Monday, February 15, 2010

Lunch at Jennifer's: Lesson One - Raw Artichokes

Right now I am sitting in my apartment on a mild winter afternoon enjoying one of my favorite Tuscan winter lunches of all time- a salad of raw carciofi (artichokes) and a heaping pile of white cannellini beans drenched in a delightfully fragrant olive oil a friend gave me- freshly pressed with olives from his family’s estate. (We love friends having friends like this.)

Until I moved to Florence I had never eaten an artichoke that hadn’t been steamed or boiled for at least 45 minutes so I was a little skeptical the first time I tried this salad. In fact, I was pretty sure I would be chewing for the better part of the day, but I was pleasantly surprised at how tender the artichoke slices were and it didn’t take long for me to help myself to seconds.

There are a few secrets to making a really good carciofi salad, one that even Italians will compliment you on. First, you need to find the small purple artichokes from Italy called Morello or Morellino, which a specialty shop like Whole Foods might carry. Next you have to peel off all of the tough outer leaves. Slice off the prickly tops and the stems and cut the chokes in half.

Then- this is the key part- thinly slice the chokes vertically so that a piece of the heart is on the bottom every slice holding the leaves together. Toss the slices in a bowl with some finely chopped Italian parsley, fresh lemon juice and sea salt, and serve with shavings of a nicely aged Parmesean Reggiano.

As for the cannellini beans, soak a cup or two in a big bowl of water overnight. Rinse and put in a large pot with about 2 inches of over the top of the beans. Add a few sprigs of rosemary and bring the beans to a very low boil. Then turn the heat down as low as it will go and simmer the beans until tender, probably 30-45 minutes, making sure not to allow the skins to break. I put a cover on the pot and leave a little crack for the steam to get out so they don’t stand a chance of coming to another boil.

I always like to end my lunches in wintertime with a cup of chamomile tea and a few clementines from Sicily. I picked these up this morning at the open-air martket at Piazza Sant' Ambrogio. Aren't they pretty?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sundays with Daniela

My friend Daniela and I have gotten into this really fun routine on those Sundays when I am not working at Castello di Casole… I pick her up at around 9AM and we go to our health club for a workout and a steam in the Turkish bath. Afterwards we head out, on foot or by car, to a place I have never been, and walk around for awhile until our stomachs start rumbling. Then we find a restaurant she has heard about or has personally experienced and knows we will love. We wait for just the right table, order a glass (or when we’re in a particularly festive mood a bottle) of vino, and introduce ourselves to our waiter who, over the course of the next 2-3 hours, inevitably becomes our friend. Then we open our menus like kids on Christmas morning. I always do a quick scan for fish and chicken dishes before conducting a more thorough search of the day’s selection. Though it is irksome to Daniela at times that I don’t eat red meat, she can’t eat wheat and only occasionally indulges in cheese so it sort of evens out.

A few Sundays ago we had planned to take a road trip, but that particularly morning the sky was cobalt blue and the air was pure and crisp (“sano” as Daniela calls is). Florence was bathed in a dazzling golden light and it seemed like a perfect day to be outside. So we decided to walk from my apartment through the San Niccolo neighborhood up to Piazza Michelangelo to take in the views then head back downhill into Oltrarno  (the other side of the Arno) for lunch.

I have been to Piazza Michelangelo a number of times, and each time I reach the summit and turn to face that sea of Renaissance treasures stretching out below me, it takes my breath away. A visit to the piazza is not complete without continuing up the road to the church of San Miniato which is still a functioning Dominican monastery. My favorite spot is the little chapel, built by the Medicis in honor of Jacopo of Portugal who died when he was only 26, with its plush ceiling of blue and white glazed terra cotta panels by Lucca della Robbia.

We had worked up quite an appetite by the time we descended into Oltrarno. We were hoping to get to Olio & Convivium before the lunch crowd arrived only to discover that it was closed. Luckily for us Daniela remembered an enoteca further down Via Santo Spirito called il Santino. When we opened the glass door and entered the warm, cozy room with a tiny bar and only four tables, I knew right away that this is a place I will return to many times in my life. All four tables were full so we stood at the bar and ordered a glass of vino rosso while Filippo, the “oste” as he is called here, prepared a small plate of Pecorino cheeses with a peppery jam. Next up was an order of baccala, a traditional Tuscan salt cod, in this case served as a creamy spread on slices of toasted bread drizzled with fresh olive oil.

Warming on a shelf below the bar were four steaming pots of various soups and stews. We both ordered the white root vegetable puree to start and I followed mine with a savory fish stew while Daniela opted for the polpette, tender small meatballs in a light tomato broth. Well into our second glasses of vino rosso we struck up a conversation with Filippo and a firefighter from Rome sitting next to us at the bar. Before we knew it another hour had passed and, as usual, we closed the place down.

Last Sunday Daniela told me she wanted to take me to a very “special place” in Cortona which she had been talking about for weeks. I was filled with anticipation as we drove an hour or so down the A1 through Arezzo. When we arrived in Cortona we were completely famished so, before heading to the “special place,” we went straight to Osteria del Teatro, an all-time favorite of Daniela’s tucked into a side street near the famous Teatro Signorelli. Seated at a corner table surrounded by cheerful yellow walls adorned with black and white photos of various theatre performances , we settled into a bottle of Achelo, a full-bodied Syrah from Cortona that cost a mere 12 euro.

Lunch for me was a trio of hearty Tuscan soups served in little terra cotta crock pots - pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomatoes), ribolitta (minestrone with bread) and mushroom and farro (a winter wheat-like grain), all served with more bread. Daniela ordered the Scrigno di Chianina- the famous Tuscan Chianina beef cooked in a glass jar in the oven at a very low temperature. As she savored each bite, she kept telling me, as she often does, how much I was missing by not eating red meat. “One of these days,” I assured her. “Piano, piano.” (Slowly, slowly).

Osteria del Teatro is known for its chocolate, so in preparation for dessert we went easy on the second course, ordering a medley of winter vegetables and white beans. When our waiter, Ferruccio, brought out a thick butcher block cutting board with several slabs of velvety light and dark confections, one dotted with nocciola (hazlenuts), I knew I was doomed. It took a good half-hour for us to polish off all of the mouth-watering shavings, some with hints of fruit, cinnamon, and even pepper. We were, once again, the last to leave, but before we said our goodbyes, Daniela made another lunch reservation for us on February 22nd, when Cortona honors Santa Margherita, its patron saint, with a big celebration. (I haven't told her this yet, but this time, if I get my courage up, I might just try a bite of beef or maybe even veal which seems to be the specialty of the house).

Our appetites satiated we were now ready to visit the “special place” Daniela had promised to take me to. As we wound our way down the hill from Cortona she suddenly turned right onto a long, hidden drive through fertile woods that follows the footsteps of St. Francis to Convento delle Celle, a 13th-century monastery believed to be founded by the saint in 1211.

What a gem this place is. Nicknamed “Cappuccini” after the brown robes with hoods worn by Franciscan monks who still live and worship there, the hermitage was built in a gorge carved by a stream that during the wintertime becomes a raging waterfall. After walking around the grounds, we sat and quieted our minds for awhile in the original cell of St. Francis where he made his home in 1226.

There is so much wonderfully soothing energy pulsating through this place, that had we not consumed an entire bottle of red wine and more chocolate than either one of us has eaten in the past year, we might have lingered. But it was getting dark and before heading back to Florence Daniela wanted to show me her home in the countryside near Arezzo which she owned in her 20s. As we walked away from the monastery I glanced to my right and was treated to this magical sight. It's no wonder St. Francis was drawn to this sacred place.

This coming Sunday I am trying to talk Daniela into going to Viareggio, a beach town an hour and a half by train from Florence, to see their Carnivale parade which is supposed to have the most incredible floats. If I stand any chance of success in getting her to join me I will need to find a really incredible restaurant so if you have any recommendations, please send them my way.