Monday, 26 October 2009

Green apple, Brussels sprouts & pistachios

This week I am busy writing up my final paper, topping up on local specialty products a.k.a Prodotti Tipici, packing, shipping, and generally stressing. The theme and atmosphere is one of concluding, rounding up, wrapping up and tying loose ends.

In the charming Florentine apartment that I call home is a non functional oven, which has meant no roasting or baking for the past few weeks, with the gas cooker as my only magic tool. To substitute for the baking I educate myself with pastries from the forno downstairs now and again. But for everything else, there's a gas cooker. The way I see it, as with everything else in life, for every door that closes another one opens, and I simply need to review and reconsider my choice in food and preparation methods.

I bought brussels sprouts earlier in the week and wanted to use them. I know brussles sprout in their unhappy state; colour somewhere between brown, grey and green, pudgy in texture and bitter in taste.

No more. I don’t know why these are boiled. It does'nt seem to do them any justice.

If you were thinking "I want a salad that is fresh, crisp and all shades of green" this is the one for you. Think a crunch, a tang, and a nutty sweetness. It has autumn written all over it.

Green apple, Brussels sprouts and pistachio salad

(makes 2 generous salad bowls)

a handful of unsalted pistachios

olive oil

a few leaves of sage and/ or rosemary

Brussels sprouts (about 20), thinly sliced

1 green apple

5 tbs olive oil

1 tbs mustard

½ squeezed lemon juice



In a pan, heat the pistachios over a medium low heat until lightly roasted. Chop and set aside.

Using the same pan heat some olive oil. Add the sage and rosemary and fry for 2-3 minutes. Then add the sliced Brussels sprouts, and lightly fry for 3-4 minutes. Transfer the now aromatic sprouts into a bowl with.

In a small bowl mix the olive oil, mustard and lemon juice until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Slice the apple thinly into matchsticks and add to the Brussels sprouts. Toss the dressing with the salad and sprinkle the roasted pistachios.

Variations: you can use other herbs, substitute the pistachios with other roasted nut and seeds, add a good aged cheese or fried bacon.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Gorgonzola and chestnut bowl

I blinked and it was over. Summer is gone and its freezing as if it were January. In a panic I crave comfort in winter food- soups, stews, porridge and ice cream. Chestnut festivals are taking place across Tuscany, as is the chocolate festival in Perugia.

It turns that it is possible to becomes accustomed to medieval city centres, picturesque piazzas and magnificent rural settings. On the busiest day of the year Perugia is, well, extremely crowded. It’s a chocolate mayhem, and people are stocking up- dark, milk & white chocolate, bonbons, puddings, crepes and waffles, chocolate ‘shawarma’ and kebabs, chocolate salamis, churros, pasta, and I could go on. Half a banana dipped in dark chocolate, rolled in hazelnut croquante and skewed on a stick later, and I was out.

After escaping the crowds we spent the time left before the train was due in a Chinese shop by the station. My loot from the day of chocolate: two sachets of udon noodles soup, a Chinese pear and a moon cake baked in a Prato Chinese bakery (So many things are wrong with that sentence…).

The pear tasted as if it were trying to pass itself as an apple, and the moon cake had what seemed like an egg yolk in the centre. Traditionally it should be there, but the only ingredient on the list that could be it was a reference to pumpkin, so I’m going with that. Especially since the expiration date is in a couple of months…

This little salad, I thought it a salad, but it didnt seem right, having no vegetables in it, so it changed to a starter, but it would also work as a dessert (substitute olive oil, salt & pepper with a drizzle of honey and a caramelized fig), so I settled on 'bowl'. make it your own.

Gorgonzola & chestnut bowl

(Serves 2 as a starter)


250g Chestnuts

40g Gorgonzola (sweet or piquant)

Olive oil

Salt & Pepper

Cut an X into one side of the chestnuts.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and boil gently for 15-20 minutes.

The longer the nuts cook, the mealier the kernels become and tend to crumble when removed from the shells.

Peel the shells and the skin from the nuts.

Drizzle the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Crumble the Gorgonzola and add to the bowl.

Note: A glass of wine is almost compulsory.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Fall over. A quick cinnamon plum compote

It is surprising to me how quickly I have adapted to Florence. It seems forever ago that I arrived, and feels longer then one month and a week. I eat out more then I have in Parma all year combined, and whilst it may seem that gelato is a key ingredient in my daily diet I am a regular at st. Ambrogio market several times a week for the latest fall collection of fruit & veg. In true Tuscan style.
I have picked out my favorite guys; the mushroom guy that gets angry when my camera is too close to his precious molds, my favorite herbs guy that doesn’t know how to price one stalk of sage, so he gives me a regalo, my favorite fresh beans guy, who, I don’t know why he’s in my list, I’m sure he’s somehow cheating me.
There’s the cheese guy that always gives me tastings of his best cheeses and doesn’t stop until I buy something. (What can I say, sheeps’ milk ricotta is my achiles heel).
Chestnuts and chestnut cake have begun to appear in the market, besides the eggplants, zucchinis, and fresh beans. Apples and plums are making some room for early clemantines.
Gelato may be the destination, but I have paved a road of Tuscan Caponata, a technicolour assembly of sautéed zucchinis, carrots and peppers, zucchini flowers stuffed with freshly picked mushrooms, fresh cannelloni beans cooked with sage, garlic and tomatoes, fresh ricotta with cinnamon plum compote. Terribly Tuscan.
I am addicted to the plums. Rather, to cooking them. i find that substantial part of their personality is hidden and only comes to light when plums meet cinnamon and heat, be it stove top or oven baked. Their crunchy tartness shies away, and a warm, silky sweetness arises. And you’d never think it by looking at them.
Like quince. Entirely different family of fruit. Same surprise nonetheless.

Quick cinnamon plum compote

a practically non-recipe


ripe plums


Sweetener- honey, maple syrup, sugar, whatever is available

Optional: Vanilla pod, a dash of vermouth.

Cutting the plums into sizeable chunks.

Place in a pan with just a bit of water (gets the steaming going).

Add as much sweetness as you like, but not too much, you want to balance the tartness, but not to lose it.

Add cinnamon. I use plenty, but I swear by the stuff.

Cover and cook on a medium low heat for about 30 minutes.

A holiday season aroma fills the air shortly.

A spoonful on top of fresh sheep’s milk ricotta or a sliced apple, topped with a sprinkle of musli and crushed pistachios makes a stupid dessert and a dollop on my breakfast cereal gets me out of bed in the morning.

And I will always remember Florence for it.

* To know whats in season and at its best visit eat the seasons.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

In, out, upside down

Living as a student in a small village for the most part of the year meant mostly eating at home, with friends. Restaurants proved few, mediocre and pricy, while the pleasures of cooking with fellow food fanatics was pleasant, budget friendly and most importantly, educational. Now that I am in Florence I, along with leading buyers, all head down to the near by St Ambrogio market, where the latest autumn season has just arrived. Last season’s Italian prune plums, fresh beans and zucchini are exiting, making room for the first persimmons, pomegranates, and pumpkins. There is no escaping the end of summer, and counting the mosquito bites I am parading its not coming quick enough. Buying in the market is one thing, but Florence has more to offer. Kate’s weekend in Florence was, as is every weekend, dedicated to food., both cooking as well as researching the local offer of dining establishments.

There was an Oktoberfest alternative festival in one piazza selling beers, sausages, sauerkraut, knodels, pretzels, doughnuts and Sacher torte (not German, but there you go), porchetta sandwich in a hole in a wall, gelato, granita, wine bar and café, but two particular places made a lasting impression.

They had a system.

Allow me to explain.

It seems the food scene in Florence has distinctive characteristics that one can only assume are a direct response to its inhabitants’ customs, habits and preferences. The local favorite, Il Pizzaiuolo, looks from the outside like any other pizzeria. Apart for the patient hoverers outside, one would never guess it is absolutely crucial to make reservations here for any chance of a taste let alone a seat. I had learned this the hard way.

The pizza dough is worth it. We’re talking a mouthful of freshly baked yeasty dough around the edges with a thin centre that has a slightly charred bottom resembling a flat bread that is soft and soggy(as opposed to dry and crispy) from the spicy salami, mozzarella, black olives and basil juices that adorn it. This is enough to distract the most concentrated of minds, however, one look around reveals a crowded, noisy room that minutes ago was all but quiet and empty. Being one of the most popular local venues, a system had to be devised to ensure structure and order, Italian style; the place opens up at 19.30 taking 3 rounds of reservation only, at the time of opening, 21.00 and 22.30. There is no time for hanging around, so if you finished your pizza its dessert or the bill. Its pretty simple and the beauty of this system is that it is indigenous to this restaurant.

The system at Il Vegetariano proved to be the real challenge. Set in a residential street, this restaurant is a pre-planned destination as opposed to a place you stumble upon. Suppose you found the place, once you enter through the undistinguished threshold you will find yourself in a small room with 5 tables. And that’s it. No bar, no kitchen and no staff to be seen. Another door way across the room leads the way through a corridor to the back of the restaurant, which is in fact, the front of the restaurant. The entrance is the back. Hang tight, this is about to get even more complicated in an attempt to simplify things. The menu is up on the wall, and underneath it is a desk with a bearded man that takes the orders. The customers write down their orders on one of the several notepads laying, that are then chosen, in no particular order. The bearded man then copies the order to an order from, that is, if he can decipher the incoherent handwriting. The bill is added and the meal is paid for. It is now time to turn around, reach for a tray and stand in another line. The two pieces of paper- the notepad order and the copied are handed to a woman behind a counter, and she prepares the food.

Ok, so we’ve stood in line, ordered, paid and picked up the food. Now the only thing left is to find a place to sit. This is a fascinating system. In an attempt to eliminate the concept of waiting on tables, this venue pulled out all the stops. It is not a buffet or a self-service canteen, but a restaurant, and a popular one at that; a home made, nonna run veggie establishment packed floor to ceiling, with people waiting spilling to the street, and the majority of diners are men who choose not to have a Bistecca Fiorentina or a tripe stew on a Saturday night. This is what eating out is. Education.