I'm home! I just got back from an amazing three weeks in Italy. Seriously. Everyone should go to Italy at least once in their life. Everyday was full of amazing experiences and breathtaking views. And how do I begin to describe the food? Pesto and olive oil, cured meats and pasta sauces, red wine and cappuccinos. Artichokes, eggplants and tomatoes. Every city or town I visited had food markets and cool little snack bars where you can get a glass of wine and pick out a plate of cicchetti, which are little snacks or side dishes.
One highlight from my trip was a cooking class in Florence (Firenze). The class included a market tour, cooking lesson and lunch at a little cooking school called in Tavola. The class started with a shopping trip at San Lorenzo Market- the central food market in the heart of Florence- with sections for vegetables, meat, seafood, cheese, olive oil and vinegars, wine, dried goods, spices, and flowers. A circular maze of fresh, local, seasonal food.
One of the things that going to Italy reminded me of is just how important using local, seasonal ingredients is and what an extraordinary difference it makes to the flavour. Juicy, ripe tomatoes in the summer and pumpkins and squash in the fall for example. It's hard though. I've been craving eggplant all week but it's not in season locally. But they are somewhere.
After a tour through the market, stopping to chat with vendors, we picked up a few ingredients for our lesson and walked through town and across the bridge to the cooking school. One of the dishes we made for a secondi was polpettone, large meat balls that are also sometimes called Italian meat loaf. The polpettone was seared in olive oil and then finished in a sauce of caramelized red onions, reduced balsamic vinegar and tomatoes.
This is such a flavourful sauce. The trick is to give the onions time to caramelize and then drizzle in the balsamic vinegar and let that reduce. I had friends over for dinner last night and the hit of the evening was serving the polpettone as the final course (after antipasti and pasta) on small plates with generous spoonfuls of the sauce. So put on some music such as Vivaldi, pour yourself a glass of wine and try this recipe for yourself!
Polpettone (Serves 6-8)
2 to 2.5 cups of ground beef
1 cup bread, torn into pieces
1 cup milk
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
5 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
pinch of nutmeg
796 ml/28 oz can of tomatoes
Remove the crust of the bread and tear the bread into small pieces. Cover with milk and let it soak for about 30 minutes. Drain the milk and squeeze the bread in your hands until it's it has a soggy, paste-like consistency.
Combine the ground beef, bread, grated Parmesan cheese, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Knead into a ball and divide into portions of six to eight. Roll each ball in your hands, lightly cover in flour and then shape into ovals.
Heat a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add olive oil and meat balls, turning and brown each side.
In a separate pan, add olive oil and red onions. Pan fry for 15-20 minutes until they begin to caramelize. De glaze with balsamic vinegar and simmer for a few minutes until the vinegar reduces a little. Puree the can of tomatoes and add into the pan and stir. Add the meat balls, cover and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Enjoy.
MORE ITALIAN RECIPES---------------------------------------------------------------------
Marinated Eggplant Antipasto
Bite-sized slices of eggplant, roasted and marinated in good quality olive oil, lemon juice, red chili, garlic and herbs.
Mushroom and Spinach Lasagna
An Italian classic with rich flavours of pasta, sauce, cheese, mushrooms and spinach. Immensely satisfying.
Panna cotta in Italian means "cooked cream" and comes from the Northern region of Piedmont in Italy. The version uses buttermilk in place of cream which adds a nice tangy flavour to the custard.