November 19, 2010

October in November

Several weeks ago, we had November in October.  This week it’s October in November.

I recently went to the 14&U farmers' market looking for the fresh lima beans I had seen at previous markets.  They didn’t have any lima beans, but they did have another fresh bean, which the seller at Garner's Produce told us were called “October beans” and extolled the virtues of  their rich, earthy flavor and meaty texture.  At $5 for a 1-pound bag, they were a bit pricey, but we thought it might be worth it to give them a try.  (And considering that they can replace the meat in a meal and last the two of us two meals apiece, it wasn’t a bad investment.)  Our friend at Garner wasn’t kidding about how delicious they are.  We went back for two more bags this past Saturday.

Their more complex flavor and meaty texture notwithstanding, cooking with fresh beans was such a pleasure.  It was so easy just to come home from work, throw a few ingredients in a pot and have dinner an hour later. 

I was curious to know more about these so-called October beans, so I did a little looking around on the internet.  As it turns out, they are the very same beans my grandmother used to grow in her garden!  They’re the ones I wrote about last year when I made my grandmother’s soup.  My mother vaguely remembered that they were called “horticulture beans,” but neither of us knew where to find them.

They answer to many names, including October beans, horticulture beans, horticultural beans, French horticultural beans, cranberry beans, speckled cranberry beans, shelly beans, shell beans, and wren’s egg beans, to name a few.

Mystery solved!  I thought.    When I looked at pictures, I realized that they may not be quite the same thing – but they did seem to be called by the same set of names. 

Back at the market this past Saturday, I asked the producer about this apparent discrepancy and he explained that, when fully mature, his beans would also be speckled like the ones I had seen online.  He was having to pick them before fully mature this year because they were late to ripen because of the weather.  (Or something to that effect. I don’t remember his exact words.)  Second mystery solved.

Then I remembered a image from our recent trip to Italy:  Could these also be the same beans we had seen at the market in Venice? 
There, they were simply called “beans,” but their shells look awfully similar to those of October beans…

It makes me so happy to have discovered these beans again.  When I spoke to my mother this evening and told her I had found horticulture beans, she was equally thrilled (which also makes me happy).

For our first taste of October beans, I wanted try something simple, so that the flavor of the beans would shine through.

October Bean Soup
printable recipe

5 oz. center-cut bacon, cut into small pieces
1 small or ½ large onion (yellow or red), chopped
2 small carrots, chopped
14 oz. fresh October Beans*
2 cups chicken broth
6 cups water
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 oz. short pasta, whole wheat or homemade**
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

*If you can’t find October beans, you may substitute another white bean, such as cannellini. If beans are dried, they should be soaked overnight.  If they’re canned, reduce water by about half and reduce cooking time to about 20 minutes.
**Whenever possible, I prefer to use homemade egg pasta like my grandmother did.  If I have homemade spaghetti or fettucine on hand, I break it into smaller (2- to 3-inch) pieces before adding it to the soup. This is also a great place to use the small scraps from a batch of longer pasta.

In a large pot (I use a Dutch oven), cook the bacon over medium heat until mostly cooked.  Add the chopped vegetables and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent. 

Add the beans, broth, and water and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until beans reach the desired consistency.  Stir frequently and add additional water, as needed.  When the beans are almost cooked, season with salt and pepper.

Increase heat slightly to bring the soup make to a full boil.  Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Do not overcook because the pasta will continue to soften in the hot soup.  (Homemade, dried fettuccine will cook in about 3 minutes, while the whole wheat pasta we used takes 10-11 minutes.)

Variation: The second time around, I made variation similar to my grandma’s soup. (These are the same beans she used, after all.) I added 2-3 teaspoons of tomato paste and a couple dashes of white wine vinegar just before adding the pasta.  This was intended to mimic her addition of ketchup to the broth.  It came very close.  Next time I might try adding a teaspoon of brown sugar (since ketchup is basically tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar).

The first time around, we used whole wheat pasta: DSC_0096

The second batch, made with homemade fettuccine: DSC_0358

November 18, 2010

a Thanksgiving appetizer: the cheese ball

The cheese ball has been a staple holiday appetizer at my aunt's house for as long as I can remember.  When Brian and I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, I came up with a version of my own. It was a hit last year and has become one of Brian's favorite things.  It was a hit again this year, when we made Thanksgiving dinner in Venice

Holiday Cheese Ball 
printable recipe

makes 2 medium cheese balls

11 oz extra sharp white cheddar or sharp provolone, grated
16 oz cream cheese, softened
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp grated onion
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
½ tsp cayenne
½ cup almonds

In a food processor, combine cream cheese, garlic, onion, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce. Blend well. Add grated cheese and process until the cheese is fine, but still visible. Shape the mixture into balls or logs. Wrap individually in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for about 15 minutes.

While the cheese mixture is in the freezer, process the almonds until desired consistency is reached (a coarse chop is best). Spread the chopped nuts on a plate. Remove the balls from the freezer and roll them in chopped nuts.

The flavor is best when allowed to ‘season’ in the refrigerator for 24 hours. 

Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before serving.  Serve with crackers.

November 16, 2010

il giorno del ringraziamento: making an American Thanksgiving in Venice in 36 hours or less

The Thanksgiving holiday is almost upon us, but Brian and I have already celebrated Thanksgiving once this year.  In October (and no, we weren’t in Canada).  We were in Italy.

As far as I know, it wasn’t actually Thanksgiving anywhere in the world on October 15, but when thinking of something “American” to cook for a group of Italian friends and having already made a 4th-of-July-style hamburger dinner complete with potato salad and baked beans (it was actually July 4th) and Tex-Mex on previous occasions, Thanksgiving seemed like the next logical step.

Actually, it was Francesca’s idea, and I’m not quite sure she knew what she was getting herself into when she suggested it.  I’m not sure I realized the full implications when I agreed to it.  Or I had forgotten the amount of planning, time, and effort that went into the first Thanksgiving dinner I made.  On the other hand, Francesca and I love to cook whenever we visit each other, so making Thanksgiving dinner didn’t seem like a bad way to spend a day or two of our time in Venice. 

It was late Tuesday night when we made the decision.  There would be about 15 guests and at the meal that would take place Friday evening – a pretty quick turnaround, especially considering our location and compared to last year when I spent a week-and-a-half preparing for half as many people.  We would start with appetizers: a cheese ball and the Venetian apertivo, spritz all’Aperol.  The main meal would consist of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, and green beans.  For dessert we would make pumpkin cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies.

I didn’t think about the fact that the butcher would need a day to get us the turkey nor the fact that I needed 24 to 48 hours to dry-brine the turkey.  When it finally occurred to me Wednesday afternoon, the butcher was already closed for the day.  The way dry-brining works is that the salt draws the juices out of the turkey, dissolves in the juices, and then gets absorbed back into the turkey along with the liquid – resulting in a tender, juicy turkey that is well-seasoned throughout.  We would have needed at least 24 hours to allow the process to take place.  Stopped halfway through it would result in a very dry, unsalted bird.  So I would have to figure out something else.

When we stopped by the butcher’s on Thursday, he said he could have a turkey for us Friday morning.  Thursday afternoon we hit the grocery stores with a long list of ingredients.  We were relatively successful.

Cranberries: We didn’t find cranberries, so we bought a jar of “whole berry” Ocean Spray cranberry sauce at a specialty shop.  It was actually pretty good – much better than the canned stuff.  (If you’re in Venice looking for American or other specialty ingredients, try Rizzo market, located near the Rialto bridge.  In Rome, look for Castroni, which is a chain selling a huge selection of imports, specialty ingredients, wine, and candy.)

Sweet potatoes: Although sweet potatoes aren’t native to Italy, Francesca was familiar with them and thought we would find them at the supermarket.  We did -- a bin full of knobby, twisted patate americane.

Pumpkin: The word for pumpkin in Italian is zucca, which just means “squash” or “gourd” (and is also the basis of the word “zucchini,” which means “little squash”).  I was surprised not to find pumpkin, but we found plenty of other large winter squash, which were shaped more like butternut squash than pumpkin.  We chose one that was sold cut in half because we were able to see that the firm orange flesh closely resembled that of a pumpkin.

Baking soda: It’s so basic an ingredient in so many different things – from cookies to toothpaste – that one wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find.  It’s not – if you know where to look.  We were in the supermarket for over an hour and spent a significant portion of that time looking for baking soda.  It wasn’t in the baking aisle.  We checked several times.  It wasn’t in the cleaning section.  We made several trips up and down that aisle, too.  We finally asked a stock person if he knew where it was, and he brought us right to it.  In the beverage aisle, right next to several kinds of additives for turning still water into sparkling.  Of course.

Baking powder:  Once we  had baking soda, the baking powder was simple.  By mixing one part baking soda with two parts cream of tartar (found in the baking aisle), we had baking powder!

Cheddar cheese:  We didn’t find it, so we substituted sharp provolone for the cheese ball instead.

Salt pork: The Italian equivalent seems to be lardo.  Pancetta could also work, but for our purposes (flavoring not consuming), the fattier lardo was more appropriate (and cheaper). 

Cheese cloth:  Surely we could have found cheese cloth somewhere, but we didn’t have time to seek out a specialty store.  Instead, we ended up using loosely woven cross-stitching fabric.  Why the grocery store would carry cross-stitching fabric and not cheesecloth is beyond me.

Pecans: Both the sweet potato casserole (topping) and the pumpkin cheesecake (crust) called for pecans.  We knew we wouldn’t find them anywhere in Venice, so we substituted hazelnuts, which we thought would go equally well with holiday spices (with the added bonus that Brian isn’t allergic to them).

Vanilla wafers:  For the cheesecake crust, we substituted the Barilla brand “Mulino” cookies for vanilla wafers.  The Mulino cookies are denser but have a very similar flavor.  I like them even better.

Brown sugar*  and vanilla extract** were easy – We had brought Francesca 2 boxes of brown sugar and 2 bottles of vanilla extract from home.

*Nope, no brown sugar in Italy—at least not brown sugar the way we think of it.  There is, however, zucchero di canna, which is un- or partially-refined sugar similar to Sugar in the Raw and, hence, contains some molasses.  It’s not exactly the same thing as the “light brown sugar” and “dark brown sugar” that Americans use because ours are made by adding a standardized amount of molasses back into refined white sugar.  I have never baked with zucchero di canna in place of refined brown sugar.  I have read that it can work as a substitute but may yield some flavor and texture differences because of its lower molasses content.
American-style brown sugar can be made by adding molasses to white sugar.  However, molasses is only found at specialty/import stores in Italy.  For a brief primer on the different types of brown sugar, try this article.

**I don’t know why Italians don’t seem to use vanilla extract.  The baking sections in grocery stores sell an artificially-flavored vanilla powder, but no real vanilla extract, which seems strange to me in such a food-conscious culture. 
If you find yourself in Italy without vanilla extract, you can make it yourself.  All you need is pure-grain alcohol or vodka, vanilla beans, and time.  Two other food bloggers have useful posts on the subject here and here.

By the time we finished shopping, it was time to make dinner and get some prep done for Friday.  I started with the cheesecake, which first required roasting the squash.  I had never made the cheesecake with fresh pumpkin/squash before but discovered that I could substitute an equivalent amount of roasted squash for the canned pumpkin called for in the recipe.  It worked out about the same in both volume and weight.


The oven in Francesca’s kitchen was apparently running hot because the cheesecake came out burnt with 15 minutes of cooking time left on the clock.  Fortunately a hot oven and a burnt cheesecake were no match for our kitchen-problem-solving team:
I think it was even better than usual.  We shaved off the burnt layer and covered it with sweetened cinnamon-ginger whipped cream and some crushed cookies and hazelnuts.

Friday morning, while I got things ready around the kitchen, Brian and Francesca went for the turkey. 

Then we had to figure out what to do with it. 

I had decided on a short (6-hour) wet brine, and as luck would have it, there was a large, new bucket that was just about big enough to hold the entire turkey.   By removing a refrigerator shelf and some of the contents, we were able to just fit the turkey inside.
Good enough.

While preparing the turkey for brining, I realized that something was missing.  Unlike American butchers, the macellaio hadn’t automatically included the neck and giblets, and I hadn’t thought to ask for them.  How was I going to make gravy with no turkey parts?

Brian and Francesca went back to the butcher to see if he still had the rest of the turkey.  He explained that he never had the giblets to begin with; he would have had to specially request them when he ordered the turkey.

On the opposite side of the Grand Canal near the fish market, there was another butcher shop where Brian and I had seen half a lamb, an entire skinned rabbit, and a turkey sliced right down the middle on display in the window the day before.  If anyone had what we were looking for, that butcher shop would.  But instead of turkey giblets, Francesca and Brian got only strange looks.  As a last resort, they asked for chicken instead.  Although he was still confused by the request, the butcher picked a chicken neck and heart from the scrap pile and wrapped them up – but not before asking whether or not they were sure that the meat would be enough for us to eat.  At that point Brian and Francesca didn’t have the patience to explain what we were making, but knowing that the chicken parts would be smaller than a turkey’s, they asked for a second chicken neck and left.

Meanwhile back in the kitchen, I had moved on to the sweet potatoes.  Once I had washed all the dirt off, they looked suspiciously pale, and when I cut them open after baking, I was dismayed to see that they were white.  So… not sweet potatoes.  Right?


Then I tasted them.  White sweet potatoes! 

(In related news, the first weekend after we returned from Italy, Brian and I went to the farmers’ market where we saw… you guessed it, white sweet potatoes.)

Next on the agenda were chocolate chip cookies:

DSC_0095Once the cookies were set to cool on the window sill,  it came time to bake the bird. 

The first challenge was getting it out of the refrigerator without spilling raw-turkey-salt-water all over the kitchen floor.   We decided to scoop out the water until it was several inches below the top of the bucket. 

Then the turkey could be removed from the fridge, drained, patted dry, and stuffed;
then its fat deposits pierced, its skin rubbed with a baking soda-salt mixture (for crispness), DSC_0107DSC_0113
its legs tied up, and its back draped with lardo (for flavor).DSC_0116DSC_0120
In place of a roasting pan, we used an oven rack set over a shallow pan of the same width (which was made to slide into oven the same way that a rack fits in the oven).  Because they were exactly the width of the oven, the only way they would fit was to actually slide into the built-in grooves, putting the turkey and rack at one level and the pan on the level below the turkey.  Thus, getting the turkey in and out of the oven without dripping all over the oven floor was a precarious two-person job.  

A little over an hour into cooking the turkey, we started to smell something burning.  I was sure it was just some drippings that had hit the oven floor when we took the turkey out to remove the lardo and turn it over.  When it seemed that the burning smell was not going away but getting worse, we finally investigated.  It was the turkey legs touching the top of the oven.  So we performed another death-defying, four-handed turkey removal and moved it to a lower rack in the oven.  After that, things went perfectly smoothly.

While the turkey continued to roast, we started the gravy and prepped the casseroles, which would to go into the oven during the turkey’s half-hour rest.

The turkey came out crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside.  It could have had a touch more salt but not to the extent that anyone really noticed.

The casseroles went into the oven.  The gravy simmered away.  The guests arrived. 

The cheese ball was a hit!  I barely had time to snap a picture of it before it was gone.
Our friends were fascinated by Brian’s turkey-carving, having been exposed to American movies in which the patriarchal figure ceremoniously carves the bird at an elaborate dinner table surrounded by family and friends.DSC_0008Brian’s carving was not so ceremonial, but quite impressive, especially considering he’d only done it once before and that this time he had an audience. DSC_0028DSC_0029croppedThe spread (minus the stuffing):DSC_0038

Finally out of the kitchen:DSC_0039
The plate would have been more colorful if we’d had time to make green beans and if the the potatoes had been orange.  But no one else seemed to mind, so I didn’t worry about it either.  I was relieved to see how much everyone enjoyed the meal and even came back for seconds.  We hardly had any leftovers, which is quite a rarity at Thanksgiving dinner.  DSC_0045

I thought it was interesting that one friend commented on how strange it was to have sweet and savory dishes on his plate at the same time.  He wasn’t sure how to handle it because it was difficult to go back and forth between sweet and savory every other bite.  The American approach to meals is quite different from the Italian, especially at Thanksgiving, when there may be 8 different foods piled onto a plate, whereas Italians never have more than two at a time.  DSC_0053
All in all, our day-and-a-half of work ended in a meal that was a great success and worth every ounce of effort.

Coming soon: more about Italy and recipes related to this post!

November 6, 2010

prima o poi

Brian and I spent the first 17 days of October in Europe.  It was my first trip back to Italy in five years and Brian’s first ever.  It’s a trip we talked about taking for years – since before we were even really dating.

In the 19 days since we returned, I have sat down at the computer to write about the trip at least 19 times.  I’ve struggled to find a place to begin, and I’ve struggled to stay awake.  And I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that we’re back in the States.  My body seems to be fighting it just as much as my heart.  I still feel like it’s 3 o’clock in the morning at 9pm, and part of me doesn’t want to adjust back to this time zone.  Just as my brain doesn’t want to  adjust back to composing sentences in English.

I know that prima o poi I’ll get accustomed to being back here.  Prima o poi we’ll return to Italy.  And sooner or later I’ll write a real post about our trip!