Favorite Photos

Favorite Photos
Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Friday, August 26, 2011

Facciamo Cuocere.....Let's Cook.......fish!

My husband has never been very fond of tomatoes, removing tomatoes from his salad, not really enjoying food cooked in tomatoes, and preferring pesto or cream based sauces for his pasta. And like most Chinese, eats only rice or noodles with lunch and dinner, reserving bread for breakfast...maybe. But after over three months in Rome, I find that I am serving more and more baguette or dinner roles with our meals. He has also developed a taste for tomatoes, and all sorts of tomato based dishes. His favourites are tripe and bacalao.


Bacalao stall Termini
Bacalao or salted cod is plentiful here in Rome. We first saw this in the market at Termini and we continue to buy our bacalao from this same vendor. Bacalao is sold in slabs that are about ½ - 1 inch thick, 3 – 6 inches wide and about 12 – 18 inches long. The first thing to do before cooking is to wash all the salt off and then soak it in water for 24-48 hours, remembering to change the water at least three times. The time I cooked this for my brother's family, when they came to visit, I forgot to do this and the cooked bacalao turned out quite salty! If it is very hot in your kitchen, you will need to refrigerate while it soaks. Once it’s ready to cook, remove the skin and the bones and cut them against the grain into cubes and dredge them in flour. I like simple recipes and here’s one way to cook bacalao Florentine style. You will need:

soaking bacalao
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 small onion minced
White wine
¾ lb. canned or fresh tomatoes
chilli powder or chilli flakes

a slab of bacalao
 Saute the garlic and onions and then add the bacalao cubes turning them to cook on the other side as well. Put in the white wine and continue cooking until almost all the wine has evaporated, add the tomatoes, crushing them against the pan, add chilli powder and pepper to taste. And that’s it! This is delicious served with baguette! It is a dish that keeps really well and tastes better the next day. So don't worry about leftovers.... that is if there is any. 

Spigola baked in salt:

The first time I tried fish baked in salt was in Sestri Levanti almost 14 years ago during my parents' golden wedding anniversary celebration. It was delicious and not easily forgotten! Then just last month, I had turbot baked in salt at the Casina Veladier, a restaurant atop the Pincio Hill here in Rome. I really liked this and was determined to try doing this at home myself.

My husband loves steamed fish, the way the Chinese do it, which to him is the way fish should be cooked. He believes and I think he is right that this is healthier than frying and brings out the real flavor of the fish. My mother-in-law always steamed her fish and insisted on it's freshness. I remember her pointers: look at the eyes, they need to be clear and luminous, pinch the fish, it has to be firm to the touch and then sniff at it, it should have the smell of the sea! If the fish had a slight smell (a big no no) or was bought in the afternoon, she would say "no good" but would proceed to make a curry or fry the fish with chili so as "not to waste it". So when I decided to try the salt baking way, I knew I had to find the freshest fish possible.

Spigola or sea bass is one of the more popular fish sold in our supermarket. When I first tried this, I went to my friendly supermarket fish monger who advised me not to scale the fish. So he cleaned the inside of the spigola for me and left the scales on. Another time, I had forgotten to tell him that it was for salt baking so he scaled it before I could stop him. Either way it was ok. However, the unscaled fish came out looking nicer. The skin came out in a whole strip, so serving the meat was easier and made me look like an experienced maitre 'd.

spigola is in there somewhere
 The salt that I use is of the coarse variety. I use about a kilo mixed with 1 egg and some water until it resembled wet sand, the consistency resembling what one would use to build sand castles on the beach. The subsequent times I did this, I used only the egg white as the yolk gave the salt a yellowish color which was not very attractive.

First time I tried doing this, I was a bit uncertain, but found that it was really simple. First, stuff the cavity of the fish with some parsley and then on a baking dish, spread some of the salt, enough to hold the bottom of the fish securely. Encase the whole fish with the remaining salt and then put it in the oven (350 degrees F) for around 25 - 30 minutes.

 When you remove this from the oven, the salt cover would have hardened. Using a wooden spoon or the flat side of a cleaver, crack the salt and free the fish. I simply bring the entire fish to the table with some sliced lemon. I skin the fish right at the table. Adding a bit of olive oil and or lemon is all that's needed. Tastes fantastic! Even my husband agreed, so he no longer keeps asking me to steam fish for dinner (I always had to say, we have no steamer or no pan big enough), salt baking has become a very good substitute. And to tell you frankly, I actually prefer this.

After having eaten fish this way a couple of times, I found out that cooking fish this way originated in Sicily. What do I know of Sicily? Well right now as I sit here writing this, I hear the theme song of the Godfather in the background! But this notoriety may only be scratching the surface. Goethe reputedly said, "To have seen Italy and not to have seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything". Need to follow that clue...another side-trip to dream about!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chianti country...Wine, wine and more wine!

The month of August is a very slow, very hot month here in Rome. Offices continue to function but with “skeleton crews”, and in harmony with the somnolent days of the hottest part of summer.  The feast of the Assumption which falls on the 15th of August is a national holiday in Italy, and falling in the midst of vacation month, those who haven’t left yet, do so. My husband and I, being a bit tired of the quiet streets and closed restaurants decided to take a trip to Tuscany, specifically wine country, the Chianti area. I won’t call this the premier wine making region, (although Tuscans claim it to be), because Italians from other parts will surely think otherwise. And who am I to judge...being a foreigner and all. The one thing I am sure about is we, my husband and I, like to drink good wine and so it was with anticipation that we went to Florence with the express purpose of joining a wine tasting tour... ok maybe not only for that...

On the way to the winery, our very knowledgeable and entertaining guide gave us a history of what we know as the Chianti region. As she tells it, it was in the Middle Ages, in the heart of “Chianti Mountain” (in the hills between Florence and Sienna), that three towns, Gaiole, Castellina and Radda formed the League of Chianti which would form the heart of the Chianti wine region to this day. In 1716 Cosimo III de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany decreed that these three towns including Greve would be the only recognized producers of Chianti wine. This edict stood until 1932 when the Italian Government expanded the area to include other areas like the Barberino Val D’Elsa and others.

Today, the Chianti area is divided into 2 regions, the boundary running between Florence to the north composed of five zones (including the three original towns, Greve and Barberino Val D’Elsa), and Sienna to the south composed of two zones. You may wonder at the inequity of the division, well as legend would have it, a race between two riders starting when the cocks crowed would determine the borders. Sienna chose a well fed white rooster, while the Florentines chose a skinny black rooster. Sienna’s rooster overslept, and that as they say was that!  

Today the black rooster seal is placed on Chianti Classico wine bottles.

The main grape variety grown in the Chianti region is the Sangiovese grape, or as it is poetically called, Blood of Jove. As you can tell by the name, it is a rather dark purple grape. The dark skin of the grape (it is from the skin that the wine gets its color... at least that’s how I understood it) gives rise to a dark full bodied red wine. It is said that this variety originated in Mesopotamia and was first cultivated in the region by the Etruscans. The first Chianti wines were reputedly of the white variety, which slowly evolved into red wine. Bettino Ricasoli, an Italian statesman who went on to become one of the prime ministers of Italy has been credited with coming up with the formula for Chianti wines, a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiola, 15% Malvasia. Today, for it to be classified Classico, it must contain at least 80% Sangiovese.

With the economic and political upheavals in Europe, the poverty brought on by the Risorgimiento and the wiping out of vineyards due to epidemics, wine production suffered. After the war, a variety of Chianti wine known as fiasco became the most popular wine from the region and up to the 20th century, Chianti wine was associated with this squat bottle wrapped in a straw basket. When my family visited Italy in the 60’s and 70s this was the Chianti wine (the taverns also used these bottles as their candle stands) I remembered and it was only when I started to enjoy drinking wine with my husband did I realize that Chianti wine did not all come in this bottle.

Ever since we’ve arrived, we have enjoyed shopping for wine, Italian wine specifically because there is so much to choose from. We’ve also tried to learn a little bit more about what the regulatory labels mean. There are 4 of them. As I understand it, the first two, DOC or Denomination of Controlled Origin and DOCG or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, guarantee that wines having this label attached to the bottles are made with sangiovese grapes and other local grapes from the Chianti region in the right kind of proportions and following all the rules as stipulated by the government and are therefore guaranteed to be of consistent quality. The difference is that DOCG wines have to pass a blind taste test and as such can be said to be the best of the best.

The next two designations can be attributed to the Italians' easy going nature and a certain disposition for “not following the rules”, or opting out of following them. IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica simply indicates where the wine is from and the VdLT are wines like the “Super Tuscans” which mix international variety of grapes like Merlot with Sangiovese.

Speaking about the Super Tuscans, in 1995 some producers were coming out with wines made from 100% Sangiovese. Production of these reduced significantly after 2004.

Chianti country

The bus ride to the wine tasting site which was in the Barberino Val D’Elsa area brought us into the heart of Chianti country, an area of rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards. We stopped at Fattoria Sant’Appiano, a family owned winery, charmingly laid out on top of a hill, and were welcomed graciously by the present Dona of the Capelli family, the present owners of the vineyard and winery since 1960. The vineyards themselves, we were told were one of the oldest in existence and were originally owned by the Pitti family, whose patriarch, Luca Pitti (1398-1472) was a staunch supporter of Cosimo de’ Medici.

One of the valves
 The daughter gave a short introduction as to how wine was made from picking the grapes and then putting them into this giant container where there are valves through which the wine is pumped out and put into the barrels. In the container, the mixture of mashed grapes, grape skin, seeds and branches are stirred regularly, in this way ensuring the coloration of the wine. They stay in this container for four weeks.

After four weeks, the skin etc. are separated by mechanical means, and the wine is transferred into the wine barrels made of different types of oak (from which the wine picks up some of its flavour and bouquet), where they remain for up to 24 months (for the Riserva). They also remain in the glass container for a while before it can be sold.

Entering the wine cellar
 We tasted 4 different wines, a Rose, a Chianti DOCG made up of 90% Sangiavese and 10% Merlot, a Chianti Superiore DOCG made with 100% Sangiovese and a Toscano Rosso Monteloro IGT made with 90% Sangiovese and 10% Colorino. When we were all a little happy, we were shown the cellars, with barrels and barrels of wine, happily aging away.

The Tunnel
On the way back to Florence, we took a side trip to Castellina, one of the original towns of the Lega Chianti, again charmingly set on top of another hill. We got there in the late afternoon, as the sun's heat was loosing it's ferocity. The townspeople were up and about, watching us tourists watching them, all this done with some amusement on both sides, I think. My husband and I chose to explore the tunnel, one of the three paths leading out of town to the main road.

There were many enotecas lining this route, selling wine grown around the area and proudly sporting the black rooster. We entered one of them and bought some more wine, forgetting that we already had bought four bottles waiting for us on the bus. Carrying all that on the train back to Rome would be a problem, something we failed to consider at the time.