Distractions, Diversion, Food, Wine/Cocktails

When You Can’t Travel, Bring the Flavors of a Place to Your Kitchen

I discovered a dish several years ago when I picked up a special edition of Epicurious magazine. It was called “Epicurious Italy.” The title alone sold that magazine/cookbook to me. I’ve always LOVED Italian food. In fact, I pretty much love all things Italian. 

Epicurious Italy

Unable to travel during the corona pandemic, I decided, “If you can’t get out, at least bring the flavors of places to your kitchen.”  So, I’ve tried making schnitzel with spaetzle. It turned out pretty good. Greg whipped up some amazing curry dishes. We’ve co-cooked some Asian-inspired stuff. But far and away our favorite is Italian and our “go to.”

We took a cooking class through Sur La Table a few years ago and learned a few tricks, including how to make our own pasta. Then I found this compilation of recipes. We’ve tried at least a dozen of the recipes and love them all, but the Brasato al Barolo is an absolute favorite and has become our signature dish. 

I made a few adjustments to the recipe. Chefs always say, “add season and flavor to your taste.” We’ve used lots of different kinds of red wine – Barolo, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Chianti, Super Tuscan blends, Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine enhances the flavor, so I’m always careful to go with a red we really like. For this brasato, I used a 2012 Mauro Veglio Barolo

This dish takes a little work, but is INCREDIBLE and well worth it. 

Before you start cooking, do your prep work. Cut up the carrots, onions, garlic and celery in advance. True story – I cheat on the garlic and buy the big jar of minced garlic at my local grocery store. Get that wine open and breathing. (NOTE: ALWAYS — seriously ALWAYS — taste the wine you’re using in your food. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t put it in your food). If you are lucky enough to be able to grow your own herbs, snip and clean some fresh thyme and basil. Otherwise, grab the fresh stuff from the store. It really makes a difference. I have somehow managed to keep the thyme, rosemary and mint alive, but my basil is looking pretty sad right now. 

My little herb garden.

Measure what you need and have it handy. The french call it “mise en place” (Everything in its place).  That’s one of things we learned in our cooking class and really makes cooking a lot easier (and more fun). Pre-heat your your oven.

Now you’re ready to get cooking.

Get a good sear on the beef

Step one: Put olive oil into a dutch oven and heat it till the oil shimmers. You’ll want to have it HOT so when you put the meat in to brown it, you get that sizzle. 

Step two: brown the meat (about two minutes a side).  and remove it from the pan to a plate

Step three: throw in diced pancetta and render the fat. I couldn’t get pancetta once and tried bacon. It was still good, but there was absolutely a difference. 

Step four: Add your cut up veggies and let them cook and caramelize for about 5 minutes. You will see a difference and everyone in the house will be coming into the kitchen to tell you how amazing it smells and find out what you’re cooking.

Step five: add those herbs and that garlic and stir ‘em in. The garlic will brown in about a minute if you use the jarred stuff. Fresh will take a little longer.

Step six. Stir in the tomato paste. It gets really gloppy here. Mix it up and get it clumpy but keep it moving. You don’t want to burn the tomato paste.

Pour in that wine

Step seven: Pour in two cups of wine. For me it boils almost immediately so I turn it down a bit and let it vigorously simmer till the wine is reduced by half.

Step eight: Add the meat (and the juices from the plate) back into the Dutch oven and pour in the other cup of wine and a cup of water. 

Step nine: Put the cover on and pop the whole thing into your pre-heated oven.

Step ten: Let that deliciousness cook low and slow for three hours. Your house will smell delicious. Your neighbors will be jealous. 

Now here’s the real secret. When your brasato is cooked, let it cool to room temp and pop it into your fridge for two to three days. Trust me on this. I’ve eaten it right away and three days later and waiting is OH SO WORTH IT! 

A few hours before you’re going to serve: Pull the Dutch oven out of the fridge and skim off most of the fat that’s set on the top. This is easiest when it’s cold. Throw the fat away, pop the covered Dutch oven into a 350℉ oven for 30 minutes.

Spoon everything but the beef into a blender.

Take it out of the oven and put the meat onto a plate. Depending on the cut of meat, it may simply fall apart or you will be able to slice it. Pull out the rosemary and thyme and spoon the contents of the pan into your blender.

Deliciousness on a plate.

Puree it. All of it. This delicious, beefy, wine-flavored, veggie mess is gonna be the most scrumptious gravy you’ve ever eaten in your life. There’s no need to thicken anything, just blend it to a thick liquid.

Voila — choose a vegetable (or not – I mean the gravy is mostly vegetables), mash some potatoes (or cauliflower) to hold the gravy. Grab some bread (you’re going to be sopping up every drop) and dig in.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Sometimes you just have to explore it with your taste buds.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2020

Alexandria, Food

The Pines of Florence in Alexandria

Greg and I realized recently that we don’t talk much about our town. Alexandria, Virginia, is an amazing place to live. There’s always something going on; it’s a short metro ride from Washington, DC; it’s incredibly walkable; it’s loaded with history; there’s fun, eclectic shopping; and best of all, there are restaurants EVERYWHERE.  So we’re making an effort to get to more of the restaurants that we usually just walk right past. We live here, we should put a little more effort into eating here … and at more than just one or two favorites.

We actually started a couple of weeks ago. Friday was new restaurant #2. (No, I’m not going to keep count – ha). After a relatively short day at work, we hopped off the metro at King Street and wandered down to The Pines of Florence. This restaurant has been around a long time, judging by the well-maintained, but obviously been-there-forever sign out front and the equally well-maintained-but-old decor inside. There’s nothing shiny or flashy about this place. You get good, clean, comfy, cozy atmosphere as you are surrounded by a staff that is not only friendly, but makes you feel like you’re among family the entire time. They are not related – we overheard a waitress tell the couple seated behind us, “no, he’s not my father” when asked if the gentleman who was obviously in charge was her dad – but you’d never know it.

Menus arrived with a delightful, not pushy, but charmingly suggestive recommendation that we take a peek at the specials on the back page. We asked if there was any one of the half dozen or more that he recommended. He suggested the chicken and mozzarella. We quickly sized up the wine list and ordered a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (our fave), and he nodded approvingly and headed to the bar to get the bottle and give us time with the menu.

By the time he came back (oh so perfect timing), we had chosen an appetizer of mixed fried seafood. He poured the wine and popped off to the kitchen to put in our appy order. Leaving us alone with the wine and menus while he and the others tended to several other diners, we chatted about our day and relaxed. By the time the appy arrived we had decided to split the chicken and mozzarella special he had suggested. (Side note: we almost always split a single entree because we are fortunate to have the same food tastes and they are always too big to be called a “single serving”)

The “frito misto” (mixed fried seafood) was piping hot, perfectly cooked and downright scrumptious. The batter used to coat the mussels, calamari, shrimp and zucchini was light and airy with just the right amount of crunch. A dish of tomato sauce for dipping added a fun splash of flavor. It was a huge pile of seafood and we both agreed it was perfect for sharing.

Our water glasses stayed full as we nibbled and chatted, never feeling rushed or watched. A large group had come in while we were eating and was seated near the back of the restaurant, but we never heard them. The couple behind us were clearly regulars judging from the comments to the staff. Another duo nearby were work colleagues chatting about business but not loudly. We caught an occasional snippet of their conversation.

After a well-timed pause between courses, the chicken and mozzarella arrived. Our waitress put the bowl between us and offered a large spoon to let us divvy up the portions onto the two plates provided. We opted to share the bowl as the table for two was the perfect size to allow it. The ziti in the dish was perfect. There’s nothing worse than overcooked pasta in my mind and this had just the right amount of bite. The two-bite chunks of chicken were tender and juicy, the asparagus was blissfully slightly crunchy, the light coating of sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil added a beautifully sweet tang to the bites and the diced mozzarella (which we immediately stirred into the hot dish to get it melting and gooey) was just right.

If you’re looking for a great, family feeling, home style Italian meal, The Pines of Florence NAILS IT!

© The World A to Z, LLC 2015