Friday, September 24, 2010

Tuscany

If you read the last posting, I started with the beginning of our honeymoon when we flew into Rome to 2 years ago. It should have been named the same, but it's all the same.

We spent a couple of days on Rome and then hopped the train to Pisa. A nice trip as part of it was up along the coast which offered up some fantastic ocean views. Looked like a postcard. A couple of hours later we were there.

We were set up at a place called Hotel Bologna (http://www.hotelbologna.pisa.it/default_en.php). Nice rooms, clean and a decent amount of space. A good central location with proximity to the river and loads of restaurants. We walked around and looked at the menus all the places had posted out front. Our tour lady at the Vatican told us if a place charges more than 12 Euros for a pizza, avoid it. You can find lots of places around which charge around 8 Euros. Instead of dropping 80-90 Euros, two can dine at a nice place for around 40 Euros, depending on what wine you choose. We aren't cheap, but I refuse to pay more money for something I can find at another joint which is exactly the same, but without all the frills. Sometimes frills are good, but only if I'm in the mood for that type of thing. And my wife being an accountant doesn't make things any easier.

We found a nice place to eat and had a nice walk around the town. Little did I know there was a soccer game on I could have gone to, but now that wouldn't be right, would it? It was a nice night out so we decided to find an outdoor cafe or piazza to sit down and have a glass of wine together and enjoy the evening.


The next day we rented a car and set out for the place where we would stay the longest on our trip, Poderi Arcangelo (http://www.poderiarcangelo.it/), just outside of San Gimignano. If you go to Tuscany, I highly recommend checking this place out. Very nice spot with a great view. Before supper, we would grab a bottle of the farms organic wine, Ciuccarello Vendemmia 2007, and head down to the pool to watch the sunset. This was great as earlier on one of the days we went to Voltaire, which was about a 30 minute drive away, and bought some prosciutto and Gorgonzola. We would put that on the table with the wine and I would make the short climb up a steep hill to cut a few fresh figs off one of the fig trees right beside the pool. What a perfect way to ease into supper.


Every night except Sunday, supper was served (if you RSVP'd earlier in the day) for 20 euros a head. The ladies who ran the kitchen would cook up a 5 course meal for whoever showed up. Every night was a different menu made from what was grown on the farm. Unbelievable! It was kind of a communal thing where you sat down with a bunch of strangers for dinner, but it was fine with us.


We met a couple from Phoenix who we hung out together with for a couple of days. Every night the meal was great, from risotto to bean salad to lasagna, but not on the same night of course. All the meals I considered to be fairly healthy, with one dish which was higher in fat than the other ones. A good trade off as far as I'm concerned.


This went on for a week. Now, I don't want you to think we were piled up all of the time as there was quite a bit of wine lingering around. But this is what happens in Italy, a glass at lunch, a glass in the afternoon and a glass or two with dinner. They don't seem to be to bad off in the health department over there. Besides, we were on holidays so go with the flow.

One afternoon, we went in to San Gimignano to see the sights. Not much was happening there, so we decided to go for lunch and head back to the farm. We thought a lighter lunch was in order, so we ordered a pizza and am antipasti plate. The girl who was serving us said it was a nice, light lunch which most all of the people order. Yeah right! Pretty good sized pizza and a pretty good sized antipasti plate.
They were both very good, but way to big for our appetites. Unfortunately we had to walk away from some of it.


Next time I will talk about what we did in Florence. We must have walked about 10 miles there and took a thousand pictures. Very cool place.

This afternoon, I baked off the Hubbard Squash my Uncle G gave me from his garden. Mrs. Urban Eater and I will both share this along with a little bit for O.


All you have to do with this one is chop off the ends and cut it in half. With a large spoon, take out the seeds and fibrous parts. Slice off the outer skin and chop up into small chunks. Drizzle a good amount of EVOO on top with a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup or your desired amount. Don't be shy with the maple syrup. It's good for you (http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=115) and and adds a nice earthy and almost smoky flavour to any dish you add it to. Add a little sea salt and fresh ground pepper.



Place it in a pre-heated 350F oven on the middle rack for about 1 hour or until fork tender. The maple syrup may burn because of it's high sugar content, so this is why 350F is safe, not too hot but yet hot enough so it won't take forever to cook. Instead of opening your oven door and letting all the heat out, you can also tell it's done by the almost golden brown colour of the squash. When finished, eat it as is or as a side dish with steak or chicken. I'm going to try it with chicken as I don't each steak much. I will show you this on another posting.


Little O's Menu

This morning, I fed her chunks of peaches and plums again along with the usual yogurt and rice cereal. I threw in a few saskatoons as well to give it a different texture as she seemed to shy away a little. The rest of it went down in a hurry as she really likes the saskatoons. Lunch was mashed carrots, chopped green beans and broccoli with sea salt, fresh ground pepper and EVOO. With supper, we decided to go with beets again. They are frozen and won't last much longer. They say a month is as long as you should keep any fresh vegetable frozen. This is why O will eat quite a bit of one or two things in a stretch. She likes the beets, but geez are they messy. That's alright as she likes them quite a bit. We fed her some chunks of the squash as well. She ate 4 or 5 of them and wanted more. This is good as she will be eating a lot of squash over the next couple of months.

Some of the foodie festivals around the continent happening now or right away:

Sept 30-Oct 1, 2010  NTDTV International Chinese Culinary Competition - New York, New York
Sept 30-Oct 10, 2010  2010  Fall Wine Festival - Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada
October 1-2, 2010  8th Annual Great World Beer Festival - New York, New York
October 1-2, 2010  28th Annual West Point Crab Carnival - West Point, Virginia
October 1-3, 2010  Niagara Food Festival - Welland, Ontario, CanadaOctober 1-Nov 14, 2010  Epcot International Food & Wine Festival - Lake Buena Vista, FloridaOctober 2-3, 2010  Montreal Gourmet Expo - Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Oh, and pick the Oktoberfest in the city of your choice.Quote of the day:

"I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food!"
 ~W.C. Fields

Oops, I almost forgot. Seeing as how I'm talking about Italy so much, I thought I would throw in this shameless bit. I was invited to go to the VIP opening at the new Brooks Brothers in downtown Calgary last night, and met the head of the company, Claudio Del Vecchio. Nice guy, very pleasant and personable guy. Very Italian too.


Until next time, good eating everyone.

Mark

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Italy Remembered

Two years ago today, my wife and I headed off to Italy for our honeymoon. We were married in June, but waited to take the actual trip at a later date. Good idea. September In Italy is quite pleasant. The weather was warm, but not scorching. It rained two days in 2 weeks. Worked for me!

We flew in to Rome and stayed there for a couple of days. The Vatican wasn't far away as we were staying at a nice hotel in Trestevere, The Trilussa Palace Hotel (http://www.trilussapalacehotel.it/). A nicely located hotel on the trolley line, fairly close to the Vatican as well.

We decided to go see the headquarters for the worlds Roman Catholics. After a short trip on the trolley and then the bus, we were at the Vatican. As we walked up to see about the line to get in, a girl came over to us and asked if we wanted to take an "unofficial" tour. We checked the tour guide out and she seemed legit. As we were waiting, the tour guide approached us to say hello. She was a British woman who lived in Rome, did the Vatican tour and wrote for a British ex-pat magazine doing restaurant reviews. Score!

We started having a conversation about the local hot spots and where to eat. She asked what we looked for when eating at a restaurant. I told her we wanted unpretentious, simple and not over the top. We could get that in our home town. I wanted good, rustic, regional cooking and a nice atmosphere. "I have the place for you!" she quickly stated.

The place she told us about didn't have an official name nor did it have a sign out front. The Two Sisters she thought was the name of the place. She had not been to this establishment, but noted she has heard nothing but fantastic reviews from other people and will visit there very soon herself. She circled the address where she thought it was on our map and away we went on the tour of the Vatican.

Later that evening, we went in search of the this little hole-in-the-wall. We walked around in the rain for about an hour until we found it. Outside the front door was a man and what looked like his wife having a conversation. He noticed we looked a little lost, so he called me over. "Eat?" he asked. "Yep!" I replied and nodded my head. He motioned us to go inside, being careful not to step on the dog lounging on the doorway steps. The old boy did the cooking, his son did the serving and cleaning up. The wife sat at a big table with family and drank wine.

We sat down and the son came over to ask what we wanted. He knew a little more english than his parents, so he dealt with us. He served us a 1/2 litre of red wine from a jug which had no label on it. Pretty nice wine. I was a little worried at first about the quality, but then I remembered where I was.

We started the meal with antipasti. This consisted of bruschetta, baked beans and mashed sweet potato. Awesome! Great way to start a meal. The sweet potato mash I have tried to copy many times, but just can't get it exactly the same. I won't ever give up on this dish. I asked him what was in the recipe, and due to the fact my Italian is extremely limited, I had a hard time understanding. I believe it consists of mashed sweet potato, peperoncino or chili flakes, shredded onion, Pecorino, EVOO and salt and pepper.

For the primi or pasta course, Mrs. Urban Eater had penne with a light cream sauce and parmesan. I had the Penne Alla Carbonera. Al dente pasta with a ton of flavour. Pretty much finished the whole thing. As a long time pasta lover, I was in heaven!

By this time, we were getting quite full. If I was eating either of these dish's in North America, I wouldn't have been able to finish. The pasta there seems to be lighter. I think it has something to do with the gluten content being lower, but who knows. I was nicely full and had enough.

The wife's table next to us noticed me wiping my brow as they were having their little party. One of the fellows, brother-in-law I think, plunked a bottle in front of my wife. "Lemoncello!" he blurted. He then pointed at me and said it again. I shook my head and said no. The wife obliged and had a shot with him. The he grabbed another bottle and said "Grappa!" I nodded my head. What the hell? I've only tasted the low grade stuff before. I had a shot with him, about 2 ounces. He made me take another, and I downed that as well. Potent, but nice stuff.

As I looked around the room trying not to make eye contact with him again, I noticed a few magazine and newspaper articles hanging on the walls. The old boy was pretty well known, and not just around town either.

The son approached us again. He asked about the secondi, or the entree. I looked over towards the stove where the old boy was. He was cooking a chicken dish on top of the stove which smelled too good to be true. I noticed he had thyme in there, but not much else as I couldn't stand to look anymore. I was full, but not bloated. This means I should stop eating and run away, right now! We said no thanks to the chicken, and they all looked at us like we were asking them to jump off a cliff. "Sorry", I told the son. "We are full to here" as I held my hand up to my throat. "Ok, 20 euros each" he said. With that, we were out of there. The trip went on and we visited lots of different restaurants. I will talk about these in more columns to come.

This was one of the best dining experiences I have ever had. A small place, around 400 sq. feet. Great food, nice atmosphere, friendly faces. These people have this idea all figured out. Everyday, go to the market with something in mind you want to cook. Then, look around to see what's available. Make your menu up for the evening in your head, then go see who you need to see, buy what you need to buy. Most chefs over here in North America need to plan days, even weeks ahead to make good food. Think about it. Wouldn't you rather eat like we did in that tiny restaurant more often than we normally do here? I would, and I do. This is the way I cook almost everyday. Mind you, I have those days where I can't think straight and choose not to cook, but it doesn't happen very often.

This weekend, I roasted off some vegetables in the oven for my parents to eat. Potatoes, which I boiled for 6 minutes before putting them on the baking sheet, red and yellow peppers, red onion, 3 whole garlic cloves, carrots and zucchini. With these I added rosemary, thyme and parsley from the garden. Mixed it all together with salt, pepper and EVOO. Roast at 350 F for ten minutes, mix it all around as to not let anything burn and put back in the oven for another ten minutes. Put it all in a bowl and serve. Great as a main dish or a side. I also mix it in with pasta for Pasta Primavera, without the potatoes of course. We paired it with a bottle of Phebus Malbec 2009. This is usually a nice wine to pair with meat, but we just thought it would be nice to have with the veggies. We could also use the veggies as part of Little O's menu options. Speaking of which.....

Little O's Menu

For a quick meal on Sunday, my wife bought a roast chicken at the grocery store. I was out of town and let's face it, she can't cook. So she took some of the roast chicken, mixed in a bit of the roasted veggies and created a small meal for O. She put quite a bit of it down. Lots of flavour and vitamins in the veggies, protein in the chicken. Good meal for her. I was glad the missus thought of this. We could make this a regular thing as we eat quite a bit of chicken and roast a lot of veggies.

Breakfast is still all about the fruit (peaches, plums, blueberries, saskatoons and mangos) with yogurt and rice cereal. We have started adding little pieces of toast to the mix on the side. She likes to gum it to death and eventually gets most of it down. We use organic sprouted grain bread and she doesn't seem to mind.

When it comes to cooking, be spontaneous, creative and bold. Try to keep a healthy vision on top of this. It isn't that hard to accomplish if you do it all of the time. It's like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Also, the more you do it, the better you feel and the more confident you are. Never stop trying something new things. Your body depends on it.

Todays quote:

"Food is our common ground, a universal experience"
- James Beard (1903-1985)

Until next time, good eating everyone.

Mark

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Tomato Harvest

Last week, we harvested the tomatoes in the back yard before they were able to fully ripen due to the inclement weather. Too bad about our impending doom in regards to winter coming extremely early, or at least it seems that way. That's just the way it goes unfortunately.


We think there is around 20lbs or thereabouts from 3 plants mainly. We had 7 or 8, but the other plants just didn't get enough sunlight to make them grow properly. The next evening, we were able to take off about 4 or 5 lbs of cherry tomatoes as they didn't freeze the night before. Some of them were red, but mostly they were green as well. The green unripened ones will go downstairs to a cool, dry environment underneath the stairs (where we store our wine collection) to continue ripening. The mother-in-law says this is the best way to go about making your unripened tomatoes finish what they need to do.

We won't be able to work with this crop for awhile, but when they are ready to go, I will let you know what their fate will be. In October, we are headed out to Mrs. Urban Eaters hometown to visit her family, so by then the tomatoes will be ready. I already have 4 large cans of San Marzanos to make tomato sauce with, but I think I will can our homegrown ones. The mummy-in-law does this every year, so why not do it with her? The wife likes this kind of thing too as her mom makes it a big operation and can be quite entertaining for little O as well.

This column did not come out for a few days as my mother and step-father were in town for a few days. They usually come to town every 3 to 4 months for a visit. There is always lots for them to do here and lots for them to eat.

My step-dad (EW) has finally put an emphasis on eating healthy. This is a very good thing as he is not very active anymore. He has an extremely bad leg which has kept him off of the squash courts for quite awhile and has now even made him avoid the golf course as well. This means eating healthy takes precedence over most anything else now. He still has a belly on him, but I believe his heart and the rest of his body is thankful.

The wife noticed my mother has lost weight lately. I asked EW about this and he told me this is because he is doing the shopping now rather than her. He is buying fresh fruit and vegetables more now than she was before. As I mentioned in an earlier column, my mother has Alzheimer's, so shopping gets to be extremely expensive and futile. The fridge and the pantry were always full, but as a foodie, I couldn't make heads or tales of it. The only place on earth I couldn't open a door and make something out of what was available to me (make something decently healthy and tasty, that is). I believe this is changing and we are happy about it.

While they are here, breakfast is usually a nice meal as is supper. Lunch is just something we do together if our schedules work out the same. They like their eggs, so I looked in one of my favorite cookbooks for a recipe which the wife and I both like. The Young Man & the Sea is a book by David Pasternack and Ed Levine. Mario Batali, whom I follow and admire despite the size of his belly, wrote the foreword in it. He says "Dave Pasternack is the best thing to happen to Italian fish cooking. Why? Nobody knows more about fish, fishing and fish cooking." That was enough for me to but the book right there. As I looked through it, I started to understand what Mario was talking about. Mr. Pasternack puts everything into terms which make sense and make it easier to accomplish a wonderful seafood dish.

One recipe I am particularly fond of is Soft Scrambled Eggs with Lump Crabmeat. Wow! Whouda thunk such a simple dish could be so good. I cut down on the butter in this dish and use a little more EVOO instead. I had pics as well, but our kitchen doesn't have an abundance of natural light unfortunately, so they didn't turn out so well. Pics the next time I make this dish, I promise!

Ingredients

- 3 Jumbo or 4 large fresh farm eggs
- 2 tablespoons whole milk (I use 1%)
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. You could cut this in half or less if you want to replace some of the butter with EVOO. But, butter adds such a nice flavour...
- 1/2 cup lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage. If you can't find lump crabmeat, use what is available to you. If you can find fresh King Crab or a reasonable facsimile, this works fine. I have had to use canned crab a couple of times. This works great as long as you buy the good crabmeat in cans.
- High quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Method

- In a medium mixing bowl, lightly whisk the eggs and milk. Season with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

- Melt the butter (and/or oil) in a medium, nonstick saute pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the crabmeat and reduce the flame to low. Lightly saute until the crabmeat begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the egg mixture. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to almost constantly stir the eggs and crabmeat as they gently cook and form small curds, 5 to 6 minutes.

- Spoon onto four salad-size plates, season with salt and pepper, and a light drizzle of the EVOO. make sure it's some of the good stuff. You could also sprinkle a little Fleur de sel over the top instead of regular sea salt, just use a little less as it is quite strong in flavour. Your choice. Serves 4. Serve toast or roasted potatoes on the side, if you wish.

This always goes over well and is a very tasty and filling dish. My mom is a picky eater, so if she will eat it, you should too. Try to find this book if you like cooking seafood. So far, I am very impressed with it and I plan on using many recipes out of it in the future.

Little O's Menu

Over the past couple of days, she has been going through another growth spurt. This means she is eating a lot, or just a little, no in-between. She is still chowing down on the regular diet of fruits and veggies. We are progressing her to slightly bigger and more chunks in her meals. She now understands the concept of chewing her food properly and doesn't seem to be having any issues with it.

The ingredients in the mix as of late have been carrots and zucchini as usual. Now, the broccoli she gets is an tiny floret form rather than pureed. Chunks of beef and chicken make their way in now as well. She can only take so much of the beef as it has a strong flavour to it. The chicken doesn't have such a bold flavour, so she tends to eat a little more of this. For breakfast, she has moved to eating whole blueberries with chunks of sliced peaches and/or mango's with the usual Greek yogurt. The apples and pears will make their way back right away as well. She likes these with cinnamon so much, we can't deny her the privilege of eating these at least 2 or 3 times a week. We were worried she would get sick of them, but this didn't happen thankfully.

It's good to be back writing again after a few days away from the computer. I actually missed this! I hope you are enjoying reading this as much as I enjoy writing it. It gives me a chance to work on my creativity and expand my culinary horizons.

Today's quote:

"We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun."
 
George Orwell (1903-1950) British novelist, essayist, and critic.
 
 
Until next time, good eating everyone.
 
Mark