Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Le delizie del Piemonte - part 2

I spent a good portion of the rest of my holidays going out to local osterias, where I had a chance to refresh my memory of what is available around Torino.

One of the things I had forgotten is how common it is to find meats that are sometimes very hard hard to find elsewhere: roe deer, boar (real boar, not "wildened" hogs like here in California), guinea fowls, hare, chamois, donkey, rabbit or horse. Yes, horse, do not cringe my friend, it is relatively common to eat them in Italy.

Another thing that I noticed is how few ingredients are needed sometimes to make the most exquisite and flavorful recipes. And how the same ingredients sometimes taste so much better, being grown under the sun, with little or no use of pesticide or petrochemical fertilizers, with no need to boast how everything is organic on the menu, when that is the norm.

Well... at least until recently. Unfortunately industrial agricultural methods have been creeping into Italian farms too. There are more McDonald's in Torino than in San Francisco for example. Some crops are discarded in favor of a bigger, uniformed, more resistant or more productive ones, sometimes genetically modified, drenched in chemicals and often almost obliterating the production of some others. Farro for example, nowadays is hard to find even in Tuscany. I remember going to visit some small farms a couple of years ago during Christmastime. To be able to survive and to maintain their traditional, healthy ways of growing their food, they had to convert their business. It is called Agritourism. Basically they make a touristic attraction of their own life, work and food preparation. Their big country homes become charming guesthouses and the visitors can enjoy an idillic landscape and maybe even try to help on the farm, or simply hike, relax and enjoy delicious meals.

Have you ever heard of Slow Food? It is a movement born as a reaction of the spreading of industrial food production (represented easily by fast foods), who serve overprocessed food, sometimes containing toxic, unregulated compounds and, willingly or unknowingly, promoting social injustices and environmental degradation. Founded in 1989 by Carlo Petrini, and counting over 100.000 active members in 132 countries, the Slow Food movements acts to promote education and preservation of local traditions and recipes, ecodiversity and social justice. "Slow Food brings together pleasure and responsibility, and makes them inseparable". 

Why do I bring this up? Because there are a few restaurants here in the Bay Area that belong to the Slow Food movement (notoriously, Alice Waters' "Chez Panisse"). And because Torino hosts the first Slow Food center in the world, a hybrid between a food retailer, a series of restaurants and a cooking school, called Eataly. I have been there a few times before and every time it is great fun. This time I brought my parents for a steak, but the highlight of the day was definitely the fountain of molten Gianduia Chocolate. At the first taste I melted like a smiling block of butter.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Le delizie del Piemonte

Christmastime came and went quickly this year. I managed to get a late flight, due to an unexpected change in my holiday plans, and decided to go back home, to the usually icy Torino after a short visit to the unusually frozen London, instead of celebrating in the warm Californian Winter. While I was at it, I also determined to find out more about my own regional culture and food, and asked my friends to help me with that.

So I volunteered to help out my sister with Christmas lunch, making some appetizers. I made a few, looking for information online and for ingredients in the local markets where possible - unfortunately not as often as I would have liked.

So, my first creation was perhaps the easiest: hard boiled eggs, chopped in half and stuffed with their own yolk mixed with fresh parsley, mayonnaise, olives and capers. I had to give up to the hand made mayonnaise after trying with little success to beat it with a fork until past midnight the previous night. Next I prepared a simple baby squid salad, marinated in lemon overnight and garnished in a mountain of parsley.

Another thing I always wanted to try was the peperoni in bagnacauda. The first thing that needs to be done is the sauce: the bagnacauda. If you live in San Francisco, you may have heard of it when passing by or dining at the Stinking Rose. Don't go for it, it is a rip off and nothing like what it is meant to be. Get your crushed mountain of garlic, oil, butter and milk and cook the anchovies until it all becomes a cream. Then you may roast some colorful pepper sliced in long quarters in this sauce and finally pour more creamy and steamy bagnacauda on top of it all. It will look amazing. If you also remember to wash the anchovies (in case they were preserved in salt) it will also taste fantastic, unlike mine.

Next is a classic: I cooked for a long time a pot of polenta and then poured it into a tray. After letting it cool I cut it into cookie-like pieces and baked it for 20 minutes. When it started to get crispy on the surface I poured some gorgonzola on top, for a touch of stinky heaven.

Finally, I took inspiration from a recipe a good friend of mine uses, and made something entirely NOT from Piedmont. Pit some dates, fill them with scamorza (also known as smoked mozzarella in the US) and wrap them in some thick slice of prosciutto, and bake for a few minutes.

So, other than a couple of minor accidents, most things turned out good and we drowned it all with Bonarda, Barbaresco and Nebbiolo wines from our cold and beautiful lands.