Chianti, Chianti Classico, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, Florence, Italy 2014, Pasolini della'Anda, Reflections, Sabbatical, Super Tuscans, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 2: Wine, Rain, and a bit about Olives

Hail storm

As hail clatters against my windowpanes and rain and wind wash the streets clean to the music of thunder, I write. I LOVE THUNDERSTORMS! I find them comforting, peaceful. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.

Suddenly, I realize that the grape and olive growers I met in the Tuscan countryside this week will not feel that way. This rain and hail, if they reach the vineyards, will cause disaster. It is only days before the grape harvest is to begin. In fact, on Monday, perhaps because of fear of the weather, some had already started to bring their grapes in early.

These next few days and weeks and all the sun they can offer will determine the quality of the grape harvest this year. Already it has been an unseasonably wet, cool year, with August and September temperatures and rainfall more typical of June. Grapes are fragile, fickle. They take their character in any given year from the natural mix of rain, sun, soil conditions, and heat. This year, many top Italian vintners have already said that they do not plan to make their high end varietals for fear that a bad crop could harm their reputations. This won’t impact Italian wines in the short term, as it takes years to prepare a wine for distribution, but 5-6 years down the road, it will be felt, even moreso if this hail decimates the soft, ripening grapes.

So, today, I write about wine, and a bit about olives. In Tuscany, most wine makers also press olive oil. It’s the tradition according to the wine merchant at Pasolini dall’Onda Winery in Barberino in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Barberino straddles the Chianti and Chianti Classico grape regions, a small, quaint village built in 1073. Before this trip, I had not known that there was a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico wines. I will talk more about that in my next post.

Barberino

Barberino, Italy – Pasolini dall’Onda Winery

Once the grapes have been harvested, the olives are ready to be picked. In this region, both grapes and olives are picked by hand in a centuries old bartering arrangement. Local villagers, or those from the surrounding countryside come to pick grapes or olives in exchange for enough wine or olive oil to last their families for a year. They fill containers from the first, young wine, from the first press of olives and carry them home to enjoy until the harvest next autumn. I would love to have the opportunity to take part in this experience. I will see if I can make it happen.

Several weeks ago, growers went to the fields to prepare them for harvest. They cleared the rows in the vineyard, cutting away lower hanging leaves to expose the tender grapes to the full force of the sun. Sun and warm temperatures now (ideally in the 80s F) will increase juice production and sweetness in these last precious days before harvest.

As we walked in the vineyards, we had the opportunity to taste fresh Sangiovese grapes (the grapes used to make Chianti) from the vines. Warmed by the sun, they were juicy and flavorful, a multi-level sweetness and intensity that was pleasing to the tongue. I could not imagine how they could taste better. Of course, I am not a wine maker. I was to find out.

Grapes 2

Sangiovese grapes

Our tour of Pasolini dall’Onda included tastings of two cold pressed, extra virgin, olive oils and three red wines. Were we to taste the olive oil properly, we would have drunk sips from small glasses. (Shudder!) That was too much for all of us, so we tasted them with basic Italian bread. I’m so glad we did. The first, the more typical olive oil (in rectangular bottles that we find everywhere) was extremely strong for me, heavy and dense. I found it harsh and bitter. I didn’t like it.

The second, their premium olive oil called Laudemio was light and fresh. Its taste was much more delicate and smooth. It was the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. I bought a bottle to take back to the states.

Olives

Olives

Then the part I was really looking forward to began, the wine tasting. I am a wine fan. I particularly like reds. I’m also picky about what I like. First, we tried a young 2011 Chianti. I found it harsh with a strong after taste. I’ve found that with several Chiantis since I got here. The wine merchant described it as young and smooth. His description didn’t really match my experience. Between tastings we cleared our palates with what is perhaps the tastiest bread I’ve eaten since I got here. It was a scachatta, which reminded me texture wise of a focaccia, buttery and dense. It was perfect with all the wines.

The second wine was a 2009 Chianti Classico Reserve called Sicelle. (With Chianti Classico wines, always make sure they have the black rooster symbol on the bottle – again, I’ll explain why in my next post.) To me, it had a much more full bodied flavor. It was multi-layered and very smooth. I liked it a great deal! I bought a bottle that I am currently enjoying. It’s my favorite Chianti of this Italian adventure (so far).

The third wine we tried was a 2008 Super Tuscan called San Zanobi. It was delicious. It was flavorful, full bodied, a really complex wine that tasted different on different parts of my tongue. I was delighted to learn that winemakers consider Super Tuscan wines to be “meditation wines”, the idea being that if you open them 1-2 hours prior to drinking them and serve them with red meat, hearty pasta, cheeses, or chocolate, the flavor of the wine matures and changes as the evening goes on. I bought 2 bottles. I’ll let you know how my “meditation” goes.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds and the streets beckon. I hope the vineyards and olive groves are safe. For now, I’m off to meet some friends for my first aperitivo (wine and appetizers). Caio for now!

Standard
Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Perfect food, Reflections, Sabbatical

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1 Update: On Fresh Ravioli and Perfect Food

I just had the ravioli (just cheeses as noted in my prior post with a bit of nutmeg in the mix) that I’d purchased from Maccheroni e raviuoli in San Casciano on Monday. For me, good food can be almost a religious experience. Prior to today, though, I have had one truly transcendent food experience.

The year we lived in Russia, we spent quite a bit of the time in late spring, early summer at our “family’s” dacha (summer house in the country). They had an amazing garden and my favorite thing was to pick and eat fresh, ripe raspberries warmed by the sun. On one particular afternoon, after swimming in the Volga River, I picked some raspberries and brought them into the house. Normally I would have shared them immediately with whoever was around. On this afternoon, our Babushka smiled at me and told me to wait. She asked me to pick more, told me she would be back shortly, then left the house with a jar and a bag.

I did as requested and filled another pot with fresh raspberries. When I returned to the house, she still wasn’t back. Grozvater (grandfather in German) gestured for me to wait. I put the raspberries on the table and went into the other room to lie down on the bed, relax, and read until Babushka came back.  I ended up falling asleep. Some time later, I awoke to Babushka’s voice whispering in the kitchen. I stretched, got up and walked into the room.

Babushka turned to the counter and picked up her small jar, now full of what I can only describe as a white, buttery looking substance. She put some berries in a bowl for me, topped them with the buttery substance, and handed me the bowl and a large spoon, a broad smile on her face. As it turns out the buttery substance was fresh, village smetana (sour cream). To call it sour cream, given what we call sour cream in the states,  especially the packaged kind we get in grocery stores (the only kind I’ve ever had) is probably a crime. It was thick, smooth, creamy and flavorful. The sourness was not too strong, making it the perfect pairing with the sweet raspberries. I put the first bite in my mouth and savored the flavors, distinct, then blending on  my tongue. It was, without doubt, the most delicious food I had ever tasted. The memory of that first bite and all those that followed stick with me almost two decades later. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but in that moment, on that particular day, I realized that I could die content. My children were with me, happy and well loved, we had enjoyed a delightful morning, and I had eaten the perfect food. Life was perfect.

Today I had another transcendent food experience. It might not stay in my memory as the smetana and raspberries have. It might not be the memory of another perfect day, but it was delicious. At the pasta shop, the pasta maker told me to keep the pasta for a day or two in the refrigerator to let the flavors mix, but to eat it within three days. He recommended serving it with melted butter, fresh chopped sage, salt and pepper, sauteed briefly in a pan. I was then to put the ravioli in the pan and coat each side with the sage butter mixture.

I have a confession to make here. I am not traditionally a fan of sage. I find it to be harsh and overbearing. It tends to dominate any food I’ve ever tasted it in, so I was not sure I’d like it. As a backup, I sauteed some garlic and tomatoes in olive oil, added chopped basil, red pepper, and a bit of salt. I thought I was good to go. I’d try the sage butter, but there was no way I was going to waste this ravioli if I didn’t like it. I was prepared. I was also 100% wrong. That second sauce is in a small bowl in my refrigerator to be used at another time.

I melted the butter in a small pan (less than 2/3rds of a teaspoon), diced up two fresh sage leaves that the proprietress of the eco-agriculture saffron farm (more on her and there in a later post) had given me for just this purpose, sprinkled with fresh ground pink Himalayan salt (it was in my cupboard), and black pepper. When the butter released the sage aroma, I knew it was ready. I carefully drained each ravioli individually as it rose to the top of the boiling water, and dropped it gently into the butter, coating both sides.

sage ravioli

The aroma of the sage was heady, but not overpowering. Tentatively, I took a bite. Mmmmmmm… The pasta was a perfectly cooked al dente (slightly chewy), the cheesy filling firm and warm. The sage butter aromatic and flavorful. The best part, all the flavors melded together to create perfection on my tongue. The sage butter was the ideal savory complement to the slight sweetness of the nutmeg enhanced cheeses, which held their own quite well in the trio of flavors delighting my palate. I am pleasingly satisfied.

While today is not (yet) as epic as that late spring day in Russia, it has promise, promise that I must now go to meet. I wish you all a great day! Caio for now!

Standard
Eataly, Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, Reflections, Sabbatical, Slow food movement, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1: San Casciano – Fresh Pasta & the Slow Food Movement

817

Ok, I have a confession to make. I love food! I love shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it. Most of all, I love savoring it. I LOVE to eat good, tasty, high quality food. I have found that in Italy in abundance. Fortunately I walk all the time, so I haven’t put on any weight. In fact, I’m getting a lot stronger. I live on a hill and access is through steps or a steep street. I walk, a lot! That said, my diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a bit of beef and chicken, some pasta and some bread (less of each than you might expect). I also love organic raspberry jam. I mean I LOVE it! And fresh cheeses. I have no idea what kinds they are, but I LOVE them, older, harder cheeses and younger, softer cheeses. I don’t seem to be much of a fan of goat cheese here, but cheeses made of cows’ milk are heavenly. Oh, and I love Italian wines, especially reds, although I am warming up to whites made of vernaccia grapes, delicious, but little known outside of Italy at the moment. I foresee this changing quickly. I now know the differences between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscans (more on those later).

So, in my quest for food and drink, I took my first excursion into the Tuscan countryside on September 15, in honor of my sister Kathy’s birthday (which was the 14th) and because I thought it was time for an adventure outside the amazing city of Florence. With Grape Tours, I took this trip into the Tuscan countryside and I met all the people whose photos you see on their site: http://www.foodtourintuscany.com.

802

Specifically we toured the chianti and vernaccia grape regions outside Florence. There were seven of us in our group guided by Kimberly, an Amsterdam native, who grew up in Chicago, IL and moved to Italy five years ago (although she spent 3 of those years in Singapore running a restaurant with her Italian husband). He now has a restaurant a bit farther South in Italy which I hope to visit. She is a sommelier. My traveling companions were a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary from Minnesota who now live in New Jersey, a couple from New York on their honeymoon, and a couple from England on an adventure, as well as your intrepid narrator.

It was an amazing adventure including fresh pasta making, a tour of a winery and olive oil press, lunch at an eco-agriculture farm that grows saffron (!!!) and has a delightful bed and breakfast, a visit to historic San Gimignano where we had free time to walk the ancient streets and sample gelato from the shop that has been named “Best gelato in the world” for 8 of the last 10 years (according to our guide), and a truffle hunt with amazing truffle dogs (I’m smitten!) in the forest. (Sadly, we didn’t find any truffles.)

I think the thing that impressed me the most was the commitment to the “Slow Food” movement and eating locally, organically, and healthily that everyone we saw supported. I, personally, wasn’t familiar with the “Slow Food” movement, so I asked a lot of questions. It seems to be about eating locally, a zero carbon footprint, organic, non-pesticide, non-GMO food, and taking the time to savor what you eat. I’m in! To learn more, there are a number of relevant articles here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/slow-food-movement/. A grocery store dedicated to the philosophy of healthy, local eating called Eataly was started in Italy . There are now 27 Eataly stores worldwide, 10 in Italy, including Florence, 13 in Japan, 1 in Dubai, 1 in Turkey, and 1 in Chicago and New York. Find out more here. http://www.eataly.com/global/. You can also purchase their products online through http://www.eataly.com/ which seems to fly in the face of the zero carbon footprint, eat locally philosophy they were built on, but there you go.

My next several blog posts will cover all I learned about these regions of Tuscany, wine and olive oil, organic food, saffron, and truffles. Today, I’ll talk about homemade pasta in San Casciano.

Homemade pasta in San Casciano – The first stop on our adventure was San Casciano, a hilltop village, 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles) and a 27 minute drive (or 30 minute bus ride) from Florence. San Casciano was bombed repeatedly during WWII, so very little of the ancient architecture remains except small segments of the city wall. It is also Machiavelli’s birthplace and the site where he wrote The Prince after being exiled from Florence when the Medici family lost power in 1512.

We were here not for Machiavelli, but rather to observe a family run, from scratch, pasta shop that serves the region. Called Maccheroni e raviuoli (macaroni and ravioli), the shop is run by a mother, father, and son with one shop assistant.

793 790

They make fresh pasta throughout the day by hand and with the support of small mixing, blending, cutting and stuffing machines. They are known for their tasty desserts (Mama’s speciality) and their ravioli and homemade sauces which are popular with restaurants and families throughout the region.

After a demonstration on preparing pasta dough, slicing various types of pasta, and setting a machine to stuff fresh ravioli, I purchased some “gnudi” (literally without clothes – nude). These are the stuffing inside ravioli made of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses, eggs, nutmeg (the secret ingredient), and salt and pepper rolled into balls. You can add other finely cut ingredients like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, etc. as desired, but be careful of the moisture content. (These ingredients will likely sound familiar to anyone who makes stuffed pasta or lasagna.) To cook, you simply put the gnudi in boiling, lightly salted water until they float (just a couple minutes). After cooking them for dinner, I sprinkled mine with a bit of salt and pepper and they were delicious.

gnudi

I also purchased some of the ravioli we had watched being made. The pasta makers recommended that I hold it in the frig for a day or two before eating it as the flavor is “better, more mixed”. I’ll try that today! They recommended it with salt, pepper, butter and fresh sage. I picked up some fresh sage at the eco-agricultural saffron farm we visited later in the day (more on that in a later post). I’m to melt the butter in a pan, add chopped sage, saute for a moment, then add the pasta, mix it together and salt and pepper to taste. I’ll let you know!

As with gnudi, fresh pasta should be cooked only until it floats for a lovely al dente texture. Dried pasta takes longer because it is being rehydrated as it cooks (I’d never thought of that.). For regular pasta, fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettucine, etc., the pasta makers recommend 40% semolina flour, 60% farina (all purpose flour), and 5 eggs per kilo (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. You will likely need to add a touch of water (less than 1/4 cup – add by tablespoons) to get it to the initial crumbly consistency you desire (30% humidity according to our host – I have no idea what 30% humidity is like, but did understand crumbly texture that binds together when you squeeze some in your hand). They don’t put salt in the pasta dough. You can add that to the water as you’re cooking. For stuffed pasta, you want a firmer dough so they recommend 50% semolina, 50% farina, and 7 eggs per kilo.  (Again, you will likely need to add a bit of water – up to ¼ cup to get the texture crumbly, but able to bind.) After cutting the pasta in desired shapes, they sprinkle the pasta with rice flour so that it doesn’t stick together.

Pasta tips: Fresh pasta is good in the frig for up to 5 days, stuffed pasta for 3. Fresh, dried pasta is best within 7 days. You can, of course, also freeze fresh pasta.

In my next post, we’ll discuss wine and olive oil. Caio!

Standard
Food Insecurity, Hunger, make a difference, Reflections

Who am I on this Hunger Awareness journey?

Each of our journeys with hunger is unique. What brought us to passionately want to eradicate hunger is equally so. For me, in the autumn of 2009, I was finding my land legs in my new home at Wichita State University. I joined the faculty here in August 2007 as a professor in the Elliott School of Communication, and the Kansas Health Foundation Distinguished Chair in Strategic Communication. After more than 20 years in Nevada, I had forgotten that it takes a while to acclimate to a new place, but after 1 ½ years, I was feeling pretty settled. My daughter was doing well in school. I was learning the university. It was time to look outside our personal journeys and find something that would feed our souls, something that would allow us to make a positive difference.

The door that opened that autumn was to Numana, Inc.  and I have been committed to this organization ever since.  A colleague asked me to review some early press releases and media articles and offer suggestions. Not being a journalist, I agreed, hesitantly, but also offered to run it by my journalism colleagues. (This is one of the benefits for a social scientist of working in an integrated school of communication. If I don’t have the skills, someone else does.) I gave my feedback on content and my colleague Eric Wilson gave his on format. I was hooked. Rick McNary, founder and CEO of Numana told a compelling story of hungry children in Nicaragua and the idea of starting a “feed children in schools program”.  Children, schools, food… I was in.

My daughter, her youth group, my son, some of my graduate students,  and I took part in the first ever Numana packaging event in El Dorado, Kansas. Almost 4000 volunteers packaged more than 285,000 meals for Haiti that weekend. It was fun, exciting, and invigorating! What was unique about Numana’s effort to “empower people to save the starving” was the hands-on nature of their events. Volunteers rolled up their sleeves, donned plastic aprons, gloves and shower caps and mixed, packaged and prepared the food for shipment to Salvation Army schools in Haiti.  At tables of 12-14 volunteers, rice, soy, freeze dried vegetables, and a 21 vitamin/mineral tablet, a diet specifically designed for the metabolism of people who are starving, were measured into 6-serving bags, vacuum sealed, packed 36 to a box, and loaded on a truck, The truck would carry the food to Norfolk, Virginia, where it would be shipped by boat to Haiti. The food was expected to arrive in 6-8 weeks. Then the earthquake hit and the situation was so much more severe. Our food was airlifted in by the U.S. 82nd Airborne as some of the first food to reach Haiti following the earthquake.

Superbowl weekend, 2010, I hosted WSU Feeds Haiti, again with my daughter and a group of amazing students. Over 3000 volunteers packaged more than 641,000 meals that weekend. I continued to go to events, to offer my support, and in the first year, more than 125,000 volunteers nationwide packaged over 21 million meals at Numana events.

People want to do things that matter, that make a difference, just as I did.

Now my focus has expanded. After the Kansas Hunger Dialogue last March, I also want to understand hunger on the local level. I wanted to know if there’s a problem here on the WSU campus. I believe there is. Again, I brought together students, this time in a Health Communication Seminar, to understand the nature and scoop of hunger and food insecurity on our campus. The response has been phenomenal. Campus-wide support and interest has simply poured in.

On our website, http://wsuhunger.wordpress.com, you will be able to follow the journeys of each of the 8 students in our class. Our goal is to understand and to empower the change that is needed on our campus. This class is, for me, a way to teach what I practice, to use communication capacity, and skills, to empower others. Personally, it also keeps me on my journey to choose to do things that make a difference. I invite you to join us on this journey!

Standard
Raw Food Diet, Reflections

Day #3 of eating healthier this autumn

Ok, autumn is upon us and a group of Wichita folks on facebook have decided to support one another in getting fit, losing weight, whatever our health goals are. I’m planning another go at the raw food diet Alyssa and I started during Lent. I already know that with lunches out and timelines, going totally raw is not likely, but I’ll do my best. My backup is vegetarian. I’m also trying to avoid cow’s milk products and wheat products.  So, here’s my progress so far.

Here’s my progress so far.

Day #1: Excellent! I grazed throughout the day (a key idea in the reading I’m doing) on carrots, raw cashews, a banana and a LOT of water.

Day #2: Total fail! Ok, not a total fail. I had a banana in the a.m., then lunch at Mike’s Wine Dive in Wichita (If you haven’t been, you must. Everything I’ve tried is delicious). I had the salmon patty sandwich and a salad without dressing plus iced tea. Then for dinner at Piccadilly, a bierock and fatoush salad with a glass of red wine. My real downfall was the devil dog (chocolate heaven) in my fridge as a last hurrah before I began this adventure. I didn’t get around to eating it in advance and it just wouldn’t stop calling to me. Sooo, I ate it.

Day #3: A good day! I started with a banana and some peppermint water this morning, then a small cucumber salad with a touch of Italian dressing and parmesan cheese. Then I made a delicious butternut squash soup. I’m including the recipe below. It was heavenly.  1 serving of goraw Spicy Flax Snax I ate 1/2 of it and have the rest for lunch tomorrow.

Ok, so here’s the recipe for the butternut squash soup (562 calories total IF you use all the soup. I didn’t). It makes at least 2 nice sized servings (281 calories).

1 medium sized butternut squash peeled and slided (150 calories)
1 medium avocado (165 calories)
2/3 cup rice dream vanilla milk (87 calories)

1 packet of onion soup mix & 3 cups of water (160 calories – but most of it is not used)
Bring soup to a boil, add squash pieces and boil until soft

Drain:
In blender mix squash pieces, rice milk and avocado with 1/4 cup of soup broth and onion pieces from soup.
Blend until smooth.

YUM!!!!!!

Then I had a pear for a snack

I’m not doing South Beach Diet as some of my Wichitweep friends are, so I have no idea how this recipe might (or might not fit). I’m going for the mostly raw, vegetarian approach, no milk products, no wheat approach.

I plan to check in several times a week to mark my progress and even more often on the facebook site. All encouragement welcome! I’m looking forward to the support of my friends and supporting them as we take this healthy challenge together! Come join us!

Standard