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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Roasted sweet potato with white bean ravioli

After a crazy fall 2011 that kept me away from cooking and playing with ingredients, I found a weekend to check out what was hiding in my fridge and to experiment.

I tried this two ways: the filling and pasta were the same, but first I tried a tomato/basil sauce. The tomato competes with the delicate sweetness of the ravioli stuffing – I don’t recommend going the tomato sauce route.

Second try: I created a cream sauce with a twist beyond the usual. Instead of loading a cream sauce with a heavy base of parmesan and salt, try a teaspoon of white miso paste into a cup of cream. This sauce rocks! and lets the oniony/sweet potato centrepiece do its job.

As for the filling for the ravioli, I peeled three small sweet potatoes, oiled them, and roasted them for 20 minutes. Once cooled, I pureed the potatoes in a processor with half a cup of rinsed, white kidney beans, a quarter cup of cream cheese, and finished with diced green onion (3 or 4 stalks).

Here’s a video link to my raviolis getting stuffed. I used a Jamie Oliver recipe for the pasta (it’s pretty much just flour and four eggs, but I added a dash of black truffle olive oil).

Stuffing the ravioli

…other than a filling for ravioli, the stuffing makes a great hummus-like dip for veggies or crackers!


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.


Summer sweet peas and umami richness

With our wet early summer 2011, my kitchen garden was off to a stunted start.  But recent weeks have been a perfect incubator for these fat little babies — sweet summer peas, beet greens, and a chard that impersonates spinach!

Borrowing from Tom’s last post’s inspiration — raiding the refrigerator — I wanted to do a raid, too, but of the raised vegetable beds.

The fresh peas are blanched, retaining firmness and sweetness, but popping green from behind a once-downy pale. Beets, too, are sweet. But their greens have more of that umami, earthy flavour.  The chard/spinach greens also add that slightly mineral flavour once cooked.  So… sweet and savoury will be this recipe’s main characters for a basic pasta dish with a pan sauce of juices, pasta water, tomato paste and aged balsamic.

For a base note to run throughout the upfront flavours, I’ve raided my oils cupboard. Weeks ago, I picked up a bottle of black truffle-infused olive oil from Liquid Gold in our fab Halifax Hydrostone Market (insert nod here to the Bostonians for their rebuilding help of this end of town after the WW1-era explosion).

Recipe:
…Completely experimental and made up without measurement, just tasting along the way.

  1. fresh shelled peas, blanched and set aside
  2. beet greens, torn and set aside
  3. spinach, torn and set aside
  4. roasted red pepper (freshly done or use from jar if you want it fast and easy), sliced and set aside.
  5. grated or shaved parmesan cheese, set aside.
  6. keep at the ready a bottle of truffle oil for a last minute splash.
  • cook pasta (choose your favourite shape) in well-salted water.  Time the cooking to about one minute shorter than al dente instructions because you will finish cooking the pasta in the pan sauce.
  • reserve 1/2 cup of the starchy, salty pasta cooking water to use as part of pan sauce.
  • meantime, using regular olive oil, pan fry one minced clove of garlic, adding beet and spinach greens, and peas.
  • add red peppers.
  • add a splash or two of old, sweet balsamic vinegar, and let evaporate for a few seconds in the hot pan.
  • add 1/2 cut of reserved pasta cooking water.
  • dissolve tomato paste into liquid.
  • add pasta to the wet pan and allow to cook and absorb liquid for a couple of minutes.
  • add your parmesan to the pan.
  • finally, splash with truffle oil (approximately a tablespoon. A little goes a long way, and you don’t want to overpower the finished dish).
  • mix and plate it up.

P.S. Aside from wine, an ideal pairing is music from The National’s High Violet: ‘Wake Up Your Saints’


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.


6÷2 = 3 quick pastas

Math is hard. Pasta is easy. In less time than it takes to calculate π you can make either of these three great recipes that only require a few ingredients each.

Some pasta takes longer to cook than others so you’ll need to know when to start cooking your sauce once you’ve got the pasta in the water. An example; recipe 3 really only has garlic, which can burn quickly if left in the hot oil for too long. Have the pan hot but only put the garlic in during the last few minutes. Burning can also be avoided by taking the pan off the heat now and then or by adding a bit of water.  The last thing you ever want is toasted, bitter garlic.

1. Strozzapreti with pancetta, tomatoes and garlic

  • 1 package Strozzapreti (they tend to be a little stuck together so separate them onto a plate)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 oz. pancetta (cut into ¼ inch dice)
  • 2 cups grape tomatoes (quartered)
  • 1 medium onion (cut into ¼ inch dice)
  • 3 garlic cloves (thinly sliced)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Ground pepper
  • ¾ cup parmesan reggiano cheese (grated)

Instructions

  1. Bring salted water to a boil and heat up the pan.
  2. Pour two tablespoons of olive oil in the pan to heat up.
  3. Put the pancetta in the pan and occasionally stir, add some pepper.
  4. Once the pancetta has started to brown and render it’s fat, add the onion and garlic. Don’t forget to stir.
  5. Once the onions are translucent, add the tomatoes and let them melt a little.
  6. Place pasta in the water (the Strozzapreti is a six to seven minute pasta).
  7. A few minutes after pasta has gone in the pot pour two ladles full of boiling water into the pan and add the bay leaves.
  8. Cover the pan, and reduce the heat to a steady simmer.
  9. About two minutes before the pasta is done take the cover off the pan, add a bit more fresh olive-oil and continue the simmer.
  10. Drain the pasta and pour it into the pan.
  11. Discard the bay leaves and mix everything together.
  12. Off heat, add the cheese and some more pepper.
  13. Once you’ve plated the dish, add a touch more olive oil all over.

2. Strozzapreti with mushroom duxelle and cream

  • 1 package Strozzapreti
  • 1 ½ packages of button mushrooms (cut into fine dice)
  • 2 small shallots (cut into fine dice)
  • 1 garlic clove (minced)
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • S&P
  • ½ cream
  • ¾ cup parmesan reggiano cheese (grated)
  • ¼ cup parsley for garnish

Instructions

  1. Bring salted water to a boil and heat up the pan.
  2. Chop up the mushrooms. If they’re a little old or damp put the pieces into a towel and squeeze out all the liquid you can into a bowl and reserve it.
  3. Put butter in the pan and let it melt and then sizzle.
  4. Put the shallots and garlic in the pan for about a minute, add salt and pepper.
  5. Once the shallots are translucent add the mushrooms. Stir constantly. You want them to brown but not burn.
  6. Put pasta in the water.
  7. About three minutes after adding the pasta add the cream to the mushrooms and lower heat to bring the sauce to a light simmer. If it thickens too quickly pour in some of the mushroom liquid.
  8. Drain the pasta and pour into pan.
  9. Mix everything off heat and add the cheese and some more pepper.
  10. Garnish with parsley.

3. Three-cheese Tortellini with garlic and parsley

  • ½ package three-cheese Tortellini
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus some extra)
  • 5 garlic cloves (thinly sliced)
  • Ground pepper
  • ¾ cup parmesan reggiano cheese (grated)
  • 2 tbsp parsley for garnish

Instructions

  1. Bring salted water to a boil and heat up your pan. Don’t let it get too hot!
  2. Put pasta in the water (the Tortellini I use can take 15 minutes).
  3. When the pasta has about three to four minutes left of cooking time put the olive oil in the pan.
  4. Once the oil is hot add the garlic. If it looks like it’s frying get the pan off the heat. Swirl it around, don’t let it burn! You’ll smell it in less than a minute.
  5. Just after a minute pour a ladle full of boiling water into the pan.
  6. Swirl the garlic, oil and water around to get a light emulsion. Lower the heat.
  7. Drain the pasta and pour into pan.
  8. Mix everything together and add some fresh extra-virgin olive oil
  9. Off heat add the cheese and some more pepper and mix.
  10. Garnish with just little parsley.

Of course you can use other types of pasta if you like. I bought the Strozzapreti and Tortellini at Costco. All three recipes are easy and delicious! Now pre-heat the pan, get chopping and make sure you have things ready when the pasta is done. Solve that equation and you’ll see these recipes are pretty hard to F up.