Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lemon Truffle Pasta with Asparagus and Porcini Mushrooms

Springtime flavors of lemon and tarragon brighten up this fresh pasta.

The onset of spring has brought together a trifecta of flavors and opportunity to combine beautifully tender fresh local asparagus and purchased gourmet treasures. We have a saying in our family when given a gift so special that we end up "saving it for good." We tuck it way for some magical "good" time to present itself.  But so often, the alignment of the stars for that moment just doesn't seem to present itself and the treasured item waits and waits for showtime. What must it think? When is good going to come? Why am I not special enough? Is this pedestal of goodness a impediment to perhaps simply to create a good and magical moment, any day, just because?  How often do we find ourselves doing this, with a bottle of wine, an exotic ingredient, or even articles of clothing. Does the wait actually enhance the anticipation? Or by deferring the pleasure do we build up ultimately unachievable expectations? I do wonder.  In this life, if we wait, sometimes good never happens.

And that's the thought which lead me to finally open my little jar of treasured white truffles on a weeknight for this simple pasta. Tonight, there will be good, because we can.

Small jars of black and white truffles from Florence, Italy

Lemon Truffle Pasta with Asparagus and Porcini Mushrooms
Serves 4
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes

8 oz Penne Pasta (about 3 cups cooked)
4-5 cups fresh asparagus, cut in ¾” pieces
1 ½ cup 2% milk
1 cup mushroom water (left over from hydrating dried porcini mushrooms)
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tbl all purpose flour
¼ tsp sea salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 ½ tsp fresh tarragon, chopped
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp lemon juice
1 small white truffle, finely chopped
½ oz dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated, chopped
1 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese, divided

  • In a small bowl, pour 1 cup hot water over dried porcini mushrooms, soak for at least 15 minutes to soften and rehydrate. Drain and reserve liquid. Chop mushrooms and truffle.
  • Wash asparagus thoroughly to remove any grit, slice on the diagonal in ¾” pieces.
  • Bring water to a boil in 6 qt pot, add 1-2 tsp salt before adding pasta to cook.
  • In a small bowl combine milk, reserved mushroom water, mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk to combine.
  • Grate cheese.

  1. Add penne to boiling water and cook for about 7 minutes, then add asparagus pieces and continue cook until pasta is al dente and asparagus tender, about another 5 minutes. Drain and reserve at least a cup of pasta liquid if you need to add to white sauce.
  2. While pasta is cooking, heat large skillet over medium and saute garlic until slightly toasted about 1 mintue. Add porcini mushrooms and truffles and continue cooking 2 minutes.
  3. Add milk mixture to skillet, stir to combine with garlic and mushrooms. Add lemon zest, juice, and fresh tarragon. Continue stirring until mixture is thickened. (If it seems too thick add a bit of the pasta water to reach your preferred consistency.)
  4. Add drained penne and asparagus to white sauce, add ½ cup parmesan cheese and stir to coat pasta thoroughly. Should be thick and creamy.
  5. Remove from heat and serve with additional parmesan cheese on top.

Cook’s Tips
Inspiration: Lemony Asparagus Pasta from Eating Well

If you don’t have white truffles to indulge with, perhaps a finishing drizzle of white truffle infused olive oil will suit.

Vegetarian light cheese pasta with asparagus.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Solo in Florence

View from the Duomo, Florence, Italy
It was not totally without trepidation that I traveled alone to Italy this fall, but the opportunity of a lifetime suddenly presented itself to spend three days in a villa in Tuscany and my heart leapt at the chance. Glorious fond memories of sights, food and people called me back. My last visit in 2006 when the three of us traveled through Italy together, my mom, daughter and I.  It only made sense to add a few days on the front and back end to balance the long hours and expense of travel to do some further exploring on my own. Traveling solo on vacation is a first for me, one of many on this adventure.

Many of my gal pals and even my own mom gave me the eye, you know the one. "Won't you be afraid? All by yourself?!" Can you even speak Italian? (Not but a few phrases.) Once I make my decision I proceed full tilt, planning my trip fairly meticulously.  First, where to stay, second transportation logistics (I've never ridden a train for actual transport) and what to see. Because I was traveling alone, I wanted to stay in a small, multi-lingual, affordable hotel or bed and breakfast inn within walking distances to the main attractions. I wanted the intimate and personal interactions that I would not receive from those big, fancy hotels that render guests anonymous, regardless of the excellent service. In short, I wanted to my hosts to get to know me as much as I they, so that someone would care enough to be my safety net in a foreign city.

Olivia laughed at my "huge American luggages" as I rolled both suitcases off the train from Pistoia into the Santa Maria Novella train station. Just off the platform we walked to a quiet spot amist the crowds to say our goodbyes and off to continue our personal journeys. Lynn to Rome and Olivia to Malta. Hugs given, pictures taken, a contented sigh as we turned our separate ways. In my planning I had traced the walking route from the station to the Hotel Alloro on the map, but in the fog of the intense weekend that mental map offered me nothing recognizable to the scene before me. The hesitation to just start out walking won over and I opted for a taxi ride. A few blocks later I was deposited on a quiet narrow street in front of a 16th century building with massive iron gates. I laughed at myself at the shortness of the ride (but still thought it was well worth it!)

If I had any doubt about being in a safe place at night these mighty gates readily allayed my fears. Schlepping my luggages into the small elevator to the second floor, I entered a gracious salon basking in the morning light coming in from the interior atrium windows.  Since my room wasn't quite ready (being only 10:00 am) my host Christian offered me a caffe and some treats as I waited. His father laughed at my luggages and asked if I was packing a man in one of them. I fear I must learn to pack lighter on these sojourns or forever endure the jokes my suitcases seem to provoke.

Sitting quietly in the salon, I pulled out my journal and began writing. Jamie would be so proud. Filling my pages with the thoughts that have been swirling in my head, not wanting to lose those precious observations, facts and feelings so gently cajoled and encouraged at the villa. Quietly, Christian brings another caffe and the transition begins as my role of independent traveler supersedes that of pupil.

Morning coffee at Hotel Alloro, Florence, Italy

Soon my room is ready and the large skeleton key with the brass fob unlocks the wooden door.  Will this be alright? Breathing in sharply, yes.  Just right. The morning light streams in the huge windows and bounces off the golden painted walls with classic murals, inviting my artistic nature welcome.

As a promise to myself, my son, and my friend Meeta I gathered my camera, adjusted my boots and headed to the Piazza del Duomo. Street map studied and in hand I was determined to visit Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and climb all 463 steps to the top of the Duomo before sunset. My orthopedic boot and all.

2 1/2 hours from my first step into the line to the top of the Duomo!

The wait and the climb in the boot was well worth the huffing and puffing up the narrow steep steps. New friends made along the way and a sense of exhilaration at the top. It is sad how much graffiti scars any surface within reach, but even that cannot erase the sense of accomplishment on the faces of the people that make the climb. I could have easily paid for my dinner if I asked a euro for each photo I took of couples and families commemorating the moment. The growing darkness reminded me to start heading back down and out to the piazza. Gelato was my reward, as the wonder of being again at street level brought me back to reality.

One of the highlights of visiting in Florence with my mother and daughter was discovering some of the most beautiful shops -- not the overpriced designer boutiques -- but the hidden treaures of stationers and apothocaries. One in particular called to me as I made my way though the narrow streets guided by vague memory and instinct. Having worked at a stationary store all during high school, my love for fine paper, pens and all manner of things drew me back to R. Vannucci Cartoleria.

Cartoleria = Stationers
Weaving my way back to the Hotel Alloro, nearly invisibly through the throngs of visitors and street performers is a delightful sensation. Watching the families, the tour groups following behind the ever present upheld umbrella adds to the pulse and flow of this city that I have found to be very clean and safe with a visible police presence. But all that looking has worn me out. Time to put my feet up, have a Diet Coke and think about what's for dinner, not only the what but where!

The Hotel Alloro is near the San Lorenzo Market and a number of restaurants within easy walking. After a weekend of delightful Tuscan home cooking, writing and photographing all about food, you can bet I was looking for something more than dish of something prepared specifically for the tourist trade.  I asked my host for some suggestions and we chatted about the pros and cons of those near by. I looked Christian in the eye and said, "I want something better." He smiled as he handed me a little square business card.

Next installment: where eating is sexy cuco

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Smoky Broccoli and Rutabaga Soup

Some words are just fun to say.  Rutabaga is one of my favorites, as is Rubber Biscuit. They roll off the tongue, and have  a natural humorous end note. A cross between cabbage and a turnip rutabagas have a distinctive yellow flesh and muddled purple top.  This root vegetable sits by itself, usually a bit forlorn on the top produce shelf mingled with its turnip cousin in a wee basket. I don't think most Californians know what to do with them, but enjoy them I do. Occasionally adding them to a stew, a mash or a soup. Their distinctive flavor, slightly perfumed, a bit sweet, a bit sharp provides another taste to layer and add richness. Root vegetables and winter's fare, just goes together.

Rutabaga, swede, turnip, neep or turnshie - what do you do with this root vegetable?
In northern Europe, this was a famine buster crop. Able to grow in poor soils saving many a family when devastation hit the continent. Just looking at the etymology of the many regional names offers insights to its place in local home foods. While in North America we call it a rutabaga, the name is actually derived from Swedish "Rotabagge" or root bag where it was noted growing wild. Records say it was introduced to Britian and France around the late 17th early 18th centuries. Commonwealth Nations often call it a "swede." Just a turnip, neep or turnshie if your feet or hearts are in Ireland, Scotland or Wales. In Ireland and Scotland carved rutabagas with scary faces were the precursor to American Halloween jack-o-lanterns (pumpkins) in chasing away evil spirits.

Smoky Broccoli and Rutabaga Soup Pin It
 So the notion of combining broccoli and rutabaga for some would cause lapses of contorted faces and pursed lips while uttering vehement protests.  Duly noted. While wildly good for you neither has a reputation as an absolute favorite -- really quite the opposite. As a proud contrarian, I purchase broccoli in 3-lb bags. The result forces me to become a bit creative in using it up and still pleasing my regular dinner crowd.  This soup came to me after a days of dining out, vacationing away from my kitchen and no energy to go grocery shopping. You know, the last possible moment and "you gotta make something from what you have on hand" kind of meal.

Smokey? Yes! Coming from adding just a pinch of my newly acquired Smoked Apple wood Sea Salt (from Whole Spice) and finishing with a bit of smoked mozzarella. Super creamy due to the rutabaga and potato flesh, softening and blending buttery texture without added cream. Sweet? Surprisingly due to the addition of a Fuji apple to echo the apple wood flavors in the sea salt. And to please the boys, why not garnished with crispy bacon bits. This soup in total is much lighter than you might expect, perhaps perfect for the spring days ahead.

Smoky Broccoli and Rutabaga Soup
Serves 6
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion chopped (about 1 ½ cups)
1 clove garlic minced
1 large russet potato, peeled and cubed
1 large rutabaga, peeled and cubed
1 Fuji Apple, peeled and cubed
2 cups low salt chicken stock or vegetable broth
4 cups water
3 cups fresh broccoli, chopped
½ teaspoon ground yellow mustard
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Herbs d’ Provence
1 teaspoon fine ground black pepper
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon smoked apple wood sea salt (or other smoked salt)
½ cup shredded smoked mozzarella
Additional sea salt or kosher salt to taste

Wash, peel and chop vegetables, be sure to keep sizing consistent so they all cook evenly.
Fry up bacon pieces until crispy, drain on paper towels and reserve for garnish.

  1. Heat olive oil in large soup pot over medium high.
  2. Cook onions and garlic until just soft.
  3. Add potato, rutabaga, apple cubes and continue cooking and stirring to combine. Cook for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add chopped broccoli pieces, chicken stock, water. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer.
  5. Add ground mustard, turmeric, herbs d’ province, black and white peppers.
  6. Cover and cook until all vegetables are soft - about 15-20 minutes
  7. Use immersion blender and puree completely (or puree in batches in a blender and return to pot.)
  8. Add apple wood smoked salt and shredded smoked mozzarella. Stir until cheese is melted.
  9. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
  10. Remove from heat and serve garnished with bacon pieces.
 Cooks Tips
 What's a Rubber Biscuit you ask?  Check out the Blues Brothers classic while you whip up dinner.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Like a kid in a ..... gourmet shop?

As part of my own personal Moveable Feast my darling and I ventured north to celebrate food and wine in Napa Valley. In the cool of a mild but unpredictable winter we wandered, tasted and shopped divinely in Mill Valley, Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and finally San Francisco. Glorious puffs of cumulus clouds from darkest grey to whitest whites blew scattered showers across the clear blue skies and brilliant green hills. Leisurely we drove along Highway 29 and the Silverado trail. Criss-crossing the ladder roads as we visit small and large wineries, eateries and food shops.

And there, in the midst of this glorious verdant valley sits Dean & Deluca. I must have been living under a rock, but I'd never had heard of 'em. Granted this is an east coast based luxury gourmet concern, but they do have both an online and catalog presence. And that, may be the crux of it. I don't normally shop lux, gourmet.  Not in my budget, nor my lifestyle. But like a kid in the candy store I can shop the heck out of a few dollars and come out with my penny candy bags and think I have something pretty special. Link arms with me friend as we peruse the aisle dedicated to all things culinary. "Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca traipsed around the world to find artisan-produced foods that pleased their customers, not to mention themselves. They wanted products that fired their imaginations, challenged their tastes and turned dinner into a creative exercise." 

I was in the store well over an hour picking out little treasures of this and that, items chosen to inspire and extend my moveable feast before my darling dear "hinted' we should be moving on. From fresh produce, cheeses, cured meats, deli, confections -- my eyes were as big as saucers as I tried to soak it all in. It would be easy to drop a bundle here, but I think I did pretty well with my selected treasures.

Want to peek in my shopping bag?

White Soy Sauce, Spanish Olive Oil, Blue Poppy Seeds, Chimchurri Sauce, Peruvian Peppers and Mushrooms!
Another treasure found was Whole Spice in the Oxbow Market in Napa. Walls lined with gallon glass jars with both common and exotic herbs and spices. Each to be sampled an ounce at at time. I came out with a trio of smoked sea salts and a Moroccan Lamb Melange. I've already tried the Yakima Applewood Smoked sea salt in a vegetable soup. Delicious!

Spices from Whole Spice, Oxbow Market, Napa.
Dean & Deluca
Whole Spice

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rum Orange Olive Oil Cake with Candied Walnut Topping

Thank you for visiting my culinary adventure. I am amazed that February brought a visit from the 100th country, then I blinked and it jumped up to 106! Incredible! Did you know there are only about 160 countries in the world? Whether you comment (and I am thrilled when you do), or not, your visits keep me motivated.  On top of that, I used the very last page of my recipe journal, filled with my crazy script as I jot down my experiments. There is a sense of accomplishment as I open my new journal and start again.  Who knows what this volume will bring? How do you keep your recipe and creations? Word processed documents on your computer, recipe cards, bookmarks, scratched out on the backs of napkins? There is something about writing these down in a journal that seem to complete my process.  One crashed hardisk and pouf, gone. Perhaps, old school paper, bound can stand the test of time.

recipe notebook
Recipe Journal Vol. 1 - first entry August 10, 2010

The first entry is this rum orange olive oil cake. I have been mulling this over for months now as I wondered what else to prepare with my delicious citrus infused olive oil scored at the Savor the Central Coast event in San Luis Obispo. I have added it to vinaigrette, as marinade and a finishing drizzle but had yet to bake with it. Because I think of food in layers, the candied walnuts make the perfect topper for this dense, moist rummy cake. They give a nice crunchy texture and a little surprising flavor burst of orange spice, echoing the bit of zest in the cake batter.

Dense, citrus and spicy walnut crunch on top: Orange Olive Oil Cake!   Pin It

Rum Orange Olive Oil Cake with Candied Walnut Topping
Modified Olive Oil Cake from Chow
Serves  12
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time  50-65 minutes

3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 ½  cups whole milk (I used 2% Milk)
¾ cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil,
¼ cup citrus infused olive oil (used Pasolivo Citrus Olive Oil)
¼ cup dark rum, (used Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera Gran Reserva 23)
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
½  cup coarse-ground cornmeal
½  teaspoon baking powder
½  teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 cup Orange Spice Candied Walnuts, chopped
Powdered sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350ยบ, oil and flour 9 inch spring form pan. I lined the bottom of mine with parchment paper to ensure a good release.
Zest orange

  1. In a large bowl whisk together eggs and sugar together until fully integrated
  2. Add milk, olive oils, rum and orange zest, whisk together
  3. Add dry ingredients in a different large bowl, run the whisk through to blend together and evenly distribute the baking powder, soda and salt.
  4. Slowly pour egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Do not over mix.
  5. Pour batter into spring form pan, tap on counter to level.
  6. Sprinkle chopped candied walnuts to the top, covering completely.
  7. Bake on center rack of oven for 50-65 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Test at about 45 minutes to gauge baking time of your oven.
  8. Cool completely on baking rack before removing from spring form pan. Run a thin knife around edges and release, remove bottom parchment paper (if using) before placing on serving plate.
  9. Sprinkle with sifted confectioner’s powdered sugar.
Cook’s Tips & Links
  • Inspiration (using almond flavored amaretto liqueur): Olive Oil Cake from Chow
  • Recipe for Orange & Spiced Candied Walnuts on previous blog post.
  • The treasured Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum  was a gift from my wonderful  son-in-law. You can use any good quality dark rum for this cake,or substitute 1/4 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon rum extract.
  • Pasolivo Citrus Olive Oil was purchased at the Sunset Magazines “Savor the Central Coast” event, but I also found it at Tyler Florences’ shops in Mill Valley and Napa. Available online. There are other producers of citrus flavored olive oils that would work just fine in this recipe. I also like Lucero Olive Oils flavor infused oils
  • You could used 1 cup olive oil and ¼ teaspoon orange extract if this is not available.
Disclosure: I have purchased all these ingredients used in this recipe (except the rum as mentioned.)