Bringing Villa Rosa dei Venti home – Part 2

Minestra di Ceci

For part 2 of this revisit I thought I’d try one of the quicker recipes from Cooking Secrets of a Tuscan Family. One that can be banged out in about in about an hour. Actually this would be the middle timed version. The long method follows the book precisely by soaking dry chickpeas overnight followed by a 3 hour cooking. The faster method being chickpeas right out of a can and heated up. The way I prepared them was cooking canned Ceci for about an hour.

Ingredients. The list really couldn’t be easier. 1/2 lb. of dry chickpeas, 4 oz. of tomato paste, two garlic cloves some rosemary and extra virgin olive oil.

Substitutions. I’m really embarrassed. Yes gang, I used ‘boxed’ chicken stock. While getting my ingredients together I noticed our last two remaining boxes of Campbell’s low-sodium broth. I figure I’d use it up which would taste better than water. Terra hasn’t let me live it down. I apologize to you and your families.

Method. Either start with a soak or a can opener What you’re looking for are cooked, tender chickpeas. Once cooked, blend the chickpeas to a nice chunky purée. In a separate pot heat the oil and add in the rosemary sprig, crushed chopped garlic and a little salt. When you’re happy with the results, read: you haven’t burned the garlic, add in the tomato paste and mix well. Finally pour in the chickpea purée and heat the whole thing for another half hour. Season and serve.

The eating. I was really curious to taste this soup. I was concerned the tomato paste might take over. Was I ever wrong. The paste gives the soup a huge earthy taste. It tastes like Tuscany! And the rosemary adds a second assertive edge. Finally the little bursts of garlic and olive oil sneak in here and there to round out the overall smack. In fact the tomato taste is so wonderful, I wanted more! Next time I’ll add very ripe roasted tomatoes for even more strength. And cheese. My next bowl will certainly included some grated Parmesan.

Keeping it local. I suppose as long as I’m cooking Italian food I’ll never be able to keep things 100% local. My version of this soup used local rosemary and garlic and that’s about it. The chickpeas and tomato paste were both canned, probably goes without saying where the olive oil came from, and the salt and pepper, who the hell knows. Finally the stock, let’s never bring that up again. Final grade, D- for the grocery list.

Want to blow everyone away before serving your main course? Make this soup. It’s that good. But do yourself a favour, make real chicken stock. It’s so superior to anything you can buy. If you end up using broth from a box, lie.

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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…


Ballotine de poulet redemption

As mentioned before in many of our posts, things don’t always go according to plan around here. Try as we might, disasters are part of the game for the home cook and recipes sure aren’t perfect. Oh the shame of it all. But we buck up right? We dust ourselves off and get back up on the horse. Before throwing it on the grill.

Case in point, the “truck full of jet-fuel crashing into a elementary school” Ballotine de poulet episode from last April. If you didn’t read it, I was at frustration level RED, my hands covered in guts, swearing like crazy while trying to tie up that #$%!@*in’ bird. Terra at my side hiding the sharper implements. Not my best moment but at least the spoils were worth the humiliation of my outbursts.

This time however, it was all Zen man. I went downstairs thinking, don’t get pissed off, concentrate and try to make it work. Debone and tie-up this chicken and enjoy it. And it worked! Wow. It’s like performing a task repeatedly helps you get better. Sounds like Greeting Card crap, but seriously. The tie-up part of the project went nice and easy. None of the stuffing (mushroom and herbs) came out while tying and the final product was pretty and delicious.

And this time we served it with carrots from a recipe in that amazing Joe Beef cookbook. Have I raved enough about that damn book yet? No.

I’m not an angry person in the kitchen. Normally cooking is my way to relax. That particular occasion last year was a lousy experience but I got the message. Try and try harder. It’s also fair to admit there’s still many chickens ahead of me before I replicate Jacques Pépin.

NB. Apologies for our absence so far in 2012. There’s no excuses, we’ve been lame. Happy new year anyway!


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.


SixTop in Italy – The Villa Rosa dei Venti connection

Looking back now, one of the best things about our trip to Italy was our lack of planning. Sure there were short to-do lists, but we all agreed early on that running around like the Griswalds was not what any of us wanted. Aside of a manic day and a half of sight-seeing in Rome, I think we pulled it off. Personally, I only had a few must-dos, most of which were food related. I wanted to sample a variety of local dishes, attempt to maintain a wine buzz the whole trip and most importantly, take a cooking class while in food heaven.

After some searching online I found a class at Villa Rosa dei Venti, owned and operated by the Micheli family in Creti di Cortona. They’ve been there for over three generations and it shows. They grow apples, vegetables and sunflowers, raise chickens, rabbits and ducks and make their own family branded olive oil. As you would expect, they also have superb family red and white wines. There is pride, love and hard work in everything on their property. Villa Rosa dei Venti is sublime.

Class started at 10 am at their brand new facility for cooking courses where I was joined by a very sweet family from Calgary. Our instructors were daughter Barbara and mother Ornella who were so incredibly welcoming and friendly. They both made the course move along while still being fun. After introductions we all got right to work cutting, chopping and mixing ingredients for our eventual meal.

And what a menu! It followed the classic Italian food form of serving an antipasto, a pasta, then roast meat and veg followed by dessert. We started making the three antipastos we would eventually pile on bread. First was a Cannelloni bean and onion mix marinated in olive oil, then a bruschetta of tomato, finely chopped onion and basil. Third was chicken breast sautéed in butter, which after being cooled down, was processed with pickled vegetables and mixed with mayonnaise. Fantastic! The second course was a Tagliatelli pasta with a three meat sauce.

Homemade Tagliatelle (our first video recipe!)

While this happened we prepared the main course; roast rabbit, roast duck stuffed with olives and a huge tray of roasted vegetables. Dessert was a gorgeous lemon/olive oil cake. I asked Barbara when the 27 people other were showing up to eat all this, which she translated for her mom and got a big laugh. But I kind of wasn’t kidding, this was an insane amount of food!

After a break and a wonderful tour of the property with Barbara’s brother Stefano, the rest of the family showed up to join our gigantic Italian feast. We ate and drank, talked, translated, shared stories and connected. Surprisingly there were leftovers!

Villa Rosa die Venti epitomizes what I loved so much about Tuscany. There’s a real sense of connection between the land, food and people who live there. Much like the connection made during that meal with the generous Micheli family. It’s an afternoon I won’t forget.


SixTop in Italy – Tuscan Factory

We recently spent two fantastic weeks in Italy. Moving around the central part of the country we visited Florence, Cinque Terre, Siena, Cortona and then finally Rome. Indeed a trip of a lifetime, but I refuse to be so final. Anything …of a lifetime sounds like it would never happen again and that’s just ridiculous.

This post is about a day I had in Cortona, a small Tuscan town an hour south-east from Florence and just up the hill from a smaller town called Camucia. It’s an area more beautiful than you can possibly imagine with views that truly take the breath away. We stayed at the relaxing Borgo San Pietro just outside of town.

I had caught a cold earlier in the trip which wasn’t going away. I decided to hang back from a planned day trip to sit outside and read, recoup and take a break from all that Tuscan stress. While sitting under the Borgo’s large vine embroidered pergola I was amazed at all the activity going on. I was being deafened by nature! Lizards, bees, roosters, birds, insects and cows were all in a frenzy of activity. The sound came from every direction. I imagined this awesome, wild factory under non-stop heavy production. “Okay bees, you start the honey this afternoon. The birds will move around seeds while the hens get the eggs going. Cows, start with the milk and keep that grass under control, the pigs will continue finding truffles. Don’t forget, the humans will be by later to start work on the wine, olive oil and prosciutto. Let’s get to it!” Punch cards in and away they go.

It felt like everything there is producing beautiful things. We had conversations with locals about farming, wine making and the unchanged methods of food cultivation which really reinforced this sense that everything gives so everything can take. A visitor’s point of view, no doubt, but with all the great food, wine and natural beauty in Tuscany you could almost believe there’s a larger plan.