A Taste of Italy and a recipe for Montasio Frico

In the lead up to San Francisco’s Fancy Food Show, I was invited by Legends from Europe to a sneak preview and tasting of their products and a cooking demonstration by award winning chef, author, and restauranteur Joanne Weir. I needed no prodding to accept.

Legends from Europe is a 3 year campaign funded by the European Union and launched in the U.S. to increase awareness and celebrate “the legendary quality, tradition and taste” of five authentic PDO products (Protected Designation of Origin) from Europe: Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Grana Padano and Montasio. These happen to be 5 of my favorite products to cook with and to eat. I know them well from when I lived in Europe, and now that I live in the US, I continue to use them – either presented on a cheese and charcuterie board or integrated in a number of my recipes. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of rustic European cuisine, and each of these superior products bring a little taste of old world Europe to my California kitchen.

joanne weir

~ Joanne Weir presenting her  Montasio Frico ~

Not only am I a fan of Legends products, I am equally a fan of Joanne Weir, an award winning chef, author, television personality and chef-owner of the popular Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito. As an added treat for this event, Weir created 5 mouthwatering recipes with the Legends products including Endive with Prosciutto San Daniele and Gradano; Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Brown Butter and Parmigiano Reggiano; and a Fennel Radicchio and Arugula Salad with Shaved Grana Padano. My 2 favorites (which says a lot) were a Prosciutto di Parma wrapped Halibut on a bed of Spiced Lentils and a sinfully rich Montasio Frico – a crispy wafer-thin cheese and potato tart for which I would have no qualms to wrestle my children for the last bite. Finally, to complete the experience, each dish was perfectly paired with a wine selected by Elisabetta Fagioli representing Cantine Giacomo Montresor, a well known Italian wine producer in Verona Italy.

halibut prosciutto~ Prosciutto di Parma-Wrapped Halibut with Spiced Lentils and Arugula ~

Of the 5 products represented by Legends from Europe, Montasio is perhaps the least well-known. Montasio cheese is a firm cows milk cheese that ranges in color from ivory (fresh or young aged) to straw yellow (medium aged). Its origins  may be traced back to a 17th century mountain monastery in the Alps of Friuli Venezia Giulia in Northeastern Italy. The fresh cheese is mild and delicate in flavor while the aged cheese is firmer in body with more strength in flavor. Fresh Montasio cheese is used in making the Friulan cheese crisp known as frico.

Montasio Frico with Bacon and Potatoes – recipe courtesy of Joanne Weir

For a vegetarian option, omit the bacon.

2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2/3 cup sliced and boiled potatoes
5 ounces Montasio cheese, shredded

Cook the bacon until golden in an 8-inch non-stick pan over medium heat. Pour off all of the fat. Add the cheese and cook until the cheese is melted and the edges are golden brown. The frico should be firm enough that it moves in the pan. (You may have to use a spatula and shake the pan a little). Blot with paper towels if there is an excess of oil on the top.

Place the potatoes in a single layer on the cheese. Invert a plate onto the top and turn the pan and the plate. Slide the frico back into the pan. Continue to cook until the second side is golden and the inside is still a little soft. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

Disclaimer: I was not paid to write this post and all opinions are my own.

Boar Ragu with Pappardelle

Boar Ragu with Pappardelle

Ever since a trip to Umbria last year when we ate a succulent wild boar ragu in an obscure village restaurant, I have had boar on my mind.  The ragu was served over a platter heaped with pappardelle. The meat was falling apart tender, dissolving in a rich wine sauce perfumed with juniper and cloves. Since then, that meal has been a popular conversation topic in our family when reflecting on our trip. So, I decided to try and make my own boar ragu.

Boar meat may be ordered from your butcher and, depending on where you live, you may find it in specialty stores that carry game meat. I ordered my meat from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas, where they raise ranch-raised boar. The meat arrived frozen in a cooler box and I popped it into my freezer, so it would be ready when I devised a recipe.

The flavor of boar may be likened to a cross between pork and lamb. Boar meat is very lean and rich in protein. It has more protein than beef or pork and is lower in cholesterol than chicken. Not bad for an animal deemed an exotic pest in the U.S. Due to its mild gamey flavor and lack of fat, boar meat benefits from marinades and slow cooking, and it’s well matched with spirits and aromatic spices such as cloves and juniper.

Boar Ragu with Pappardelle

As the ragu simmers, the boar meat will absorb a good deal of the liquid. The ragu may be made up to 2 days in advance, allowing the flavors to develop with time. As an alternative to pasta, serve over polenta. Serves 4-6.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound boar shoulder, cut in 1 inch chunks
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 large garlic cloves
1 – 28 ounce can Italian plum tomatoes with juices
2 cups full-bodied red wine
4 bay leaves
Bouquet garni: 1 tablespoon crushed juniper berries, 8 black peppercorns, 6 whole cloves, tied in cheese cloth with kitchen string

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet. Season boar all over with salt and pepper. Add boar to the skillet in batches and brown on all sides, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Transfer meat to a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon oil. Sauté onion, carrots and garlic, scraping up brown bits, until they begin to soften, 4 minutes. Return boar with any juices to the pan. Add tomatoes, red wine, bay leaves and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over very low heat, partially covered, until meat is falling tender and sauce is reduced by half, 2 hours. Serve with pappardelle and top with grated cheese.

The Pig Chronicles – Home Cured Ham


OK, I am going for it.  I put a call in to my foodie friend, Diana. I need to find a pig.  Well, actually just a part of a pig, but ideally attached to a living member of a farm community, blissfully nibbling away in an area that is kind to people and animals alike – Sonoma County, California.  Bliss and terroir are important. The pig should be happy, organically raised, and living from a local, natural diet that will impact the flavor of its meat.  I can’t dictate the nature of the geography, but my guess is that Sonoma county is not a bad place to start.

My back-up plan is to purchase a leg directly from an organic meat producer.  I had a nice chat with the man at the Prather Ranch table at the farmers’ market this morning, and he can help me out if I cannot adopt a pig.  Prather Ranch is located near Mt. Shasta, and as environments go, this is a very nice one, too. This would also sort out a dilemma I face (sorry) which is my own cowardice/hypocrisy/whatever-you-want-to-label-it: while I will happily invest in a pig’s welfare, upbringing, diet and care, I would prefer not to meet it.  It would be too difficult to face later.

So, I will own a quarter of a pig, or a leg, or however I am able to arrange it.  What I am specifically interested in is its rear end.  You see, I am after a ham, because I am determined to try and air-dry my own.  Salted, air-dried ham, or prosciutto, as I prefer to call it, is a favorite in our family diet.  We’ve been known to seek out obscure villages and towns  in our travels just to taste their air-dried ham and meat specialties. It’s also a frequent guest on my blog.  The lynchpin for me was when we visited Anna at the wonderful Villa Gioianna last month, and she showed us the hams she had air-drying in the cave of her turn of the century villa in Umbria.  Encased in salt, they had been hanging for months, while a man from the nearby village would come round weekly or so to see how they were drying and add more salt.  At that moment, I knew, I had to get my own pig.  Or at least its rear-end.

This will be a long process – up to half a year – and I will blog about it as it progresses.  My only wishes  at the outset are (1) finding a space that is consistently cool (60 F.) on our property in California  and (2) that my husband won’t be relocated.

Football Party Food

No, I am not talking about the Superbowl. I am talking about UEFA.  It’s World Cup Football Championship time again and for those of you not interested in or in touch with this intenrationl rite, it is THE football championship that takes place worldwide every summer. Don’t get me wrong. I hardly watch football (that’s soccer for you Americans). But, after all, I am married to a Dane and spent many years in Europe where, come summer, if you are not following at least a teensy bit of football in the news or on the television, you are living in a shoebox. Two years ago we were vacationing in Italy at the time the Italians won the world cup. Now that left an impression I am still talking about. During the quarterfinals we were in Rome. Being the tourists we were, we naively ventured into the city for dinner during the quarterfinal match. While the restaurants were open, they were very empty except for wayward disoriented tourists such as ourselves. The staff were, to say the least, distracted, and we quickly deduced that we might as well just go with the flow, and root for our new favorite football team while not being overly critical about the spotty table service. After our meal we realized that there would be no hope in finding a taxi driver to bring us back to our hotel. So, we wandered into another restaurant with a lounge and cheered on our new favorite team as they won the match. From that moment on the streets came alive with revelers, cars honking, sirens blaring. This continued well into the night, long after we had gone to bed – and it was just the quarterfinals. The semi-finals took place after we left Rome for Tuscany where we were sharing a house with some friends near Montepulciano. The afternoon of the match, we wandered around the narrow streets of the medieval village and came upon the square, or Piazza, where an enormous screen was being erected against a building façade. Rows of folding chairs filled the Piazza, encircling the fountain, and an instant outdoor theater was in place where all the village residents would gather together that evening and watch the football match. It made me think of the film Cinema Paradiso.

The finals were played on one of our last nights in Italy. We had moved on to the Isle of Elba and were staying in a lovely hotel with an excellent restaurant. The staff was very professional and proper, and the clientelle was well-heeled and dignified, hailing from Europe, the Middle East and Russia. So, imagine the night of the finals, when in the middle of the first dinner service, a tuxedoed maître d’ wheeled a television into the center of the dining terrasse. On cue, all protocol was suspended, and waiters, busboys, hotel staff gathered around the television along with diners balancing dinner plates on their tuxedoed laps. The French tourists cheered on France and the Italian tourists and staff cheered on the Italians. We were all caught up in a passionate TV dinner for the next 2 hours. When the meal was finished we crowded into the bar, squeezing into already full sofas, balancing on the arms of chairs, sitting cross-legged on the floor, elbow to elbow with our fellow football fans. A Swedish photographer bought us a round of drinks, we reciprocated and also bought drinks for the French couple sitting at our feet, the bartender invited our children to perch on the bar and gave them free sodas. Together we cheered and booed as Italy won the world cup. What an equalizer. Who said that English is the international language?

Molo 13

Perhaps it’s the heat or perhaps I have the itch to travel right now. I am thinking of Italy. There are plenty of things to think about in Italy, but I am specifically thinking of a restaurant I dined at in Milan a number of years ago called Molo 13. This restaurant is one of those restaurants where if you are a tourist, if you do not have a local resident show it to you, you would never know it existed. This is the best kind of restaurant to eat in when traveling.

In my post Border Crossings, I mention a road trip to Milan, when I took with my friend, Deb, when I lived near Geneva. Aside from having a gun drawn on us by a particularly ruffled border guard at the French/Italian frontier, this was a very positive experience. As we drove on to Milan through the mountains of Aosta and Piemonte, we anticipated our arrival in the city, shopping along the Monte Napoleone, seeing the Duomo, and, of course, eating. In fact, we had a dinner scheduled for later that evening. The plan was that after checking into our hotel, we would drive to Malpensa airport where we would pick up my husband and his Italian colleague, Eugenio. They were returning from a business meeting in Rome, and Eugenio would take us to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Milan.

So arrived and checked in, Deb and I headed out, informed by the hotel’s concierge that signs to the airport would be clearly marked. We easily found the ring road that encircles Milan, a major motorway for commuters, that would take us to the airport some 35 km. away. As rush hour was peaking we were caught up in the whirlwind of the zooming traffic. Drivers sped past us, criss-crossing lanes from left to right and back again, taking turns tailgating each other. Crazy, dangerous, and wild were the operating adjectives at hand – it was automotive-chaos-theory at 200 km/hour. Appropriately, it was at this time that the headlights on my spiffy, sporty, somewhat older BMW failed. (There must be a football metaphor in there somewhere… Italian Exuberance:1  vs. German Reticence:0?)

In a split second we took stock of our situation: No map, no improved language skills since our brief exposure to Italian epithets at the border crossing, and now no functioning headlights, so even if we could read the road signs, we could hardly see them. At this moment, in most civilized societies this would be enough of a motive to just get off the road. But, this being Italy (very civilized, by the way, but in its own special way) there is a different principle applied to driving: it’s viewed as a sport; it’s adrenaline merging with testosterone; it’s an accumulation of many espressos. No lights? No problem!  Besides, now that we were caught up in the swirling vortex of the ring road, all physics of an easy, gentle trajectory towards a spontaneous exit went out the window. Either you plan your exit at least 5 km. in advance and preferably never leave the exit lane (very un-Italian.) Or you simply exit NOW! no matter what is in your way; things will just sort themselves out (very Italian.)

Well, we made it. (I am a schooled Boston driver, after all.) I have a memory of hurtling in the dark on the motorway and swerving sharply on 2 wheels when we saw the sign at the very last moment to the airport, cutting off several cars in our path. As I swerved again to avoid side-swiping an Alfa Romeo, I could have sworn I caught the approving nod of its Italian driver as I accelerated past him with no headlights. I was driving like a local.

So, imagine our relief when we finally arrived at our restaurant later that evening. The relief was replaced by delight as we entered Molo 13 and were overcome by the warm, lively, fully booked restaurant filled with Italians enjoying seafood specialties inspired by the Sardinian coast. We let Eugenio do the ordering and were treated to a multi-coursed feast beginning with assorted antipasti, followed by a sublime seafood risotto, and a main course of baked sea bass encrusted in sea salt. For the cheese course an enormous wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano was passed around the table, and we scooped out large chunks of the cheese with a spoon. (I still have that in mind as a cheese course for a very large dinner party.) The food was Italian at its best – uncomplicated and clean, showcasing the freshness of ingredients in their simplicity of use.

Since then, I have replicated the baked fish in sea salt recipe at home. It is a remarkably easy recipe and a beautiful way to present a whole fish. Break away the salt at the table for added effect. The fish will be succulent and flavorful, the only garnish needed is a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 4

One whole fish, about 2 lbs., such as snapper or sea bass, cleaned, scaled
Lemon slices March 2008 Salt Fish 005
1 egg white
2 pounds coarse sea salt

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place lemon slices in cavity of the fish.
Combine egg white and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well to moisten salt.
Spread 1/3 salt mixture on bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Lay fish on top. Pour remaining salt over fish, covering completely. If needed, tail can remain exposed.
Bake in oven 30 minutes.
Crack crust open with a small hammer or knife.  Remove and discard crust.
Fillet the fish. Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon.