Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Italian Flag

Food can be a reflection of so many different things—emotions, personalities, geographical locations, and…a country’s flag? Yes, it’s true. For example, the Italian flag is quite symbolic of the food found within its borders. While I am happy to concede that this is not true of every national flag (otherwise, England’s flag should be brown with a fish), it is certainly true of the Italian flag. Perhaps this is a coincidence, or maybe it's truly symbolic of Italians' love affair with particular foods.

Think about all the different foods Italy is known for. Now, how many of those dishes incorporate the colors of the Italian flag?

There are four major sauces enjoyed around Italy—pest, alfredo, ragu, and marinara (notice the green, white, and red?). All of these I’ve mentioned before, but these are the sauce staples of the country. Sure, you can find other sauces, but several use those same colors—think of a pepper sauce with red and orange peppers or a sage and butter sauce. Even a mushroom sauce takes on an off-white color when paired with pasta.

Ravioli and other stuffed pastas can be filled with many different filling combinations. It becomes a matter of taste preference or creativity. And while there are endless filling possibilities, it’s very common to stuff ravioli with a spinach and ricotta mixture and then add a ragu or marinara sauce on top. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love this. Also, when we make stuffed shells or stuffed cannelloni, we fill them with a spinach and ricotta mixture before adding the ragu sauce on top.

I’ve mentioned caprese before as one of my favorite things to eat, especially on a summer day. This combination of basil, fresh mozzarella, and tomato is extremely easy to make and very tasty. And it even shows the Italian flag in the correct colored order: green, white, and red.

Who doesn’t love the Margherita pizza found in Italy? With its thin crust, slight layer of pizza sauce, just enough mozzarella cheese to cover the sauce, and a sprinkling of julienned basil, it’s the perfect afternoon meal. And because they don’t overdo any part of the perfect combination that is the Margherita pizza, you can eat the equivalent to an American large pizza without having to be rolled home! And again, it is the Italian flag with the basil, then the mozzarella, then the sauce.

The region that my family is from tends to make a spinach pasta lasagna. This means that spinach is added to the pasta dough before it is rolled out into the paper-thin sheets that get assembled into a mouth-watering dish of lasagna. So, each layer of the lasagna gets the spinach pasta, a combination of the ragu sauce and the béchamel sauce (a rich white sauce), and a little bit of mozzarella and parmigiano. I actually believe that the spinach lasagna tastes better than the regular lasagna, but I doubt this has anything to do with the color of the Italian flag.

Gelato is another thing Italy is known for, and no one can seem to get enough of it, as evidenced by the mass-produced copycats found in any supermarket (but let’s admit, the gelato you get here in the U.S. in no way compares to the real thing). Until recently, I didn’t think gelato really would work in this example; although I suppose I could argue that with the vanilla gelato, the pistachio gelato and the raspberry or strawberry gelato, you get the Italian flag. Just a couple weeks ago, I was reading the restaurant edition of Bon Appetit Magazine when I saw an article about a chef who created the Italian flag combination in gelato with a basil gelato, a tomato gelato, and ricotta. To be perfectly honest, I’m a little wary of basil and tomato gelato, since gelato is supposed to be sweet, almost like eating candy, and while I love basil and tomato, I don’t feel the same about them that I do about chocolate gelato. But I should probably give it a try before completely writing it off. I will let you know how it goes.

Isn’t it interesting that so many Italian dishes resemble the Italian flag (and I've only mentioned a few here!)? Can you think of any that I didn't include?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cooking Podcasts, the Wave of the Future

Since starting this blog, I've gotten so many food ideas from my family that even if I had no inspiration of my own, I would be able to keep writing for several months. I love it because they often inspire me to look outside of the box. An example of this came from my cousin David, who introduced me to living recipe podcasts on iTunes. I had seen advertisements for cooking shows such as Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef (I'm still waiting for them to get Iron Chef and Everday Italian), but I hadn't noticed the podcasts before. And as much I love food, the hyped-up, drama-loaded reality shows in a stylized kitchen just doesn't cut it for me.

The interesting food-related topics that you can find on iTunes are mostly from Epicurious.com. From learning the proper way to dice vegetables to cracking a lobster, Epicurious.com covers the basic skills required in the kitchen. They very conveniently have all their podcasts in streaming video, so you could follow along in the comfort of your own kitchen. While these are extremely helpful for any novice to the kitchen, anyone who can somewhat confidently navigate their way around the kitchen, may find these to be too simplistic. I did, however, enjoy their podcasts on napkin folding, since my memory doesn’t always retain the varying fancy ways a table can be dressed up by napkins. This would also be a good resource if you need a quick reminder on carmelizing sugar or making a hollandaise sauce. A new podcast is added every week, and each streaming video runs between a minute and two minutes, providing an easy approach to the "how-to" of cooking.

Whole Foods Market also features informational product podcasts. I downloaded one about tomatoes and basil (what else?!). The produce connoisseur discussed the benefits of buying local produce, as well as the freshness of the produce. He also gave tips on how to pick the tastiest tomatoes from your supermarket. The "In the Kitchen" segment provided listeners with an easy recipe using the produce discussed earlier.

The Food Network only provides streaming podcasts of the behind the scenes of Iron Chef America with Alton Brown (which is actually pretty interesting) and Ham on the Street (which, to be perfectly honest, I've never seen). These are more show-based that recipe driven, but could be interesting nonetheless.

There are several other cooking podcasts provided by chefs and various networks, but the ones mentioned above were the podcasts that looked like the most interesting and beneficial to home chefs. If you find any that I may have overlooked, let me know, and I'll check it out!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ristorante Italiana – Pasta Moon

First impressions can be difficult to overcome. If a person rubs you the wrong way upon first meeting, the likelihood of you wanting to continue any sort of relationship with them is much rarer than if you had a fantastic introduction. The same is true for places—restaurants in particular. We assume the outside reflects what’s inside; and in the case of restaurants, this would be the cuisine. There has been more than one occasion where I have written off a restaurant simply because of their décor or modernity (or lack of). But I have also dined at stunningly beautiful restaurants, only to have the food be mediocre. Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay falls into an entirely new category for me.

Located on Main Street in downtown Half Moon Bay, Pasta Moon is protected by a bridge on one side and little shops on the other. In other words, it blends into its surroundings, making it appear like any other shop along the main strip. Once it’s discovered, guests walk through its doors, surprised to find that instead of entering the foyer of the restaurant, they’ve stumbled into an entryway filled with adorable café-style tables and chairs and leading to several different shops. A little bar sits quietly to the side, serving liquid treats to those waiting for a table in the restaurant or who simply are looking for a respite from their shopping and wandering through downtown. Just past the bar, a door is perched open, inviting guests to explore the wonders of a small-town bookstore with soulful jazz wailing softly overhead. Opposite the bookstore, the sounds and smells of a restaurant warming up for the next meal slip between the bars of an iron gate.

The same aunt who introduced me to Vittoria’s in Los Gatos and I met for dinner at Pasta Moon one evening after work. I was delighted by the charming and cozy atmosphere presented by the town and shops. Since the restaurant was not yet open when we arrived, I ambled down the hall, past the restaurant. On my right, there was a bread room, with a floured work surface, ovens, and racks indicating the restaurant’s tiny bread factory where their bread is made fresh each day. The heat from the room and the smell of warm bread wrapped around me like a blanket and added to the cozy feeling I had from the moment I walked through the first set of doors. I peaked into the next door on my left, where two men scurried back and forth between counters, washing, chopping, arranging. Just past the kitchen door was a door leading to an intimate banquet room with a balcony overlooking a quaint country garden and meandering river.

The moment we had been waiting for arrived, as a waitress pushed open the iron gate allowing us to enter the comely setting. Wood beams proudly held their place above us, creating a rustic and down-home feel. The walls continued this feeling with their warm earthy-toned color. We were seated at a table underneath an open window that had a view similar to the banquet room balcony—a grassy picnic area and quiet stream. Even the windows conjured up images of an older time with their large wooden frames and small square panes.

We decided to attempt the full range of restaurant offerings starting with an appetizer. My Nonna is a huge fan of fried zucchini blossoms, although I myself had never ventured to try them due to the fact that I would be eating a flower; and flowers, as we all know, are for admiring with our eyes not our palates. The Zucchini Blossoms came stuffed with ricotta cheese, Reggiano Parmigiano, and fresh herbs, all things foreign to my Nonna’s method of preparing them. Fried little delights, zucchini blossoms are the perfect comfort-food alternative to Southern fried chicken. Despite being battered and fried, they are extremely light, aided by the cloud-like lightness of the ricotta cheese. I could have made a meal just out of the appetizer.

For the main course, my aunt ordered the Risotto of Dayboat Sea Scallops, which is locally grown morel mushrooms and peas in risotto accented atop by fresh scallops. The white wine added to the risotto while cooking brazenly commands attention over the natural richness of the rice without overpowering the entire dish. The mushrooms and peas add a slightly earthy hint to the Italian rice and wine combination, while the scallops provide a fresh, light balance to the whole plate. I ordered the Tagliatelle, a heady combination of smoked prosciutto and asparagus in a garlic-lemon sauce with jumbo white prawns. The lemon, like the white wine in the risotto, is very present and fresh without being overpowering. The garlic-coated shrimp is the perfect balance to the saltiness of the prosciutto and the mellowness of the asparagus.

My aunt had been eyeing the very large Meyer Lemon Parfait her past several visits, but had not yet ventured trying it. Since we’d already had a good run with the appetizer and entrees, we decided to give the lemon parfait a go as well. We asked the waiter if we could possibly have the dessert served in two glasses, which would make eating it much easier for the two of us. Instead of saying let me find out, he promptly bowed his head, stating, “I will do that,” and turned on his heals to bring it immediately to us. He reminded me of the waiters in Paris, where their job is their career and art form, rather than a holding zone until they get their big break—this provides infinitely better service. But back to the lemon dessert. Toasted on top, it looked like a fluffy cloud of crème brule. Dipping into the lovely, toasted, marshmallowy Italian meringue, the tartness of the lemon sorbet cut through the sweetness of the meringue bringing a surprisingly light and refreshing taste to the palate. Just below the icy layer of sorbet, passion fruit caramel sauce enveloped a dense dollop of lemon curd. The lemon curd combined with the caramel sauce was slightly sweeter than the sorbet, creating a sweet and tart sandwich of lemon flavors and consistencies. It was altogether delicious and refreshing after the heaviness of the previous course.

Pasta Moon surpassed any expectations I may have had; although, since it was again my aunt’s recommendation, I really should not have anticipated it being anything but exquisite. The space and the food were warm and inviting—a perfect example of the inside and outside being reflections of the other.

Pasta Moon

315 Main St.

Half Moon Bay



Monday, July 9, 2007

Berry Picking

My family is all about tradition, and one of our favorite early summertime traditions is berry picking at Gizdich Ranch. We make the forty-five-minute drive to Watsonville to pick our fill of olallieberries, eat our fill of strawberry shortcake and buy our fill of fresh-pressed apple juice. We’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember.

When I was little, we’d usually be one of the first groups of pickers to arrive. “Remember, this is how you pick them,” my mom would remind my brother and I, as she gently twisted the berry allowing it to fall into her hand. She did this for several years, until, I suppose, it was evident that we remembered from the previous year. We were reminded that we must only pick the dark purple berries, not the light ones that looked like large raspberries.

Olallies (pronounced oh-la-lee) are sweetly tangy, a cross between blackberries and loganberries (loganberries are a cross between blackberries and raspberries). They originated in Oregon during the 1930s, but are primarily grown in California now, due to our climate. Olallies have a very short season, mid-June to mid-July, which is why if you don’t go in June, you’re likely to miss them altogether.

My brother and I were given our own little buckets to fill with berries before depositing them into the larger containers that we would take home. We raced to see who could fill their bucket the fastest. I adamantly believed that my brother cheated, the proof found in the large flat with nearly ripe or not even ripe berries that I was sure my brother picked to try to fill his bucket quicker. Silly little competitive person that I was, I never took into account that maybe those lighter berries wound up in the flat because he wore a patch over his eye and therefore, he couldn’t always see very well; or maybe, I was the culprit, having been so consumed with “winning” that I didn’t take as much care in picking the ripe berries as I should have.

Aside from our ridiculous competition to pick the most berries, my brother and I loved to sneak berries into our mouths rather than putting them in the bucket like we were told. We were permitted to have one or two, but that was it. For several years, I remember asking if I could eat a berry or several, but after a while, I thought I got smart, and ate them without asking. That’s when my parents started joking that they should weigh my brother and I before we came in and as we were leaving, so the difference in weight could be paid (pickers pay for what they’ve picked at the hut near the open rows).

In the hot sun, the berries would soften, their vibrant tartness exploding in our mouths with each taste, leaving a faint purple ring around the edge of our lips. Slightly cooked in the sun, the berries’ juice easily ran onto our fingers as we picked them, staining them a lovely shade of olallie purple. If we didn’t wash them immediately, we would carry the proof of our picking with us for the rest of the week.

The rows would fill with other families and groups picking olallies for various reasons. Two ladies share canning and jamming tips, chattering away about different techniques they’ve tried and what works best. Another woman in a different row chirps up about olallie pies she’s made and offers her own advice on making olallie jam. “Jimmy, don’t eat that,” a father passively tells his son, who we can hear running up and down the row. Another group displays their uninhibitedness with their singing of an odd combination of car songs and church hymns. Several others exchange the most recent gossip about common acquaintances.

When we finished picking our fill (I seem to recall hearing something about 40 lbs. of berries one year, but maybe that was just my youthful imagination), we drive over to the ranch. Passing more berry fields, a welcome sign greets us to the farm. Turning down a little one-lane road, we drive by an antique shop offering treasures for the house and yard. Across the postage-sized parking lot sits the barn which instead of housing farm animals and hay, keeps all the mouth-watering treats prepared by the workers of the farm—jam, juice, pie, tarts, strawberry shortcake.

The strawberry shortcake is really our primary reason for visiting the farm after berry picking. On every trip, my mom wishes aloud that she could get their strawberry shortcake recipe. It’s the perfect combination of fresh-picked strawberries, shortcake, and whipped cream. The shortcake is sweet and flaky, the ideal accompaniment to the fresh sweetness of the strawberries. It’s not at all like the Bisquick version most people make or even the homemade version we make. It’s infinitely better than other forms of shortcake due to the extremely fresh ingredients used. A lot of people order pie or other delicious fruity treats, but if you make it out to Gizdich, don’t miss out on the shortcake—trust me!

The other treat we indulge in is their fresh-pressed apple juice. Thicker than any store bought version, Gizdich’s apple juice is all fruit juice, sweet and pure. It's heavenly when drunk slightly frozen. The juice flows down with little ice caps, offering the perfect warm-weather refreshment. They would make great popsicles, if we could ever get enough home to freeze! It's so good that it doesn't always make it home to be enjoyed or shared later.

Gizdich Ranch is home to lots of family memories, from berry picking in the hot sun to grumbling about being forced to share strawberry shortcake with a sibling. They also have apple picking in the fall for those more inclined to fruit growing on trees rather than from bushes. One of these days, I hope to have the apple picking experience at Gizdich. Or maybe that will wait until I have kids to take.

Gizdich Ranch

55 Peckham Rd.

Watsonville, CA



Monday, July 2, 2007

Gnocchi a Casa

Brave enough to try your hand making gnocchi at home? Here is some direction to get you started. Let me know how it turns out!

Gnocchi di Patate

Serving size: 8
Time: 1 hour preparation; 2 minutes cooking

5 lbs. russet potatoes
3 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg
Flour for dusting board and dough

*Note: If you want to modify the servings this recipe renders, keep this in mind: for every pound and a half of potatoes, use 1 cup of flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Wash your potatoes and pierce them with a fork. Microwave them until properly baked (If preferred, the potatoes can be boiled until tender with their skins and no holes, as you don't want the potato to take on water). Let cool for several minutes before peeling the skins off the potatoes.
Once peeled, put them through a potato ricer into a mixing bowl (If you don't have a potato ricer, use the large holes of a grater). Add flour to potatoes and mix on slow speed (If you don't have a mixer, this can also be done by hand). Once potatoes and flour are blended, add salt and mix again before adding the egg. If the dough is still too dry, add another egg. You want the dough to be firm, yet slightly give when touched. It should stick together without being too sticky.

Dust your board with flour. Taking a handful of dough, hand roll it into a long 1/2-inch thick rope. Cut 1/2-inch long pieces off the rope. Take one of the 1/2-inch pieces and place it against the tines of the back of a fork. Gently roll the piece of dough away from you and to the tip of the fork. It should have ridges on the outside where it rolled along the fork and a little pocket where your thumb was. This shape helps the gnocchi cook properly. Place finished gnocchi onto a lightly floured cookie sheet or wax paper. Repeat this rolling and shaping until all your dough is formed into gnocchi.
When ready to cook, bring water to boil in a large pot. Drop gnocchi into the water. Remove the cooked gnocchi using a skimmer or spoon after they float to the surface (approximately 2 minutes). Serve with your favorite sauce and enjoy!

Good Sauces to accompany Gnocchi:

Marinara & Alfredo Sauce

We usually make these two sauces separately and mix them together as we're eating the gnocchi. It's a delicious combination as the marinara provides a robust flavor, while the cream sauce adds a delicate touch, helping prevent the gnocchi from being overpowered by the marinara.
Marinara Sauce
Time: 5 minutes preparation: 45 minutes to 1 hour cooking

3 cans tomato sauce
1/4 cup butter
1 medium onion, cut in half

Empty tomato sauce into large pot. Bring to a simmer and add butter and two halves of the onion. Simmer until ready to serve.

Alfredo Sauce
Time: 5 minutes

1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cup whipping cream
pinch of pepper
pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Melt together butter and whipping cream in saucepan over low heat. Mix in pepper and nutmeg, stirring until well incorporated. Add Parmesan cheese until completely combined.

Salvia e Burro (Sage & Butter)

This is one of those sauces that I make differently each time depending on my mood and how much pasta I'm cooking!

Time: 2 minutes preparation; 5 minutes cooking time

1/2 cup butter
several sprigs fresh sage (or 1/2 Tablespoon dried, crushed sage)

While the pasta is cooking, melt butter in large skillet over low heat until it starts to foam. Add sage leaves and toss for 1 minute while butter soaks up the sage flavor. Once your pasta has been drained, add it to the large skillet and toss over medium-high heat. With pasta now fully coated, serve and enjoy!