Monday, October 29, 2012

Eggplant Custard with Tomato and Basil Sauce from Trequanda, Tuscany

Eggplant Custard with Tomato and Basil Sauce (Sformatino di Melanzane con Pomodoro e Basilico) is a nice side dish. Although I enjoyed it, I would probably not make it again because it's not quite my "cup of tea." However, I'm posting the recipe because I think many would enjoy it.

It is from a restaurant called Il Conte Matto (The Crazy Count), in the small Tuscan town of Trequanda, a few miles north of Montepulciano. I obtained it from Beth Elon's wonderful book, "A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany." It serves 4 and is easy to make.

It can be prepared in a baking dish or in large individual molds (ramekins). I used ramekins. If you use a baking dish, slice the custard onto a serving platter and pour the sauce over it. The individual molds can be turned out onto the sauce.

1. For the Custard
- 1 pound of eggplant, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons Extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 egg plus 1 yolk
- 3 heaping tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus additional at table

2. For the Sauce
- 1 & 1/2 pounds (about 4) large ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded
- 3 sprigs basil, chopped, and some additional leaves for garnish
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- salt and freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees
- Put the eggplant into a colander, mix some salt through it, and leave it to rest for at least half an hour in order to rid it of any bitter juices. Squeeze it dry in a towel. Then sauté gently in 2 tablespoons olive oil until soft. If need be, add a bit of boiling water and allow to cook out.
- Place the eggplant, cream, egg, egg yolk, and Parmesan into a food processor and blend until amalgamated.
- Put the mixture into individual molds or a baking dish, and place in a bain marie of boiling water. (We do not have a bain marie, so I set the individual molds into a square baking pan with high sides, and poured the boiling water about half way up the sides.) Bake for half an hour, if individual molds, or 45 minutes if using a baking dish. (It took 45 minutes with the method I used.) Test for doneness by sticking a sharp knife into the custard. If it comes out clean, it is done. Cool well.
- Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes and basil together, and pour into a bowl. Mix in the vinegar, and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve the custard with the sauce, garnished with fresh basil leaves. Serve with more sauce and Parmesan at table.

Tomato Bruschetta from La Locanda al Castello di Sorci, Tuscany

This Tomato Bruschetta recipe is from La Locanda al Castello di Sorci via Beth Elon's book, A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany. It involves a tomato and garlic sauce rather than chopped tomatoes. While it is a nice dish and easy to make, I prefer bruschetta with chopped tomatoes. This one is worth trying if you prefer a sauce.

FYI, the "sch" in bruschetta is pronounced like the "sch" in the English word "school," not like the "sh" in "shot."

While the book says it serves 4, it produces enough sauce to serve 6 as an appetizer.

- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (use a high quality extra-virgin olive oil.)
- 6 Italian plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded, or a 1 lb 12 oz can of peeled tomatoes chopped into small pieces
- a good pinch of peperoncino (hot red pepper)
- 1 small bunch chopped basil
- salt
- 4 thick slices of rustic bread toasted (I found that the sauce covered many more than four slices.)

- Press 1 clove of garlic into the oil over a medium fire.
- As soon as the oil begins to bubble, add the tomatoes, mashing them into the pan. Add pepper.
- Cook until thick.
- Add the basil and salt, and set aside.
- Halve the remaining garlic clove, and rub onto the toasted bread.
- Cover the toast with a spoonful of sauce, and serve warm.

Strawberry Semifreddo, A Tuscan Dessert from Frances Mayes

If you like strawberries and ice cream, you should really enjoy Strawberry Semifreddo (Semifreddo alla Fragola) from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, and other works. I found the recipe at It serves 8 to 10 people, and is fairly easy to make.

- 1 & 1/2 pints of strawberries, stems removed
- 1 tablespoon of orange juice
- 1 & 1/4 cups sugar (two tablespoons will be used in one part of the recipe, and the rest in another part.)
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 cup of whole milk
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup of mascarpone cheese
- 1 & 1/2 cups of heavy cream

- Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving a few inches all around the sides
- Puree the strawberries (reserving and refrigerating several pretty ones) with the orange juice and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Chill the puree until ready to use.
- Fill the bottom of a double boiler with water and bring almost to a boil. In the top, beat the eggs with the remaining sugar, the milk, and the vanilla. Place over the simmering water and whisk continuously for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture thickens and forms trailing ribbons. (This took me about 15 minutes.) Cool in the fridge for about 1 & 1/2 hours.
- When the egg mixture has cooled, whisk in the mascarpone and all but 1/4 cup of the strawberry puree. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until firm peaks form. With a spatula, fold the cream into the strawberry and mascarpone mixture. Pour into the loaf pan and freeze for at least four hours. Refrigerate the reserved puree.
- When ready to serve, unmold the semifreddo by loosening the plastic wrap, then inverting the pan onto a serving dish. Slice or leave whole the reserved strawberries. Add them to the reserved puree and spoon this over the semifreddo in the dish, or over individual servings.

Thin Spaghetti with Asparagus and Shrimp, from Pisa

I love Thin Spaghetti with Asparagus and Shrimp (Spaghettini con Asparagi e Gamberi) from page 249 of Beth Elon's book, a Cullinary Traveller in Tuscany. She obtained the recipe from La Taverna dei Gabbiani, Marina di Pisa, at the mouth of the Arno River. It is relatively easy to make and serves six. I added extra shrimp to the recipe.

- 1 pound large shrimp (I used a pound and a half of medium shrimp). Get shrimp in the shell because the shells are used to make stock.
-1/2 cup olive oil
- 3 shallots, chopped
- 1/2 cup dry white wine. (Publix supermarkets sell single-glass containers of chardonnay and other wines, so I didn't have to open a bottle for this small amount of wine.)
- 3 large, ripe tomatoes - peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
- 1 small bunch of Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 pound of spaghettini or other long, thin pasta.
- 1 pound of asparagus, steamed or boiled until cooked, but still firm, and chopped into bite-sized pieces
- salt and freshly ground pepper

- Peel the shrimp, and remove the black vein. Prepare a stock with the shells and heads by putting them in a pan with 2 cups of water and boiling for about 10 minutes. Remove and discard the shells, reserving the stock and keeping it at a simmer. Chop the shrimp into bite-sized pieces. (That step is unnecessary if you buy medium shrimp.)

- In a large pan big enough to hold the pasta and the sauce, sauté the chopped shallots in the oil. Add the shrimp, and sauté for another three minutes.

- Pour in the white wine. As it boils, add the tomatoes and parsley, and cook for another five minutes. Add a good amount of salt and freshly ground pepper, and lower the heat.

- Drop the pasta into a large pot of boiling salted water. As soon as it begins to boil again, turn off the heat. Drain the pasta, and add to the pot holding the shrimp. Almost cover with the stock which was made from the shrimp shells. Begin to mix the pasta and sauce, adding more stock as the pasta absorbs. Add the chopped asparagus at the last minute, with some more salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

An Authentic Tuscan Meal

The other night, we had friends over for an authentic Tuscan dinner. While all of the recipes and wines were from Tuscany, I did not follow the normal protocol for what constitutes a "primo" (first) or "secondo" (second) course. Instead of a secondo, I had two "primi" (plural of "primo"). I was very happy with the results.

The Menu
- Tomato bruschetta
- Carabaccia (Tuscan onion soup)
- Eggplant Custard with Tomato & Basil Sauce (Sformatino di Melanzane con Pomodoro e Basilico)
- Thin Spaghetti with Asparagus & Shrimp (Spaghettini con Asparagi e Gamberi)
- Strawberry Semifreddo (Semifreddo alla Fragola)

2010 Vecchia Cantina Rosso di Montepulciano
2007 Máté  Brunello di Montalcino

Three of the dishes were from the book, "A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany," by Beth Elon. The recipes are from restaurants she has found off the beaten path during her explorations of Tuscany. I highly recommend this book. The recipes I used from her book were the bruschetta, the eggplant custard, and the thin spaghetti. I loved the thin spaghetti dish. I also enjoyed both the bruschetta and eggplant custard, but would probably not make those two again. However, I think there are many people who would love either or both of those dishes.

The onion soup, which I mentioned in an earlier posting, is one of my favorite soups.

The semifreddo recipe was from Frances Mayes book, "The Tuscan Sun Cookbook" via an Internet posting. I loved this dish.

I will provide each of the recipes in separate postings so they will be easier to locate.

The wines were very nice. Vecchia Cantina is a large cooperative located near Montepulciano, Tuscany. They produce a wide variety of Tuscan wines. A tip for a very good every day wine from this winery is their Chianti, which retails for $6.99 at Total Wine.

The Máté winery of Candace and Ferenc Máté, which is just outside Montalcino, Tuscany produces terrific wine. Candace is a wonderful artist, and Ferenc is an excellent author, whose works include books on Tuscany and sailing. Their winery is worth a visit if you're ever in Montalcino (

Friday, October 12, 2012

L'Antica Trattoria, Sorrento - Delicious Meal in a Pleasant Setting

Our first meal in Sorrento last July, dinner at L'Antica Trattoria (, was a delightful way to wind down after a long day of driving from Venice. L'Antica Trattoria has been operated by Aldo D'Oria since 1986 and has been in his extended family since 1930. It has an excellent menu and wonderful ambience. The temperature was very comfortable for sitting outside in the evening, despite the earlier heat during the day.

We sat outside on a terrace and underneath a vine-covered pergola. There are also tables under awnings in front of the restaurant and nice rooms inside. The restaurant's name is on a beautiful tile sign in the front.

Entrance to L'Antica Trattoria

We started with an amuse-bouche, which I believe was a bread crumb coated cheese ball with a tomato sauce.

Then we shared a very nice caprese salad (appropriate for being just a couple of miles from Capri.)

Great tomatoes & fresh mozzarella in this Caprese salad

One of us had ravioli with Sorrento caciotta cheese, marjoram, basil, and tomato sauce (Ravioli di Caciotta Fresca e Maggiorana, con Vellutata di Filetto di Pomodoro e Basilico) for 16.

Another had "Mediterranean Concerto" fresh, triangle egg-pasta with delicate Sorrento cheese, zucchini, zucchini flowers, basil pesto, and marjoram. (Triangoli "Concerto Mediterraneo" di Pasta Fresca all'Uovo ai Formaggi Delicati di Sorrento con Maggiorana, Zucchine, Fiore di Zucchine, e Pesto di Basilico) for 16.

Mediterranean Concerto

A third had Antica Trattoria angel hair tagliolini pasta, with prawns, and cream of lemon and spinach sauce with lampfish caviar (Tagliolini de l'Antica Trattoria al Limone con Gamberi Rossi a uova di Lamba Nere, su Vellutata di Spinaci) for 18. She also had the Sorrento Lemon Delight (Delizia di Sorrento al Limone) for dessert.

I had the 38 Menu Sinfonia (Symphony Menu) with four dishes:

1. Zucchini flowers fried in a delicate batter with fuscella ricotta (a cows-milk ricotta produced in Campania), cubes of prosciutto, with sweet Tropea onions (from Calabria) in a sweet and sour sauce. (Fiore di Zucchine con Ricotta di Fuscella e Brunoise di Prosciutto in Pastella Delicata, Salsa all' Agrodolce e Petalli di Cipolle di Tropea)

2. The "Mediterranean Concerto" triangle pasta.

3. Pork medallions with mustard, and herbs, with Savoy cabbage and green onions, fresh Annurca apples (a type of small apple from Campania) in a cream sauce, dried dates, and cranberry sauce (Medaglione di Filetto di Maiale alla Senape, alle Erbe, con Verza al Cipolotto, Fresco Cremoso di Mele Annurche, Datteri Secchi, e Salsa al Mirtillo)

4. Sorrento Lemon Delight (Delizia di Sorrento al Limone)
Sorrento Lemon Delight

We all shared a plate of mixed, home-made cookies.

Home-made Cookies

The red wine I chose was a 2010 Dedicato a Marianna Sciascinoso-Aglianico for 28. It was very nice. Sciascinoso and Aglianico are both red wine grapes from Campania. Aglianico is much more widely cultivated. Aglianico wines are available in the U.S., but I have never seen Sciascinoso wines here.

There were many other dishes on the menu that I would love to have tried.

Our waiter was very nice, and provided excellent service.

The restaurant is located at 33 Via Padre Reginaldo Giuliani, in the heart of Sorrento's historic center. It was just a couple of blocks from our hotel.

Ca' Amadi - Staying at Marco Polo's Place in Venice, Italy

During our trip to Italy in last July, we spent several busy and interesting days in Venice. Our base of operations was a very comfortable, large, air-conditioned room at Ca' Amadi (, a bed and breakfast that was part of a palace that was Marco Polo's residence in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. Our room overlooked a picturesque canal called the Rio Fontego dei Tedeschi. This B&B clearly deserves the many wonderful reviews on Trip Advisor ( I highly recommend it.

Looking at Ca' Amadi from a Nearby Bridge

View from Our Room

Ca' Amadi is located an easy 5-10 minute walk from the Rialto bridge over the Grand Canal. Of course, we had to make this walk with our luggage when we came from the vaporetto (water  bus) stop near the Rialto Bridge.

The staff of Ca' Amadi - the manager Valentina, Nicolo and Alberto at the front desk, and the breakfast cook were all very nice. Alberto was extremely helpful in answering questions about various activities.

One of Our Two Sets of Beds

The two large beds in our room for four were comfortable and the room was nicely outfitted. One of the large beds was two smaller ones pushed together.

The breakfast had a nice variety of fruits, juices, yogurts, cereal, cold cuts, coffees, breads and pastries, etc. The cook would make delicious bacon and eggs to order. The one complaint I had about the breads and pastries is that they were commercial and uninteresting, in contrast to nice bakery/homemade pastries I have had at similar B&Bs elsewhere in Italy.

Another complaint is that the WiFi signal in our room was often very weak and unusable. However, I could go out into the reception area and receive a strong signal there.

The price of our Family Room for Four with Canal View was 265.00 ($334 at the exchange rate then) for the first night, a Saturday night. The next two nights were 236.55 ($298) per night. The room tax was only 5 per night in contrast to a typical American hotel tax that would have been around 15%, This was also the height of the summer tourist season.

Rio Fontego dei Tedeschi, is an interesting name. It means, "Canal of the Warehouse of the Germans." It refers to a large building that is located at the intersection of that canal and the Grand Canal. The building was the HQ of German merchants in an earlier day. In the Venetian language, "Rio" is the word used to refer to canals other than the very large canals like the Grand Canal. (Many visitors do not realize that the Venetians have their own language (not dialect), that they speak in addition to standard Italian.)

One interesting experience we had was that the route of the gondola ride we took passed right under our hotel room. That offered us a very different perspective.

Several times, when sitting in our room with the windows open, we could hear passing gondoliers pointing to Ca' Amadi and mentioning it had been Marco Polo's home.

Anyone who is staying at Ca' Amadi and is interested in a close place to have delicious gelato should try L'Alta Gelateria on nearby Salizada Fontego dei Tedeschi. I loved the peach gelato.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Florentine-Style Spring Peas, an Easy Tuscan Side Dish

In looking for a nice side dish for an Italian meal I prepared last night, I found one that meets two important criteria - tasty & easy. It's a Tuscan dish called Florentine-Style Spring Peas - Piselli alla Fiorentina. The recipe calls for either ham or pancetta. I used pancetta, which was fine. However, I think that I'll try prosciutto next time, and compare the results.

Below is the exact description of this dish as described at the following URL:

Serves 6

One of the most often served vegetable dishes in Florence. The springtime fresh pea season is short in Tuscany, but since this is such a favourite, we've gone global, using the best frozen peas we can find. Whirl up any leftovers with a touch of broth, milk or water for a wonderfully sweet pea soup.

  • 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 3-4 oz. diced ham or pancetta (un-smoked, Italian bacon)
  • 1 ½ pounds frozen petite peas
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
  1. In a 2-quart saucepan, gently cook olive oil, garlic and ham or bacon for 2-3 minutes, being careful not to brown the garlic.
  2. Add the frozen peas, water, salt and pepper and cook covered for approximately 15 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper, stir in parsley and serve.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Carabaccia - Delicious Florentine Ancestor of French Onion Soup

Last July, in Florence Italy, I enjoyed Carabaccia, a terrific, traditional Florentine onion soup. Surprisingly, I had never heard of this soup, despite two previous trips to Tuscany and research I had conducted about Tuscan cuisine. I decided to try making this soup when I returned to the U.S. Last night, I tried this easy recipe, and loved the results.

The word "carabaccia" is the name of a kind of barge that was used to transport salt and sand from one point of the Arno River in Florence to another.

Some say that this soup is the ancestor of French onion soup. Foodies who know Italian and French food are aware of the view that some of the origins of French haute cuisine date to the 16th Century, when Catherine de' Medici moved to France when she was wed to King Henry II of France. When Catherine moved to France, she was accompanied by a retinue that included Florentine chefs. In addition to introducing advanced cooking techniques, they also introduced the fork to France.

Whatever the history of this soup, the bottom line is that the taste is wonderful.

The recipe for the version of the soup I had at Trattoria del Pennello is on the restaurant's web site -

However, I decided to make a slightly different version that I found on the following web site:

I also modified the latter recipe by adding more celery and carrots.

While the recipe says it serves four, I think it would easily serve 6.

- 2 lbs onions, finely sliced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 4 slices of Tuscan-style crusty bread (one for each bowl)
- 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 42 ounces of vegetable broth
- salt and pepper to taste
- Pecorino cheese for garnish

- Sauté the onions, celery, and carrots in the olive oil.
- At the same time, bring the vegetable broth to a boil.
- When the onions are soft, add the boiling vegetable broth and cook for about 40 minutes on low heat.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Toast the bread and place a slice in each bowl.
- Pour the soup onto the bread and garnish with pecorino cheese. (I put the grated cheese on the toast before pouring the soup.)
- Serve hot.