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.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

It doesn't need an introduction, I know. But like all food preparations it can be prepared in many different ways with surprisingly different results, so I decided to share with you how I make it.

Beware though, I am not going for the easy way.

I prepare Tiramisu by cooking the yolks with sugar and Marsala like a Sabayon over a warm water bath and this can be labor intense and tricky to execute correctly. It requires constant care to ensure the Sabayon will mount, become rich, fluffy and thick without scrambling the eggs. Such hard work, however, produces a superior flavor and texture, in my opinion, and is also safer to eat than the uncooked egg versions.

So if you are up for some arm workout here is my recipe:

Egg yolks 8 - Sugar 200 gr - Marsala 200 gr - Mascarpone 500 gr

Combine the yolks with the sugar and Marsala in a stainless steel or even better copper bowl if you have one.

Start whisking vigorously enough to produce bubbles and place the bowl over a water bath with the water very hot but not simmering. Keep whisking and stirring to allow the mixture to increase its volume and mount to a fluffy texture.

If you feel the temperature is getting too hot or the water below is starting to simmer, move the bowl aside and keep whisking. Keep the sides of the bowl clean at all times to avoid that the untouched parts coagulate too quickly and produce lumps. The Sabayon must be completely smooth.

Keep whisking over the water bath until the Sabayon will become thick and creamy. You should be able to see the tracks left by the whisk and the sabayon should be thick enough to leave clear paths when dripping from the whisk. This might take several minutes of whisking and keep in mind that it will occur just a few moments before the entire mixture would become so hot that the eggs could scramble, so play close attention as this is the most delicate and important part of this preparation.

As soon as the Sabayon is properly cooked, move it over an ice bath and keep stirring to allow to rapidly cool down, then add the Mascarpone and keep refrigerated.

Now that the tough part is over and all you have to do is assemble the final dessert.

The easy way would be to assemble it in a large dish and spoon it to portions at the table. When possible, I prefer to prepare individual portions in wine glasses as in the image above. It is a bit more time consuming but it provides a prettier individual presentation. I also prefer to soak in good, strong espresso disks of sponge cake instead of Savoiardi or Ladyfingers cookies, but no big deal either ways. Just make sure that the espresso is strong and pure. I don't like to mix it with any liquors or sugar because the key is to enjoy the contrast between the bitter and juicy espresso soaked sponge cake and the rich, sweet and Marsala scented cream.

So to complete it put the Tiramisu cream in a pastry bag and start piping a small amount in the bottom of each glass. Then top it with a small disc of coffee soaked sponge cake and repeat this a couple of times finishing with a nice swirl of cream.

At this point the dessert can be refrigerated for a day or two if necessary but the sooner you eat it the better. Desserts, in general, don't benefit from sitting in the fridge and freshness is paramount.

Before serving dust a little cocoa powder on top, sit comfortably and enjoy each bite!

Saltimbocca

Saltimbocca alla Romana

Warning: can be addictive.

Fast to prepare (and also to eat...) this is one of those dishes in which the result by far exceeds the effort. Saltimbocca may follow, or accompany very well, the Gnocchi alla Romana described in my previous post and are typical of the same area in Italy. They are also delicious on the side of cooked spinach and potato purée or fried artichokes and a delicate green salad like in the image above.

They are normally composed of tender slices of veal, each layered with a sage leaf and topped with a thin slice of Prosciutto. A tooth pick can be used to hold it all together. Chicken or pork can be used too with good results, but veal is the traditional choice and in my opinion the best option.

When ready to cook, place them on the table prosciutto side down and season the meat with salt and pepper, then dip the prosciutto side in flour, dust the excess off and quickly cook it in a very hot sauté pan with a touch of olive oil, prosciutto side down. Heat should be medium/high to allow the prosciutto to turn golden and crisp by the time the meat is just done, which takes only a couple of minutes. Depending on how thick the veal is by the time the prosciutto side is ready, the meat should be almost cooked through on the top, making it a preparation where about 90% of the cooking is done on the same side. At that point, all you have to do is move the pan off the heat, quickly flip the saltimbocca just to let the meat side touch the hot pan, then plate them immediately prosciutto side up. The key is to have a crispy prosciutto top but tender juicy veal underneath which is not overcooked.

As the saltimbocca rest on the warm plate, you should make the sauce by discarding the cooking fat, deglazing the pan with a generous amount of white wine and replacing it over the high heat to reduce. A touch of broth can be added too if desired. The liquid, while quickly reducing in the pan, will also mix with the flavorful drippings from the saltimbocca and slightly thicken, thanks to residual flour. Add a few pieces of butter and swirl the pan over the heat to create an emulsion. Move off the heat, taste and adjust but generally the saltiness of the prosciutto combined with the acidity of the wine and the sweetness of the butter don't require additional salt. If too acidic add more butter. Be careful as the sauce is ready to serve just a few moments before is ready to "break" so be careful not to over-reduce it and move the pan off the heat towards the end. If you do over-reduce it - don't panic. Just add some hot water and start reducing over high heat again. The liquid will re-emulsify. For this sauce to be good it should not yield much more than a generous table spoon for each portion. I like to think of it as a rustic and quick version of a Beurre Blanc.

Well I hope this wasn't too confusing. In reality it all happens in two or three minutes and all these little details to pay attention to really make the difference between a so-so dish and a great one.

OK, now I made myself hungry...

Gnocchi alla Romana

Gnocchi alla Romana

Somewhere between Polenta and Grits, this wintery preparation from central Italy is easy to prepare and versatile. It can be served as a Primo Piatto, just like a pasta course, as is or on top of some cooked greens like spinach. Or it can serve as crispy and rich side dish to a braise, roasted or sautéed meat.

They are made with coarse ground semolina (durum wheat) or even cream of wheat. Simply add about 1cup of semolina to 4 or 5 cups of hot milk stirring to avoid lumps. Cook about 15 minutes, season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and grated Parmigiano and pour the thick mixture on a greased sheet tray or greased surface. Use a greased spatula or plastic wrap and a rolling pin to level at about 1/2 inch thickness and allow to cool.

Once room temperature the mixture becomes firm and can be cut in shape, normally round discs about 2 inches in diameter.Arrange discs in a buttered oven proof dish and season the top with more grated Parmigiano and additional butter. At this point you may refrigerate or even freeze for later use if desired.To complete bake at 425F for about 20-30 minutes or until the gnocchi will achieve a golden crispy crust.

White Truffle$

White Truffles
White Truffle
Beef Tartare with Truffle
Sunny Side Up Eggs with Truffle
Tajarin al Tartufo

Expensive I know. Too expensive!

But if you get an opportunity to put your hands on one of these precious nuggets, here are few possible ways to enjoy it.

But first, if you must hold it a day or two before you eat it, put it in a glass jar with risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano…) or with some fresh eggs. The rice or the eggs will absorb the fantastic aroma and when you cook them, after having consumed the truffle, it will feel like eating truffle again.

White truffle, contrary to black truffle, is not supposed to be cooked with a dish but is thinly shaved, raw on top of it. Above are some of my favorite ways to enjoy it:

• Shaved over raw beef seasoned with extra virgin, sea salt and a raw egg yolk

• Shaved over fried or scrambled eggs

• Shaved over homemade tagliolini tossed in butter and Parmigiano

Let's Talk Carbonara

Bucatini alla Carbonara
Bucatini alla Carbonara
Bucatini alla Carbonara

A humble yet luscious pasta dish typical from central Italy. Composed of a few simple elements, it requires quality ingredients and skillful care to become a true delicacy.

No doubt it is packed with calories, fat an cholesterol. Get over it. Nobody is perfect. It is just fine if you enjoy it occasionally and in moderation as one very tasty and satisfying course on a multi-course meal, in which case you can plan to serve 6 or even more small portions out of one pound of pasta.

It consists of strips of Pancetta or Guanciale (cured pork jowl) rendered in a saute' pan until golden and crispy into which you toss some hot pasta al dente, immediately after draining it from its cooking water and quickly bond with a mixture of egg yolks, freshly ground peppercorns, grated Pecorino and Parmigiano cheese. Yolks should coagulate quickly but gently, without scrambling and just enough to create a rich creamy sauce that combined with the flavor and texture of the Guanciale, makes this pasta hard to resist.

Bucatini or Perciatelli are in general the pastas of choice, but Spaghetti, Penne or even other shapes can also produce interesting results.

The keys are a few:

- Like all simple preparations, using top quality ingredients makes a difference. A great fat artisanal Pancetta or Guanciale, freshly picked farm eggs, freshly ground black pepper and good and freshly ground Parmigiano and Pecorino (Romano works well but some other aged Pecorinos from Tuscany, Umbria or Lazio region can be even better) will yield outstanding results.

- It must be prepared at the last minute and pay close attention in cooking the egg yolks very carefully while continuously tossing the pasta in the pan, to ensure that they will bond and achieve creaminess without scrambling - a bit like in a Hollandaise. If the pan is hot and the pasta just drained, no additional heat should be necessary to cook the yolks. But if for some reason you have lost some of the heat, then be extremely careful to finish the dish over a gentle flame and stir it constantly.

Some like to use whole eggs and some like to add some heavy cream, although my favorite is prepared with egg yolks only.

Hopefully, the visual steps above can help you achieve a great result. Buon appetito!