Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Breakfast Radishes with Bagna Cauda


I found a gorgeous bunch of French breakfast radishes at the farmer's market. Breakfast radishes are globe shaped, not quite as spicy as the round red radishes, and have an elegant white tip. And they are crunchy. NY Magazine had a recipe for the so-called Coco Chanel of radishes with bagna cauda, a hot oil bath with garlic and anchovies. Simple, but elegant.

Curious about a vegetarian version of bagna cauda, a quick Google search convinced me that a mixture of kalamata olives and capers could be used to create a similar salty, briny flavor as anchovies. You gently heat oil with garlic, red chili flakes, kalamata olives, and capers and warm it slowly until the garlic falls apart and the oil is scented. I recommend starting with a tablespoon of each and then adjusting the amount to taste. If using anchovies instead of olives and capers, cook over low heat until anchovies are dissolved. When used as a dipping oil, bagna cauda is sometimes served in a fondue pot over a candle alongside crusty bread, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, and peppers. It is a great way to get guests together and mingle!

For this dish I drenched the breakfast radishes with bagna cauda and serving it as an hors d’oeuvre. You can spoon the radishes with oil on to a slice of crusty bread. Use remaining bread to soak up the remaining olive oil mixture. There won't be a drop left!

Breakfast Radishes with (Vegetarian) Bagna Cauda
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp red chili flakes
3-4 large cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp minced kalamata olives
1 tbsp capers, crushed with the back of a spoon
1 bunch breakfast radishes

In a medium sauté pan over low heat, add olive oil, crushed red pepper, crushed garlic, kalamata olives, and capers. Slowly cook for 8-10 minutes. The garlic should fall apart but do not let it brown.

Remove stems from radishes and halve lengthwise. Transfer to serving bowl. Pour the bagna cauda over the top and gently toss. Serve immediately with crusty bread.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pea Tendrils, English Peas, Pea Shoots, and Watercress Salad


On an unusually sunny and hot day in Chicago, I met a girlfriend for lunch at the beloved Cafe Spiaggia. Appropriately I ordered the perfect springtime lunch: pea tendrils, English peas, pea shoots, and watercress in a lemon mint vinaigrette and asparagus soup with crescenza cheese and shaved parmigiano reggiano. So fresh and delicious!

It was my first time having fresh pea tendrils as I previously only had them sautéed in butter and garlic as a side dish. I loved the tenderness of the tendrils and the distinctively sweet pea flavor.

During a recent visit to Green City Farmer's Market, I was extremely excited to come across pea tendrils and pea shoots. I knew at once I had to recreate the pea salad from Cafe Spiaggia (and the asparagus soup too, but I will save that for a later post).

Naturally I bought way too much at the farmer's market and just had to throw an impromptu dinner party. The next several posts will be based on the dinner menu:

pea tendrils, English peas, pea shoots, and watercress in a meyer lemon mint vinaigrette
breakfast radishes with bagna cauda and crusty bread

orecchiette with Swiss chard, arugula, and mascarpone in a green garlic white wine sauce

rhubarb crisp with orange zest

Pea Tendrils, English Peas, Watercress Salad
1 bunch pea tendrils
8 oz English peas
1 bunch watercress
1 Meyer lemon, juiced
1 tsp zest of Meyer lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp mint leaves, chiffonade
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Pecorino romano

Use pea tendrils and pea shoots within a few days of purchasing as they lose their sweetness and toughen quickly.  Refrigerate the tendrils and shoots in a plastic bag and be sure not to crush the bag. Discard the thick, larger stems of the pea tendrils and use only tender parts.

In a small bowl, add juice of one Meyer lemon and its zest. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside.

Shell the peas. Bring water to a bowl in a small saucepan. Add peas, cook for 2 minutes. Remove peas with a slotted spoon and plunge into an ice bath until cooled. Drain and set aside.

Remove thick stalks of watercress, reserving the leaves and flowers.

In a large bowl, combine pea tendrils, pea shoots, watercress, and English peas. Toss gently with lemon vinaigrette and mint just before serving. Use a vegetable peeler, shave pecorino romano on top. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Alinea: The best meal I've ever had

In the spirit of celebrations, I had the wonderful opportunity to dine at Alinea.

I managed to get reservations 2 weeks in advance and informed the reservationist that I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian. She graciously took note, asking a few specific questions.

As I waited in anticipation, I tried not to let my expectations get out of control with all of the hype over the 7th best restaurant in the world.

Of course my expectations were out-of-this-world long before Alinea made an appearance in the top 10 restaurants in the world list. I have been dreaming about dining at Alinea ever since I read an article about Chef Grant Achatz's culinary genius entitled "The Alchemist: A Chef in Chicago wants to blow your mind" in the January 2007 issue of MIT's Technology Review.

And you, my dear readers, have heard me go on and on about Alinea's friendliness towards vegetarians, its numerous accolades, and Chef Achatz's next project.

I was afraid that I knew too much about Alinea before actually going. There is no shortage of discussion and praise about Alinea's unexpected combinations and illusions created using unusual cooking techniques and specially crafted serviceware. Or the use of no silverware needed presentations, the pillows filled with scented air, and the aromatic burning leaves.

With the first bite, I realized I knew nothing at all about Alinea. All theatrics and illusions aside, the food was the star. Each component was so well thought out and perfectly executed with impeccable attention to detail. By the end of the three hours, it became apparent that the process of innovation and refinement at Alinea was in a continuum.

The dishes appealed to the senses with variations in temperature, richness, texture, and aromas, often within the same course. The flavors were in such perfect harmony- some unexpected, some subtle, and some pronounced- the result was like a symphony slowly revealing itself in my mouth.

All I can do is wholeheartedly urge you to dine at Alinea if you are able to do so. It was worth every delectable dime, even if you are a vegetarian. And do the wine pairings.

Each wine is carefully selected to perfectly pair with the course. If you would rather have one or two glasses of wine, tell the sommelier and he will suggest three or four half glass pours that will pair with the courses. It would be a shame to choose an otherwise beautiful bottle of wine only to find that it overpowers or mellows the subtle flavors of a particular course.

For those who are interested, below is a rather long detailed description of our experience.

Giddy as ever, we arrived right on time and would've walked right past the unassuming gray building had it not been for the valet outside. We entered through dark gray doors into a funky long hallway with pink lighting, joking that we were about to enter the batcave!

I paused to take a picture, when suddenly, secret doors opened on the left leading to the restaurant.

Greeted by the hostess, we caught a glimpse of the pristine and surprisingly calm Alinea kitchen before climbing the floating stairs to the second level. Chef Achatz is in the background on the left, contemplating.

We were seated at a large, mahogany table in a sleek room with large modern art adorning the walls. Greeted by one of our many servers for the evening, the centerpiece- two flags made of chopsticks and rice paper- was brought to the table. She informed us that centerpiece was interactive and would be used in a later course.

The servers were knowledgeable and willing to discuss the specifics of a course. I was particularly impressed by the Sommelier, who shared just enough details to educate and incite excitement about a particular wine. When prompted, he enthusiastically answered questions and discussed particular pairings.

The wine service was outstanding. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to know how many courses a particular wine pairing should last. I found myself having to finish a wine a bit quicker than expected or with an empty glass a couple times.

The kitchen was transitioning from the Winter to the Spring 2010 menu, so we got to experience a few new dishes that I had not yet read about on the Alinea mosaic forum! These were interspersed with some of the famous Alinea dishes like hot potato and chocolate.

Below is a run down of each of the 12 courses and a few of the outstanding wine pairings.

ENGLISH PEA burrata, sherry, honeydew
The first course was a cup filled with creamy aerated frozen peas and blanched peas with an explosion of sherry wine, clear basil distillation, rich burrata cheese, olive oil jam, and a honeydew ball. Many ingredients were manipulated between recognition which added an element of surprise to every bite.

The sherry wine ball burst on the palate with a sweet, earthy acidity that cut through the creamy, rich, and salty peas. The honeydew added brightness and the honey granules added a lovely textural contrast to the dish.

Each bite presented a different combination of components, creating an intense and flavorful opening course. 

ARTICHOKE shallot, mustard, bay aroma
Artichokes, pickled raw shallot, and mustard encased in airy tempura batter skewered with an aromatic bay laurel, which also served as a utensil. The server instructed us to consume the tempura in a single bite after deeply inhaling the scent of the bay laurel.

The pungent and savory mustard cut the creamy texture of the artichoke, whetting the palate for the next courses. I was most impressed at how such complex flavors could be expressed by using only three ingredients.  

DISTILLATION of thai flavors
Served in a wine glass and clear as water. It smelled of peppery heat but tasted of lemon grass, lime, and salt. Intriguing.

There was a slight hiccup with the service when a new server brought the glass and described the flavors as fish sauce, lemongrass, and lime. He commented that the distillation served as a primer for next course and walked away.

Our previous server must have noticed the look on my face because he walked over and asked if everything was OK. I explained what the server said and asked whether the distillation had fish sauce. He assured me that it may have been described as such but the kitchen was aware of my dietary restrictions and the distillation did not contain fish sauce.

Although it turned out fine, I felt a bit awkward having to ask such a question because when I made the reservation, the reservationist asked me several detailed questions, including questions about stocks and fish sauce. And when we were seated, the initial server confirmed each of our dietary restrictions. This was the only service hiccup for the night.

CAULIFLOWER curry, cucumber, lime
The server brought out a tray with a spread of ingredients: lava salt, cucumber, fried garlic, bananas with curry, lime with zest, coconut shreds, red onion, red pepper sauce with cayenne, basil seed vinagrette, marigold garnish, and cashews.

We were requested to lift the glass tray, set it in front of us, remove the metal pieces nested in the wood platter, and interlock the pieces to assemble a hammock-like stand. The server gracefully lifted the rice paper with amrit flower and marigold from the centerpiece and placed it over the hammock, topping it off with curried cauliflower. We were then told to add as many or as few of the ingredients and roll it into a spring roll.

It was fun interacting with the food and the result was deliciously flavorful, with a beautiful mix of spicy, savory, and sweet flavors and balance of textures.

LEEK potato, radish, smoke
This was one of the most impressive courses. Leek set over dollops of potato and leek puree, radish slices, and crushed celery and parsley crouton, paired with a celery ribbon, crisp potato ribbon, and red apple gel ribbon with smoke flavors. The dish was garnished with chive drops, chive balons, and celery heart leaves. The red apple gel ribbon resembled a fruit roll up while the celery ribbon had a slight crunch and the potato ribbon was the crispiest. The textural contrast of the ribbons played well against the contrast of the puree, leek pieces, and crushed croutons.

The wine pairing was perfect: a bold Spanish white, Avanthia Godello Valdeorras. I was blown away by the level of intricacy and how each component artfully contributed to the complete dish. The presentation had beautiful continuity that translated into layering of flavors and textures in the mouth. 

SUNCHOKE rhubarb, lilac, fennel
Served in an apple bowl, the course had three parts, moving from cold to hot and increasing in richness. The wine for this course, Lucien Albrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace, also transformed from light to full bodied as it opened up over the three parts. I was extremely impressed with the pairing!

The first part of the dish was cold. Lilac and buttermilk parfait garnished with fennel flower, rhubarb pieces, orange zest, and chevril leaves served over chevril juice. The parfait had a great in the mouth feel. The components worked together to create a light, floral bouquet with subtle sweetness and clean herbaceous notes. It was instantly Spring.

The second part of the dish was warm. Two pieces of sunchoke with crushed almond coated avocado set in between, topped with bean sprouts, compressed rhubarb slices, fennel fronds and slices, a square of red pepper, and mustard seeds. The subtle but fragrant combination of the fennel and mustard seeds, reminded me of spices used in Indian cooking.

Finally, the last dish in the apple bowl was hot and incredibly rich. A thick glaçage of fennel and leek topped with rhubarb, sunchoke, cipolini onion, and an orange ball of fennel and star anise, all dusted with pink peppercorn skin and preserved lemon.

This three part course was my favorite savory dish. I loved the variation in temperature, intensity, and richness over the three parts. Each part had different presentations of rhubarb, fennel, and sunchoke that emphasized different flavors and textures. 

Then an ornate wine glass replaced the simple wine glass and gorgeous antique cutlery replaced the modern pieces.  Our server informed us that Chef Achatz wanted to introduce a purely classical Escoffier dish into Alinea's modern menu, thus we were switching to classic presentation in the middle of the modern sequence. The stage was set for the next course.


MAITAKE root vegetables
The vegetarian version of the Escoffier dish was maitake mushroom over salsify with champagne sauce, accompanied by potato topped with truffle, cipolini onion topped with crisp cilantro, and carrot topped with chervil.

Each component was precisely executed with focused flavors. And the wine pairing was phenomenal- Albert Morot Beaune Teurons 1er Cru-- excellent cherry fruit and balance, with good mineral flavors.

HOT POTATO cold potato, black truffle, butter
I had heard quite a bit about this dish before dining at Alinea. The dish was a play on temperature. A slice of truffle sprinkled with salt sat atop a hot potato speared with a needle holding a cube of butter, parmesan cheese, and a piece of chive. Everything delicately hung over a cold potato soup with truffle and butter, which added dimensionality to the dish.

We were told to pull the needle away from the bowl in order to let the items fall into the bowl, pinch the paraffin wax bowl slightly, and tip the dish into our mouths.

The contrast of different temperatures for the same ingredients was mind blowing and resulted in a rich, flavorful tasting. Because the dish was time sensitive, I quickly snapped picture which unfortunately came out blurry!

As you can see, the size and richness of each course varied, which I preferred to a strictly linear progression of courses from light to rich.

MOREL asparagus, orange, chamomile
This gentle dish highlighted ingredients that are sought after because of their brief availability, signifying the transition from Winter to Spring. White asparagus and morels set in a bath of chamomile foam, sherry broth, orange zest, and honey cubes.

Given my obsession with morels and my love for asparagus, I was instantly transported to a happy place. The dish was light, sweet, and savory.

EARL GREY lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
This dish was a play on tea and cookies. Lemon custard, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate with rose, pine nut brittle, fennel jam, rose pate de fruit, and earl gray crumbles with vanilla notes. The dish was served over a pillow containing earl grey aroma, and as we ate the perfumed tea aroma was released.

The dish had creamy, jammy, and crunchy textures. Rose pate de fruit was shattered and scattered throughout the early gray mix. The anise and rose notes were subtle and complemented the tea. The lemon added bright acidity, cutting through the rich white chocolate and custard. The sweetness of the white chocolate complemented the bitterness of the tea.

This was my favorite dessert. I can still taste the citrus, anise, and rose notes of the early gray.

CHOCOLATE coconut, menthol, hyssop
Reminiscent of a York peppermint patty, the dish had variation in temperature, texture, and consistency. Chewy coconut and frozen coconut mousse. Freeze dried chocolate mousse and warm chocolate mousse made from Valrhona chocolate. All accompanied by fluffy clouds of menthol cream, menthol chips, cocoa nibs, and anise hyssop.

It was crunchy, chewy, rich, light, hot, and cold, all of which contrasted with the minty, medicinal cool of menthol. Heavenly with the Ramos-Pinto 20 year Tawny Port.

BUBBLE GUM long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
The final course was presented in a tube and our server told us to take it one long go. It was whimsical and fun, but I must admit that I felt a bit ridiculous because consumption resulted in an audible slurping noise! I suppose Chef Achatz wants to show that fine dining can have a fun side too.

Honestly, the only flavor that I could identify was bubble gum with a tapioca like texture. It felt like an American take on bubble tea. The server informed us that the other components were crème fraîche, and hibiscus.

We were each given personalized menus listing the courses (including the vegetarian substitutions) and wine pairings. The layout of the menu is worth mentioning: the bigger the circle, the bigger the meal. And circles further to the left are more savory dishes, those to the right are more sweet.

Because we were there to celebrate a special occasion, our menus said Congratulations on top! It was a thoughtful touch to a most memorable meal. (After our meal at Cyrus, we were also given personalized menus with substitutions, wines, and our names written inside).

The three hour long tasting left us in awe and in complete reverence to Chef Achatz's culinary genius and creative vision. I felt similar emotions to those I have experienced in the Monet room at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I am inspired by the relentless dedication to achieve perfection in execution, constantly innovate, and push the limits to transform the familiar into a masterpiece.

1723 N. Halsted
Chicago, IL 60614

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wine: Caymus Special Selection

To celebrate a very special day with my family, I opened a bottle of wine that I had been saving for the very occasion, the 2006 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. How appropriate that the name (and the $150 price) of the wine calls for a special occasion.

But if we learned anything from Sideways, other than to never order Merlot, the night you open such a beautiful bottle is the special occasion.

I first tasted this wine at the Caymus vineyard in Napa a little over a year ago (see here for a detailed account of the trip), and it has to be one of the best Cabs I have ever tasted.

Showing more fruit than many of the other fine Napa Cabs, cassis and cola are integrated with spicy oak and tobacco undertones. Full bodied, focused, and well structured with some minerality. Persistent finish with a ton of fruit. Consistently an incredible wine, it is not surprising that the 2006 Caymus Special Selection earned 94 points from Wine Spectator.

Personally I prefer the Caymus Special Selection to some of the other big expressive Napa Cabs (Joseph Phelps Insignia, Dominus, Quintessa, etc) because of its focus on dark fruit. Although I do enjoy big, earthy wines, I appreciate the balance between fruit, spiced oak, soft tannins, and hints of tobacco and earthiness as compared to minimal fruit, high tannins, and pronounced tobacco, leather.

Image from K&L wines

I served the Caymus Special Selection with two cheeses from Fox & Obel: Mona, a blend of sheep and cow's milk from WI, and Chabrin, a goat's milk cheese from the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Mona is produced by the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. The firm cheese was sweet and nutty, with nice acidity, and a slightly aged texture.

 Mona, image from Cowgirl Creamery

Chabrin reminded me one of my favorite go-to cheeses, Ossau Iraty. It was aged and a little harder than most goat cheeses, with slightly sweet nuttiness balanced with saltiness, but still maintained its creamy texture. Both the Mona and the Chabrin paired beautifully with the cassis in the Caymus Special Selection.

On a non- food/wine related note, I cannot believe this moment is finally here. It is the pinnacle of the last six, if not ten, years of my life. I am indebted to my family and friends for filling the long, arduous journey with love, laughter, and beautiful moments.  To my Chicago friends, thank you for all of the wonderful wine and cheese nights where we could temporarily escape from being grad students. I love you all 

I want to share a quote with you all in honor of my father, who constantly inspires me to grow, learn, and work towards becoming a better version of myself.
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing.

To him he's always doing both.

-James Michener
As a new journey begins, I aspire to live my life with purpose and enthusiasm fueled by these words.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Penne with Cauliflower Ragu


The thought of cauliflower and pasta never sounded appealing to me. I feared that cauliflower would be too mushy to serve with pasta, and most recipes I came across sounded rather mundane.

When I saw this recipe in Molto Gusto, I decided, with some hesitation, to give it a try. It was a rather gutsy move for a dinner party. I stood in my kitchen staring at the box of penne and the head of cauliflower and thought to myself, this can't possibly taste good together.

I could not have been more wrong.

The bread crumbs add a much needed textural contrast, the rosemary offers clean, sweet flavors, and the parmiggiano regiano adds nuttiness. Next time I would use flat leaf Italian parsley in place of rosemary because I found the rosemary to be a bit overpowering. Cooking the caulfilower as a ragu not only brings out a deeper flavor but also makes the cauliflower practically melt in your mouth creating a rich texture with little bits of cauliflower scattered throughout.

This post concludes the Molto Gusto inspired dinner party. What about dessert you ask? Decadent flourless chocolate cake (not from Mario).  I cannot wait to try his gelato and sorbet recipes!

Penne with Cauliflower Ragu (from Molto Gusto)
1 medium cauliflower
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium white onion, cut into 1/4" dice
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
Maldon or other flaky sea salt
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
6 tbsp butter, cut into 6 pieces
kosher salt
1 lb penne
3/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, plus extra for serving
1/2 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil (see recipe below)
1 1/2 tsp minced fresh rosemary

Halve the cauliflower. Remove the leaves and core, reserving both. Cut the cauliflower into bite size florets, reserving the stalks. Chop leaves, core, and stalks. 


In a large pot over medium heat, add oil and heat until shimmery. Add onion and garlic, cook 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cauliflower leaves, stalks, and core. Season with Maldon and cook until leaves are beginning to wilt, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook until leaves are just tender, stirring frequently, about 18-20 minutes.

Add cauliflower florets, crushed red pepper, and 1 cup of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to gentle simmer, cover and cook until cauliflower is very soft and almost falling apart, about 22-25 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add butter, stirring until it melts. Season well with Maldon salt and remove from heat. 

Bring water to a boil, add salt, and cook pasta just before al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 2/3 cup pasta water. Add pasta and 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta water to the cauliflower ragu. Stir and toss over medium heat until the pasta is well coated. Add a splash or two of the reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Stir in the cheese.

Transfer pasta to serving bowl, sprinkle with fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil (see recipe below) and fresh rosemary. Serve with additional grated parmigiano reggiano on top.

Bread crumbs toasted in olive oil
Tear 4 slices of good rustic bread into roughly 1" pieces. Grind in a food processor to coarse size leaving some pieces slightly larger. In a small sauté pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add 1/2 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs and toast until golden, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Antipasti: Leek Ragu, Artichokes with Mint and Grana Padano, Shaved Asparagus with Pecorino, Smoky Fried Chickpeas


Jump to leek ragu recipe below.

Last month I threw a dinner party focusing on dishes from Mario Batali's Molto Gusto cookbook. The recipes are fairly simple and meant for everyday eating. To start, I served a series of antipasti with Italian cheeses: artichokes with mint and grana padano, shaved asparagus with pecorino, leek ragu, and smoky fried chickpeas or ceci frito.

The artichokes with grana padano and mint were wonderful. I loved the combination of mint with artichoke and red onion. A subtler, less nutty version of Parmigiano reggiano, Grana Padano is a nice addition to a dish where you don't want to overwhelm the flavors with a strong parmesan.

The shaved asparagus with pecorino romano was a simple refreshing salad. I could have eaten buckets of it. The pecorino romano adds a nutty saltiness which complements the acidity of the lemon vinaigrette. I highly recommend making this with thick asparagus as the thin ones are impossible to shave (I learned the hard way).

The biggest hit of the antipasti was the leek ragu served with slices of a crusty french baguette. The leeks are cooked until very soft in olive oil with garlic and seasoned well with Maldon and freshly ground black pepper. As simple as the preparation sounds, the result was absolutely delicious.

To snack, I served smoky fried chick peas from here. Chickpeas are fried until crispy on the outside but still soft inside and tossed with pimentón de La Vera, garlic, lemon zest, and thyme. Pimentón is a deeply smoky Spanish paprika with a bit of heat and the ability to transform a dish with its complex bold flavor.

Artichokes with Mint and Grana Padano (from Molto Gusto)
2 lbs artichokes
2 lemons, juiced
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups of water
1 medium white onion, cut into 1/4" dice
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup olive oil
Maldon or other flaky sea salt
crushed red pepper flakes
tiny fresh mint leaves for garnish
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced for garnish
3 oz grana padano

In a medium bowl, combine water, wine, and lemon juice. Remove the tough outer leaves of the artichoke, and cut off the top of the leaves to expose the choke. Trim the artichoke stem, leaving about 1", and cut away the leaves around stem. Remove the choke to expose the heart. Quickly transfer the artichoke heart to the lemon juice mixture as you work, to prevent oxidation. Repeat with each artichoke.

Transfer the artichoke hearts and their liquid to a medium pot. Add the basil stems, onion, garlic, and bay leaf. To keep the artichokes submerged, place a lid on top of the artichokes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until artichokes are tender, about 10-15 minutes. Drain the artichokes, reserving the garlic. Let cool slightly.

Halve the artichokes lengthwise and mash the garlic. In a medium saute pan over medium heat, add olive oil. Once oil is shimmery, add artichokes and garlic, cooking until very tender, about 12-15 minutes. Season with Maldon and crushed red pepper flakes. Remove from heat and set aside. Let stand for 1 hour at room temperature to bring out the flavors.

Transfer to artichokes and garlic to serving bowl. Scatter the tiny mint leaves and red onion slices throughout. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the grana padano on top.

Shaved asparagus with pecorino romano (from Molto Gusto)
1 lb asparagus, thick stalks, woody ends snapped off
2-3 oz of pecorino romano
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/4 cup of Tuscan olive oil
sea salt
coarsely ground black pepper

In a small bowl, add lemon juice and lemon zest. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Set aside.

Lay the asparagus flat on a cutting board. Using a vegetable peeler, thinly shave the asparagus using a long sweeping motion. Transfer shaved asparagus to a medium serving bowl.

Using a vegetable peeler, shave the pecorino romano over the asparagus. Drizzle with 1/2 of the vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Toss gently. Serve with remaining vinaigrette on the side.

Leek ragu (from Molto Gusto)
1/4 cup olive oil
5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 lb leeks
Maldon or other flaky sea salt
coarsely ground black pepper

Trim away the dark green part of the leeks. Slice lengthwise. Wash thoroughly in cold water. Be sure to open the leaves and wash all of the dirt away. 

Cut the white, yellow, and pale green parts into 1/2" thick slices.

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, stirring until soft, about 1-2 minutes. Add leeks, season with Maldon and pepper. Cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add 1/3 cup of water, cover, reducing heat to low. Cook until leeks are very soft, about 15 minutes. If necessary, increase heat to high and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until most of the cooking liquid has evaporated. 

Adjust salt and pepper as needed. Remove from heat and serve warm or at room temperature with crusty bread.

Smoky Fried Chick Peas or Ceci Frito (Inspired by this post)
2 cans of chick peas, 15 oz each (I used Eden organic and it worked well)
1 cup olive oil for frying
1 tbsp Pimentón, smoked Spanish paprika
1/2 tsp red cayenne pepper (if you prefer spicier flavors)
sea salt
zest of one lemon, wide
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise

Drain and rinse chickpeas. Set on paper towels to dry for 1 hour. Pat dry, change paper towels, and let dry thoroughly. Can be done 1 day in advance.

Heat oil in a wok or other saucepan suitable for frying over medium heat. Test the oil by adding one chickpea, and if bubbles form around the chickpea, the oil is ready for frying. Add chickpeas in batches and fry for 5 minutes, or until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain over colander lined with paper towels. Fry lemon zest, thyme, and garlic.

Transfer chick peas, zest, thyme, garlic to a bowl. Toss with Pimentón, red cayenne pepper, and salt. Serve warm.

Note: I think 1 tsp cumin and 1 tsp corriander powder would be a nice addition. And maybe a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice just before serving.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Italian cheeses


I have been tasting my way through the Wine Spectator 100 Great Cheeses list. My latest tastes from this wonderful list were trugole, an Asiago-like cheese from the Italian Alps, and mountain gorgonzola, the assertive counterpart to gorgonzola dolce. I served these two cheeses along side tomini with truffle and pecorino ginepro as part of an Italian cheese plate at a recent dinner party.

The cheeses were accompanied with a selection of antipasti from Mario Batali's Molto Gusto, crusty bread, and Nicole's Divine Crackers love in the afternoon.

Have you had Nicole's crackers before? These crackers are a delicious temptation of sun kissed italian raisins and sweet fennel, sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper and a touch of onion and garlic. And they are made from 100% organic grains!

Here are my tasting notes on each of the cheeses, starting from soft and ending with the blue.

Tomini with truffle
A small fresh cow's milk cheese from Piemonte bathed in sunflower seed oil and topped with slices of Summer truffle. The truffle is prounced, the cheese is creamy but wonderfully light, and the oil made the cheese almost airy.

I served the Tomini in its oil, but think it would be easier to serve the cheese drained, reserving the oil for a salad dressing. I was a bit apprehensive about the truffle tomini because of my previous disappointment with the sottocenere al tartufo- I felt that the semi soft texture of the sottocenere masked the truffle. However the tomini with truffle surpassed all of my expectations and was a true crowd pleaser!

Pecorino ginepro
A firm sheep's milk cheese from Emilia-Romagna, a province in Northern Italy. This is a salty, nutty pecorino with slightly herbaceous flavors married with a slightly sweet finish. The rind is rubbed with balsamic vinegar, contributing to the dark brown rind, and the ivory white cheese is soaked in juniper berries.

I was afraid the cheese would be vinegary but the juniper berries lingered on the palate.  The unexpected flavors of this cheese make it a worthy addition to an Italian cheese plate.

Trugole Aged
Trugole is a semi-soft cows milk cheese that hails from the Asiago region of the Italian Alps in a pasture called Trugole. The milk comes from cows that only eat the forage from this rich pasture. I found the buttery trugole to be floral and fruity, but the sweetness was well-balanced by a slight sharpness and tanginess.

Gorgonzola picante
This is a semi-soft cow's milk blue cheese from Gorgonzola, on the outskirts of Milan. It is spicy and earthy but moist and buttery on the palate. Not as creamy as gorgonzola dolce, the assertive mountain gorgonzola shows a slightly sweet undertone. Unlike dolce, it crumbles nicely and can definitely hold its own on a cheese plate.

I usually prefer other blues to gorgonzola but the mountain gorgonzola was certainly a treat.
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