30 March 2012

Epic dinners with weird Italian men...

When I was 21, I spent the summer in Germany playing in a rather unprofessional opera theater.  When we weren't getting drunk before rehearsals, we were traveling all over central Europe, which was a way cooler place to spend my summer than my usual haunts at that time of northern Illinois. Several friends and I took a road trip to northern Italy one extended weekend and ended up in a kooky restaurant in Milan that looked like it had been lifted right out of a Godfather movie.  The non English-speaking proprietress of our hotel (traditional European hotel, so there were two cots, a bidet, and a huge crucifix in each room; running toilets could be found down the hall with middle-aged men lurking nearby) suggested this place, and after a short game of charades, we managed to understand what the hell she was talking about.

This was back in the mid '90s, when Italy was still using the lira for currency and the American dollar traded very favorably. I think at the time $1 was 1,000 lira, which just made everything in my wallet feel like Monopoly money.  Even though we were poor students, we ate like queens all over Europe.  So, we had been sent to what looked like a rather fancy restaurant.  There was no sign over the one subtly placed door we could find, but when we knocked and mentioned our landlady's name, they let us in.  The restaurant was mainly one sparsely decorated room with a few small tables and a few very long tables, barely lit, and adjoined itself to what looked like a massive kitchen.  At 6pm (Midwestern dinnertime!), we were the only ones in the place except for a small army of impeccably dressed waitstaff.  There were five of us, clearly American, young women, and about ten of them.  We were seated at a comically long table in the center of the room and spent the evening being fawned over, flirted with, and given free stuff.  There was no menu (the first time I ever experienced this), but we were promised that we could trust the chefs to take good care of us.

I don't remember every course of that meal exactly, but I do remember that I ate a lot of amazing food, slowly and with great fascination, and I remember the pride with which each dish was set before us.  That was the first time I had ever even considered the genius of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, the first time I was served a salad after the main course(s), the first time pasta was not the main course, and the first time I had limoncello. There were at least minimum of seven courses that night, and the meal took us over four hours to complete.  It was truly an education in northern Italian dining (and living), and it may have been the incident that really sparked my fascination with great food and local traditions.

I am preparing a (much more modest) Italian-inspired feast for friends, and while there is no way to recreate the otherworldly experience of eating in Milan with two personal waiters assigned to me, I keep thinking back to the bounty of flavors, colors, and textures I enjoyed that night; the perfectly paired, beautifully ripe local foods on each plate; and the utter joy we all experienced in spending time slowly appreciating our food and each other's company.  What could be a better way to spend an evening with friends?  I have appreciated the time it has taken me to research things like putting together a well-paired cheese platter, creating an interesting, unique salad, and figuring out what the hell I can serve with limoncello.

The menu

Cheese plate served with salad: fresh goat cheese, sliced parmigiano reggiano, smoked almonds, mixed olives, and a salad of braised radishes in orange butter over mixed greens (recipe coming soon).  

Main courses: platter of mixed roasted vegetables tossed with lime juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, capers, and crushed red pepper; homemade linguine with arrabiata sauce.

Dessert: homemade limoncello (our guests') with dark chocolate and shortbread.  (But if you wanted to get fancy, I also found a great idea in this pistachio and almond cake with orange salad.)

23 March 2012

Braised radishes with orange salad

I swiped this recipe from Emeril Lagasse, who was kind enough to share it in Food and Wine magazine.  I have made a couple of minor modifications; you will find that this recipe is flexible enough to allow you to do the same.  I also use fake bacon (Morningstar Farms Breakfast Strips) instead of the real stuff to keep the smoky, salty flavor without actually eating a dead pig.  But you could use the bacon if you want.

(I also stole this photo from Food and Wine.)

Braised Radishes with Orange Salad

(from Emeril's Sauteed Radishes in Orange Butter)

Serves 4 as a salad

6 strips bacon, cooked, drained,  and crumbled
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
pounds radishes with their greens—radishes quartered lengthwise with stems removed, greens coarsely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1/4 red onion, minced
  2 small garlic cloves, minced
  1 tablespoon sugar
  1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  4 cups loosely packed mixed greens, washed and torn into bite-size pieces
  1 small orange, peeled, segmented, and cut into bit-size pieces

In a large serving bowl, arrange the mixed greens and set aside.  

Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter in the skillet. Add the onions and garlic, and cook over moderately high heat until onion is soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the radishes, stirring a few times, until the radishes are golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the sugar and cook for 2 minutes, until dissolved. Add the orange juice and boil, stirring a few times, until the radishes are barely tender and the sauce is lightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Lower heat to medium low, stir in the radish greens, cover, and allow to wilt, about 3 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, pour radish mixture over salad greens and top with orange pieces and bacon.  

16 March 2012

Limoncello and dessert...

I love limoncello (here's a great recipe for it), but what can you possibly serve with it?  When a friend offered to bring some to dinner, it inspired this little research project, which yielded some surprising results.  Besides just about any kind of shortbread and / or dark chocolate, other citrus flavors actually work quite well...

Pistachio and Almond Cake with Orange Salad

I adapted this Italian-inspired gem from Food and Wine, which I usually adore (except for the occasional bum steer from the review side of things).  

  • For the pistachio and almond cake:
  • 1 1/3 cups unsalted shelled pistachio nuts
  • 1 1/3 cups blanched whole almonds
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 lemons
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon "00" flour, or all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • For the orange salad:
  • 3 blood oranges
  • 2 Valencia or navel oranges
  • 1/4 cup orange marmalade
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • Unsalted shelled pistachio nuts

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 300ºF. Butter a 4-by-8-inch loaf pan. Then, using a sifter or a fine-mesh strainer, dust it with flour, tapping out the excess.

In a food processor, combine the pistachios and almonds and pulse until finely ground. Set aside.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Grate the zest from the lemons directly into the bowl. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until smooth and creamy. Mix in the vanilla just until incorporated. On low speed, gradually add the nuts and mix just until incorporated. Then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition just until incorporated. Stir in the flour and salt and mix just until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Then, run a pairing knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake sides, invert the cake onto a plate, and lift off the pan. At this point, the cake can be served warm or allowed to cool completely before being sliced and reheated.

To make the orange salad, cut a slice off the top and bottom of 1 orange, stand the orange upright, and cut downward to remove the rind and pith in thick strips. Cut the orange crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices, capturing any juice. Repeat with all of the remaining oranges. Set the orange slices aside until needed.

Gently heat the marmalade in a pot over low heat for about 3 minutes, or until syrupy. Add any captured orange juice along with lemon juice to the marmalade. Remove the pot from the heat and add 1 to 2 tablespoons water to thin the marmalade to the consistency of a vinaigrette. Let cool.

To serve, preheat the oven to 400ºF, Cut the cake into generous slices and place on a baking sheet. Bake the slices, turning them over once, for about 5 minutes, or until warm and slightly toasted on both sides.
Place 4 or 5 orange slices on each plate and drizzle generously with the marmalade syrup. Place the warm pieces of cake next to the orange slices and top with a dollop of yogurt and a few pistachios. Serve immediately.

13 March 2012

Bah, Humbach

I can't believe I haven't shared this story with you yet, but there are some vague references to it in upcoming recipes, so study up!  (The unabridged version can be found in my book of essays, Driving a Rental Car in Heels ...and Other Adventures of a Traveling Musician).

Just after I graduated from college, I headed off to southern Germany for three months to participate in
an opera festival.  I never completely understood the circumstances of this festival; the singers were a
mixture of students in supporting roles and up-and-coming "stars" in the lead roles.  The orchestra, which
had been whittled down from full size to chamber, comprised students from my alma mater and a couple
others.  I auditioned on campus for some very serious German people whom I never saw again, and one
month later the letter came in the mail that I would be spending my post-graduation summer in Bavaria.  I
felt just like the ivy-leaguers of yore who did those post graduation European trips, only I'd be working it
off in my first real, paying gig!  How cool was that?  How cool, indeed...

The flight was a blur of pure agony, waiting in lines for what seemed like an eternity, a six hour
plane ride sitting next to a graduate voice student who fancied herself the supreme diva, if not in talent,
then certainly in demeanor, and a very cranky German stewardess who guarded the water and orange
juice as if it was her own personal supply for the entire of the flight.  When we arrived at the airport in
Munich, we were herded through customs in a daze, exuberantly hugged by a very tall gentleman we
would come to call our boss, and herded again into a few vans for a 90 minute drive through the Bavarian
countryside to the charming hamlet of Humbach.  I passed out soon after taking my seat between a
sweaty, morbidly obese tenor and a wiry, foul-mouthed violinist.  I came to, crammed into a kitchen with
many long, narrow tables set up picnic-style. Seriously, I don't remember how I got there.  Did someone
carry me?  I just hoped it wasn't that sweaty guy, who was already starting to give me meaningful glances
from across the room.

We were seated amidst big crusty loaves of bread, plentiful carafes of red wine, and piles of
plump gray sausages while listening to a rousing welcome from our previous airport greeter (and boss),
Marco.  I skipped the sausages and loaded up on carbs and booze (a habit I would repeat daily for the next
three months in Germany, where vegetarians are tolerated but not welcome), tried to focus my vision on a
single object (any would do) and concentrated on what sounded like directions and pertinent information.
I failed miserably at the last two tasks, but the cellist took me by the arm and filled me in while leading
me back (egad!) to the van.  And then it was on to my new summer home, a quaint little bed and breakfast
located along a picturesque pond on the edge of the Black Forrest.

We met our haus frau, whose English was horrid, but she managed to gesture toward things
enough to communicate that she would take our sheets and towels for cleaning and exchanging.  What we
didn't understand at the time was that she was telling us this would only occur once per month.  I looked
out the window to the pond.  Guests (the ones who were actually paying) lay out on the little rickety
docks with picnic baskets nearby, catching some sun in these pre-cancer paranoid days.  They all seemed
pretty old and wrinkly, and the women didn't look particularly enticing in their white two-pieces.  Come
to think of it, why were they all wearing white two-piece suits?. . .  It was their underwear.  These
grandmothers were sunbathing in their skivvies, not a care in the world.  Welcome to Germany.
At dinner we met the leading ladies and men of the two operas we would perform.  They were
definitely older and had the aura of seasoned performers, at least to my 21-year-old sensibilities.  I would
later learn that they were mostly Canadians who couldn't find work in North American companies
because the competition was too stiff, and they had singing problems or acting problems that were
hanging them up, not to mention their drinking problems.

Dinner was, of course, more grilled meats, which in Germany are rarely identifiable slabs cut
from single animals, but rather ground up bits from various animals and body parts reconstituted into
palatable shapes.  There were some mayonnaise-based salads, some over-cooked green beans, and lots of
bread and beer.  I felt like I hadn't left the Midwest, except that I couldn't understand a word anyone was
saying.  It was disconcerting when middle aged men seemed to be laughing and pointing in my general
direction, but otherwise it was really quite freeing.  I was like a child, a dazed child who relies on the
kindness of strangers and trips through the day oblivious to the complexities around her.  It was a bit
magical, especially in my jetlagged state.  The multiple steins of beer didn’t hurt the situation, either.  

Rehearsals, we learned at the end of the night, would commence in the morning (why give
directions to a bunch of drunks?  I mean, really) – so, 8am for the orchestra, 10am for the singers so as
not to strain their voices.  We would break for lunch, which we could make in the theater with the
groceries we kept there once we got to go grocery shopping, rehearse again, separately, in the afternoon,
have dinner in the theater (needed groceries again for that), and then we’d put things together at night.
We would work this way for three weeks, at which time we would then open the theater for 10
performances.  Once we began performing the show, we would have more free time; mornings off to
recover from hangovers, rehearsal in the afternoon, dinner and the show for the first week, then just
shows.  So, slave labor to start would eventually give way to some great opportunities to slip away and
enjoy the area. But first, we had to get through these three weeks.

There were drivers assigned to our various homes who would pick us up at designated times for
rehearsals, performances, and errands.  These drivers were all power-hungry idiots.  Actually, ours was
not power-hungry, just an idiot.  He was the nineteen-year-old boyfriend of my whiniest, most grating
housemate, and therefore had to obey her every whim before taking care of basic responsibilities like, oh I
don't know, taking me to rehearsal.  And because I was the only instrumentalist in my house, stranded
amongst a sea of singers, my schedule was different from everyone else in my area and often caused
much confusion.  The first morning, at 7:45am, I started to panic and began randomly calling drivers'
numbers.  I was still out here!  Was anyone coming to get me???  I shouldn't have worried.  Brett
appeared eventually--at 7:58.  Brett was not good at estimating how much time it took to get from point A
to point B, so we were, despite some very dicey moments on those narrow, winding mountain roads, five
minutes late.  When I arrived, the conductor looked at me sternly and said something severe-sounding in
German.  I had no German skills so I sheepishly apologized in English and explained that my driver was
very late picking me up.  He said, in pinched English, "Ach, don't be such a tattle-tale, vill you?  Ees OK."
Alright, then.

Rehearsal went pretty well. The problem came when we broke for lunch.  Recall that we would
be allowed to use the kitchen when we had food to prepare, but we hadn't been given the opportunity to
get groceries, the nearest full-service store being 30 minutes away.   Now we had exactly one hour before
we had to be back in our seats for the next rehearsal, and there was no food to eat.  Well, actually, the
fridge was loaded with food--some of the more enterprising singers had gone shopping before their 10am
rehearsal while we were slaving away in the pit.  But we all knew we'd be starting some kind of war if we
took their food and promised to replace it later.  So we did what any enterprising musicians would do—
we found a bottle of tequila and a bottle of red wine tucked away in the pantry and we pounded that stuff
like it was liquid gold.  Afternoon rehearsal was a bit like an out-of-body experience, but our stomachs
stopped growling.

Our little adventures were really the highlight of the gig.  Once the show began, we went to Vienna,
where we spent two days locked out of our rental car before we had managed to get out of the expensive
inner ring of the city for the night.  So, two of us checked in to the swankiest hotel I have ever laid eyes
on to this day, and the other four snuck up the stairs when no one was looking, all sharing two
complimentary toothbrushes and towels.  We had the time of our lives.  We saw naked people wandering
around the city park (we found this in Munich, too--interesting that the saggy-breasted in central Europe
are so comfortable with themselves) and had some tasty coffee.  In Venice, a vendor on the piazza gave
me a pair of lovely earrings because I reminded her of her sister, and in Milan we lived the highlife in a
time when the American dollar traded very favorably against the Italian lyre.  In Salzburg we ate our
weight in beautiful, chocolaty Mozartkugel (alright, that was just me) and enjoyed amazing free concerts
at the Mozarteum.  It slowly began to dawn on me that we were living in a rather posh little vacation area
of Bavaria and that we were actually cheap labor and entertainment for rich business people and tourists.
I was foreign labor without a work permit!

The next two months were a haze of rehearsals, performances, trips, and booze, but I do recall
that our last night in Germany was rather exciting.  The local news channel had come to broadcast clips
from the show and do some interviews with the cast in a special feature about the festival.  Of course, the
old drones down in the pit weren't asked any questions--the boob-popping singers' costumes proved far
more enticing--but I'm pretty sure half of my left ear made it on screen.  After the show, there were lavish
bouquets of flowers with cards for each of us along with mini bottles of champagne, which we
unceremoniously slammed as soon as we could figure out how to open them.  We were cheap dates after
not eating for so many hours, and only after we began stumbling around did it become apparent that the
theater had been reorganized to make room for dancing on the floor, with a lot of well-dressed, middle
aged people standing around pumping our boss, Marco's, arm.  For the next several hours (who knows
how long, really?), we young gals were introduced to the wealthy-looking men while the male leads were
cloistered over near their yuppie wives, trying to remain standing upright (there was a lot more wine and
beer available after the champagne) and refusing or accepting offers to dance or sing at the piano.  I'm not
implying that Marco was trying to pimp us out, but these people's names did appear on the programs as


I don't recall how I got home all that clearly.  I remember drinking a lot of tequila while crammed in to
my friend's guest room across the pond later that night, and I vaguely recall being rather crabby and
dehydrated the next day at the airport. I can say that I learned these things:  Tequila is very cheap in
Germany. . .  Those charming, authentic cuckoo clocks?—they’re not worth shipping home; they're made
in China. . . . .  And don't be such a tattle-tale, vill you?  Ees OK.

Not amused.

09 March 2012

Recipe for Orange-scented Asparagus Risotto

This risotto takes some shortcuts (you can do other things besides stir the rice, for instance) and lightens up with less cheese and a bit of orange for a more springlike flavor that isn't such a nuisance to make.

Orange-scented Asparagus Risotto

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon butter
½ yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups short grain white rice
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup white wine, divided
3 tablespoons orange juice
1/8 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 tablespoons dill
½ cup steamed asparagus, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 large Roma tomato diced
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; when it melts, lower to medium heat and add the onion along with a pinch of salt.  Saute until soft (about 10 minutes), then add the garlic and rice; continue cooking until the rice becomes translucent-looking, about 4 minutes.  Stir in ½ cup of the white wine, lower heat to medium-low, and cook until most of the wine is absorbed, stirring occasionally.  Then, add the broth in 1-cup increments, covering to cook and checking periodically to see when it has been absorbed.  Your rice should be mostly cooked when you are done with the broth; if it’s still rather firm, add another cup of water.  When all the broth is gone, stir in the remaining ½ cup of white wine and the orange juice, cooking until liquid is once again mostly absorbed.  At this stage, the rice should be tender and creamy; keep adding water, ½ cup at a time, if this is not the case.

When rice is cooked, stir in the cheese, orange zest, dill, asparagus, and tomato and heat through.  Season with salt and pepper and serve piping hot.

02 March 2012

Creative Mexican food in Fort Collins

A friend long ago recommended El Monte Grill to me, and after driving past the strip mall it calls home several times, I finally went in.  They're owned by the Rio Grande chain here in Northern Colorado, and while I don't fool myself into thinking the food is authentic at Rio, I do appreciate their high-quality ingredients and skill in preparing tasty food.  So why not?

El Monte is actually so good that I have thought about it occasionally since visiting.  The atmosphere is a little more hip/ less family-oriented, and the food is just a little racier than Rio's Chile Rellenos (El Monte has three different kinds!) or Enchiladas (El Monte has one with spaghetti squash and arugula!).  I joke, but I really did find the slightly offbeat combinations enticing.  One can only eat so much cheese and beans with white rice...

El Monte focuses on Oaxacan cuisine, and the entire menu sounds amazing.  So, after much consternation, we landed on two kinds of "street tacos", fish and chicken.  The fish was delicious, and remarkable grilly-tasting. The chicken was roasted in adobo sauce and came with generous portions of cilantro and crema, which was my main reason for ordering them--they did not disappoint.  Three tacos sounded stingy to me, but I was stuffed when I was done, and the rice and beans that came on the side was actually delicious.  Usually rice and beans are a throw-away, but these were seasoned so well, I could have happily eaten them alone.  That kind of attention to detail is evidenced throughout El Monte's offerings.

We made it there in time for the end of happy hour and enjoyed some lovely $5 Cubanos, which is basically a mojito made with gin instead of rum.  El Monte tried to make a thing out of their guacamoles, offering an "exotic" guac with mango, strawberry, and chives, a traditional, and a choose-your-own with a little sushi-style menu.  I had the exotic and it was interesting for a few bites, but wasn't really complex enough to keep me going.  And oddly, there is no garlic unless you ask for it.  I will admit that I am almost always bored by restaurant guacs, though, so at least El Monte was trying.

Finally, the complimentary salsas, a red and a green, were delicious, moderately spicy, and generously served.

El Monte doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's a little cocoon of foodiness in southern Fort Collins.  The atmosphere is decidedly grown-up without being snobby (our waiter practically killed himself trying to keep us happy), and the menu has just enough subtle surprises, backed by solid ingredient choices and great skill in the kitchen, to make Mexican food exciting again.  I have a long wish-list of meals I'd like to get in future trips to El Monte.