Tagliatelle agli Asparagi, Mele e Noci – Tagliatelle with Asparagus, Apples and Walnuts

asparagus-tagliatelle-close-private-cycling-toursOn our April private cycling tour this past week, we feasted daily on the delicacy of the season, the famed white asparagus of Bassano. Appearing from mid-March to mid-June, the oldest legend attributes its introduction to the area hark back to the 1200s,  when Saint Anthony of Padua, who was fond of this asparagus, spread knowledge of the vegetable to Bassano to appease the Lord of the Western Venetian region and nasty tyrant, Ezzelino II da Romano.

asparagus-bassano-private-cycling-toursMore recently, Ernest Hemingway, during his stint as a volunteer in the Red Cross of the United States during the First World War, so enjoyed the taste of an asparagus dish that he celebrated the plant in his legendary book, Farewell to Arms.

Alongside the Brenta River in Bassano the asparagus found the ideal environment: sandy, soft, well-drained and slightly calcareous soil. The soil type, combined with a particularly mild climate, produces a product recognized for its quality the world over. Its’ pale color, tenderness and sweet-sour perfume make it particularly well-suited for rice dishes, soups, pasta and salads.

bassano-brenta-private-cycling-toursDuring our week, we enjoyed an asparagus risotto on our first night. Later in the week, we visited a winery with a farm-to-table restaurant that produces their own asparagus. Our antipasti selection included roasted white asparagus with polenta and sopressa. Our primi was a tasting of two pasta dishes – we couldn’t make up our minds! Another asparagus risotto, and a pasta carbonara with white asparagus and poppy seeds, made with eggs from their own geese.

The white asparagus has a very different flavor than our green. It is less grassy and earthy, more refined and well rounded, with hint of sweetness. So we find many more recipes for white asparagus that you might for green. The recipe below is an updated version of a classic recipe for Tagliatelle pasta with asparagus, where apples and nuts complement the asparagus, demonstrating the range of possibilities with this versatile delicacy.
Pairing wines with asparagus is tricky, some of the compounds can make wine taste metallic and harsh. A citrusy, unoaked white is best. Thankfully, the white asparagus is significantly less vegetal than the green, and a bit more wine-friendly. Here in Bassano, I pair it with the local white, Vespaiolo, but this will be hard to find outside of the area.

A Sauvignon Blanc is another good choice, and easy to find. With the white asparagus, I prefer an Old World style Sauvignon (from France, Italy, Spain) which are typically more mineral and herbal than New World style (USA, Australia, New Zealand) which are usually more citrusy. One from Italy I quite like is the Sauvignon from Cantina Terlan in Alto Adige. Probably not a coincidence, as the town of Terlan is know for its local delicacy, white asparagus!

Tagliatelle agli Asparagi, Mele e Noci

Serves 4

1/2 onion, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh egg tagliatelle or other pasta
12 ounces white asparagus from Bassano, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 Renetta apple, peeled and chopped
2 ounces shelled walnuts, chopped
Parsley, minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large saute pan, pour a bit of olive oil and saute the onion. Add the asparagus pieces and season with salt and pepper. Cooked until the asparagus is tender, about 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add salt. Add the tagliatelle and cook until al dente, which should only be a couple of minutes with fresh pasta. Drain.

Add the apples, nuts, and butter to the pan with the braised asparagus, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tagliatelle and stir to combine.

Serve garnished with minced parsley.

Posted in Apples, Asparagus, Pasta, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seppie Aromatizzate al Finocchio – Squid with Fennel Cream

seppie-fennel-italy-private-walking-toursOur private walking tours through the Veneto region of Italy allow us to experience the wide range of cuisine found in this region. We often begin in Venice, with its amazing diversity of seafood available at the Rialto market. Fresh daily, with literally dozens of varieties of fish, shrimp, shellfish, the fish market has been operating here for hundreds of years.
We get a chance to prepare some of these wonderful seafood dishes during our cooking classes, like this recipe for Branzino with Potatoes. Replicating some of these back in my US home is often a challenge, as we don’t have the same selection of seafood. So I was happy to come across this recipe in a cookbook I picked up in Italy, Venezia in Cucina: The Flavors of Venice. This dish, Squid served on a Fennel Cream, is elegant enough for a dinner party, yet simple enough for a weeknight dinner. And it uses only four ingredients easily found at my local grocery store.

seppie-market-italy-private-walking-toursfennel-basket-italy-private-walking-toursFennel is a hardy, perennial herb that is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but today is found many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on riverbanks. Known as the Florence fennel, it has a bulb as its base, with stalks emerging from the soil, carrying yellow flowers and distinctive feathery leaves. It has a mild anise-like flavor, but is more aromatic and sweeter. In Italian, fennel is finocchio. Fennel features prominently in Italian cuisine, where bulbs and fronds are used, both raw and cooked, in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes and risottos. I particularly like it paired with seafood. Another variation would be to replace the squid with pan-seared scallops.

venice-italy-private-walking-toursSeppie Aromatizzate al Finocchio – Squid with Fennel Cream

Serves 4

1 pound squid, bodies and tentacles
4 heads fennel
A splash of Pernod
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Clean the squid carefully in cold water. If the squid is larger and thick, make some small cuts in the flesh to tenderize it.

Clean the fennel and remove the outer layers and coarsely chop. Reserve the inner heart and a few fennel fronds.

Drizzle extra virgin olive oil into a large saute pan and heat over medium high heat. Add the chopped fennel and saute until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add the Pernod and a half glass of water. Cook until the liquid is just about gone and the fennel is very tender. Place the fennel in a blender and puree until smooth. Adjust seasoning.

Slice the remaining fennel hearts very thinly – a slicer works best for this. Season with salt and pepper.

Wipe the saute pan clean with a paper towel, then drizzle in some more olive oil. Heat over high heat, and when hot, add the squid. Leave some space between the pieces of squid, so you may have to cook them in 2 batches. Cook until just cooked through, turning to brown all sides. They cook quickly, in only a couple of minutes. Overcooking will result in tough squid. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place a large spoonful of the fennel cream on a plate, lay a couple of pieces of squid on top and add the sliced fennel heart on the side. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and garnish with fennel fronds.

Posted in fennel, Fish, Squid, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetables, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in antipasti, Gluten Free, Radicchio, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetables, Vegetarian, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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