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.

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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.

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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-italy-walking-tours
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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Risotto con Zucca e Salsiccia – Risotto with Pumpkin and Sausage

risotto-pumpkin-close-italy-walking-toursExploring the countryside of Northern Italy during our walking and cycling tours we find ourselves on one of the only flat plains in this otherwise mountainous country. Here in the marshy areas of the Po River Valley, rice found a natural habitat. The result is a wide array of risotto dishes found in the traditional cuisines of the area, from Risotto alla Milanese in Lombardia to Risotto con Funghi in Trentino-Alto Adige. Verona is a favorite destination of ours, and just south of this lovely city is a farm that still cultivates risotto rice, Antica e Rinomata Riserva Ferron. Their web site gives a thorough overview of the history of this grain in Italy.

view-veneto-plain-italy-walking-toursThe origin of the cultivation of rice is poorly documented. Some scholars believe it was grown as early as the seventh century BC on the island of Java; others identify China. What is certain is that it spread throughout Asian; from Japan to the Middle East.

Rice did not appear on tables in the west until many years later. The Greeks knew the methods of cultivation, thanks to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, but never adopted it in Greece. The Romans knew rice not as food, but as a precious spice used to prepare herbal teas, digestive teas and creams. According to some sources it was the Arabs, and then the Aragonese to introduce it in the south of Italy. According to others it was the Crusaders and the Venetian merchants to introduce it in Italy. Here in the north, it found its home in the flatter wet plains along the Po River in Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto.

vialone-nano-cycling-tours-italy-dolomites-italiaoutdoorsThe first firm evidence of the cultivation of rice in Italy is a letter from 1475 in which Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, sent 12 bags of rice to the Duke of Ferrara so he might taste the product of his lands. In the following centuries constant land reclamation and a new water infrastructure enabled the spread of the rice fields, despite the resistance of the authorities who considered these rich areas of standing water a source of malaria – which was one of the leading causes of death in Italy until the 1950s.

canal-veneto-plain-italy-walking-toursWith the opening of the Suez Canal, the Italian production of rice suffered due to the import of cheaper rice from Asia. This continued until the end of World War II, when a growth trend began that brought Italy to a leading position in the European market. In concert with this growth was a resurgence of Italian style rices that possess the unique characteristics required for the best risotto – an extraordinary ability to absorb liquids and seasonings, up to an impressive twice its weight, and a kernel that retains is consistency during cooking, rather than becoming mushy.

Riso Vialone Nano Veronese risotto rice emerged as part of this resurgence, and is now the pride of the Veneto region. This risotto rice was created in 1937 by crossing the variety Vialone and Nano: the intention was to reduce the size of the Vialone to avoid the damage caused during harvest. In 1996 Riso Vialone Nano became the first in Europe to boast the IGP.

Logo-Nano-Vialone-IGPThe recipe below is just one example of the main flavors of risotto found in the Veneto. The source is a recipe book put out by one of the region’s tourist boards, so it identifies the local products one would use – the Vialone Nano rice, Soave wine, Grana cheese. I’ve identified options that you are more likely to find here in the US. To make it vegetarian, leave out the sausage and use vegetable stock. It is naturally gluten free.

risotto-pumpkin-sausage-italy-walking-toursRisotto con Zucca e Salsiccia

Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, cut in 1/4” dice
1 pound pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1/4” dice
8 ounces sausage, skin removed and cut into pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 cups meat stock
1 1/2 cups Vialone Nano rice from Verona (or another risotto rice like Carnaroli or Arborio)
1/2 cup Soave or other dry white wine
Grana cheese, grated or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sage

Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan, and gently saute the onion. When slightly browned, add the pumpkin and sausage. Cook for about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large saucepan, heat the stock, keeping it just below a simmer.

Add the rice to the sauté pan with the pumpkin and sausage. Stir for about 1 minute, until the grains are coated with the fat and liquid in the pan. Add the wine, and simmer slowly, stirring frequently, until it has evaporated.

Add a ladleful of the hot stock and again simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladleful 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 grana cheese and season with salt to taste. Serve, garnish with the fresh sage.

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Mezzelune – Schlutzkrapfen – Spinach Ricotta Ravioli from Sudtirol

mezzelune-private-italy-walking-toursDuring many of our walking tours or cycling adventures, when we visit a small local restaurant catering to non-tourists, I am called upon to translate the menu. This is a particular challenge in Alto Adige, where the menu is just as likely to be in German as Italian. One wonderful traditional dish of the region, with a name that can evoke a chuckle from guests, is Schlutzkrapfen.

schlutzkrapfen-private-italy-walking-toursSchlutzkrapfen, called Mezzelune (“half moons”) by the Italian speaking natives of the region, are semi-circular stuffed pasta, similar to ravioli.They are also known as Ravioli della Pusteria, after the Pusteria valley. The dough is usually made of white flour, sometimes mixed with rye or buckwheat flour, mixed with eggs and milk. The fillings may vary, but the most typical is ricotta cheese and spinach. These would often be served during days of abstinence, as a meat free first course. Similar types of pasta found in Northern Italy are the beet stuffed casunziei from the Dolomites area, casoncelli in Lombardy, and cjarsons in Friuli.

mezzelune-sheet-private-italy-walking-toursI adapted this recipe from a cookbook put out by the Sudtirol Tourism agency, Alpine Flavors: Authentic recipes from the Dolomites, the Heart of the Alps. Here, they introduced yet another name for this dish, the Ladin name Cajinci t’ega. The Ladin people are an unique ethnic group in northern Italy. Their native language is Ladin, a language related to the Swiss Romansh and Friulian languages. The Ladin people constitute only 4.5% of the population of South Tyrol, but their influence has played a role in the culture, history, and traditions of this region.

sudtirol-view-private-italy-walking-tours

Cajinci t’ega – Mezzelune Pasta

Makes about 60 mezzelune

For the dough:

1 1/2 cups wheat flour
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons milk

For the filling:

1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon butter
4 ounces of cooked, pureed spinach
3 ounces of ricotta cheese

To serve:

grated Parmigiano Reggiano
melted butter
finely chopped chives

How to make the dough:

Place the flour on your counter in a mound. Make a well in the middle. Add the eggs, water, milk and salt. Using a fork, lightly beat the eggs. Gradually start incorporating the flour from the sides of the well. Eventually the sides of the well will collapse, at this point use a pastry scraper to work the rest of the flour into the dough.

Knead the dough for about 15 minutes, working a bit more flour into it when it gets a bit sticky. The dough should be very smooth, silky, and very elastic.

To roll out the pasta using a pasta machine, divide the dough into 4 – 6 pieces. You will roll out one piece at a time, while rolling keep the remainder covered with plastic wrap so it does not dry out. Lightly flour the machine rollers, the work surface around the machine, and the first piece of dough. Set the rollers at the widest setting. Flatten the dough into a disc, sprinkle with flour, then feed the disc into the space between the two rollers. Feed the dough through with one hand, while holding the upturned palm of your hand under the sheet emerging from the rollers. Keep your palm flat to protect the dough from punctures by your fingers.

As the sheet emerges from the rollers, guide it away from the machine with your palm. Pass the dough through the rollers five to six times, folding it into thirds and flouring it each time. Then set the rollers at the next narrower setting and pass the dough through three times, folding it in half each time. Repeat, passing it through three times at each successively narrower setting. Repeated stretching and thinning builds up elasticity making especially light pasta. If the sheet becomes too long to handle comfortably, cut it in half or thirds and work the pieces in tandem.

Don’t worry if at first the dough tears, has holes, is lumpy, or is very moist. Just lightly flour it by pulling the dough over the floured work surface. Take care not to overdo the flouring, or the dough may get too stiff. As you keep putting it through the rollers, it will be transformed from slightly lumpy and possibly torn to a smooth, satiny sheet with fine elasticity.

Different machines have different numbers of settings. These ravioli use the thinnest setting on a machine, which will be thin enough for you to see color and shape through it; this is perfect for lasagne and filled pastas. If it is so thin that the dough tears easily, however, stop at the next to last setting.

Place the pasta sheets on a floured sheet pan, separated by deli paper or plastic wrap. Cover the pile with a slightly damp towel.

How to make the filling:

Saute the onion in a skillet with the butter. Place the onion, spinach, ricotta, and salt in a food processor. Pulse to mix thoroughly.

Preparation:

Cut discs of pasta from the prepared pasta sheets using a round cutter about 2 inches in diameter.

mezzelune-cutter-private-italy-walking-toursOn half of each disc place a teaspoon of filling, fold over the other half and press the edges together well.

Cook the cajinci t’ega in boiling salted water.

Remove with a skimmer and drain, then dress with the melted butter and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano and finely chopped chives.

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