Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in Umbria

This is my first Thanksgiving since moving to Italy a year ago in August of 2008. In November last year I had to go back to California and get my long term visa to stay in Italy with my new wife. So last Thanksgiving I made dinner in my old house for my youngest son, his wife and two children. We had all the basic trappings of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, turkey, mashed and sweet potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. In the time in California, I was able to visit some friends and family and to finally get my visa (stamped into my passport with a misspelled middle name). I returned to Italy the day after Christmas and so this year I will be having Thanksgiving dinner here.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American event. In Italy it is just another day of working, shopping, working in winter gardens, pressing olives for oil, and tending to the myriad number of mundane things that are required to live here. But there is no celebration, no turkey, no stuffing, and certainly no pumpkin pies. The evening meal is the same as normal. This year, a group of Americans and a Brit will be coming together at one of the rental country houses my wife manages and will be having a communal dinner combining Italian and American characteristics. There will be eight people in our group and the food tasks have been divided up among us all. I will be making four different antipasti including: sausage and cheese crostini, mushroom pate crostini, melon and prosciutto, and sliced pecorino cheese and salame. I included a bit of apricot mostarda to put on the cheese slices. My wife and Anne made about 80 pumpkin ravioli Tuesday and they are ready to quickly cook and finish. OK, Paul (Ann's husband) made a few ravioli, but mostly he wandered through the kitchen smelling things on the stove and in the oven and asking questions. I like him.

 We will probably serve possibly three ravioli per person so we won't take them all. I will likely only eat one ravioli since pasta is difficult for me to digest after my surgery. I will make a light bechamel sauce with walnuts for the ravioli. Then David will roast some marinated lamb and make some braised mustard greens with garlic from Kathy's recipe, and we will have some dessert which this year will be grape pie with Greek yogurt from Mara. I am sure there will be plenty of wine poured and stories told around the inviting fire set in the big fireplace.  This will be a good Thanksgiving held in the spirit that it should be. One of a gathering of friends and family, good foods lovingly prepared, good wine generously poured, and good fellowship gratefully shared.

I will eat only what I can accommodate. A few bites of antipasti, a single ravioli, some grilled lamb, possibly a bite or two of mustard greens and a small slice or a few bites of pie. A lengthened dinner allows me the consumption of a few more "bites" that I will gratefully savor. We will try the new olive oil pressed Thanksgiving morning. I will get all of the tastes of the seasonal dishes that I love and still not overeat.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Post script to Thanksgiving: The grape pie was quite something, made with Concord grapes picked from the pergola outside our guest house in September this year and served with a thick Greek yogurt. The freshly pressed olive oil had a peppery flavor, and when drizzled on the lamb and vegetables was excellent.  It was a satisfying dinner and an entertaining evening. kfk

Eating during the holidaze

The winter holidays are some of the most difficult times of the year for those of us who have had bariatric surgery. It is a time of family, friends, gifts, parties and FOOD. To cope with this period of potential excess, it is important to remember why you had the surgery and what you hope to gain (or lose actually) from the process. If this time comes early in your surgical healing period, it is important to be very careful about what and how much you eat. The limits placed on you for those first six months means that your intake is very restricted. Don't let pressure from friends or family push you to eat excessively.

There is a lot of temptation regarding foods during the holidays. Candy, cookies, cakes and other sweets can sabotage your weight loss quickly. They are physically filling and full of carbohydrates, thus limiting the amount of important foods you need to eat. Be extremely careful, but do enjoy that piece of chocolate or a butter cookie, or a few bites of your aunt's apple spice cake. You will notice I said a piece of chocolate, a butter cookie and a few bites of the spice cake. Eating that whole pound of See's chocolate can be a real problem. You can enjoy the wonderful tastes of the holidays without stuffing yourself. Love those eight bites. Especially early in the healing process it is important to be sure you do not over-extend the surgical site.

Parties are the biggest problem you can encounter during the holidays. Most of the people attending will not know the effort you have spent in losing the weight, but may comment on how little you eat. To deflect questions, take a little plate, put a couple of nibbly little things on it and carry it around with you. (A side note: with a wine glass in one hand and a plate in the other, no one will be able to shake hands with you and pass on that ugly flu we are experiencing). People will stop asking you to eat something as long as you have something in your hand. My father used to avoid the issue of drinking too much during the holidays by carrying around a glass with ginger-ale in it. It looked like a high ball and since he already had a "drink", no one asked him if he wanted another. Just keep slowly refilling that glass with ginger-ale or that small plate will small bites. It is the safest way to get through the party intact.

Thanksgiving has come to mean eating to excess with loving friends and family and you need to carefully consider what you are about on that day. Today I will be having Thanksgiving dinner wih nine friends at one of the rental properties my wife manages in the hills of Umbria. We are all bringing things to share for dinner. I will be making antipasti (more about that in a minute), there will be pumpkin ravioli with bechamel and walnut sauce, grilled marinated lamb (hard to get good turkeys here), a variety of vegetable dishes and the usual plethora of desserts. The olive oil from our trees is being pressed this morning so thoughts are not strictly on food, though I guess here in Italy, olive oil is a major food group.

Thanksgiving antipasti will include sausage and cheese crostini with chutney, sliced pecorino cheese, and some winter melon and prosciutto. I will make them in small bites, and will plate them on holiday platters.

The sausage and cheese crostini will be made with sautéed local sausage (seasoned with fresh garlic, salt and pepper only) mixed with a generous amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cacciota (a cow's milk cheese that is soft and mild). I will puree it in the food processor until smooth. The crostini will be made from fresh local artisan bread that I will grill to toast, rub with garlic, sprinkle with a bit of the fresh olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. I 'll assemble the crostini just before serving so it is warm. A bit of pear or plum chutney will top the sausage mixture on the crostini. Wine will be passed and the air will be filled with stories of past Thanksgivings, stories of friends, and plans for the future. Especially for that olive oil, just pressed this morning.

Enjoy the holidays, but remember the limits we have placed upon ourselves. Eat those delicious bites on that small plate and toast your friends well. Mangia!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Working as a cook in Italy

Part of the experience of working as a cook in Italy is making interesting foods, using creative and locally available ingredients and combining them in different ways. While much of the cooking I do has an Italian base, I try to incorporate some new tastes for the people I serve. I make pasta including ravioli using classic fillings such as potatoes and two cheeses, ricotta and spinach, ricotta and lemon sauced with a vegetable tomato sauce. But then I try some new tastes such as a spicy pumpkin and Parmesan cheese filled ravioli in a bechamel sauce with walnuts, or smoked salmon ravioli with grated lemon peel, mashed potatoes and spinach and parsley in a white wine sauce.  I realize these dishes are not strictly for the bariatric patient but they are interesting and contribute to a great dining experience.

A note about parmesan cheese please. In Italy, the more correct and preferred spelling is Parmigiano-Reggiano for cheese made from cow's milk in the specific region around Bologna. If it is a generic version, it is spelled Parmesan(o). Parmigiano-Reggiano is a beautifully made cheese with a great flavor and is normally aged for many months. The producers of this cheese are justly proud of their product and it deserves the credit. Generic parmesan cheeses used in recipes will probably not have the richness of flavor that using Parmigiano-Reggiano would impart, but still will be suitable. When I use Parmigiano-Reggiano in a recipe, the generic version would be acceptable in the event you can not obtain the real thing.

Tonight my wife brought home a whole turkey breast and asked for it for dinner. Using turkey breast meat is a good substitute for too much beef or pork and you can use it in a wide variety of ways. So I prepared it in thin slices which I pounded flat with a mallet. I made a flour mixture with seasoned salt, pepper and some Cajun spice. Then I dredged the turkey slices in the flour and sautéed them quickly in hot vegetable oil until they were brown, and almost done. I poured out the oil and added a cup of water to the hot pan to deglaze it. I then squeezed in about a 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, added a 1/2 cup of cured olives and 1/4 cup of marinated artichoke hearts. The sauce was a bit tart so I added a couple of teaspoons of sugar to reduce the sharp flavor. The sauce thickened and I then put the turkey slices back in the pan to heat and finish cooking. I served it with a green salad simple dressed with vinaigrette.

So you see that you can adapt. Last Tuesday, I was to make dinner for some friends and decided to do a simple dinner that was quick and easy to prepare. It included Umbrian chicken liver pate on beer bread crostini, some slices of pecorino cheese with a couple of chutneys, beer bread crostini with smoked salmon, strachinno, chives with citrus marmalatta (described in an earlier post), tagliatelle with pesto and grilled fish, black cabbage with oven dried tomatoes and pancetta, sweet and sour cipollini and for dessert vanilla gelato with brandied cherries. I served the antipasti attractively on beautiful plates with some good wine; while the pasta and fish went into heated bowls as a one dish meal. The vegetables were eaten on the side with a green salad. I used a commercial gelato, and my own brandied cherries. I had put up the cherries earlier this year during the cherry harvest. They were terrific.

Umbrian chicken liver pate.

This is a simple and a fairly inexpensive antipasti. The pate is made primarily in the food processor. Place 1/2 cup of pickled vegetables (giardineri) in the food processor, add 1/4 pound (125 grams) of cold butter cut into bits. The giardineri includes pickled cauliflower, carrots, dill pickles, and red peppers in a vinegar solution and is easily found in your local market. Rinse and drain 1/2 pound of fresh chicken livers. Saute a medium chopped onion in some olive oil over medium heat; add a bit of crushed dried hot pepper and some salt. Add the chicken livers and saute until no longer reddish inside, but still pink. Don't overcook the livers. Add 1/4 cup of Marsala to the pan and deglaze. Pour the entire pan of livers and onions into the food processor and process until smooth. Put the mixture in a covered bowl and refrigerate for two hours until firm. Spread on garlicky crostini, bruschetta, or even spread on crackers.

Tagliatelle with pesto and grilled fish

This dish combines the creaminess of the basil pesto with the crispy heat of the grilled fish. It is a good lunch dish or as part of a larger dinner. It also is not too bad for the bariatric patient as long as they do not overdo on the pasta. Get the lovely basil flavor and eat the fish.

Purchase 4 ounces of fish (look for firm white fleshed fish like halibut, swordfish, tilapia, and rockfish) per person. Cut into 1” chunks and set aside in a bowl. Make a seasoned flour with seasonings you like (can be spicy, mild etc). Mix well and set aside.

Make the basil pesto: In a blender place 2 cups of fresh basil, two garlic cloves, a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper, ¼ cup of pine nuts (substitute toasted almonds or walnuts, if pine nuts are not available), then add about ¼ cup of olive oil and start to blend. Add additional olive oil in a stream slowly as the emulsion forms. If you are serving the pesto immediately add ½ cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and continue to blend until smooth. Set aside. If you want to make a larger volume, add additional ingredient but do not add the cheese if it is going to be frozen. That can be added when you defrost the sauce.

For four or five servings make up 1 pound of dried tagliatelle or linguine. Cook the pasta, drain and add the pesto. Mix thoroughly and keep warm. Dredge the fish pieces in the flour mixture and saute in a good amount of vegetable oil at 370 degrees F. Brown and cook the fish and put on a warm platter to hold until all pieces are cooked. Don’t use olive oil here. Portion out the pasta into warm bowls and top with 5-6 pieces of fish. Pass lemon wedges.

Black cabbage with oven dried tomatoes and pancetta

Black cabbage (a local Italian vegetable), chard, or spinach can be braised in water with some added garlic cloves. To complete the dish, pancetta or thick bacon is cut into small chunks and sautéed in a bit of olive oil. Add the vegetables and saute quickly. Serve hot.

Sweet and sour cipollini

The little onions that are available in Italy are quite sweet and delicious. They are however a bit of a problem to peel. To solve that problem, drop the onions into boiling water for a minutes and then drain then and cool quickly in cold water. Trim the end off and the onion slips right out of the skin.

To make them agrodolce (sweet and sour), add 1 cup of sugar to 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Put some salt and crushed dried red pepper in the solution to taste. Cook for at least 10 minutes at a good boil to reduce the water. Add about 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of apple or white wine vinegar, return to a boil and then start to taste it. You are looking for a balance between the sweet and the sour. When you have reached the taste you want, dump the onions into the solution and cook for 20 minutes until they are tender. These can be canned in sterile jars in a water bath for 10 minutes or simply placed in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. Use them from the fridge in a week of two. Canned, they will store well for months if they seal well.

Cooking is fun and when you treat it as an on-going taste and ingredient experiment, it can be quite rewarding and delicious. Besides you don't have to serve your failures. So cook with confidence, and never let them see you sweat. There are always omelets if all else fails.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some different takes on fish

I keep returning to fish dishes, but frankly they are easy to digest, can be quite elegantly presented, and are excellent at dinner parties. These four recipes from the Mediterranean region represent a variety of different cuisines, flavors and presentations. They appear to be complicated but in reality are relatively easy. Work through them slowly and you will be rewarded with some great flavors.

Spanish Salt Cod Fritters with Spicy Tomato Sauce

4 ounces salt cod
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced Spanish onion
3/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
3 eggs
Spicy Tomato Sauce

Place the salt cod in a bowl, cover with cold water, and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water often. Press all of the excess water out of the salt cod and finely chop.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped cod and cook for 3 to 4 more minutes. Drain any excess liquid and discard liquid. Place cod-onion mixture in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Set aside.

In a heavy bottomed 2 1/2-quart saucepan, combine the water, remaining 1/4 cup butter, salt, and the cayenne. Bring to a rolling boil. Remove from the heat and add the flour, all at once, to the pan and quickly stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to incorporate the flour into the liquid. Return the pan to the stove, and over a medium-low heat, continue to cook and stir the dough over the fire. Do this until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Remove from the heat and cool dough to 140 degrees F, about 5 minutes.

Put the vegetable oil into a heavy stockpot or deep fryer to a depth of 3 inches and heat oil to 360 degrees F.

To the dough mixture add 1 egg and beat well with a wooden spoon until completely incorporated. Continue adding the remaining eggs, 1 at a time, waiting until each egg is incorporated before adding the next egg. Stir the cod mixture into the dough. This panade is the basis for the fritters

Spoon tablespoon-sized balls of dough into the preheated oil. Fry until cooked through and golden brown, about 4 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, remove fritters from the oil and drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Season generously with seasoned salt and pepper.
Serve hot with Spicy Tomato Sauce.

Spicy Tomato Sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup chopped onions
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes
1 bay leaf
3 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano leaves

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, salt, and black pepper and saute until the onions are translucent, about 2 minutes.
Add the garlic, crushed red pepper, and tomato paste, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, bay leaf, and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the basil and oregano the last 5 minutes of simmering.
Remove from the heat, remove and discard the bay leaf, and pulse the mixture in a food processor or blender until pureed but still slightly chunky. Serve immediately or store, refrigerated, in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Reheat in a saucepan over low heat.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Sea bass with pesto, zucchini and carrots cooked en papillote

Cooking en papillote (in a pocket) is an easy and quick way to make delicious fish dishes. Normally these are made with parchment paper, but the use of aluminum foil is an easy and always-available alternative to the parchment paper traditionally used. Cooking with parchment is also quite easy, but often it is not part of our kitchen “toolkit”. As the fish and vegetables bake in their packets, they render a delicious broth that is then poured over the fish at serving time. For the bariatric patient, the 8 oz portion size would likely be too much, however this fish makes a superb leftover meal when served the next day, flaked cold in a salad. Or simply buy smaller portions of fish.

4 sea bass fillets, about 1 inch thick (about 2 pounds in all)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1/4 cup pesto, homemade is preferable (recipe follows)
1 zucchini, grated
3 carrots, grated
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Make four 12-inch squares of aluminum foil
Place on a work surface and brush lightly with cooking oil
Put a fish fillet in the center of each square of foil.
Sprinkle the fillets with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper.
Spread the fish with the pesto.
Cover the pesto with the carrots and top with the zucchini.
Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Gather the foil around the fish and drizzle the fish with the oil and wine.
Fold the edges of the foil to make a sealed package.
And place on a baking sheet
Bake the fish until just done, about 10-12 minutes.
Open the foil packages and transfer the fillets with their vegetable topping to warm plates.
Pour the juices over the top.

You can use other small, flat, white fish fillets, with or without the skin, such as red snapper, pompano, or striped bass. A four ounce fish fillet will give you about 22 grams of protein and about 200 calories.

To make pesto at home is very easy. It requires a blender, a good bunch of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and grated Parmesano-Reggiano cheese.
Put two cups of fresh basil leaves in a blender
Add 2 cloves of fresh peeled garlic
Add about ½ cup of olive oil and start the blender and puree the mixture
Add the pine nuts as the blender is going
Continue to stream the olive oil in slowly, you will probably use about a cup of a bit more
Add a bit of salt
At the last moment, add about ½ cup of grated Parmesano-Reggiano. It’s done.

If you wish to freeze some, do not add the cheese until you defrost the sauce. Freeze the sauce in small amounts (1/4 cup) in air-tight containers or plastic bags.

Moroccan Grilled Salmon

Tangy plain yogurt mixed with the classic ingredients for chermoula—a Moroccan spice mix—serves as both the marinade and the sauce in this salmon dish. If you like your food on the spicy side, add a pinch of cayenne to the mixture.

2 tablespoons low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
8 ounces center-cut salmon fillet, skinned and cut into 2 portions
2 lemon wedges

Tip: To skin a salmon fillet: Place a fish fillet on a clean cutting board, skin side down. Starting at the tail end, slip the blade of a long, sharp knife between the fish flesh and the skin, holding the skin down firmly with your other hand. Gently push the blade along at a 30° angle, separating the fillet from the skin without cutting through either.

Combine yogurt, parsley, cilantro, lemon juice, oil, garlic, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the sauce; cover and refrigerate. Place salmon in a medium sealable plastic bag. Pour in the remaining yogurt mixture, seal the bag and turn to coat. Refrigerate for 10 (or up to 30) minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat grill to medium-high.

Oil the grill rack. Remove the salmon from the marinade, blotting any excess. Grill the salmon until it is browned and just cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Top the salmon with the reserved sauce and garnish with lemon wedges.

Grouper Poached in Olive Oil With Grape Leaves

This dish is served with rice cakes and is certainly of Mediterranean origin. Serves 2. Grape leaves can be fun. Use them for dolmas and other Greek dishes.

2 grouper fillets (4-6 ounces each)
Salt and pepper
Jar of preserved grape vine leaves
Chives, left long and blanched for 1 minute in boiling water
Olive oil enough to cover the fish bundles

Rice Cakes
1 cup of cold cooked rice (preferably Arborio)
1 egg, beaten
Some grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
All-purpose flour for dredging
Oil for frying

Green Pea and Caper Sauce
1 cup of green peas (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. of fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. of finely chopped capers
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
Salt and pepper to taste

Take the preserved grape leaves out of the jar and briefly rinse them to remove excess salt. Remove any stems from the leaves and place them vein-side up on your work surface. Place two long stems of blanched chives on your work surface in cross (+) formation. Set one grape leaf where the chives intersect, then begin to lay enough grape leaves just overlapping each other in an outward circular pattern. The number of grape leaves required to bundle your fillet depends on how large your leaves are and the size of the fish fillet.

Lightly season your fillet with salt and pepper and place in the center of your grape leaves. Now carefully bring the other edges of the grape leaves (with the chive stems) up towards the top of the fish fillet and wrap your bundle. Carefully tie the bundle up with the chive stems.
Place a pot large enough to hold both bundles on your stove-top and add some olive oil (eyeball it). Gently heat up your olive oil (medium heat) to an approximate temperature of 250-300F. Your olive oil should be just “quivering”. Gently drop your bundles into the olive oil know side down and poach for 20 minutes. Keep the oil quivering.

Mix the rice, cheese, beaten egg, and salt and pepper for your rice cakes and form the mixture into patties. Dredge lightly in flour and reserve. Add about 1/2 inch of cooking oil into a large skillet bring to about a temperature of 350-360F. Carefully place your rice cakes in the hot oil and fry for about 3 minutes per side or until golden brown. Place on a paper-towel covered plate and keep warm.
Carefully remove your fish bundles and place on a paper-towel covered platter. Reserve.

Make your pea and caper sauce. You can use either fresh or frozen (thawed) peas, place in a small pot of salted boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and blanch in cold water (peas should be slightly warm). Add the peas to a food processor with a bit of the cooking water and puree. Now add the mustard, lemon juice and with the processor running, add a slow stream of olive oil (you may use the olive oil used to poach the fish). Add the capers, chives and dill and pulse a few times to blend in. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Spoon some sauce onto the bottom of each warmed plate. Place your poached grouper bundle (tied-side down) on top of the sauce. Place a rice cake on the side of the plate and garnish with chives and chopped fresh dill. Serve warm.