Reflections

Well, we are back. After two and a half weeks roaming France and Italy, we returned with tired feet, dazzled eyes, full minds, and happy stomachs. And since there’s no way, since our flight landed on Friday and we’ve barely unpacked yet (though I’ve made a pretty good start catching up on the TV I’ve recorded – the Colosseum out of gingerbread? Did you see it? I WAS IN THE REAL ONE A WEEK AGO! – ahem), that I’m going to have a recipe for you today, I thought instead I’d share a few food-based reflections and revelations from our trip.

In no particular order:

Prosciutto and butter sandwiches are really, really good. Especially when they are on fresh, high-quality bread. I know, prosciutto is already fatty. But that fat, combined with the saltiness of the meat and the sweet, creamy butter, is perfection. I thought briefly about the merits of adding something fresh, like arugula or sliced cucumber, but it wouldn’t be right to tangle with perfection. If you must, have a side salad instead.

French and Italian croissants are quite different. Both are delicious and rich and buttery, but they are clearly distinct. French croissants are devastatingly flaky and crisp on the outside, with delicate, soft-but-separate layers inside. Sometimes they contain chocolate, but those are a different shape – the classic crescent croissant wrap is just for the plain and original. Italian croissants, on the other hand, often have fillings. Apricot is pretty common, and I had one with pistachio cream inside that I’m still thinking about. The lurid green oozing out was a bit of a shock at first, but it was a stellar flavor. To that end, Italian croissants tend to run a bit sweeter than their French counterparts, and they are breadier inside – more like brioche or challah. The layers are still there, but they aren’t as distinct. Sometimes the exterior is swept with a sweet glaze, which renders a less shattering bite.

Rosé is just the best. I already knew this, but when you can sit down at any French café, say “rosé, s’il vous plait,” and wind up with a moderate-to-great glass of wine, often for less than 5 euros, it gets even greater.

Though my go-to remains rosé, my new favorite summer cocktail is an Aperol spritz. Everywhere we went in Italy, from lunchtime on I saw people sipping on large, bright, almost salmon-colored cocktails with half-slices of orange sunk inside. I finally figured out this was an Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol, an herb-infused Italian aperitif, prosecco, and soda water. Sometimes the spritz is made with Campari instead, which is a bit more bitter than Aperol. It’s intensely refreshing, not terribly alcoholic, and pairs well with every savory snack I can think of.

This is really N.’s revelation more than mine, but tarte aux citron is an amazing dessert. More specifically, the tarte aux citron with passionfruit sorbet and lemon gel he allowed me to share at a bistro in Arles is an amazing dessert. I read about this spot, a more affordable kind of sister to the playground restaurant of one of France’s very well known chefs. Since we were staying in Arles, I knew I wanted that to be our splurge dinner, and when the chef himself very kindly talked the seating manager into giving us a table (what? Get a reservation? It didn’t even occur to us), we were in for a lovely dining experience. N. concluded his meal with this tarte, which arrived as a wide slice of lemon curd and piped, perfectly toasted meringue atop a crumbly just-sweet crust, accompanied by a perfect quenelle of intensely flavored sorbet and mouth-puckering dots of lemon gel. I’m now charged with recreating at least the pastry portion. More on that as developments arise, I suspect…

In summertime in Italy, “grilled vegetables” on anything, from sandwich to pasta, means you are going to get zucchini and eggplant.

Italian food is just really… simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just good, fresh ingredients, cooked well, and that’s that. With a few exceptions for aesthetic appeal, there isn’t a tremendous amount of manipulation to the ingredients, and at least in what we wound up ordering, there aren’t that many of them in any one dish. This results in pure flavors: you can taste almost everything the cook used.

Polpo. Or poulpe, depending on which country you’re in. This is my new favorite seafood. It might be my new favorite food. I’ve eaten octopus before – in fact, it’s one of the foods that made me realize even as a child that I was not a picky eater. But I haven’t had it very often, and where it is served in the U.S. it tends to be out of our typical restaurant price range. It’s a difficult protein to cook, since it can take on the texture of rubber bands if it isn’t cooked correctly. We were fortunate enough to have octopus cooked perfectly in two meals. Once was at that French bistro I mentioned above, when lovely chunks of the stuff were included in my squid ink pasta. The other, and the one that really converted me, was an appetizer we shared on our last night in Venice. The menu description was so spare we didn’t know what to expect: “octopus, potato, tomato, onion.” What we got was a gorgeous plate of food including potato puree well doctored with lemon, fresh, bright tomato sauce, just-burst cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled slips of onion, and two perfect, tender, meaty fingers of octopus that, to me, were reminiscent of nothing more than roast chicken. And I mean that in a good way. So now I’m determined to learn how to cook octopus. Perhaps not for an exact restaurant recreation, but because this heretofore underappreciated meat needs to cross our table much, much more often.

 

Photos!

No new post today, I’m afraid; grading and home owner duties took over my weekend. But I did manage to do a little photo editing, so what I can offer is an update to last week’s waffles: now with images! Here’s one to whet your appetite. Scroll on down and have a look-see at the rest, if you’re into it.

Unintentional upside down cake

Well, I had a lovely post for you to get me back into the swing of things. I’d written up a recipe, cleverly combining memories of an exceptional coffeecake from the cafe at the Getty Villa with my current coffee obsession (a “dirty chai,” if you’re wondering). I dutifully whisked the batter, I drizzled a mocha swirl filling, I baked, and then…

While extricating it from the bundt pan, I dropped it. Upside down. Onto my laptop.

2016 Food Blog May-0676Luckily the laptop is fine; I had the presence of mind to move it before I reached for my camera. And though the cake itself tastes great, there was a structural issue in addition to my own clumsiness that makes it not ready to share with you yet.

What’s that line from The Great Gatsby? “And so we beat on, boats against the current,  borne back ceaselessly into a time before we dropped a cake on the table like an idiot”?

I’ll check in with you next week, friends, if I can keep my food right side up.

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Breadcrumbs

2016 Food Blog March-0614My warmest memory of risotto – and the one that probably says the most about me as a person and as the graduate student that I was – is one wintery evening in Oregon, when I was making risotto while preparing for class. This seems counterintuitive, I know. It is. One cannot truly invest in either the stirring required for risotto or the note-jotting, powerpoint slideshow constructing, or annotating usually needed for quality lesson prep. One can, however, position one’s hand just so to hold up and keep open a paperback book in one hand, while leaving the other hand free for a wooden spoon.

2016 Food Blog March-05952016 Food Blog March-0597The house was cold that night, and I was frantically reading Beowulf in preparation for a lecture the next day in a class for which I was a teaching assistant. Stir, read. Stir, read. Slow, random swipes through the pan, as I drowned myself in Beowulf’s deeds. I probably didn’t get much out of that reading session, but the combination is stuck: warm, creamy rice, and poor Beo fighting against demons of darkness, and of his own overweening.

2016 Food Blog March-06002016 Food Blog March-0602I’ve complained about risotto before, and it’s true that I often find it underwhelming. But when you combine its warm, melting heartiness against the brightness of spring vegetables, and when you declare that decadence befits a spring break that finally arrived – so you give yourself a week off from blogging because SPRING BREAK, people! – and then you layer on a poached egg and a shower of crispy crumbs shot through with garlic and lemon zest, you have a risotto that I’ll put down my book for.

2016 Food Blog March-0611This one features leeks – my favorite, and sadly so underrated, member of the onion family – as well as slim fingers of asparagus, barely wilted spinach leaves, and a rubble of peas stirred in at the last minute. There’s a generous shower of parmesan cheese at the end, and the egg yolk, still oozy but just thickened, forms its own rich, golden sauce for the risotto when you slide your fork down through it. Risotto isn’t difficult, but it is a bit co-dependent: it requires your presence in the kitchen throughout the process. Still, though, if you are organized and get all of your vegetables prepared while the broth is heating, you can have the whole thing done in less than an hour. What’s that? Two entries in a row with reasonable time spans? Happy spring, my friends.

2016 Food Blog March-0615

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Crumbs
Serves 6-8
30-45 minutes
6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large leeks, sliced into thin ribbons as described below
4 finely minced garlic cloves, divided
2 cups short or medium grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, black or white
2 1-2 inch sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound slender asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off, spears cut into two inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas
4 ounces baby spinach
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
6-8 eggs (as many as people you are serving)
1 teaspoon white vinegar, for poaching
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
zest from one lemon
salt to taste

 

  • In a medium pot, heat the broth while you prep the vegetables – by the time you are ready to add it to the risotto, it should be just below a simmer.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-low heat.
  • Cut off the root end and the dark green leaves of the leek. Slice the remaining log lengthwise, leaving two long rounded planks. Run these planks under running water, flipping through the layers with your thumbs, to release dirt. Then cut each plank in half lengthwise again, and slice horizontally across into thin ribbons.
  • Add the leeks and half of the finely minced garlic (so, the equivalent of 2 cloves) to the butter and olive oil in the skillet, and turn the heat up to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very tender but have not browned much, 5-10 minutes. To keep them from caramelizing, you may need to turn the heat down a bit.
  • When the leeks are translucent and quite tender, turn the heat up to medium-high and add the rice. Stir constantly for 2-3 minutes until the rice grains have become opaque and smell toasty. Pour in the white wine and continue to stir constantly until it is almost all absorbed.
  • Once the wine is almost completely absorbed by the rice, add about a cup of the heated broth, the salt, the pepper, and the thyme sprigs, and stir to combine. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the broth has been absorbed. The more you stir at this stage, the creamier the risotto will be, as what you’re doing is releasing starch from the rice grains into the liquid, which thickens and enriches the mixture.
  • As each cup of hot broth is absorbed into the rice mixture, add another, stirring frequently while it absorbs. Each addition will take a little longer to integrate.
  • In between stirring and adding, poach the eggs and make the breadcrumbs. For the eggs, heat water in a small pot until barely simmering. Add the 1 teaspoon white vinegar, then use a spoon to stir the water in the pot in a circle to create a tiny vortex. Quickly and carefully crack the egg into the vortex (or you can crack the egg into a small dish first, and pour/dump it into the pot), and use your spoon to encourage the swirling whites to cling to the central yolk as it spins in the water. After about two minutes in the barely simmering water, use a spoon or a rubber spatula to gently detach the egg from the bottom of the pot, if it is stuck. After about three minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the egg carefully to a bowl of warm (not hot!) water, and let it sit until you are ready to serve. Repeat for all eggs.
  • To make the breadcrumbs, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Toast over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, or until the panko is crisp and golden brown. Quickly add the remaining minced garlic and the lemon zest, and stir assertively to combine – these new wet ingredients may clump up together. Cook for about 30 seconds with the garlic and lemon zest incorporated, then remove from the heat, salt to taste, and set aside until you are ready to serve.
  • As soon as you add the final dose of broth, add the asparagus pieces and stir well. When the broth is almost completely absorbed, add the peas, the spinach leaves, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the 1 cup of parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate, and cook just until the peas are warmed through and the spinach has wilted but is still bright green.
  • To serve, spoon a mound of risotto into the center of a shallow bowl. Carefully set the poached egg on top, then sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of the breadcrumbs and serve immediately.