Woodworking: No use denying: Italia tops in culinary delights
I was ready to bid, as the old travelogues used to say, fond farewell to beautiful Tuscany, where our friends and we recently visited.
But I thought maybe one more stab at our culinary adventures there might be a good idea.
As I mentioned earlier, the quality of food is very high in Italy, and thus it is imperative that those who cook it treat it with respect.
The respect can reach epic proportions when newcomers to the cuisine venture out on their own.
Years ago, we invited our hosts the Pellegrinis for cocktails and snacks.
Caterina took a bit of a tuna salad canapé and looked startled. "You've put minced onion in tuna. 'Tis impossible!"
Cati turned her attention to the other hors d'oeuvres and left the tuna alone."
Generally speaking, however, it's fun to cook in Italy.
Traditionalists like Cati complain about supermarkets, which are now replacing specialty stores, where if you want salami you go to the salumi store. If you want lettuce, you go to the green grocer.
At our recent trip we found the local COOP supermarket to be perfectly adequate, offering very fresh vegetables (if they aren't in season they don't offer them) and butchers happy to give you one thin slice of prosciutto or mortadella if that's what you want.
We bought COOP house-brand canned goods at significant discounts and found them very good, including the cheapest San Marzano canned tomatoes I've ever eaten.
Some of the pork and chicken is still tasty, if you go to the organic counter. The beefsteak is pretty hopeless unless you've made a special trip to your savings account.
Unlike our supermarkets, however, rabbit is always available as are special cuts, like veal and beef tongue, which is delicious.
But it would be a mistake not to eat in local restaurants, especially those that are family operated.
For three nights we ate at the Montagnola in tiny Tegoia, which overlooks Siena. The food we ordered from young Josh, the chef/owner's son, was so good we ordered the same plates more than once!
Kermit Paulson was especially taken by the tagliatelle pasta with wild boar sauce. I dipped in and was also converted. Simply put, it was ground boar in a simple tomato sauce.
But don't try to substitute with ground pork, which is too lean and too bland.
Wild Boar is a giant step above that because wild boars have a better diet, including chestnuts and porcini mushrooms. The resulting sweetness of the meat is amazing.
It's more difficult to eat in the larger cities because restaurants are so numerous the natives have a hard time telling you what's good and what's not so.
But the night before we left for home, my wife found a restaurant, the Paradise, in bustling Florence, (near the airport!) that filled the bill and reminded us that simple can be very, very good.
Years ago, Ruth and I motored to Montepulciano because our friend Bob Spaeth's patron saint was born there. It was pretty boring and a waste of gasoline, until we got to the outskirts and spied a modest restaurant with garden seating.
I ordered a T-Bone cut from a Chianina, the giant Italian steer.
It was expensive.
It was good, but not as good as Ruth's meal, which included pici, a hand-rolled pasta dressed with garlic and oil.
We had never seen pici before, nor since, until Ruth found the restaurant in Florence. Sure enough things even change in Italy. Pici is now available in many restaurants. I doubt that it's hand-made, but it's still delicious.
I ordered my pici dressed "aglio, olio," because I had reached my tomato tolerance level and yearned for oil and garlic.
Our server brought it and it was the best aglio, olio I ever ate.
Here's how to make it: For the pici, combine two cups of semolina flour, two cups of all-purpose flour and one to one and one quarter cups of tepid water.
Knead until pliable, about eight minutes.
Let stand for ten minutes. Roll the dough into long dowels about ¼ inch thick. Then place the strands between two palms and lightly roll back and forth to create a snake or spear-like noodle.
Dust with semolina flour and on a tray and cover until ready to cook boiling salted water. For about three minutes.
Meanwhile, cook cracked black pepper in a cast iron pan until you can smell the pepper's essential oils. Add extra virgin olive oil, one dried cayenne pepper and a small squeeze of anchovy paste or one whole anchovy.
Stir until all is fragrant, add a lump of butter and four to six cloves of finely minced garlic.
Turn off burner. Do not brown the garlic.
Toss with the pici, sprinkle with minced flat leaf parsley and serve.
And if you're still hungry ask Kerm if you can have one of his giant shrimp scampi. Delicioso!