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

Food, Travel

Boston’s “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour”

A quick google search of food quotes and travel quotes shows how closely these two things are connected. That’s one of the reasons I try to take a food tour or cooking class everywhere I go. Boston was no exception.

The bread bakery stop was a tour highlight.

There are a myriad of food tours in nearly every major city in the world. Boston’s includes many in the Italian food mecca known as the North End. Here in the shadow of the famous “Old North Church” where lanterns illuminated Paul Revere’s warning of the British invasion from the steeple, you can sample everything from pizza to pastries. I decided to go for food and humor and booked the “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” 

Anthony was born and raised in the North End and explains he is one of only two TRUE natives operating a food tour here. Others, he scoffs, came here 10 or 12 years ago, but didn’t grow up here and don’t know the neighborhood stories. 

The menu at Umberto’s

The tour didn’t disappoint! Interspersed with tales of families who have been in business for generations, he walks us to Umberto’s for a slice of pizza to kick off the tour.

Inside Polcari’s Coffee

From there it’s off to Polcari’s Coffee — a very European-feeling general store where we were surrounded by the smell of coffee and spices while we sampled a classic piece of Italian candy.

Sandwich at Monica’s Mercato

A few blocks up the street we came to Monica’s Mercato Pizza. It wasn’t pizza we sampled, though, it was a hearty slice of a classic Italian sub. The flavors lingered deliciously on my tongue as we made our way to the Old North Church listening to Anthony’s stories of the neighborhood and how he got his nickname, Flash. 

One of the bakery cases at Modern Pastry

Next stop – the bakery! The tour description promised a cannoli, but Anthony had warned us that our cannoli would not be the typical bakery version. His Pops had made fresh ricotta cream filling the day before, so we would be getting the homemade version of the classic Italian treat. Never fear, the bakery case at Modern Pastry included dozens of cookies and pastry options. Our sample was something Anthony called an Italian macaroon. It was a shiny doughy ball filled with almond paste … WOW!

Key ingredients to making Italian bread.

A couple of doors down we turned up a little alley and came to a small flight of stairs into the heavenly aroma of baking bread. The list on the wall  of Bricco Panetteria shows what goes into true Italian bread – culminating with passion. Clearly, from the flavor of the slice of authentic Roman pizza I enjoyed, this bakery includes a generous portion of that essential ingredient.

Back on the neighborhood streets we passed restaurants, bakeries and a florist that may very well have been owned by some distant relative. As we stopped again, I noticed a familiar name on the sign at our next stop: Monica. Monica’s three sons each own a food shop of some sort in the neighborhood. At the pasta shop featuring her name, we tried a completely different kind of sub.

The Abruzzo section in the wine shop.

A number of my fellow foodie tourists and I pontificated about how simply changing the bread and condiments on a sandwich could so utterly change the flavors. Anthony warned us not to fall too much in love with this homemade mayonnaise-based dressing. This son was keeping the spread off the market. Our guide said he often tried to buy a jar to no avail.

A quick stop at a wine shop before our final destination left me dazzled with choices. This shop has an entire ROOM of Italian wines, sorted by region. It turns out the tour did not include beverages, but we were encouraged to pick out something we would like to sip with lunch. I left with a nice bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo to sip with my bolognese. 

Mama’s homemade pasta bolognese.

Finally we arrived at Mama’s house. Passing through the kitchen, we settled around the dining room table while Anthony asked Alexa to play some Italian classics while he opened our wine bottles. The rigatoni was brilliantly al dente. The bolognese light and flavorful and the company fun and lively.

Homemade cannoli caps off the tour.

As we finished our pasta, Anthony steps into the dining room holding a silver tray bearing the promised homemade cannolis. The tour couldn’t have ended on a sweeter note (pun intended). Pops’ homemade ricotta filling was not as sicky sweet as the bakery version. The shell crunched with perfection. 

We toasted Anthony and newfound friends before parting ways with very full bellies and bright, shining smiles on our faces. 

 Food, travel and laughs are easily three of my favorite things to combine. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors wherever your travels take you and don’t forget to laugh a lot.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2020

Food, Travel

A Tale of Cannolis

When I found out Greg and I would be spending a week in Boston, I started asking friends what should I see, do and eat there. I got a good variety of suggestions, but nearly every single person talked about either the North End’s Italian food scene or lobster and chowder.

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Boxed cannoli from Modern Pastry

For those of you who may not know, Italian food is my favorite. In fact, there is not even a close second. “OK,” I responded to the food suggestions, “what EXACTLY should I try in the North End?” The overwhelming response was, “Get a cannoli!” Then each person offered up a different bakery as the best option. A google search for “best cannoli in Boston” offered up a trio of bakeries, too. Faced with this dilemma, my choice seemed simple: Get a traditional cannoli from each of the top three bakeries and have our own taste test. 

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Bakery boxes are tied with string

Luckily, the day I snagged the cannolis I walked in, walked straight up to the counter at all three places and had cannolis in hand in short order. With my boxed and tied packages, I made my way back to the Convention Center where Greg was attending a conference. 

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Modern Pastry

As fortune continued smiling on me, I arrived during a rare break in his schedule. He was informally meeting with a pair of coworkers in the hotel lobby lounge. I walked up, got hugs from all three gentlemen and, grinning broadly, announced that all three were conscripted into taste-testing service immediately.

Hearing no complaints, I opened all three packages and we passed the cannolis around, taking big, flavor-packed bites of pastry and ricotta cream-filled deliciousness.

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Mike’s Pastry

The results: all three men chose the cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the cannoli bakeries and it’s fairly clear why based on the results of my unscientific study. I preferred the cannoli from Modern Pastry. I felt the shell was lighter and crispier. Mike’s, we all agreed, seemed sturdier and thicker. The cannoli from Bova’s Bakery was soggy. I had been warned to always get a freshly filled cannoli for that very reason. I didn’t specifically ask for one, so apparently got a cannoli that had time to lose it’s tasty crunch.

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“Mama’s” homemade cannolis

The following day, I had signed up for a food tour: “Boston’s Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” This tour ends at the home of our North-End-native tour guide’s mother’s house. Mama serves up true homemade pasta bolognese. Anthony, aka Flash, announced that “Pops” had whipped up some homemade cannoli filling the day before so we would also be presented with Mama’s cannoli. 

It was no contest. Mama’s was head and shoulders above the bakery versions! 

I believe one of the best ways to truly experience a place is through local food. Boston is no exception. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors as you go.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2020

Diversion, Food, Road Trip, Travel

Analog Traveling in a Digital World

One of the advantages of getting off the beaten path is that views, togetherness, and even dining choices vastly improve. Such was the case on a bright and cool Monday in central Ohio.

The back story: When a June wedding just north of Cincinnati called us to Ohio, we booked our tickets to Columbus, which offered direct flights from our Phoenix home base, and lower prices for both the flights and our rental car. After celebrating the nuptials, catching up with old friends, and doing research for some other projects over a couple of days, we had a final, entire day to drive back to Columbus for an evening flight.

With plenty of time to kill, we avoided the Interstates. As regular readers of this blog know, it’s our preferred way to travel. We looked at the map (yes, a paper map) and planned our route northeast on U.S. Highways 42 and 40. We drove through farm fields and small towns enjoying the “middle” at its finest. We stopped to watch an old Aeronca Champ airplane take off from a grass runway at Red Stewart Airfield near Waynesville, an “olden days” reminder that Ohio is the birthplace of aviation.

U.S. 40 takes you right through the heart of Columbus. Crossing the Scioto River, we decided to stop and get lunch. We left the smartphones in the car and walked up Broad Street. Fast food and pizza signs touted lunch specials, but we wanted more. Feeling like we were headed in the right direction, we turned left on High Street, then a right turn onto Gay Street, which looked promising. A sign down the block read “Due Amici” (“Two Friends” in Italian) … Jackpot! Italian always works for us.

We were shown to a table — there were about five other parties in the restaurant on that quiet midday — and perused the cocktail and lunch menus. We ordered a fried ravioli appetizer and split a chicken parmigiana over linguine with a rosé sauce. Both were excellent!  Our only mistake was not ordering wine to go with the entree. It mattered little, as the lunch could not have been better and our server, Josh, swapped smiles and stories. We ate, we drank, we laughed. What could be better?

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored, especially when you leave the devices behind and trust your instincts. Go see it!

© The World A to Z, LLC 2019


Food

Cooking it up in The Big Easy

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I recently spent a week on my own in New Orleans. Greg was attending a conference there and I tagged along so I could see the city and we could enjoy evenings together. That left me with full days to explore whatever I wanted to see. Of course, there was a stroll through the Garden District and the obligatory sightseeing in the French Quarter. I wandered along the Mississippi River as it approached flood stage after massive rains upriver. And I decided to take a cooking class.

beignets
muffaletta

New Orleans is known for certain foods. There’s the beignet, a little ball of deep-fried dough drowning in a generous pile of powdered sugar made famous by Café du Monde. Someone said I had to try a muffuletta, an Italian sandwich with meats, cheeses and a pickled olive and vegetable spread. I was told the best ones were at Central Grocery on Decatur Street near the French Market. And of course, there is Cajun and creole cuisine. I had checked out my options on line before heading south to the Big Easy, but didn’t book anything. Then on Tuesday as I was strolling through the French Quarter I popped into Crescent City Cooks!. It’s a cooking school with a store front selling cute cooking accessories and New Orleans souvenirs.

I asked about the classes and availability for the next day. The lovely lady behind the counter informed me there was a class in the morning for $30. WOW! That was a lot less than the $150 I’d seen online. I was skeptical and asked what it involved.  As she described the class I realized it was a demonstration class instead of hands-on. I asked about the hands on class. Yes, there were openings and it cost $120.

bananas foster

Hmmm, still less than the on line price. I reserved a spot for the Wednesday afternoon class and set my sights on learning how to make gumbo, etouffee and bananas foster.  

When class time rolled around, I learned the other five people worked together and were using the class as a team-building exercise. They would be split into a group of two and a group of three. I would be cooking on my own.

We got right to it, chopping and dicing onions, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, and garlic. The instructor walked us through making a roux – the essential building block of both the gumbo and the etouffee. I was having a blast as he walked over to check on all three pots. Mine seemed to be perfect, which I attributed almost entirely to beginner’s luck.

We made the gumbo first so it could simmer while we whipped up the etouffee.  Once that was done, we set our burners on low to allow the etouffee to simmer while we made the bananas foster – including setting it alight in the classic style. What fun!

Finally, we sat down to eat our dishes. I even had enough to take some back to the hotel to Greg. In fact, there was so much gumbo, I was able to give a container to our concierge who kindly told me the next morning that it was some of the best gumbo he’d ever had, adding he was from New Orleans and had been eating gumbo his whole life. I realize he was probably being nice, but it was the perfect thing to say and a crowning jewel in my New Orleans cooking experience.

Food is such an important part of any culture. When you’re traveling, taste the flavors of where you are. Try the local dishes. It’s not just about SEEING a new place; it’s about experiencing it, too. Remember, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … and sometimes that involves your taste buds.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2016

Food

Mamma Ventura’s – Gettysburg, PA

Like a lot of travelers, we’re also foodies.  Part of the joy of traveling is exploring new tastes.  So let’s indulge our senses as we set forth on a new blog adventure – Food! – where we share some of our good (and not-so-good) food experiences, so if you’re headed somewhere we’ve been, you can have an idea of where to go … or where to avoid.

We could go way back to some of the great restaurants we’ve been to, but we’ve mentioned several in other blogs and it seems silly to rehash the past, so this begins our hobby as amateur food critics. Like our “Diversions” blogs, we’ll take turns so you’ll get both our viewpoints.

This weekend, we popped up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for a nice little getaway. Arriving Friday evening, we stayed in the heart of Gettysburg in a B&B and set out on foot to find a place to grab dinner.

After passing a couple of pubs and similar casual eateries, we came upon Mamma Ventura’s.  We are most definitely fans of Italian food (which means we eat it a LOT and know great from good and good from not-so-good).  But the menu and the restaurant itself look appetizing so we gave it a try.

One cannot have Italian food without wine, so Greg perused the wine list and quickly chose a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, one of our favorites from Italy.  The dinner menu featured three “Chef’s Recommendations.” These can sometimes be a risk or reward; it can mean there’s something the chef either makes very well and wants to share, or it can mean there is something the chef is trying to get rid of.  Nevertheless, we chose two of these hoping for the former and an appetizer.  We must have been hungry…we’re sharers and usually only order an appetizer or two and one entrée, but not this time!

That’s a good thing, because the appetizer of mussels in a white wine and lemon sauce were really disappointing.  To be fair, Gettysburg is not a coastal town and the further you are from the coast, the less likely are to get really great seafood.  These mussels were huge, which made them a little tough.  The sauce was okay, but lacked the punch of flavor you’d expect from a good lemon/wine sauce.

Spinach, Chicken and bacon ravioli (top) and Beef Milanese with tomato/asparagus sauce
Spinach, Chicken and bacon ravioli (top) and Beef Milanese with tomato/asparagus sauce

Next it was on to the entrees.   The Beef Milanese was offered with your choice of three sauces: Tomato/asparagus, Francese, and White wine.  Since we chose the mussels in white wine and lemon, we went with the tomato/asparagus.  The beef was a little chewy on the edges, but nicely done in the middle.  The sauce was heavy handed on the tomato and a little too spare with the asparagus.  And unfortunately, in typical American fashion, the beef was almost floating in the sauce.  Sauce should complement, not overpower the meat or pasta.  However, once you scraped most of it away, the dish was actually pretty good.  The side of pasta was a little overcooked and disappointing. It wasn’t quite mushy, but there was no bite to it at all.

We also ordered the spinach ravioli with chicken and bacon. I have to say, when you add bacon, you almost always do something right and this was no exception.  Six gigantic raviolis delivered to the table with (way too much) tomato cream sauce.  However, with this dish, one bite told us we’d made an excellent choice.  It’s not easy to make good homemade ravioli.  Often the pasta is too thick and it’s either over- or under-stuffed.  This was perfect!

The wine?  It was a young but completely acceptable Montepulciano.  We usually characterize these wines as more mature than Chiantis, but not as “old” as Cabs and Sangioveses.  This one felt like a 25-year-old…more mature than a teenage Chianti, but still with some “sexiness.”

Of course, the service experience can make or break and eating adventure.  Here, Mamma Ventura’s was top notch.  Our waitress, a first generation Italian-American who was born and raised in town, was cheerful, informative and absolutely adorable. We chatted a bit at the end of the meal and learned she is the niece of the owner and the family roots are southern Italian.  She recommended their Grappa as a digestive along with our espresso.  Both were as delightful as she was.

Overall, our experience was positive and  enjoyable.  I wouldn’t put Mamma Ventura’s in my top Italian restaurants, but I’d certainly go back if I want Italian food in Gettysburg.

Buon appetito!

© The World A to Z, LLC 2015