Italy

Citrus Lovers, Part 2

Some twenty-five years ago, I was traveling alone in Italy, just sort of wandering and making my way down to Basilicata to visit my relatives there. Hanging out for a few days in Naples, I met some locals who encouraged me to take the Circumvesuviana Railway to Sorrento, and then get some sort of transportation – boat, bus, scooter, or cab -down the coast to Praiano, a little fishing village just south of the jetsetter’s paradise, Positano. I bought a ticket for the train, and when I got to Sorrento, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Praiano-several miles but an inexpensive cab ride south. We started driving and suddenly we pulled out onto the coastal road. My jaw literally dropped and I must have gasped because the driver laughed and slowed down so I could take a picture.

 

The utter drama of it all- cliffs and outcroppings literally hanging in mid-air over sheer drops down thousands of feet to a shimmering Mediterranean Sea. You could see miles down the coast, which wove in and out, proffering rocks here and there, just wide enough to be someone’s private beach. And beaches they were, since Italians will literally set up a beach chair and umbrella anywhere they can. You could be sure a little stand selling Peronis and Campari-Sodas was not far behind. The weather seemed to add to the drama, since you could actually see it change as you looked down the coast.

The sun rules this land, even more than anywhere else in Italy. And almost anywhere you look- lemon and orange groves! Citrus is king here and it graces everything- from simply grilled fish to gelato to scamorza wrapped in fragrant lemon leaves, drizzled with olive oil, and tossed onto a grill. Limoncello, poured from delicate bottles, is what you drink after dinner- a lovely but bracing digestif.

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I ended up staying in Praiano, forgoing my plans to visit my relatives in Basilicata. My new friends came down to the coast and days of sun, sea, music and wine followed. When I finally went back up to Rome, I was so enchanted with the carefree life on the Amalfi Coast; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That place was like heaven to me, and all these years later it still is. I’ve been back many times, and each time my senses are overwhelmed by everything around me.


 

If there’s any one that can add a sense of romance to a discussion of lemons, I guess it’s me. Lemon is my favorite flavor, and I always associate it with this beautiful area of Campania, from the Amalfi coast to Capri, Sorrento, or the enchanting island of Ischia. Amalfi lemons are big, sweet, and fragrant and have a look all their own – a bumpy surface with a very thick rind.

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We go through a lot of lemons here at L’Arte – we make a Torta Caprese al Limone, which is a flourless almond and white chocolate cake scented with lemons. We have our “L’Amalfitana”, a white lemon cake filled with lemon curd and covered with a thin layer of lemon buttercream. We make sweet Lemon Taralli, Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, and Delizia di Limone gelato in the summer. We also make candied lemon zest, which we use in all manner of recipes as a bittersweet component.

Meyer lemons are a favorite of mine- they’re a cross between lemons and tangerines, so they’re sweet and have a shiny, herbal-scented rind. I like to make Meyer lemon curd. I fill delicate tart shells with the curd, then top each tart with a dollop of toasted silky meringue. Lemon curd can be easily made in a home kitchen and kept in the fridge for up to 10 days. It can be used as a tart or cake filling, but is also yummy as an alternative to jam or marmalade.


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Meyer Lemon Curd

150 g. sugar
grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons
3 eggs
¾ cup Meyer lemon juice
112 g. butter, cut into pieces

  • In a medium bowl, combine the sugar with the lemon zest, rubbing the zest into the sugar with your fingertips.
  • Add the eggs and whisk together until well combined.
  • Whisk in the lemon juice, then add the butter pieces to the mixture.
  • Place the bowl over a pot of gently simmering water, preferably with the bowl fitting snugly over the pot.
  • Cook the curd, stirring frequently but not constantly, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of lightly whipped cream. The temperature of the curd should be about 150F., although judging by consistency alone is fine.
  • Strain the curd into a bowl or container. Let cool to room temperature in an ice bath, then refrigerate until ready to use.

Lemons add a note of freshness to anything that you’re cooking. Because they’re acidic, they balance out salt, make a counterpoint to richness and eggs, and enhance flavors like vanilla, almond, berries, and even chocolate. Of course, they are a formidable flavor component on their own, a bold taste that comes through strong in even something like mousse or a souffle.


I spent my birthday one summer in a lovely rented house on the island of Ischia, which is about a forty-minute hydrofoil ride off the coast of Naples. Twelve of us had rented this large home built into the side of the mountain. The roof of the house was a beautiful swimmming pool and patio that overlooked the Bay of Naples. There were, of course, lemon groves and a small vineyard on the grounds, and the house even had a wood-burning oven where pizza could be made.

Days were spent riding around the island on scooters and motorcycles, searching out new beaches, picturesque villages and restaurants. Lunch was often had directly on the beach, as restaurants close to the shore will literally set up a table and chairs on the sand for you, then bring you a chilled ice bucket with a bottle of white wine and plates of steaming linguini with clams and mussels.

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Omnipresent on menus in the restaurants of Ischia is the dish Pasta al Limone. I became absolutely addicted to this dish, and so I created my own version of it when I got back to the States. We can’t really get access to Amalfi lemons here, but I make the dish with lots of lemon juice, Limoncello, and mascarpone, and I prefer fettucini as it seems to work well with this type of sauce.


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Fettucini Al Limone

 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons brandy
½ cup Limoncello
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
½ cup mascarpone
1 cup lightly packed grated Pecorino Romano
½ lb. fettucini

  • Heat the oil over low flame in a large saute pan.
  • Saute the garlic in the oil until it just starts to color. Add the lemon zest and saute for another thirty seconds or so.
  • Add the brandy and the Limoncello and bring to a boil. Let the liquid reduce somewhat, then add the juice.
  • Season this mixture with salt and pepper and then let it reduce by half.
  • Turn the flame down to low and whisk in the mascarpone. Let the mixture cook very slowly for a few minutes, while you boil the pasta.
  • Cook the fettucini in boiling salted water until al dente.
  • Turn the flame off of the sauce and whisk in the Pecorino Romano. Drain the pasta, saving a few tablespoons of pasta water.
  • Toss the fettucini in the sauce along with the hot pasta water.
  • Serve immediately with a slice of lemon for garnish and a little more cracked black pepper and grated cheese, if desired.

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Cucina della Terra

 

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Sunflowers in the Cucina della Terra Kitchen

Here I am on my yearly trip to Cucina della Terra in Umbria, Italy. Cucina della Terra, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, is the small, lovely culinary school that my friends Gerri and Jack own in Castiglione del Lago, a beautiful town situated above Lago Trasimeno, one of the largest lakes in Italy. Umbria is the region directly in the middle of the country, northeast of Rome and southeast of Tuscany. It is known as “the green heart of Italy”, and it certainly is – green, I mean. The rolling hills, farms, olive groves, and vineyards make it one of the most picturesque places in the country. It bears a resemblance to Tuscany, but only up to a point- there is no “chi-chi” or snob component here, few tourists, and more of a “real life” feel.

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

Overlooking Lake Trasimeno

I love coming here for many reasons. I reconnect with Italy – the food, the land, the scenery, and the lifestyle. (Okay, the wine too…) I get to cook and bake using the pure earthy ingredients that are the basis of real Italian food, which is very simple and wholly depends on the terra from which it came.

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

Raw Ingredients for our Class this Evening

There are 35 olive trees on the property, and the bright green olive oil that comes from them is strong and peppery- we use it for everything. The fruit and vegetables are incomparable- autumn brings cipollini onions on the stalk, all manner of squash and pumpkin, fennel, porcini and a load of other fragrant mushrooms, black kale, lentils and beans grown on the shores of the lake; plums, pears, apples, and figs that are bursting with juicy flavor.

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Red and Black Plums, Pears, Apples, and Mandarins waiting to be used in a Fresh Fruit Crostata

Umbria, with no coastline, is famous for its more earthbound delights like truffles and game. Venison ravioli, braised duck, grilled marinated quail, and wild boar sausage are all dishes to be savored here – and we do, of course. Pici al ragu di cinghiale is a dish, prevalent in Tuscany and Umbria that really exemplifies the cuisine: hand made pasta (like a very fat spaghetti) with a robust and aromatic sauce of braised wild boar and tomatoes. As soon as I arrive in Umbria, my mouth starts watering, looking forward to a porchetta panini- a sandwich of whole roast pig stuffed with wild fennel, garlic, and herbs. Speaking of fennel, I do love greens of any kind (I don’t know any Italian-American that doesn’t). Umbria grows its share of greens and then some. The open market in Castiglione had this beautiful escarole and leafy broccoli (almost worthy to be the subject of a watercolor).

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Leafy Broccoli and Escarole from our Favorite Produce Purveyors at the Open Market in Castiglione

Baking is wonderful too as we use the freshest, fluffiest eggs whose bright orange yolks infuse everything with a saffron hue. Cream, milk, mascarpone, sheep’s milk ricotta, aged parmigiano, all types of pecorino — the dairy has a purity that is very palpable. I make marmellata (fruit preserves) with anything and everything – green figs from the fig tree in the back of the Cucina are my favorite.

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

Green Figs, Sugar and Citrus Fruits ready to be Simmered

We make gelato and sorbetto as well as all kinds of biscotti, making the most out of the fresh hazelnuts that come from Piemonte, the amazing dried and glaceed fruits that are available at open markets all over the Mediterranean, and of course, the chocolate (more about that in the next post).

The food and wine lovers that come to Cucina della Terra get to hunt for truffles, taste fantastic wines at beautiful vineyards, pick olives and watch them being milled into that fragrant green elixir know as extra virgin olive oil, and visit some of the famed scenic hill towns of the area like Orvieto, Montepulciano, Pienza, Assisi, and Bevagna.  The landscape, cuisine, people, and culture of Italy are so diverse. Umbria is certainly captivating, though each region is worth discovering on its own!

 

Gelato in Sicily

I’m walking down a shaded cobblestone street in Palermo. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning but the blazing sun is already trying to assert itself in the open spaces between the awnings and balconies. I’ve had a morning espresso and am looking for a little “Sicilian breakfast”. I find a caffe and order a brioche filled with frothy, fragrant peach gelato. It comes on a little square of paper and I continue on my way, eating my breakfast as I go. The streets of old Palermo exude a mysterious air, daring you to satisfy your curiosity and investigate the dead ends and alleyways. I had come to Sicily by boat from Naples a few days ago. It was an overnight trip and upon arriving in the harbor I got the distinct impression that I was now in a place that bore only some resemblance to mainland Italy.

As a chef, of course, I am most interested in the food. I walk through the Vucciria, the open-air food market that snakes through town. I eat at small restaurants, savoring charred sausages, pasta with fried eggplant, breadcrumbs and ricotta salata, and more exotic dishes like black couscous with cuttlefish. The North African influence on the food of Sicily is obvious and intriguing. The pastries are wonderful of course, but the gelato is what I crave, pretty much at any hour of the day. Why does the gelato in Sicily taste so different, I wonder? It’s light, almost foamy, refreshing yet flavorful.

Eventually I end up in Taormina, a beautiful seaside town, bordered on one side by the slopes of Mount Etna. I drink a lot of very cheap but very good wine, eat more terrific food, and of course, continue on my gelato odyssey. I rent an apartment there where I can buy food in the market and cook at home, trying to recreate some of the wonderful dishes I’ve been tasting. The volcanic soil produces amazing fruit and vegetables.

When I get home, I work on a base recipe for vanilla gelato, Sicilian style. As in most things that are deceptively simple, it takes some work and experimentation to get it right. The resulting recipe, which is very easy to make (and therefor great to make at home if you happen to have an ice cream or gelato machine) is not custard-based like French ice cream, and has a much lower cream content than American ice cream. That absence of fat allows more flavor to come through, and also makes it easier to eat and digest.  In any case, I’ve been making Sicilian-style gelato for a quite a while, and it is, of course, a staple of ours at L’Arte della Pasticceria.

We pay close attention to temperatures- after the gelato base is made, we process it in our beautiful Milanese gelato machine. It then goes into a freezer set at 0 degrees F. to set for a few hours, after which it goes right into our gelato display case, set at 10 degrees F., and it’s served to our customers from there. By never allowing the gelato to deep-freeze, we keep the texture consistent and avoid iciness.

Making gelato at home is fun and pretty much worry-free. You can make your gelato base, chill it, then let it process in your home ice cream machine while you are eating dinner, if you like. When it’s ready, you can eat it immediately or spoon it into a container and let it set up in the freezer for an hour or so, then enjoy!

I like to eat my vanilla gelato either sandwiched in a fresh brioche or with a generous spoonful of amarena cherries in syrup (or both).

Note: Amarena cherries are small flavorful dark cherries, grown in Italy, that are preserved in syrup and sold in jars. They are available at specialty food stores and on-line.

Gelato Post 2
Vanilla Gelato with Amarena Cherries in Syrup

 Vanilla Gelato

 2 cups milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup heavy cream (I use fresh heavy cream from a local dairy)
2/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • Combine the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of the milk in a small bowl, whisking to dissolve the cornstarch. Set aside.
  • Put the remaining milk, cream, sugar, and salt into a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk, then add the scraped bean to the milk as well. Put the pot on a medium flame and bring slowly to a simmer.
  • When the mixture starts to simmer, whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Continue whisking until the mixture comes back to a boil and starts to thicken. Cook, whisking, for 1 minute.
  • Strain the mixture into a bowl, then put the bowl into a larger bowl filled halfway with ice. Add cold water to make an ice bath.
  • When the gelato base is cool, process it in a gelato or ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Fill a container with the gelato and put in the freezer. The gelato is best eaten about an hour or so after resting in the freezer.