Monday, March 4, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath

“people don't take trips - trips take people.” - John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

One might say I'm a bit of a foodie/wino inspired-ish type o'traveler.  And, I guess what I mean by that is, when I plan my trips I basically work my entire itinerary around what I'm going to eat and drink.  I mean, don't you???  Now, I'm not talking about over-planning every moment or booking at restaurants way in advance - I'm talking about leaving a substantial amount of time for enjoying the food and drink (usually wine) of that particular culture and savoring the hell out of it!

It began in 2003 (I know, I'm a late bloomer!) when I took my maiden voyage to Europe.  SPAIN. Ah, Espana!  Spain will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first experience with European culture, food and wine. If you've been so lucky to have traveled to Europe, or more specifically - to the countries hanging out next to the Mediterranean Sea - you've probably seen first hand that these people know how to LIVE. They have truly managed to perfect the highly coveted work/life balance idea - all the while looking pretty damn sexy - I mean, come on: Vespas and stilettos???!!!  HOT.
 Speaking of HOT: I couldn't find any pictures of the first trip I took to Spain because that was pre-digital camera and pre-Facebook so, these are some pictures from the second trip I took to Spain with some of my favorite ladies - Amanda, Hubbell, Lindley, Kristen and Jackie.
We spent most of our time in Andalucia - this was a day trip we took to Bubion.
In Madrid - a must.
This is some place we stumbled upon in they Albycin neighborhood of Granada.  Salud!

Spain was really awesome- both times!  

Okay, so, nestled in between those two trips to Spain - Kristen, Jackie and I planned another trip - this time to Italy: Rome, Chianti and Florence.  Now, in my humble opinion, any foodie/wino type person really owes it to themselves to take a trip to this beautiful country because I have to tell you - everything, and I mean EVERYDAMNTHING I ate in Italy was far and beyond the best meal of my life.  It will always live in my heart as one of my most favorite culinary bene!

I hope you don't mind if I take another quick trip down memory lane...
Out to dinner in Florence where we met a nice gent (who just so happened to be our waiter).  He totally had a huge crush on Jackie-Ha!  It was cute.  Anyway, he offered us our first glass of Limoncello on the trip - which ended up being the first of many, that night, and the rest of the trip!
Climbing down the stairs in San Gimignano
Even the dog was hungry for the gelato...
KHUD walking through the San Lorenzo market in Florence
BTW - I believe Jackie took all of these pictures (except for the ones she is in) - I cannot take credit!
Vineyards in Chianti - gorgeous.
A spontaneous three hour lunch on the road while vineyard touring in Chianti, anyone?
Yes, please.
Handmade pumpkin ravioli - so light and beautiful.
The best damn Arribbiata I've ever had! 
Did you know arrabbiato in Italian means "angry?" 
Interestingly enough, I just went into my kitchen to get a glass of wine and look who I found together on my fridge - Jackie (actually in Florence in this picture) taking a photo of David!  Aw.

So this brings me to what we put together for our little relish gathering in February.  Field trip! Kristen emailed us with the idea that maybe we should take a class at The Chopping Block.  I thought this was an excellent idea - I, personally, am always willing to learn something new in the kitchen - need all the help I can get!  Also, we had taken a class for Jackie's birthday a while back and we all loved it!  I still use many tricks of the trade from the last time I took a class there (including the best way to score an onion for dicing and the magic of a microplane grater/zester) - all very approachable, non-intimidating techniques and tips, taught in a very conversational and laid back style.  Money. Well. Spent.

Once I saw the title of this class, it seemed like it was meant to be: The Grapes of Wrath - Food and Wine of Italy.  Yes.  Where do we sign up??
It started like this...
Cin! Cin!
Carrie and Kevin (our Instructor and Sous chef) started us out with a nice little salad and a glass of Prosecco while we waited for the others to arrive.
This is Carrie, our instructor!

The menu:
Tuscan Cauliflower Fritters with Shaved Pecorino
Chicken Marsala with Herbed Risotto
Semolina and Olive Oil Cake with Berries
The cake was up it could bake while making the rest of the dinner.
Grind with mortar and pestle.  Then toast.
Or semolina...
Semolina and Olive Oil Cake with Berries
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. semolina
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and coarsely ground (do this first)
1 c. granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp orange zest
2tsp lemon zest
1/4 c. whole milk
3/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
2/3 c. sliced almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 c. heavy cream whipped with 1 Tbs powdered sugar to soft peaks
2 c. assorted berries

1. Preheat oven to 375.  lightly oil 9 inch round pan.
2. Whisk together flour, semolina, baking powder, salt and fennel seeds in bowl
3. Using electric mixer - beat sugar, eggs, zests until pale and fluffy.  Then beat in milk and gradually beat in the oil.  Add the flour mixture.  Then lastly fold i almonds
4. Bake about 35 minutes.  Allow the cake to cool
5. Top cake slices with fresh berries and whipped cream
The art of zesting with the best kitchen tool ever - microplane zester/grater!  You need one.
Folding in the almonds at the end
The final product, which we didn't see until after we ate the rest of the meal but, it's lovely!

Moving on to the next thing: Crispy Tuscan Cauliflower Fritters with Shaved Pecorino Romano.  
Now, these may not look like much but believe me when I tell you - these are TO DIE FOR.  Highly recommend making these suckers for when you have people over for dinner.  They are total wow factor awesome and seemed rather easy to make.  The only problem is - they need to be served, dinner definitely needs to be on your turf to make these work.
Crispy Tuscan Cauliflower Fritters with Shaved Pecorino Romano
2 eggs
1 c sparkling water
1 c all purpose flour
2 Tbs grape seed oil
2 Tbs Parmesean cheese, finely grated
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1 head of cauliflower - cut into florets
2 c canola or vegetable oil
1 c extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c shaved romano cheese

1. To make the batter, whisk together the eggs and sparkling water.  Whisk the flour, a little at a time until smooth.  Stir in the 2 Tbs of grape seed oil, parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper.  Cover the  bowl with plastic and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.  
2. Bring pot of salted water to boil.  Add the cauliflower and boil for about 8 minutes.  Drain and place in a mixing bowl.  Use potato masher to mash up cauliflower coarsely.  Cool to room temp
3. Pour the vegetable and olive oils in to deep skillet and heat until it reaches 375 degrees (get a thermometer if you are serious - highly recommended for any frying)
4. Take the batter out of fridge and stir in mashed cauliflower.  Drop the batter in heaping spoonfuls into hot oil and fry until golden brown turning once to brown both sides. (make sure you reheat the oil in between each batch to get it back up to the proper frying temp and avoid mushiness)
5. Drain on paper towels.  Sprinkle with salt while hot.  Serve warm with shaved Romano on top.
Mash it up coarsely so it looks kinda like this...
Add your batter and mix it up
Fry time.
Salt when warm, then top with Romano cheese...YUM.
Served with Correggia Roero Arneis, 2010, Piedmont Italy for $15.95 - it was a perfect pair and a perfect bargain!
 "light, clean, fruit forward with some nice citrus action"
Fresh Herb Risotto
**TIP** For this recipe you really want to splurge on the good/fresh stuff - it makes a huge difference!
3 1/2 to 4 c of chicken stock
2 Tbs butter
1 small onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c arborio rice
1/2 c white wine
1/4 c fresh parsley, rough chopped
2 Tbsp fresh dill, rough chopped
1/2 c Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and Pepper to taste 
Carrie demonstrating how to score an onion - easiest and best way to dice with the least amount of mess and the least amount of crying!
Step 1: cut ONE end of the onion off, leaving the root/butt on
Step 2: slice in half, then take off skin
Step 3: with flat side of onion down score without going fully to the butt of onion
Step 4: after scoring both directions, slice thinly to create the perfect dice
Carrie demonstrating a coarse chop on the parsley which we also used later for the Chicken Marsala.

1. Place the chicken stock in a saucepan over medium low heat - off to the side
2. Heat heavy bottomed pot over medium low heat and add butter
3. Gently sauté the onions until they are softened.  Add garlic, sauté for another minute
4. Stir in the rice and cook and additional 2 minutes while stirring constantly or unit the rice is lightly toasted.  Add the white wine to deglaze and then reduce until the pan is almost dry
5. Add in one ladleful of the warm stock and stir until the pan is dry.  Continue in this fashion until the rice is cooked to your liking
6. Spring in the herbs and remove from the heat.  Fold in the cheese and season to taste.
When complete - it should look like this...
Carrie served Chicken Marsala (recipe below) on top of the Risotto.
Served with La Maialina Chianti, 2008, Tuscany Italy @ $17.95!
This wine was delicious and the price point was also very friendly - another reason to love The Chopping Block - they do not do the restaurant 30% mark-up!

Chicken Marsala
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
All purpose flour, for dredging
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1Tbsp butter
8 ounces button or cremini mushrooms (aka baby bellas)
1/2 c. Marsala wine
1 c. chicken stock
2 Tbsp butter, cold
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, rough chopped

Here's another tip we learned  - How to tell if your chicken is cooked FEEL.
Feel forefinger to pad - RARE
 Feel middle finger to pad - MEDIUM
Feel ring finger to pad - WELL DONE
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees
2. Using a meat mallet, pound the chicken breasts until they are uniform in thickness. 
Season both sides with Salt and pepper then dredge in flower - shaking off any extra 
3. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add olive oil and butter.  Sauté the breasts, presentation side down first (presentation side is the the smooth side - it caramelizes more). 3 to 4 minutes on each side until golden brown.  Flip and repeat until cooked through.  See above for what that should be...
4. Heat the same sauté pan over medium heat and add the sliced mushrooms.  Sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are softened and browning around the edges.
5. Deglaze with the Marsala wine reduce by half of its original volume.  Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, reduce and simmer.  Cook for about 5 minutes to blend flavors.
6. Finish the sauce by swirling the cold butter and the parsley.  Season with salt and pepper.
7. Pour the Marsala sauce over the chicken and server over the Risotto.
Um, let's take a moment to look at all of Jackie's bling - damn GURL!
"Jackie is like a young Joan Collins"
Here are some of our fellow students.
Teacher and students!
Carrie and Kevin we're so nice to let us come in and take pictures and document the class...

I loved our little mini-field trip of sorts and I definitely left with some good tips.  Here's a few of them:
  • I learned how to score an onion - again - but a bit differently this time.
  • I learned how to tell if my Chicken is cooked through - by feel. 
  • It was confirmed that Harvest Time in Lincoln Square is the best place to buy herbs and fresh vegetables - outside of a farmer's market in the summer.  
  • I got a great restaurant recommendation from Carrie - Fat Rice in Logan Square, which was described as a Portuguese/Szechuan taste sensation.
  • I actually used that Olive Oil cake recipe to take to a Chili party - without the berries and the whip cream, it's a nice compliment to Chili - like a corn bread.

So, how the hell does this all tie together aside from our Italian travels?  Well, I have to go back to that Steinbeck quote at the beginning - "people don't take trips - trips take people." I love this so much because, I gotta tell you, before I went to Spain let's just say my idea of dining out and getting creative with food was Flat Top Grill.  No offense if you are into that place.  But that's how far Momma has come!  

For me, traveling is all about the shared experience that stops time when you can truly enjoy the moment: whether it's toasting micheladas on the beach in Costa Rica, enjoying an elegant dinner in the Chianti countryside, eating barbecue at a dive in Nashville, sharing beers while watching the sunset over the Alhambra or taking a "staycation" cooking class in sweet home Chicago - these are the special snapshots with my friends that I keep close to heart.  And, I love that I have been able to share my travels with so many of my girlfriends - and through these adventures; our tastes evolve, our appreciation for new experiences evolve and our quest for culinary adventures (especially in our own kitchens) evolve.  Ultimately though, by traveling and traveling together, WE evolve - individually and together as friends.
Micheladas happened here...

So, what's the next adventure, you may ask???  If you are, in fact, still reading this beast!

France, baby!  Paris, Bordeaux and beyond in 2013!!  This time, the guys are going to join us.  Oh, and perhaps there might be a little wedding ceremony while we're there...

Ciao for now,

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