Archive for the ‘Olive oil’ Category

In Praise of Pig



I had the pleasure of attending Slow Food San Francisco’s Golden Glass 2009 at Fort Mason this weekend. As one of their chosen artisan food producers, we were invited to sample our Stella Cadente olive oils for the enjoyment of the media, trade and public patrons. One of the collateral benefits of participating in this event was the opportunity to taste some of the wonderful artisan products from the Bay area’s diverse Italian food and wine community. Conceived initially as a venue for Italian wine importers and producers to introduce their products to the northern California market, this event has grown into a showcase of good, clean and fair food and wine, and has become an informal get-together for a family of restaurateurs, farmers, artisan producers involved in the Slow Food movement.
Perennial favorite restaurant A16, named for the primary highway into Rome, arrived first, with their golden roasted porchetta, the front halves of young pigs, boned out and stuffed with a mixture of innards and fresh rosemary, skin and heads intact. One of my cherished marketplace treats when I am in the Italian countryside are the rustic bread rolls stuffed with chunks of this juicy roast pork, a good mixture of tender meat, chunks of fat and crispy skin. These sandwiches need no condiments, and the juices soak into the bread and meld the flavors into a delicious whole. Today, the mixture was served on thin slices of crusty bread, as tasting portions were the norm.
Perbacco, one of several restaurants specializing in fabricating their own salumi, was presenting a Tuscan fermented sausage known as finocchiona. This salami-style concoction of pork shoulder and fatback mixed with fennel seeds is stuffed loosely into a 4” natural casing and hung until dried and slightly chewy. Traditionally sliced paper thin, allowing the large chunks of fat to virtually melt in your mouth, accentuating the velvety texture of the meat. Rather than dominating, the taste of the fennel seed underscores the savory flavor of the free range pork. I returned to their table several times, unwilling to let go of the incredible combination of taste and texture reminiscent of a visit to Maceleria Falorni on the square in Greve in Chianti, where I first tasted this sausage made in the ancient manner. Commercial American versions are much drier and saltier and do not begin to convey the character of the traditional version.
I was a bit disappointed with the offerings from Fra’Mani, Paul Bertolli’s artisan salumeria in Oakland. I find their sausages better and more authentic than most commercial products, but still leaning closer to the north American flavor profiles and preferences. Their sausages tend to be leaner and less unctuous, with a nod to our cultural obsession with reducing fat content. Their mortadella was tender and smooth, but still did not have the incredible texture of the Bolognese version. True mortadella should also melt on your tongue, almost a mousse-like consistency rather than the grainier texture of American bologna. The surprising addition to their offerings was a turkey roulade, which, though a version is produced in Italy, is not usually sold as salumi. I would choose this over generic deli turkey rolls, but it lacked the singular piquancy of properly cured pork sausages.
The standout pork offering of the day was, surprisingly, from Charles Phan’s Heaven’s Dog. Pioneering Asian fusion in San Francisco with the Slanted Door, Charles’ Vietnamese heritage merged with southern European influences has produced dishes that truly reflect the multi-cultural nature of San Francisco itself. The table was filled with a row of Iwatani butane burners topped with towering bamboo steamer baskets. Emerging from the baskets were warm steamed clamshell buns stuffed with a thick slice of long-braised pork belly and slivered scallions. Perfect striations of meat and fat melted together in your mouth, the juices redolent of ginger, sesame and soy. The spongy tenderness of the rolls absorbed the flavors and also melted into the whole.  The taste was pure Asia, but the texture was reminiscent of Lardo di Colonnata, the cured fatback of Tuscany’s northwestern coastal mountains. Having prepared pork belly without such spectacular results, I suspect the pork was brine cured prior to braising, transforming the cut to an almost butter-like consistency. The components of the flavor balanced salty with sweet, with the slight bite from the scallions as counterpoint, leaving me wanting another.
I was fortunate enough to share a row of tables with another popular restaurant, Emporio Rulli. The creation of pastry chef Gary Rulli, the casual shops feature the kind of sweets and cookies commonly found in homes in Italy’s countryside. During Slow Food Nation’s seminars last summer, I gorged on Amaretti, Brutti ma Buoni (Ugly, But Good) and small knuckles of pasta frolla stuffed with jams or poppy seed paste seasoned with fennel and bitter orange peel and dusted with powdered sugar. These cookies were accompanied by rich, dark espresso, making this table popular with the Italian wine merchants in attendance. A casual conviviality ensued, and the conversations merged English and Italian in a musical patois. On the other side of the table, his executive chef was busy preparing risotto. I was familiar with his expertise in this area, again from the hospitality suite at Slow Food Nation. Last summer, his plates of perfectly cooked nettle risotto sustained me between marathon sessions of pouring wine in the Taste Pavilion for the tens of thousands of attendees. Today he was preparing a Venetian style version complete with tiny rings of fresh spring onion and a paste of black summer truffles. Several of the Italian patrons slathered my L’Autunno Tuscan-style olive oil over plates of the steaming rice, adding a hint of bitterness to the creamy yet chewy delight. I was disappointed when, just as I was poised to photograph him lavishing the mixture with a fistful of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, the battery on the camera died. As a result, I am forced to convey his aura of absolute confidence and mastery via the written word. Whereas many prepare this dish with careful and concise measurement of all the relevant ingredients, he worked from instinct, adding just the correct proportion of hot broth to a pan full of parcooked Vialone Nano rice, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon, and tasting for both texture and seasoning as the cooking progressed. At precisely the right moment, he added large dollops of sweet butter, letting them melt into to rice. To finish the dish, he added the onions, a lashing of salt, and a deep swirl of the black truffle paste. The risotto was then ladled into a large chafing dish, topped with the cheese, and served up to the awaiting patrons, lined up three deep in front of the table. With every batch, he scraped the edges and bottom of the pot, dishing up the fragrant and creamy goodness on a paper plate and passing it over to me with a wink and a smile. The trick is to eat from the edges to the center, consuming the risotto while almost too hot to swallow, but before it cools and thickens.  The Piemontese prefer their risotto firm and chewy, while the Venetian style dictates “al ‘onda” or “like a wave” as the correct texture. Both regions disdain the starchy yet mushy mouth feel of overcooked or reheated risotto, preferring to form any leftovers into cakes or balls, and breading and frying them for a crispy but creamy snack. This still remains one of my miracle foods of Italy, elevating the simplicity of rice, broth and seasoning to a gourmand’s delight that yet remains the ultimate comfort food.
My only regret is that I was unable to visit my favorite salumeria at the Ferry Plaza market, Boccalone, the retail outlet for Chris Cosentino of Incanto fame. Summer traffic in San Francisco precluded a quick jaunt prior to setting up for event. I will be reduced to prevailing on city friends to procure the tasty specialties, or to order online. Short of a trip to Italy, financially impossible at this time, it is one of the few ways I can reprise my cooking school experience there. We are incredibly fortunate here in northern California to have such a wonderful collection of artisans of preserved pork and other traditional Italian treats.  Ciao!


Post by Julia Conway on June 22nd, 2009

The Olive Harvest


Last week, auspiciously, on the first day of real frost, we began picking the olives at the home ranch in the Anderson Valley. A crew of eight or ten arrived promptly at 7:00AM, meeting my partner with the trailer and the big wooden bins. The grass crunches under our feet as we proceed to the upper field. Most of the heavily-laden trees are in the lower field, but less exposed to the shriveling frost. The cold temperatures do little to the trees themselves, but the fruit is another story entirely. If a ripe olive freezes through, the outer skin puckers and it appears dried out and wrinkled. With its higher oil content, the pulp remains reasonably intact within the skin, with no degradation to the flavor of the oil. Unfortunately, this season’s unpredictable weather patterns meant that much of the fruit is still green, higher in water than oil, and susceptible to frost damage. It would be critical to get all of the fruit off of the exposed trees as quickly as possible. The pickers take on the small trees in pairs, the foggy clouds of their breath echo with sounds of laughter and the field blend of English and Spanish often heard in the vineyard.
The sun begins to warm our hands around ten, but we do not finish this field until the midday break. Hand picking is laborious work, and we move to the south field after lunch. Many of the Mission olives are already showing the discolorations from the frost, and we move quickly, using small plastic rakes and tarps to strip the more heavily laden trees of their fruit. The first of the 1100 pound bins fills; all shapes and sizes of fruit, the colors ranging from bright lime green to dark winy purple to almost black. We end the day around five, with a round of sodas, chips, salsa and chicharrones, pork rinds deep fried in their own lard, a by-product of the rendering process and a favorite snack of the crew.
The picking resumes the next morning, and, luckily, the temperature is about five degrees warmer, just enough, according to my partner, to keep the remainder of the green olives from spoiling before they are pressed. He and I take on all of the small trees, carefully stripping them of all their fruit. By early afternoon, all of the fruit is in, and we have almost filled two of the four large bins. The crew departs, delighted to be finished early, as many of them are preparing to travel south to Mexico for their annual family holiday visits. My partner and I caravan over the mountain to the press, and the second part of the annual process.
As it was last year, the press building is bone-chilling cold, the late afternoon sun already behind the ridge. We have almost a ton of olives, and they are weighed, washed, and carried up the conveyor to the press. As if by magic, a few hours later, the brilliant green stream of oil begins to dribble from the final separator. We place a plastic cup under it, and then stand in a circle, sipping the pungent new oil. The predominant flavors are those of leaves and grass, with a strong, underlying bitterness. There is little evidence of fruitiness, and we will have to once again blend this oil with those of other producers in warmer climates, where the olives ripen more fully. As we prepare to part ways, the big drum of oil is loaded on my partner’s truck, the bins are once again strapped down on the trailer, and he begins the long drive back to his ranch in the Sierra foothills. I securely belt down my gallon bottle of the new oil for the trip back to the coast, and for another year, this ancient process is completed. The annual cycle of the farm comes to a close as the crop is gathered in. The short days herald the season of dormancy for the trees, and I head home to a warm fire and a bowl of winter vegetable soup, drizzled with the new oil.
Zuppa Frantoiana (Tuscan Olive Mill Soup)
1 ½ cup dried shell beans, soaked overnight (cranberry beans are traditional)
1 medium carrot, cut in chunks
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 stalk celery, cut in chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 bunch cavolo nero (lacinato or dinosaur kale)
1 medium yellow potato, peeled and cubed
1 winter squash of pumpkin, peeled and cubed
1 medium carrot, cut in large cubes
½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed and/or fennel pollen
6-8 slices rustic bread
1 large clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
New olive oil (olio nuovo)
Drain the beans and place them in your soup pot with about 3 cups water to cover, the first carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, covered; at a bare simmer until the beans are tender (you can use a crock pot for this step). The time will depend on age and size of the beans, but will be around one hour.
Once the beans are tender, remove and set aside about ½ cups of the whole beans. Put the remaining beans and vegetables, together with any cooking liquid, through your food mill and return to the rinsed-out pot. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.
In a saucepan, gently sauté the chopped garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil; when the garlic is softened but not browned, add to the pureed beans, along with the oil in the pan. Strip the tough center ribs from the kale, and coarsely chop the leaves. Add the kale, cubed potato, squash or pumpkin, and second carrot to the pot. Again bring to a simmer, and cook gently, covered, until the vegetables are tender, then stir in the fennel seed and/or pollen, the reserved whole beans, and additional salt and pepper if you wish.
Toast the bread slices, and rub with the cut garlic. When ready to serve, drizzle a liberal splash of new oil over the one side of each bread slice, and place in the bottom of your individual soup plates. Spoon the hot soup over the bread, and add another dollop of new oil to the center of each serving without stirring it in.  Serve immediately.
Post by Julia Conway on December 17th, 2008