Monday, June 25, 2012

Florida Keys Cuisine

I must say that since my youth, to me, the Florida Keys has always conjured images in my mind of laid back, artisan type lifestyles filled with tropical nights, drinks, men, women, music and food. And not necessarily in that particular order. Fresh seafood, beaches, diving and of course the rich, maritime history of Spanish Conquistadors and swashbuckling pirates. Stretching more than 100 miles into the open ocean, the Florida Keys can boast early settlers ranging from the aforementioned Spanish, to Bahamian fishermen, Cuban cigar makers as well as the merchants from France, England and New England. A rich melting pot of culture and influence, the indigenous cuisine came to incorporate diverse and delicious nuances, with a reliance on an abundant array of fish and seafood harvested from surrounding waters. For more about the Florida Keys, check out the History & Origins of The Keys.

Commercial fishing, in fact, is the second-largest industry in the Keys. The fresh fish that grace a restaurant table at night is more than likely unloaded at the docks that morning, and fish and seafood headline nearly every restaurant menu. Among the favorites are Key West Pink Shrimp, a delicacy generally considered sweeter than other crustaceans. Key West pinks rank among the most popular of the Keys' "natural resources."

The Mollusk Conch (pronounced konk) is served in many mouthwatering forms: lime-kissed salad, spicy Caribbean chowder and golden deep-fried fritters among them. Conch chowder can either be tomato-based or white, but don't expect to find any consistency of recipes from one restaurant to another. Keys' eateries pride themselves on creating unique interpretations of classic dishes.

As well as savoring the taste of conch, Keys' residents admired the mollusk's tough, hardy nature so much that they adopted its name for themselves. Today, Conch is no longer fished in the Keys, but the word Conch refers to someone born in this island chain, also affectionately known as the Conch Republic.

Stone Crabs, renowned for their sweet and succulent meat are also a popular delicacy and what most may find surprising, a sustainable and self renewable resource. Because nearly all of the crab's meat is contained within its grapnels (claws), these are the only portions of the crustacean that are harvested. Once the claws are removed, the crab is returned to the sea where, over the course of up to two years, the claws regenerate. It is for this reason that stone crabs are considered a renewable resource, and the Florida Keys are responsible for about 40 percent of the state's overall harvest. Florida's stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15.

Fish and Seafood Delights
Yellow-tail snapper, hog snapper, mutton snapper, grouper, dolphin or mahi-mahi, are just a few of the Keys' scale fish preferred by chefs. At restaurants throughout the island chain, diners can find sautéed yellow-tail or snapper with a variety of sauces and accompaniments, along with fried grouper or mahi-mahi sandwiches, broiled or blackened fish entrees and much more.

In addition to offerings from the sea, Keys cuisine reflects a multitude of cultural influences, particularly Cuban in Key West. Migrating across the water by the thousands in the late 1800s, Cuban aristocrats and cigar makers brought the flavors of their homeland with them. Ropa vieja, a name that literally means "old clothes," tastes like heavenly shredded beef. Other favorite dishes are picadillo and roast pork or pork chunks. Cuban entrees are most often served with traditional black beans and yellow rice, sweet plantains and Cuban bread. Surprisingly, some of the best Cuban sandwiches, Cuban bread stuffed with meat and cheese and warmed in a press, can be found at take-out stands attached to many island laundromats. And many savvy residents can't start the day without a breakfast of toasted Cuban bread and Cuban coffee, which packs a ferocious jolt. Gourmets visiting the Keys will find (among others) French, Italian, German, Chinese, Caribbean, Thai, Japanese and vegetarian restaurants, as well as steak houses and establishments featuring casual American fare and "comfort food." 

Key Lime Pie
When it comes to desserts, it's almost impossible to spend time in the Keys without sampling Key Lime pie. Just as New Orleans is famed for its gumbo and Chicago for its Deep Dish pizza, the island chain is known for its signature dessert. There are no commercial Key Lime groves in the Florida Keys today, but Key Largo boasted a large Key Lime industry until about the mid 1930s. Restaurants throughout the Florida Keys and Key West continue to use Key Limes and their juice to enhance seafood dishes and sauces, as well as in pies. According to the owner of Key West's Curry Mansion Inn, a woman named Aunt Sally, the cook for estate owner William Curry, made the first Key Lime Pie. Key West historian Tom Hambright, on the other hand, surmises that Aunt Sally likely perfected a delicacy created by area fishermen. Today, each restaurant places its individual hallmark on this special dessert, but its primary ingredients are condensed milk and tiny yellow Key Limes. Often nestled in a graham cracker crust and smothered in whipped cream, Key Lime pie is a sinfully indulgent finale for any island meal.

As rich as Key lime pie is, however, it can't compare to the richness of experience awaiting visitors to the Florida Keys. Whether feasting at a water's-edge seafood shack or a gourmet emporium, visitors will find a warm welcome, an easygoing atmosphere and a unique and memorable dining experience. Described as 'Floribbean', Florida Keys' cuisine incorporates local seafood and tropical fruits alongside Caribbean and Cuban influences. The culinary tradition of Key West's near neighbor, Cuba, is saluted in Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja and picadillo, typically partnered with black beans and yellow rice.

The waters of the Keys are home to a wealth of fish such as Yellow-tail snapper, tuna and mahi-mahi - all staples on local restaurant menus. For instance, the Yellow-tail Largo is a fresh catch of snapper sautéed with shrimp, artichoke hearts and capers in a lemon-white-wine sauce. Marinated conch ceviche, pan-seared tuna and seasonal items such as sweet Key West pink shrimp are just a few of the many other dishes that delight the palates of residents and visitors alike. Seafood enthusiasts can even enjoy the satisfying taste of their own catch in one of the many restaurants which offer a 'cook the catch' option. Many restaurants will allow you to bring in your bounty after a day of fishing, and offer to cook it for you in a variety of ways. Try doing that in New York

Keys' Spiny Lobster
Unlike stone crabs, lobsters found in the Keys, like those found throughout the Caribbean, are claw-less. Known as spiny lobster, they offer sweet and tender meat. Lobster season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31.  It does not get any better than succulent Caribbean-Florida Lobster. The Keys' claw-less crustaceans are famous for their sweet, juicy and tender meat. Lobster is served steamed with clarified butter, paired with a seasoned stuffing, in a rich bisque, or cold in savory salads topped with creamy dressing.

Bon Appetit,


Friday, June 22, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, #14; Cooking with Woks

The Wok
One of my favorite methods of cooking is in a wok. They are simple, yet very versatile, require little oil, making them an economical way to cook. A woks unique shape allows it to distribute heat evenly through the pan and get very hot, making them perfect for stir-fry cooking. While they may not be necessary for every kitchen, for true food enthusiasts eager to recreate their favorite Asian recipes and flavors in their own kitchens, a wok and steamer are musts in their kitchens. I was fortunate in that growing up, my mom's love of Chinese cooking led her to take Chinese cooking courses and for years my sister and I enjoyed the fruits of her practice at home. At an early age, I was exposed to the cultures, cuisines and cooking utensils of the East.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese cooks figured out how to prepare healthy food quickly using a simple piece of equipment - the Chinese wok. Once you've decided to add a wok to your supply of kitchen equipment, you'll want to shop around to choose the best model. Originally, all woks were round bottomed and made of iron - designed to be used with the traditional Chinese wood stove. Gradually, the iron was replaced with carbon steel. Today, there are all types of woks on the market: aluminum, copper, stainless steel.Traditionally, the wok came with two metal handles, making it easy to lift in and out of the stove. I prefer the modern woks that have one long wooden handle, like a skillet, they are easier to handle in my opinion.

The wok's most distinguishing feature is its shape. Classic woks have a rounded bottom. Hand-hammered woks are sometimes flipped inside out after being shaped, giving the wok a gentle flare to the edge that makes it easier to push food up onto the sides of the wok. Woks sold in western countries are sometimes found with flat bottoms — this makes them more similar to a deep frying pan. The flat bottom allows the wok to be used on an electric stove, where a rounded wok would not be able to fully contact the stove's heating element. A round bottom wok enables the traditional round spatula or ladle to pick all the food up at the bottom of the wok and toss it around easily; this is difficult with a flat bottom. With a gas hob, or traditional pit stove, the bottom of a round wok can get hotter than a flat wok and so is better for stir frying.

Seasoning your wok:
You may have heard that it is very important to season (carbonize) the cooking surface your wok before trying it out for the first time. This is a the most important step, if you are to get years of fabulous food from your wok. This only applies to carbon-steel or cast-iron woks. If you have purchased an electric or non-stick coated wok, be very careful as the pan can get to hot ans catch fire. See your instruction manual for specifics on seasoning if you have one of these types. Seasoning removes the preservative oil manufacturers place on the wok to prevent it from rusting, replacing it with a light coating of cooking oil. It is also important to properly clean your wok after each use.

  1. Wash the wok in hot water with a small amount of liquid detergent and a scrubber (such as a stainless steel sponge or pad).
  2. If needed, scrub the exterior of the wok with the scrubber and an abrasive cleanser. Do not use the abrasive cleanser on the inside of the wok.
  3. Rinse the wok and dry thoroughly.
  4. Place the wok on high heat.
  5. Move the wok, turning it and tilting it up to the rim and back, until the metal turns a blueish-yellowish color.
  6. Remove the wok from the stove element. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
  7. Add a thin film of oil (about 1½ teaspoons) over the entire inside surface of the wok. There are several ways to do this. One is to use a paper towel to rub the oil over the surface. You may want to use tongs to hold the paper towels. Another way is to use a basting brush for barbecues or any other heat-proof brush to brush on the oil.
  8. Heat the wok on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.
  9. Wipe off the oil with another paper towel. There will be black residue on the towel.
  10. Repeat steps 7 through 9 until no black residue comes up on the paper (about 3 times). The wok is now ready to use.
If your wok becomes gunky and sticky or gets rusted you can clean the wok with salt. Simply put half a cup of salt in the wok and heat on high, reduce the heat if it gets too hot. Using your spatula send the salt up to the edges very carefully. Hot salt is dangerous. Do this for 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Allow the salt to cool to warm. Using a cloth rub the spots where the salt has stuck to in order to get rid of the gunk or rust. Discard the salt and wash the wok in hot water with a soft sponge. Re-season the wok.

Cooking with your wok:

Cooking in a wok is very simple. Many things can be cooked in a wok. Remember that woks are meant to cook very quickly so it will be necessary to have everything prepared. (Mise en place)) When preparing food to be cooked, remember that small uniform pieces will cook the most evenly. After adding a tablespoon or so of oil, heat your wok on medium to high heat. Cook meat first and when it all seems done on the outside, add any vegetables and sauces. In only a few minutes, the meat will be completely done and the vegetables will be tender yet crisp. You may also fry, braise, or poach in a wok. Gauging the temperature for each of these cooking techniques is very important. Keep in mind that oil and water do not mix, so if you decide to poach in a wok, be sure to dry and season the pan thoroughly after you've finished.

Recognized as the cleaning whisk or the bamboo wok cleaning brush, this small broom-like brush is made of bamboo bristles. Bundled jointly and tied at the top with strings, this easy device is the answer to removing stubborn food remains while not damaging the wok. Just use the bamboo wok cleaning brush in a swirling motion below running water. The bamboo whisk is tough and functional and it can be used for mainly stainless steel cookware. This bamboo wok cleaning brush may be ordinary in appearance but it is a well-organized and simple way to clean your wok. After using the brush to remove the food bits, scrub your wok with dish detergent and hot water. Dry the wok and rub a bit of oil around the inside of the pan. This will make sure your wok lasts a long time and that it gives your food a great flavor.

Bon Appetit,


Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Cheeses of Italy

Almost every region of Italy has its own distinct cheese and the sheer number of different types is astounding. Cheese is a part of everyday life in Italy, consumed at almost every meal. Each region boasts its own speciality and depending on which you choose, the subtleties and nuances that make up the particular soils, plants and grasses of a particular region the cows & sheep graze on are recognized in that they lend distinctive qualities to the milk that make up each cheese. As always, it is my goal to educate you as well as entertain, so that you can become a gourmet in your own right.

Made in the region of Vicenza and Trento, this is a traditional, farmhouse cheese that is creamy, unpasteurized and hard. Originally made of ewe's milk, it is now made entirely of cow's milk. As we have covered in a previous feature of this cheese, there are two types of Asiago: A lightly pressed cheese made from whole milk, matured for 20-30 days and a second aged cheese made with skim milk. Long and slow maturation process creates fruity, slightly sharp cheese with a compact, granular interior full of small holes. Matured over 2 years, it becomes intensely flavored.

Bel Paese
From the Lombardy region of Italy, this is a modern, creamy, semi soft cheese and has a light, milky aroma. It is matured for 6-8 weeks. The pure Italian cheese is identified by its wrapping, which feature an image of a priest and the map of Italy. In the U.S. licensed versions show a map of the Americas. The name means "beautiful land" and was inspired by the title of a book by Stoppani. Bel Paese is very similar to French St. Paulin. It can also be used instead of mozzarella.

This is a fresh mozzarella that comes in various sizes, packed in either water or brine. Other fresh mozzarella, such as Fiore di Latte Trecce, etc. are Bocconcini in different shapes.

Traditional, unpasteurized, hard cheese which has a round shape. The cheese is named after the place where it was originally sold. There exist two types of Bra. The traditional, hard version that ripens for three to six months. The color darkens and the flavor intensifies. The other type is sold young, at 45 days, when the paste is still soft. This version is made from pasteurized milk. Bra is used as a table cheese, but also for grating and melting.

This cheese originates from southern Italy. It's a traditional, stretched curd cheese made from cow's milk. It's gourd-shaped and tied at the thin end with a cord to hang. After a period of three months this cheese can be eaten as a table cheese and after a period of two years, it is used for grating. There are also smoked versions of this cheese. Cavallo means "horse" in Italian and it is said that this cheese was originally made from mare's milk. In the Italian language the expression "to end up like Caciocavallo" means to be hanged.

From a region of Foggia, this is a traditional, farmhouse, unpasteurized, semi-hard cheese. Milk with paste rennet is curdled at 95 degrees F. Once the curd is firm, it is cut scalded by heating it to 110 degrees F, salted and then peppercorns are added. There is no set ripening period for this cheese, therefore its taste and consistency varies.

Casciotta di Urbino
It is a traditional, unpasteurized, semi-soft cheese. It has a shape of a round-edged cylinder with a thin, polished, yellow to orange natural rind. The name of the cheese is used to describe the many small cheeses made all over central Italy. It can be made with cow's, goat's or sheep's milk. The flavor is sweet and moist, with the aroma of warm milk. It is a delicate, subtle cheese with flavors of fresh green grass, nuts and wild flowers. This cheese is produced only between April and September. It ripens in 15 - 30 days and has a fat content of 45 per cent. Casciotta di Urbino is used as a table cheese, in salads and for cooking.

This cheese is made from partially skimmed cow's milk, with some goat's or sheep's milk added. The evening milk is left to ripen overnight. The next day, the morning milk is added, which contributes to its strong taste and unusual texture. The reddish-yellow, natural rind is crusty, with some gray molds and yeast. The cheeses are left to ripen in damp cellars and drying rooms, occasionally being turned and washed to encourage the development of the natural micro-flora that contribute to the pungent, yeasty aroma. Blue molds, present in the cellars, sometimes penetrate the rind to form fine, blue streaks that impart a more spicy flavor to the cheese. It is used as an after-dinner cheese and to make gnocchi.

White square or rectangular, this fresh cheese is made from cow's milk. This cheese belongs to Stracchino-style cheeses, but varies from the rest by its fat content. This cheese is sold after a few days wrapped in simple, white, greaseproof paper. Smooth and moist, it has a fresh, clean acidity. Other Crescenzas are more rubbery, jelly-like or mushy, with a sour taste. Low-fat varieties can be grainy. The cheese should be ripened for no longer than ten days and as such eaten as quickly as possible.

It is a wheel shaped, creamy, blue cheese made from cow's milk. The cheese has a sweet taste as the name suggests. Dolcelatte means "sweet milk." This cheese is very soft and melts in the mouth like ice-cream. It was created by the Galbani company, famous for cheese making. The method of production is very similar to Gorgonzola, except that Dolcelatte is made from the curd of only one milking. Similar cheeses include, for example, Dolceverde and Torta Gaudenzio.

Fiore Sardo
It is a cheese of cylindrical or wheel shaped. The rind is natural, golden-yellow to dark brown and has a sour, damp smell. The cheese is hard and grainy and has a wonderfully rich flavor, with caramel sweetness, salty tang and a hint of fruit. Rennet from lamb is used to coagulate milk. When drained, the curds are scalded in hot water to seal the rind. Then, they are stored on a woven reed shelf absorbing the sweet smoke as they dry. Ripening continues in another room, or the attic and the cheeses are periodically rubbed with olive oil and sheep fat to keep them moist. This cheese ripens in three to six months.

Originally started as the French version of Fontina, Fontal has developed into a distinct cheese of its own. It is generally made commercially on a large scale. It is tender and buttery with a bland taste and a yellow paste with tiny holes.

Genuine Fontina

This is the original cheese and it comes from the Val d'Aosta region of Italy in the Alps near the French and Swiss borders. Fontina is dense, smooth and slightly elastic. The straw-colored interior, with its small round holes, has a delicate nuttiness with a hint of mild honey. When melted, as it frequently is, the flavor is earthy with a taste of mushrooms and a fresh acidity. Fontina is the primary ingredient of Italian fonduta, which we covered in our feature about fondue, and is a pristine table or dessert cheese.

Fresh Mozzarella 
The cheese that is best known around the world as 'pizza cheese,' it is a must in every Italian's kitchen. It is a fresh cheese that is always mild, high in moisture and low in fat. For most traditional Italians, the best version of this cheese is made from buffalo milk, though most American mozzarella is made with cow's milk. It has a slightly acidic or lactic taste. It is mostly used for cooking, but if you can get it freshly made from your local Italian grocer, it is best served topped with basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil atop a slice of fresh tomato, dusted with paprika, charcoal or fresh herbs, such as oregano.

Fresh Ricotta
Light, delicate and moist, this is made from whey, so it's low in fats and calories and contains a lot of vitamins. It is believed that this is the cheese that Miss Muffet was consuming when she sat on her tuffet and had her infamous encounter with the spider. It is another of the most well known types of fresh Italian cheeses. You will find it combined with mozzarella when used as the filling for stuffed shells, manicotti, ravioli's. As a child growing up, when my mom made this fresh, it was all she could do to keep me out of the bowl, eating it just after it was combined with the fresh herbs and spices. This is actually my favorite way to eat ricotta. Another staple in Italian households, especially around Christmas and Easter is ricotta pie, and ricotta cheesecake, which is a bit lighter and fluffier than its cream cheese counterpart, and has become quite popular.

Fresh Truffles
There is a wide range of this kind of Italian cheese like Italian White Truffles, French Summer Truffles, French Winter Truffles, etc. These cheeses taste delicious with condiments, for example Truffle and Porto Sauce, Black Truffle Mustard, Black Truffle Sherry Vinegar and many others.

This is a traditional, creamy and co-operative, blue cheese. The greenish-blue penicillin mold imparts a sharp, spicy flavor and provides an excellent contrast to the rich, creamy cheese. Gorgonzola is made in the northern Italian village of Gorgonzola, from which it gets its name, either from unpasteurized or pasteurized milk to which the mold is added. At about four weeks, the cheeses are pierced with thick needles to encourage the spread of the mold. Gorgonzola ripens in three to six months. The cheese is usually wrapped in foil to keep it moist. Its color ranges from white to straw-yellow with an unmistakable marbled green or bluish-green mold. The taste ranges from mild to sharp, depending on age.

Grana Padano
Grana is a traditional, co-operative, unpasteurized, hard cheese. The smooth, natural rind is extremely hard and thick. This cheese is known to many of us as simply "Parmesan." The cheese should taste fresh, fruity and sweet, with a hint of pineapple. The pale yellow interior should be hard, grainy and crumbly. Grana Padano freezes very well. It ripens in 12 -48 months.

Il Boschetto al Tartufo
The Il Boschetto al Tartufo is a mild semi-soft cheese, a blend of sheep and cow's milk, loaded with white truffle bits. If you ever have a chance to purchase this cheese, while a bit on the pricey side, it is well worth every tender morsel and mouthful. If you are a lover of truffles as I am, this will become one of your favorite cheeses for any occasion. I absolutely love this cheese.

A soft, white, fresh, vegetarian, cream cheese from the Lombardy region of southern Italy. In fact, it is not cheese at all, but rather the result of a culture being added to the cream skimmed off the top of the milk used in the production of Parmesan. It is, however, described as a curd cheese, although it is made in much the same way as yogurt. To make mascarpone, cheese tartaric acid (natural vegetable acid derived from the seed of the tamarind tree) is needed. After the culture has been added, the cream is gently heated, then allowed to mature and thicken. This white to straw-yellow fresh cheese is creamy, mild and compact, while maintaining a buttery supple and spreadable texture and it is added to famous Italian desserts, sometimes accompanied by cognac. Frequently it is used for the preparation of certain dishes and sauces, and chefs are now using it in more and more creative ways.

This creamy, unpasteurized, hard cheese is made from cow's milk. The yellow-brown rind is smooth and springy at first, later it becomes darker and harder. This cheese was developed in the thirteenth century in the monastery of Maggio. Originally, it was made only from sheep's milk. The cheese has the same shape as Fontina, but in texture, it resembles a young Asiago. The body is firm with small holes. It is creamy, rich and fruity, with a hint of pineapple. As it matures, the rind becomes very hard and the interior becomes granular and even brittle.

Panera means "cream" in Italian and Pannerone is one of the creamiest cheeses available. Milk is curdled at 89 degrees F and gently stirred as the curd forms. The stirring releases whey and also helps the mass to grow firm. The curd drains for 12 hours in cheese cloths, and placed in a heated environment of upwards of 80 degrees F for one week. The temperature is dropped to 50 degrees F for another week and the cheese is immediately ready for market. Pannerone has a smooth taste with a hint of bitter bite. Sometimes mistaken for Gorgonzola, due to its shape, however, it does not have veins.

A traditional, unpasteurized, hard cheese made from cow's skim milk. It has a shape of a drum with sticky, hard, yellow to orange rind. Parmigiano Reggiano weighs 75 lbs. and must be cut by a saw. The aroma is sweet and fruity, the color, fresh yellow and the taste is fruity, like pineapple. Parmigiano Reggiano's flavor is unmistakably piquant. Primarily, a grating cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is a great topping for soups, pasta dishes, veal chicken or salads. In Italy, this cheese is sold in large, grainy chunks, chiseled from the shiny drum that carries its name emblazoned on the rind.

Pecorino Romano
This is a sheep's milk cheese which is straw-white in color and has the sharpest flavor of all the other cheeses listed here. Although it is sometimes referred to as Locatelli, Locatelli is a brand name. Pecora in Italian means sheep and Pecorino Romano is one of Italy's oldest cheeses. Legend has it that a shepherd filled his flask with sheep's milk before a long trip and the motion during the trip caused the milk to naturally ferment. The idea for a new cheese was born. Today most Pecorino is made in Sardinia, Italy. With its fine flavor, Pecorino's popularity as a grating cheese has grown significantly in the U.S. Since sheep only give milk for 6-7 months a year, all production in that window of time must satisfy the public's demand for the entire year.

This is a very versatile cheese used for cooking, dessert purposes and even grating. It is traditional, creamy, stretched curd cheese. This cheese appears in various shapes. The thin, hard rind is golden-yellow, shiny and is sometimes waxed. Provolone cheese can be of various types. Dolce (mild Provolone) is aged for two to three months, and it is supple and smooth with a thin waxed rind. It is generally used as a table cheese. Aged for six months to two years, it is darker with small holes and a spicy flavor.

A very popular cheese produced in Sicily, the cheese usually has a shape of a brick and it is made from unpasteurized cow's milk. The curd is heated and stretched until it is rubbery. Then it is pressed into rectangular molds and the cheese is left to dry. Salted and rubbed, the cheese is ready for affinage that takes six months. During this period of time, it is regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar. After this period of time the cheese hardens and the taste becomes stronger and more savory.

Raschera comes from Cuneo. Its name is derived from Lake Raschera, which lies at the foot of Mt. Mongioie. It is a semi-soft cheese made from sweet cow's milk. The flavor of Raschera changes from season to season. Spring and summer cheeses are sweet, fresh and slightly tart. Winter cheeses are more solid and vibrant. Raschera has a round or square shape with reddish-yellow crust.

Ricotta Salata
When fresh ricotta goes through its natural aging process, a hard, pungent cheese, suitable for eating or grating results. Like fresh ricotta, ricotta salata is almost white in color.

Sottocenere al Tartufo
The Sottocenere al Tartufo is a little firmer in texture, all cow's milk, but packs a truffle punch, with the added flavor of having been aged in an edible vegetable ash rind with nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, licorice, cloves and fennel rubbed in.

Buttery, delicate, semi-soft and subtlety sweet, this cheese is made from cow's milk. It usually has a square shape. The cheese has a special taste and aroma. The crust is pinkish-gray and the paste is white, supple and fruity. There is also a cooked-curd version which is firmer and bears a resemblance to mozzarella. Taleggio is also known as Stracchino (from the Italian word stracche, which means fatigued), which referred to the cows of the area after they traveled back to the valley from their grazing season in the high pastures. Taleggio is an excellent dessert cheese that goes very well with a robust wine.

Traditional, hard cheese made from cow's milk. The name of the cheese means "drunken" in Italian and it is because the young cheese is soaked in wine, covered with the crushed grape skins left after pressing and then allowed to mature for six to ten months. The cheese has a firm, crumbly but open texture that is fairly wet and the taste has a hint of pineapple.

While this list is extensive, believe it or not, it is not a complete list of all the cheeses that come from Italy. I hope that you have a greater understanding now of how very much the Italians love their fromage. Take it upon yourself to explore the varying tastes and textures of all that Italy's regions and the cheeses that they produce have to offer. You'll be glad you did.

 Buon Appetito, ciao!


Monday, June 18, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, #13: Cooking with Tagines

The Tagine 
A meal cooked in a very beautiful clay tagine and the memory of powerful aromas and flavors permeated my then young, culinary mind, but it was way more than just the food. It was the way it was prepared; the communal aspect of the meal; the experience itself. Reclining on the plush pillows, actual silks floating down from the ceiling. The fountain, keeping the dance of water constant, against the low thrum of the middle eastern music that played in the background. A pot of strong sweetened tea steeping on the low mesob-type table in front of me, while I noshed on Bistteeya, enjoying the play of the spices against the almonds, sugar icing and cinnamon. I was waiting for what was to become a memorable tagine meal. It was surreal. To make my way back to this small private and unique dining room, I had to navigate, politely, through a darkened hallways and alcoves, brushing past family members and past a kitchen, filled with the lilt of foreign dialects and the pungent smells and fragrances expected in North Africa. Since that day I've never been the same. This oasis was located on.....Second Ave, on the Upper East Side of NYC. And it was Tuesday night. I'd heard of authentic cuisine, but this was total immersion. The only thing missing was my Lawrence of Arabia headband and a place to tie up my camel. Had I inquired, I'm sure someone would have found me the required robes to loan me. This was the night I fell in love with the tagine.

Let's start with the very basics: What is a tagine? Well, to confuse you immediately, tagine refers to both a cooking vessel as well as the stew cooked in it. The tagine vessel consists of two parts: a round pot (traditionally clay or terra cotta), and a conical cover sometimes with a small hole which allows some steam to escape. The base is normally shallow with a rim and is commonly glazed on the inside. The conical shaped lid helps preserve moisture in the food as the steam condenses on the inside of the lid. The shape of the lid also creates circulation within the dish, infusing the food with spices and flavors. It gradually reduces the cooking juices so they become more concentrated and flavorful. The lid is commonly glazed on the outside.

Tagines, the meals, are typically found in North African countries including Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Although each country uses ingredients more commonly found on their own soil, the preparations are very similar. Tagines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce, cooked in a tagine, the vessel. Stay with me....focus; Ideal cuts of lamb are the neck, shoulder or shank, cooked until it is falling off the bone tender. They are often combined with a medley of ingredients or seasonings: olives, quinces, apples, pears, apricots, raisins, prunes, dates, nuts, with fresh or preserved lemons. Traditional spices used include ground cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cumin, paprika, pepper, as well as the famous spice blend ras el hanout.

Ras el hanout is a spice blend that is commonly used all over North Africa, but is known to be Moroccan in origin. Shops, companies, or even individuals usually have their own secret combinations and recipes, containing over a dozen spices. Typically included are cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric. Some recipes include over one hundred ingredients, with some rarely found in Western food, such as; ash berries, chufa, Grains of Paradise, orris root, Monk's pepper, cubebs, or dried rosebud.

Other ingredients for a tagine may include any product that braises well: fish, quail, pigeon, beef, root vegetables, legumes, even amber and agar wood. Modern recipes in the West might include pot roasts, ossobuco, lamb shanks and short-ribs. Just because we're cooking in a Moroccan tagine, does not limit us to cooking Moroccan cuisine. Seasonings can be traditional Moroccan, French, Italian or spices can be suited to the dish.

Ingredients commonly used when preparing tagine include: 
Preserved lemons, onions, dried fruits, nuts, sesame seeds, eggs, tomatoes, peppers, olives and seasonings like paprika, cinnamon, cumin, cilantro and saffron are the other components. Smen is a traditional cooking oil most commonly in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is produced using the butter made from the milk of sheep or goats. The butter is brought to boiling point for about 15 minutes, then skimmed, strained into a ceramic jar called a khabia, and salted before it curdles. The oil is then aged.

Glazed vs Unglazed: 
Ceramic glazes are thin coatings baked onto unfinished pottery to make their surfaces glassy, smooth and waterproof. Some glazes used for ceramic products may contain lead oxides. If they are not heated adequately during manufacture, this may result in the release of lead from the product into the food.

So which should you choose?
If you are going to use tagines to cook frequently, say weekly, then unglazed tagines are best because they provide that earthy flavor to your dishes. Otherwise, and this is what most people do, the glazed tagine is better for you because it is stored away and it does not develop that "closet" scent the way unglazed tagines would. Here are a few tips for seasoning your tagine for its first use: This should help remove any earthenware taste and strengthen your tagine;

1. The new tagine needs to be submerged in water for at least 1 hour. Remove and dry.
2. Rub the inside of the base and lid with olive oil.
3. Put in a cold oven and set temperature to 350 degrees and leave for 2 hours.
4. Remove from oven and cool.
5. When completely cool, wash in warm soapy water and dry with a clean cloth.
6. Your tagine is now ready to use.

* NOTE: When cooking in a tagine, never place a ceramic tagine directly on a flame. A heat diffuser should be used if you are using a traditional ceramic tagine. If you do not have a diffuser, place the tagine in a large skillet. If cooking on an electric stove use a medium heat. European manufacturers have created tagines with heavy cast-iron bottoms that can purportedly be heated on a cooking stove to a high temperature, but even these should be used with care, following specific manufacturer guidelines.

So now its time to cook! Gather your ingredients, cut your meat or protein into the appropriate size and shape. Browning in the tagine is an option, but normally a clay tagine is finished uncovered to gain that brown development of flavor towards the end. Seasonings should be added to the protein and vegetables to allow time to develop during the stewing process. In the base of a skillet or the tagine, add some oil, saute garlic and onion along with the protein, then add the vegetables. Cover and cook for the appropriate cooking time. Once the tagine is done cooking, it can be served in the cooking tagine bottom itself, or it can be transferred into a more decorative tagine or bowl to bring to the table. Tagines can be found at Moroccan markets, or on the internet. Be sure to purchase the size and shaped tagine that best suits your needs. Good Luck And Enjoy!

Bon Appetit,