Curious Appetite

Month: May 2014

Gluten-Free food in Florence and Italy in general

Italy is not just pizza and pasta, guys. If you think about it- the Mediterranean diet is all about whole foods and pure ingredients. Appetizers can be marinated vegetables, olives, grilled veggies, cold cuts, olive oil and crudités (pinzimonio), fried polenta and so on. First courses can be bean soups (crema di ceci!), risotti (made without cheese) and rice salads. Mains are usually meat or seafood based and not usually made with cheese unless it’s like involtini or polpette, but it is quite doable to find main courses without cheese if not certainly easy to ask for it to be omitted. Contorni (side dishes) would be a breeze: herb roasted potatoes, braised greens, vegetables, beans, salads and such. Continue Reading

What’s in season in Florence (Tuscany, Italy Spring 2014)

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I love the seasonal produce culture in Italy. I am lucky enough to be near a food market which reinforces my love for love. Because food is love. Unless we are talking about industrial farming, there is intention and warmth every step of the way from the hands that sow the seeds which yield the colorful bounty, all armed with a variety of nutrients, picked with sweat and tears, that then go on to be carefully crafted by the hardworking chefs and cooks onto our plates and go to nourish our bodies (and senses) to allow us to continue our love affair with this life on earth. I know, a bit dramatic. But to me, the world revolves around food. And while industrial food would like to separate us from that very organic and wholesome experience, there are still some little pockets where food still makes its world go round. I imagine industrial food like this virus, coming after all of us, consuming us community by community. It has arrived in Italy, but ironically in Italy its claws are taking the longest to clench into. I think that ancient food cultures are dying making room for the modern diet. While new cultures are fighting tooth and nail to create their own gastronomic identity.

Well, in the little pocket where I do my shopping for a few moments I feel as if I live in a wrinkle of time. Where food culture is still strong and seasonal produce is still abundant, cheap, bright and delight all 5 senses. I get to live in the small nook of true and whole food culture and I am reminded of all the things I must try to bring home with me should I ever return for good.

I lead food tours in Florence and one of my guests asked me what my favorite things about living in Italy was. And I told them it was the market I had just toured them through. Sometimes my life is a Seinfeld episode living in Florence, chewed up and spit out on a daily basis (example recently I was walking through the streets giggling with a girlfriend and a boy my age snarls and barks “tourist, go home!” at me. Neat.) But all of that washes away at the market. The aspirated Tuscan hoots and hollers, flowers and vintage dresses get me every time.

I wanted to share with my readers of few of the gems I recently noticed in season at my local market in Florence.

Graffiti Eggplant

I love how there are a few different varieties of eggplant (aubergine for the silly brits) in abundance at this time! Perfect to grill and drill with Tuscan olive oil:)

Heirloom tomatoes!

Heirloom, or in Italian Otello tomatoes, are expensive but totally worth it. They have a thick skin (like me!) and a umami rich flesh. Perfect for making a caprese salad. I recently made a tomato basil caprese using stracciatella cheese which is like burrata cheese “let loose” which is basically one of the most amazing things in this world.

These things are crunchy, bell peppery peppers that almost have no flavor other than that fresh spray of bell pepper but they are really good as a crostini topper with diced tomatoes (like Otello!), olive oil and drizzled with a thick balsamic.

Agretti! Not wheatgrass

I have never seen this stuff before in my life but apparently it’s called saltwort, or Russian thistle and it’s a type of succulent shrub. Mmmmm, da-licious– right? I’ve seen it prepared as like a side of spinach or used as a base to mix in with fresh pasta. Agretti Spaghetti, please!

Spring asparagus is coming to an end shortly, but when it was in full spring I took the opportunity to make a risotto with it. I really love using french sorrel which I used to find in shops back home but I guess in Italy getting french herbs may be a touchy topic. Oh and can’t forget cucumbers which have been rocking my salads and sandwiches.

Chanterelle mushrooms!!

Okay, so there is a fungi guy (teehee) at the market and funny enough, he told me these came from the Veneto (which is where Venice is). Yes, not all the produce at the market is from Tuscany but I actually like that other regional goodies are brought in from time to time- ESPECIALLY the guy from Naples who brings Neapolitan bread, cheeses, sun-dried San Marzano tomatoes, olives so huge and juicy you’ll cry and other Neapolitan specialties.

cherry berries!

This reminds me of summer back home since summer in Seattle is actually mostly like spring and they tend to stay late into early summer months. This year I’d like to make a cherry crostata or cherry jam with these studs! Stay tuned:)

According to my main fruit and veg man, these are the 1st Italian apricots of the season and come from Basilicata. I wonder if those of you reading know what that means and it is basically one of the Southern regions in Italy known mostly for the UNESCO wonder of Matera and the region itself I hear musing over its beauty but aside from Matera, most that remains is a agricultural sector. And Aglianico wine. People from Basilicata are called “Lucano” and I always thought that was cool.

That’s all folks! Enjoy:)

In earthly delight,

Curious Appetite

Eating cheap, discriminately and extremely Tuscan in Florence

I take eating very seriously. It’s my job- fer chrissake! When I originally started this food blog, it was intended for detailing restaurant experiences. And I kind of took a detour with bits of travel notes and cultural reflections, but my true passion in blogging still lies within writing in a sort of food critic-y voice.

If you gave me an unlimited dining expense account, I would probably be like a kid in a candy store. Everyone goes out to restaurants and has their own selection process. I have my own which can become a job of its own. It needs to have the following ingredients: character, location, a good SMELL and a menù that incites curiosity and passion.

There are so many garbage restaurants in Florence, so many overpriced mediocre restaurants and so many overrated, over discovered restaurants that to me make it harder to find a restaurant that I am pleased with (at least in the city) than it is for me to eat back in Seattle. Okay, that is a high claim but it is very true. It’s so easy to get ripped off in Florence. But the type of restaurants that I am currently in love with are casalinga-style trattorias.

Casalinga is a very hard concept to translate but it literally means housewife. If a restaurant does cucina casalinga (housewife style cuisine) it’s kinda family, rustic style with absolutely no frills and no makeup. It is the grandma in the grubby kitchen with the family or just simple cooks whipping up greasy spoon Tuscan fare at very modest prices. It is blue-collar dining and it is the kind that warms my heart and reminds me why Italy is such a wickedly awesome place.

I really don’t go for the top name brand restaurants that have the most cutting edge modern Jackson Pollock style cuisine (dot on a plate- not food!). Okay, Michelin starred chefs really do have some skill and deserve their fame. But what to me these fancy, exclusive arm-and-a-leg priced restaurants lack is grit. They provide a very sterile experience in a stuffy, privileged atmosphere which you can get anywhere in the metropolitan world.

The illustrious hole-in-the-wall (such that of a cucina casalinga) is a true gem that you can only find off the beaten path. Granted, my idealization of casalinga restaurants aren’t super organic and presumptuously artisan, but they provide to me one of the cornerstones of the food movement that I think is utterly essential. And that is: good, fresh healthy food at fair prices which is accessible to everyone.

I very much disagree with the exclusivity of eating and dining. I think dining is a beautiful experience that everyone should have access to- regardless of socio-economic status. And this is why I loved these blue-collared, working class casalinga resto joints in Florence. In America, unless it is ethnic food, it is quite hard to find healthy, cheap food in a charismatic environment. There are things like diners, soup kitchens, delis, burger joints, etc but nothing…I mean NOTHING can compare to the sheer wholesomeness of a Tuscan hole-in-the-wall.

Recently I discovered 12€ Tuscan straccetti chicken in a luxurious cream sauce topped with aromatic fresh shaved truffles with rice pilaf at a restaurant I will not disclose because I do not want them to get over-discovered. However, if you want a name you can take the time to contact me and I will happily give that name to you.:)

creamy chicken truffle heaven

I also enjoyed a fresh personal burrata with an anchovy cream (which strangely is a great balance between extreme umami saltiness for the sweet creamy gooey burrata cheese). Burrata and truffles are basically 2 foods in life that have the ability to make me cry.

Burrata cheese- a mozzarella-like embodiment of heaven

At Trattoria Giorgio, a name I can disclose since they are already over discovered but still okay, I marveled at the fact they offer a full course meal for €14 euros to include a 1st (an ample selection of delicious, gut filling pastas) a second (albeit salty, yet savory meaty mains including sliced steak or crispy saucy rabbit leg) a veggie side like garlicky collard greens or Tuscan beans and this also includes a 1/4 liter of house wine, water and bread. The food wasn’t exquisite, but I quite enjoyed how we were all cramped inside, eating elbow to elbow, surrounded by cheesy imitation renaissance wall paintings (including very creepy looking babies with la madonna) eating on tiny tables with red checkered paper place-mats and the kitchen looking like a scene from some New York soup kitchen in the 80’s. Again, it’s an everyday blue collar joint that everyone can partake in.

 

I actually recently visited La Casalinga (THE casalinga resto in Santo Spirito with the family working their tushes off 6 days a week, hooting and hollering around the kitchen making cheap Tuscan fare for the tripadvisor masses) and I must say- I wasn’t that impressed. I felt they were a bit over-discovered, commercial and didn’t have much of a soul in respect to the last couple places I recently attended.

I distinctly remember going to the bathroom and noticing wrappers of grocery store mozzarella and while I know this is the sign of a casalinga, home-style resto, I just wasn’t impressed that a mozzarella plate was nearly €10 when at the Conad (where they bought the mozzarella) it cost them €1-2. Having ordered a slab of pork chops and a bruschetta board, I didn’t think it was that tasty, interesting or that remarkable in character, aside from the scenes in the kitchen of the family stewing away in aspirated Tuscan dialogue. However, it is still quite cheap as we got away with appetizers, a main, wine and dessert for €20 each. Just not my cup of tea.

I have a few more I have found off my curious path that I intend on trying and that I may share on my instagram feed but whose name I may not reveal in the romantic hope that they retain their charm and local vibe.

Until then, stay hungry and ever so curious- as they say: when in Rome!

p.s. don’t forget dessert- especially when it’s a flourless chocolate TORTA!

rich, thick chocolate love.

Curious Appetite

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