Peperoni con Capperi – Sauteed Peppers with Capers

peppers-capers-pan-private-walking-tours-tuscanyOur Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine walking tours in Tuscany include daily explorations of the wonderful wines and traditional cuisine of the region. From private winery tours and tastings to cooking classes, we enjoy plenty of unique gourmet experiences as we travel. One memorable evening we passed cooking our own Tuscan feast with our hosts at Relais Ortaglia, Terenzio and Marta.

view-tuscany-walking-tour-italyTerenzio and Marta own a small wine estate just outside of Montepulciano. We can relax by the infinity pool, with a spectacular view of vineyards on one side, and this lovely hilltop town on the other. In the evening we meet our hosts in their home kitchen, and, armed with a glass of prosecco, get to work on our dinner – the classic Tuscan soup, Pappa al Pomodoro, Scaloppine al Limone (Chicken cutlets with Lemon), and Peperoni con Capperi, Peppers with Capers, a tasty summer side dish.

cooking-class-private-walking-tours-tuscanyPeperoni, not to be confused with pepperoni sausage (an American salumi you won’t find in Italy) denotes an entirely different food in Italy, the peppers we know as bell peppers in the U.S. Peperoni translates as “big peppers,” and you can find many varieties cultivated across Italy. The majority come from the south, as they prefer warmer temps, but from the Giallo di Cuneo pepper from Piedmont or the Quadrato Piccolo from the Veneto to the Friariello of Tuscany to the Peperone di Senise of Basilicata, you will find peperoni in various forms – stuffed, roasted, grilled, even pickled – on tables across Italy.

cooking-peppers-private-walking-tours-tuscanyPeppers hail originally from South America, and were not known in Europe until 1493, when Christopher Columbus visted the New World for the second times and discovered the plant. Columbus was responsible for the misleading name “pepper”. At that time, peppercorns were a highly prized condiment, and the name “pepper” was applied in Europe to all spices with a hot flavor, and so was applied to this newly discovered plant, with spicy varieties.

peppers-private-walking-tours-tuscanyLike bell peppers in America, peperoni color — green, red, orange or yellow — indicate the stage of ripeness. Reds are sweet and fruity; oranges and yellows are mildly sweet; and greens have a touch of bitterness.

peppers-pan-private-walking-tours-tuscanyThe recipe we prepared this evening Marta describes as a traditional Tuscan farmer’s dish. A very simple side dish, red peppers sauteed in olive oil, finished with grated cheese and capers. I’ve seen many similar variations that you can easily adapt – cheese only; cheese and black olives, cheese and breadcrumbs. This is a tasty simple summer side dish which is prepared in advance and served at room temperature – perfect with grilled chicken or fish.

Peperoni con Capperi

For 4 people

3 large peppers (yellow, red, and/or green)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon capers (I prefer salted capers, rinsed before using)
1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Open the peppers and remove the seeds and inside white part, then cut into 1 inch pieces. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan, and when hot, add the peppers. Saute, turning occassionally, until peppers are softened and beginning to brown. Add the capers and cheese, stirring to combine. Remove from heat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.

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Elena Walch Castel Ringberg – Amazing Wines in a Spectacular Setting

castel-ringberg-view-private-bike-tours-italyA favorite destination for our custom hiking tours and private bike tours in Italy is the region of Trentino Alto Adige. The terrain accommodates all types of cyclists or trekkers – from flat well maintained bike paths to some of the most challenging climbs in Europe, all offering a view of some of the most spectacular vineyards in Italy. But the view alone is simply the start – the wines of Alto Adige are now receiving well-deserved international attention and accolades.

This region has been producing quality wines for centuries, with evidence of production here dating back to Roman times. This is due to the regions unique location, lying on the southern slopes of the Alps, where the central valleys and south-facing slopes enjoy long sunny days and cool nights, with plenty of breezes to keep the grapes dry during the ripening season.

vineyards-private-bike-tours-italyOn a recent private bike tour, we cycled along the Sudtirol Weinstrasse, or Wine Road, home to a large number of the top producers in the area. Our destination was Castel Ringberg, located just north of Lago di Caldaro, one of the most important vineyards of the estate of Elena Walch.

In 1985, a young architect named Elena Walch married into one of the leading producers of this region, and took over management of her new family’s business. The family owns two prestigious estates; Castel Ringberg, overlooking Lago di Caldaro, and Kastelaz, a south-facing, steep hillside above the village of Tramin. Elena dedicated herself to improving the quality of the vineyards, drastically decreasing the yield. The result are premium wines with superb aromatics and a concentrated fruit character. Their whites, including Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, are classic, ‘old-world’ style, elegant with a crisp acidity. Reds are concentrated and intense, with more fruit and less tannin.

guided-tour-private-bike-tours-italyAfter our ride, we settled in to enjoy a private tour and tasting at their Castel Ringberg estate.  To quote their literature: The philosophy of the estate is dedicated to its terroir – the idea that wines must be the individual expression of their soil, climate and cultivation in the vineyard – and that this must be maintained according to principles of sustainability and passed on to the next generation. The firm belief that the quality of wine is created in the vineyard requires uncompromising work, taking into account the individuality of each vineyard.” We saw this dedication to the terroir and sustainability in action during our tour.

guide-private-walking-tours-italyOur tour began in the vineyards of Castel Ringberg, the estate’s most important vineyards, located on a hillside about 300 m. Formed by a glacier, the limestone soil that surrounds the estate is quite poor, but this stimulates deep root growth, resulting in better quality wines. Castel Ringberg has the prestigious additional denomination of VIGNA.  The VIGNA designation recognizes the smallest historical / geographical unit of a vineyard. Every single VIGNA must be officially admitted and registered with the regional authorities.

castel-ringberg-private-walking-tours-italyWe passed row upon row of vines as our guide Lena described the sustainable cultivation techniques employed by the estate. She pointed out the cover crop that is encouraged to grow between every other row of vines, alternating rows every other year. In the past, these plants would be cut down, due to a misguided perception that they were taking away nutrients from the grapes. Here, the growers recognize that the opposite is true – a diverse mix of plants in the vineyard nourishes the vines. She pointed out the roots nodules of the clover, which are crushed when you step on them, providing much needed nitrogen to the surrounding soil. This cover crop also provides an environment for a diverse population of insects, keeping the unwanted pests at bay.

cover-crop-low-private-bike-tours-italyAs Vernon and I discuss the unique geography of Italy during our tours, we point out how it has affected everything from its history to its amazing array of foods. The high density of different micro climates allows a wide variety of products to be cultivated within a very small area. Our vineyard tour supplied a first hand demonstration of this as we marveled at the change in the cover crop as we walked – a stroll of about 10 rows presented us with a totally different cover crop, due solely to the change in climate.

cover-crop-private-bike-tours-italyAs the first drops of rain began to fall, we headed back to the castle for our private tasting. The castle itself is a lovely building, a perfect setting for a special event. It was originally built as a hunting lodge for the Austrian monarchs, the Habsburgs, in 1620. We settled around a large table to enjoy some amazing wines.

wine-tasting-private-bike-tours-italySelezione Pinot Bianco

100% Pinot Bianco, from vineyards in Tramin and Caldaro

Clear, bright yellow, elegant fruit flavors of apples, pears and some herbal notes, with a nice acidity. It is a very versatile wine, and would be wonderful as an aperitif, with mild cheese, with light pasta dishes and fish.

Sauvignon “Vigna Castel Ringberg”

100% Sauvignon, from vineyards of Castel Ringberg

A rich golden yellow with hints of green. It has a lively, fruity nose with herbal notes. Its’ flavor is crisp and elegant, a traditional “old world” sauvignon, with less citrus and more notes of elderflower and green pepper. Full bodied and firm acidity. A very sophisticated, well-balanced wine. A great pairing with light pasta dishes, fish and other seafood. Awarded 92 points by James Suckling and 90 points by Wine Enthusiast in 2013.

Gewurztraminer “Vigna Kastelaz”

100% Gewürztraminer, from the estates other VIGNA, Kastelaz

Rich golden color, intensely aromatic, with floral notes and exotic fruit balanced by spices and honey. These components contribute to a complex flavor profile, as you understand why this wine earned the name Gewurztraminer, the spicy wine from Tramin. Well-balanced, creamy and elegant, wonderful with fish and shellfish, as well as spicier dishes. Recognized by numerous organizations including Gambero Rosso (3 bicchieri), Gilbert & Gaillard, James Suckling.


Lagrein Riserva “Vigna Castel Ringberg”

100% Lagrein from vineyards of Castel Ringberg

A deep dark red, this robust rich wine is an amazing play of spice and fruit – berries, dried fruits mixed with smoky chocolate. Robust tannins, a nice acidity and long finish make is a great wine to enjoy with red meats, hearty braises, and aged cheese. Awards from James Suckling, Slow Wine and Wine Advocate.

A wonderful lunch followed our tasting, featuring meats and cheeses all produced by local farmers with 20 km of Tramin. Another memorable day as we explore the less-traveled areas of Italy!

lunch-private-bike-tours-italyThe wines of Elena Walch are available in the US.

Here are some retailers in Washington D.C. that are supporting the brand:

Calvert Woodley, 4339 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008
P&C Market, 1023 E Capitol St SE, Washington, DC 20003
Cork Market, 1805 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

Here are some in New York City:

Acker Merrill & Condit, 160 W 72nd St, New York, NY 10023
Alphabet City Wine Co., 100 Avenue C, New York, NY 10009
Alina’s Wine & Liquor, 5014 4th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11220
Astor Wine & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003

Ask at your local wine store – many will be happy to order for you!

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Baked Stuffed Squash Blossoms

squash-blossoms-grill-walking-tours-italyGuests on our summer cycling and walking tours are enamored when squash blossoms appear on the table – whether stuffed with cheese, topping a pizza, or flavoring a frittata the presentation is always lovely. These blossoms are easily found in both restaurants as well as local markets in Italy, where they have graced tables since at least the 1500s, but have yet to find their place here in the US.

squash-blossoms-market-walking-tours-italySquash blossoms are the edible flowers of Cucurbita species of squash, the species that produces squashes and pumpkins including acorn, cocozelle, crookneck, straight-neck, and zucchini. They are highly perishable, and so are rarely stocked in supermarkets here in the US. Both male and female squash blossoms can be used. In Italy, male blossoms are harvested early in the season, as picking only male flowers (leaving some for pollination), leaves the female flowers to produce squash. The zucchini squash themselves are harvested later in the season, when they are only 5 inches or so long, and are often sold with the female blossoms still attached.

squash-blossoms-cooking-class-walking-tours-italyFried squash blossoms are coated in a light batter and deep fried. Regional variations include frying simply the flowers, or the flowers stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese in Tuscany, mozzarella in Campania, a bit of anchovy in Rome. For those looking for an even more effortless and lighter version, they can be simply brushed with extra virgin olive oil and grilled or baked. Here’s a recipe I’ve used in several cooking classes for our groups in Italy.

Baked Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Herb Ricotta

Makes 4 servings

¾ cup sheep’s milk ricotta cheese
6 tablespoons mixed finely chopped fresh herbs; mint, cilantro, basil, garlic chives
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper
16 squash blossoms
1 lemon

Mix the cheese in a bowl with the herbs and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the pointy green needle-like things at the base of the flower. Carefully pry apart the petals of each blossom. Remove the stamen. Put a spoonful of the cheese mixture inside each blossom and gently twist the tips of the blossoms shut. Brush the blossoms with oil and season the outside with salt and pepper.

Place the blossoms over medium heat on the grill and cook on each side for 1 minute. Or, place on a sheet pan and roast in an oven for 8 minutes, until the center is soft.

Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon.


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Torta di Ciliegie della Tradizione – Traditional Cherry Cake

torta-ciligie-plated-private-cycling-tours-italyThis July we’re cycling through the region of Trentino-Alto Adige. Verdant green fields down the Adige Valley, we cruise down flat bike paths that lie between the Alps and Dolomites, with the optional climb for those that enjoy a challenge. Last month in the Veneto it was cherry season, and we find ourselves in the midst of cherries again in July in Trentino.

cherry-trees-trentino-private-cycling-tours-italyCherries are grown in the Adige valley as well as the Valsugana, and begin appearing in June with late season varieties extending the season into August.  You will find them in cakes, jams, fruit in syrup, juices and ice creams, and also savory dishes like my recent post on Quaglie con Ciligie. Raw cherries are one of my favorite quick snacks to offer a hungry cyclist as our group passes through on their ride. I’ve also treated them to this homemade traditional cherry cake – a simple dessert which is easily dressed up with whipped cream and perhaps a bit of dark chocolate on the side.

duroni and IGP cherries cycling tours italyTorta di Ciliegie della Tradizione

5 ounces butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 pint (16 ounces) milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
24 ounces fresh cherries, pitted

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Cream the butter with the sugar and salt. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue to mix. Add the vanilla and the baking powder, and stir to combine. Add the milk, stir. Add the flour, and then mix just until everything is combined and homogeneous.

Carefully stir in the cherries, then place the mixture in a spring form pan, lined with parchment paper if it is not non-stick.

Sprinkle with sugar, then bake in a preheated  oven for about one hour.

Remove from oven and let cool before serving.


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Risotto con Gli Asparagi Bianchi – White Asparagus Risotto

risotto-asparagi-gourmet-dolomites-hikingOur spring season cycling and hiking tours in Italy coincide perfectly with Northeast Italy’s obsession with a favorite harbinger of spring – the prized white asparagus. From Bassano del Grappa and Cimadolmo in the Veneto, moving north to Zambana in Trentino, and Terlan in Alto Adige, there are festivals and special tasting menus devoted to the sweet “white gold” of spring.

Besides the obvious – color – there is no there’s no difference between green and white asparagus — white asparagus is simply green asparagus that hasn’t been allowed to turn green. Legend has it that in the 1400s or so, an extremely violent hailstorm destroyed most of the harvest. The farmers, desperate for food of any kind, plowed the land under in a search for edible roots and tubers and discovered a delicacy: white asparagus.

white-asparagus-gourmet-dolomites-hikingTo cultivate white asparagus, as soon as the shoots peek through the soil, they are covered up with more soil, which continues as they grow. The stalks are always covered with a thick layer or mulch and now also a dark plastic tarp. Without exposure to sunlight, no photosynthesis starts, and the shoots remain white. This process is called etiolation, and creates pale white asparagus spears that have a more delicate in flavor and more tender than their green cousins.

risotto-ingredients-gourmet-dolomites-hikingDue to its quality and delicacy, it is quite perishable and must be correctly conserved and served within a few days. Good preserving practices include immersing the asparagus in was between 6 and 8 degrees centigrade to inhibit oxidation. It is also beneficial to avoid prolonged exposure to light and open air.

In terms of preparation, the lower ends of white asparagus must be peeled before cooking or consuming raw, and blanching carefully in salted water is the preferred method of cooking.

Eggs and asparagus is the classic combination on the table, but closely followed by white asparagus risotto.

risotto-close-gourmet-dolomites-hikingRisotto con Gli Asparagi

1 pound white asparagus (substitute green)
12 ounces risotto rice – Vialone nano, Carnaroli, Arbrorio
4 tablespoons butter
1 new onion, peeled and finely sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 cups vegetable or chicken broh
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup grated grana cheese
Kosher salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, and blanch the asparagus until tender, but still firm. Remove the asparagus from the pot, aadn immerse in a cold water bath to halt the cooking. Remove the tips and reserve. Cut the stems into 1/2 inch pieces.

Put the broth in a saucepan and heat.

Place 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large saute ban and melt over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender and translucent, about 4 minutes.

Add the chopped asparagus stems, and cook for a few minutes, then add the rice and toast for a few minutes.

Add the wine, and when it has evaporated completely, begin to stir in the hot broth. Add a ladlefull of the hot stock and simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladlefull at a time, stirring and waiting until the stock is absorbed before the next addition of stock. Continue until the rice is al dente. The stock may not all be used.

When the risotto is done, stir in the remaining butter, grated cheese and parsley and season with salt to taste. Carefully stir in the reserved asparagus tips, and serve immediately.

Posted in Asparagus, Gluten Free, Risotto, Travel, Trentino Food, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment