26 March 2008

Mini Spinach Picnic Pot Pie

Monday 24 March was Pasquetta in Italy, which in my mind has come to mean picnic day. I had every intention of getting this post in the blog for Monday, but then work got in the way. Guests arrived and everything changes. That's OK, cause that's what keeps it all interesting.
Anyway, Italians don't celebrate the Friday before Easter, but take Monday off as a bank holiday and the family piles into the car and drives somewhere to go for a wander and a picnic lunch, come h...or high.... you know the rest of the saying I think. It doesn't seem to matter what the weather is doing. People just want to get out and about, put winter behind them and maybe walk off a bit of Easter's feeding frenzy before tucking into the Pasquetta ample offerings. If though you are not in the mood to brave the weather, then there's always the restaurant option as a lot of opted for that option for the looks of all the cars parked next door at the restaurant. It looked just as busy as Easter Sunday. There was a steady flow of cars with picnic hampers in the back up and own the road all day. It seemed like spring was in the air. Recently, I have been making a series of oil crusted pastries and enjoying the results, repeatedly. I thought that this particular combination might lend itself to making it's entry into the Mini Pie Revolution that has been going since the first of the year. Ann and Jack of "Redacted Recipes", and Karyn of "Hot Potato" started the revolt for pies versus cupcakes and this time suggested savory pot pies. My ricotta spinach pie I think is savory enough to qualify. It's great hot out of the oven, but still just as satisfying at room temperature and when they are mini sized, it's easy to eat more than one. This particular version of savory ricotta pie I added some speck, which is a smoke cured ham for a contrast to the sweet mild ricotta that I so love here, along with some really exceptional flavored fresh spinach purchased from my favorite older market couple that I love buying from. I'm going to do a whole post on them one of these days when I get more of their life story. Both are over 80 and sell their food at the market every day of the week except Sunday. Amazing and inspiring. this recipe is pretty free form and lends itself well to numerous variations. I couldn't resist making little star cutouts for the top crust.It just made it that more festive. Hope you enjoy this pie and I can't wait to make a few more variations with all the different greens coming in, dandelion, borage, nettle, just to name a few. Feel free to adjust all to your taste.
Make your favorite pastry pie crust or, if you're feeling adventuresome, try this one I found on Recipezaar, that is strictly oil based.
Perfect oil pastry recipe here. I used all olive oil the first time with good results. The second time I used a mixture of olive and corn oil. If I could find a high quality natural corn oil like I use to purchase in the natural foods stores in the states, I'm sure I would love an all corn oil crust. Non commercial corn oil is so buttery tasting, that it's an excellent choice for oil based pastries. Line your favorite small tart pan or muffin cup with your pastry. Fill with ricotta filling top with lattice strips or cut out small stars or other shapes to make a fun tart for one. the pastry recipe should make at least 4 mini pies.

Ricotta Spinach Filling

250 g fresh ricotta (1 1/2 c)
50 -100 g fresh grated Parmesan (1/2- c or more if you like)
1 large egg or 2 medium ones
1/2 kilo spinach, fresh and lightly cooked, squeezed dry (1 pound plus a bit More) and chopped. 150 g speck, smoked cured ham, optional or something else that suits you (1/2-1cup cut into batons)
50 g sun-dried tomatoes that have been soaked in hot water to soften (1/3 c)
Nutmeg, be generous (grate half a nut )
Salt & Pepper to taste

Cut your speck into batons by cutting two thick slices of ham.
Cut across the width of the ham into cubed lengths about 1 inch long
Cut your sundried tomatoes into lengths across the wide direction
Mix fresh ricotta with the parmesan.
Add your egg
Then all the other, speck, spinach, and tomatoes.
Mix well.
Season with nutmeg and salt and pepper.
Pour into your prepared pastry top with cut out pastry.
Or lengths to make a lattice.
Brush with an bit of egg wash for shine if you like and
Bake in a 350* moderately hot oven for about 30 minutes or till golden brown.
Again depends on the oven and size of your pie.
Great hot or cold.
If you don't make your filling too souply it sets better over night with out making the pastry soggy.

Ready for you very own picnic.

21 March 2008

Fruit Mascarpone Custard for la Festa Italiana

Nothing says comfort more than a custard type dessert.
It seems that every culture has their version or several versions of comforting custards.
Italy is no exception and here in the north we make a few varieties that always seem to go down well.
I found this version on a local website and made a few adjustments to suit my taste.
Pears and apples are a natural choice this time of year as the fruit are a little tired from sitting all winter and show their better side when cooked with tenderizing and flavor inducing eggs and mascarpone. Add some crunchy amaretti cookies for texture and flavor, enhanced with a touch of orange or amaretto liqueur or orange peel to make the flavors stand out. Bake in a water bath or low temp oven to not over do it and you have a versatile warm perfect ending to a meal or a great room temperature buffet item for your Easter brunch buffet. Either way, I'm sure you'll see that it disappears in a flash.
I'm sending this recipe over to Maryann of "Finding La Dolce Vita" and Marie of "Proud Italian Cook" for their Festa Italiana taking place tomorrow. The round up with be shortly thereafter, but if you haven't already discovered both of their sites, enjoy all of the wonderful, droolworthy recipes they have on offer. You won't believe what you've been missing out on! I always find my way back there over and over again.
Fruit Mascarpone Custard (GATò DE LA MIANDO)
Recipe typical of lower Chisone valley

3 apples
3 pears

1/4 c dry white wine

2 Tb sugar

1Tb soft butter

2 Tb sugar

250 g mascarpone cheese

2 eggs

2 Tb orange or amaretto liqueur
or 1 Tb grated orange rind
100 g amaretti cookies
pignoli /pine nuts

Peel, quarter, core and slice thin into short pieces the apples and pears.
Toss together with the white wine. Set aside.
Grease a
10"x 8"" rectangular custard or flan type baking pan with the 2 Tb butter.
Sprinkle 2 Tb of the sugar over the greased pan and move around to cover.
Whisk 2 Tb of sugar over the mascarpone cheese in a small mixing bowl.
Add eggs and liqueur and whisk till smooth.

Crush the amaretti cookies either by a rolling pin or pan in a plastic bag

or pulse in a food processor taking care not to completely pulverize.

Add to the fruit and mix in with the egg /mascarpone mix.
Pour into prepared pan.
Sprinkle a few pine nuts on top.
Works well in individual portion ramekins or cups also.

(you might cook the individual ramekins in a water bath if you don't want to worry about over cooking the eggs)
Bake in a medium hot oven 325*, till set, about 30-40 minutes, depending on your oven.
Serve warm or room temperature.

It's a great dessert or makes a nice addition to a brunch buffet.
Buona Pasqua and Pasquetta to you all!

18 March 2008

Strada delle Vino Pinerolese

Last Monday we accepted and attended a very welcome invitation to join in the discussion about establishing a wine road designation for our very own Pinerolese DOC wine. Our Torino provincial representatives have proposed to make a designated wine road recognizing our local wines as distinct and note worthy. This is good news indeed and as one of our friends up the road, owner of Lago Laux, a popular and well known restaurant, noted, "It should have been done 30 years ago." I could agree more with Franco, but sometimes it takes an inordinate amount of time to get things moving around here. Or as they always seems to say in response here, "piano, piano...which is the equivalent of "take it easy". So we are on our way to being on the map so to speak, finally, for our wine production in our area. Pineroloese wine includes the surrounding areas of Bricherasio where we have the community collective cantina where many small growers bring their grapes together to produce their wine and as I have noted before you can "filler up rosso", the surrounding areas of Pinerolo, where our friends the Dora family make their delicious range of wines, and up into our Chisone valley to Pomaretto, whose small vineyard we look down into from our balcony on a daily basis. Our small vineyard in Pomaretto produces 800 bottles a year of Ramie' making a bit of a boutique wine, but in our backyard and a particular wine for this valley.

It just nice to see our area be recognised for it's wine contribution in addition to all of our other fine local Torino province foods, that have long been recognised for their superior quality, flavor and diversity. It's about time the Provincia sits up and takes notice and help build on our strengths to reach a wider audience. It should help create more opportunities for small wine producers and other peripheral businesses.
We were also encouraged that they had the forethought to invite a wide variety of local business that stand to benefit from this promotion, like hotel, B&Bs, agriturismi, restaurants and other assorted business to ask them to participate in creating this designation. Bravo. Roughly 70 people from all of these business fields that I named showed up to engage in the conversation, which I thought was a good showing for a last minute invitation, (which is the usual case in Italy) for an inaugural idea and process, because as i stated earlier, things take an inordinate amount of time, ..."piano, piano". Anyway, the discussion was lively and there definitely was bit of a buzz of excitement and anticipation with some solid suggestions for spin off benefits ad ideas and we're off on the way to a wine road for rounding up some of those tourists that are wandering around wondering where to go and what to do, just in case you were at loose ends for something to do. Bravi Provincia di Torino, Bravi!

13 March 2008

Risotto revisited or Arancini tonight anyone?

Waiting in Milano train station a few years back, for my connection to Tuscany for a job interview with the Centro d'Arte Verrocchio Art school for a position as their chef, I was strolling around looking for something to take the edge off the hunger I was feeling after a long train ride down from Austria. What to have? Panini everywhere, but I was craving something hot and pizza was an option, but not really of interest to me. Then I noticed that one kiosk seemed to be the place to get something to eat as there were a number of people crowded around it and everything seemed to be flying out the kiosk. There was a smattering of offerings, but the large orange orbs had my attention and seem to be garnering a great deal of attention from everyone else. I watched for a while fascinated by the food and the whole process as my Italian was nonexistent at that point. (not much better now, but at least I can understand what's going on and usually made myself understood). Anyway, I eventually plucked up my courage and was able to get to the front of the line and make my purchase. What did this fried delight have inside for me to discover? Well, I must say it was a surprise, as I was thinking sweet and savory was what I got. That was just fine, because it was delicious and filling. Saffron colored rice with bits of ham and peas scattered throughout was quite the revelation. I knew I would be making these sometime in the near future. The possibilities seemed endless. So I made my train, my interview and I got the job. Armed with a new idea already bubbling up of rice balls and other variations on a theme, I was starting to compile my mental list of what I needed to make for the summer. It was great addition to the repertoire and one that I still enjoy preparing and eating today. Btw, if you are an EU citizen, are an organized decent cook and have the desire to work in Italy for the summer, the art school is always on the look out for a chef and helpers for their season. Write Caro at the Centro here and see what is on offer.

I like to call this recipe idea, a "two for one", an "encore performance" or even a "recycled winner", take your pick.
If I am making risotto, I will often make a tad more than we would normally eat with the thought of making arancini later.
Fabrizio sometimes will surprise me and so then we move on to plan B.
Arancini are usually thought of as a Sicilian street food and rarely found in restaurants. The traditional Sicilian variety has a ground beef ragu center encased in saffron colored rice and a generous coating of bread crumbs all deep fried to a golden brown. The name Arancini, literally means little oranges, but any time I have seen them they are usually the size of full grown oranges. Sometimes you will find them in a cone shape as well. There are almost a many variations of these as there are provinces in Italy ranging from Neapolitan ones with peas, ham and mozzarella, seasonal mushroom to whatever bit of this or that you have that needs using up. There are lots of recipes out there to make all of the specific varieties from scratch, but I find that as long as I have some cold rice or risotto, then I use it as a canvas to see what taste sensation arises yet again out of the refrigerator.

If you need some basic risotto instructions have a look at an earlier recipe I published. Piedmontese risotto recipe with out the pumpkin.
Piemonte risotto is a great place to start as it is simplicity at it's finest and is often recommended for curing everything when you're feeling a bit under the weather and the doctor recommends eating a "white diet". This pretty much coincides with our version of eating a bland diet, but bland in Italy just doesn't really go over, whereas simple might be a better description. White rice (arborio or carnioroli) with onion, garlic, white wine, and Parmesan is a the classic recipe to let your imagination or your little bits of this or that are crying out to be noticed and used up, take over and lead the way.

" Encore Risotto Arancini " (or North South reunion)

  • 1 1/2 c rice ( 300 g )rice (arborio or carnaroli)
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1-2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1/3 c white wine
  • olive oil to saute’
  • 4 cups (1 liter or so) of vegetable or chicken stock
  • saffron optional a few threads to color
  • finish the risotto with a Tb of butter at the end and some grated Parmesan to season
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Consider what options you would like to add.
Other additions:
Recently, I used the cubed, peeled stems from artichokes, with cubes of Jerusalem artichokes, and that was delicious.
Prosciutto crudo cubes with peas or speck, which is smoked prosciutto crudo
Any type of mushrooms sauteed is always a hit for me
You get the idea.
Make your basic risotto, enjoy and leave leftovers to get cold before making into arancini. Risotto for lunch arancini for dinner or the whole batch for rice balls

  • 1/2 c (50 g) cubed cheese, soft melt-able ones like mozzarella, provolone I use a local Toma cheese
  • 1/2 c (50g) Parmesan, grated
  • 2 egg, beaten
  • 2 Tb. flour (rice flour or cornstarch if desired)
  • 1 c flour, in a small bowl for rolling the balls
  • 1 c (50g) bread crumbs, in a bowl for rolling
  • Optional: add cubed ham or a thick red meat sauce for a filling in the center
  • Oil to deep fry
I like using a thermometer for keeping an eye on the oil, so I don't burn anything. I make my balls more on the clementine rather than the traditional orange size, more antipasto size

Season your beaten eggs with salt and pepper and set aside to roll the balls in.
Stir the grated Parmesan and 1-2 Tb of flour into the rice and thoroughly combine.
Wet your hands and place a fair amount of the rice mixture in one palm of your hand. It should be about 3/4 of an inch/ 2 cm thick
Press an indentation in the center.
Place cubes of cheese or ham or both and close the rice around the filling to completely cover.
Roll a little to smooth surface and roll in you flour mixture to cover once.
Then roll in the egg mixture.
Then roll in the bread crumbs.
Fry till golden brown and drain on absorbent paper.
Serve hot or room temperature.
These are usually served alone, but could be served with a spicy marinara sauce as an antipasto.
I often serve them with a salad and call it lunch.
Fabrizio doesn't mind what size just as long as I call him for lunch.

08 March 2008

International Women's Day or Festa della Donna

March 8th is a day that gets a lot of attention here in Italy although it isn't even on the radar in America. I have to admit I'm not particularly fussed about it as it is yet another great marketing tool to get you to buy something to show that you care. It is rather sweet though I must say. I spotted this cake last week when I was in Torino as a build up for this weeks festa and couldn't resist taking a photo as it is so very typically Italian flavored. Do note the detail.

I found today when we did our market shopping that there were men everywhere on the street corners trying to sell little sprigs of mimosa to anyone who needed to make sure that they were thinking of that special woman in their life. As I have said in a couple of previous posts, International Women's day is not unlike Valentines or secretary's day as far as the commercial hype. I guess you could add mother's day in there as well, but it isn't without it's charms. The market today was full of folks getting the usual bargains and pawing through the latest table of bargains just waiting for someone to love them enough to take them home and bright with yellow boughs everywhere, mostly from peoples' yards, harvested and brought in to sell or give away. I found myself a recipient to a couple of bouquets also. I must admit when I purchased the last fresh basket of ricotta from one of my favorite cheese makers(and there are several favorites) along with an aged, slightly sharp Toma to accompany it home with me, and his teenage son stepped from behind the counter to hand me my purchase, he handed me a couple of lovely sprigs of brilliant yellow mimosa with a flourish. I was charmed. When the owner of our natural food store made sure I didn't forget to take along a perky potted purple viola, that I had been eyeing out of the corner of my eye, I was also very touched at the kind gesture. Now, I think it will be my new tradition to go shopping at the market on March 8th, because the festive spring flowers bring a smile to my face and a feeling that spring is just around the corner and that thoughtful gestures in life really do make all the difference sometimes.
I like to always keep that in mind.

Fabrizio's cousins' picture of the Mimosa out by the mouth of our valley that are always spectacular every year.

Happy Mimosa Day to all of You Too!

05 March 2008

Torino Chocolate Fest 2008

I spent Sunday in Torino wandering around the center somewhat aimlessly. I was trying not to bump into anyone as town was heaving with people out to soak up the warmth of springlike conditions. The atmosphere of an earlier political rally, an arts and crafts display, the Juventus team lunching at the Principi di Piemonte hotel, and outdoor cafes everywhere with gypsy serenaders and hungry strollers hovering about waiting for a coveted spot in the sun when someone had finished and moved on. The Piazza down by the Po river was host to antiques being sold under the porticoes and the center stage, had been reserved for a carnival of chocolate samplings, plunked down in the middle of that very sunny, almost downright hot, piazza, to tempt and test even the strongest of Lenten resistance.

It was a day out and and an opportunity to meet friends of my nephew and niece, whom I had heard that I needed to meet them since they were in Torino and so close. I'm glad I did, as they were two very interesting young people and I had the added pleasure of meeting Jacopo's parents as well. In the end we wondered around taking in the sights and getting to know each other a bit. I'd like to do another post dedicated to their passion, which is mountain climbing. Jacopo is a certified guide and has some very impressive climbs under his belt for such a young man. A common passion of the four and very easy for me to understand their friendship based on their common interest of mountain climbing. Have a look at his site that is shared with two other guides on their aptly named Mountain Passion. I had already had a small stop at one of my favorite cafes with a small indulgent look at their always tasty chocolates.

It's a beautiful historical cafe on Via Po and worth a stop in if you find yourself in the area and a small platter of pralines won't set you back too much and I guarantee they will melt in your mouth and leave you deeply satisfied. That is until you have a look at your platter and see that there is another one to try and another one after that.
Oh well, why not, you only live once, eh?

01 March 2008

Goodbye 2006 Winter Olympics, again, Hello Remodel time

Two year ago this past week the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics came to a close. The significance for Fabrizio and myself was that it was the culmination of our goal to return to his families home and restart a business. Fabrizio's parents had come to Serre Marchetto in the early 60's, bought a piece of property close to where Fabrizio's maternal grandfather grew up and built their "La Baita". With help from both sides of their families, they created a life that housed and fed them and a good portion of this valley and folks from Torino who heard that they served up great mountain specialties. Like most "Baite"( rustic mountain houses), wild game atop polenta, bagna caüda, risotto, salami, Toma and Tomini cheeses were served up to the delight of all, by the sheer will and resourcefulness of this extended family. When they arrived from the bottom of the hill literally, the road to the end of the historically popular footpath to Grandubbione was just getting started. They commenced serving food with no phone for making reservations, electricity generated by their own NAFTA generator that pumped the water up from the nearby stream. They were pioneers and worked hard to create a life in the mountains that supported them and created a welcome stop for a days outing to the mountains or a atmospheric spot for a special occasion celebrated with friends. Over the years they added on rooms and a dining hall with a disco on top to make those weddings and new years occasions a full package to look forward to.
Fast forward a number of years and time passes, tastes change and dreams transmute.Fabrizio and I meet and decide to return to the family home which has seen his parents retire to the hunting and gathering so dear to their hearts and tending the family garden. We decided to make the rooms into a bed and breakfast next to the restaurant which continues on with others who are young and energetic for running a restaurant. When we arrived we proceeded to start sprucing up the building and rooms and hung out the proverbial sign, open for business. Piedmont, Torino, and our Italian alps aren't as well known as our more famous neighbors like Tuscany, Milano and the Lake district or the Dolomites, but that was to change. The 2006 Torino Winter Olympics (photo album here ) and Paralympics put us on the map. Have a look at our signed Olympic flag that we'll feature somewhere when we're done. My website for Bella Baita brought us all manner of English speakers from all over the world looking for rooms for the games. When we saw the need for facilitating people finding places to stay we helped everyone that we could find somewhere that suited them to house them closer to the event or their family member, many whom qualified close to the start of the games. We met a lot of folks on line and then finally in person when they arrived for the games. It was an exciting few weeks during the events. Even the months before with all the preparations and scurrying about we did, facilitating the various stays and managing endless details that came up over the course of many months prior kept us riding a wave of excitement. My blog was born out of this period of time with a desire to use some of the writing I had done during the course of correspondence with others trying to find their way around, in a mostly unknown area and a desire to try and bolster the visibility of our B&B business. I also realized that there wasn't much information about this area singing it's charms prior to the Olympics and Paralympics. I have worked steadily to put us on the radar ever since. We are enthusiastic to promote our area and all the myriad of things to experience of which food and drink are a well known part of the equation to our guests both near and abroad through our commitment to creating interesting cooking and wine courses and other possibilities percolating behind the scenes. We created an association in order to do just that , called TEM, Touristic Ecosotenible Montana, or Sustainable Mountain Tourism. Now with our association, we are able to grow this side of the business and expand into different areas of developing various business opportunities for this area. We have had a great response to our small custom classes, that has grown along with our business. We work with a number of small producers and aritsans , so we hope to expand on creating more opportunities for all.
Whilst the Olympics were on we used the "disco" room for our grand central head quarters and meal room always with the desire to transform it into a more functional multi purpose room.
Now since two days after our New Years guests left after January 6th, Fabrizio with a little help from his father and friends has been on mission. Remodel the "disco " into the Olympia room by May has been his mantra. This a driven man who is putting in almost 12 hours every day to make this happen, almost single handed! We're living with a lot more than the usual dust these days as the project migrates over with every trip in and out of the "Olympia" room to here. It's starting to take shape and everyone is starting to be excited. After much ripping and shredding, and his father more than once mumbling something about "spending his whole life building this up only to have Fabrizio tear it all down", the huge wood beams are up and the wooden slats are covering the massive insulation job done just prior to the beams going up. Progress is being made. The once dark disco is starting to reflect some light and the remodel theory is starting to take a bit of shape and reality. Both of his parents are looking a little happier these days, and Momma is singing again, which is a sure sign of approval. That is what is shaking here at Bella Baita and the "BB View" is clearing up too so I can carry on with writing about things going on around the area and with us. I'll keep on with a recipe or two to keep some of you interested and me committed to writing down my scraps of paper into coherent legible recipes that others might use who haven't a clue what my kitchen short hand is all about. Now where is my recipe for.......

A few remodel photos....

Our beams come from the Germansca valley from whence our BB view looks into.
We ordered them from our friends sawmill down the road in San Germano.
They prepared and delivered them to our door.

Then and Now
Beams in place and now we're making progress.
Stay tuned as the transformation continues.

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