Saturday, November 20, 2010

LA GRANDE MELA: Apples and The Big Apple

Autumn and apples: for me, they go hand-in-hand. The anticipation of heading to the green market in the fall is terrific: poring over the myriad apple varieties, sipping warm apple cider while I stroll along, crisp and colorful fallen leaves under foot. If I can find a good caramel apple, then I'm a sucker for it -- I'm hard-pressed to pass up a chewy, crunchy autumnal treat. And I love an excursion outside of the city for some apple picking, too. When time allows, this is a great fall weekend pastime we in the northeast are lucky enough to enjoy.

And believe me, I don't take this for granted. All the years I lived in Italy, fall had some wonderful food connotations for me: wine harvests, polenta festivals in Umbria...sausages and lentils and pumpkin ravioli. But in Italy, well, they just don't do apples (mele) like here on the east coast of the U.S. And where better than the Empire State, the city known around the world as The Big Apple ("La Grande Mela" in Italian), to revel in autumnal apple-y goodness?

I recently had friends here visiting from Rome, and we happened upon the Union Square greenmarket around lunchtime on a sunny, brisk early November afternoon. They'd had a few minutes to wander through the market before meeting me, and they said, "Dana, we'd forgotten what a real apple tastes like!" They were amazed at the variety of apples, the colors, shapes and sizes, and how some were sweet and fragrant and others were crisp and tart. It was as if they'd tasted an apple for the first time. They bought several varieties to take back with them on the international flight, because as they exclaimed, "you can't find apples like these in Italy!" I reminded them that they were in The Big Apple, after all -- and it all made sense to them. A very funny moment.

Of course, I stocked up on apples as well. My beloved varieties for various uses, from eating out-of-hand to baking in desserts, include Cortland, Braeburn, Rome (named for the town in New York state, not Italy!), Macoun, Honeycrisp, and Staymen Winesap. A love of good apples was ingrained in me from childhood by my father, who considers himself to be a shrewd apple expert. To him, the granddaddy of all varieties is the Ida Red. He carts bags and bags of them from the northeast down to south Florida when he heads down each November, since they're not readily available outside of their local growing area. So yes, I had to get some Ida Reds as well. Some apple cider, too. Maybe some hard cider, good for drinking as well as making sauces for pork dishes. Is apple overload possible? I'm testing the limits!

So, how will I consume all of these apples? Some, I eat with a fresh local Camembert-style cheese called "Bianca" from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY (another greenmarket purchase) -- the cheese slightly melted, the apples sliced, smeared with a little Tuscan millefiore honey on some crusty bread. Others, I'll slice and dip in some homemade salted caramel sauce, a sophisticated version of the street fair favorite. Some apples I toss with caramelized onions and kale, and sprinkle with cider vinegar and a little brown sugar in the pan for a great seasonal side dish to a meat main course.

And then there's my favorite apple dessert. It would seem un-American to diss the staple apple pie. And I do love a good one. But even better, to my taste buds -- and just as American, in the tradition of crumbles, brown betties, slumps, and cobblers -- is the APPLE CRUMBLE. It's simple. It doesn't need a crust. It bakes in about 30-45 minutes and can be eaten warm: no waiting! Perfection.

(Serves 4)

6 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into slices (about 10 per apple)
8 oz. plus 2 TBS. AP flour
3 oz. granulated sugar
2 oz. brown sugar 
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
4 oz. (1 stick) + 1 TBS. butter, softened to room temp

- Butter individual ramekins or medium, shallow baking dish 
- Toss the apples in a bowl with the cinnamon, 2 TBSP. sugar and 1 TBSP. flour, to coat.
- Distribute apples in even layers in baking vessels.
- Mix softened butter, flour, salt, and sugars until a dough is formed (cookie dough-like in consistency).
- Drop dough on top of apples and bake in 375 degree oven until golden brown and crispy on top, 30-45 minutes. 
- Allow to cool enough so you won't burn your tongue devouring the crumble!

* Great with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

La Fiorentina

Yeah, I like vegetables. Sure, a good salad can be fab. And fresh seafood is one of my top gustatory pleasures, especially in warm weather. But what food really hits the spot, scratches an itch, makes me go ahhh? (Well, yes, chocolate...but that's for another time). For me, it's a primal thing. A visceral thing. And when I get that craving, I need it: meat. Specifically, beef. A wonderful, toothsome-but-tender steak. And the granddaddy of them all -- I don't care who you are, or where you're from -- is the bistecca alla fiorentina.

Now, I lived in Rome for a long time. And there are Tuscan restaurants in the country's capital city, for sure. But there's something about actually being in Tuscany that speaks to the overall experience of sinking one's teeth into this beautiful hunk of meat. I've enjoyed the bistecca alla fiorentina in its city of origin, at some famous old-school trattorie in Florence ("fiorentina" means Florentine, for the uninitiated) -- which is great. There, you're surrounded by like-minded eaters, feasting on roasted rosemary potatoes, perhaps some wilted spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil (another Florentine staple), and washing it all down with a nice Chianti. A recent trip to the outskirts of Florence had me enjoying just that, with the fiorentina artfully presented to us as the photo here shows, almost as if we were guests at a regal banquet: gorgeous, ruby-red beef sliced from the bone...bone included, of course!

But I've also enjoyed the bistecca in the countryside of Tuscany, sitting in the patio of a roadside trattoria in Chianti, hidden from view of passers-by. For a few lucky locals and my friends and I, the high flames of the outdoor grill licked the meat and singed its outer crust. Its only seasoning? A few twists of cracked pepper and sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of that opaque Tuscan olive oil, in all its tannic, electric-green glory. Or in the outdoor patio restaurant of our agriturismo, overlooking hills where the very beef we're eating has been raised. 
Here it's served with a green peppercorn and rosemary-infused olive oil drizzle, and it's amazing, lip-smackingly tasty, particularly with another classical accompaniment: fagioli all'uccelletto ("bird style" cannellini beans, cooked with tomatoes and sage). Is it sweeter outside of the city, eaten closer to the Val di Chiana where the Chianina beef -- the beautiful bovine breed that makes the fiorentina what it is -- comes from? Sometimes it feels that way. But whether in the urban setting of Florence or the hills of Tuscany...well, either way, you're pretty close to paradiso!

Call it an Italian Porterhouse or T-bone, containing both the fillet and the controfiletto -- the tenderloin and the short loin -- but the bistecca alla fiorentina must be about 3 fingers thick, and it must be cooked only to rare or medium rare, otherwise the consistency is ruined (let's not speak of the integrity of the beef itself). It requires no seasonings other than salt and pepper -- preferably a flaky sea salt with some texture. Then dress with great-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to cut the richness of it all. Basta. That's all. When enjoying a great piece of meat, you need no more than the basics to really, profoundly scratch that itch, that carnal craving. Just add fire.