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Entries in Southern Italy (25)

Tuesday
Jul022013

The Italian American Omnivore

The Cured Ham had a lot of fun writing about the superiority of bacon over tofu. I would like to thank Homo Sapiens 200,000 years ago for their HUNTING (you don't hunt soy, you hunt feral pigs) and gathering skills and of course, upright, bipedal locomotion. Although, the last 10,000 years we’ve sort of settled down and improved our agricultural prowess by developing things like tofu and high quality wine.

Condescending? Not at all. We as a species are omnivores, plain and simple. Veganism is a fascinating First World, moral, spiritual, religious debate, nothing more; angels on the head of pin to emphasize my doctrinal studies.

Humans, Josh Tehee of The Fresno Bee and I, are omnivorous, which includes vegetarian cuisine. Things like gnocchi pesto, linguini in red sauce, cheese pizza, eggs on toast and cacio di pepe are all a form of vegetarianism, omnivorous, and delicious.

I, like Josh, eat a wide variety of foods and not all of them are animal flesh. Cheese is a regular part of my diet. But I wasn’t always so lucky.

Growing up, I had a severe lactose intolerance or milk allergy as it was called in the 70s. Josh, I know more about soy products than you can possibly imagine. IMO, the original imitation sour cream is how I participated in baked potato night. Nucoa, the only margarine without dairy in it and the substitute for butter in chocolate chip cookies. Mocha Mix, my breakfast milk till I was age 12 and the only soy milk available in Fresno till probably 1985. Let’s not forget another fan favorite, Cool Whip, non-dairy whipping cream (it has dairy in it these days). When the other kids were eating real whipping cream, I learned to love whipped hydrogenated oil. I even remember trying some of the first soy milk ice cream on the market, horrible; which is why I developed a love for Daiquiri Ice from 31 Flavors; because sherbet in the 70s also had milk.

I haven't touched any of these products since I was about 14. All substitutes for the real thing.

I couldn’t have a pepperoni pizza until I was 12 years old because American pepperoni contained non-fat dry milk solids, (soy fillers are also used) which is why I exclusively ate Italian imported products as a child because they were cured without additions, only salt and natural seasonings.

My mother and I were reading ingredients on packages as a matter of habit and safety since the early 70s. We knew more than the doctor when it came to dietary restrictions.

Substitute is a word I grew up with. And let me tell you, Cool Whip is no substitute for real whipping cream. I love whipping cream, probably because I couldn’t have it for so long and was forced to eat the substitute for so many years. I relish every finger licking experience I can get these days.

It’s the same with bacon versus tofu. Tofu will NEVER substitute for bacon. Tofu is in a class all by itself.

In the world of food Josh, I totally agree, the “vegetarian option” can be horrible. However, a beautifully crafted mushroom risotto with truffles is sublime and 100% Vegetarian (and we can thank the pig for finding those truffles). I’ve had risotto at Schoolhouse, Trelio and Lela’s all vegetarian or pescetarian and all quite satisfying. And on a side note, each of the chefs at the aforementioned restaurants created very different styles of risotto.

Since you mentioned the generic pasta option for vegetarians, I’d like to expand on that topic. I was fortunate to live in Southern Italy, specifically, Puglia. Pasta is eaten daily. One such dish is orrechiette with rapini and grated cheese. Vegetarian, yes. Normal part of the Puglian diet, yes. It’s simply what you eat, it’s the staple pasta dish of Puglia. I continue and my family continues to eat that dish in Fresno. But we would never label ourselves vegetarians, it wouldn’t even occur to us to do so. Pasta with rapini or red sauce is just Southern Italian, nothing more.

I hate to break it to vegetarians…you’re not that special. You’re omnivores with a label. Good for you and the vegetarian marketing department. Please stop reminding me of your vegetarian ways. I like the same food you do and probably prepare most vegetarian dishes with a greater sense of tradition, culture and place than you do, not to mention skill.

Speaking of protein in Puglia, rabbits and game birds are far more likely to be on the table than a rib-eye. Beef is a heavily Americanized item. Secondly, the Puglian-American diet, that which my mother and grandmother grew up with in Fresno, was more heavily influenced by cheese, eggs, and vegetables than beef or pork. I recently posted a picture of a completely vegetarian meal of fried eggplant, fresh cheese, tomatoes, Italian curly peppers, bread, olive oil and wine that will rival any meal, anytime, anywhere on the planet!

My 92 year old grandmother would still rather eat swiss chard, cheese, bread, and olive oil than a steak. My grandmother is certainly not a vegetarian sympathizer. If you tried to tell my 92 year old grandmother that she was vegetarian, she’d say “No, I’m Italian, I eat what I want and I eat good food…and today I want a steak…what’ya think of that?!”

Being a vegetarian IS congruous with being an omnivorous human. Eating soy products is part of the omnivore’s diet. I agree with Josh, tofu will never be a substitute or compete with bacon, chorizo, steak or meatballs; and it shouldn’t.

I follow the same philosophy as my grandmother. Eat whatever you want, just eat well and never substitute for quality or the original product. 

Because Cool Whip will NEVER be whipped cream and tofu will NEVER be bacon.

Friday
Nov042011

Flour + Water, San Francisco

I sat at the bar on a warm Wednesday evening in San Francisco. I’ve heard a lot about Flour+Water, a lot of good things. The only bad thing, the potential wait for a table; so I arrived when they opened for dinner service, 5:30. Only one thing interested me that night, the pasta tasting. There are no substitutions for the pasta tastings, only additions can be made. I made a single addition to Flour + Water’s Autumn Pasta Tasting, orrechiette with rapini.

As for wine notes, I paired a bottle (yes an entire bottle) of Rosato, 2010 Bisson, Ciliegiolo, Golfo del Tigullio DOC from Liguria with the entire meal, as I’d done in Italy several times over. In my humble opinion, Rosato pairs with practically everything. 

To start, Eggplant and treccione aformatino with crispy butter beans, cavolo nero and chili oil. The timbale or tortino, depending upon what classic or more recognized word you would like to use, was smoothly made. The eggplant when combined with the smoked cheese made for a pleasant and light starter. The timbale itself was light, near custard–like consistency, but lighter. The chili oil was unexpected for its heat, but welcome as its intent was to wake up the mouth. The fried butter beans were really good too and offered the crunchy contrast to the timbale.

 

First Pasta: Butternut squash tortelli, I expected this to taste good and considering I was in the kitchen at Parma in Fresno with Elena watching this very dish being made, complete with the amaretti cookie, this dish was no surprise for the season. The pasta was light, the filling tasted of the season, and the dish was simply presented and served. A solid start to the pasta tasting.

 

Second Pasta: Sunchoke and ricotta cappelletti, personally, the standout of the evening in terms of flavor and presentation. The pasta shape itself was perfect, standing up on the plate. Great texture, mouth-feel, and flavor in each of the bites. If they tripled the order, I wouldn’t have had any problems finishing it.

Third Pasta: Saffron lasagnette, probably the most challenging of the courses as I reflect on all of them. I happened to enjoy this dish, but I like shellfish and saffron. I can see where these strong flavors could be a challenge for others. Small circles of pasta were layered one on top of the other, with various seafood in between each layer. A béchamel-like sauce was also in between the layers of pasta to carry the flavor. The pasta itself was crispy along the edges. Lots of flavor here, but perhaps not a dish for everyone. I happened to like it.

 

Fourth Pasta: Horseradish leaf strozzapreti was a simple dish, perhaps less impactful than the previous lasagnette or nothing to make it pop like the others. Just not as memorable. It was good, just not the highlight of the night. (Sorry, no more pictures, they dimmed the lights)

Fifth Pasta (optional addition): Orrechiette, my personal addition to the tasting menu, was not traditional in the sense that the sauce the pasta was served in was creamy, rather than simply olive oil, chili, and greens. The dish seemed more American or perhaps more Tuscan than Puglian, with a creamier consistency to the sauce rather than the blunt force usually used in most orrecheitte dishes I ate in Puglia. Not once did I have this dish in Puglia as richly prepared as here. Is this good or bad? I still don’t know yet. I was often surprised at Michelin starred chefs in Puglia elevating a dish beyond their simple roots and this could classify as elevation, but I’m might need to eat it again to decide. 

Sixth Pasta: Pig heart caramelle, if you like offal, this dish is for you. As I happen to like pig heart, I loved this dish. It was the right way to end a tasting, with a bold flavor of offal. The pasta itself was the contrast, good texture to the edges and near paper thin in the middle. Well executed. 

Dessert Course: Olive oil and thyme cake. Normally I don’t even cover desserts, I either forget that I ate dessert, don’t take a picture, or just want chocolate. I’m making an exception because this cake reminded me of Italian breakfast in Puglia. The cake was savory and slightly sweet. The olive oil was present in both smell and flavor. It was simple and lovely and I could have eaten twice as much.

I am very pleased with my experience at Flour+ Water. Service was attentive and friendly. The pace of the tasting menu from the kitchen was wonderfully timed, and the food was above average at worst. I may have personal issues with orrechiette, but don’t let that stop you from ordering it if it’s on the menu. I bashed the strozzapreti a little, but if you compare it to other restaurants serving the same dish, I’d put money on F+W doing it better than most. I’d come back and I’d recommend that my readers visit.

Flour + Water on Urbanspoon

Wednesday
Sep072011

The Cured Ham makes The Wall Street Journal!

In the shameless promotion category, The Cured Ham was quoted in the September 1, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal for my recent trip to Cotogna in San Francisco (read the post here).

I've been trying to get published in The Journal for my day job for 20 years! It only took a little over 3 years as The Cured Ham to get picked up. Who knew?!

Saturday
Jul302011

Cotogna,San Francisco

I could have easily been back in Lecce, Italy with my lunch at Cotogna. 

Squid ink pacchieri with spicy squid. Actually, the pacchieri was the pasta I had in Lecce, not at Cotogna. Cotogna served a  spaghetti type pasta with a dash of a spicy tomato sauce with some calamari rings placed on top. I recall as though it were yesterday my meal at Picton. I chuckled with delight my dish was presented to me. The pasta was wonderfully cooked Italian al dente and there was a hint of spice to the dish. Well exectuted.

 

Mussels with guanciale and fennel tops. Once again, a simple and authentic Italian dish of mussels cooked with pork cheek with a lovely broth to accompany. I asked for more bread and a spoon because every drop of that lovely nectar deserved my attention. No mussel was left unopened and no juice or cube of pork cheek was left in my plate. 

It was good to come back to Lecce in Jackson Square (San Francisco).

Cotogna on Urbanspoon

Sunday
Jul242011

A Dinner with Friends

It was a real pleasure to eat with fellow foodies this weekend. It's also a lot of fun to get in the kitchen and do some proper prep and cooking over an entire day.

The last time I scored, blanched, peeled, destemed, seeded, blended, and strained tomatoes to make a pure tomato nectar was when I cooked in Italy. A labor of love to extract the purest flavor of the tomato, probably an hour worth of work and every bit worth it. The end product is simple, it's what nature brought to the table. And a rarity. We often want to manipulate ingredients, shape them into a grand creation, when the smartest thing to do is showcase the purity and simplicity of an ingredient.



My favorite dish to create was Summertime in Puglia. I was looking at pictures of some of the meals I'd eaten when I was in the south. Simple prep of peppers, cheese, bread, tomato, olive oil, and rosato were staples. Even in Michelin starred restaurants, a 'back to basics' dish was included. My family has always eagerly awaited summer for those simple peppers. Thanks to my Dad for tending the vines this year and helping raise a healthy tomato crop. We're not Certified Organic...We're Certified Backyard.

It was also a thrill to watch a friend, Chef Tommy Chavez work the wood-fired grill. We created a "Prime Tasting of Three Ranches", a carnivore's dream selection of rib-eye steaks. Magrueder Ranch, Alexandre Farms, and Painted Hills beef were chosen for this tasting. All raised differently, corn-fed 21-day wet aged, grass fed only, and grass-fed corn-finished respectively, allowed everyone at the table to make a judgement about what steak was "the best" and prepared exactly the same way. 


I've attached several pictures of the prep as well as the complete menu for your review.

We hope to continue creating evenings around the table, sharing a story, a meal, and a little drink from time to time. I'd personally like to thank John and Falina Marihart for offering their home for this wonderful evening. Additionally, it was a pleasure to have so many friends around the table, including a fellow blogger (and better photographer than me) Foie Gras and Flannel. It wouldn't have been a memorable evening without all of you.