International Truffle Festival, Alba, Italy

One doesn’t need to linger long at this site to know that Mrs. NH and I have acquired a real taste for truffles while living over here in the old country.  Of course, while many of my readers see this as just another example that NH has gone all high-falutin’ euro-style, I see it as more of a matter of supply and demand.  You see, over here, they charge a premium for crappy tacos.  Brisket?  Can’t buy it.  Cheeseburger?  $15.  Oreos?  No way, José.

But truffles are relatively plentiful in some of the places we frequent.  For example, you can’t go to a restaurant in Istria without finding several truffle dishes on the menu.  So, since eating locally is in fashion these days, we’ve worked the truffle into our home menu.  We have a cabinet full of them, to be exact.  We’re truffle hoarders.

Interestingly, that came in handy last month while we were in Piedmont at the exact same day that they were having the International Truffle Festival in the quaint, rustic town of Alba – in the heart of the Italian Truffle basket.  The fact that our cupboards are already full of truffles meant that we didn’t have to fork out any dough other than the 2 Euros for entry and a few more Euros for wine tastings.  But we got to witness some of the biggest and most beautiful truffles in the world in a unique, “how did this become my life” setting.

Up until my recent trip to Moscow, this was the most fun I had ever had at a trade show.  Truffles were the main attraction to be sure but another 50% of the show was devoted to regional wines, pasta, meat, cheeses and desserts.  The best part, they were giving out samples.  Truffle cheeses, goat cheeses, truffle sausage, chocolate truffles, wines and even some cheeses that looked like things that had been scraped of the bottom of my shoe.  I tried ’em all.

Then, there were the people.  Let’s not forget, these people are Italians.  They take their food and drink very seriously.  They’re also quite engaging after you ask them a few cursory questions about their product.  Americans seemed in short supply at this show and being one might have actually helped us score an extra nibble of sausage or a little taller pour of wine.  (The myth of Americans being hated in Europe is happily just that, a myth.)  I picked up some of the best Barolo’s and Nebbiolo’s I’ve tasted for a hair over $10 a bottle.  Italian’s know how to do wine.  They make sure it’s all very good.  Then they charge a reasonable price and make their money that way.  By selling all of it.  If it is exceptional wine, they charge a little more, but generally in this part of Italy, wine snobs are the exception to the rule.  With two college education funds to contribute to, I’m thankful for that!

If you’ve ever entertained the slightest thought of visiting this festival – do it.  If you’ve entertained the thought of visiting Piedmont but aren’t a hard-core truffle head, plan your visit around the time of this culinary trade show and you will be a convert before you drive out of town.  It’s a real European curiosity and a particularly awesome part of Europe.

Penne Florentine with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

We picked up a bunch of sun-dried tomatoes while in Provence and decided to use some for a quick dinner tonight.  We’re also working to replace as much regular pasta with whole grain pasta when the sauce will hold up to it.  This recipe definitely did the trick and took about 15 minutes to prepare and had a nice, bold flavor.

Here’s a rundown.  All measurements (e.g. “fist full”) are approximate:

1 lb. whole wheat penne
2 minced cloves garlic
1 small onion
2 tbsp. olive oil
15 sun-dried tomatoes chopped
1.5 cups chicken broth
pinch red pepper flakes
1 well-drained fist full of frozen spinach
1/2 cup half and half
salt and pepper to taste (doesn’t take much)

Have your penne ready to go after cooking the sauce.

Sauté onion and garlic in oil until soft.  Add sun-dried tomatoes and then broth a little bit at a time and simmer until reduced to a good sauce consistency.  Add red pepper flakes.  Add spinach and heat until warm.  In about the last two minutes, stir in your half and half.  Serve over pasta.

Easy, healthy and made with stuff you probably already have in the kitchen.

Homemade Bucatini all’Amatriciana

I have some old topics I have to clear out.  There’s been a lot of food and travel over the past few months and I haven’t gotten to cover it all.  One of the items I’ve missed is our own homemade Bucatini all’Amatriciana.  The Scampwalker family got us a gift certificate to Williams-Sonoma for our birthdays and we decided to use it on a KitchenAid pasta press.  The thought of making homemade bucatini was pretty exciting to me.  So, a few weeks ago, after receiving the package in the mail, we gave it a shot.

The end result was tasty, if different than I had imagined.  Of course, it was only our first attempt at using the gadget so I’m sure it will get perfected as we go along.  I believe I made the dough a little dense and not quite wet enough.  Running it through the auger in this machine, it’s pretty clear that softer dough is key.

That said, the flavor was great.  This simple pasta covered with the Amatriciana sauce is simple, rustic comfort food at its best.

We’re looking forward to trying this attachment to make all sorts of other pasta.  It will certainly be used at a dinner party coming soon.  We’ll keep you posted.

BBQ = World Peace

I believe the NH clan did Texas proud Thursday night.  The brisket was tender and the ribs were fall-off-the-bone moist.  Brits, Slovaks, Australians, Czechs and Canadians were gorging on slow-cooked meat saying things like, “So you can get this stuff everywhere in Texas?  Now I see why you like it so much.”  Mrs. NH’s mac ‘n cheese was devoured by the forkful as I informed many of our guests what a brisket is.   Skinny European wives were grabbing nibbles of the tender cut off of the serving tray with no utensils and no shame.

I’m proud.

I’m also glad to have such good friends to come to such a party.  In a moment outside in front of the grill, away from the cacophony of  about 8 kids and twice as many adults, I paused and marveled at just how lucky our family is.  Friends and family are two of the most precious things in life.  Getting to enjoy both while eating BBQ was a trifecta.

Meringue Ghosts and BBQ

I’m cooking ribs and brisket and Mrs. NH is in some sort of a Halloween cookie frenzy.  Pumpkin-orange icing and pointy hooded ghosts abound in the dining room.  We’re finally making good on our promise to have our local friends over for Texas BBQ tomorrow.  The beer is chilling, the ribs are resting and 8lbs. of brisket are primed and ready for the oven.  Between that Mrs. NH’s mac ‘n cheese extravaganza, it should be a helluva Thursday.

Pesto Filled Panzarotti

I totally lucked into the meal pictured above after a morning strolling around the International Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy.  It was probably one of the best tasting days of my life.  Truffles the size of your fist in the morning, Panzarotti for lunch and wine tasting all afternoon long topped off with more pasta and veal for dinner.  But I digress.

The pasta pictured was a delicate, hand-made Panzarotti with a perfectly smooth cheese and pesto mix in the center and a rich, creamy, sauce to coat.  Mrs. NH looked longingly at my plate all meal long – even with her delicious meat-stuffed ravioli in front of her.  I had ordered the best meal.  But, since she’s carrying the 4th member of the NH clan, I gave her a fair share.

Since eating this pasta I’ve been dreaming of it.  Ravioli is hard to make.  I still haven’t found a recipe that I’ve perfected.  But having eaten this dish, I feel the inspiration to try again.  Any hints or recipes to recommend?  Leave ’em in the comments.

In Provence, France

Steak tartare, moules, frites and tarte flambées have all crossed my palate in the last 48 hours.  My mood has gotten considerably better.  We’ve seen markets with cheeses that I can’t begin to pronounce and oysters larger than my hand.  The south of France appears to be up to keeping the legendary status it has acquired.  The apartment at home is still in disarray but everything here is in order.  It’s a nice change.

Tomato Bruschetta

A bachelor buddy of mine had a cookout last night and he requested that all guests bring a side or a salad.  I kind of combined the two by making tomato bruschetta.  I got the recipe for this at a cooking class that Mrs. NH bought for me back when we were living in Washington, DC.  I haven’t pulled the recipe out in quite some time.  I’m glad I did for last night’s party.  Everybody loved it.

I think the key was grilling the bread.  I took some frozen, unloved baguettes, sliced them up and brushed both sides with olive oil before popping them on the grill to get slightly charred and smoky.  This step added the perfect rustic note to the dish.  It also kept the bread from getting stale.

Planning ahead, I separated a bit of the vegetable mix and a few slices of bread for myself.  So, no pickles for breakfast today, but I’m wondering how bruschetta would go with coffee?

Refrigerator Pickles

If you want to make some pickles
Take your time make some brine
Put all those little things you love
In vinegar and wine
It ain’t Chinese algebra
It’s easily done
Why you can pickle anything
Pickling is fun

The Gourds – “Pickles”

I was in one of the Vietnamese-owned vegetable markets that litter the back streets of Prague last week and saw what appeared to be small cucumbers, just the right size to be pickled.  “I’d like to do that someday,” I thought.  Of course, I wasn’t about to start a canning operation in my small apartment, so, for the better part of a week, it remained in the “like to do but won’t” category.  Then, I stumbled on this post on Lifehacker.  It promised “Homemade Pickles in One Hour”.

I read the referenced recipes and thought about how I might go about getting “pickling spice” in this country.  If they had it, I wouldn’t be able to read it.  So, I decided to improvise my own brine.

I used about 8 of those cucumbers, sliced in quarters.  Then I used 1 cup of water, 2 cups of white wine vinegar, mustard seed, bay leaves, garlic, cumin and salt.  I boiled it for 2 minutes and then poured it over the cucumbers.  After leaving them to soak in the fridge over night, I had my first two spears this morning at around 9:30.  Yum.

Making pickles just moved into the “done” category.  Now, I’m itching to pickle some asparagus.

Angelfood Cake from Scratch, Chocolate Cake from a Box, Peach Cream Pie

There, is that better for you?  Cake, cake, cake.  That’s what 50% of you come to this blog for?  That Minnie Mouse cake.  Cake.  There, I said it again.

I’ve spent the last two years slaving over a hot blog, offering my take on the world only to see my readership growing due to something my wife did.  Yeah, she’s great and all but it’s kind of disappointing that the most popular thing on my blog is something I had no part of.

So, I choose to soothe my damaged ego thusly:  Because of my excellent skill in taking and tagging pictures, search engine optimization (SEO) and brilliant prose, that dang Minnie Mouse cake just can’t help but be loved.  That’s also why I tried to get Mrs. NH to blog a bit herself.  She’s interesting or I wouldn’t have married her.

So I guess I should be happy.  Nobody’s threatening to lead me to the guillotine for saying, “Let them eat cake.”

It’s been a tasty couple of weeks around here.

Corn on the Cob

I’m a Cornhusker.  Always will be.  I knew what the PIK program was before I hit junior high, for goodness sake.  I grew up eating more corn in summertime than most people consume in a lifetime – and I loved every bit.  It seems this love of corn has been passed down to my offspring, as well.  The other night, Little NH tried her mother’s and my corn on the cob and proceeded to finish the better part of both of our ears.

There’s something really fun about eating corn.  I still love it and get giddy when we manage to find some in the stores here.  That and the process of slathering an ear with butter really gets the saliva glands flowing.

My greatest memory of sweet corn was when I’d sit out on the picnic table and keep my dad company while he cut the kernels off of grocery bag after grocery bag of corn.  The raw, sweet ones were the payoff.  He’d then bake it with liberal amounts of cream and butter and put it in seal-a-meal bags and freeze it.  We’d have corn all winter long.

I left Nebraska a long time ago, but the Cornhusker state never left me.  Pass the butter, please.

Summer Barbeque in the Oven

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Prague this weekend and our apartment is on the top floor, with lots of windows and absolutely no A/C.  So, you could say that cranking an oven up to 300° for five hours and 400° for another hour and a half would not be in most families’ plans.  However, we’re not most families.  We are meat loving Texas BBQ freaks by nature.  We miss ribs and brisket.  If we don’t get ribs and brisket, we get cranky.  So, heat be damned, we made ribs and brisket.

I’ve been making Coca-Cola Brisket for years but have finally perfected it.  I have a pretty basic dry rub that I use that consists of paprika, cumin, S&P, garlic and chili powder.  It does the trick for me and doesn’t include any weird (to my palate) aromatics like cinnamon or ginger.  It’s what I imagine cowboys using after rustling cattle all day.  And man, it just works.  That, a 5 pound fatty brisket and a few ounces of Coke and it’s cooking time.

Now this is the part I had to kind of tinker with over the years.  For years I cooked it with the heat too low.  It was always tasty but too tough.  Somewhere I saw a recipe that said I should cook it a 225 F.  Little did I know, that wasn’t hot enough to melt all the fat and make the brisket fork tender – how it should be.  So, I did a little more research online and found that fat melts between 275 and 300 and still keeps the meat moist.  That did it.  The brisket we had this weekend was better than many of the briskets that I sampled on my last swing through Texas.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.  There was just one thing missing – smoke.

However, I took care of the smoke quotient on my second dish, ribs, by cheating with impunity.  I used a bottle of liquid smoke that Fredericksburg Flash and Mrs. Flash had imported on one of their recent trips to Prague.  (To see the more traditional, smoky route taken, check out Scamp’s post here.)  For the ribs, I used the same rub plus a couple of tablespoons of instant coffee and a few dashes of liquid smoke on the ribs.  I put them in a baking dish and poured in a bottle of dark Krušovice beer that I had boiled to reduce by 1/2.  After covering the pan tightly with foil, I put those babies in a 400° oven for 1.5 hours and watched as Ma NH put the finishing touches on some ‘tater salad and doctored a can of baked beans.

The ribs were barely clinging to the bone as I took them out of the oven.  Mrs. NH, not a huge rib fan (she doesn’t like things still on the bone – the McRib demographic?), sampled some of the meat that I pulled off one of the costillas.  She was floored.  I don’t even bother finishing these things on the grill.  The beer and rub give them so much flavor that even a quick dip in BBQ sauce is completely optional.

I congratulated myself loudly through the entire meal.  I think it’s time to have our Prague friends over for an oven BBQ.  This meat combo, Mrs. NH’s potato salad, a cooler of cold beer and a peach pie made with my Grandma’s recipe could make any summer heat tolerable.  Even if you happen to also be standing next to a 400 degree oven.

Burek in Korčula, Croatia

One of the treats of getting a little deeper into Croatia is traditional Balkan food.  First and foremost of these crossroads of cultures foods is Burek.

Imagine a crispy pastry filled with succulent, herb-spiked meat.  The Nebraskans among you would instantly classify it as a “Runza” in a slightly crispy pastry.  Others, not born and raised to know “The Good Life” would probably call it a meat empanada.  Others, a meat pie.

I just call it delicious.

Mrs. NH was converted as well.  She had many bites of mine and one of her own later in the day.  The next day, she discovered the cherry burek.  Much more of a morning pastry but no less delicious.  It was crispy outside, gooey inside and just tart enough to get the taste buds engaged.

I didn’t have cheese burek this trip.  I’ll have to save that for my next trip to Sarajevo.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

As the rest of Prague was gearing up for the England v. US World Cup soccer match, I was gearing up for an entirely different challenge.  I was about to make paella, real paella, at home in my kitchen in Prague.  I had made several half-hearted attempts at paella in the past using everything from packaged “saffron” rice (in college) to slightly more authentic chicken and rice pilafs a few years back.  But I had never attempted a real, honest to goodness paella.  All of that was about to change.

However, to begin, I needed an inspirational drink.  Sangria was the perfect accompaniment.  Unlike paella, I have made sangria a million times before.  I’ve pretty much co-opted Fredericksburg Flash’s recipe that he’s been making since I was in diapers.  I have yet to taste better sangria in all the world.  Isn’t it interesting that a dentist from Nebraska holds the gold standard of sangria for pretty much everyone who has tasted it?  I say, why mess with perfection?

So, with fruit cut and the delicious purple nectar providing just the right motivation, I began making the paella.  Scampwalker and I had experienced Paella Valenciana in Valencia a little over a year ago.  I was thoroughly impressed and I sought to make the base of the dish as close to the original as possible.  However, because of my audience and geographic location, I was going to substitute a few ingredients.  I used peas instead of green beans, threw in some chicken breasts instead of all bone-in chicken (I kept some drumsticks in for myself), no chorizo (because the only stuff we can get here adds too much spice) and shrimp instead of some other shellfish.  I didn’t have access to any clams or mussels for this batch, either.  I did have lots of saffron, though and I was pretty sure that could overcome any other shortcoming.

Looking for online recipes, I took the first one I could find.  It was Alton Brown’s Paella recipe and it served as the base for my dish.  I’ve found Brown to be a pretty consistent cook and his recipe had all the things I needed to serve as the base for my escapade.  His recipe is pretty dense with instruction.  He also uses a wood fire.  I used the stove and a big, 15 inch Caphalon pan.  I varied cooking a bit and this is a rough guide to what I did to make the dish.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

1 can peeled, chopped tomatoes
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth (heated in microwave)
3 cups short or medium-grain rice
20 threads saffron
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 chicken legs and seasoned with S&P
2 chicken breasts, cubed
and seasoned with S&P
1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh green peas
15 Jumbo shrimp, peeled, tails on

Alton’s directions are much more thorough, but here are mine in a nutshell:

Heat oil on high.  Add chicken and cook 12 minutes.  Add peas, peppers, onions, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  Add tomatoes and cook until liquid is reduced, about 4 minutes.  Add rice, saffron, salt, paprika, rosemary and cook one minute – stirring the whole time.  Add 4 cups of heated broth.  Stir only until rice is covered in broth and then don’t stir it again until it’s finished.  Simmer on med-hi heat for 9 minutes.  Add peas.  Add another 4 cups of heated broth.  Simmer another 4 minutes.  Add shrimp on top.  Simmer 3 minutes.  With tongs, flip shrimp but don’t touch the rice!  Simmer 6 minutes or until liquid looks almost gone.

Turn off heat. Cover loosely with a lid and let sit 15 minutes.

The result was one of the best paellas I’ve ever had in my life.  Little NH gobbled it up like it was going out of style.  Mrs. NH, when quizzed, only lamented the lack of chorizo and mussels.  I agreed, but didn’t feel too bad about it as I shoveled delicious fork full after fork full into my mouth.

We finished off the meal with a couple glasses of slightly-chilled Oloroso Sherry.   The nutty, toffee sweetness was the perfect finish to a perfect meal.

As an American taking on a very non-American dish, I fared better than the US against England this evening.  Whereas the US footie team was luck to eke out a draw, my challenge in the kitchen produced a huge win.

Pizza al Volo – Venice, Italy

Pizza al Volo is a bit of a Venice institution.  Some friends told us about it a few years back when we went to Venice but we didn’t manage to find it on that trip.  On this visit, Mrs. NH had it on her itinerary an Little NH and I were happy to be along for the ride.  After a twisting, turning walk through the streets of Venice, we arrived at Campo Santa Margherita.  The campo (or plaza) is really neat in and of itself.  Cafes line the periphery and you get a pretty authentic feel.  It’s definitely not as full of white tennis shoed tourists as much of the rest of Venice and that’s a nice change.

Having arrived, we took a look inside of Al Volo.  About three different pizzas were on display, all were incomplete.  I decided to let Mrs. NH and Little NH go inside and investigate further and I stayed outside to people watch and guard the stroller.  “I’ll be happy with whatever,” I told them.  (I also completely neglected to take any decent pictures of the place which explains the cropped, crummy picture.  Sorry.)

They came back with a couple slices of Margherita pizza and a slice topped with zucchini.  Both were very good.  Was it the best pizza I’ve ever had?  No.  I had probably become jaded on Italian pies by that point in the trip.  That said, it was tasty.  And when Mrs. NH went back inside for another piece, I was glad to see her come out with another one topped with zucchini.

So, would I recommend it?  Sure.  Is it the best pizza ever?  No.  Is it better than most?  Yep.   For Pizza al Volo, two out of three ain’t bad.