Friday, January 27, 2017

LIBATIONS: Vin Santo

 
Vin Santo. Its name means "saint wine" or "holy wine" and if you enjoy a good dessert wine -- or good wine, period -- this Tuscan specialty is definitely a drink to explore. To me, this is the essence of Florence, the essence of Tuscany. It's traditionally served at the end of a meal alongside a plate of cantucci, the rock-hard almond biscotti made slightly more chewable by dipping them into the vin santo. The flavors blend wonderfully as well. What are more specifics of the sweet wine itself? It's usually made from white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia, though sometimes Sangiovese (the chianti grape) can be used to make the rose' style vin santo called occhio di pernice, or "eye of the partridge." The grapes are dried out on either straw mats (hence the term sometimes used to describe vin santo as a "straw wine") or hanging on racks indoors. The finished product usually ranges from 14-17% alcohol, so stronger than traditional whites but not quite as potent as distilled liquors.

The name itself indicates its likely origin, which was use in religious mass. One of the earliest references to the vino was found in Florentine wine merchants' logs in the renaissance era, as the wine was marketed to Rome and environs specifically for religious ceremonies.  Another theory of the origin of its name states that the tradition of fermenting the wine starting around All Saint's Day and bottling it around Easter lent the wine its "holy" appeal.

Eventually this style of wine was produced on the island of Santorini in Greece when it came under Ottoman rule. Their biggest audience was the east: Greek vin santo was widely exported to Russia and became the standard wine used in Russian Orthodox mass.  

Like other dessert wines, vin santo gets its sweetness from the dessication, or drying process, as mentioned earlier. This concentration of the sugars in the grapes creates its signature sweetness. Sometimes a madre, or mother (starter) is used, taking a bit of previously-produced vin santo and pouring it, with all its wild yeasts, into the new bottling to jump-start the fermentation process.
This is thought to give the wine complexity and a bit of continuity in character from harvest to harvest. The flavor profile of vin santo is heavy on nutty and/or raisin notes, with some cream and honey in the mix as well. Most wine producers in Tuscany tend to produce Chianti for the masses, but they squirrel away a barrel or two of vin santo to enjoy in famiglia (with the family)...Proof again that Italians know a thing or two about keeping the good stuff among loved ones.



Monday, January 16, 2017

LOCAL INGREDIENT: Guanciale

GUANCIALE. Pronounced Gwahn-CHAHHH-lay. People fall in love with the name itself, even before they taste it. Much like its milder sister cut of cured pork, the well-known pancetta, this specialty piggy part called guanciale is named after the location on the pig from which it comes. "Pancia" is the Italian word for belly, hence pancetta = pork belly. "Guancia" means cheek, so guanciale is cured pork jowl. And while pancetta is widely used in dishes up and down the Italian peninsula, guanciale is a distinctly Roman cut of cured meat.

We're all pretty familiar with pork belly. It's a fatty cut that became popular in the aughts on restaurant menus in America and overseas alike, because it's inexpensive and can be manipulated in numerous ways to make it taste delicious. After all, fat IS flavor. Still, the consistency, if not prepared properly, can be a turn-off to many diners. But used as the Italians do -- that is, sparingly and to great effect -- the unsmoked, cured pancetta lends great flavor to otherwise meatless pasta dishes, to bolognese sauce, to soups and salads and stews of all kinds. But the pork cheek, that cured, spiced jowl prepared by the Romans for millennia...well, that's a different pork game altogether. It's dense and unctuous, it's strongly-flavored and unique, peppery and pungent, refusing to just melt into the background of any dish. You can find guanciale all over Rome and the Lazio region, with particularly good versions in Roman salumerie and norcinerie (cured meat specialty shops). I love Norcineria Viola in Campo de' Fiori, as they have a great selection of guanciale and they give samples of all their salumi, upon request, as well. Also great - and for much more than just guanciale - is Volpetti, in Testaccio. The place is legendary for all kinds of Italian alimentary wonders.

Of the four classic Roman pasta dishes, guanciale is a star ingredient in three: Amatriciana, Pasta Alla Gricia, and Carbonara (a true Roman carbonara, anyway). It lends a fatty richness to vignarola, the Roman spring vegetable stew. And crisped up in batons or cubes or slices, it's a great match for eggs in any form...for sturdier salad greens like escarole, kale, spinach, or arugula...it's a great addition to soups and stracotto (meat stew)...and you can even find spicy guanciale to add a kick to everyday pastas, or to produce candied guanciale for a sweet-savory-spicy end product that goes with pretty much everything. on. earth. Did I mention how much I love guanciale? It turns out that over the course of a decade and a half of teaching cooking classes, both in Rome and in the U.S., I've turned a lot of my students onto the fine salume that is guanciale.  

Years ago I taught a Roman cuisine class with a market visit to an American couple, newlyweds honeymooning in Italy. Turns out they lived in New York City, and less than a year after their honeymoon, they got in touch with me wondering if I might be in New York the following month, as I had mentioned to them that I often returned to Manhattan at that time of year. They wanted me to cater a surprise birthday dinner for the husband's father, and they wanted the pasta all'amatriciana that I'd taught them to make, and a whole guanciale to gift the dad! So I smuggled an entire pork jowl, vacuum packed in my luggage, to use in this festive meal. But when I finally left my friends' apartment uptown to head to cater the dinner party, I'd forgotten the guanciale in my (vegetarian) friend's fridge! So my client and his brother ended up going on a "guanciale run" to get it from my friend's place while I cooked the meal. It was an insane series of events, but the look on the father's face when he walked into a dinner party cooked by his kids' "Roman chef" (me) with an entire bonus guanciale, was priceless. There were cheers and chants in guanciale's name, which was hilarious -- but gives you an indication of the pork lust and worshipful devotion this cured pork jowl elicits. "Long live guanciale!" they proclaimed. And I agree, whole hog-heartedly.

Norcineria Viola
Piazza Campoe de' Fiori 43
ROMA  00186
+39 06 6880 6114 

Salumeria Volpetti
Via Marmorata 47
ROMA 00153
+39 06 574 2352
www.volpetti.com  

Monday, December 19, 2016

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the underdog...in sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 
When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.
I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matches to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween!Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here. It's subbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.
My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake. 

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack". This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try. We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.
This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli. 
Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

Ēma

74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL  60654
(312) 527.5586
www.emachicago.com

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL  60607
(312) 492.6262
www.girlandthegoat.com