14 June 2010

Toss This Salad

A week in Italy is a beautiful thing. Especially when you can largely eschew the restaurants and cook simply for yourself. The trouble is that in a land largely known for its meats and cheeses and gelatos, you pretty much mostly eat meats and cheeses and gelatos. (Don't talk to me about the unsalted bread.) And let's not forget about the pasta.

When you eat nothing but proteins and starches for a week, things in your body slow down. You get lethargic. You move less nimbly. You prefer to do everything laying down. So when we got home, I laid on the couch with a meat and gelato hangover. Alannah found the will to hit the market and go up to the kitchen.

After some banging around, I wondered what in tarnation was going on. Was she actually cooking a full meal up there? Would I have to call a surgeon in Neuilly (Paris' Beverly Hills) to make a liposuction appointment? Is my wife mad to bother feeding us after a trip like we had?

There. This oughtta make you regular enough
to star on German video sites.
The result was a ginormous salad, replete with half a head of red-leaf lettuce, lightly blanched broccoli (raw broccoli is for hippie), red peppers grilled under the broiler, fresh cucumber, and plenty of coeur de pigeon (pigeon heart, what kind of name is that!?) tomatoes. Drizzled with a touch of vinegar, a hit of salt, and plenty of our favorite olive oil, it was the antidote to a week of overindulgence.

Upon consuming what seemed like 2 kilos of nothing but vegetables, a wave of healthiness swept over us. Perhaps too much, so we high-tailed it to our neighborhood gelato joint for an appropriate Italian dessert.

Realizing that this much vegetable at once can constitute a shock to the system, our next meal incorporated one of the most fabulous ingredients we happened upon in Italy: Cuore di Proscuittuo. If you think Parma ham is something amazing, imagine this, the filet mignon of the ham. This is seriously drool-inducing stuff.

Handle this meat with care.
Normally you'd use one of those circular deli-style meat slicers to cut this stuff to the fineness it deserves, but we're amateurs here, remember? But even with our insanely sharp knives (the ones we didn't have with us in Italy...) it's tough to cut ham deli-thin. The solution? Cut "normal" slices, lay it down on the cutting board, then horizontally make slices from the slices sushi style. This way you get delicate, manageable strips without having chef's salad-type matchsticks whose rough shape interferes with the enjoyment of such refined hammy flavors.

We again went with a bed of red-leaf lettuce, coeur de pigeon tomatoes and a tiny bit of cucumber, topping it with a nice helping of cuore di proscutto and freshly shaved Parmesan. A bit clichéd, sure, but I opted for a balsamic vinaigrette this time for a hint of sweetness to go with the salt from the cheese and ham.

Moist & glistening.
The one touch that really made this magical, in my most humble opinion, was using several whole leaves of basil to garnish the salad. The occasional but powerful punch of basil rounds out the salad with a perfect balance of flavor, and distinguishes it from typical meat-based meal salads you get at your typical workaday lunch spot.

09 June 2010

On the road: Funky Porcini

This post has nothing to do with the downtempo nu-jazzy act. While they're quite good, we're talking about the mushrooms. Which, in my humble opinion, are even better.

Mangia, mangia!

During our stay in Italy last week, we were both blessed and cursed by having an apartment with a full kitchen. Blessed because we'd save on all the ridiculous cover charges, service charges, and other "surprise" costs involved in dining in Italy. And further blessed because we'd have a gas range. Cursed because it was – as expected – all equipped with crap from Ikea.

Anyway, I'd begged and pleaded with Alannah all night to do it.

And after she'd said no to all that, I'd asked politely if we could take our knives to Italy with us.

"No! We are NOT putting the knives into checked baggage. If you wanted to do that, we should've booked a train..." And that was that. We'd be traveling knifeless.

Despite nearly losing a few fingers due to dull, serrated (!?) Ikea kitchen knives supplied at the apartment, we did pull off a few good dishes. Sure, we had to tone down our usual schtick in the presence of kids – but it also made for some fun improvisation. (What do you feed kids who almost only want Persian food when you have Tuscan ingredients?)

But it was less about the tools or limitations or even our abilities than it was about the fresh food, and Florence has that in spades. And it's cheap. Perhaps we say that through the distorted filter of Parisian living, but hitting the Mercato Centrale every day seemed like a bargain. We were able to get fresh, high-quality ingredients for a drop in the bucket.

One morning's market haul
If you ever get a board full of antipasti at a proper Italian restaurant, you may think, "Geez, they put no work into this," well, that's the point. As almost an antithesis to elaborated French cuisine, much Italian cuisine is about taking the stuff and presenting it in its simplest form. This isn't to say that there isn't a lot of work going on – but it's usually happening on the supplier's end. It takes skill and knowledge to raise a boar, butcher it, and hunt the truffles to make a salsiccia di cinghiale al tartufo. But on your end, you bring it home from the salumeria, slice it up, and serve it with a robust wine from around Siena. Done.

Aperitivi a casa
So in that spirit, we decided to put together a nice aperitivi. After a day of touristing, juggling kids, and checking out Tuscan rear ends (I swear, despite the gaudy clothes surrounding them, even Alannah will agree that the women of Tuscany have the nicest asses ever) it was tough to get out to a bar and partake. The aperitivi is a northern Italian (but widely spreading) norm akin to the American happy hour buffet, where the spread is often simple fare like cheeses, olives, various cured meats, and other finger foods.

One night we opted to go for a very simple spread of melons, shaved parmesano reggiano, tender chunks of truffled boar sausage, and – it goes without saying – porcini mushrooms. Porcinis (called cêpes in France) are crazy expensive on this side of the alps. But in Italy, the spring funghi are surprisingly affordable, and abundant. Not bad for something that can't be commercially cultivated. So while €10/kilo for fresh ones might sound like a lot for mushrooms, it's actually a bargain.

The trick with porcinis is keeping it simple. Whenever you have fancy ingredients, you want to taste them. Otherwise, why bother paying so much? The other trick is to use them fast. While the dry ones keep forever, the fresh ones are incredibly sensitive to heat and moisture and can go slimy in less than a day if conditions aren't playing nice. Then you'll really have Funky Porcini. The bad kind.

My favorite is to slice them up about a quarter inch thick and grill them. They're a "meaty" mushroom, so it's perfectly OK to make like Rocco Siffredi and treat 'em like pieces of meat. Luckily, the apartment came equipped with a grill pan (albeit in cast aluminum... how cheap!) so we were all good.

Grill, baby, grill
Simply the grill pan with a very thin layer of olive oil. Not for actually cooking the mushroom, but because of its low smoking point, it can be burnt a little to impart some smokiness to the mushrooms. Slap the 'shrooms on 'til you have good grill marks on both sides.

And that's about it. Throw it on a plate, sprinkle with sea salt, and hit it with some good olive oil and you have a finger food that's at once decadent and humble. It tastes expensive but earthy. Smells strong but eases across the palate gently. And it goes damn well with all sorts of wine.

Pro tip from the amateurs:
We were asked last week how we shave it. To avoid nicks and cuts, take long, gentle strokes with a vegetable peeler. This way your parmesan (or other hard cheeses) will come out in fine strips that look pretty, feel good in the mouth, and glisten beautifully under drippings of olive oil.

01 June 2010

Quick Hit: Meat Hole

Click for a ridiculously high-def photo
After just over two years in Paris, it must be rubbing off on us: We followed some alarmingly stupid food trend.  The other day, after making doughnuts, we thought "Why the hell not?" and made the infamous Doughnut Burger (aka "The Luther" after supposed aficionado Luther Vandross), which has been immortalized by the likes of Vandross himself, Southern dame Paula Deen, and minor league baseball parks across the US.

Of course, we didn't use factory-churned Krispy Kremes and frozen patties. We used our own homemade doughnuts, of course, fresh beef ground for us by the butcher just moments before, and the same formula for near-perfect fries that we did on Cinco de Mayonnaise.  (Courtesy of the crafty bloggers at  the French Culinary Institute.)

The verdict?  


An utter waste of quality ingredients, to be quite frank. 

I'd already posted a photo on Facebook some time ago, where a discussion ensued among friends...

Some meat for your hole, madam?
...but now, on the eve of a so-called "Street Food" event in Paris featuring burgers (even though it's far from actual street food, considering none of the star chefs involved have ever pushed a cart through Paris), I thought it our responsibility to unleash upon the general public the horrible truth about mixing quality cuisine with flash-in-the-pan trends.  

You're welcome.