Friday, July 23, 2010

Panzanella, light lunch of my summer, taste party in my mouth. My snack, my side dish, my soul. Pan-za-nel-la: the tongue plays along the palate down to the denti. Yummy, yummy, yumminess...Pan.Za.Nel.La.
OK, so maybe I'm going overboard here, but if you've ever had a great panzanella in the heat of the summer, you'd know my Nabokovian rant is warranted. This stuff is delicious. In yet another ingenious use of old bread, the Tuscans devised this refreshing salad with cubed bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, celery, and a generous glug-glug of bold, fruity olive oil and red wine vinegar. Salt and pepper, obviously. Those are the basics; the rest are just additional trappings. Fennel, which I add to my version because it's refreshing raw, is such a Tuscan staple that it seems a natural fit -- and this is how I learned to make the salad so many years ago in Firenze. Some people add chopped peppers, artichokes, or olives. I think these weigh down the light-tasting dish -- but to each her own.

You can grill the bread before cubing it, for added smoky flavor. Using local, candy-sweet cherry or grape tomatoes is much advised at the height of the summer (toss in some golden ones for eye appeal). And note that there are variations on the bread consistency in the salad, from slightly crispy cubes, to water/oil/vinegar-soaked bread that functions as a binding "mush" to the vegetables in the dish. No one version is more correct, just a matter of personal taste. The one constant in the original version, however, is that the bread used is unsalted Tuscan country bread. Yes, that infamous, flavorless Tuscan pane --  so perfect for the region's crostini with salty toppings, so wonderful in its bread soups, so flavorless on its own that perhaps no other region in the world can boast so many untouched restaurant bread baskets. And yes, these taste-deficient baked orbs are so sponge-like, they also doubled as Renaissance instruments with which Tuscan frescoes were cleaned! So, while we must mention the authentic bread used in panzanella, we certainly encourage the use of a more flavorful bread base in this particular recipe.

This is wonderful as a lunch on its own, perhaps with some great quality, olive oil-packed tuna flaked into it. It's also a perfect side dish for another of the region's specialties: grilled bistecca alla fiorentina -- or any meat seared on the grill. With a slightly chilled glass of red wine, or a rosato? What a great summer meal for the weekend!
Serves 4-6

1 loaf of good country bread, cut up into 1 or 2-inch dice (stale or toasted or grilled)
1 lb. cherry tomatoes (cut in half) or vine-ripened tomatoes (large dice)
3-4 stalks celery, cut into large dice
1 fennel bulb, cleaned and cut into thin slices
1 red onion, cut into thin slices and rinsed under cold water
3-4 cucumbers, peeled and cut into large dice
Fresh basil, torn into small pieces
1/3 cup good extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste

- Mix the bread with all of the vegetables and herbs.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Add olive oil and vinegar to make a nicely-dressed salad with enough moisture to soften the bread a bit. Let sit for 30 minutes, then taste and adjust seasoning/dressing. Serve at room temperature.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quick Bite: Cold Chocolate in Hot Weather


Chocolate. Cold. Cold chocolate treat. Cold chocolate treat with luscious heavy whipped cream. All this wonderfulness, and topped off with a crunchy cone-like wafer? There may be nothing better on a hot afternoon, for a sweet snack between meals, or for dessert after a leisurely lunch. Hell, chocolate cremolata is good any time. 

And serving up this Italian delicacy -- one that's fairly difficult to find on the Italian peninsula -- is the famous Cremeria Monteforte, conveniently tucked alongside the Pantheon in the centro storico of Rome. So what exactly is CREMOLATA? First of all, I'll tell you what it's not. It's not GREMOLATA, the combination of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest that traditionally tops osso buco. That, my friends, would not a tasty frozen treat make -- though a quick internet search found chefs, magazines, and various bloggers making this confusing mistake, preparing osso buco and shellfish dishes with "cremolata" -- which would also be bizarre and not good (veal chop with strawberry frozen treat, anyone?) again, what is cremolata? It's not gelato, it's not granita, and it's not sorbetto.It's usually made of fruit -- it's like a chunky granita or an unfiltered and "unspun" (not put into a gelato maker for even distribution of ice crystals) sorbetto. Lots of times you find pieces of fruit pulp in the cremolata. And sometimes, if you're's made of deep, sweet-bitter, dark, luscious chocolate.