27 July 2012

Eatin' at the bar

The bars in Milan have this really excellent tradition of serving free food during happy hour, generally from 6-8pm, EVERY NIGHT of the week.  It's not guaranteed, but it is very likely that you can nurse a drink during this time and turn it into a full meal, all for the price of that one cocktail.  I like free stuff, and I like food, so I was eager to participate in this tradition.  One Sunday, I went to the Rick Steves-approved Bar Brera in the snooty art school neighborhood and got some pretty unfriendly service, but was paid in kind with a generous buffet of salads, meats, olives, cheeses, and of course, tons of white bread.  It really was a lovely spread, and for the price of a glass of Prosecco, I pigged out like a ten-year-old at Bonanza.  The deviled eggs were a sight right out of a Midwestern potluck until I bit into one--it was like a meal in two bites.  I think this is what I ate...

Eggs stuffed with tuna

Serves 4

4 hard-cooked eggs, cooled, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise
1 can tuna packed in olive oil, drained
1 oz. capers
8 olives, pitted
½ teaspoon tomato paste
Salt and black pepper to taste

In a mixing bowl, place the tuna, capers, and tomato paste.  Carefully remove the yolks from the eggs and add them to the mixture; combine thoroughly with a fork.  Add mayonnaise, salt and pepper to taste, then place equal amounts in each egg cavity.  Place one olive on top of each stuffed egg and serve.

Bar Brera in Milan

20 July 2012

More tales from Italy

A couple of weeks ago, I flew to Milan (via Reykjavik, Iceland, which might have the quirkiest airport in the Western world), where I somehow managed to get out of  Malpensa Airport and find a Metro train to my hotel, cleverly hidden on the second floor of a block-long building in a modest residential neighborhood West of the city center.  At this point, I hadn't slept or eaten (seriously, Icelandair doesn't feed you on overnight flights.  Not one peanut or pretzel from Denver to  Reykjavik)  for over 24 hours.  I flopped my stuff onto the glorified cot of my decidedly non-air conditioned little room, schlepped down the hall to the shared bathroom (water closet, or WC for short), and it was time to turn around and head to the main train station to meet my husband, who was coming in from Austria.  It was about 95 degrees and incredibly humid, and as I reached the hot mess of writhing bodies that is Milan Centrale, it struck me that I was a little hungry.  I had big plans to take my husband to the Ciao! cafeteria at Piazza Duomo for dinner, but I wanted a little something to tide me over.  There are far more high-end fashion boutiques than there are restaurants in Centrale, but I managed to find a little shop selling healthy salads and sandwiches.  I grabbed a curious-looking (and the cheapest) salad from the refrigerator comprised almost entirely of white rice and farro (we call it spelt).  It was simple and delicious, and I found farro all over northern Italy the rest of the week.  It's a staple grain used in salads and soups, and it packs an impressive nutritional punch much needed in a world full of white bread, white rice, and white pasta.  I've become a convert, and now I make the simple salad that saved me at the train station and keep some on hand for days that are too hot for cooking.  

Milanese Rice and Farro Salad

Serves 4

½ cup farro
1 cup white long grain rice
½ cup frozen peas, thawed
¼ cup frozen corn, thawed
1 medium tomato, chopped
¼ cup mixed olives, roughly chopped
Small handful fresh basil or parsley, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil for garnish

Cook the farro: soak farro overnight (if you forget to do this, just keep an eye on it as you cook--it will take a little longer and perhaps need the addition of some water over time, but it will turn out fine).  In a medium saucepan, add the farro, 1 ¼ cup water, and about a teaspoon of salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook covered until tender, 20-30 minutes.  Drain if there is any leftover water and cool.  (This step can be done a day in advance, or you can cook a big batch and store in batches in the freezer for quick use in recipes).  

Cook the rice: Bring the rice and 1 ½ cups salted water to boil.  Reduce to heat to a simmer and cook covered until tender, about 15 minutes.  Drain if necessary and cool.  This can also be done ahead and refrigerated or frozen like the farro. 

When you are ready to assemble the salad, place rice, farro, and all other ingredients in a bowl and combine thoroughly.  Season with salt and pepper, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on top, and serve cold or at room temperature.  

Milano Centrale

17 July 2012

Risotto Milanese with Seafood

Milan is known for its native dishes, osso bucco (no thanks to the bone marrow), and a risotto seasoned with saffron.  There's some charming story about how that came about and some rich dude ordered it for his daughter's wedding, blah blah blah.  Look it up if you care--I just wanted to eat some.  And I did just that, at  the charming Da Rita e Antonio near Sforza Castle.  Built into the side of the pink and white Maria Callas Theater, the inside looked like it hadn't been decorated since 1967, and all the waiters wore white dinner jackets and bow ties and hovered like servants over each table of diners.  It was a funny place, but more importantly, it was a great meal. The carbonara was extra soupy with very al dente pasta, and the seafood risotto was perfectly seasoned with generous morsels of tender shrimp, scallops, mussels, and calamari.  The homemade bread on the table came in three varieties: plain, cheese, and spicy. Loved 'em all.  The recipe below is my attempt at recreating my memorable lunch that day.

Seafood Risotto Milanese

Serves 6

  • 5 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups sliced cremini or button mushrooms
  • 1 cup chopped onion (about 1 small)
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine 
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 cup chopped seeded plum tomato (2 tomatoes)
  • 1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 pound sea scallops, cut in half horizontally
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Place 1/2 cup chicken broth and saffron threads in a small microwave-safe bowl; microwave at HIGH 1 minute. Remove from microwave; set aside.
Heat oil in a large saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onion, and garlic and saute until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
Stir in rice. Strain saffron mixture; discard threads. Stir in saffron broth and cook until almost absorbed.  Add the rest of the broth, one cup at a time, in the same fashion.  Add the white wine last, stirring constantly until absorbed.
Stir in tomato, shrimp, and scallops; cover and cook 5 minutes or until shrimp turn pink and scallops are done. Stir in parsley and butter. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Da Rita e Antonio, Milan

13 July 2012

Allow me to regale you with tales of my Italian vacation...

I'm back from Italy, where I ate my way through Milan and the Cinque Terre (and sweat through every article of clothing I had--Jesus, it's hot there in July).  I expected to be blown away by amazing new flavor combinations and fancy-schmancy preparations, but I really wasn't.  That's not to say that I didn't love the food--the ingredients were always high quality, from the fine dining experiences in Milan to the pizzerias in Riomaggiore.  And every restaurant seemed to operate on the same level of standards--I didn't have a bad meal in the bunch (try randomly eating at 10 restaurants in your state and see if you can make that claim!). I've read it a million times, and now I know it to be true: Italian cooking is about using great ingredients and cooking them simply.  In the northern towns where I stayed, seasoning was mild and minimal as well, but it was never boring.  In fact, I keep marveling over how simple these dishes were, but I loved every bite from beginning to end.

The Cinque Terre, are known for their fresh anchovies.  I have never been a big fan, but I know they're good for you (and cheap).  I was determined to try them and allow the people of Liguria to wow me.  The recipe below is my take on the most common plate of pasta with anchovies being served up and down the coast (and yes, I was finally sold).

Spaghetti alle acciughe (Spaghetti in anchovy sauce)

Serves 4

3.5 oz. anchovies
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup milk
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup chopped fresh tomato (about 2 medium tomatoes)
10.5 oz. spaghetti

In a small saucepan, bring the milk and garlic to a boil (watch carefully!), turn off heat, and cover.  Meanwhile, slice and bone the anchovies, if needed.  If they are salted, give them a quick bath in white vinegar to remove some of the salt, drain, and pat dry.

Bring heavily salted water to boil in another large saucepan and cook the spaghetti, al dente, according to package directions.  Drain and reserve once cooked.

In a medium skillet, over medium heat,  warm the olive oil and sauté the anchovies until they dissolve.  Lower to medium-low heat and add the garlic-milk combination, stirring constantly until combine.  Add the chopped tomato, stir and heat through, and then add the cooked spaghetti to the sauce.

Serve with a dry white, like pinot grigio, or table-friendly Sangiovese.

10 July 2012

Travel tips from a screw-up

Well, that may be a little strong, but my decisions were not all perfect on my recent trip to northern Italy. My plan was to fly in to Milan and spend a couple days hangin' in the city (a couple of days is fine--it's not that big of a place), then head down by train to the Cinque Terre, five little villages along the Northwest coast of the Ligurian Sea, then fly back out of Milan, staying at a hotel near Malpensa Airport up in the 'burbs.  The Pisa airport was a little more expensive, but probably would have been a better choice for a return ticket; getting back to Milan made for a tedious day (though I don't regret the hotel I booked for that night). If you are heading to either of these areas, here are my tips for you, in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style:

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II at Piazza Duomo, Milan.

Did you know that virtually nothing is air conditioned in the crowded, polluted city of Milan?  It's even hit-or-miss on the trains, both the subway and above-ground systems.  And the businesses that do have air conditioning are just barely running it, so you can sit in a restaurant for an hour and not know for sure if it's on.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't go in July like I did.  I am an idiot.

The Metro (Milan's subway system) is efficient, well-organized, and easy to navigate.  The roads are not.  Don't drive. Ever.

I think people overlook Sforza Castle in Milan in favor of Duomo, but it's really amazing.  They say you need a ticket to get in, but then they just let everyone wander through.  Go, and then eat in the neighborhood at Da Rita e Antonio.

Sforza Castle, right in the center of town in Milan.

When you purchase train tickets for a long trip and reserve specific seats, you may or may not actually get those seats.  Don't worry, you'll get some seat (you won't have to stand), but you may be in a different train car from your companion.  And If someone is sitting in your seat when you get there, double-check your ticket, then kick them out.  Train tickets are oversold, and people without reserved seats will try their luck at finding a free one.  Make them stand.  You paid more.

The high- and medium-speed trains run on time, are comfortable, and get you to your destination quickly (by American standards).  The Regional trains (the slow ones) leave whenever they want, often publish schedules with the wrong tracks listed so that you have to run like hell to get to the right track when it comes in, and take a pretty long time.  Oh, and they're less likely to be air conditioned.  They're still worth taking, but don't try to keep a tight schedule while using them.

Malpensa airport (the largest in Milan) is more interested in providing high-end shopping opportunities than getting you to your next destination.  Drink heavily at the airport bars.

The groggy, jetlagged view from
bed at Gambara.

For a scrappy, 1-star hotel near a Metro stop in Milan, I was perfectly happy with the neglected (in online reviews) Hotel Gambara.  It is very simple and cheap, but it's clean and the service is helpful.  Be wary of their claim that they offer "concierge services" from their "multilingual staff", however.  Mostly it was old dudes shrugging their shoulders when I asked, "parla Inglese?"

For a funky hotel with excellent service (and hard core air conditioning) near the airport, go to Cardano Hotel Malpensa.  The free airport shuttle is very fast, the free breakfast buffet is actually amazing, and you'll feel like you're on the set of a James Bond movie circa 1965.

There is no such thing as a Cinque Terre town that isn't touristy, no matter what Rick Steves says.  Be prepared for stupid shops filled with sandals and ugly jewelry in every single one of them.  However, it's clearly worth the trip:

Restaurants are pretty equal in quality no matter how much (or little) you spend.  Pizzerias and cafeterias are cheaper than upscale restaurants and make great food with fresh ingredients. Try everything.  It's not like eating at Popeye's.

When choosing your international flight, the price is most important.  But food is pretty important when you're held captive for 8 hours in a big metal tube in the sky, too.  Icelandair doesn't serve any food (they'll sell it, though).  Scandinavian Air, however, serves a big meal and a small one while heading across the ocean, and you can help yourself to the beverage cart whenever you want.

The shops at the airport in Copenhagen accept American dollars and Euros (paper money only, no coins), but they actually operate on the Danish Kroner.  What's that about?  I thought they had to use Euros.  At any rate, be prepared to fumble around a little and get your change in useless Kroners.  They do have cool holes in the coins, though...

06 July 2012

A blender and tequila can fix anything.

I suck at buying melons.  I know this about myself, but when I recently offered to bring a watermelon and feta salad to a get-together, I threw caution to the wind and picked out what I thought would be edible at the local natural foods store.  Apparently all that thumping, sniffing, and turning in my hands was ineffective, because when I cut into the damn thing, it tasted like almost nothing and had the consistency of felt in my mouth.  The salad was definitely not happening. 

But I hate to waste food, and I still liked the thought of having watermelon on a hot, stinky day.  I sprinkled some sugar on it and it tasted a bit more like watermelon.  I sprinkled some lime juice on it and it was better yet.  And then a drink was born...

Watermelon Mojitos

Makes 4 drink

[You could be a purist and stick with mint and rum, but I like this variation very much.]

1/2 of one small watermelon, remove from rind and cut into chunks
juice of 1 lime
4 tablespoons sugar
generous handful of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup tequila

Combine all ingredients in blend and liquify.  Pour it into a glass and drink it.

03 July 2012

American food and stuff

I am currently in Italy, doing not much of anything to celebrate this patriotic holiday (though it is also my birthday, which I will celebrate with local red wine and seafood).  I'll tell you all about it when I get back, but if you're at a loss for what to eat or drink at your hot, sweaty family picnic, might I suggest...

All-American Whiskey Cocktails

Independence Day Menu:

Country-style BBQ ribs
Macaroni Salad
Citrus-jalapeno Coleslaw
Rhubarb Pie

Happy feasting!