Archive | Italian Ingredients RSS feed for this archive

On Tomatoes, Parlando di Pomodori

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Come summer, Tomatoes flood Italian markets: deeply ribbed salad tomatoes streaked with red and green, rounder brashly red ripe sauce tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and San Marzano tomatoes, the plum tomatoes that find their way into salads when they’re still tinged with green, and into sauces once they’re fully ripe. Not to mention a host of heirloom tomatoes, some known only locally, and others more widely.

We take tomatoes for granted now, and it would be quite difficult to imagine Italian cooking – especially South Italian – without them, but it took Italians a very long time to accept them: Though they were introduced as ornamental plants in the 1500s, in Il Panunto Toscano, which was published in 1705, Francesco Gaudentio says:

“These fruits, which in some ways resemble apples, are grown in gardens and can be cooked as follows: Take them, chop them up, and put them in a skillet with olive oil, pepper, salt, minced garlic, and sprigs of mint. Sauté them, stirring them about frequently, and should you want to add some sliced zucchini or eggplant they’ll be well recieved.”

When an author has to describe a vegetable, it’s a good indication that it’s not widely used. Moreover, this is the only mention he makes of tomatoes; they don’t appear in any of his stews or vegetable dishes. Further indication of the slowness with which tomatoes were accepted comes from the word pelati, which now generally refers to canned tomatoes: when 18th century cooks mention pelati they are referring to skinned preserved game (pelare means to skin). The great change came in the first half of the 19th century, and when Artusi, who mentions having met the first Italian to begin canning tomatoes commercially, calls for pelati he invariably means canned tomatoes. And they continue to be ubiquitous today.

A couple of observations on selecting fresh tomatoes: Italians divide them into two classes, insalatari and da salsa.

Pomodori Insalatari, as one might expect, are salad tomatoes, to be eaten raw, and when I was little Italians tended to prefer them not-too-ripe, in other words quite firm, with streaks of green running through them, and with a lively acidity of the sort that complements the flavor of the greens in the salad. Now some people prefer them riper but you will still find lots of salad tomatoes shot with green in the markets.

Pomodori da salsa, on the other hand, are for cooking and should be ripe – an explosive red, rich, and slightly sweet too.

If you can, either grow your own tomatoes (they are remarkably prolific plants) or get them from a friend who has a vegetable patch, because they will be much more flavorful than all but tomatoes from the best markets. If you cannot, buy locally grown sun-ripened tomatoes. Only use tomatoes that are hot-house grown or trucked in from elsewhere as a last resort, because they tend to look beautiful but be tasteless, a result of agro-engineering on the part of the food industry.

Having said all this, a quick look at some of the tomatoes you might find in an Italian market:

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori A Grappolo, Everyday Salad Tomatoes

These tomatoes are sold by the bunch, and mostly destined towards salads. They are standard year-round market fare, sun ripened in the summer months, and (I expect) hothouse-ripened in winter.

Pomodori Costoluti, Ribbed Tuscan Heirloom Tomatoes
The word Costoluti means “ribbed,” and is an apt descriptor for these tomatoes. Though they’re not as aesthetically pleasing as some other cultivars, they are richly flavored and quite nice in salads. People gnerally prefer them somewhat green, because the acidity of a green tomato contributes nicely to the overall flavor of a salad, contrasting with the oil and complementing the vinegar and the sweeter vegetables – carrots, peppers, bulb fennel – that may also be included. Pomodori Costoluti appear in the markets in spring and carry though until mid-summer.

Pomodori Merinda, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodori Merinda, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodori Merinda, Sicilian heirloom tomatoes

This Sicilian heirloom tomato is best when still shot with green. It’s also best when not too large, and people generally eat them raw, finely sliced because they’re thick-skinned, in salads or by themselves, simply seasoned with olive oil, salt, and vinegar.

Or, if you want something very traditionally Sicilian, finely slice Merinda tomatoes and a little onion, and season them with oilive oil, salt, a pinch of oregano, and a “finger of water” (i.e. a bit more that a quarter inch in the bottom of the bowl, which will draw the sharpness from the onion). Let the salad rest for at least 15 minutes, and enjoy it with crusty bread that will be great for mopping up the drippings. Peasant food at its finest.

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

Pomodori Pachino are cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino region of Sicily (in the Province of Syracuse), and because of their distinctive flavor enjoy IGP, or protected status – in other words, to be called Pachino they must hail from Pachino. They are very nice in salads, though they can also be used elsewhere – for example, when halved or quartered they make a fine addition to a pizza, and are also quite nice in pasta salads or added to pasta with pesto sauce.

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius

These are Pomodori San Marzano, plum tomatoes from the San Marzano production area on the flanks of Monte Vesuvio, and like Pomodori Pachino, they enjoy IGP status.

Of course plum tomatoes grow elsewhere too, at which point Italians call them pomodori perini.

Pomodori San Marzano/Perini are the classic canning and sauce tomato; people generally wait until mid-summer, when they’re wonderfully sun-ripened, and then buy them in bulk to make tomato sauce for the winter months. They’re also nice in other dishes as an ingredient, though they are not so good raw (for example in salad) because they’re a bit dry, and firm too.

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Pomodori Essiccati, Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun dried tomatoes are a standard South Italian antipasto and ingredient. They’re less common in Northern Italy: I once bought some in a deli in Florence and asked what to do with them; the guy behind the counter shrugged and said he had no idea.

Having looked at some of the tomatoes one might find in a market, a few recipes:

Advertisements

An Olive Oil Dinner at the Santo Bevitore in Santo Spirito

Gaudenzi's Quinta Luna Extravirgin Olive Oil

Gaudenzi’s Quinta Luna Extravirgin Olive Oil

When we speak of food – xx pairings, xx is generally wine, or perhaps beer or some other drink. However, quality olive oil is just as suited to being paired with foods, and in the course of Taste, a Florentine food and wine extravaganza held in the Stazione Leopolda, Patrizia Cantini helped the Frantoio Gaudenzi organize a dinner featuring their olive oils, each paired with a dish.

The Frantoio Gaudenzi is an Umbrian olive oil producer whose oils are most impressive, and while I could write about them, what I have to say won’t be better nor more interesting that what Stefano tesi said in an IGP post last year (in Italian here), and therefore I will shamelessly quote him, with minor editing:

“Lets begin by discarding the 2 Euro/liter dreck that we can find on the shelves in supermarkets, and say that if one works in the field (and Stefano does), finding excellent extravirgin oils is not difficult.

“Quite the contrary, Italy is full of them. Also, despite what mass communication would have us believe, quality is completely independent of geography, and this means it’s simply untrue that the oils of some regions are great whereas those of others are bad. Quality is quality everywhere, and in the case of oil it derives from a frightening number of variables, none of which are secondary: climate, terrain, the surroundings, exposure, cultivation techniques, treatments, pruning, cultivars used, harvesting timing and technique, pressing timing and technique, and storage of the pressed oil.

Two of Gaudenzi's Oils

Two of Gaudenzi’s Oils

“What is more difficult to find is an extravirgin oil that is of excellent quality, made in volumes that aren’t Lilliputian, and reasonably priced, the latter being the primary force behind brand loyalty.

“Day before yesterday I had the good fortune to stumble across oil of just this kind in a trip to Florence, to a presentation of the oils made by the Gaudenzi family in Trevi.

“The Frantoio Gaudenzi is a family-run operation, which has, in its 60 years of experience, won many awards. Let’s begin by saying their oils are all excellent (my notes follow), and my personal preference is for Quinta Luna.

“But this isn’t the most interesting thing — strange to say — about this press. It is instead the philosophy the family has chosen (successfully, it would seem) to follow: a closed cycle that includes field work, pressing, sales, and promotion, which has allowed them to present a series of extremely good oils, all sold directly at prices that are absolutely competitive: The 0.75 liter bottle of the Gaudenzi basic oil sells for 8 Euros and the Quinta Luna for 10, while the half-liter bottles of the Chiuse and 6 Novembre selections sell for 9. Dirt cheap for oils of this quality. Also considering that it’s a large operation, by Italian standards: 23 hectares (about 60 acres) of proprietary olive groves all organically farmed, 25,000 olive trees, and more than 300 quintals of oil produced yearly, following a harvest that begins at the end of September and rarely extends past the end of November.

“From an agronomic standpoint,” says Francesco, son of Vittorio, who founded the company, “we took three major steps: first, an inventory of all of our trees to classify them by cultivar; second, planning the harvest on the basis of the cultivars, taking into account the different ripening periods of the various cultivars; third, the adoption of a double-cycle pruning system consisting of deep pruning every 5-6 years and yearly trimmings, which has allowed us to almost completely overcome the alternating full and lean harvests olive groves are known for, and thus produce consistent volumes from year to year.”

“A team of 10 carefully selected people picks with the aid of agevolatori (not the tree shakers one occasionally sees in video clips); they pick by cultivar when the cultivars reach the optimal stage of ripeness, pressing the oils individually, and only later blend the oils from the different cultivars (this blending is called oleaggio, an oil blend, as opposed to the much more common, but less professional olivaggio, or blending of the different cultivars at pressing, which results in an oil from olives that are not all at the optimal stage of ripeness) to make the final oils.

Candle Light at Il Santo Bevitore

Candle Light at Il Santo Bevitore

“The oils I tasted:

  •     Gaudenzi Olio Extravergine Di Oliva: Nice, very well balanced nose, with evident but not overly aggressive fruit, fresh and almondy accents, hints of balsam. On the palate its entry is elegant, gradually developing pleasant bitter accents that present with harmony and delicacy, and slightest peppery spice. Very good.
  •     Quinta Luna: The nose is more powerful that the first, and ample and ethereal, almost penetrating, with greenish herbal accents, nice intensity of fruit, and excellent definition. On the palate balsamic accents are evident, while bitterness emerges strongly, balanced by sweetish notes. It’s very long, with clearly evident artichoke stalks that also carry into an elegant finish. Superb.
  •     Chiuse di Sant’Arcangelo: The nose opens with delicate, but very clear tomato notes, in part green and in part dried; the fruit is full but delicate, giving way to freshly peeled almonds. On the palate it’s intense from the outset, full, and fairly bitter, revealing strong flavors that fade into a more delicate peppery finish with delightful artichoke accents. Excellent.
  •     6 Novembre: The nose is quite delicate, fresh, and just barely pungent, bringing to mind rosemary and evergreens. On the palate it’s quite elegant, full bodied but not aggressive, with bittersweet artichokes predominating, and a very savory finish with bitterness that emerges at the very end. Excellent.”

And there we have it. What, you wonder, were the pairings?

Beans and Nervetti at the Gaudenzi Dinner

Beans and Nervetti at the Gaudenzi Dinner

The Olio 6 Novembre was paired with Fagioli e Gamberetti, beans and Shrimp, or, in my case as I am allergic to shrimp, beans and nervetti, simmered cartilage. It worked quite well.

Beef Tartare with Olive Oil Ice Cream at the Gaudenzi Dinner

Beef Tartare with Olive Oil Ice Cream at the Gaudenzi Dinner

The Olio Quinta Luna was paired with a Tartara served with olive oil ice cream.

Ravioli Stuffed with Burrata on a Bed of Creamed Cabbage at the Gaudenzi Dinner

Ravioli Stuffed with Burrata on a Bed of Creamed Cabbage at the Gaudenzi Dinner

The Olio 1950 (A new blend of Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino harvested in early November, to celebrate the founding of the Frantoio) was paired with ravioli stuffed with burrata over a bed of cabbage cream.

Beef Tagliata with an Onion at the Gaudenzi Dinner

Beef Tagliata with an Onion at the Gaudenzi Dinner

The Olio Chiuse di Santi was paired with beef tagliata with caramelized onions and creamy potatoes.

Caramelized Pear with Cheese Spuma at the Gaudenzi Dinner

Caramelized Pear with Cheese Spuma at the Gaudenzi Dinner

The Olio Arcangelo, from their first olive grove, was paired with caramelized pears with spuma di formaggio.

A fascinating and very tasty dinner, and the pairings did work quite well, with the olive oils contributing considerably to the dishes they were served with.

Agnello & Abbacchio: Lamb

A Whole Lamb in an Italian Market

A Whole Lamb in an Italian Market

Large sections of Italy, both in the mountainous north and the highlands of the south and the islands, are much better suited to sheep and goats than they are to cattle, and it therefore comes as no surprise that Italians have been tending flocks for thousands of years, or indeed that the flocks governed people’s lives, with the men leaving their families in late spring to take their animals to graze the richer mountain meadows, and returning home in the fall laden with cheeses and wool.

Nor does the importance of sheep and goat’s milk cheese in the Italian diet come as a surprise; it was a staple in Roman times and continues to be a staple even now. What does come as a surprise, perhaps, is the relatively minor role that sheep and goat meat play in the Italian diet; though lamb is very popular, especially in spring, and especially in the south, mutton is much less common.

Italian lamb can be divided into two categories.

  • Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

    Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

    Truly young milk-fed lamb, animals that are 20-30 days old at the time of butchering and weigh between 10 and 20 pounds (5-10 k). The Romans call this kind of lamb abbacchio, from abbacchiare (a Roman distortion of abbattere, to butcher), and by now the term has spread throughout the Peninsula. Abbacchi are often sold whole, though one can also buy them cut in half or quartered (if you do buy abbacchio in pieces, remember that the animal should be small; if it’s too large it’s no longer abbacchio). The meat is light colored, very tender, and delicately flavored, while there isn’t much in the way of fat. Because of its delicacy abbacchio is best cooked simply, and with mild seasonings. In the English-speaking world abbacchio is called baby lamb or hothouse lamb.

  • Older lambs are weaned, and can be up to a year old. With respect to abbacchi they are larger and their meat is darker; in selecting lamb prefer animals with relatively broad backs that have quite a bit of meat on them, make sure that the flesh of the thighs is firm and not soft, and make sure it has abundant, firm, white-to-pale-pink kidney fat. If the lamb is small (what’s known as a spring lamb) an Italian butcher may cut it up as if it were an abbacchio, but if it’s larger it will be cut into the traditional cuts, which include chops, leg of lamb, shoulder, saddle, and loin; the neck, breast, and forelegs are often cut up and used to make spiedini, stews, ground lamb, and even sausage.

One important thing to note about larger cuts of lamb is that they are covered by a papery white membrane called the fell, which you should remove if the butcher hasn’t already when you buy the meat. Not only does the Joy of Cooking say it’s indigestible, but also that it keeps seasonings and even heat from penetrating the meat. To remove the fell from a piece of lamb, find a place where the layer of fell and fat will come free, exposing the meat, if you slip a knife under it (for example, the wide end of a leg), and pull the fell up at this point, cutting it away with the blade and being careful to keep the blade to the side of the fell rather than the meat, lest you score the meat. When you have removed the fell you can trim away more fat if you want, though you should keep in mind that a little fat will help keep the meat moist as it cooks.

 

Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

Another observation: though abbacchio is unique, kid and older lamb are interchangeable, and the recipes that call for one will work equally well with the other.

And finally, a word on doneness. Outside of more modern restaurants, I have almost never encountered rare lamb in Italy, and certainly not in homes where those who are cooking are more elderly. Rather, the lamb served at home is generally well done, if it’s not people generally return it to the heat source until it is.

I remarked on this years ago, and an American reader replied that a chefly cousin of his had prepared an almost raw leg of lamb for a family dinner at his house, at which point he demanded it go back into the oven. His house, his rules, and the cousin complied most unhappily. But the well done lamb that eventually emerged was, my correspondent told me, the best he had ever had. So if you find rare lamb offputting, do try it well done. I much prefer it that way.

A Few Recipes:

How To Select A Fish and Estimate How Long To Cook It

Fresh Fish Look Bright

Fresh Fish Look Bright

There’s nothing worse than overripe fish.

Here’s how to avoid it, and how to estimate how long you should cook what you buy.

Appearance is important, but the first sense to trust is smell: A fresh fish won’t smell fishy.

Look at the scales. They should be bright, and colorful. If the fish’s skin looks dull it’s old.

Touch the fish. It should feel firm, not soft, and your fingertip shouldn’t leave an impression.

The brightly colored fish here are dentici, dentex in English, whereas the skinned fish are anglerfish, which are often sold this way because of their appearance when whole.

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Fresh Fish Have bright Eyes, and Look Back As You

Selecting a Fish: Look it in the Eye

Look the fish in the eyes. They should be clear and dark, as if it’s looking back at you, and ready to dart off. No white at all.

These sardoni, slightly larger cousins of sardines, were caught in the Adriatic Sea off Rimini and reached Rimini’s fish market within hours.

A Sunken Eye

A Slightly Cloudy Sunken Eye

An older fish’s eye will begin to cloud and sink.

Unfortunately, you’ll only find perfectly bright eyes when the fish is unloaded from the boat and taken directly to market.

If the eyes are slightly cloudy (like these), but the fish doesn’t smell, the fish was transported after it was caught (or came from further away) but is still good.

This grouper, for example, was caught off Sicily and sold in Rimini, several hundred miles away. It therefore spent at least a day in transit.

If the eyes are cloudy white, or, even worse, sunken and cloudy white, select a different fish or plan to serve something else.

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

A Fresh Fish will Have Red Gills

Check the gills. They should be bright red, like these.

Does your fish pass inspection?

Have the fishmonger clean it for you immediately, because the guts of a dead fish will taint the flesh around them.

When you get it home, refrigerate it. Remember that fish is highly perishable, and that you should thus cook it as soon as possible, at the most within 24 hours.

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

Fresh Fish: Orata, Red Mullet & Scampi

To Determine The Cooking Time Of a Fish:

Measure the fish at its thickest point; calculate 10 minutes for every inch (2.5 cm) of thickness.

For example, roast a 4-inch thick fish 40 minutes, or grill a 2 1/2-inch thick fish 25 minutes, about 12 per side.

Calculations are fine, but you should also keep in mind this empirical method for determining doneness:

Stick a toothpick into the thickest part of the fish, near the backbone. If the flesh is no longer translucent and flakes easily, it is done.

A Couple Of Tips:

1. Remember, the fishmonger’s job is to sell fish. Trust is fine, but keep your eyes open.

2. Don’t overcook the fish, lest it become dry and its texture suffer.

Thinking About Braciole

The Braciola, Turned

The Braciola, Turned

The word Braciola means different things in different parts of Italy: In many parts of the South it’s a slice of meat rolled up around a filling, what is called an Involtino further north, whereas in the North it’s a flat slice of meat.

But as is often the case, even this is a generalization. Antonio Piccinardi says, in the Dizionario di Gastonomia, that the word Braciola in its northern conception likely derives from Brace, coals, and thus refers to the cooking method rather than the meat itelf.

Indeed, braciole can be cut from pork, horse, lamb or sheep, or beef, and after noting this he says that a braciola is in any case a slice of meat from the lumbar or dorsal region of the animal, and that it includes the bone.

Braciole: Dario Cecchini Cuts them from the Groppa

Braciole: Dario Cecchini Cuts them from the Groppa

In Tuscany the situation is somewhat different.

Artusi, for example calls for baciola senz’osso, without the bone.

And when I asked Dario Cecchini, Panzano’s master Butcher, what cut he uses for beef braciole he replied Groppa, one of the muscles in the rump area of the animal, and to illustrate how good it is, while he sharpened his knife he quoted a ditty by Roventino da Panzano (A Tuscan street poet who, in the tradition of medieval troubadours, happily discusses all sorts of racy things), the part of which suitable for a Family Publication runs, L’é come le braciole nella groppa, più ne mangi più ne mangeresti: It’s like braciole cut from the groppa, the more you eat the more you want to eat…

Groppa is, Dario says, the cut used in Tuscany — in Lombardia they use Fesa (an Italian meat cuts chart, for the curious), whereas the equivalent cut in the United States would be a more generic rump steak, because in the US the meat is mostly cut by meat packers, who do not divide the meat as do Italian butchers.

 

Dario, Trimming the Groppa before Cutting a Braciola

Dario, Trimming the Groppa before Cutting a Braciola

The first step to cutting a braciola is producing an even surface from which to cut. Dario will either sell this first unevenly shaped piece of meat to someone who is doing something else, say making a stew, or grind it.

Dario, Slicing a Braciola

Dario, Slicing a Braciola

Next, Dario slices the braciola. An even cut that’s about a half-inch (a little more than a cm) thick , and note how dark the meat, which is nicely aged, is.

A Freshly Cut Braciola

A Freshly Cut Braciola

And here we have it, a beautifully marbled braciola weighing about a half pound. What to do with it? Dario grinned.

“Heat a pan with a few drops of olive oil, a garlic clove you’ve peeled and crushed with the heel of your palm, and a few fresh sage leaves. A brisk flame to brown the surface, flip it after a couple of minutes, and cook a minute or two more, so the outside is nicely browned while the inside remains pleasantly rare. Salt at the very end, at table.”

His expression became serious, and added that if you are not planning on cooking the meat as soon as you get home, you should remove it form refrigerator a half hour before you plan to cook it to allow it to come to room temperature. Going from Fridge to heat is an “usanza barbara,” barbaric.

A Braciola, On the Griddle

A Braciola, On the Griddle

Dario’s suggestion for pan-frying a braciola is wonderful, and absolutely classic — some of the earliest Italian meals I can remember involved braciole cooked this way, and little can be better.

However, Elisabetta and I were in a mood for something even simpler, and got out our cast iron bistecchiera, an 8 by 12-inch (24 by 36 cm) ridged griddle weighing about 2.6 k (6 pounds), heated it over a brisk flame for a few minutes, and set the braciola on it. After a few minutes more we turned it, and upon removing it from the bistecchiera salted it.

A bottle of Chianti, crusty bread and a salad, and it was very good.

While we’re on the subject of Flat Braciole…

Testing for grilled meat doneness: Use your fingers

Judy Francini’s instructions for cooking a steak on a cast iron griddle