June 17, 2015

Food + Science = Equilibrium

Have you ever wondered why some of the simplest recipes turn out to be the most delicious? Take, for example, prosciutto and melon. This Italian springtime favorite is about as simple as they come. Maybe we can give some credit to the theory of Claudio Galeno. The second century Greek medic studied the composition of food and how finding the equilibrium of ingredients, however simple, can result in a successful dish.

According to Galeno, every product can be described as hot, cold, humid or dry. Ideally, a dish should combine ingredients from each of these categories. Think again about the prosciutto and melon. The combination of the moist, cool melon that contrasts with the dry, warm prosciutto achieves what Galeno describes as equilibrium. The salty/sweet combo pleases tastebuds. Yes, it seems strange to think about foods in a scientific manner, how tastes mix and ingredients combine to deliver smiles and happy palates.

Another example that comes close to equilibrium, a staple in the Italian kitchen, is pasta. Think about how dried pasta and water, thrown together on the stove until the boiling water brings the pasta to the desired cooked, moist consistency reach equilibrium. The simple combination of the ingredients and elements results in an age-old dish.

According to Massimo Montanari, a leading expert in Food and Culture History and professor of Medieval History at the University of Bologna, pizza baked in a wood burning oven, 'nel forno al legno' could be seen as a dream combination of ingredients and elements to achieve the Italian favorite. The moist, freshly tossed dough with your hearts' desire of toppings thrown into the wood burning oven results with a generally crispy crust with a chewy, cheesy center.

Next time you are experimenting in the kitchen, think as Galeno did. Ponder each of the ingredients' qualities and how the best bet might be to pair them with ingredients who have opposite qualities.

Have fun and...Buon appetito!


May 27, 2015

Amazing food in Ferrara

Amazing food can be had all over Emilia-Romagna. Some amazing pasta dishes (and who doesn't love pasta?) are in Ferrara. I especially love the butternut squash stuffed pasta Cappellacci di Zucca served with meat ragu'. The combination of sweet stuffing with savory ragu' is just wonderful.

Cappellaci di Zucca con ragu'

Another favorite dish is called Pasticcio Ferrarese its macaroni mixed in with ragu and bechamel sauce and stuffed in a sweet crust and baked. Again, this combination of sweet and savory, while surprising, really works.

Pasticcio Ferrarese

Although a small town compared to Bologna, Ferrara has an fascinating history. The castle is still standing and has some beautiful buildings. So if you have a extra day during your visit to Bologna, take a train and visit Ferrara. Depending on what type of train you take, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to almost an hour (on the train that stops at every village). If you drive, its only 40 minutes away.

If you don't have time to go to Ferrara, then I will be happy to teach you how to make the Cappellacci di Zucca as long as butternut squash is available: usually October through March.  

December 16, 2014

Antipasto, Primo, Secondo; How to Order Food in Italy

How many times have you sat down to eat in Italy and just sat there, staring at the menu perplexed as to how and what to order? Let's begin by explaining the various items listed on a menu in Italy.

First of all, an antipasto is an appetizer. The list of antipasti might include a savory mousse, a salad or a small version of what might otherwise qualify as a second course. Antipasti are more elaborate than stuzzichini which are fairly simple snacks: pizza, small fried or baked snacks.

primo is a first course; the list of primi includes soups, pastas, rices and other similar items. You might find the word Minestre instead of Primi. Minestre can be dry, such as a pasta dish but is most often used to refer to liquid first courses; such as soup (zuppa), smooth soups (vellutata or passata), chunky vegetable soups with pasta (minestrone or ribollita), tortellini in brodo, passatelli in brodo or zuppa imperiale. Baked pasta is also considered a minestra.

A secondo is a second course often composed of a protein, be it cheese, seafood, meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) or eggs. For your information, this dish does not necessarily arrive with vegetables or a side dish.

Contorni or side dishes. Side dishes usually are vegetables prepared in a variety of ways including grigliate (grilled), al forno (oven roasted), lessate (boiled). In Italy, don't expect pasta to be a side dish  (ever!)

Dolci are desserts and these are often divided into torte which are cakes; dolci al cucchiao are soft desserts to be eaten with a spoon (think mascarpone cream, tiramisù or panna cotta), gelati are ice creams and semifreddi that while are reminiscent of a gelato, are more complex with often an accompanying sauce.

Coffee is usually served after dessert. While some places will bring you whatever you want whenever you want it, not all will. So don't be surprised if the coffee arrives after the dessert, even though you asked for it with the dessert. You might appreciate knowing that that cappuccinos are considered a breakfast drink so if you order one after 11am, it is akin to ordering chocolate milk.

After coffee, you might order a digestif or amaro, literally a bitter which aids digestion or a fine whisky or grappa which you will find under Distillati. If you don't see these on the menu, ask. In some places, the trattoria will bring a few bottles of their home made liquors for you to try including licorice, basil and the more famous limoncello. Please know that these are offered by the house and as common courtesy you are expected not to have more than a shot glass or two, at most!

Good to know: Now that you know what's what on the menu, let's tackle some details.

How much to order? Several of my students have recounted how they felt pressured by waiters to order an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (a first course), a secondo (a second course) and a dolce (dessert). No one, should feel pressured to order all that food, although a restaurant might be understandably perplexed if all you wish to eat is an antipasto and you are by yourself.

For your information, Italians rarely order a dish from each course. It is customary to order 2 dishes, for example:
  • antipasto with either a primo or secondo
  • primo and secondo
  • primo OR secondo and dessert
  • primo OR secondo and a side dish
Also, while not everyone does it, some couples will split a dish or two. I know a couple who will split every course, thus ordering 1 antipasto, 1 first course, 1 second course and 1 dessert. I usually split dessert or a first course with my husband.

There is only one don't that I can think of. Don't expect to get your ordered food in any order other than the category that they belong to, ie., antipasti come first, then first courses, then the second courses and side dishes, then dessert, then coffee and then any after dinner drinks. For example, a side dish with your pasta is a no-no. A first course dish served with your second course dish is another unusual thing.

While a casual place may not care in which order you eat your food and thus may agree to serve the food in the order you requested, don't be surprised if it doesn't come to fruition. The chronological order of the food is so ingrained in Italian culture that while the waiter has agreed to it, the kitchen will send out the dishes in the Italian, preordained order. 

Don't be surprised if you see your menu divided into Mare and Terra. That means that all seafood (Mare) have their section of primi and secondi while the vegetables and meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc) are considered earth (Terra) and have their separate section of primi and secondi.

Frozen foodstuffs: Eating places are required to declare if they are using frozen products. You will see this in small print at the bottom of the menu.

Coperto: this item lists what the eating places charges for the bread, oil and vinegar and other items they may serve that you haven't ordered. The use of tablecloths as well as cloth napkins might be included so naturally expect the fancier the place, the higher the coperto. The price of the coperto needs to be declared on the menu.

Tipping: Tipping is not necessary and is never added to your bill. All workers receive a regular salary so there is no need to tip in order to round out a salary. However, if you feel that you've been treated particularly well you could tip 10%. Tipping too much shows that you are a tourist! Especially never tip in a bar, caffe', tavola calda or Osteria. There's the second no-no.

I hope I've helped you understand some of the intricacies of the Italian menu. Buon Appetito!

September 22, 2014

2014 Cooking Tour

Maribel will be travelling to Massachusetts to teach Bolognese cooking as well as Cooking with Kale (Tuscan style). While the majority of the events scheduled are private events organized by friends, there is one event open to the public.

I will be teaching a cookery class on traditional Bolognese specialties at Shubie's MarketPlace in Marblehead, Massachusetts

The menu selected is a typical informal meal with Bolognese friends; while generous in terms of number of dishes, the recipes are simple to make.

Our menu at Shubies is as follows:
~ with Italian Charcuterie, Seasonal Fruit with Prosciutto/Speck and Mortadella Mousse.
~ Pasta with Ragu Bolognese
~ Seasonal vegetable dish
~ A "Caprese", a Flourless, Moist Chocolate Cake
~ Italian Semifreddo with fruit garnish

Shubie's Signature wines will be sampled with the food.

In order to reserve your seat, you need to contact Shubies' directly at 781-631-0149.
Space is limited. Reserve Today!

While I am in the USA, our team will still be available to teach in Bologna so if you are in Italy, go ahead and write me an email (see upper right hand corner) to schedule a cooking lesson in Bologna.
Peach semifreddo

Flourless Chocolate Cake (gluten free) 

September 20, 2014

Is It A Sauce Or A Ragu'?

Tagliatelle al Ragù (Bolognese)
Ever wonder what the difference is between a Ragu' and Sauce? You might think that they are one and the same since they all go with pasta. But there are differences which I will try to explain.

"Sugo" or sauce is a general term that indicates a fluid sauce. It can be a simple tomato sauce like a marinara or can include whole plum tomatoes and some other ingredients, cut small.

A ragu' is a thick, chunky sauce usually made by cooking several kinds of meat in a sauce, usually tomato. That said, a ragu' can also made with seafood, vegetables or a combination of these. 

The most famous ragu's in Italy are the Bolognese and the Napoletan but almost every region (and sometimes cities) have their own ragu'. In fact, its not necessary to specify which ragu' you are preparing or talking about unless you are talking about a ragu' from a different town!

A Bolognese ragu' is made with ground meat cooked with vegetables and a small amount of concentrated tomato, added for color. The Bolognese ragu' is served with tagliatelle pasta. The Napoletan ragu' has lots of onions and a big chuck of beef that cooks in the tomatoes for many hours. You are supposed to serve the beef flavored sauce with spaghetti or linguine pasta and serve the meat as a second course. Still the "sauce" is considered a ragu'. The Pugliese ragu' includes several types of meats including ribs, porkchops and beef. The "sauce" is served with orecchiette pasta while the meats are served as a second course. And again, the "sauce" is considered a ragu'. 

Its interesting to note that East coast American-Italians call their meat sauce "gravy" instead of sauce. Its clear that the old timers who emigrated to the US wanted to differentiate the fluid, tomato sauce from the meat sauce; just like the relatives back home distinguish "sugo" from "ragu".

Buon appetito!