29 December 2007

Holiday Festivities

It was my kind of Christmas visit and celebration this past week. We had old friends visiting from halfway around the world and made some new friends as well. We did a bit of sightseeing, to Monviso, which is not only the highest peak in our range of the alps, but also is the headwaters of the Po river, longest river in Italy. We enjoy taking our friends and family to our off the beaten path places that we love. Pian della Regina, is at the end of the road past Crissolo, and sets under the very impressive face of Monviso, 3,841 m (12,600) I love this mountain as it is such a presence in our landscape and is an imposing monolith that stands out in a crowd of mountains. Fabrizio spent a winter season there, years ago, running their on mountain "baita" operation, and has been treated as part of their family ever since. I am part of that extended family and we always find a warm welcome when we visit their "Baita della Polenta", restaurant/rooms and refugio, all rolled into one. The area is a bit past it's winter heyday when the small ski area used to really pull them in from Torino and beyond, but the lifts have aged and the family no longer has the will or resources to replace the lift that started just outside their door. It's a shame, as it is a stunning place and a fun hillside to do a few turns down. They still have a lift in town that runs on the weekends and they hosted the world mountaineering championships a couple of years back. Summer is still hopping with backpackers of all nationalities and mountaineers, making their way across the GTA, which is a famous footpath crossing the length of the entire European alps, and a popular trek in the summer. We love taking people over there as it is a regional park, a stunning drive, and a charming stop at the top of it all with warm friendly people there to look after you. Very worth while place to make the effort to experience, indeed.
Continuing on our winter tour of the valley we spent one day skiing Sestriere with our friends in slightly overcast weather, but otherwise pleasant conditions for skiing.

What a treat to go skiing. Christmas Day we got up at a reasonable hour, had breakfast and off we went to Prali on a gorgeous sunny day. The conditions were good, the sun was out and all was well in our world. We ripped it up all day and then came home for a feast fit for the occasion. Good wine, good food, good friends and family. Who could ask for more.
Both of the ski areas are fun and deserve more of a proper write up, so I think I'll save that for another day in the new year, when I'm up for writing more about these places, Prali especially, as it fits into my off the beaten trail and hidden gems catergories. Something to share, in the future, especially as I have a few more photos to trot out.
Happy New Year to all!

25 December 2007

Tanti Auguri.... many wishes for all of you....

The view from Bella Baita has been peaceful and wintery. I wish all of you my readers and those of you just stopping by, to enjoy the holidays and stop by again for what's going on in a small part of the north western Italian Alps. We have friends and guests arriving so I may be a bit slow about getting back in gear, but will resume randomly and definitely in the new year!

Warm wishes.......from the bella view from our baita.

20 December 2007

Last Minute Holiday Gift Giving

Wandering around Torino Wednesday while I was waiting for my friends to arrive, I enjoyed the festivenes that a big city brings during the holiday season, the lights, the fabulous window displays and the general high spirits that this time of year can bring. There is of course lots olf gloom and doom in the news of economic downturns and so many other depressing things, but there's nothing quite like a good session of window shopping, sparklely lights, Christmas carols by folks dressed up as Santa and his helpers and maybe a Bicherin (espresso, cream and chocolate hazelnut liquer)to put you in the holiday spirit.

One of the traditions of Italy that I really love is the holiday food basket that comes in such a variety of sizes and goodies being offered that I enjoyed just drooling over all the different combinations of tasty treats that are put together in a handsome basket, decorative box or fancy sack of yummy treats to tempt and explore either whilst your guests are with you or at a later date for indulgent consumption. Illy coffee, with a new caffettiera espresso maker, Tajarin pasta with black truffle in the dough, wild boar ready made sauce to go over the pasta, some dark chocolate filled with creamy hazelnut filling tucked into the corners, and a big golden Pandoro cake with sparkling Asti Wine to wash it all down is a basket most could not resist. I found a lovely jar of local acacia honey mixed with ground hazelnuts which is a new combination for me but I know my in laws are going to love it as much as I did when I sampled it the other day and we found a fresh handmade salami from our local butcher to tuck into their basket also, as Dante loves his salami, and I bought some spring bulbs of mini Daffodils and Irises for forcing and then planting out in Egle's various plots of flowers and oddities. I still am looking for a decorative pot for the bulbs to go in and I think I know where to find it. I'll tuck in a few home made cookies too. So if you're stumped to buy a thoughtful gift for your friends or family who have everything and need nothing, a food basket of special treats is always a welcome gift and every body can usually find good use for all those tasty treats. You could always stick a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant in also that you know they might not spring for either. I like to give gift certificates to one of my friends restaurants back in Colorado for some friends and family and it always goes over big as it's a great place to eat and a nice treat you can use just abot any time. That's my top tip for last minute shopping as I know I enjoy receiving that sort of thing and it seems like everyone in Italy does too. So happy hunting for those tasty treats and enjoy the season of simple gift giving.

15 December 2007

Tuscan White Bean Soup

It's snowing today which is a welcome change, so as they say, "it's beginning to look a lot like............. well, I imagine you can probably fill in the rest.
My contribution to a the monthly event called "The Heart of the Matter", is a creamy comforting Tuscan Cannelini Bean Soup. Ilva of the always visual and gustatory appealing site "Lucullian Delights" is one of the co founders and hosts of this months Quick and Easy theme. I noticed not too long ago, that Ilva made a similar soup, but I'm going to pass this on over to her anyway as beans are always a nutritious low fat choice and tasty too. Growing up in the quasi "south" of the US, white beans and ham hocks with greens and cornbread, were one of our family standards. I have to say I wasn't all that fond of the beans as a kid, but as my taste buds grew up, I grew to love beans as well. This Tuscan staple was a nice twist on a familiar food. The Tuscans have a reputation as being thrifty, "bean eaters" and their elimination of the ham bones and sparing use of olive oil makes it a tasty heart healthy choice. The addition of stale or toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic lurking at the bottom of your bowl makes this hearty soup a wonderful warmer upper.

If you plan ahead, soak your cannellini beans overnight, drain off the water the next day, add fresh cold water , herbs, onions and garlic and cook till soft. Or......... If you are like me when you think that you want to have bean soup, you want it now and didn't think to soak the beans over night. No worries, this soup works whether you you plan ahead or not. I have made this soup in all of it's different planning stages and it comes out tasty all the different ways. I would say that the overnight soak is the tastiest, but using precooked tinned beans or the 1 hour soak in hot water, drain and cook in fresh water in a pressure cooker for about 1/2 an hour method is quite tasty also . The trick is to make sure you season up your beans, which ever variety you use and finish off with the garlic rubbed toasted bread and a small drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on top is a nice touch but you can definitely get by without it if you want to really limit your fat intake, or a few drops just to add a nice little dimension. Not in the normal Tuscan recipe, but sometimes I like a squeeze of lemon for an added zing or a few passes of the Grana Padano over the top for variations.

What you'll need for 4 or so servings. This recipe is easily doubled

2 cups dry cannellini beans, soaked over night
or soaked in hot water for an hour as discussed above or
2 large cans cooked cannellini beans, drained if you like

1 Tb olive oil more for garnish
1 medium onion, small chop
2 garlic cloves for the soup
2 large bay leaves
1 small twig of rosemary
a few fresh sage leaves

stale bread slices or lightly toasted, at least one per person per serving
1-2 fresh garlic , generously and firmly rubbed across the surface of the bread

In your soup pot or pressure cooker, saute your onions and garlic gently in the olive oil, being careful not to pick up any color, just to soften. Add your herbs, stir and add your beans. Add enough fresh water to cover and a bit more. Simmer till beans are soft, about an hour regular or less for the pressure cooker and canned beans. Remove the rosemary stem, bay leaves and sage leaves if they are large. Season with a small amount of salt and pepper, or low salt vegetable cubes if you like. Blenderize with a kitchen wand till smooth. Adjust seasonings. If you think you have too much water, drain some off and reserve and add as needed to make a creamy texture. Too dry, add more hot water to make a creamy soup but not too thick. If you don't have the kitchen wand then its into the blender or food processor. Serve immediately. If your soup cools down too much you an reheat it, just watch closely as it can scorch easily.

Place your prepared garlic toast one per bowl and cover in soup. Garnish with grated hard cheese if you like, chopped parsley for color, fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of fruity olive oil over the top. Allow the soup to soften the bread some, if you use a crusty multi grained bread like I do sometimes. While the beans are soaking or simmering, enjoy a brisk walk in the snow knowing that you have a cozy soup waiting for you back home.

12 December 2007

Tis the season for Exchanges and Giving

Pasta di Meliga Biscotti
Cornmeal Cookies
I have been thinking about a get together that I shared with some girlfriends back in Colorado lately, the annual cookie exchange. My dear friend and colleague, Nancy use to organize it and put on the do at her house. It was a fun get together that sort of grew out of the other fun event she organized, the Women's annual hut trip. The hut trip was a back country ski trip into the Colorado Rockies to a remote trip to eat, drink wine and telemark around the hut, weather and avalanche permitting and a whole lot of gabbing going on. It was a great adventure every year and one I miss. The cookie exchange became another annual event that was also in the genre of eating, drinking wine and gabbing, but this one everyone brought their favorite home made cookies and exchanged them, making a nice selection for over the holidays when you had friends and families around with a nice variety without having to make all the different varieties. There was a catch of course, as one of our friends can attest to. If the invitee list was 12 women, then that meant that you needed to make 12 dozen cookies of the same variety, so that everyone got a dozen from each of the 11 other attendees. Sounds easy until you realize that 12 dozen cookies is a lot of ingredients and work too. One friend, who still hasn't heard the end of it, and didn't quite comprehend the fact that you needed 12 dozen cookies. She brought her 1 dozen, so everyone got one cookie from her batch, teased her unmercifully and a good laugh that year and a few other years as well. I hope you're reading and laughing along with me this year Miz "moore chardonnay".
So the years have passed and many of the friends that use to participate have moved away and so the cookie exchange that then turned into the food exchange ceased to exist except for in my mind. I wrote about it in passing last year and thought how I would like to do something for this year virtually. Then of course, life happened and I am down to the wire without getting it together. I still want to do something in honor of such a fun event and my friend that started it all, Nancy Feely. Nancy is now working with Habitat for Humanity Jordan

I thought it would be nice to have a Food and Charity exchange in her honor this year as she and her husband are coming to spend Christmas with us. They're meeting in the middle from opposite arts of the world to share the holidays here in Italy.
Naturally, I'm getting this off the ground, (that is if it even flies) late, but I say better late than never and at least i'll hopfully be in gear to bring it around next year earlier and better.
The idea is to have a virtual Cookie/food exchange here with a favorite recipe of your choice, be it a family favorite cookie or some special treat for the holidays and a mention and link to one of your favorite charities. I always especially enjoy Italian treats. Even if you don't have a blog, I will publish your exchange gift and charity here. The food gift doesn't have to be a cookie recipe, it can be any sort of festive food, quick breads, jarred treats, my friend use to give out the best cranberry chutney. Oh how I miss cranberries here in Italy. Anyway, you get the drift. I know it's last minute and I don't mind if it's just a few particcipnts, it's still a good time to put up something for the holidays and and mention your favoritie charity. A time for sharing. Can'tfind the time to participate? There is always next year. There are lots of other holiday events happening so I know it's tough to do everything. One worth mentioning is
Menu for HopeIV which started out raising money for the Asia tsunami victims 4 years ago and this year is putting the money towards the school lunch program in Lesotho, South Africa, so if you have the time, check it out and maybe bid on something that suits you. Jeni from the Passionate Palate wrote a nice piece on ideas for gift giving and charities also.
If you have the time submit something.

Here's how to participate:
1. Post on your blog before 18th of this month about something you like to make and share for Christmas and a favorite charity link.
2. Take a picture of the dish and send me a smallish photo, 100x 100 photo of it.
3. Add a link to Bella Baita View.
4. Please send an email to Info@bellabaita.com
5.and enjoy your holidays this year.
I hope to have the round up on the 20th or 21st.

Pasta Meliga Or Cornmeal Cookies

These are a Piedmont favorite. Rich buttery melt in your mouth treats and hence they are a bit fragile. They are normally made with one of those cookie guns that means you can have quite a stiff dough to keep the shape of the cookie. I don't have one of those, so I use a pastry bag with a star tip which works pretty well, but your hand will get sore squeezing these out. Mine don't hold their shape as well as they should and I think they could use with a touch more flour, especially as I am at a slight elevation (3,300 ft) and I do think that makes a difference. Those of you in the high country need to definitely add more flour.

300 g durum flour (pasta flour or all purpose) flour if you don't have access to durum
50 g more flour if you are baking at a high altitude
100g cornmeal, a good quality brand that is coarse without being grainy is a good choice. Coarse polenta is not a good choice as it will be gritty and sticks in your teeth.
300 g butter room temperature
200 g sugar
2 egg yolks
grated lemon peel,
about 1/2 lemon

Whip the butter and sugar till fluffy
Add the egg yolks and grated lemon peel and blend thoroughly
Thotroughly mix in the flours.
Pipe out the dough while the butter is still room temperature.

Bake in a 350*F/ 190*C till light brown. they shouldn't pick up a lot of color
I bake in a convection oen , so they bake quite quickly, usually not taking more than 10 minutes, max.

10 December 2007

Egle's Monte Bianco for "Apples and Thyme"

Another grand Italian meal was put on in our disco come Olympics room this past Sunday by Fabrizio 's Mama and Papa. I thought since there was another occasion to write something for Passionate Palate and Vanielje Kitchen's
"Apples and Thyme" event this month I thought I would try and stick to my local Italian theme and feature my mother in law Egle(Italian for Eagle). Egle is an amazing woman that is boundless energy in a small package. She's always got something going aside from having Fabrizio's fathers meals on the table at very precise times. She's an excellent seamstress and loves to refabricate old clothes into new stylish ones, she always fussing over her plots of flowers that she has scoured all over our mountain to bring home and find an honored place for her lastest flowering discovery. Then there is the family garden here that is really Dante's domain, but there is the old family fruit trees to look after and pick up all the windfalls and make sure they don't go off before we eat them, she made us a delicious batch of persimmon marmalade yesterday.
When it's mushroom season you won't find her sitting at home by the fire. She has a curiosity that doesn't stop and loves to try new foods and combinations. She and Dante built and ran the restaurant next door for over thirty years, so she has lots of practice cooking for a crowd and still likes to entertain. So the traditional Sunday lunch was a feast as usual and everyone was groaning under the strain of proscuitto crudo with fresh pineapple, prawn, fresh coconut and almond salad, appropriately called Insalata Fantasia, many layered lasagne, beef arrosto, with fried potatoes from this year crop, rabbit in "umido" with caramelized carrots, local Toma cheese, and all before the" Macedonia" fruit salad, Dante's traditional banana gelato, fresh made as we digested a bit and then, to finish us off, drum roll please....ta da......Monte Bianco

or sometimes more well known by the French side name of Mont Blanc.
She says it's Dante's favorite dessert, but I know that she cannot resist thick and creamy whipped cream. Monte Bianco is a cream lovers fantasy. I didn't make it to the dessert this time as I was finished off early on and sat out a few rounds on Sunday, as I wasn't feeling quite up to par. It is a fitting dessert this time of year. The actual mountain is just a few valleys over from us along the French border. It's visible from the tops of the mountains across from us and easy to spot in the summer as the glacier is still quite visible. I took the picture above a few years ago when Fabrizio and I were working in the Aosta valley one winter before we resurrected our baita here.

This dessert is not for those on a diet, but a tasty and visual treat once in a while.

Monte Bianco for 4

1 kg of chestnuts, if in the shell, score an x in the shell cutting through to the nutmeat
1 twig of rosemary
1/2 liter of milk
100 grams of sugar
2 Tb of cocoa powder
1 Tb rum
1/4 liter of heavy cream

potato ricer

Combine in a pot with a lid, the chestnuts in the shell with the rosemary and add enough cold water to just cover. Simmer, till the nuts are just soft and easy to peel, about 20 minutes. If using shelled, dry chestnuts, simmer till just barely soft, or bring to a boil and let set in the rosemary water to infuse with flavor. Drain the water. Take the peeled chestnuts and combine in a clean pot combine with the milk and sugar and again simmer gently until the chestnuts are very soft and all the milk has been absorbed. Add the cocoa and rum and smash a bit to mix and absorb the rum. This mixture is run through the ricer while still warm but not hot, onto a clean serving plate, shaping a cone styled mountain, just letting the mixture fall onto itself in a mound. This could be done onto individual plates also. Let cool completely.
Whip your cream to soft but firm peaks, being careful not to over whip. Europeans are keen on fresh whipped cream with out any sweetening, so this is what the recipe calls for. The sweetness comes from the sweetened chestnuts. The north American taste buds are more accustomed to sweetened whipped cream with a bit of vanilla, so feel free to adjust the whip cream to your taste. I would caution to not sweeten the cream too much. Better a subtle sweetness to keep the dessert from being cloying and not too much vanilla that would overwhelm the flavor of the chestnuts.
Decorate the the mound with the whipped cream making your very own Monte Bianco. Garnish with "Marron glace", pieces (large chestnuts cooked in syrup) and chocolate shavings making sure there is plenty of whipped cream showing. It is a glacier after all and has more white showing than other features like trees and rocks.
Serve cold in a pool of caramel or chocolate sauce.

06 December 2007

"Roughing It" or shameless self promo 101

The View just keeps getting better. When I started this blog about a year and half ago, after I discovered what in the world a blog was (flat rate Internet only arrived to us here in our part of Italy 2 years ago, limiting Internet exploration), the idea that it was an affordable means to try and promote our B&B, Bella Baita, and our area, Val Chisone in general. There wasn't much information out there about Val Chisone where we reside in Piedmont's alps, prior to the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Every guide book I had looked in, either gave us a complete miss, or were mentioned as the Waldensian valleys and nothing else, zip, zero, nada, niente!. The Olympics finally put us on the map as Mondadori wrote a wonderful guide about Turin and the Valleys, of which Val Chisone is a part and comes out looking pretty good in that guide. I would have to say, the title is a bit weak in English.
We are a part of the Province that is Torino, and as far as any other mainstream guide our mentioned is usually as the Pinerolese valleys. Still no mention of even of our Fenestrelle fortress, that is the largest fortress in Europe, took over 125 years to build and has almost 4, 000 stairs snaking up the mountainside looking not unlike the great wall of China. And still no whispers of reasons to visit Val Chisone. There really are other things of interest in the area, and it is really beautiful. We were delighted when we recently learned that the writer we hosted last year, who was doing the research for northern Italy for the 8th and latest edition of the British "Rough Guide" agreed with us that our area warranted more in the guide and actually did add more on this area, even mentioning the fortress. They were actually more flattering to us, "the Piemontese ski resorts", than our more well known parallel valley, Susa.
You can purchase the guide from the link to the right of this post part ways down. I also have a couple of Amazon links to cookbooks and books and movies about this areas and Italy in general. Please do have a nosey round the two stores for those of you living in the states and those for Europe. Some of the titles are only available in one store and not the other.
We also hosted a couple of bloggers from About.com this summer and they shared the same opinion and have written a few mentions about visiting this area and what all there was to see and do here. James writes about Europe and Martha writes about Italy. Nice to have some other folks discovering our "off the beaten path", valley and now a few more folks are beating a path to us and the surrounding areas. It's satisfying to see our area get more it's due. We do have more winter recognition with Pragelato and Sestriere at the top of our valley known for their world class Nordic and downhill skiing.
Not too many people though know that Prali in Val Germanasca has some great skiing also, with some spectacular 360* views of the alps on top stretching all the way to Monte Bianco, or Mont Blanc as it is more commonly known. The top and bottom photos of the view from our balcony are looking over into Prali, home to some great hiking in the summer and great skiing in the winter. They're already open this year for the season. These photos of the prali ski area are from a couple years ago.All the other photos are recent. I haven't been up to prali this season so far, but the view from here looks like the snow has started early and portends for a good ski year. And then there's always Bella Baita to stay and relax to your hearts content and enjoy the view. We hope you do.

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