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.

torta-ciligie-pan-private-cycling-tours-italy

Posted in Baking, Cherries, Travel, Trentino Food, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Quaglie con Ciliegie – Quail with Cherries

quail-cherries-italy-private-cycling-toursMay and June is cherry season in Italy, and during our cycling tours we’ve been spotting cherry trees laden with fruit from Trentino down throughout the Veneto. I’ve written earlier about the renowned cherries of Marostica, but what makes the food scene here so fascinating are the little pockets of micro climates that each produce a very specific variety with its own unique characteristics and flavors. In Italy there are over 30 varieties of cherries that are cultivated. The ‘hometown’ favorite may only be found within an area of a couple of miles. Their arrival each spring will be celebrated by a local festival, known as a Sagra or Festa, and the town’s restaurants will feature many recipes using the cherries for the couple of weeks they are available.

berici-hills-italy-private-cycling-toursOne of our favorite areas for cycling is the Berici Hills, just south of Vicenza. Besides their own wine DOC, and peas, mushrooms, black truffles, honey and olive oil, we pass through a couple of small areas which right now are bursting with cherries; trees bearing the fruit, and the local farmers out with their makeshift roadside stands with signs “Vendita Ciliegie”, Buy Cherries.

vendita-italy-private-cycling-toursHere in the Berici Hills, the cherry orchards are in the south-east, at the foot of limestone cliffs, between the plain and the slopes of Mount Castellaro. The terrain is characterized by rocky outcrops and a limited topsoil layer. The steep slopes provide intense sun exposure, causing the fruit to ripen early.

cherry-castegnero-italy-private-cycling-toursThe hamlet of Castegnero is the center of production, with a long history of cultivation of their specific variety, known as the Mora di Castegnero (the Castegnero blackberry). In early spring, the trees are thick with flowers, and the resulting fruit is tender and dark, with a high sugar content. The “Festa dea Siaresa” is their cherry festival held in late May and early June. Visitors can purchase cherries and cherry products from vendors while enjoying entertainment, and feasting on traditional dishes and Colli Berici wines at local restaurants.

bowl-cherries-italy-private-cycling-toursJust a couple of kilometers away, as we tour through the hamlets of Sarego and Meledo we find another variety of cherry, the Mora Cazzano, known as Durone di Verona elsewhere. Here the slopes are lower, the soil deeper, and the more limited sun exposure causes the fruit to ripen slightly later. This fruit is a bright red, and crunchy, with a very sweet flavor.

close-cherries-italy-private-cycling-toursDuring cherry season, cherries appears in all types of dishes from salads to savory to desserts. The following recipe I’ve translated from an Italian cookbook containing 40 recipes all featuring cherries from the Veneto.

Quaglie con Ciliegie – Quail with Cherries

The Italian version notes that the original recipe called for the use of the blackbirds, but as they are now hard to find, it has substituted quail. It assures us it will still be great.

Serves 4

4 quail
6 ounces cherries, pitted
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces pancetta, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Grappa

Stuff each quail with two pitted cherries, about 1/2 tablespoon of butter eah, salt and pepper.

Wrap each quail with the thin slices of pancetta, holding in place with kitchen twine if necessary.

Melt the remaining butter in a large saute pan over medium high heat, and wheh hot, sear the quail on all sides.

Turn down the heat to medium, add the remaining cherries and the grappa. Flame the grappa with a lighter, then cook until the quails are cooked through, about 5 to 10 minutes depending on their size.

Served immediately on a hot plate, garnish with the remaining cherries and sauce.

Posted in Cherries, Gluten Free, Poultry and Game Birds, Travel, Uncategorized, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Moeche Fritte – Fried Soft Shell Crabs of Venice

moeche-fritte-italy-private-walking-toursOn our recent cooking class our hosts delivered a very special seasonal treat as we worked – a plate of hot moeche fritte, fried soft shell crabs. These unique crabs are a seasonal Venetian treat, as they are in the US. In Venice, they are referred to as moleche, moeche, or moeca in Venetian dialect. These crabs are a different species than found here in the US, they are smaller (about 2-3 inches), and are available twice a year – in the fall and spring. Maseneta indicates the female crab (with shell), which is particularly valued at the end of summer when, after having changed and having mated, she is mature and filled with eggs.

cooking-italy-private-walking-toursThe moleche fishermen of Venice (molecanti) are masters as managing the molting process of their harvest. Raising crabs is a strictly local activity, passed down from generation to generation. The tradition is practiced in Burano and on the Giudecca but until the second half of the last century the raising of moeche was a secret known only to the crab farmers of Chioggia. The crabs are caught by placing nets with funnel shaped traps in the waters at the beginning of the season.

moeche-rialto-private-italy-toursThe fishermen separate the crabs from the fish and bring them back to big warehouses where they select the crabs about to undergo their seasonal change and place them in a particular tub. There is only a very brief 5-6 hour period in which the shells are soft enough to eat, as continued contact with water will harden them in a matter of hours. The trick is to identify those crabs that are just about to molt from those that are not; the former are stored in tanks until they have molted, at which point they are taken to markets such as the amazing fish market at Rialto. The latter are held back in a separate tub until their molting time has come. The crab stocks were almost depleted in the 1980s. Today they are farmed in various locations around Venice, and it now is an important industry in the region.

moeche-close-italy-private-walking-toursThe fascination that the Venetians have with this strange crab has made its way into local expressions. The Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of the Venetian republic, when represented frontally framed by its wings is called “Leon i moeca”, the crab lion. When a person repeatedly forgets to bring a promised gift to another person, one can say: “anca se’l deventa gransio no importa”, “even if it becomes a crab, it doesn’t matter”, in other words, even if too much time has gone by and the moeca’s shell grew back, the gift would still be appreciated. Also the expression “Andar in brodo de masenete”, “to become a crab broth” is used when something disappears, like masenete when they are cooked too long. And Venetians, when encouraging one another not to despair, say “in mancansa de masenete, bone anca e sate!”, “If we have no crabs, well, the legs are good tool!”

The most common way of preparing moeche is fritte, or deep fried.

moeche-fritte-above-italy-private-walking-toursMoeche Fritte

12 live moeche
2 eggs, beaten
Flour
Salt
Oil for frying – peanut, sunflower, vegetable oil

Wash the moeche and immerse them in the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a plate and let stand in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Place about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan, and heat over medium high heat to about 325°F.

Place some flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Remove the crabs from the eggs and dredge in the flour. Fry in hot oil for a few minutes until they are golden. Place on paper towels to drain, season with salt and serve with polenta slices and a glass of prosecco.

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Veneto, Veneto Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tagliatelle con Carciofini e Gamberi

tagliatelle-carciofini-private-walking-tours-tuscany-italiaoutdoorsOur April private walking tour brought us from the waters of the Venetian lagoon to the hills of Tuscany – this time of year artichokes are found on menus in both regions. We saw the first blossoms of the carciofo violetto of Sant’Erasmo – the castraure – while in Venice, and were in Tuscany on the 25th of April when the Festa del Carciofo happens in Chiusure, near Siena.

artichokes-private-walking-tours-tuscany-italiaoutdoorsUnlike in the US, where we see only one variety of artichoke, in Italy you will see many varieties as you move from region to region, with different growing seasons and many different preparations. Some can be enjoyed raw, but there are many other ways to enjoy them – braised, fried, poached in oil.

carciofi-violetti-bowl-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsItalian cuisine is filled with legends about the origins and purported benefits of traditional dishes, especially a plant a unique as this one! The artichoke supposedly arrived in ancient Rome from Greece and Egypt. It was considered an aphrodisiac and was thought to ensure male children. According to legend, Jove, the father of all gods, fell for a young girl with blond hair, Cynara, who did not return his affections. As punishment, Jove transformed her into a spiny plant, the artichoke, hence its botanical name Cynara scolymas.

The Italian name, carciofo, comes from the Arabic word for the plant, al-kharsuf, “the plant that stings”, who introduced the plant into the cuisine of Southern Italy. However, its use was limited on Medieval tables as it was believed to cause demonic temptation in young girls.

artichokes-venice-private-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsIn 1446, Filippo Strozzi, a Florence banker and rival to the Medici family, brought artichoke seeds from Naples to Tuscany, and from there the cultivation spread across the rest of the Italian peninsula. In the Renaissance, the juice of the artichoke was administered as a pregnancy test: “Give a woman artichoke juice, if she vomits, she is pregnant.” Caterina de Medici was very fond of artichokes, and she brought them with her to France in 1533, when she married the heir to the French throne.

Here is another recipe from the La Cucina Italiana magazine. Very simple and easy using fresh bought pasta (not tagliatelle, you go with what looks good!), and lovely shrimp from my local fish market.

tagliatelle-gamberi-private-walking-tours-tuscany-italiaoutdoors

Tagliatelle con Carciofini e Gamberi

1 pound fresh tagliatelle
1/2 lemon
8 baby artichokes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
16 large head-on shrimp, peeled and deveined
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch arugula

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Squeeze juice from lemon half into the water in bowl, then add lemon half.

Cut off artichoke stems and discard. Cut off top 1/2 inch of one artichoke with a serrated knife. Bend outer leaves back until they snap off close to base, then continue to discard several more layers of leaves in the same manner until you reach pale yellow or purple leaves. Cut off any green tips. Trim dark green fibrous parts from base and sides with a small sharp knife, then cut lengthwise into sixths. Put the pieces in the lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes.

In a large skillet, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add shrimp; cook, turning occasionally, until opaque and cooked through, about 3 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Drain artichokes. Cook pasta in the boiling water until al dente, about 3 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid, drain pasta and transfer to a bowl. Immediately toss with pasta cooking liquid, arugula and half of the artichokes. Divide the remaining half of the artichokes onto 4 serving plates, and fan out toward rim. Divide the pasta among plates, top with shrimp, drizzle with oil, season with salt and serve immediately.

Posted in Artichokes, Pasta, Travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment