Monday, October 22, 2012

Days of Wine and Fishes – Amalfi Coast, Part 1

We’ve been back from Italy for two weeks now, but my taste buds are still reverberating from the experience. I’m tantalized by memories of fish plucked daily from the sea, tiny tender clams on fresh pasta, and piles of pomodorini (sweet, locally grown cherry tomatoes) with baby arugula and fresh, creamy mozzarella.

The food was merely icing on the cake, as I believe you could be happy there even if you ate nothing but ham and swiss on rye. We were in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, where the towns are either perched on mountaintops or gripping the sides of the cliffs that run into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Everpresent views of the crystal clear water – in blues that range from pale turquoise to teal to a deep sapphire – are mesmerizing, and just offshore, the Li Galli islands, where the Sirens of Homer’s time lured sailors to their death, serve as constant reminders that these hills and waters have been witness to thousands of years of human history.

As in many of the coastal towns, houses in Positano are built one on top of the other, as if scrambling to keep from sliding into the sea, and most are painted white or some pastel shade, with arched entrances and wrought iron railings enhancing the old world atmosphere. The streets are often too narrow for cars, so restaurants take every opportunity to offer al fresco dining.

The main drag for the entire coast is what I lovingly refer to as The Spaghetti Road, known for its narrow lanes and hairpin curves. Driving it is treacherous and uneven, as the Italians all seem to be in training for Formula 1 participation, yet there’s the occasional delay while two giant buses maneuver to pass each other going opposite directions. I don’t have to worry though, as my husband won’t let me drive out of fear that I’ll have an “Oh, look!” moment over the breathtaking views, and we’ll go plummeting down the cliff.

Every restaurant features the fish of the day, and in that part of the world, the fish of the day was caught this morning. Sea bass, amberjack, flounder, John Dory, rock fish. And miniature mussels, blue lobster from Li Galli, cuttlefish, squid, and those tiny clams I mentioned. We had fish every which way: poached in a light tomato and garlic broth and served with pasta, or grilled in a medley with shrimp and sardines and squid, or lightly sautéed and served in Amalfi lemon sauce with sliced potatoes.

The most remarkable aspect of the food was its simplicity. While we splurged at Le Sirenuse, a really magnificent hotel with prices to match, and the food was as exquisite and complex as you would expect (see here the photo of my husband’s “vegetable salad”), everywhere else the dishes were uncomplicated but delicious presentations of regional specialties. I was struck by how easy it might be to duplicate many of them if you had the appropriate ingredients. Here (below), for instance, is rock fish with paccheri pasta, which I had at the delightful Eden Roc Hotel. You could do this, said the Kitchen Goddess to herself.

The challenge, of course, is finding tomatoes that taste anything like the pomodorini that appear to be growing on every balcony in every town in the region. Or Amalfi lemons, whose thick skin exudes a pleasantly sweet aroma and whose flesh is sour but not as bitter as the lemons we get in the U.S. Just more examples of how much difference it makes to use truly fresh and local ingredients.

So while I’m working on my own versions of a couple of these dishes, let me digress and tell you about the wines.

Naturally, with so much fish, we drank mostly white wine, concentrating on the many labels of Fiano di Avellino, which is one of the principal white wines of Campania, the region that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Here at home, my husband and I have been moving away from Chardonnay, which is too heavy and oaky for my taste, and concentrating on New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. By and large, I’d say the Fiano is slightly softer than the perky Sauvignon Blanc, with a good bouquet that makes it a bit more elegant and flavorful. The wine itself has notes of honey (though it’s not a sweet wine), nuts, and fruitiness that’s more apricot and pear versus the grapefruit flavors of the NZ Sauvignon Blanc. And while it’s hard to do a side-by-side comparison of the New Zealand versus the Italian – since we have so far not been able to find Fiano di Avellino in Texas – it’s well worth looking for and goes really well with seafood/pasta dishes. The retail prices in Italy were 12-15 euros, so I would expect a good bottle can be had for less than $20.

Here are three we particularly liked, that may be available in the States:

Fiano di Avellino from Guido Marsella
Béchar Fiano di Avellino from Cantine Antonio Caggiano
Fiano di Avellino from Fuedi di San Gregorio

In addition to the Fiano di Avellino, other whites worth trying from the region are Greco di Tufo and Falanghina.

 With my next post, I’ll let you know how successful the Kitchen Goddess was at reproducing some of the dishes.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Preserving My Sanity
What’s cooking? Red and Yellow Cherry Tomato Confit

I spent 10 days in Italy, and all I got was this sinus infection. That’s not really true, but it is what’s most on my mind right now. So while I try to get my ears to unclog, and gather my thoughts for a couple of posts about the most foodie-friendly place on earth – that would be the Amalfi Coast – I have something for you to do with your spare time this weekend. You’re welcome.

It’s the end of the official tomato season, and what better way to hang onto it than to literally preserve some. I know, I’ve beat this horse till it’s probably long past dead in your minds, but in the middle of winter, when everything outside is gray and brown and white, you will thank your lucky stars that your good friend, The Kitchen Goddess, persuaded you to put some of these goodies away in jars.

Let me start by saying that this is sooooo easy, and yet the results will make you the envy of all your friends. I’ve checked my local Whole Foods, and it seems that those really sweet cherry tomatoes are still available. So whether or not you have a Whole Foods nearby, you can probably find both red and yellow cherry tomatoes in stock at your local grocer or farmers’ market; if not, go for just red or whatever color you can find. I like the mix of red and yellow just for the color. And while I’ve used rosemary as my herb of choice, that’s mostly because the stuff grows like cactus down here in Texas, so I’m always trimming back my rosemary bushes and just throwing the branches away. You could also go for fresh oregano or some combination of oregano, thyme, rosemary, French tarragon, dill, or basil.

Confit (pronounced “con-fee”) originally developed as a way to preserve meats, salting and seasoning them and cooking them for a long time in their own fat, then cooling and storing them in the fat. Nowadays, many fruits and veggies are made into confit by just cooking the hell out of them. In fact, Giada has an apple and onion confit that looks delicious, though I only just discovered it in the process of writing this post. Have to try that. And lemon confit, which is used as a seasoning, and in which the lemons are preserved for 1-3 months in salt, is a whole different animal, but well worth trying.

This cherry tomato confit is completely wonderful as a topping for bruschetta, and Melissa Clark, from whom I adapted this recipe, says she serves it over fresh ricotta with crusty bread. I most often serve it on pasta, though it would go equally well over polenta or quinoa or creamy risotto. Straight from the jar, it makes a bright, really flavorful topping. All you might want to add is some grated parmesan, but I could see stirring in some sautéed mushrooms or sliced Italian sausage. So make a big batch, preserve some in jars, and leave the rest for dinner this week. In fact, even without that whole processing-in-boiling-water business, if you put the confit in jars, it will last at least a month in the refrigerator.

Red and Yellow Cherry Tomato Confit
Adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times

1 pint red cherry tomatoes
1 pint yellow cherry tomatoes
3-4 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
leaves from 3 6-inch stems of fresh rosemary (a scant ¼ cup)
¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (alternatively, a pinch of crushed red pepper)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375º. In a large bowl, with a wooden spoon, gently stir together the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and rosemary. Spread the mixture out evenly onto a sheet pan, and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper (or pepper flakes), kosher salt, and pepper. Bake 45-50 minutes, until the tomatoes start to look wrinkled. Shake the pan a couple of times during the baking to keep the tomatoes distributed in the oil.

If you’re not eating them immediately, store the tomatoes – along with the oil, garlic, and herbs –  in jars. Keeps one month in the refrigerator.