June 25, 2011

Finding equilibrium in the kitchen

Have you ever wondered why some of the simplest recipes turn out to be the most delicious? Take, for example, prosciutto and melon. This Italian warm weather favorite is about as simple as they come. Maybe we can give some credit to the theory of Claudio Galeno. The second century Greek medic studied the composition of food and how finding the equilibrium of ingredients, however simple, can result in a successful dish.

According to Galeno, every product can be described as hot, cold, humid or dry. Ideally, a dish should combine ingredients from each of these categories. Think again about the prosciutto and melon. The combination of the moist, cool melon with the dry, warm prosciutto achieves what Galeno describes as equilibrium. The salty/sweet combo pleases tastebuds.Yes, it seems strange to think about foods in a scientific manner, how tastes mix and ingredients combine to deliver smiles and happy paletes.
Another example that comes close to equilibrium, a staple in the Italian kitchen, pasta. Think about how dried pasta and water, thrown together on the stove until the boiling water brings the pasta to the desired cooked, moist consistency reach equilibrium. The simple combination of the ingredients and elements results in an age-old dish.

According to Massimo Montanari, a leading expert in Food and Culture History and professor of Medieval History at the University of Bologna, pizza baked in a wood burning oven, 'nel forno al legno' could be seen as a dream combination of ingredients and elements to achieve the Italian favorite. The moist, freshly tossed dough with your hearts' desire of toppings thrown into the wood burning oven results with a generally crispy crust with a chewy, cheesy center.

Next time you are experimenting in the kitchen, think as Galeno did. Ponder each of the ingredients qualities and how to best find the equilibrium by pairing it with other ingredients. Let the combinations run wild.


June 12, 2011


When searching for an authentic product, it is important to know what you are looking for. Pretty bottles, fancy labels and presentation can sometimes fool. Thankfully, Europe has taken steps to ensure the authenticity and quality of nearly 200 products with two designations: the IGP and DOP. The two designations ensure the origin and exquisite quality of the products they include in slightly different ways.

The IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or the "protected geografical information," is the slightly less strict of the two denominations which awards the IGP seal to products from specific regions of Europe. The IGP acronym guarantees a product originating from a region or a country whose quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin. At least one production and/or processing phase must take place in the designated origin of production for the product to qualify.

DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) or Protected Designation of Origin, like IGP, requires specific production and processing techniques for each product. However, unlike the IGP, for a product to qualify for the DOP, each step in the production of the products must be executed in the region of origin. The products have extremely strict specifications that must be met in each step of production which are then examined by experts to ensure quality.

Products such as Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di Modena, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Aceto Balsamico di Modena are just a few of the products that carry the IGP or DOP.
How can you tell when a product is IGP or DOP? Look on the label or on the product itself. For example, on each wheel of Parmaggiano-Reggiano DOP information regarding the factory, who made the cheese, even which cow the milk came from can be found.

There is a difference between IGP Aceto Balsamico di Modena and DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The first difference is that only the DOP product can carry the word Tradizionale, which ensures the consumer knows that its been made the traditional way. Remember that the IGP denomination requires that at least one of the production phases be completed in the official geographical area indicated while the DOP requires that all the phases of production be completed in the area, which means it the products carrying the DOP denomination will be more expensive (cannot import the grapes from less expensive areas, etc. etc.) They will be more expensive but also guarantee higher quality as the consortiums of the products carrying the DOP carry out regular and very strict inspections to ensure that all members of the Consortium adhere to the rules.


What to do with pumpkin?

In Italy, there are many types of indigenous pumpkins- some are round such as Mantovana di Chioggia while others are long such as the Violina from Ferrara. I like to use the Violina (a variety of Butternut squash) with rugged skin. How many types of Butternut squashes are they you might ask? I recently counted 10 varieties of just the Butternut Squash in just one farm's website!

A well-informed fruit vendor told me that the sweetest ones are those that have a rough, rugged surface as opposed to the smooth surface of most varieties. "Pumpkin is the hard-shelled gourd of the genus curcubita. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably." I believe this is the reason why Butternut squash is called "pumpkin" here in Italy. You can read more at: Answers.com

The pumpkin is a very versatile vegetable - actually it is a fruit! Italians use pumpkin in many dishes including soups, pureéd, roasted, breads, cakes, puddings, and flans. I have 4 different recipes for pumpkin soup (with even more variations!).

Naturally, pumpkin is also found in pasta sauces, in gnocchi as well as in stuffed pastas!

In Ferrara, a town northeast of Bologna that is less than an hour away, they call this stuffed pasta Caplaz in dialect or Cappellacci in Italian - which loosely translates to big, old hats. The pasta is folded like a tortelloni however it is several centimeters larger - 6cm. It is traditionally cooked and served smothered in a butter and sage sauce or a tasty Bolognese ragù. The contrast between the sweet pumpkin and the savory ragù makes this a really special dish.

Recently, another way to serve these Caplaz has popped up: toss the Caplaz with unsalted butter and drizzle some 12 year-old Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena. The slight sharpness of this type of Vinegar (which has been aged for 12 years in different wooden barrels) contrasts wonderfully with the sweet pumpkin filling. Hungry anyone?

Top photo: Rugged Butternut squashes. Middle: A nearly finished plate of Caplaz. Bottom: A beautiful plate of fluffy Caplaz in a balsamic vinegar and butter sauce.

Top photo courtesy Blog&Wine.
Middle & bottom photos by Britta Blanski

by JM & MA