Sunday, April 27, 2008

Italian Food for a Good Cause


Fig A, Ossobucco Milanese con polenta e rapini.

On Saturday, February 23rd, Princess Mattress held its first Italian market gourmet gala, the proceeds of which to benefit the Quebec cystic fibrosis foundation. The event, which was held at Buffet Amiens, was not only a resounding success, but also a testament to everything Italian. Heartfelt thanks to owner Peter Triassi and everyone at Buffet Amiens; chefs Pasquale Teoli and Michele Falduto in particular, whose experience in the kitchen proved invaluable.
When I set out to organize this event, my goal-apart from helping a great cause-was to bring to the spotlight dishes from different regions of Italy. A monumental task given how varied Italian cuisine, (as well as Italian opinions), can be. So like everything in life, we would start small and from the beginning.
Anyone who knows me is aware of how obsessive and exacting I am when it comes to proper food, when it came time to choose a location for the event, it seemed obvious. I entered the reception hall armed with ideas, desires, and humble demands. Rather than throw me out, Peter looked at me and said, “We could do it, but maybe it would be good if you spoke to the chef”. Seven months and several meetings later we finalized the menu.

Menu for the Gala
~Antipasto Misto Italiano~
(Lonza, prosciutto, bresaola, parmiggiano reggiano, pepato Siciliano, crotonese, ricotta fresca.)
~Pasta Casareccia Con Funghi Porcini~
~Insalata Trevisana~
~Ossobuco Alla Milanese con Polenta, Rapini, e Peperoni~
~Calamari Grigliati al Carbone~
~Delizia al Mascarpone~
~Sweet Table- Italian sausage and peppers, Trippa con pomodoro, Porcheta, Cozze con pomodoro and Fresh fruit~

The Ossobucco was definitely the standout dish of the evening. It was both flavourful and exceedingly tender. The sauce was velvety with depth, without being overpowering; in my opinion, a perfectly balanced version of an often missed dish. Before the beloved tomato made its appearance in Italy, Ossobucco alla Milanese was made in bianco,--much the same way it’s made today in the north of Italy. (While doing some research I was surprised to discover very old recipes that included such ingredients as cinnamon, cloves and allspice.) These days in Milan, the use of tomatoes, only as a base, is common practice. It’s usually in the form of tomato paste and never in large amounts, or you risk turning an Ossobucco alla Milanese into an Ossobucco con pomodoro. Here’s the recipe for ossobucco the way it was served at the gala.

Ossobucco Alla Milanese
¼ cup of unsalted butter
4 tablespoons of olive oil
4 veal shanks, 2” thick
flour, for dredging
1 medium carrot, chopped into ½” pieces
1 medium onion, rough chop
1 celery stalk, chopped into ½” pieces
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 cup of dry white wine
1 ½ cups of chicken stock (low sodium)
2 bay leaves

Gremolata (A traditional topping added at the very end, and no it’s not optional.)

2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons of chopped (not too small) lemon zest

Season the veal shanks with salt and pepper on both sides; dredge the veal lightly on both sides in the flour being sure to shake off any excess. In a Dutch oven or a heavy bottom, oven proof pot, set over medium-high, add the butter and olive oil. When the oil begins to lightly smoke add the veal shanks one at a time. The browning is very important, as Mario Batali writes in his book, Simple Italian Food , “The true trick to all braised dished is the very first step: carefully and comprehensively browning the pieces to a deep golden brown. This not only makes for a delicious, full-flavoured piece of meat, but also contributes to a rich and complex sauce.(202) When the shanks have properly browned, remove from the pot and set aside. Turn the heat to medium and in the same pot (do not clean it, the brown bits left from the veal and flour are essential, you might, however, have to add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil if the bottom of your pot is too brown) add the carrot, onion, celery and fresh thyme. Cook, stirring often until softened and golden brown-about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until it darkens from bright red to rust orange, about 3 minutes, add the wine, chicken stock and bay leaves and let it come to a boil for about 3 minutes. Place the veal shanks back in the pot (I like to make sure my veal is not touching the bottom of the pot by making sure some of the vegetables are under it. This insures that the liquid can cook the bottom of the veal evenly.) Make sure your veal is submerged at least halfway, if it isn’t, add more chicken stock. Cover with aluminum foil and the lid and place in a preheated 350 degree oven. Contrary to popular belief you can overcook ossobucco, (or any braised meat for that matter). The ossobucco is done when the meat near the bone comes loose without too much resistance, 1 ½ to 2 hours. Remove from the oven, sprinkle the gremolata over the meat, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes. If the meat begins to separate from the bone on its own, it’s slightly overcooked. If the marrow has left the center of the bone and melted into the sauce because some stupid friends arrived over 1 hour late, then wrap up the ossobucco and give it to your friends in a doggy bag and kick them out.
Ossobucco is usually served with risotto alla Milanese. I like it with a soft polenta or lentils; but my favourite is to serve the ossobucco on top of a toasted slice of bread, which has been rubbed with garlic and softened with olive oil—lay some rapini on the bread and top with the ossobucco. Pour some cooking jus over the meat and enjoy.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a fatal genetically inherited disease, affecting mainly the lungs and the digestive system. Cystic fibrosis is usually diagnosed at a very young age –normally within the first year of a child’s life. Children afflicted with cystic fibrosis are on constant medication and require daily help from a ventilation machine, which clears the child’s lungs in order to breathe. Most people with CF will eventually die of lung disease before the age of 35. To experience what it would be like to live with CF, block your nose and breathe through your mouth with a straw. That is the everyday reality of a child afflicted with cystic fibrosis. The people at the L’Association de la fibrose kystique give a lot of their time to the cause. I want to thank Eve-Amelie for her help, and a special thanks to vice-president of the Montreal chapter, Daniel Dettmers for his attendance and kind words of support. If you would like to help, at any time, donations can be made at,

Buffet Amiens: 8700 boul langelier, St Leonard. 514-326-3010

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Patient Vines


I’d been to Italy before, but this time I was going to help my uncle and grandfather make wine. A traditionalist, I had always wanted to experience wine making in my ancestral home, this would be my first time doing so. What I didn’t count on however, was that the real lesson would have more to do with the way I worked, than the work itself.
As I stood staring at the streamlined vineyards which flowed down one long hill and then up another, it dawned on me that this would be slightly different than going to a supermarket and buying grapes pre-packaged in a wooden box; yet, I was not to be deterred. Standing, facing the 50 000 square foot mountain valley, arms to my side, chest out and with great audacity, I devised a plan, a plan of efficiency, a plan of strategy: a new world plan.
That night around the supper table, I spoke to my uncle about my plan which began at 6 o’clock the next morning. My uncle laughed and told me they always started around 9 o’clock. This didn’t make any sense to me, these people were farmers. Why so late?
Uncle Rocco: “Do you have any place to go?”
Eager nephew: “No.”
Uncle Rocco: “Then why are you in such a hurry?”
Eager Nephew: “I’m not in a hurry but whenever there’s a job to do I like to get it over with so we could relax afterwards.”
Grandfather: “If you can’t find a way to relax while you work, you’ll never relax after because there’s always work to be done.”
In light of this unexpected wisdom that had been thrust upon me, it was evident that my plan had hit its first snag.
The next morning I woke to a sun very different to the Canadian one I was used to. It was close to 8 o’clock yet the heat of this star made it feel like mid-afternoon. I ventured to the back of the house wanting to once again view the monumental task before me. Standing in the lush green grass at the top of this hill however provided little view of the vines, for in front of me stood dozens of olive trees proudly displaying their little green olives still a month away from becoming oil. Two rows of fig trees lined either side of the cluster of olive trees. I spotted one rather large fig mid-way up a tree and decided it would be my breakfast. Moving down the hill, I couldn’t help but notice a certain scent in the air, I realized the aroma was coming from laurel bushes clustered next to the fig trees. These tall bushes rustled together in the breeze which sent this very fragrant odor wafting through the air.
Finally, reaching the grape vines, after having passed some lemon and orange trees, I counted five rows of vines, all of them spanning the length of two hills, about a kilometer each. The vines were picturesque to say the least, with their deep, green leaves, and the full, fat grapes strewn on the strong branches and metal wires which joined each tree together as if they were all holding hands. As I stood there, contemplating how long it would take to cultivate five kilometers of grape vines, I heard a tractor coming from the street signaling that my uncle had arrived with my grandfather.
It was time to show them what I was capable of. I quickly got to work cutting the grapes off their stems. Working as efficiently as I could, I began to fill the buckets. In an effort to save time, I positioned my buckets in such a way as to drop each cluster of freshly cut grapes without looking down. After about two minutes of working with my new system, I was working up a sweat. My grandfather, approaching me from behind asked me if I was alright, I turned to look at him wiping sweat from my forehead and noticed that he was staring at my feet. It seemed that I had missed the bucket a few times as there were more grapes on the grass around the bucket than there were in it. My grandfather, with a concerned look on his face told me that if I wasn’t up to collecting grapes I didn’t have to. I assured him that I just wanted to make good time so that we might finish as much cultivating as we could, and then be able to sit down together and enjoy some food and wine. My grandfather walked to the tractor, reached inside a cooler and pulled out a bottle and two plastic cups. He handed me a cup, told me to sit and said,
“Why wait till the work is over, let’s have some wine together now, we could use the break and the grapes still have too much dew on them, water and wine don’t mix.”

We did share wine right then and there, we sat on the grass and let the sun do its work, and this simple act on his part made me understand what a fool I really was. I had failed to see what surrounded me: the splendor of the landscape, the beauty of family, and the magic of patience. The only snag in my plan was me.

How to Ratatouille

It doesn’t get any more rustic than ratatouille. Although the name is French, there can be no country of origin for this dish because it exists in every cuisine in one form or another. The purpose of this article, however, is not to aggravate the French, but to learn how to make ratatouille with someone else.
Recipes are inherently solitary. A person will read a cookbook alone, get excited about a particular recipe, and then make the recipe by themselves in order to impress the guests. Let’s take the pomposity out of the kitchen: turn it into a family recipe by cooking with family and friends.
Spending time with family and friends in the kitchen is a wonderful thing. Often the process is more rewarding than the result. (This however is not true if two or more of the cooking party are chefs, or if there are more than three hungry Italians in a kitchen brandishing knives.) The main ingredient needed here is love, it can’t be stressed enough. If the love is there while you’re cooking, it will shine through in the first bite. It also doesn’t hurt to know something about cooking.

4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
4 onions, sliced
1/3 cup of white wine
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 green pepper, sliced in wedges
2 red peppers, sliced in wedges
3 ½ cups of Italian eggplant (about 2 eggplants)
3 ½ cups of zucchini (about 2 zucchini)
7 large cloves of garlic,5 minced, 2 whole
1 can of plum tomatoes-796ml
1 to 1 ½ cups of chicken stock,-if you don’t use homemade buy a low sodium chicken stock
¾ cup of basil and Italian flat leaf parsley combined, chopped and fresh

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes.
2. Add the wine and deglaze. Scrape any brown stains of goodness that might have formed at the bottom of the pot and cook until alcohol evaporates, about 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Turn the heat to medium low. Add the tomato paste and cook until it completely coats the onions and develops a deep rust color, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the vegetables in the following sequence, adding ½” teaspoon of salt with each addition: green and red peppers, eggplant, and the zucchini. Cook each vegetable until it softens-about 2 to 3 minutes- before adding the next.
5. Once everything is in the pot, it’s important to cook the vegetables until they begin to brown slightly around the edges, about 4 to 5 minutes. During this step, stir more often as the onions have a tendency to stick.
6. Add all the garlic, and the can of plum tomatoes. Break the tomatoes with your wooden spoon, or better yet, with your hand and mix well.
7. Add the chicken stock until the liquid just covers the vegetables. (This is not soup, so make sure it’s not to watery.) Turn heat to low, and bring your creation to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally.

Fig. 2. Stock should be at the same level as your vegetables.

8. Let the ratatouille stew and simmer semi-covered until the vegetables become moist, stirring occasionally, about 1 ½ hours. Use this time to enjoy a nice glass of wine with your cooking partner.

Fig. 3. After 1 ½ hours.

9. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking, add the fresh basil and parsley, and enjoy.

Fig. 4. Good enough for Rémy.

I like to serve it with a pinch of sea salt, some freshly ground black pepper, some grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and a couple of slices of toasted French baguette.
Cooking with someone is time well spent. You create not just food, but memories. This recipe serves eight. So invite your family, or you friends; better yet, double the recipe and invite them all.