June 28, 2010

La Bella Italia - Benvenuti a Firenze!

Our two week trip to Italy began and ended in Firenze – that most magical of medieval cities.

Of all the Italian cities I’ve visited, Florence is the one that has been slowest to capture my heart. Richard and I came to Italy shortly after we were married, spending almost a month, clocking nearly 3000 km on our small rented car. Back then Florence was much more indifferent to tourists, less willing to show the warm generosity of spirit that seems innate to all Italians.

But piano piano - slowly slowly - with each successive visit, the city reveals itself. Shunning modernity, proudly still Italy’s cultural capital if not its commercial one, the city is reflected in its citizens. Quick witted, practical and a bit self-deprecating, the pride of the de Medicis and the city’s glorious past are present in every Florentine, and even those not born there seem to have a bit of Dante, Leonardo and Machiavelli running through their veins.

Where else but in Italy do the policemen look so elegant?

We’d “done” the sights on previous visits – the David, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace – of course the Duomo, climbing every one of those 463 stairs to the top. I can remember the first time I saw that enormous Duomo many years ago, and the sight of it still amazes me. It seems impossibly big, the buildings that surround it appearing almost superimposed against the rich red stone.

Brunelleschi's Duomo, appearing on the skyline like a mirage

This time, there was no set agenda, no list of top ten sights to see. We would let the city lead us, and for that, we followed our noses. 

We started right in our own backyard - or in this case, our own 15th century palazzo, the place we would call home for a few precious days.  The Four Seasons hotel in Florence, barely open two years, is a perfectly placed jewel in the city's centre, just 15 minutes from the Duomo.  Set in the largest private garden in Florence, the hotel is both palace and cozy retreat, filled with staff that are warm, friendly and welcoming, and - best of all - a chef that is passionate about food.

A panoramic view of the courtyard lobby at the Four Seasons

World Cup action in a beautiful al fresco setting

Favourite drinks quickly established: Hendricks and Fever-Tree tonic for the gentleman; a Valentino for the lady (a fancy version of a Negroni) 
Vitello tonnato at Al Fresco

Beef carpaccio with the season's tenderest arugula

Fresh pineapple juice - smooth and creamy as a milkshake

To share...a scampi and asparagus risotto that's just the right size.

...and a beautiful view to make the meal complete

That lunch was the perfect way to start our Italian eating adventures.  Next chapter....watching the World Cup with thirteen hunchbacks; snacking Italian-style for lunch and devouring pasta with four lions.

June 26, 2010

Arrivederci a la bella Italia

Two wonderful weeks, countless amazing meals, and best of all the charming, friendly and hospitable people of Italy, added up to the very best holiday. Lots to digest and write about...as I spend the next several hours on the plane wending my way home, I'll begin to relive the delicious journey. Watch this space!

June 16, 2010

Daring Cooks Challenge: Three Spice Pâté and Homemade Bread

Deep into my Italian adventures, I completely missed the 14th, and the posting day for the latest Daring Cooks challenge.  But at least I did plan ahead and before leaving, made one of the delicious pâtés that Daring Cooks hostesses this month, Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz, and Valerie of The Chocolate Bunny, chose. Along with pâté, the June challenge called for freshly baked bread. They provided us with four different pâté recipes to choose from and allowed us to go wild with our homemade bread choice.

I chose to make the Three Spice Liver Pâté, adapted from Ravenous Couple, which was inspired by White on Rice Couple. For the bread, I made one of my favourites: Six Hour Artisantal Bread.  The rustic and chewy bread, with its crackling crust, was just right with the pâté.

Three Spice Liver Pâté

Yields one 10 x 5 inch terrine or loaf pan

1 lb pork liver (or beef or combination)
½ lb ground pork
½ lb pork fat (or pork belly)
2 cloves garlic
2 shallots
1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp coriander (ground or crushed)
½ tsp cumin*
¾ tsp salt
1 tbsp coarse freshly cracked peppercorns
2 tbsp cognac
2 bay leaves
1 package of bacon

*I roast and grind cumin seeds as needed, rather than buying gound cumin.  The roasting (done by heating the cumin gently in a pan over medium heat until fragrant), gives a richness to the cumin that store-bought can't replicate.

1.  Preheat oven to to 350ºF (180ºC).

2.  Cut liver and pork fat into small pieces and add to food processor. Add ground pork, garlic, shallots, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. Grind until smooth.

3.  In mixing bowl, incorporate the meat and liver mixture with the cognac and eggs.

I used duck eggs for extra richness

4.  Line bottom of baking or ceramic pan with overlapping pieces of bacon. Place a bay leaf on the bottom and then fill with meat/liver mixture. Cover top with another bay leaf and then overlapping pieces of bacon.

5.  Place in oven in the larger baking pan and add enough water to cover 2/3rds of the pan containing the meat/liver mixture. Bake for about 1-1.5 hrs, and remove from oven.  The pâté will contract and the juices will be on the bottom. Allow to cool and soak up the juices. Remove any excess bacon and discard the bay leaves.

Six hour bread has crusty goodness

NB.  I clearly didn't read the directions carefully and left the bacon on - oops.  Must be my love of all things pork.

The pâté was part of a Sunday brunch spread, a birthday celebration with dear friends.  Watch for upcoming posts on the rest of the menu: Fire Roasted Chicken; Three Cheese Fritatta and a super-lemony panna cotta with the season's first strawberries.

The table set for a celebratory feast

Roasted garlic for the chicken

June 12, 2010

Italy Bound!

On my way to Italy for two glorious weeks, where I hope to eat lots of amazing food. And hopefully catch up on some blog posts that have been laying fallow. Follow me on Twitter for the blow by blow - or should I say bite by bite? A presto, tutti!

June 07, 2010

In Season: Grilled Spot Prawns with Spring Asparagus

There's that funny phenomenon in life when you happen to notice the same thing over and over again. Like when you buy a new car and suddenly it seems EVERYONE is driving the same model. That’s what happened to me with spot prawns. Had them for the first time just two weeks ago at Malena in a gorgeous spot prawn risotto with a crustacean brodetto, artichoke and cumin. And then there they were at Fisherfolk at the farmers' market last Saturday.  With no plans for dinner, we bought a pound, firmly frozen in sea water and picked up a bunch of fresh asparagus from Anne at the Wooler Dale Organic Farm stand. It was the perfect way to eat our first outdoor meal of the season.

I had never heard of spot prawns before, and it's good to know that they're deemed an acceptable seafood buy.  According to SeaChoice, which rates and ranks the sustainability of seafood:
"The spot prawn industry is currently centred on exports; over 90% of the prawns caught in our waters end up in Japan. At the same time, the imported, unsustainably harvested, and arguably less-tasty prawns from Asia are readily available on the Canadian market. It seems counterintuitive to think of flying all those little prawns around the world, when given sufficient local demand, consumers could affect these trends and make this product more readily available here in Canada."
The best part about these spot prawns is the simplicity of preparation.  A simple grill with the shells on, a squeeze of lemon, and the already salty prawns are ready for a happily messy meal.  You can also marinate them in an Asian style marinade. If you are lucky enough to get sashimi grade, try them raw. 

Grilled Spot Prawns
serves two

1 lb. sashami grade spot prawns
olive oil
2 lemon halves

1.  If frozen, thaw prawns and rinse well.  Dry on a tea towel.  If using a marinade, put the prawns in a bowl and marinate for 30 minutes.

2.  Heat a grill (either gas or charcoal) until hot.  Grill the prawns for 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until just done (shells will be slightly charred)

The "spots" that give these prawns their name

3.  Serve immediately, squeezing lemon juice to taste before eating.

Simple Grilled Asparagus
serves two

Asparagus can be prepared in many ways, and combines beautifully with any number of ingredients.  Best of all though, is fresh just-picked spring asparagus, lightly grilled, and topped with a shaving of local cheese.

1 lb. asparagus, trimmed
Olive oil
Salt to taste or grated cheese (such as Parmigiano Reggiano)

1.  Light a charcoal or gas grill on high.  Arrange asparagus crosswise on grill.  Cook, turning frequently, until lightly charred.

2.  Remove from heat, toss lightly with olive oil and salt, and top with grated cheese if desired.  We used a lovely sheep's milk from Monforte Dairy.

A little bit of quinoa rounds out the meal

Be sure to have plenty of wet napkins on hand for sticky fingers!

The garden lights come on, ushering in twilight and the end of a perfectly delicious dinner