Second Cooking Lesson with Ayu

For our second cooking lesson we made Sweet Tempeh, Fried Noodles, and Black Rice Pudding for dessert. I thought I should mention that the sweet soy sauce we used is thick like maple syrup. I’ll have to look for it in my Asian market at home. The little packet on the left in the photo is oyster sauce, which technically violates the vegetarian thing, but I don’t care.

All the ingredients for the whole meal. The plate on the right (next to the coconut) contains black rice, 2 blocks of palm sugar, 2 bananas, and the fragrant panandan leaves. The iron tool next to the coconut is for opening the coconut.

Sweet Tempeh  (Serves 2)

 Ingredients:

2 blocks tempeh

Tempeh wrapped in a banana leaf. It’s about the same size as our blocks of tempeh at home.

6 garlic cloves

1 small shallot

1 red chili, seeds and veins removed

3 green onions

1 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 T. sweet soy sauce

1 T. ketchup

1 T. oyster sauce

coconut oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  2. Cut the tempeh into small rectangular slabs about ¼ inch x ¼ inch x ¾ inch.
  3. Chop the green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil (1/4 inch deep) in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully add the tempeh cubes and move them around in the pan to coat with the oil. Continue moving them around gently with spatula until they are golden on all sides. (You don’t need to turn them individually.)
  5. Remove the tempeh to a strainer or colander set over a bowl. Reserve 2 T. of the coconut oil.
  6. Using the same pan, heat the 2 T. of coconut oil. When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the green onions, celery and the tempeh. Gently stir to mix.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Sweet tempeh served on a banana leaf. This was one of our favorite dishes in Bali. I could have eaten this every day.

 

Fried Noodles (Balinese style)     Serves a lot more than 2

Ingredients:

1 pkg wavy Asian egg noodles

8 garlic cloves

1 large shallot

2 red chili, seeds and veins removed

4 green onions

2 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 bunch bok choy, washed and dried

2 eggs

1 medium carrot

½ small head of cabbage (2 cups chopped)

3 T. sweet soy sauce

3 T. ketchup

3 T. oyster sauce

2 T. coconut oil for frying

 

Preparation:

  1. Put on a pot of water to boil while you prepare the vegetables. When it boils, cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain and add a little oil so the noodles don’t stick together. Set aside.
  2. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  3. Dice the celery and green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Chop the bok choy and cabbage into bite size pieces. Dice the carrot. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. (You can use some of the coconut oil that you used to fry the tempeh.) When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant.
  5. Add the green onions and celery and cook for 1 minute. Crack 2 eggs into the pan and stir them around until cooked and combined with the vegetables. Add the carrot, bok choy, and cabbage. Stir to mix well.
  6. Add the noodles.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Fried noodles, ready to eat.

Black Rice Pudding

This dish takes some advance planning since the black rice needs to be soaked and cooked ahead of time. The whole dish can be made ahead of time and reheated for dessert or for breakfast.

 

Ingredients:

½ cup black rice

1 can coconut milk (or you can make your own coconut milk like we did. Instructions below.)

¾ cup palm sugar or ¾ cup dark brown sugar, packed

* 3 fragrant panandan leaves (These are used for flavoring and coloring cakes and other baked goods. Obviously you can only add these if you are in Bali.)

salt

sliced bananas

 

Preparation:

  1. Soak the black rice for 8 hours or more. Drain off the water.
  2. Put the soaked rice in a large pot and add 10 cups cold water (it should cover the rice by about 5 inches. Cook the rice over low heat for an hour or more. Taste to see if the rice is tender. You should have about ½ an inch of black water in the pan with the rice. If the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and keep cooking it down until you have tender rice and about ½ inch of creamy, black, soupy water.

*Add the fragrant leaves to the last 15 minutes of cooking time.

3. While the rice is cooking, melt the brown sugar with 1 T. of water until syrupy. Set aside to use later.

4. Add 1 can coconut milk and a pinch of salt to the pot with the black rice. Bring to a boil, stirring so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom. Boil for 5 minutes.

5. Add at least half of the sugar syrup. Taste and add more sugar as desired *Remove the leaves before serving.

6. Serve in small bowls or cups with sliced bananas on top.

 

Note: Here’s how to make your own coconut milk. This is the way we made it in Bali.

  1. Get a mature coconut off your tree in the back yard. Get your husband to remove the husk with a hatchet.

    Wayan removing the coconut husk.

  2. Crack the coconut open with a penyeluhan, a small crow-bar looking tool that is made just for opening coconuts.
  3. Drain off the coconut water.
  4. Separate the coconut meat from the hard shell. Break off 5 large chunks (about the size of your palm).
  5. Using a traditional wooden grater made from the bark of a palm fern tree, finely grate the coconut meat.

    Grating coconut

  6. Put the grated coconut in a large bowl and add 1½ cups of water. Using your hands, squeeze the water through the grated coconut for about 10 minutes. Remove as much grated coconut as you can with your hands, then drain the coconut milk off using a fine mesh strainer. It is now ready to add to the pot with the black rice (or whatever else you’re making.)
  7. Feed the discarded grated coconut to your pigs. (It makes the meat really tasty I’m told.) Use the coconut shell for making bowls and fancy spoons. Use the coconut husk for grilling suckling pig and other meats, or for your fire dance ceremony.

First Cooking Lesson with Ayu

About a week ago I had my first cooking lesson with Ayu. We made Gado-Gado (Boiled Vegetables With Peanut Sauce), Tofu With Peanut Sauce, and Fried Banana for dessert. Here are the recipes and a few photos:

Tofu and Vegetables with Peanut Sauce

 Ingredients:

1 pound firm tofu

10 long beans (or 2 handfuls green beans)

1 large handful bean sprouts

½ bunch spinach (or 1 package baby spinach)

1 cup raw peanuts

10 cloves garlic, chopped very small (1/3 cup?)

2-3 shallots, thinly sliced

2 red chili peppers, seeds and veins removed

1 T. sweet soy sauce

1-2 T. cane sugar

*Optional: A squeeze of fresh lime juice. (We used half a Balinese lime, which is teeny tiny lime about the size of a ping-pong ball. You don’t juice it, you just put it in rind and all.)

coconut oil for frying

(Serve with white rice or thin rice noodles. If you have leftover rice you can warm it up with boiling water just before serving. If you need to make rice, start it cooking at the beginning of the process.)

Clockwise from upper left: Spinach, long beans, bean sprouts; tofu blocks; garlic, shallots, bali lime; salt; sweet soy sauce; coconut oil in the plastic water bottle; peanuts; bananas; jackfruit (which we also made into fritters for dessert.)

Preparation:

  1. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.

    Prepping the veggies

  2. Slice the tofu ¼ inch thick from the small end of the cube and put it in a bowl.

    Slicing the tofu.

    3. Wash and trim the spinach. Drain well. Cut the long beans into 3 inch lengths.

    4. Heat coconut oil (1/4 inch deep) in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully add the tofu slices one at a time with tongs. When you can see they are becoming golden on the bottom, turn them to cook on the other side. If the oil gets smoky, turn the heat down (or off) for a little bit. When cooked on both sides, remove to a strainer placed over a bowl to drain and cool.

    5. While the tofu is cooking, heat more coconut oil in a small frying pan. Fry the shallots until crispy and browned. Remove them to a plate. Using the same oil, fry the garlic and chilies until the garlic is very pale golden, just a couple of minutes. Remove them to a separate plate.

    Fried shallots, and fried garlic and chili in coconut oil.

    6. After the tofu is finished cooking, use the same oil (add more as needed) to fry the peanuts. Stir constantly until the peanuts are nicely colored. Remove them to a plate to cool. Dispose of any remaining frying oil.

    Frying the peanuts while the tofu drains in the natural bamboo colander.

    7. Put a large pot of water on to boil. When the water is boiling, add the long beans or green beans. Put the lid on and let the water return to a boil. Taste a bean for doneness. It should be tender crisp. Add the spinach on top and push it down into the water. Then add the bean sprouts. Move them around in the water for one minute, then turn off the heat. Put them in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Let them drain.

    8. Make the peanut sauce. Grind the peanuts in a mortar and pestle or put them in the food processor. Add a little water to loosen the paste. Add the shallots, garlic, and chilies and process until smooth.

    Grinding peanuts in a stone bowl with a round rock.

    Seeing how it’s really done.

     

    9. Using the same large frying pan that you used for the peanuts, heat some water (approximately an equal quantity as the peanut paste.) Stir in the peanut paste. Add salt, sweet soy sauce, and cane sugar. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. Cook the sauce until it is the consistency of gravy. (At this point, you could try adding a little bit of lime juice to brighten the flavors, or just leave it as it is.)

    10. Put the tofu on a wide serving dish and spoon half the peanut sauce over the tofu. Drizzle with more sweet soy sauce.

    11. Put the vegetables on a separate serving dish and pour the remaining peanut sauce over them. Stir to coat all the vegetables with the sauce. Add a little more salt, some sweet soy sauce, and taste. Correct flavors as needed.

    Main dishes ready for the table. Gado-gado on the left, plain white rice in the middle on a beautiful banana-leaf mat, and tofu with peanut sauce on the right.

Fried Bananas   (Makes 8 small fritters)

Ingredients:

2 cups white flour

2 eggs

¼ t. salt

4 T. sugar

2 bananas

coconut oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. Crack the 2 eggs into the flour. Add salt and sugar. Stir with whisk just to combine.
  2. Peel the bananas. Cut them in half to make 3-4 inch long pieces. Cut them in half lengthwise (to make them skinnier.)
  3. Start heating coconut oil ( ¼ inch deep) over medium flame.
  4. Gently place a piece of banana in the batter. Using a spoon, gently move the banana around until it is covered with batter.
  5. When the oil is hot, use the spoon to gently place the coated banana into the oil. Fry for 1 minute or so until golden. Using tongs, turn to cook the other side.
  6. Remove from the oil and drain in a colander placed over a bowl (or on paper towels on a plate.)
  7. Repeat with the other pieces of banana. (You can cook as many pieces as will fit in your pan at the same time, but make sure you still have enough space to turn them over.)

Note: These should be eaten shortly after frying as they don’t keep very well. The batter will keep for a few days, covered in the refrigerator. Balinese people eat these for dessert and for breakfast.

Highlight: Getting to know the neighborhood

October 13th

Today we began to get to know our host family better, and we took a walk through the town and the rice paddies near our house.

We are staying in a guest cottage at the home of Wayan Sueta and his family. His wife, Ayu, and his two boys, Agus and Anta, have welcomed us into the family. They keep telling us that they feel so honored that we have chosen to stay with them for a whole month and that this is to be our home. “There are no rules in Bali” so we should just feel at home and do as we like.

As it turns out, there are lots of rules in Bali, like we aren’t allowed to help with cleanup after meals. There is no restaurant in town, so Ayu cooks all our meals.

Ayu, chef extraordinaire.

She doesn’t want us to help out because they are charging us for meals – $4 per person. Coffee, tea, and bottled water are complimentary.  We had told them in advance that we are vegetarian, but we wanted to make sure we had the same definition of vegetarian (eggs and dairy ok, no fish). She asked us when we wanted to eat our meals and we said, “Oh, whenever your family is eating.” She said, “We have different times of hungry. It is not our culture to eat meals together. We cook all our food in the morning and then eat whenever we want during the day.” So, as it turns out, our meals are at different times of hungry, too.

We also said that we hoped it wouldn’t be too inconvenient for her to fix vegetarian meals for us when her family isn’t vegetarian. Then she laughed and said, “Oh no! Vegetarian is much more easy.” I believe she is the first person to ever say that to us. The food has been spectacular, by the way. They make their own coconut oil from the coconuts that grow all over the property and this is what she uses for cooking. It is so aromatic. In Bali, tofu, tempeh, and seitan are much more common and inexpensive than meat. They get fruit from their own property, along with many of the fabulous Balinese spices.

Breakfast is usually fruit and coffee or tea, sometimes with Balinese pancakes made from tapioca flour. Lunch and dinner usually consists of a noodle or rice dish, a vegetable dish, and a protein dish like tofu or tempeh, with fruit for dessert. I feel like we have landed in vegetarian heaven. My favorite dishes so far are sweet tempeh with chili, tofu crackers, and the stir fried noodles. I asked Ayu if I could hire her to teach me some of these dishes and she shyly and grateful accepted my proposition. I’m looking forward to my first class.

This is how the food comes to the table, under these colorful covers to keep the flies off. (It’s mango season so there are more flies than usual now, but not too bad.)

And under the covers we find… fried rice, cucumbers from the garden, and fried, salted “nuts” which are actually the little beans inside long beans. Yummy!

Both Wayan and Ayu have talked with us about religion and culture in Bali. I will let George go into more detail about Balinese Hinduism, but I will mention that every family compound has its own temple, and every community has temples to various gods that are used for specific rituals. Offerings are made several times throughout the day at the family temple. We are looking forward to our first community temple visit on Friday.

One of many offerings that appear each day. This one was just outside our bungalow.

 

On our walk through the town, we learned that not only are we the only guests at Wayan’s home, we are the only Westerners in the entire village. Everyone is very friendly and curious about us. The people who speak English stop and ask us where we are from and where we are staying. Those who only speak Balinese say hello and smile when we pass.

We are also a two minute walk from beautiful, terraced rice fields. Here are a few images from our first walk through the paddies. I’m sure there will be many more.

Wayan, our host and guide, chilling out in the rice fields and checking his voicemail.

This rice is almost ready to harvest, so an offering has been made to Dewi Sri, the goddess of the rice fields (and also of the market where the rice is sold.)

A shrine in the rice field. These are at the corner of every farmer’s plot, marking boundaries and protecting the field.

Looking good. His clothes are getting too big for him.

Beautiful terracing of the fields.

Sunset on the border between the rice field and the village.

Recipes from Cooking Class

Last week we had our second cooking class at In Tavola, which is a fabulous cooking school. If you’re coming to Florence and want to do cooking classes, you should check out their website. We made a 3 course meal, and then at the end we got to eat everything we cooked. They gave us a little recipe booklet, but I don’t want to carry around little pieces of paper, so I’m transcribing it here so you can try it out at home and I can have it again later, too.

Menu

  • Artichoke soufflè (starter)
  • Fresh egg pasta (used for the ravioli)
  • Spinach and Ricotta Filled Ravioli (main dish)
  • Panna Cotta (dessert)

Artichoke Soufflè

  • 300 g. artichoke hearts, sliced (see note)
  • 20 g butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 25 g grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 dl thick bechamel sauce (see below)

Note: We used small, fresh artichokes. Cut off the top third of the artichoke. Pull off the outside leaves until you get to the heart. Peel the stem. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise. Cut out the choke (the little fuzzy part that you would throw away if you were eating the artichoke cooked).

PROCEDURE:

Prepare the bechamel sauce (see below.) Boil the artichokes for 7 minutes (see note above). Drain and toss with the butter. Grind the buttered artichoke hearts in a mortar with a pestle, then pass through a sieve, or puree in a blender. (We used an immersion blender, with a little of the bechamel sauce in with it.) Combine the artichoke paste, bechamel, cheese and eggs. Puree until smooth. Put the mixture int a greased and floured pan (or ramekins) and cook in a water bath in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, approximately 15-20 minutes. Let stand a few minutes before reoming from pan to a plate and serving.

Bechamel Sauce

  • 60 g butter
  • 60 g flour type 00, sifted (all purpose flour should be fine)
  • 1 litre milk
  • nutmeg to taste
  • salt to taste

PROCEDURE: Melt the butter, whisk in the sifted flour little by little. Add the nutmeg and continue cooking and stirring for one minute to thicken. Put the milk in a separate saucepan and add a pinch of salt; bring to a boil. Slowly, add the milk to the flour mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook sauce for at least 5 minutes over low flame, stirring occasionally.

Fresh Egg Pasta

  • 2 eggs
  • 50 g flour of durum wheat
  • 150 g flour type 00
  • salt to taste

PROCEDURE: Put the flour in a mound on a large wooden pastry board, making a large well in the center of the mound. Break the eggs into the hole, add a generous pinch of salt. Beat the eggs, then slowly begin incorporating the flour from the inside perimeter of the well into the mixture with a fork. Knead well until smooth and elastic. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 30 minutes before using.

Cut dough ball into 2 equal parts. Working with one half at a time, slightly flour, roll with a rolling pin. Fold into thirds and roll again. Using a pasta machine, run the dough through the machine at settings 1, 3, and 5. Fold into thirds again and roll with pin to width of the machine. Repeat until pasta is desired consistency. For ravioli finish on setting 6.

Spinch & Ricotta Filled Ravioli

  • 250 g spinach
  • 250 g ricotta cheese
  • 60 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ground nutmeg to taste

PROCEDURE: Clean the spinach, boil and let cool; squeeze well to remove the liquid and mince finely. Strain the ricotta through a sieve then put into a bowl; add the spinach, cheese egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Put the spinach mixture into a pastry bag (or a plastic bag and cut a hole to dispense the mixture.) Roll out the pasta dough into one thin strip, about 5 inches wide. Using the pastry bag, place a dollop (about 1 T.) of filling in the center of the strip. Place another dollop about 3 inches from the first one. Keep working your way down. Leave 2 finger widths of pasta at each end. Gently fold the long strip in half. Using the blunt side of a round cookie cutter, press down gently around each dab of spinach mixture. Use your fingers to press out any air bubbles and seal the pasta together. Using a pronged pasta cutter, cut between the dollops to create individual raviolis. Gently flour the tops. Use a spatula to lift the raviolis onto a floured cardboard tray, taking care not to overlap them or they will stick together.

Place in boiling, salted water and cook for 5-7 minutes. While they are cooking, melt some butter and olive oil together. Scoop the raviolis into the butter and slide around the pan to coat. Sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese and serve.

Panna Cotta

  • 6 g gelatin
  • 40 ml of whole milk
  • 200 ml of whipping cream
  • 40 g of sugar
  • 1/2 vanilla bean (or vanilla extract)

PROCEDURE:

Whisk together the cream, vanilla, and sugar. Put the sheets of gelatin in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat until hot, but do not boil. Wring out the gelatin and put it into the warm milk; stir until the gelatin melts. In a saucepan, warm the cream mixture over low heat stirring constantly until just oiling; remove from the heat; add the milk/gelatin to the cream and stir to mix well.

Run individual serving cups or ramekins under cold water. Shake out excess water but do not dry cups. Fill each cup with the panna cotta until full, being sure the tops are level; refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Turn each panna cotta out onto dessert plates. Top with chocolate sauce, caramel sauce or fruit sauce as desired.

Thanks to our expert guides and the elves in the kitchen, everything turned out beautifully. We had a great time, too. It’s always so much more fun to cook with others than to cook alone. If you decide to try these out, invite a friend.

Word of the Day: Olio di Oliva

Olio di oliva (OH-lee-oh dee oh-LEE-vah): olive oil

Most of the day today was spent in front of a computer doing travel planning, but the big treat was olive oil tasting class with the students. Our wonderful teacher, Todd, gave us some background and history on olives and olive oil. I didn’t want to forget what he said, so I took notes. Here is pretty much our whole class on olive oil:

History of The Olive

The Olive is native to the area that is present day Turkey. It has been cultivated in the countries around the Mediterranean for at least 6,000 years. When Rome fell in 400-something A.D., cultivation of olives in Italy was all but lost. Benedictine monks continued to cultivate olives and saved the traditional methods from being lost. During the Renaissance, the Medici family gave land grants and tax breaks to olive farmers to help beautify the Tuscan countryside. This led to the resurgence of olive oil production in Italy.

The Olive in Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Athena and Poseidon both wanted to put their temple on the same piece of prime real estate. Zeus was called in to arbitrate the dispute. He devised a competition and whoever won the competition could have the prime land. The task was to create the most useful thing to humans. Athena created the olive tree and Poseidon created the horse. Zeus judged Athena’s creation to be the most useful and she won the competition. The olive tree gave the people wood, oil, and food, and was therefore considered most useful.

Production

There are 750 million olive trees in production worldwide. 93% of those are in the Mediterranean region. About 7% of all olives harvested are cured and eaten, with the remaining 93% being pressed for olive oil. Italy and Spain are by far the biggest producers of olives in the world. There are 5 million olive trees in the greater Florence area alone. Those 5 million olive trees produce about 6.6 million liters of olive oil per year, or, just a little more than 1 liter of oil per tree. In this same region, there are only about 80 olive presses.

Sicilian olives at the street market in Ferrara.

Olive trees can live a very, very long time. Apparently there is one in the small Mediterranean country of Monte Negro that is 2,000 years old. We saw one on Brijuni Island in Croatia that is 1,600 years old. Most olive trees in production are heavily pruned which keeps their size small. These ancient olive trees, however are quite large. There are many, many species of olives in production in the world. In Italy there are well over 500 species. They range in color, shape, and size – from green, to red, to black, to brown – and from the size of a cherry to the size of crab apples. It is the species and ripeness that accounts for the color of olive oil, not the quality of the oil itself.

Olives can’t be eaten straight off the tree. They are tremendously bitter and slightly toxic to people. Somewhere along the line, people figured out how to cure them to make them edible. Olive trees are sexual and vegetative reproducers, meaning they are pollinated and produce seeds that can be planted and grown into new plants (sexual), and they can be cut down (or cut back) and new shoots will grow, which can be transplanted (vegetative.)

There are 4 primary species of olives used in Tuscan olive oil production: frontoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino (the last is primarily for pollination.)

Harvest

Olives are typically harvested in the first 2 weeks of November. If you wait later to harvest them, the olives will be more ripe, which will increase the quantity of oil you get from them, but not the quality. The best time for getting high quality olive oil is early November. Nets or parachutes are placed under the tree, and then long plastic combs or rakes are used to remove the olives from the tree. The harvested olives must be taken to press within 48 hours or quality begins to suffer.

There are basically two methods for pressing olives for oil (in Italy). The traditional method uses a large grinding stone to grind the olives into a pulp or paste. This paste is then spread on to large disks which are stacked on top of each other. The disks are then pressed with a large pressing mechanism and put into containers. In order to remove the water (which is very bitter) and any pulp from the oil, the liquid must be decanted. The oil floats to the top and is skimmed off and bottled. A slight modern variation on this method, is that decanters are rarely used these days, and instead the liquid is put through a centrifuge that sends the oil one direction, the water another direction, and the solids come out through the back of the machine. This discarded pulp material – called pumice – is used in a number of applications, including making it into pellets to burn for fuel.

The other more modern method involves putting the olives into a large stainless steel container, rinsing them in cold (or tepid) water, drying them briefly and then using a machine to grind them into a paste. The paste is then machine churned and put immediately into a centrifuge which separates the oil from everything else. This method can get the oil into the bottle more quickly and may make for a fresher tasting oil by the time it reaches the consumer.

Classifications of Olive Oil

There are four classifications of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil, and pumice or SANSA oil. Both virgin and extra virgin olive oil are cold-processed, meaning no heat is used to extract the oil. Sometimes you will hear that virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the first pressing of the olives, which is true, but there is only one pressing of the olives. The difference between virgin and extra virgin has to do with the acidity of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is less than .8% acid, and virgin is higher than .8%. The process is exactly the same. Pumice oil uses the pumice (or ground pulp) that is left over after the pressing process and uses heat and pasteurization to extract more oil from the pulp. This pumice oil is fine for consumption, it just isn’t very tasty. It is cheap and best used for cooking. Bottles labeled just “olive oil” are a blend of virgin olive oil and pumice oil. You can find all four kinds in stores in Italy, though in the U.S. you pretty much only find extra virgin and virgin.

One of the frustrating things about trying to find a good olive oil in the U.S. (or in Italy for that matter) is that the only way to tell if it is good quality is to taste it. There are lots of labeling “tricks” that are completely meaningless such as “Imported from Italy” which doesn’t tell you where the olives were grown, just that they were pressed in Italy and exported from Italy. “Pure olive oil” doesn’t tell you anything about quality. “Light olive oil” is similarly meaningless, unless they just mean light color. You can’t tell flavor and freshness by color. The best thing to look for on the bottle when trying to select a bottle of oil without tasting it is a harvest date or a sell by date. The fresher the oil, the better. If it is September, 2012 and you find a harvest date of November, 2011, that is the freshest you are going to find because the harvests are done in November. If the harvest date is November 2010, it is almost 2 years old and isn’t going to be as good. The sell-by date is stamped as 1 1/2 years from bottling. The oil doesn’t go bad – it will keep for a couple of years – it just won’t be as fresh and tasty as a newer batch. (You should store your olive oil in a dark bottle in a dark, cool location, by the way. If you want to have some handy for cooking, keep a small amount out at a time.)

Tasting

This is the fun part. Todd poured us three different kinds of oil, in succession. He had us warm the oil by holding the bottom of the cup and swirling it around with our other hand over the top to keep the aroma from escaping. Then we were to smell, then take a good-sized sip. Enough to get the organic compounds and flavors swirling around on our taste buds. This is the best way to get the flavor of the oil itself without complicating it with other flavors, like bread. After you swallow, then you suck in air really fast toward the back of your throat. Really good olive oil will have a slightly peppery taste when you do that. It may have a slightly peppery taste without doing that.

The first one had almost no smell, and almost no taste. It was pumice oil. The second one had a smell like – well, olive oil. It was extra-virgin olive oil from the local supermarket. The third one smelled very green and herby – like cut grass or wheat grass. (It smelled really, really good.) It was also lighter viscosity, and it did have that characteristic peppery taste. It was from a small producer.

Uses

So what do you do with this wonderful olive oil, now that you’ve found it. In Tuscany, Italians don’t dip their bread in olive oil like we do. They do use it liberally on soups, salads, beans, roasted vegetables and as a vegetable dip. A platter of fresh vegetables in Italy won’t have ranch dressing in the middle, it will have good quality olive oil with a little salt and pepper on top for you to dip your veggies in. You can put olive oil directly on pasta or rice with a little parmesan cheese for a simple meal. This is especially good for kids if they have an upset stomach. You can gently heat up some olive oil and add a little garlic tiny dried red peppers (which you find everywhere here) to infuse the oil. Scoop out the garlic and peppers and put the infused oil on pasta.

Italians also cook with olive oil. When you use it for cooking, it loses a lot of its aroma and flavor and pretty much all its health benefits. You have to be careful not to get it too hot or it will burn. If you don’t get it hot enough and you’re using it to fry, it will absorb into the food too much and make it soggy or greasy. However, if you get the temperature right, it is just fine for cooking. Of course, you don’t want to use your very best olive oil for this.

Lots of stores now sell olive oil infused with garlic or peppers or herbs. There’s no reason to pay extra for that when you can do the same thing yourself at home. Keep your batches small and use them up frequently. Many Italian kitchens will have chili pepper infused olive oil to put on pizza.

That’s everything I can remember. If you have any other information about olive oil, by all means, post a comment and let us know. There are lots of health benefits of olive oil and I didn’t take good notes during that section of the class. If I got any of the details wrong, please help me get them right. Also, if you have any good sources for buying olive oil, either in Italy or in the United States, please let us know about that too.

Word of the day: Formaggio (Fromage)

Formaggio (For-MAH-joh): Cheese

Today we visited the Montmartre area of Paris, including the gorgeous Sacre Couer basilica. Since it was Palm Sunday, there was a mass going on, but tourists could still walk around the outside. It was kind of weird and kind of cool to participate in a mass from the fringes. The last time I visited Sacre Couer (23 years ago), it was October and it was almost completely empty and dark. It felt like a wonderful sacred space. Today it was filled with light and worshippers and it still felt like a wonderful sacred space. The church is huge and it was completely packed with worshippers. It was wonderful to hear the mass and the singing in French.

We walked the streets that were once the haunts of the bohemian set, visited the Moulin Rouge (well, just the outside), and had lunch in a little cafe. Lunch was the highlight of the day for me. I decided that while I was in France I wanted to have something really French, so I ordered the camembert and a bottle of Languedoc Merlot-Cabernet blend. The cheese came on a bed of lettuce with raisins and walnuts sprinkled around. It was beyond delicious – firm and compact in the middle, almost crumbly, surrounded by smooth creaminess, wrapped in that beautiful white rind. I’ve had camembert before, but not like this. The wine was a perfect compliment to the cheese. The day was cold and bright, and the sunshine added the perfect amount of warmth to make the whole affair just heavenly.

I thought I should say a little more about our food experience in France. It wasn’t too easy for vegetarians, but what we did find was fantastic. The bread was enough to keep a smile on my face for the whole weekend. The croissants were unbelievably tender and flaky. I don’t think I’ve ever had their equal. My favorite new discovery was a dish called “raclette”. I don’t know the exact recipe, but here is my guess:

  • Find the 3 most delicious yellow-fleshed potatoes in the world. Boil them with the skins on, until tender.  Coat them in butter and a little salt. Put them in a bowl.
  • Put several slices of raclette cheese (I don’t know exactly what that is, but that’s what kind of cheese they said this was) on a plate, including the rinds. Put a couple pats of butter on top of that. Put the plate in the oven until the cheese melts.
  • Serve the cheese and potatoes separately and tell the guests to eat them together in whatever way makes them happy.

That’s it! Mind-blowingly delicious. How can you go wrong with cheese, butter, salt, and potatoes?

We were also finally back in the world of big salads and vinaigrette! We had a fantastic salad with warm goat cheese, wrapped in a very, very thin crepe served on top. It also had cous cous, hericots verts (skinny green beans), cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, and some kind of marinated cabbage, almost like a fresh sauerkraut. It was divine.

The next time I go to Paris, I am definitely going to have a picnic from the fresh fruit, cheese, bread, wine, and chocolate sold in the street markets. It looked so fantastic. The weather conspired against a picnic this time around, but that is one of the many things I will look forward to on my next trip to Paris.

Now we are back home in Florence, and we discovered that while we were gone, a gelato shop opened on our street! Gelato is the one thing our neighborhood was missing, until now… So tonight I am very grateful to all the cows out there who provide the raw materials, and all the artisans who produce the formaggio and gelato that keeps me in tasty delights.

Food tour

I know I’m supposed to be catching up on our spring break trip to Croatia, but so much is happening so fast here in Italy now that we are back. I thought I’d just put in a quick post about the food tour we took on Friday. One of the activities on the cultural program put together by AIFS was a food tour. We had a guide take us around to different shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes and point out the authentic and varied food delights of Florence.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take loads of pictures and take copious notes, but here are the highlights. We had the most amazing, fresh ricotta cheese I’ve ever tasted. It is cheap and right down the street from me (and I didn’t know it was there!) Why don’t they do this tour at the very beginning of the semester? We sampled four different kinds of cheese, had the Florentine dessert called the “torta della nonna” (grandma’s cake), found out where to buy wine, beans, and rice in bulk, and had the best wood-fired-oven pizza I’ve yet encountered in Florence. We also visited the central market where we had cappucino and learned about a coffee drink called marrochino (little Morrocan) which is chocolate in the bottom of a coffee cup, covered with a shot of espresso, then cream, then topped with powdered cocoa. We tasted different grades of balsamic vinegar, smelled different kinds of salt (I bought some smoked, spiced salt) and watched ravioli being made. One of the students in the group is a chef, and he walked me through a couple recipes for truffle pasta and truffle risotto while we relaxed with a slice of pizza and a glass of chianti. We learned where to buy our pasta and pesto. We topped it all off with generous scoops of gelato. Our guide showed us the symbol displayed on shop windows that indicates a long-time, historical Florentine shop and urged us to support these artisans to help them survive the influx of foreign and fast food competition. She also urged us to explore our own neighborhoods, get to know the locals, and share our culinary finds with each other.

We walked, talked, sampled, compared notes, laughed, ate and drank for over 3 hours until we were happy and tired. It was one of my favorite cultural activities of the semester. I plan to retrace my steps many, many times (and take better notes for future reference.) Tomorrow I plan to buy more fresh ricotta, get my empty wine bottles filled at the wine shop and enjoy a gelato in the Italian sunshine.

For those of you planning a trip to Florence soon, ask me where my favorites are!

Biscotti

Did you know that the item we think of as biscotti in the U.S. is the generic term for cookie in Italy? When you go to the grocery store and look at what we would call the cookie isle, you see all kinds of things that we wouldn’t recognize as biscotti; chocolate wafers, sandwich cookies, heart shaped tea biscuits. What we call biscotti is called cantucci or cantuccini here in Florence. 

The italian word biscotti means “twice baked”. When you make traditional biscotti (and here I mean the thing we Americans call biscotti), you form cookie dough into a loaf, bake it in the oven until it isn’t quite done, take it out and slice it into individual pieces, and put it back into the oven to be baked again. This gives it that nice crisp, almost toasted consistency that we love to dunk into our Starbucks coffee.

I am sure that the italian word biscotti is related to the British term, biscuit, meaning cookie. I have no idea how we started calling the doughy, bready dinner or breakfast item that we often serve with gravy, a biscuit.

Most intriguing of all perhaps… Where on earth did we get the word cookie?

Anybody know?

Cooking class

One of the many cultural activities that students, teachers, and (lucky for me) significant others can participate in during the semester abroad in Florence is a couple of Italian cooking classes. George and I went to the first of two offered during the semester. I see it as an opportunity to learn some new recipes and cooking techniques and to work with real Italian cooks. George sees it as an opportunity to socialize and eat. Don’t get me wrong – George is very helpful and participatory.

Our menu for the evening was:

  • Baked caprese salad with eggplant
  • Potato gnocchi with meat sauce (or fresh tomato sauce for the vegetarians)
  • Salame dolce

We started our class by making dessert – salame dolce, or “sweet salame”. I had never heard of this dessert before and couldn’t imagine why salame was in the title. They had us begin by smashing up cookies that were very like graham crackers. George was a champion graham cracker smasher. A role model, really. The head chef had to stop him before he turned the bowl of graham crackers into dust.

 

Graham cracker smashing in progress. This was before George got a hold of it.

This is then combined with melted butter, egg yolks, sugar, and dark (really, really dark) chocolate cocoa powder. In order to replicate this recipe at home, I think we would have to use dutch-processed cocoa powder. You then roll it up into a a long, skinny, salame shaped roll covered in aluminum foil and put it in the refrigerator while you cook everything else.

Then it was on to the baked caprese salad. I’ve had caprese salad dozens of times, but never baked. They had grilled eggplant slices before we arrived. They had also blanched tomatoes and put an “x” on the bottom to make them easier to peel. We peeled the tomatoes and sliced them into rounds. We sliced the fresh mozzarella and then assembled the parts onto baking pans. First you put down three overlapping slices of eggplant in a triangle, topped by 3 slices of peeled tomato, and then topped by 2 slices of mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with dried oregano, salt, and pepper. Bake in oven until cheese is melty. Transfer to dishes and sprinkle with fresh parsley or basil. Oh yeah, and plenty of olive oil.

Ariana showing off our caprese antipasto. It was SO good!

And then there was the main dish – potato gnocchi from scratch. They had cooked the potatoes ahead of time. They said that you should only use red or white potatoes. Yellow potatoes are too sticky. You peel the potatoes and press them through a ricer or food mill. This is a very clever little contraption that reminded me of a big garlic press. It keeps the potatoes from getting too smashed and sticky. Then you add flour and an egg yolk to the potatoes. You gently combine, and then turn your dough out onto a floured surface and work in more flour until you have a nice consistency. (This is where things get vague. You just do what they say until they tell you it is right.)

Then you pinch off handfuls of dough and roll it out into fat pencil shapes. You cut these with a knife into little pillows of potato pasta. Making sure you have enough flour that they don’t stick to each other, you put these on a pan until you’re ready to cook them. Meanwhile you peel some tomatoes, and cook it in olive oil and garlic for about 10 minutes. You boil the gnocchi until they float, remove them from the water and stir them around in the tomato sauce. Result? Light, floaty, delicious gnocchi.

Here we are about to sit down to our home-cooked meal.

Ready to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Here’s why they call it Salame dolce…

This is all kinds of chocolatey goodness. It really looks like salame, doesn't it?

This dessert was absolutely amazing. I’ve never had anything like it. The chocolate flavor was intense. I made this the following week and it turned out really great.

I have recipes for everything we made. I’ll post them separately when I get a minute.