Archive for the ‘Producers’ Category

Olive harvest at a family-owned estate in Sicily

During our Sicily food tour, a highlight of the trip is spending time on a family-owned olive estate during the time of olive harvest and extraction of their excellent olive oil. We stroll with the owner in the orchards, gardens, and mill, and learn all about the process and about what goes in to making a great olive oil.

The olive orchard.

The vegetable garden.

We learned that:
– Harvesting the olives at the right moment, while still green, means maximum flavor and lower yields – they much prefer quality to quantity
– Getting the olives to the mill right away is important, so they don’t sit and start to ferment
– Rinsing and sorting them thoroughly, to remove leaves and twigs, helps too
– Extracting the oil using the gentlest mechanism possible, to produce the least heat during the process, also maximizes quality and flavor

The care they take during the entire process means they create an intensely flavorful, fresh oil, with an incredible color too.

Here are two video snippets from one of our visits.

First, the olives being milled – the estate we visit mills its own olives. The olives are hand harvested in their orchards, and driven to the milling building. The olives are unloaded onto a conveyor belt, which takes them into the rinsing stage, they are hand-sorted, then dried, and then move into the extractor, which turns slowly and gently to separate the oil from the solids.

The second video is of the owner, Gabriella, talking a bit about the olives and the harvest process. The harvest goes on for weeks, and she and her father and other family members and workers, work pretty much around the clock.

That evening, we all sat down to a wonderful dinner in her villa of a variety of homemade local specialties, featuring their excellent oil of course, as well as produce from their gardens and fruit trees, local fresh and aged cheeses, and their house-marinated olives. Everything was delicious.

Walking up to the villa with Gabriella

The first course - local cheeses, and homemade spreads and marinated olives.

A visit to D. Barbero Candy Company, in Asti, Piedmont, Italy

Last month we paid a visit to the artisanal candy company D. Barbero in Asti, Piedmont, Italy, and were given a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour by Davide – he and co-owner Giovanni are 6th-generation family owners. They are proud of the fact that the company is and always has been in the vibrant city center of Asti, rather than relocating to the more-convenient suburban industrial areas.

Davide, next to a candy case that their traveling salesmen used in the early 1900s.

A torrone box from the early 1900s.

D. Barbero is most famous for the production of artisanal torrone, a light, crumbly sweet that’s been popular in Italy for literally thousands of years – the Romans had a taste for it. D. Barbero’s version is packed full of excellent ingredients like a particular kind of local honey called Millefiori, real vanilla, Piedmont hazelnuts, and Bronte pistachios from Sicily. They have won many awards for it over the last 100 years or so.

After we toured the little historical section of the building, where they have their medals and certificates and also candy machines from the early 1900s, we went upstairs to the production area.

This is the room where the torrone is made, and Davide introducing it to us. The air had a light aroma of honey and hazelnuts.

The torrone starts out as a fairly thin liquid, and then as it’s gently stirred by the torrone machines it gets thicker and thicker.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, the fresh nuts are shelled, roasted, skinned, and then carefully checked for any bad ones. The nuts are then added to the gently-stirred torrone when it’s at the right consistency. The batch they were making that morning was with hazelnuts rather than pistachios:

Once the nuts have been added and the final consistency is reached, they remove the torrone using wooden paddles, lightly shape it, press and roll it into wooden trays, let it harden, and slice and package it. (Our tour was hands-on at this point – we got to help press a batch into the wooden trays.)

Then we went down to their shop, and tasted many of their products. I had never tried torrone before, and loved the light, crunchy texture and delicate honey and nut flavor.

Davide cutting up samples for us in the shop.

Samples of the torrone, as well as their chocolate-covered grissini (breadsticks) and gianduja (chocolate-hazenut) candies. Yum!

Ari’s Visit to Mulino Marino, Artisanal Polenta Producers, Piedmont, Italy

The October 2011 Food Tour to Piedmont will be visiting Mulino Marino too! Below is Ari’s story of his visit there. -Jillian

Polenta: A Tale of Poverty and Pride
by Ari Weinzweig

To see the pride side of the Italian relationship with polenta, you could take the same trip I did a few years back, to visit one of the best little polenta mills in the Piedmont. This is the region in the upper left-hand corner of the map of Italy that starts in the north at the Alps, and descends down southward until it runs up against the Italian Riviera. Like the rest of northern Italy, the Piedmont has a 300-year-old tradition of growing, drying, grinding and cooking corn. And the Marinos are carrying that tradition forward with enormous enthusiasm.

The Best Little Polenta Mill in Italy?

I can’t say with certainty that the mill of the Marino family makes THE best polenta in Italy—there are a handful of other small mills scattered around Italy that may well make similarly superb products. But I can tell you that the Marinos’ polenta is so far superior to that of the commercial brands that it seems almost another product altogether.

The day we went, it was a wonderfully sunny autumn afternoon and the air was cool, dry and deliciously crisp. The mill sits in the tiny town of Cossano Belbo, high in the hills of the Piemonte. It’s near the truffle town of Alba, not all that far from coastal Liguria, the land of the Italian Riviera. About an hour’s drive down from Turin, you exit the autostrada, cross over the river and head up a small hill, before turning to the right, into the Marino’s mill yard. Inside the gate, there’s room for half a dozen cars to park, or, alternatively, for plenty of corn to dry at the end of the harvest. On the right side is the old works; on the left, a building which houses a newer, more industrial, roller mill. Off to one side is a more modern home, where one of the Marino sons lives with his family. At the back is the old family house cum office, where, happily, a few hours later, we had the opportunity to eat platefuls of the family’s freshly ground polenta.

The old mill room is small, maybe 15 by 15 feet square. It looks like something out of the 19th century, or maybe like a museum piece created to teach modern youths about 19th century milling. The back half of the space is taken up by a raised, reinforced, wooden platform, upon which sit two pairs of powerful granite millstones. The set on the left is for grinding wheat, the one on the right for cutting corn. Unlike those used to press olives—which stand up on edge—the stones used for milling grain lie horizontally, one above the other. Each is about ten inches thick, and roughly four feet across. A trio of steel strips wraps the outer edges of each. The sets of stones sit inside square, well-worn wooden frames, each about five feet across. The stones spin steadily, if slowly by modern standards. Today the mill is powered by electricity, but it was water powered up until the 1950s.

As in almost every old millhouse I’ve ever visited, the Marino’s have a complex, almost comedic, spaghetti-like set up of old wooden gears, pipes, augurs, wires and widgets of various shapes and sizes that make up the works of the mill. Hanging above the spinning stones is a wooden spout that flows out from a hopper holding the dried corn. As the tube vibrates, corn kernels are dropped down into an opening in the center of the moving millstones to begin the grinding process. A steady stream of new yellow polenta pours out another spout below the stones. A hand-carved, well worn, wooden “basket,” with three-inch thick sides, and about two feet long at its most oval-line ends, is used to catch the milled grain as it tumbles out. Hanging on the wall behind the stones is an assemblage of weathered wooden tools, the color of dark leather.

Born to Mill

As we walked the yard, I inquired about the history of the Marino’s mill. I admit, I was hoping to hear some romantic story. Perhaps polenta making had been in the family for 500 years? Or maybe the Marinos were the first Italians to grind corn after Columbus’ return voyage from America? But as it turns out, the Marinos are actually relatively new to milling. A mere three generations—the youngest of which is only in its early teens—have worked the mill. Granted, by American expectations of stability that may seem staunchly solid. But it’s little more than a baby by Italian standards.

Felice (pronounced “Fell-eé-chay”) Marino, the father and polenta patriarch, was born in 1922. About 5’6″, with thin gray hair, and a gray cap, he’s still surprisingly active in the work of the mill. Hand extended, he smiles at me and says, “Marino”—first names are usually forgotten in rural Italian introductions. His hands are rough, but his demeanor is soft. The fingers are broad, well worn from 45 years of milling, with some the thickest fingernails I’ve ever seen.

I casually ask Felice if he grew up here at the mill. Many artisans in Italy spend their entire lives in the same spot working at the same profession, the question was almost a throwaway. So I was caught off guard when he responded with an emphatic, “No!” It’s rare to find Italians relocating to small villages like this one—I wonder if maybe he moved out here from the city as part of some post-war back-to-the-land movement? “No,” he continues, “I’m from over there,” he says, pointing his bent forefinger at a spot high up on the opposite side of the valley. “In another village, up in the mountains.” In America “here” might easily mean merely anywhere in the same state. The town Felice is from might, at most, be five miles away. But in rural Italy, “here” is only this village. Everywhere else is, by definition, “there.”

Over on the other side of the valley, Felice grew up in a family of farmers. But he seemed fated to end up a miller. As a boy he worked as a day laborer, carrying grain to what is now the Marino’s mill. Later his sister married a miller. The older he got the more he was drawn to milling. “In those days,” he said, “there were only three things you could do: religion, medicine, or work with your hands.” In 1955, at the age of 33, Felice followed his heart, left the family farm, and bought out the ready-to-retire miller who’d employed him as a youth. At that time, he told me, “there were nine other mills within 10 kilometers of this one.” Today, his is the only one left. He points to places around the valley, reciting a rosary of names for the now-vanished mills of an earlier era.

The Milling

As we walk, Ferdinando and Flavio, Felice’s sons, enthusiastically explain the milling to us, answering questions, sharing stories, demonstrating the workings of each piece of equipment. Ferdinando, the older of the two, has a handsome, wears a well-trimmed beard and is contagiously enthusiastic about his cornmeal. Flavio, the younger brother, looks much like Ferdinando but younger and without the beard. He seems to be the more technically oriented of the two. Grandson Fulvio, Ferdinando’s younger son, follows, is even more enthusiastic than his father, adding to the conversation with family stories and anecdotes. The kid is incredible. A natural born leader, he’s like 12 going on 24. He carries himself with an assertiveness and confidence that many men never develop at any age.

When we return to the mill room, Grandfather Marino stands off to the side. Although he looks like he’s listening to the conversation, I know he’s paying more attention to the polenta than to the people. As the rest of us talk, he casually, quietly, sticks his hand under the flow to check the feel of the newly ground meal. Saying nothing, he adjusts the wheel, checks the feel again, turns back to the conversation at hand.

Best I could understand it, the old milling system the Marinos use is known as “palmenti;” the bottom stone stays still while the top one turns. Put your palms together parallel to the floor, then turn the top hand slowly and you’ll get the idea. The bottom stone has a pattern of deeper grooves shooting out from its center at off-angles, interwoven, in turn, with a tapestry of similar, but slimmer, slots. The two stones never touch but are close enough that as the corn catches in the grooves, the kernels are actually cut—not ground—into their various components. The thinner grooves then grind the polenta as finely as needed. The centermost ring of the stones is known as the cuore, or “heart.” Moving outward, the sections of the stones are known as “the stomach,” and then, the outermost ring, “the binda,” meaning “jack.” The narrower grooves guide the newly ground corn toward the outer edge of the stones, where it falls into the wooden frame and then out the spout into baskets below. At the same time, the deeper “canals” etched into the stone allow outside air to pass between the wheels, protecting the grain from overheating.

Feelin’ Groovy

As heavy as the stones are I’d have thought they simply stayed in their spots, steady and well-secured for a good 10 or 20 years. Seriously, who’d want to move something so huge? To ensure effective operation, the stones must be removed from their housing a couple of times a month (after roughly 15 to 20 tons of corn have been milled), so that their channels can be checked, then re-cut as needed. Later I learn that American millers call this “dressing the stones.” After removing the wheels from their housing, the brothers run a board with natural red pigment over the wheels to mark the spots where the surface has been ground down. They then set to work with an old wood-handled hammer and a chisel to get the grooves back into shape. The hammering is hardly heavy-handed; it takes skill, and a delicate touch with the tools. Different hammers are used to chisel out different groove depths. Most all of the pigment that’s marked the surfaces has to be removed before the stones are again ready for use.

The Marinos proudly—and repeatedly—point to a stack of four extra sets of stones sitting off to the side of the yard. Since the stones can last decades, such a stockpile signals a miller’s commitment to the future of their work. Talk about slow inventory turns—the Marinos have a multi-generation supply.

Meal in the Mill: Polenta Four Ways

In a sense, eating polenta with the Marinos was a singular experience—a big family meal, the kind I fantasize Italian food artisans always have. At the same time, though, it wasn’t really all that different from the Friday night (Sabbath) family meals I grew up with. We could have easily be eating with my family back in Chicago instead of the Piedmont. Dozens of family photos hang randomly on wood paneled walls. The women keep mostly to the kitchen, cooking, conversing, and stirring, emerging only occasionally to offer up another course and check the group’s progress on the last. Meanwhile, the Marino men and the guests sit at the table, where almost everyone seems to talk at the same time. The kids wander in and out of the room at random moments. As we talk polenta, the dog barks annoyingly. Finally one of the grandsons grabs a breadstick off the table and flings it out the open door. The dog pursues his edible prize into the yard, and the grandson shuts the door behind him, dropping the decibel level down a notch or two. As each course comes from the kitchen it’s accompanied by big smiles on female faces, coupled with concern that the guests aren’t getting enough to eat. This is my first visit to the Marinos, but I keep feeling like I’ve been at this meal a thousand times before.

Any illusion of déjà vu ends when we start to eat. This is nothing like what I grew up with. Baskets come to the table filled with thick slices of bread, hand cut from a pair of square, whole grain loaves. One is made from farro, known in English as “emmer” (though it’s often mislabeled as spelt), one of the ancient, Etruscan grains of the area. The other bread is made of Monococco, which apparently is even older than the emmer. All the grain has, of course, been freshly milled by the Marinos. You can smell the “scent of the germ oil” in the bread, they say. “It’s the best advertisement,” Ferdinando Marino, the oldest of the brothers, mentions. “The fragrance of the scent of nature,” chimes in Flavio, the younger of the two. Both breads show plenty of air holes, a sign of a well-made, traditional loaf. Light brown, with a nice, nutty flavor, they’re more akin to American whole wheat than something I’d have associated with Italy. But then I guess the Etruscans certainly wouldn’t have considered polenta Italian either since they lived a few thousand years before Columbus brought corn back from the Americas.

The first course is composed of simple slices of salame cotto, lardo, and pancetta (more on each of these in a minute). We pull the pieces from big platters, set them on slices of the warm brown bread, and eat as is. All are delicious, and, unfortunately, not really available over here; with half a dozen exceptions—led by Prosciutto di Parma—the cured pork products of Europe aren’t yet allowed into the United States.

The salame cotto is made from pork trimmings, seasoned with spices then stuffed into a natural casing. Simmered for hours to make it tender, it’s typical of a poor region like the Piemonte, where no part of the pig was allowed to go to waste. Served warm, it has the texture of a coarsely ground sausage, with a slightly sweet, savory, meaty flavor. Pancetta is probably familiar by name to many Americans, where it’s often referred to as “Italian bacon.” But this is a whole ‘nother piece of pork than what we’re used to. In North America we eat pancetta cooked. But at the Marinos—and in much of Italy—it’s standard service on upscale antipasto platters, in which case it’s consumed raw, in thin, prosciutto-like, slices.

Lardo, on the other hand, is almost unknown in America. The name alone is enough to put people off its path. Our loss. In Italy, lardo is about as lavish an antipasto offering as foie gras would be in France. To make it, the butcher uses what is essentially American bacon minus the meat. This snowy white fat is then rubbed with coarse salt, rosemary and other spices, then set aside to cure for a matter of months ‘til it’s ready to eat. About as tender as a slice of gently smoked salmon, lardo is pure, cured pork fat with a hint of herbs that pretty much melts in your mouth. You may well be thinking that this sounds terrible. It isn’t. It’s intensely rich, and very good. Eating it—and watching the relish with which Italians consume it—drives home for me once and for all the Italian argument that the fat on a prosciutto is essential to its flavor. If you still had any illusions that the meat—not the fat—matters most, a little lardo will certainly set you straight.

Polenta #1 Polenta Fritta

While we’re finishing up the cold antipasti, the polenta dishes start to surface. First comes polenta fritta—fried polenta. This is made by cutting cooked, cooled polenta into thin rectangles, coating them with additional, uncooked polenta, and then, finally, frying them in olive oil ‘til they’re the color and texture of crisp French fries. The polenta pieces are truly golden in color, both inside and out; it’s a shade so vibrant I’ve come to expect it only in advertising, but rarely in real life. “When you fry our polenta,” says Flavio proudly, “it gets more yellow.” He smiles, then adds, “When you fry industrial polenta, it gets gray.” Lightly crisp and slightly chewy on the outside from the coating of raw corn meal, the slices are tender and soft on the inside. It only takes about two bites before I can tell that this meal is going to be something special. The polenta pieces taste so sweet I ask if there’s sugar in the mix. “No!” comes the quick reply. “Just the polenta.”

“That’s it?” I ask to make sure I’ve understood correctly. “That’s it!” they say. “Just polenta.”

Polenta #2 Con Bacalao

The second course comes out of the kitchen on a wide white oval platter, fresh from the oven. Coin-shaped pieces of cornmeal—cut, again, from sheets of cooked, then cooled polenta—which have been quickly pan-fried in olive oil, then topped with a creamy sauce of salt cod and spices. The bacalao (salt cod) is soaked, then—I think—simmered in milk and water ‘til its tender. Finally, the fish is beaten with olive oil, which, author Anna Teresa Callen (one of the other guests) tells me forcefully, “must be of Liguria.” (“Or,” she adds, accurately, “of Garda, but that’s so expensive, it’s out of the question.” The point is that the oil must be delicate, not strong, or it will overwhelm the fish.)

“About how much oil?” I ask, starting to put together a recipe in my head. “As much oil as the fish will hold,” I’m told. Then add chopped parsley. The sauce is creamy, but sturdy enough to sit atop the polenta pieces without running off. The eight Italians at the table argue vociferously over the proper way to prepare the bacalao. I focus, instead, on the polenta. Then they veer off into an argument over how and when salt cod first arrived in the land-locked Piedmont. Most likely, they decide, it was brought up into the mountains from the coast, in trade for the above-mentioned Ligurian oil, anchovies and other fish from the coast.

Polenta #3 Soft Coarse Polenta

As the salt cod conversation continues, a big, beautiful white bowl of just-cooked polenta emerges from the kitchen in the arms of one of the Marino women. The texture is akin to that of thick, homemade mashed potatoes. It’s incredibly sweet, with . . . what can I say? . . . an intensely appealing flavor of corn. It’s so good, so much more flavorful than any other polenta I’ve ever had that it makes me think back to something I heard years ago from Irish cheesemaker Veronica Steele. She declared one day that, “the difference between a cheese made from raw milk and another from pasteurized milk is the difference between a real sheep and plastic one.” In this case, it’s the difference between real corn and some sort of emasculated, industrial, Quaker Oats rendition.

Amazed at how good it is, I ask one of the Mrs. Marinos what’s in it. “Polenta,” she says matter of factly. I sit quietly for a minute before she realizes I’m looking for a little more information. “The polenta,” she repeats, “. . . with water, and salt.” I sense that she’s starting to look at me a little strangely. It’s not that I doubt her. I’m just sort of stunned by just how good something so incredibly simple can taste. The polenta—the Marinos’ cornmeal—makes all the difference.

Accompanying the polenta is something I didn’t expect to find in land-locked Piemonte: a tomato sauce, laced with tuna, coarsely chopped hard-cooked eggs, garlic and lots of olive oil. Again, the impact of being on the trade route from the coast to the mountains makes itself felt in the presence of the fish.

Polenta #4 Soft Fine Polenta

Moments later, another big white bowl arrives, this one filled with steaming hot, finely ground polenta. Texturally, it’s slightly softer and a bit moister than the coarse ground, but I’m sure that’s a function of a higher ratio of water to corn meal. It takes less time to cook the fine stuff. Only an hour. Personally, I prefer the coarser polenta, but they’re both powerfully good.

The sauce for this dish is similar to that served with polenta #3, but this one uses anchovies instead of tuna, and has a higher dose of hot pepper and chopped garlic. In dialect, they call it bagna d’infern (meaning “bath of hell” or “the devil’s sauce”). When I hear the name it reminds me that the Piedmont is also the land of bagna cauda, the “hot bath” of garlic, anchovies and olive oil. The Piemontese, I think to myself, must really be fond of bathing.

Dessert

Here, I was hoping for a cake made from polenta, but my hope was in vain. I’m sure the Marinos figured they’d already offered up more than enough cornmeal for one afternoon’s eating. We did, happily, get some delicious pears cooked in Dolcetto di Alba wine. The pears are very ripe, and simmered with sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. The sauce is reduced to make a thick, sweet syrup, the texture of a really old Balsamic vinegar, which clings prudently to the poached pears.

Passion and Polenta

Ironically, interestingly, the Marinos seem to have set up a future for the mill that appears to be as solid as the millstones. Felice’s sons and grandsons all appear to be extremely committed to continuing. Those extra sets of hard to-find-old millstones sit in the yard, waiting to be called into use when future generations beckon. Perhaps most importantly, demand for their polenta and wheat flour is stronger than ever. Despite its higher price, restaurants and locals alike line up to buy it.

“Why is your polenta so popular?” I ask.

Ferdinando and Flavio answer adamantly, and almost in unison, “The flavor!” Having eaten immense amounts of it over the last couple hours, it would be hard to argue with them. In fact, I’m getting ready to join the line of buyers, by laying the groundwork to get some to Ann Arbor to sell in Ann Arbor. Having seen the mill, and listened to them talk over lunch, it’s pretty clear that they’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that their polenta is something special. Still, it’s obvious there are easier ways to make a living.

“Why work so hard?” I wonder aloud.

“For Papa!” Flavio says laughing. Although the father is small in size, and now formally defers to his sons in the business, it’s clear from the conversation that Felice Marino is more of an emotional force in the family than one might guess at first glance. “And,” adds Ferdinando, “un gran passione.” A grand passion for great polenta.

That they have that passion is obvious. When they talk about it, the Marinos’ eyes light up. And having dined on the stuff almost daily for decades, here they are, still eating it with relish. Throughout, our conversation is peppered with plenty of laughter. Hearty handshakes abound. The whole family exhibits an authenticity, a passion, an enthusiasm that comes only from being proud of your work and at peace with yourself.

This enthusiasm, this passion for what they do, gets me thinking of what we do back home. I think that same passion that business people from other industries are often drawn to at Zingerman’s. They see this “grand passion” and they want it. Mistakenly, they think it comes just from being close to the food, so they set themselves up in a food business, only to find out that as great as great food can be, it won’t ever make you a new person. Living the reality of the “grand passion” isn’t easy, nor is an accident of fate. I think it’s a choice. When people like Marinos choose this passion, they consciously give up any number of the easier, more financially rewarding paths available in order to stick to something we really believe it. As Paul reminded me the other day, “You have to give something up to get something.” The artisans must give up the chance to, maybe, make more money, or take more time off, in order to produce something for which they have that “gran passione.”

Risotto with Clams

I have rarely cooked a dish starting with live clams, but I was feeling adventurous on Saturday, and I had a bag of great risotto from Piedmont in my pantry (we’ll be visiting this risotto grower on our food tour to Piedmont in October), and a fairly straightforward, gluten-free, Risotto with Clams recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, so I went for it.

The clams cooked quickly in the pan, just in their own juices. I know there are “no-stir” risotto recipes out there, but I am a risotto newbie so I followed this recipe closely – it said stir, so I stirred. Adding the liquid a bit at a time. It worked fine. The key was to have all the ingredients prepped ahead of time, so I could stir with one hand and add them with the other hand.

Littleneck clams

The other ingredients

The recipe needed a bit of dry white Italian wine, and we drank the rest of the wine to accompany the meal. Light yet filling, a satisfying winter meal.

Adding a bit of liquid at a time to the risotto

The finished dish.

Below is a slight variation on her recipe (I lowered her quantities here since I was cooking for 2-3 servings instead of 6). Enjoy, -Jillian

Risotto with Clams, from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Ingredients
18 small littleneck clams
1/2 Tablespoon onion, chopped fine
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped fine
1 Tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup Italian risotto rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
Chopped hot red chili pepper, to taste
Salt
Black pepper, freshly ground

Directions:
1. Wash and scrub the clams. (Marcella Hazan has a long description of this in her book, with multiple changes of water. The fish market I was buying from had already cleaned their clams a fair amount so I had it easy.) Put them in a broad pan so the clams are spread out, cover the plan, and turn heat to high. Check the clams frequently, turning them over. Remove them from the pan as they open. When all the clams have opened, detach the meat from the shells and cut the meat into 2 or 3 even pieces. Save the juices from the pan in another bowl. (Again she has detailed instructions for removing yet more sand from the clams and the juice, which I did not do.)
2. Meanwhile, bring a pan with 3 to 5 cups of water to a slow steady simmer. Then in a very sturdy pot (enameled cast iron is great) put the chopped onion and 1-1/2 T olive oil and turn heat to medium-high. Cook and stir until the onion is translucent, then add the garlic. When the garlic is pale gold, add half the parsley, stir, then add the rice. Stir quickly and thoroughly for 20 seconds until the grains are coated well. Add the wine, stir. When all the wine is gone, add the clam juices, stir. When the clam juices are all gone, add the simmering water in 1/2 cup increments, stir until its all incorporated/evaporated, then add more. After the first few half-cups, add the hot chili pepper, salt, and black pepper. Keep cooking, stirring, and adding simmering water until the rice is tender but firm to the bite, and with just enough liquid to make the consistency somewhat runny. Add the clams, the remaining parsley, and 1-1/2 T olive oil, mixing thoroughly. Transfer to plates and serve immediately. (We poured yet a bit more extra virgin olive oil over the top.) Enjoy with a dry Italian white wine.

Parmigiano Reggiano – there’s no going back!

Once you buy a chunk of real parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) from a good cheesemonger, there’s no going back to “shakey cheese” in a can – the real thing is so good! It makes my mouth water to think about the taste, and it has little crunchy bits in it (amino acids, I’m told) that give it a texture I love. I grated some on my leftover pasta with meatballs for my lunch today… is it lunchtime yet? In October 2011 we will take our Tuscany tour to visit the cheesemaker in the hills outside of Modena who makes the (80-pound!) wheels that Zingerman’s carries. Zingerman’s experienced tasters pick the best cheeses, and care for them expertly in their cheese cave. -Jillian

Chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Sicily tour 2010 – in progress!

Palermo – Caltagirone – Ragusa – Modica – Siracusa
(photos are at the end of the post)

We’re two-thirds of the way through our tour of beautiful Sicily, ten of us traveling in a half-sized, very comfortable bus that does well on the narrow roads. We’ve spent three nights each in Palermo and in Ragusa, exploring the food traditions of the two regions, enjoying the scenery, and learning about this island’s history and culture too, a complex mix of influences dating back thousands of years, including ancient Greek, Roman, Norman, Byzantine, Arab, and Spanish to name a few!

The meals have all featured foods of each region we’re in, and as seasonal and local as possible, including seafood, meats, vegetables and fruits, breads, cheeses. We have all learned to pace ourselves when eating here – there is so much fabulous food to try, and Italian culture is such that they serve multiple courses at lunch and at dinner – so cleaning our plates is an impossibility. So we are getting good practice at conscious eating. We taste each bite, and savor it, and don’t keep eating out of habit.

We’ve visited a 100-year-old artisanal chocolate-maker in Modica, watched them make their chocolate and then got to taste all the different kinds. We went to a small winery that treated us to a wonderful tasting of their wines, after the vinologist gave us a tour and explanation of the process. And we all sat down to a lunch together, featuring locally made foods including eggplant caponata, Sicilian pizza, salamis, fresh and aged cheeses, and marinated olives from their own groves.

And, yesterday was our cooking class! In the morning we went with Chef Claudio to get the ingredients. Our first stop was to a local dairy farmer and traditional cheesemaker. We learned about Ragusana, the aged DOC cheese that they make, and watched them make a batch of fresh ricotta and then got to taste it – so good. Claudio purchased the aged and fresh cheeses he needed. Then on to the meat market where we tasted salamis and Claudio bought a selection of meats, and the vegetable and fruit market where we learned about how he shops and about how different varieties of the same vegetable are used in Italian cooking and why. Back at the hotel that afternoon, we divided into four teams, each team assisted by one of more cooks, and we helped make that evening’s six course dinner! From fresh ravioli to stuffed chicken to fish balls to almond mousse and more. Was great fun.

Today, we head to the northwest of Sicily, to the area of Marsala. Onward!

Wine tasting at Ceuso winery west of Palermo

Part of our tasting lunch in Ragusa

Cathedral in Palermo

Ready for our cooking class!

Chef Claudio deboning a hen

Modica at night

Mmm olives...

Canolo!

Cannoli from Sicily

My mom is arriving to visit me today. She has been on a quest to find cannoli here in the U.S. that are as good as what she had in Sicily on last October’s food tour – so far no luck! We had cannoli in several places during the tour in Sicily, but they were especially fantastic at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modena – where they’ve been making artisanal Sicilian chocolate and pastries for over 100 years. Yum.

Sicilian cannoli