Beyond the Romance

My husband is an Instagram junkie. If Instagram addicts had a 12-step program, he’d be the poster child. It’s not a bad thing. He’s good with a photo, quick with a caption, great at capturing that elusive “perfect moment.”  He brings people, places and things to life, gives them personality, makes them accessible. Truth be told, he’s a romantic, and he brings that sense of romance to his photos. He makes people envy what he sees and want to be a part of it. Who doesn’t want to fall a little in love, even for a moment?

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Problem is, they’re “snapshot” moments. My Italian houseguest, Livia, asked me to explain the concept of a “snapshot” recently. I told her a snapshot is an idealized moment in time, one second of an entire experience captured for posterity. It only seems representative of the whole. In reality, it’s deceptive, a sleight of hand. Like most of life, it’s contrived by the author to tell part of a story, the part he or she wants to share. An experienced person always knows there is more. Or should, in this day and age of constant social media manipulation of us mere mortals.

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Why am I on this harangue about romance versus reality? Well, my business is travel and half of providing travel that satisfies is capturing the romance of the moment. My work is to create unique, intimate, unforgettable experiences for my guests. To get to the unique, intimate and unforgettable part, I search out interesting people doing interesting things in the world of artisan food and wine production in Italy and Spain. The odd beekeeper in the center of Milan. The woman in the hills of the Roero keeping her grandmother’s confection, condiment and conserve recipes alive. The self-taught 21-year old high school drop-out successfully running his family’s vineyard, after nearly running away from winemaking altogether.

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My guests and I may be the travelers, but these folks are on the real journey. And while we’re seduced by the romance of these old-world, artisan-centric stories, beneath the surface, there’s an underlying reality that is bone-crushingly difficult.

Meetings take place after the business owners have spent a long day in the vineyard, are halfway out the door to a much-needed vacation following weeks and weeks of 18-hour days, in the middle of the olive harvest, or in a 100° kitchen as the chef wipes his hands clean at the close of service in a 5-star restaurant.

How do they do it? They’re fueled by passion, by heritage, by pride, by a love of sharing and by a refusal to fail. When I ask for their hashtag, they tell me they don’t have the time for social media. But they’re social media stars, nonetheless, having enviable lives, at least in a snapshot.

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My friends often tell me they are “taking a social media vacation.” They remark that there are times when they just can’t tolerate their own feelings of jealousy or envy (or loneliness? or isolation?) when they happen across a particularly emotionally engaging photo.

My advice is always the same: you, too, have lived similar moments. You, too, will live them again. It’s just your heart telling you it’s time to shut down your computer, take a risk, and make another memory. More than that, be happy for your social media friends reveling in their social media moments. Believe me, there is always more to the (back)story.

So the next time you feel a twinge of envy over a seemingly perfect snapshot moment, remember the words Earth, Wind + Fire sing so eloquently in Shining Star: “life ain’t always what it seems, oh yeah.” Instead find a little inspiration to go out and make your own memories. Or at least, take a new profile picture.

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Lemony Ricotta, Zucchini + Caramelized Onion Torta

By special request. Erica Levis Thorp, this one’s for you. Namaste.

Lemony Ricotta, Zucchini + Caramelized Onion Torta

Serves 8
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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 recipe pâte brisée  (recipe follows) or one pre-prepared 9″ pie shell, taken out of the pie dish and rolled out to a 12 inch round.
  • 1 whole Vidalia onion, skinned, and sliced thinly
  • 2 whole (10″) zucchini, halved lengthwise, tough seeds removed, and sliced into 1/8″ slices
  • 16 oz. whole milk ricotta
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 6 – 8 tbs. olive oil
  • 2 tbs. fresh thyme, leaves only, stems discarded
  • kosher salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. Heat about 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over high heat on the stovetop. Once the oil is hot, add the thinly sliced onion. Sauté over medium high heat for about ten minutes, until onions are softened and have turned a lovely caramel color. Take care the heat is not to high, they will cook too fast, or burn. Reserve.
  2. In large mixing bowl, toss zucchini slices with 2 – 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the fresh thyme leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Reserve.
  3. In mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, one egg, the nutmeg, the lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste. Reserve.
  4. Place a piece of parchment paper on a large sheet pan.
  5. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one half of the the pate brisée into a 12 inch round. Brush off additional flour with a pastry brush.
  6. Place the pastry round onto the parchment paper on the baking sheet.
  7. Spoon the caramelized onion, and any oil that is left, onto the center of the baking sheet. Spread it evenly to a diameter of about 10 inches.
  8. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the center of the pastry sheet. Spread it evenly over the caramelized onions, to a diameter of about 10 inches.
  9. Beginning at what will be the outside of the torta, place zucchini slices, just barely overlapping, in a circle about 10 inches wide on top of the ricotta.
  10. Repeat making an inner circle, this time with the zucchini skins going in the opposite direction.
  11. Cover the center of the torta with zucchini in a flower-like manner.
  12. Turn the 2 inch exterior of the pastry circle onto the zucchini, bunching and pinching and overlapping where necessary.
  13. Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of water. Brush the exposed pastry with the egg mixture.
  14. Bake in a preheated 450° oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325° and bake for an additional 35 minutes.

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Pâte Brisée

Makes 2-12 inch rounds ( or 2-9 inch pie crusts)

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces (16 tbs. or 2 sticks)
  • 1/2 cup ice water

Method:

  1. Using the steel blade in a food processor, add the flour and salt and pulse on and off once.
  2. Add the butter, pulse on and off 5 or 6 times to break up the butter.
  3. Pulse until it resembles crumbs.
  4. Add the ice water, pulsing on and off until the dough comes together. It should hold together in a ball.
  5. Dump the dough out onto a work surface and form into two disks. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour. This can be made in advance and kept refrigerated for several days.

Salad Days in Piemonte

We’d spent three action-packed days exploring Expo 2015 and the culinary and cultural fabulousness that is Milan. We’d sweltered in 100+ degree heat and walked a combined 15+ miles. We’d eaten enough for an army. We were tired, cranky and, frankly, I just wanted a salad.

But from the moment the white-gloved server tucked a small, crimson-velvet footstool beside my feet and discreetly whispered in my ear, “It’s for your handbag,” I was worried my humble craving would go unsatisfied.

Jonathan, the footstool and I were in the restaurant of the sumptuously appointed Castello di Guarene in the Roero region of Piedmont, Italy, on the fourth day of a “discovery” trip for my unique travel adventures. We were road-testing the Castello for the October trip, and so far, every detail exceeds my expectations.

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Assuming the kitchen is up to the standards of the rest of the property, my yearning for a simple, satisfying salad is fading fast, too pedestrian an offering for a perfectly appointed hotel dining room.

I’d heard from colleagues in Piemonte that the Castello’s Chef, Davide Odore, is a rising culinary star. Young, creative, and talented, he’s helmed his own restaurant, Io e Luna, for several years, earning a reputation as a chef who builds on tradition, regional cuisine and local, seasonal sources.

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At one point, he said, “For me, innovation is a way of expressing the past … but with innovative ideas and methods.” I’ll take innovation, as long as it is crispy and well-dressed.

I’ve always thought that a restaurant is only as good as it’s simplest salad. Let’s face it, salads are tough to get right. Gritty, wilted, or soggy greens are never acceptable. It takes real skill to prepare a great salad, let alone dress one properly. All things relative, Davide Odore agrees, but with a nod to innovation and technique.

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Like everything else at the Castello, Chef Odore over-delivers in a unique, whimsical and thoroughly satisfying way. Behold his Bouquet di Verdure, a sweet little posy of a composed salad, each vegetable perfectly blanched and artfully arranged. The flower centers boast vegetable purees, or passate, light, airy and redolent with the essential flavors and colors of the vegetable at its origin. A hint of fresh strawberry for color and sweetness, and thin slivers of fresh summer truffle, because, well, why not?, and summer arrives on a plate for me to savor. It is light, refreshing, and visually extraordinary, like the perfect summer day.

As I grab my bag from its crimson perch, I leave satisfied, both of appetite, and spirit, already looking forward to sampling Davide’s full menu. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Finally, Spring.

I’ll admit it. I’m desperate. It’s been a brutal winter and I’m desperate for signs of Spring. Any sign at all. Where are the bursts of bright yellow forsythia and the surprise of purple crocuses? Where are the tiny red buds emerging on the barren branches of grey tree limbs? Why is my grass still grayish brown? Why do I smell rotting leaves but not rich brown earth redolent with the refreshing scent of new growth?

And why the hell are there still islands of ice and snow in my backyard?

Time is not moving fast enough for me during this transition from an epically bad winter to, hmmm, whatever comes next. These days, who knows?

oystermushroompasta Continue reading

Sicily + Piedmont, October, 2015

Yes, my bags are packed again. This time, we’ll be bookending the best of Italy in October as we explore western Sicily, and then venture north to Turin and Barolo country and truffles! What could be better? You joining us, of course!

This trip is sold out. But please read on!

Continue reading

Hello, my name is Linda and I’m an Instagram food addict

Yeah, I post my food on Instagram. Then I eat it. Still counts as sharing, right?

Instagrams of somebody else’s dinner. You either love ’em or you hate ’em.

What’s your opinion?

Food styling meals for Instagram – Food & dining – The Boston Globe.

Tripe? Truffles? Tastings? It’s a Barolo Trifecta.

The annual Tripe Festival. Of course! What else would make the already virtually impassable winding mountaintop roads of Barolo, Italy narrow even further with cars parked haphazardly along both sides? On the sunny October Sunday afternoon of our visit to the famed Marchesi di Barolo Winery it was the tripe festival. Who could’ve guessed? We add our van to the line-up, then walk to see what all the fuss is about.

Tripe is popular here, so popular that hundreds of visitors come to quaint Barolo, population 750, to sample Zuppa di Trippa, tripe soup, made with local favorites, Nucetto chickpeas. Or salame ‘d Tripa ‘d Muncalé, Moncalieri’s tripe salame. Still not satisfied? How about Rustia, a tripe spread? Clearly a whole lotta people here love tripe. They amble from table to table, tasting fork in one hand, hunk of crusty bread in the other, jam-packing the narrow lanes of this medieval town perched on a hilltop in the famed Barolo wine producing region of Alba.

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Unimpressed by the overhead banner that heralds A Tutta Trippa! (Everything Tripe!), we head straight to the Cantina Marchesi di Barolo, the lure of our private truffle dinner and wine tasting overpowering any other gustatory alternative. Not that tripe even makes our short list. We’re game to try lots of new foods in Italy, and the group has ventured well outside their culinary comfort zone both here and at Salone del Gusto. But tripe? Not so much. Continue reading