Crema di Mascarpone con Rabarbaro e Fragole

stewed rhubarb and mascarpone private ski tours italy italiaoutdoorsWe see many mascarpone desserts on our cycling and ski tours in Italy. It is a crucial component of tiramisu, and I use it often in my cooking classes. However, I still am often asked “What is mascarpone?” Here’s the answer.

mascarpone cycling tours italy italiaoutdoorsMascarpone is a fresh Italian cheese made from cream, coagulated by adding some sort of acid, either citric, acetic, or tartaric. It is a soft, creamy, easily spreadable cheese. It originated in the region of Lombardia, in the central north of Italy, in the area between Lodi and Abbiategrasso, just southwest of Milan. There are several theories as to the origin of the name; some claim it comes from the regional dialect name for ricotta, others claim it comes from the Spanish phrase Mas que bueno (more than good), dating from the Spanish occupation.

It appears in both sweet and savory dishes. I use it to enrich my Pea and Radicchio Risotto, or to whip it together with heavy cream and limoncello to make a tasty topping for roasted pears. And, of course, it is a key ingredient in everyone’s favorite – Tiramisu.

mascarpone grappa berries bike tours italy italiaoutdoorsThe following recipe is adaptation of a recipe from the region just north of Lombardia, Italy’s smallest region, Val d’Aosta. We will visit this region next season on our gourmet ski tour to Cervinia. Here, mascarpone is flavored with honey and your favorite liquor – I chose grappa, but you could use rum, or limoncello, or whatever you like. It is then served with fresh fruit. Rhubarb and strawberries are in my farmer’s market now. The rhubarb is roasted in water and sugar, and then the liquid reduced and drizzled on top. I also tried it with fresh blueberries and strawberries, topped with chopped toasted hazelnuts.

stewed rhubarb private bike tours italy italiaoutdoorsCrema di Mascarpone

12 ounces mascarpone
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons grappa
1/4 or more heavy cream

Combine mascarpone, honey, grappa and 1/4 cup heavy cream in a small bowl. Add additional cream to reach the consistency you prefer. Serve with stewed rhubarb and fresh strawberries.

Stewed Rhubarb

3 stalks rhubarb, trimmed and cut on diagonal into 1/4 inch slices
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 325°. Place the rhubarb into a medium baking dish, and sprinkle the sugar over rhubarb. Add enough water to baking dish to just cover rhubarb (about 2 cups). Place in oven and cook, uncovered, until rhubarb is very soft, about 1 hour.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the rhubarb to a bowl and pour sweet rhubarb juices into a medium saucepan. Boil rhubarb juices over medium-high heat until thick and syrupy, 15–20 minutes. Drizzle reduced juice over crema, rhubarb and strawberries.

3. Serve rhubarb warm or at room temperature, with a spoonful of ricotta and a bit of sugar sprinkled on top.

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Pizzoccheri – Buckwheat Pasta

pizzoccheria asparagus ski tours cervinia italiaoutdoorsVisitors exploring the northern heights of Italy’s Lombardy and Val d’ Aosta regions – as we will do next winter on our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine ski adventure in Cervinia with Carrabassett Valley Academy – will discover pizzoccheri, a type of short, flat ribbon pasta made with buckwheat and wheat flour. In these cool, alpine valleys, wheat is difficult to cultivate, but buckwheat flourishes. The Etruscans and Saracens introduced the buckwheat grain to Italy, hence it’s Italian name grano saraceno. It became a staple in the northern regions like Val d’ Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, appearing in recipes like buckwheat polenta, pizzoccheri, and gnocchi.

buckwheat flour ski tours cervinia italiaoutdoorsBuckwheat is not a wheat, but a grain, and so does not contain gluten. As buckwheat flour is so soft and lacks gluten, it makes a lousy pasta on its own. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives pasta and breads their structure, allowing us to roll our pasta into thin sheets that hold together and don’t rip. Pasta made from buckwheat flour alone will tear easily and fall apart, so including a portion of wheat flour will provide the gluten needed to allow for rolling and cutting. Kneading and resting also enhance the development of gluten, so don’t cheat on these steps. After you get the hang of making pasta, this is a great no-fuss recipe, easily done with just a rolling pin and a knife. Perfect for my upcoming class on pasta making.

pizzoccheria ski tours cervinia italiaoutdoorsPizzoccheri is a recipe from Valtellina, a valley in Lombardy region of Northern Italy. The name refers both to the buckwheat noodles, as well as the traditional recipe with combines the noodles with savory cabbage, potatoes, and the local Casera cheese. A great winter dish, perfect on a ski holiday, but in May I’m looking for something welcoming the flavors of spring. Asparagus and mushrooms fit the bill, and complement the nutty buckwheat pasta. Pair with a great Chambave Muscat white, or a red Torrette from Val d’ Aosta.

Pizzoccheri – Buckwheat Pasta

1 cup buckwheat flour
1 1/4 cup all purpose or bread flour plus more for dusting
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water

In a large bowl, or on the counter, mix together the buckwheat flour, wheat flour and salt. Mound the flour mixture and form a well in the center. Add the warm water to the well. Using your hands or a fork, slowly incorporate flour from the inside rim of the well. Continue until the liquid is absorbed – about half the flour will be incorporated. Then knead until the dough forms a complete mass. If using a bowl, transfer the dough to a clean work surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes to form a smooth dough. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes (optional).

buckwheat flour pasta ski tours cervinia italiaoutdoorsUnwrap dough and place in center of a large, clean, preferably wooden work surface lightly dusted with flour. Divide dough into 4 pieces, select one piece to roll, covering the remaining pieces with plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Using a long, straight wooden rolling pin, flatten the dough in the center, then begin rolling out dough using a gentle but firm back-and-forth motion and flattening evenly. Turn dough 90° and repeat. Working to maintain an even thickness, continue to gradually roll and turn pasta sheet until 1/8 inch thick.

rolling pasta ski tours cervinia italiaoutdoorsOnce the desired thickness, fold 2 opposite edges of the dough over 2 or 3 times in toward the center. Turn the dough 90° to cut crosswise, perpendicular to the folds. With a large chefs knife, cut the sheet into ribbons, 1/4 inch wide. Unroll strips and lightly dust with flour, then gently roll noodles into a nest, twisting once. Repeat with remaining pasta sheets.

Pizzoccheri con Asparagi e Funghi

1/2 pound wild mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta)
1 leek, white and light green parts only, halved and sliced 1/8 inch thick
12 stalks asparagus, woody ends removed, peeled if thicker than your finger
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400°. On a nonstick baking sheet, toss the mushrooms with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes.

In a medium skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the leek and asparagus and cook over moderate heat until just tender. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the mascarpone and cream, then stir in the butter. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Add the roasted mushrooms and cooked pasta to the skillet and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and mound the pasta into shallow bowls. Sprinkle the pasta with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve immediately.

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Pesto di Ortica – Nettle Pesto

nettle pesto gnocchi bike tours tuscany italiaoutdoorsLast week ramps were on the menu; today, another traditional foraged springtime food, nettles, ortica in Italian. Hardly approachable, with ferocious stingers filled with a combination of neurotransmitters, histamines, and formic acid, similar to the poison found in bee stings. But stinging nettles are incredibly high in vitamins C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium, and unusually high in protein for a green plant. Blanching quickly neutralizes the sting. So, over the years many cultures turn to nettles to break the austerity of winter.

nettles bike tours italy italiaoutdoorsNettles have found their way into many different dishes where greens are used. In the alpine regions of Trentino and Alto Adige, we might see nettles used in pasta, incorporated in the dough in a linguini type pasta called strettine, or in a stuffed pasta, combined with potatoes – good hearty mountain food to enjoy after a day on our cycling tours in the Dolomites. In Tuscany, nettles combined with ricotta are used. In Piemonte, small egg fritters called subrich, or friciulin, are a nice spring antipasti. Soups are another great way to use nettles. It is incorporated into gnocchi as well, like the strangolapreti spinach gnocchi found in Trentino.

stinging nettle pesto cycling holidays italy italiaoutdoorsI purchased a large bag of nettles at a farmer’s market, and couldn’t decide how to use it. Pasta sounded great, but a bit too time consuming for a busy week. Fritatta? Soup? Risotto? Inspiration hit – if I make a pesto, I can use it all week – as a sauce for gnocchi or pasta, to flavor a soup or fritatta, or on some freshly grilled fish. I’ve enjoyed gnocchi with nettle pesto (here’s my recipe for gnocchi), and grilled trout with pesto so far this week. I’ll freeze any leftovers in ice cube trays to pull out and use all summer.

handling nettles cycling tours dolomites italy italiaoutdoorsTo prepare the nettles, I first put on some heavy cotton gloves before handling them. I removed the leaves from the thicker stems. I then blanched the leaves in rapidly boiling salted water for 2 minutes, and they were ready to use, and handle safely with my bare hands.

nettle pesto bike tours tuscany italiaoutdoorsPesto di Ortica

Makes approximately 2 cups

1 large bag stinging nettles leaves
kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup firmly packed grated grana or other aged cheese

Fill a large pot halfway full with water and bring to a boil. Salt the water. Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice.

Using gloves or tongs, submerge the nettles in the boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Remove the nettles and discard the water. Immerse in the ice bath to halt the cooking.
Drain and spread the nettles on a baking sheet until cool. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible and coarsely chop.

Place the nettles in the bowl of a food processor with the garlic, pistachios, and the lemon juice. Process until the mixture has formed a paste. With the machine running, pour in the olive oil.

Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and additional lemon juice if needed.

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Risotto con Aglio Selvatico e Asparagi – Risotto with Ramps and Asparagus

risotto close cycling tours italy dolomites italiaoutdoorsWhen referring to Italian food, most people immediately think of pasta. But Italy is the greatest rice producing nation in Europe, and the Po River valley in Northern Italy is the largest rice producing region in Italy. We enjoy risotto dishes on our summer cycling tours and winter ski adventures; with each region we visit expressing their culinary history with their own unique variations.

risotto plated fork cycling tours italy dolomites italiaoutdoorsMost US chefs are familiar with the use of two strains of rice for risotto, Arborio and Carnaroli. When we cook together on our Italy tours, however, we use the unique regional strain, Vialone Nano. Developed in 1937 by crossing the Vialone strain with the Nano,  it is considered by many to be the premier risotto rice produced in Italy. It is the only European rice with its own IGP quality designation.

vialone nano cycling tours italy dolomites italiaoutdoorsI use Vialone Nano rice when in Italy, and when I can find it here in the US. Arborio and Carnaroli are pretty readily available here, and using one of these three varieties is crucial to a successful risotto. These particular strains have shorter, rounder kernels that retain their consistency during cooking, and release the starch that contributes to a nice, creamy risotto.

ramps bike tours italy italiaoutdoorsI always enjoy welcoming fresh spring produce with a new risotto recipe. I came across ramps recently, and of course had to use those during their brief annual appearance.
Allium tricoccum (commonly known as ramps, or wild leeks) is a member of the allium family, which includes leeks, onions, shallots and garlic. Ramps are found across much of the eastern US and Canada. They are similar in appearance to scallions, but with broader green leaves on top, and often a purplish tint to the lower stems. The flavor is more pungent, closer to shallots or a strong garlic. Both the stalks and the leaves are edible. They can be sautéed, grilled, deep fried, even pickled. In Italy, we can find similar wild members of the allium family, wild garlic, or aglio selvatico, along our lovely cycling routes in the Colli Berici or in the Pre Alps near Bassano del Grappa.

cycling thru vineyards bike wine tours italy italiaoutdoors food and wineWhen ramps are not available, substitute another member of the allium family, like leeks, onions, shallots and/or garlic. A combination of a couple of these would best match the complexity of the ramps. If using garlic, only saute for a minute or so before adding the rice, to keep it from overcooking.

trimmed ramps ski tours italy dolomites italiaoutdoorsA great wine to enjoy with this would be a Garganega from the Gambellara wine zone, near the Colli Berici, or a Vespaiolo from Breganze, just west of Bassano.

Risotto con Aglio Selvatico e Asparagi (Risotto with Ramps and Asparagus)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 stalks of asparagus, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 cups low salt chicken or vegetable broth
1 small bunch of ramps – about 12 or so, cleaned and roots trimmed, stalks chopped and leaves sliced, separated
1 1/2 cups risotto rice, such as vialone nano, arborio or carnaroli
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
zest of one lemon

In a large sauté pan, heat the butter until foaming, then add the asparagus and sauté until softened, about 3-4 minutes, depending on thickness. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from pan and set aside.

Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot. Reduce the heat to very low; the broth should stay hot but not simmer and reduce.

Add the olive oil to the large sauté pan, and place over medium heat. Add a handful of the chopped ramp stalks, and cook slowly, stirring frequently until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Keep the remainder of the leaves for another use.

Add the risotto rice to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly to coat the rice with the oil, about 3 minutes.

Pour in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it’s mostly absorbed, about 4 minutes.

Ladle in 1/2 cups of the broth, and stir. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and stir occasionally. When very little of the liquid remains, and the rice is dry enough that your stirring spoon leaves a trail showing the bottom of the pot, add in another 1/2 cup of broth, again stirring until it’s all absorbed. Continue adding broth in 1/2 cup increments, stirring, until the rice is nearly al dente; this is usually 12 to 16 minutes after the first addition of liquid.

Stir in the ramp leaves and reserved asparagus. Add a bit more broth, and cook until al dente; do not overcook, and don’t feel you need to use all the stock. Add the lemon zest, cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Gnocchi di Ricotta

finished gnocchi cycling tours tuscany italy italiaoutdoorsProbably the most ubiquitous form of pasta we find on our cycling and ski adventures in Northern Italy is gnocchi. Is gnocchi pasta? Well, it is likely the predecessor of pasta – originally dumplings formed from flour and water, poached in water. These small dumplings, the name gnocchi probably coming from the Italian word for knuckle, nocca, date as early as the Roman empire. Recipes for gnocchi incorporating cheese, flour, and eggs appear as far back as the cookbooks of the thirteenth century. The original flour and water mixture for gnocchi is still used today in many regional recipes in Italy, where they take different names and shapes, and are now considered pasta – from orecchiette from Apulia to Sardinia’s malloreddus.

finished gnocchi cycling holidays europe italy italiaoutdoorsAs the years passed, gnocchi evolved to include a myriad of possible ingredients, incorporating whatever leftovers were on hand. The result is a wonderful variety of regional variations. Among the options, you can find gnocchi based on stale bread, ricotta and other cheeses, semolina, buckwheat, spinach, meats like speck and even spleen. Potato gnocchi are the ones we see most frequently on our Veneto tours, but these didn’t appear in Italy until potatoes were introduced in the 1600s.

ricotta bike tours dolomites italy italiaoutdoorsMy latest favorite flavor is ricotta gnocchi. These are some of the simplest gnocchi to prepare, requiring only a good quality ricotta cheese. But there are still the same basics principles to producing a light dumpling rather than a heavy lead one, so a bit of care is needed. But the steps are simple, and the result wonderful.

whipping ricotta cycling tours dolomites italy italiaoutdoorsThe secrets: use as little flour as possible, handle as little as possible.

forming gnocchi hand cycling holidays italy italiaoutdoorsTo start, use the best quality ricotta cheese you can find. But I have made perfectly acceptable ricotta gnocchi from grocery store ricotta. Spoon it out of the container into either cheesecloth or a strainer, and hang over a bowl to drain for about 4 hours before using. You can even do this the day before, and leave it draining in your refrigerator. This will eliminate as much liquid as possible from the ricotta. Less liquid means less flour.

The recipe below includes a few easy ideas for sauces, but there are many ways to serve these. Perfect with the last of the truffle sauce from our Umbria cycling tour.

Gnocchi di Ricotta

Serves 6 as a first course

1 1/2 lbs. ricotta, drained for 4 hours or overnight
2 large eggs
1 1/2 c. grated grana cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, beat the ricotta vigorously with a whisk. If, after beating for some time, you still have some firm curds, press the cheese through a strainer to break them down.

Add the eggs and grated cheese and whisk well, until fluffy. Add the flour and whisk until just combined. Season with salt and pepper.

Place a layer of flour in a pie plate or other shallow dish. Have a sheet pan handy as well, with a dusting of flour on the bottom. Dust your hands with a bit of this flour. Using a spoon, scoop up about 1 tablespoon or so of the ricotta mixture, and place the spoonful into the pie plate on top of the flour. Using your hands, turn the ricotta ball until it is coated with a dusting of flour, then pick it up and 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.

Repeat and shape your gnocchi until all of the ricotta mixture has been used. I usually do 4 or so at one time. Make sure they are not touching as to place them on the sheet pan. When done, place the sheet pan in the refrigerator to keep cool as you continue.

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

Prepare your sauce in a large sauté pan. See below for ideas – you want your sauce to be warm and ready to go when the gnocchi are done cooking.

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.

When all are cooked and coated with sauce, serve immediately.

A few ideas on sauce

  • simple browned butter, garnished with grated cheese and herbs
  • meat ragu
  • pomodoro (tomato) and basil
  • butter and truffles
  • olive oil and pesto

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