29 June 2011

Wacky weather brings on the Porcini

Photo by Robert Alexander
Weather is always a major source of speculation and conversation the world around. We never have a shortage of that around here. This has been another odd year weather wise, and so we find ourselves discussing it's oddness in terms of our beloved mushroom or more to the point, porcino season. Our hills are famous for their porcini or boletus edulis, to be specific. There are a host of other varieties around as well, like the ones you find before the porcini arrive and the ones that arrive signaling the end of the porcini season. Well, that is usually how it is during the autumn season. Spring time season usually is a brief affair, with the only porcino you find is what they here call the "white" variety, which if I am not mistaken I think it is the boletus variipes. The autumn season boasts the "moro or black" varieties, boletus edulis and a host of other variety of edible and ones that are oh so pretty, but oh so deadly. So, best to know what you are doing. Here you can go into any of the hospitals and they will identify or at the very least let you know if it is edible or not. If you buy them from along side of the road or in the market, most vendors usually have a tag on the crate verifying that the mushrooms have been inspected and are edible. We have a vendor in our little village not too far from the bottom of our road who collects all the mushrooms form the hunter and gathers of the area and ships them off to Torino every night during the season. Like I said before autumn is usually when the big mushroom action happens, but this year were going through the full autumn season now. It will be interesting to see how it plays out this autumn. Will we have a second season, or will this be the whole season and when it finishes its over for the year? 
Egle and her treasures
These are the burning questions that are bantered around our house, the home of the mildly crazy, ok, maybe down right, mad for mushrooms,  hunters and gatherers that I call my in laws and husband respectively.  
My husband sporting the latest in mushroom hunting attire
We eat wild mushrooms in quite a variety of ways, big slabs fried in bread crumbs, in risotto, with pasta, 
wild game stews, rustic tarts and the list continues on and on. To preserve them we either stick them in the freezer whole in ziplock bags, or saute them up with a little onion, garlic and parsley and freeze them in small batches for risotto and such. Very handy. We also dry them.
Drying porcini

My mother in laws specialty is preparing them for putting in jars either under oil or vinegar. They really are pretty that way and a most welcome gift for their friends. My in laws are still the type to give these types of gifts to their doctors or dentist or other types of professionals they deal with. I am known to bring along a loaf or two of my home made bread. Most people get very excited when they receive one of Egle's special jars of precious cargo. I do too, especially if it is under oil. I am not so wild about then in vinegar. It tends to overpower the mushrooms for my taste buds. 
Assorted Porcini and a few chanterelles
Porcini and other mushrooms under oil or vinegar.
Porcini under oil

It's not a difficult process, just time consuming. First and foremost you have to find the mushrooms, which can eat up some time, but at least you're out in the woods.
porcini "gold"

Then you need to thoroughly clean and wash them.
Porcini and chanterelles
What you need.
Sterilized jars and lids (usually water bathed for 20 minutes to sterilize)
You won't need them for a couple of days until after you prepare your mushrooms  

white wine vinegar
or olive oil, 
some bay leaves, one or two per jar (we have fresh ones available to us from nearby trees)
a few whole cloves, 1-2 per jar
Cleaned, dried  and ready to put in jars

After you have cleaned them, cut them into large chunks, maybe about 2 inches. 
They are then blanched for several minutes in a combination of water and vinegar, just to kill any bacterial on the outsides of the mushrooms. 
Dry them off and lay on  towels in a a spot to dry with a bit of wind if possible but out of direct sun. 
Leave to dry a day or two till they have released any liquid and are dry. 
Pack snugly and decoratively in your sterilized jars. 
Fill the jars with either oil or vinegar and  screw shut. 

Disclaimer!!!!! This is the way mountain and country people have been preserving their mushrooms for years. I know that you need to water bath the jars to insure a seal on the jar and to conform to food safety  recommendations. This is not a recipe to follow. I do not claim that this is fool proof. This is how my mother in law has been doing it for years with good results. She has a lot of experience and knows what she is doing. I wouldn't recommend this for everyone to try at home. I merely wanted to share the process of this specialty of our area. 
Porcini under vinegar and oil

21 June 2011

Girls Gone Wild in Val Chisone or just wild about Filled Baked Zucchini Flowers

Ok, so it's a misleading title. None of us are really girls and nobody really went wild.

Although when you get a group of women together it can be a little wild at times. We had friends of friends who visited recently and they were from my old stomping grounds of southern Illinois when I was a girl and perhaps went a little wild, back in the day. Although I didn't know any of them before they arrived, I felt we had known each other a very long time, as I do with many and most of our guests.  They all live or once lived in the small town of Olney (Home of the White Squirrels) a rival to even smaller Lawrenceville, where I lived for the all important "Wonder Years". They were recommended by a childhood neighbor that I  reconnected with on Facebook and so wish she had gotten to come along with them, but that will have to be another trip.
Women of Olney, Illinois
We had so much fun sharing what our part of Italy has to offer and catching up on people and places out of my somewhat distant past as we knew mutual people and they were also related to some of my classmates. We enjoyed a lot of laughs. When it was our time to share, we took them on our Pinerolo market tour and came home and cooked up a storm together.
Hard at work filling the pasta
The intriguing dish of the day, as it is for many people that happen to be here when zucchini flowers are in full force, were the flowers. The most popular way Italians usually will prepare them is filled with cheese or meat, dipped in batter and fried. Yes indeed, they are delicious, but I have been preparing them in a few ways to get around the heaviness of the deep fat frying. We really like them  and have found they eaten with great enthusiasm. We have been filling the flowers mainly with local cheese or sausage and vegetable mixtures. Really and savory mixture of your favorite fillings will work great. We made some the other night with a savory rice mixture that worked out great, so I thought I would share that recipe with you. Use this basic recipe as a starting point to create your own favorite filled zucchini flowers that just might become your signature dish during what can seem like, the never ending zucchini season.

Rice filled Zucchini  Squash Blossoms
Fiori di zucchine ripiene con riso

½ c cooked rice ( 1c/100g dry arborio rice and had extra for later use)
2 sprigs of lemon sage
olive oil, small amount, 1-2 T
1 shallot, diced
1 slice of pancetta or bacon, diced or cut into small pieces
1 small zucchini diced small
2 sprigs of fesh thyme, or ½-1 t dry
1-2 T  white wine
4 walnut halves, toasted and chopped (I pan toast them)
a few sprigs of spearmint if desired, chopped
salt and pepper
4-6 slices of prosciutto crudo
8-12 large zucchini squash blossoms, washed with pistil and stamens removed
(figure 2 flowers per person, depending on their size, maybe more)

Cook the 100g/1c rice in 2c lightly salted water with  2 sprigs of lemon sage.
You could use vegetable or chicken stock for part of the water for a flavor boost.
In a small heated saute pan, add a small amount of oil, the shallots and pancetta.
As they begin to soften  add the diced zucchini and fresh or dried thyme.
Saute a few minutes more.
Add the white wine and cook until the zucchini is soft and the white wine evaporated. I like to leave my zuchine somewhat al dente.
In a mixing bowl combine the 1/2c cooked rice, sauted vegetables, and chopped walnuts. Season with salt and pepper. A couple of tablespoons of choped frsh spearmint is a nice touch  if you like it. I don ‘t care for pepermint as I feel it overpowers.
With a spoon fill your flowers with a goodly amount trying to divide your filling evenly amounts your flowers so that they all have filling.
Once filled, take a lengthwise half slice of prosciutto crudo and wrap around the flowers bulk. Lay on a sheet tray with baking paper for an easy cleanup and no stick properties. Lightly drizzle all the filled flowers with olive oil and pop into a preheated moderate oven(180*C/350*F) for about 15 minutes, so the filling is warmed through and the flower is wilted.
Serve immediately.
Pairs nicely with a crisp white or dry rose wine.

Coooks Notes : Add a small amount of grated parmesan for a touch of salt and pizzaz if desired, although it is very good without.
Cheese variation, I have used so many varieties using up bits of  various cheese, trying to make a mixture of mild and stronger flavors cut through with some  cooked spinach, or wild greens like stinging nettle, borage, fresh herbs, chives, thyme, basil and small bits of prosciutto crudo, sausage, ham, bacon, pancetta and usually some grana padano or parmigiano to tie it all together. Whatever strikes your fancy.
I sometimes rewarm them on the stove in a pan, which works just fine, without having to turn on the oven for just a rewarm.

This is an appetizer, so you don’t need to overly fill the flowers. It could however be a part of a light luncheon course with a salad, so then you might increase, maybe even double your filling amounts for heartier servings.

14 June 2011

Organic Mountain Farming in Val Germansca

Bella Baita View-
looking into Val Germansca
Recently we spent the day over the river and up the road in Val Germanasca, which is the mountain range that we gaze at every day from our balcony. Spring is such an incredible time of the year to explore in the mountains, as the greens are so varied as the forest leafs out. The wildflowers begin to make their way into the meadows in earnest and the hills are truly alive.
Since I started this post, the greens have moved on to luscious solid green and the wildflowers are plentiful and everywhere. We got busy here at the baita and I really haven't had time to catch my breath or gather my thoughts to share all of the interesting and fun things we have been up to, but I will back track a bit. Val Germansca has been hiding from us lately so it nice to share some of the mountains' charm with you from our visit to Franco Peyronel's organic mountain farming operation.

Farming is never easy, given the fact that farmers are held hostage to mother nature's mercurial temperament, but when you add some altitude, then you are upping the mercurial factor quite a few more notches. Franco's family have lived up around 1,000m (3,600ft) in the Gemanasca valley family for several generations, doing whatever it is you need to do to make a living and feed your family. There's never a shortage of things to do, projects in progress, animals to feed, milk, clean up after, or even butcher, crops to plant, harvest and put up for what can be some long, cold hard winters. Never a shortage of things to do.
Peyronel family farm in the Germansca valley
His parents still live up in the mountains in a neighborhood where most everyone is related to him and certainly everyone knows him. His family has long kept some animals for supplying the family with fresh milk, cheese, eggs and meat when needed and selling off the surplus when there was some over the years. Franco is married and lives in town, but has always helped his family with their various farming endeavors. Three years ago Franco decided he wanted to farm organic fruits and vegetables on his family's land.   
Some new strawberry plants
With that in mind, he with his family's help, mostly his Mom, put in over 1,000 strawberry plants and blueberry bushes too. Potatoes, who are native to the Andes mountains and a perennial favorite for most mountain dwellers, round out his crop selection, as it is usually a reliable crop. Our mountains are no exception and produce some wonderfully delicious potatoes and so, he's growing those along with other crops who can thrive in a cooler climate with a short growing season. With all the rain we have been having I hope that reliability holds true this year.  We bought some of his lettuce a couple of years ago at one of our town festivals ans I was so impressed with how beautiful and tasty it was. We have been trying to get on his ever expanding list of recipients. Organic produce is increasingly in demand here in Italy too and Franco's produce is worth seeking out. I really admire his hard work because being in the mountains means that flat land is at a premium and terracing plots is the only way to go to maximize his land to produce organic fruit and vegetables.  
Franco Peyronel and Fabrizio
I imagine many of these plots were terraced many years ago, as if you look closely everywhere in our mountains there are hand built rock walls holding up what would have been some family plots and now all that remains are the stone walls after the families have died out or moved on.  It's nice to see these terraces being extended, maintained, and brought back to their former usefulness. It is a joyful sight to behold.
some of the families terraced plots
We wish him continued success and I am looking forward to being the recipient of some of the fruits of his labor. Waiting for the mountain produce means you have to be a little more patient as it's behind the crops of the valley and plains, but that makes the eating all the more delightful and I am looking forward to that. 
When we were looking for his place we stopped to ask someone where exactly his place was. Turns out it was his grandmother and so as we headed out for our other appointment, we stopped and Fabrizio asked if we could take her picture. She obliged and and so here is his 92 year old Nonna. I hope to be able to share one of her favorite recipes one of these days, but until then I am enjoying her photo and wondering about all the stories she could tell about her mountains and her life.
Nonna at 92
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