The food in Italy is one of the many reasons the country is so popular with tourists. But the reason Italian food tastes so good is because of the farm-to-table fresh ingredients so readily available over there. Try as I do, I can never quite replicate the flavours back home in my own kitchen.
However, I do keep trying.
In the summertime, I like to make Insalata Caprese (Caprese salad), which I often have for lunch when I’m in Italy. Tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and cheese never taste so good as they do in this salad, which takes its name from the island of Capri.
The type of cheese used in the salad, mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella), is made from the milk of the water buffalo. It is porcelain white, very moist, and slightly salty. Italian delis or fine cheese shops import it directly from Italy; in B.C., the cheese is available through a producer on Vancouver Island that makes it from their own herd of water buffalo. Bocconcini balls made from cow’s milk are a cheaper substitute and can be found in most grocery stores.
Once you’ve located a source for the cheese, all you need are the freshest tomatoes you can find, fresh basil, and a good quality extra virgin olive oil.
extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper (optional)
1. Cut the tomatoes and the buffalo mozzarella into slices about 1/4 inch thick.
2. Tear the larger basil leaves in half.
3. Arrange the tomato, cheese, and basil on individual plates, alternating between green, white, and red (which just happen to be the colours of the Italian flag!).
4. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
As is my custom, I indulged in a DVD marathon over the holidays. This year it was Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook.” I don’t know about you, but six hours of watching Julia create magic in her kitchen makes me want to attempt some magic in my own kitchen (albeit much more clumsily).
Which leads me to Julia’s coq au vin. I was first introduced to this king of stews by a friend of mine, who spent her two-week Christmas break with me last year in Paris. Since I had a (more or less) fully-equipped kitchen at my disposal, she got right into shopping at the French supermarkets and cooking up culinary masterpieces for me every night.
For the coq au vin, my friend wanted to use an entire chicken. I assured her the largest bird that would fit in my one, very small sauce pan was a coquelet ― a cockerel ― which are as common in French supermarkets as Cornish game hens are over here. I showed my friend how to cut up the coquelet, then left her to it. Scarcely an hour later, I was in heaven. For what is essentially chicken stew, coq au vin has amazing flavour.
Since returning to Canada, I’ve made coq au vin several times myself. My friend used carrots in her version, but I don’t care for them and, after reading in my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that Julia didn’t use them either, I dropped them. I also have come to love the braised onions Julia recommends serving with the stew.
The flaming-cognac stage though ― that I dared not try. To be honest, setting a pan of chicken ablaze in my condo-sized kitchen intimidated me. However, getting back to my DVD marathon, when I watched Julia flame her chicken, I thought, “I can do that!” And so, I did. Truth is, it wasn’t as scary as I imagined. If you happen to have a bottle of cognac in your liquor cabinet, don’t skip this step. It will make you feel very French.
Coq au Vin
4 slices bacon
2 tablespoons butter
one chicken, cut into pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup cognac
one bottle red wine
1 to 2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
brown-braised onions (see below)
sautéed mushrooms (see below)
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons softened butter
1. Cut the bacon into rectangles 1/4 inch wide and 1 inch long. (These are called lardons. You can buy them in French supermarkets, already precut. Most convenient.)
2. In a large sauce pan, Dutch oven, or cocotte, brown the lardons in butter. Remove from pan.
3. Dry the chicken thoroughly, then brown all sides in the hot fat.
4. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Return the bacon to the pan. Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, turning the chicken once.
5. Pour in the cognac and light. Wait for the flames to subside, shaking the pan back and forth a few times.
6. Pour in the wine. (I like to use a full-bodied wine, such as a Côtes du Rhône, Malbec, or Shiraz. Make sure you have more than one bottle on hand because you will want to pour yourself a glass as soon as you open the first bottle.)
7. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and enough stock to cover the chicken. Bring to a simmer, then cover and continue simmering for 25 to 30 minutes until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken from the pan.
8. Skim any fat from the liquid remaining in the pan, and simmer for a minute or two. Bring to a boil and reduce to 2 1/4 cups. Remove from heat and check seasoning.
9. Mix the butter and flour into a paste. (This is called beurre manié.) Use a whisk to mix the beurre manié into the liquid. Return to heat and simmer for a few minutes until sauce has thickened.
10. Return the chicken to the sauce to reheat. The onions and mushrooms can be added to the sauce or served on the side. I prefer to serve coq au vin over a pasta such as tagliatelle, but it would probably also go very well with mashed potatoes.
The small onions are a bit finicky to peel, but worth the effort because they are oh so good. Do not skip.
12 to 18 white onions about 1 inch in diameter, or 24 pearl onions
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup stock, dry white wine, red wine, or water
salt and pepper
one herb bouquet (4 parsley springs, 1 bay leaf, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth)
1. Bring a pot of water to boil, immerse the onions for about a minute, drain, then cut off the root and peel.
2. Place a skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. When hot, turn the heat down to moderate and brown the onions.
3. Add the liquid, salt and pepper, and the herb bouquet. (You can buy herb bouquets in the spice aisle of French supermarkets. Also most convenient.)
4. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are tender and the liquid has evaporated. The onions should retain their shape. Remove the herb bouquet.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms (cut into quarters if large)
1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions (optional)
salt and pepper
1. Place a skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. When hot, turn the heat down to moderate and add the mushrooms. Remove from heat as soon as mushrooms are lightly browned.
2. If using shallots or green onions, add to the mushrooms, and sauté over moderate heat for 2 more minutes.