Monday, April 30

Peasant Cooking: Passatelli in Brodo

Passatelli is a rustic Italian pasta meets German spatzle, noodle/dumpling made of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan, eggs, nutmeg & lemon zest. Found on dinner tables across Le Marche & Emilia Romagna, passatelli is best served in chicken broth but can also be dressed with sauce. (Some recipes call for no flour, others just a handful - this is a hotly debated topic even within Le Marche.)
 I love pasta, I love bread, I love cheese and I love passatelli!

It may not look pretty but it is surprisingly light with a nice bite, and a lovely nutty flavor from the parmesan & nutmeg.

Passatelli in Broth
Passatelli in brodo  

6 eggs
250 g parmesan
250 g breadcrumbs
50 g type 00 flour
lemon zest
2.5 liters broth
This recipe does require a passatelli press or potato ricer to push the dough through, making thin snakes of passatelli. 

Beat the eggs in a bowl.
In a separate bowl add all the dry ingredients including the nutmeg & lemon zest. Make a well in the center of the breadcrumb mixture bowl, pour in the beaten eggs and mix together to form a dough.

Turn it out onto a board & knead it 10 times. If it's still tacky dust it with a little flour. Then wrap it up in plastic & let rest for at least an hour.

After that push the dough through the passatelli press directly into simmering broth.
(Note: If you are making this to serve with sauce, allow it dry on the board for a few minutes.)

Allow to cook for a couple minutes in the simmering broth. Serve with fresh grated Parmesan over top.

Saturday, April 28

The Onions are In (Thanks to My 88 Yr. Old Boy Friend!)

Ahhh it feels good to be in the garden a hot sunny spring day. After such a wet few weeks it has been nice to soak up the warmth of the sun in the middle of the orto!   We're trying to take advantage of the great weather (hence a lack in blog posts this week...), checking off our to-do list: more seeds started, most of the flowers are in, fixing up the strawberry beds, the chicken coop is clean & planting the onions! 

Each year we plant over 500 onions - it's hands-down one of our favorite crops we harvest, with their massive size & sweet flavor, you just can't compare them to the store bought version. We plant golden yellow Dorata de Parma & red Tropea onion shoots in the spring thanks to our friend Beppe that starts our seeds for the onions & tomatoes for us in his green house! (He's my 88 year old boyfriend!) He is so sweet & adorable,  I think in his hay-day he was a real stud. I can imagine he was a ladies man back then, because my god in his late 80's he still got chutzpah! He always asks me to go dancing with him & gives lots of smooches when no one is looking, I eat it up.

 But in all seriousness we are very thankful for his painstaking work of starting literally thousands of seeds for us each year! We went to visit his garden on Monday & Beppe said - get the rows ready, it's time for the onions. Sure enough not even a week later, Gaggi picked them up & we transplated to our orto.  Beppe is just one of the many friends that help us out tremendously & a regular at our Thanksgiving lunch in the fall. Without these local characters our garden & life wouldn't have the same flavor that's for sure!

Pick up the May issue of Italia! Magazine for my colorful story on planting onions with Dott. Gaggi!

Sunday, April 22

The Real Deal: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP, the Epitome of Slow Food

Put down that caramel-colored watery condiment known as balsamic vinegar of Modena & try the real deal! (And trust me whatever you're using, no matter what you spent, 'aint this!) 

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena D.O.P.  is like nothing you've ever tasted, a thick sweet syrup that must be aged for at least 12 years before it can be bottled, it's almost a pity to call it vinegar. With the first taste on your tongue, there comes an epiphany of what balsamic should taste like- an explosion of complex woody flavors (cherry, juniper) low in acidity and surprisingly fruity. Which then begs the question... what have I been eating for all these years?? Unlike ordinary vinegar which has its origins as a by-product of an alcoholic liquid, balsamic vinegar is produced directly from concentrated grape juice.

Jason & I recently returned after six years to visit Acetaia di Giorgio in Modena, a large manor house that has been the home for vinegar makers & their barrels for hundreds of years. In 2006 it was a very special stop on our honeymoon that left a lasting impression, not only for their inspirational family-run artisan operation, warm-hearted hospitality but also the lingering flavor of the most amazing balsamic either one of us had ever tasted. 
We were welcomed like old family-friends by the proud wife of Giorgio, Giovanna for a tasting of balsamic vinegar in their attic. Our noses twitched as we climbed the stairs, the sweet smell of balsamic awaking our senses immediately. Warming the balsamic in the bottle with her hands, Giovanna lovingly explains to us the details of making traditional balsamic vinegar & how in a family of artisan vinegar makers, this is life as usual. Life like only 59 others know it. (There is a grand total of 60 certified DOP artisans of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena!)
She passionately explains how the two types of grapes used; white trebbiano and red lambrusco are crushed and their  liquid or 'must' is boiled, reducing it by 50%. Then the liquid is placed in a series of barrels made of different types of wood (juniper, cherry, oak, ash) and continues to concentrate in the attic of their home for years to come.  Giorgio begins with about 150 liters of grape must that will be slowly reduced & concentrated to not even 3 liters over the next 12 years.

To be DOP certified a ‘expert taste tester’ will make a house call to sample your product, but only after  it has matured for 12 years and 25 years for the extra-vecchio , literally the extra-old. These expert tasters will guarantee the quality of the product by allowing the vinegar maker to use the distinctive 100ml bottle designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro to bottle their traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. This unique bottle is literally the “Seal of Quality” that it has been produced in accordance to the rules, regulations & traditional procedures of the official Consortium. Only balsamic vinegar bottled in these bottles is considered the real-deal, acteo balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. - nothing else. The impostors arrive lining the shelves in many other fancy bottles too, but don’t be fooled! There is only one.

For the tasting, Giovanna pours droplets of thick black syrup into teaspoons.  As the first spoonful coats your tongue and you begin to swallow, breathing in all the complexities, you know you are in for a treat! Giorgio & Giovanna produce 8 different varieties of balsamic vinegars, some are finished in cherry wood & perfect with salads, fruits or light cheeses or others finished in juniper wood lend themselves better to lamb, game, meat. But before we taste the extra vecchio (which could be served as a digestivo, it’s just that good!) we must cleanse our palate & eat it with chunks of parmesano regiano. Ah yes, they compliment each other perfectly just like the sister-cities they are.

Giorgio pops in here & there, first to graciously welcome us & then to sneak a peak of our reaction to his hard work. They work well together, reminding me of Jason & I - the bubbly “public relations manager” & the earnest ego-free artisan. But there is nothing Giorgio & Giovanna are more proud of than their daughter Carlotta. In the family tradition of balsamic vinegar makers, they started a series of barrels for her when she was born of her very own vinegar! On this return trip to Modena we were able to sample Carlotta’s namesake a 25 year (extra vecchio) balsamic, it’s wasn’t ready six years ago, so we were eager to try their newest & most prized balsamico.

 For Giorgio & Giovanna the future of all their balsamic lies in very capable hands of their daughter, ensuring the family business will continue. Giovanna, the unfaltering Italian mother she is,  confides with a smile- “Carlotta will need to find a husband though, a man is necessary in this work. At the very least to move the barrels!”

Now on the complete other end of the spectrum from family-run to commercial, the vinegar needless to say varies in quality. Big business has stolen the name ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena’ giving it little merit in it’s mass production of what is now thought of as a salad condiment & not much more. Read the labels of these commercially produced vinegars, many are made with harsh wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and filled with caramel coloring, preservatives & extracts, not to mention made in just a few hours (not years).

I would say most Italian use a red or white wine vinegar for dressing salads. The traditional balsamic vinegar is meant to ‘finish’ a dish and should never touch the heat of a pan! I would recommend a few drops on-top of steak (with arugula & shaved parmesan it’s out of this world), grilled radicchio, frittata, risotto, on a hunk of parm. or for dessert on fruit or ice cream.

To us, this (this traditional balsamic vinegar & the families producing it) is not only the true meaning of slow food but the core of what we love about Italians and honestly party of why we moved here. It’s the deep rooted family traditions, un-wavering passion for perfection and true artisans (whether it be food, linens, farming, crafts) that draw us to this country & these people, there is something about it that make you want to be part of it. Take for example something as simple as ‘vinegar‘ and how it can be transformed into an exquisite culinary delight with the love & painstaking attention to detail. I will forever associate the flavor of balsamic with Giovanna’s big smile & the smell of their attic surrounded by age-old barrels.  There is something about it where it transcends just food...each bottle is alive, rich & flavorful,  each spoonful celebrating the traditions of Giorgio & Giovanna’s family and a dying breed of Italian artisans.

Top: Jason & Giovanna in 2006, then in 2012
Listen to our interview with Giovanna on iTunes - Podcast from Italy
To arrange a tasting or to order their traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena here are the details (and yes, they ship around the world!):

Acetaia di Giorgio
Giorgio & Giovanna
Via Sandro Cabassi, 67 41123 Modena
Telefono / fax 059.333015 
Mobile 338.6575552 

Friday, April 20

Green Thumb Gone Wrong: Dead Seedlings...

We tend to celebrate our successes in the garden (& in life) but sometimes it just all goes awry! This year we started a ton of seedlings in early April, the weather was extra warm & sunny. We thought we'd get ahead of the game, we had hundreds of seeds started from melons & pumpkins to lettuces & herbs. 

Once the lettuce seeds started to grow, we asked our friend with a green thumb if she thought they were ready for the next step & she agreed yes. It was time for the seed shoots to be thinned-out and replanted into individual containers. 

So we did - painstaking, one by one Jason gently pried them out of the rich soil as their fragile roots clung to one another. He transplanted them into small individual plastic containers with a mix of rich potting soil, compost & sand. Each finished tray was placed into a big wooden peach crate - long & flat - perfect to move the seeds in & out of harsh light, freezing nights or stormy weather. (Remember seedlings need a lot of TLC.) After all that, he watered them and placed them in the sun to grow strong. 

Well - right there - that's what did it, we fried 'em to a crisp! The seedlings were still too weak to be blasted with strong mid-day hot sun! We figured they just needed a day or two to perk up ....but they never did. After all that - we started with probably 200 lettuce plants & only 3 survived. Lesson learned - cover the seedlings until they are more established- at the very least in the harshest part of the day. Give them a little protection with a green mesh netting/cover. Help them grow strong from the get-go and you will be rewarded with tough hearty plants!! 

So we begin our seeds again....

Thursday, April 19

Podcast from Italy: A Road Trip to Modena for the Best Balsamic in the World

Easter has come & gone - we reminisce on the day & opera singing Zio Albi (in-case you missed the clip - watch it here: Easter Concerto).  During the podcast, learn from our mistakes: both in the garden & finding a lunch spot in a foreign city! Then be transported to the attic of an ancient acetaia (vinegar making family & home) in Modena where Jason & I sample 8 traditional balsamic vinegars and interview the passionate Giovanna from Acetaia di Giorgio whom we first met six years ago. She lovingly tells us about her families balsamic making traditions & why the product her family makes is far superior to any mass produced version. It's a wonderful interview with a true artisan of Italy! 

(I'll be doing an entire post with great pics this week all about the balsamic!)

Listen to the Podcast from Italy on iTunes, stream it on Stitcher or click the audio box on the right side-bar & listen here!

Acetaia di Giorgio 
Via Sandro Cabassi, 67 41123 Modena
Telefono / fax 059.333015 
Mobile 338.6575552 


Sunday, April 15

Spring Soup: Farro & Leek

Nutrient-rich farro is an ancient grain with a nutty flavor & firm-chewy texture, making it wonderful to cook with in soups, salads & breads.  The Romans ate farro to give them strength as they marched across the Western World & would arrive with a full belly & battle-ready thanks to this hearty grain! This recipe for Farro & Leek Soup can be built upon based on what's in-season, in the Spring add peas & asparagus for bright flavor or in the Fall try walnuts & porcini creating a rich meaty flavored stew.

You should be able to find farro at most Italian specialty shops or health food stores. We are lucky to find locally grown farro right here in Le Marche, Italy!

farro & leek spring soup
Farro and Leek Soup
Minestra di Farro e Porri

(Depending on the time of year, you can add in asparagus & peas in the spring or mushrooms & walnuts in the fall if you like.)

Tuesday, April 10

Homemade Sicilian Blood Orange Liqueur - Arancello

  A new spin on the classic limoncello is arancello, use Sicilian blood oranges instead of lemons from Positano for a lovely liquor with a bold bright flavor. A no-fail recipe (orange rinds, grain alcohol, sugar & water) means it's a perfect introduction to making homemade liqueurs! I can't cook to save my life, but I have become a pro at infusing liquors from limoncello to nocino (walnut & vanilla),  visciolino (wild cherry), prugnolino (wild plum/sloe) & now arancello.

Bottle, freeze & serve for a refreshing digestivo (after dinner drink) any time of year.

Arancello (Orange Liquor)

1/2 liter of pure grain alcohol (you can also use grappa, vodka or everclear)
the skin of 5 organic Sicilian blood oranges (careful not to skin the orange too deep - you don't want the white pith)
1/2 kilo of sugar
1 liter of water

In a large jar with a lid, soak the orange-rind peels in the alcohol and leave in a cool dark place for about 14 days.
After it has sat for 14 days or so, filter the rinds from the alcohol. Boil the water & sugar, making a simple syrup, stirring to dissolve all the sugar in the water. Then add the orange flavored alcohol. Bottle.
I make about 10 liters of this liquor so I place 1 bottle in the freezer ready to serve and the rest in a cool dark place. Arancello, like limoncello will last a year or more in proper storage.
If the alochol is too strong of a flavor, it is also nice to serve it with a drop of heavy cream or dollop of whipped cream atop - then it is referred to as Crema di Arancello.

Preparing homemade Arancello - orange liquor

Sunday, April 8

An Unexpected Easter Concerto - Enjoy!

You just never know what will happen at our farmhouse... During Easter pranzo (lunch) one of our guests, Zio Albi was so inspired by the food, company & setting that he couldn't contain himself any longer & had to sing opera! After the roaring applause, he continued to sing until his throat was hoarse. He asked for gelato, but alas we had none so he happily accepted the grappa & continued to entertain us all.
Enjoy this clip of the impromptu Easter concert in our dinning room - 

Wednesday, April 4

Coming Home to Roost

Welcome home to our new family of fowl! Eighteen hens & two young roosters arrived today. The hens will start laying eggs in about a month. Once their production begins we should have over a dozen eggs a day! I have no idea what breed they are, just like every other year, we order them from the hardware store in town (same place I buy the pure grain alcohol for my homemade liquors, seriously they have a bit of everything!) There doesn't seem to be a choice, we place our order, they call the local breeder & in two weeks there are boxes of chickens with our name on it!

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