More Secrets to a Great Bruschetta

bruschetta-tomato-private-cycling-toursA few years ago I wrote an article here on “Secrets Behind a Great Bruschetta”. We made bruschetta this week on our cooking class during our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads cycling tour, and after cooking again with my friend Lucas I have a few more insights to share!

bruschetta-lucas-private-cycling-toursFirst of all, one of the secrets to the great tomato bruschetta here in Italy is their tomatoes. As early as mid-May I find tasty fresh tomatoes at the market. We have in the US the large Beefsteak tomatoes. In Italy, the equivalent is at the market already, the “Cuore di Bue” or “Heart of Ox” tomato. They are cultivated all over Italy, under different names in the different regions – Pomodoro di Albenga in Liguria, Pera d’Abruzzo in Abruzzo (Pear of Abruzzo). These tomatoes have a characteristic pear-shape, large and irregular with a smooth thin skin. They make a great bruschetta, and other raw tomato dishes, because they have exceptionally fleshy meat, with very few seeds in the pulp – a much more solid consistency than a typical Beefsteak or Heirloom tomato I find here. They also are incredibly tasty.

cuore-cut-tomatoes-private-cycling-toursThere are many varieties of fruits and vegetables found in Italy that are not cultivated in the US – I see numerous types of radicchio here, white asparagus, artichokes I can eat raw, and these Cuore di Bue tomatoes – which surprises me especially given that tomatoes originally came to Italy from North America! In lieu of Cuore di Bue tomatoes, you can chop up the best eating tomatoes you can find, season them with salt, pepper and oregano as the following recipe instructs, then place the tomatoes in a strainer over a bowl and allow to sit for a couple of hours. The water will slowly drain out, concentrating the tomato flavor.

bruschetta-cooking-class-private-cycling-toursLucas recommends a good robust bread for bruschetta, something made with harder wheat like semolina, rather than a lighter baguette. I like to use sourdough breads back in the US. He also adds a layer of olive paste, which we all agreed made a great dish even better!

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Visit my original post to read the rest of the tips: Secrets Behind a Great Bruschetta.

In Tuscany, where bruschetta is very popular, a nice white to pair would be a Vernaccia from San Gimignano. Here in the Veneto, I chose a wondeful Vespaiolo, a local white grape from the little-known Breganze wine region.

Tomato Bruschetta with Olive Paste

Makes 12 bruschetta

4 fresh tomatoes chopped and without seeds
1 tbsp good quality dried oregano
1 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
4 tbsp olive oil
12 pieces toasted sliced dense bread
Whole garlic cloves
Olive paste (you can find in Italian grocery shops, is very similar to Tapenade. If you can find, just buy your favorite olives and blend in a food processor).

In a bowl mix the chopped tomatoes, oregano, salt, pepper and olive oil.

Rub each slice of bread with the clove of garlic, a lot if you really like garlic, just a little if you don’t.

Top each bread piece with the olive paste, and then top with tomatoes. Serve immediately.

Posted in antipasti, garlic, Tomato, Travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Wine Pairings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pollo alla Cacciatora – Hunter’s Style Chicken

cacciatora-pollo-private-cycling-toursI spent a few days in Tuscany this week, searching out new discoveries for our private Tuscany cycling tour in September. The cuisine can be simple and rustic, other times aristocratic and refined. Where we cycle, through the interior wine zones of Chianti, Montepulciano and Brunello the dishes are typically more rustic, featuring meats and local vegetables and grains like farro, beans, mushrooms, and peppers.

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View from Arezzo

Visiting the town of Arezzo, I found lovely cookbook on the cuisine of Tuscany at the tourist office, one of my favorite sources. Back in my kitchen in Vicenza, I picked a classic Italian dish familiar to most to prepare first, Pollo alla Cacciatora, or Chicken Cacciatora. Cacciatora means “hunter” in Italian, referring to the hunters who supposedly first ate this dish, a filling and tasty stew that could be prepared in the outdoors. Chicken is typically used now, but the original dish, which dates from the Renaissance, probably used wild game like rabbit. There is in fact a very similar recipe a few pages later for the rabbit version, but I do try to use recipes that readers can replicate in the US, and rabbit is hard to find!

cacciatora-pan-private-cycling-toursToday’s version of this recipe contains tomatoes, but this is also likely not original, as tomatoes were not found in Italy until they arrived from the New World. The original dish would have used ingredients that could be found in the woods or easily carried in – onions, mushrooms, herbs, and of course, wine. So adding ingredients like peppers, mushrooms, and other herbs would certainly be in keeping with the traditions behind this dish.

cacciatora-plate-private-cycling-toursPollo alla Cacciatora – Chicken Cacciatora

For 4 people

1 chicken, about 2 pounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4” dice
2 stalks celery, chopped into 1/4” dice
1 medium onion, chopped into 1/4” dice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 15 ounce can chopped tomatoes
Fresh thyme leaves

Clean and chop the chicken into pieces – wings, thighs, drumsticks, cut each breast into 2-3 smaller pieces. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Sear the chicken on all sides until nicely browned – you’ll probably need to do this in batches. Set aside.

Add the carrots, celery and onions into the saute pan and cook until tender, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the white wine and cook until the wine is almost gone.

Add the tomatoes to the pan, then season with the thyme, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces and simmer at a low heat for about 40 minutes. Serve with a nice Chianti, like this one from Castello di Ama.

cacciatora-chianti-private-cycling-tours

Posted in Chicken, Gluten Free, Travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tagliatelle agli Asparagi, Mele e Noci – Tagliatelle with Asparagus, Apples and Walnuts

asparagus-tagliatelle-close-private-cycling-toursOn our April private cycling tour this past week, we feasted daily on the delicacy of the season, the famed white asparagus of Bassano. Appearing from mid-March to mid-June, the oldest legend attributes its introduction to the area hark back to the 1200s,  when Saint Anthony of Padua, who was fond of this asparagus, spread knowledge of the vegetable to Bassano to appease the Lord of the Western Venetian region and nasty tyrant, Ezzelino II da Romano.

asparagus-bassano-private-cycling-toursMore recently, Ernest Hemingway, during his stint as a volunteer in the Red Cross of the United States during the First World War, so enjoyed the taste of an asparagus dish that he celebrated the plant in his legendary book, Farewell to Arms.

Alongside the Brenta River in Bassano the asparagus found the ideal environment: sandy, soft, well-drained and slightly calcareous soil. The soil type, combined with a particularly mild climate, produces a product recognized for its quality the world over. Its’ pale color, tenderness and sweet-sour perfume make it particularly well-suited for rice dishes, soups, pasta and salads.

bassano-brenta-private-cycling-toursDuring our week, we enjoyed an asparagus risotto on our first night. Later in the week, we visited a winery with a farm-to-table restaurant that produces their own asparagus. Our antipasti selection included roasted white asparagus with polenta and sopressa. Our primi was a tasting of two pasta dishes – we couldn’t make up our minds! Another asparagus risotto, and a pasta carbonara with white asparagus and poppy seeds, made with eggs from their own geese.

The white asparagus has a very different flavor than our green. It is less grassy and earthy, more refined and well rounded, with hint of sweetness. So we find many more recipes for white asparagus that you might for green. The recipe below is an updated version of a classic recipe for Tagliatelle pasta with asparagus, where apples and nuts complement the asparagus, demonstrating the range of possibilities with this versatile delicacy.
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Pairing wines with asparagus is tricky, some of the compounds can make wine taste metallic and harsh. A citrusy, unoaked white is best. Thankfully, the white asparagus is significantly less vegetal than the green, and a bit more wine-friendly. Here in Bassano, I pair it with the local white, Vespaiolo, but this will be hard to find outside of the area.

A Sauvignon Blanc is another good choice, and easy to find. With the white asparagus, I prefer an Old World style Sauvignon (from France, Italy, Spain) which are typically more mineral and herbal than New World style (USA, Australia, New Zealand) which are usually more citrusy. One from Italy I quite like is the Sauvignon from Cantina Terlan in Alto Adige. Probably not a coincidence, as the town of Terlan is know for its local delicacy, white asparagus!

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Tagliatelle agli Asparagi, Mele e Noci

Serves 4

1/2 onion, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh egg tagliatelle or other pasta
12 ounces white asparagus from Bassano, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 Renetta apple, peeled and chopped
2 ounces shelled walnuts, chopped
Parsley, minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large saute pan, pour a bit of olive oil and saute the onion. Add the asparagus pieces and season with salt and pepper. Cooked until the asparagus is tender, about 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt. Add the tagliatelle and cook until al dente, which should only be a couple of minutes with fresh pasta. Drain.

Add the apples, nuts, and butter to the pan with the braised asparagus, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tagliatelle and stir to combine.

Serve garnished with minced parsley.

Posted in Apples, Asparagus, Pasta, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seppie Aromatizzate al Finocchio – Squid with Fennel Cream

seppie-fennel-italy-private-walking-toursOur private walking tours through the Veneto region of Italy allow us to experience the wide range of cuisine found in this region. We often begin in Venice, with its amazing diversity of seafood available at the Rialto market. Fresh daily, with literally dozens of varieties of fish, shrimp, shellfish, the fish market has been operating here for hundreds of years.
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We get a chance to prepare some of these wonderful seafood dishes during our cooking classes, like this recipe for Branzino with Potatoes. Replicating some of these back in my US home is often a challenge, as we don’t have the same selection of seafood. So I was happy to come across this recipe in a cookbook I picked up in Italy, Venezia in Cucina: The Flavors of Venice. This dish, Squid served on a Fennel Cream, is elegant enough for a dinner party, yet simple enough for a weeknight dinner. And it uses only four ingredients easily found at my local grocery store.

seppie-market-italy-private-walking-toursfennel-basket-italy-private-walking-toursFennel is a hardy, perennial herb that is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but today is found many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on riverbanks. Known as the Florence fennel, it has a bulb as its base, with stalks emerging from the soil, carrying yellow flowers and distinctive feathery leaves. It has a mild anise-like flavor, but is more aromatic and sweeter. In Italian, fennel is finocchio. Fennel features prominently in Italian cuisine, where bulbs and fronds are used, both raw and cooked, in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes and risottos. I particularly like it paired with seafood. Another variation would be to replace the squid with pan-seared scallops.

venice-italy-private-walking-toursSeppie Aromatizzate al Finocchio – Squid with Fennel Cream

Serves 4

1 pound squid, bodies and tentacles
4 heads fennel
A splash of Pernod
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Clean the squid carefully in cold water. If the squid is larger and thick, make some small cuts in the flesh to tenderize it.

Clean the fennel and remove the outer layers and coarsely chop. Reserve the inner heart and a few fennel fronds.

Drizzle extra virgin olive oil into a large saute pan and heat over medium high heat. Add the chopped fennel and saute until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add the Pernod and a half glass of water. Cook until the liquid is just about gone and the fennel is very tender. Place the fennel in a blender and puree until smooth. Adjust seasoning.

Slice the remaining fennel hearts very thinly – a slicer works best for this. Season with salt and pepper.

Wipe the saute pan clean with a paper towel, then drizzle in some more olive oil. Heat over high heat, and when hot, add the squid. Leave some space between the pieces of squid, so you may have to cook them in 2 batches. Cook until just cooked through, turning to brown all sides. They cook quickly, in only a couple of minutes. Overcooking will result in tough squid. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place a large spoonful of the fennel cream on a plate, lay a couple of pieces of squid on top and add the sliced fennel heart on the side. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and garnish with fennel fronds.

Posted in fennel, Fish, Squid, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetables, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Polenta al Forno con Asiago Fresco e Funghi – Baked Polenta with Cheese and Mushrooms

polenta-al-forno-italy-private-walking-toursAs we explore the Veneto on our Italy walking tours, we see many a corn field, but very rarely fresh corn on the menu; the corn grown here is destined to be dried and ground, and used year round in polenta. A staple here since ancient times, polenta was first made with wild grains from primitive wheats including faro, millet, spelt, and chickpeas, until the Saracens introduced buckwheat, or ‘grana saraceno’ to Italy. This became the most popular grain used for polenta until the 15th or 16th century, when corn, or maize, was introduced.

cornfields-italy-private-walking-toursMaize was very easy to cultivate in the lands of Northern Italy, and quickly replaced buckwheat and the other grains. The yield of maize compared to other cereals was much better, making it much more profitable a crop for landowners. Unfortunately, the nutritional value of maize is not as high as the grains it replaced, as it continued to act as a staple in the cuisine of the lower classes in Northern Italy. Today, maize is still the predominate grain used in polenta.

polenta-biancoperla-italy-private-walking-toursPolenta still plays a major role in the cuisine of the Veneto. It is most commonly prepared with a yellow Marano corn, which is hardy and can be grown in both the plains and mountain foothills of the region. However, until the end of the Second World War, a local white corn variety called Biancoperla was the most highly prized. This corn, which has tapering, elongated cobs with large, bright, pearly-white kernels, was widely planted during the second half of the 19th century. It is know for its fineness and delicate flavor, but has a lower yield than its yellow counterpart.

biancoperla-cheese-mushrooms-italy-private-walking-toursToday, a few dedicated farmers continue to grow this Biancoperla corn varietal. It has been recognized by the Slow Food Presidium in order to ensure the quality of the Biancoperla cornmeal and to promote it to consumers.

cooking-class-italy-private-walking-toursDuring a recent private walking tour, we enjoyed another wonderful cooking class with Chef Lucas. We made this baked polenta recipe, topped with fresh asiago cheese and mushrooms, but you can envision countless variations! Lucas uses truffles for an elegant spin on this rustic dish.

I paired this with a crisp Chiaretto rose from the Bardolino wine zone.

Polenta al Forno con Asiago Fresco e Funghi

4 cups water
1 cup biancoperla polenta
Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
10 ounces fresh mushrooms, cleaned and cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
10 ounces fresh asiago cheese, cut into 1 inch pieces

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Bring the water to a boil in a medium heavy saucepan over high heat. When boiling, add the polenta in a slow, steady stream through your fingers, whisking constantly so it doesn’t clump up. If you get any lumps, mash them against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon and keep stirring. Lower the heat to as low a simmer as your stove can manage and cook, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is thick and shiny and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, at least 45 minutes. Season with salt.

You can read my Tips on Making Polenta here.

Divide the polenta between 4 oven-proof serving dishes for individual servings, or place all in one larger oven-proof dish for family style.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook until soft and slightly browned. Season with salt and remove from heat.

Top the polenta with the cheese cubes, then the mushrooms. Place the polenta in the oven and cook until heated through and brown on top. Serve.

Posted in Baking, Bardolino, Cheeses, Gluten Free, Mushrooms, Polenta, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Veneto, Veneto Food, Wine Pairings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment