Thursday, May 24, 2012

Focaccia for Papa

It has taken four years. Four years and the little green Ford Ranger has lost the smell. We noticed it after the car wash, Mom first with her keen senses and heartache of longing. "The truck doesn't smell like your Dad anymore." she said softly, tears welling and the sigh of loss so strong it shakes her to the core of her being.  The mix of glass cleaner and vinyl treatment overshadowing the last of the lingering scent of Aqua Velva, glass putty, Irish Spring, a little smoke and him.

1987 Ford Ranger worth the wait to drive
 I spent a good deal of my life riding around in shop trucks, those work-a-day beasts that carried the tools of his trade as we traveled from home to school, school to aftercare, grocery shopping and the bakery. Sometimes, he'd surprise me with a box of animal crackers, you know the one, with the circus labels and the string attached. And although the trucks changed over time from the gargantuan International for big jobs and glass racks, the 1956 Chevy Stepside painted bright yellow, the Fords and then the last two Rangers each had that smell, now indelibly imprinted in my brain and heart. Funny how that works.  My youngest, at age 13 asked,  "Grandpa,  could someday I buy your truck?" This truck, more than just the wheels,  represented and embodied a man so adored. "For a buck," he replied with a twinkly eye and so the boy had his first vehicle before he could get his license, willing to wait three long years until he could drive it on his own.

Before the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, Plaza Bakery proudly sat at the head of the Santa Cruz Pacific Garden Mall, prominently on the first floor of the Flatiron Building, opposite the Post Office. The new building has paid homage to the old in shape and design and I still expect to smell the warm yeast and sugar to come wafting from the doors, instead of the fruity, wheat grass concoctions of Jamba Juice. In my mind's eye, I can still see the counters of pastries, shelves of loaves and the bread slicer that rumbled and shook as it sliced our weekly purchases before they were slipped into a paper bag. We would get there early on Saturday mornings, while the bread was still warm and sometimes... just sometimes would eat a slice or two right out of the bag. Occasionally the baker would bake up some anchovy focaccia. Dad would nonchalantly order it up with everything else. It looked pretty, but smelled awfully fishy and as a child I wondered a combination of "what on earth? and "why would you?" as it sat beside me on the way home. Always generous, he'd offer me a slice and though I tried it a couple of times, it was not for me, or really for anyone but Dad. His own indulgent pleasure, like kipper snacks and soda crackers that no one else would even consider eating. Ever.

Times change, tastes change and I have begun to appreciate the little fish, so with vivid memory I set out to recreate the bread he loved so much.

Focaccia with tomato sauce and anchovies
Like breadcrumbs leading to a memory, the steps compelling me here came gently across the blogosphere. First my friend Jamie at Life's a Feast posted a beautiful sweet Cherry Almond Focaccia recipe at that danced gaily across the wires. Then she enticed me to visit her friends Lora of Cake Duchess, Shulie of Food Wanderings and Marneley of Cooking with Books who were baking Focaccia together for their newly formed Breaking Bread Society. Inspiration set, motivation and deadline in place and I got baking.

Coaxing the yeast to bloom
I am a reluctant baker. Yeast and I are not unacquainted, but we are wary of each other. My home too cool and patience often too short to make me willing to subject myself to possible and sometimes probable disappointment of yeast that fails to bloom or dough that will not rise. But, fortified with a memory of Dad's favorite so strong I could taste it, I plowed on deciding that two focaccias would be better than one. One for him and one for me.

The yeast took forever to bloom and the dough nearly two hours to rise the first time. So much for baking bread in the morning at my house! I have so much to learn. Perhaps the Society will encourage me along the way.

Focaccia Trials
For Dad's, I used the dough recipe as written on Lora's site adapted from How to Bake by Nick Malgieri and found as she did the dough was rather wet. The only modification made, per her  suggestion to add a bit more flour. I still didn't get the elastic ball of dough I was looking for. For the topping I made a simple tomato puree with canned whole tomatoes with basil and a bit of tomato paste, then sprinkled the top with fresh Italian Oregano and anchovy fillets. Success, it really did taste exactly as I remember, but did I like it. Still not so much, however, that bite gave way to memory and a  glimpse into the flavors and favorites that made up Dad's guilty pleasures. For that this exercise was priceless.

For the second, I was tasting the sweet caramelized onions as I visually scanned Lora's post and knew I must have some! Mixing it up a bit, I used a kalamata olive dough found on Epicurious (Gourmet 1997 Olive Focaccia Dough) and topped it with these threads of gold. The result was totally delightful, and when I do this again will use a smaller pan so it puffs up a bit more and, truthfully be more patient to let the dough actually double before baking.

Kalamata Olive Focaccia with Caramelized Onions
And, as a postscript in a household that is very real and chaotic with three dogs. Overnight as the breads rested on the counter and in a stealth-like operation, Georgia decided to eat the onion focaccia. Leaving the anchovy one neatly wrapped and untouched I guess the dog didn't like anchovies much either.

A boy, a truck, and a dog.

Breaking Bread Society
Gourmet 1997 Olive Focaccia Dough
Life's a Feast: Cherry Almond Focaccia

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Warning, I shall eat purple soup

Is it inspiration or merely a form of rebellion? Is that creative spark in your eye due to your penchant for looking forward instead of gazing in life's rear view mirror, to blaze ahead despite the risk of a brilliant disaster. Perhaps like a habit, it takes practice to break the bonds of the expected.

Purple. There was a time when ladies would not wear it. Thank goodness that time has past. Warning, a poem written by Jenny Joseph in 1961 predicted a time when you are finally old you can give yourself permission to be a bit eccentric, alight your inner child, wear purple, drink brandy and spit. The poem itself set off a following of red-hatted, purple wearing women's groups of a certain age. Why wait to walk the unbeaten path and change things up a bit. Not talking something seriously dangerous, just a bit different, wilder than your usual normal that is so expected. The spirit of the final stanza speaks, and awakens your inner rebel. Let 'er fly!

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

resplendent in fruits and deep aubergine eggplant, 
now fashionably trending in potato fingerlings and cauliflower in shades of amethyst.
Purple Cauliflower and Potatoes
The perfume of delicate spring blossoms in our garden -- chives, sage and lavender.

Sage, Lavender & Chive Nosegay
Purple Cauliflower Soup, creamy without the addition of butter, milk, or cream, lightly perfumed with the scent of lavender and sage, a hint of cardamon and the warmth of tasmanian peppercorns. A swirl of Crème Fraiche and sprinkle of freshly chopped chives. An overture to spring and homage to purple, an unexpected beginning to a elegant meal.

Purple Cauliflower Soup with Lavender

Purple Cauliflower Soup with Lavender
Makes 4 Cups
Serves 8 as an Appetizer   
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour

1 head purple cauliflower cut up in chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 white sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 purple potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground tasmanian peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground sage
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ teaspoon dried lavender
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoon lemon zest
4 ounces Crème Fraiche            
4 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

Roast 3-4 green cardamom pods and 6 tasmanian peppercorns until fragrant, cool then grind in spice grinder or mortar and pestle. You can substitute regular ground spices if you don’t have whole spices to roast and grind.

  1. In 4 quart pot, saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
  2. Add potatoes and chopped cauliflower to pot, stir to combine and continue cooking a few minutes and sprinkle with sea salt.
  3. Pour in chicken stock, add cardamom and ground pepper, bring liquid to a low boil, lower heat, cover and cook for about 15 minutes until vegetables are tender.
  4. Remove from heat and cool for 10-15 minutes, and pour into food processor in small batches and process until very smooth and creamy.
  5. Add back into pot, sprinkle ground sage, white pepper and lavender into soup, cook over medium heat 15 minutes, then add lemon juice and zest. Notice how the lemon brightens the color of the soup!
  6. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to your liking. Pour soup through fine sieve before serving in individual small bowls. Can be saved in the refrigerator for reheating and serving later at this point.
  7. Top each bowl with Crème Fraiche and chopped chives.

Before I am old, I will eat purple soup.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Solo in Florence (Part Two) - Where dining is Cuco

(Solo in Florence, Part One and this  Part Two continues my series of adventures in Florence, on my own.)

 It was just after eight o'clock when I ventured out from the Hotel Alloro, the crescent moon rising above the rooftops and the earliest of the night crowd just emerging onto the streets. Christian's dinner recommendation and walking instructions only secondary to my main concern, I'm hungry, and it's Halloween.

Recommending restaurants can be a tricky business. Every one's taste is so subjective, expectations difficult to gauge -- especially if you don't know the person well. Indeed, the art of the concierge, quickly sizing up the patron, their style, their social situation, their tastes and matching that to the extensive offerings the size of the city itself is critical. The success of your choice magnified in the hospitable intimacy of a bed and breakfast. If all goes well reputations soar, pick poorly and suffer the nasty critique. It becomes a matter of trust, and as a woman traveling alone, it is not only about the meal, but comfort, safety and security. So off I went to cuco cucina contemporanea, a short distance from the hotel a quick right, then left and there you are.

Apparently my left wasn't quick enough as I skirted the sidewalk cafes that take over the narrow sidewalk missing the street entrance completely and getting myself all turned around. Street signs are few and far between, or obscured in ancient building facades. Unphased,  I just popped into a nice looking hotel lobby and asked for help, my directions righted and in minutes I was standing at the all glass exterior of a very modern, abet tiny establishment, the bright green and white interior awash with Halloween decorations, candles, cobwebs. The outside sandwich-board sign welcoming guests in English. The place was empty of diners. I am I too early for dinner?

Reassured that dinner was being served I chose a seat with my back to the wall and good view of the kitchen and street outside. My waiter, Ricardo has excellent English and the daily menu is written in both English and Italian in a spiral notebook. The place mats in hot pink boldly announce that this is the place where "eating is sexy." What does that mean?

The table next to me is soon filled with a man in tuxedo tails, long wig and hat, his companion, a witch. Clearly friends of the restaurant, lively chatter, smiles, laughter and photos. I've come to a party! Friendly, jocular, throughout the evening we chat between us, he, an American ex-pat symphony cellist and she, his beautiful Italian wife. At eleven o'clock is the showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, downtown and screened on a building in the piazza for the crowd.

But for now, it is time to eat. To start, I am served a warm sformato made with roasted eggplant and rich, fresh ricotta and parmesan reggiano with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and drizzle of olive oil. My notebook is now out in plain sight and I am asking Ricardo all sorts of questions. What is in this? How is this made? He is so patient and this type of conversation could not be had in a bigger, busier eatery. Even as other guests fill up the place, he takes time in between to chat with me about the food.

My Antipasti choice, is what sparked my love affair with this little place. Smoked cheese and pear kabobs. Sounds simple really, bamboo skewer, pear cubes, some cheese. But oh, oh my. Not any cheese, but Scamorza, smoked mozzarella, firm but juicy pear chunks, warmed  just enough to soften the cheese and bring the sugars, slightly caramelized to the fruit's surface. Placed on a bed of baby greens, drizzled with a balsamic reduction and bright, grassy olive oil. A sprinkling of fresh oregano and dusting of black pepper. I have tried to recreate this at home, and have come close, but not quite.

Scamoraza and Pear Kabob at  cuco cucina contemporanea, Florence, Italy

Being Halloween, I had to try the Primo Scary Soup of the day. A rich, creamy pumpkin soup with a hint of ginger. Crusty croutons buoyantly floating on top. A sip of Chardonnay du Tuscana, then dipping my bread in the thick creaminess of tasty soup -- not so scary after all. My Secundo was smoked salmon carpaccio. Tender, moist with gentle smoked flavor and not overly salty on a bed of greens and a bit more wine which had a bright fruit forward crispness and less oaken than some of Californian Chardonnays. The combination paired nicely alternating the warmth of the salmon and the crisp fruitiness of the wine. A seemingly light meal, fruit, cheese, soup and some fish and I was amply satisfied (read full!) and so taken I came back two nights later for more!

A second visit to cuco cucina contemporanea

Greeted like a friend and warmly welcomed back I asked for more pear and cheese kabobs (loved them that much!) When I saw that chef Stefano was offering wild boar stew on today's menu, it was an easy choice. I have been trying to get the flavor and texture right myself after my darling nephew scored and shared this gamy meat earlier in the fall. I tried Anne Burrell's recipe, and thought it was ok, I tried a version in Pistoia and that was ok. This was spectacular in comparison. The juniper berries and hint of clove and pepper layering spice on the deep red wine driven stew. The boar itself, large chunks, but so fork tender it fell apart nicely for each bite. Heaven with the Castello di Meleto Chianti Classico. I was also offered a taste of the vegetable baklava, a combination of carrots, eggplant, zucchini with flaky layers of phyllo dough, buttery, browned and slightly crisp. A beautiful meal, too much food to include dessert, so Ricardo poured a small glass of dessert wine, a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer blend from Tarapaca, Chile. Perfect, not cloyingly sweet as some dessert wines, very fruity and with buttery yet crisp pear like finish.

As I sipped, I learned that cuco is not officially a restaurant, more a deli and catering establishment with the assorted gourmet goods, wines and prepared foods for sale. Apparently the rules and quotas to become an official restaurant in Florence is quite rigorous and restricted. But you could have fooled me, this sweet little place reminded me of the best of the California-style boutique bistros/cucinas. Amazing how well this team works their magic in the tiny kitchen, the chef with the twinkle in his eye, and Ricardo acting as gracious host.

Christian made the right call, the just right recommendation for this American lady of a certain age, dining on her own in Florence.

And for dessert ...

Cuco Cucina Contemporanea
Via del Melarancio, 4, 50123 Florence, Italy