Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Double Tomato Bruschetta

I had a few friends over for a gathering a couple weekends ago, and even though it was meant to be an ice cream social, I wanted to have appetizers on hand as well.  I talked about making sushi rolls for the first time in a while in my last post, and just in case that wasn't enough, or if they didn't turn out right, I thought I should have a backup of sorts. Besides, I was still trying to find ways to use all those overgrown basil from my patio!  So I decided to make bruschetta (which, as I recently learned, is actually pronounced "bru-sket-ta," believe it or not!), for the first time.  I knew it would be a bit risky to try something new when I'm trying to prepare for a party, but I didn't know what else to make, so bruschetta it was!

I searched the internet for a recipe, and one from AllRecipes.com looked particularly promising.  I thought the inclusion of sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar was creative and sounded just fabulous.  Besides, the near-perfect average rating of 4.8 out of 5 from 1491 people can't be a fluke, right?

The procedure is simple enough; the only trouble I had was making sure I got the bread out of the oven before it burned!  Oops!  Apparently I need some practice with using my broiler...  But, these bruschettas garnered RAVE reviews from my guests - even the ones with the burnt bread!  Someone even asked me for the recipe the next day.

This was definitely a 6 out of 5 star recipe, and something I'll be making again for sure!

Double Tomato Bruschetta
Double Tomato Bruschetta

Recipe courtesy of:
AllRecipes (get the recipe here)

Vegetarian Hosomaki (Slender Sushi Rolls)

Sushi is one of my favorite foods.  About 20 years ago when I was just a young lass, my older cousin got a sushi kit and made sushi at home.  I thought it was so cool and had always wanted to learn it myself.  It took a while for me to get there, but finally a few years ago I received (OK, requested) a sushi kit from R. for my birthday and started learning to make simple rolls.  After only a few attempts, however, I took a 2.5-year hiatus from making sushi for a number of reasons, one of which was that it is just hard to make sushi unless you are serving a large group of people as it is extremely time consuming and the sushi rice doesn't last very long so it isn't something you can save as a leftover.

Anyway, fast forward to a couple of weekends ago when I had my little ice cream gathering. I had promised appetizers, and I thought I would finally have the critical mass I needed to make some sushi rolls.  I went with the basic cucumber roll and sweet potato roll because my sushi-making skills were extremely rusty and this was not the time to try something complicated!

The first key to making good sushi is to make good sushi rice.  The recipe I use was adapted from different sources, mainly from the book that came with my sushi kit as well as this recipe from Food.com, and though I don't make it nearly often enough, it has served me well whenever I have made it.


Specialized equipment you will need:
  • A wodden flat-bottom sushi rice bowl (looks like this), though a glass dish is OK as well.
  • 1½ cups sushi rice
  • 1½ cups water
For vinegar mixture:
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1½ tbsp mirin (available at Japanese markets, but may also be found at your local supermarket)
  • 2¼ tbsp sugar
  • 1½ tbsp salt
  1. Wash rice until water runs clear.
  2. Drain rice for 1 hour in the winter, 30 mins in the summer.
  3. Cook rice. (I use a rice cooker, but if you don't own one, follow the directions here.)
  4. Combine rice vinegar, mirin, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves, stirring constantly.
  5. Spread the cooked rice evenly in a shallow, flat-bottom wooden bowl or glass dish. Gently separate the grains with a spatula or a rice paddle and add the vinegar mixture at the same time. The rice should not be too moist.
  6. Fan the rice until it reaches room temperature. Don't let it get too cool or it won't stick as well.
Note that sushi rice only lasts one day, so it should not be made ahead.

Sushi rice is not just for traditional sushi rolls or nigiri, but can be enjoyed in other ways as well. Scatter fish over a bowl of sushi rice to make chirashi. I sometimes serve it with grilled salmon.

OK, now that you have the rice, how do you make the sushi rolls?  I describe what I did in the directions below, which is a combination of techniques I learned from the book that came with my sushi kit, various web sources (such as this one), and observations of my own.


Specialized equipment you will need:
  • Bamboo rolling mat, wrapped in saran wrap (but check this out)
  • A sharp knife

For hosomaki:
  • Desired filling (e.g., cucumber, sweet potato, avocado, asparagus, carrot, etc. Clearly it is possible to use raw fish for a non-veggie version, but be sure to use properly-frozen sushi grade fish.)
  • 4-5 sheets of seaweed
  • wasabi
For hosomaki preparation:
  • Rice vinegar and water mixture (to seal the rolls and to moisten hands and knife so rice doesn't stick)
Condiments (should be available at your local supermarket):
  • Japanese soy sauce
  • wasabi (optional)
  • pickled ginger (optional; used to cleanse palate)
Directions for rolls:
  1. Prepare sushi rice according to recipe above.
  2. Cook filling if necessary. Cut the filling into long strips.
  3. Wrap bamboo mat with saran wrap (this prevents the rice from sticking to the mat which makes it hard to clean). Place mat on a dry chopping board. The bamboo sticks should be aligned horizontally (so you can roll the sushi forward).
  4. Divide rice into 8 to 9 equal parts.
  5. Divide a sheet of seaweed in half.
  6. Place the halved sheet of seaweed horizontally on the bamboo mat, with the shiny-side faced down.
  7. Dip hands in vinegared water mixture. Spread one part of rice on seaweed evenly and gently. At the far end of the seaweed, leave about a 1-inch space free of rice.  Be careful not to use too much rice or the roll won't stick to itself!
  8. If desired, run a little wasabi along the rice at the end closest to you. Place desired filling on top of the wasabi.
  9. Wet the strip of seaweed not covered in rice with vinegared water mixture.
  10. Lift the front of the bamboo mat closest to you and roll the sushi. Tighten the roll by pressing firmly. The roll will stick to itself once you're done rolling.
  11. Release the roll and let it sit for a few minutes.  (This makes it easier to cut.)
  12. Run vinegared water along the cutting edge of a sharp knife. Cut the roll evenly into six pieces. (It's easier to first cut the roll in half and then each half into three even pieces.)
  13. Repeat until you're done with all the ingredients.
Yields: 8-9 rolls (48-54 pieces)

Vegetarian Hosomaki

Notes to self:
  • It takes time to figure out how to make presentable sushi, but practice makes perfect!
  • If the roll is too full, it won't stick to itself, so try using less rice. It took a lot of experimenting for me before I figured out the most appropriate amount of rice to use, and still I would keep making mistakes.
  • The vinegared water is the secret to not having rice all over your hands. It is also very important to dab it on your knife before cutting each roll; otherwise, it won't cut well.
  • Not all soy sauce is the same. Make sure you eat sushi with Japanese soy sauce, not Chinese soy sauce!
  • Not all chopsticks are the same. Compared to Chinese chopsticks, Japanese chopsticks are shorter and have tapered ends (as opposed to the blunt ends on Chinese chopsticks) that make them easier to pick up delicate foods such as pickled ginger.

Vegetarian Hosomaki
Vegetarian Hosomaki
It took a while to get a few pieces that looked somewhat presentable...  I need more practice!

Though aesthetically my sushi rolls left something to be desired due to lack of practice, and it took all afternoon and many failures to make enough for my party, at least these rolls tasted pretty darn good.  Guests enjoyed them a lot, which is the most important thing. :)

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    Chocolate Wasabi Ice Cream (Jeni's Style)

    The first batch of ice cream I made from Jeni's cookbook was Gucci Muu Muu, which is essentially a chocolate-based ice cream with curry and toasted coconut.  Ever since then, I had wanted to use the base recipe to make a chocolate wasabi ice cream.  The inspiration came from the time I visited Oh Yeah! in Shadyside and had a chocolate soy ice cream with wasabi mixed in.  I wasn't crazy about the ice cream itself, but I thought the flavor combination was fabulous and something to try at home.

    I wanted to emulate Jeni's ice cream as much as possible, so I ordered some chocolate bars and cocoa powder from Askinoskie in Missouri.  I was pretty sure this would make for a great chocolate ice cream base as I'm totally in love with Jeni's Askinoskie Dark Milk Chocolate Ice Cream.  I followed the basic recipe for Gucci Muu Muu (p. 158), but instead of 1 tablespoon of curry powder I used 1 tablespoon of wasabi powder.  I also skipped the toasted coconuts.  Unfortunately, as the batter was churning, I discovered that there had been a misprint in the recipe so I did not use nearly enough heavy cream as I should have! :(  This also explained the thick consistency of my Gucci Muu Muu ice cream when I first made it.  Even though the ice cream still tasted good, it really wasn't the right balance of flavors I was hoping for.  Besides, I wanted to include this ice cream on the menu for my ice cream social, and most of my guests had only heard me rave about Jeni's but had never had the ice cream before, so I was particularly motivated to do right by Jeni and make the ice cream the way I should.

    So I tried again with the correct amount of cream and the result was exactly what I would have expected from a Jeni's recipe - rich, creamy, and tasty.  At the party I received an expected gift:  a very classy ice cream scoop and a set of beautiful ice cream bowls (thanks, Kitty!), and I wanted to use them in a photo right away:

    Chocolate Wasabi Ice Cream (Jeni's Style)
    Chocolate Wasabi Ice Cream

    My guests were quite intrigued by the chocolate wasabi combination and I think they enjoyed the ice cream.  Along with Chocolate Wasabi, I had also served homemade Mint Oreo and Basil ice cream, in addition to several of Jeni's commercial flavors.  The ice cream certainly made for a successful evening!

    This is part of a series of posts on recipes from or inspired by Jeni's Spendid Ice Creams at HomeThe rest of the series may be found here.

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Mint Oreo Ice Cream (Jeni's Style)

    In my last post I mentioned that I had recently started growing my own herbs, and that the final straw was the time I had to go to five different stores before I could find a little packet of fresh mint.  So naturally, one of the things I started growing myself was mint.  I knew before heading to Italy that the mint would grow rather quickly, but still, I was shocked by the monstrous size of it when I returned after just 12 days.

    Mint July 17, 2011
    Newly acquired mint (July 17, 2011)

    Mint July 19, 2011
    First week on my patio (July 19, 2011)

    Mint July 26, 2011
    Two days before I left for Italy (July 26, 2011)

    And upon my return to Italy:

    Mint Aug 9 2011
    The day after my return (August 9, 2011)
    Can you say "mint's gone wild"?!?

    I had expected to see a lot of mint when I got back - though not quite this much! - but because I knew I had to find a way to use a lot of mint quickly, and because I was finally going to invite a few people over for a little ice cream social, the idea had been brewing in my head for a few weeks to make some kind of mint ice cream after getting back from Italy.  I had already tried making the base mint flavor so I wanted to add a little something to it, but chocolate chips seem too...boring.  Fellow food blogger Suburghia Foodie had suggested something with honeydew or cantaloupe, but I was worried that the fruits would be too juicy for ice cream (though the mint-melon combo would probably be just perfect for a sorbet!).  The only idea I could come up with was Oreo cookies (not exactly that unusual, I know).  So, I set out to make the mint ice cream using the Backyard Mint recipe from Jeni's cookbook.  Last time I tried this recipe, I didn't have enough mint, so this time I made sure to grab a nice big bowl of it.  I steeped the ripped mint in the ice cream base for about 16 hours - longer than the 12 hours I did last time.  Then, I folded in eight crushed oreo sandwiches (or 16 cookies depending on how you look at it, with the icing removed) to the post-churned batter as I poured it into a container for freezing.

    Mint Oreo Ice Cream (Jeni's Style)
    Mint Oreo Ice Cream

    I really enjoyed the end result.  With my mint continuing to grow like crazy, I have a feeling I will be making this and other variations of mint ice cream pretty regularly!

    This is part of a series of posts on recipes from or inspired by Jeni's Spendid Ice Creams at HomeThe rest of the series may be found here.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    Chicken Fusilli with Pesto

    Back in July I started growing my own herbs.  I was finally fed up with buying a whole bunch of fresh herbs only to use a little bit before it would go bad.  The final straw was the day I trekked to five different stores before I was able to find fresh mint, and even so, only a small packet of it.  Problem was, I was never known to have a green thumb.  I have never had a garden in my life, nor did my parents, and I promptly killed the first thing I ever tried to grow - potted roses that R. got me for our first Valentine's Day.

    But the one thing that gave me some hope was an orchid plant that a friend gifted me three years ago that is, miraculously, still alive, even after the traumatizing event of moving it to three different temporary apartments en route from DC to Pittsburgh.  I thought maybe I was finally ready to tackle something that required more frequent care than once-a-week watering.

    I started with some basil and parsley, and eventually added mint to my patio herb collection as well.  (More on the mint in a later post.)  The basil had grown some during the three weeks I had them before I left for Italy.  But still, did I have a surprise waiting for me when I got back after 12 days!  The basil had grown so much I hardly recognized them as my own!  Wow-ee!  I'm so lucky to have friendly, wonderful neighbors who took such good care of them while I was away!

    Basil July 12, 2011
    Basil (July 12, 2011)

    Basil Aug 9 2011
    Basil (August 9, 2011)

    But the biggest surprise was the parsley.  My first pot looked horrible when I first got it:

    Parsley July 12, 2011
    Parsley (July 12, 2011)

    And when half the parsley dried out after just a few days, I seriously thought it was not going to survive, so I bought another one:

    Parsley July 17, 2011
    Parsley (July 17, 2011)

    And this is what I found on my porch when I came back from Italy:

    Parsley Aug 9 2011
    Parsley (August 9, 2011)

    Yep, the one on the left is the original pot I had.  It was beyond belief that not only was it still alive, but it was thriving, after being so close to certain death.  The pot on the right is the newer one, and it, too, grew like a weed while I was away.  I am so proud of my babies!

    But now, what to do with this much herb?  R.'s mom suggested that I make pesto.  She listed the basic ingredients, but just to be sure, I consulted a recipe online to get the relative proportions right, and added parsley as well like R.'s mom suggested.  And so last weekend, I set out to make my first pesto ever, with herbs I grew myself!  I couldn't be more proud of me.  I know for many people this isn't such a big deal, but it really marked a significant step for me.  Just three years ago I barely cooked anything beyond spaghetti with meat sauce, and now I have gone from a self-proclaimed plant-killer and non-cook to making pesto with basil and parsley I grew on my own patio.  (*tear*)  I feel as if I have achieved a whole new level of foodiness.


    And it's awesome pesto to boot!  So now, what was I going to do with all this pesto?  I decided the most efficient way to use up a lot of pesto is to serve it with pasta:

    Chicken Fusilli with Pesto
    Chicken Fusilli with Pesto

    It is a simple recipe, really.  Fusilli, thin-sliced thicken, cherry tomatoes, tossed with pesto and topped with toasted pine nuts.  But it's very good, if I may say so myself! :)  The full recipe can be found in the link below.

    Full recipe (both pesto and pasta):
    Download here

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    Ristorante Alla Conchiglia (Venice, Italy)

    After the Tuscany leg of our trip, we traveled to Venice for our last three days in Italy.  Even though I liked all the areas in Italy we've visited - all for different reasons - Venice was probably my favorite city on this trip, and it's not because all the bridges remind me of Pittsburgh. ;)  As a former band geek, it was really neat to be in a city where classical music is like rock music.

    And then, of course, there are the canals, the gondolas, and the beautiful architecture.  Often considered one of the most romantic cities in the world, R.'s mom graciously made her own plans one night so that R. and I could have a date night.  "Date night" actually started in the afternoon when we spent some time walking around and exploring Venice, during which we walked past Ristorante Alla Conchiglia.  Another Rick Steves-recommendation, the three of us had hoped to dine there the night before but for no particular reason it had been closed.  (On a Friday night, no less!  Welcome to Italy!)  So we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was open on this day, and made an early reservation for an outdoor table.

    Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Ristorante Alla Conchiglia, right on a canal

    I didn't get to see much of Ristorante Alla Conchiglia on the inside, but the outdoor seating is quite charming as it sits right on a canal.  We were 15 minutes early but were promptly seated.  The restaurant wasn't very busy when we first sat down, but the small outdoor patio filled up quickly even though 6:00 pm is considered a very early dining time in Italy.  Good thing we had happened by earlier and reserved a table!

    We started our meal with an order of Tomato Bruschetta.

    Bruschetta at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Tomato Bruschetta (6,90 euro)

    Knowing that Venice is known for its seafood, we focused our menu-browsing energy on the "Pesce" section.  For his entree, R. ordered the Spiedini Alla Griglia, or grilled skewered kebab, with salmon, tuna, swordfish, and red bell peppers, served with a tropea onion chutney.  I enjoyed my one bite of it, and he thoroughly enjoyed the rest.

    Spiedini alla griglia at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Spiedini Alla Griglia (18,90 euro)

    I had really hoped to try their specialty Venetian Style Turbot (I mean, where else can you get something like that??), but the waiter informed me that the fish is served whole and would be rather large for one person.  R. seemed to have had his heart already set on his choice of entree, so the waiter suggested the Branzino al forno (baked sea bass) instead, which is also sold whole but is smaller and priced by the 100-gram.  The smallest sea bass was 500 grams, which is just a little over a pound.  Even that is pretty substantial for one little person!

    After a little while I noticed that the waiter was setting up a station next to our table.  Anticipation ensued.  Soon, the waiter brought out my sea bass and I requested to take a picture before he got to cutting and de-boning it:

    Baked Sea Bass at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Branzino al forno, 500 g at 5,90 euro per 100 g (29,50 euro)

    And then, it was ready to be served, along with potatoes, veggies, and plenty of sauce:

    Baked Sea Bass at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Branzino al forno, 500 g at 5,90 euro per 100 g (29,50 euro)

    What an exquisite dish!  I devoured the whole thing and loved every bite of it.  The seafood really is solid in Venice, and the sea bass was a great recommendation by the waiter.

    To cap off our dinner date, we ordered a Tiramisu to share.  I was stuffed after the bruschetta and 1.1-lb sea bass, but with only one more day left in Italy, I was running out of time to find that perfect tiramisu!

    Tiramisu at Ristorante Alla Conchiglia in Venice
    Tiramisu (7,50 euro)

    And this melt-in-you-mouth beauty was the perfect tiramisu - the best I had in Italy!  The only regret I had was that my stomach wasn't large enough to allow me to enjoy a whole one instead of just half! ;)

    To be sure, this meal was not cheap, but we knew the food would carry higher prices in Venice (and it is not that different from a higher-end restaurant in the US), and the delicious food and lovely atmosphere by the canal was worth every euro in my opinion.  My philosophy is that sometimes you have to pay a little more for the experience, and this was one meal, I believe, that we will have fond memories of for years to come.

    With this all-round wonderful meal, I also conclude my series of Italy blog posts.  The trip was a great time; I appreciated the opportunity to visit some amazing attractions, learn a little about Italian culture, and enjoy some fantastic food, wine, and olive oil.  I can't think of a better way to cap off the Summer of 2011.

    Restaurant info:
    Ristorante Alla Conchiglia
    Fondamenta S. Lorenzo, 4990/4991, 30122 Venezia VE, Italia
    Phone: +39 041 5289095
    On the web: http://www.ristoranteallaconchiglia.com/conchiglia/?lang=en

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    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio (Monteriggioni, Italy)

    My last post mentioned daytime excursions to Volterra and San Gimignano on our last day in Tuscany.  After  a little bit of down time in the afternoon, our tour group went on an optional tour that was strongly recommended by our tour director: a brief tour of Monteriggioni and dinner at a farm somewhere out in the country.  Little did we know that this dinner would turn out to be our most unforgettable meal we would have in Italy!

    Azienda Agricola Il Ciliego, or "The Cherry Tree Farm," is a farm and winery that family patriarch Mario Pattaro opened in 1952, and is still currently operated by his sons and grandsons.  Upon our arrival at the farm, we were greeted by grape vineyards and some chickens and turkeys roaming about.  Luca, one of the grandsons who is a viniculture engineer, gave us a tour of the property and a little backstory about the farm.  He explained that the name of the farm came from the five cherry trees that once stood at the entrance of the farm; today, only one tree remains.  The guys do all the work themselves, from working in the fields growing various crops, to butchering their own pigs and poultry, to producing their own wine in-house using the grapes they grow themselves.  Not only is the farm completely self-sufficient food-wise, but they even generate their own electricity from the solar panels they installed a few years ago.

    We could tell that Luca was very passionate about his work.  He talked about thinking with your heart as well as with your eyes.  With the heart, one has to love the land and the work, to be able to work the long hours in the fields, rain or shine.  With the eyes, one has to have foresight, to be able to follow the market and know what people will want.

    Luca giving a tour of Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Luca explaining his family's work at the farm & winery.

    Grapes at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    This photo doesn't do justice to the tremendous size of Italian grapes!

    Wine cellar at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Where the wine magic happens.

    Following the tour, we had a mini wine-tasting with two sparkling wines; one was a Vino Spumante Dolce which was sweet, and the other a Vino Spumante Brut which was the drier of the two.  I definitely preferred the sweeter one myself.

    Wine tasting at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Vino Spumante Dolce (left) and Vino Spumante Brut (right)

    Wine tasting at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    "Cin Cin!"

    Following the spumante tasting, we went upstairs to the restaurant for dinner and drinks made from food grown right on the property.  It doesn't get fresher than that!

    The restaurant at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    The restaurant

    We started with two different types of wine from the farm, with a third (a reserved version of the red wine) to be served later in the evening.

    Wine at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Red wine
    The first course was an antipasto plate with three types of bruschetta (tomatoes, pate, and beans), cheese, salami (including the famed wild boar), and a half slice of cantaloupe.  Everything was deliciozo, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be the pate bruschetta.

    Antipasto at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #1: Antipasto

    The second course was Spelt, which I had never even heard of before this dinner.  It's a type of wheat that seems to be common in some parts of Europe.  This amazing dish came with olives, red peppers, yellow peppers, zucchini, egg white, capers, cheese, basil, and other herbs.

    Spelt at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #2: Spelt

    The third course was a pasta with sausages, zucchini, and tomatoes.

    Pasta at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #3: Pasta

    Then came pork that actually tasted like beef, and some out-of-this-world-amazing baked (broiled?) potato.

    Pork at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #4: Pork

    The next course was a delicious veal.

    Veal at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #5: Veal

    And because R.'s mom is a pescatarian, they brought out some eggplants for her in place of the meat.  I tried a piece and it was fab.  I'm really liking this eggplant business.

    Eggplant at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany

    Course #6 was actually a light salad that I didn't get a picture of because it came in a large serving bowl for the table to share, and I didn't want to make other people wait just so I could snap a photo.  I didn't end up partaking in the salad anyway as I was already more than full by this point!

    But wait...what full belly?  Dessert is on the table!  We had a slice of pie made with fresh peaches and ricotta cheese.  Yum!

    Peach  and Ricotta Cheese Pie at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Course #7: Peach and Ricotta Pie

    And finally, some Vin Santo wine and biscotti to wash everything down with.  Vin Santo is a strong dessert wine that's popular in the Tuscany region, as we discovered during our olive oil tasting two days prior.

    Biscotti at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany

    Vin Santo Wine at Azienda Agricola Il Ciliegio in Tuscany
    Vin Santo

    Overall, the food was most delightful - every single course was tasty, fresh, natural, and made with love by the mother and granddaughter-in-law of the family (and served by another grandson).  It kind of reminded me of that Mexican movie Like Water for Chocolate, in which the heroine's love and emotions seep into the meals she prepares and cause those to consume her cooking to be ignited by passion, sometimes quite literally.  OK, reality wasn't nearly so dramatic as no one caught on fire by spontaneous combustion from our meal, but I just imagine these two little lovely ladies in the kitchen wearing their cute country aprons preparing each course with tender loving care as though the food were their babies.  By the end of the evening, we were all happily rubbing our bellies.  A meal that can satisfy 18 people all at once is nothing short of amazing, and it truly speaks to the quality of the work that the Pattaro family puts into their farm and their restaurant.  The service was also very friendly.  This was far and away the best meal we had in Italy (all three of us agree), and undeniably the highlight of our vacation the summer of 2011.

    Restaurant info:
    Azienda AGricola Il Ciliegio
    Via Uopini, 94, 53035 Monteriggioni (SI), Italy
    Phone: +39 0577 309055
    On the web: http://www.ilciliegio.com/

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    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Gelateria Caffetteria Chic e Shock (Volterra, Italy)

    Last Thursday was our last day in Tuscany.  We spent the earlier part of the day touring two towns that were not too far from Siena - Volterra and San Gimignano.  As usual, I went in search for gelato.  In Volterra, in particular, I enjoyed this one place called Chic & Shock, which is not a large place but serves up some interesting flavors.  A friend had mentioned the previous day about having had biscotti flavored gelato once while she was in Italy and never found it again.  And what do you know, there it was, Biscotti gelato, at Chic & Shock.  Naturally, I had to try this hard-to-find variety.  Along with biscotti, I also got the Pear flavored gelato.  Overall, the gelato was good.  Not quite Vivoli-good, but definitely solid.  The biscotti flavor was interesting and tasty, although I thought the pear was really the standout between this two, chock-full of natural, fresh taste of sweet pears.

    Biscotti and Pear Gelato at Chic and Shock in Volterra
    Biscotti and Pear gelato

    Three more days to go in Italy, but unfortunately this was the last good gelato I had on my trip as I caught a cold the next day and had to quit gelato (which makes me cough when I have a cold) as well as wine.  I had to quit delicious Italian WINE!  So sad.  But, there was still good food to be had.  Stay tuned.

    Restaurant info:
    Gelateria Caffetteria Chic e Shock
    Via dei Marchesi, 13, Volterra, Pisa, Italy
    Phone:  0588 80508

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    Rosticceria Ristorante Vitti (Siena, Italy)

    After spending the day in Florence, we were back in Siena for the evening.  R. and I took advantage of the opportunity to do a little shopping at Consorzio Agrario di Siena and soon enough it was time for dinner.  Right across the street from the shop, tucked in between some buildings, we saw this cute little restaurant with outdoor seating, and the menu looks pretty good, so we decided to give it a shot.

    Ristorante Vitto in Siena
    The quaint Ristorante Vitti in the Medieval town of Siena.

    The menu at Rosticceria Ristorante Vitti is quite extensive.  We ordered a Mozzarella e Pomodoro (or Mozzarella and Tomato) to start.  We've noticed that in Italy, mozzarella cheese is often served whole rather than sliced.  This was a great, fresh salad.  And what's not to love about whole mozzarella balls?

    Caprese Salad at Ristorante Vitto in Siena
    Mozzarella e Pomodoro (7,50 euro)

    R. also got the Lasagna al forno for himself, which was very tasty even without being drenched in sauce (something we've also noticed about lasagna in Italy).

    Lasagna at Ristorante Vitto in Siena
    Lasagna al forno (8,50 euro)

    As for me, I wanted to get some veal, seeing that it is the specialty of this region.  Vitti had a large selection of veal prepared in different ways and with different accompaniments which made the choice pretty tough, but I decided to go with a simple Vitella Arrosto (Roasted Veal), which was also done quite well.

    Roasted Veal at Ristorante Vitto in Siena
    Vitella Arrosto (11,50 euro)

    I didn't get a picture of this, but we ordered a 3/4 bottle of house red wine, and I don't know if they heard us wrong, or if "3/4 bottle" means something different in Italy, or if they just accidentally poured too much into the bottle for us, but we got a whole bottle of wine, served in an unlabeled, already-opened container (which seems to be common practice in Italy).  Not only was the wine excellent (this was Tuscany, after all), but when was the last time you paid 9,50 euro (US$13.68) for a bottle of wine at a restaurant?  I love that wine is so inexpensive in Italy.  The abundance of wine at this dinner made for a fun night out for us. :)

    Another thing we've noticed about eating out in Italy is that the presentation of the food is sometimes very simple to almost nonexistent.  Our food here (as well as at Enoteca Corsi in Rome and a few other places we visited) came with no garnish or much of an attempt at aesthetics arrangement.  This isn't a complaint, just an observation of differences between Italian dining and American dining.  We think it is because Italian dining generally involves multiple courses which you order a la carte, so there is no need for main courses to come with extra bells and whistles.  I'd also have to wonder how much of this is due to societal demands.  In the US, presentation is a huge aspect of food service at restaurants, and diners want not only their food to taste good but to also look good, thus creating a dining culture that emphasizes aesthetics.  I certainly buy into that myself; as someone who enjoys photographing food, presentation is very important.  That said, I also appreciated the down-to-earthness (is that a word??) of the way in which the Italians serve their food.  Presentation or not, I always enjoy a good meal, like the one we had here at Vitti.

    Restaurant info:
    Rosticceria Ristorante Vitti
    Via dei Montanini, 14, 53100 Siena, Italy
    Phone: +39 0577 289291 ‎

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    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Vivoli Il Gelato (Florence, Italy)

    Last Wednesday we took a day-trip from Siena to Florence.  I was particularly excited about this visit, not because I would get to see many statues of naked men (OK, I concede, Michelangelo's David was pretty incredible), but because a few people had mentioned to me that Florence is where good gelato can be found. Even though I had pretty decent gelato at Caffe Fonte Gaia in Siena, I was excited by the prospect of even better gelato.  (Remember, I'm quite a snob in this department)

    Following a walking tour of the town that, yes, included a fair amount of nude statue-ogling - we ended up in Piazza Santa Croce with some free time to ourselves.  My ears perked up when our tour director recommended a place on a little street just a few minutes' walk outside of Piazza Santa Croce, called Vivoli, for gelato.  So what if it was time for lunch?  Gelato must be had!

    Vivoli is a pretty cramped space that sells gelato but also coffee, salads, and probably other goodies that I wasn't paying attention to.  You first pay the cashier at the front and then bring the receipt over to the gelato lady and let her know what flavors you want.  Vivoli has a pretty good selection of gelato flavors.  I couldn't resist two of the rather unusual flavors: Sesamo Croccante (or Sesame Crisp) and Avocado.  I got a cup with a small scoop of each, and I think I paid 2.50 euros for it, and I absolutely loved it!  The avocado flavor isn't very strong, but it is quite good and tasted like what you would expect avocado gelato to taste like.  The sesame, complete with crispy bits of fresh toasted sesame, was absolutely divine.  As a huge fan of sesame, I was an instant fan of this gelato.

    Vivoli il Gelato in Florence
    Gelato at Vivoli

    Sesamo Croccante and Avocado gelato at Vivoli in Florence
    Avocado and Sesamo Croccante Gelato

    Vivoli's gelato is very rich, and the flavors match what they should taste like, which unfortunately isn't something that can be said for some of the other gelato places I visited in Italy.  I mean, the Italians invented gelato right?  So they should all know how to make it well, no?  OK, apparently not.  The superior quality of the gelato at Vivoli is on par with my beloved Jeni's Ice Creams in Columbus (which by the way, was recently named one of top 5 ice cream parlors in the WORLD - and you wonder why I'm an ice cream snob).

    After Vivoli, I set out to find another gelato place I had heard good things about.  I did find the place, which shall remain unnamed, and long story short, it was no match for Vivoli.  So despite having already had six (small) scoops of gelato that day, I went back to Vivoli later for one last treat before our day in Florence was to come to an end.  So maybe I had a lot of gelato that day, but hey, I did skip lunch!  That makes up for it, right?  Yes?? ;)

    Sesamo Croccante & Chocolate Hazelnut gelato at Vivoli in Florence
    Sesamo Croccante and Cioccolato Nocciola Gelato

    This time, I just had to have the Sesamo Croccante again because it was so darn good, but for the second flavor I got the Cioccolato Nocciola (or Chocolate Hazelnut) which R. had enjoyed on our earlier trip to Vivoli that day.  The richness of the chocolate hazelnut reminds me of Jeni's Dark Chocolate ice cream - strong, flavorful, and phenomenal.

    Vivoli was the knock-my-socks-off gelato that I had been searching for in Italy, and it remained the best gelato I had during this 10-day trip.  I only wish we got to stay in Florence longer so I could go back for more!

    Restaurant info:
    Il Gelato Vivoli
    Via dell’Isola delle Stinche 7r, Firenze, Italia
    Phone: 055/292334
    On the web: http://www.vivoli.it/

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    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Al Rastrello in NH Excelsior Hotel (Siena, Italy)

    On our first night in Siena the whole tour group dined at our hotel restaurant. The meal started with a Chickpea and Bean Soup that was very delicious. It tasted a bit like lentil soup.

    Chickpea and Bean Soup at Nh Excelsior in Siena
    Chickpea and Bean Soup
    Then came the Veal, which is a specialty of Tuscany:

    Veal at Nh Excelsior in Siena

    R.’s mom is a pescatarian, and so instead of veal they brought her Eggplant Parmesan. I got to try some and liked it a lot, despite a longstanding aversion to eggplant that originated from my childhood. I really think I’m becoming more and more comfortable with eating eggplant, so long as it is made the Italian way. :)

    Eggplant Parmesan at Nh Excelsior in Siena
    Eggplant Parmesan

    Finally, we finished off the meal with an Apricot Tart, which seems to be pretty common in Italy, both in Tuscany and in Venice which we visited next.

    Apricot Tart at Nh Excelsior in Siena
    Apricot Tart

    We washed down the meal with some solid white wine compliments of our dining companions, a grandparents + grandson trio from Connecticut.  It was a simple but enjoyable meal with great company, and a nice way to end our first night in Siena!

    Restaurant info:
    Al Rastrello in NH Excelsior Hotel
    Piazza La Lizza, 53100 Siena, Italy
    Phone: +39 0577382111
    On the web:  http://www.nh-hotels.com/nh/en/hotels/italy/siena/nh-excelsior.html?type=restaurants

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