February Newsletter 2012
Winter Recipes & Food News From Cooking Vacations
Dreaming of chocolate! How sweet it is as we dive into everything chocolate this month in the kitchen, boosting our energy and celebrating Saint Valentine’s in every little bite!
The love story of chocolate runs long and deep going back to Christopher Columbus, who had brought loads of dark cocoa beans to Europe from the Maya in 1502. And as this new food spread its way throughout Europe, it made its way across tables and cafes in the form of cookies, brownies, biscotti, cakes, tarts, terrines, truffles, trifles, puddings, parfaits, mousses, soufflés, and sauces. Bite in and don’t worry because chocolate is good for you! It helps the mind think creatively.
Comprised of stearic acid, a neutral fat that does not increase bad cholesterol (LDL), oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fat, the same found in olive oil, and flavonoids loaded with beneficial antioxidants, chocolate in moderation is good for you. And who can we thank for this large consumption of chocolate this month, San Valentino.
Yes, thanks to the saint of love for February 14. Legend tells that during the reign of Claudius II, 270 AD, marriages were not allowed because the soldiers were needed in war, and it was said that single men made better soldiers. Bishop Valentine went against this practice and often married people in secret just the same. He was jailed on February 14, and from his cell he wrote love letters signed from Saint Valentine.
So celebrate February with lots of chocolate and love and do not forget to try our chocolate recipes. Hand-made gifts make the best ones.
Cooking Vacations has cooked up, Top Toasts! Mark Porcaro, Executive Chef at Top of the Hub, will welcome Vincenzo Esposito, Executive Chef, & Rosa Taddeo, owner, of Hotel Villa Franca in Positano, Italy, to the sky-high restaurant on the 52nd floor of The Prudential Tower for a special collaboration of their talents and cuisines entitled “Top of the Hub Toasts The Amalfi Coast.” Combining the best of American and Italian flavors and traditions, a regional wine & hors d’oeuvres pairing evening will be held at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 16. A special four-course regional wine dinner will follow at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 17. Additionally, select menu items marking the American-Italian collaboration will be added to Top of the Hub’s traditional Dinner Menu during April.
All events are presented in partnership with Top Of The Hub, The Lenox Hotel, Hotel Villa Franca and Cooking Vacations Italy.
Space is limited for these exceptional events.
For information and advance reservations (required for both events), please call 617-536-1775.
Join our family at Eataly in New York City, as Chef Marie Lucia, my mom and everyone’s mom, hosts a cooking class and shares family recipes with dinner following. Tie on your apron too, and step into the kitchen at Eataly. Click here for more information.
February has arrived in a flurry of snow and ice in Italy. True to their reputation, the ‘giorni della merla’ (the last three days of January – the so called ‘days of the blackbird,’ were indeed some of the coldest days of the year so far. But that’s no bad thing. The thin mantle of snow (thick carpet in the north!) is doing its job, slowly melting and seeping into the dry countryside, ensuring the earth has all the moisture it needs to face the upcoming spring and summer. And it’s always a beautiful sight to behold: the frosted branches of trees outlined against the sky, the low pewter skies that precede a silent snow fall and the magical glow of a snow-covered countryside at night.
But February, the month of Carnevale with its rowdy celebrations, the reflective period of Lent, and festivals celebrating everything from Almond Flowers to Songs, is also the month to celebrate your loved one, taking advantage of Saint Valentine’s Day. True, the Italians don’t tend to celebrate San Valentino to the same extent as we do, but it is nevertheless becoming increasingly popular. Although there have been various Saints called Valentino over the centuries, it is San Valentino of Terno who is widely held to be the patron saint of lovers.
So we thought it would be fun to celebrate San Valentino’s Italian-style this year by taking a look at some fun aphrodisiac foods. Take the humble chili pepper (often called natural Viagra) for example, an ingredient widely known to provoke a general increase in heart rate and circulation. Or oysters with their mineral salts and high zinc content or chocolate which contains phenylethylamine and serotonin which are both ‘feel good’ chemicals similar to those produced by the brain when you’re in love. Not to talk of saffron, truffles, caviar, licorice, nutmeg, papaya, ginseng and a host of other ingredients with magical properties. As you can see, there are plenty of foods to choose from. But joking apart, perhaps the best way to enjoy a romantic evening is simply to put on some favorite music, light up some candles and have a bottle of Prosecco ready to start the evening with a bang. After which, it’s up to you….
So wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, we hope you’re having as much fun this February as we’re having here in Italy…
February Food Notes
In the kitchen garden, February means greens. There’s plenty of produce in season, and it’s almost all green. From the pale green of fennel and white cabbages and the lime green Romanesco broccoli to the rich deep green of Savoy cabbage, Christmas broccoli and minestra, and the deliciously dark kale and cavolo nero with their green-black leaves – all these vegetables are packed with beta carotenes, vitamin C and calcium and are also rich in sulforaphane, a chemical with potent anti-cancer properties. So let’s get busy and use them!
As side dishes these vegetables are perfect either steamed, or sautéed simply with a few flavorings, but during the cold winter months it’s difficult not to think of transforming them into hearty soups and stews or adding them to warming pasta dishes or risottos. At the simplest level, they make great additions to a winter minestrone soup for example, but there are other dishes that really make these greens sing. How about the dish called cassoeula from Lombardia that combines a selection of pork cuts with Savoy cabbage to form the kind of dinner you’ll find sticking to your ribs a few days after you’ve eaten it. Light it is not, but delicious it is! Or maybe a generous plate of broccoli rabe with flavorsome sausage or pezzente, or a warming minestra maritata from the Campania area, a cleansing meat and greens soup that brings together boiled meats with broccoli leaves, as well as chicory, cabbage or broccoli rabe. Other favorites are stuffed cabbage or cabbage leaves, orecchiette with broccoli rabe, baked fennel with Parmesan and that wonderful Tuscan soup, ribollita. So we’ll leave you with two of our favorite recipes hoping that you too, this month, find time to cook up a little Italian warmth and comfort…
Recipes From Our Kitchen
Baked Fennel With Parmesan
- 4 medium fennel bulbs
- 250ml fresh cream
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 50g Parmesan cheese shavings
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 180°C / 375°F.
- Bring a pan of slightly salted water to the boil.
- Clean and trim fennel bulbs and cut into wedges then boil for 5 – 7 mins (depending on thickness) and drain well.
- Place the fennel in a buttered ovenproof dish and in a bowl, mix together the cream, crushed garlic and nutmeg and season with a little salt and pepper.
- Pour cream mixture over fennel and scatter Parmesan shavings on top.
- Bake for 20 – 30 minutes or until fennel topping is golden brown and fennel is tender.
Ribollita: Tuscan Bean Soup
- 250g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 white onion, sliced
- 2 carrots, cut into small chunks
- 2 ribs celery, cut into small chunks
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Few sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
- 350g cavolo nero, kale or Savoy cabbage, cleaned and cut into strips
- Toasted country-style bread
- Drain the beans and boil for an hour and a half (or until tender) in abundant water, adding salt towards the end of the cooking time. (Reserve this bean water.)
- Pour a good drizzling of olive oil into a pan and add the onion, carrots and celery and sauté for 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic, thyme and tomatoes and cook for a further 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, purée two thirds of the cooked beans with a little of their cooking water, and add this purée to the pan.
- Throw in the cavolo nero, season with salt and pepper, and add enough of the bean water to cover ingredients.
- Simmer for an hour, stirring every so often to stop mixture sticking to bottom of pan, and adding a little more bean water if necessary.
- At this point, add the remaining whole beans and cook for a further 20 minutes.
- Check seasoning and serve over some toasted country-style bread with a generous drizzling of extra-virgin olive oil.
Be My Valentine!
Double Chocolate Biscotti
By Momma Marie Lucia
- 2 cups of flour
- ½ cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons of canola oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of chopped walnuts
- ¾ cup of semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar
- Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.
- In a second bowl mix butter and sugar and with a mixer beat until very fluffy.
- Add the eggs and continue to beat.
- Add the flour making the batter stiff.
- Stir in the walnuts and chocolate chips.
- On a greased cookie sheet with floured hands form dough into two long logs. Each log should be about 12 inches long and 2 inches wide.
- Sprinkle with a little of confectioners sugar.
- Bake logs at 350° F for 30 to 35 minutes until almost done.
- Remove and cool.
- On a cutting board, cut the biscotti diagonally into ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti cut sides down on the cookie sheet and re-bake for 5 to 10 minutes until crispy.
- Cool well.
- When they are completely cool, sprinkle with confectioners sugar.
Tracing back to the days of the Renaissance, these choco bites with a mix of pistachios and nuts are a salty sweet treat that when stacked into piles can be stacked and tied in cello bags-make the perfect homemade gift.
- 12 ounces of semi sweet organic chocolate chips
- ¼ pound of unsalted butter cut into little soft pieces
- 4 eggs
- 1 ¼ cup of dark turbinado sugar
- ¼ teaspoon of vanilla or ½ vanilla bean
- ¾ cup of organic white flour
- ½ teaspoon of baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon of sea salt or sea salt with lavender
- 3 ounces of cleaned pistachios
- 1 zest of organic non-waxed orange
- Melt the chocolate and the butter in a double boiler.
- When melted set aside, keep warm.
- Mix well at high speed the eggs and sugar until fluffy.
- When they start to form, add the melted chocolate, then vanilla and mix.
- Slowly fold in the flour, then the baking powder and salt.
- Add the remaining chocolate and pistachios.
- Put the dough in the refrigerator until firm or for one hour.
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper and spray with canola spray.
- Spoon out golf ball size dough rounds on the cookie sheet spacing each one about 3 inches apart.
- Bake until biscotti are brown.
- When baking is complete, remove and let cool on a rack.
- Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
- 1 cup of fresh firm raspberries, or coconut, or candied ginger
- 1 lb of organic semisweet chips
- 1 1/2 cups of organic heavy cream
- Pinch of sea salt
- A mound of unsweetened organic cocoa powder, for dusting the final truffles in.
- Chocolate truffles are delicious small bites of chocolate. You can use your imagination in flavors and fruits.
- Puree the berries, if using berries or dice the candied ginger into very, very small pieces.
- Melt down the chocolate chips in a double boiler until almost melted.
- Leave them a little chunky.
- In a double boiler heat the cream until warm.
- Mix the cream and chocolate together with a whisk.
- Add the raspberry puree, or ginger or coconut.
- Add a pinch of salt.
- Put in the fridge for 1 hour.
- In the meantime, fill a rounded plate with organic cocoa powder.
- Remove the dough from the fridge and shape out dough into 1 inch round balls.
- If the dough is still very soft, put them on a cookie sheet and refrigerate until firm.
- After you have shaped out the dough, roll into the cocoa thoroughly coating them.
- Keep them in a sealed container in the fridge, they will keep for about 1 week.
Melody’s Vine Picks
Baked Fennel With Parmesan
Pair with: Peter Dipoli Sauvignon Voglar 2007
This wonderfully herby Sauvignon Blanc from the mountains of Alto Adige complements the warm aromas of the fennel just right.
Ribollita: Tuscan Bean Soup
Pair with: Principe Corsini Le Corti Chianti Classico 2007
What could pair better with this hearty Tuscan soup, than a Tuscan classic: Chianti Classico. A nice acidy and smoky flavor, balance the earthiness of the beans and cavolo nero.
Double Chocolate & Choco Biscotti
Pair with: La Sala Vin Santo 2003 500ml
Though dessert wines are often not a favorite, the complexity of the aromas from honey to dried apricot in this Vin Santo are perfect for these little nutty treats.
Pair with: Ca’ dei Mandorli Brachetto d’Acqui Donne Dei Boschi 2010
Especially if you go with the raspberries or coconut in your truffles, try this semi-sweet red sparkling wine with aromas of wild strawberries and rose. If you opt for the candied ginger, try a Franciacorta such as Barone Pizzini Brut Franciacorta NV.
Cooking Vacations Programs Of The Month
This Valentine’s Day, check out our Couples Cooking ~ a Cooking Vacations program designed for you & your significant other. Imagine a romantic terrace overlooking Lake Como, or shutters that open to rolling fields of Tuscan sunflowers! Spend an exciting vacation in Italy, while participating in hands-on romantic cooking classes that explore the sensory pleasures of the kitchen. Each program is original and authentic and will have you experiencing the food, art & music of Italy. Click here to read more.
Italy On A Plate
By Germaine Stafford
Germaine continues her roundup of what’s happening in the culinary world in Italy and gives you her chef of the month, book recommendation, and a list of seasonal foods for February.
What’s in Season?
Restaurant Of The Month
Al Pestello, Vicenza
Situated between Padova and Verona, Vicenza is a thriving northern town that is often passed over in favor of Venice and other nearby jewels, which is a great pity as it has much to offer visitors. Apart from the museums, art galleries and attractive piazzas, there’s the unique Teatro Olimpico and the many elegant Palladian villas that give the town its distinct appearance. One of the great things about Vicenza is that it can easily be explored on foot, with most of the attractions being located within the historic center. And a stroll around town is the best way to work up an appetite…
This month’s restaurant, Al Pestello is just a few steps from Vicenza’s main thoroughfare Corso Palladio, and is the ideal spot for sampling some traditional cucina Vicentina. Like most regional Italian cuisines, making the best of a handful of local ingredients is at the heart of Vicentina cooking and Fabio Carta, professional sommelier and owner of Al Pestello, is committed to keeping alive many local culinary traditions that are slowly disappearing. First of all, the menu is written in Veneto dialect (Fabio will explain!) and contains all the best known local specialties: bigoi co’ l’arna – homemade pasta with duck sauce, poènta e scopetòn – polenta with herring, bacalà a’ la visentina – Baccalà Vicenza-style and bisata in tècia – braised eel. But of course, there are many other alternatives based on excellent local seasonal produce such as radicchio from Treviso, thick white asparagus from nearby Bassano, local mushrooms, beans, artichokes, peas, rabbit, kid and lamb, salumi and fresh-water fish as well as a selection of handmade pasta and rice dishes. If you’re lucky, you might even happen on one of Fabio’s cultural and musical evenings where local musicians provide the perfect backdrop to dinner.
We first visited Al Pestello twenty years ago. It was a fabulous night: wonderful food, local wine and the very best of company. And it’s comforting to see that over the years, very little has changed.
Contrà S. Stefano 3
Tel: (+39) 0444 323721
Book Of The Month
The Country Cooking of Italy
by Coleman Andrews
When Coleman Andrews puts pen to paper you’re usually in for a treat, and true to form, his latest volume The Country Cooking of Italy is no exception. There are few more qualified food writers out there: editor, cookbook writer, gastronome extraordinaire, Andrews brings an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject to bear as he treats us to peasant cooking from Italy’s various regions. As the title suggests, dishes with their roots in Italy’s cities – be it Margherita pizza from Naples or risi e bisi (rice with peas) from Venice – aren’t covered in the book, which instead concentrates on offerings from the surrounding countryside and smaller provincial towns and villages. Many of the recipes are the result of his countless trips to Italy, while others have been part of his culinary repertoire as long as he can remember and have no traceable source.
As Andrews notes, Italian food grew out of poverty, but also a fundamental respect for the land and what it yielded. But this certainly doesn’t mean dishes are anything less than delicious. Think of squash blossom frittata, broccoli rabe with olive oil and sea salt, lamb broth or lemon risotto – no exotic ingredients to speak of but the names alone are enough get your appetite going. Tuna pâté, taglierini with pesto of basil, parsley and marjoram, polenta with white beans and kale, marinated lettuce – all simple recipes that promise flavorsome dishes with minimum effort. Another great thing about authentic country cooking is the need to combine available seasonal ingredients, often resulting in unusual but appealing combinations: thus Andrews includes chestnut gnocchi with pine nut pesto; partridge with cabbage; fennel, orange and onion salad; and roast sea bass with chanterelles.
Desserts and cakes are just as simple, and again, based on a fundamental seasonal ingredient – Friulana nut cake, Trentino apple fritters, figs with Gorgonzola, almond cake, pistachio gelato, pear sorbetto, cornmeal cookies, all a reminder that very often, simple food is the best.