Monday, June 20, 2016

Shrimp 'N Grits



OK, I may not be a Southerner and I may not have grown up with grits in my veins, but grits and polenta are just about the same thing. There are slight differences, but both are made from stone-ground cornmeal - dried corn that's ground into smaller, coarser bits. 
According to a piece that ran on National Public Radio, Glen Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, says that Southern grits and Italian polenta are traditionally made from two very different types of corn, and there's a difference in the fineness of the grind and how many times it's milled.
Well, that may be true, but it gets complicated when you see so many different types of polenta for sale in Italy, from fine ground to coarse, and even polenta mixed with buckwheat, called polenta "taragna."
Adding to the confusion is the myriad variety of grits available here in the states.
My instinct (and Italian heritage) almost always leads me to reach for polenta instead of grits. But on a trip to Charlestown last year, I bought a bag of grits at a farmer's market, milled at Anson Mills.
What else to do with them, but make the ubiquitous shrimp and grits, found at myriad restaurants, diners and mom and pop cafes throughout the South. 

The grits would be delicious on their own, with just a dab of butter, but I gussied them up and "Italianized" them with some mascarpone and parmesan.
Warning - you won't be able to stop eating this. So save it as a splurge after a week of good behavior! 


Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I'm cooking up each day. You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter. 

Shrimp 'N Grits

1 cup grits
4 cups water
(Keep adding more as it gets drier)
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup parmesan
1 tsp salt
Mix the grits with the water over medium heat. I always use cold water and dump all the grits in at once. I find that helps keep out the lumps. Keep stirring and lower the heat somewhat - it may take 45 minutes to end up with really good, really creamy grits. If it looks like the mixture is getting too dense or too dry, add more water, a little at a time. Add the salt and keep stirring. After about 35-45 minutes, the grits will start to look creamier. To gild the lily, add the cream, mascarpone and parmesan.

18 medium Shrimp
3T Olive oil
Herbs, oregano, thyme, parsley
2 cloves garlic
Paprika
Red pepper flakes
Clean the shrimp and mix the olive oil with the herbs, garlic, paprika and red pepper flakes. Let the shrimp marinate for at least 15 minutes.
Grill the shrimp, but just until almost done. They'll cook a little longer with other ingredients. Remove the shrimp from the grill and set aside. (Use a grill pan or the broiler if you don't have an outdoor grill) 

1/4 cup green pepper, minced
1 T olive oil 
2 strips bacon
Sauté green pepper in oil until softened. Remove. Add bacon, cut in bits. Cook until crispy.
Add green pepper back in and after shrimp is grilled, add it to the peppers and bacon. Turn up heat to high. Add the white wine and let it reduce just a bit, then add 1 tablespoon of butter.

Pour shrimp mixture over grits and serve with a sprinkle of parsley or basil over all. 

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Summer Zuccotto


Ready for a delicious showstopper of a dessert that's easy to make too? 
Yes, that's right, the hardest part of this dessert is cutting the pieces of cake (store purchased) to fit your bowl.
I'm calling this a "summer" zuccotto because it's not a true zuccotto, but there are so many ways to make zuccotto, who really knows what a true zuccotto is, anyway? 
However you make your zuccotto, whether with ice cream or a ricotta filling, or with my recipe using fresh berries and whipped cream, it must be in a semi-spherical shape to be called a zuccotto. In Italian zuccotto means "little pumpkin" after all, and it's a Tuscan dessert meant to mimic the shape of Brunelleschi's famed dome in Florence.
I made it recently for our end-of-the-year picnic of my Italian chit-chat group, and it was only one of the many desserts at the table.
And the desserts came after at least a dozen different vegetable and side dishes, plus too many pizzas to count, made by our host Tony, an architect who built a wood-fired pizza oven into the side of his house. They really were the best pizzas this side of Naples.
But back to Florence, and the zuccotto.
Start out by marinating some berries with sugar and lemon. You'll need that juice later.
What makes this easy is using a store bought cake. I used a Pan D'Oro, the classic egg-rich sponge cake sold in Italian specialty shops. If you can't find one, buy a sponge cake, or make your own sponge cake, called "pan de spagna" in Italian. My recipe for sponge cake is here, if you need one.

Trim away the brown crusts and fit the cake pieces tightly into a bowl lined with plastic wrap.
Sprinkle the cake with the syrup mixed with liqueur.
Then load in the whipped cream mixed with the drained fruit.
Cover it all with a top layer of cake (this will become the bottom), and sprinkle on some more liquid from the berries (or rum, or whatever you like).
Place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours or overnight. Then flip it onto a plate, pour the raspberry sauce on top and decorate.
Dig in and watch it disappear quicker than you can say Brunelleschi.

Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I'm cooking up each day. 
You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter. 

Summer Zuccotto

3 cups berries - strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries
1/2 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon

Slice the strawberries, then mix all the berries together with the sugar and lemon and let them sit for about an hour, or until juices have formed at the bottom of the bowl. While the berries and macerating, prepare the other ingredients:

1 Pan D'Oro, or a large sponge cake

2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar

1 tsp. gelatin, dissolved in a little water (1/4 cup or so)

1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup creme de cassis or rum or other liqueur
juice from the drained berries

for the raspberry sauce:
Boil together one 10- or 12-ounce package of frozen raspberries, or a pint of fresh raspberries, 2 T. water and 1/4 cup sugar. Boil for about five minutes, then force through a strainer. Add 1 tsp. lemon juice and refrigerate.

Line a bowl with plastic wrap. (Mine held approximately 2 quarts of liquid).
Cut the cake into large slices (about 1/2 inch thick) and fit them tightly into the bowl.

Drain the juice from the berries and add the orange juice and the liqueur and/or rum.
Spoon some of the juices all over the cake, wetting it all over.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let it sit for a few minutes while you whip the cream.

Whip the cream with the confectioner's sugar, adding in the dissolved gelatin. Fold the drained berries into the whipped cream, then spoon the mixture into the cake-lined bowl.

Cover with more pieces of cake, and wet cake with more liquid. If you run out of liquid, you can always use rum, or if you prefer less alcohol, use a simple syrup (make it by boiling some water with sugar and letting it cool).

Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator at least 12 hours, or overnight.

Serve with the sauce and decorate with more berries and mint leaves.

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Domenica Marchetti's "Preserving Italy"


I was predisposed to love this book as soon as I heard the title. "Preserving Italy" speaks not only to the time-honored methods of putting foods by that Italians have done for centuries -- but to holding on to traditions that face extinction if it weren't for people like Domenica Marchetti.
I grew up in a family that foraged for wild asparagus and broccoli rabe in the spring, that canned summer's bounty of peaches and tomatoes, that made its own wine in the fall and that mixed its own spicy sausages to hang and cure during the winter. Those, and other traditions to preserve food are deeply engrained in my genes and I try to not only maintain those traditions, but to enrich them with newfound ways of preserving my heritage and passing it onto younger family members and friends. So I was thrilled when Domenica's book arrived, (including my family's recipe for salt-preserved green tomatoes) bringing these old customs to a whole new audience.
photo from "Preserving Italy"
Aside from her wonderful recipes, Domenica leaves her imprint with her beautiful writing. Her first sentence grabbed me right away:
"When my grandmother passed away in 1971, she left behind four grieving daughters and a large jar of her liquor-soaked cherries."
photo from "Preserving Italy"
That sentence evoked my own memories of loved ones passed on, who had left behind their own culinary mementos: the foods my father ate for weeks after my mother died -- peppers and tomatoes she had prepared and stored in the freezer and cupboards; and the grappa-soaked cherries and salted green tomatoes my late husband had made - another bittersweet and tangible reminder of his absence in the months following his death.
With every bite of those cherries, roasted peppers, or canned tomatoes, we bring back past memories and at the same time, expose a younger generation to a taste they might pass onto future generations.
"We're seeing more and more of these traditional methods being used today," Domenica said. "Some people are putting modern spins on it and putting in new flavors."
Italy has long been a country where people, especially those living in the country with substantial gardens, put up their own food for the leaner winter months, but there are a lot more artisanal items on store shelves in Italy now too, she said.
"It's a way for regions to stand out in terms of culinary trends and I feel like we are in some ways going back. You see it not just with preserves, but in interest in old traditional recipes, like the sour dough bread baking movement, for example. These techniques that were in danger of being lost, are finding a new audience. I also try to find recipes that are in danger of being lost. I don't want these traditional recipes to fall by the wayside."
photo from "Preserving Italy"
The book contains instructions not only on the techniques of making and preserving vegetables, meats and fruits, jams and liqueurs, but also many ideas on how to use those items in various recipes.
From foods preserved in oil, like eggplants, zucchini and butternut squash; to foods preserved in vinegar, like cauliflower, carrots and fennel; to sweet jams and jellies; to tomatoes and sauce; to cheeses, cured meats; liqueurs and syrups, the book provides a step-by-step guide to creating a bountiful pantry.
photo from "Preserving Italy"
After you've finished seasoning and curing that guanciale, you can use it to flavor the pasta alla gricia recipe from the book; or try your hand at making mint syrup, then incorporate it in the book's recipe for mint chocolate chip cake.
photo from "Preserving Italy"
There's something for even the busiest working man or woman, including easy-to-make porchetta salt that will elevate your next pork shoulder to new heights. Domenica also includes the recipe for making a simplified home version of porchetta that anyone can make.
"The porchetta is simple because it's just a matter of making the salt, rubbing it into the meat and then it's hands off while the roast is in the oven.
from "Preserving Italy"
Most of the recipes in the book are "small batch" and just enough for a small family, she said.
 "They don't produce quarts and quarts of food - just enough for you to have something on hand. I like the feeling of having a larder with jars of food stocked in it. If you do a little bit of work on the front end, then you can just open a jar of tomato sauce and have a quick and easy great pasta dinner for example," she said.
Although Domenica has been making limoncello and other liqueurs for years, as well as jams, fresh cheeses and yogurt, many of the techniques in the book were new to her. "There was definitely a learning curve, which made the book all the more fun," she said.
photo from "Preserving Italy"


Writing a cookbook where you are first preserving the raw ingredients does takes a bit longer than just creating a recipe alone, but it was a labor of love, Domenica said.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the process," she said, although the tight deadline imposed by Houghton Mifflin presented a challenge. The original six months stretched to a year in order to include ingredients from all four seasons of the year.
"I had a lot of fun sourcing the different things," she said including finding wine grapes she could use to create the syrupy liquid called mosto cotto in her kitchen in Virginia.
photo from "Preserving Italy"
"I put out a tweet asking winemakers to share some fresh grape must and I got a reply from one of Virginia's oldest winemakers - Horton Vineyards - who gave me a few jars."
Winemakers in general are the most generous people, she said, but "As I started working on this book, it became clear to me that there are so many talented and hard-working food artisans in Italy."
As a result, the book includes essays on many of the people she met while conducting research for the book.
photo from "Preserving Italy"
"They do what they do because it's their livelihood and they love it and maybe they're doing it to bring back those traditions. I really wanted to showcase the work they are doing. But it doesn't even scratch the surface when it comes to the whole country and the number of food artisans there."
photo from "Preserving Italy"
Domenica will be promoting "Preserving Italy" in the next few months, starting with a book launch and dinner at Le Virtù restaurant in Philadelphia on June 15. She continues through the summer with appearances at bookstores, cooking schools and other sites throughout Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maine and North Carolina. For more details, click here.


Below is a recipe from Domenica's book - a beautiful and delicious crostata using homemade jam:
photo from "Preserving Italy"

Favorite Jam Crostata
from Domenica Marchetti's "Preserving Italy"

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
1 cup confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting the crostata
finely grated zest of 1 orange
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 to 2 cups rustic grape Jam, strawberry-apricot preserves, green tomato preserves (recipes in the book); or any favorite jam.

-Measure the flour, sugar, zests and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with at the metal blade. Process briefly to combine. Distribute the butter pieces around the bowl and process until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg and egg yolks and process just until the dough begins to come together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a disk. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
-Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut it into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller piece and set it aside. Roll the larger piece into an 11-or 12-inch circle. Carefully wrap the dough around the rolling pin and drape it over a 9- or 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan.
-Spoon the jam into the prepared hell and smooth it out with the back of your spoon. Roll out the remaining dough and cut it into 3/4-inch thick strips or use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes such as flowers or stars. Place the strips in a lattice pattern on top of the jam or arrange the cutouts on top. (Save any excess dough to roll out later; you can cut out shapes and bake cookies) Fold the edge of the crust over the jam and lattice.
-Bake until the crust is lightly browned, about 35 minutes. Let the crostata cool in the pan on a wire rack to room temperature. To serve, remove the rim of the pan, transfer the crostata to a decorative serving platter, and dust lightly with confectioner's sugar.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Alfajores and Other Peruvian Foods


A few years ago, Nico, a Peruvian friend of my daughter's, stopped by the house at Christmas time with a gift of alfajores he had just baked. I was immediately swooning and asked for the recipe for these buttery cookies layered between caramel. Unfortunately, his mother wanted to keep the recipe within the family, so I was out of luck.
I never forgot how delicious they were, so on my recent trip to Peru, I hoped to find some alfajores as good as Nico's. Typically covered in powdered sugar, the ones I tasted in Peru fell far short of the crumbly, delicate ones Nico made.
I returned to the states and decided I'd just have to find a recipe for them on my own.
That's when I remembered the wonderful crust in the Lemon Ricotta crostata I made a while ago from  a recipe by Domenica Marchetti. There was leftover dough from that crostata and I used it back then to make cookies stuffed with Nutella. Why not fill them with some homemade caramel instead? Bingo! Alfajores!

Alfajores are enjoyed as a special occasion treat not only in Peru, but in other South American countries as well. In Argentina, the caramel filling is called dulce de leche, but in Peru, it's manjar blanco. Either way, it's made the same way, a sweet reduction of milk and sugar.
You can make your own by submerging a can of sweetened condensed milk in simmering water for two to three hours. 
After the caramel has cooled, spread a tablespoon or so between the cookies. 
They're sweet enough as is, so I omitted the traditional shower of powdered sugar.
Put out a platter of these and watch them disappear quicker than you can say "dulce de leche."
Alfajores are only one of the specialty foods you'll find in Peru. Lima is actually considered the gastronomic capital of South America and with good reason. 
Here are a sampling of some of the foods we ate on our recent trip:
croquettes, ceviche, and probecitas (tender beef over rice and beans topped with a quail egg):
Pisco sours and roast pork sandwiches served with pickled red onion:
steak with blueberry sauce:

chicken smothered in a pepper and tomato sauce served with quinoa:

luscious flan:

Gelato with flavors not typically found in the U.S. like maracuyà (passion fruit):


Peru is a fascinating country with a rich history and friendly people. From its cities to the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the salt flats of Salineras and the Sacred Valley, the sights, sounds and flavors of Peru left us with unforgettable memories and a strong desire to return and see more.
Hasta la vista.

Alfajores
(dough recipe from Domenica Marchetti)


  • For the dough
  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
  • Finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large whole egg
  • 2 large egg yolks
Make the dough
Put the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse briefly to combine. Distribute the butter around the bowl and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the whole egg and egg yolks and process until the mixture just begins to clump together in the work bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead it together. Without overworking it, shape the dough into a disk, patting rather than kneading it. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until well chilled. Cut into thirds, then roll out each third on a wooden or marble surface, dusting the rolling pin and board with flour. Use cookie cutters to cut out discs, then place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees, checking at about eight minutes to make sure they don't burn.
For the filling:
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Remove label of milk. Submerge the can in water and simmer for two to three hours (depending on dark you like the dulce de leche. I kept it in three hours), making sure there is always at least one inch of water covering the can. Cool and spread between two pieces of baked cookies.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Salt Pans of Salineras, and the Sacred Valley of Peru



I've given you a hint in the title of this post, so you probably already know what you're looking at in the photo above. They're not terraces of snow or white marble -- they're thousands of individual pools of salt in Peru's Urubamba River valley.
Years ago, I'd visited underground salt mines in Austria and felt claustrophobic riding down a wooden slide where the salt was mined. But that felt like child's play compared to the descent to the salt pans of Salineras, Peru. It was a little too close to the edge for most of the harrowing ride down the valley, but our driver assured me he had done it many times before. 
The 6,000 individual salt pans of Salineras de Maras have been mined since Incan times. 
Individual salt pans form cascading terraces along a hillside.

They are all family-owned and passed down through generations.

The pools are filled with heavily salted water from a natural spring. The water is diverted into the pans through a series of channels, which can be blocked off, controlling where the water flows.

Once the pan is filled with water, the sun does its job and helps evaporate the water in a few weeks, leaving layers of salt about one meter deep (about 40 inches).
 The top layer is used in the leather industry; the middle layer is used for animals and the very bottom, and finest salt layer, is for human consumption. I'm sure many of you have purchased fleur de sel from France for your cooking. In Spanish it's called "flor de sal" or "flower of salt."
At Salineras, they sell lots of different kinds of salts, including some flavored with herbs and spices.
I bought several bags, including one type of salt that's used for medicinal purposes -- very useful after my ankle injury on this trip.
I was sidelined at the edge, due to my injury, but my daughter explored, walking carefully along the paths between the salt pans. 
When it's time to harvest the salt, families arrive with shovels and start filling bags with the salt.
Salineras is in a beautiful area of Peru called the "Sacred Valley" -- an area of rolling fields and fertile farmland between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It's also an area of many ancient Incan sites, all crowned by the magnificent backdrop of the Andes mountains.
One of the most unusual places we visited was Moray. These concentric circles are thought to have been a center for Incan agricultural research, where crops were grown at different levels, and where temperatures changed precipitously from the lowest to the highest terrace.
We also stopped at Chinchero, where there are more Incan ruins and where we got a demonstration on natural dying and weaving from two Quechua women who were spinning baby llama wool.
 Most of the colors came from plant material, such as this purple corn:
But one of the colors came from a small beetle that lives on cacti, called the cochineal beetle. It appears to be white, but once it's scraped off the protective white covering on the cactus and crushed between the fingers, it turns as red as bright lipstick.

The beetles are dried,
 Then crushed into powder before mixing with water.
Artists and textile experts have long used the natural dye in their work, and it's also been used in food coloring for centuries as well as in cosmetics. It fell out of favor for a while, but after some synthetic red food colorings were found to be carcinogenic, the natural cochineal red is making a comeback. 
Similarly, Italians produce a liqueur called alkermes, whose intense red color also comes from an insect. The liquid, infused with flavorings like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is widely used there in baking and as a digestivo.

 There are so many more Incan sites to visit in the "Sacred Valley" and we barely scratched the surface.
 The people we met were so friendly and warm, we were sorry we couldn't spend more time there. I hope you get a chance to visit too.
Hasta la vista.

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