Tuesday, August 30, 2011

24 Tips for Cooking in Authentic Italian Style (7-12)

Tip 7 - Share the Experience

Hospitality. Whether it's the cooking itself or simply the meals you create, Italian cooking is all about family style. Get your friends together and rock it: Community Starts in the Kitchen.

Tip 8 - Don’t Be Afraid and Don’t Apologize

Get into the mindset of an Italian mother making Sunday dinner for not only her husband and her children, but everyone else that she and they bumped into on Saturday. You've got to fearlessly cook fifteen unique dishes, and after that amount of work no one better complain! Plus, it's a little known fact that almost any dish can be saved from being a complete disaster. Julia Child once said "never apologize," and she was right.

Tip 9 - Cook the Dish 1,000 Times
The greatest thing about Italian dishes is that they are easy to make and can be incorporated into daily life. Until I lived in Italy I didn't realize that it's easier to make a healthy pasta dish from scratch than it is to make a box of instant macaroni and cheese. Just think about how good your signature dish will be when you've cooked it 1,000 times!

Tip 10 - Drink While You’re Cooking
I’m not sure if this is Italian, but it’s something I do while cooking and it seems to enhance the entire experience.

Tip 11 - Serve Lots of Good but Inexpensive Wine
A bartender in San Francisco once told me, You can't live the dream every day. Accordingly, you can't drink fine wine every day, nor should you. Italians drink vino sfuso, or table wine, and in America the closet thing we have is box wine and jug wine. If you're having a dinner party, break out the jug wine and get the party started!

Tip 12 - Stock Olive Oil

The next time you see olive oil on sale, buy six bottles. Nothing forces you to make instant mac n cheese like running out of olive oil. Further, it shouldn't be the good stuff. Good olive oil should only be used on very special dishes. It is used to finish a dish, not for cooking.

Italian cooking tips 13-18 are coming up this Friday.

Friday, August 26, 2011

24 Tips for Cooking in Authentic Italian Style (1-6)

The Online Culinary Tour of Puglia Begins!

My girlfriend and I got lucky. We were backpacking through southern Italy without any plans (no hotel reservations) except to find an apartment and write books. We'd sublet our apartments in San Francisco and quit our jobs. Traveling without plans is risky, and for a week or so it didn't look good. But then we got lucky, and we found not only an apartment but a palace in southern Italy. Located in Lecce, the Bernardini Palazzo didn't have a website or even a sign yet; we simply called a phone number beside the door. For the next month we had a complete Italian kitchen at our disposal, and this is where we learned to cook in Italian style. Why? Because the kitchen was an Italian kitchen, not an American kitchen, and the grocery stores were Italian grocery stores, not American. It might seem like a small difference, but small differences make all the difference in Italian cooking, as the following 24 Tips show.

We returned to Lecce again and stayed over a year. I love the food and the people of Puglia, and the Online Culinary Tour of Puglia is designed to share all of that. Over the next few months, I'll post some of my favorites recipes from Puglia, as well as the basic cooking techniques that serve as the foundation of Italian cooking. I'll reference this page regularly, so that you don't have to read the same explanations of Italian cooking techniques over and over again in future blog posts. I hope you'll follow along, sitting around the cyber dinner table with me.

24 Tips for Cooking in Authentic Italian Style

Tip 1 - No Measuring Cups

Q.B. is a common acronym found in Italian recipes; it means quanto basta which literally translates to "the right amount." Our palace didn't come with measuring spoons or measuring cups and it taught us to cook intuitively. Unless baking, don't use measuring spoons. Q.B. really means do whatever you think is right, which brings us to the next tip:

Tip 2 - Cook from the Heart

If you enjoy what you're doing, everyone can taste it. I think that the more you love working on a dish, the more you get to know the dish through creative experimentation/inspiration. You'll test out different quantities of salt... you'll learn that tomatoes and potatoes can take whole handfuls while asparagus deserve just the slightest pinch. This is food love. This is cheesy.

Tip 3 - See Recipes as Guides, Not Holy Scripture

I promise you that after a few months of Italian cooking you'll know the basic cooking techniques used to create 99% of Italian dishes. What are recipes good for, then? Inspiration. If you don't like something don't included it. If you want something, add it. The main point: don't fret over recipes, have fun!

Tip 4 - Shop Fresh, Fresh, Fresh and Regional, Regional, Regional

Each region in Italy is different than the others. Each town in each region is different than the others. They have their specialties, why shouldn't you have yours? Growing up in Maine, my family cooked lobster whenever we had visitors. Get to know your local specialties and cook using the freshest ingredients you can afford.

Tip 5 - Simple Is Better

I tried to make my girlfriend's stew eggplant the other day. I added a healthy pour of wine to give it a rich flavor and an extra tomato and an extra quarter onion. When we sat down to dinner, it didn't taste right. Two nights later, she made it her way, using less wine and less tomato and onion. This allowed the eggplant brown, sealing in the moisture, so that each cube of eggplant exploded with flavor. What about the extra onion and tomato? I didn't miss them at all.

Tip 6 - Simple Is Better!

Seriously. Once I was interviewing winemaker Umberto Cantele and I boasted of a pizza I'd invented. It began with a dough made with a 24-hour fermentation, then topped it with ricotta, slice pear, parmesan, arugula, and white truffle oil. He said, "With those ingredients how couldn't it have been good?" What he meant was: Give me a regular pizza, one where I can taste the ingredients.

I'll post Italian Cooking Tips 7-12 on Tuesday.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Top 5 Dirt Cheap Summer Wines from Trader Joe's

Happy Three-Year Anniversary Blog-o-Mine! And thank you to all who've been reading: By The Tun's web traffic has tripled in the past six months! To celebrate, I thought I'd go back to the beginning, and provide a list of cheap but good Trader Joe's wines. I don't know how to say this without sounding like a hobo, but I've been drinking a lot of cheap wine. It all started in mid-July, when Reed College held the annual Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. My good friend and amazing writer, Kelly Luce, was a part of it, so each night for a week my girlfriend and I attended the readings, which featured incredible fiction writers and poets, including Joy Williams, Matthew Dickman, Jim Shepard. Below is a photo of local Portland poet and poetry editor of Tin House literary journal, Matt Dickman, reading a train full of dynamite poem (check out more poems here).

The college's outdoor amphitheater paired with top-notch literature was the perfect environment for wine drinking, and each reading was followed by a reception. As you probably know, writer's rarely make money, so cheap wine was a necessity and Trader Joe's was nearby. One night there was fire dancing to the schizophrenic sounds of Skrillex.

With all those nights and the hoards of thirsty artists, we got to try almost every cheap wine at the local TJ's. I've always found it difficult to choose the right wine at TJ's, simply because there are so many that go for $4 or $5. Could they all be good? Absolutely not. However, here's a list of 5 gems:

Blue Fin Petite Sirah $3.99 Totally quaffable while reading Kerouac OR Bolano. I wouldn't try it with Joyce, however, it's too simple.
J.W. Morris Gewurztraminer $3.99 This wine is sweet as a halbtrocken German riesling, and should be paired as such. A little too sweet to drink by itself, but well-balanced for what it is.
J. W. Morris Moscato $3.99 This wine is pure summer and probably the best wine for the price on this list. Pairs well with the poetry of Sappho or the prose of Marilynne Robinson. Again, this wine is on the sweet side.
Columbia Crest "Two Vines" Vineyard 10 $3.99 Medium bodied and dry, it's all about grilled chicken over arugula salad peppered with the poetry of Paul Blackburn.
Concannon Central Coast Riesling $3.99 Decently dry, though still a little sweet, this wine calls out for shrimp risotto and Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Crab Grits and Buttery Chardonnay (Recipe Included)

This dish accentuates crab like no other. Crab is so easily obscured by the ingredients it's paired with that I never feel as though I've had enough. With this dish, the texture and flavor of the crab are at the forefront. The crab "pops" with flavor. Mattie and I first had it at a dinner party in San Francisco, and it was prepared by a woman named China who grew up in the South. Shockingly flavorful and rich yet delicate and succulent, crab grits has run through my mind ever since. I never did get a recipe, so I pulled out the ol'let's see what happens, which, if you've been following along, is one of Mattie's and my favorite activities. It turned out great, so I thought I'd share the recipe. It's really simple, fyi.

Ingredients for two people:
6 oz shelled crab (we used Dungeness)
1 fresh ear of corn (if corn isn't in season, the canned stuff works)
1/2 cup grits
1 1/2 cup water
3 tbsp butter
2 pinches salt

(Here's a question for everyone: What's the difference between polenta and grits? I know that they're both cornmeal. I think that the difference has to do with the way that they are ground, but I've found both stone-ground polenta and grits sold in stores. I've also found products called both polenta and grits. Grits and polenta do not taste the same. Is it all in the flick of the wrist, viz. how you cook them?)

Finding the right grits:


Directions in Brief: Boil corn, make grits, infuse butter with crab, combine all.

1: We'll cut the corn from the cob and add it to the grits. First, boil it on the cob for 8 minutes then set aside to cool. When it's cool, slice off the kernels, making sure not to cut off any of the cob. Set aside.

2. Prepare the grits following the recipe on the box (boil water with all salt, slowly stir in grits and cook on low heat until creamy; 5-8 minutes). As you see, we used "quick grits," which didn't take away from the flavor or texture in the least. In another pan, saute the crab and any crab juice in the butter on low heat. This is just to infuse the butter with crab flavor, so make sure you don't brown it. Turn off the heat when you think it's had enough.

3. We had beets with shallots and tarragon and steamed green beans with olive oil and sea salt on the side. To make the beets, simply slice the beets then boil until tender; saute a few shallots in olive oil; add the beets and a 1/2 tbsp tarragon and cook until the flavors meld (1-2 minutes).

4. Did I forget to say: Open the wine? I'm sure you're already ahead of me. Open that buttery chardonnay! We had Sonoma-Cutrer's 2008 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. It paired perfectly. Mattie and I found it in our local Safeway grocery store for $21.

5. When the grits has thickened and gotten a creamy texture, add the crab and corn. You might not want all of the corn, so do a little taste test (WARNING: very addictive). Cook until it's all hot, and you're done.

It's berry season in Oregon, and for dessert we had a raspberry-blueberry tart/crumble.

My aunt and uncle just wrote that it's crab season in Maryland. Looks like they're havin' a good feast. Hope everyone's enjoying their blue crab, snow crab, and Dungeness crab. Enjoy the recipe and write in with any questions! —Kristin

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

This Weird Week in Wine: Top 5 Weird Wine News Stories

Join A Group of Mercenaries and Get a Free Vineyard!

The Telegraph: The French Foreign Legion is currently enlisting down and out gents from around the world. Can’t afford alimony? Don’t care about living now that your love’s abandoned you? Join this fight-to-the-death group of mercenaries and you just might get the easy job: tending the Legion’s personal vineyard in Provence. Either that or get sent to Libya.

A Quiet Night of Wine, Celebrities, and Zombies

AFP: Christopher Lee was named the Dracula of Wine at the Grossmann Film and Wine Festival in Slovenia. Alright I made that award up. But he was given a life time achievement award. Either way, the festival is fully dedicated to celebrating horror movies and fine wine. Sounds like heaven to me.

Wine By the Pint = Wine Keg Stands?

Boston Globe: Some U.S. wineries are selling their wine in keg form to restaurants and bars. Vino sfuso has finally reached our backward little country? Excellent. My 2 cents: Don’t sell your wine in kegs. Put it into mobile trucks and sell it door to door, refilling 5 liter jugs as you go. You won’t have to sell major tap systems, purchase bottles or kegs, or pay people to bottle or keg your wine. We all want it. We’re just sitting around man, waiting…

My Computer's Been Drinking Again

MSNBC: An artificial, electronic tongue has been developed to taste test wines. The image alone is enough to make me switch to beer. But, like most ventures in robotics, this one sounds cooler than it actually is. Basically this instrument, which doesn’t look like a tongue, just measures sweetness. Still, it's kinda creepy.

Where Do These People Come From?

News 10: Would you pay $28 for a half-once of wine? Yes: It is a rare wine. But a half-once taste is pretty difficult to fathom. Personally, I’m leaning towards the once-and-a-half pour for $84.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Puglia Wine Review, August 1, 2011

I found both of these primitivo wines at Fred Meyer's on Hawthorne and SE 39th. As always, the Puglia Wine Review features wines found in Portland, Oregon.

A-Mano 2008 Primitivo IGT
Rating: 7
Price: $8.99
Where to Buy: Fred Meyer
Short Review: Doesn't taste like Primitivo, but a great budget wine

A-Mano is the winery that really changed everything. Founded by two Americans, the winery invested in Puglia around 1999 and immediately began to capitalize on the connection between primitivo and zinfandel. I think that A-Mano was the winery that really brought this connection to the forefront. As far as bang for buck, this wine is really great. However, it does not taste like primitivo: it isn't big and silky with dark fruit. It starts off right, though. The nose is big and spicy with dark fruit. It almost hugs you. There's a little heat. In the mouth, however, the wine is light boded, dry, tannic, acidic, balanced, and clean. It will pair well with most food. It is not jammy or fruity. It is surprisingly vibrant, too. The heat gives it energy rather than distracting from the flavor. At a blind tasting, I would guess that A-Mano's primitivo were a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

Primaterra 2009 Primitivo IGT
Rating: 2
Price: $7.50
Where to Buy: Fred Meyer
Short Review: "I wouldn't spend too much time trying to taste this one."

This wine is very fashionable, with a cute, childish drawing of a chicken on the label, and even literary, with a bit of a poem on the back. Unfortunately, the wine tastes uninspired. Nose is low key---not hot---with a little choke cherry. The mouth is very acidic. Tannins tingle the front gums. I got a little cola or oak, but the tartness was pervasive, reminiscent of rhubarb. Finish is short. Light bodied.

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