Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Northern Italian Tasting

We're generally not in the habit of having customers dictate the direction of our tasting menus, preferring instead to take the best ingredients we have on hand at the time and shape them into a menu based on our own whims. But our customer for this dinner was insistent that we do a tasting of the foods from the provinces of Northern Italy. OK. I would have gone to a Northern Italian restaurant for this, but never mind, we can cook pretty much anything.

The hardest part of this whole exercise was deciding the order of the courses; for example, would the Piemontese course be primo, a secondo, a dolce? Once we got the ordering of the courses, progressing from first courses to seafood to meat to sweets, then it was easy enough to draw inspiration from each region to fill in the details.

Chicken Liver "Crostino"
Toscana: Chicken Liver Crostino. Chicken liver crostini are some of the best known appetizers in Tuscany and since we had chicken livers on hand, we decided to do a take on this well known primo, but reinvent the form. We cooked the livers in the traditional manner with onions, sage, rosemary, capers, anchovies, and Cognac. Then we formed the liver mousse into truffles and rolled them finely powdered crostini, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. The bitter cocoa and espresso worked with the liver very nicely.

Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese
Alto Adige: Speck Knödel/Canederli Tirolese. We went back and forth on a soup course, but the weather by turning cold and nasty made the decision easy for us. I have always loved the bread dumpling soups of Bavaria, Austria, and the Südtirol and wanted to reprise them for this menu, to show the Germanic influences in the cuisine of Alpine Italy. I made a classic brown stock from both pork and chicken necks and then poached quenelles of knödel batter in it. The batter is white bread soaked in milk, garlic chives, sage, minced speck, and eggs.

Gambero al Prosecco
Veneto: Gambero al Prosecco. I wouldn't argue if you wanted to call this Shrimp and Grits because that is basically what it is. This is our take on the classic Venetian dish of Schie con Polenta, tiny head-on shrimp in a garlic butter sauce over creamy polenta. Making the sauce with Prosecco is a nod to the famous sparking wine of the Veneto.

Trofie al Pesto
Liguria: Trofie al Pesto. You just can't think of Liguria and Genoa without thinking of basil and that most famous of sauces, pesto. What snaps immediately into my mind is a big plate of the local pasta, trofie, in pesto sauce. Plates of pasta just don't look all that pretty on tastings, so we mixed the trofie and pesto with some ricotta and eggs and baked them in little molds so serve as a base for mussels steamed with pesto.

Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo
Val d’Aosta: Grilled Trout with Fennel, Chestnuts, and Lardo. Moving right up next to France and Switzerland, the next course took its cues from regional products. This dish has no basis in classic Italian cooking: it is one of my own invention, but I daresay that it would feel at home in a modern restaurant in the Val d'Aosta. We grilled trout and then served it with a sauce made from caramelized fennel, shallots, and peeled chestnuts, splashed at the last second with a touch of anisette and bound with a splash of cream. On top is a very thin sliver of house-cured lardo. This dish is a keeper and I look forward to reprising it at some future time in the main dining room.

Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel
Friuli/Venezia Giulia: Radicchio, Wild Mushroom, and Sausage Strudel. As a student of culinary history, I am always amazed at how cuisine pays no heed to political boundaries. For example, strudel, ignoring modern country borders, can be found all over the former Austro-Hungarian empire, including the far northeast corner of Italy. We made our strudel of radicchio, wild mushrooms, and a house-made sage sausage. Although it is very tasty, radicchio goes nearly black when cooked and does not necessarily make the prettiest strudel filling.

"Osso Buco" Milanese
Lombardia: "Osso Buco" Milanese. What is more representative of the cooking of Lombardia than osso buco milanese, succulent veal shank over saffron risotto? Nothing. How do you serve it for a nine-course tasting? We like the arrancino form.

Rabbit Bolognese
Emilia Romagna: Rabbit Bolognese. Emilia Romagna, among others, has two very famous exports: prosciutto di Parma and salsa bolognese from Bologna. We decided to marry a classic salsa bolognese made of rabbit with prosciutto, by wrapping the salsa in prosciutto, to give the salsa form on the plate. It is plated with saffron aïoli and a touch of sun-dried tomato pesto.

Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta
Piemonte: Chestnut and Red Wine Panna Cotta. Panna cotta is a classic dish that I associate most closely with the Piemonte. This is a two-layer panna cotta of jellified Nebbiolo wine and a chestnut cream. I have gently reheated the panna cotta so that the red wine layer has just about melted, forming a sauce à la crème caramel. Topped with candied pine nuts.

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