Curious Appetite

vegetables

Sweet facts about 5 bitter Italian foods

I love bitters. Bitters are so insanely good for you, it’s ridiculous. What do I mean by bitters? Well, there are bitter elixirs that go into craft cocktails like Manhattans and then there are foods and drinks with bitter components. Like coffee, wine and tea.  Foods with bitter components are things like kale, chard, cabbages, some citrus fruits, hearty lettuces, etc.

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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

Healthy, Easy Fall inspired Quiche.

The incredible edible egg. You can boil, fry, bake, poach, baste, whip, even froth an egg into just about 12 million recipes. Did you know they are used in some cocktails AND thought to be the perfect protein? Sorry vegans. If its any consolation, my eggs come from a happy local farm where I know I am always welcome to look the chicken in its beady eye and make sure they aren’t bluffing.

Quiche are unusually easy to make, especially if you prefer not to mess about with a homemade crust, which is also easy. But lets be honest, you might be busy and a store bought crust may be your time efficient option. Mine too. It helps that Wholly Wholesome makes spelt flour pie shells wholly delish.

Quiche is also great for putting left over veggies and eggs for a hearty week-long supply of a good thing. I put leeks,heirloom garlic, fennel root, heirloom tomatoes, broccoli and sharp cheddar in mine. To make it health(ier) minded, I only used 2 whole eggs and 4 egg whites.

Here’s my stuff:

1 small leek, cut in discs

2 cloves crushed/chopped garlic

1 cup sliced fennel root

1 cup slightly (like 2 minutes) steamed broccoli florets

2 small heirloom tomatoes (I used a zebra and a brandyvine)

1/2 cup (or more if you’re cheesy:) of shredded sharp cheddar

butter and olive oil for pan

cumin, paprika, a dash of fresh cracked coriander and plenty fresh cracker pepper

optional: 1/2 sweet onion

Method: Saute’ the leeks and chopped garlic in olive oil and butter for a good 2 minutes on medium/med-low. I love cooking with a little butter and a little olive oil. This is not only for obvious flavor reasons, but also because olive oil alone burns easily. And I think food is too heavy cooked just in butter. Happy compromise.

Okay…so after 2 minutes add the fennel root. While thats cooking down, slice and chop tomatoes and drain out as much liquid and seeds as possible. The broccoli can steam in a rice cooker (granted yours came with the extra attachment) for about 2 minutes. Slice the florets down the middle.

3 minutes or a couple more may have passed by now so add the tomatoes, broccoli and your spices of choice (or mine) and let that merge together for a few minutes. Be mindful as to not overcook, all this with some egg is going in the oven next.

Once this veggie mix is ready…

…pour it evenly into the pie crust.

In a largish bowl, whisk 2 eggs and 4 egg whites OR 1 cup of egg whites (you can get just egg whites at almost any grocery store) with the grated cheese. Then pour the egg/cheese mixture over your veggie quiche filling!

You can bake this with or without a foil cover, I baked without. Leave this in the oven for about 30mins at 375 and you should get something that looks a lil like this:

If you want the cheese to be a little browned, put this under the broiler for a few minutes.

This is yummy, the leeks and garlic really dress the veggies well (and who can argue about the affinity cheddar has with broccoli?) And best of all, its semi-guilt-free! This pie is packed with quality  protein, B-vitamins, fiber, free-radical scavenging antioxidants, healthy fats, minerals (sure, why not?) and has a slow burning glycemic load.

Made in advance, this quiche can provide an energizing (and tasty) blood-sugar friendly breakfast or lunch for at least 4-5 days.

At dinner, it would be complete with a glass of bright, citrus, melon and minerally white wine such as a Riesling, Muscadet or go all out with the bubbly. If you really need some Vitamin C, go ahead and make a mimosa with the bubbly:)

And get creative! Come up with your own fillings and enjoy the convenience and comfort of some QUICHE!

Sunshine on the mindful appetite- Lunch @cafefloraveg

Today was one of the glorious sunny fall days that make Seattle worth living in- and Cafe Flora is a great spot to be indoors when choosing to eat-in. It is full of open windows and cozy rooms, one with an actual flowing fountain as if vegging out in the whimsical garden of vegetarian bliss,  and you could bask in its gastronomic glory (and sun) for hours.

I used to always think of Cafe’ Flora as the restaurant for people who wanted to be vegetarian or vegan on the week-ends, as its menu is exclusively vegetarian and vegan, now w/ many gluten-free options. And it used to always seem like a heavily fakon’ bakon soy imitation kind of novelty place. Well, that was over 5 years ago and its menu has diversified to celebrate the beauty of vegetables, not its imitation meat inventions.

 

I was in for lunch. And boy was it yummy. (and sunny)

This was their Lentil Pate Platter w/ In-House Pickles Veggies (including purple cauliflower, beets, red peppers and of course a cuke), Marinated Olives, a Raspberry confit, crisp sweet tarty sliced (I bet local honeycrisp) apples to finish and daggered with these crispy olive oily sea salt Panzanella Croccanti (crackers). ====== $9 ====== best gourm-deal of 2010.

The lentil Pate was as you would expect, creamy yet grainy, sticky, lentily, rich and delicious. Perfect pair of Croccanti dagger crackers to schmear with.

You would think that I suffered a salt-lick coma from all the pickledness, but everything was pleasantly unbriney and full punched with flavor. Good crispage concerning the pickledge and good meaty herby olives. as I was soaking in sun in our greenhouse-like room, I saw a waitress take a sandwich board in the back that said “Happy Hour.” And that’s when I’ll be back.

Cafe’ Flora, thank you for showcasing palatable gourmet veggie plates for those of us who would like to be vegetarian on the week-end, or at lunchtime =)

PAIR

Pair is a little nook in the almost Wedgewood, nearly underrated, neighborhood of Seattle.  It’s perched on a steepish hill with a tender view of a local cemetery.  The inside decor is nicely inviting, with a picnic table-like set-up and a cozy bar area where this dinner was nested.  Pair is trying to be the neighborhood date and foodie joint with an emphasis on a locally sourced, euro-inspired seasonal menu and strategically paired quality wines that the average person would never be able to pronounce.

The house white was an Italian Pinot Grigio and the red was a Montepulciano.  Eh, pretty basic.  I thought it was strange that the house wines were imports, and this joint is claiming to have a bleeding local heart.  I did eventually move up to a menu merlot/cab/syrah wine from Walla Walla that blew my socks off. Talk about delicious! Very fruity spicy and equipped with a thick body. We ordered a cheese plate along with our 3 small plates and the server asked if we wanted the cheese plate before or after the plates. And what a concept! Duh, right? Clean your palate (and surrogate your sweet tooth) with some yummy cheeses and red wine AFTER a ton of complex flavors.  

Sauteed Chard with sliced carrots, raisins and pine nuts.

Nill ingredients of which seem local. Ok, maybe the chard. But last time i checked pine nuts came from china and raisins probably from a box. Sorry im being nit-picky but if you’re gonna call yourself a locally sourced restaurant then make a little more sense. You could have used hazelnuts and cherries and ditched the carrots, actually it was like 2 pieces of sliced carrot that seemed way too robust to be from WA, as our growing season has been lame due to equally LAME temps.  The plate was OK. I could have made it better myself, by adding a lil pepper and cumin and maybe even truffle salt. For a whole lot less than 9 dollars. It was certainly anti-climatic for foodie expectations.

Manila Clams w/ Salumi Guanciale and large cannellini beans.

Ok, so Guanciale is pork cheek and Salumi is the brand that Pair sourced its Guanciale (aka THE Seattle salumeria). I thought this was going to be really unique since Guanciale has a very delicate yet porky smokey bacony melt in your mouth kind of feel. But there were like 3 pieces in the whole thing which seemed more like pancetta than guanciale and the clams were too chewy. The broth was pretty mediocre, it was as if some boxed chicken stock was poured over already boiled clams and then cooked some more. Maybe threw some sage in there to throw the eater off. The only redeeming quality were the beans. They were cooked perfectly and absorbed all the flavors of the Guanciale and Clam juices very nicely.  I liked making a little wrap of Guanciale a bean and a clam. When all nestled together, it made the dish worth while, left to their own devices: boring.

Potato Leek Gratin.  My favorite dish.

But you really can’t screw up a Gratin unless you really burn everything and even toast. Its potatoes baked with olive oil (sometimes butter) gruyere cheese and breadcrumbs, how is that not good? AND with Leeks? Delicious! But also the least seasonal and local of the bunch. Ok, maybe the potatoes were local.  Keyword: WERE,  from last season.  Nevertheless, a potato bake with heavy cream and cheese should never be a seasonally offered (advertised) plate in the summer, even if I am wearing my cable knit sweater at night here in the PNW. It was fantastic though, gruyere very creamy and gooey, breadcrumbs fried baked in the plate’s natural oils and buttery firm yet tender potatoes. NOT atkins friendly by any means.

The highlight of  the night was the 3 cheese plate. It came adorned with julienned dates with walnuts and a tiny tub of (i hope) local honey.

PAIR

Le Bleu des Basques- A blue veined cows Basque cheese wedge.  It was pretty creamy, bluey, more sweet than spice. Firm and not crumbly. Cream indeed. Paired greatly when dipped with honey and crunched in a walnut.

Caprifeuille- This was a delightful almondy french goat chevre. Pretty firm, a lot of goat chevres crumble and seem too chalky to me, the firmness indicated to me good quality cheesemaking, with attention to moisture details. The cheese also didn’t have that gamey “barty” waft to it most goat cheese have, which also is a check plus for artisanship. I read in Edible Seattle that the gamey, they call “Barty”, aroma is actually pheromones produced by does in the presence of billy goats, a good cheese maker knows to separate the boys and girls for milking season.

Aragonès- A spanish washed rind cow/sheep milk hybrid. It was sooooo good, pretty firm and slicable witha nutty sweet cream sheepy finish.

Verdict: If you live in this neighborhood, you don’t have much choice for fine dining and as long as you don’t mind the view of the cemetery you got your self a descent dinner spot. I wouldn’t recommend coming to this place more than once if you are coming from cooler foodie friendly quarters of this emerald city. Its good that Wedgewood has a nook for good wines and cheeses (that are mostly French) and a good back-up of creative (so called local) small plates that you yourself can then go home and probably make better at home. In your very own, local kitchen.