Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Vending Machine Tour of Valle d'Aosta

Yesterday we had friends from Piemonte visit us for the day, so we took them on a personalized tour of my own making of the region.

A vending machine tour.  Because Aosta has some pretty spectacular vending machines.

You've already heard about my dairy farmer neighbors with the raw milk vending machine.  That was our first stop, since it is close by and oh so spectacular!
Raw milk.  Bring your own bottle, put in a euro, and press the button!
They also have a dairy product vending machine right next to it.  You can choose from fresh butter, Fontina, aged Valdostano cheese, reblec, ricotta, brossa, and many flavors of yogurt.

I love brossa... it is sort of like buttermilk and is great poured on top of polenta

Next stop was a nearby vineyard cooperative, Cave des Onze Communes.  Because, you know, you can't eat cheese without a bottle of local red.  It's a rule, I'm sure.

They are about a five minute drive from our house, and are located right underneath a very castle-y looking castle.  The castle is on the right, the vineyard on the left. 

Before last year, you'd have to risk being chased off by the grumpy woman running the wine shop if you asked for a wine tasting.  But not anymore! They installed a wine vending machine, where you can hold a glass up to the machine, press a button, and a perfect amount of wine for tasting is automatically squirted into your glass.  And it's free.
They have a large selection of their wines....
Does it get better than this?
After all that raw milk, cheese, and wine, I took them to the next logical vending machine, this time smack in the historic center of 2000 year old Aosta.  Condom vending machine on the street!
They also have a wide selection....

You are probably wondering what comes next.  Well, that would be the vending machine kiosk for late night drunks.  And if one isn't drunk yet, there's yet another vending machine to help with that.  Actually, there's a vending machine to help with about everything:
One stop shop, basically....

Boxed wine...ew.  Fortunately, they also have small bottles of champagne.

Of course there is a sandwich vending machine
And a soup vending machine, to go with the sandwich. You can choose from tomato, mushroom, or cracker soup.

You can even have a healthy dessert of yogurt!
They used to have a spaghetti vending machine, but they must have taken it out, and I'm really bummed.  Because spaghetti is the obvious pairing to go with with condoms, boxed wine, and yogurt.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The many faces of radicchio (and oven roasted treviso radicchio)

I love radicchio.....I don't know why, but I'm  simply enamored with bitter vegetables this winter.  I never really noticed radicchio when I lived in the US, but in Italy, I simply can't escape it.  I walk into the vegetable market and I am literally faced with a wall of more types of radicchio than I can count.  Ok, maybe I can count them if I tried, but my point is that there are many types of radicchio.  For many of them, the taste is about the same, but the stalk/leaf ratio is different, so they are good for different types of recipes.

These are three types of radicchio that I happen to have in my refrigerator right now (and one that I started to eat)...round, long, and treviso

 I love all radicchio, and it's great prepared in many different ways.... roasted, sauteed, in risotto, wrapped around a delicious stuffing, in soup....some weeks I eat radicchio every day, each meal a prepared in a new way.  I love colorful food, and radicchio is one of the few ways to add seasonal color to a winter's plate.

But my favorite kind of radicchio is treviso radicchio. Why, do you ask?  First, it is gorgeous, kind of looks like an orchid.  Or a crazy squid if a squid was feeling like a vegetable. 

When I look at this, all I see is an orchid-squid.

Not only does treviso radicchio make me giggle, but it has an exquisite taste.  It's characteristic bitter taste is somewhat more mild, with sweet overtones.  It's wonderful eaten raw, but I think roasting it helps round out the flavor a bit.  Its stalk is also more tender then other types of radicchio, which makes it better for roasting.

If you can find this kind of radicchio where you live, snatch it up! It's a special treat.  Roasting them are easy, you just need:

-treviso radicchio (or some other kind or radicchio if you must, halved or quartered...leave treviso radicchio whole)
-extra virgin olive oil
-fleur de sel (or tasty salt of choice)
-freshly ground black pepper.
Toss the radicchio in a small amount of olive oil (couple of tablespoons), and place in a baking dish.  Drizzle on a dash of balsamic, and sprinkle with fleur de sel and the freshly ground pepper.  Bake in a 375 F oven for 30 minutes or until tender, and eat immediately!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hands in the Dough: Introd Black Bread Festival

I can't believe I haven't written about this yet.  It was just such an incredible experience that I had to let it marinate for a while so that the words came out right.... but then I forgot about writing it.  So here we are, six months later.

Seuppa valpellenentze ready to go in the oven
Black bread, called 'pane nero' in Italian, and 'pan ner' in Patois, the regional dialect, is an important staple in Valle d'Aosta.  It's a dense bread made with a mother dough and uses whole wheat and rye flours, and a fairly low hydration.  It's baked in a wood fired oven, and left to dry out on racks so that it can be eaten for months (or years) to come.  If eaten fresh, it is often eaten topped with lardo (cured and spiced pig fat, sliced paper thin) and honey.  Once it has dried out, it is used in soups such as seuppa valpellenentze, or dropped soaked in strong red wine to become a local favorite, zuppa dell'asino (donkey soup). 

Most villages, small or large, have a community bread oven, and they are generally fired up during two periods of the year: winter and summer.  In my village of Charvensod, during most of November local families can sign up to use the oven at certain times, and small groups get together to put hundreds of loaves into the oven each day so that people have enough black bread to last the year.  There are also festivals celebrating black bread, and they generally happen in December/January and July/August.  My sister Rita was visiting in August of this year, and I dragged her (willingly) to one of these festivals, to the "Fiha di pan ner" in the village of Introd, which is in the famous Gran Paradiso Park.

These local festivals are simply fabulous.  They usually involve a lot of local red wine, copious amounts of food fired in the wood oven, farmers wearing pajamas and mullets, and a lone accordion player playing cheesy music.  I simply love them! 

It turns out that we got there about 10 hours early for the party....but just in time to help with making the bread.  We found the community bread oven in a little strip mall, right by the village's ATM machine.  We peeked around shyly, looking at the oven and sneaking looks inside the room where older members of the community were kneading bread, when a man invited us inside and insisted we share a big cup of wine with him (it was 10 am!), along with generous slices of bread fresh out of the oven and local Fontina cheese.  They had just finished one batch of bread in the oven, and the next batch was going through its first rise.  The wine-welding man, Pietro, was making seuppa valpellenentze, a black bread, cabbage, and Fontina soup that is baked in the wood fired oven, and proceeded to tell some off color jokes involving his sausages. 
Morning glass of wine
For some reason I got a kick out of the implements they use to clean the oven
Oven mop.
 I don't quite know how it happened, but suddenly we were wearing aprons and kneading bread around a large table with some hilarious older ladies, Olimpia, Irene, and Agata.  There were two men there, and the one who kept making hilariously lewd comments would cut off pieces of the dough that had gone through it's first raising, and would throw it at one of the women, who would deftly knead it and shape it into a loaf, which was then thrown in a pile of dough on a sheet of fabric.  The pile was rolled into a long snake, and then chunks were again cut off, shaped, and placed on a long board.  Olimpia, who must be at least 90 years old, quickly scored the loaves with a floral pattern, and the men shoveled the shaped loaves into the roaring hot oven that fits 110 loaves at a time.  

Franco explaining to me the finer points of kneading
The ladies were amused by my sister....
I hope to be like these ladies some day......

Olimpia deftly scores the loaves

The men shovel loaves into the oven
I turned this into dinner later on

They chatted in the Patois dialect, which I don't' understand much of, and occasionally switched into Italian.  Being that they were all from older generations, they didn't speak a word of English, so Rita was out of luck.  So what they did was make funny faces at her, which was pretty hilarious.  

We helped all day until we got all 110 loaves of bread that we helped make into the massive community oven.  We couldn't stay for the party that night because we actually had to help friends bake bread in their smaller wood fired oven at their house.

Poor me.  

 Here are some video clips I took while a group of kids were there helping out:

Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Ode to Agretti

Agretti, Agretti, how do I love thee!

I'm sure the neighbors think I'm crazy.  I've been waltzing around the house proclaiming my love to this deletable vegetable in song.  But if ever a vegetable deserved to be serenaded, it is agretti.

I stopped by our village vegetable market on  my way to picking up some milk and Fontina from the neighbor's raw milk vending machine, and I about jumped to the ceiling in joy when I saw that they had agretti.  Agretti mean it's nearly spring.  Agretti also mean that I get to eat agretti, which is pretty much the best thing this gal could ask for. 

What are agretti?  They look like grass, and are a succulent plant that grows in Italian bog land.  They have skinny red roots, and when you steam them, they taste like salty lemons.  I learned to cook them from my friend Stefano Zonca (one of the best chefs in Italy, and I had the opportunity to work with him in his restaurant two years ago).  You can do a lot of things with agretti.... they make an incredible tortellini stuffing, and are good eaten raw, but I like them best steamed and tossed with a bit of lemon and olive oil. 

Yesterday I bought some infused organic extra virgin olive oil from a farmer at the market... two bottles.  One infused with lemon rind, the other with truffles.  I have a feeling a dab of the truffle olive oil will be divine on my little agretti friends. 

I also found some pleurotus mushrooms at the market, and they turned into a creamy mushroom soup to accompany the agretti.
If you can somehow find agretti where you live, they can be found from early February until the first days of June.  They are easy to clean, just snap off the red roots, and rinse the dirt off of them. 
Snap the red roots off like this

In a heavy bottomed pan (I love using a copper one) that has a lid, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil, and toss the damp agretti around in it.  Squeeze in half a lemon, and cover the pot for 3-5 minutes, until they've reduced but are still 'al dente'.  Drizzle with olive oil (even better if it is a truffle or lemon infused olive oil!) and sprinkle with fleur de sel.  Enjoy hot!
This is my favorite pot for cooking agretti.  It is encased in copper and has a stainless steel lid.
What agretti should look like when they are ready.

Agretti, I love you
Great used as a side dish, or as a base of a main course.  They are absolutely delicious topped with cannellini  bean dishes, such as polenta crusted white bean balls (I'll make a post on how to do that later!) or a roasted garlic white bean puree.