A night of abandon in Bologna

IMG_6232I love Bologna, in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. The rich cooking of that region has always been at the heart of my interest in Italian cooking, and Dillon and I spent a few wonderful days there ten years ago. And although this sounds obnoxious, after 48 hours in Venice I was ready for a change of scenery. I was looking forward to eating meat and fresh pasta and mortadella! But I was exhausted. Between lack of sleep, eating too much, walking everywhere, getting lost, and more, I was ready for a night off. I arrived in Bologna at 6 pm and seriously thought of canceling my 8 pm reservation at da Fabio and staying in. Thank god I didn’t. I went for a pre-dinner walk to the center of town (about 10 minutes), and by the end of the walk, my exhaustion had disappeared and my appetite returned. Bologna was pulsing with life and my own energy was resurrected. By 8 pm Venice seemed dead, thankfully free of tourist traffic but also free of much life or energy. Quiet and reserve marked Venice after dark. But although I find myself drawn to quiet and reserve, I was ready for some life and I found it in Bologna. People were everywhere and energy pulsated all around me. This is partly because Bologna is a college town, with the oldest (1088 AD) university in Europe and one of the most respected in Italy, but it wasn’t just college students lighting things up. Here it was a Thursday night with work and classes the next day, but everyone was out. Old, young, babies in strollers. Stores were all open with music thumping from within. This was an Italy I was missing in Venice, and it felt pretty irresistible. By the time I arrived at da Fabio at 8, I felt revived. I was excited about the restaurant because although it had made no one’s top 5 list, I was intrigued by the fact that they had no menu. Dishes were simply brought out, or if choices were allowed, they were delivered orally. But nothing prepared me for what was about to take place. 8 pm is still early to dine in Italy, and the early reservation marked me as a tourist. I was the first one there. But my server was as gracious as could be with my imperfect Italian and his eyes burned with a kind of fire. He was talking a mile a minute and clearly amped up. He explained that he would just bring out every appetizer they were making tonight and I could try some of each, then I could order the rest of the courses as I chose.

Yep, all on my table.

Yep, that’s all on my table.

I was expecting four or five antipasti, and thus they came. Celery with parmigiano, onions in agrodolce, grilled bread, a frittata, chicken liver pate, grilled zucchini. Everything was great. But then to my astonishment, more arrived. Three huge balls of mozzarella di bufala, a platter of exquisite mortadella, fried pork milanese. I ate what I could, but things were quickly getting out of hand. IMG_6236 The Italians began to arrive. I was the only non-Italian in the place, and they were on fire too. Another server appeared, equally amped up, and soon the whole place had erupted in a cacophony of exuberance and joy. Here was no dining room of timid tourists or reserved Venetians. These people were overflowing with joy and life. Gone was the exquisite but understated cuisine of Venice. This food and these people were overflowing with lusty passions and abundance. My neighbors at the next table (a local couple from down the street) starting talking to me, and went so far as to take a card and promise to visit our restaurant some day! They shared other restaurant recommendations for Bologna and were eager to know what I thought of the food I was being served. At another table, a couple was joined by a third man who showed up gesticulating like a maniac walking his dog in on a leash, which he promptly tied to his chair. Servers were moving fast, driven by some invisible source of boundless energy, nearly hitting each other coming in and out of the kitchen, my guy still with flames in his eyes. Fabio, the chef himself, alternated between yelling at his servers in the kitchen, wagging his finger at them, and smoking a cigarette, right there in plain view of everyone. My neighbors got up to smoke outside, and perhaps as a reflection of my own exuberance, I thought of asking them if I could join them, but that seemed a little too personal and in the end better judgment prevailed.

Beautiful, spritsy, high quality, dry lambrusco

Beautiful, spritsy, high quality, dry lambrusco

I had asked for a glass of local lambrusco, but the next thing I knew a whole bottle had been put down at my table. I did ask for a glass, right? Slowly it began to disappear, my fear of drinking too much outweighed by the irresistible impulse to give in to abandon like everyone else in the place. IMG_6237 I ordered my next course: the classic tortellini in brodo, tiny packages of hand-shaped pasta in the traditional shape of Venus’s navel. They were excellent, and so I ordered another dish of pasta which I found irresistible: tagliatelle with sausage and artichokes. Excellent again, even better than the tortellini. IMG_6244 By this time, I was very full and rather tipsy. In the meantime, a server had brought in a bowl of water for the dog. My friendly neighbors had gotten cuddly. IMG_6245 I knew I had reached the end of the line and simply couldn’t eat or drink any more (the bottle was empty). I told the server that I couldn’t eat anything more and just needed my check. But the next thing I knew, the piece de resistance of the evening, he brought out gelato. Not just a bowl, but a whole damn tub with the dasher still in, just thrown down on the table like it was nothing to be served a whole tub of custard gelato. I took my bowl. It was exquisite. He threw down the tub on my neighbor’s table and continued to talk to them for 10 minutes, like he had no other customers to help and while the gelato slowly melted. Hell, maybe they had ten more tubs back in the kitchen. IMG_6246 I finally said my goodbyes and headed to the door. Somehow, though it was now past ten, it seemed like the spirit of the evening called for a walk back to town rather than an early bed time. Things had quieted down a bit, but there were still people everywhere. I realized at that moment, that a move to Bologna might be in my future, if only I can convince my wife and kids.

A dream come true at the Rialto fish and produce market.

For years I read about the famous Rialto fish and vegetable market, and it was a dream come true to see it in person. If only I were cooking here!

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Native Venice and Her Islands

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The islands of Mazzorbo (foreground) and Burano (background), connected by a wooden foot bridge.

In addition to Venice proper, there are a number of large islands in the lagoon, some well-known, others less so. Perhaps the best known is Murano, famous for its glass making. Another is Burano, famous for lace making for hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, the first Venetian settlements after the collapse of ancient Rome were on some of these outlying islands, with Venice proper being settled later. The outlying islands are easy to reach by public water bus from the north of Venice proper, which offers a gorgeous, expansive view which is a wonderful contrast to the claustrophobic nature of much of Venice.

Expansive view of water and mountains from Venice's north shore.

Expansive view of water and mountains from Venice’s north shore.

I decided to visit Burano, both for a quiet respite from busy Venice and also because one of its restaurants, al gatto nero, was recommended by both Katie Parla and Luca of alle testiere. Like alle testiere, al gatto nero is a restaurant dedicated to preserving Venice’s traditional dishes and agricultural and fishing practices in a sustainable way. The movement to preserve these traditions is known as “Native Venice”, and it is very much connected to the outlying islands which are so essential a part of traditional Venetian cooking, not the least because several of the islands produce much of the produce for Venice and its islands, especially the island of Sant’Erasmo, famous for the quality of its vegetables, supposedly because of the saline nature of the soil, which puzzles me. I would love to see a soil test someday!

Venissa's walled vineyard.

Venissa’s walled vineyard.

After a 40 minute water bus ride from Venice, I disembarked one stop before Burano on the island of Mazzorbo, which is very quiet but is now home to an exciting restaurant/hotel/winery called Venissa. Venissa has resurrected wine production on Mazzorbo and although its production is only in its early stages (one or two vintages I believe), this will be an exciting one to watch. Within its walled property, Venissa grows grapes and vegetables. Just outside the walls, there is a wooden foot bridge from Mazzorbo to Burano.

Burano's beautiful pastel colors.

Burano’s beautiful pastel colors.

I was hoping for a quiet respite on Burano from Venice’s intense tourism, but sadly I did not find it. Although there were locals everywhere (many of them quite elderly), Burano has been in guide books long enough that it has been discovered, on this day mostly by Chinese and Japanese tourists, traveling in packs and taking videos of themselves with their iPhones attached to long, golf-club like rods. Sigh. Crushingly, there was no shortage of junky snack shops selling hotdogs, crappy pizza, and coca-cola. Sigh.

Is no place sacred?

Is no place sacred?

But my meal at al gatto nero was excellent. I didn’t experience the same level of mastery as I did at alle testiere, but it was still excellent and I’m so happy to support any institution devoted to sustainable, local agriculture.

Lovely baby scallops and razor clams at al gatto nero.

Lovely baby scallops and razor clams at al gatto nero.

Da Fiore

Da Fiore Restaurant Venice Review 480x337 (2)-93e77533-3251-46fa-a030-da620a073ac1-0-479x337I’ve been reading about osteria da fiore for years, first in the writings of Marcella Hazan, and then in a cookbook published by the proprietors of the restaurant itself. So I knew when planning my trip to Venice that da fiore would figure prominently.

Da fiore was a little casual place when Mara and Maurizio Martin took it over in 1978, when I was one year old. It was a time when many young people were being drawn back to Venice and the Martins were among them. But although Mara had learned to cook from her grandmother, the cuisine of her upbringing was not the fresh from the Lagoon fish cuisine of Venice. She felt like she knew nothing of how to cook in the city. But she learned. Among other things, she befriended Victor and Marcella Hazan, who were living in Venice, and both Mara and Marcella have written about how much they learned about cooking from each other.

Although the Martins’ original aspirations for da fiore were to keep it simple, the cooking became more refined over time and is now one of just a handful of michelin starred restaurants in Venice. This actually concerned me because what I want from an Italian dining experience is cooking which is the comforting and simple but delicious cooking of the home, as I learned from Marcella’s writing so many years ago. My knowledge of the Michelin star system is shaky at best, so please take my opinion with a grain of salt, but my impression of the system is that it rewards restaurants which are more formal and whose cooking is more rarified than I care for.

And such was the case at da fiore. The service was stiff and formal, though more friendly the friendlier I became. It was the one place I’ve eaten on this trip where my imperfect Italian was not met with encouragement but discomfort and confusion, which didn’t put me at ease.

In fact, perhaps my biggest criticism of such formal dining is that often no one seems to be at ease. Some of the servers at da fiore, while trying to uphold a certain standard, seemed rather uncomfortable, as if they were playing a part and not being themselves. Nothing is worse than someone pretending to be someone they’re not, and while I have no criticism of anyone who loves formality, I expect it to be a sincere love, not an act or a job.

The food at da fiore was impressively executed and beyond reproach, as one would expect at a starred restaurant. But was it better than my meals at alle testiere? Did it have the personality and soul of so much cooking in Italy? I can’t say that it did. Is it the best restaurant in Venice, as some would have it? I can’t say that it is.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Da Fiore is an excellent restaurant worthy of a visit. And please understand that my comments should not be taken as any sort of professional review. Among other factors, a professional review should be the result of several visits over a period of time by those trained in the art of restaurant criticism.

I’m simply reporting on my impressions as a cook and lover of traditional, home-based Italian cooking.  I love the story of the Martins and da fiore and I am happy for their success. But da fiore left me a little cold, and I wish that it had been content to remain a simpler place, free from the pretensions of formal dining and free to focus simply on the quality of cooking.

A crisp dumpling filled with whipped bacala, with squid ink and ginger.

A crisp dumpling filled with whipped bacala, with squid ink and ginger.

Antipasto of capelunghe (razor clams).

Antipasto of capelunghe (razor clams).

Gratin of tagliolini with radicchio and scampi.

Gratin of tagliolini with radicchio and scampi.

Fried squid, shrimp, and mixed vegetables.

Fried squid, shrimp, and mixed vegetables.

After dinner sweets.

After dinner sweets.

alle testiere

Casual but elegant table setting at alle testiere.

Casual but elegant table setting at alle testiere.

I struck gold on my first meal in Venice. Having been mentored for years in Roman restaurant and food culture by Katie Parla, I was a bit discouraged not to have the same sort of guidance for Venice. And so I contacted Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan and former twenty-year resident of Venice for advice. His first choice was alle testiere.

Through unbelievably good fortune, alle testiere was all of two minutes from my lodgings in the Castello district of Venice. Victor has written about it here, and my high expectations were not disappointed. Alle testiere is a tiny twenty-two seat restaurant, one of the smallest I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Although size is no inherent proof of quality, it’s more likely than not that an establishment content with 22 seats is more interested in quality than quantity. I was also encouraged by the menu, in Italian only, another likely predictor of quality.

In Venice, one dines on fish, and at the best restaurants, one dines and pays a premium for the local fish of the lagoon in season purchased that day at the Rialto fish market. At alle testiere I was greeted by Luca, who manages the dining room with the help of one or two servers. Luca is good-natured and friendly, and he immediately put me at ease and encouraged my attempts to speak only in Italian. He recommended two wines. The first was Fiano di Avellino, a classic white from Campania, near Naples. produced by Vadiaperti. And the second was a wine closer to Venice, a traditional blend from Friuli in northeastern Italy produced by Denis Montanar. IMG_6100I began with an appetizer of mixed steamed shellfish. This is the most exposed cooking one can experience, one in which the quality of ingredients is the chief factor in the quality of the dish. I was not disappointed. Although I could not identify each and every type (and couldn’t perfectly understand Luca’s description in Italian), every bite was perfection. Tender, full of flavor, perfectly seasoned, dressed with aromatic olive oil. This is the sort of cooking some would find plain, but which was so perfectly executed that it provided nothing but joy. The sort of dish worth a flight to Venice to enjoy. IMG_6105As a first course, I chose little gnocchi with scampi and pesto. This dish was also very good and perfectly executed, though they weren’t the ethereal gnocchi of Arcangelo Dandini, which I’ve written about here and here. Still, the dish was balanced and delicious. IMG_6109As a second course I chose sole with aromatic herbs and juniper accompanied by a contorno of mixed vegetables (which I forgot to photograph). The filets of sole were as delicate and moist as they should have been, and the choice of juniper was an intriguing and successful one. The highlight of the contorno was the local radicchio. IMG_6113In general, dessert is my least favorite course. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been served a dessert at a restaurant in Italy that I was ecstatic about. But the choices at alle testiere and the confidence I had in the kitchen, made choosing dessert difficult indeed. There was panna cotta with raspberries, an apple tart, a chocolate flan, tiramisu, and two types of gelato. In the end I chose tiramisu, perfectly executed once again, with little or no alcohol to distract from the mascarpone and coffee.

The meal was so good, probably the best I’ve ever eaten in Italy, that I immediately made a reservation for lunch the next day. Despite my inclination, however, I had eaten so much the night before that I knew I couldn’t order every course and had to skip the secondo piatto. IMG_6133As an appetizer I chose sea scallops with orange and herbs. Once again I was confronted with the most perfect expression possible of this dish. I had long looked forward to eating scallops in Venice, where the scallops are purchased live with their orange “coral” attached.IMG_6136One of my favorite things to eat in Italy is clams, because the clams are so tender and delicate, the sort of clams which are simply unavailable in the US. And so I ordered the classic spaghetti alle vonghole. It was exquisite. Please note the size of the clams, with shells about the size of one’s thumb. IMG_6138For dessert, I ordered the pistacchio gelato, which we have on our own menu at the farm when I return in March. Although slightly melted by the time it reached my table, it was perfect, like every other dish I was served at alle testiere. I have a taste memory of exactly what I want our own pistacchio gelato to be.

Just look at that luminous dark golden color.

Just look at that luminous dark golden color.

After dessert I ordered a sweet dessert wine, a recioto di Soave from producer Pieropan. After late harvest the grapes are allowed to dry until Easter and then vinified into rich, liquid gold. The producer only makes 1000 bottles a year, and I was lucky enough to share one of them.

Without a doubt, these two meals were some of the finest I’ve ever had, and certainly the finest fish menus I’ve ever enjoyed!

My introduction to Venice

The noble Rialto Bridge

The noble Rialto Bridge

When Dillon and I were first in Italy ten years ago, we had planned to go to Venice at the end of our six-week trip. But six weeks came and we were just bone tired and ready to go home, deciding we’d save Venice for next time. Next time never came, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. So I’m thrilled to find myself in Venice now for the first time, though sadly on my own while Dillon stays with our boys (with plenty of help from family).

When I arrive in Italy, my first impression (which will surprise many) is usually just how cheap things feel. This trip isn’t the first one where a shower door has broken on me and it seems like too many everyday items in Italy are of a quality worse than IKEA. But this initial impression is quickly replaced by a deeper impression of things that matter more. In Venice, my first impression was wonder at the effect on my soul of a car-free city. Other cities have car-free zones, but Venice is the largest place I’ve ever been which is completely car free. It reminds me of just how much we’ve lost as a car-centric culture, and I wonder if the vices of the car don’t outweigh the convenience?

Many people describe Venice as one big museum, feeling like a place without a real, modern identity, merely a place of tourism. While there is certainly a lot of truth in this, I haven’t found it to feel that way as much as I thought I would. Partly this is because I chose against staying in a traditional hotel, opting rather to rent a room in a religious guest house which also includes a primary school. I chose this lodging precisely to avoid the feeling of being in an alternative realty, which too often comes with hotel rooms and restaurant meals after a few days. This morning I left to explore the city just as parents were dropping off their children for the day. Real lives amidst the craziness that is Venetian tourism.

Piazza San Marco, nearly empty in early morning.

Piazza San Marco, nearly empty in early morning.

And crazy it certainly is. Countless shops selling the most nonsensical trinkets. Burger King and McDonalds. Countless restaurants serving “tourist menus” with things like American french fries and low-quality versions of Venetian classics. Countless tourists looking bored and walking through the Gallerie dell’Accademia because a guide book says to. It makes one feel like screaming.

And yet, it seems like 75% of tourists see only about 25% of Venice. There are residential neighborhoods still on the island where one can escape the thronging crowds. This is especially true at this time of year before the huge cruise ships arrive, a practice which thoughtful Venetians are trying to ban though I doubt it ever will be. And as Victor Hazan (who lived in Venice for twenty years) has recently written, the overwhelming Venice of the daylight hours is replaced by the exquisite Venice of the night.

The bridge at night just outside my front door.

The bridge at night just outside my front door.

Of course, I can’t escape the fact that I am a tourist too. Though I try to be respectful of the native culture and try to speak only Italian, I’m sure I stand out in all kinds of ways. It raises an inevitable problem of tourism: how can a place with much to offer and an interesting identity not have that identity destroyed by the desire of others to visit and experience it. I have no easy answer for this problem, though it is one which affects Venice more than almost any other city in the world. I suppose that all one can do is to allow a place to be what it is while listening quietly to absorb all it has to offer of itself.

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Let’s show our children that farming IS viable.

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For the second time in six months, a thoughtful farmer has taken to writing in a high-profile public forum that small-scale sustainable farming is not economically viable. First, Bren Smith published an op-ed in the New York Times in August entitled “Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers.” And then just last week Jaclyn Moyer wrote a piece for salon.com entitled “What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living.

Both of these pieces are thoughtful and earnest, written by practitioners of the craft being discussed. Both pieces raise serious and important issues which need more attention in the public sphere. But both pieces, ultimately, are wrong in their assessment of the economic sustainability of small farms, and I fear they might do more harm than good.

Bren Smith rightly points out most farms depend on off-farm income. He highlights a disturbing trend that some metropolitan areas have hit a saturation point with local, sustainable foods and that farmers are beginning to have to lower prices to compete for a limited market. He laments that some high-profile, heavily subsidized sustainable farms have been artificially insulated from true market forces. He wishes he had children but thinks he can’t. And he exhorts farmers to once again take the lead in reform, as has been done in the past, by demanding and shaping a new food economy which might make farming more viable.

Jaclyn Moyer also laments that her own farm is kept afloat by non-farm income and that her farm is not profitable, despite 12 hour days, 6 days a week. She tells the story of her neighbor who had just made a meager profit of $4000 for the first time in 10 years. She details that no farmer of her acquaintance met her standard for economic sustainability: earn at least minimum wage, abide by labor laws, and don’t depend on off-farm work. She tells of the pressure to put a smiling face on her struggles so that her customers won’t know she’s not making ends meet. She relates giving a talk to a local high school, after which not a single student indicated interest in pursuing farming.

Both of these pieces are heartbreaking, and most farmers I know can relate. We’ve been there and had these thoughts and experiences. For most farmers, the conclusions are accurate.

But reading Jaclyn’s piece last week was especially jarring for me, because I had just returned home the day before from the annual conference of PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture), where I presented on the economic viability of very small farms (under two acres) and had had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Jean-Martin Fortier, who makes a comfortable living farming an acre an a half in chilly Quebec with his wife Maude-Helene and two employees. They even have two children.

My own farming situation is unusual because in addition to raising vegetables we operate a small, on-farm, sixteen-seat restaurant two days per week, which might seems at first to prove their point. Certainly, the restaurant helps pay the bills, but as I emphasized in my presentation at PASA, while our vegetable income is low, the number of hours worked is low as well, and we pay ourselves about $15 per hour to raise vegetables. This is not a princely salary, but it is much higher than the sub-minimum wage described by Jaclyn and Bren. If my wife and I both increased our hours raising vegetables to full time, we would make about $50,000 to $60,000 per year, a modest middle-class income with winters off.

My experience was vindicated last week at PASA when I heard Fortier speak about his farm, which grosses $150,000 per year on 1.5 acres, and which provides him a comfortable, if modest, income of around $60,000. Just as impressive, Fortier emphasized that they take the winter off, don’t work off the farm, and limit their work hours in season from 8 am to 5 pm.

How can these diametrically opposed views co-exist? How can Moyer earn less than $3,000 on her 10 acres while Fortier earns $60,000 on his 1.5? The answer is complex and too technical for this platform, but the truth is that farming in an economically viable way is very difficult but possible. I have taught Latin, run a restaurant, and farmed, and farming is by far the most challenging of these three jobs. It requires a combination of skills that few people (including myself) naturally have, but they can be developed. But like all highly demanding jobs, becoming a successful farmer requires training. Learning on the fly is a recipe for frustration, and the best decision any aspiring farmer can make is to find the most economically successful farm they can and apprentice there until they have learned the craft.

Ironically, while most people accept the old adage that scaling up is the way to increase profits, Fortier has identified his scale (no tractor, mostly hand tools) as key to his success. Efficiency, fertility management, organization, charisma, passion, discipline… all these traits contribute to success in farming. Most important of all is a model, like Fortier’s, which has proven itself to be viable.

As a farmer and lover of farming, Bren’s and Jaclyn’s pieces make my heart bleed. I have nothing but empathy for them because I know how they feel. Their pieces raise essential questions too often left unasked and unanswered by foodies in the budding local foods movement. Perhaps an editor and not the authors themselves chose the titles of their pieces, and I don’t blame them for wanting a juicy headline.

But the truth is that sustainable farming needs all the help it can get, and these pieces do more harm than good. The last thing we need is to discourage a young person with a budding interest in farming. With so many cultural forces directing them in other directions, we need more role models like Fortier who show how farming is viable, rather than those who have not been successful and assume that success is not possible. I can think of no greater joy that I could receive in life than one or all three of my boys ignoring the advice of Jaclyn and Bren, and choosing to follow in my footsteps to become a farmer.

Crespelle

Crepes filled with lamb and ricotta, from a fall menu,

Crepes filled with lamb and ricotta, from a fall menu

I love crespelle, which is the Italian word for crepes. Although more famous in French cooking, in many parts of the country Italians make them too! Savory crepes are treated as a pasta course in Italy.  But to me, crepes are even better, with their luxurious texture.

Thomas loves them too.

Thomas loves them, too.

As with pasta, they can be prepared an almost infinite number of ways. They can be layered flat like lasagne, rolled up like cannelloni, folded in a half-moon, or prepared in a number of other ways. One of the most interesting is to fold them up into a triangular handkerchief, in which case they’re called fazzoletti. This past summer at the restaurant we served fazzoletti filled with green beans, garlic, and mozzarella, which we first learned from one of Marcella Hazan’s excellent books.

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Fazzoletti with green beans and mozzarella

During December, we served what is perhaps the simplest but one of the most delicious crepes: simply folded in a half moon and filled with mozzarella and prosciutto. I was inspired to make it by the wonderful panini one encounters in Italy, in which it hardly seems possible that a slice of meat and a slice of cheese can be such a remarkable revelation to eat. Although making the crepes can take a little practice, it’s really not difficult, and once you learn how to do it, copious pleasure will be at your beck and call.

Crespelle with mozzarella and prosciutto (makes 16 crepes)

This recipe calls for grams, rather than cups to measure the flour. If you don’t have an inexpensive (less than $30) kitchen scale, please get one. If you ever use flour in the kitchen, you won’t be sorry you spent the money.

To make the crepes, beat three eggs with 1.5 cups of milk. Gradually add 150 grams flour (all purpose is fine, or pastry) and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Let sit a few minutes and then pass through a colander to eliminate any lumps. Melt two tablespoons of butter and stir into the batter.

To make crepes you need a good non-stick pan. I far prefer cast iron to teflon, which creeps me out. I want a pan that I can have for decades, and teflon always seems to wear out. I use an 8-inch pan and pour in a little less an 1/4 cup of batter per crepe, but this will vary widely based on pan size and how thick you want your crepe. I like mine thin, but there are various legitimate styles.

Place your crepe pan (or two if you have them) over medium-high heat and very lightly oil it/them. This batter has butter in it, which will help prevent sticking. When the pan is quite hot (the batter should sizzle immediately), add a little less than 1/4 cup of batter and swirl around evenly for about 10 seconds. Cook until the one side is browned and the top is set. It should take around 30 seconds if the pan is the right temp. Flip and do the second side, using a flexible spatula or your fingers if necessary. Cool the crepes on a rack as they finish.

Coarsely chop up about 1/4 pound of imported prosciutto (either San Daniele or di Parma), coarsely grate one pound of fresh mozzarella, and finely grate 1 cup of parmigiano-reggiano. Place a few pieces of prosciutto on each crepe, and add about a tablespoon of mozzarella and a tablespoon of parmigiano. Add a tiny drizzle of olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt (the prosciutto is already very well seasoned). Fold each crepe over and press down with your hand. They can be stacked and sit for several hours before cooking, though I would not refrigerate them.

Melt some butter over medium heat and add as many crepes as will fit comfortably. Cook until lightly crisped on the one side (about a minute or two), and then flip them and do the other. Or, as I do, after flipping them to the second side, place them in a 350 degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. The heat all around does a better job than the bottom heat of the stove top.

Repeat with the remaining crepes, garnish with parsley and parmigiano, and serve at once!

Crepe with mozzarella and prosciutto.

Crepe with mozzarella and prosciutto.

Recipes are Wrong (or, The Best Fried Chicken)

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My late, Southern grandfather would be proud.

Although I’ve been bewitched by Italy for some time, my people are from western North Carolina, and so I have a soft spot for fried chicken too!

We purchase whole chickens from Forks Farm and then cut them up and freeze for later use. Wings are finger food and don’t really fit into the cooking we do at the restaurant, and so they often end up on our family table. More often than not, we fry them, Southern style.

Because fried chicken is dear to many people, there are many recipes out there which take the subject very seriously. Unfortunately, I’ve never really found a recipe that wows me. Different writers hold up various things as essential: some say the chicken must be brined, others say it must be steeped in buttermilk, still others say the chicken must spend some time covered while it is cooking, others skip the brining and buttermilk and just toss dry chicken with flour and fry. Just like with the authors of contradictory gnocchi recipes, the authors of all of these approaches deem theirs the best, and so something funny must be going on.

Recently I found an approach that produces fried chicken which really wows me. The funny thing is, the essential technique contradicts most classic recipes. My epiphany camewhile researching a way to fry mussels. My classic frying batter is the simple one known as “la pastella” which I learned from Marcella Hazan’s excellent cookbooks. But this time I was looking for something a little different, a little more like the extra crispy batter one can order at KFC (though I’ve sworn off fast food and haven’t eaten at KFC in 20 years). So I googled images of fried mussels and hit the jackpot, finding an image which was exactly what I was looking for, courtesy of the website http://panlasangpinoy.com.

Inspiration for my fried chicken batter.

Inspiration for my fried chicken batter.

This batter worked great for mussels, and it occurred to me that it was exactly what I wanted for fried chicken too. The secret is to dip the chicken in liquid (mix of flour, water, and egg) but then NOT to let the excess liquid drip back into the bowl as almost every recipe suggests. Instead, the extra liquid clinging to the chicken forms little lumps or scales with the flour, and it is these little lumps or scales which will fry up into the most succulent, crisp, and flaky batter one can make. I’ve simplified the batter a bit, and you can find the recipe below.

This experience is such a great reminder of how recipes can be (and often are) simply wrong. No brine is needed, no buttermilk is needed. Just proper seasoning and the right technique with the batter.

Enjoy!

Fried Chicken

I fry wings exclusively. Not only do I have a lot left over from the chickens I use for the restaurant, but the wings are ideal for frying: their small size ensures quick cooking. It is possible but much harder to fry other pieces, since it is hard to get the inside cooked through without the outside burning. It can certainly be done with moderate heat, but my advice is to just fry the wings!

These wings are gorgeous because they are raised locally at Forks farm. Look how clean and fresh they are!

These wings are gorgeous because they are raised locally. Look how clean and fresh they are!

1) Season the wings generously with salt (one of the most important steps, of course), and let sit for 5 or 10 minutes (or up to a few hours), while the salt is absorbed.

2) Mix 1 egg with 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of flour. The batter should be like a thick heavy cream. This amount is for about 10 wings. Scale up as needed.

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3) Add the wings to the batter and take one at a time and add to a bowl or bag with plenty of flour and toss thoroughly. The flour should form lumps on the chicken pieces. If it doesn’t, the batter is probably too thin, and you can thicken the batter with a little more flour.

Note the little lumps of flour. This is what you need.

Note the little lumps of flour. This is what you need.

4) Once all the chicken pieces are coated with flour, fry in a heavy pan (cast iron is ideal), in 1/2 to 1 inch of canola or other frying oil. The ideal temperature is around 325 to 350 degrees. At this temp, the chicken should fry gently without burning. At this temp, cooking for about 3 or 4 minutes per side should cook them wings through.

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5) Serve at once, or slightly cooled. The wings will stay crisp for at least 10 minutes or so.

Look at that texture. To me, this is what great fried chicken is all about!

Look at that texture. To me, this is what great fried chicken is all about!

Risotto

Plain risotto with onion

Plain risotto with onion

Several weeks ago the restaurant was closed and we taught a series of cooking classes instead. At each of the cooking classes we made risotto with sausage and cranberry beans, which we also served at the restaurant back in October.

In a traditional Italian meal, there are two principal courses (primo piatto, and secondo piatto), often preceded by an appetizer (antipasto) and followed by a dessert (dolce). The primo piatto is invariably a soup, pasta, or risotto. Risotto is the creamy rice dish of certain Northern Italian regions, made with one of several special rice varieties and a unique cooking method in which one adds liquid only gradually while stirring almost constantly.

The most common rice for making risotto is arborio. It is pretty widely available these days in most supermarkets, though just like with pasta, I find imported arborio superior to domestic if you have a choice. Although arborio is the most common risotto rice both here and in Italy, it is not the finest. In the Veneto, Italians prefer vialone nano. Elsewhere, carnaroli is the considered the finest rice for risotto. What all three have in common is a high percentage of amylopectin, the same sticky starch which makes yukon gold the perfect potato for gnocchi. But some arborio can become almost too creamy and begin to dissolve. It also tends to have a narrow window between undercooked and overcooked (like pasta, risotto should be serve al dente). Vialone nano and carnaroli (which is a cross between vialone nano and a Japanese variety) produce creamy risotto with more distinct kernels and a larger window between under and overcooked.

Certainly, making risotto with arborio is better than not making risotto, but the extra trouble to acquire vialone nano or canaroli is well worth it, and does a lot to explain why the risotto we made recently at the restaurant and in classes was so well regarded. The rice we use is a very special carnaroli from Piedmont called acquerello, which we mail order from Amazon. 

Acquerello is actually aged and enriched with the the nutritious germ of the rice kernel. Although it takes longer to cook than other types (25 to 27 minutes), the result is well worth the wait.

Often, recipes indicate that the rice needs to be stirred constantly, but this is not true. As long as you don’t step away for too long and as long as the rice doesn’t dry out and burn, you’ll be fine. I usually stir for a minute or so and step away for a minute or so. This is one reason risotto in restaurants is often so dreadful. Unless the kitchen has someone dedicated to stirring for 25 minutes (which few do), the risotto will be partially pre-made and reheated (yuck!).

Some cooks add a little white wine before adding broth. We never do, but it is certainly worth experimenting with. Of course, in addition to the quality of your rice, the character of your risotto will be determined largely by what type of broth you use. If the only way you’ll ever make risotto is to use store-bought broth, by all means do, but your results will be far superior with homemade broth. Homemade broth is really quite easy. Simply add some a few pieces of chicken or a chicken carcass in a large pot with an onion or two and several carrots and stalks of celery. If you have some meaty bones of beef, all the better. Bring to a near boil (about 180 degrees) and keep at that temperature for a few hours before cooling, straining, and refrigerating or freezing. You can let it boil, but the broth will be less clear and more cloudy. We don’t salt our broth, preferring to more aggressively season whatever we’re adding the broth to. With frozen broth on hand, you can make risotto or soup at a moment’s notice. If you’re vegetarian, simply omit the meat and double the quantity of vegetables. Really couldn’t be easier.

Like pasta sauces, there is an infinite number of possible risotto dishes to make. The most basic risotto is simply given a flavor base of gently sauteed onion. We tend to prefer slightly heartier risotti with meat and/or beans, such as the recipe you’ll find below, which we first learned from Marcella Hazan’s beautiful cookbook Marcella Cucina.

If you can make your own sausage, all the better. If not, try to find a minimally seasoned one without fennel or just use heavily seasoned ground pork. Cranberry beans are similar to borlotti beans in Italy. They’re a bit hard to find, but they can be mail ordered, or you can use a canned version which Goya markets as “Roman Beans”. It’s best to buy dried beans and soak/cook them yourself, but the canned beans wouldn’t be too great a sacrifice in this dish.

Risotto with Sausage and Cranberry Beans

  1. Bring about 5 or 6 cups of broth to a lazy simmer.
  2. Brown about ½ cup sausage in a pot with some olive oil, and then add about ½ cup onion and cook until just softened.
  3. Add about a cup of cooked or canned cranberry beans along with a knob or two of butter.
  4. Add 250 grams rice (about 1 ½ cups) and about ½ to 1 teaspoon salt (assuming no salt in your broth), and stir for a minute or two to coat the kernels.
  5. Begin adding broth a ladleful or two at a time, keeping the heat on medium. After each addition, the pot should look soupy. When most of the liquid is absorbed in a few minutes, add another ladleful or two until the rice is done (20 to 25 minutes depending on the type). If you run short on broth, continue with water.
  6. The risotto is done when al dente, tender but firm. When it is just about finished, add another knob of butter and about ½ cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. If necessary, add a little broth to obtain a nice, creamy consistency. In some places, risotto is more soupy than others, though it should never really look like a soup. On the other hand, if it is too dry and sticky, it can be quite wearying. Garnish with a thin sliver of butter, more parmigiano, and possibly some chopped parsley.
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