Bringing Villa Rosa dei Venti home – Part 1

While in Italy last May I took a cooking class in a small Tuscan town called Creti. It was a beautiful sunny day spent cooking, eating and drinking with the Micheli family on their property, Villa Rosa dei Venti. At the end of the evening I picked up a copy of their family cookbook “Cooking Secrets of a Tuscan Family”. Full of great recipes, it celebrates the Micheli family history as well as the food they grow and prepare. Over the next few posts I plan to revisit my time spent with the Micheli’s by cooking some of my favourites from their book.

“Rosa dei Venti” Sauce
We cook a lot of Italian food here at SixTop Industries. Specifically pasta sauces because they’re quick and so good. Most are really basic but some get more involved. The nice thing about pasta sauces is that once you get the fundamentals down you can improvise. Each additional ingredient adds another level of texture and flavour.

The Micheli’s “house” sauce was unusual for me because it goes beyond the usual procedure of cooking vegetables, meat and tomatoes. Read on:

Ingredients. Normally I only use ground pork or sausage when making a meat sauce. This recipe has those but also some really cool extras. Begin with sautéing chicken and rabbit livers, crushed garlic cloves and fresh thyme sprigs in olive oil. Once nicely browned, finely chop the livers and add them in with the other meats. Those being ground pork, veal and Tuscan sausage meat.

Substitutions. Seeing as I don’t live in the most Italian part of the world, and Tuscan sausages are rare, I substituted “spicy italian” jobs from a local butcher. And not having rabbit livers on hand I just doubled the chicken livers. Doesn’t everyone have a big bag of those in the freezer?

Keeping it local. Yes we remain committed to keeping it close to home where we can. So obvious items aside like the olive oil, s/p and cheese, this was a very local sauce. We bought the carrots, onion and garlic at the Halifax Seaport Market from various stands. The ground pork came from the Canning Village Meat Market. The veal and sausages were labelled “Nova Scotia” from Pete’s and the chicken livers came from chickens at Windy View. I just realized two non-local items, the celery was grocery store and the jarred tomatoes also from Pete’s. So I give us a B+. It’s a list as mixed as the locations and people involved. An Italian family’s recipe cooked in Nova Scotia by a Alberta girl and Montreal boy.

Tomaotoes. Ornella (Mama) Micheli and daughter Barbara taught us a specific approach to adding the tomatoes. To start, use bottled tomatoes, not canned. When everything is browned, instead of just dumping in the whole bottle, you do something different. Without disturbing the meat and vegetables too much, create wells and pour in about half a cup of tomatoes into each. Do this in about seven or eight spots. Mama declared this procedure extremely critical! Only after some time of undisturbed cooking do you gently start to mix everything together and empty the bottle. I asked if less agitation makes the meat more tender. Yes, it does.

The eating. After a good hour of slow and low cooking the sauce turns a deep red and tastes smooth and mellow, yet strong. The liver bits melt slightly and add that familiar taste. When completed, sauce the pasta (not too much!), crack on some pepper and grated Grana Podano. With a final hit of extra virgin olive oil you’ll have yourself a meal. We ate ours with chilled Fontella Orvieto Classico.

Try this pasta sauce! It’s a nice change from the usual and doesn’t require tons of work. Now kick back, tuck in and stay tuned for Part 2…

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Local diets begone!

As of November 1st Terra’s all Nova Scotia diet finally came to an end. We decided to celebrate by inviting the gang over for a multi-course, all night Italian feast like no other we’ve hosted. As luck would have it, the selected night also coincided with a visit from our dear friend Adriana Palanca. What a way to welcome back food.

On the big day we had a ton to do. Shopping at the market, booze, dishes and glasses to pick up, lunch and finally a full afternoon in the kitchen. Bliss! Once home Terra made a fresh batch of her expert apple sauce and jarred it up for take-home gifts. In the kitchen Adriana and I made pasta and tomato sauce. With that done there were vegetables to prep, the antipasto platter to build and two chickens to tie-up. I knew the night of food would go late so the invite was for 5pm. I was only setting the table as NickPick and Doug showed.

We kept the food coming steadily trying to leave enough time between courses for wine refills, burps and the hope of digestion. By evening’s end we ate five courses, two less than I would have liked, but for 10 people we did some damage. The true sign of a successful dinner party here is when Doug says he’s so full he’s getting angry. Which he did, and always as he plates more. What a guy. The others were no slouches either. But those who went for more lasagna gasped a bit when I showed off the two chickens and vegetables about to be roasted. They thought the lasagna was the meal. Bwahaha!

The menu:

  • Cannelloni beans and onions marinated in olive oil and wine vinegar on bread
  • Olives and pickled mushrooms
  • Prosciutto and various salumi
  • Pecorino with aged balsamic
  • Olives Ascolane (Fried stuffed olives)
  • Lasagna
  • Roast chickens with sautéed carrots and roast beets with garlic
  • Chad’s homemade pistachio ice cream (killer)

It all went down with help from insults, jokes, Italian beers, champagne, 10 bottles of wine and finally limoncello.

No one would disagree the culinary stars of the night were the stuffed olives and lasagna. Both Palanca inspired and made possible with her awesome help. We even put in a long distance call to Mama in NDG for live tips!

Adriana calls Olives Ascolane “little prayers” and here’s why. Originally from Ascoli Piceno, the recipe calls for each olive to be carefully opened to remove the pit and stuffed with incredibly fine, sautéed ground beef and olive meat. The olive is then reshaped,
rolled in fine bread crumbs and fried. No we didn’t make them! That would be insane. Fourtunetly I happen to have a source that keeps me well stocked. Serve them hot with a lemon wedge to complete the miracle.

The lasagna though, was entirely homemade. We made a seven egg and olive oil pasta
that was light and airy like linen. The thin sheets dried in the dining room for an hour before a quick boil. Together with the tomato sauce, we had 12 gorgeously thin layers, bubbling with cheese after an hour or so in the oven.

By 11pm the chickens hit the table. It had been about an hour break since the last course and with all the wine going around we were ready to eat again. I seem to recall Chad and Shawn saying they were actually hungry. Nice! The closers were bowls of smooth, cool ice cream, made by Chad, which completely hit the spot. A fine ending.

This was easily our best dinner party yet. We celebrated Terra’s will power to eat local for a month and welcomed back to the table what she missed the most; olive oil, salt, pepper, citrus and pasta. Thankfully we had friends on hand willing to endure over seven hours of eating and who still asked for seconds.


Lessons from an all-local diet

My month-long experiment of eating local is over. It was a long month, and one I don’t plan on replicating any time soon. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the many trips to the market, the meal planning and the research. It’s just that there were so many trips to the market, and so much meal planning and research. It really is easier to shut down your brain and grab the closest food-like product.

But I learned a lot from this experiment. I ate my way through Nova Scotia, so to speak, and had some amazing meals and conversations about food. I even lost 11 pounds. Now I’m ready to share these lessons with anyone prepared to embark on a similar adventure.

Define “local”: It’s funny how one five-letter word can mean so much to so many people. I started off thinking I’d eat only foods that were grown or produced in Nova Scotia. Basically, this meant ignoring anything that came in a wrapper. But why deny myself organic cheese from Pictou County or dried cranberries from Lunenburg? The cranberries are local, even though they are lightly coated in oil and sugar — two ingredients not produced in the province. It’s the same issue with wine. Why not drink something when the main ingredient is truly local? I could have saved myself a week of grief if I had defined the term at the start. In the end I accepted that I was on a 95-98% local diet.

Read the fine print: Vendors like to throw the L word around. I had more than one seller tell me something was local even when the main ingredient clearly wasn’t. It’s also easy to be taken in by misleading advertising. For example, Acadiana Soy Products tofu is made here but the soybeans are from P.E.I. The flax in Omega Crunch is from Manitoba and the maple syrup is a mix from here and Ontario. Read the ingredients list. Scour websites. Question vendors. This is important once you define what local means to you.

Plan ahead: There is no such thing as spontaneity with an all-Nova Scotia diet. You have to plan your meals a day or two ahead. If not, prepare to go hungry or eat eggs for every meal. I scanned websites for Nova Scotia ingredients and came up with a list of meals based around them. I took that list with me every time I went to the market, which turned out to be a couple of times a week. I knew every morning what I would be having for dinner that night. Planning meant having enough variety in my meals to keep it interesting and healthy. And the big question of “What will I eat tonight?” became “How do I get leftovers from that?” You can make it even easier on yourself and plan months ahead. Store that precious bag of local flour. Collect your fats. They will come in handy.

Learn to cook: Remember that long list of meals you drew up? Well, someone needs to prepare them. If you’re a great cook with a creative bent you won’t have a problem. But if you’re like me, go find your Home Ec. book from junior high. I looked up the correct way to boil an egg since I was eating so many of them. (Don’t laugh — I guarantee my eggs are better than yours) I flipped through a number of cookbooks to find recipes I could adapt and looked for substitutes for all the ingredients I was missing. I found a simple recipe for shepherd’s pie on the Kraft website of all places, and it turned out surprisingly well, though it needed salt. Tom even came up with his own Shake n’ Bake recipe for me using finely chopped rosemary, thyme and hot peppers with seeds. That’s one trick that’ll get a lot of play in the kitchen.

Enjoy the solitude: I hope you like your own company because you’re gonna spend a lot of time at home, specifically in your kitchen. Now, I love dining out with friends. But you can’t eat out in restaurants if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. Other than that one time at Obladee, I stayed home every night and cooked. No restaurants or bars meant no friends. There was one dinner party where I served spaghetti squash, but that meal was less than spectacular. Truth be told I was reluctant to host more dinner parties because I felt it was unfair to subject others to my diet. Also, I was pretty focused on meal-planning and preparation. Keeping one person well fed and healthy is tough enough.

Accept you’re on a diet: It took me a while to figure out I was basically on an elimination diet. I only found flour that final weekend, so I didn’t have any bread or pasta during the month. Snacks consisted of vegetables and fruit. Every time I stared at my empty coffee mug I’d pound back the water. I didn’t plan it, but I lost 11 pounds.

All in all, it was an experiment worth trying. Maybe next summer I’ll give it another go. I’ll make sure my BBQ works then.


Chicken with the ham and onion stuffing

The eat local menu continues! Terra has one week left and we’re already planning how we’re going to celebrate. We have an epic Italian blow-out planned for that first weekend with special guests. More on that later.

For now I thought I’d offer up another successful, purely local meal we created this month. The recipe is for chicken breasts stuffed with sautéed onions, ham and cheese. Yet another SixTop take on Chicken Cordon Bleu.

Remember gang, while it’s constantly been a challenge for me to cook without salt, pepper and my much missed olive oil, you can still season your version how you want. And serve with whatever side you wish too! We had steamed cauliflower.

Chicken with the ham and onion stuffing

  • 2 – Large chicken breasts
  • 3 – Onions (sliced)
  • 2 – Garlic cloves (mined)
  • 1 – Hot chili pepper (mined with seeds)
  • 4 – Pieces of smoked ham (1/4″ inch square and 3″ long)
  • 4 – Pieces of cheese (1/4″ inch square and 3″ long)
  • 1/4 cup – white wine
  • 3 tbsp – Butter
  • Plastic wrap and kitchen mallet
  • Butcher’s twine or toothpicks
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. In a small sauce pan melt 1 tbsp of butter over medium heat.
  3. Once butter has stopped bubbling add the onions, chili and garlic.
  4. Sweat the onions et al. After about five minutes add the wine and cover. Let cook until onions get much deeper in colour.
  5. With a nice sharp knife butterfly the chicken breasts. Put the plastic over the breasts and pound them out with the mallet to about 1/4″ thick.
  6. But the ham and cheese into the 1/4″ inch square and 3″ long pieces.
  7. Heat up a large frying pan to medium, medium low. Not too hot!
  8. When the onion mixture is ready, spoon half onto each flattened breast.
  9. Place the ham and cheese in the onion mixture. Keep about an inch inside of both sides of the breasts.
  10. Roll up the breasts, tucking in the side edges. Tie them up or use toothpicks to hold them together.
  11. Melt the last two tablespoons of butter. When the sizzle has stopped add the stuffed breasts.
  12. Cook on all sides until you get a nice brown colour all over.
  13. Once ready put the whole pan in the oven and let the breasts continue to 175°. Use an instant read thermometer.
  14. When they’re ready take the breasts out and let them rest.

Normally for this kind of dish you would season the breasts with salt and pepper before and after stuffing. Then the next usual steps would be to roll them in flour, followed by an egg bath and finally dipping them into Panko or bread crumbs. I skipped the crust part altogether (cuz I had to) and worked around the seasoning by adding the chili to compensate for pepper. The onions and garlic we’re the salt. These stuffed breasts were not low on taste.

Go the traditional if you like, but as we are learning, there are many ways to get over salt. Seven days from now, we’re going to need high blood pressure pills.


Misery loves roast portobello with fried eggs

Terra’s long-suffering sentence of only eating 100% from Nova Scotia has been affecting us both. Now at the halfway mark, we are getting used to the restrictions. Some obstacles persist, limiting us in different ways.

I’m faced with a greater cooking challenge than normal. First off, everything has to pass the “Is it local?” test. Which isn’t really a biggie anymore. With two weeks in we have our sources and plan better for meals. The thing I can’t change is I have to continually figure out how to avoid olive oil, salt & pepper and citrus. All of which I normally rely on to enhance what I cook.

Of course, Terra is carrying the heavier sack of rocks. Take this weekend. She was miserable. Sitting there on the couch counting the days left. Depressed and hungry with her eyes shut tight, she was probably dreaming of November 1st and the sweet, tasty freedom to come. A nice meal out, bread and pasta, olive oil or awesome chips with a movie. Not that she ate those things often before but now the option to have them is missing too. I feel for her.

Truthfully our meals so far this month have been pretty damn good. Our thanksgiving dinner, the roasted chicken and fish dishes are only some of the great things we’ve conjured up that turned out well. This post is about last night’s creation; roasted portobello mushroom caps topped with mushroom duxelle, aubergine and tomato sauce with fried eggs. The only sin was the four tablespoons of butter. The fried eggs were a last-minute addition and I thought they made the meal something more special. We washed everything down with more Jost L’Acadie chardonnay, a surprisingly good Nova Scotia wine we’ve taken a shine to. Here’s what to do:

Roast portobello with fried eggs

  • 2 – Large portobello mushrooms
  • 4 – Button mushrooms (chopped)
  • 1 – Onion (chopped)
  • 2 – Garlic cloves (minced)
  • 1 – Small aubergine (chopped)
  • 3/4 cup – Tomato sauce. I used my usual recipe but omitted all the no nos.
  • 4 – Springs of thyme (stems removed)
  • 1/4 cup – Cheese (grated) We used a local cheddar.
  • 4 tbsp – Butter
  • Salt and pepper for you hipsters not on wacky diet like this.
  1. Set oven to 375°
  2. Cut off the stems from the portobellos.
  3. Chop button mushrooms, onion and aubergine and portobello stems into small 1/4 dice. Heat up a frying pan to medium high.
  4. Melt one tablespoon of butter and evenly drizzle it on the underside of the portobello caps. Put mushroom on a wire rack in a tray and into the oven.
  5. Put the other two tablespoons of butter in the pan, melt and the pour in all the copped vegetables. Cook until browned. After a few minutes add the thyme.
  6. Once the vegetable have cooked pour in the tomato sauce. Cook it down so it’s reduced and not runny. When done pour it all into a waiting bowl or something.
  7. Heat up another pan for the eggs.
  8. Turn the oven off and take the caps out. Spoon a good portion of the vegetable sauce mix on top of the caps.
  9. Put the last tablespoon of butter in the pan, crack the eggs in and fry ‘em.
  10. Sprinkle the grated cheese on the caps with topping and put back in the cooling down oven to melt.
  11. When the cheese has melted, plate the mushrooms and fried eggs.

With two weeks left to go eating only local we’ll have to keep up the creativity in the kitchen. And while Terra endures the pain, I’ll continue dealing with the cooking limitations and my effort to try something different every night while keeping things somewhat simple and delicious.


Thankful for fat

How do you make food taste great when you’ve cut out oil and salt from your diet? Butter is a miracle worker, but you don’t want to use it in everything. Thankfully, there’s always animal fat.

Thanksgiving pretty much kicked off my month of eating 100% local. We based the menu around a chicken we had in the freezer and vegetables that came from our CSA farm. Everything else came from the farmers’ market or the Local Source Market.

We settled on roasted chicken stuffed with herbs, mashed potatoes, mushrooms, roasted beets and sauteed turnip greens with bacon bits. I admit, the menu wasn’t all that innovative. The challenge here was to time every dish so we could use chicken or bacon fat for the other dishes.

For the chicken, we took thyme, parsley, rosemary and a little sauteed onion and stuffed it all under the breast skin. We got that roasting so we could ladle out the fat to use for the beets. Once the bacon was cooked for the turnip greens, we used that fat to prepare the chanterelle mushrooms.

We only used butter for the potatoes. I’ve been reluctant to use butter because it comes from the grocery store. It claims to be Atlantic, but I don’t think that qualifies as truly local since I can’t track exactly where it came from. The problem is I haven’t been able to find butter at the farmers’ market and I’m really too lazy to make it myself.

So, let’s just agree that this meal is 95-99% local and move on.

The meal was fantastic. It’s true what they say, fat does equal taste. But to be honest, I thought the mushrooms and potatoes needed salt (which is another thing I can’t seem to find). We washed it all down with a bottle of Jost L’Acadie chardonnay.


Aspiring to do more with what we have

Pulling over his vehicle on a Cape Breton roadside to take my phone call, Chef Ardon Mofford is in the homestretch of sourcing the local Nova Scotia products that will be diced, seared, pureed, and certainly transformed by visiting Michelin-star chefs starting in one week (August 25) for the Right Some Good culinary event.

The event has multiple locales throughout Cape Breton Island during the next few weeks. Ingredients going into the menus are just as rooted, coming from farms across the island.

“I’m sourcing all vegetable products from local farmers as well as lamb, duck, foie gras, caviar. I’m still sourcing protein right now,” Ardon says.

Chef Ardon had just recently driven through Iona and popped in to see a couple of farms. Going to farmers’ markets, driving around the island to meet new people, and finding out first-hand what’s in season is what he’s been doing since January 2011 for the Right Some Good menus.

“What stands out is just how many farmers are on the island committed to growing product. I’ve been a chef for so long and we don’t really appreciate what they are doing until you go out and visit the farms and get the farm-to-table feel.”
– Chef Ardon Mofford.

As a chef in the second-generation, family owned Governor’s Pub and Eatery in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Ardon is also drawing on his existing, deep connections, especially to source dockside-fresh fish from Louisbourg Seafoods.  And speaking of family and deep connections, Ardon’s sister, Pearleen Mofford, is the founder of the Right Some Good event on Cape Breton Island.

Pearleen tells me she remembers as a child watching her father, as a chef, fillet and portion halibut the size of a tabletop. “He spent three hours cutting it down to pieces, and he used to share with his line cooks how to do that as well,” she says.

“That’s why we are doing Right Some Good – it is about sharing, and collaborating, and learning from each other.”
– Pearleen Mofford.

In this day and age where fish is often pre-filleted, skills like this still need to be shared today to pass along generations of knowledge and technique, which is part of the behind-the-scenes benefit of Right Some Good. 

Teaming up with the ten visiting Michelin-star chefs  are local Cape Breton chefs and junior chefs (enrolled or recently graduated) from culinary programs across Canada.
“Just to work with every one of those chefs is just going to be amazing for me,” says Chef Ardon. “I’d have to travel to ten different countries to experience this, so as a chef it’s amazing and a wonderful opportunity for all of us.”

And what local menu item, soon to be in the hands of a visiting Michelin-star master and team of inspired Canadians, has piqued particular pondering and culinary curiosity…

Pearleen? — “Nobody locally prepares the sea cucumber. I’m really looking forward to seeing it prepared and tasting it.”

Ardon? —  “The sea cucumber is very unique to me. It’s about the size of a cucumber and the yield is about a tablespoon of meat.  I can’t wait to work with it because it is a product we have in Cape Breton, but I’ve never seen what chefs do with it.”

I completely agree! Check out sea cucumbers, and then the menu of Chef Alvin Leung of Hong Kong who will use them while in Judique, Cape Breton.