Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happiness is a sharp knife

Bone handled pocket knife
 My Dad was meticulous about keeping his knives sharp using a dark flat whetstone, coarse and gritty on one side and grey slick on the other. I can hear the sound of the blade swirling on the smooth surface with a bit of liquid as he finished the last swipes, methodically and patiently.  "A dull blade is just more dangerous" he'd tell me as he wiped his knife clean and slipped it back into his jeans.

He was just as picky about his mismatched collection in the knife block, a carbon steel chef's knife, slender boning knife and various serrated blades, each one with a specific purpose. Man, oh man would we get the lecture if we mishandled or misused any of them. He was a stickler about taking care of your tools, a lesson reinforced often.

He gave me my first pocket knife when I was about nine and that was mostly to prevent me constantly bugging to borrow his as we fished together on the middle fork of the Stanislaus River. In cut-off jeans and tennis shoes, we waded in the cold water, casting out the our red ball bait and caught our limits nearly every time. Clean your catch right away he taught me, using a sharp knife and rinsing in the fast moving water.

In the kitchen, he showed me how to curl my fingers just so, to prevent (or hopefully so) a cut as I was slicing and dicing. Oh, there were plenty of accidents, and together our hands bear the scars, nicks and cuts earned along the way. But the lesson was well taught, and learned.

For whatever reason, perhaps all the above makes me enjoy hand slicing and dicing my ingredients. There is a focus, a moment of desired perfection as I slide the blade or rough chop my herbs. That could be why stir-fry or fried rice have become such comfort foods. That and the fact he taught me the recipes. For most, I am sure it is a pain to prep all those different ingredients, but to me the results, displayed on a plate are like jewels, bright and colorful.

Zwilling J.A.Henckles Sponsor of Plate to Page Tuscany
Two woks, no waiting

Add a bit of scrambled egg, just before serving.

Smoked Pork and Shiitake Fried Rice
Smoked Pork and Shiitake Fried Rice
Serves 4
Prep time: 60 minutes (for rice)
Cook Time: 15-20 minutes

Oil for stir frying (peanut, grapeseed or canola)
½ pound smoked pork chops (about 2 large)
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 medium zucchini
½ yellow onion
½ pound shiitake mushrooms
½ pound snow peas
2 eggs, scrambled
3 green onions
3 cups cooked Lundberg Wild Blend (mix of wild and whole grain brown rice that is gluten free)
Low Salt Soy Sauce or Yamasa Tamari (wheat free and organic soy sauce)
Course ground black pepper

  1. Cook rice blend according to package instructions, substitute olive oil for butter and making sure that all liquids are absorbed. You can do this ahead of time as it takes about an hour to cook thoroughly.
  2. Cut pork off bone and into ¼”- ½” cubes
  3. Dice up carrots, celery, onion and zucchini. I usually set aside my ingredients on a platter or large plate so they are easy to quickly add to my wok.
  4. Finely slice the shiitake mushrooms.
  5. Take out string from snow peas.
  6. Scramble 2 eggs (I do this in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, works great and then use a fork to shred for distribution into rice.)
  7. Finely slice green onions, including green part. Set aside for garnish.
Key to any stir-fry is a) Uniform dicing of meat and vegetables ensure that all ingredients cook quickly and at the same rate, b) hot wok, c)frying in batches. So have your ingredients all ready and plates set aside for the in/out process of the batch frying.

  1. Heat wok over high, add 1 tablespoon oil and bring up to temperature. Add pork, sprinkle with about a tsp of sake and soy sauce, tossing constantly to coat and caramelize the outside of the pork. Cook for about 3 minutes, then remove to plate for later.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon oil, bring back up to temperature and put in the onion, carrots, celery, zucchini, stirring constantly to not burn but heat through until slightly softened.  Add mushrooms and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of Sake and Soy Sauce. Toss to coat, cook until mushrooms are soft, but veggies are still firmish - 2 minutes. Remove to plate.
  3. Add ½ teaspoon of oil, heat up and toss in the snow peas. Cook, stirring for about 2-3 minutes until lightly cooked. You will want these to still be crispy. Remove to plate.
  4. Add 2 teaspoons of oil to wok. Add in cooked rice, stirring and pulling up from bottom to top so the rice doesn’t stick to much to the bottom of the pan. Add a good bit of Sake and Soy Sauce to flavor (about a tablespoon of Sake and 1 teaspoon of Sake is what I used.)
  5. As the rice gets toasted, add back in the pork, vegetables and stir to combine thoroughly, cook together about 5 minutes so flavors meld. You can lower heat and hold the rice at this point if you need to prep other dinner sides.
  6. Add in scrambled eggs, sprinkle in course ground black pepper. Garnish with green onions and serve. I like having some fruit and another vegetable to my plate, tonight was sesame/honey stir-fried broccoli.

My Dad always placed a penny on a knife gift, so we could return the coin and never let the sharp edges cut our friendship.  May your knives stay sharp and your friendships strong.

My thanks to Zwilling, J.A.Henckels for their fine knives and sponsorship of Plate to Page Tuscany. I love adding this instrument to my kitchen collection.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hot and Bothered - Peppadew Prawns

It starts with peeling doesn't it? Getting past that hard exterior and gangly appendages, the outer shell revealing the languid interior. Building anticipation of what comes next, this time, choosing carefully to leave just a bit as a handle.

Next,  a special warming bath and a glaze to moisturize the skin with honey sweet and spicy liquids. Flavoring this moment, unlike any other. A low fire coaxes the flesh to a firm up, revealing blushing pink and white to it's sumptuous curves. Working quickly now, don't lose the moment, settle on a savory bed.

Diving in with with fingers, the hot and spicy travels over our lips with a slightly sticky buttery smack,  finishing with a surprising piquant heat that makes you melt. Licking your lips, you go again and again until there is nothing left. Ahh, Peppadew Prawns.

Peppadew Prawns with White Butternut Couscous

What that fun for you? What a delight in finding new ingredients that inspire. Food should not only  nourish, fill our bellies, but from time to time create an experience. We love our comfort foods, plan special romantic dinners and holiday feasts. Each preparation connects us to something more than just the order of ingredients. Imaginations go wild with a flurry of visual and sensual elements to come together, matching the time and the moment. We watch shyly for the resulting first bites, do they like it?  After all, each meal is a gift.

Peppadew Prawns
Serves 2 (for dinner, 4 as appetizer)

1 pound jumbo prawns (roughly 16/20 per pound size)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons honey
½ cup Sauvignon Blanc
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp Sriracha Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
4-6 Peppadew Peppers, julienned
Sea Salt
Fine Grind Black Pepper

Remove head, legs peel and devein prawns, leave a bit of shell on tail.
In a small bowl whisk together the wine, honey, Sriracha Sauce.

Heat 10” saute pan to medium, add olive oil and shallots. Cook for about 3 minutes until softened., then pour into saute pan, bring to a bubble, then set to low heat. Simmer sauce for about 10 minutes to reduce by one fourth, add butter.  Add prawns and toss to coat evenly with sauce, add julienned Peppadew peppers and cook until shrimp flesh is opaque and pink - about 5-8 minutes, depends on how big they are and how many in the pan. Squeeze lemon juice over prawns, stir again to coat. Remove prawns from pan on the serving plates,  drizzle with sauce and sprinkle with Sea Salt and Black Pepper to taste. Serve with sauce as an appetizer, or over rice, couscous as a main course.

Where to get Peppadew Peppers
(Sponsors of Plate to Page Tuscany!)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nicoletta's Ribollita

Nicoletta’s Ribollita, how nicely it sounds, like an Italian Aria. Much like the woman herself, robust, full of life and warmth. Whenever I come home from traveling I find myself craving to recreate meals to share the tastes and stories of my adventures with my loves. How much better than a photo slide show is dipping in and having the warm, rich vegetable stew fill your mouth with the taste of creamy cannillini beans, kale, savory cabbage, onions and the sopped up chunk of rustic bread as I try and describe a perfect Tuscan day a the winery of Il Salicone.

Vineyard at Il Salicone

Our Saturday field trip found us walking down leaf strewn roadways, past grapevines whose leaves are changing from green, to gold, to brown. Wild grasses sparkle in the sun and we chatter as hungry women will do in anticipation of a classic Tuscan lunch. Nicoletta, our gracious hostess for Plate to Page Tuscany not only manages the villa, providing our much needed morning coffees and teas, but is also an expert winemaker. Imagine, this life she has created for herself after years of being an accountant, behind a desk. Makes you think any dream is possible, doesn’t it?

From dark to light
We enter her winery through large wooden doors into the cool cellar, permeating with the musky richness of fermentations past. How I love that smell. Modern stainless steel tanks rim the room and rows of oak barrels hint of future bottlings. The jumble of wicker demijohns echo the past and provide a reminder of how integral wine is to daily living. Can it be a measly bottle is just too inconvenient a container?

How would you like to have one of these at home?
Gliding up a few stairs, we move past the compact kitchen and out to the noonday sun. Casting off our sweaters to bask in the light, warming our bones to remove the frigid memories of the night’s past. Picnic tables with cheery cloths are flanked by a large terracotta colored wall, semi-tropical plants and benches with views to the vineyards and olive trees. Plates and plates of food are sent out from the kitchen; cheeses with honey, sliced meats, frittatas, all paired with Vespro Rosso di Tosca.  

Proscuitto, salume

Leek, Pancetta and Cheese Frittatas
The opening corks release with that smile-invoking and familiar pop as the 2009 Poggiolcato Rosso comes out. Glasses are filled and Nicoletta proudly describes her selected sangiovese and other grapes to blend.  
Salicone Rosso di Tuscana
Ribolitta appears and just as quickly disappears as spoons-full find their way to our plates, not only once, but perhaps twice. 

Nicoletta's Ribollita -- All Gone!
Conversations ebb and flow, cameras click away, and true to our assignment, pens are put to paper. Soon Grappa, biscotti and cantucci signal dessert as we dunk and savor that last of the reds. “Caffe?” she asks? The “me toos!” clamour merrily in response.

Work begins again
Ambling back to the villa, dragging our feet a bit because you see, we still have hours of work ahead of us for P2P Tuscany.  What a day.

Plate to Page Tuscany Trivia (feel free to add to this list!)
  • Who asked, "Is sex or good deep powder skiing better?"
  • Name the other soccer (futbol) coach.
  • Who announced, "I'm greedy."
  • Who coined the phrase, "Pepper-azzi" ?
  • Which of the P2P Organizers cringed when Abba started playing?
  • Which participant brought a different treat for nearly every meal?
  • Whose food writing was so sensual, passionate in English that it would probably be banned in her native Italian?
  • How many wireless networks did it take to tweet moment by moment coverage from Il Salicone?
  • What is the color of our Contessa's glasses?
  • What kind of mushrooms went into Ilva's risotto?
  • Who came from and who visited Malta recently?
  • What newlywed just built a new home with a kitchen window view onto greenspace?
  • Who thinks her brother is a better baker than herself?

Back at home and it has been two weeks since that lovely sunny afternoon. Time to get cooking.

“Ribollita means “reboiled.” A traditional ribolitta, rich with vegetables and legumes, is slowly simmered, then allowed to rest. Chunks of day-old bread are stirred into the soup and it is reboiled..... This is the epitome of a well-rested soup.”  Lidia Bastianich, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen,  Ribolitta, page 94. 

Using this recipe as my basis with cannellini beans, onions, kale, savory cabbage, carrots, potatoes and swiss chard, pumped up a notch with some red chili flakes and small amount of sweet Italian sausage. Makes a huge quantity, about 7 quarts! Enough to reboil again and again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Plate to Page Tuscany

03.morning-table.1780.1The kitchen table is quiet now, but as the early morning sun gently begins to warm the room, the walls must surely be reverberating the joyous noise of Plate to Page Tuscany.

It is our last dinner together. Barriers between the organizers (our mentors) and students shattered as the last of the day’s exercises have been completed, reviewed and gently critiqued. A time to celebrate.

The table before us, sprinkled with exotic jars gives the table a festive glow. Bejeweled toasts with vegetarian caviar, vibrant ruby, the chili flavor, citron orbs with a surprising pop of wasabi and the strikingly astringent, sweet, hot ginger surprise our senses. Onyx beads glisten rainbow prisms as light hits the top of the mounds. Wonderful treats from our event sponsors that made every day seem like a holiday celebration (or possibly a reward for good behavior.)

A cacophony of lilting voices rise as the honey dry Brisol Prosecco makes another round. Intimate conversations between friends, hair and guard let down, hearts opened. Finally a time to reveal who we really are as our focused veneer of being students or instructor dissolves, no longer insolating us as it did when concentrating on assignments and lessons in writing and photography.

Cries go out for Abba and our Contessa springs into action searching for an iPod, laptop -- anything to add a music to the party. Impromptu karaoke on one side of the table erupts while on the other memories are shared on an iPad. Traveling into each other’s lives through photos and stories, building deeper our emerging friendships.

This weekend has meant so much. A time to focus on the process, concentrated without the distraction of our regular work-a-day lives. What an indulgence it seems. But how do you grow as an artist or whatever your craft, if you can only practice an hour or two here and there? And, where else do you have the luxury of a valued critique, in a voice you trust. Our mentors were there for us, prepared and warmly human. Asking us the hard questions and appreciating the parts that speak authentically. All the while pushing and challenging us to make what we do better, thoughtfully with no desire to change our style or have us create a copycat version of what good food writing or photography is “supposed” to be. The perspective of an experienced, evaluative critical eye has been invaluable.

In thirty non-sleeping hours at Il Salicone kindred spirits open their hearts to new friendships and achieve incredible artistic growth they could experience nowhere else but at Plate to Page Tuscany.

“In Germany, we have a saying that life is the journey, not the destination,” Meeta says softly. We say that in America too.

To Ilva, Jeanne, Meeta, and Jamie,
P2P Gang of 4
Photo by Judith Klinger
A sincere thank you. Your hard work is truly appreciated and your gifts of spirit have changed our lives forever. I have learned so much from you all.

To my fellows,
Lynn, Kate, Alexandra, Marta, Haley, Elizabeth, Judith, Valentina, Olivia, Denise, and Heidi.

Photo by Jeanne Horak-Druiff's camera
I am delighted to have met you and can think of no others I would want to share this experience with. Each of you with a different style and verve that made this weekend all the more rich.

Marta | Kate | Valentina | Lynn | Alexandra | Elizabeth | Hayley | Olivia | Heidi | Denise | Judith

To the event sponsors,

What wonderful gifts that surely expand our culinary senses and experiences, thank you! My brain is already spinning with creative ideas for your products.

ZWILLING J.A. HENCKELS | Sunchowder’s Emporia | Taste of Home | Gourmelli | Smaromi | Peppadew International | Bisol Prosecco | Riso Gallo | Nielsen-Massey |
TABASCO® | Matcha Factory

Il Salicone, A door opens
Coffee Break is OVER!

View to Vineyard

A lesson in f-stops, ISO, and dark moody styling

More than just props!


Fall's Beauty

First Photo Exercise Corbezzola, Foraged Fruit

Eating and Drinking in Tuscany