On our penultimate day in Italy, we were scheduled to go foraging for porcini up in the Apennines. From the day we arrived, though, my local guide Dalia kept mentioning that the porcini season was lackluster this year, and with nights being so cold, they were likely not going to happen, but not to worry, we would find something. Every day, assurances: Don't worry, we'll find something, with a knowing nod.
In the morning we drove to the quaint town of Portico di Romagna, close to the Tuscan border, where we met Matteo, our forager. We slapped on some muddy boots in preparation.
So it was that we piled into Matteo's van. We drove a few minutes out of town, pulled over on the roadside, and let out the dog, Otto. We were going to hunt truffles instead. Hello!
We're going back this October. Want to join? Click here for more information.
October is an undeniably magical time to be in Italy. The food is at its best this time of year, not least because there are truffles, porcini mushrooms, and chestnuts. So important are these ingredients to the local cuisine, towns around the Apennines have festivals to celebrate them.
Many people know of the white truffle festival in Alba, but there are smaller festivals in quaint towns elsewhere. While Alba draws big crowds, these petite festivals, like the one in Sant'Agata Feltria, are intimate, and often nearly exclusively frequented by Italians. From the moment you arrive at the festival, you know this town is serious about truffles.
Hey, do you want to experience a truffle festival? Of course you do. Well, we're doing it again this year. Click here to learn more.
The town is comprised of just a few small streets that snake their way up to the top of the hill, and the festival completely fills the town. There are, as you might expect, truffles, and lots of them. But there's also porcini mushrooms, fresh and dry. And there's cheese. So much amazing cheese. And meat. Amazing salame of many varieties, prosciutto and much more. Everything here is made by artisans from neighboring communities.
You can't go to Romagna without trying the local flatbread, piadina. No, really, I mean you can't go more than a few hours without encountering it. It is truly ubiquitous; luckily it is also delicious.
Piadina is made with the simplest ingredients: 00-grade flour, lard, a touch of salt, and water. (A vegetarian version can also be made by replacing the lard with olive oil.) The dough is kneaded and rolled into rounds, which are clasically cooked on clay griddles called testi. You can cook them on a cast iron or other skillet, but the clay skillet really does impart a unique flavor.
(Hey, we're going again this year. Want to join us? Of course you do. Click here for more info.)
As we've done in previous trips, we went to Casa Artusi to learn about Pellegrino Artusi, the great Italian gastronomer and food historian, and to make piadina. In his day, Artusi had an assistant, a young woman named Marietta. In Casa Artusi's teaching kitchen, they employ local women to be your own personal Marietta. These are some sassy ladies, and they will show you the right way to make the food they treasure most.
One of the earliest foraged foods of spring, stinging nettles are cropping up in forests and alongside streams all over. These prickly plants require a little special handling (they're called stinging nettles for a reason, after all), but once their formic acid-laden hairs have been tamed, nettles are quite delicious, and remarkably nutritious, making them one of the best foraged foods around.
One of the highlights of our trips to Italy is making hand-rolled pasta with Sandra, the sfoglina, and nonna Fernanda. Fresh pasta is pure alchemy; pasta and eggs converge to become a silky, springy dough. In Italy, the egg yolks are much richer in color than in the states; in fact, the Italian word for egg yolk is il rosso, or the red. Rolling the dough by hand, and especially on a wooden surface, gives the noodles a better texture, that holds on to sauces better. We started out making tortellini, tiny stuffed pasta filled with ricotta. The dough is cut into squares, and is then wrapped around tiny dollops of filling. (Hey, we're going again this year. Want to join us? Of course you do. Click here for more info.)
Jewels from the ground, beets delight with their earthy sweetness. Whether you like ruby red, golden, or candy-stripe Chioggia, here's a bunch of ways to put up these gemlike roots.
I had the great pleasure once again to bring a group to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, for a week of hands-on food craft classes, as I had done in January 2012. This trip was a wonderful balance of things familiar and new, enhanced by being in the country during arguably the best season. Autumn in Italy is truly enchanting. (Hey, we're going again this year. Want to join us? Of course you do. Click here for more info.)
I met my group in the Bologna airport. The lot of us were trickling in at different times, since folks were arriving from San Francisco, Iowa, France, and Sweden; one guest was already in Bologna, doing some exploration on his own. One by one we met at La Vecchia Bologna, an osteria in the arrivals area. Over some local wine and a few bites, our group bonded instantly. By the time our local guide met us, we were fast friends.
On our first day, we met up with my friend Marzia Brigante. On my last trip, Marzia taught us a few preserves, including savòr, a local conserve made from quince, apples, pears, nuts, and the reduced grape juice called saba. Ths time, she mixed things up a bit, and taught us four new recipes:
And so my industrious students got to work chopping away, and then it was into the kitchen to cook and can.
Disclosure: A copy of the book has been furnished for review, and another for the giveaway, by the publisher, Voyageur Press.
Sometimes I wonder whether the world needs another preserving book. And then, lo and behold, a new release comes that surprises and delights.
Like many recent releases, Beyond Canning is written by a friend and contributor to the site, Autumn Giles. I've always admired her creativity, candor, and chipper voice. All of this translates through in the book, in which she delivers a fresh approach to workaday preserving.
Autumn lays out instructions for preserving in an approachable, affable fashion, but what sets her book apart is her unique sense of flavor combinations. Why do plain old preserved lemons when you can punch them up with zesty Korean gochugaru pepper flakes? Orange curd takes a trip to the Fertile Crescent with a dash of rosewater. And though the book is highly seasonally focused, sometimes it's okay to cross those boundaries, like rescuing some frozen spring rhubarb to preserve with winter's grapefruit.
This book is hot off the presses, and I'm participating in a virtual book tour along with other notables. This just kicked off yesterday on Food in Jars (be sure to check it out!), and the tour keeps rolling over the next few weeks on the following blogs:
3/7: Food in Jars
3/8: Punk Domestics
3/10: Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking
3/11: Snowflake Kitchen
3/14: Good. Food. Stories.
3/15: Heartbeet Kitchen
3/16: Brooklyn Supper
3/17: The Briny
3/18: The Preserved Life
3/21: Hitchhiking to Heaven
3/22: Hola Jalapeno
3/23: Cook Like a Champion
3/24: Local Kitchen
I've got a copy to give away. You want it, don't you? Of course you do. So how do you enter to win? We've got options -- lots of options. You can do any or all of the following things:
Cabbage is your friend! Whether you're working with the Western globes in green or red, or crisp heads of napa cabbage, a little salt, time and patience can turn it into a traditional condiment with a global footprint. From tangy sauerkraut to spicy kimchi and beyond, here's a few ways to make the most of this ubiqutous veg.
Disclosure: A copy of the book has been furnished for review, and another for the giveaway, by the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing.
"Remove any outside wilted leaves and dry the cabbage quarters for 1 day under the cold winter sun on sheets of newspaper set directly on the ground."
So begins a recipe for hakusai no tsukemono fermented napa cabbage, setting the tone for the remaining recipes and projects in the book. Since falling in love with a Japanese farmer in 1988, Nancy Singleton Hachisu has immersed herself utterly in Japanese farm culture, most especially its food.
It was only after her aging mother-in-law began to forego many of the traditional preservation techniques did Hachisu begin to undertake and understand them herself, starting with takuan, half-dried daikon pickled in rice bran, and the aforementioned hakusai.
Her instructions are declarative; this is less a book about how you could take on these preservation projects than how they are done, how they've been done for centuries or even millennia.
The book is large, and Hachisu dives deep. What she most deftly illustrates is how deeply woven preservation techniques are in Japanese food culture. Fermented foods in particular make up the backbone: Soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, koji, sake lees, and rice bran (nukadoko) are fermented items in their own right, and are utilized to alter and enhance the texture and flavor of fruits, vegetables, and fish. While many of the projects are approachable, some require a commitment of weeks, months, or even years.
Hachisu doesn't skirt around the possibility of failure; in fact, she openly acknowledges when she has and when you might expect to do so. Long-term fermentation projects are fraught with peril, but done well, are worth the risk and time investment.
Peppered throughout the book are vignettes of life in Japan, profiles of artisans, and other insights into the rich food culture that defines the country. Like anywhere, these practices are under threat from industrialization and convenience foods, so in that regard this book as a document is important in that it captures something possibly fleeting.
Many of the projects in the book will fall well outside the comfort zone of most Western cooks, but for the adventurous and curious, inspiration abounds. At the least, it may get you to try your hand at making some Japanese staples you may already be purchasing, such as umeboshi.
You want it, don't you? Of course you do. So how do you enter to win? We've got options -- lots of options. You can do any or all of the following things: