Figs! Figs!

“There was an Old Person of Ischia,
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs,
and ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia.”
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

An English writer known for his ‘literary nonsense’, Lear’s silly limerick captures the moment of where we are today. I have had a bumper crop of figs this year and they keep coming! We keep eating them and finding ways to put them away. All I can say is ….

This Italian expression, not easily translatable in English in a literal way, sums up what enthusiasm we have for anything cool. It is with a certain sense of urgency that I post what I have been cooking with figs as it is September, fig time about to run out. My tree has been most bountiful and the figs keep coming and coming! I’m not too crazy about figs right off the tree, but I do like them when they have matured a bit on the kitchen counter. They seem to pick up in intensity of flavor and versatility. I started the season by experimenting with using figs as an hors d’oeuvre.

This photo was one of the first batches I made this summer. These look a bit of a mess, but other batches came out more bundle-like and neater because I used a full slice of prosciutto.

Barbecued Fig Bundles with Feta and Prosciutto

6-8 ripe figs (I peeled some – others I left intact)

feta (or other cheese of your liking)

8 slices of prosciutto

Make a small slit down the side of the fig and stuff with feta. Wrap the fig in a slice of prosciutto. Do the same for the remaining figs, then massage each with a little olive oil. Place on a heated grill basket and barbecue for a few minutes until the prosciutto begins to soften. Remove right away or they will stick to the grill and fall apart. Serve warm with a little drizzle of honey (optional). These bundles are delicious as a side dish to grilled meats and, I have found, delicious the next day as leftovers. I really like the different flavors – the salty from the prosciutto and feta, the sweetness of the figs. And they are so quick to make!

Another fig recipe that I have been toying with are small individual foccacce with figs such as these I made a few weeks ago.

I had seen the idea on my favorite magazine La Cucina Italiana and thought I could adapt it using ingredients readily available in my kitchen. I used the frozen Bridgford Ready-Dough as a base, thawed and worked it a bit, then cut it into mini pizza sized discs. I put it on a lightly oiled parchment paper, cut the figs as shown below. I added a little honey for sweetness, a very light drizzle of olive oil, let the focacce rise, and put them in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

They came out fragrant and delicious, perfect for an appetizer with cheese.

You can experiment with the concept as I did by tucking some blue cheese under the fig to give it a bit more kick. One of my favorite testers, Luca, my youngest son suggested that using a made-from-scratch focaccia dough might be even more flavorful and a bit crunchier. All points well taken as I will make this again and again as I have figs on the tree.

In my adventures working with figs, I tried a Fig Meringue Semifreddo as a birthday cake for my oldest son, Alex. Again I was inspired by a recipe offered by La Cucina Italiana, but I adapted all of the ingredients because I can’t find the same here.

Fig Meringue Semifreddo Cake

Individual meringues purchased (about 22 depending on size)

Frozen Pound Cake (I used the Sara Lee brand) – half of the package, cut in 1/2 inch slices

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 egg whites

1/4 cup sugar

1/4-1/2 cup grenadine

12-14 figs

  1. Take 4-5 of your more mature figs (I peeled them lightly) and mash them with a fork. Add some sugar if you like. Set aside.
  2. Whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of sugar until firm and stiff. In a separate bowl whip the heavy cream until it too has stiff peaks. I added another bit of sugar, but not too much. Then add the mashed figs by gently folding into the whipped cream with a spatula. Add the egg whites and gently fold into the mixture.
  3. Cut a round of parchment paper and place at the bottom of a springform pan. Arrange about 10-11 meringues on the bottom. Take the remaining figs, peeled and cut in half, and place them against the side of the pan.
  4. Add half of the cream/fig mixture and smooth to form the first layer of the cake. Place the pound cake slices on top of the cream layer to form another layer and drizzle the grenadine all over it.
  5. Add the rest of the cream mixture and smooth the surface. Place the remaining meringues on top. Cover with foil and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours.
  6. When you are ready to serve it, take the cake out of the freezer and let it warm a bit until it is easy to handle. Add a few more fresh figs for garnish if you like!

The cake held up well even the next day. Interesting flavors and very good! Speaking of interesting flavors, I was intrigued by Domenica Marchetti’s Brandied Fig and Chocolate Crostata from the June/July issue of Fine Cooking magazine. Oh my! I highly recommend you check it out here

A very delicious conclusion to my adventures in cooking with figs! The chocolate crust is rich and very satisfying. It combines unusually well with the brandied fig jam which has chocolate notes in it as well. I made the jam a few days before making the crostata and thought that letting it sit a bit allowed the flavors to mellow. On this note I leave you with some final thoughts about my musings and journeys with figs this September. Even though after all these trials I don’t quite feel that frisky like the Old Person from Ischia, I do want to be reminded that Romans considered figs to be the food of the gods, a hopeful and sweet sign of the bounty of nature and good times ahead.

For the Love of Cheese: Robiola

I’m starting a new series dedicated to cheese! – a great favorite of mine and my friends and family. As I write this, I just found out today that my cholesterol level is a bit too high, so I’m a bit bummed. There is no life without cheese! But I think I can manage, cutting back a bit, but enjoying it all the same.

From time to time I’ll write about a certain type of cheese, its provenance in Italy, the particular qualities it has, and of course, some recipes to consider. Some of these cheeses are a little hard to find outside of Italy, so I’ll give you some sites where  you can order online or provide you with some substitutes which work well in recipes.

I’m particularly fond of robiola and somewhat fascinated by it. As I peruse various Italian magazines and cookbooks, what is intended and used by cooks varies enormously. For most it is a soft, fresh cheese, such as Robiola Osella, with a consistency very much like a cross between a cream cheese and a chevre. Other forms of robiola such as Robiola Bosina or Robiola di Roccaverano Dop resemble a camembert with a soft interior and velvety  white rind.

The term “robiola” is derived from the Latin “rubeolus,” an adjective suggesting the “reddish” hue of the more seasoned form of the cheese. Some have also suggested the term comes from a town of Robbio in the province of Pavia in Lombardy. The term Dop means that the product is a Protected Designation of Origin, the real thing. You will will see the seal on many products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano,  from Italy.

Also known as “formaggetta,” the Robiola di Roccaverano comes from the town of the same name, Roccaverano, located in the eastern part of Piedmont, the Langhe, between Asti and Alessandria. This robiola made from cow and goat milk is produced year-round and has two forms, the fresh product which is soft and creamy and the dry seasoned one which has a hard, drier texture and rind. The dry form has a sharp flavor which grows more intense with age.

Many recipes in Italian magazines and online cooking sites call for the fresh robiola with the cream cheese texture. But this type is difficult to find, so I got into my head to try making it myself! I found a recipe through an Italian blogger https://www.laricettadimarco.com/2014/02/robiola-fatta-in-casa.html who offered a simple way to make the cheese at home. So this is what I came up with following his instructions and adapting it to US measurements.

Make-Your-Own Robiola

2 lbs. Non fat yogurt (I used the Straus brand as it is organic and free of additives). It is European style, so it is a bit runny.

1/2 tsp salt (or a large pinch)

1/2 tsp sugar (or a large pinch)

4 Tbl butter softened.

Add the salt and sugar to the yogurt and mix it well. Form a pouch with double folded cheesecloth. Gently pour the yogurt inside it . Tie the notch at the top and hang the pouch over a bowl in the refrigerator. I devised this crazy contraption like this:

Allow the cheese to sit in this way and drain for 18-24 hours. When you take it out of the cheescloth, it will look like this:

Now this is delicious as is; it will resemble and taste like a very thick yogurt. Then whip up 4-5 Tbl. softened butter and add to the cheese. Stir well and adjust the salt. It is now ready for use…to enjoy on crackers, or to make the following dish which inspired me to go down this path in the first place! I found this recipe in the May 2019 edition of Sale e Pepe and was intrigued.

Tortino di Crespelle ai Piselli Farcito Con Robiola

To make the crepes:

2 cups peas (frozen ok), cooked, drained and cooled

3/4 cup milk + 1/4  cup water

1 cup flour

3 eggs

2 tbl butter

In a food processor, use the pulse mechanism to break up the peas until they have the consistency of a paste. Then add the flour, the milk and water, the eggs, and salt. Continue to pulse until somewhat smooth; the peas will give the batter a bit of lumpiness. Allow the batter to rest for about a half hour. It will be thick, so when you begin to make the crepes, you can add a bit more milk as necessary. This recipe makes exactly 8 crepes.

To make the crepes, heat a shallow  8 inch (measure the bottom) non-stick pan at moderate temperature and lightly grease it with butter. With a soup ladle (that measures a little over a 1/4 of a cup), pour the batter onto the pan, swirl it into a light pancake coating the entire bottom of the pan. When the sides seem to brown slightly, flip the crepe. Cook briefly, then turn the crepe onto a towel paper. Prepare the other crepes in the same manner. You should end up with 8 crepes in all. Allow them to cool while you prepare the filling.

The filling

3 cups robiola  – You can use the recipe described above. Substitution:  You can try cream cheese mixed with chevre.  The Nicasio Valley brand cheese called Foggy Morning is very similar to robiola.

However, it is a bit pricey for only 6 oz. I have blended it with my homemade robiola to stretch it a bit.

Add a dash of pepper to the robiola, loosen it up a bit with milk if it seems too stiff. Place one crepe on an oven-proof plate, distribute the robiola over the crepe as if you were icing a cake, then repeat by placing another crepe on top of the other until you have used all eight. Leave the top layer free of cheese. Lightly trim the edges with a sharp knife so you can see the layers. Cover with foil and allow to rest in the fridge. Before serving, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees (I used my Breville oven) and place the tortino in the oven for 20 minutes. Decorate with some fresh basil; I also put a few slow-roasted cherry tomatoes to give it color. Cut into wedges and serve as a appetizer or light lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robiola has many uses from gracing a cheese board to being an excellent addition to crepes, cannelloni, pasta, or polenta. Try it in scrambled eggs, top a pizza, add a few dabs in a salad….drizzle with chili oil or fig confit. You won’t be disappointed with it freshness, its mild, yet tangy lightness.

What do I do with this? Romano Beans

“What do I do with this?” is a common question I hear shoppers ask when I circulate among the stalls at the Davis Farmers Market.I hear it especially when it is directed towards produce that is exotic or unfamiliar. I often ask the question myself as I eye some of the vegetables used in Asian cooking. Vendors generously offer tips and advice about prepping and cooking. Sometimes, when a question comes up regarding vegetables commonly used in Italian cooking, I like to offer my own tips and recipes. Market-goers are open to new ideas; it is so much fun to see their expressions of surprise and gratitude. So I’m starting a series in which I will focus on my findings at the market, usually about produce whose preparations are not commonly known, but come from the heart of my background growing up in Italy with a mother who is a fabulous cook.

This week I finally found Romano beans, you know – those flat, green beans with a gnarly look!
I love these beans and I wait for them all year long! This year they have taken a while to come to market. When I asked one of favorite vendors why the wait, she said the rabbits kept nibbling away at them. So much for competition! So what do you do with them?

A number of different preparations are possible, mostly simple, from a salad with red onions, cranberry beans, and vinaigrette to a minestrone. Let me show you one of my favorite ways – one preparation my mother used to make when I was a girl. It reminds me of lazy summer luncheons under the olive tree at our beachfront summer villa in Terracina.
Ingredients:

1 – 1 1/2 lbs. green beans ( you could really use any – even the asparagus beans)
1 Cup onion – or one small onion – diced
1 8 oz. can diced tomatoes or 3 fresh and peeled tomatoes
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
8 oz. pancetta or guanciale (optional)
1 7 oz. can tuna, preferably the Italian bran, drained (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Wash the beans and cut them into 1 inch pieces. In a saucepan or skillet with a one inch border, add the oil and the butter. Once it sizzles, add the onion and saute’ until tender and slightly golden. If you are choosing to put pancetta or guanciale, add it at this time and stir until fragrant. Add the beans and stir again until blended. Cook for about a minute or two, then add the tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add approximately a cup of water so that the beans remain slightly submerged as in the photo below.

Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the beans are tender. You have to add more water if the mixture looks a bit dry and the beans aren’t quite cooked through. Cook a little longer if necessary. At this point, it’s done!

But here’s the twist! Add a can of tuna (make sure you drain it!) into the mixture while it is still warm. This is the part of the dish I like so much. The tuna makes it tangy and oh so yummy!

I usually make this dish without the pancetta; I either like it with tuna or simply vegetarian. Experiment with whatever option – all are excellent! We usually serve this as a side dish or as a salad, cold on a hot summer day (my favorite). The favors blend and get better the next day or the next if there is any left! It keeps well for about a week. Serves 5-6

Fruity Salads

With the weather turned on to extreme temperatures, a cool salad with fresh ingredients seems to be the ticket. Italians are not overly fond of mixing fruit with savory notes, but here is a salad I came across as I perused some old Cucina Italiana magazines from the 1990s. Green tomatoes are a favorite in Italian kitchens. It is not uncommon to find firm green or barely turned blushed pink tomatoes in the market as their specific purpose is for “insalata.”  If you can’t find green tomatoes, substitute them with cucumber. The cantaloupe should be at the peak of its flavor to counterbalance the crunchy tartness of the tomatoes. This salad is best with ingredients from the garden or farmer’s market (if you can find green tomatoes!).

Cantaloupe and Green Tomato Salad

2-3 Green medium tomatoes (off the vine) diced (1/4-1/2 inch)

1/2 ripe cantaloupe (diced the same as the tomatoes)

3/4 lb. small shrimp

3-4 basil leaves

1/4 cup (or less) olive oil

1/2 tsp.Worcestershire

several dashes Tabasco

salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the tomatoes and the cantaloupe. Set aside. Rinse the shrimp and pat dry, roll in paper towels to remove moisture. In a blender or food processor place the basil, the olive oil, the Worcestershire, the Tabasco, and a pinch or two of salt. Emulsify at high speed until smooth. Add to the salad and let it sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the dressing to blend. Before serving, add a dash of freshly ground pepper. Serve as an unusual antipasto or a main salad for lunch or dinner.

Insalata con melone, pomodoro verde, e gamberetti – Cucina Italiana – Luglio 1999

Here is another quick idea for a refreshing summer salad using fruit. Take a very ripe nectarine and make a delicious vinaigrette with it! Mash it in a bowl just like you would an avocado.  It will look something like this:

Add a teaspoon of honey, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a teaspoon (or more to taste) of wine vinegar.Select the freshest greens (preferably mixed) and place them in a bowl with some finely shaved red onion. Delicately add the vinaigrette (I hold some back to add to individual salads later), some sliced almonds, and a little feta or goat cheese. The nectarine flavor just shines with brightness! Give it a try when you have some overripe nectarines sitting by!

Beautiful summer bounty!

 

 

Marinated Fire-Roasted Peppers

A joyful sight!
A joyful sight!

Nothing speaks more to me of summer in the kitchen than marinated roasted peppers.  With their robust and rounded shape, they look like brilliantly dressed ballerinas dancing on fire. image_19090041022_o

I usually work with three peppers of each color, but that’s not really necessary. Find sturdy peppers that will not fold or lose water that easily. Yellow peppers are the most delicate, so watch them closely. As soon as they blister, take them off the fire. Red peppers take the charring well as long as they are not too burnt. Green peppers are the toughest and usually take the longest to soften. Put them on a low fire and let them sit there until they char. Keep turning them so they are evenly blackened on all sides and ends.

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The acrid smell of charring permeates the kitchen and lets everyone know…roasted peppers are on the way. As they turn black,  I keep turning them over the fire and  I’m reminded of the early days of summer with the family watching Formula One races, boys playing in the living room, and the heat of the stove flaring up in my face. Once the peppers are mostly blackened all over, remove them one by one from the fire and place them in a brown bag (close the lid tightly) where they will continue to steam until cooled.

Martha Stewart had a great hint for peeling roasted peppers. Hold the pepper in one hand and take a paper towel in the other. Carefully brush the blistered skin off, then pull the stem gently. The inner core and seeds will come away with the stem. I split the pepper in half and gently clean the rest of the seeds and peel. Never wash the peppers under the faucet! It washes away the flavors! my aunt used to say to us young cooks. So of course, the process becomes much more laborious and tedious. I place the sections of pepper on a paper towel to drain. I stack them between layers or towel paper so they will be relatively free of moisture. When I’m ready to cut the sections, I dry them one more time. You don’t want watery peppers! I slice them into slivers about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide and place them in a 5 cup pyrex dish or other container.image_18475029023_o

With each layer, I salt lightly, then place some slivers of raw garlic and whole basil leaves here and there on the peppers. I keep doing this until all the peppers are sliced. Then I use a good quality olive oil and I fill the bowl until the peppers are covered completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. These are best after a day of resting….but usually don’t make it that far! They get better and better as they marinate. When you want to use them, take them out of the refrigerator to warm up to room temperature. After use, pack the peppers down and make sure they are covered by the oil before you store them again. Don’t throw the oil out! It’s excellent in salads or even thrown into hot spaghetti  and parmesan cheese.

Ways to use these peppers…

  • As an appetizer with crackers, assorted cheeses, and mixed olives
  • As a side dish to grilled meats such as steak, marinated chicken breasts, or pork loin
  • As a salad or in a salad with mozzarella
  • In sandwiches, of course…but try grilled panini!
  • In a pasta, especially spaghetti, with grated parmigiano and lots of black pepper.
  • In a warm potato salad with red onions
  • In a quesadilla with Monterey Jack and slivered white onions
  • Fan wide slices of the peppers on a platter, top with zest of lemon and capers, sprinkle with lemon juice
  • Drizzled over crusty bread and joined by a slice of salamiimage_18473192044_o