Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas in Umbria

This is the first year that I am spending Christmas in my adopted country, Italy. Last year, 2008, I was in Santa Rosa, California working on my extended visa with the Italian consulate in San Francisco, and had Christmas with my sons, their wives and my two grand children.

A lot has changed in my life this year. Elizabeth and I are nearing our second anniversary in March. I am working with her catering group as a cook, and doing some instruction in the cooking classes. I continue, slowly, learning Italian each week and that is getting a bit better. My scientific life has been put on hold though I do read a lot and follow the current scientific thinking and trends.

On a personal level, my weight has remained at 165 pounds since flattening out in June 2009. I have found that I can eat and enjoy lots of different kinds of food without discomfort. That includes an occasional glass of wine, or spirits. In a recent discussion on line I found that after weight loss surgery, alcohol reacts more quickly on the system and some say that one drink may be the equivalent of four, so if you are going to imbibe, do it carefully and be aware of the effects it may have on you. This is not to say don’t drink, but early in the post-surgical healing, the alcohol may irritate the surgical site, so slowly, slowly. A little at a time.

So this Christmas I will write about the experience of being and eating in Italy during the holidays.

Natale con i tuoi; Pasqua con chi vuoi. Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you like.

The Christmas holidays in Italy are an extended time, running from Christmas Eve until the 6th of January. It is a time for family gatherings, traditional foods, and celebrations. These are predominantly religious holidays, but over the years the religious nature has been diluted somewhat by the secular.

Christmas Eve, La Vigilia di Natale, is a major family event. Entire small towns become quiet as the people leave and return to family homes elsewhere. The big cities are quiet and it is safe to cross the street. It is a time of gathering. It is multi-generational, and much of the cooking is done by the older women, using classic recipes, and historic methods. Children are running amuck as children do at Christmas everywhere. The kitchen is warm with the smells of bread and cookies baking, and meats are roasting or simmering. Pasta is being rolled out, sauces being prepared and sweets are either purchased from the bakery or baked at home. The Christmas Eve meal is traditionally dominated by fish and seafoods, throughout much of Italy. There are certainly regional and even city level difference in the choices of fish for the meal, but if it swims and extracts oxygen from an aqueous medium, it is a potential food source. Sardines, anchovies, squid, shrimp, octopus, fish of all types, baccalà (salt cod) and especially the freshwater eel (Anguilla) are all present in the various Christmas Eve dishes. It is traditional that seven or more fish dishes be served on Christmas Eve and eel is considered one of the most important. Its snake-like body represents a continuity between the past and the future, and is eaten grilled as spiedini (skewered) interspersed with sage leaves as served in Bologna, or in a braise, or just grilled over an open fire in the fireplace. Its consumption is often the centerpiece of the dinner.

This Christmas Eve, we will be hosting a party for between 12 and 15 friends here at Casa Ruspante. The house has been decorated with our new presepe (crèche) I bought for Elizabeth at the local Christmas market in Umbertide. It is composed of clay figures, painted in great colors and was hand made in Peru. It makes a nice addition to the Christmas sideboard. Hand-painted ornaments are placed around, with a gold garland of tinsel. A ceramic Christmas tree adds some green to the display and an added festive touch. Candles are set up, to be lit before dinner. Gifts for friends are all wrapped and placed on the sideboard to hand out on Christmas Eve. They are small gifts, more tokens of affection than anything else. They are often things like kitchen towels and implements, various marmalattas I have put up, and in at least one case, cash. Our stockings (le calzi) are hung from the mantle.

Our dinner menu will be dominated by fish and seafood. Antipasti will be crostini (bruschetta) with braised cavolo nero (black cabbage, a winter vegetable) and anchovies, a spicy shrimp (gamberetti) dish, a baccalà pate to be spread on crostini or cucumbers, and a plate of sliced pecorino and Cacciota cheeses with chutney recently made here. The primo piatti (first course) will be freshly made tagliatelle with smoked salmon and fresh peas in a light bechamel sauce. The secondo (second course) will be grilled or lightly fried fish with a lemon mostarda (that I made two weeks ago) and garnished with lemon slices. I will make some pickled onions to go along with the fish. A friend is bringing artichokes alla romana. We will be preparing a baked pumpkin topped with gruyere cheese as a vegetable course. It is dish my wife is quite fond of. She learned to cook it in Provence, brought the seeds from France, and the pumpkin was grown by a good friend.  Dessert will be a persimmon cake with a brandy hard sauce and possibly a mince pie. That makes five fish or seafood dishes. Not quite the expected seven, but frankly it will be as much as I can handle for that many people. Wine will be poured and consumed and the mood I am sure will be festive.

Crostini (bruschetta) with braised cavolo nero and anchovies

Cavolo nero is a “chard-like” leafy vegetable that has a hard bitter stem and less bitter leaves. It requires a lengthy cooking in boiling salted water. I trim the ends of the stems off, and then strip the leaves from the stems.  I chop up the stems and put them in a pot of boiling water and cook them for at least 20-30 minutes. I then add the leaves that have been chopped and cook the vegetables until they are well done. They will not be mushy as these are tough vegetables. Drain them well and allow to cool. Then squeeze out as much moisture as you can. When ready to serve, chop the vegetables into a fine dice. Saute 5-8 anchovy fillets in a bit of olive oil in a saute pan until they dissolve. Add some minced garlic, allow to color slightly (do not let them burn) and then add the cavolo nero and saute. Add a bit more olive oil if it appears tobe drying out. However the mixture should be quite dry to serve.

I make my bruschetta in a grill pan on the stove during the winter. Grill the bread slices until slightly crisp and well marked with the grill marks. Remove them to a rack, and rub each slice with a garlic clove. Brush on a good measure of high quality olive oil, and sprinkle with seasoned salt or just plain salt. Cut the bruschetta into 3-4 pieces each and place a small mound of the cavolo nero on top. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve warm.

Spicy shrimp

The spicy shrimp is based upon a sweet and sour sauce and uses the locally available small gamberetti (shrimp) sold frozen in packages. They are already cooked and only need to be defrosted under running cold water in a colander and then reheated in the sauce. The sweet and sour sauce is simply made using pineapple juice, vinegar, sugar, ketchup, green peppers, and onions. In a sauce pan put the juice from a can of pineapple or use pineapple juice directly. Add about 2 tablespoons of sugar, ½ cup of ketchup, and ½ cup of apple cider vinegar to taste. Dice a green pepper and an onion and add to the sauce. Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes to thicken it. Taste this one. The flavor is very personal and if you need to add more sugar or vinegar, or pineapple or ketchup do so. To make it a bit hotter, add a couple of good splashes of Tabasco sauce or an oriental hot sauce. Again taste to make it yours. When you have the taste you want add the shrimp. Allow the mixture to warm and serve in a warm bowl. Provide small dishes for individual servings.

Baccalà pate

This is a dish I am trying for the first time and I hope it comes off well. It will combine baccalà (salt cod) which has been soaked for two days to remove the preserving salts and then poached, with fresh butter, some capers, a couple of anchovy fillets, chopped parsley, and some lemon juice. No additional salt is needed (hopefully) but generous grinds of black pepper are called for. The fish (about ½ to 1 pounds) is poached in a court bouillon with onions and black pepper until the fish is cooked and flakes easily. Allow the fish to cool on a plate and then flake it checking for bones. Put the fish in a food processor with a steel blade. Add 100 grams (a cube) of butter, a good tablespoon of drained pickled capers, two anchovy fillets, 1 /2 cup of parsley and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Process until smooth. Then taste and add pepper as needed. This pate will be served either on cucumber rounds (if good cucumbers are available right now) or on toasted crostini made with my quick bread (see the recipe for beer bread in an earlier post) seasoned with fennel seeds.

So this Christmas Eve we will eat fish and celebrate la vigilia di natale with friends and neighbors.

On Christmas Day (Natale) we have been invited to a dear friends for an early dinner and what we will be consuming is not known. What is known is that a goodly amount of wine will be offered and poured and a warm Yule log will be burning in the fireplace.

The 26th of December is call Santo Stefano and we will be attending a chorale in the main piazza in Umbertide.

New Years Eve (capo d’ anno) this year will be one of catering a festive dinner for five which includes a birthday cake for one of the celebrants. We will grill some marinated lamb; have some tagliatelle with a tomato and meat sauce, mixed roasted winter vegetables, and a salad with mixed greens and an acacia honey vinaigrette. I will make a Zuccota or domed cake as a birthday cake, sprinkled with rum, and filled with chocolate ganache, cherry gelato and chocolate gelato. It is quite spectacular and is always a hit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Primo piatti - First plate sauces

Primo piatti means the "first plate" in Italian. After you have eaten a bit of the antipasti and had a bit of wine in the living room, you move to the dining room table and sit down. The first plate is about to arrive. More often than not, the first plate is a pasta dish and is almost always of modest size and minimally sauced. You must eat the pasta when it is hot an immediately after being served. In our catering service we don't call the diners to the table until we are ready to serve the pasta.

Pasta in its thousands of various forms, is institutionalized in the Italian diet. They use either fresh (more likely northern Italians) or dried (generally southern Italians). Regardless of how it is served or what its basic form, the Italian does not over sauce their pasta.

The Italians do not drown their pasta in sauce but almost use it as a condiment, to enhance the flavor of the pasta rather than overwhelm it. In my post "What about pasta?" I discuss how pasta is made and served. In this post I will be giving you some interesting sauces to use as well as serving information. The picture was taken by Kathy Simon in 2009. Thanks, Kathy.

Pasta is not a great addition to the bariatric menu but it can be quite satisfying in small doses. These recipes are designed to feed a group, so don’t feel that you have to eat all of the pasta yourself. Remember that Eight Bites can be used up by a few bites of pasta or by a piece of meat. Take the bites of pasta occasionally (sharing a plate of pasta with a friend can be terrific) and enjoy the great flavors.

Basil Pesto Sauce

This is a classic sauce that is often served with gnocchi (potato dumpling pasta). It is very rich and creamy and a little goes a long ways. You can make up a large batch and freeze a portion. If you do freeze it, do not add the cheese before freezing. Line an ice cube tray with plastic wrap, and fill each pocket with the pesto. Freeze and then remove from the ice tray and store the cubes in a freezer bag. When you want to use the pesto, remove a few cubes (as much as you need) and defrost and then add in the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. Pesto can also be used as a topping for crostini. You might wish to add some of finely chopped walnuts to the pesto when served as crostini.

3 cups fresh basil leaves
3/4 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese

Place basil leaves, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in a blender. I like to add the olive oil in a stream during the processing, because I think it makes a better emulsion. Process until smooth. Pour out into a bowl. If the sauce is to be used immediately, mix in the grated cheese. Heat gently in a small pan when ready to use. Pesto can also be made in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle, but make it easy on yourself and use the blender. Other herbs can be used instead of basil. You might like to try sorrel, rucola, or fresh young grape leaves (stay away from pesticide-sprayed vineyards).

Sugo do pomodori e verdure

The next recipe is for what could be considered a classic tomato-vegetable sauce that is a sauce common in Sardinia. The aroma (vegetable mix) is often sold in a single package in the grocery so you just have to chop up the vegetables and start cooking.

1/4 cup good olive oil
2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice
1 yellow onion (often a red onion is added to the pre made aromi package)
4 large carrots, grated and are normally just washed and not peeled
A handful of flat-leafed Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp. peperoncino (hot pepper flakes), optional
2 lbs fresh cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1-2 liters passata di pomodori (or a quart of tomato purée)
1 cup water
1 cup white wine
1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese (to be added at the end)

Use a 11-12” large heavy stainless steel frying pan with 3-4” high sides.
Pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom and bring it to a medium temperature.
Chop the celery and onion coarsely; mince the parsley and garlic together; grate the carrot, unpeeled, on the largest holes of a grater.
Add these to the heated oil.
Wash the tomatoes and remove the stem, leaving whole.
Place the tomatoes on top of the other vegetables and sprinkle in a tablespoon of salt.
Cover the pan and place over medium heat
When the vegetables have cooked down a bit, add the wine and stir for another 15 minutes.
Add the tomato puree, and rinse out the containers with water and add the water to the mix, and stir.
Continue to cook, covered over medium heat, for another half hour.
Stir regularly to ensure that the sauce is not sticking to the bottom. .
When the sauce is thick and no longer watery, remove from the heat and set aside, covered. Reheat just before you are ready to add to the pasta.

Sugo di Cinghiale (Sauce of Wild Boar, Herbs, Olives, Juniper Berries and Wine)

This sauce is often served in the fall and winter during the hunting season for wild boar. These big creatures are heavily hunted in Umbria and Tuscany and provide a large amount of meat. The population of these boar seems to be increasing each year and they have become significant agricultural pests. The hunts are large scale hunting club affairs with men dressed in camouflage clothing, with dogs. Some of these hunts can sound like a war zone. Some of the boar meat is kept by the hunters, and the rest is often sold to commercial meat packers for sausage or salame. If wild boar meat is not available in your area, try using a good shoulder roast of pork. Try to find a well-marbled piece to get the added flavor of the fat into the sauce.

1 pound wild boar shoulder, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup good olive oil
Flat-leafed Italian parsley (chopped)
1-2 onions (coarsely chopped)
2 carrots (washed and grated)
2 celery stalks washed and coarsely chopped
1 small branch of rosemary, 5-6 inches long
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup black olives, with or without pits (remember to let people know which kind you added)
3 fresh bay leaves
6-7 juniper berries
4-5 capers preserved in vinegar
1 liter passata di pomodori (or one large can of tomato puree)
1 cup dry white wine

Saute the vegetables, stirring until the onions are golden. Add the remainder of the ingredients except for the tomatoes and wine. Cook and stir for another 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the tomatoes and wine and cover and cook over low to medium heat for 1/2 hour, stirring regularly. Add more wine if necessary to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan. This is classically served with hot polenta (easy to make up at home), but can also be served with penne, pappardelle (wide egg noodles), or rigatoni. Larger pasta holds onto the thick sauce a bit better, but do remember to minimally sauce the pasta. You don’t want the pasta to be swimming in the sauce.

Sugo all'amatriciana

This is a fairly simple tomato based recipe from the area of Amatrice (in the region of Abruzzi, near Rome). In its original form it was made with guanciale and pecorino cheese, no tomatoes. As tomatoes were introduced into Italy the dish was altered to include the new vegetables.

As the recipe spread, variants were introduced depending on local availability of certain ingredients, and are still commonly used. While some have become accepted, other variations are considered corruptive and are frowned upon by locals and especially opposed by people from Amatrice, who are understandably protective of the traditional standard recipe. For example, the addition of garlic sautéed in olive oil ("soffritto") before adding guanciale is widely accepted, whereas the use of onion in its place is strongly discouraged. The substitution of local pecorino cheese with the more easily available pecorino Romano is widely accepted, while replacing guanciale with the more common (and less expensive) pancetta is not considered acceptable. However in many parts of the world, guanciale (smoked pork cheeks) are not commonly available and a perfectly suitable replacement would be well-smoked, thickly sliced bacon. The addition of black pepper or peperoncino is considered a matter of personal taste.

Peel, seed, and slice 2 pounds of tomatoes
Cut 1/2 pound of guanciale (or bacon) into thick cubes and fry them with a bit of oil and pinch of dried chili flakes.
Cook on a high flame for a few minutes till the meat becomes lightly browned.
Add a ½ cup of little wine and cook down until no liquid is left.
Remove guanciale cubes, set them aside and keep them warm.
Cook the slices of tomato in the hot pan with a bit of salt, for a few minutes
Then add the browned guanciale back into the pan
Continue cooking for 5-10 minutes to thicken the sauce
Grate 1 cup of pecorino cheese

To serve: boil the pasta " al dente" and put it in a heated bowl; put on it half of the grated pecorino, add all the tomato sauce, stir it again, then top with the remaining pecorino cheese and serve immediately.

Sugo alla Puttanesca

The etiology of the name for this sauce is a bit murky but it does have a colorful past. According to one story, sugo alla Puttanesca was invented in the 1950s by the owner of a famous Ischian restaurant. When near closing one evening the owner found a group of hungry friends sitting at one of the tables. He was low on ingredients and told them he didn't have enough to make them a meal. They complained that it was late and they were hungry. "Facci una puttanata qualsiasi" or “make any kind of garbage,” they insisted. (In this usage, puttanata is a noun meaning garbage or something worthless even though it derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana.) The owner only had tomatoes, olives and capers; basic ingredients for the sugo. And those are still the primary ingredients for the sauce.

Made of ingredients found in most Italian larders, this dish is also known as sugo alla buona donna - or 'good woman's sauce’. It was also said that it was a quick, cheap meal that prostitutes could prepare between customers. So the story goes. But the sauce is terrific.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 small fresh red chili, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons salted capers, rinsed and drained
8 pitted black olives, quartered
14 oz (420g) canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the garlic and anchovies and cook for another minute, stirring to break up the anchovies. Add the chili, capers, olives, and tomatoes, salt and pepper, and bring to the boil.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook your pasta of choice then drain the pasta and stir into the heated sauce.
Top with chopped parsley and the reserved tablespoon of olive oil, and toss together gently to combine.

Bechamel sauce and variations

The last sauce is for a white sauce or bechamel sauce that can be flavored with a variety of ingredients to enhance the particular pasta dish being served. It is particularly good with lighter ravioli, tortellini, or other filled pastas. We serve pumpkin ravioli with a version of this sauce that incorporated walnuts and a bit of Marsala wine.

The basic bechamel sauce is very simple but needs to be watched to ensure that it doesn’t scorch or thicken too much.

Put three tablespoons of butter in a frying pan over medium heat to melt.
When butter is melted but NOT brown, add three tablespoons of flour
With a whisk, stir the flour into the butter until it has combined and no raw flour is visible.
Cook for about two to three minutes over low heat to cook out the flour taste
Heat 1-2 cups of milk in a sauce pan and add one cup to the butter mixture and whisk in.
It will thicken quickly, add salt and ground white pepper to taste.
If the sauce is too thick add a bit more warm milk.

Don’t worry about it being too thin, It will get thicker.

To make a cheese sauce, add ½ to ¾ cup of grated cheese (combine Parmigiano-Reggiano and a meltable cheese) and stir until melted.

To make a walnut sauce, add 2 tablespoons of Marsala (optional) and ½ cup finely chopped walnuts. Add a 1/8 tsp of ground nutmeg. Stir and combine to thicken.

Another version of a cheese sauce is a simple mixture of melted butter (4 Tablespoons), 4 ounces of Gorgonzola cheese, cream, grated nutmeg and a good grind of black pepper. Add 1 cup of cream to the melted butter, add the cheese and the pepper and nutmeg. Stir until thickened and cheese has melted and serve over meat filled or cheese filled tortelloni or tortellini for one of the best “Mac and cheese” dishes of all time.

So there are some sauce recipes. Great flavors, seasonings and textures. Enjoy a bit of pasta occasionally with a group of friends. Your life will be better for it.  Mangia.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Being big and being Santa

This is a bit of an unusual post. I was writing an email to a friend about my experiences as Santa Claus during the holidays and as I considered what I wanted to say, I kept seeing myself as the big guy being the Santa in the stories. The problem was that I was the big guy in the stories. This was a time in my life when I didn't think about my weight as a handicap or as a detriment to my health. I was simply able to put on my Santa suit with no additional pillows or padding. The kids when they snuggled up to me just felt me under that suit and it made them feel closer to the real Santa. And it made me feel like the real Santa.

So here are a few of my stories on being Santa.

From 1979 to 1990 I was given the amazing responsibility of being Santa Claus during December. In the beginning, I had my Father’s old suit made of flannel with some actual wolf fur for trim. The beard and the wig were cheesy and the “boots” were just covers for black shoes. But I put it on and I became Santa. It was an amazing transforming experience each time I put on that and subsequent suits over the years. It was not a costume. To the children and many others, Santa was real, not a character like the Easter Bunny, or a Halloween character. You were transformed and you had to behave and act the way Santa would act.

Every year I would plan to visit the children of my co-workers in San Diego. We all had kids in the appropriate age range (4-8 years old) so I would show up at their houses, with a bag of presents provided by Mom and Dad. I would come in Ho Ho Ho-ing and then sit for a while with the kids so pictures could be taken. I then almost always sat down on the floor with the kids to look at their presents and spend a few minutes of bonding. I rarely was there more than 20 minutes. Kids kind of get into emotional overload with Santa, so I would come in, do the visit and get out. The years went on and the kids got bigger and they began to not believe any longer. That was a sad time but it was inevitable.

While those times were precious to me there were others that were magical.

After doing a Christmas party for a friend’s child, I went to find my wife who had been shopping at Toys R Us in San Diego. The one thing you never do is wear part of the costume. Either you are in it and Santa or you are out of it and not Santa. No in between. So I decided to walk into Toys R Us in full costume. It was amazing. I was looking for Sandi and was wandering up and down the aisles. Kids were pulling parents toward me and parents were pulling kids toward me. I would kneel down and give then each a hug and a candy cane and then walk on. I finally found Sandi and we finished shopping. She was having fun watching all the kids. As we went to check out, the checker in our line was frowning at me and said that I was disappointing a lot of children there. But I looked over into the next checkout aisle and there was this beautiful little girl about 5 years old sitting in the cart. She was staring at me and she held out her arms to me. I walked over and hugged her and gave her a candy cane and then turned to the checker. “That’s what this is all about”. I paid and left, I don’t remember the checker, but I remember that little girl.

Another time I was driving home from a visit and cruising along in my bright orange Volvo sedan. I noticed a car going off the off ramp behind me, then swerving back on the freeway and accelerating toward me. It was a black limo and as it pulled up next to me I noticed that the window on the passenger side was down and there was a little boy leaning out the window, with a very excited look on his face. As the cars closed together, I leaned out the window and gave the little one a candy cane (at 60 MPH) and wished him a Merry Christmas. They sped off and went off the next off ramp. I would be willing to bet that the little boy remembers that Christmas.

Being Santa was the highest and best use of my time during that holiday time. But these last stories affected me the most of all.

I was visiting a convalescent home that was managed by a dear friend of mine. I had spent a lot of time in the communal hall with the patients gathered singing songs and getting presents. Most were elderly and many were in wheelchairs. But they were an enthusiastic group. After a half hour or so I asked if I could wander the halls and visit the patients in their rooms, if they had not been able to come out. Marilyn said sure so I wandered off. I would pop into a room, and if the patient was awake, wish them a merry Christmas and then quickly disappear. But as I approached one room the nurse said that there was no reason to go in there, the lady was out of it and was probably asleep. But I persisted. I walked into the room and the woman, very frail and old, was lying there quietly and apparently asleep. I stood next to the bed, and took her hand and held it. She opened her eyes, and looked at me, dressed in that silly red suit and that white beard and wig, and for a second there was recognition. Just for a second, there was a light in her eyes. And then they closed again. I needed a drink after that visit.

The final story was about a Christmas Party given by my wife’s sorority for children with Cystic Fibrosis. It was held at a clubhouse and the party had been going on for an hour by the time I made my entrance. I had two huge bags of presents for the kids and came in to loud and welcoming screams and yells from the kids. Children with CF do not grow very well generally and are often quite small. But there was one little girl standing over in a corner that caught my attention. She was dressed nicely but did not look like she was having a good time. She was probably 5 or 6 years old. When she saw me come in, she took off running toward me and I knew I needed to catch her. She threw herself at me from several feet away and I caught her as she hit my chest. She stuck to me like Velcro. So I dropped the bags of packages and hugged her to me for a minute. She would not let go of me and I sat there with her on one knee and the other kids, one after the other, on the other knee for the whole time I was there. She never spoke or said anything to me. She didn’t have to. I just knew. She died later that next year.

So being Santa was not only a wondrous experience leaving me with so many stories and memories, but it was a significant responsibility as well. It was my gift to myself each holiday season. I accepted the responsibility as well as the love. It was a precious time. I have also come to realize that while my weight influenced how I acted as Santa it also affected my health. What I have done in my weight loss is to stop being Santa and start being healthy. Losses and gains are a part of the process.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Italian Antipasti

Cooking in Italy and particularly cooking in rural areas is almost always based upon regionally and seasonally available fresh ingredients. The various regions within Italy all have significantly different cuisines and you can tell you are in Umbria for example by the dishes presented. There are differences between Milan, Florence, Naples, Rome, Sicily, the Marche and the Veneto as well as in all of the other specific areas that Italy is divided into. Some areas favor olive oil, others butter or a local favorite in some areas, lardo. Carbohydrates in some areas are dominated by pasta and in others by risottos or polenta. However the common theme in each region is a culinary emphasis, particularly in restaurants and in catering, on what is that region's cuisine.

I would like to share some of the recipes and dishes I have learned to prepare and show how they can fit into a post-bariatric surgery lifestyle. I will start as any Italian meal of substance will start, with the antipasti. Generally antipasti are provided prior to when the actual dinner is served, along with a glass of prosecco (sparkling wine) or a glass of red or white wine from the region. The small bites are eaten along with sips of the wine and can provide a basis for conversation in and of themselves or just accentuate the conversation going on. Dining is both a gustatory experience as well as a social one and that is how it should be. Eating alone or in silence is not very much fun. So I try to make the antipasti beautiful and tasty, sometimes to provoke conversation and sometimes just for their intrinsic value. Following posts will deal with pasta dishes, meats and vegetables and desserts.

Antipasti in the post-bariatric period are often the only dishes selected by diners at restaurants. Frankly I look at the antipasti menu as my entire meal. They are small bites, often deliciously flavored and can encompass significant amounts of protein. They can be filling and satisfying. I love making antipasti for my catering clients. They can be beautiful, tasty and a welcome addition to the pre-dinner cocktails and wine.

I will focus on several crostini as your starter choices. The basis for most of these is my quick beer bread (the recipe was presented in an earlier post). Recently I have been adding ground toasted fennel seeds to the dough for a great new taste especially with mild flavored toppings. Add some garlic and onion powder, and some grated pecorino or Parmesano-Reggiano cheese to liven it up. After baking and cooling (24 hours), slice the bread into 1/2  inch slices, sprinkle or brush a bit of olive oil on them and grill or fry them in a non-stick frying pan to crisp. They then can be used for the preparation of the crostini. I use the whole slice to make the antipasti and then cut it into serving pieces for serving. I then use some beautiful flat serving platters to show them off.

Crostini with funghi pate

To make funghi pate is quite easy. It doesn't have much protein however so it should not be the only antipasti you eat. But it is quite tasty and is a valuable asset to your antipasti arsenal.

Purchase 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms (these can be white button, porcini, chanterelles or other mushrooms). Unless you are a very experienced mushroom hunter, do not use ones you find in the garden or forest. These can cause serious and often fatal medical conditions. Use the ones from the commercial growers to be safe.

Saute the mushrooms in 3-4 ounces of butter and a bit of olive oil. Add some salt and pepper. Some chopped onion works well here as well. As the mushrooms cook down they will release a lot of water, so continue to saute until the mushrooms appear almost dry. Add a pinch of dried oregano or marjoram. Ass the mushrooms cook down add about 1/4 cup of marsala ort brandy. Watch out for the flames here. Keep the fire low and add the alcohol to the pan off the flame.

When mushrooms are done, pour into the food processor; add 1/4 pound of cold butter, and 1/2 cup of chopped parsley. Pulse to reduce the mixture to a medium puree. Place the mixture in a storage container and then into the refrigerator. To serve simply spread the mixture on the warm crostini and sprinkle with some finely chopped fresh parsley. Serve 2 pieces at least to each person.

Crostini with Umbrian chicken liver (fegatini) pate

A lot of folks don't like chicken livers (or livers of any sort). But they can make a very nice antipasti with lots of protein and a nice flavor. Try this one at least once to see how you like it.

Purchase about 8-12 ounces of fresh chicken livers (here in our local market they are normally combined with chicken hearts). In the food processor, place 3/4 cup of giardineri mix (pickled vegetable mixture of carrots, cauliflower peppers and onions) and puree until coarsely chopped. Chop an onion into coarse dice and saute with the chicken livers in a mixture of olive oil and butter until the livers are just a bit pink on the inside. Try not to overcook the livers. I think this makes then grainy and may be why some people don't like them. Put the cooked chicken livers and onions into the food processor and add a 1/4 pound of cold butter cut into chunks. Add 1/2 cup of chopped parsley. Puree until smooth but where some of the small bits of the colorful vegetables can still be seen. Place in a container, seal and place in the refrigerator to solidify. To serve, simply spread on the crostini and top with some finely chopped parsley or chives.

Crostini with cannellini bean puree and caramelized onions and garlic

Again this crostini is quite a good-looking antipasti, but it has little protein so serve it with others that are a bit higher in protein.

Purchase a large can of great Northern white beans or fagiolini beans. Drain them and rinse them in cold water under the tap to remove the liquids they are canned in. Place the beans in a saucepan, and add a can of fresh water and a couple of cloves of garlic (peeled). Bring to a boil and simmer until most of the water has evaporated. Add some salt and pepper to taste. This mixture can be made as spicy as you want it with the addition of Tabasco sauce, red peperoncini flakes, or a Creole seasoning mix. Place in a food processor and puree until smooth. Add a bit of chopped parsley for a fresh added flavor and some color. Put in a container and place in the refrigerator to solidify.

In a second pan, saute 1 or 2 finely sliced white or yellow onions in 1/4 cup of an olive oil and butter mixture and a cup of water. Bring to high heat and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the water has disappeared and the onions start to caramelize. Taste them to see if you need to add a bit of sugar. Continue to cook until the onions are a golden brown, Watch them as they can burn easily near the end of the cooking. When they are golden, take them off the heat and place them in a container to cool and store in the refrigerator. To serve the crostini, spread some of the bean puree on the bread, and top with some of the onions. A small dollop of spicy chutney can be added here for some extra flavor.

Crostini with fresh ricotta, dried peperoncini, salt and honey (heated)

This is an unusual crostini that I make with thinly sliced baguettes that I brush with olive oil on on side and place in the oven at 350 degrees F for 7-8 minutes to toast.

Purchase about a pound of ricotta cheese (here in Italy we have wonderful fresh ricotta) and place it in a bowl. With an electric mixer whip the cheese to a smooth consistency. Add some dried peperoncino flakes to the level you like, and some salt to taste. The mixture should be spicy but not incendiary. Add some honey to temper the heat. But don't make it a dessert; just add a bit of sweetness. Spread the cheese mixture on the crostini and place them back in the oven until they6 start to get a nice golden color on top. Take out of the oven and serve hot (carefully as these are little napalm packages) or warm.

Crostini with chopped spiced tuna and tomato

This crostini is sort of like a tuna and tomato open faced sandwich and several can make a terrific lunch. This has a good amount of protein and is quite a suitable dish for the bariatric patient.

Open and drain a 4-6 ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil. Puree in the food processor with a tablespoon of pickled capers and a bit of fresh olive oil. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary. Chop two medium tomatoes in a coarse dice, a 1/2 cup of fresh basil, some oregano (died or fresh) and 1/2 cup of parsley. Blend the tomato mixture gently so you don't break it up. Gently add the tuna mixture. Place in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. This doesn't keep well so use it within a day or two of making it. The Tomato/tuna mixture can be spread on the same baguette crostini as above or on the toasted quick bread (the fennel flavored one works great with the tuna). This mixture can get a bit soggy so serve it immediately.  Add a sprinkle of chopped parsley for color.

Crostini with sausage and stracchino, Parmigiano-Reggiano and spicy chutney

I have used this sausage mixture in stuffed peppers as well as on crostini and it is terrific either way. It is high in protein and smooth enough to be easily digestible. I make the crostini up on the grill pan with a bit of olive oil brushed on the bread prior to grilling. Toast them well, and then remove to a rack. As they cool on a rack I spread a small amount of a nice chutney on the bread. The chutney soaks into the bread a bit and flavors the whole piece. Commercial chutney is quite good, but it is easy to make your own and you can season the chutney as spicy as you wish. Try making something like green tomato chutney, or fig with onions, or apple plum chutney. Making chutney can be a lot of fun and will provide you with a custom-made condiment that is quite different from the commercial brands. Check the internet for thousands of recipes.

Purchase about 3/4 to 1 pound of Italian sausage, either in bulk or in links. If in links, remove the casings and saute in a medium skillet until no longer pink. Place the sausage in the food processor with 8-12 ounces of a soft cream cheese (or strachinno cheese in Italy), and a 1/4 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pulse to break up the sausage but do not puree too finely. You want to keep some of the small chunks of sausage intact. This mixture can be made spicier by adding Tabasco sauce or dried pepper flakes. Season to your tastes. The mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or so. To serve, spread it on the chutney topped crostini, and add a small dollop of chutney to the top. Sprinkle a little parsley on the top. Works either cold, or you can heat the sausage mixture and serve it warm.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

St. Andrew's Day and my first haggis

Last night Elizabeth and I went to a St. Andrew's Day party at a local villa here in Umbria, Italy. St. Andrew's Day is an  annual event here in the Niccone Valley and there was a party for about thirty Scots, Brits, Aussies, Germans, and a couple of us Americans. We had a very nice time, eating haggis and drinking good Scotch whiskey, wine, and dancing Scottish reels!

What can I say about haggis? I have never eaten haggis, so I was as mystified about it as you might be. It was more like a meat and grain casserole than a cohesive slice of meat. Apparently, though I didn't see it, it was about 18" long and wrapped in a synthetic "stomach". They don't use real sheep's stomachs much anymore. I found that out when I asked a Scotswoman.  They do not actually serve the stomach muscle itself; it is just the “packaging” for the grain and meat cooked inside. The stomach acts like the casing of a salami. The haggis was cooked and then was removed from the casing in the kitchen and served from a platter. I took a big spoonful. It was in for a penny, in for a dime!

It was served with pureed cabbage and pureed potatoes alongside. A wee bit of good Scotch was poured into a glass, or in some cases over the haggis and you started to eat. I know its history, and I was a bit skeptical. But I found it had a great flavor and was quite interesting and good.  The texture was a bit strange, sort of like a fine-grained corned beef hash, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and had a small second helping. Not because I didn't want more, but because I was reaching my eight bites. A more typical Italian dinner followed where we were served roast pork, roast chicken and grilled sausages, oven fried potatoes, and a salad. Dessert was a light fruit cup with fresh fruits. A little of bite of this and a little bite of that. I did fine and survived another party as a bariatric eater.

After dinner and a few more of those wee bits of fine scotch, we moved on to the dance floor to dance Scottish folk dances. The dances were taught to us by a tall, good-looking guy in a kilt. Al and Betty were our hosts for the evening.  Al is quite a handsome guy and his wife Betty is absolutely adorable. Both are retired British military officers who live locally. Elizabeth's feet were a bit sore from her surgery and she didn’t want to dance so I danced with some of the other women there. Dancing is also a new experience in my post-surgery and lost-weight world. It has been a very long time since I danced folk dances which tend to be a bit vigorous. At 300 pounds I could never have done it. But at 165 pounds now, it was fun. It was a good evening. Learned three new dances, danced with some nice partners, and had a great time with the somewhat inebriated couples out on the small dance floor. There was a lot of banging into one another out there. A lot of laughter as well.

To close this post, you can and should go to holiday parties or any other type of party, but think about what and how to eat. Then eat what you should and can, join in the dance and have fun. I have finally discovered that being a bariatric patient gives you a new life and a new outlook. Dance on!