Sunday, July 22, 2007

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover: Cooking for Friends


A few weeks ago, Cathy, the wonderfully funny and incredibly busy mind behind A Blithe Palate and Ivonne, good blogging friend and fellow Daring Baker (she is one of the founders!) and keeper of Cream Puffs in Venice asked me if I wanted to participate in a cookbook blogging event based around Faith Heller Willinger's new cookbook "Adventures of an Italian Food Lover". Never one to turn the opportunity to add a cookbook to my ever expanding collection, I enthusiastically said yes!

Since "Adventures of an Italian Food Lover" is a collection of recipes that Ms. Willinger collected from friends from all over Italy; a tribute to them and the country she has called home for the past 30 years (The book is full of wonderful watercolours painted by her sister), the premise of this event wasn't to review the cookbook but rather to select a dish from the cookbook and then tell a story about yourself and the friends and family you shared the meal with, would have shared the meal with, or wish you could have shared the meal with.

As you know, I spend my work week in Connecticut sans a real kitchen. Luckily, I have a fellow co-worker (and fast becoming good friend), Weedhopper who is as serious about his food as I am; a fellow foodie! From the day I met Weedhopper, we have discussed food, shared cooking tips, compared dishes, and basically talked food. The first week I was at my new gig and when Weedhopper (WH) learned I didn't have a full kitchen at my disposal, he generously offered the use of his and his lovely partner, Wife of Weedhopper (WOW) kitchen. So, it wasn't long after I received "AoaIFL" that I knew with whom I was going to share this meal with, Weedhopoper and WOW.

Last weekend, I sent the cookbook home with Weedhopper with the instructions to pick out one or two recipes for dinner. We would split the shopping for the ingredients and on Wednesday I would come over and cook dinner for him and WOW. I was very excited that WH picked a dish for the main course that I had really wanted to cook when I flipped through the book, Polenta with Tomato Sauce and Sausage Ragu, a family recipe of Ampelio Bucci, who owns the vineyard of Azienda Agricolo F. Lli Bucci. WOW picked a very interesting dish for our first course, Fulvio and Emanuela Pierangelini's Chickpea Puree with Shrimp. Finally, I picked dessert in the form of Silvano Paris' Pears with Red Wine. With the menu set we went to Wild Oats on our lunch hour on Wednesday to pick up the ingredients for the meal and then after work we drove to WH's house.

One of my favourite things to do is cook with friends or at the very least, have a kitchen full of friends to keep a steady banter of good conversation going while I cook. WOW was home working on a mix tape project in the kitchen, so with her for our entertainment (she has this incredible knowledge of up and coming musicians that she enthusiastically shared with us), WH and I set about prepping the various ingredients for the meal.


WH had soaked the chickpeas the night before and since they would take the longest to prepare, we got those going first by putting them in a large pot with garlic and fresh rosemary from the garden (you should have SEEN this rosemary plant!!) and setting them to boil until they were soft.


Next I set WH to peeling and prepping the shrimp.


While he was doing that, I chopped the lovely tomatoes for the ragu and got the polenta going. Both WH and I were excited about the cooking method for the polenta; the old fashioned slow cooking of polenta in a double boiler! We had both read about cooking polenta this way but since we are both basically lazy about making polenta, and typically buy the fast cooking kind. For this recipe, we got the real deal, slow cooking kind. Using a double boiler to cook the polenta is suppose to result in ultra creamy polenta. Since WH doesn't have double boiler, I got to do another thing I love to do in the kitchen, improvise a cooking implement! I'm not sure why, but I love to McGyver things in the kitchen. Don't have a rolling pin? Get a wine bottle, wrap it in plastic wrap and use the big end. Don't have a double boiler? Find a big saute pan and medium sized dutch oven with two handles. Fill the dutch oven pan with water half way, place the saute pan over the dutch oven, and Viola! Double Boiler!!


With the polenta and chickpeas cooking, both would take about 45 minutes - 1 hour to finish, the shrimp peeled and in the fridge, the tomatos diced and the Parmigiano-Reggiano shredded, all that was left to prep was the pears. I discovered another kitchen gadget that WH and WOW don't own while prepping the pears, a good vegetable peeler. I ended up using a really nice paring knife but I know what I'm gifting them with (and before we cook together again), a good OXO peeler. Before I knew it, we had dirtied almost every pan WH owns, giggled at WOW's observations about the state of the music industry, shared some incredible cheese and had just about every burner on the stove going!


About 2 hours after we arrived at WH's house, the meal was ready to plate. First, we started by pouring the polenta into the bottom part of a broiling pan. The recipe for the Polenta with Tomato Sauce and Sausage Ragu calls for the polenta to be poured onto a large cutting board, but since WH doesn't own a really large cutting board, we improvised (yea!!). Next you spread the tomato sauce over the polenta.


And top it with the sausage. I ran out to the garden and plucked a few fresh basil leaves as a garnish. This dish is a basically a polenta pizza!!


While I was doing this, WH was making the chickpea puree. I had a blast watching him mash the chickpeas through the strainer. The recipe says to do this method vs using the food processor so you end up with a more chunky consistency. After making the puree, you top the chickpeas with four or five steamed shrimp. Again, running out the garden for a garnish (rosemary this time), we had what I think was the star of the dinner, Chickpea Puree with Shrimp.


While we ate dinner, the red wine sauce I had poached the pears in reduced. When it had reduced to a sryup, I plated the pears with a dollop of creme fraiche and then drizzled the reduction on top. This was a stunning dessert!!


WH and WOW were heading to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival this weekend, so of course we had to make room in their wine collection for new bottles. I have to admit, I don't remember what we drank but it was very good! Perfect with the two dishes. While we ate, we talked about various subjects ranging from politics to plays. Perfect dinner conversation to go with great food!


But the best par of the meal was I got to cook dinner for two friends!