Forum Holitorium

Month: April, 2012

My Destiny is Smoked Cheese

A week ago at this time, I was sitting in a car, barreling south on the autostrada, escaping the confines of the Alps and approaching the sea. At Palmanova, we veered left, and a half hour later we were across the Isonzo and at the start of the Carso with its characteristic iron-laden ruddy soil. TC and I were welcomed by these two fellows.

It was a restorative weekend of observing grazing animals, breathing in fresh air, strolling, and being caressed by gentle rain. Just a few hours to the south, you no longer need to worry if hardy rosemary will live up to its name and make it through the winter; it flourishes in the wild.

Inspired by this blooming bush, I bought a small fragrant Rosmarino officinalis today, though this time I won’t risk a repetition of last winter’s tragedy. As soon as I finish this post, it’s going into a pot instead of the big stationary planter on the balcony, and I plan on bringing it inside once temperatures turn frosty. By that time, we should have eaten our way through the nearly 9 kilos of culinary booty we brought back. The cheese, penne, and part of a bottle of red wine are already gone, and I suspect some of the chestnut flour will disappear over the weekend.

Years ago, I checked out a beautiful cookbook on the cuisine of Friuli from the library and copied 2 pasta recipes onto notecards. Easy and delicious, I prepared both of them this week. The first is so easy you have no excuse not to try it: 500 g penne, 290 g fresh sheep’s milk ricotta, and 2 tsp cinnamon. Cook the pasta until al dente. Meanwhile, mix the ricotta and cinnamon in a bowl. When the pasta is done, put it in the bowl and mix. Voilà. Here is the recipe in more detail using the imperial system. My version served two pretty hungry adults with enough leftovers that both of them had a nice lunch the next day.

One of the best investments I made last year was buying a Slow Food Italian osteria guidebook. On the three trips to Italy we’ve taken since then, we have eaten incredibly well and for reasonable prices. This time around, we tried out three places, all of which had their own character and served up great traditional regional food. I sampled toc’ in braide (polenta with Montasio cheese, milk, and butter) and cjalsòns (still can’t pronounce this correctly – dumplings with various fillings) while TC had orzo e fagioli (barley and bean soup) and baccalà mantecato (salted cod in milk sauce). Everything I had was dusted with a layer of ricotta affumicata. When we went to our favorite place to eat in Graz yesterday, I had to laugh because guess what was being served? Pasta tricolore with arugula, tomato, and…

He knows the answer – do you?

My Latebra

The only New Year’s resolution that I have kept this year is to review and learn more Latin using a page-a-day calendar. My Latin word of the week is latebra, which means a hiding place or place of retreat. The word fires my imagination, conjuring up images of secluded mosaic-tiled courtyards smelling of jasmine on a balmy summer night, quiet except for the soothing burbling of a fountain. It also brought back memories of reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden over and over as a child, a book that illustrates the healing and restorative powers of nature.

For many people, myself included, their place of retreat is a garden. I am fortunate enough to have two. The larger is part of a community garden, unfenced and public. The smaller and private one worthy of latebra status is my balcony garden. Here are a few glimpses into the latter:

Shy strawberries and chipper chives…

Unruly Roman chamomile whose seed stowed away in dirt from another pot and is threatening to steal the show from the radishes and lamb’s leaf lettuce…

Lemon-scented winter savory from Slovenia whose vitality continues to astound me, arugula getting ready to bolt, and the most aromatic lemon balm I have ever tasted.

No Longer Sour About Kraut

I had always cultivated a hatred of cabbage. Sure, it is a superfood packed with vitamins C and K that may prevent cancer and radiation sickness and all that, but with the exception of the red cabbage I once ate at Oktoberfest in New Glarus and small doses of white cabbage and mushroom pierogi served up to me during the time I lived in Poland, it didn’t taste good. Plus I have always associated it with a heavy meat and potatoes diet where the only vegetables are cooked until they are dead and tasteless or stinky. Ugh. It lurked at the opposite end of the spectrum of my food preferences, far away from Italian cuisine. Wrong!

In fact, cabbage has been important to cooking on the Apennine peninsula for a very long time. This unjustly maligned (by me) vegetable originated along the shores of the Mediterranean as well as of the North Sea. The Romans prized its effect on digestion and preserved it in vinegar, while in northern Europe, cabbage was turned into sauerkraut using lactic acid fermentation. This method of preparation ultimately spread from north to south through the Alps all the way to Trieste on the Adriatic, where a special bean soup with sauerkraut called jota is prepared.

So what led to a sea change in my food prejudices? A few weeks back, a friend served homemade kale chips that, well, tasted pretty good. Up until then, I had avoided kale because it is a kind of cabbage and I just assumed it wouldn’t taste good. Shortly after this trying-something-new happy ending, my partner (hereafter referred to as TC = The Chemist), expressed a wish for sauerkraut to recover from a few weeks of travel. We picked up a bag of what we thought was sauerkraut at the market. Back in our kitchen, it became apparent that what we had purchased was straggly raw green cabbage masquerading as sauerkraut. So I took matters into my own hands.

All you need to make sauerkraut is cabbage, a jar, and some salt. I started with 500 g finely sliced cabbage, an empty 1 kg honey jar, and about 1 Tbs salt. Put some cabbage in the jar, pack it down, sprinkle some salt over it, and repeat until you run out of cabbage and salt. As you pack down the cabbage, it should start to release juice which mingles with the salt to make a brine. I placed a glass filled with water whose circumference was smaller than the mouth of the jar into the jar to weigh down the cabbage and force more liquid out. This liquid layer that forms is key to the success of the endeavor because it keeps air away from the cabbage. And even though you don’t want air and cabbage to meet, don’t even think of putting the lid on the jar. Bubbles will form when fermentation is underway, and the carbon dioxide needs to escape somewhere. With time, Lactobacillus bacteria will transform the cabbage into kraut. More detailed info on lactic acid fermentation and the role of ferments in French cuisine can be found here.

Every day or so, I checked on the kraut, packing it down more not because it was necessary but because it was fun. After two weeks, we had 350 g sauerkraut and half a glass of sauerkraut juice.

Since sauerkraut juice is incredibly healthy, I felt obligated to drink at least some of it, but the smell put me off so much I couldn’t. Thankfully, TC drank it and happily set about eating his sauerkraut. Disappointed in my lack of adventure, I decided to try again, this time with red cabbage.

Once again, 500 g finely chopped red cabbage layered with 1/2 Tbs salt (less because the first kraut was quite salty) was packed firmly into the glass jar and left to ferment for roughly two weeks. This time when we tried the juice, TC said “It tastes like Bauernhof!” Farm? Well, there was something earthy and beety to the flavor, and it was not bad. Yes, I drank it! One baby step toward increasing cabbage consumption. We’ll have some for dinner tonight.

Welcome to the Forum Holitorium

My Cassell’s Latin dictionary defines holitor as “a kitchen-gardener”. Holy holitor, that’s me! This blog will describe my adventures in food production throughout the seed to plate cycle.