Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SEASONAL FOODS: Fragoline di Bosco

It's strawberry season in full force right now, both in the United States and Italy. And in Rome, the bulk of the fragole you find in the green markets come from the nearby towns of Nemi (in the hills) and Terracina (by the sea).

An Italian chef ex-boyfriend once said to me "of all the fruits out there, the strawberry is the one that's changed the most drastically over the years." And on this one point, I agree with him (don't get me started on everything over which we disagree!) When I first lived in Rome, even before I attended culinary school, I noticed how different the smaller, flavor-packed local berries tasted compared to the gargantuan California monstrosities one finds year-round in the States. The berries in Rome aren't grown to impress the eye, but rather to excite the palate. And so...let's just say I ate my fair share of strawberries in Rome.

And then I discovered fragoline di bosco. And I was ruined for other berries forever. Now, I've always been a berry fan. I remember all the family vacations to Maine in my youth, tasting the sweet wild blueberries used in everything from ice cream to breakfast everything (once you have wild blueberry syrup on your pancakes, you'll be saying "maple wha-who?"). Ditto cranberries on Cape Cod: cranberry juice was always the only juice I drank, starting from about age 5, and cranberry fudge? A must, people, a must. And sure, I've always been a fan of raspberries and blackberries as well, so picking wild gelsi (a southern Italian large, plump blackberry) on the Italian islands from Ponza to Panarea -- and enjoying them in sorbet form, post-swim, made me giddy. Even more recent forays into esoteric, more exotic berries -- gooseberries, various currants, acai, and kiwi berries -- yes, all good. And all good for you. But fragoline di bosco still top my list.

The people of Nemi are as crazy about their local harvest as I am, and feature strawberries in just about every form you can imagine at their annual sagra di fragole, or strawberry festival. The town is perched above beautiful lago di Nemi, a picturesque volcanic lake that makes this hillside town a fabulous day trip destination from Rome. Throughout the town, vendors sell strawberries of various sizes, including the fragoline di bosco (literally "tiny strawberries from the forest").

In the center of town, not only are the crimson berries tossed into one huge glass bowl for the crowd to enjoy, they're made into delicious comestibles. From savory salads with arugula, parmigiano, and aged balsamic vinaigrette...to being tucked into tiramisu' and tiny fruit tarts topped with the baby berries...from icy-cool sorbetti to sweet-tart liqueurs featuring the fabulous fruit -- if you can imagine it, you can probably find it in Nemi.

But the way I really fell in love with fragoline di bosco? Well, plain and simple, purchased as is from the market. I would taste them at Claudio's stand at the mercato Campo de' Fiori in Rome, rinsing them off under the stream of water flowing from a nearby fountain, and popping them into my mouth to make sure they were in fact at their peak of flavor. And besides eating them out of hand, the best way to enjoy these little gems -- or any great Italian strawberries, really, is of course the local way: tossed in a mixture of aged balsamico di Modena (good quality aged balsamic vinegar) mixed with a little sugar, to form a syrup. Just mix that in a bowl to dissolve the sugar, toss the strawberries in, and gently...gently toss to coat. It sounds strange to the uninitiated. It has confused many a diner, and plenty of my clients as well. But trust me: it is a marriage made in heaven.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RECIPE: Pasta con Salmone, Cavolo Verde, e Pomodori Secchi

As a chef, delicious food is my top priority, and I believe the simplest route to eating well is using great quality ingredients. Even better is making delicious dishes that incorporate healthy, vitamin- and nutrient-rich foods. As a general rule, the more colorful the plate is, the richer the variety of vitamins and minerals. I think I've struck that balance of delicious, nutritious, and beautiful with a spring pasta dish combining 'super food' ingredients.

Salmon is rich in omega-3 healthy fat, and now is the peak season for wild salmon varieties. Kale is one of the most healthful things you can consume: it's packed with fiber and vitamins A, C, and K, and boasts a bevy of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents which make this cruciferous veggie a great tool in lowering cholesterol, linked both to heart disease and risk of cancer. Sundried tomatoes are full of vitamins A and C, and lycopene, a phytochemical that has been shown to lower the risk of certain cancers and heart disease as well. Lycopene is fat-soluble, so its potency is increased when paired with the olive oil in this recipe, for example, and processing increases its availability, so a cooked tomato has more bioavailable lycopene than a raw tomato. The garlic is great for fighting off carcinogens as well. And if you want to up the healthy quotient even more, use whole wheat or quinoa pasta for extra fiber and protein. 

Beyond all of these healthful benefits, this pasta dish is absolutely delicious -- enough to make any Italian proud! So dig in, and feel good about it. Oh, and serve with a glass of wine, particularly red wine which contains heart-healthy resveratrol. Now you can toast as the Italians do, and really mean it: Alla Salute! (To good health!)

(Serves 2-4)

5-6 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz fillet of fresh, wild salmon
1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 shallot, minced
1 bunch kale -- regular or lacinato variety, cleaned and sliced into a chiffonade
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 lb. whole wheat or quinoa spaghetti or fresh tagliatelle (or pasta of choice, usually long pasta)

-Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, salt the water generously.

-Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1-2 TBSP. olive oil, and heat until shimmering. 

 - Sprinkle the dry salmon fillet with salt and pepper and place in pan, skin side up. Cook for about 3 minutes until the fillet is browned and shakes free from the surface of the pan. Flip, and cook for another 3-4 minutes over medium heat. Remove from pan.
- Add the garlic and shallot and cook for about 1 minute. Add the kale, and stir to start cooking the greens down. Add the white wine and cook to evaporate the alcohol for about 3 minutes. 

- Remove the salmon fillet from its skin, and roughly chop/flake. Add to the pan along with the sundried tomatoes. Add the chili flakes and salt and pepper to taste.

- Cook the pasta until tender but firm, al dente. Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.

- Turn pasta to coat, adding olive oil and/or salt & pepper to taste, and a little bit of the salted pasta water if needed for consistency, and turn to mix thoroughly. Serve at once.