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Monday, March 27, 2017

A Long Day's Journey into Happiness at Savor Italy

Who doesn’t love a good plate of pasta? Or an antipasti with cheeses, meats and vegetables? I know, those aren’t legitimate questions because the answer is “Everyone!”

Italian dishes rank high on the short list of favorite food. A good Italian restaurant is a treasure in any neighborhood.

Recently I attended Savor Italy Los Angeles. The event was devoted not to a tasting of restaurant dishes but of products available for the home.  The one-day event was hosted by the IACCW (Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West) to promote imported Italian food and wine. For the 30+ purveyors, the event was an opportunity to interact with distributors and consumers. Most offered a tasting of their wines, olives oils, charcuterie and packaged baked goods.

With wine glass in hand, I joined the crowds at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club waking past rows of tables. Many of the companies had local distributors, but not all as the signs on their tables said, “Looking for Distributors.”

A catered buffet lunch was another way to shine a spotlight on Italian products with large platters of charcuterie, cheeses, olives, crackers, breads and olive oil catered by the attentive Elisabetta Ciardullo Criel of Think Italian Events. I filled my plate with Italian ham, mortadella, paper-thin flat breads, Gorgonzola, burrata and Castelvetrano Green olives while I looked for a nice glass of wine to go with my lunch-snack.

The fun of the event was not only in sampling wines and snacking on Italian taste treats but in talking with the people who were there to represent their products.
It was early in the day so I thanked Gian Mario Travella for the offer to taste his Freccianera Prosecco. Near closing time I did return to sample the amber colored, barrel-aged Grappa Invecchiato. Very delicious.

With a smile Andrea Grondona offered a taste of Grondona Pasticceria’s pan dolce (sweetened bread with bits of fruit) and the Baci di Dama (chocolate ganache filled cookies). Full of flavor and moist, I was impressed that packaged baked goods could taste so fresh.

A few steps away, Leo Melgar and Giancarlo Rosito stood behind the Rosito Bisani table with machines used in an Italian restaurant kitchen--a panini press, deli slicer, hard cheese grater for Parmesan and a pasta extruder. They had one home machine, The Reale 1 Compact Espresso Machine.

With a butter cookie in hand, a last gift from Andrea Grondona, I explained how happy I would be to have an espresso to go with my cookie. Being a good Italian with a love of hosting, Rosito led me upstairs where the Reale was set up. His strong cup of espresso was the perfect accompaniment for my butter cookie.

Upstairs from the downstairs

A mezzanine meeting room was set aside for presentations about Italian wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In that quiet room, speakers talked about the terroir that gave their products their unique qualities.

Smartly dressed wait staff poured samples as speakers talked through their Power Point presentations.

“Ready for bubbles?”

I arrived as Laura Donadoni was describing the terroir and techniques of the Franciacorta winery located in the north of Italy. As a server poured a tasting of the La Valle “Primum” Brut (75 % Chardonnay; 20% Pinot Noire; 5% Pinot Blanc), I settled in behind a flight of six wine glasses.

Donadoni asked us to raise our glasses so we could appreciate the fine bubbles streaming from the bottom of the sparkling wine flute. 

She regaled the gathered group of aficionados with details of weather, soil quality and harvest particulars that created the distinctive qualities of half a dozen Franciacorta wines.

When I returned for the 6:00pm wine tasting, Laura Donadoni had returned to introduce wines from Lugana. Very different from the morning’s sparkling wines, I liked the 2013 Lugana Doc Vendemmia Tardiva, a light dessert white wine. With its ginger, lemon zest notes, for Donadoni, the wine would be perfect at the end of a meal with cheese or with a dessert like panna cotta.

After we had a sip of the Lugana Doc Riserva, Donadoni polled the gathered group, “What do you taste? What notes?” With noses in their glasses and swirling before tasting, people called out, “Watermelon” and “Jasmine.” 

“Everybody, each one of us, can feel what we taste and smell based on what we have lived in our lives. It is very individual. The difficult part is to connect a sensation with a name.  Ok, now we can drink it.” The 2015 Lugana Doc CONCHIGLIA (Citari) had a clean flavor, light, with more acidity than minerality. Very pleasurable.

The 2014 Lugana Doc Superiore CA LOJERA (Ca’ Lojera) was fermented in oak barrels and that gave the wine a spiciness. We took in the aroma and sipped as she talked about how we could taste “wood” and white clay in the wine with a little “apple” sweetness. 

While she was talking, the A/V went blank. “It is telling me, ok, Laura, time to stop.” 

But with a smile she continued because she loved the wine and its layers of flavors. “It has a sweet lemon and almond flavors and a beautiful finish of apricot with a touch of minerality. The wine can age another 5 years with great benefit" and with that she ended her presentation to the audience's applause.

Oil and Vinegar

The final guided tasting of the day was not about wine but “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, Modena.” U.C. Davis’ Orietta Gianjorio is a juror and author,  a 3rd level, Advanced Sommelier, Certified Olive Oil Taster and Member of the Italian Registry (also a 2nd Level Honey Taster, 2nd Level Chocolate Taster, a Delegate for the Academia Italiana della Cucina, and author and International Judge.) Given all her titles, you can tell that Italians take their food very seriously!

Her tasting was not only designed to give us a flavor experience but also to introduce us to the vocabulary we would use to describe that experience.

The olive oil tasting sheet listed disagreeable and agreeable qualities. DEFECTS, it said would be rancid, fusty, musty and winey. AROMAS like green, ripe, citrus, mint, hay-straw and almond are good. And then there was a question about BODY. We would taste for mild, medium or robust.

The same was going to be true of the balsamic vinegars she had brought with her. Balsamic had a different set of descriptive words to communicate quality: DENSITY (thick, fluid, inconsistent, lipid, slightly veiled, cloudy), COLOR (light brown, dark brown, Brown, Amber, Dark Amber); SMELL (Intensity, Persistency) with aromas of raspberries, apricots, plums, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, cassis, black currant, blackberry and so on.

Gianjorio loves what she does and with the short time available to her, she had much to share. “We have an hour or more but you tell me when you are tired. I will teach you how to evaluate your palate when you taste balsamic vinegars and olive oil. I do this every day so I am used to it.”

She explained that a taster has to have good taste buds but also must practice tasting to be good at it.

But before we could do our tasting, she talked about fundamentals.

Extra Virgin Olive Oils

“Extra Virgin,” she asked, “What does that mean?” She polled the group. After a lot of guesses, she explained that it does not mean “first press or cold press.” Today olives are not pressed. Olives are washed, defoliated, then ground up with hammers inside a closed container. The change from open grinding was to prevent the olives being exposed to oxygen because once oxidation begins, the quality of the oil decreases.

After grinding, the olive oil is “massaged” before being placed in a centrifuge which separates the water from the oil. The water is discarded. The oil is filtered and graded.

To be labeled “Extra Virgin” the product must be an oil that is produced only with olives and was extracted with a mechanical not chemical method at a specific temperature (80-86 degrees). After production, the olive oil cannot be mixed with any other oil. And the oil must all be “new” oil not a mixture of old and new.

But that is not the end of the story.

Before labeling, the oil must be laboratory tested for free fatty acids because that will tell whether or not the oil was oxidized which would give the oil a rancid taste. And, finally, the olive oil must go through a sensory advisory panel (8 people) who certify that the olive oil is free of defects.

So “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is a label indicating a manufacturing process and the quality of the product.

I soaked up every detail of her talk. I tasted the olive oils and the balsamic vinegars and they were delicious.

At the end of the tasting, it was time to leave. Downstairs, the last of the tables had been stacked and ready to be loaded into trucks. People pushed brooms to sweep away the litter. Two people poured the last of a wine bottle into their glasses and saluted each other.

I walked out into the cool night air. What a good day spent enjoying so much great Italian food and wine.

What fun to “Savor Italy.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Best Ever Pasta With a Secret Ingredient

The holy grail of home cooked meals is a dish that takes practically no time to make, the ingredients are inexpensive and the results are delicious.

I found a pasta dish that fits all of those criteria.

The ingredients are basic. Olive oil, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and a green vegetable like asparagus. The seasoning is straight forward, just a little sea salt, black pepper and, if you like, a pat of sweet butter. By the time the pasta is al dente, the sauce is finished.
Anchovy filets are the special ingredient that creates an extraordinarily delicious pasta.

If you have enjoyed spaghetti alla puttanesca in an Italian restaurant, my recipe is similar but with more delicate flavors.

Even people who don't like anchovies by themselves fall in love with this sauce because the anchovies dissolve, binding together all the flavors. The result is an earthy, deeply satisfying dish.

Anchovies, a gift from the sea

Anchovies are a ubiquitous ingredient in Mediterranean cuisines. Stop in a neighborhood cafe in Northern Spain, as I did in the cathedral town of Burgos, and you will certainly have a tapas with an anchovy filet skewered along with a pepper, pickle and an olive or two. Those delicious filets are front and center on the dish, displayed in all their fish-filet-glory. With an espresso or an ice cold glass of beer, nothing is better for an afternoon snack.
Use high quality Spanish or Italian anchovies preserved in oil. Do not use salt preserved anchovies, ones wrapped around capers or filets with skin. 
Anchovies are sold in 2-4 ounce tins or glass jars. buy anchovies in larger quantities like Flott's 28 ounce tin. That way I always have them in the refrigerator to add to deviled eggs or tapenade. Kept in an airtight container and submerged in oil, the anchovies will keep for months.

Best Ever Pasta Sauce

Use a quality pasta like De Cecco or, if available, fresh pasta.  For this dish, I prefer a medium weight pasta like spaghetti, pappardelle, ziti, orecchiette or penne.  

Chopped fresh tomatoes can be used, but they are not as flavorful as roasted tomatoes which have an earthy sweetness. 

Roasted tomatoes can be prepared ahead and kept refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. 
During the winter at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, there are still farmers who bring tomatoes to market. Sold at a deep discount because they are misshapen and cracked. These "ugly" tomatoes are beautiful inside. With a little care and the discolored parts cut away, a roasted winter tomato has a delightful, deep-flavored sweetness.

To add crunch and visual contrast, add a lightly cooked green vegetable. Depending on what is available I use green beans, asparagus or broccoli greens. 

Serves 4

Time to prepare and cook: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound pasta, a quality brand or fresh
1 tablespoon kosher salt
10-16 anchovy filets depending on taste 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 whole large tomato, washed, pat dried, stem and any blemished skin cut away
1 pound asparagus stalks, washed, stem ends snapped off
1 small yellow onion, washed, root and stem ends and outer skin removed, chopped into large dice
1 cup brown, shiitake or Chanterelle mushrooms, stems trimmed, dirt removed, lightly washed and pat dried, thin sliced top to bottom
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch cayenne powder (optional)
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped for garnish
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 450F.

Cut tomato into 3 large, round slices. Line baking sheet with Silpat or nonstick sheet. Place tomato slices on sheet and place in oven. Cook 10 minutes. Remove from oven. 

Place large pot on stove filled with water to within 4" of the rim. Add kosher salt. Bring to boil. 

Cut asparagus stems into 1/4" rounds. Leave the last 2" of stem attached to the spear. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large frying pan on medium flame.

When the salted water boils add pasta. Stir well and stir every 3 minutes for even cooking. Do not cover. Place a colander in the sink next to a heat-proof measuring cup.

Sauté onions until translucent in the heated oil. Add mushrooms and asparagus. Stir well and sauté 3-4 minutes.

Push vegetables to one side of the frying pan to clear space for the anchovy filets. Add another tablespoon olive oil. Allow 1 minute to heat. Using a sturdy fork, gently stir the anchovies into the heated oil until they dissolve. Toss the vegetables in the sauce. 

Tear apart the tomato slices. Add the bits and pieces and all of the accumulated oils from the baking sheet into the sauté pan. Add sweet butter (optional) and a pinch of cayenne powder (optional). Stir to melt butter. Toss well to integrate the sauce and coat the vegetables.

Taste pasta after 10 minutes to confirm it is al dente. When you strain the pasta in the colander, capture 1 cup of pasta water in a heat-proof cup.

To prevent sticking, toss pasta.

Just before serving, transfer pasta into frying pan. Separate any that are sticking together. Toss to coat with sauce. If a little more sauce is needed, add 2 tablespoons pasta water and toss. Add more pasta water if more sauce is desired and stir.

Transfer pasta into serving bowl. Top with finely chopped Italian parsley and serve with freshly grated cheese on the side.




Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Young Chef Practices His Craft in an Art Gallery

Dinner begins on a dark and windy night. An errant newspaper skitters across the street. My invitation to a tasting by chef Paul Shoemaker, says the address is 4200 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood 91602 but the entire block looks abandoned. Using my iPhone as a flashlight, I locate the numbers on the building although a battered sign says this is the Evolution Dance Studios.

To escape the darkness, I follow a rectangle of amber light. Just beyond the doorway, the entryway brightens with stylish lighting and colorful paintings on the wall. A plaque declares this is INTRO. A few steps more and I’m inside a large space with a beautifully set communal table. Overhead bare bulbs hang like trapeze artists. Bingo! I’m here.

General manager, Rob Ciancimino greets me with a flute of light and dry Marcopolo prosecco.  I join the other twenty guests and wander around the space, which doubles as an art gallery. The colorful paintings are by Oscar Meza, a multi-talented professional skateboarder and artist.

Rob returns to see if anyone needs a refill. Glasses are raised and he pours. He tells the group that he is happy we’ve joined him tonight.  INTRO is open for Friday and Saturday night dinner and available for private events. All of this is prelude to the fall when he and his partners will open Verse, a bar, club and restaurant down the block.

It’s time to take our seats and read the menu. The fourteen courses are a mix of elegant ingredients (big eye tuna, foie gras, Maine lobster and Hamachi) and comfort foods (beets, dates, bone marrow and ravioli). And because this is fine dining, there will be wine, including a tasting of wines hand carried by Matthew Ospeck from AuburnJames winery in St. Helena.

As we are introducing ourselves to our table mates, Ciancimino sounds a small chime. It's time to begin our meal. 

Chef Shoemaker comes out of the kitchen to talk us through his first dish. He has a great smile. He avoids the traditional toque and chef's whites. Appealing and friendly, he wears a baseball cap and a brown apron. His first presentation is visually stunning.

The Edible Cocktail is a Meyer lemon icy-foam gin martini sharing a block of charred wood with two Asian spoons. We raise our glasses to salute the chef and each other. The cocktail is delicious and fun like eating a best-ever lemony snow cone. Then we feast on the spoons, enjoying the mix of textures, temperatures and flavors. Sweet, frozen, crunchy, spicy and acidic sensations roll around in our mouths. The evening begins with a “wow”.

The next dish riffs on the great versatility of salmon. Half a dozen roe are scattered on top of a thin slice of sashimi quality belly meat which in turn is placed on a strip of salmon skin cooked to chicharon-crispness. Designed as a sensory encounter, when placed in the mouth, the skin evaporates and the roe releases its salty creaminess leaving the pleasure of the fatty, pliant belly meat. The art of the dish is notable because even after the bits and pieces are consumed, the favor sensation continues with the wonderful heat of Togarashi, the sharp edged Japanese pepper powder.

For his tastings, each dish, from the first to the last, from small plates of single bites like the bone marrow ravioli or the butter poached lobster to the larger plates of Hamachi and hanger beef steak, demonstrates Shoemaker’s culinary talent. His flavors are balanced. Every element has a contrary element. Sweet is paired with acidic. Crispy with pliant. And, more often than not, a gentle heat lingers at the finish to prolong the experience. 

Adding to the sensory experience, the dishes are beautifully platted. Some are served on charred blocks of textured wood. Others in pure white porcelain bowls. Shoemaker arranges the edible ingredients like an artist applying paint to canvas. The ingredients are as much a part of the visual portrait of the dish as they are part of the flavor composition.

Each time the chime sounds, we are alerted to the beginning of a new adventure.

For the sixth course, a single Maine scallop in a porcelain white bowl is placed in front of me.  Cross-hatched with grill marks, the pink-white scallop the size of a silver dollar rests on a pillow of avocado mousseline next to a pale white cube of pickled daikon, smaller than a dime. At the bottom of the bowl, chef poured a pool of house-made ponzu broth with a gathering of white and black sesame seeds. The scallop is paired with AubernJames’ Meritage 2010 (Napa Valley), a lovely, crisp white that compliments the delicate flesh and acidic broth.

Selecting the ingredients for this dish as with all the others, Shoemaker searches for the best ingredients. If he can't find what he wants locally, he looks elsewhere. 

What Shoemaker serves depends on the seasons. He tells me with a big smile that this week he is expecting a FedEx delivery of Dutch white asparagus. He is the kind of chef who delights in the perfections of the moment. Who will source ingredients from half-way-around the world. 

In his travels he is always on the look out for quality providers, which is how he found the fisherman in Maine who supplied him with the scallops for our dish. And the scallop is perfect. Tender. Slightly sweet. Full of briny flavor.

A DIY Kitchen Produces Sophisticated Results

Looking at the complexity of each dish, it is easy to visualize Shoemaker’s kitchen. It must be high tech, fitted out with the latest gadgets. Given the detailing of the platting, surely there must be a dozen sous chefs bending over plates with tweezers picking micro greens from their mise en place.

Nope.

Shoemaker’s kitchen is a large space with a playhouse feeling.  When I walk in, one of the chefs is taking a break on a rope swing secured to the ceiling. There are some high-tech tools like a sous-vide cooker but INTRO’s kitchen is very basic. The two 1970s era stoves were purchased on eBay. There is no grill so with DIY inventiveness, to place grill marks on the scallop, the chefs use a kitchen torch to heat a knife red hot. Pressing the sizzling knife against the scallop creates the cross-hatch marks and adds a hint of caramelization.

Back in the art gallery-dining room, the chimes sound. To explain the dish, Shoemaker reappears as the servers place the next dish in front of each diner.

Foie gras is served nigiri style, on pressed rice. Who would have imagined that fat slices of beautifully charred foie gras go so well on vinegared rice, itself also lightly charred on the bottom to create a thin crust? The sweet acidic flavor so essential to balance the richness of the foie gras comes from a single blackberry sliced in half and a dollop of sour plum sauce.

The foie gras is exactly what I want from a fine dining chef. He should have a mastery of technique. Display flawless execution. Present artful platings. Cook with inventive parings of textures. From the beginning to the end, Shoemaker delivers in all those ways.

At the End

Talking about the meal, everyone has their favorite dish. Mine is the pork belly. A fat triangle of pork skin is fried to airy crispness. Which contrasts perfectly with the fork-tender, apple cider poached pork belly served with a sunny-side up quail egg, the yolk still runny, and pureed sweet potato flavored with maple syrup and bourbon. As we eat, all conversation ends. We're all too busy savoring each bite to talk. I am careful to maximize the deliciousness of the dish. I swab bits of pork belly into the richly sweet sweet potato, being sure to add a bit of egg yolk and maple syrup.
As people finish, they say to no one in particular, “Wow.” “That’s amazing.”

I reach for my glass of AuburnJames' delicious Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa Valley and notice that chef leans against the wall in a corner of the room. Clearly he is an impresario who takes delight in hearing us appreciate his creations. 

As we finish dinner, Shoemaker brings out his crew. Like the end of a theatrical performance, the cast takes a curtain call. Seen on the street, his cooks would be mistaken for skateboarders. To our applause he stands smiling with Paul Richardson, Erik Punzalan, Raymond Morales, Dro Dergy and Joel Ocampo.

At that moment it seems abundantly appropriate that this space is named INTRO. Ciancimino is using the pop-up chef’s table to introduce Shoemaker to Los Angeles. With the slow roll out to the opening of Verse in the fall, Los Angeles will have the opportunity to meet a very talented chef in an intimate dining experience.

INTRO: Art Gallery & Chef’s Table, 4200 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood 9160. Champagne is served at 7:30pm. Dinner begins promptly at 8:00pm. http://www.experienceintro.com; reservations on https://resy.com/cities/la/intro-art-gallery-and-chefs-table