In Italy, fine dining is done at home

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You would think a trip to Italy for a food lover would send her
scrambling for guides to the endless trattorias, ristorantes, and
osterias. When cooking is your passion, however, what can be
better than staying in a house with a kitchen? My family recently
took a house in the small town of Magliano in the Maremma in
southwest Tuscany. Here, with the sea on one side and the
ochre-colored hills on the other, we had a daily choice of fresh fish
or the regional specialty, wild boar. A large picnic table with a grand
view from a tiled terrace became the setting for all meals.

There is a certain excitement when the familiar suddenly isn’t and
the hunt for food yields such a delicious bounty. Trips to the outdoor
markets for fresh produce and herbs, shopping in neighborhood
groceries, learning how to match a pasta shape to a sauce,
discovering the local wines, cheeses, olive oil, and vinegars at a
farmers’ cooperative were each an adventure.

Armed with very little Italian and a large vocabulary of gestures, I
managed to make it home with the ingredients for lots of interesting
meals. Shopping etiquette was a challenge. You have to weigh and
label your own produce, something I learned one day at the grocery
as the line was growing behind me, and the check-out clerk was
loudly repeating instructions to me in Italian. Some kindly person
took my hand, brought me and my vegetables back to a scale, and
showed me what to do. When I returned, red-faced and grateful,
someone else had put through my groceries and bagged them. All I
needed to do was pay.

An invitation from Andrea Aparo, an old friend, for dinner at his
home was a wonderful window on how the freshest ingredients
prepared simply can marry the informal to the elegant. Simmering
on the stove was his basic, spicy, tomato sauce, soon to host a
handful of fresh prawns and mussels. The smell of rosemary
followed his friend Sylvana’s focaccia straight from the oven.

A large pot of heavily salted water was put to boil for the pasta.
Measuring pasta is not left to chance, even in Italy. Italians always
weigh their pasta before cooking it; scales are standard equipment.
Their rule of thumb is 100 grams, about 4 ounces, of dried pasta
per person. Andrea lifts a strand of pasta from the pot. It hangs
over the end of his wooden spoon and forms a ”C.” Still minutes
from being done, he drains the pasta and reserves about a cup of
the cooking liquid. The pasta goes back into the pot on medium heat
as small amounts of cooking liquid are poured over it. He gently
tosses the pasta until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is
gleaming.

”Perfetto,” he proclaims.

When asked for her focaccia recipe, Sylvana offered to
demonstrate. She piled flour (again measured by weight) onto a
wooden board, dissolved yeast in warm water, and poured olive oil.
She dipped her hand into a glass jar to sprinkle an aromatic
homemade mixture of sea salt, chopped fresh rosemary, and sage.
Questioned on proportions, Sylvana shrugged.

”As you like it,” she said.

Using only her left hand to mix, fold, and knead, in minutes the
dough was left to rest and rise. A half-hour later, it was stretched
onto a cookie sheet, dimpled, and seasoned again with the salt
mixture for a second rising, then put into the oven.

The local, regional red wine – Morellino di Scansano – was poured
into pitchers. After marinating a whole fish for half an hour in lemon juice and olive oil,
Andrea cut rosemary from bushes surrounding his patio, and lay the
sprigs inside the splayed fish. Italian meals are generally served one
course following the other. Just as we finished the pasta, the fish
was taken from the grill. A simple salad of greens, and fresh figs for
dessert, concluded the dinner.

Antipasto

Serves 8

16 slices of prosciutto (less than half a pound)
1/4 pound Italian salami
2 cans artichoke hearts in water
1 can white beans
1 can tuna in olive oil, drained
1 cup mixed Italian olives
1/2 cup fennel, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1 small jar roasted red peppers, cut into thick strips
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 clove minced garlic
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar

1. Drain the artichoke hearts, cut into quarters, and place in a bowl.
Drizzle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup parsley, salt, and
pepper.
2. Drain beans. In a bowl, toss the beans with olive oil, remaining
1/4 cup parsley, minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
3. On a large plate, arrange the above ingredients in separate
sections.
4. Sprinkle on the fennel.
5. Drizzle olive oil over entire surface.
6. Serve with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the side. This is the
dressing.

Andrea Aparo’s Fresh Tomato Sauce
Makes about 5 cups

4 pounds Italian plum tomatoes or two 26-ounce cartons of
Parmalat chopped tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 dried red peppers or 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste (the Italian tomato paste in a tube is
very convenient)
1/2 cup fresh basil
a dash of sugar if the tomatoes have too much acid

1. Wash the tomatoes, and cut off and discard a small bit of each
end.
2. Cut each tomato into about 4 chunks directly into the pot, so as
not to lose any juice
3. Turn the heat to high and bring the tomatoes to just under a boil.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and stir.
5. Put the garlic through a garlic press, or chop it finely, and add to
the tomatoes.
6. Add salt, pepper, crumbled dried peppers, and the tomato paste.
7. Cook sauce on a low flame for 10 minutes.

Focaccia with Rosemary and Sage

3 cups flour
2 teaspoons fast-acting yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons Sylvana’s sea salt mixture (see accompanying recipe)
or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
additional sea salt mixture for sprinkling

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees and turn off.
2. Place flour in the bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade.
3. Add the salt mixture, yeast, and sugar. Process briefly.
4. Through the feed tube, pour in the hot water and olive oil.
5. You will have a sticky dough. Place about 1/4 cup of flour on a
surface. Add the dough and begin to knead until it is smooth and no
longer sticky.
6. Oil a bowl and place dough in the bowl. Cover with a clean dish
towel and place in the warmed oven for 45 minutes.
7. Remove dough from the oven and punch down. Lightly grease a
jelly roll pan, or cookie sheet with sides, with olive oil. Place the
dough on the cookie sheet and begin to gently push it into a
rectangle. Carefully stretch the dough to fit the pan. Do not force it.
If it doesn’t go to the corners don’t worry.
8. Cover the dough with the towel and set back in the oven for
another 30 minutes.
9. Remove the pan and heat the oven to 400 degrees.
10. Drizzle olive oil on the dough and sprinkle on sea salt mixture to
cover the surface.
11. With the tips of your fingers, gently press ”dimples” into the
entire surface of the focaccia.
12. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden.

Sylvana’s Rosemary and Sage Sea Salt

3/4 cup sea salt (not coarse)
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 cup loosely packed sage

1. Wash herbs and dry thoroughly between paper towels.
2. Put sea salt in a bowl.
3. Remove rosemary leaves from 3 sprigs. Finely chop rosemary
leaves and sage. Add to salt and mix well.
4. Store mixture in a glass or plastic container. Bury one whole
rosemary sprig in the salt mixture.
5. Use to season meat, poultry, fish, and focaccia.

Fresh Ricotta Cheese and Pears
Serves 8

2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
4 pears
sugar

1. Place 1/4 cup of ricotta cheese on each plate.
2. Cut pears into slices and arrange next to cheese.
3. Sprinkle sugar over all and serve.

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