumajordavel.ch/), tells us that when he started his apprenticeship he cleaned tons of asparagus. He is meticulous in making sure that the skin has been neatly removed from the stalk. Using a vegetable peeler, he turns the stalks slightly with every stroke removing all the skin. He adds sugar to the water to bring out the flavor and slightly undercooks them, wrapping them in a towel for the final cooking. His asparagus are perfect and his restaurant is filled with people enjoying the king of vegetables as they watch the steamboats pulling up to the dock on Lake Geneva.
There are special asparagus pans where you stand them in a rack in about 3” of water. But you can cook them lying down in water also. Don’t overcook them, as they will become soggy and uneatable. Prick them with a knife to judge if they are beginning to get tender after about five minutes. As soon as the knife starts to penetrate the stalk remove them to a clean kitchen towel as suggested by Chef Messmer.
Green and white asparagus are interchangeable in recipes, but I feel that due to the amount of water in the white variety, they are not as good if added to pizza for instance. I also prefer the green the variety in pasta or anything where the heat continues to cook the vegetable.
When choosing asparagus, make sure they are fresh and the ends are not dried out. When they are old, they will begin to show ridges along the stem – the stem should be smooth. Store them covered in the refrigerator for a few days only. When you are ready to cook them, snap the bottoms off – they will break where the tender part starts. Discard the hard bottom parts, as they are woody and fibrous.
Asparagus are a versatile vegetable and can be roasted, boiled, steamed, made into soup, tossed with pasta and so on. The white variety tends to be a little more expensive and are not as easily found in the US as they are in Europe. I prefer the green variety, as I think they have a more intense flavor but this is a matter of taste.
Place several on a warm plate and add some hollandaise sauce over the top or on the side. It is acceptable to eat them with your hands holding the ends and dipping them in the sauce. A good chardonnay, or a light burgundy goes well with this dish.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 8-12 minutes
Yield: 2 people
12 green or white asparagus (remove the outer skin with a peeler)
Salt & sugar
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Chopped parsley
2 tablespoons ice cold water
1 stick of butter
2 egg yolks
Juice of one lemon
Boil the peppercorns, wine vinegar and chopped parsley until it is reduced to almost nothing, deglaze it with 2 tablespoons of water. Run it through a sieve and pour it into a cold double boiler. Add 2 egg yolks, whisking them into the pan. Add the juice of 1/4 of a lemon, at this point put the double boiler onto medium heat and begin whisking little pieces of butter until the it has melted and thicken. Wisk constantly – this is very important. If the sauce separates, put chilled water, and if necessary add another egg yolk.
Prepare the asparagus by peeling the outer skin with a vegetable peeler. This is not necessary if you are using green asparagus, but it has to be done with the white asparagus. Remove about 1 inch of the bottom of each steam. You can simply bend the stalks and they will break at the point where the hard stalk separates from soft stalk. However, if you want all the stalks to be the same size, cut them where you think the hard stalk ends. Boil them in salted water (add a little sugar, which brings out the taste of the asparagus), for about 4-5 minutes.
Remove from the water and wrap them in a kitchen towel to finish cooking.
Pour the sauce over the cooked asparagus.
Roman Jewish artichokes are a sentries old gastronomic tradition. One of Rome’s treasured dishes, they are sometimes called Carciofi Romani. Except for the cleaning of the artichokes it is relatively easy dish to make. If you are looking for a very impressive delicacy you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful presentation.
Baby artichokes are best and require the least cleaning. Once fried they are golden in color and crunchy with a soft center. Squeeze a wedge of lemon over the top and they have lovely nutty flavor.
Carciofi alla Giudia
Prep. Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 3 minutes per choke in boiling water, 3 minute frying time
Yield: 12-2 per person if used in antipasti
12 small artichokes
Canola or olive oil for frying
Kosher or sea salt
2 lemons, in quarters
Cleaning the Artichokes
Cut the stems off and the tops 1/4 of the way down of all the artichokes. Remove the leaves down to the white leaves. The leaves are removed by pulling them back and snapping them off. It is not necessary to remove the hay in the middle, if the artichokes are very small, but if using medium size artichokes you must remove it with a small spoon, or a melon baller. Place them in a bowl of water with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown.
In a pan of salted boiling water (you can use table salt), boil the artichokes for about 3 minutes. Remove them from the pan and turn them upside down on paper towels to drain. They should be completely dry before frying, or the oil will splatter. Once dried turn the artichokes over and gently open them up and loosen the leaves so they look like flowers.
Heat the oil and fry each artichoke upside down in the oil. This will set the leaves open. Turn them and fry them on the bottom side. The artichokes are already blanched and don’t need a long frying time, usually 3-5 minutes. Look for the color when frying; they should not be brown or green, but golden.
Remove them to a rack or paper towels to drain and immediately sprinkle them with a coarse grain sea salt. When biting into them you will sporadically taste the salt. Serve them on a large serving platter with quarter lemons, which should be squeezed over the top.
It is quite amazing how people swam around vendor stands in the markets in Italy when funghi porcini are in season. The king of mushrooms are as impressive as they are delicious. They are tossed with pasta, cooked in risotto, are simply delicious grilled with herbs – a meal in itself, served fresh as a salad, sautéd with olive oil and herbs or baked, they can be marinated in olive oil or topping on pizza.
When selecting porcini the gills should not be yellowish-brown, which means that the mushrooms are becoming over-ripe. Do not buy them if they have dark under-caps or black spots and also check for holes in the stems where there might be worms. The short round stems should be firm and white. They have a rich woodsy rustic flavor and are simply beautiful to look at.
Brush off any dirt you may find and wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp cloth. Store them in a paper bag, not in a plastic bag or wrapped in plastic wrap. You do not want mosture to form on them. Prepare them as soon as possible when fresh or they will dry out.
Porcini mushrooms are also dried, found year round in supermarkets and must be hyddrated and have a more intense flavor when cooked. When making risotto or pasta sauce you can also use the hyddrating liquid in the sauce adding a deep concentrated flavor.
Porcini can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Fresh Porcini are not as popular in the US as they are in Italy where they are almost over harvested and the collection is regulated. Taking pictures of Porcini is a passion as they are such a beautiful mushroom.
Risotto Funghi Porcini
Risotto With Porcini Mushrooms
Prep Time: 7 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 Servings as first dish 2 servings as main course
1 cup Arborio rice
5 cups broth (homemade or store bought, vegetable, chicken)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 lb. fresh Porcini mushrooms, cut into bite size pieces
1 medium chopped onion
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of chopped garlic
1/2 cup white wine
Freshly ground pepper
Put the butter and oil in a saucepan and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the rice and allow it to cook until it becomes opaque. Pour in the wine so that it just covers the rice. Stir and allow the rice to absorb the wine on medium heat. Heat the broth and begin to add it in by just keeping the rice covered with liquid. As soon as the rice absorbs the liquid, add a little more. Stir constantly, continue this process until the rice is almost done (has a bite). Add the mushrooms and allow them to cook in the rice for another 2-3 minutes. The entire cooking process takes about 20 minutes. Remove the rice from the stove and add the grated cheese, stir and add a little freshly ground pepper. Stir in the cold butter.
Note: Risotto cannot be leftover. It must be served immediately as the rice will absorb all the remaining liquid and it will be uneatable.
Note: You can substitute fresh Porcini with about 2 oz. dried Porcini mushrooms, which can be found in the most markets. Soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes before using them. Add some of the hydrating liquid to the risotto giving it a more intense flavor.
Artichokes are served in Italy in antipasti preserved in olive oil. The baby artichokes are most often used and are much easier to prepare. However, even though they are grown in California they don’t seem to be found in the markets in large quantities and are only available in small pre-packed packages. In Italy they are available in markets in large quantities and some markets are selling them already cleaned. Preserving them is a great way to have them on hand for a variety of cooking uses. I tossed them with pasta, as a vegetable side dish, in antispasti, as a topping on pizza, with fresh bread dipped in the oil and served with a few artichokes or sautéed, sliced over meat or fish. You can flavor them with your favorite herbs and make them your own special recipe.
A little about Artichokes
The edible portion of the artichoke is basically a flower bud with tough, petal-shaped leaves, and an inedible, flower center. When selecting artichokes, be sure they are tightly packed and are not dried out. It is best if you can buy them with the stems still intact as often found in Italy, but markets in the US tend to cut them off.
There are many varieties of artichokes but the ones most often found in markets are as follows:
Baby anzio is a relative of the romanesco artichoke of the Lazio region of Italy – purple and can be eaten whole
Big heart– green, three to five inches in diameter, are excellent for stuffing
Classic green globe, three to five inches in diameter, similar in shape and flavor to the French camus de bretagne, a summer artichoke grown in Brittany.
Siena, oblong shaped and red in color, four inches in diameter, central Italy, tender and can be eaten raw
The petite mercury, red-violet hue, rounded top, is sweeter than many other artichokes, about three and a half inches in diameter. Similar to baby anzio, comes from the Italian romanesco.
Omaha, dense and rotund artichoke, up to six inches wide, sharply tapered red-and-green leaves and less bitter than many artichoke varieties.
Fissile, two-inch-wide, fruity flavor, deep wine color, Bred from the violetta de provence, native to southern France, tender stalk that can be quickly steamed and eaten.
Chianti, a classically shaped, four-inch-wide, green with a touch of maroon on the leaves, comes from the Italian romanesco.
King, blocky and vividly colored has distinctive green spots at the tips of its leaves, four inches in diameter, bred from romanesco varieties mixed with other Italian artichoke strains.
Carciofi o carciofini sott’ olio
Preserved artichokes in olive oil
The small artichokes or baby artichokes (carciofini) are best for carciofi sott’olio. If they can’t be found then use globe artichokes and cut them into quarters.
Baby or medium size artichokes
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Lemon plus juice, cut in half or quarters, depending on the number of artichokes
2 sprigs fresh basil
1-2 tablespoons honey, optional
Fresh or flaked peperoncini to taste, optional
2 whole cloves garlic, optional
2 tablespoons flour
Other things needed
1 large glass-canning jar
Trim away the small bottom and tough outer leaves. Cut the tops of the artichokes about 1/4” down or to the tender part. Remove all the leaves down to the white leaves, keeping about 2 inches of stems. Cut the artichokes in half or quarters. Clean out the hay in the middle. Drop them into a bowl of water with lemon juice and the lemon halves. This will keep them from discoloring.
In a large pan, bring water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of flour in a separate bowl with water until it is liquid paste. Put this mixture in the boiling water. This will prevent discoloring and keep the artichokes a nice light green color.
Put the cleaned artichokes into the boiling water and cook until they just start to get slightly soft about 5-7 minutes depending on the size. Prick them with a knife – they should still be slightly hard. Remove them and place them on paper towels to drain.
When they have cooled, place them in a large glass-canning container. Add the basil, honey, pepperoncini and/or any other herbs, or garlic). Fill the container with extra virgin olive oil. If stored in a cool place they will last for about 2 months.
They can be served in an antipasti, or as side vegetable dish. Toss them in a salad, pasta or on a pizza. Slice them over grilled meat or fish. If you plan to use them in food preparation, don’t add the honey. The ingredients above are an example of what can be added, but don’t exclude herbs you like.
My grandparents came from Vieste (FG) Italy. In my quest to learn more about my heritage I went to Vieste and took a cooking program. My husband and I had 4 chefs at a five star hotel to ourselves for a week and learned many traditional dishes made in the village and Gargano. I’ve had many people ask me how to make pizza dough at home. The recipe below was given to me by Chef Marco at the Pizzo Munno Vieste Palace Hotel.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: N/A
Yield: 1 large pizza, 2 medium size pizzas
3 1/2 cups flour 00, reserve 1/2 cup for working the dough
1 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup water, tepid
PREPARATION IN A FOOD PROCESSOR
Put the water in a bowl and mix in the yeast and sugar. Place it in a warm place such as the oven and allow it to activate for about 15-20 minutes or until it doubles in size.
Put 3 cups of flour and salt in a mixer with the dough element and pour in the yeast mixture. Process it until it forms a ball. If working it by hand, place it in a bowl and mix the flour and yeast mixture with a wooden spoon or your hands.
Knead the dough lightly and place it in a bowl brushed with the olive oil and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Place it in a warm place and allow it to rise for at least 1 hour.
Punch the dough down and let it raise for another 1/2 hour covered. You can use as much of the dough as you might need and freeze the rest. When defrosting it, allow the dough to raise again.
Roll out the dough using the reserved flour and you are ready to prepare your pizza, calzone, cheese bread, stromboli etc.
When spreading the dough out, use your hands if you don’t want any air bubbles, use a rolling pin if for a flat crusty crust. I prefer stretching the dough with my thumb and the back of your hand. Use you finger tips to then rotate it on a board stretching it and turning it over a few times.
Most of us don’t have wood burning pizza ovens however; a pizza stone is the best solution for a home oven. You can also use terra cotta tiles, which can be bought in a home supply store. If you do this, purchasse 2 or 3 layers, they will keep the heat in really well and do the trick without spending a lot of money for a pizza stone. It is very important that you buy tiles that have not been made with chemicals.
Spread a medium grind semolina flour on the bottom of the pizza pallet, place the rolled out dough on the board and prepare your pizza. This will allow you to slide it off the board easily onto the tile or stone. flour will also do, but the dough slides off the wood palette more easily with semolina. You can also put parchment paper on the board and slide it onto the stone.
Cook the pizza in a very hot oven at least 500º F or as high as it will go. Put your pizza stone in the oven at least 1 hour until it is hot. If you are grilling it in a fireplace or on a grill, I have found that a metal grate works very well and makes it easy to turn it on the grill. I like this method because it also allows the heat to brown the bottom making it very crispy and gives it a smokey flavor. The coals should be red hot. The cooking time is about 15 to 20 minutes, but this depends on how high the heat is, so keep checking the bottom, it should be brown and crispy.
Don’t be afraid to use whatever you like. Goat cheese, Gorgonzola, Fete cheeses are great as are olives, most vegetables, meats and seafood. Be creative!
You can use fresh tomatoes, or Passate di Pomador0 or just pureed can tomatoes. An Italian home is not complete without a bottle of Passate de Pomadoro in the refrigerator. It is great for flavoring soups and vegetables as well. Some people like to use prepared tomato sauce that has already been flavored, but I really prefer the fresh taste of tomatoes adding the herbs that you prefer. Sprinkle with chopped garlic, oregano or basil, salt and pepper; add whatever you like on the top. Mozzarella is traditionally used layered on the top. Whatever cheese you use, add it a few minutes before the pizza is done. Just long enough so that it melts. This allows everything to cook on top without the crust getting soggy or the cheese overcooking.