Curious Appetite

Dessert

La Ghiotta: a Florentine Tavola Calda

I love when someone wants to get lunch. On a weekend in Italy. Especially this time. There is this little hole in the wall in my neighborhood that I look into every time I pass, curious as to the simple Tuscan delights that lie within. Most good restaurants in Italy are brown and mustard decorated hole-in-the-walls. They have paper place mats, uncomfortable chairs with the straw seat that give you splinters especially if you wear a skirt and get stuck in your leggings and hand-written menus. And mostly everything is under 10 euros a plate. The exception being the bistecca fiorentina (Florentine steak) which is like 30 something euros a kilo and you usually split with others. But personally, I wouldn’t get a bistecca fiorentina at one of these. When in Rome, or rather Florence, stick with the mom-style comfort food in a joint like La Ghiotta.

When you walk in, you immediately are greeted with all the tavola calda type items like roasted pork, polpettone (big Tuscan meatballs that are typically meaty and breadcrumby), small fried fish medley, hot gooey lasagna, fried polenta (a decadent goodie I discovered in Florence) and maybe some random slices of pizza. You can either order some of this to-go or to bring immediately to a table, or you can order from the hand-written menu. There is nothing pretentious here with nothing to hide or show off. What you will find is simple Tuscan food at modest prices. Antipasti include salami boards and crostini toscani. Primi include spinach and ricotta ravioli in a fried sage and butter sauce. Mains include generous slabs of Milanese style veal cutlets and roasted fried potatoes. No fru fru fusion, just damn good (real) Italian food. What I had was the mare caldo (warm ocean) with a personal carafe of sparkling house wine:

Delicious. The calamari had a perfect balance of chewy and meaty. The clams were little buttons of flavor. and the Mussels were creamy and retained a good deal of garlic and herbs. The sauce was silky, herbaceous and woven nicely with garlic. I was even taken aback by the shrimp, which I usually do not care for in restaurants as they are rubbery and freezer burned. Again, the buttery texture soothed my senses and revitalized my appreciation for this little meaty sea creatures. This was served on a modest piece of toasted (very plain) Tuscan bread which soaked up all this wonderful broth and it basically melts like pure umami in your mouth.

After this, of course we enjoyed an espresso and a dessert: Tiramisu’

Tiramisu’ literally translates into “Lift me up.” Well, how could this not lift you up? It’s a booze cream and marscapone cheese cake with cookies soaked in espresso. Not to mention the obvious sugar high this invokes.

Tiramisu’ is not a traditional Tuscan dessert, but La Ghiotta was out of frittelle which are little fried rice donut-like sweets- I’ve seen these in Venice also so may not be exclusive to Tuscany. And sometimes I see them in the bakeries filled with custard.

The point is- when you are in Florence, eat off the beaten tourist path. Be okay with getting squished in the corner with straw-bedded chairs that drive splinters up your bum. It’s okay. You know why? Because you will probably have one of the best meals all month at a traditional hole-in-the-wall without burning a hole in your wallet. And leave with a slight buzz at 3 in the afternoon. These gastronomic moments in Italy are priceless.

Rare and protected foods in Italy- not alfredo.

Every stage of my Italian life dives deeper into the underbelly of what makes this culture tick, a new breakthrough is made every month or so, a new language barrier has been breached. And this applies also to my understanding of Italian food.

The basic level is understanding a real pizza (no tomato sauce base or thick deep pan crust here), a real plate of pasta (made fresh and with minimal ingredients like cherry tomatoes, garlic and olive oil- no Alfredo sauce ever) and that Italians actually drink beer with their pizza, not Chianti.

Then when you are here for a bit, and if you are a wanna-be food anthropologist, you’ll see that pizza and pasta really isn’t truly Italian. You’ll learn about food from the Renaissance  (wild boar cooked in a cacao spiced sauce), cakes and breads made from wild chestnut flour, foraged porcini and truffles, heirloom beans, salami made from cooked blood and pig hearts and cheese made from rare species of bovine and mountain sheep in obscure villages. This is what makes my heart flutter. This is what proves to me that Italy is a gift to the world. And the best place to live.

There are consortia, funded partly by the chamber of commerce, local governments and agricultural ministries, that PROTECT these ancient foods, and provide a means for these precious commodities made since centuries past; to survive and be cultivated for generations to come. This is what blows my mind about Italy. That here the government takes an active role to protect biodiversity in agriculture and food culture. And the aggressive stance against allowing GMO’s to be grown in the region and demanding labeling of incoming food products from abroad. How can a country like Italy be so deep in recession and so backwards in certain ways- yet is more advanced in food democracy than a supposedly free and democratic country like America where none of these protocols exist? Hey America, just label it already!

In the Fall, cities across the boot celebrate the harvest of countless foods and hand-made products like cheese, preserves, dessert breads, etc. They are put out on display at events and sagre (local fair) in piazzas and open-air markets, with live traditional folk music and dances, with wine (variety is according to the region, or the district even) that was just pressed and fermented weeks ago. And here is a little collection of what I have discovered so far:

Heirloom beans from Lucca (Tuscany)
Truffles
Aged Pecorino Toscano at a farmer’s market, so nutty and full of umami.
Biroldo (salami made from the scraps we would normally throw out like blood, heart, other organs and random face parts)- centuries old Tuscan delicacy
Panetone (big sweet bread made during the holiday season) but this one was made with Marrone del Mugello- an ancient breed of sweet chestnut that only grows in the Mugello district of Tuscany. Italians are now brewing beer with this nutty thing!

Il Cariton! This is a dessert typical to Piedmont- the slow food capital of the WORLD! This is made with some unique grape varieties that are like a cross between a cherry, strawberry and raspberry! Believe it or not, this dessert is being safeguarded as a sort of endangered cultural food. Italians do not let old traditions die.
You know its Fall and you’re in Tuscany when you see this dessert on display and at wine festivals. Its a bread (la schiacciata, which literally means smashed or squashed) with the new ripe and ready sangiovese grapes from the region! I consider the presence of la schiacciata col’uva an interlude to new wines about to be released.

Want a taste of a secret Italian dish? Try out this recipe for la schiacciata con l’uva (taken from Epicurious.com):

  • 1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 3 tablespoons Chianti or other dry red wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3/4 cup warm water (110–115°F)
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups Italian “00” flour or half all-purpose flour and half cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1/4 cup fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 1/2 cups Concord or wine grapes (1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup sugar

For instructions: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Focaccia-with-Grapes-Schiacciata-con-Luva-104514#ixzz2CVT6nUXN

BUON APPETITO!

Food and Wine Pairing- Chocolate + Marsala!

I just discovered something a little amazing: dark chocolate and dry Marsala:

 

I’m just about certified in Food & Wine pairing and one of the 1st things I ever learned was: Red Wine and Chocolate is not a good pair. GASP! I’m sorry ladies, it’s true. There is too much bitter clash and the sugar in the chocolate confuses the tannins in the wine. My instructor said it best: It’s like sex on the beach: in theory it sounds like a GREAT idea- but then you got the sand and the rocks…the reality is that it’s pretty uncomfortable.”  I mean, there are ways to pair red wine and chocolate if you really want to. Like with a bitter chocolate with low sugar content and a careful selection of red wine that has some bitterness and tannin to match. But the general rule of thumb is that chocolate pairs best with a fortified dessert wine like port or….MARSALA…

When I was just recently living in the states, the only marsala wine you found was for cooking. And unlike most wine, you don’t drink it as you cook with it. I don’t know, maybe its because how some wine is not imported well that I never believed in a marsala. So recently a friend came and made some veal marsala and left the bottle behind. I asked, what the hell am I going to do with all the leftover wine? I’m not making a tiramisu’ anytime soon. They said: drink it! 

I never would have thought of that, you know.

So I poured some in my snifter, swirled it about and went through the usual motions of analysis….butterscotch, toffee, caramel, vanilla and coconut…and then gulp! Heaven! The nose proved accurate on the palate. Pretty damn tasty.

Together with dark chocolate…the cacao echos…like a nutty hazelnut caramel toasted fairtrade chocolate s’more…

I don’t know if you can get this kinda stuff in the states- but try! The states is always improving the channels of fine imports.

Notes on the Marsala that was left so graciously behind:

Producer: Florio 1833, VECCHIOFLORIO Marsala Superiore Secco (DOC) ’08, aged for 30 months in oak (hence all the toasty toffee notes)

buon dessert! 🙂

Dine Around Seattle: Ray’s Boathouse

March is an annoying month in Seattle. You think you’ve braved the bulk of winter but really it’s only just begun. February teases you with May weather, then March slaps you around with icy winds and grey. Coincidentally March is Washington Wine Month AND Dine Around Seattle Month. So I guess I will pass the time with wine (for March’s sake) and fancy 3 course meals for $30 at shmancy restaurants, like Ray’s Boathouse.

This massive hunk of love was a Tiramisu’ cheesecake. And it was one of the generous desserts apart of the 3 course $30 dine around deal.

I have heard lovely things about Ray’s Boathouse and have been trying to get in there for sometime. They are best known for, you guessed it, Pacific Northwest Inspired Seafood-centric cuisine. But if you look at the menu’ for Dine Around, it was strangely meat heavy. There was a seared tuna starter, which was delicately seared and extremely fresh and carefully paired with flavors of coconut, cilantro and ginger. There was also the saffron mussel bisque w/ pork belly but the pork was definitely the centerpiece to the cream saffron broth. On the mains list there was a Seafood Risotto but I couldn’t bring myself to trust a risotto in most restaurants, especially one that doesn’t even have a claim to Italian fame. Risotto tends to dry out almost immediately and its one of those dishes that takes a lot of attention and needs to be demolished immediately once ready. It can get gummy or mushy if it isn’t served within 15 minutes. So the one seafood main was the one I refused to try. So instead the Muscovy Duck Leg Confit and the Braised Lamb shank was on the to do list. Along with a bottle of a Salice Salentino Negroamaro (black bitter) which is a bold deep red from the Puglia region of Italy. Not too bold in tannin but structured enough to buddy up with duck and lamb.

And my my, these were not sad portions. I wish my camera hadn’t been misbehaving so I could show you their glory. These meats were cooked to perfection, layered a top vegetables like seasonal beets, arugula and swiss chard with grace. Brushed with thoughtful notes like honey lavender demi-glace (for the lamb) and roasted chanterelle jus (for the duck confit) that invoked a sense of true craftmanship.

However, there is usually a however with me, there was no soul. The ambiance seemed a little stiff and I felt as if I was sitting in a Denny’s booth albeit with a cute view of the bay. The chef’s at Ray’s have technique down pat. But there is too much a corporate feel and a lack of character to this restaurant that I feel less inclined to return. The decor was kind of like the kind I’d find at a rental cabin owned by a retired couple in Michigan. But perhaps this is the establishment that it would like to be. The kind that people in preppy suits come to dine and woo their in-town guests or for upscale family reunions. I’ve also heard the cafe’ area is a lot more relaxed and cozy. And for the summertime, which lasts about 6 weeks for us Seattlelittes, it would be a stellar place to enjoy some fresh salmon, a strawberry shortcake and a mint mojito.

If you are looking for true technique, proper portions and a place to bring someone on a suit and tie kind of occasion, Ray’s Boathouse is a win. Also a choice place for Dine Around Seattle Month, for sure.

Chocolate BEET Nutella-Inspired Ganache CAKE.

Eat your vegetables—-for dessert! Yes, for real. Carrot cake, zucchini bread, now chocolate beet cake! Beets are one of my favorite root vegetables and here in the Puget Sound we are lucky to have them almost year round. Although in the fall & winter-like months, their bulbs tend to be bulkier which makes them easier to prepare into casseroles, roasts and soups. The beet has a looooong history, some believe it’s cultivation dates back to the 2nd millennium B.C.! Nowadays they are commercially produced for table sugar and there is even a hot controversy involving the little beet and the unstoppable GMO. Since about 1/2 of all our sugar in America comes from beets, (un)naturally the powers involved with mutating American Farmland have figured out how to capitalize on this rich sugar bulb now with a Roundup Ready GE Sugar Beet. Although the USDA has approved of this uncertain science experiment, you don’t have to. You can make this delicious moist buttery nutty chocolate cake with local organic beets found at Puget Sound Farmer’s Markets (or any local natural grocer/co-op) grown with love by Rents Due Ranch or Ralph’s Greenhouse and save yourself the mystery genes. This cake can be made even more local with Stone Buhr’s Washington White Flour (locally produced and small batch milled by Shepard’s Grain), farmstead eggs and fresh butter from the farmer’s market (or local co-op or natural grocer).

The Nutella-inspired ganache is easier than cake. Not only are beets in season and local, but so are hazelnuts! I just roasted these in the oven with a little bit of sugar until the skins popped off then beet them to a pulp in a coffee grinder then added to the chocolate ganache pot. So simple yet luscious! See for yourself!

Here is what you will need:

Dry ingredients in one bowl:

1 cup of flour (I used Shepherd’s Grain WA flour, its local and affordable!)

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3 tbsp cocoa or cacao

Wet ingredients:

5 eggs, separated

variation: 2 whole eggs and 3 egg whites (or 3/4 cup liquid egg whites)

1 cup of sugar

Chocolate cake base:

1 cup of beet puree’ (made with 2 medium bulk beets or 1 large bulk beet)

8 tbsp butter, or one short stick

1/4 cup espresso, instant (for ease) or 1/4 hot water

1 cup 62% semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used the Sunspire Fairtrade chips from PCC Natural Markets, less than $5 a bag!)

Chocolate-“Nutella” Ganache

1/2 cup skinned ground hazelnuts, dry roasted in the oven with a sprinkle of sugar

1/2 cup 62% semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 heavy whipping cream

1 tbsp sweet Marsala or whatever sweet wine you have around

This cake has a lot of little tasks so here is how I suggest you break it down: Beets—>Ganache—> Hazelnut roasting—-> Cake batter prep—->Oven @ 325* for 40 minutes = voila’!

Beets: scrub your beet(s) and start boiling them skin on. It will take about 1/2 hour for the beets to full boil to softness and make the skin just slip off under cool water. When beets are boiled and skinned, cut into chunks and puree them in a food processor or blender.

Roasted hazelnuts, for ganache and cake topping:

Put the hazelnuts in a thin oven-safe pan and sprinkle some sugar on. Set temperature to 350* in a toaster oven or oven making sure to give them a shake and roll around every few minutes. Roast time total should be about 15 minutes. They will be ready when you see skins starting to pop off and brown. Let these cool wrapped in the middle of a clean towel.  In the towel, try to rub off all the skins. Reserve half  for the actual cake topping. The other half once skinned and cooled, pulverized in a coffee grinder. Pour into ganache when ready. Turn over down to 325* for cake baking temperature.

How to make the ganache:  add chocolate chips and heavy cream to a small saucepan on medium-low heat. Add in the Marsala or sweet wine. Whisk till this gets a bit thick then take off the heat and allow to cool. You may now mix in the pulverized hazelnut “meal”.

After ganache is made and beets are still boiling…

Chocolate cake base (the wet ingredients): melt 1/2 cup of chocolate in a small saucepan on very low heat and make sure to stir and scrap. Add espresso or hot water once chocolate is mostly melted. Cut butter into chunks and let it melt in careful not to stir too much. Fold in egg yolks and mix until uniform. And lastly, fold in beet puree’.

Now with an electric mixer, whip egg whites until stiff and frothy. Add in the sugar slowly and stir in with a spatula. Now you can fold in the egg white mixture with the chocolate mixture and have your self a chocolate base.

Dry Cake mix: In a dry bowl, sift flour with baking powder and cocoa powder.

Take the dry mix and now add it to the wet chocolate beet and electric mix until a batter forms. Don’t be alarmed, this batter will seem pretty runny but it will bake very dense and moist, you’ll see…:)

Take 2 9in cake pans and butter it up or as I did, coat pans with a coconut oil spray. Fill each pan about 3/4 full or even a little more, just be careful not to fill it to the rim. Bake for 40 minutes at 325* (no peeking and no over baking!)

After 40 minutes, take out and allow to cool. Once cool, remove from cake pan and spread ganache on top. Take the reserve hazelnuts, cut them in half and top away!

This cake will be a hit for the holiday festivities this year. Its deep, its rich and best of all it utilizes what’s in season and local. The thick chocolaty flavor exploding hazelnut puts the panache in this ganache!  If you really want to splurge, I recommend pairing this cake with a dessert wine like Banyuls or a Tawny Port. Cheers!

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