Biscotti di Marroni – Chestnut Biscotti

biscotti coffee grappa custom bike tours italyChestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. This past October I spent a week exploring venues for our Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige bike tour, and chestnuts were just coming into season. We enjoyed chestnuts in pasta, in risotto, in soups and desserts. In fancy ristorante, local trattorie, and sweet chocolate and chestnut treats from a roadside table we passed on a bike ride. Since my return, I’ve been looking forward to trying a few of these recipes at home. A chocolate chestnut holiday biscotti brings me back to my cycling excursion and the homemade chestnut cookie that powered me through the last few miles.

chestnut cookie bike tours italyIn mountainous areas of Italy, from Trentino and Alto Adige to Tuscany, chestnuts are one of the few crops that can be grown on steep slopes, as well as produce during colder winter months. In some of these areas, the economy revolved around the chestnut, as people gathered them in the fall and worked throughout the winter to sort, dry and sell them.

marroni custom bike tours italyThere are many different varieties found throughout Italy: the smaller, flatter castagne and the rounder, fuller marroni. Up in Northeastern Italy there are several areas that still cultivate chestnuts, mostly of the marroni variety. As I did on my last tour, you can still find vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts at market stands in the fall; the aroma is divine, and the nuts a wonderful treat to enjoy on a cool fall bike ride.

chestnuts basket private cycling tours italyWhen purchasing chestnuts, look for shiny, healthy nuts without any discoloration. They should also be firm and solid, without much give between the shell and the flesh. In the markets and homes in Italy, you can still find chestnut roasters, essentially iron pans with holes, with a long handle. The nuts would be placed in the pan, sprinkled with a bit of water, and roasted over a fire. I don’t have any special equipment for roasting chestnuts, all you really need is a sheet pan and a hot oven.

chestnuts roasted private tours italyTo roast chestnuts, preheat your oven to 450°. With a small sharp knife, cut an “X” into the flatter side of each nut. Place the nuts on the sheet pan and roast for about 15-25 minutes, depending upon the size of the nuts. They are done when the skins around the “X” have pulled back, and the nut meat inside is fork-tender, but still firm. Peel when still warm, and enjoy as the Italians might, sprinkled with some red wine, with a glass for yourself – a lighter Schiava from Alto Adige would be perfect.

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3 large eggs, plus 1 egg white
3/4 cups brown sugar
2 cups whole oats
3 cups roasted and peeled chestnuts
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 tablespoons grappa
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
3/4 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place the eggs and egg white into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar and whisk to combine.

Place the whole oats in a food processor, and pulse to grind to a powder. Add the roasted chestnuts and pulse again until the nuts are finely chopped and combined with the whole oats. Transfer to the bowl with the brown sugar and eggs. Add the baking powder, salt, cocoa, grappa, chocolate chips and hazelnuts. Stir to combine.

Line two sheet pans with parchment paper. Spoon half the dough onto each pan, spreading the dough over the paper to form a flat loaf, about 4 inches wide and 1 inch thick.

Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the pan. Do not immediately transfer to a rack, as the warm loaf might break during transfer.

When cool, cut each loaf crosswise into 1 inch slices. Places the slices cut side down on the sheet pans. Place back into the oven and cook for 25 – 30 minutes, until slightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve with coffee, or a glass of grappa or dessert wine like Vino Santo.

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Risotto alla Milanese

risotto alla milanese private tours italyMy last post was on the classic dish from Milan, Ossobuco alla Milanese. The obvious follow-on is its time-honored accompaniment, Risotto alla Milanese. Risotto dishes have graced the tables of Northeastern Italy for centuries, as the special plump short grained rice varietals grown in the Veneto, Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna are perfectly suited for this preparation. We enjoy tasting, and preparing, several risotto dishes on our private Italy tours. Risotto alla Milanese is one of the simplest preparations, with its distinctive color, aroma and flavor due to one essential ingredient – saffron.

saffron rice custom walking tours italyHow this saffron flavored version became Milan’s favorite risotto is once again uncertain. Venetian Jews made a similar preparation simply called riso col zafran. The Jews and Arabs of medieval Sicily made a saffron pilaf, which may have been found its way to Milan with some of these Sicilians who traveled north. Waverly Root, in his classic book, The Food of Italy, reminds us that in 1535, Charles V of Spain named his son, Philip, Duke of Milan, beginning nearly two centuries of Spanish rule here. His theorizes that Risotto alla Milanese is a descendent of paella. He goes on to tell of a Milanese cook that was nicknamed Zafferano because of his widespread use of saffron; when he married the daughter of a master stained-glass maker in 1574, the “wedding feast was enlivened by joking friends who slipped saffron into every dish which could possibly stand it, and some which couldn’t.” Whatever the path, Risotto alla Milanese is today  standard fare in trattorie across Milan.

saffron custom bike tours italySaffron itself is the world’s most expensive spice; true, high quality saffron is the stigma, or threads attached to the pistil of the domesticated saffron crocus. Each flower produces only 3 pistils. The threads are carefully harvested and then dried, loosing between 60 and 80% of their weight in the process. It takes between 55,000 and 60,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron.

In the Middle Ages, saffron was cultivated in many areas in Italy, especially Tuscany. Known then as “red gold”, it was valued in the kitchen as well as used in medicines, perfumes and dyes. Fields of saffron crocuses covered the area around San Gimignano and elsewhere in Tuscany. Profits from the sale of this coveted spice helped build the famous towers of San Gimignano. Cheaper imported saffron from France eventually took over this market, and the fields in Tuscany were put to other use.

cooking risotto custom walking tours italyToday, the two areas in Italy still known for saffron production are in Abruzzo and Sardinia. Zafferano dell’Aquila, reputed to be the best saffron in the world, is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy’s Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila. Here in the Navelli Valley, crocus bulbs are planted in August by a handful of local farmers. When the flowers blossom, sometime in October, they must be picked before dawn, while they are closed, so as not to lose any of the stigma’s powder during harvesting. The orange-red threads are removed by hand, then they are dried over a fire of neutral wood, to preserve the unique flavor of the saffron.

The largest saffron producer in Italy is San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, which contributes 60% of Italy’s total production. There are a few small producers now beginning to reintroduce saffron cultivation to Tuscany. Do make sure to obtain a high quality saffron for this dish; only a little is needed. There are a lot of cheap imitations and powders on the market.

For a regional wine to pair with this, I would again recommend a Nebbiolo based red from the Valtellina DOC in Lombardy. Saffron goes well with reds as well as white. If you would prefer a white, a nice crisp one from Lugana would fit the bill.

Risotto alla Milanese – Risotto with Saffron

4 cups beef broth, either homemade or low sodium store bought
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup diced pancetta
1/4 cup onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups risotto rice – carnaroli, arborio or vialone nano
1/2 teaspoons chopped saffron strands
1/2 cup freshly ground parmigiano reggiano cheese

Place the beef broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a low simmer.

Combine the butter and oil in a heavy, large skilled over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and onion and cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Stir in the rice to coat with the oil, and cook for 1 minute.

Add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition and waiting until the broth is absorbed by the rice before adding the next 1/2 cup. When you have incorporated about half of the broth, remove a 1/2 cup of the broth and dissolve the saffron strands in this warm stock. Add it to the risotto and continue to cook, adding stock as needed.

When the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite – al dente – turn off the heat. You do not need to use up all of the stock. Add in a last 1/4 cup of broth and stir in the grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

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Ossobuco alla Milanese

ossobuco custom ski tours italyAs guests on our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine Italy tours discover, Italian cuisine is very diverse in nature, exhibiting unique regional identity. But some dishes have escaped their regional borders and have been adopted throughout Italy, and even world wide. Think Insalata Caprese, Spaghetti alla Carbonara. One dish, initially from Northern Italy, that now enjoys a world wide reputation is Ossobuco.

ossobuco veal shanks private bike tours italyOssobuco alla Milanese, as the name suggests, hails from Milan. Ossobuco comes from the local dialect, oss bus, or “bone with a hole”. The basic ingredient for Ossobuco is veal shank, preferably the widest part of the hind shank which has a fair amount of meat around the marrow bone. Marrowbones and veal shanks were used in Italian cooking as far back as the middle ages, but it is doubtful this dish is that old. Its first appearance in a cookbook is not until 1891, in Pellegrino Artusi’s “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene” (The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), one of the first collections of Italian national cuisine ever published.

gremolata private ski tours italyIt is traditionally seasoned just before serving with served with gremolata, or gremolada, a mixture of grated lemon peel, parsley and garlic. Culinary historians note that in the late 18th century, lemon, which grows in much of Italy, began to be used as a seasoning to replace more expensive spices that had to be imported, like cinnamon and cloves. Clifford Wright and other food historians believe the dish probably had its origins in a farmhouse in Lombardy sometime during the 19th century. Since that time, the dish has come into its own, a staple on the menu of the many osterie and trattorie in Milan, and today worldwide. In Milan, it is served with risotto alla milanese, and a litte spoon for extracting every last morsel of the luscious marrow from the bone. This city takes its local dish so seriously that in 2007, the City Council included oss bus in the De.Co. (Denominazioni Comunali), officially proclaiming their ownership of this local specialty.

ossobuco gremolata custom ski tours italyRecipes for Ossobuco now appear in cookbooks in France, the US, and the UK, so as one would expect, there are many variations. Some begin with just onions, others call for a soffrito of onions, carrots and celery. Authors differ as whether to flour or not to flour the shanks before searing. Should you use tomatoes? Tomatoes were not introduced to Italy until the late 19th century, so the original version probably did not include them, but today tomatoes are used more often that not. Some versions braise in the oven, others on the stove top. Variations of gremolada include other herbs like rosemary and sage, and many include an anchovy. Let your personal taste be your guide.

A perfect wine to enjoy with your Ossobuco would be a robust red from Valtellina. The most prestigious zone for red wines in Lombardy, this region, located in the Alps north of Milan, is the only region outside of Piedmont to produce a Nebbiolo based red, locally called Chiavennasca.

ossobuco braise private ski tours italyOssobuco alla Milanese

Serves 4

4 2-inch thick slices of veal hind shank, tied
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Flour (leave out for gluten-free)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 medium onion, 1/4” dice
1 carrot, 1/4” dice
1 celery stalk, peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock
1 1/2 cups diced canned plum tomatoes
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 or 3 sprigs parsley

For any braise, use a heavy bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid, large enough to accommodate the veal shanks in a single layer

Lay the veal shanks out on a sheet pan and season generously with salt and pepper. Dust with flour, shaking off the excess.

In the large pot, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. When hot, add the shanks to the pan and brown well on all sides. Allow space between the shanks, searing them in batches if they are too large to fit nicely in the pot. You want them to sear, not steam. When nice and brown, remove from pan and set aside.

Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the pan, and cook until beginning to soften and brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.

Add the white wine, bring to a boil and reduce by about half.

Place the veal shanks back in the pot on top of the vegetables. Add the stock, tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf and parsley. The shanks should be covered about half way with the liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer.

Cover the pot tightly, and allow to simmer over very low heat until the veal is very well done, and falling off of the bone, about 2 – 3 hours, depending on the size of the shanks. Alternatively, you can transfer the braise to a preheated 325° oven and cook there, rather than on the stove top. Just make sure your pot is oven-proof (no plastic handles.)

Remove the pot from the oven, and top the shanks with the gremolada. Turn a few times to mix the gremolada into the braisining liquid. Serve with risotto alla milanese. If you wish a thicker sauce, remove the shanks and reduce over high heat until it is the desired consistency.

Gremolada

An aromatic mixture added to the shanks when they are almost done. Here is a basic recipe, as there are as many recipes for Ossobuco as there are cooks in Milan. There are versions with rosemary, sage, fennel seeds; even versions without parsley.

1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 clove garlic, minced
1 anchovy filet, minced (optional)

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl.

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Cassoeula – Braised Pork and Cabbage from Lombardia

cassoeula private bike tours lombardia italyThe region of Lombardia lies in northern Italy, sharing a border with Switzerland to the north, Piedmont to the west, the Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige to the east, and Emilia-Romagna to the south. We are designing a private cycling tour for a group that wishes to ride from Milan to Venice, and so I once again find myself immersing in the region we are visiting – its food, wine and history.

cabbage carrots private bike tours italyCassoeula is a traditional dish in Lombardia. Also known as cazzoeula, it takes its name from the word cazza, or pan, in which it is prepared. A great Sunday afternoon dinner, or a nice way of warming up after a ski day, cassoeula is a hearty stew of cabbage and pork, served with polenta.

cassoeula on stove private bike tours lombardia italyLocal lore associates cassoeula with the feast of St. Anthony Abbot, the 17th of January, which also was the end of the pig slaughtering period. For the poorest farmers with only one pig to see them through the year, nothing would go to waste – their version of this dish would include the poorest parts of the pig; the feet, the head, the ‘pins’ or bony parts of the ribs (not the chops), the pork rinds, or crackling, and the favorite local sausage. Wealthier families would make a ‘richer’ version, and use the leg; nowadays, depending upon where you are in Lombardia, you may find versions using beef, lamb, even goose.

cut cabbage private ski tours italyThe single common element between these versions today is cabbage. Traditionally, this would be cabbage that has seen the first frost, which softens it and shortens the cooking time. Combine all this with the classic braising ingredients – carrots, celery, onions, wine and broth, and serve with a soft polenta (recipe here.)

pork ingredients bike tours lombardia italyMy version below is one of these richer versions, as pig’s head and feet are not easily found in modern markets. But this is simple to adapt to accommodate any cuts you can find. I used a pork butt, pork ribs, a locally made sausage, and a bacon end. I liked the idea of some crackling to add texture, so I cut the bacon end into strips and cooked them until crisp, adding them at the end so they remain crisp. This is a great dish for a winter dinner with friends, make it the day before as it improves with time.

bacon ends private ski tours italyServe with a hearty Nebbiolo wine from the Valtellina region in Lombardia, the only area outside of Piedmont to produce a Nebbiolo based wine.

Cassoeula

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 rack pork ribs
2 lbs. pork butt
4 pork sausages
1 bacon end, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, cut into 1/4” dice
1 celery stalk, peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
1 small onion, cut into 1/4” dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup white wine
2 heads cabbage, coarsley chopped
2 cups beef broth

Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven or other large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the pork ribs and sear all sides. Set aside. Repeat, searing the pork butt and then the pork sausages until all are nicely browned on all sides, using more olive oil if needed. Set aside.

Add the chopped bacon ends and saute until the fat is rendered and the bacon is slightly crisp. Add the carrot, celery and onion, and cook until soft and just beginning to brown. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the white wine to the hot pan to deglaze. Cook until the wine is almost evaporated.

Add the chopped cabbage in a layer, stirring to combine with the vegetables. Place the meats on top of the cabbage. Add the beef broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook over low heat for 2-3 hours, until all the meat is tender and falling apart.

Serve with soft polenta.

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Gnocchi alla Ricotta Su Pure di Zucca – Ricotta Gnocchi on Pumpkin Puree

ricotta gnocchi italy private bike toursI am just back from Italy, closing out our season with a private cycling tour. After our guests leave, I usually spend a few days exploring and researching destinations for future tours. Next season we are hosting a private group on a cycling tour that will follow the Sudtirol Wine Road from lovely Bressanone down to Lake Garda. Spending some time in this area means feasting on the typical foods of the mountains, and visiting MANY wonderful wineries lie along this lovely wine trail.

ricotta pumpkin italy private bike toursOne winery I visited had a couple of local cookbooks for sale. I pick up these whenever I can; I continue to discover more about the cuisine of the region, learning both from the traditional recipes as well as more modern versions that the region’s top chefs are introducing. It also gives me the opportunity to practice my Italian a bit, as these are rarely offered in English. Here is my first post from one of these little finds: “Una Montagna di Sapori – Ricette Semplici e Raffinate dell’Alto Adge” – “A Mountain of Flavors – Simple and Refined Recipes from Alto Adige”.

gnocchi dough italy private bike toursThis recipe combined several ingredients I can find now in my nearby farmer’s market. Fresh ricotta, as well as quark. This recipe is the first I’ve seen from Italy that calls for quark, which is different from Italian ricotta (ricotta meaning “recooked” in Italian) as quark is made from sour milk, while ricotta is made from whey. The quark I used was similar in texture to a ricotta, but distinctly more sour and salty. If you don’t find quark, substitute more ricotta. Quark is found more commonly in German speaking countries to the north, so it’s presence here is another demonstration of the influence these northern neighbors play on the cuisine here.

pumpkins at market italy private bike toursThe pumpkin puree is a delightful seasonal sauce for this dish; during our private bike tour we cycled through a wonderful farm where the farmer waved us over to show us his pumpkin harvest – so many types and colors! In the fall, squash and pumpkins appear in a myriad of dishes in Italy, from soups to sformato (savory custard) to stuffed cappellacci pastas to pumpkin breads. The puree here would also be a nice accompaniment to pork.

gnocchi italy private ski toursAs for presentation, my disappointment with my dish was not the flavor, but the monochromatic hues. Next time, I’ll find a pumpkin or squash with a much more vibrant orange color, so the puree really stands out.

Enjoy with a crisp Gewurztraminer from Alto Adige, like those from Elena Walch or Cantina Tramin.

Gnocchi alla Ricotta Su Pure di Zucca – Ricotta Gnocchi on Pumpkin Puree

1/2 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
12 ounces ricotta
2 ounces quark
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, grated nutmeg
2/3 cup soft white bread crumbs
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup flour, plus extra for dusting

12 ounces pumpkin, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup milk
Sprig of oregano or marjoram
1/2 cup whipped cream

1/4 cup grated parmigiano
3 tablespoons butter, melted
Beef demi glace or gravy (optional)

For the gnocchi, place 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium saute pan and heat over medium high heat. Add the minced onion and cook until soft and just beginning to brown. Remove from heat.

Transfer to a medium size bowl, and combine together with the ricotta, quark, and bread crumbs. Quickly stir in the egg yolks and flour. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Place a light layer of flour on a sheet pan. Dust your hands with a bit of flour. Using a spoon, scoop up about 1 tablespoon or so of the ricotta mixture, and place the spoonful in the palm of your hand. Using your hands, turn the ricotta ball until it is coated with a dusting of flour, then lightly shape it into an oblong dumpling. Don’t worry too much about getting a perfect shape – lumps and bumps are just fine. Place the gnocchi on the sheet pan.

If you are doing this recipe for the first time, or are using a ricotta cheese you haven’t used before, at this point I would recommend you test your first gnocchi to make sure it holds together. You don’t want to shape 80 gnocchi to find out they fall apart when you cook them! Poach the first in a small pot of simmering, not rapidly boiling water; if it holds together, you are good to go. If it blows apart, add a touch more flour.

Continue forming the gnocchi with the remainging ricotta mixture. Let the gnocchi rest in the fridge for 25 minutes.

While the gnocchi is resting, place the remaining olive oil in the saute pan, place again over medium high heat, and brown the pumpkin. Season with salt and pepper, then pour in the milk and add the sprig of oregano, cover and simmer until the pumpkin is tender.

Pull out some of the pumpkin and dice further into small cubes for the final garnish – you want about 2-3 tablespoons for this. Puree the rest of the pumpkin, stir in the whipping cream and keep warm.

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. When boiling, add a liberal amount of salt. Turn down to a simmer.

Remove the sheet pan from the refrigerator. Transfer about a quarter of the gnocchi to the boiling water, making sure not to overfill the pot. You will most likely need to cook them in batches. They will sink to the bottom initially, but as they cook will rise to float at the top. Scoop them up as they float, and transfer to the sauté pan with the sauce.

Spread the pure pumpkin on the plates, place the gnocchi on top of the puree and sprinkle with the small cubes of pumpkin. Sprinkle everything with the grated parmigiano cheese and drizzle with melted butter. Garnish with the beef demi glace or gravy.

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