Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Formaggio a casa

Making ricotta at home is the teeniest bit of work but, with planning and organisation, not that difficult. In any case, it is well rewarded with fresh warm ricotta.

Disclaimer: technically NOT cheese, ricotta (means re-cooked, referring to the whey) is essentially the leftovers from cheesemaking.  In a nutshello, rennet in the cheesemaking process separates casein from whey proteins. Recall Miss Muffet and her curds and whey?  The whey is heated and acidified to coagulate the whey proteins and ta-dah! Ricotta.

While there are many things I could do with it, some fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey would be an easy brekky or dessert, straining the whey and making any number of sweets, pastries or savoury pasta fillings.. ricotta is a delicacy that lend itself to so many applications.

But, for me, the best accompaniment to fresh ricotta is a spoon.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Subite and not a moment too soon.

Here at la tavola, we like our beer. As for a definition of that beer.. let's just say that we are very happy that the art of the grain and little green plants extend far beyond the realm of mainstream brews.

And should you be able to get your hands on any of the lambics (gueuze, faro, or fruit styles), you'll clearly see, as well as taste, that there is beauty in diversity. Personally, while not a session contender for me, this kriek (cherry) brew is a bright and flavourful, fruity and slightly tart multi-purpose gem. It does a beauty job to stimulate the appetite as an aperitivo of sorts, accompanies any food where a rosé might be suggested, and it could easily be enjoyed when the cheese course is brought out.

Or quite simpy, when something refreshing is in order.


Friday, July 25, 2008

A seasonal salad

These yellow beans make for a lovely salad. Washed and blanched until just tender crisp, tossed with garlic, diced onion, dried oregano, seasoned with salt and pepper and then dressed with olive oil and white wine vinegar, they are a simple yet lovely contorno to grilled steak or spicy chicken.

Can be served at room temperature or slightly chilled.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pasta of the week

What a week it's been. Here at la tavola, we have much the same problem as Barbara over at winosandfoodies, both our birthdays fall within a few days of each other in the middle of July.

It's not a bad thing.. sometimes we share a cake, sometimes we (ok, I) make two, and we typically have a party (of varying degrees) on whichever date falls on the weekend. This year, not being overly significant ages (we're both past our 21st and nothing ending in '0') we kept it pretty low key. On Wednesday, had a nice dinner with a favourite bottle of wine and for the weekend birthday boy, a small backyard gathering featuring my favourite chocolate layer cake and Italian meringue icing.

The other half received a few nice bottles to accompany coffee and I received some lovely presents as well. I was delighted to be presented with a box of mixed goodies: a microplane, a Boos cutting board, a bottle of Ata Rangi Sauvignon blanc and a lovely wine journal.

Then, last week we were getting geared up for the Feast of San Giorgio Martire and San Giacomo Apolosto. Saturday was spent making sausages and running erands for last minute details and Sunday was the event day. We were at the church hall by 9am to preheat the ovens, dress the large sheet pizzas and get grilling the sausages. It makes for a busy weekend but it's wonderful to see the Saints paraded around like in San Giorgio Morgeto and also in Aosta.

In the middle of all this fun, I was also the recipient of some long lost/newly discovered ravioli moulds from the depths of the cantina. So for some kitchen therapy, I've been making pasta.

These are lovely old moulds, either brought over from Italy or bought at one of the many local shops that stocked popular Italian kitchen gadgets 30 years ago. No one quite agrees on the origin..

The pasta, on the other hand, is fresh. I've been making and freezing it for a family dinner next week. As well, some tiny ravioli (gluten free!) for my sister-in-law who suffers from a wheat intolerance.. made even more difficult with the temptation of a childhood favourite and the mainstay of the Italian table.

And I have to admit to being rather pleased with myself. I haven't done much cooking or baking with alternative flour and gum mixures before, so the fact that these turned out at all, passing both Mama's taste and texture test, was a bonus. The filling is a simple ricotta, pecorino sardo and egg mixture and we'll probably serve them with a basic fresh tomato sauce.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Magazine Mondays - Orange Ricotta Tart

Creampuff (from Creampuffs in Venice) had a great idea last year that I always thought that I'd try and adopt. And here is the fluffy ricotta orange zest honey egg yolk beginning of one orange ricotta tart.

Food magazines. I'm not the greatest for resisting those glossy covered magazines adorned with mouthwatering photos.. that wintery soup on the cover of the AGT or crackling covered roast on delicious (you know what I'm talking about). I love cooking and experimenting with savoury foods but with access to farmers markets, a great veggie garden and a darling local butcher, I rarely venture outside of the seasonal selction. I don't want to have to make special purchases out of season when nature's bounty is readily available and at it's best. Combine that with food experiences gained through travelling and I'm never at a loss for ideas (and potential experiments). My main weakness, however, when it comes to cookbooks would have to be my 'thing' for baking.

While there is an evident beauty in all produce, perhaps it is the dramatic transformation (not to mention therapeutic value) of nurturing flour, butter, eggs and/or yeast that I adore so much. Add to that cheese and simplicity, when I spied this gem in an edition of Fine Cooking.. the temptation was too much. It's quite similar, minus the cream, to my usual ricotta tart.

Orange Ricotta Tart. Adapted from Fine Cooking.

2lb. ricotta (don't low fat out here, also can be a mixture of mostly ricotta and/or bakers cheese supplemented with a few good sized tablespoons of cream cheese)

3/4 cup caster sugar

2 Tbsp. unbleached flour

pinch of salt

2 or 3 egg yolks (I used 2 size 7 because I had them leftover from making meringue.)

Zest and juice of half an orange (or 1 Tbsp. orange liqueur)

1 recipe of your favourite sweet pastry (paté sucre) or crumb crust, baked and cooled.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Combine the ricotta and/or mixture of cheeses (if using). I usually cannot resist a few good spoonfuls of fresh ricotta and fruit so I have to augment the amounts with something else.. Beat cheese at medium speed (with an electric mixer) until well blended and mixture is lump free.

Add sugar, flour, and salt and beat until well blended. Add the yolks, zest, and orange juice. Beat only until incorporated and with a rubber spatula, scrape the filling into the crust and spread evenly.

Bake the tart until the filling is nearly set (still a little wobbly). It will continue to set when removed from the oven. Approximately 30- 35 minutes. I've seen recipes that say to leave cheese cakes and tarts in the oven to cool but I removed this one from the oven and let it cool on a rack. Chill tart in the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Poolish, biga and sponge, oh my!

It's been a week long bake fest while I recover from jetlag, sort out my computer, procrastinate a little and maybe even celebrate a few birthdays.  Baking makes me feel like I am 'home' and doesn't quite qualify as procrastination (or at least justifies it a bit).  So, to that end, this is what's happening on top of the refrigerator at the moment. Poolish.

Poolish, biga, and sponge are all terms you may have seen in bread recipes, all referring to various methods of starting the leavening process as well as adding flavour and texture to bread through fermentation.  They are all types of pre-ferments that use partial amounts of flour and water with the teeniest bit of commercial yeast to get the party going before the main event.  While the basic fermentation, that of yeast, can be undertaken without this added complexity to give technically good bread, I prefer the little 'something else' added by this extra step.  Don't be daunted by the extra time (it's mainly waiting) of a pre-ferment, it's a very hands off type of activity.

Poolish is (approximately) a 1:1 water flour mixture given a kick start with a teaspoon or two of yeast (or as little as half a teaspoon). The top of the fridge isn't the warmest place in the house at the moment but it's draft free and keeps the countertop from getting too cluttered. The hot water cupboard is too warm for the slow cool ferment I prefer.

A cooler ferment, you may ask?  Isn't it heat I am after?? Well, yes, if the house is under 10C.. but no, if it is a constant say, 16C upwards. Just place the bowl on top of the fridge, near the back where there is the tiniest bit of warmth, and leave it for 24-48 hours. A longer cooler ferment retains the volatiles that will later contribute both flavour and aroma to your bread plus you don't want the yeast to run out of steam (or in this case nutrients) before they've done the work to leaven your bread.

This experiment recalls lessons from Micro 4804 back in the day and reminded me of my lovely gift to self (also a few years back) courtesy of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.  I won't turn this in to a book review but will say that this isn't the typical Alford/Duguid travelogue and regionally focused cookbook that you might be used to if you are familiar with their work. It's more of the bit of this, bit of that, here and there style of comforting home recipes they have amassed over their years trekking around the globe.  A few of their more personal souvenirs, if you will, that they now (with the possible exception of the high altitude chocolate cookies?) make at home.

I bought Homebaking with the eventual ideal of getting back to making all my own bread. I grew up eating only homemade (not by choice, I might add) but would have much preferred the store bought bread brought to school by my classmates.  Travelling has since expanded my definition of bread and I love a variety of types and styles to accompany different meals and foods (cheese!) as much as I enjoy pairing a meal with a particular beer or wine.

I picked a few recipes to run a few experiments for the simple reasons that they are time flexible and were similar to recipes from my favourite parts of Southern Italy, Apuglia and Calabria.

While I started the early day with a latte, the Pugliese sponge started with biga. Biga is drier than poolish, usually 2:1 flour to water. Don't be tempted to smooth it out with more liquid as it will hydrate on standing (water is a product of the fermentation process).  Once the biga has developed for about 12-24 hours, it is broken into pieces and made into a smooth batter with more water, flour and sometimes additional yeast. Not for beginners or anyone without deft hands, pugliese sponge 'dough' is more of a batter.  Slimy and slippery, you'll almost wonder if you've added too much water or somehow forgotten the bulk of the flour.

The trick of getting it into the oven from your peel is another matter but the loaf does rise and brown. It is a moist loaf, slices well and makes great toast a few days later.

The Calabrese loaf (it's actually called "Italian bread") could very well be any ubiquitous boulé from other regions but after trying it, it is very similar to the loaves churned out in Toronto's Little Italy and other Italian communities as Calabrese bread. These 3 1-kg loaves and 2 foccaccia began life as poolish.  Poolish is, again, wetter than biga, at about 1:1 flour water ratio with a bit of yeast (dissolved prior to adding the flour). The great feature of this bread was the ability for it to be tucked away in the fridge and made over a few days if timing wasn't the most convenient.

Above are the baker's treats: a steaming latté to start the day, lunch of tomato salad and and some homemade coppa with a pugliese bread roll, and, after a long day of baking the loaves, a cold beer. There are other rewards.  Since I made more than enough bread to keep us in stock for awhile, I also made a wonderful trade with my neighbour who was happy to have some fresh bread for dinner.  In exchange for a Calabrese loaf, I received a large bowl of spicy stoccafisso (similar to baccala) cooked in tomatoes. Very good with the bread to soak up the sauce.


Regalos from the Yucatán Peninsula

I first became truly enamoured with the cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula when I drove across it three years ago. On the peninsula, there are three states, Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. Aside from Cancún in the latter state, mainstream fast food chains do not predominate the landscape (thank goodness!) and although many restaurants do offer familiar choices, there are so many traditional and regional foods (and drinks) to choose from, why would anyone bother?

Even with Mexican cuisine becoming increasingly popular and available (we are now more open to the idea of adding chocolate to savoury dishes!), there are, however, still some issues with sourcing some of the authentic ingredients. While oregano or thyme are semi-reasonable substitutes for epazote and nopal and tomatillos are now available dried or in tins, it is the flavour of the dried chiles (ok, and the cheese) whose flavour I miss the most when recreating Mexican dishes at home.

Above are a few of my recent aquisitions. The short wrinkled dark chile to the far left of the platter is an ancho chile (a dried poblano) that, of the three, is probably the sweetest by far. Rehydrated and pureed, it lends its earthy flavour and subtle heat to my favourite red rice (arroz rojo de chile ancho).

The two dark rust coloured chiles in the middle of the platter are slightly more pliable and quite thin skinned in comparison to the ancho. They are guajillo chiles and they have a mild to moderate heat brought even more alive with a light toast on a grill plate or comal. This flavour is a perfect ground as an addition to a dry rub for grilled ribs or a pork tenderloin or in a paste for Oaxacan mole.

And finally, the deep dark black red pasjilas (a dried chile chilaca). These are the hottest (medium to hot heat) of the lot. I'm thinking that one of these in a large pot of chilli con carne will layer in a toasted warming complexity to that basic dish or in a paste I'd add to 'charro' beans.

The care package also contained some tamarind and mango lollies, also flavoured with .. you guessed it.. chiles for a subtle sweet heat.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Christine's Moussaka

More than a few years ago now, I watched the resident Greek Cuisine Queen of Food Network Canada, Christine Cushing, in an episode of her popular 'Live' show.   The program featured a broad variety of cuisines, savoury and sweet dishes, and guest chefs.  Although the food of her heritage only made the occasional appearance, and sometimes her mum too, my love of Christine's approach to food was sealed with this dish.  Now while we can't deny the instant appeal (at least among those of us with an inkling of a sweet tooth) of the honey syrup pistachio goodness of baklava, or the flaming cheese showstopper, saganaki, it was the moussaka that really got my attention.

The fragrant simmering meat sauce, creamy béchamel, savoury potatoes and roasted eggplant layers all culminate into a wonderful warming dish perfect for nights that the rooftops are frosted and the first smudges of woodsmoke are wafting from chimneys across a windless, moonlit Manawatu (or Maniototo) sky.. If savoury comfort food has a defining dish, moussaka would certainly be in the running.

While Greece is generally credited with 'inventing' moussaka, variations on the theme can also be found in the cuisines of Turkey, where green pepper is a popular inclusion, as well as Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, where it is made with pork and a yoghurt-type topping.  I'd encourage anyone who makes this dish to try it with lamb.   I find that it's flavour blends perfectly with the oregano, cinnamon and nutmeg.  I also embellish the béchamel a bit, adding a bay leaf, garlic and a bit of onion (removed before use) for a litle more complexity. And since we're taking liberties, a little lemon brightens up the potato layer. 

And nothing complements this dish like a glass of your favourite red. I highly recommend the Cantina Dorgali Cannonau (gorgeous Sardegnian Grenache) that I decanted an hour before dinner.