The Weekend List 11/27/11

The week of Thanksgiving is always a strange one, working wise. But this year, we had the incredible treat of being guests at Emily’s parent’s house for turkey day. Amazing. Lots of family, lots of love and of course, lots of food and two words: glow sticks.

–An intriguing article by Thomas Madrecki in The Atlantic about working for six weeks in the kitchen of the world’s best restaurant, NOMA. Located in Copenhagen, Denmark, NOMA voted voted the best two years in a row. In our recent trip to Copenhagen, not being able to dine at NOMA is my only regret. Excuse to go back? I particularly like this passage:

At Noma and at other top restaurants, anything but striving for complete and total perfection is a disgrace. And to be frank, it is still a disgrace even outside of those top kitchens. The lesson here is just as simple as having a sense of urgency: Don’t bother doing anything but your best. Don’t half-ass anything. It’s either perfect — or it’s not.

Led by chef Rene Pedzepi, NOMA perfects Nordic gourmet cuisine while keeping the traditional cooking methods of the region. A reviewer from Scotland had this to say about the restaurant. “I could very quickly run out of superlatives attempting to describe our meal experience at Noma! For me, it was quite simply the best meal I have ever eaten.” Not too shabby.

Buttz BBQ in Charlottesville. I knew the restaurant existed and I knew about its reputation around town—and was the runner-up of C-VILLE Weekly’s BBQ contest, but I never actually took the time to go to The Corner district and try it out. Big mistake. The pulled pork platted was the best I’ve ever had: the right amount of juiciness and spice with a nice and lasting smoky flavor. I am not lover of super spicy foods, so I went with their Texas BBQ sauce, a sweet addition to my already delicious pork. After reading the owners’ explanation of their product, I like them even more.

We aren’t pros… just guys that love BBQ.  We are not your traditional Memphis, Texas, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ.  In fact, we’ve combined the best of all regions into OUR BBQ.

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–Currently on my nightstand: Tender at the bone by Ruth Reichl. I giddily enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – the trials and tribulations of a food critic, so I didn’t think twice about picking this up. It’s so fascinating to read of Reichl’s difficult relationship with her mother (The Queen of Mold),  her early encounter with French gourmet cuisine via a classmate in Montreal, Canada and her escapades (which somehow end up being  always food related)  as a summer camp counselor in the French countryside. Can’t wait to read on.

Bon Appetit magazine cookie spread. It’s so unbelievably amazing. This particular page is of Peppermint meringues and cardamon crescents, but the spread includes Cherry pistachio nougat, chocolate macaroons with orange ganache, almond-oat lace cookies, butterscotch blondie bars, lemony slice-and-bakes, and chewy ginger cookies. I have plenty to choose from for this year’s Cookie Exchange!

The Weekend List 11/20/11

What a week! And Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, Francesco and I will be spending la festa del ringraziamento (Thanksgiving in Italian) with our good friends Emily, Rick and Emily’ family in Northern Virginia. I am very excited to try an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner. For my part, I’ve decided to delve into dessert –Torta Caprese, which has nothing to do with Caprese salad, although they originate from the same region, Campania (Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast…). The Torta Caprese is a decadent chocolate cake punctuated by hints of roasted almonds.

–The annual winter library sale is one of my favorite activities in Charlottesville. The city’s public library puts thousands and thousands of used and library books for sale. It was really no surprised that I went directly to the cookbook section. Who wouldn’t? After a couple of hours of perusing dusty and event ancient books, I settled with Julia Child by Laura Shapiro, a biography of the amazing Julia, and a cookbook of the cuisine of Emilia Romagna, the home of the original and still best Parmigiano Reggiano. First recipe that caught my eye? Parmesan Cheese Ice Cream. I kid you not. Mind=blown.

–Tons of reading was done this week….because there was a lot of reading to do! The New Yorker Food Issue (more on this in a later post) came out, the second issue of David Chang’s Lucky Peach (look out for a post soon) and my usual bedtime reading schedule. After listening to this Fresh Air interview on NPR with journalist Barry Eastabrook about his latest work, Tomatoland, I was intrigued. Tomatoland is Eastabrook’s detailed and shocking investigation of the complete destruction of America’s tomato agriculture and the abuse of its workers.

“Worker were ‘sold’ to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by arm guards.”

Makes you think twice about buying tomatoes, doesn’t it? I’m only half way through the book and I believe this quote won’t be the only one that makes my arm hair stand up.

— The Associated Press reported that the Locally Grown business is a much more lucrative business model then previously thought…to the tune of $4.8 billion in 2008 and an estimated $7 billion this year. It’s a good thing that Charlottesville has a bustling farmers market, one that was voted 14th best in the nation. I am all for locally grown, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could all have a vegetable garden in our backyards? Food for thought.

Happy Sunday everybody!

The Weekend List 11/12/11

I’ve decided that this weekend is going to be pure relax. After the week I’ve had, all I need is time to actually think. Tuesday was election day in Charlottesville and as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, my day—and the week leading up to voting day—was consumed by all things political. Not that I mind. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy following the day-to-day of local government and I have to admit, I loved live tweeting (is that how you write it???) from the polls—140 characters of pure spontaneity, and you can read my work twitter feed here. That said, here is the list.

–As you may know, I am an obsessive fan of Top Chef. I’ve followed the show since its first season when Harold took the prize home. Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Top Chef Texas finally hit the airwaves with a slightly new format (on-the-spot eliminations…and the Bubble Room!) and two new judges: Emeril (bam!) and Hugh Acheson of Top Chef Masters fame. What I love most about this show is the competitiveness of each contestant, their quirkiness and loud mouths…and let’s be honest, head judge Tom Colicchio. He is not kidding around, especially this season.

–Thanksgiving issues. I always look forward to the monthly arrival of my favorite food magazines: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and the always impressive Real Simple. This month, unsurprisingly, they are all about creating the most perfect Thanksgiving feast. Being Italian and all, I have never really celebrated this particular holiday. Sure, I’ve gone to dinner where turkey was served, but really never tried to do it myself. Of the three, this month’s favorite is Food & Wine mainly because they touched on all some of my favored things: Southern food, Dave Matthews, how to make chicken stock and David Chang.

–Florence Fabricant’s “The lost art of buying from a butcher” piece in the New York Times. My parents used to regularly buy meat from the butcher when my brother and I were youngsters. I still remember entering the shop and being amazed by how knowledgeable was the person behind the counter. My mom or my dad would tell him what they intended on cooking and he would direct them to the best and most appropriate cut of meat. Since moving to the U.S., and Los Angeles to be more specific, I’ve lost that. Charlottesville is home to The Organic Butcher, an amazing resource of good and hearty meat. I guess I’ll be stopping by more often.

Buying some pork or most other meats is not as simple or as cheap as picking out an apple. Do not tweet your friends for advice; consult the butcher.

–All things Anthony Bourdain. After reading both Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw and seeing his show with chef Eric Ripert, I decided I can’t get enough of him. It’s true what they say…you either love Tony, or you hate him. I definitely fall into the love category: his sarcasm, crass, ego, loud mouth. All of it. I consider it a breath of fresh air. While waiting for his new show, The Layover to premiere in a couple of weeks, here are some interesting Q&A that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Happy weekend!

Food Reads: My article on healthy school lunches in Charlottesville

Charlottesville City schools to add fresh recipes, work towards centralized kitchen

The movement to bring more from-scratch meals to Charlottesville City Schools is alive and well.

One year after Charlottesville Cooking School owner Martha Stafford designed a black bean and brown rice taco recipe for school lunch menus, the meal is in rotation and recipes for hummus and granola are in the works. To make the process more efficient, the school administration is ready to support the creation of a centralized kitchen for the entire district.

The caveat? The reality of a central kitchen is contingent upon the district’s middle school overhaul, which began last year.
Jim Henderson, assistant superintendent for administration services, said the administration is still “in the process” of presenting the school board and City Council with a recommendation to renovate Buford Middle and Walker Elementary schools. Once approved and funded, the design process will begin.

Martha Stafford, director of the Charlottesville Cooking School, says a central kitchen for city schools will help ensure “a consistent, flavorful product.” (Image)

“We are excited to move forward with that,” he said. Henderson added that if the project falls through, “then we will begin looking at our own kitchens and making sure to continue cooking good foods.”

Henderson says a central kitchen could help streamline cooking processes and add more fresh recipes to the menus.
“I think with a central kitchen we can do a better job of training staff, a better use of space, a better use of labor, a better use of making sure that when we bring in local produce, we have the appropriate space to do everything,” he said.

Stafford says a central kitchen will also help improve the quality of the food.

“It’s important when introducing new and fresher food that it be a consistent, flavorful product,” said Stafford. A butternut squash soup she created for the wintertime, for instance, didn’t pass taste tests and ultimately did not make its way to school menus.

Behind the movement’s success is City Schools Dietician Alicia Cost—who along with Nutrition Services Coordinator Sandra Vasquez, received the Trailblazer Award from the Local Food Hub and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Cost has worked tirelessly to get even more produce and local, grass-fed beef into the schools’ kitchens at a price that satisfies the school system’s budget.

“We are still talking with the Local Food Hub and local beef growers to find an acceptable price point of what we can pay, what they pay and trying to figure out how to fit it into our food cost per meal,” she said.

The current price per meal in city schools ranges from $0.85 to around $1.05, plus labor. Students can purchase lunch for $2 in elementary schools and $2.25 in middle and high schools. Both prices increased 25 cents over last year’s cost to students.

For now, no matter the price tag, the goal remains the same. “We are going to continue engaging students and listening to them react to different recipes and maybe survey them more…and really try to put a healthy twist on everything we introduce to them and try to stretch their taste buds,” said Cost.

First appeared on C-VILLE Weekly’s website. For the original story, click here.

Food Reads: 10 Best Food & Wine European Cities (according to TripAdvisor)

I love these lists! TripAdvisor listed the top 10 best European cities for food and wine. Out of 10, 5 are Italian cities. (Though I am just a bit disappointed that Milano is not featured…remember our dish de force?)

WE RULE. Period.

1. FIRENZE

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One surprising thing about Firenze’s food is its bread…no salt! They call it il pane brutto, the ugly bread, but there is nothing ugly, or wrong, about a oven baked loaf of unsalted bread. Oh, and don’t forget the perfect steak, la Fiorentina, thick and juicy.

3. ROMA

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La porchetta, freshly roasted sliced porkloin that can be eaten both cold and warm, is a staple of Rome and a favorite of Francesco. When in Rome, do as the Romans do…eat pounds and pounds of porchetta.

4. SORRENTO

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In the Campania region, where Sorrento is located, one cannot decide what to call its standalone dish. There are too many. First, the mozzarella….fresh Buffalo mozzarella and juicy grape tomatoes make for an unbelievable Caprese salad; the limoncello liquor made from fresh, sunny bathed lemons and all kinds of delicious and fresh seafood.

6. SIENA

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Wild board, salami, pork…that’s the strength of Siena. And the biscuits…almond paste with vanilla. YUM.

7. BOLOGNA

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Ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, ragu’ alla Bolognese…there is so much to choose from!

What is your favorite Italian dish? The most surprising? The craziest? I’d love to know!

New Project: Raspberries and Ruminations

Few months ago, a group of women got together and brainstormed about ways to marry the mutual love of food, books, reading and writing. It didn’t take them too long to come up with a solution called Raspberries and Ruminations. (www.raspberriesandruminations.com)

Yes, I’m one of the women and yes, I can’t seem to get away from food blogs. I love it. Through Raspberries and Ruminations, we chronicle our successes with family recipes and our failures with new ingredients. It’s a bit like Top Chef—competitions…but less catty—but more importantly, it’s a venue to express what it is about food that makes us want to turn into professional chefs. Food is life and life with food is divine.

It is so fitting that my first entry was about risotto. Check is out and set back, relax and enjoy the new ride.

Risotto for life

I don’t really know what it is about risotto that makes me giddy. It may be the shape— a nice, friendly oval-shaped grain (or how we say it in Italy, chicco), or it may be color—pearly white (who wouldn’t like that?), but risotto is special for the memories it carries. I didn’t learn how to cook properly until I was in my 20s and even now, the results are at most amateurish (I still can’t bake decent cookies). What I have spent my entire life doing is observing family members move in the kitchen, juggle pots and pans, measuring ingredients, tasting obscure sauces and making risotto: Risotto this way, risotto that way, risotto prepared by one aunt, risotto made by my grandmother. It was a risotto-filled adolescence. Not that I minded. I love me some creamy rice.

Before I get too wrapped up in my melancholic story, I must say that risotto is staple of the regional cuisine of Northern Italy, where I was born. Risotto alla milanese, or risotto from Milan, is probably one of my first food memories. It’s a very simple and humble dish: rice, saffron, broth and Parmesan cheese, but it resembles my heritage, my childhood, my identity.

I think about my grandmother Pierina at the kitchen stove, stirring a big pot of rice and broth. If I close my eyes, I can still see her –  her strong arms stirring and stirring and stirring and stir some more, only the occasional taste test would interrupt that action. She would pout, she would smile and she would stir.

Nowadays, I love preparing risotto, but I use a pressure cooker, which cuts the time in half. If my grandma finds out I am cutting corners with food, she would get really upset. Ah, conveniences, she would probably say. Even my aunt Rosanna, an incredibly skilled and fearless cook, uses a very old pot to make risotto and she would never be caught with a pressure cooker. She says the years of that pot add to the deliciousness of the risotto, and in fact, she has cooked the best risotto I have ever eaten and that I have tried to replicate for our first suppah club challenge.

So, in honor of my mom Patrizia, aunt Rosanna, great-aunt Cesarina and grandmas Pierina and Rachele, I give you risotto with saffron and sausage.

Risotto with saffron and sausage

INGREDIENTS: (serves 4 people)

  • 1 packet of Arborio rice
  • 3 fresh pork Kielbasa sausages
  • 2 packets of Italian saffron
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • 5 cups of chicken broth
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 table spoons of extra virgin olive oil

PREPARATION:

The first thing is to add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a pot (I use a pressure cooker but any pot will do). Dice the garlic cloves and add them to the pan. Roast the garlic in the oil for about 3 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the sausages. De-case them and cut them into little pieces. Once the garlic is nice and golden, drop the sausages into the pan and let them cook for about 5 minutes. Add the white wine and the saffron, stir until the saffron evenly coats the contents and let them cook for about 5 more minutes.

Add the rice – with Arborio rice, there is no need to wash it, so it’s ready to go right our of the box. Stir the rice and the sausages until the rice is well coated with saffron (a nice orange color). At this point, add the chicken broth. To make a creamy risotto, add more liquid to the pot (as a rule of thumb, the liquid should cover the rice and sausages) and cook it, stirring often, for 25 minutes. Here is where the pressure cooker comes handy. Once I add the chicken stock, I close the lid and let it do its things for 10 minutes. It’s that easy.

Once the risotto is nice and creamy, plate it and add some Parmigiano Reggiamo and, if you want to be a bit fancy, a bit of fresh Italian parsley. Buon Appetito!

Food reads: Is cooking school worth it?

I have been fantasizing about going to culinary school for a while now and I don’t mean any cooking school in the United States, but the renowned Le Cordon Blue in Paris. Just like Julia Child. Who wouldn’t want that kind of relationship with food? I want romance, I want adventure. I certainly have met people who have gone to culinary school and cringe when I tell them that I’d love to follow in their tracks. “It’s not easy,” they say. It’s a lot of work, the teaching chefs are usually jerks and it’s becoming harder to find a well-paying job even after potential employers see the shiny diploma. That’s a major buzz kill.

Ah, beautiful Paris…. {Image}

Apparently, they are absolutely right. According to this TIME article, culinary schools now charge up to $30,000 a year and most students struggle to find work other than line cooking. More than 800 current and former students are involved in a class action suit against Le Cordon Blue in Pasadena, California, for… basically selling false hope.

So, I ask you, are cooking schools worth it? The article even takes it a step further.

Are creative careers like cooking, fashion design and even journalism best learned by going to school or by getting your foot in the door and training on the job?

That’s a very  interesting question since I did go to journalism school. Could have I learned my skills on the job? Probably, but it’s the finessing of those skills that I learned in J-school; it’s the opportunity to learn about new media and dipping my feet into print, TV and radio journalism. I do admit that with food, however, the argument is a bit different. The newly minted cult of celebrity chefs has made going to school almost obsolete: If you have a computer, a camcorder and at least some cooking skills (well, not really… Food Network has a show called Worst Cooks in America), you are good to go. Maybe we should go back to working hard and doing things the right way. Just a thought.

Food reads: Slate’s take on best food show on TV (and I agree)

There is so much trash food TV around these days that it has become almost impossible to pick the freshest programs from the stale and boring ones.

Jennifer Reese writes in Slate that the best food show on TV is America’s Test Kitchen—by the staff of Cooks Illustrated magazine—on PBS. Yes! Hands down the most informative, creative and well-made food show around. Not that I would ever call myself an expert, but I happen to live in a city that got hammered with foot over foot of snow for two years in a row and what did I do for hours during those wintery weekends? I was glued to the TV. We couldn’t drive anywhere and I resorted to spending my waking hours salivating over meals I would probably never going to be able to make. And that’s the problem. As Reese states in the article,

If you’ve ever turned on the Food Network or Cooking Channel, you know that cooking shows circa 2011 are as much circus acts as culinary tutorials. Just about every Food Network star has a shtick, often accompanied by a signature hair style. Paula Deen is the zany Georgia matron with the silver mane. Guy Fieri: frat boy with the Rod Stewart mop. Anne Burrell: saucy chef with the Phyllis Diller shag.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Nowadays, food shows concentrate more on how good you will look in your friends’ eyes by cooking elaborate meals rather than actually learning why garlic works better than onions in a risotto (well, that’s actually a preference of mine, but I’d like to think that it’s true!), or that fresh ingredients are ALWAYS a better choice than canned or processed ones. Ehm, ever heard of Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade? Take this Wild Mushroom Dip recipe: a package of dry wild mushrooms, a can of condensed mushroom soup, a package of cream cheese and a few other things. Really? I wouldn’t get near this so-called dip.

And then there is Giada De Laurentiis. I like her, I really do, it’s just  that when she overemphasizes and over-pronounces every Italian word, I want to duck my head in the sand. But there is no denying that her recipes are approachable and very Italian. Paula Deen is a pleasure to watch (I really, really love her), but not for her food….have you seen the amount of butter she adds to all her recipes? Insane. I feel I gain weight just watching her doing her magic in the kitchen.

TV is tough work, I am sure, but if we want to inform and educate people, we should look for good, sound, healthy recipes to share with the public and not promote unhealthy shortcuts. We are all busy, I get it, but a homemade pizza dough takes 15 minutes. I promise.

So, do yourself a favor and watch  America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

Lessons from Julia Child

We have a bit of Julia Child in all of us. What I love most about Mrs. Child is her fervent humor (witty and pointed). While I was reading My Life in France, her book with Alex Prud’Homme, I began thinking about my own food related memories and heritage. I grew up in a family of excellent and inventive cooks—mom is a champ baker (her crostata is to die for) and dad is an unafraid alchemist, mixing ingredients and revising recipes without a hint of anxiety. I have only recently rediscovered the sheer pleasure in making a meal from start to finish. Pity. In college, I relied on Ramen instant noodles, processed, really-bad-for me, so-called food. Sure, I’d add in the ever-present pasta dish. Sad. It was only when I began cooking for two that I realized I needed to get over myself and learn how to cook properly. Hence, my infatuation with Julia.

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Interestingly enough, Julia Child is not well-known in Italy. I actually never heard of her before moving to the United States some 10 years ago. Is the never-ending feud/rivalry between Italy and France to blame? Not sure, but I am disappointed to have met Mrs. Child so late in the game.

I am a romantic at heart and I found the book melancholic, but exciting at the same time. From Julia and Paul’s arrival to Paris in the Blue Flash, their oversize, very American Buick, to their farewell to France many years later, I was transported back in time. Reality seemed to stop, at least for me. I have been to Paris before (it is my favorite place on earth), but I would give anything to go back and see it through Julia Child’s eyes; to navigate the streets of the city of lights with her, a braccetto, cheerfully stopping at our favorite butcher to pick up the ingredients for the glorious Boeuf Bourguignon.

Needless to say, I ordered Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After dreaming about Julia’s life and kitchen in their first grandiose apartment in Paris, I was hooked. The recipes’ butter content is something I will need some time and training adapting to…but I will try anything once. I’ve always wanted to master the art of brioche making and now I have my chance. No more excuses. Until next time, Bon Appetit! (Image)


Potatoes don’t keep you slim. I’m doomed!

Image: The Washington Post

It turns out, potatoes are bad if you want to keep a Slim Jim figure. Deep inside the busy neurons in my brain, I’ve always known—good things typically harm you in some way….like a pair of succulent Christian Louboutin: bad for feet (have you seen those heels?) and worse for your wallet—but hell, they are delicious!

Rob Stein writes in the Washington Post that a study done at Harvard followed participants in intervals of four years and observed their diet and weight change over time.

Within each period, the subjects gained an average of 3.35 pounds. Every additional daily serving of potatoes pushed up the scale by more than a pound every four years. As expected, the type of potato, however, was important. Every order of french fries put on 3.35 pounds; a snack of potato chips added 1.69. But even each helping of boiled, baked or mashed potatoes contributed a little more than a half-pound.

Yikes. I consume a disproportionate amount of potatoes (as I am writing this, I am shamefully eating a mediocre cheesy potato soup)… chips, fries, broiled, baked, smashed, roasted, oven roasted, on the grill…you name it, I’ve tried it. But it doesn’t end here:

Many people might also be surprised that every extra serving of refined grains, such as white bread, added 0.39 pounds — almost as much as indulging in some sweets or desserts.

Ah! What am I going to do? My entire regimen is based on bread-y things. Have you ever gone to an Italian restaurant where they do not serve bread? Thought so. I love bread, I really do. I can eat a whole baguette in one sitting, by myself.

At last, the good news. Yogurt, it turns out, has actually helped people lose weight or keep it off. Sucks for me because I am slightly lactose intolerant, but never despair! Next on the “good” list is nuts. Those I actually adore, so from now on, I am going to snack on trail mixes, something I used to do and have, some for obscure reason, stopped doing cold turkey.

So, since I am known to occasionally dive into processed food heaven, I hereby challenge myself to diversify my intake of fruits and veggies and minimize that of potatoes. And bread, although the latter is a much bigger deal.