Orecchiette con Salsiccia, Cavoli Rapa e Pignoli – and 4 Easy Tips for a Great Pasta Dish

orecchiette kale sausage plate bike tours italy italiaoutdoors food and wineAs a ski instructor, a busy winter vacation week doesn’t leave much time or energy for elaborate dinners. So this past week, dinners were quick and easy. Luckily, Italy serves up many deliciously simple pasta recipes which can be prepared in 30 minutes or less.
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During our cycling and skiing tours in Italy, we rarely see pasta dishes that are heavily tomato sauce based; instead, we see many flavor combinations that we wouldn’t think of here in the US – pasta with beans, pasta with potatoes, pasta with all sorts of meat sauces from pork and beef to sardines, rabbit and duck. Even fruits and sweet flavors can play a role, like the apples in the Christmas lasagna from Friuli. So the sky is the limit as to the dishes you can create.
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For the following recipe, I used what I had on hand; great garlic lamb sausages from French Hill Farm here in Maine, baby kale, pine nuts, and wonderful authentic parmegiano reggiano cheese. I used orecchiette pasta; orecchiette, or ‘little ears’, originally comes from Puglia, but are now found all over Italy. The classic Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon, recommends vegetable sauces to accompany orecchiette, so a perfect combination with kale. But I think any good quality pasta will do.

parmigiano grater bike tours italy italiaoutdoors food and wineTo make the most of the few ingredients, here are four simple tips for making any pasta dish perfect:

  1. Be liberal in salting the pasta water. Add salt until the water tastes like the sea, as I was coached in culinary school. It won’t all absorb in the pasta, just enough to flavor it well.
  2. Cook just until al dente, and use a good quality dried pasta. We want a nice, somewhat firm texture. Too much cooking, or a low quality dried pasta (or even worse, both) will end up with mushy pasta.
  3. Reserve a bit of pasta water to loosen up the sauce. I take a cup full out before draining.
  4. Use a high quality cheese, not pre grated ersatz “Parmesan”.

Orecchiette con Salsiccia, Cavoli Rapa e Pinoli

8 ounces sausage
5 ounces kale
1 – 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (optional)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried orecchiette pasta
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano or grana padano cheese

In a large sauté pan, cook the sausage over medium low heat until just done. Remove from heat and cut into small pieces.

In the same sauté pan, increase the heat to medium and add the kale. Cook until tender, then add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 more minute. Add the cooked sausage and stir to combine. Season with the red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Turn off heat.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt until the pasta water is salty like sea water. Cook the pasta until just al dente – you want the pasta to have some firmness, not mushy. Reserve a cup of the pasta water, then drain.

Add the cooked orecchiette to the sautéed kale and sausage. Stir to combine, adding a bit of the reserved pasta water if you prefer it a bit looser in texture. Stir in the pine nuts and grated cheese, and season to taste with ground pepper. Serve immediately.


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Semifreddo di Cioccolato

semifreddo cioccolato italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyI’ve enjoyed some wonderful and not so wonderful versions of this dessert in Italy. One of the best versions was at Pulierin Enotavola at Contra Soarda in Bassano del Grappa – a favorite stop on our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads tours. I finally got around to developing my own version.

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Semifreddo at Pulierin Enotavola

Semifreddo translates to ‘half cold’, and refers to an entire class of semi-frozen desserts, with flavors ranging from chocolate to coffee to hazelnut to an endless array of fruit based versions. Today, the majority of recipes I see for semifreddo are made by combining equal parts ice cream (or gelato, if they are Italian) with whipped cream. However, a traditionalist would cringe at these modern versions.

A good semifreddo has a very specific texture, a perfect balance between hard and creamy, lighter and softer than ice cream. Traditional recipes use one part whipped cream combined with one part custard, combined with the flavor component. For semifreddo all’italiana, this custard is an Italian meringue, egg whites whipped with a warm sugar syrup, producing a smooth and shiny meringue.

ingredients italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyTo quote the Gruppo Virtuale Cuochi Italiani – a network of Italian chefs and other culinary professionals, a true semifreddo is a challenge even for the professional chef and/or pastry chef, let alone the home cook. Master pastry chefs, manuals and books recommend a scientific approach to the making of semifreddo. To achieve a correct balance of the ingredients the proportions should be as follow: Sugar 20-27%; fat 15-24%; solids 5-10% (the total of solids should be 42-55%); proteins 5-7%.

vinegar salt chocolate italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyMy cooking is all about maximizing the flavors with a minimum of fuss. I don’t end up with the perfectly textured semifreddo, but I do end up with a delicious dessert without spending all day in the kitchen. Here, I use the classic ingredients – whipped cream, meringue, and a flavor component, chocolate. But I just used a basic, simple meringue – no simple syrup, thermometer and determining ‘soft ball stage’, just egg whites mixed with granulated sugar. In the recipe below, I also simply mixed the three main ingredients together – the meringue into the whipped cream, then the melted chocolate. The chocolate begins to harden a bit, and you end up with some smaller hard bits of chocolate in your semifreddo. I actually prefer this texture, but I’ve also include instructions below to make a smooth chocolate version.

semifreddo freezer italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italySemifreddo di Cioccolato

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cool
1 cup heavy cream
7 large egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt


2 cups frozen strawberries
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap.

In a large bowl, whip cream to medium peaks, set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat together the egg whites, sugar and sea salt to stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg mixture into the whipped cream.

For the more elegant, smooth texture version, take about 1 cup of the egg/whipped cream mixture and mix it into the melted chocolate. Then fold the chocolate mixture into the remaining egg/cream mixture. For a more rustic texture with small bits of chocolate, fold all of the chocolate mixture into the egg/cream all at once.

Place mixture in lined loaf pan; chill in freezer for at least 5 hours, or up to 1 day.

To unmold, place your serving plate over the top and flip. Pull down on plastic wrap to unmold. Serve with strawberry sauce, mixed berries, and/or chocolate sauce. A few sprinkles of sea salt are nice too!

For sauce

In a medium saucepan, combine the strawberries and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the balsamic. Transfer to a blender.

Purée until smooth, strain, and set aside. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

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Italian Wines versus American Wines – What Makes Them Different – Siduri

siduri pinot bike wine tours italiaoutdoors food and wineFor the final of my three part series on my December 2013 California winery tour, we visit Siduri Winery. Siduri has a story shared by many a California producer, here, two self-professed “Texas wine geeks” moved to California to “make a killer Pinot Noir from the best vineyards”.

Adam and Dianna were both working in the food and wine industry when they met in Texas. They shared a passion for Pinot Noir strong enough to fuel a move away from home and family to California’s Sonoma wine country. They spent several years working for smaller, family owned wineries to learn the ins and outs of cultivating grapes and producing wine. In 1994, they launched Siduri Wines.

siduri willamette pinotToday, Siduri produces single vineyard Pinot Noir from 20 different vineyards stretching from Santa Barbara north to Willamette Valley in Oregon. They have relationships with some of the country’s top vineyards and growers, include Pisoni, Van der Kamp and Clos Pepe. They do minimal processing, all of their Pinot’s are unfined and unfiltered. They “believe that great wine is made in the vineyard.”  Just as we see in Italy on our cycling wine tours, the folks at Siduri appreciate the role that terroir plays in the production of wines. They produce single vineyard wines, designing each to reflect the unique characteristics of the individual sites.

This focus on terroir is much more common in Italian producers than in US. In Italy, we visit small, family run wineries that are producing wines made from their own vineyards. Many of these families have owned these estates, and cultivated grapes on these lands for generations, passing down an immense amount of experience and knowledge. On a recent tour to our favorite prosecco producer, the owner showed us the oldest single vine on the estate, over 70 years old, planted by her grandfather.

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Oldest vine at Col del Lupo Prosecco winery, in Italy

In California, many producers like Siduri are making wines with grapes purchased from growers, and don’t actually own their own vineyards. I was at a recent panel discussion at UNH featuring another California producer, Peter Paul Winery. During the Q&A session, someone questioned their practices of using purchasing grapes, and the reply was a bit defensive. Purchasing grapes from growers has it’s pros and cons; if you are knowledgeable and know what to look for, you can pick from the best. Siduri has the practice of purchasing grapes by the acre, rather than by the ton. That way, they can control the yield, and the farmer is not incentivized to sacrifice quality for quantity. You can hedge your bets during the bad years. However, with vineyards to oversee from California to Oregon, you are not out overseeing the fields daily. You have a lot of science and expertise to guide you, but not the history and experience of hundreds of years.

Here’s a sampling of the MANY wines we tasted at Siduri

2011 Chehalem Mountain Pinot Noir – Willamette Valley, WA

Subtle aroma, cherry, with a bit of spice. Light, earthy, mushrooms.

siduri van der kamp pinot bike wine tours italy italiaoutdoors food and wine2011 Van der Kamp – Sonoma

Fruity, peppery, a bit of minerality. Light, fresh fruit. Nice complexity, well structured.

The 2011 Siduri Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir just received a 90 point rating from the Wine Advocate and was described this way, “Savory herbs, olives, menthol, game, tar and licorice all take shape in the 2011 Pinot Noir Van Der Kamp Vineyard. An
unrestrained Pinot, the 2011 is laced with wild animal notes throughout. This is another of the more powerful, angular Pinots in the range, but there is no shortage of personality or intrigue.”

siduri rosellas bike wine tours italiaoutdoors food and wine2011 Santa Lucia Highlands – Rosella’s

Lots of different fruit, cherry, floral, rose.

Antonio Galloni from the Wine Advocate described the wine this way, “ One of the more
promising 2011s, Siduri’s 2011 Pinot Noir Rosella’s shows the freshness of the year in its lip-smacking acidity, although there is more than enough fruit to provide balance. Sweet dark red cherries, flowers and spices come together in this impeccable, refined Pinot.”

siduri garys bike wine tours italiaoutdoors food and wine2011 Gary’s Vineyard

Nice cherry, spice and earth.

The 2011 Siduri Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir shows avery aromatic nose, with loads of
floral and dried herb scents. On the palate, the wine is mid-weight, with more red rasp-
berry fruits though there are some darker fruit flavors hiding underneath. There are hints of herbs and dried leaves (probably from the use of whole clusters in the ferment) along with some vanilla from the oak. The wine still shows some baby fat, but is certainly a great candidate for the cellar.

2012 Clos Pepe

We enjoyed a barrel sampling of this, as they start bottling in January, 2014.

This vineyard is located in a valley that runs east – west, with lots of wind. The grapes are smaller clusters, with lots of skin, resulting in a higher level of tannins.

Cherry, spice, a nice acidity. Tannins are managed nicely.

In addition, Adam and Dianna have now moved into other varietals, produced under the Novy winery label.

novy syrah bike wine tours italiaoutdoors food and wine2011 Zinfandel – Carlisle Vineyard

Zippy, with lots of fruit, spice and earth.

2010 Syrah – Sierra Mar Vineyard, Santa Lucia

Earthy fruit, a bit of spice.

2010 Syrah – Simpson Vineyard, Dry Creek

Nice minerality and fruit.

2011 Blanc di Pinot Noir – Willamette Valley

Sauvignon Blanc- like, crisp and tart, citrus

2011 Chardonnay – Rosella’s Vineyard

66% aged in neutral oak, 33% in new oak.

2012 Four Mile Creek White

Blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer

2012 “Oley” Late Harvest Viognier

Sweet dessert wine, grapes stay on vine 6 weeks after regular harvest.

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Torta al Miele, Nocciola e Limone

torta al miele italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyWhen I indulge in dessert, I prefer simple sweets. On our ski tours in Italy, I sample the apple strudel at every restaurant we visit, usually with a glass of grappa. On our cycling tours, a simple cake or a traditional cookie accompanied by a glass of the local dessert wine, be it Vin Santo in Umbria or Torcolato in the Veneto.

honey italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyA friend gave me a couple of jars of homemade honey, which I have been looking to put to good use. On our cycling tours in the Veneto, we pass through many honey producing areas, each featuring specific flavors which vary based on the source of the nectar. The Colli Euganie hills just south of Padua produce honey from sunflowers, dandelion, acacia and chestnuts; Miele del Grappa and Miele del Montello produced near Bassano del Grappa are flavored by acacia, chestnuts, wildflowers, and wild cherries; there are also honeys from the plains of Verona, the mountains of Verona, and the Belluno Dolomites.

honey sample italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italHoney has a long history of human consumption, with cave paintings depicting honey gathering dating back 8000 years.  It is speculated that the ancient Greeks first brought beekeeping to southern Italy, and several ancient Roman mention the gathering and use of honey in their writings, including Pliny the Elder and Marcus Terentius Varro. In the absence of sugar, honey was an integral sweetening ingredient in Roman recipes. It also has medicinal uses, it’s anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are still recognized today as beneficial for treatment of wounds.

all ingredients italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours italyCured honey is also suitable for long term storage, due to its high sugar content and low water content. We can thank the energetic bees for the latter, as the bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a draft across the honeycomb, evaporating the water from the nectar and preventing fermentation. Honey, and items preserved in honey, have been preserved for decades, even centuries. The Egyptians even used it as an embalming fluid.

I made this honey cake recently when we had a few guests for dinner. Judging from their reaction, the preservative properties of honey are not required here. This is adapted from a recipe for Honey and Pear Cake from La Cucina Italiana.

Torta al Miele, Nocciola e Limone

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
zest of one lemon

For the cream:

1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup fresh, whole milk ricotta cheese, drained of excess liquid
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons grappa or dessert wine
Heat oven to 350º with rack in middle. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter, and cover with parchment paper, cut to fit.

In a food processor, pulse hazelnuts with 1 tablespoon of the flour until ground to a fine powder; transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda; stir to combine.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter, ¼ cup honey, brown sugar and granulated sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Mix in whole egg and egg yolk, one at a time.

Whisk together milk, vanilla and lemon zest. In three additions, add flour mixture alternating with milk mixture to the butter mixture. Using a rubber spatula, scrape batter into prepared pan; place pan on a baking sheet. Bake, rotating halfway through, until the cake is golden brown and gently bounces back when touched, 40 to 45 minutes.

Transfer cake pan to a wire rack; immediately put remaining 2 tablespoons honey in a small saucepan; heat over medium-low heat, stirring to combine, until just warm and viscous, then brush mixture over cake. Let cake cool completely before serving.

For the cream: In large mixing bowl, vigorously whisk together cream, cheese, honey and liquor until mixture is smooth and reaches soft peaks, about 3 minutes.

Serve cake warm or at room temperature large spoonful of the cream.


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Italian Wines versus American Wines – What Makes Them Different – Corté Riva

wine corte rive cycling tours italy italiaoutdoors food and wine bike tours tuscany italyMy recent vacation in California wine country inspired me to share a few thoughts on the differences between the US wine industry and the Italian wine industry. We discuss this very subject on almost all of our Bike the Wine Roads tours in Italy. My last post, on Bell Vineyards, discussed the different perspectives on terroir, the natural environment in which the wine is produced.

Our visit to another winery, Corté Riva, brings up other contrasts between the two. My guiding partner, Vernon, often shares his perspective on cultural differences he’s experienced as an American residing in Italy. In Italy, he shares, if your grandfather was a baker, your father then became a baker, and you would be destined for the same – that is the expected route, and many Italians are quite happy having their paths laid out for them, success being measured by becoming the best baker you can be. Many wine producers in Italy are still family run, every one with a story of how their ancestors started in the business, and how future generations expand, innovate and modernize. In the US, there is much more freedom to choose a different road, with many of us encouraged to find our ‘passion’, becoming a ‘self-made’ man or woman. So that is the story behind many a California producer – individuals pursuing a dream.
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