Tuesday, August 26, 2008

CAPRESE – The “Not-For-Everyone" Cake

Capri (that’s the root of the term “caprese”) is one of the beautiful islands of my Country. It’s a little jewel on the sea and it gave the name at least to a couple interesting dishes of the Italian traditional cuisine.

One is the refreshing, nutrient salad that everyone knows and that you can find in almost every Italian family dinner menu in the summertime, when everyone is just too tired or too hot to cook: tomato and fresh mozzarella, a few leaves of basil, olive oil.

The other, maybe less famous but certainly not less important or less interesting, is this intriguing sinful chocolate cake. It might not have the looks that some more renowned chocolate cakes have: no pretty icing, no rich filling, no attractive decoration, but I promise you it just tastes great. Like those precious things that you need to WANT to discover, looking beyond what’s obvious to everyone. And when you do you consider yourself very fortunate.
It’s a cake for true dark chocolate lovers. It does not contain any flour or baking powder whatsoever, and it melts in your mouth when you have a bite. It’s simply made of dark chocolate, almonds, eggs, butter and sugar.

Even the sugar is not one of the main ingredients, as there’s not much of it so what you get is a cake that is not particularly sweet. That probably does not fit the average American taste since, generally speaking, everything here is pretty sweet. But if you are into bitter chocolate I’m pretty sure you will love this.

Just add a spoon of semi-whipped cream to it, if you like, and that’s it. It’s a test: if you’re truly a part of the chocolate lovers club, you’ll appreciate it very much.

Friday, August 22, 2008

And I Have The Nerve To Tell People I Can Cook...

Have you ever had the feeling you are not sure whether to be proud or ashamed about something? Me, this is precisely how I feel when I serve this snack with the aperitif, at my dinners.

It’s called “ostriche finte” (guess you can translate it into something like “wannabe oysters”). They have very little of the oyster, maybe just a fishy memory that comes from the little piece of anchovy that’s on them, but that is how the Venetian nonna (grandma) who taught me how to make them called them and, of course, who am I to change their name, right?

All in all it’s only a bunch of poor, even “junk-food-like” ingredients, but the combination of them (strictly to be put in your mouth in one single bite, that’s the rule) creates a strange mix of taste and texture that is absolutely interesting and definitely pleasant.

Even my more sophisticated friends back in Italy (right Silvia?) had to admit that this strange appetizer is something worth munching on while waiting for dinner to start and she even promised me she was going to talk about them on her own blog. Talk about a hit with zero effort, here…

What’s the secret formula? Here, write it down, you’ll thank me for this:
· Potato chips
· Lemon (thinly sliced, zest on)
· Mayonnaise or soft butter
· Anchovies
What you do is cut the lemon slices into very small triangles and the anchovies in equally small pieces. You then put on top of each chip a drop of mayo or creamy butter, whatever you prefer, and using that as if it was glue, add a piece of lemon and a piece of anchovies to it. If you serve it on a nice plate it is EVEN going to look good!

Here is my "gourmet" appetizer for today. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cheese, fruits & C.

I have never been particularly fond of mixing the sweet taste with other tastes like sour or salted. With one exception and that is when cheese is involved.
I love cheese with fresh fruits, honey or homemade preserves. Here are a few ideas from my experiments:

pears with taleggio cheese and walnuts
semi-hard tuscan pecorino cheese with an orange, onion and vinegar preserve (it's a friend's recipe, especially made to go with cheese)

sweet emmenthal with apricots or grapes or cherry tomatoes (I know that's not fruit, but maybe the "cherry" in the name counts?). Plus, the plate needed a touch of color ;-)

apricots with cream cheese and honey
kiwi with robiola cheese and pink pepper

Cute and tasty, aren't they?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eggplant, Elegant Lady of the Summer Garden

Once upon a time there was a thing called “seasonality”. We, dinosaurs, would have never even thought of having peaches at Christmastime, oranges in the summer, chestnuts in spring. Now, instead, we hardly remember what grows when, as everything is available in the stores year round. Anyway, for those like me who, besides being dinosaurs, are also food-obsessed, flavors, smells and textures are a great memory conveyer.

All this brings me to EGGPLANTS.

If I think “summer” in my childhood days I think watermelon, I think green beans, I think peaches, I think zucchini, but before anything else I think eggplants! How’s that for a favorite child food, uh? And I have the nerve to act surprised when I see my son swallowing guacamole and corn chips as if they were candies…I wonder who he got that weird trait from.

My dad used to take great care (and pride) of (and in) the vegetables he grew in his garden. In the summer we used to have a huge production of almost all of that mentioned above, plus tomatoes (of course), peppers and many other vegetables. But eggplants have always been my favorites. Even while still attached to the plant, in their fancy dark purple evening dress, tall and slim ladies of dad's garden (he liked the long kind).

My mom used to often cook them “al funghetto”, which means “like you do mushrooms”. Now, it’s a given that you need garlic and parsley for that, but there are some people who also add tomatoes while some others don’t. My mom belonged to the party who did not. I sometimes do, sometimes don’t. “Melanzane al funghetto”, that’s how they’re called in Italian, are a tasty side dish, but if you get to save some leftovers try use them on a pasta (see picture). It’s excellent both hot or room temperature, like you would serve a pasta salad. Or, have them over some toasted crusted bread, as a different bruschetta.

I also remember eating them stuffed, fried, grilled, in “parmigiana”, pickled… only recently have I discovered the “polpette di melanzane” (eggplants ball) and I think they are delicious. I use them for a vegetarian cannelloni (where I roll them up to substitute the cannelloni noodle). I make a spread for crostini that makes excellent appetizer, or can be used over grilled meat. Shall I go on? I could. But I will stop here for now, with my tribute to a very versatile and tasty vegetable. That my husband hates, by the way… :-)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Incognito Anchovies

I have developed this theory: the number of people I met here in the US that affirm they do not like anchovies is inversely proportional to the one of those I know in Italy who say they love them. I wonder why.

I am an anchovy's fan, a real one. I truly am. But I understand that we are not talking about an "easy" food here. Their flavor is strong and salty and fishy. And delicious.

One of the reasons for people to not liking them much must be their flavor audacity, but possibly also the way they are used in cooking. My husband is one of those who do not get along too much with them. I recently found out, though, that his first encounter with anchovies was on top of a pizza and the main thing he remembers about that flavor experience was SALT. Clearly the high heat to which they are exposed with no mercy when baked over a pizza does not leave room to any subtle hints: the salty trait is mostly all you perceive.

But there is more to them than just salt and definitely more than the role of pizza topping. They perform greatly even (if not especially) when they are not the main star of the movie. So, in case you are among the distrustful ones, try approaching them when they hide, rather than when they are in the spotlight, at least at the beginning of what, I bet, could be a mutually satisfactory relationship.

I made two different pestos with anchovies, in the past few days. One of them was for a sauce for homemade tomato and mozzarella filled ravioli. The pesto sauce was made with shallot, garlic, capers and pine seeds. An orchestra of flavors playing some tasty mediterranean music. You would have not known the anchovies were there but I promise you we would have missed them if they were not!

The other was made with anchovies (of course), parsley, garlic and olive oil to make a dressing for some baked sliced bell peppers. Come on, it’s really difficult not to like them that way: they dissolve into a savory sauce that enhances the peppers. These vegetables are certainly not weak in flavor and therefore need some daring sauce to go with them. There it was: my anchovy dressing. Bold, yes, but complex. Not just salty.

I still like anchovies a lot as they are, no masks on or hidden in anything. To me they are elegant even when naked. I remember one time, back in Italy, when a friend brought a can of spanish oil-packed anchovies to a party I went to. We had them over bread and butter, nothing else. For a while you could not hear a word. Just sighs of pleasure.

But, again, f you want to use them as ONE of the ingredients for other preparations, well the sky is the limit and sometimes you can hide them so well (still benefiting from their contribution to the recipe) that even the most convinced detractors would appreciate them.