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.

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!

 

 

Street Food and Nibbles

I’m just back from a exciting and restful trip to Mexico in which I ate my way through my vacation, spoiled by my nieces who know my penchant for being a foodie. As always I’m taken aback by the staggering variety of foods and dishes one can consume on the street, restaurant, beach or home. None of the foods resemble what “Mexican” food looks like here in the States. In fact, I’m not sure they would always appeal to the American palate. For certain, Mexicans love to eat their way through the day with dishes and snacks that seem to always evolve, yet maintain their Mexican character. Here are some of my findings!

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Ceviche

Ceviche in the Manzanillo area is an ubiquitous dish every beachgoer indulges in. It is customary for vacationers to sit under the large umbrellas and feast all day on this refreshing dish.  It is made of ground up fish such as snapper marinaded in lime. Sometimes shredded carrots and tomato are added. It is served on small tostadas with another squeeze of lime. Of course it must be followed by a cold beer, tequilita (beer and tequila), or michelada (beer and lime juice).

Sometimes the nibbles are downright strange such as chinchullines served as an appetizer at an Argentine restaurant we visited one Sunday. I don’t know if this dish is Argentine or Mexican, but nevertheless I found it quite out of the ordinary. I have to admit, it challenged my tastebuds and stomach….so I closed my eyes and took the plunge!

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Chinchullines

What you see here are fried cow intestines with the texture of hard chips. They are eaten on a small, soft corn tortilla with a drizzle of thin green or red salsa. I’m not sure it all worked together as it seemed a bit dry and odd-tasting. At the same restaurant we had mollejas, grilled slivers of meat taken from the cow’s throat (these were more appetizing and tasty) and empanadas which turned out to be delicious.

We traveled to Tonalà where the streets abound in a  dizzying array of foods and textures.

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A woman selling candy, dried fruit, and sesame seed cakes. We tried one of these; I was surprised by its wholesomeness.28327398923_c25bf71218_o

And look at the fruit stand! Check out the size of the pomegranate seeds in the cup. I love the beautiful and artful display of fruit, right on the cart. One of favorite of the day was the cart with tacos al vapor.

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These are tacos made with corn tortillas, filled with shredded pork and spices,  placed layer upon layer in a deep pot and then steamed for several hours. They were soft, tasty, and oh so good I could have had more!

More mouthwatering examples of street food. People come by and order a taco or sopes made to order topped with sauces, freshly shredded cabbage, and crumbled cheese.

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A variety of sopes, tacos, diced meats, and open-faced tortillas ready to be fried.

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Toppings and sauces

 

 

 

 

 

More strange edibles!

I had to take a photo of this one, dried grasshoppers served with a squeeze of lime on top.

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And chicharrones! Take a look at the size of these babies!

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We are used to seeing chicharrones in potato chip bags….not these! I was fascinated by their size  I’m not sure what is in the bucket…probably some chile sauce to pour over the slabs. The vendor wanted me to pay five dollars for taking this picture….joking of course.

And back at home in Guadalajara, we couldn’t miss having the tortas ahogadas  a typical dish from this area. Literally, this means a drowned sandwich and is so messy to eat.

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The reason the tortas ahogadas from Guadalajara are so special is for the bolillo bread which gives the dish its special character. The rolls are scooped out and filled with shredded pork or beef. You pour a light tomato sauce (it’s not spicy) over the tortas and top with onions. We were admonished, you eat with your hands, not knife and fork! As you eat,  you continue to spoon the sauce over the sandwich. Messy, but delicious!

Another messy sandwich in the same vein as tortas ahogadas is the lonches bañados, another delicious variation of the “wet” sandwich.

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Here you can see how my niece has laid out the sandwiches before serving. The bread is more like a baguette, a little sturdier than the bolillo. Again, the inside of the sandwich is  filled with shredded pork, but with the addition of sliced tomatoes and onions. You can add pickled jalapeños and carrots to spice it up. The sauce is creamier and thicker….and the whole effect – heavenly and terrifically sloppy.

Traveling in Jalisco, Mexico and becoming acquainted with its street food has shown me how varied the dishes and foods are in this country, how important food is to its people and how connected it is to the land and climate. In the next post I’ll write about the growing sophistication of Mexican cuisine as I saw it in the restaurants we visited.

Asparagi Fritti

Fried Breaded Asparagus from Nicla’s Kitchenimage_19206604060_o

So much of what I know about cooking I learned from my mother Nicla who is one of the most inventive and creative cooks around, whose outstanding repertoire and range continues to amaze me. Sometimes I try to reproduce her recipes without consulting her, thinking I have them imprinted correctly in my memory. Big mistake. Last spring as the first asparagus came into the market, I immediately thought of breading  and then frying them as she does. The result? The breading was unevenly coated and  burnt and the spears were raw. What was the trick I wondered. Recently I began to collaborate with her in writing recipes for a cookbook and the secret was out. She blanches the spears! I had breaded them raw, so nothing stuck. Mystery solved. I’m going to share my mother’s recipe and my test drive with you. And I invite you to try the recipe and give me feedback on how it works for you!

Ingredients

12-14 large stalks asparagus

1 cup flour

1 egg (beaten)

1 cup bread crumbs (Panko will not work well for this recipe)

canola or vegetable oil for frying

1 tablespoon salt

pepper and lemon (optional)

Directions:

  1. Prepare the asparagus stalks by snapping the bottom end. They will naturally break where the woody part ends. Wash the stalks and put them standing upright in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes. This is an important step because the stalks will maintain their crispness during the cooking process.
  2. Bring a quart of water to boil in a pot, then add 1 tablespoon of salt. This may seem like a lot of salt, but if you salt the water well, you don’t have to salt the food as much later.image_19368131506_o
  3. Cook the asparagus in the boiling salted water for no more than 2 minutes after the water returns to a boil.
  4. Plunge the asparagus stalks into a bowl of ice water for 1 minute. Then remove them with tongs and place on a clean towel to dry.image_19206645208_o

The coating:

  1. Set up a breading station by placing a towel paper with flour, then alongside it, place a bowl with a beaten egg, and finally another paper towel with bread crumbs.image_19208037009_o
  2. Flour each stalk one at a time (even two) by rolling it back and forth until coated.image_19398347151_o
  3. Dip the stalk in the egg, then coat with the crumbs. Again, rolling the stalk gently back and forth will coat it well. Place on a rack to rest. At this point you can prepare the asparagus earlier in the day to fry later, as long as the stalks were dried well before breading.

The frying:

  1. Add enough oil to the skillet to cover the stalks and heat to medium high.
  2. Drop the stalks one by one (avoid frying more than four or five at a time) and fry until golden, turning occasionally for a uniform color.
  3. Drain the stalks on paper towels, salt (and pepper) lightly as necessary to taste. A squeeze of lemon brightens the taste if you like. Keep the asparagus warm uncovered in the oven as you continue to fry the rest. Optional: sprinkle with a little squeezed lemon or make a light mayonnaise dip. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Menu Suggestions:

The fried breaded asparagus is a simple, yet luxurious complement to a main entrée along- side barbecued meats, roasts, fish, or egg dishes (such as crepes, omelettes, or soufflés). They work well as an appetizer with cocktails or as an addictive finger food at a party. I confess (Vickie speaking here)…these are amazing at room temperature the next day as leftovers, with a little cheese and wine.

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