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

Radicchio Tardivo con Aceto Balsamico – Balsamic Marinated Radicchio

marinated-radicchio-tardivo-italy-walking-toursAs I return to Italy for our first private walking tour, I arrive to enjoy the last of the winter Tardivo radicchio. The Tardivo is a uniquely shaped plant with elongated leaves and pronounced white ribs tinged with red, giving rise to its nickname Fiori d’lnverno or “winter flower”. Red radicchio is a chicory, a relative of the wild plant you can still find growing along the roadside today. It was introduced to the Venetian republic in the fifteenth century and became intensely cultivated especially in the Treviso area. Growers here developed many different varietals over the years, each providing a different flavor profile and different growing season.

March is a great month for an Italy walking tour.

There are two varieties of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso which are grown in and around Treviso, and both are protected by their own IGP quality designation. The Precoce variety appears first in the season, and has deep red leaves, with an elongated shape. It has the sweetest and most delicate flavor in the radicchio family.

radicchio-tardivo-italy-walking-toursThe second type, Tardivo, is more elongated, with a more pronounced vein. Radicchio di Treviso was engineered by a Belgian named Francesco Van Den Borre who lived in Italy and cared for the gardens of the villas in the Veneto.  He applied the imbianchiamento techniques used in his country to radicchio plants to create white-veins in the red leaves. This is a forcing, or ‘whitening” process similar to that used for Belgian endive, in which field-harvested plants have their upper halves cut off, and then are replanted in running water. After a few days, the deep red inner ‘heart’ begins to grow, which is sweet and tender, with a touch of the original bitterness still remaining. The older outer leaves are removed and the heart is what you will see in the market.

Radicchio tardivo at Rialto market in Venice

Tardivo is the more flavorful of the two, very crisp with strong bitter accents. It can be simply sauteed in olive oil and served as a side dish, or grilled. A very typical preparation found on antipasti platters here in the Veneto is the following version, where the radicchio tardivo is blanched and marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. You can add some sweetness with the addition of dried fruits and pine nuts. Leftovers can be used to flavor a risotto.

Balsamic Marinated Radicchio

4 heads of Radicchio Tardivo
4 cups water
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme leaves

Wash and cut the radicchio lengthwise into quarters, making sure to split it from the root, so that the leaves will stay together.

Place the water, red wine vinegar, white wine, and salt into a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Blanch the radicchio for two minutes, then remove and place in a colander to drain.

Prepare the marinade by mixing the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon zest, a pinch of salt and pepper and the thyme leaves.

Lay the radiccchio on a seving platter and drizzle with the marinade and lemon juice.

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Sformato di Fiolaro e Scampi – Fiolaro Broccoli Flan with Shrimp

sformato-fiolaro-italy-walking-toursThere are countless local varieties of plants that are incorporated into the traditional cuisine and wines of Italy. Due to Italy’s unique geography, these particular species have been isolated to a small area, and may only be found and used within a couple of kilometers. Discovering these very special local specialties is part of any of our Italiaoutdoors walking tours or cycling adventures. One example in season in early spring in the Veneto region is Fiolaro di Creazzo, a local broccoli.

fiolaro-creazzo-italy-walking-toursBelonging to the Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale, fiolaro broccoli has been known in Europe since Roman times. Fiolaro broccoli is unique, as it does not resemble other varieties of broccoli either in form or in taste. Unlike other broccoli, it does not form a flower, but instead produces small secondary shoots along the stem of the plant which are called fioi and have given this plant its name.

fields-vicenza-italy-walking-toursGrown on the hills of Creazzo, just west of Vicenza, at least since the eighteenth century, this plant flourishes in the rich soil on the south slopes in the area of Rivella-Beccodoro-Rampa, where the winter is dry, not too cold, but with brief November frost (-8/10°C) that makes the fiolaro particularly tasty. The plant, which is harvested at the end of February, protects itself from the frost by limiting its water intake, which increases the concentration of salts and sugars.

Goethe reputedly tasted this peculiar broccoli during his famous trip to Italy in 1786, and was fascinated by it. Early in the 20th century, the Barons of Scola grew 150 thousand plants per year and the product was renowned throughout the province. Over the years, the market began to favor greenhouse crops which were less seasonal, and as a result, production fell to 30 thousand plants per year. Today this product is back in vogue, thanks to its flavor as well as known health benefits; it is rich in vitamins and minerals, and like all broccoli, has a high content of antioxidants. It has been used by folk medicine practitioners for centuries.

sformato-fiolaro-wine-italy-walking-toursThe following recipe is elegant, surprisingly easy, and just as tasty with “regular” broccoli you will be able to find at home. It comes from “Mangiare Veneto: Sette Province in Cucina” (Eat Veneto: Seven Provinces, One Kitchen), by Amedeo Sandri and Maurizio Falloppi. This book offers many recipes for these micro-local specialties of this region, including one recipe for the white asparagus of Bassano, another totally different one for the white asparagus of Sile, nearer Treviso. Locals here in Vicenza would be as likely to gather Fiolaro from the wild, as they would purchase it at the market, then simply saute it with pancetta, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Serve with a crisp Garganega, the premier white grape from the Veneto, like a Soave or Gambellara.

Sformato di Fiolaro e Scampi, Ovvero “Collina e Mare” (called “Hill and Sea”)

1/2 pound broccolo fiolaro di Creazzo
2 eggs
1 yolk
2 tablespoons grated Grana Padano
1 1/4 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon each of celery, carrot, and onion cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/2 cup white wine
4 shrimp
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Blanch the fiolaro broccoli in boiling salted water until tender, drain, and immerse immediately in ice water. Squeeze out excess water and finely chop.

Place the eggs, grana cheese, and milk in a medium bowl, beat to combine, then add the chopped broccoli. Season with salt and pepper.

Take four individual molds and butter the inside. Divide the broccoli mixture between the four molds. Bake in a water bath for 20 – 30 minutes, until set and just beginning to brown. Remove and allow to cool for 5-6 minutes, then gently invert them to allow the custards to fall out of the molds.

Meanwhile, place the butter and chopped celery, carrot and onion in a large saute pan, and cook over high heat until soft. Season with salt and pepper, then add the shrimp. Saute for a couple of minutes over medium heat, then add the wine. Just as it starts to boil, remove the shrimp. Remove the tails of the shrimp and set aside. Add the heads back into the saute pan. Add the chopped tomatoes and cream to the pan as well. Cook until thickened a bit, smashing the tomatoes and the shrimp bodies as it cooks. Remove from heat, and pour through a strainer to get a nice sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.

Place the sformato on individual serving plates. Top each with a shelled shrimp tail, cover with a spoonful or so of sauce, and serve.

Posted in Eggs, Gambellara, Gluten Free, Shrimp, Soave, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetables, Veneto, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Ferrara – Citta delle Biciclette, Cappellacci, and the Feasts of Lucretia Borgia

ferrara-castellese-italy-walking-toursOur Gourmet Venice to Florence Walking Adventure traverses Northeast Italy, exploring the historical sights, regional kitchens and local wines of Venice, Vicenza, Bologna and Florence. One stop on this journey that surprises our guests, as it is not that well-known to tourists,  is the city of Ferrara.

ferrara-walls-italy-walking-toursFerrara is the capital of the province of Ferrara, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, about 50 km northeast of Bologna. The center of town is dominated by the Castello Estense, a brick castle complete with moat, commissioned by Nicholas D’Este in 1385. The Este family ruled Ferrara for close to 400 hundred years, and during their reign Ferrara became a center for art and culture, and was one of the first examples of Renaissance city planning earning today its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The notorious Lucretia Borgia was married to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I, and spent most of her life here in Ferrara, and is buried here as well.


Visitors to the Castello have the opportunity to experience the old prisons, the Tower of the Lions, the terrace orangerie which supposedly inspired the same at Versailles and the ducal kitchens, where a nice exhibit describes the elaborate feasts that were put on by the ruling family. The Este’s were renowned for their elaborate banquets which feature numerous courses, elegant table decorations, and musical and theatrical entertainment, from magicians to pastry castles, pies filled with live birds, sucking pigs, and decorative marzipan figures and sculpted sugar table ornaments.

ferrara-cathedral-italy-walking-toursThe center of Ferrara is dominated by Romanesque façade of the Cathedral, one of the landmarks of the city. “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” by Guercino is among the most important works housed inside the cathedral. The surrounding busy marketplace is the center of activity in this lively city.

ferrara-artifact-italy-walking-toursAnother spot worth a visit is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, located in Palazzo Costabili. A very interesting exhibit is dedicated to Spina, an Etruscan port that flourished between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC. Spina was the principal port in northern Adriatic Sea between the late Archaic and Hellenistic periods, and one of the cornerstones of Etruscan presence in northern Italy.

ferrara-archeological-museum-italy-walking-toursFerrara is surrounded by some of the best preserved ancient city walls in Italy, dating from the 15th and 16th century. Today, 9 km of cycling and walking paths follow these walls, where you will often find the residents of this “Citta delle Biciclette” enjoying the outdoors along these quiet tree-lined paths.

ferrara-walls-sunrise-italy-walking-toursferrara-cycling-wallls-italy-walking-toursAfter a nice late afternoon bike ride, we head out for dinner to discover some of the favorite local dishes. The undisputed signature first pasta course in Ferrara is cappellacci di zucca, a stuffed pasta with a filling of winter squash or pumpkin, Parmigiano-Reggiano and nutmeg. It is served two ways, either with a butter and sage sauce, or, interestingly enough, a meat ragu. Cappellacci di Zucca Ferraresi are mentioned in recipe books from the Renaissance, when these were prepared for the Este family. A great place to find both the Cappellaci as well as another Ferrarese specialty, Salama da sugo, is Trattoria da Noemi.

ferrara-cappellaci-italy-walking-toursSalama da Sugo is a locally produced pork sausage that is prepared for eating in a very specific way. The sausage is first soaked in warm water overnight in order to soften the outer crust, which is then brushed to clean it. Next, it is wrapped in a cloth and immersed in a pot of water, hanging from a wooden stick so it does not touch the bottom. The water is brought to a low boil, and the sausage simmers here for over four hours. Once cooked, you carefully break the casing and spoon the warm meat over mashed potatoes or polenta.

salama-da-sugo-ferrara-italy-walking-toursA wonderful dining destination in the heart of the medieval district of Ferrara is the Jewish Ghetto, where the Jewish community of this city was segregated from 1627 to the Unification of Italy  (1848 – 1870). Sights here include quaint terracotta houses, the Jewish school, and the Synagogue in Via Mazzini, site of the Jewish Museum. My favorite restaurant here is the Osteria del Ghetto, where you can sample traditional dishes of the community.

ferrara-osteria-ghetto-italy-walking-toursThe breadbasket will arrive filled with bread with a very unusual shape, this is coppia Ferrarese (ciupeta),  the local specialty bread. This bread dates back over 800 years or more, when rules instructed bakers to produce bread in the shape of scrolls (orletti).  Today’s version is a sourdough bread, made from two rolled up ribbons of dough which are united together in the center, leaving the four twisted ends sticking out like a four pointed star. Coppia Ferrarese enjoys PGI (Protected Geographical Identification) recognition by the European Community.

ferrara-bread-italy-walking-toursDue to religious restrictions, you would not find pork dishes here, instead, poultry based dishes were common. Here, try the Chicken Braised in Pears, spiced with cinnamon, featuring the local pears found in the orchards surrounding Ferrara.

ferrara-chicken-pears-italy-walking-toursWhen in Ferrara, I recommend the local wines to accompany your meals. The region of Emilia-Romagna produces quite a bit of wine, but not a lot is exported. You should try a glass of Lambrusco, and re-discover this wine you have probably tried early in your wine drinking career. Lambrusco is the name of both a family of red grapes, and the sparkling wines produced with them. There are many varieties of the grape, over 60 have been identified throughout Italy. The best to try: Lambrusco Salamino, Sorbara, and Grasparossa.

lini-labrusco-rosso-private-bike-tours-italyFor a white, the local favorite is a Pignoletto. Here in Emilia-Romagna the residents proudly use this name, but DNA analysis has shown that Pignoletto is actually the Grechetto grape grown in Umbria. The best are lively and crisp, and you can find both still and sparkling versions. Finally, the local red wines are made from the Sangiovese grape, the most widely planted grape in Italy, You have no doubt enjoyed Sangiovese based wines before, in your glass of Chianti. Spend your evening in Ferrara enjoying a glass on the Piazza della Cattedrale, watching the sunset reflecting on the historic facade.


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Bigoli con L’Anatra – Bigoli Pasta with Duck Ragù

bigoli-con-anatra-italy-walking-toursVenetians themselves are not really meat eaters; their watery surroundings naturally drove them to a seafood based cuisine. However, as we move inland from Venice to the mainland on our Veneto walking tours and cycling trips, the low-lying wetlands that exist around the Po, Brenta, and Adige river valleys are perfect breeding ground for a wide variety of waterfowl. These various species were valued and hunted by the locals for hundreds of years. For Hemingway enthusiasts, recall Major Cantwell revisiting the last romance of his life in Venice as he huddles in a duck blind during a hunt (well, the blind was actually in Trieste, you get the idea – his last romance was in Venice.)

venice-grand-canal-night-walking-toursAll along the waterways leading to the Venetian lagoon, we see the food products used in the local cuisine, from rice for risottos, to fresh-water fish, to waterfowl. Traditionally there was an enormous variety of water birds that were hunted and used for food. Each would be prepared in a particular way, designed to exhibit (or hide) its particular characteristics. Nowadays, we see recipes that call for “duck”, years ago, you would prepare each particular variety in a slightly different way. The most prized species of duck “germano reale”, the familiar Mallard, even had different preparation techniques for the female (boiled, and used for stock) than the male (roasted). There is a specific recipe for the pintail duck, another for the teal, the tufted duck, the coot, and so forth. Waverly Root describes recipes in which the not-particularly attractive taste of heron and curlew is disguised with a lengthy marinade in white wine, lemon juice, consomme and herbs.

Male_mallard_duck_2When using meat in a recipe in the Veneto, you will most likely see it chopped up and used in some sort of sauce, rather than served in large pieces as is done in most meat loving regions. Poultry in general is more popular in this region than beef or other meats, undoubtedly due to the availability of waterfowl in the low-lying wetlands of the region. Throughout the area, you will see a meaty duck sauce served in a variety of different ways. In Venice, it might include tomatoes and be served over gnocchi. In Vicenza, it will be served over the favorite local pasta, bigoli, not often seen here in the US, but most closely resembles bucatini, a wide, hollow, spaghetti.

Brenta River in Bassano del Grappa

The following recipe I have translated and adapted from “Ricette di Osterie del Veneto”, by Slow Food.

Bigoli con L’Anatra – Bigoli with Duck

1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 duck, cut into quarters
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 celery stalks, peeled and finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup low-salt chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 fresh bay leaf or 1/2 dried
1 lb. fresh bigoli or other pasta
Freshly grated Grana cheese, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil heavy-duty pot over medium-high heat. Season the duck with salt and pepper and place them in the pot, skin side down. Sear until the skin is browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Turn the pieces over and brown the other sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the duck and pour off all but about 1 Tbs. of the rendered fat and discard or save for another use.

Reduce the heat to medium low. Put the celery, onion, and carrot into the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.

Pour in the wine and increase the heat to high. Boil until wine is reduced by 1/2, then reduce the heat to medium. Add the broth, tomato paste, sage, rosemary and bay leaf, stirring to combine. Return the duck to the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, just enough to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and simmer until the meat is fork-tender, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Remove the duck from the pot and set aside until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, skim the excess fat from the top of the sauce with a large spoon. If the sauce seems thin, continue simmering until thickened to desired consistency.

Discard the duck skin and shred the meat. Add the shredded meat to the sauce. Let the sauce simmer gently for 15 minutes; discard the garlic and bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

When ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water and then drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the pot and toss it with some of the ragù, adding a little cooking water if it seems dry. Serve the pasta with more ragù spooned over the top, garnished with freshly grated Grana cheeese.

The ragù can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat gently before tossing with pasta.


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