21 October 2008

Sagra del Tartufo

It's October again already and Emilio and I felt drawn back to the Sagra del Tartufo in the Langhe area of Piedmonte. We had enjoyed the same festival last fall in the tiny town of Mombercelli, and decided to do a little follow up "research" this year.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the sagra, allow me to introduce you to these local festivals in Italy that celebrate a rural area’s gastronomic specialty. They resemble small-town’s county fairs, but are dedicated to the area’s favorite food, and usually involve an inexpensive or free mass meal. There is the Sagra della Rana (frogs), Sagra del Porcino (porcini mushrooms), Sagra della Lumaca (snails), Sagra del Pesto, Sagra del Pane (bread), the list is endless. If Italians eat it, you can bet there’s a sagra for it, probably several.

We rolled up our typical one hour late, so only briefly bumbled about the morning market, tasting wines and chatting with various trifolau (truffle hunters) about their work and listening to their trifolau gossip:

"Ahhhh si. I see you've been talking to Giuseppe. Si si.. Giuseppe's great at getting truffles... But only when he BUYS them... Hahahhahaha!"

When the clock struck one o'clock we headed toward the community center gym... We've practically become locals after visiting the village just once before, and we felt we knew are way around. We were seated in the same room as last year, served by the same waitress who remembered the strange foreign girl who didn't eat meat (read: poor me, only eating half of the 7 courses!).

After several glasses of delicious piedmont wine, I was feeling right at home and decided to go check out the kitchen. I just had to see it. This is a 7 course, seated lunch for 460 people, all prepared and served by volunteers, no food service professionals involved. Now that I was a local, I figured
 they'd let me right in and check out the scene. And of course they did, not because I was a local but because they thought I was a big shot journalist from America and Milan. They'll be talking about this for years. I dragged Emilio with me and put him right to work tripping over the town's grannies as they slaved over the stoves, asking them to pose for various shots.

Back at the table, the menu continued:
- Salumi and toasted bread with Lardo
- Beef tartare with truffle flakes
- Roasted bell peppers in a tuna sauce
- Chick pea soup
- Veal roast with spinach
- Fried egg with truffle
- Peaches with melted chocolate
- Grappa

By the time we reached the grappa, things were getting really friendly. By now we were best friends with the waitress and I decided the only thing missing was a bit of music. Last year the local marching band (composed of 5 old men) played in our dining room, but I hadn't spotted them yet this year. I excused myself momentarily and sloshed down to the courtyard, where they happened to be passing by at that very moment. I introduced myself and was feeling even more of a celebrity when the trombone player burst out, "Hey! I remember you! Last year you were blonde."

They had been headed toward the main piazza for their next "gig," but with an ounce of pleading I dragged them to our dining room to play us one song as an end to the meal. They cheerfully piped out a jaunty Italian folk number that accompanied us all the way home.

All photos by Emi, of course.

17 October 2008

Roasted Red Pepper Chipotle Soup with Mint Crème Fraîche and Golden Cornbread

Not to toot my own horn, but I made one hell of a dinner the other night. And I have yoga to thank for it.
I was having friends over and I wanted to make something reminiscently American, though revisited. Now that I'm supposed to be some "authority" on American cuisine, folks expect to have a cross-cultural and authentic dining experience at my house. So I can't serve pasta anymore. At least for a while. 
I wanted to serve various courses... not a very American tradition, so I was shaking things up right off the bat. So I thought soup. And I thought chipotle. Chipotle is a flavor they just don't have over here in Italy, so when used in the right dosage, it's always a big hit and somewhat exotic. I needed a southwestern vehicle for my chipotle though, and the obvious answer was roasted peppers and tomatoes. 
After making the soup I felt like it needed to be dressed up and cooled down a bit. The firey flavor was delicious but needed to be balanced out. I found myself wishing for sour cream (another hard-to-find-in-Italy ingredient), but remembered I had a tub of Crème Fraîche in the fridge. Perfect. It sounds better than "sour cream" but it's basically the same thing, just fattier and a bit less tangy. So I whipped it up with some mint (what's more cooling than mint?) and had my perfect dollop. 
I wanted to make a light second course, simple but not boring. "Fish Wrapped in Romaine Leaves" a Mark Bittman recipe, totally enthralled me (check out the video here, or the recipe here). The side dish needed to be downplayed, since the fish was getting a little fancy, so some pan fried potato slices brought it all back home. 
So my meal was complete, but something was missing. It wasn't quite American enough, there was nothing THAT particular about it all. So I took a break and did some yoga, something I do when I realize I'm sweating over silly things like side dishes. I was in downward dog, taking mental note of the dust under my bed, when a clear voice from deep inside me declared...      "CORNBREAD." 
That was it, corn- the most American of vegetables. Cornbread, the most comforting of comfort foods. It married the soup in a lavish yet humble ceremony and tied the whole meal together with southern grace. Hallelujah.
For dessert, personal chocolate lava cakes with raspberries and little American flag toothpicks.
Betsy Ross would have been so proud, not to mention Barbara Bush. My God, what has become of me?

Roasted Red Pepper Chipotle Soup:
8 red bell peppers, cored and quartered
8 tomatoes, cored and cut in half
1 red onion, peeled and quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 chipotle pepper in abodo sauce (diced with seeds removed)
1 bouillon cube
1 glug of heavy cream or milk
1 avocado (in small cubes, for garnish)
For the dollop:
1 cup Crème Fraîche or sour cream
1 handful mint leaves

First, blend up the mint leaves with the Crème Fraîche, cover and refrigerate.
Arrange peppers, tomatoes (cut side up), onion and garlic in large baking trays. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast at 400°F (200°C) for about 30 minutes, or until everything looks real roasted. Transfer to a soup pot with a bouillon cube, chipotle pepper, and a little water and let simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring often. 
Blend soup with your preferred blending appliance, adding water to arrive at the desired consistency. Transfer back to soup pot and cover until ready to serve. 
Right before serving, stir in your glug of cream or milk (this helps cut the acidic flavor of the tomatoes and creates a velvety texture.) Spoon into bowls and top with the mint cream dollop, garnish with a mint leaf and small cubes of avocado if desired.
It is absolutely obligatory to serve with cornbread. 

All-Purpose Cornbread (adapted from Cook's Illustrated recipe):
1 1/2 cups (212 g) flour
1 cup (150 g) yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3/4 cup (100g) corn kernels (they recommended frozen kernels, thawed. I used canned and it was fine)
1 cup buttermilk (I used my faithful substitute, 1 cup milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice set aside for 10 minutes to thicken)
2 large eggs
1 stick (110 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Grease 8 inch square baking dish (if you have a cast iron skillet, use it! By all means!). Whisk first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl, set aside.
In a food processor, blend brown sugar, corn kernels and buttermilk. Add eggs and blend until well combined; some corn lumps will remain. 
Make well in center of dry ingredients and pour wet ingredients into well. Fold gently with rubber spatula and add melted butter. Gently and quickly fold mixture together until dry ingredients are just moistened. DO NOT OVER MIX. Mixture will remain lumpy.
Pour into prepared pan and smooth surface with spatula. Bake until deep golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in to the center comes out clean. Let cool in pan for about 10 minutes before serving.