20 July 2008

Variation on a Semi Freddo

Nothing says summer like ice cream. I'm not a huge ice cream fan. I like it and I always enjoy when I have it, but it isn't something that I actually crave, unlike fruit pies, tarts and chocolate any which way. I must say that living in Italy I do indulge in a dip or two more frequently than I use to, as there are a lot of wonderfulgelaterias everywhere you turn. We have a big ole gelato maker, but it usually only gets put through it's paces when there is a crowd to satiate and not just for the four of us here to over indulge in.
The nice thing about gelato makers too is that you can make quite lower fat concoctions taste dreamy and creamy with all the aeration that happens in one of those machines. But alas, there is a decadent choice of the frozen variety that tempts, satisfies and lends itself for all manner of additions, simply called "semi freddo", which translates as partially frozen. This is an easy peasy throw together frozen treat that will have you tiptoeing to the freezer when you really should be off to do something else entirely. A couple years back I went to one of our B&B associations summer potluck and one of our friends brought her version of this treat in the Tiramisu variety and needless to say, it disappeared before the lid was barely pulled off and the squares served up. Our friend Glady used Saiwa biscuits/cookies of the plain variety, one side dipped briefly into the espresso and lined the bottom of her pan. She slathered the usual mascarpone and cream mixture on top, placed another layer of cookies strategically on top, covered the lot and froze them. She brought them out to an appreciative crowd who helped her picnic basket return home a tad lighter. I immediately took it on board to make many variations, of course, and have found that is always seems to go over big when served. The version pictured below had the addition of fresh strawberries along with chocolate pieces. Another of my favorites is chopped up Torrone and cherries or hazelnut almond croquant with a caramel sauce served up with it. The possibilities are endless. It makes a great hand held kid treat. It is sophisticated enough to make with out the cookies. I put the filling into some flexible individual molds and serve with sauces and various garnishes after unmolding. Anyway you go, it's easy and tasty and goes well in the summer when it's just too hot to cook, but it hasn't stopped us from making winter varieties also. I had this odd sized vintage flat Tupperware container that was my Mom's and didn't get a lot of use. I discovered it was the perfect size for one package of the multi grain Saiwa crackers yielding 12 servings. Now it finds itself lounging in the freezer quite often, waiting for the surprise guest that decided to come to dinner. What a great new purpose it has and keeps the freezer taste from creeping in to boot.

Semi Freddo Sandwich with Variations
Yields a flat pan of 12 or 6-8 individual servings
100g (1/2 c ) sugar
400g cream, the richer the tastier
250 g mascarpone
2 tsp vanilla
1T amaretto or cointreau/ Grand Maarnier
50 gram chocolate chunks/bits
12 strawberries,more or less depending on their size, cut up into pieces.
24 Saiwa 5-cereal or Petit buerre type flat cookie

Have all of your additions and pan, prepared and ready to add.
Don't have your pieces too chunky or they're difficult to cut later

In a bowl take a flat whisk and hand stir the mascarpone to lighten and smooth it out.
Add your flavorings to the mascarpone.
Mix well.
Add the sugar to your cream, in a separate bowl.
Whip your cream to soft peaks.
Add the whipped cream to the sotened mascarpone.
Mix just to blend.
Add choclate chunks and strawberry pieces and any additional ingredients that interest you and gently fold in.
Lay the cookies out flat in rows.
Cover with your filling taking care not to move your cookies out of alignment.
Strategically add the cookies to the top, to line up with the bottom ones leaving space between them for cutting later.
Cover tightly and freeze.
To serve thaw slightly, 15 min- 1/2 hour depending, if this has been allowed to freeze completely.
Cut into squares and serve with caramel sauce, fresh fruit compote or any other sauce or garnish of choice, and enjoy.

15 July 2008

Refugio Selleries Birthday Outing

Flourless chocolate bomb with fresh red currants
My idea of a birthday cake, several small ones!
I have a lot of posts that I just can't seem to get quite caught up on, so I think I'll just skip to today's most topical post and tell and show you what we did for my birthday. Today is my actual b-day, but as Fabrizio is off today to work his part time summer job at the local swimming park, where he manages their food kiosk for a good friend, we had a wonderful outing yesterday in upper Val Chisone. This is our busy time of the year and often difficult to get away. As it turned out, yesterday, we were free to take a drive up to the upper valley and drive up into a remote spot literally just over the back of our mountains, not so far away as the crow flies.
It was a glorious sunny day and although I would have enjoyed walking in, we didn't have the time to be able to do that and so in true Italian fashion we motored in up and back into a bumpy dirt mountain road taking it nice and slow, making it easy to take in the breathtaking views of our valley. Monviso and Ghinivert peaks along the French border made their presence known poking up along the skyline and occasionally disappearing with the swirl of cotton ball clouds dotted along the borderline.
Rifugio Selleries in the autumn
Arriving at Rifugio Selleries, after bumping along this high narrow mountain road, coming round yet another corner and to our delight there it was nestled in the lap of some very dramatically beautiful peaks. To my amazement on a Monday, there quite a few cars there and a number of people enjoying the excellent selection of local Piemontese wines, under the bluest of skies with the gentle sounds of the cow bells as they topped up their tans. Inside we met the latest folks to breath new life into this old hotel, Massimo and his wife, Silvie and their darling little boy. They were busy, as this too is their busy season, but they took the time to offer us something to drink, a chat, and a tour of their recently refurbished facilities and a genuine welcome. They really are a charming forward thinking couple that I think will be making this stop in the Alps a very sought after place along the GTA. There were some other interesting folks there for a days outing also, who had to hurry back to milk their cows. Massimo introduced us to half of the owners of Casa Scaparone and Bottega Scaparon, an agrotourismo and makers of Piemontese wines and other spirits, in nearby Alba. The Refugio has their wines on offer and I am looking forward to sampling it some time. Sounds like another opportunity for a days outing to Alba is in order? The fathers and children had been hiking and were just about to depart to get the evening chores done. They are also traditional folk musicians as well and have some lovely traditional songs on their site featuring their children singing as well.
The Region of Piemonte purchased the Rifugio a few years back and refurbished it before entrusting it into these very capable hands. It was a hotel way back when but closed down in 2002. Massimo and family took over 2 years ago and have been going full speed ahead to bring it back from the missing. I've been in a number of mountain Rifugios over the years and this one did have a freshness and cleanliness that was as refreshing as the mountain air. Certainly not luxurious accommodations, but clean and charming with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. Their simple menu offered local specialties with some very nice touches often lacking in most Rifugios. The selection of wines and local beer was impressive and quite a welcome sight when you arrive indoors after a long drive or trek in. The bergeria next door is not to be missed either and of course, we took home some berge and seirass cheese along with some butter, the likes of, you don't find in the store. It was another restored series of old buildings that were charming and extremely clean. The young boy that waited on us was so friendly and accommodating to have a few samples of the goods before making our selections. We're still enjoying them along with our guests.
I have some friends that are interested in doing some trekking from hut to hut here in the Alps and I feel like I now have some good suggestions for an itinerary or two. Of course, I think a perfect ending to a perfect high mountain trek would be a few days relaxing with us here at Bella Baita, and perhaps a few "Cooking Together" courses to finish off the trip, or maybe even a acclimatization stay before heading up. Either way, I think it it would be a great way to get out and about in the Italian Alps.

07 July 2008

Vespas and Insalata di Fagiolini e Farro

Nothing says Italy to me more than sporty little scooters that zip around Italy's cities and make a mockery of traffic rules(but as they say here, Italian driving laws are only "suggestions" after all) as they wend their way around the twisty narrow streets and alleyways, than the classic Vespa scooter.
Last weekend we had a slight invasion of around 20 classic restored Vespa, their drivers and support vehicle, who arrived in dribs and drabs, next door for a bit of refreshment before ending up at the end of our road in Grandubbione to have a bit of fun and camaraderie. I must say they seemed a bit out of place , but I think our tree lined mountain road with all of it's twists and hairpin turns is probably much more enjoyable than weaving through traffic, in say Florence or Nice any day. A couple of them stayed with us as they didn't fancy camping out on the lawn of the baita that was their headquarters for the weekend. This is the second appearance of the French Vintage Vespa Club, Scooter Club du Sud- Est to wind their way up our road after traveling from Avignon, France up and over the alps, roughly taking about 6 hours to get here. They arrived one Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago,also, somewhat en masse, as they numbered about 20. It got my attention as I could hear them coming up for quite a ways down and I wasn't quite sure exactly what was coming up the road. This year they were a bit more strung out in their arrival. One of our club members scooter had broken down along the way, so he was hitching a ride with his friend and grateful for their support van along that picked him up and got him to the party.

Not exactly "Roman Holiday" but perhaps maybe Vespas's gone wild.
So to keep up with the fast crowd and when you have better things to do than slave away in the kitchen you might consider making a hearty green bean salad with cooked farro or barley in a refreshing vinaigrette. Farro or Spelt is a nutty chewy addition to this salad and is easily replaced by barley if you have trouble finding it. This recipe should get you out the door pretty quick and would be a good addition to any picnic, cook out or potluck spread. Make it a complete meal somewhat in the tradition of a Salad Nicoise by adding tuna and hard boiled eggs. The vinaigrette is is an approximation as I don't always make it the same and sometimes if adding the tuna and eggs at the end I will make a bit more vinaigrette to drizzle over it just before serving.
Insalata di Fagiolini e Farro

1 1/2 lb (700 g) green beans, slim tender ones if possible
1/3-cup farro, (60 g) cooked with a bay leaf and some dried herbs
Black Olives 1/3 cup or so
Tomato wedges and rounds, I use a couple of varieties for interest

1/2c Olive oil
2 TB Balsamic vinegar, I used an aged one so it's quite syrupy
3-4Tb Herbal vinegar you can use just one or the other, but I like the blend
1/2 small Red onion
1 small garlic clove, minced or grated into the liquid
a few leaves Basil or mint, fresh, sliced long, substitute sage when there isn't any basil to be had
a few fresh Parsley leaves, chopped
Salt & pepper
1-2 generous tsp Brown mustard, I like grainy when I have it

Optional items
Tuna, a small can drained
2-Hard-boiled eggs sliced into wedges

Wash the green beans and clip off the tips of each ends, leaving the beans whole.
Drop the beans into a pot of water, that has been salted and brought to a boil.
Cook briefly to retain color and texture.

Rinse your farro and bring it to a boil separately, with some salt and maybe a bay leaf or other herbs for more flavor
I usually use some oregano and thyme. Right now I have a lot of fresh herbs so I might tie a few stalks of oregano, marjoram, bay and thyme and toss it in while the farro boils. Usually it only takes 10-15 minutes if you have pearled farro. If you have whole farro them you might consider putting it in the pressure cooker to get it cooked faster.

Make your vinaigrette while the beans and grain cook.
In a bowl large enough to hold all of your beans and grain and be able to stir.

Start with a tsp of salt in the bottom of your bow. Whisk in your mustard, them the vinegars, and slowly add your oil as you continue whisking.
Add your olives
Add your fresh herbs.
Taste and adjust seasonings.
Reserve maybe 1/3 cup of the dressing to dress just before serving.
Toss the bean in, stirring to coat and then the grain.
Let set for a few hours to develop your flavors.
You can refrigerate till ready to serve, but try to bring it to room temperature before serving for the flavors to come out.
Check your seasonings again and adjust if necessary.
Arrange on a platter or individual plates.
Garnish the top with the tuna and surround the sides and bottom with your tomato and egg wedges.
Drizzle some dressing on top of the tuna, tomato and eggs and serve.
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