Baked Peaches with Amaretti

img_0440In my last post, I mentioned a dessert I hoped to make at the restaurant in August if I had perfect peaches to work with: baked peaches with amaretti cookies. The truth is, it’s still a great dessert even with imperfect peaches. And if there are still peaches in your market, I highly recommend giving this one a try. Actually, this might be the best time of year to make it because although it’s made with warm-weather peaches, to me it’s perfect on a cool September night like tonight.

The recipe is an Italian classic, memorialized by countless Italian cooks and cookbook writers. My version is derived from Rachel Roddy’s wonderful book My Kitchen in Rome, which deserves a blog post in its own right. The only place I differ from Rachel is in cooking time. She recommends a 40-minute bake time. I like even longer, at least an hour, or even more depending on the oven. I like them really concentrated, though not burned.

The only challenging thing about this recipe is finding amaretti cookies, especially finding the best ones. For many years I used a domestic brand, which was fine. But when I finally used a high quality imported brand, the difference was obvious. Amaretti are made from bitter almonds, and good ones taste of it. Here is the one I’ve been using recently.

Baked Peaches with Amaretti Cookies

  1. Slice three or four peaches in half, scoop out the pit, and place skin side down in a baking dish.
  2. Combine 6 crushed amaretti cookies with ¼ cup sugar (white or raw), 1 egg yolk, a little lemon zest, and 4 tablespoons softened salted butter.
  3. Spoon the filling into each cavity and bake at 375 for one hour, or even longer. The peaches should be concentrated and maybe a tiny bit crisp at the edges.
  4. Serve immediately or later at room temperature.

Peach Sorbet

I often wonder why produce, and fruit in particular, often tastes better in Italy. The soils in Italy aren’t especially great. Perhaps it’s the more temperate climate, or perhaps the varieties are different, more carefully bred for flavor rather than other qualities such as uniform ripening or the ability to be shipped.

In any case, it’s been a disappointing year in our area for peaches. Both flavor and texture have been somewhat imperfect, and this can make it a challenge to do the sort of transparent cooking that we like. We had hoped this month to roast peaches in the oven with amaretti cookies, but the peaches we had access to just weren’t perfect enough for this preparation. So we decided on a perfect use for imperfect fruit: sorbet.

This is hardly a sacrifice. We probably serve various types of sorbets more often than any other dessert at the restaurant because sorbet is one of the most delicious ways one can end a meal, and no dessert is more light and refreshing. Of course, the best fruit makes wonderful sorbet, but it is one case where an imperfect ingredient can be transformed into a dish of great satisfaction.

Unlike gelato, sorbet can be made wonderfully at home in an inexpensive ice cream freezer. Because home models require about 20 or 25 minutes to freeze the gelato or sorbet (compared to less than 10 for commercial machines), ice crystal formation is nearly inevitable, which is a deal breaker for gelato – which is always milk/cream based – but not for sorbet, which is always water based.

We have two machines, a two-quart Cuisinart model and a one-quart Cuisinart model. I’m not sure there’s much difference from brand to brand, but for home use we recommend a one-quart model. After a number of hours in the fridge the sorbet will become rock hard and useless. It’s always best to eat sorbet the same day it’s made, just the way you would in Italy.

If you’re looking for further sorbet/gelato inspiration, make a trip to Capogiro in Philadelphia, the East Coast’s premier gelateria.

Peach Sorbet (Makes 1 quart)

  1. Peel and cube 1 pound of peaches. (That’s 1 pound after removing skin and pit.)
  2. Place the peaches in a blender along with 2 cups water, 1 cup sugar, juice from 1 lemon, and the tiniest pinch of salt. Process for 30 seconds or so until completely smooth.
  3. Chill for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight, then freeze in an ice cream machine according to the machine’s instructions.
  4. When the sorbet comes out of the machine, it will probably be too soft. Freeze for a few hours until it firms up just a a bit, but keep an eye on it because after too many hours it will become hard as a rock and not easy to use.

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Sirmione

Hills and vines always make pretty scenery. But there is no prettier landscape anywhere than the sweet hills of Bardolino facing Lake Garda and the sunset, a serene pattern of vineyards, olive trees, cypresses, castles, and Veronese villas in pale pink stone, arranged on gently inclined slopes, lit by the cheerful shimmer of the lake-reflected light. It deserves to be called charming as well as any place on earth, probably more so than most and produces a wine to match.

Victor Hazan, Italian Wine

Captivated by Victor Hazan’s charming description above, I was looking for a place to stay near Lake Garda between my time in Venice and a visit to wine producer Corte Gardoni. Having a weak spot also for thermal baths, I settled on the spa resort town of Sirmione.

In general, resort towns hold little appeal for me. Mass tourism is a scourge on any place, no matter how beautiful (Venice!). But something drew me to Sirmione. Perhaps it was the thermal baths, perhaps that the whole town was a car-free zone, perhaps something unconscious that I only recollected when I was checking into my hotel: that Victor and Marcella Hazan had spent a honeymoon night in Sirmione more than 60 years ago.

Marcella writes of the experience in her memoir Amarcord:

We spent a single winter night in Sirmione…long since devastated  by tourism and the cheap souvenir stalls that thrive on it, but it was deserted that February, a beautiful  and romantic place. On the evening of our arrival, we had leek and potato soup, which I have made many times, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the invariably comforting taste. That steaming soup, so earthy yet so gentle, seemed to us miraculously reassuring. To this day, Victor recalls it with alms more warm than anything else that took place during our stay.

When I realized the amazing coincidence — that here I too was on a chilly February night, 60 years later — I was amazed and suddenly felt the place imbued with meaning. I checked into my hotel, just in time to relax at the hotel’s thermal spa for an hour before closing. At the dinner hour (around 9 pm in Italy), I went in search of a meal but found the streets deserted and most restaurants still closed for the off-season. I settled on a small trattoria with a promising menu, but it seemed that I was the only diner that evening, and the whole night began to feel just a bit lonely and depressing. On the walk back to the hotel I saw the signs of tourist destruction Marcella referred to, and I began to think that coming to Sirmione had been a mistake.

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Yep, just what one comes to Italy for.

But, still jet-lagged, I awoke early at 5:30 the next morning to this lovely view from my window and suddenly it felt like I was in the right place after all.

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I had several hours before I had to depart and thought it would be best spent walking the town. I quickly got through the tourist trap section and was pleasantly surprised to be soon surrounded by parks and natural beauty, which make up the bulk of the northern half of Sirmione.

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It was about 40 degrees with winds whipping up to around 40 mph by the lake, but the sunrise was stunning.

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Gorgeous Lake Garda with the Alps in the distance

This was the Sirmione which has attracted so many through the years: Tennyson, Ezra Pound, Maria Callas, and others who have all been drawn to or written about this place, drawn by its calm and and restorative powers.

At the uppermost tip of Sirmione is an important ancient ruin, the so-called Grottoes of Catullus, which are ironically neither grottoes nor connected to the Roman Republican-era poet Catullus. It was probably a private villa or perhaps even a bath complex (2nd century AD), but it is a spectacular site for those interested in Roman ruins, one of the most important in Northern Italy. Marcella and Victor had been there too:

In the morning we clambered over the ruins of a Roman bath, past a grove of olive trees planted before the birth of Christ, to reach the lake’s icy edge, our exhalations dissolving in the wintry mist as we gaily chucked stones to see who could send them bouncing farthest over the waves.

For me, the walk to the northern tip of Sirmione was equally exhilarating and made the visit worthwhile. Like many places in Italy, Sirmione is not perfect, but its charm and beauty are undeniable. I’m not sure it’s the place to be at the height of tourist season, but in the fall or spring it can be the beautiful and romantic place Marcella experienced more than 60 years ago.

 

 

 

 

Alle Testiere Revisited

In the old world, everybody cooked. There was always somebody who cooked. But it’s a myth that everybody cooked well. Only a few people cook really well. It is a form of craft. Very few people carve a piece of furniture by hand really well. It’s not because others don’t know how it’s done; it’s because there’s an interval, a space, between the hand and the tool and the object, or the hand and the pot and the skillet. It takes time to go from the hand to the making. Within that pause, something happens that is not scientifically explainable. Something happens that makes the cooking of a few people, like Marcella, spellbinding, extraordinary.

– Victor Hazan

Last year, the highlight of my whole trip to Italy were two meals at Osteria alle Testiere in Venice. I had the incredibly good fortune to receive the recommendation from Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan, both of whom lived in Venice for 20 years. And thank God I did. Eating well in Venice is notoriously difficult, and though I don’t have enough experience in Venice to claim that alle Testiere is the best the city has to offer, I can say that the cooking of Venetian native Bruno Gavagnin is as inspired as any cooking I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.

I arrived for my reservation with giddy expectation after a disappointing meal the night before (even though it was a restaurant Bruno himself has extolled). I was deeply craving the comfort of careful cooking and I was not disappointed.

I began the meal with perhaps my very favorite Venetian classic: grilled razor clams. These clams are tiny (about the thickness of a pen), tender, and succulent. Their flavor and texture haunt me. In Bruno’s hands, they were also perfectly seasoned and just impossibly fresh and perfect.

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Last year, when I returned from Venice I was delighted to find razor clams on my wholesale fishmonger’s price list. I promptly ordered a bunch but was dismayed and horrified when I found them to be not the thickness of a pen, but thicker than a Crayola marker! They were tough and worthless and quickly found their way into the trash.

For my first principal course, I ordered clams again: spaghetti with clams. Although the repetition of clams might not be the best choice on paper, I am so in love with Italian clams that I had no choice. Like the razor clams, these baby clams are tiny, about the size of a fingernail, and like the razor clams they are smaller, more tasty, and more tender than any clam one can find in America.

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For the second principal course, I ordered grilled sole. I think in this photo the moistness of the fish comes through. Just absolutely perfect in texture and seasoning. In order for fish to reach its potential it has got to be absolutely fresh (rare in US supermarkets where it sits for days) and perfectly cooked. Notice the lack of fuss and adornment. What we have here is simply grilled fish, perfectly cooked and served.

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In Italy, a second piatto is usually accompanied by a contorno, or vegetable side dish. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the meal was this rather plain-looking dish of grilled radicchio.

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Keep in mind that good Italian cooking cares about flavor first and presentation second. Radicchio can often be bitter in flavor, and though Italians don’t shy away from bitter flavors, this radicchio was the most perfectly integrated (a balance of bitter and sweet and earthy) which I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. The main reason is the expert hand of Bruno Gavagnin and the high quality of the radicchio. I suspect the other is the type of radicchio, radicchio tardivo, which will be the theme of a separate post.

Finally, there was a perfect pear tart followed by coffee and grappa from müller thurgau, which is perhaps Italy’s most aromatic grape. Grappa can be so poor that it is something one orders carefully from a trustworthy source. It is certainly an acquired taste and not for everyone, but it is a classic after-dinner digestivo and a perfect conclusion to a perfect meal.

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This year, I had the pleasure of saying hello to Mr. Gavagnin, shaking his hand, and thanking him for such magical cooking. People often see our farmhouse kitchen and wonder how we cook for sixteen in it. I can assure you that Mr. Gavagnin’s kitchen is half the size.

And though Mr. Gavagnin has one helper in the kitchen (not sure if it’s just a dishwasher or a cook), there is no doubt in my mind that the magic of the cooking is a direct result of Mr. Gavagnin’s immeasurable talent. He is one of the few that Victor Hazan references above who simply has a gift. If he decided to manage the kitchen but let others do the work, I have no doubt the cooking would still be good, but would not have the same magic.

After the meal I also spoke to Mr. Gavagnin’s business partner Luca di Vita, who manages the front of the house with one additional server. When I pushed him on what makes the cooking at alle Testiere so unique in Venice, he explained that it was not really like a traditional restaurant at all, but more like the French concept of an atelier. He explained that good cooking just can’t be done on a large scale, which is why alle Testiere seats a maximum of 22 people. Mr. di Vita explained that the cooking is personal, with only the very highest standard of ingredients.

Although our commitment at Old Tioga Farm to locally-sourced ingredients means that we seldom cook fish, there is no doubt that Mr. Gavagnin and Mr. di Luca’s impossibly perfect osteria is our model of what good cooking and a good restaurant can be.

Vetri

vetri_signOne of the greatest compliments we’ve ever received at the restaurant was from a guest from Philadelphia who told us that dining with us reminded her of dining at Vetri. This was incredibly meaningful to us because Vetri is widely considered to be one of the top five restaurants in Philadelphia and has actually been called the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast by Mario Batali. But as impressive as that sounds, it was meaningful for the even more important reason that we really admire the cooking and philosophy of Marc Vetri, who founded Vetri Ristorante in 1998.

Although restaurant culture in the US has changed dramatically in the last twenty years and one can now eat the authentic cooking of Italy in numerous restaurants in many cities, Marc was one of the first to bring true Italian cooking to Philly. Like Mario Batali, his formative training came not from culinary school but from apprenticeship in Italy. Marc had the extremely good fortune to take up hallowed real-estate: the original location of Le Bec Fin at 1312 Spruce St.

After nearly a decade of tremendous success at Vetri, Marc founded several other more casual restaurants in Philadelphia. These have been our favorite places to eat in Philadelphia for years, but for various reasons we had never dined at Vetri itself until this past Sunday. Mostly this has been due to cost. Vetri offers only a multi-course tasting menu for $155, and with wine, tax, and gratuity, the cost for two people usually exceeds $500, quite a stretch for our limited means.

So our decision to dine at Vetri was a long overdue, and it did not disappoint. It was worth every penny and was a true inspiration for us. Marc’s initial training was in the Northern city of Bergamo in Lombardia, and the cooking at Vetri has remained a reflection of the rich, luxurious but understated cooking of that region. It’s cooking that is about fidelity to tradition, about simple but exquisite flavors. It is not an approach to cooking which is about novelty, creativity, or the ego of a chef.

The tasting menu at Vetri consists of six proper courses along with several other surprises and treats from the kitchen. We enjoyed dishes including spinach gnocchi, almond tortellini, ricotta ravioli with nutmeg and orange, braised goat with polenta, pappardelle with rabbit and peach, ribeye with beans and olive oil, pistacchio flan, and a blueberry custard tart. All of these dishes were prepared with an exquisite attention to detail. It was such a relief to be offered the moderate portion sizes necessary to enjoy a meal of such breadth. Best of all, it was a relief to put ourselves in the hands of a kitchen with good taste and judgment.

As first-rate as the cooking was, however, what delighted us most of all was the approach to service. We were somewhat prepared for this because we’ve been reading Front of the House by Jeff Benjamin, who joined Marc as general manager of Vetri back in 1998. Jeff’s philosophy of service is that true hospitality is based on genuine interest in and the desire to please one’s guests. Too often, even in excellent restaurants, the service is either too informal and amateur, or too cold and aloof. One often senses that servers perceive not people but wallets, and that service too often is based not on a desire to genuinely please guests but on a desire to increase the size of one’s tip. Too often one questions the sincerity of one’s server, and too often one cringes at the lack of knowledge one’s server possesses of the menu.

We’ve never experienced anything like the approach to service we enjoyed at Vetri: a team of professionals working together seamlessly with an astounding depth of knowledge, complete competence, and an absolute dedication to providing us with a flawless experience while treating us like old friends.

We’re humbled to be compared occasionally to Vetri Ristorante, but we’re also deeply gratified because we recognize in Vetri an approach to cooking and service which deeply resonate with our own values and goals for our little restaurant. Although we’re proud of what we’ve done with Old Tioga Farm, we are constantly looking for ways to grow, develop, and improve. Dining as Vetri gave us a perfect opportunity.

Eat your vegetables!

Frequently at the restaurant a guest will comment that he thought he hated eggplant or that she never ate broccoli, but loved these foods when I prepared them. I’ve recently written a kind of manifesto on and defense of salt, but there’s another aspect of the issue that I neglected to include: paradoxically, salting our food correctly actually encourages us to eat healthier foods and smaller portions.

Vegetables are especially insipid when not seasoned and cooked correctly. Many people would eat far more vegetables if they were prepared far more deliciously, and this requires proper seasoning. The reason processed foods are so popular is that they are well seasoned and people crave salt, even if they don’t know why. Why waste our salt on nasty processed foods when we can use it on healthy foods and actually consume nutrient-dense foods while we’re enjoying the delight of flavor?

As for smaller portions, think back to your college dining hall. I know that some are better now, but in my day the food was abundant but bland and lacking freshness. When food is bland and lacking freshness, I find that WE ACTUALLY EAT MORE in a futile search to find satisfaction which isn’t there. By contrast, when we have really delicious food, less is enough because it satisfies us almost immediately. Less is more.

I think a shift in thinking about salt would perhaps go furthest among those who struggle with poverty or obesity for both of the reasons discussed. If we want people to eat less and to eat healthier foods, we need to educate and encourage them to salt courageously so that their food is both healthy and delicious. Ditto in schools. Why do so many kids in school dislike the new healthy school lunch mandates which Michelle Obama has been instrumental in promoting? Because healthy foods prepared poorly are nasty. It is much easier to produce a delicious french fry than a delicious piece of broccoli, but people will eat the broccoli with delight if it really is prepared and seasoned deliciously. Cynics on the right mock Michelle’s efforts by blithely stating that kids don’t want to eat vegetables, as if this were an acceptable fact. But dreamers on the left suggest that if you offer healthy alternatives (even if poorly made), kids will eat them and be healthier, as if kids would pick the mushy broccoli over the piece of greasy pizza.

The missing piece in the whole discussion of healthy eating is the proper use of salt. We can only develop a healthy food culture if our culture embraces the judicious use of high quality salt and sees it as the central part of cooking that it is.

Salting courageously

To cook without salt (save for sound and personal medical reasons), or to undersalt deliberately in the name of dietary chic, is to omit from the music of cookery the indispensable bass line over which all other tastes and smells form their harmonies.

Robert Farrar Capon

Whenever I teach cooking classes, I always surprise, or perhaps concern, my students with my assertion at the beginning of the class that the most important thing I can teach them is to “salt courageously”. Although the proper use of high-quality salt is just about the most important aspect of cooking, we live in a culture deeply suspicious of and confused about this most potent of ingredients.

When I was growing up, I absorbed the cultural message that sodium was a kind of poison, and that if we were to use salt at all, we were to do so with just the tiniest sprinkling. But when I started to cook seriously during college, I was exposed to the far sounder attitude of Marcella Hazan, who wrote in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen that “Salt is a magnet. When used judiciously, it draws fragrance from food… To shrink from an adequate use of salt is to leave unmined the deep-lying flavors of food. A pernicious consequence of the unjustified fear of salt is that our sense of taste, through lack of exercise, becomes atrophied and we fail to reject as resolutely as we ought, the savorless food we are led to prepare.”

Around the same time that I began using salt more courageously, I began using high-quality sea salt, which contains trace minerals and lacks added iodine and anti-clumping additives. I found that not all salts are created equal, and that even some sea salts seem to work better than others and taste different from each other. I realized that measuring by volume, different salts have differing sodium content. I began to experience depth of flavor in my cooking, as both Hazan and Robert Capon explained I would. I slowly realized that using salt judiciously, especially at the beginning of the cooking process, allows the salt to do its work of drawing out aroma and flavor from food while not drawing attention to itself.

This concept of drawing out flavor is an important one. Capon compared salt to a musical bass line. Hazan called it a magnet. The important thing is that the salt’s job is not to draw attention to itself, not to make the food taste “salty”, but to help develop the flavors that are already there in the food itself. Since the majority of what we call flavor is really a perception of aroma, the salt is actually drawing out and intensifying the aroma of food, which is why Marcella used to always test for salt not by tasting but by smelling. She describes testing this theory by salting a glass of wine and noticing the amplification of its aroma (though sadly no longer drinkable).

In this way, salt is very much like sunlight. A cloudy day can still be enjoyable. In fact, a cloudy day is often a nice change if not experienced too often. But there is no doubt that sunlight brings life to things. A tree, a garden bed, a beautiful home… graced with sunlight, everything comes alive and pulses with a kind of life simply not present without the light. This is what salt does for our cooking. For many of us who cook at home with a fear of salt, it’s like shutting the blinds of our house and blocking out the light which illuminates all things.

Of course, eating is a balance between pleasure and nutrition. Certainly we shouldn’t eat gluttonously, without regard for our health and well-being, but nor should we eat without savor or pleasure in the supposed name of health. For many years, I kept this balance keenly in mind: I knew salt was essential for preparing delicious food, but I was careful to keep it to a minimum because of possible health risks.

And so I laughed out loud back in 2012 when I read in the New York Times that the evidence that salt intake constitutes a health risk has always been on very shaky ground. This assertion has been repeated in the Times and other sources numerous times during the past several years. Then, while teaching cooking classes in Rome several months ago, one of my students who works in medicine, explained that about 15% of people are salt-sensitive and experience high blood pressure as a result of sodium consumption, but that salt intake has little or no effect on the other 85% of us. He explained that rather than go to the trouble of discerning who is and isn’t salt sensitive, the medical community has decided to simply keep mum on the issue and recommended extremely limited sodium for all.

I was floored. Could this really be? Could the single most important ingredient in our kitchen, without which we are doomed to bland and insipid food, really be demonized by the medical community without adequate justification? It turns out that is exactly what has been going on. Not only is increased sodium consumption not definitely linked with heart disease, some studies suggest that diets too low in sodium actually do us harm.

Moreover, the majority of sodium intake in the American diet doesn’t come from home cooking at all, it comes from fast foods and processed foods. Although eating three super savory meals at home every day certainly might not be a great idea, if most of us simply cut out processed and fast foods, we could salt at home pretty much as freely as we’d like and not have to worry too much.

But how much is the right amount? After all, taste is famously subjective. And what is just right for one person is too much for another. To continue the sun analogy, there are some people who spend so little time outside, that any amount of bright sunlight can be overwhelming. There are others who think nothing of sunbathing all day in the sun, even at the risk of cancer! For most of us, there is a healthy balance of sunlight, and so it is with salt. Based upon years of cooking for my family and for thousands of guests at the restaurant, most ingredients benefit from about 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of salt per pound. There are exceptions (eggs need only half that amount and sausage has about 50% more), but as a rule of thumb it is amazing how well that ratio works. And since a teaspoon of salt is about 5 grams and a pound of food is 450 grams, the ratio is about 1% salt. Of course, if you have a very salty salt, you might need less. Other salts just draw too much attention to themselves. But if you find a good, mild sea salt, the teaspoon per pound ratio should serve you very well. The nice thing about this approach is that it takes the guesswork out of it. Most cooks, even professional ones, salt by taste. This is great, but having a reliable ratio in mind immediately gets you in the ballpark. At my cooking classes, my students look on in horror as they watch me salt food and think to themselves that it’s going to be oversalted and awful, only to find later at the table that the result is not excessive saltiness but deep flavor.

Of course, this ratio is based upon salting early in the cooking process. Sprinkling a teaspoon per pound of salt at the table is surely going to taste too salty. The salt needs time to incorporate itself and work. Usually salting at the time ingredients go in the pan is the best approach. The fact that salt draws out moisture from foods and that moisture might interfere with browning is a myth that is exaggerated in my experience. As long as you have nice, high heat, there shouldn’t be a problem. But some foods benefit from salting well before cooking, especially meat. I salt meats at least 30 minutes or up to a few hours beforehand, a technique which can be thought of as dry “brining”. Traditional wet brining is also a valuable technique, though I admit that I never do it owing to the larger amounts of salt and water necessary. It seems like unneeded fuss. Dry brining works just fine for me.

The fact that salt needs time to work also explains why good restaurants don’t put salt shakers on their tables. In short, it’s too late! If the kitchen messes up their job and underseasons a dish, it should be brought to their attention and fixed. But it can’t be fixed simply by sprinkling salt on the table. And seasoning is also personal and part of the creative expression of the chef, and it can be a kind of signature. A chef has a right to season dishes as he or she sees fit. If a chef’s approach to seasoning doesn’t fit a customer’s preferences, it’s best to choose a different restaurant which does. Just as one doesn’t go into an art gallery and ask to have the light adjusted to suit the viewer’s preference for viewing the paintings, so in a restaurant one should allow the chef’s approach to seasoning to stand as he or she intends it.

But what sort of salt is a good salt? Although many chefs like kosher salts, for me it is natural sea salts which result from the evaporation of sea water and with minimal processing that provide the best character to cooking. Because I am frugal, I haven’t tried the super expensive salts that are out there. Here are some that I’ve tried and liked:

Lima Atlantic Sea Salt: My first love and the only salt I used for many years. It’s a little clumpy and so not as good as a finer sea salt would be for sprinkling a tiny amount. Great for measuring and using early in the cooking process.

Real Salt: It’s beautiful to look at with little lovely red flecks, and I really liked it for a while. But then I started noticing that it was drawing too much attention to itself. Food tasted salty when it shouldn’t have. Worth a try, but not sure I’d recommend it.

Alessi: My current salt of choice. Mild but effective. A little tendency to clump, so better when measured or used at the beginning of cooking rather than sprinkled near the end. Available at my local Wegmans supermarket.

Pure Ocean: A nice salt with a good texture, but it’s strong and you need to use less than a teaspoon per pound. I often use it if I need a little sprinkle near the end of cooking.

There are certainly many other options, and I think the most important thing is to try a few and find one that works for you. Because you’ll often be salting by feel, it’s important to choose a salt and stick with it until you have a sense of what it feels like in your hand and how much is the right amount. Of course, you can also measure.

Finding the right salt takes a little work, but it is absolutely worth it. Nothing can propel your cooking to a higher level more effectively than salting courageously!

Justin Naylor

On health insurance

A year ago, when we were telling our friends and colleagues that I was leaving my teaching job in order to return to full-time work on the farm, the first question they would ask was about giving up our health care benefits. Increasingly, health care benefits seem to be the critical issue for many people about employment. Both my mother and mother-in-law continue to work into retirement age because of the high quality medical benefits they receive, and I know several people who would love to give up working for someone else and enter the satisfying realm of self-employment, but fear of not being able to afford health care stops them.

So it seems like a good time to share our story about health care, not because our story is especially unique or exemplary, but simply because sharing such details often seems taboo, like so many important aspects of our life (income, marriage problems, parenting difficulties… you name it). Why we cut ourselves off from sharing some of the most important practical details of our lives when we have so much to learn from each other is a puzzling paradox indeed. In so many areas, we’ve cut ourselves off from the support and wisdom that we can offer to each other, choosing instead to go it alone, groping in the dark out of embarrassment or habit when what we really need is a little shared light.

When we moved to Pennsylvania eight years ago, we signed up the whole family (just three of us at the time) for my employer’s offered health insurance. It was good coverage, but expensive. Of course, expensive is a relative term. I think we paid about $300 per month for the three of us, with my employer providing at least as much or more, so the real cost was something like $600 to $800 per month for the three of us. Considering we used the coverage infrequently, it seemed like a lot of money. By contrast, our car insurance ($100 or so per month) and my life insurance ($50 per month) seemed like a real deal.

And even though $300 per month for health insurance would seem cheap to many people today, it was more than we could afford. We had one income ($30,000 per year) and our budget was really tight. We went into debt and knew that we had to trim our expenses. Health insurance seemed like an area we could cut because we were healthy.

Somehow we found out about the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Sort of like Medicaid for the slightly less poor, CHIP offered our first child (and later the next two) with high quality free medical insurance with no co-pays or deductible. Of course, to some, our enrollment in this program will be offensive. After all, why should someone else’s tax dollars be funding free insurance for our children? I’m not insensitive to this point. On the other hand, it was a real godsend for our family at a time when we could barely pay our bills without going into debt.

I stayed on my employer’s plan because for just me they paid the entire premium, which was generous. But enrolling Dillon would have cost something like $200 per month in addition, which we couldn’t afford, so we looked for alternatives. At the time, we found low cost, high-premium insurance for her for only about $60 per month. With a $5000 deductible, we would be paying for all of her medical expenses unless something major came up, but we had to weigh the costs and benefits, and it seemed unlikely that we would be spending more than the $200 per month which the insurance would cost us. Luckily, nothing major came up.

But the next year it did, because Dillon was pregnant again. Her low-cost insurance didn’t even cover pregnancy, so we would have been on our own. Except, now that Dillon was pregnant the income limits changed for Medicaid, and we just barely qualified. Dillon went on Medicaid, and like the kids, received coverage without copays or a deductible. Talk about a godsend. After the baby was born, she got tossed from Medicaid, and she went back on the cheap, high-deductible catastrophic insurance. We paid for bills out of pocket, but spent far less per year than we would have on my employer-offered coverage.

Two years later, when pregnant with our third child, Dillon once again went on Medicaid, and I can’t imagine what we would have done without it. Afterward, she went back on the low-cost, high-deductible insurance.

But even though it was a godsend for us, the interesting thing about Medicaid which few people know about, is that it is second-rate coverage. No doctor has to accept any given type of insurance, and since the government pays doctors less for Medicaid patients than most insurers pay, there is a serious disincentive for doctors to even accept medicaid insurance. What this means is that Medicaid patients have fewer doctors to choose from and might not be able to go to the best ones or those most in demand. In Dillon’s case, she received excellent care for her pregnancy, but I remember showing to a dentist I had been seeing the list of dentists in the area who accept Medicaid, and he thought so poorly of them, that he offered to see my wife and family for free rather than send us to one of them. So the reality about Medicaid, is that it is a second-class system and that the poorest among us often have to settle for second-rate medical care. And that’s a sad reality. It reminds me of VA patients who live in rural areas who have to travel more than an hour or two each way to see a VA-approved doctor. Is that really how we want to treat our veterans?

By this time, however, Obamacare was being enacted and we hoped that we would qualify for a subsidy to be able to afford higher quality insurance for Dillon. At the same time, we were thinking very seriously of leaving my teaching job so that we would be shopping for insurance for both of us. What we found was higher quality Blue Cross insurance, still with a high-deductible (about $5000 each), but with a monthly premium of $125 for two of us, after a government subsidy of around $200 per month. This was insurance we could afford, and we were willing to accept the risk of paying for most medical bills out of pocket, while having the assurance that if something catastrophic happened, we would be covered. If I was in an accident, for example, we would be out $5000 at the most.

What’s interesting to me is that even my employer-based insurance still had a deductible of around $1000, so even then I was paying most of my medical bills. I’d go for blood work and get a bill for $400. I’d go to a specialist, and get a bill for $500. So even though the school was paying something like $500 a month for my insurance, I was basically getting nothing for it and paying for everything anyway. The $120 a month insurance seemed like a great deal and made it much easier for me to leave my teaching job.

We now make about $50,000 per year, still modest by most standards but relatively comfortable for us. Our kids are still on CHIP (the income limit for our family size is $56K) and Dillon and I are comfortable with our low-cost, high-deductible insurance. Most years we spend about $500 each on medical expenses, for a total of about $2000 per year for insurance and expenses. Considering that many families spend triple or quadruple this amount, we feel blessed. It is true that we receive great generosity from the government from both CHIP and our subsidy, which (again) some would find objectionable. All I can say is that I don’t feel guilty, given that our economic system itself seems fundamentally unfair, weighted as it is in favor of those who have more. In our capitalist economy, wealth accumulation is exponential. That is, the more money people have, the more money they can make. The wealthy grow wealthier, and those with little have a hard time growing wealth at all, a strange economic system for a country that ostensibly prides itself on equality and social mobility. Is it not shocking that 15% of Americans are poor enough to be on food stamps? Of course, this is a reality hidden from us and made invisible since few of us interact much with the poor.

At the heart of our story and struggle with health insurance is another shocking fact: In our country, private health insurance companies are run as for-profit businesses. Of course, some would argue that such for-profit industry increases competition and keeps prices lower. I find this an ideological and rosy view. The truth is, to be for-profit, the insured have to lose out. The insurance companies have to take in more money than they pay out. For most people, insurance has to be a losing proposition. Perhaps this is the best way, but imagine if our police force were a for-profit business. What services would be cut? Who would be left out? Imagine if our road-building and paving were for-profit businesses. What areas would be neglected and left to decay? What if our military was a for-profit business? All of these government programs are deemed too important to be put under the forces of the marketplace. Is our health not considered as essential a benefit as police, or roads, or the military?

Of course, this raises the issue of why medical services are so expensive in the first place. This is surely a complicated story, but a major part of it is that doctors are compensated not by successful outcome, but by procedure. If a doctor orders an X-ray, he or she gets paid for the X-ray, regardless of whether it was necessary or makes a patient healthier. I have a friend who works in the ER who was once told by a doctor to perform an EKG on a dead man so that the hospital would be paid for it. Certainly that last example is a rare outlier, but still the system does nothing to discourage it. This is slowly changing. About 25% of payments to doctors are now based on quality rather than quantity of care. This percentage is increasing, but it is still a small percentage, and many hospitals and doctors resist it because it is less profitable for them.

Another reason for the high cost of medical procedures is insurance itself. Because insurance pays for many of our bills and keeps them somewhat hidden from us, there is a disincentive for us to shop around. If one hospital charges twice as much as another for an MRI, I’m unlikely even to know that. And since my insurance will probably be paying it anyway, there is little incentive for me to choose the cheaper MRI. In a way, hospitals can charge whatever they want for these services. What else do we pay for, only knowing the price after the fact? Do we buy a car, and then just get a bill in the mail? This is madness. If our car insurance paid for our gasoline, would we even look at the cost of gas at a given station before filling up? I’m sure if our car insurance started paying for our gas purchases, gas prices would grow exponentially. In this sense, I’m not sure we should even call it health insurance. What other insurance do we use on a regular basis? Car insurance we might use once every few years. Life insurance, hopefully never. Most insurance is cheap because it is rarely used. Perhaps we need a different term for health insurance since it’s not really operating as insurance typically does.

So in a way our health care system is shielded from market forces in certain ways, and based upon them in others. In both cases, it seems, we are the losers. Until Obamacare, we could also choose for philosophical or practical reasons to opt out of the system and not have coverage. Now of course it is mandatory. We were promised that costs would be lower under the ACA, but at least at the low end of the cost spectrum, costs have gone up. Before, we could get low cost insurance for $60 per person per month. Now, the cheapest unsubsidized covered is more than double that. Although average costs have risen more slowly since the law came into effect, costs are still rising, and it’s not clear what will keep them from rising in an unsustainable way.

Our family has been extremely lucky, especially in benefiting from CHIP and Medicaid during Dillon’s pregnancies. Those who make a little more than we do and don’t qualify for these programs have the hardest time of it. Those who make a lot more should have enough that these costs aren’t a serious issue.

To those who struggle with these issues as we have, I would offer the following advice. Look into CHIP if you have kids. Even if you make too much for no-cost CHIP, there is also low-cost CHIP, and the quality of the coverage is high. Second, look really hard at the benefits you’re receiving from your coverage. We could be paying a lot more for our monthly premium and yet not getting anything for it. As long as you have coverage for something catastrophic, I think buying the cheapest insurance possible makes sense.

Finally, although being bitter about the whole situation is never a healthy thing and is counterproductive, I do think we need to speak up publicly and to each other more than we do about the insanity of the system we have. One thing that characterizes our age is disempowerment. Rightly or wrongly, in the 1960s people believed the world could be made better by their efforts. Now, we cynically believe nothing will change despite our efforts. I think we need to return optimism to our basic worldview, not in the sense of glossing over injustices or problems, but in the sense of taking them on and calling them what they are. Even if a problem can’t be immediately changed, there is great health and liberation in identifying a problem and calling something what it is. Action is also an antidote for bitterness and disempowerment. The more we speak up and out about such things, the more chance there is of gaining a critical mass and of change actually taking place.

Bologna the Beautiful

It’s been a month since I was in Bologna, but I can’t get the place out of my mind. We were first there 10 years ago and I had been trying to get back since. I’m so glad I did!

Coming from Venice, one might think Bologna would be a let down. But it was anything but. As I’ve written, my first meal there was an amazing experience. And unlike Venice, which is exquisite but has either an overwhelming touristy feel or a sleepy, backwater feel, Bologna was pulsing with life and energy of an entirely local kind.

Bologna is home to the University of Bologna, which dates in its earliest form to the late 11th century, making it the oldest university in the western world. Indeed, compared to many other Italian cities I’ve spent time in, Bologna feels cultured, educated, and refined. It is elegant and affluent. Many Italian cities are beautiful but neglected. Bologna feels well cared for indeed.

People, actually stopping and listening to classical musicians performing in the street.

People, actually stopping and listening to classical musicians performing in the street.

Exquisite pastries

Exquisite pastries

And unlike Rome, where one needs to leave the center to get to first rate produce markets, in Bologna, there are excellent produce and fish markets just off the main square.

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Blood oranges

Blood oranges

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Lots of people lined up mid-morning to buy fish. My kind of place.

Lots of people lined up mid-morning to buy fish. My kind of place.

Indeed, it is the food of Bologna which is the main draw. Bologna is the gastronomic heart of the region of Emilia-Romagna, home to such astounding treasures as prosciutto di parma, mortadella, culatello, and true balsamic vinegar, not to mention the long list of egg pasta dishes such as lasagne, fettuccine, tortelli, tagliatelle, tortelloni, and tortellini, the latter traditionally understood as a shape inspired by the navel of the goddess Venus.

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Tortelloni

Authentic aceto balsamico tradizionale, always sold in perfume sized bottles, and always for about $100 US dollars.

Authentic aceto balsamico tradizionale, always sold in perfume sized bottles, and always for about $100 US dollars and worth every penny. Sipped from a teaspoon, it is like liquid gold.

Bologna even has Venice-like canals, built in the middle ages but mostly now buried under the modern city.

One of Bologna's "hidden" canals.

One of Bologna’s “hidden” canals.

The main square in Bologna (piazza maggiore) is dominated by the Basilica of San Petronio, begun in the late 14th century. It’s main door (port magna) and arch contain sculptures by Jacopo della Quercia, which inspired work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, whose own early sculptures are located nearby in the church of San Domenico.

Basilica of San Petronio with its unfinished facade.

Basilica of San Petronio with its unfinished facade.

Tragically, this church has been under serious terrorist threat for years, as it houses a large 15th century fresco, inspired by the poet Dante, of the prophet Mohammed being tortured in hell. Indeed, it was closed under heavy police presence while I was there.

Sculpture of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore

Sculpture of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore

One of the most delightful features of Bologna is its miles of covered colonnades, which one quickly comes to appreciate for their utility in addition to their beauty when it is raining out. Except for crossing streets, one can walk throughout the whole city protected from both rain and intense sun.

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Bologna is many things to many people. To some it is Bologna the learned, for its rich educational tradition. To others it is Bologna the fat, for its rich cuisine. To others it is Bologna the red, for the color that dominates the city (and for its Communist politics). But for me, it will always be Bologna the beautiful. It is a city I could imagine living in and to which I hope to lead culinary excursions in the coming years.

Roman pizza

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Margherita di Bufala at Emma Pizzeria

About 10 years ago I learned to make thin-crusted Tuscan pizza from Caleb Barber of Pane e Salute in Woodstock, VT, who had learned it in turn from a baker in Tuscany where he had apprenticed. So I was really excited when I first came to Rome five years ago to learn that Rome had a thin-crusted pizza tradition too.

I always enjoyed pizza in Rome, even though one felt the quality wasn’t all that it could be. So I was delighted when I learned a few months ago about Emma, which really pays attention to high quality ingredients, including carefully made, naturally leavened dough.

I’ve had a chance to eat there three times in the past two weeks and each time both the pizza and the suppli (rice croquettes with mozzarella) have been exquisite. The suppli were especially nice in a city which serves too many pre-made, pre-frozen suppli. Emma’s suppli are characterized by an especially intense, acidic tomato component.

Wood fired oven at Emma.

Wood-fired oven at Emma.

This type of pizza’s crust is so thin that it is rolled out with a pin instead of being stretched by hand. I’m not sure about the Roman version, but the Tuscan version I learned from Caleb is enriched by high-quality, aromatic olive oil, which keeps the crust tender, even while being shatteringly crisp.

I taught my students to make it this morning, showing everyone not only how to make and handle the dough, but also how to produce pizza sauce which tastes of perfect tomatoes rather than the heavy, sugary junk that too often passes for sauce in the US.

One of my students doing a great job.

One of my students doing a great job.

The other focus of the class was high quality mozzarella, which unfortunately is extremely hard to find in our part of northeastern PA, but which is ubiquitous in Italy. While the highest quality mozzarella is made in the countryside around Naples from the milk of water buffalo (mozzarella di bufala) there is also plenty of high quality cow’s milk mozzarella (fior di latte), both of which work well for pizza.

I stressed the importance of balance and moderation, such a critical component of all good Italian cooking.

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This one got a little too charred, but in some ways it’s even better that way.

After all of our breads and pizzas were made, we sat down to a delightful and leisurely lunch.

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