Tastes of Piemonte, with and hints of Lombardia

By Casey Hines

Here's Casey enjoying a gelato

For our last Italian Cuisine class, the foods were focused to the Northern part of Italy.  The dishes are primarily from Piemonte, with a couple from the regions neighbor to the east, Lombardia.

For our antipasto, we had Bresaola.  This antipasto is a common dish of both regions.  Bresaola is an air-dried fillet of beef that is a specialty of the Valtellina (Lombardia) that should always be served very thinly sliced.  It has become immensely popular; especially when served the way that we had it over rucola served with shards of grana padana (or can be with parmigiano-reggiano).  We also topped it off with a sprinkling of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.

The bresaola prior to adding shavings of Grana Padano

Moving onto our primo, we moved into the region of Piemonte with a sausage risotto.  Risotto is a silky combination of several ingredients.  We began by softening the onion and garlic in olive oil then cooking the sausage.  Traditionally in the north, they use butter rather olive oil in most of their cooking.  After the meat was browned we added the rice and stirred with the mixture in oil to break down the hard  outside.  This breakdown is essential for obtaining the silky consistency of a good risotto.  We added white wine then began to add chicken stock ladle by ladle, all the while stirring constantly.  This dish was perfect for the winter time.  When it contains something like sausage or chicken, it makes for quite a hearty dish.

Sausage risotto

The texture is interesting because the rice remains al dente, so it is a little bit stiff, yet it is creamy from the breakdown of the outside of the rice and the liquid of the wine and stock that was added.  The richness of the dish is also typical to the northern regions that often have a French influence.

For our secondo, we had Brasato al Barolo, another dish of Piemonte.  This is a dish of a roast marinated in wine and vegetables then seared and simmered in the wine with vegetables for four hours.  After the meat was done, we reduced the wine over a flame then used a hand blender to make a sort of gravy with no flour to serve over the beef.  This way of cooking the beef resulted in very tender, flavorful  slices.  Because the flavor was so intense, in was paired nicely with basic polenta.  The reason we paired it with polenta rather than pasta is again because we were cooking from the north.  There are lots of areas that were originally poorer here and polenta was a very cheap way to make meals more filling.  Though these areas are some of the wealthiest areas of present-day Italy, this dish is still commonly found in regions like Piemonte and Lombardia.  I especially liked this dish because it is heartier than many of the meals that I have encountered in the Lazio region, which are often a lot of pasta and very little meat.  (Note from Christina – this is a secondo so not just a sauce for pasta)

Before moving onto our dolce, we took a pit stop with formaggio from both regions.  Two cheeses that were very good with crackers were the dolce (a slightly sweet version that is golden yellow) and picante (a sharper version that is golden) gorgonzola that was originally from Lombardia, but is now also produced in Piemonte in Novara.  These cheeses both had very robust flavors, but in my opinion, were not very distinct and very much like other blue cheeses that I have had previously.

Gorgonzola dolce

Grana Padano

We had grana panama again- solo this time.  Grana Pandana is the Lombard’s version of parmigiano-reggiano and more fine versions can be found in Lodi and Cremona.  This was my favorite cheese of the night as it is a little bit aged with flavor that fills your mouth but is not too overwhelming.    Lastly we had another cheese a Toma from Piemonte that is white in color with a golden crust.  We paired it with Mostarda, a quite unique food from Cremona.  It is fruit preserved in syrup that gains quite a kick from a healthy jolt of mustard-seed, and is one of the standard condiments served with boiled meats in northern Italy.  It started with a little bit of a kick, reminiscent of wasabi, but does not continue to burn and is a good way to cleanse the palate before moving onto our dolce.

The surprise sweet and mustard flavour of mostarda from Cremona

For the end of our meal we had two classic Christmas cakes and pears cooked in wine.  Pan d’Oro from Verona (region: Veneto) is a traditional Italian sweet yeast bread, most popular around Christmas and New Year.  It is traditionally shaped like  an 8 pointed-starsection and is often served dusted with vanillascented icing sugarmade to resemble the snowy peaks of the Italian Alps during Christmas.  Panettone from Milano is a classic yeast cake of Milano (the Lombardia region), with egg, saffron, raisins, and sometimes candied fruit.  It is usually available year round but is a Christmas cake and is consumed with sparkling wine during the holidays.  Both of these cakes are very light, more like bread to me than of what I consider “cake.”  They are a good way to finish of a big meal because they are so light and give just enough flavors for a sweet finish.

Pan d'Oro from Verona

Panettone origionated in Milan

The pears cooked in wine, or pere cotte al vino, is a dish of firm pears that are pealed then cooked slowly in Barolo (we actually used a light red Bardolino).   We also added sugar, cinnamon sticks, and lemon peel for flavor.  After the pears were done cooking, we also reduced the wine to make thick syrup to pour over the pears (which was also very good with the cakes).  The pears were very soft and sweet, even though we did not use a sweet wine.

Always a favourite, pears in red wine

This was probably the best complete measl that I have had in Italy!  I really enjoyed the tastes of the north that I have not gotten a chance to experience.  It was also interesting to me that everywhere I have been, olive oil is a huge part of Italian cuisine but does not seem to be the case in the north where they tend to use more butter or lard.  Hopefully, one day I will be able to travel there and try even more dishes.

A Typical meal from Viterbo, Lazio

By Jennie Kitaychik

Jennie enjoying a gelato

The first time I ever had a full course Italian meal was in our culinary class. That day was the first time in Italy I knew what it was like to be full.

We started off our class with making desserts. I later learned this to be a common theme of making desserts first so that they would be ready by the end of the evening. For this class, we made the delicious dolce of Tozzetti. Though it was made first, it was eaten last.

1st stage of cooking the biscotti as long sausage shapes

Cutting the tozzetti, ready to be cooked again

For our antipasti, we had three different cheeses along with three different type of salumi

Locally cured Prosciutto crudo, capocollo and locally made salami

We were instructed to try some of the cheeses with honey. Though, I would never think to combine the two normally, the combination was such a pleasant surprise.

All pecorino cheese - primo sale, al cacciatore and alla Romana

local honey

For our primi, we had prepared Lombricheli alla Amatriciana which is a dish native to the Viterbo, Lazio region. The noodles were so thick and filling that it was hard to imagine that there would still be a secondi dish. It was ultimately a tasteful pasta dish with tomato sauce. It was a delicious dish that did not take too long to prepare.

Lombrichelli all'Amatriciana

For our secondi, we had made Pollo con le Olive Nere, a dish native to the Lazio region. The contorni that accompanied this chicken dish were green string beans. It was the first time since being in Italy that I finally had some form of meat in my diet. The fact that it was chicken in a delicious wine, garlic, rosemary, and onion sauce, made this dish exquisite.

pollo con le olive

After our secondi, we all had some ricotta cheese again with honey. At this time the tozzetti were already made and ready to be eaten. This dinner took a total of four hours. We did not eat for all four hours, but instead took much needed breaks in between each course. I will never forget my first full Italian meal.

Summer pasta

By Nicole Denering and Lauren Eckworth

After our shopping cuisine class we made a delicious primo dish called summer pasta. This simple dish included only a few ingredients but it is great for warm weather when minimal stove top cooking is desired. The few ingredients create a final taste that is light and refreshing. The only ingredients were tomatoes, fior di latte cheese (mozzarella), and pasta.

Only the outer layer of the tomato was used because the pulp would have caused the pasta dish to be too watery. You can also liquidize some of the tomato to form a ‘sauce’. The tomato was cut up into small cubes and seasoned with pepper. Next, the fior di latte cheese was torn into small pieces to be added to the pasta. Fior di latte is similar to mozzarella but made with cow’s milk, so it is more chewy. This cheese is made in Viterbo in the Piano Scarano area. The pasta was cooked al dente and then added to the tomatoes and fior di latte and all was mixed together to be served.

The heat of the pasta caused the cheese to melt slightly. Once the cheese solidified again, it had absorbed some of the tomato juice to create a flavorful combination to be enjoyed with pasta. This light yet satisfying dish is a very enjoyable primo dish and summertime favorite.

Making Cannoli during class

By Bailey Sheridan

Bailey Sheridan

The first time I ever had a cannoli I threw it away. The filling had a weird taste and the shell was way too hard. When I was asked to make cannoli in cooking class my first thought was to say “No way!” However, I kept my thoughts to myself and decided that I could help make them without tasting them, so I got working!

The first thing we did was roll out the dough into thin circles. Then we had to take a wooden cylinder and roll the cannoli around it. This task was tedious because if you got the dough too thin it would tear, and if it was too thick it was hard to make the sides stay together!

Anthony Donofrio III puts his strength into rolling and cutting the dough

After that we dropped the dough into the deep fryer and fried them up!  Once the shells were golden brown we took them out and set them aside.

Ella Trujillo deep frying the shells

Jackie Correa prepares the chocolate

Next we made the cannoli filling. For this we used cream, (and I don’t know what else!)  (Note from Christina – actually it wasn’t cream but ricotta beaten so that it was smooth and creamy)  Then we slowly added in chocolate chips and whipped up the mixture. Once the ricotta was ready we put it into little bags and squeezed it into the shells!

Bailey beating the ricotta

...and pipes the ricotta into the shells

When it came time to eat them I was very hesitant, but since they were small I figured I might as well try one! I am so glad I did. These cannolies were absolutely amazing! The shell was not hard and stiff, and the filling was light and fluffy. The chocolate chips were also a nice touch. They were the by far the most delicious thing I have made in cooking this year!

The canolli were dusted with powder sugar to serve

For the full recipe go to the recipe section/dolce canolli

The Fine Art of Tasting Miele

The honey tasting took place in the church in Pianiano, Lazio.

Christina and I (and husbands) spent nearly two hours in the village of Pianiano yesterday afternoon learning to taste honey. It turns out there is quite a process for distinguishing the various flavors of this natural food that has been popular in Italy for more than 2,000 years (according to this source, Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), wrote about bee farming in the third volume of his famous, “De Re Rustica.”)

The tasting took place in a church, where about 20 of us sat obediently in pews as our authoritative guide took us through the many steps involved in learning to fully appreciate the flavors and textures of various honeys.

Preparing the honey for tasting

We had five types of honey to taste, in order: acacia (clear, light and liquidity); lime trees (the street tree, not the fruit, with honey that looked like lemon gelato); sunflower (thick and golden); honeydew (from bees that eat the excrement of aphids in oak forests); and chestnut (dark and thick).

The first and second step to tasting honey involves smelling it. One takes the cup of honey and smells it closely,  inhaling deeply to catch the aroma and identify it. After doing this for a sufficient amount of time, one then takes a small honey stick and stirs the honey, releasing more aroma and requiring additional deep inhalations.

The honey expert who led us through the honey tasting process.

Smells in Italy are apparently classifiable to a remarkable degree. Our enthusiastic guide asked us to name the aromas we could identify for each honey. When Scott said the acacia honey smelled like honey, she let him know this was not an unacceptable answer. He clearly was not using his nose or imagination sufficiently. When Christina suggested the sunflower honey had a slight mint fragrance, our honey priestess allowed that it might, but when her assistant then suggested it smelled like lemon, she was visibly disappointed that he wasn’t more discerning.

The lime tree honey had an unpleasant smell which Richard suggested reeked like urine. I thought this was fairly descriptive but she didn’t agree (she said a lot of things about “animale” in response, which I couldn’t follow). However, when we arrived at the honeydew honey and Scott said it smelled like “caramel” she was very pleased and he had clearly redeemed himself. “Caramel” was the right answer! (This was also my favorite honey, as long as I didn’t think about it too much.)

The chestnut honey took a lot of conversation and after a number of wrong guesses, our honey guide announced that it had the smell of “dirty hair.” Scott and Richard thought “locker room” was more descriptive but that didn’t translate well.  Dirty socks was also suggested as a possible answer; I wouldn’t put this honey on anything but the plate of someone I didn’t like. It is however, listed as one of the top 21 honeys in Italy. (Chestnut seems to be an acquired taste that I think is related to starvation during the world wars.)

Intensifying the sense of taste by withholding the sense of smell

The third step in the honey tasting process is to take a bit of honey, spread it across your tongue and then hold your nose. This is surprisingly difficult to do as I discovered it’s impossible to swallow while holding your nose, so you have to have honey in your mouth and not swallow, concentrating instead on the four tastes that honey can hold: sweet, acidic, bitter and salty. We had to identify the dominant taste of each honey for these four characteristics. I found it was actually useful to close my eyes, hold my nose, count to five and let go. The flavors in my mouth then did feel especially pronounced which was a fun discovery. Who knew?

After two rounds of smelling and the holding-your-nose step, one arrives at the actual tasting step. It was quite a relief to be able to eat the honey and savor the sweetness, texture and flavors. We looked a bit like a room full of Winnie-the-Poohs with our own personal honey jars at this point, although by the fifth cupful (which fortunately was the worst tasting) everyone looked decidedly less enthusiastic.

Pecorino and ricotta with sunflower honey

At this point our guide announced we had reached the last and final step: to taste the honey with cheese. To our knowledge, Italy (perhaps along with Bulgaria) is one of the few places where people regularly pair honey with cheese. It’s an incredibly delicious combination and everyone was anticipating this culmination of more than an hour of careful honey consumption instruction. One of the young assistants arrived with a bag which he carefully untied to reveal a large bowl of fresh ricotta. Slices of moderately aged pecorino were already prepared and our guides carefully passed around plates of cheese for each worshipper.

Steeling ourselves for more instruction, there was a a definite change in mood when everyone realized that the only directive now was to pair the cheese with whatever honey we fancied. Everyone began to chat as our host and hostesses poured more water, shared extra cheese and the event, like most Italian gatherings, turned into a party. We shared smiles with those behind us and the grandfather of the young assistants showed up with his adorable toddler granddaughter. Everyone slowly emptied back into the narrow cobblestone street which had been blocked off for the weekend garden show and filled with flowers. A perfect way to end our first full day back in Italy.

Flowers at the Pianiano Garden Show

For the proper Italian names of each of the honey we tried, courtesy of The Honey Traveler:

  • Acacia – ‘Miele di acacia’ (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)
  • Lime Tree (aka Linden or Basswood) – ‘Miele di tiglio’ (Tilia spp.)
  • Sunflower – ‘Miele di girasole’ (Helianthus annuus L.)
  • Forest Honeydew – ‘Melata di bosco, Melata di metcalfa’ (Insect: Metcalfa pruinosa (Say))
  • Chestnut – ‘Miele di castagno’ (Castanea sativa Mill)

A final bonus: “La vita delle api” — The life of the bee (to be said with rhythm: la vee ta della a pee).

Poster that accompanied the honey tasting session.

Learning Young

Learning to taste wine?

Last Friday evening there was a Wine tasting of the wines produced by Tre Botte, an excellent producer of red and white wines in the province of Viterbo.  Bar San Sisto, Viterbo, hosted the launch of their new Rosè wine, which won’t be available for purchase until March.

All the wines were excellent and Bar San Sisto provided some delicous nibbles to accompany the wines.

The image above shows that Italian babies learn very young to appriciate good wine – (for those of you from different cultures I can assure you that the baby didn’t actually get to taste the wine even if from the evidence of the photo it really seems as if she would like to!


Cooking of the Lazio Region

By Grace Hauck
We enter the house and can smell something already cooking.  The aromas fill the air.  Today, all the cooking we did included foods and dishes from our region of Lazio. We first make Zuppa di Cecci e castagne, which is a soup with chickpeas and chestnuts a soup that is usually made for Christmas Eve.  The soup has dried chestnuts, chickpeas, tomatoes, celery, fresh rosemary, garlic, and one dried chili.  Traditionally this served on top of a slice of bread, but already having a big meal, we didn’t have our soup with bread.

While the soup was cooking, we began to make the Tozzetti cookies.  Italian baking is very different from American in that it uses olive oil rather than butter most of the time.  Tozzetti are made with toasted hazelnuts locally grown in nearby towns of Vallerano, Vignanello, and Caprarola.  The cookie contains flour, olive oil, eggs, sugar, lemon rind, baking powder, and toasted hazelnuts–a major product of this region.  This cookie is baked twice, first baked in long logs and then cut diagonally into pieces and baked again.  As we cut the cookies we can’t help but take bits and pieces to nibble on just to get a taste as we await our meal.  As the cookies came out of the oven, our feast could begin with zuppa di Cecci e Castagne. This delicious soup is slightly pureed before serving to give it a thicker consistency.  We ate our soup, momentarily filling our growling stomachs.

The Lombrichelli pasta, the classic pasta of Tuscia, came next. The name comes from the word il lombrico, or worm-like, since it is a very thick pasta.  Lombrichelli alla amatriciana is a dish using smoked pig’s cheek and pancetta fried in a pan until crispy, and tomatoes, basil, white wine vinegar, olive oil, a hot chili pepper, and topped with freshly grated pecorino cheese.  As the sauce is added to the freshly cooked pasta it squishes together combining to make a delicious dish.  With this dish we served white wine “Est! Est!! Est!!!”.

Est Est Est

Next to tastefully jump into our mouths is Saltimbocca alla Romana.  Saltimbocca literally means, “jump in the mouth” because it is simply that good of a dish.  We took the pork tenderloin (called Arista here), rolled it flat with the back of a knife, laid a piece of Prosciutto crudo (air cured ham) on top, followed by a sage leaf, and a toothpick to hold everything together.  The pan is heated first, then the oil, and is finally followed by the pork for a quick cook time of only about 2-3 minutes.  The Prosciutto gets nice and crispy.  It leaves fat in the pan to be soaked up after the cooking is done with Marsala wine to make a syrupy sauce served over the pork.  The wine to go with this dish is a white wine called “San Marco- Frascati Superiore-Secco.” We learned to smell this wine, look at something white to notice and compare the color, swish it, and finally taste it.  The dish did jump into our mouths and we enjoyed every last bite!

The excellent white wine from Frascati

The cheese course was next, in which we tried four different types of cheese.  They were lined up from least sharp to sharpest on a cutting board sliced for everyone to try.  The first cheese was caciotta, which was very mild and not very flavorful.  The second was pecorino rosso, which was the perfect marriage of sharpness and smoothness.  Following was pecorino del caciotori, which was similar to parmesan cheese to my taste and very mature.  The sharpest cheese was the pecorino Romano cheese, which we had grated over our lombrichelli alla amatriciana as well as here to taste.

Pecorino cheeses

Next we tried ricotta, which might seem in order following the cheese, but despite popular belief is not really a cheese.  Ricotta is really the remains of the true cheese making process – The whey recooked. Topped with either delicious apricot jam or coffee grounds.  Both were surprisingly good!  Lastly came Tezzotti with Aleatico di Gradoli red wine to dip the cookies in.  This wine is made just for dipping cookies in.  We all took a deep breath and relaxed after such a wonderful selection of foods.