Monday, October 31, 2011

Cheese from the Goat Farm & "Toscumbrian" Feasts

It took her a while to discover it, but since she has, my friend Laurie has been a regular at Val di Mezzo, the goat farm in Anghiari, Tuscany owned by a Michigan native named Brent. It's close to the Umbrian border and its small town of Lippiano, where Laurie has a country house. This is a gorgeous and less-discovered area of 2 famous neighboring Italian regions. And though Chianti in Tuscany, and Orvieto and Perugia in Umbria, are amazing places...well, there's something really nice about being somewhere that feels distinctly more local

I hadn't been to Laurie's in several years, as we seemed to have just missed each other in Italy the past few seasons. Late September and early October this year, however, we finally got our timing right. I headed up to what I call "Toscumbria" (the Tuscany/Umbria border area where one fades into the other almost seamlessly, then back again), with some friends from Rome. It was still very much late summer in central Italy, with warm sunny days and nights that were just cool enough to warrant a sweater or jacket. Laurie's fig tree on the sloping hill alongside her house was still heavy with ripe fruit, and the wild lavender alongside it still perfumed the air. She'd wanted me to visit Brent's goat farm and I really wanted to see what this American was stirring up in the Italian countryside. So we went.
As it turned out, Brent had just departed for the U.S. for a few weeks, but his helpful dairy farm hand led us around and gave us a tour of the place. Most of the goats are female, of course, and many had given birth in the spring. Others were pregnant (a handful of studly male goats were loudly 'bahhh'-ing in a nearby pen). All were happy to see us and really took to Laurie's visit inside their pen just before feeding time.

We met a nice family that runs a farm west of Charlottesville, Virginia (town of my alma mater, UVa. -- the husband was actually a graduate of their masters program in poetry. Small world!). They were there learning the ropes: Italian cheesemaking combined with innovative American touches, to produce some traditional local cheeses as well as some interesting twists of Brent's own invention.
A tasting allowed us to try different versions and ages of goat milk cheeses. They were all delicious, and we bought lots of it: the Italian caciotta, a feta-like caprino (goat cheese) best for grating, a goat cheese aged in ashes made of local herbs like rosemary and lavender, and one wrapped in chestnut leaves.

When we got back to Laurie's house, We picked a handful of fresh figs from her tree, their insides a deep, brilliant crimson, and I made a fig-peperoncino jam to accompany the caciotta. It was a delicious end to a "Tuscumbrian" meal that we made in her kitchen: a meal for which we spent the day gathering local ingredients. 
Dinner -- particularly that local caciotta and homemade fig-peperoncino jam -- truly tasted like Umbria, like Tuscany, like our home away from home.

Friday, October 14, 2011

RECIPE: Pollo alla Romana...and Giallorosso

Alla Romana means 'Roman style', and there are plenty of food preparations, from pastas to tripe, that are Roman style. It means something different in each iteration, though the most alla Romana of any dish out there, to my mind, is Pollo alla Romana. Why? Because it's giallorosso, of course! This refers to the colors of the dish, yellow (giallo) and red (rosso) -- but it's also a reference to La Roma, or AS Roma, the Eternal City's beloved soccer team.

Fans of AS Roma are called Romanisti, or giallorossi, after the team's official colors. Technically, there is another team for Rome and the whole region in which Rome is located: Lazio. But to most locals who live in the city, to suggest that they are Laziale is to call them traitors, even fascists. The commonly-held view is that AS Roma is Roman to its core, founded in the popular neighborhood of Testaccio in 1927, and followed by the locals with an amazing dedication and ferocity, despite the fact that they've only won the scudetto (the Italian soccer championship) 3 times in the team's history. I was lucky enough to be privy to one of those wins, June 17th, 2001. 
Hometown hero and world-class player Francesco Totti helped lead his beloved team to victory, and I can honestly say I've never seen quite a celebration of a sports victory in any city, ever. (Yes, I've seen the Yankees win the World Series in New York, the Giants win the Superbowl. I was even in Rome when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 -- the only time I saw a celebration comparable to Roma winning the '01 scudetto).
The fact that one of my all-time favorite players, Argentina's Batistuta (mmm...Bat-i-stu-ta), led ROMA to victory alongside Totti, made it that much sweeter! Red and yellow flags and confetti were everywhere, car horns honked nonstop, literally for days on end. The bars stayed open into the wee hours that night. The following week, Rome hosted a huge concert at the Circo Massimo in honor of their home team's glorious win, where an estimated one million fans came to celebrate the victorious team. People were hanging from the ruins of the Palatine Hill to get a view! I remember it like it was yesterday: Antonello Venditti sang what's considered the soccer team's anthem, "Grazie Roma" with Italian beauty Sabrina Ferilli parading on stage (she'd promised to strut naked in Circo Massimo if Roma won -- which didn't happen, though she is wearing next to nothing!).
 ...It was the kind of celebration, grande festa, that happens once in a lifetime. Forza giallorossi!... 

I've always say that Italians are fiercely loyal to three things: town, team, and table (in no particular order). With AS Roma, town and team go hand-in-hand. Pollo alla Romana, a gorgeous stew of chicken with red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, onions, and a bit of peperoncino and vinegar for kick, is the perfect representation of table, of i romani sul piatto (Romans on a plate): colorful, bold, a bit spicy, a bit acido. Not timid. But also comforting. And with late summer lingering, the peppers in this dish are still very much at their peak. Try to find a free-range chicken raised without antibiotics, to approximate what the best Roman home cooks would use (possibly even from their own land outside the Roman city walls).
Enjoy, and forza Roma!

Pollo alla Romana
Serves 2-4
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
4 peppers, red and yellow, sliced into 2-inch-long, ½-inch-wide slices
2 small onions, sliced thinly into half-moons
4 fresh plum tomatoes, or a small can of whole peeled San Marzanos, chopped
1 clove garlic
¾ cup white wine
½ cup chicken broth (optional)
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt + pepper to taste
Sprig of rosemary (optional)
Peperoncino (flakes are fine), a healthy pinch

- Wash the chicken and dry thoroughly, leaving it out to reach room temp (this allows it to crisp better).
- In a heavy-bottomed sauté pan or skillet, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. After 30 seconds, add the garlic clove and cook until fragrant and starting to brown.
- Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt & pepper just before they go into the pan. Brown them on both sides, and remove from pan when browned. Work in batches if you need to so as not to crowd the pan.
- Add a bit more olive oil to the pan and sauté the onion and the peppers until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
- Add the white wine and vinegar to “deglaze” the pan, scraping up all the browned bits from the chicken that were stuck to the bottom. Cook another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, breaking them up, stirring. Add a sprinkle of salt and cook for another 5-7minutes.
- Add the chicken to the pan, plus rosemary and/or peperoncino if desired, and cover and cook for 10 minutes.
- Lift the cover and stir the chicken in with the peppers and onions so it’s no longer sitting on top of them. Cook another 30 minutes, checking occasionally, and adding some chicken broth or water if it gets too dry. Salt to taste. When done cooking, remove cover and serve immediately…although this dish is great heated up the next day after the flavors have had 24 hours to “meld” together.
* In Photo: Pollo alla Romana served with oven-roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled asparagus. Buona Cena!