28 January 2011

Spaghetti and Lentils, Hearty Fare for a Winters Day

It's still comfort food time as far as I'm concerned. I don't know about you, but spring is still a ways away and this is a tasty somewhat lighter variation of the classic Italian dish," pasta e fagioli", or pasta and beans. It's a dish I love. I usually use a short tube pasta with borlotti beans. The broth of the beans and the starch of the pasta makes for a simple thick stew whose rich flavor is comfort at it's best. This version combines lentils and spaghetti. There are many variations in the different regions and when I came across Joe of Italyville family's version, who hail from Calabria and whose recipe features lentils and spaghetti, I knew it would be a combination I would love, and I do. You can find his family's "Italian Lentil Soup" original recipe here.  I've updated mine to include farro or spelt spaghetti as it's nutty flavor goes well with the earthy lentils. Generally, I'm not a fan of whole wheat pasta (don't get Joe started on that subject) as I find it heavy and strange in it's texture, but spelt is entirely different, in my opinion. It has all the slippery qualities of regular white pasta, but with added flavor and many health claims that are attached to spelt. I find that it just tastes great. I like to use small lentils as they cook up faster and with out the need to soak them over night. I find that I tend to decide to make this pretty much last minute, so the minimal cooking time is a bonus, although regular lentils don't really take that much longer to cook and makes a hearty bowl of pasta goodness.

I always have a bit of a chuckle whenever I make pasta and beans, as it reminds me of an incident that cemented in my mind just how regional Italian cuisine is. When we first opened  Bella Baita, our B&B, back in 2003, we were casting about looking for guests, since we returned to Fabrizio's family business that had really only focused on their osteria/restaurant, La Baita. Even though they had built on a few rooms, they never really pursued the business side of renting out the rooms. Although we were on the map for the locals, as "La Baita" had been very popular over the years, there was no past history to draw upon. We cast about for what ever we could find that came our way and luckily we made a connection with a couple of companies that were building the new tunnels for the new and improved road up our valley. This effort was all a part of the infrastructure improvement and run up to the 2006 Winter Olympics that were held here. We were fortunate to have a group of workers, from the south of Italy, that were here working to build the new tunnels. They were to stay with us until their company could arrange more permanent accommodations for them. We sent them off at 5 am after a quick coffee and brioche and they returned to eat dinner with us in the evening. The first couple of days we made what is typical of primi piatti here, soup and risotto, to a less than enthusiastic response. How odd indeed, as these are the things that you find on menus and in the homes of northern Italians and we didn't think we were that bad of cooks. On the 3rd night one of them asked us why we didn't serve pasta. Ah ha, the light bulb over the head goes on. Yes, of course, pasta! The next night we served pasta e fagioli and were greeted with ear to ear grins and clean plates all round. It was pasta every night every night after that to happy eaters and satisfied cooks. I still remember that first plate of pasta e fagioli and their beaming faces, and I find a myself braking out into a grin.  I think you'll find this might rustle up some smiles and satisfaction to you and yours as well.
I made half this recipe for the two of us with enough to serve for lunch the next day. 

Spaghetti e Lenticchie (Lentils)
 Serves 4-6 
  • 100g pancetta, speck or prosciutto crudo, or bacon, diced
  • 2 leeks, sliced in semi circles or 1 large onion, diced 
  • 2-3 stalks of celery – diced, mine were kind of small
  • 2  large carrots – diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced'
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1tsp thyme, dry  
  • 60g /1/4 c white wine
  • 200g /1c lentils, I like to use organic and the really small ones for faster cooking
  • water or vegetable or chicken stock about 700g/3 cups
  • 6 plum type tomatoes,  peeled and chopped, I used San Marzano varieties that I had frozen
  • or a can of diced tomatoes, can size is up to you
  • 300g /a little over 1/2 box of spaghetti,  I like farro or spelt spaghetti
  • small piece of parmesan rind, if you have it
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • Garnish with fresh thyme or parsley if you have any, for a nice touch

In a large deep saute pan Pour a small amount of oil and begin to cook your pancetta or bacon. If you meat is very  fatty, you might not need the oil. If you are using a lean parma/prosciutto  ham you will need the oil. Saute for a while until it starts to get crispy. I like to remove most of the pork, reserving it to add at the end so it still retains some texture and flavor. 
Either drain off some of the fat if too oily or add a little more olive oil and add your diced leek, or onion, carrot, celery and garlic. 
Continue to cook over a moderate flame until just starting to soften, about 5 minutes or so.
Add the thyme and bay leaf and white wine
Continue to cook until the white wine is almost evaporated
Then add the lentils and stir thoroughly and let it cook a few minutes.
Add vegetable or chicken stock if you like, but I usually just use water to completely cover the whole mixture and you have a loose soupy consistency. You will probably add about 3 c or more. You will be adding more later. 
If you have a piece of parmesan rind, add it at this time for that little added flavor to your mix and it will be the cooks reward later.
Let it all simmer for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are soft.
Add more water now, not stock, and bring your liquid back up to where you started and maybe even a little more. 
Add some salt. Taste it. You want to be able to tell that you have salt, but is not enough that you would serve it, yet. You will adjust your salt at the end. 
Add your diced tomatoes.
Break your spaghetti in half and add to your soup.
Let it all simmer till your spaghetti is just about al dente. 
Add your reserved pancetta or salty pork.
Taste it again and adjust your salt and add some pepper. 
Retrieve the softened parmesan rind, your cooks reward 
Garnish with fresh chopped herbs like thyme and chives or parsley and serve.

Wait for the grins from ear to ear!
Buon appetito!
My crusty bread to sop up the juices

20 January 2011

More to Sestriere than beauty and skiing

Sestriere dressed up for the 2006 Olympics
This seems like a good time to start slipping in some of the posts I have been meaning to get to for ages. I think I will layer them up between some of the recipes that I have been trying to get to as well. The weather is nice out, but it's still mid winter so indoor activities are not out of order until we get some fresh snow and the outdoor playtime is back on the map.
Whenever our guests, or us for that matter, are headed up to Sestriere ski area, we always make a point to recommend stopping by at least 2 places, (there are more, of course) when you find yourself in this part of the alps, Carlo's and Constantino's. Two diverse places, but within a stones throw of one another, the main ski slopes and usually, open year round, no matter the season. Wander up Via Louset after turning from SS23 that brings you to the center of town and it won't take you long to discover Carlo's wonderful handiwork spilling out from his "Trucioli d'Autore" shop's front door. You might even encounter a few flying wood chips as well.
Carlo Piffer 
His graceful and clever wood sculptures are also found liberally sprinkled all around Sestriere and throughout the upper Chisone valley, gracing various nooks and crannies with wooden trees and all sorts of memorabilia depictions from the 2006 Winter Olympic games that happened here.
Olympic Flame
He has quite a range of small whimsical ornaments in his shop that are made with a laser cutting process,  making sure that you will find a little something that will fit into your luggage and price range.  You will also find the more substantial and lovingly hand carved pieces that run the range of domesticated farm animals to the various wildlife that live and wander this part of the alps. Carlo also has an interesting and often humorous take on realistic house hold pieces that have a twist to the functionality that turns it into an art form rather than for it's mundane function. 

Table with drape
Festive Trees
High Country Cows
His handicraft is not to be missed when you are in Sestriere and even worth the gorgeous drive up our Chisone valley just to stop in and say Ciao!
You can admire and maybe purchase some of Carlo's lovingly hand carved sculptures and afterwards, satisfy your tummy's rumbling for something to take the edge off your hunger, with a local specialty called Gofri.
Goffrie, Yogurteria, Creperia
Constantino's Gofri joint
 Thin crispy waffles filled with savory fillings like prosciutto crudo and mozzarella or gorgonzola and walnuts or you can head straight for the Nutella filling. You can find a recipe if you feel the urge to make them yourself and some photos of making Gofri here, from a post I did a while back.
Nutella Gofri
Otherwise, I recommend that you head over to the Torre dell'Orologio plaza and grab a seat, if you can, inside or out in this tiny "hole in the wall",  that serves up fresh, fast, and ever so tasty, gofri and crepes as you like them. Savory or sweet, you really can't go wrong with these made while you wait, sandwiches  and pair them with a glass of red or white local wine from an excellent selection of Piedmontese varieties. It's a great choice after hitting the slopes or wandering around the area, to enjoy the beauty of the mountains surrounding you everywhere.
Outside seating year round

10 January 2011

New Year, New Recipe: Chestnut Soup/ Zuppa di Castagna

I must say I think I'm really starting to embrace the Italian ways. Why is that you ask? Because here it is the 10th of January and I'm just now getting back into the swing of my blog on the same day as when the majority of Italians are back to school and work. I'm kind of liking that La Befana (January 6th) and the bridge thing that makes the Christmas holiday stretch out to finish after the weekend following the Thursday Epiphany holiday. Confused? I don't blame you. Suffice to say that the festival of lights, winter solstice, Christmas, New Years, Epiphany and  all of the darkest of  winter holidays are now officially over and I'm joining in the Italians "back to work" today with a new post on my blog. Aren't you glad you asked?
This year I am planning a makeover on BBV to make it easier to find past posts that hopefully I'll be able to split up into various categories for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by. Do feel free to leave a comment or two as I look forward to hearing from you as that is one of the best parts of having a blog, the people that stop by.

Today I'm sharing a recipe for another hearty winter soup, Zuppa di Castagna or Chestnut soup. I will be the first one to admit that it perhaps isn't the most attractive of soups to the eye, but you can dress it up with some sour cream, yogurt, leek and bacon toppings to kick up the eye appeal. I would say it is an intriguing mixture of flavors that when I tasted it at the Martini and Rossi museum's inauguration of the Strada Reale Dei Vini Torinesi, I was immediately intrigued and determined to either find a recipe or recreate the dish myself. I have gone the recreating it myself route, as I find that with much of our cuisine here in Piedmont, many of the recipes are not written down. With a few tries, and some inspiration from some similar recipes around the Internet, I think I have recreated it as best as I remember it. This is a great way to use up any leftover fresh chestnuts you might have kicking around your refrigerator. Chestnuts have pretty much disappeared from the markets, but you can still find fresh cooked ones at the grocery stores. I used some dry ones that were begging to be used from my pantry and so I have given directions for dried chestnuts, but fresh in the shell or vacuum packed will work just dandy. I found a variety of combinations of chestnuts paired with butternut squash or other ingredients on recipes around the Internet that were more colorful or a richer version of this soup. Mine however is more in the tradition of the "la cucina povera" (poor or simple cooking) of the alps. Our woods here are full of chestnuts and potatoes are always our best crop in the garden. This combination is closer to the soup I tasted here. I used dried chestnuts, but I would have readily used fresh or already cooked ones if I had had them on hand and paired them with our garden potatoes as the base. I garnished with whatever might be on hand in a typical alpine pantry, a grate of Toma cheese, but more likely some heavy cream or a dollop of soft fresh cheese or hard grating cheese. Here, you will find fresh Tomini, which is a type of ricotta but stracchino, crecenza or mascarpone would do very nicely. I used my homemade yogurt, which gave it a nice tang and cut through the richness of the chestnuts. Naturally, Greek yogurt, creme fraiche or sour cream would all be most acceptable additions. When it was served as a part of the aperitivo offerings, it was presented in tall clear crystal cubes with a dot of cream.  I included that presentation in my photos as well as I found it a fun and different presentation that  added interest to the buffet.  I have added some typical toppings that make a nice addition to the soup for variation and contrast and is what we like to add to many of our different hearty winter soups. Sauteed leeks, crispy pancetta, bacon or garlicky herby crostini/ croutons or maybe even roasted pumpkin seeds. I think you get the idea. The toppings almost make for a completely different soup. So have at it, and use those lingering chestnuts for a comforting winters day soup.

Zuppa di Castagna /Chestnut Soup
Serves 4

200g dried chestnuts (about 8 oz) or fresh* you'll need more to compensate for the hulls
½ lg onion (100g/ 4 oz) sliced in medium pieces
1 lg carrot (80g/ 3oz chopped in to half moons
1-2 celery stalks (80g/ 3oz) chopped
2 bay leaves
2 medium potatoes (275-300g/ 10oz) peeled and cubed
1 Lt of water to cover, approximately

olive oil to saute´ all
Salt and Pepper to taste


2-3 large leeks (250g/ 9 oz) sliced into rounds or half rounds

Clean and rinse your chestnuts. 
Cover with hot water and let set for ½ hour or so.
Saute the onion, carrot and celery in a sauce pan or a pressure cooker like I did, till the vegetables become fragrant and start to pick up some color.
Add the soaked and drained chestnuts along with bay leaves to the vegetables.
Cover with water and bring to a boil.
If using a pressure cooker, cook at pressure for about 20 minutes. If cooking in a regular sauce pan cover a simmer till soft. Should take at least an hour. Chestnuts should be very soft. You might need to add water it it evaporates and gets too dry.
Cool the pressure cooker down. I do this quickly by running it under cold running water to lower the pressure faster.
Open and add the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper and cook until all is soft.
While all is cooking, saute´ your sliced leeks in some olive oil until crispy.  Sprinkle a little salt over the leeks. Set aside as a garnish.
Buzz the soup till smooth with a hand immersion wand, food processor or blender, adding additional reserved liquid if needed. I don' t mind if the soup isn't perfectly smooth as I prefer a bit of texture.
If your soup looks to be really soupy, you might consider draining off some of the liquid and reserving to add back in if the soup turns out to be too thick. It's easier to add needed liquid back in than to try and thicken the soup after you have creamed it. It will have a tendency to stick and burn if you try and reduce it after you have blended it.
Adjust seasonings as needed.
Serve in bowls with a swirl of yogurt and a generous sprinkle of crispy leeks or any other favored topping.
Cooks notes
* Check out Ciao Chow Linda's richer Leek and Chestnut version and her method of using
fresh chestnuts here.
Other possible additions or toppings
Greek yogurt, creme fraiche or sour cream
Ricotta, stracchino, crecenza or mascarpone
Crispy pancetta or bacon cubes
Bread cubes sauteed in a pan or browned in the oven with olive oil/butter, garlic, sage, rosemary or oregano, basil, whatever suits you. I tend to use rosemary and sage in the winter.
Toasted salted (or tamaried) pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds or a mix of all three.
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