Monday, December 12, 2011

Olive Oil Shortbread Cookies

The New York Times Dining Section ran two great pieces last week: one, a list of the Best Cookbooks of the Year, and another about the most noticeable trend, the “At Home” style of cookbook.  Julia Moskin’s piece, “What Happens When Chefs Come Home,” underscores a crucial shift in cookbook consumers: people want recipes of stuff they can actually cook. Glossy studio shots of the unattainable sphere are out; hamburgers and Caesar salad are in. 

In her “When Chefs Come Home” piece, Moskin mentions a recipe for Shortbread Biscuits that wisely substitutes olive oil for butter. Still high on my October visit to Tuscany for olive oil crush at Villa Campestri, I thought I have to try this. I found a recipe for olive oil shortbread and then considered my oil choice.

Though vegetal and grassy, the bright green Villa Campestri oil could add an interesting twist to the butter bomb that traditional shortbread can be. Or I could end up with a bitter, greenish biscuit. 

Only one way to find out...

The verdict? Moskin is right: olive oil greatly improves this classic cookie. I could easily see the Villa Campestri restaurant serving them with afternoon tea on the terrace.

Olive oil adds a luxurious yet subtle flavor boost.
Admittedly, these cookies aren’t quite as crumbly as traditional shortbread, but they trade texture for a rich, more nuanced flavor. There’s simply more going on than the average shortbread cookie. I don’t get palate fatigue from butter overload, which is a fancy way of saying “I eat them five at a time.”  

These cookies are also comparatively more healthful since we've lost the saturated fat of butter.

I’m excited to have found yet another recipe that is improved with the addition of quality olive oil. Maybe these cookies will be left by the Christmas tree this year... 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Riding Around Manhattan

Yesterday I rode my bicycle around all of Manhattan. The thirty-two mile loop took me six hours with a few breaks.

My cruiser bike, Bess.

We are cut from the same cloth, Bess and I: both laid-back California girls out of place in a big, fast city. While bike messengers and Brooklyn hipsters dart in and out of traffic, Bess and I cruise only the streets with well-marked bike lanes. We are outsiders here, little girls looking in, thus it makes sense for us to circumnavigate Manhattan, rather than criss-cross it.

In the six years that I’ve been in and out of this city, yesterday’s ride was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. Here’s how it went.

I left NoHo around 8:45am. I headed southwest and popped out to the West Side Highway via West Houston St. I then started up the Hudson River, shivering and slapping my gloved hands trying to stay warm. Of course I picked the coldest day of the year so far! Yet, the sun was shining, and the crisp air kept me pedaling.

One of the first people I saw on the West Side Highway was... my brother Ben! 

Hustling down to work in TriBeCa, Ben stopped and turned around, and we had to laugh at our happy coincidence.
Two Selby kids, riding bikes in New York, and both with cut-finger gloves too! He wished me a safe ride, and pushed south.

I turned north and kept riding, only to stop again at the sight of the USS Intrepid.

Soon, I was past the strollers and the mothers of the Upper West Side, and I approached the top of the island.
At the George Washington Bridge

I learned that my beach cruiser is quite heavy, but that fact works in my favor in the hills of Harlem.  I learned that riding along the Hudson is much colder than riding the East River. I learned that the New York City Parks and Recreation Department has done a pretty thorough job with the signage for the Greenway path around the whole city. I got lost once- on East 158th St.-  and only because I didn’t follow the path far enough.

Happy to reach the half-way point

As you might expect on these riverside pathways, I saw lots and lots of dogs. I saw plenty of people running, and many people just aimlessly strolling. I heard conversations between old friends about wives and grandchildren; I eavesdropped on a few animated phone arguments. I saw people of all shapes and sizes training at the East River track, including a boxer who couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall, his fists pumping so fast they blurred his face.

I saw the undergirding of thirteen bridges and one cable car, the completely out-of-place Roosevelt Island Tramway.
 Looking south under the Manhattan Bridge. 

I saw countless delivery guys with plastic bag lunches swinging from their handle bars. I noticed many of the Chinese delivery guys have semi-motorized bicycles that propel them even when they’re not pedaling; I’m not even sure how the mechanics work. The Mexican guys just flat out hustle, some with helmets, some without.  

Most delightful was the view of many elementary school playgrounds from the bike path: I saw hundreds of New York City school children running around, playing kickball, jumping and screaming in the early winter morning. Recess- what a wonderful reminder of the child in us all.

A gorgeous burst of color against the granite of the Harlem River Parkway

 Bess looking mighty small in comparison to some Harlem River highrises

Even a day later, I still remember vividly the smells on my ride. I suppose in a car you’re either going too fast to notice, or the cabby’s got his own special aroma. In contrast, on a bicycle, I was going slow enough to really notice the changes in smell. Most were quite pleasant; in the morning part of my ride, I caught many warm bread smells from bakeries. Another frequent scent was fresh laundry; I could actually tell the difference between Mountain Breeze and Fresh Linen!

More than once, I smelled the oregano-sweet of marijuana. Only once did I smell sewage- at the Riverbank State Park treatment plant at West 135th St.  

Several times I got the unmistakable and familiar smell of deep fryer oil. Doughnuts? Chicken? Empanadas?

The bike path is blocked on the East River from East 70th St to East 38th, so I had to cut into the madness of traffic. I took 2nd Avenue down, hiding in the relative safety of its bike lane. I was pleasantly surprised by the smell of fresh cut pine and fir from Christmas tree vendors lining the sidewalk. Despite the honking, the delivery truck exhaust and the swerving taxi cabs, I had to smile when I smelled Christmas.

I made it down to the Lower East Side, and I was saddened to see the shuttered Fulton Fish Market. I’m currently reading a book called Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, and the outlook for many fisheries is not good. I suppose the New York harbor and its immediate surroundings haven’t been great fishing waters for at least two generations, but it was sad to see such a tangible reminder that fish are no longer caught here. 

Fulton Fish Market, now just a parking lot

I also tested out the best 99 cents I've spent recently- the 360 app from Occipital. It will stitch together images in sequence to give you panoramic shots with the iPhone. AMAZING.

Bess hanging out under the Brooklyn  Bridge 

I made it down to Wall Street, around Clinton Castle and caught the Statue of Liberty in the auburn afternoon sun.

An enhanced 360 view of New York Harbor 

Still quite cold and by now genuinely hungry (despite my cheese sandwich and hard-boiled egg snack), I stopped in Battery Park City for some fries and a milkshake at the new downtown location of Shake Shack. Unlike the Madison Square Park location, there were NO LINES.

Sated with a little salt and a little something sweet, I returned to the bike path and headed once again up the Hudson. It had taken me a little over six hours, with water breaks, three potty stops, tons of photo ops, some detours and some walking to avoid dense traffic, but I had done it: I rode my bicycle around Manhattan.

 Just before turning off the West Side Highway and heading home

No awards were given, no personal best time record was set. And I wouldn’t even say that the experience changed me. Rather, it was an enjoyable day that reminded me to keep my eyes open wide to the wonder that is this city.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chestnut Pasta Party for One

It's a rainy night here in New York City. I hurried home and realized I had nothing for dinner. ...Or did I?

Hiding in the freezer was some chestnut pasta dough. Several weeks ago, I made chestnut flour pappardelle for dinner, but the batch was too big for that evening. In Italy, I learned that fresh pasta dough can be frozen with no ill effects, so we froze it.

Fast forward to tonight:
 Cutting fettuccini

 Tiny noodle nests 

 Going for a quick dip...

 Fresh pasta only needs 2 minutes to cook. 
Totally makes up for the hands-on time.

 The sparse toppings I was able to rustle up: 
Olive oil pressed this October at Villa Campestri 
Crumbled blue cheese
Some chopped celery leaves for color. 
Did I mention the fridge was nearly empty? 

 But it all turned out pretty damn delicious. 

Easy Pasta Ratio Rules:
For every one egg, use 100g of flour.
Also, one egg = one portion.
So if you have 10 people coming over for dinner, use 10 eggs and 1kg of flour.
If you want to use chestnut flour like I did for tonight's fettuccini, use 50/50 chestnut flour and Tipo 0 pasta flour.

Thanks to the boys in the Villa Campestri Restaurant in Vicchio di Mugello for all the pasta knowledge. Grazie infinite Jerry e Samuele!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

AmorOlio at Villa Campestri

I'm in Vicchio di Mugello, a tiny Tuscan town about 30 minutes northeast of Florence. The hills are perfect for long walks, the pasta is delicious, and the olive oil is like nothing I've ever tasted.  A cold and windy winter is just around the corner, so luckily there are no American film crews and no huge tour buses clogging the roads.

Thanks to the very generous Paolo Pasquali and Nancy Harmon Jenkins, I'm tagging along as an assistant for AmorOlio, a week-long immersion in olive oil culture and Tuscan cuisine. This visit has proved quite timely, as olive oil makes headlines in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In the past three days, we have inspected olive groves and visited traditional mills where olive oil is pressed. Through lively tasting sessions, we have discussed the taste of great oil, the different ways it can be spoiled (heat, exposure to oxygen, and light), and how to educate consumers without condescension.  Of course, we have cooked every day to test food pairings with dramatically different oil styles. It's been a great post-graduation trip to decompress from culinary school while still staying inspired by food.

Here are a couple photographs from our time so far at Villa Campestri.

 Green olives one week before harvest

The set-up for olive oil tasting 

 A meat counter in the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale in Florence. 
The market is a great place to learn food vocabulary, like hen (gallina), turkey (tacchino), or rabbit (coniglio.)
It's also reassuring to see that "Hot Dogs" are the same in Italian. 

 The gorgeous colors of the produce section

 Back at Villa Campestri's kitchen, Samuele puts the finishing touches on dessert: 
olive oil cake with ricotta and wild berry coulis. 

 Chef Jerry holds a beautiful example of a porcini mushroom. 

 In Florence, chocolate truffles come in a too-cute cupola box. 

 Porcini Mushroom Risotto with a glass of Vernaccia in hand

Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort, my home for the week. 
(I'm still pinching myself!)

I've learned a lot about high quality olive oil; it can be sweet, grassy, peppery or lemony. It can be structured and complex, like wine. It can also spoil rancid or get moldy if it was poorly pressed or improperly stored. Bright green at first, olive oil will lose its color- and its healthy polyphenol properties- as it gets older or if exposed to high heat during storage. If you have a bottle of nice olive oil, use it! Olive oil is best fresh. The longer it lives in the cabinet or by the stove, the less flavor it will bring to your plate.

I'm hoping to bring home a couple cans of high quality oil from Villa Campestri, named Olio di Cosimo for Pasquali's grandson. It's peppery, bright green, reminiscent of artichoke and a freshly-cut lawn. Once I get back to New York (Mon Oct 24th), I'm planning to make salad, some butternut squash soup, maybe even a pizza to find the best pairing with this delicious oil. Give me a buzz if you want to join!

With love, from Vicchio

Monday, October 10, 2011

Coming Full Circle: My Experience Raising Chickens

During the summer of 2010, I accidentally killed a chicken in my care at the CIA Student Garden. I carelessly left the roof of the chicken coop propped open with a pole, and when the wind started to blow, the roof came crashing down. I felt terrible, despondent even. Yet, it taught me that accidents happen, that farms are indeed places where animals meet their end. It's how the animals live and die while on that farm that really matters.

In any supermarket meat department, we find a wide variety of descriptors for the kind of life an animal has enjoyed: grass fed, free range, cage free, hormone free, pasture raised, even happy. While these terms can be confusing and often fodder for jokes about hipsters at Whole Foods in Portland, they represent an important step in the improvement of animal welfare on farms. Sure, these products are more expensive. But it's just like New York City real estate: if you want space, it costs money. It costs money to own the land to pasture, it costs money to tend it. That price pays people to help raise the animals, and to slaughter in a humane way.

I'm not starting a food revolution here. I'm mostly rehashing Michael Pollan points and figures from the film Food Inc. But thinking about this issue- how animals are raised for food- led me to the Deer Park garden to tend to the chickens in the first place, and eventually led to our construction of a new chicken coop and to a larger flock of heritage breed Buckeye hens.

Below I've compiled a collection of photos spanning nearly two years in Saint Helena- from the first time I collected eggs, to the slaughter and eventual consumption of our hens. Warning- there are some photos that could be unsettling if you're not used to seeing how animals go from farm to supermarket packaging. It may make you a little squeamish, but ultimately I hope to acknowledge the fact that an animal has died for my nourishment, and thus honor that animal. If I'm going to eat meat, I don't want to sweep that under the rug.

 March 2010: My first time collecting eggs

Douglas Hayes' hoop coop model we followed

The roosting racks across the rear of the hoop coop

The frame built by Chef Patrick Clark and Slow Food Napa Valley Chapter

Our frame in early spring 2011. 
(Look how bare the vines are in the background.)

The hoop coop starts to take shape with cattle panel looped over the door frame

Jack works on securing the chicken wire

Looking west through the coop, past our work shed and the pond

How to transport chickens in the backseat of your car

Happy girls with lots of room

Jack and the ladies 

Much more sensibly dressed than the first time I collected eggs...

The full enclosure, with padlock to prevent theft

A salad for our MyPlate dinner using soft cooked farm eggs

Learning how to cut their necks efficiently 

I learned to first bleed the chicken out...

...once the head is removed, the chicken is dunked in a scalder, 
a hot water bath that loosens the feathers

After about a minute in the scalder, the chicken is placed in a plucker, 
a spinning bin with soft, rubber fingers that remove the feathers. 

Learning how to finish the process

After ice chilling and air drying in the refrigerator. 
Check out how narrow their breasts are- not your average supermarket bird.

A chicken broken down into eight pieces, with the remaining frame

A whole hen Chef Bill Briwa roasted in his ACAP class at Greystone

Bringing it all full circle, thankful for the experience.

Thanks to all the friends who guided and supported us along the way- Douglas, Jorge, Brett and Alejandro; Dianne Martinez and Dr. Chris Loss of the CIA; and Adam Burke and Jack Gingrich, who took care of the girls at their home in Deer Park. And to the next class of students at Greystone: I hope a flock of hens returns to Deer Park next spring!