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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Italian Travel Tales: Nancy Drew, Schiacciata, and the Tuscan Villa

Historical Rendering - ok, a postcard, of Torre Cona Estate

Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Tuscan Villa

It must have been 2005, I've kind of forgotten the exact date - but I know for sure I was playing hostess for C'est si Bon!'s first Tuscan Sun Tour, a culinary extravaganza in October’s Chianti country about 8 miles outside Florence

The estate of Torre Cona had all the imposing stature of the grand times. The past. The parties. The people. The legend and the history of the owner. Count Rossi of Montelera or as we know him - Mr. Rossi of Martini and Rossi.

There were paths for carriages and paths for the workers. But I knew the path we were on. Up to No Good!

The Front Carriage Path to Torre Cona

We picked grapes in the afternoon. Followed by a tour of the public areas of the Villa. The porticos and the wine presses.

How beautiful this is. 


Lisa, Brenda, Cathy and Constance - friends and tour participants, all - gathered and talked about the imposing villa. The towering presence of Grandeur. We wondered, what were its secrets? Could we see more of the inside? How many rooms did she say? Three Hundred and Sixty? There were only six of us. 

It was a simple request.

Grapes Drying For Vin Santo, The Wine of Saints

The cooking class with Paolo that night was Gnudi Ravioli and this was all we needed to rev up our imaginations. We couldn’t stop giggling and gesturing at the innuendos. Of course we remained fully composed and while taking a break from cooking, we looked up the hill. One light in the villa was on. Was that the wing where they had said the owner lived? Was his son home from Germany for one night?

The answer came back. No, it wasn't allowed. It was too ...and then her voice trailed off. 

Too what? We lost the answer in the translation. Why didn't I learn more Italian! 

The Stony Path - looks fine now, but at night? 

We could sneak up to the stony path to the garden from Casa Villa after dark.

It was quite the dilemma.

Casa Villa

Could we worm our way inside from the garden, squashed tomatoes underfoot? The Sangiovese helped a little with the planning and a lot with the confidence. We could be quiet. Oh, sure we could. But look, it wasn’t our fault. It was forbidden. And the lure of not being allowed was too much to bear.

I was in charge of this culinary tour and so I said what I was supposed to say. Absolutely no. I fought with myself to be respectable. Don’t push too hard.

Oh, hell. 

With just a drop of Vin Santo for bon chance, off we went into the dark night. 

flatbread baked with bunches of grapes- schiacciata con grappoli d’uva 
makes 1 large round or flat bread

schiacciata con grappoli d’uva with muscadines

I recently made this again, but used what was local and available. Muscadines. Not Sangiovese grapes with seeds that I was dreaming about, but I plumb didn't have any. the skins pop off, leaving the flesh and seeds separate. not the same at all. you can make it without the extra fuss and the seeds, but if you do it is sweet, peppery, spicy, crunchy, and wet with the grapes’ warm juices. a legacy from the Etruscans, it is depicted in ancient friezes, being carried forth to the harvest tables. so harvest, and explore the unknown and carry forth, my little gnudi raviolis and peeps.

2 cups sprouted wheat flour
4 cups all-purpose flour, a little more or less
¼ cup plus 1 t. honey
2 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water plus more as needed, usually at least ½ cup more
1.2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 t. fresh rosemary leaves, minced
2 t. fennel seeds, crushed
2 t. anise seeds, crushed
1 t. freshly cracked black pepper
1 t. sea salt
2 cups green, purple, and red grapes
2/3 cup granulated sugar
a pepper grinder

the night or day before you want to enjoy this bread set out a large bowl and combine 2 cups of the sprouted wheat flour, 1 tablespoon of the honey, the yeast, and the warm water, allowing the sponge to sit overnight in the fridge.

remove from the fridge an hour before you put the rest of the dough together. 

in a small pan, warm the oil over a low flame and add the rosemary, fennel, anise, and black pepper, permitting the spices to perfume the oil for 10 minutes. remove from the flame and set aside.

return to the sponge in the bowl and add the remaining 4 cups of flour, the salt, ¼ cup of honey, the eggs, and all but 2 t. of the spiced oil with its seeds, incorporating the elements well.

turn the mass out onto a lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes. place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and permit the mass to rise for 30 minutes. deflate the dough and roll it, or flatten it with your hands, into a free-form circle or rectangle, and position it on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

squeeze the grapes and press them into the dough, drizzle them with the remaining 2 t. of spiced oil — seeds and all — dust them liberally with the sugar, and grind over generous amounts of black pepper. cover the bread with a clean kitchen towel and permit it to rise for 40 minutes.

preheat the oven to 400 degrees f. bake the schiacciata for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it is golden and swollen, the grape skins bursting. cool the bread on a rack for 5 minutes.

serve the bread very warm, warm, or tepid. wonderful with gorgonzola dribbled with honey and black pepper, and/or a glass of vin santo or other sweetish dessert wine.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Author: Kurt Koonz, A Million Steps On The Camino

Please welcome Guest Post Author, Kurt Koonz

Last year my husband, Rich, and I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We met trickles, oodles and meanderings of like-minded pilgrims or as pilgrims are called in Spain, Peregrinos. 

Some pilgrims you meet for a moment of walking, and others stay with you a wee bit longer! Kurt Koonz from Boise, Idaho, was one who stayed. 

(Kurt is the center guy- and I think this photo exemplifies his joie de vivre and outgoing spirit.)  

Author and Speaker, Kurt Koonz

He never considered writing a book until he walked nearly 500 miles across Spain in 2012. Those million steps were so compelling that he returned home and began writing and speaking about his life-changing adventures. Part diary, part travelogue, A Million Steps is a journey within a journey all the way to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela and beyondHe lives and writes on a tree-lined creek in Boise, Idaho.  Okay now, get your copy

On September 14 A Million Steps Launches at the Boise Film Premiere of the Documentary, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Wish I could be there - it looks like an amazing event! 

Trailer of Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago

In this excerpt Kurt shares some food memories of the walk..... 

Kurt, On the Way 

On the fourth day of my 500 mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, I was fortunate to have shared a meal with Dorette and Rich Snover.  Just like many of the great friendships that developed in Spain, this one started at a dining table.  Here is a story about my experience with food on the ancient path to Santiago.

While walking on the Camino, I chose to spend most of my time alone.  The social portion of my trip happened while enjoying coffee con leche on breaks and dining with strangers throughout the day.  Starbucks is no match for the strong and bold coffee that is mixed with scalded milk and sweetened with sugar.  Meals are typically eaten at “Bars” that have little resemblance to an American restaurant.  One of the best features of the eating on the Camino is that everyone is always welcome at any table. There are no cliques or pariahs in this lovely land. 

           After a few days, I was beginning to understand more about meals on the Camino. Breakfast (desayuno) typically consisted of slices of a crusty white bread with butter and jam. The deluxe version was to have the bread run through a heat machine resulting in toast. A less common breakfast option was tortilla de patatas. It is made with thinly sliced potatoes lightly fried in olive oil. Eggs and onions are added to the mix. When the mixture is firm, a fried tortilla is added to the top and bottom to create a round, pie-shaped meal. It is served like a slice of pie in a stand-alone manner, or between two pieces of bread for a sandwich. Lunch (almuerzo) was usually a “bocadillo,”––two slabs of bread with either thinly sliced ham or hunks of chorizo as the lonely ingredient.

For dinner (cena) the “Pilgrim Menu” became a mainstay every night with little variance on choice or price. Dinner cost 9-11 Euros and consisted of three courses—a first, second, and postre (dessert). The first course was pasta, mixed salad, soup, or paella. The second was pork, beef, chicken, or fish. Patatas fritas (fried potatoes) always accompanied this round. For dessert we could choose flan (caramel custard), natillas (soft custard), helado (ice cream), arroz con leche (rice with milk), or fruta (fruit). Every evening meal included bread, water, and wine.

Restaurants with pilgrim menus cater to walkers on the route. Most peregrinos are in bed by eight or nine o’clock, and the albergues turn off the lights at 10. The local inhabitants of each village follow a completely different meal pattern. They usually eat their biggest meal of the day at around two or three o’clock and then take a long nap or just relax for the daily siesta. For dinner, they begin to congregate around eight or nine and then spend hours eating a light evening meal where the focus is on socializing with family and friends. Most pilgrims are busy snoring in gargantuan proportions when the locals begin their nightly processions. The locals snore when the pilgrims exit their cities in the mornings.

Most villages have some type of grocery store, but they are a far cry from the typical retail outlets that overpopulate every American city. In the tiny villages along the Camino, a typical tienda may be large enough to accommodate three to four patrons at a time. They usually offer very basic items like bread, cheese, and a tiny produce selection. The entire fruit offering may be 10 apples and six oranges. The larger villages have stores the size of a small American convenience store. The four largest cities have traditional stores that resemble small grocery stores in the United States.
For people who require regularly scheduled meals, carrying food is always an option. If a person really needs provisions between stops, other pilgrims always seemed willing to help. It did not matter if it was an apple, bandages for blisters, or water for parched souls; any person in need could count on fellow walkers to offer assistance.
Food was also often available along the trail. Seeds from wild anise, with their licorice taste, became a staple of mine on the trip. We often passed trees loaded with apples, bushes full of wild blackberries, unlimited grapes in vineyards, and traditional farms with many vegetables including lots of red peppers. As a rule of thumb, anything that is wild or has naturally fallen to the ground is okay for pilgrims. Poaching veggies from the vines or fruit from the trees is not appropriate behavior for the many foreign visitors who walk the trail through Spain. Religious or not, I think there is a special place for those who violate this unwritten rule.
Given the long days of walking, this is a food connoisseur’s paradise because the caloric intake rarely exceeds the daily cremation of calories. 

Merci, Kurt, and Buen Camino! 
I hope you'll try his deliciously warm and filling soup, just made for days of walking! 
Kurt's Lentil Soup with Cilantro was inspired by the Camino and a Martha Stewart recipe 
3 strips (3 ounces) bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1/4-inch half-moons
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups lentils, picked over and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) reduced-sodium chicken broth (3 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
garnish: fresh chopped cilantro

 in a dutch oven (or other 5-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid), cook bacon over medium-low heat until browned and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat.
add onion, peppers, celery and carrots; cook until softened, about 5 minutes. stir in garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. stir in tomato paste, and cook 1 minute.
add lentils, thyme, broth, and 2 cups water. bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer. cover; cook until lentils are tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
stir in vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. garnish and serve immediately.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

French Travel Tales: All for One and One for All Becasse

Have you ever had a puzzling foreign food conversation? 
Has it not gone quite the way you thought? 

In September of 2011 I had returned with my oldest son and two dear friends to the Auberge in Poudenas, France.  I say the Auberge as if this might be any run of the mill Auberge. But no. The Auberge was the former La Belle Gasconne where women, and five generations of women to be exact, of Chef Marie-Claude Gracia's family had stood at the helm of foie gras and everything superbly Gasconne in this kitchen. 

From the kitchen of La Belle Gasconne

Since November of 1995 I have relished coming to Poudenas and this unpretentious and superb jewel, set deep in the countryside of Southwest France and in another century entirely.  

Youngest son, Jaryd, during the French summer of 1995. 

Erick, my oldest son, along with Alice and Jen, easily settled into the ambiance of La Belle Gasconne and September. 

Alice, Jen, and Erick

 Marie-Claude Gracia with her famous Salade de Foie Gras 

Jen and I spoke about this place, Gascony, as she also had a history here, having spent a few months on a writing sabbatical in a tiny village called Auvillor. We tried to eek out why it was that we loved this place so much. Was it a place in the heart as well, as a land-place? The spirit, the light of the hills and the vast expanse of by God there's no other way to describe it, unabashed fertility. Fertility, beauty, and timelessness. As certain as its a place on the map its also a spirit of genuineness and truth. Integrity. Something that moves you as it remains unchanged and serene. Something you can’t find or have anywhere else. 

Was this also true of Becasse? Becasse, or woodcock, is a revered and endangered little game bird, that is spoken of reverently and waxed upon, quietly. But my Becasse fire had been seriously stirred though I had never seen one, or tasted one.

Through Marie Claude and her sons, Jean-Claude and Jean-Antoine they proposed a meeting with a local man, a hunter named Noel. Noel, or Monsieur Becasse, as his legend preceded him, was a local farmer and game bird hunter. To find anyone who would talk about this mysterious bird was a feat in itself. The shrouded and hushed reverence about Becasse rivaled as many blissful secrets of the ages as you could imagine. And I could just imagine...

While Alice and my son, Erick, executive chef of his own place, bustled about in the kitchen, Monsieur arrived and sat with Jen and I in the dining room. 

Erick's sauce, beginning.  

Canard, waiting.

Monsieur Becasse was short and wiry, with glasses. I pictured him with a gun, darting about in the swampy land by the Gelise River. In many ways he appeared tres typique for a Frenchman. As he walked in the millhouse everything was c'est normal, as they say. His hair was dark and he was going bald. 

We began with a drink, a pousse rapier, classic Gascon fare. My friend Jen explained with a fin finesse  that I wanted to write about the Becasse, all the complexities, the lore and the hunt, and the culture. From his expression she might have said I was here to take over the village. 

In 2006 at a Cooking Class in La Belle Gasconne

(Shoot, I thought. I have a lot to learn about conducting an interview. And especially an interview with  French Becasse hunter. Rule #1 - Act as if you don't care to learn anything!) 

But he took a sip, and then Noel revved up. He motioned and pounded out a very passionate  retort. My friend, Jen, also got very emotional. The talk of Becasse sounded beautiful and dreamy and very poetic along with, peut-etre some Gascon boasting thrown in for good measure. This is the land of the Three Musketeers after all. I don't dare say, was. 

Now, if only I could understand what they were saying. 

Dinner began. 

Alice, and the plates.

Noel talked at me, his glasses slipping down his nose. Jen translated.  
"You want to know not only about the hunt, but about the culture of the Becasse?" 

"Oui." I said in as non-threatening way as possible. 

"There is no way," he said. "That a writer truly, possibly, could understand? A writer could never communicate this culture." 

"Never?" Now it was my glasses turn to slip down my nose.

"You never understand, he said, unless you go out and go hunting."
"Oui, Bien sur, " Yes, I agreed, now we were getting somewhere. As a writer or a woman, whoever I bloody well had to be - I was game to go hunting. 

Noel was quiet, while he puzzled over this. Or perhaps looked for a gun. 

"C'est possible le Becasse? Ala en plein air?" At this point, I unwisely bypassed Jen's translating talents and blurted. Was I asking what I wanted to know or if a Becasse was like a market? 

"Non, please tell her I don’t want her to go hunting with me." 

Ce soir #2, Noel, Monsieur Becasse, explains about his Palombe. 

I stared at my plate of magret. Okay, wait. "What?" 

"Non." He said again.

"D'accord." This is for Becasse after all. All for One and One for All Becasse. 

Once he accepted that I accepted I wasn't going hunting with him, Jen asked if there was just a chance to see the preparations, and enjoy Becasse – because again if you can’t understand Becasse till you eat Becasse, then how or where can I? Is this possible? 

"Will she be here in February."

This conflicted his earlier statement that the best hunting was in November but they don’t even bother to "hang" the birds they eat them immediately. 

I was beginning to understand. Yes, I was beginning to understand, about hunting a Becasse. 
Wasn't I? 

Have you ever hunted? Or asked a Frenchman about hunting? 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

C'est si Bon! Travel Tales: Soupe Basque and Porcini Hunting

September 1 - Feast Day of St. Gilles. 
Journeys, Basque Country, High Country, Porcini and Rams

Woke up a bit anxious to walk in the mountains of Colorado with my oldest son, Erick. Will I be able to keep up? Probably not. But there may be Rocky Mountain sheep sighted, as we hunt for porcini, king boletus mushrooms, to pluck from the earth.  

But no matter the speed with which we pursue the day, the day will be a journey. Journeys by nature are uncertain. All and every and any kind whether it be childhood, paths in the mountains or through vineyards, the unknown villages of adulthood, which has so many walks, trundles, scurryings, meanderings, and dartings -if dartings can be a noun for a few minutes- along the edge of the forest of your life. Until you come to a clearing. And then cross into another forest trail.  

Now Erick would likely roll his eyes at such musings, as he is very direct and forthright and doesn't mince words often. He's a chef, so he does lots of other mincing to be sure. He's had his own journeys and meanderings in this life passage we share. 

And what of the journey of the dear Saint for which this day is named? Have you ever heard of a hind? I had not till about oh, maybe a dozen years ago. Hind is the old name for a deer, a female deer. Now the King in Provence so believed in the work of St. Gilles that he sent a hind, to provide the hermit, Gilles, a means to sustain himself in the mountains. But I guess there was a general lack of communication and the King's hunting men spied the hind, drew their arrows and Gilles came out to protect her. Damn if the arrow didn't pierce the Saint's thigh, making him a bit less likely to take the long legged journeys in the mountains that he so enjoyed.

And as for our hike? It was a beautiful day on Shrine Mountain; Erick's backyard and he knows it well. As we sat on a long fallen tree for lunch, two mountain grouse flew overhead. We saw a plethora of mushrooms, its definitely the season. One other lady who was carrying a bulging bag, was picking another variety called Hawkwings. 

It turned out to be not a keeping up kind of hike at all, but more of a climbing walk - talking, stopping and searching for the elusive porcini amongst so many others. he showed me a lean to he had built years ago during another mushroom hunt that came up empty handed. Even if we had found none, it wouldn't have mattered. I was, and I even believe we were both sustained as we trundled through an immense and sacred forest on Shrine Mountain. 

The Journey not the destination. 

I am taking the porcini we found back home to share. So I will post the recipe and dish then. But so as not to leave you hungry the below recipe and tale come from FEAST DAY COOKBOOK by KATHERINE BURTON & HELMUT RIPPERGER, David McKay Company, Inc., New York. 1951

In Spain the shepherds consider Saint Giles the protector of 
rams, and on his feast it was formerly the custom to wash the rams and color their wool a bright shade, tie lighted candles to their horns, and bring the animals down the mountain paths to the chapels and churches to have them blessed.A similar custom prevails among the Basques. On September 1st, the shepherds come down from the Pyrenees, attired in their full costume, sheepskin coats and staves and crooks, to attend Mass with their best rams, in honor of Saint Giles. This is the beginning in the Basque country of a number of autumn festivals, marked by processions and dancing in the fields.

Soupe Basque
We've had a soup such as this as we walked the Camino last year in the Spanish Basque Country.

1/2 lb. dried beans            
2 cups chopped onions       
1 cup pumpkin pieces
1 cup chopped cabbage
1 clove garlic
salt and pepper 
8 cups stock

Soak the beans overnight, then rinse and drain. Brown the onion in a little bacon grease, then add the pumpkin, cabbage, beans, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and add the stock. Simmer for about three hours in a covered soup kettle.

Tree Stumps That Tell Tales

Prize Porcini

View From Shrine Pass

Long Tree For Lunch Table

Erick Leads the Way

An Abundance of Coral Mushrooms 

Odin with a Forest Toothpick
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