Friday, March 7, 2008

Plate Envy: Il Fornaio Gives It Away

Restaurants live or die on their repeat business. To bring their customers back again and again, some rely on exceptional food and personalized service, others try affordable prices and a pleasant setting. Il Fornaio adds another element to the equation.

For two weeks each month, all 21 branches of Il Fornaio ("The Baker") feature recipes from a different region of Italy: Fruiuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Puglia, Liguria, Abruzzo, Scilia.... The dishes illustrate that region's distinctive ingredients and cooking styles. Nothing can compare with actually going to Italy and having a great meal, but when we want a delicious, affordable Italian dinner, it's great to be able to visit the nearby Il Fornaio in Santa Monica. The restaurant is devoted to all things Italian. Not only are the meals an effort to give you the experience of dining in Italy, each month you'll receive a uniquely Italian gift.

Pick up a "Passaporto" during the Festa Regionale and you'll be given a gift: packages of cannellini beans or hand-made pasta, arrabiatta spices, specialty olive oils, balsamic vinegar, loaves of bread, calendars, olive bowls, and, my personal favorite, dinner plates.

Have your Passaporto stamped each month and on the sixth visit, you'll take home a dinner plate, hand-painted with a distinctive image of Italian life.
For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Il Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting Menu - Piemonte
I am obsessed about those plates. Something about them makes me so happy. To make certain we'll get the new ones, we go to the restaurant every month. So far, we have more than 60 and are several Passaporto away from being completely out of shelf space.

The plates are great, but so are the gifts that help us practice cooking Italian meals at home. Last month we were given packages of fagioli cannellini with a Tuscan recipe by Il Fornaio's Executive Chef Maurizio Mazzon. I added roasted tomatoes and spinach to his Fagioli All'Uccelletta recipe.

Cannellini Beans with Roasted Tomatoes and Spinach

If you want to serve cannellini beans, you have to plan ahead. Before they can be cooked, they have to be soaked overnight. Cooking takes time as well, so this is a great weekend project. Since they keep well in the refrigerator, the beans can be quickly reheated for a weekday meal and served with a grilled chicken breast, steak, or tuna fillet.

Yield 6-8 servings

Time soak beans overnight, 2 hours to cook


2 cups cannellini beans
½ celery stalk, washed
½ onion, peeled, washed
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 carrot, washed, peeled
18-20 sage leaves, washed, torn into pieces
5 tomatoes, washed
1 bunch spinach, washed thoroughly, stems removed, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt


Soak the beans overnight with 5 cups of water. Drain. In a large pot, put the beans and 10 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the celery, onion, 2 whole garlic cloves, and the carrot. Cook on a low flame for 1 hour or until the beans are al dente. Drain, but this time save the water. Discard the vegetables.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the stems out of the tomatoes, put them on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or a piece of tin foil, sprinkle sliced garlic on top, season with sea salt and black pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 1 hour. Let cool. Put the tomatoes in a bowl. Take off the skins and discard. Tear the tomatoes into small pieces. Set aside.

In the large pot, sauté 2 finely chopped garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until lightly browned, add the sage and sauté for a few seconds, then add the roasted tomatoes with their juice, the cooked cannellini beans, the chopped spinach, and 5 cups of the reserved water. Bring to a low boil and cook for 30-45 minutes until the sauce thickens.

Serve with a grilled or roasted meat.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Surprise at the Farmers' Market: Six Oysters, Two Appetizers, One Stew

Michelle checked the refrigerator and all we needed from the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers' market was a romaine lettuce. She handed me the list before I left. Usually when I go to the Wednesday market, I only have a few minutes, but the day wasn't that busy, so I didn't have to rush. I checked with the farmers I usually go to for lettuce, but there must have been heavy rains when the romaine was picked, because the ones I saw were pretty ragged and muddy.

I have to confess, whenever I go to a farmers' market, I buy more than I intended. The flowers are always amazing, even in the winter and the vegetables are so inviting. By the time I'd walked around the market, I'd filled my bag with anemones, Italian parsley, a bunch of carrots, a bag of Haas avocados, and Yukon potatoes. I even bought baby onions and fresh mustard greens because they were too cool to pass up, even though I didn't have a clue what I'd do with them.

Leaving the market I saw that a new vendor, Carlsbad Aquafarm, was selling baskets of fresh mussels, oysters, clams, and red seaweed. Fresh oysters at a reasonable price are always hard for me to resist. The Catalina Oysters looked like the Gulf oysters I had years ago when I worked on an oyster boat near Galveston. I bought a dozen.

When I got home, excited about having oysters for lunch, I unpacked what I'd gotten from the market and realized an awful truth. I'd forgotten to buy the romaine. 'Guess I got distracted.

I've described how to shuck oysters in an earlier posting. It's not difficult, but it does take some practice. Prying open the first plump, beautiful oyster, I discovered a benefit of buying them fresh-from-the-ocean. As I cut the oyster loose, nectar filled the shell. Six oysters opened over a bowl and I had a cup of nectar. Today had turned into a day of improvising. My lunch now had an added course: oyster stew.

Eating good food makes me happy. I must have learned that from my dad. When I was a kid, I remember watching him come home from work and sink down into his leather chair. My mom had the routine down cold. Within a few minutes she'd bring him a plate of appetizers. Happiness for him was a pre-dinner feast of pickled herring with sour cream and onions on pumpernickel bread, a plate of thinly sliced radishes with salt, a jar of baby shrimp in cocktail sauce, and a Seven & Seven on the rocks. The only part of his menu held onto was a love of cocktail sauce.

I tried the raw oysters a variety of ways: with a squeeze of lemon juice, a little taste of caviar left over from my Home Alone dinner, with finely chopped baby onions, with chopped avocado, and with cocktail sauce. I ate the oysters with slices of French bread and a couple of Nabisco saltine crackers.

6 Oysters Serves 1. Preparation Time: 10 minutes.

Traditional Cocktail Sauce

1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon grated horse radish
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne

Mix all the ingredients together. Put a small amount on top of each oyster. The recipe makes enough for several servings. Keep the sauce in the refrigerator in a sealed jar.

Salami With Avocado

When I had finished prepping the oysters, I realized I hadn't used half of the avocado. I could have easily made an arugula and avocado salad, but an appetizer seemed more satisfying. There was some felino salami from Bay Cities in the refrigerator. A piece of avocado, dredged in olive oil with sea salt and black pepper, placed on a slice of the salami, topped with finely chopped scallions and reduced balsamic vinegar and I had a delicious compliment to the oysters.

Oyster Stew

This dish is a freebie. The nectar gives the stew its flavor. Since I was eating raw oysters, I didn't need any in the stew, but you can certainly add them if you want.

1 cup oyster nectar
½ cup homemade chicken stock
½ carrot, washed, peeled, finely chopped
½ Yukon potato, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 large shallot, peeled, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 piece of bacon or 1"piece of sausage (Italian or Cajun), finely chopped
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 tablespoon cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
2 tablespoons homemade croutons

Two quick notes. The stew doesn't need any added salt. The oyster nectar has all the saltiness you'll need. The vegetables should be finely chopped as you would with a mirepoix.

Sauté the vegetables and bacon/sausage in the olive oil, seasoned with black pepper. After they're lightly browned, add the pat of butter, the oyster nectar, and the chicken stock. Simmer for 15 minutes to combine the flavors. Taste the potato for doneness. If you've decided that you'd like to have some oysters in the stew, add them at this point and simmer for 2 minutes. The oysters can be cooked whole or cut up if they are larger than the size of the soup spoon. Add the cream and simmer 2 minutes. Top with a tablespoon of croutons just before serving.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

The Freshest, Coolest Salad You Can Make for Summer or Anytime

Our Fourth of July pot-luck picnic was lovely. Friends gathered in a park opposite the local high school to share a meal and then watch fire...