August 11, 2010

Mellow Yellow: Fabulous Yellow Pepper Sauce

There is a recipe here, I swear.  But first I want to talk about olive oil.

How many different kinds of olive oil have you tasted in your lifetime? Maybe you always stick to the tried and true, Colavita, say, or simply something that’s handy and relatively inexpensive in your part of the world. Maybe you have a favourite Italian spot that cheerfully and generously puts miniature carafes of olive oil on the table, the better to soak your bread in. You might even splurge regularly for a bottle of rich oil from a far flung place: Italy, Spain, Greece.

Sadly many imported olive oils are simply bottled off shore. The olives themselves might be a mongrel mix of dubious pedigree, and the oil may not even be extra virgin, even though the label says so.

So, when your feet are on the soil that yields the olives; when you shake hands with the producer who protectively watches every tree; when you taste that oil, with a terroir to rival any fine wine; and when that oil explodes on your tongue in a burst of fruity spicy goodness – oh my. You are done with that other stuff.

The beautiful grounds of Fattoria Montalbano

This is the olive oil of Fattoria Montalbano in Regello, just 27 kilometres south of Florence. Luciano and Daniela Nustrini run Montalbano, a wonderful agriturismo set on 25 acres in lush and lovely Tuscany. In addition to the beautifully rustic villas that house guests, the fattoria (farm) produces what I think just might be the best olive oil ever. The four family whippets rule the roost, while the lone shaggy dog Iago eyes them laconically. There are an equal number of cats, including this tortoise beauty we adopted for three days. Plus chickens, goats, a sad looking donkey, and incidentally four children.

All that and yet Montalbano is blessedly secluded and deeply restful. The guest villas are set some distance from the house, ensuring privacy and the ultimate chance to relax. Breakfast is low key and casual, and the small villages of San Donato in Fronzano and Donnini have well equipped greengrocers so that you can make your own meals, and only slightly further afield there are plenty of options for small and delicious trattorie and osterie.

Lunch al fresco on our private terrace

Our room with a view...

Lavender and rosemary as far as the eye can see

 But by far our favourite meal in our three nights stay was at Montalbano itself. Daniela, who never seems to sleep, will occasionally make dinner for guests. The multicourse meal is served in the taverna, a 300 year old cantina originally used to store olive oil. Lit with hundreds of candles, served alongside the farm’s own delicious Chianti, the meal was sumptuous and completely satisfying.

Salsa di Peperoni Gialli (Yellow Pepper Sauce)
makes approx four cups

This fabulous yellow pepper sauce was actually served atop grilled bread as part of the antipasti course at Montalbano. In the middle of serving several tables, Daniela generously jotted down the recipe for me.  Not only wrote it out, but tied it with a beautiful fragrant flower from the garden.  A truly memorable night.

As I contemplated how I would cook my fresh halibut for dinner tonight, it struck me that this sauce would be an unusual – and unusually good – accompaniment. I lightened the sauce by using yogurt intead of whipped cream.

3 large yellow peppers
1 tbsp good quality olive oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
Scant c water
½ c plain low fat yogurt (I used goat yogurt in a nod to Montalbano’s herd)*
½ tsp kosher salt, or more to taste
Coarse black pepper to taste

1. Wash the peppers and slice them into thin slices.

2. In a large skillet, combine the oil, garlic and peppers over medium high heat. Add the water and cook, stirring constantly, until the water is almost evaporated.

3. At this point, the peppers will begin to brown. Continue cooking, a couple of minutes more, until they are evenly and very lightly browned. Remove from heat.

4. Transfer the peppers to a blender and blend to a smooth puree. Place in a bowl, add the yogurt and stir thoroughly. Add the salt and pepper, and adjust for seasoning.

The sauce can be used as it is at Montalbano, as a spread on grilled bread, or a dip for crackers. Thinned with a little vegetable or chicken broth, it would be a wonderfully different type of cold summer soup.  And, as I thought, it really was unusually good on a piece of simply roasted halibut, served alongside a salad of mixed sunflower sprouts and pea shoots that were topped with sprouted radish and lightly dressed with Fattoria Montalbano's finest. 

The greens are from Kind Organics, a local farm that's been operating since 1999.  Sandra and Tamas Dombi, along with partner Amber Malek, grow the most incredibly fresh greens: they taste alive when you eat them, and are best served just as I did, with a bit of crunchy salt and that amazing oil.  And if you haven't had fresh sunflower sprouts, make a vow to find them before summer's over.