Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cotecchino e Lenticchie

The traditional New Years dish in Italy: Cotecchino e Lenticchie

Cotecchino is a specialty of northern Italy and the Emilia Romagna region (also spelled cotechino or coteghino) and is a large, fresh pork sausage, usually about 3 inches wide and 9 inches long. It's made from pork meat from the cheek, neck, shoulder, fatback, and pork rind. Cotecchino is mildly seasoned, often with nutmeg, salt and pepper and has a soft, creamy texture. Cotecchino is traditionally served at New Year’s with lenticchie (lentils). The lentils resemble small coins and are said to bring prosperity, and the sausage is said to bring good luck.
Cotecchino dates back to 1511 to Mirandola, near Modena in the Emilia Romagna region. While under siege from Pope Julius II’s troops the locals began to encase pork in pig skin to survive, using as much of the pig as possible. Since the 1500’s cotecchino has risen in popularity and nearly a decade ago gained PGI status (Protected Geographical Indication). PGI status, established by European Union law, protects the names and reputation of regional foods, and ensures their quality and flavor. Cotecchino is now produced throughout Italy by large producers, but the tastiest cotecchino is still made artigianally by local butchers. I always order one made in Norcia in the Umbria region, a town famous for outstanding pork products. I also purchase Umbrian lenticchie, purported to be the best.

Ingredients (4 people):
Cotecchino, about 800 grams
Lenticchie, about 300 grams
Olive oil, 3 tbsps.
Carrot, 1 medium
Celery stalk
Onion, 1 small
Vegetable broth
Tomato paste, 2 tbsps.
Bay leaves, 5

Prick the cotecchino with a sewing needle (anything larger, such as a fork, may cause the cotecchino to burst during cooking). Place the cotecchino in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for an hour, drain the liquid, add fresh water and boil another hour. This will eliminate much of the fat.

Soak the lentils overnight. Drain, place in cold water, and bring to a gentle boil. Cook until tender. In the meantime, finally chop the carrot, celery and onion and sauté in olive oil until tender. Add a few ladlefuls of broth, tomato paste and the bay leaves. Add the lentils once they are tender.
Remove the cotecchino from its casing and slice into half centimeter slices. Add the cotecchino to the lentils and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, adding broth as necessary. Remove the bay leaves and serve.

A "Sustainability" New Year's resolution

I just stopped into my local green grocer, the one I have always counted on to provide the freshest, most seasonal products available, and displayed right up on the counter was the most beautiful asparagus. The only problem is that not only are asparagus absolutely not in season but they came from thousands of miles away: Monterey, California. If I lived in Alaska or Norway or some other place where it was impossible to find fresh fruits and vegetables that would be one thing. But the fact is that here in Rome, in the heart of the Mediterranean, we are exploding with outstanding fresh produce.

This from the Slow Food website:

"We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet. We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process. We believe the enjoyment of excellent food and drink should be combined with efforts to save the countless traditional grains, vegetables, fruits, animal breeds and food products that are disappearing due to the prevalence of convenience food and industrial agribusiness."

If we begin selling, purchasing and consuming non-Italian produce just because it's cheaper or because we feel we have to have a strawberry in winter we are defeating the basis of the Slow Food movement and sustainability. We need to support our local producers, protect our local culinary heritage and consider the social and environmental impact of not buying locally. According to "in order to facilitate long distance shipment, foods are highly processed, supplemented with preservatives, and require excessive packaging. Foods purchased locally are also fresher, and therefore contain more nutrients. Industrial agriculture operations use huge amounts of toxic pesticides to eliminate pests. Large amounts of fossil fuel are required to plow fields, produce fertilizers, process foods, and transport foods." There are also many other health, environmental, animal waste, water waste, soil, pesticide, antibiotic, hormone, genetic diversity, fossil fuel, transportation, animal welfare, economic development, community and labor issues that are improved by eating sustainably.

In 2010 why not try to shorten the distance from which your food is sourced and lengthen your time at the table. Purchase from your local farmers market, dairy or farm. You could start a vegetable garden or join a food coop. Or make a New Year's resolution to change your lifestyle to a more sustainable lifestyle, even if it's just something as simple as foregoing out of season fruits and vegetables.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A unique vegetable side dish for Christmas: Gobbo alla Parmigiana (Cardoons Parmesan)

Before I came to Italy I'd never seen or tasted a cardoon and now, a quarter of a century later, I cannot imagine a Christmas meal without them. We love cardoons so much that we'll be serving them at our bed and breakfast both Christmas eve and Christmas day: delicious!
Cardoons are a classic Christmas vegetable in central and northern Italy. They resemble a celery, but taste like a mild artichoke. Cardoons and artichokes are both thistles from the Aster family. So what's gobbo? Gobbo is a cardoon that as a tender young plant has been bent to its side and buried. The plant then grows to maturity underground and consequently is milky white and very tender.
They're not easy to clean though. First of all you need to remove the thread-like filaments from the outside of the stalks. There's also a layer that should be removed from the inside of each stalk. If this part of the plant isn't properly removed the cardoons will be difficult to chew. You'll find the cardoons easier to work with if you cut the stalks into eight inch pieces.
Keep the cardoons in acidulated water (water and lemon juice) as you work otherwise they will become brown.

Once you're done drain the cardoons, pat dry and lightly flower.

Fry the cardoons until tender and golden. Drain on paper bags.

At this stage you can salt the cardoons and eat as is, but our traditional Christmas dish is Cardoons Parmesan (yes, almost like eggplant parmesan). We prefer to use gobbo, but they are harder to come by and much pricier.
Prepare a tasty tomato sauce (peeled tomatoes, olive oil and garlic), a bechamel sauce, grate some mozzarella and some parmesan cheese. Layer your ingredients in a baking pan: tomato sauce, cardoon, mozzarella, bechamel, parmesan. (I use an icing bag to distribute the bechamel).

Bake the cardoons about 45 minutes in a 350 F (175 C) pre-heated oven and serve immediately. If you want to prepare this dish in advance you can freeze it just prior to baking. It's one of the most delectable dishes immaginable!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Olive Picking Season & the Frantoio

“Good oil, like good wine, is a gift from the gods. The grape and the olive are among the priceless benefactions of the soil, and were destined, each in its way, to promote the welfare of man.”

George Ellwanger (1848-1906)
Pleasures of the Table (1902)

I woke up today to the most exquisitely sunshine-filled, crisp fall day. Rome and the Lazio region are at the tail end of olive picking season and today is the last day our local frantoio (olive oil press) will operate before cleaning out its presses and closing down until next November. We have about 30 trees and almost all are just three years old so the majority of our oil comes from the few trees we have that are over half a century old.
We took our 5 liter jugs to the frantoio and waited while our olives were pressed. If you have few olives, like us, your olives are batched up with those of other local olive pickers and placed into communal containers. While we waited we chatted with everyone, all of us excited at the prospect of taking home our newly pressed olive oil and envigorated by the fresh air and beautiful day. We all shared recipes for our olives; each of us has set aside part of our harvest, the plumpest olives, to salt cure and use later in appetizers, pasta sauces or main course dishes. Whil
e we talked the frantoio owner offered us bruschetta: toasted country bread smothered in oil that had just trickled out of the press. Most frantoi have a wood burning stove or electric grill to prepare bruschetta for those waiting for their oil to be finished. It’s part of the festive environment that has surrounded the olive pressing season for centuries.

For the past month olive picking has been the full time activity of everyone in our area. Nets are spread out under every tree to catch olives as they’re picked.

The olives can be green, black or brownish red. It's important to pick them when they're at their ripest point; the green color doesn't necessarily mean the olives aren't ripe. Olive color can vary widely on a single tree.

Nowadays many people use an electric comb to speed up the picking process but others still prefer the hand-picked method, like this local woman.

Once olives are picked they're put into plastic containers and then loaded up ready to be taken to the frantoio. You'd think that these olives, plump and ripe enough to produce oil, would also taste good. If you bite into an olive be prepared for a surprise: something unpleasantly bitter that you'll have difficulty keeping in your mouth.

Once the olives arrive at the frantoio they are weighed and put into a machine that will separate the olives from leaves and other debris. They then pass into a bath and on into an olive crushing machine that will grind the olives into a paste.

The olive oil is then separated from the liquid and solid matter by centrifugal force. This process is repeated a second time to remove any residual liquid from the oil. And then out trickles the olive oil ready to drizzle onto bruschetta!

When our oil is ready we load it into the car and head home. Our oil is a rich golden green color and has an enticingly spicy, grassy perfume. Over the course of the coming months the oil will age and its flavor will become smoother. We prefer the olive oil’s just-pressed flavor as the spicier, grassier tones make for great bruschetta and salad dressings.
While the golden green color is esthetically pleasing it actually has nothing to do with the olive oil's quality, as commonly believed. Color is determined by olive varietals and the region in which the trees are grown. Olive oil quality is determined instead by factors such as acidity level (by EC law acidity cannot exceed .8% for extra-virgin oil and 2% for virgin olive oil), along with taste tests establishing its organoleptic quality. Our neighboring region, Umbria, is considered to have some of Italy's best oil. This is in part due to tight regional restrictions calling for an even lower acidity level than the national level.
Our olive oil has been extracted by the virgin method, meaning it's extraction is strictly mechanical. It is cold pressed, but this term is actually a misnomer as olives must be warm enough to allow for the oil to be efficiently extracted. European law requires that the temperature cannot exceed 27 C to be labeled cold pressed.

So how can you really tell what you're purchasing if you buy olive oil in the United States or anywhere else outside of the EC? Above all, read the label carefully. What is labeled as Italian extra virgin olive oil might not mean it's Italian at all, only that it's been bottled in Italy. Frequently the oil is a mixture of oil from a number of countries. One thing you can be certain of is that by carefully reading labels before purchasing and choosing olive oil over another fat you are making the healthiest, and tastiest, choice available.