Posts tagged spices

A Stroll through the Mercato Centrale

Ciao, tutti! I’m finally back from my quick trip to Italy—Florence, to be exact. Although I was working most of the time, I did have a few free hours here and there. During one of these periods I decided to visit Florence’s Mercato Centrale. Located in a two-floor, nineteenth-century cast iron building near San Lorenzo, this amazing array of Italian food stalls is known as the best food market in the city. Over the course of a few hours I strolled around and around, up and down, trying to take it all in.

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As I walked through the halls of the ground floor, I immediately noticed the piles of fresh produce at several different stands. From cabbage to radicchio, artichokes to squash, seasonality was on full display. The cold temperature inside kept everything fresh, and I was also impressed by the clean, pristine hallways of the market.

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Although my eyes first turned to the vibrant fruits and vegetables, a more thorough investigation of the ground floor revealed an assortment of vendors selling fresh and prepared foods. Baskets of dried porcini mushrooms peeked from between rows of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and wine. Fresh bread rested behind glass display cases, away from eager hands. Every time I turned a corner I encountered something I wanted to eat.

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Panzerotti, ravioli, cappellacci—all of these fresh pastas stuffed with ingredients such as nuts, cheese, spinach, and mushrooms called to me, as did the gnocchi and gnudi, while I lingered by their display cases. Without my own kitchen in Florence all I could do was look and imagine how they would taste. I settled on three bags of dried, spaghetti-like pici instead, mentally planning a special pasta dinner back in Brooklyn.

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I’m usually not a fan of dried fruit, but I couldn’t shy away from the colorful array I encountered during my tour. Kiwi, mango, papaya, melon, and apricot varieties kept me satisfied during the rest of the week at work, whenever my stomach grumbled and I was hours away from a meal.

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Also on the ground floor were the butchers. Some butcher stands simply focused on conventional cuts of poultry, lamb, and beef. Others offered tripe and additional types of offal, and even more adventurous products such as pigs’ feet. Dressed in white coats and wielding huge knives, the butchers chopped and sliced at their wares for the bustling crowd. Every part of the animal was for sale; nothing went to waste. Chickens were left with their necks and feet intact, so there was no mistaking that the meat had come from an actual animal.

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Rounding out my tour of the first floor were the cheese and cured meat vendors. Huge chunks of parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, and different types of salumi beckoned me from all corners, and I finally bought some salamina cinghiale (wild boar salami) for Jim. I quickly walked past the few fish mongers located together at one end of the building, trying to avoid the smell of fresh fish in the morning.

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A short climb up the iron staircase to the sprawling second floor revealed more produce and herbs. Towers of citrus, greens, and other vegetables mingled with sun-dried tomatoes, salted capers, and dried herbs such as basil, rosemary, and parsley. Since I couldn’t buy any of the fresh produce I just admired the first zucchini of the season and marveled at the varieties of squash, apples, and lettuce.

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After a few laps around the building I had worked up quite an appetite. I returned downstairs to the ground floor and joined the long line at a crowded stand called Nerbone, where I picked up a porchetta sandwich (4€).  It didn’t look like much—just a few slices of pork slapped into a roll—but oh my, was it wonderful. The soft, juicy meat nestled into a crispy roll quickly disappeared as I eagerly finished my sandwich. It was the perfect way to end my stroll of Florence’s Mercato Centrale. 

Mercato Centrale, open Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 2 pm, near San Lorenzo on Via dell’Ariento in Florence, Italy.

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Cooking with Yogurt: More Than a Snack in a Cup

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As a teenager, I would browse through the shelves at the supermarket, picking out cups of yogurt infused with my favorite fruits. I’d get home, open a container, maybe mix in some granola. As I raised a spoonful of the creamy mixture to my mouth I’d think, this is it…I’m going to love yogurt.

Nope, it never happened. There was something about yogurt’s sour taste that always made me grimace and recoil from the container after a few bites. I knew it was full of healthy stuff like protein, calcium, and vitamin B. But no matter how hard I tried, I failed to make my peace with it and it has never been a regular part of my diet.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered that I enjoy the effect of yogurt in baked goods. It adds extra moisture and tenderness to muffins and cakes, and can be used as a substitute for high-fat ingredients such as sour cream. Best of all, its sour aftertaste is camouflaged by whatever I am baking it into. I’ve even used yogurt as a binder in meatballs with successful results.

Over the weekend I made Food & Wine’s Spiced Yogurt Muffins. In place of the low-fat yogurt called for in the recipe, I used skyr, a thick, non-fat yogurt that is actually Iceland’s most popular snack. Perhaps because of the thicker nature of the skyr, the muffins came out a bit denser than I expected. No matter, as they still retained the soft, spongy texture that I had been looking forward to; they were positively squeezable. Cinnamon, allspice, clove, and nutmeg combined with a bit of applesauce to create muffins as comforting as hot apple cider on a cold winter day.

I see infinite possibilities for these muffins: Next time I make them I think I’ll add some chopped walnuts, and perhaps I’ll substitute some whole wheat flour in with the white. Whatever I decide to do, I’m sure the yogurt will make everything taste great. I have finally found yogurt-related peace.

 Recipe for Spiced Yogurt Muffins (adapted from November 2008’s Food & Wine magazine)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups plain low-fat yogurt or non-fat Norwegian skyr
  • 4 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners. (Food & Wine suggests spraying the cups with vegetable oil. I skipped this step, and once the muffins cooled, I didn’t have a problem removing the muffins from the liners.)

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg in a large bowl. Whisk all of the ingredients together. Break up any large clumps of brown sugar with a fork.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, butter, applesauce, and vanilla. Gradually add the yogurt mixture into the dry ingredients until just blended.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Fill each cup halfway, as the contents will rise a bit during baking. Sprinkle the granulated sugar and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg over the muffins. Bake for 18 minutes. Cool the muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Enjoy!

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Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (and an Engagement)

I know, I know. I thought I was back on the path to blogging regularly, but somehow two weeks have gone by without a new post. Between worrying about the election and traveling many miles on the weekends for various family commitments, I’ve been pressed for both time and energy. But in the midst of all the craziness, I have some good news: My sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim are engaged! You may remember these wacky kids from several restaurant adventures I’ve written about, as well as an exhausting ravioli dinner last year. Needless to say, I am thrilled for the happy couple.

Last weekend my parents threw a party to celebrate the engagement, and my mother asked Jim and I to contribute an appetizer. After some thought, Jim suggested that we make a dish inspired by Nedim’s Turkish heritage. I immediately agreed, so we pulled out Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and started flipping through the pages.

We had a few criteria for our appetizer, beyond its necessary Turkish roots. First of all, Jim and I knew that my mother would be busy preparing the rest of the party food in the oven, and we wanted to stay out of her way. We needed to stay out of her way. (Trust me.) Our appetizer had to travel well, as we would be transporting it from our home in Brooklyn, and it had to be unobtrusive in my mother’s kitchen. We decided that a cold dish would be best.

We quickly settled on making Roden’s cold stuffed grape leaves, which she also calls dolma. The word dolma actually refers to any stuffed vegetable dish of Middle Eastern origin, but grape leaves are one of the best known. Meat dolma are hot, while vegetarian dolma are usually served cold or at room temperature. After buying some preserved grape leaves at Sahadi’s, Jim and I settled in for an exciting Friday night at home, rolling and stuffing about 70 leaves with a fragrant mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice.

While the process of preparing the grape leaves was time-consuming, it actually wasn’t stressful or exhausting. Jim and I had fun methodically stuffing and rolling the cigar-shaped tubes as the evening wore on. Once rolled, the leaves were cooked in a bath of olive oil and lemon juice, resulting in the glistening surface and smooth texture typical of this traditional mezze. Jim and I tasted one that night, biting through the delicate layers of supple, slightly briny leaves to the cool, silky rice and Middle Eastern spices within. While the coating of olive oil, lemon juice, and sugar imparted a luxurious sweetness to the rolls, the secret to this recipe was the mint; it infused the leaves with a zesty lightness that I adored.

I’m pretty sure that everyone at the party enjoyed our contribution to the appetizers, including my sister and her fiancé. I was surprised by how many people referred to the leaves as dolma, as I had never heard the term before reading the recipe. My cousin’s Greek husband even said they were the best he ever tasted. So, welcome to the family, Nedim. I hope you liked them as well!

Recipe for Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) This recipe makes about 70 grape leaves, perfect for a big party or celebration.

For the filling:

  • 2 1/2 cups Carolina long-grain rice
  • 6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 very large white onion, finely diced
  • 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 tablespoons dried mint
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 2 or 3 plum tomatoes (sliced)
  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons

Bring a full kettle of water to a boil. Place the preserved grapes leaves in a large bowl, and try to separate the leaves as much as possible. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, making sure that the water reaches between the layers of leaves. Let the leaves soak for 20 minutes. Drain. Using fresh, cold water, change the water twice. Set aside.

Put another kettle of water on the stove to boil. In another large bowl, pour the boiling water over the rice. Stir well, then rinse the rice under cold water. Add the tomatoes, onion, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice to the rice. Stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

At this point, you are ready to stuff the grape leaves. Remove a leaf from the bowl and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Blot it dry with a paper towel if it seems too wet. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf, near the stem end at the base of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Mix the olive oil with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add the sugar and fresh lemon juice. Stir. Set aside.

Line the bottom of 2 large, high-sided sauté pans or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. You can create a second layer of leaves if you need to. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired.

Stir the olive oil/lemon juice mixture, and pour it over the leaves, evenly dividing the liquid between the pans if using more than one. Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pans, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Cool the leaves in the pans before removing the rolls. Once completely cooled, you can refrigerate the rolls. Serve cold or at room temperature. Enjoy!

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