Asparagus and Farm Eggs

Soft Boiled Egg with Asparagus

With asparagus season just about to begin here in the Hudson Valley, I like to propose you a very simple way to enjoy them.

I like to gently stew the asparagus in a pan with extra virgin olive oil or butter, salt and just enough water to allow them to cook through. This way the asparagus flavor and nutrients stays with them and their taste is very rich. Fresh peas, if available, can be cooked the same way and make an excellent complement to this dish.

Serve asparagus and peas along the side of a soft boiled farm egg (cooked in boiling water for 6-7 minutes and then carefully peeled) placed on a toasted bread crouton, which will offer a pleasant touch of crunchiness and help absorb the creamy, dripping yolk. Season the egg with salt and pepper, shave some Parmigiano-Reggiano around and drizzle more olive oil and balsamic vinegar all around.

Voila'!

Deliciously messy...

Arancini - Risotto The Sequel

Arancini di Riso

Making abundant risotto has never been a problem in my house.

But trying to add liquid the next day and re-heating it to create a "born-again" version typically produces a sub-standard result, there are a few preparations that can be made using leftover risotto that don't make you feel like you are eating leftovers at all. On the contrary, these preparations can be presented as new dishes on their own and their quality, if properly made can be outstanding. One of these simple preparations is called Arancini di Riso, which are risotto balls about the size of a lime or clementine, stuffed with sausage, vegetables or cheese and other delicious garnish bites, then breaded and deep fried. This same preparation in some parts of Italy, is also known as Suppli'.

Now because the cooking is really quite fast and enclosed inside of the breaded crust, the rice reheats and remains moist without needing to absorb more liquid and without overcooking. The result is an irresistible crispy bite on the outside that leads to a creamy risotto and a flavorful filling in the center. In fact, it is so good that it is almost not fair to call it a leftover.

The surprise bite at the center or stuffing can be totally up to you of course and is best selected respecting the main flavor of the risotto you are using. Normally a good melting cheese like mozzarella or Fontina or even Taleggio or Gorgonzola by itself or paired with a vegetable variation like tomato, tomato sauce, or peas or with a meat like sausage or cooked ham.

Arancini can be prepared ahead of time and fried just before you plan to serve them. Give it a try, next time you cook more risotto than you can eat and I am convinced that cooking extra risotto every time won't be considered an accident anymore.

Oranges + Extra Virgin = Very Good

Orange & Crab Salad

I absolutely love the taste of oranges in-season, prepared with sea salt and a good extra virgin olive oil. They can be combined in a bowl, by simply swirling them around which creates a natural vinaigrette of emulsified juices, salt and oil. Delicious!

This easy preparation works as an appetizer, a juicy side (to a grilled fish for example) or as a main dish in a composed, healthy salad.

They are perfect alone, but also offer a fantastic base upon which you can build more complex flavors and textures.

Just a few ideas for great add-ons or add-ins are:

• Sliced red onions or scallions

• Black olives (one of my favorite varieties is Taggiasche from the Liguria region of Italy)

• Sliced fennel and fennel leaves

• Baby arugula or baby spinach

• Steamed crustacean such as shrimp, lobster or crab

Sometimes it's just that simple and so good for you too.

Pane e Salame

Pane e Salame
Artisanal Bread
Salametto

Few things to me can be as satisfying and heart-warming as a few slices of a good salame with freshly-baked, rustic bread and a nice glass of wine. Honestly, does it get any easier, tastier or any more Italian than that?

The biggest issue at hand, as you often read in my posts is about the quality of each ingredient in such a simple preparation. And finding the right ingredient, in this particular case, can more or less challenging, depending on where you live.

Growing up, I was so used to freshly baked bread that I would have never, ever imagined one day it would have become a luxury that I could afford to enjoy only once in a while. We used to have so many great bakers in the small town where I lived that my family bought fresh bread alternatively from three or four of our favorites because each excelled in a particular bread which would influence our choice for the day.  So one day we bought from one baker, and the next day from another but one thing was for sure - we purchased bread daily, religiously. Except for Sunday, when all the bakers were closed. Bummer.

Given the choice, my favorite bread to enjoy with a good salame, (or prosciutto, lardo, coppa, or pancetta) is by far Pane Toscano, Tuscan bread is a style with considerably less salt than most breads, and supports the flavor of the meat by having its own very, subtle flavor. This might be difficult to imagine if you've never had the opportunity to taste it, so for now you'll need to trust me when I say, "there's no comparison."

Now, living in upstate New York, it is much more difficult for me to purchase great bread freshly-baked on a daily basis.  And although there are some great bakers in the area like Bread Alone, http://www.breadalone.com/ for example, is just not feasible for me to buy daily or even every other day, considering the distance. Who knows, maybe one day bakers will join forces with Amazon.com or UPS and find a way to deliver daily bread still piping hot. Wouldn't that be cool?

So for the moment my best option is to stock it when I drive up the Catskills, or down to the Culinary Institute of America or even "more down" to NYC. There one of my new favorites is Sullivan Street Bakery, http://www.sullivanstreetbakery.com/ though I know there are many more. But even with all of the variety, I have yet to find my beloved Pane Toscano. (All possible leads welcome.)

Now as for the salame part of this exquisite pairing, let me first clarify the spelling. In Italian, salame refers to cured ground meat and fat contained in a casing. Salami in Italian is the plural for salame, while salumi refers to all sorts of cured meats, not only made from ground meat, but including solid cuts like prosciutto, coppa, pancetta, and many more.

This life-long love affair I have with Pane e Salame goes way back.  It was my Uncle Egidio's salame that started it all, and set the standard by which all others would be and still are judged, including some of the greats I have had the pleasure of tasting throughout Italy.  Though sad in a way (because it is a rare delight) I am obliged to mention it because the quintessential pairing of an artisanal salame from the Marche with slices of freshly baked Pane Toscano is an experience all red-meat eaters should have the privilege of tasting.

Finding these works of art, is the next big challenge, particularly because importing a good number of my Italian favorites is restricted by law. Only a small selection of cured meats pass the FDA requirements for importation and to my knowledge include only, prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto, speck and Mortadella di Bologna. So no Italian-made salami in the US that I know of.

Having said that, and having determined that most of my other salami favorites from my Italian past life are off limits here in the U.S., I must convey that I was lucky to find some interesting "local" producers who offer artisanal products of remarkable quality.

Two terrific options are Paul Bertolli's  Fra'Mani http://www.framani.com/ in Berkley, CA and Armandino Batali's Salumi http://www.salumicuredmeats.com/ in Seattle, WA. They both offer fantastic products, in my opinion, and they ship right to your door.  But as with my Tuscan bread appeal, any other leads to great domestic producers are welcome.

Lastly, we come to the subject of the wine.  To that end, there are many good fits both white and red, but my suggestion is to try a traditional Lambrusco. It is a less known and less prestigious Italian wine and comes predominantly from the Emilia-Romagna region. Relatively inexpensive, it is an easy drinking, sparkling red, which is delicious slightly chilled and great with cured meats. Almost impossible to find in the U.S. ten years ago, you can now find Lambrusco from a variety of producers, though you may have to go your favorite higher volume store to find it, such as Astor Wine in NYC. http://www.astorwines.com/ which ships via UPS to most states.

In my experience, the Pruno Nero from Cleto Carli offers a nice combination of quality and price, though it is just one among many.  Just know that when shopping for your Lambrusco you should steer away from any classified or labeled as amabile, which means "slightly sweet" and is not a variety appropriate for salumi in my opinion.

Lastly, if you're in NYC and just want to sit yourself down and have someone bring you you Pane e salame e Lambrusco, consider two great options:

Taralluci e Vino http://www.taralluccievino.net/ and Salumeria Rosi http://www.salumeriarosi.com/ whose domestically produced pancetta is the best thing I've seen since my last visit to Italy.

In conclusion, I hope that my love and passion for one of the simplest Italian delicacies inspires you to seek out options that work for you and that your Pane e Salame experience will be one to remember.