Results tagged Judy Witts from David Lebovitz

Perfect Panna Cotta Recipe

panna cotta

Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make, and if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you’re doing something wrong. I’d made them before, but never realized what a fool-proof dessert it was until I saw my friend Judy Witts make them at one of her cooking classes in Florence.

Sometimes we Americans have a way of overdramatizing things, and make things harder than they actually are. But I saw Judy quickly put together this Panna Cotta at the beginning of her cooking class in no time flat, to be served a few hours later.

After we ate the fabulous meal which we’d all made together, she effortlessly unmolded them into bowls, and there was our dessert. I was pretty impressed.

Continue Reading Perfect Panna Cotta Recipe…

#3: Grom Gelato Comes to Paris

Grom

This week, Grom opens a branch of their famous Italian shop in Paris.

Originally from Torino, Grom uses all-natural flavorings, which include growing some of the organic fruit they use in their sorbets and graniti, grinding up vivid-green Sicilian pistachios for pistachio gelato, and melding the exquisite hazelnuts from Piedmont with Venezuelan chocolate for their ultimate, silky-smooth version of Gianduja.

I first tasted their exquisite gelato in Florence with my friend Judy and was hooked. It truly is one of the best in Italy, and now you can savor it in Paris.

Continue Reading #3: Grom Gelato Comes to Paris…

Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, Italy

The hardest part about sampling so much good food is that it’s almost impossible to go back to eating the everyday stuff.

I challenge anyone who’s flecked a bit of fleur de sel across their food to go back to ordinary table salt. I took one taste of the cloud-like, billowy chocolate-enrobed marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini and now I can’t seem to get enough.

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A special bottle used to evaluate ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’


My first experience with real, true balsamic vinegar goes back to the time I worked with Paul Bertolli at Chez Panisse. Every so often he’d ask me for the key to the liquor cabinet (which, for some reason, I was entrusted with) and he’d pull out his little dark bottle of brown, viscous syrup.

A breathless hush would fall over the kitchen, and he would tenderly drip a few precious drops onto the dinner plates with great reverence. Although that liquor cabinet got pilfered on perhaps one too many occasions, mostly involving after-work fresh fruit daiquiris for the staff (I was definitely not the person to entrust with the key), I never did touch that little bottle.
It scared me.

So when planning my visit to the Emilia-Romania region, I decided I would be so close to Modena, it would be a shame not to visit and see what all the fuss was about. I sent a message to the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena who was happy to provide me with a glimpse of the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar.

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Giovanna uses a glass tube to demonstrate the varying thickness of her vinegars

I could not have been luckier to spend the morning with Giovanna Cati-Barbieri and her husband Giorgio, who may be the tallest man in Italy. Giovanna took me up to their cellar where rows of barrels are lined up, where her vinegars are aged and stored. In fact, tucked away in the attics of many residents of this city are similar wooden barrels, some hundreds of years old, where families privately make their own batches of vinegar, as they’ve been doing for generations.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not to be confused with industrial balsamic vinegar, the acidic brown water that costs 2 bucks at the supermarket. It’s like comparing Ye Olde Log Cabin to pure, deep-dark maple syrup: there’s simply is no comparison. Giovanna, like others in town, follows traditional methods to make her balsamic vinegars, a process that’s strictly regulated and has both DOC (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) and DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations which ensure the 80 member consortium of local producers follow specific quality-assured guidelines.

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Rating the vinegar

You need to have a lot of patience to make true balsamico and many of Giovanna’s barrels are stamped with her daughter’s name in hopes she’ll carry on the tradition. Although you can find balsamic that’s younger, only balsamic vinegars that are aged 12 or 25 years get certification. And as those of us getting into our advanced years, there’s certainly a good argument for the gifts that age has bestowed upon us. But more importantly, aside from the certifications and designations, these balsamic vinegars are without a doubt one of the best-tasting things you’re ever liable to put in your mouth.

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Gorgeous bottles of balsamic aged in cherrywood

The process of making balsamic begins in October of each year with just-picked Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. If the grapes sit for any period of time, they’ll begin to ferment, so they’re cooked right away, but to a temperature no higher than 194 degrees (90 C), which is enough to release their juices but not to cook away any of the flavor. This year, 2006, was exceptionally good for the grapes, since the heatwave concentrated the natural sugars in the grapes.

Once the grape must has been cooked, the juice is cooled, filtered, then stored in barrels, which are never filled more than 3/4’s full. Giovanna uses many different types of wood, mostly castagno but also ginepro (juniper) and ciliegia (cherry), to make special reserve vinegars, since the wood imparts a fine flavor to the balsamico.

As the vinegar ages and evaporates over the years, the vinegar gets transferred from the large ‘mother’ barrel to smaller ones, gradually and systematically, over a period of several years. If you’re lucky, some day you’ll get a chance to taste vinegar that’s over 100 years old. It’s a rare treat.

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Judy Francini, the Divina Cucina, shows off a bottle of 100-year old vinegar in Florence

As Giovanna explained, “Balsamico is a life philosophy” since the techniques get handed down by word-of-mouth, and it takes more than just reading a recipe to know how to make the vinegars; when they must be decanted, how to monitor the evaporation, and evaluationing the vinegar at various times throughout the aging process. Giovanna also explained that the barrels are used like a dowry, handed down to daughters from generation-to-generation. She’s hoping her daughter will want to carry on the tradition as well. I hope so too.

Afterwards, Giovanna led me through a tasting of her vinegars, starting with a 12-year old bottle designated by a white cap, which was grape-y, tart, and pungent-sweet. It would be perfect to drizzle over carpaccio or shards of aged Parmesan cheese. Her 25-year old with a gold cap, was far fruitier, stickier, and with less acidity and more beguiling complexity.

Then she brought out the big guns: a tray of very special bottles, including her 25-year old reserve balsamic aged in cherry wood, which I immediately envisioned dripping over a vanilla-flavored panna cotta, then I tasted another 25-year old balsamic vinegar aged in juniper wood barrels, which she said should only be served over something “very important”, like venison or red meat.

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So good drizzled over sliceds of rare beef at Ristorante Vinicio

After several delectable spoonfuls, I was starting to swoon, wondering why I had lived so long without making aceto balsamico an essential item in my pantry? Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the cost; a small bottle will set one back at least $25. But since you’re just using just a few drops at a time (don’t you dare mix it into salad dressing), maybe ½ teaspoon, it’s merely a few cents per serving. So I tucked several bottles, packed very well, in my suitcase which thankfully made it back to my Parisian pad in one piece.

In spite of the price, a stingy few drops are all you need to make a very big impact. And never mind the photo…I asked them to keep pouring, feigning trouble with my camera, so they’d keep the precious liquid flowing. But I do recommend for newbies to try a bottle that’s at least 12-years old, as there’s a substantial difference between a thin, rather uninteresting 10-year old balsamic vinegar and a luscious, velvety 12- or 25-year old. The consortium of balsamic producers use a special bottle, designed by race car designer Giugiaro, to designate the provenance of their vinegars. Incidentally, it’s the same creative team that designs cars for a well-known, very famous Italian factory nearby, too.

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Freshly-churned vanilla gelato is the perfect foil for the tart-sweet taste of balsamico

The sad news is that now I’ve developed a taste of the good life, especially for true aceto balsamico, and have been tipping it over everything around here. But balsamico is also good with fresh figs, soft young goat cheese, shards of pecorino or Parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, gnocchi, and tortellini filled with sweet butternut squash.

Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Cabassi, 67
Tel: 059/333015

Visits can be arrange by telephone or through their web site and Giovanna speaks English. Reasonably-priced, secure international shipping is available as well.

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If you haven’t spent all your euros on vinegar, stop here on your way out of Modena

Modena

To learn more about balsamic vinegar in Modena, visit the web site for the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

Modena is a easy train ride from Florence, and the trip takes about 20 minutes making it a perfect day excursion. To visit the balsamic producers, call in advance and you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. The New York Times recently wrote an excellent article about the region as well.

Another, larger producer of traditional balsamic vinegar is Acetaia Bompana. Visits can be arranged in English or French as well.

Be sure to visit the Mercato Coperto Albinelli. This wrought iron-covered daily market is a must-see and is one of the best in the world. Open until 2pm.

Hotel
Hotel Centrale
Via Rismondo, 55
Tel: 059/218808

Modest lodging, smack-dab in the center of town, on a quiet street.

Restaurants

Ristorante Vinicio
Via Emilia
Tel: 059/280313

Gran Caffè
Piazza XX Settembre, 34
Simple, contemporary foods. Great lunch spot for pasta and salads, with wine bar for early evening drinks. Next to market.

Trattoria da Omer
Via Torre, 33
Tel: 059/218050
Pastas and simple trattoria fare.

Ristorante da Danilo
Via Coltellini, 31
Tel: 059/225498
Regional cuisine, including bollito misto, boiled meat dinners, dished up almost tableside. The ravioli di zucca, plump squash ravioli, are excellent.

Hosteria Giusti
Vicolo Squallore, 46
Tel: 059/222533
Tiny salumeria with a few tables hidden in the back.

Italian Herb Rub Recipe

In spite of the appearance of these herbs, I assure you they’re perfectly legit.
No, I didn’t open up my Pink Floyd double-album to remove any seeds. And no, I wasn’t listening to The Moody Blues at full-volume on my headphones hoping my mom wouldn’t smell anything funny (even though we rolled up a towel and pushed it against the bottom of the door.) And no, I no longer have my strobe light from many years ago when we’d be, um, getting-groovy down in my parents basement, laughing uncontrollably about something that any sane person would have found completely meaningless…as we did, the next day. But they sounded like good ideas at the time. Right?

So now that I’m a law-abiding adult, I get my rush cooking, and this is my stash. My friend Judy showed me how to make this easy herb mixture and now I make it every summer, making sure I’ll have enough to last me through the next twelve months.

It’s simply a mixture of fresh rosemary and sage, all chopped up with garlic and coarse salt. Since we’re just about at the end of fresh garlic season, I made sure to snag a few of the tender, violet-colored bulbs at the market, bringing them up to my nose to ensure they’re aromatic and pungent. Green garlic’s also very easy to peel; the fleshy skin merely slips right off, so you’ll have plenty of time to raid the pantry, on the rampage for anything sweet, just in case you get the munchies.

To make this herb mixture, take a very large bunch of fresh sage and pick the leaves off. Then take a large bunch of rosemary and strip off the oily leaves as well. A good proportion is about 2 to 3 parts sage leaves to 1 part rosemary. Then take about 8 small peeled garlic cloves and a heaping tablespoons of coarse salt (I use grey salt from Brittany) then chop it all up until the herbs are very fine, as shown. Discard any sticks or seeds.

Then spread the chopped mixture on a baking sheet and let it dry for about three days. (Hint: Don’t keep it near an open window where their might be a breeze. It would be a total bummer if you wasted your stash.) Once dry, store your herb in a tighly-sealed in a jar. Dude.

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I use it as an instant rub over poultry, tuna filets, and meat; since I always have some on hand, it’s simple to mix with some good olive oil and rub in in well before roasting.
Judy likes to toss a small fistful in a bowl of olive oil as a dipping sauce, too.
I tasted it once, and found it totally awesome. Although for some reason, we found it hysterically funny.