Monday, March 15, 2010

"Did You Learn How To Eat Yet?" Part 2


ITALY - In Rome there is a saying, “Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo voi sarete.” “That which you are, we were; that which we are, you will be.”
Rome, where everyone has something to say, even those who are long gone, and mostly about food, rocked my culinary world.

On our first trip to Italy my wife and I decided upon a 10-day trip starting in Rome then on to Capri and back to Rome. Later these journeys grew to at least one month each trip. Many of our meals were planned in advance. We carefully researched restaurants and food destinations so that we would not miss the season’s star foods. From the truffle season in the north, to the small tomato season in south, zucchini flowers of Rome, or the full flavored peppers of Sicily, and all in between. We also studied the wines of each area so we could have the best enhancer to their regional foods, keeping with the philosophy that what grows together should be served together.

Why choose Rome and Capri for our first trip? The Roman emperors had the whole world to play in, yet they spent all of their time in these two places. It seemed to be a good place for a cultural overview. I had arranged for our hotel in Rome through a friend in New York who managed a branch here, he enlisted a driver to pick us up by the name of Dante. Dante was a born philosopher, not unlike any Roman. He was wise, kind, and also patient with my Italian, which returned to me with each day of practical application. On the way to our hotel, Dante took it upon himself to make a side trip up a small mountain. Then suddenly he abruptly stopped the car and asked us to accompany him. We looked around and saw nothing except a huge, wooden door attached to the wall of a home. What was going on? He just motioned for us to follow him to the door as he stood
proudly and asked us to look through the keyhole. There it was, Rome, all of it, in all its glory! Dante who had a smile the width of the Tiber said, “Benvenuti a Roma,” “Welcome, to Rome.”
As my eyes took in the breathtaking Roman view I had a realization that we just went through the keyhole and passed into another level of food adventures.

So many food memories and life long impressions were enhanced in Italy from our many trips, thoughts that still warm our culinary souls. We were spoiled by the quality of vegetables, especially in the Campania region, where all soil is enriched with the minerals of volcanic ash from Mt Vesuvius, making every bite magnified in flavor.
A few of our fondest memories are walking up the mountain side in Capri, when we stopped to catch our breath we saw a little old man in his own backyard vineyard. I asked him about the two grapes he was cultivating. He then smiled and put up a finger indicating that we should wait. We were fixated on him, as we observed him go from grape to grape until he found the perfect samples for us to try. He earnestly awaited our reaction, which was genuinely enthusiastic, and this pleased him very much. This taught us the love and pride that goes into every sip and bite, starting with the growing process.
One night in Capri we wanted to dine in our room and thought a simple Caprese salad would satisfy. I walked to a tiny shop to purchase the necessary ingredients, Buffalo Mozzarella made nearby, basil, tomato, and a small piece of garlic, also freash tiny bits of green chili, with good sea salt, local olive oil and crusty bread. As I reached for a ball of wrapped cheese on the counter a grandmother type shocked me by slapping my hand. I thought I had reached in front of her, or perhaps offended a local custom. She then explained to me that my choice of cheese was wrong as it was made in the morning and she handed me one that was made later in the day. I asked the proprietor where the tomatoes were? He told me to come around the counter and took me to a small room where the shelves were lined with tomatoes that were displayed and cared for like each one was a precious stone. Italians have an incredible love and pride, not just with their cultivating and cooking, but also from being able to offer the best to others.

Rome showed us the delights of Funghi, mushrooms of all kinds. We discovered a wonderful family owned trattoria called, da tonino alla lampada. Which means lamp of Tonino. Tonino was the owner, chef, and resident maestro de funghi, master chef of mushrooms. Lamp is an Italian slang for the lid or the shade of each mushroom. Upon entering what we called “Mushroom Place,” we were blown away by the strong fragrance that filled the room from the baskets of mushrooms on display. Everything from large Funghi Porcini served with pasta, or as a primi course, grilled with pieces of garlic inserted in the lamp of the funghi, with a drizzle of olive oil. There was also Ovalo, a bright orange egg shape mushroom that is usually thinly sliced, served raw with lemon juice and olive oil. Local cepes, black Umbrian truffles, white truffles from Alba and more, all blended together to create the powerful scent.
It was here that Tonino invited me into his kitchen to show me the art of making Roman style artichokes. The chokes are first trimmed then stuffed with garlic and a Roman herb similar to mint is mixed with salt, then they are cooked stem side up in a combination of white wine, lemon halves, and olive oil. When done the artichokes are removed to cool and the liquid is reduced to a syrup and drizzled over this much prized roman delicacy.

There is much more that we learned, so many stories, that every day when my wife and I shop and cook, any given ingredient could spark a memory that brings a smile to our faces.
Seek out the freshest and best quality ingredients available; always remember less in any art, is more. Pass on your love by cooking a dinner for a friend today, and then give them the recipe to cook for others. I always come back to Dante. At the end of our first trip he picked us up to take us to the airport, and the first thing he did, before pulling out of the drive way, was to turn around with his Tiber wide smile and say, “So, did you learn how to eat yet?”
He went on to say, “now you know the Roman secret,” “what is that,” I replied, “everybody dies, but not everybody lives!” Well Dante, the answer to your question is I’m still learning how to eat and live.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Did You Learn How To Eat Yet?" Part 1

As a self-confessed food explorer I often reflect on just how it all began. Maybe it was those sub zero upstate New York mornings when my mother would wake me for school. As my eyelids slowly found their way open she immediately inquired, “What would you like for dinner?” Thoughts of the decided upon Italian delicacy warmed my cold day; I used my minds palate to tune in and taste this dish several times throughout my day.

We were far from a wealthy family, yet we regularly purchased the best quality of foods that were available. Having dinner together every night and discussing the finer points of what we were consuming was a ritual. As a child Saturday’s were usually devoted to our weekly food hunt. My father would often wake me at the crack of dawn to accompany him on our journey to the public market. The local public market was a greenmarket, open to chefs and the public as well. Farmers proud of what they displayed, yelled loud descriptions of their wares, from local cheeses, to a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, a real feast for the eyes and ears. There was an immense level of enthusiasm in the air and that feeling had a lasting effect on the way I think of food until this day.

After the market we moved on to the Italian Specialty store for the weeks supplies then on to the German market for meats, as they had the best quality and most knowledgeable butcher in town. Next up came a variety of bakeries, where we would add to our food excursion, warm crusty Italian bread, freshly made Italian pastries, deli style dark baked seeded corn rye, and with my encouragement, a Black Forest cake. The cake was a delightful combination of rich chocolate, layered with custard cream, liquor soaked cherries topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

When we returned to our home base the arguments between my Mom and Dad ensued due to my father’s over purchasing. Relatives were enlisted to aid in the distribution of the abundance of purchases. My Mom made packages for each one of them. This event added more color to my day as they all gossiped over Anisette and espresso about each other. My Mom would demand to know what they intended to make with their package as they gave her their recipes and anxiously awaited her nod of approval. My Mom was a recognized advanced cook and in today’s world would have been one of its culinary stars. I used to watch her at work in the kitchen and ask constant questions that never tested her patience. As a child food often interfered with my rest and hygiene routine, for example preparations for Christmas Eve began the previous day when sheets were laid over beds, tables and furniture, topped with freshly made pasta drying, and the bathtub was filled with Baccala {dried codfish} desalting in water. The activity level at Christmas would increase by the minute, along with the excitement. There was a constant flow of people bringing over their contribution for Mom to cook for the anticipated feast, which always exceeded expectations.

My Family had an unspoken philosophy that nowhere was too far to travel or out of reach when it came to obtaining seasonal delights. Every year when the moment presented itself my dad would go to Maryland, accompanied by an equally adventurous friend to secure bushels of cooked, seasoned, Chesapeake Bay Crabs that filled our refrigerator. There were trips to Connecticut where relatives made homemade spicy sopressata salami that took up most of the backseat of the car on the ride home.
One can certainly say that this was an auspicious culinary beginning for the development of any young palate. By the time I was 10 years old I was anxious to apply my accumulated knowledge. I had skipped school and in an attempt to lessen the anticipated punishment, I thought it would be a good time to test my ability and cook a dinner for my working Mom and Dad. So it began.

Berkeley CA – In the beginning of the 70’S I began to prepare for a move to Berkeley CA by weaning myself away from the importance of all good foods that I had grown accustomed to, on top of that I was now a vegetarian. I thought that I would be entering a culinary wasteland; instead I found the beginnings of a food revolution, and a complete explosion of experimentation and innovation that lead to a new way America looked at food. It seems The Bay Area took to opening its collective minds and exploring foods in the same way as it did to hallucinogenics in the sixties.
My new home added much to the way that I approached cooking and eating; it was another level of discovery. The finest freash ingredients were available for any amateur cook to use in their kitchens. Many establishments served as a place of education, like The Cheese Board in Walnut Square where cheeses from all over the world could be found. The knowledgeable owner and staff would encourage you to taste, recommend cheese choices, and then volunteer background information on the history of each one.
It was the start of what has become known as the Alice Waters movement that began when she opened the acclaimed and iconic Chez Panisse restaurant on Shattuck Ave in Berkeley. Her purveyors were local cheese makers and farmers who cultivated the restaurants specific requests.
Going to a green market daily and creating a dish based on what’s available is nothing new in Italy or France for the chef and the home cook alike. In America at the time, shamefully even in California, where climate was waiting for chefs to catch on, we still seemed to not yet get it. Shelf life concerns and processing still ruled the day.
Alice Waters brought a new kind of “Grow Your Own,” to the Bay Area, which ignited the imaginations of chefs all over the U.S. I used to walk down the hill from my Berkeley home, tie up my dog outside and try exciting new worlds of foods that Alice served up, like young garlic soup.

I also made good friends of The Crotti family at Tommasso’s restaurant of North Beach in San Francisco. Tommasso’s was a who’s who of the culinary world; it was a Mecca for Alice, Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck and more. The reason for its fame was Tommasso’s had the first wood burning pizza oven in the U.S since 1935, he was a consultant for Alice, Wolfgang and any one else that wanted to serve up wood burning delights. The Crotti’s brought a little bit of Italy to San Francisco by using their oak wood oven for more than delicious pizzas. They would wrap the freshest fish that they could possibly acquire, like sea bass wrapped in herbs and cook it near the burning pile of wood, also clams, veal, even eggplant parm would become something special when baked in their oven. Each bite brought a smile to the diner as the smoky miracle exposed itself.

In nearby Oakland there was an Italian store that made pesto. It was the first time I ever tasted this perfect combination of fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, that were all ground together with a stream of ligurian olive oil, imported Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Italians from Genoa had settled in the Bay Area in groves after arriving in New York’s Ellis Island, because unlike their southern Italian brethren they had the extra $100 it took to go west. These natives from Genoa introduced pesto to the Bay Area when the rest of the country did not even know of its existence. They also were the only ones who had access to ligurian oil indigenous from the region of pesto’s birth that made it a 10.

I was fascinated by and became quickly addicted to Mexican cuisine in the Bay area. Mexican food was as foreign to New York as finding someone from the Bronx who rooted for The Red Sox.
I began to experiment with Mexican sauces, such as various ways to use a host of chilies. I cooked and honed the sauces for years, until I was ready to serve my dishes to others. I learned the best way to make sauces was use a roasting process. When making a green tomatillo sauce I would not only roast the chilies but all of the other vegetables too. The sauce came alive, with a new layer of flavor, when first roasted slowly to caramelized perfection, before blending and reducing with additional herbs and spices.
I also, thanks to the expanded minds of Bay area residents, discovered the joys of a little known cuisine in America back then, Indian.