Monday, January 30, 2012

On a Cold Winter's Night...

I have to say for all of my complaining about the cold, for the most part I do enjoy winter. I don’t enjoy the negative temperatures that my city so forcefully blows into my face, but I do enjoy the crackling fires, the ability to wear a blanket around the house without looking like a crazy person and of course the soups!

As evidenced by my previous postings, I do enjoy a good soup every now and again (ahem, once a week at least), they warm you both inside and out. I do however get exhausted by spending hours and hours in front of the stove. And to boot, I dislike cream based soups, which leaves out at least half of the delicious soup recipes out there. Which is why, when I came across this recipe for a roasted tomato soups (CREAM FREE!), I jumped.

I decided that while a warm bowl of essentially tomato, is delicious, it may not be totally filling. So I paired it with an open-face veggie sandwich and not only do you have a delicious meal that hits pretty much every major vegetable in the garden (or store) but also something warm and filling. And of course, rather quick!

The Soup (serves 2-3)

15 Plum Tomatoes, halved

½ Yellow Onion Diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

1 TSP Olive Oil

½ TBS Paprika

1 cup of Vegetable Stock

Salt and pepper to taste

2 TBS chopped Parsley (for garnish)

2 TBS Fat Free Sour Cream (for those people who enjoy it, as garnish)

The Sandwich:

4 Thick Slices of Italian Bread

½ Yellow Onion

1 Plum Tomato, Halved

1 Eggplant, cut into medium thickness rounds

1 bag of baby spinach (more if you’re a spinach lover)

4 thick slices of fresh mozzarella

8 large Basil Leaves

4 cloves of Garlic, diced

2 TBS Olive Oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees; place all tomatoes on one baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and place in the oven until soft. Roughly 20-30 minutes

On a separate sheet, place eggplant. Drizzle with olive oil and salt, cook until soft and slightly golden, roughly 20 minutes.

For the soup, place chopped onions, garlic and paprika in a pot with olive oil; heat until onions are soft. When tomatoes come out, take out the 2 halves needed for the sandwich and place the rest in the pot. Take an emersion blender (or chinoise) and blend the contents of the pot into a smooth liquid. Add stock and let simmer on low while making the sandwiches. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For the sandwich, drizzle the bread with olive oil and sprinkle the garlic on it. Place in oven until crispy.

In the meantime, in a pan, add onion, olive oil and pinch of salt and sauté until tender. Then add spinach and cook until wilted.

When the bread is out, cover the top of each piece with the spinach and onion mixture, then layer eggplant, basil, mozzarella and tomato. Place back in oven and cook until cheese is melted.

Ladle the soup into a bowl and garnish, serve alongside sandwich and enjoy!

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Garden in Your Bowl

So it’s been a few weeks since I wrote. Getting back after the holidays, starting a new job all of that fun jazz has gotten in the way of me writing. But I’m back and I’m ready to cook. While in Italy we had an amazing dinner one night, it was a bistro attached to our hotel. For all intents and purposes, it should have been a decent quick dinner after a long day of walking. But it was so much better than that. A delicious meal of fresh from the farm foods as we learned that our waitress/chef/baker also spent a few days a week out on a farm in the countryside and brought fresh produce in with her.

I had never heard of ribollita before we got to Italy. Our first few days in Florence I saw it all over the menu, but let’s be honest, who’s going to fill up on soup when there’s pasta and wild boar to eat? However for whatever reason on this night, I saw it on the menu and decided it was a necessity. What came out was a steaming bowl of a Tuscan garden on my table. The flavors were so rich, I nearly licked the bowl clean.

So you, like I did, are asking yourself what is ribollita? Well it’s a Tuscan peasant soup that literally translates to reboiled. The base of the soup is minestrone, however after it’s cooked, its left to cool and sit in the refrigerator for a few days, like all good leftovers should. Then as its getting reheated, very stale Italian bread is added to it. The bread soaks in the broth and softens, making it more of a stew than a soup. It takes some time, because honestly the minestrone is delicious on its own, but if you wait the extra day or so, the flavors really knock you out! Besides, it’s perfect for a cold winters night.

13 cups (or more) water, divided

1 1/4 cups dried cannellini (white kidney beans; about 8 ounces)

12 large fresh sage leaves

8 garlic cloves; 5 sliced, 3 chopped

4 tsp (or more) fine sea salt, divided

6 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus additional for drizzling

1 large onion, chopped

2 large celery stalks, diced

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 large unpeeled Yukon Gold potato, scrubbed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered through core, sliced crosswise

1 large pinch of fresh thyme

1 small bunch kale cut crosswise into 1-inch ribbons (about 6 cups)

1 small bunch green chard (about 4 large leaves), center stem removed, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide ribbons (about 6 cups)

4 cups thinly sliced savoy cabbage

5 large plum tomatoes, chopped

1 good Parmesan cheese rind

Pinch of dried crushed red pepper

3 cups low sodium, light chicken broth (if you’re being Vegetarian Friendly, then Vegetable Broth

½ loaf of stale Italian bread, cut into 1 inch pieces

Overnight, Soak beans in water. When ready to start cooking, combine 8 cups water, beans, sage, and sliced garlic in large saucepan. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more water by 1/4 cupfuls to keep beans submerged, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on age of beans. This can be done a day ahead of time.

In a large pot, I used my Round Dutch Oven, heat 3 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion; sprinkle with sea salt. Cook until onion is translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add chopped garlic; stir 2 minutes. Add celery, carrot, potato, fennel, and thyme; cook until vegetables are tender and begin to turn brown in spots, stirring often, 15 to 18 minutes. Add kale, chard, cabbage, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, 5 cups water, and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add beans with cooking liquid and crushed red pepper. Add 2 cups broth and season with salt and pepper.

Take off the stove and let cool. You can either let this sit for a few days, or overnight (I chose to do it overnight).

When you’re ready to reboil, Add bread to soup and simmer, stirring often to break up bread into smaller pieces and adding more broth by 1/2 cupfuls to thin, if desired. Season with sea salt and pepper.

If you aren’t able to get the bread as stale as you’d like, you can do what I did. Turn the oven onto 250, lay the cut bread on a baking tray and put in oven. Check every 10 minutes. The bread should not be brown, just incredibly dry.

Serve the bowl with a little cheese and a drizzle of good olive oil

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From the Saints Indeed

The Vin Santo Barrel's at Avignonese

My husband and I just got back from two wonderful and delicious weeks in Italy. Whenever I travel I am always amazed at how young our country is. When standing inside the necropolis under St. Peters Basilica, something that was built in the 1st century A.D, and they kept speaking about “The New Church” which was built over head (meaning the basilica that was built in the 1600’s), I was reminded that not much in the United States is still standing from the 17th century. So other than an amazing amount of art and history and architecture, we also took in some food and beverages. And while I will write a post solely dedicated to the delicious Italian foods we had, I decided to write today’s about a new to us dessert wine we found: Vin Santo!

On most dessert menus in Italy you will see an offering of biscotti and Vin Santo. We had our first taste of it on one of our last nights in Florence. We were at a delicious wine bar and decided to try some and were pleasantly surprised. It was sweet, but not sickeningly so and coats the palate really nicely. It wasn't until we did a vineyard tour and five course tasting at Avignonesi Vineyards in Montepulciano that we learned more about this delicious wine.

Vin Santo literally translates to Wine of the Saints, or Holy Wine, as it was once used in masses. While there’s lots of question as to where it originated, in honesty, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter however, it where it is now. The Italian government regulates wines (ever wondered why some of your Chiantis have that label around the top that says DOC?) and of course, it regulates the production of Vin Santo’s. In order to be called a Vin Santo, the grapes must be aged for 3 years at least, most vineyard age theirs 5-10 years. While on our tour of Avignonesi, we were walked through their Vin Santo vault and told about how they create their wine. To start, the winery must use its best grapes, they are harvested and laid out to air dry from October through April, the longer they dry, the higher the sugar levels and therefore the higher the alcohol content. In April they will have a gathering where they will taste the Vin Santo that was barreled 10 years previously, so this April they will taste the barrels from 2002. Once the barrels are tasted, they will be bottled and the grapes from the previous season will be crushed and placed into those barrels. Unlike with other wines, where the oak barrel is meant to last no more than 5 years, Vin Santo barrels are used until they fall apart. This is because there is madre inside, or Mother Yeast. The Avignonesi vinters have no idea where their yeast came from, they do not create it. It is within each of their barrels and they assume the original yeast was started when the vineyard started in the mid 15th century; It is like this for most well known makes of Vin Santo’s. So when the barrels are no longer fit for use, they open them up, scoop out the yeast and place it inside a new barrel, but of course every time this is done yeast is lost. So the goal is the keep the barrels as long as possible and maintain the madre.

So the crush goes into the barrels, the barrels are closed with a wax seal to mark the year they were barreled with the madre and the grapes and are left in a room that isn’t climate controlled, which for those of you wine drinks out there, know that is unusual. Generally when fermenting the barrels are placed underground or in cooler rooms in order to keep the sweetness of the wine to a certain level. By allowing the natural heat and cold to contact the barrels, the end product becomes much sweeter.

Bottles of Vin Santo at Avignonesi (which are only sold in 350mL) are sold from between 180 to 210 Euros depending on if it’s a red or white Vin Santo.

We had the complete fortune to taste both while at the Vineyard and I can say without a doubt it was the best wine I’ve ever had in my life. We were told that some American’s likened it to Maple Syrup, after having a taste I informed the lovely people in the tasting room that this was wildly incorrect and that if maple syrup tasted anything like this I would be bathing it in daily.

Avignonesi’s Vin Santo was like a kiss from the Saints, soft and sweet. The wine was more viscous that any I had ever had, but the viscosity made it stick to your mouth better and ensured that you were able to enjoy ever last drop. So while in the past I may have scoffed at purchasing a $300 bottle of wine, I can assure you that I'm saving every penny I have in order to buy an Avignonesi Vin Santo. I hear 2011 was an excellent harvest....

Looking forward to this one in 2017!