August 30, 2004
The really cool thing when you have an obvious and widely known passion such as mine (and that would be food, I wish you'd pay attention) is that your friends and family know precisely what gifts will send you through the roof in fits of bubbling joy.
Latest example? Laurence and Marie-Laure, two of my closest friends, whom I've known respectively for eleven and seventeen years, took a trip to Rome for a few days in late July. Late July? You mean, right around my birthday? Why, yes and lucky me, my two dear friends took it upon themselves to put together a neat assortment of some of the best treats Italy has to offer.
And here is what I had the pleasure to discover, packaged up ever-so-prettily in a little birthday basket, complete with birthday card and picture-perfect, ornamental dried chili pepper.
- Four tiny little jars (which I will carefully save afterwards of course) of Il Mongetto savory preserves : peperoncino farcito (a bite-size stuffed pepper in olive oil), salsa di capperi (capers sauce), salsa di scalogno (shallot jam) and carciuga (artichoke spread). And now, I'll be on the lookout for the perfect occasion to whip them out as the easiest, most stylish appetizer, spread on tiny little toasts of focaccia. Just you wait.
- A package of Fregola Sarda, which is a small, very pretty, dot-shaped toasted pasta from the region of Sardinia. It is dubbed "the Italian couscous", and made from semolina grains, rubbed together with lukewarm water in a terracotta pot called a sa scivedda. I had never heard of it, but a little research indicated that it is traditionally served with clams in Sardinia, and can be used in shellfish broth, in soups, or like regular pasta. I had a sudden (and deliciously successful) inspiration to prepare it with eggplant, toasted pinenuts and grated pecorino cheese, but any other suggestion would be very welcome.
- A package of De Cecco Orecchiette, one of Laurence's favorite pasta (and Laurence, who has lived in Milan for a little while, knows a thing or two about pasta). Those cute little ears of pasta work particularly well with a chunky sauce, as they allow little pools to gather in the hollow of their delicate shape.
- A package of wholegrain, stone-ground polenta with porcini, or as the label insists on putting it, Farina per Polenta Integrale, antica "Macina a Pietra", Ai Funghi Porcini. I love love love polenta but I had only ever made it in its pre-cooked form (which does have a slight tendency to turn to mush), and this is really something else -- no mush to speak of, beautiful color, complex flavor and perfect texture. Comfort food at is earnest.
- And finally, a package of porcini risotto mix (Scotti Risotto riso carnaroli con funghi porcini), the Italian convenience food : "basta aggiungere il brodo!" the package joyfully claims. I had a lot of fun preparing it, trying to translate the instructions. I speak no Italian whatsoever, but I dimly remember sitting through Latin class a few centuries ago, and I do speak French rather fluently, so I thought I was fairly well equipped to decipher risotto cooking instructions for heaven's sake.
I was puzzled for a while by the part where you have to "Aggiungire il brodo preparato a parte, oppure, per una preparazione più veloce ricoprire con acqua calda e dado quanto basta", until it suddenly clicked that "dado", translated into dice, meant in fact a bouillon cube. The only thing it forgets to tell you is how much brodo to add and the cooking time, but that's probably a common knowledge so deeply ingrained in Italian brains that there is really no need for further instructions, how very un-Italian of me, so I just went with the "add a little at a time until it tastes right" procedure. The risotto turned out to be excellent and very well seasoned, with its fat grains of al dente rice and its large chunks of tasty mushrooms.
And thus ends my little gastro-tour of Italy in a basket, but not before I warmly thank the talented organizers, Marie-Laure and Laurence!
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