Blu Aubergine Blog

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh.

The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.

They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.

QUICK BITE: Bone Broth, Your Way

QUICK BITE: Bone Broth, Your Way

It's the dead of winter, and the entire east coast has just been hit with a major blizzard. This past weekend was, as they say, perfect "cooking project" weather. And it still is: perfect for a good, long simmer of beef bones thick with marrow on the stove, perfuming the air of your home and warming your kitchen. And then, once this broth is made, you can do so much with it. It's great just as is, of course. Much has been made of a "bone broth" revolution of sorts. Really, this is just broth, stock, whatever your want to call it -- that's been the base of soup and sauce recipes for ages. 

Some say to roast the bones and veggies in the oven first; I usually like to keep in uncomplicated when cooking this at home, and just use one pot -- a great big soup pot that's wide enough so that you can first roast the beef bones in one layer. I use a mix of marrow bones and some with a little meat on them, like short ribs or oxtail. I encourage a little caramelization with some tomato concentrate on top of the bones, and roast them on the stovetop or oven first until browned. Then I add the the carrots, onions, and celery (leeks and shallots if you're feeling it), along with lots of water, peppercorns, and a bay leaf. And really, that's it. This needs to simmer slow and low for as few as 6 hours, and as many as 24. Skim the ft occasionally from the top, and when it's done, strain it, cool it down and then place in storage containers in the fridge to completely cool overnight. This allows you to easily scrape the fat off the top the next day.

Now, the fun part. of course, you can sip the beef broth as is, even in a mug like the most restorative cup of coffee and lunch, combined. But the great thing about making a huge potload of beef broth is getting creative with it! You can freeze some in ice cube trays and then store in a ziploc bag in the freezer for use in sauces and individual servings later on. You can add some noodles and some vegetables and have a beef noodle soup. You can caramelize a pan full of sliced onions, sprinkle with flour, and add the broth for a wonderful French onion soup (top with a baguette slice and gruyere cheese for the real deal!). 

Or, make a wonderful, healthy, super-tasty Vietnamese-inspired version, like you see here. I took the basic beef broth and simmered it with a bit of soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, pineapple chunks, chopped lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, star anise, szechuan peppercorns, coriander seed, and chili pepper. The broth was infused with all of these warm and spicy notes over the course of about 2 hours.

Just before serving, I added some rice noodles, thinly-sliced bok choy, fresh cilantro and mint, a healthy squeeze of lime juice, and a bit of sriracha sauce, both blended in and drizzled on top. This is an incredibly fortifying soup-as-meal that's great both in cold weather and in hot. It's both edifying and refreshing. And it's utterly satisfying. You can create your own variations on this Asian noodle soup theme: add some red or green curry paste, a protein of choice, any kind of greens, herbs, citrus, spices. Have fun playing with your food! Keep warm, and keep cooking...

Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Monday, January 25, 2016

QUICK BITE: Easy Labor Day Salads

Heirloom yellow, green, and red tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, mint, microgreens, and toasted pistachios

Even though Labor Day weekend stretches into September this year, the heat is on and it still feels -- at least according to the mercury -- like we're in the middle of summer. And since we're celebrating Labor Day here in America, the last thing anyone wants to do is labor over a meal. Certainly, slaving over a hot stove is out of the question. But Americans love to grill, and the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat and seafood is a great summer salad.

And sometimes, salads are a great substitute for protein-heavy summer meals, as the main course. Composed salads are comprised of elements other than just greens and a few simple vegetables, plated together. Sometimes, there are no greens whatsoever. But even green salads can be elevated to another level with an interesting dressing (replace red wine vinegar with sherry vinegar, add a touch of dijon or miso, use walnut or hazelnut oil instead of olive oil).  Whether the salad is an accompaniment to burgers or steaks or lobster or grilled fish, keeping things cool with vegetables tied together with a great, bracing vinaigrette is the easiest, healthiest path to a delicious meal this Labor Day weekend. Herewith, some inspiration for delicious summer salads that require very little work -- and just some assembly, in many cases. Here's to a relaxing, labor-free Labor Day weekend: enjoy! 

Classic tuna Nicoise salad with grilled fresh tuna

Burrata, heirloom tomato, white peach, basil and mint

Classic iceberg wedge salads with blue cheese, bacon, cherry tomatoes and chives

Watercress with herbs, plums, red onion, and peanuts in Asian dressing

Heirloom tomato, radicchio, and grilled peaches

Mixed lettuces with broccoli, fresh apricot, and pomegranate

QUICK BITE: Pizza a Taglio a Roscioli

Ah, pizza. Real Italian pizza. There are several ways to enjoy pizza, particularly in Rome. I adore pizza bianca, but that's for another time. Probably the way I eat pizza in Italy most frequently, and the easiest and quickest way to enjoy this Italian fast food, is pizza a taglio: pizza by the slice. Or, technically, by cut.

The Italian way to cut slices of pizza is not from a round pie, but rather from a long, rectangular slab of pizza, either made in a sheet pan tray, or cooked directly on the oven floor and hand-rolled out to a very oblong disc or an approximation of a rectangle. 

And it's often cut with scissors. That's right. It makes sense when you think about it. You point out how large or small a piece you'd like, and they literally cut you a piece to measure. It is then weighed and you pay by weight, so that pizzas that are loaded with lots of toppings, ranging from tuna and artichokes with mayo to chile pepper-parsley hot sauce to sausage and potatoes and porcini mushrooms...the more that is loaded on there, the more you pay per piece.

Giusto, no?

But what most expert chefs -- and eaters -- know is that often times, the simplest iteration of something, the purest form of the ideal, is the best. Roscioli  is a family-run business that's been around for decades. They've run what used to be a simple alimentari (specialty food store) since back in the '90s, when theirs was simply my local shop (that happened to carry Philadelphia cream cheese when none of the grocery stores did) -- an old reliable, if you will. With the new millenium, they ended up closing for a spell and completely remodeling to convert this into an upscale gastronomic temple to meats, cheeses, smoked fish, oils and vinegars...with an excellent restaurant and wine cellar added in for good measure.

Their bread bakery is down the street from their 'headquarters' and main restaurant (they've now expanded to include a local pizzeria nearby, and it seems they're always moving on to a new venture). This bread bakery is always busy and they have a great selection of classic Italian biscotti and pastries as well as their renowned bread and pizze (that's plural for pizza, kids). Their selection varies form day to day, but it's always delicious, and they always have the basics, which to me -- here, at least -- are the best. That's right, a simple pizza margherita ("plain" in American parlance), and in Rome what's referred to as pizza rossa ("red pizza") -- otherwise known as alla marinara, hold the oregano -- just tomato sauce, no cheese. The simplest of the simple. And in this case, the pizza dough and the tomato sauce are the only two ingredients you have. So they'd better be stellar.

Here you can see the specimen: a very thin, crackly crust. Blistered bubbles in the surface of the pizza dough itself, owing to extremely high temperatures of the pizza oven. Just a slick of tomato sauce and a brushing of olive oil to make the overall presentation glisten (one of my sayings regarding good food's appearance: it really shouldn't be matte). A sprinkling of Italian sea salt. And when you bite into the pizza, it needs some chew. Real, authentic, delicious pizza needs gluten to get that chewiness activated in the dough. And that's it. It couldn't really be more simple, though from the end result that's available out there, you'd think it would be one of the Italian (or otherwise) kitchen's greatest challenges. Roscioli rises to it, as do several other spots around Rome. I was just lucky enough to have Roscioli be my local. And I was also lucky enough to call Rome home, where a walk along the Tiber, pizza rossa in hand, is all in an afternoon.

QUICK BITE: Salmon with Mustard Cream Sauce

It's been a long winter. Yes, the understatement of the year. I'm writing now in New York City, where it's a cool 33 degrees and almost April. This makes everyone in the city a little stir-crazy, itching for the thaw of spring weather and fresh green anything. Personally, I've had it with "restorative" soups and stews, braised meats and root vegetables galore -- much as I love these items in the thick of winter's cold. So, what to make when the mercury says it's still winter but our hearts, minds, and palates are aching for spring? Salmon with mustard cream sauce is the perfect "bridge" dish between the seasons. 

We all know by now that salmon boasts lots of Omega-3 fatty acids and that it's one of the most healthful varieties of fish to consume. A tangy mustard-cream sauce is a classic accompaniment that really brightens the fish and cuts its strong flavor and richness with zing. Adding a bit of freshly chopped dill to the sauce is a classic herbal touch, though not necessary. Pairing the fish with some winter veggies -- we do have to clear out our fridges of beloved winter greens somehow, don't we? -- grounds the meal in the now while we look towards the coming spring with open arms (and full bellies!). Roasted beets, sauteed brocoletti (with plenty of garlic and chili pepper), and a long grain and wild rice combo are the perfect sides to make this a well-rounded dinner. A mix of color is the easiest way for you to create a balanced meal without much effort.

How to make the sauce? Simple. You can use the same pan you use to cook the salmon.

First, heat some olive oil in a saute' pan (nonstick is best). Sprinkle the salmon fillet with plenty of salt, and place in the pan. Note: if you have the skin on the fillet, you can place it skin side down in the pan first, to crisp it up. Otherwise, put the top side down.

Second, sear for 3-4 minutes on the first side so it releases from the pan easily. Flip, and cook on the other side for another 4 minutes or so. Salmon is best served medium-rare to medium (if you like it cooked through, you can place in a 350-degree oven to finish).

Third, remove salmon fillet from pan, and pour about 1/2 cup heavy cream into the pan. Add 1-2 tablespoons of grainy dijon mustard, and gently whisk to mix completely. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Add salt to taste, and if you're adding chopped dill (chives or parsley work well, too), do that at the very end. Mix, taste for seasoning, and then  pour the sauce around the salmon fillet and any sides you like. Come spring, this salmon-and-sauce works extremely well with simple seared asparagus, as in the photo above. 

Enjoy, and here's to a tasty, soon-to-arrive SPRING!

RECIPE: Mid-Winter Grain Salad

This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain saladis just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.

To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.

A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash.

The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like. 

I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time. 

MID-WINTER BULGUR WHEAT SALAD

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice

1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup pomegranate arils

1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/8 cup rice vinegar

1 TBSP. dijon mustard

2 TBSP. ponzu

1 TSP. lemon juice

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.

- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.

- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.

- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.

- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.

- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.

*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Puntarelle

In many ways, it's the essence of Italian Food: it's seasonal, it's hyper-local, and it's a great use of a vegetable that may otherwise go unused, uneaten, and unappreciated. Puntarelle.

Its season begins as the cold weather descends upon the center of the Italian peninsula, and puntarelle usually don't last much beyond the winter months. Puntarelle means "little tips" in Italian -- these are the tender bottom ends of a specific variety of cicoria, or chicory. Cicoria is a bitter leafy green usually par-boiled and either served cold with lemon or sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile pepper. It's ubiquitous in Rome, much like sauteed spinach is in Florence. But in the winter months, roughly November to March, Romans focus on the puntarelle, the stems of the chicory plant which are cleaned of any leaves, sliced lengthwise in thin strips, and soaked in cold water until they curl up. 

You'll see older Roman women and men in the markets of Rome working with great dexterity over a bucket of water, peeling and slicing the puntarelle so that customers can buy them already cleaned and ready to use. Much like the beloved Roman artichokes, puntarelle are a labor-intensive labor of love. 

When making puntarelle, one begins with the dressing: an unctuous vinaigrette flavored with ground anchovies, fresh garlic, lemon, and wine vinegar, with a healthy glug-glug of top quality extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Then you mix this in with the cleaned puntarelle, and let it sit for 30 minutes or so. And then? Magic. The greens stay crispy, yet they absorb the flavor of the dressing, which you'll want to sop up with bread after you clean your dish of the greens.

It's a very old Roman recipe -- to my mind, probably assimilated into the Roman culinary canon from the city's Jewish community, because of its telltale use of anchovies (Jewish Romans often used {kosher} anchovies where Roman Catholics would use guanciale, or cured pork cheek, as a salty flavor base in a recipe). The cool thing about puntarelle? It's a super-extra-totally Roman vegetable, so even people in nearby areas like Abruzzo, Tuscany, and Le Marche don't get to enjoy the bitter-savory winter contorno

It's really the original Caesar salad, in a way -- and actually from the land of the Caesars. When in Rome? Head to the Campo de' Fiori market where you can purchase the greens and all the ingredients to make the salad at home. Then head to the famous Forno at the top of the piazza for some warm pizza bianca fresh out of the oven, to accompany the dish. 

If you're lucky, the Forno's sandwich shop, right across the tiny vicolo from the bakery, will be serving Pizza con le Puntarelle: a fabulous sandwich of the pizza bianca stuffed with puntarelle salad. Crunchy, chewy, warm, cool, salty, bitter, with the astringent zip of lemon and garlic...it's a heavenly Roman winter sandwich sure to make anyone a very happy campo-er.

When Rome is not your home? Puntarelle are, as noted, extremely local, though I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a special of puntarelle salad one cold winter night in New York, at the authentic and always-excellent Bar Pitti. When I asked the waiter in Italian where he'd managed to find puntarelle, he responded very simply, "eh, signora: dall'Italia. Ovviamente." From Italy. Obviously.

Puntarelle alla Romana

If you're not one of the lucky few who can get his or her hands on the real deal, you can approximate the texture and bitterness of the puntarelle by thinly slicing a mixture of celery and belgian endive lengthwise, then putting those slices in ice water so they curl a bit. Then mix with the dressing as you would the puntarelle. As with Caesar salad fans, you have those who like it heavy on the anchovies, and those who prefer a less fishy flavor. I think there should be a nice balance of flavor -- using the anchovy liberally, but mashed well, will give the dressing its best consistency.

8 oz. washed & dried puntarelle (sliced chicory stems curled in cold water)

1 clove garlic

1 lemon, for juicing

6 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil

1 TBS. red wine vinegar

1-2 anchovy fillets

salt & pepper to taste

- In a salad bowl, rub the garlic clove over the surface of the bowl and then with the tines of a fork, crush it a bit.

- Add the anchovy fillets and crush them with the fork as well.

- Squeeze the lemon juice over the garlic and anchovies, add the vinegar, and muddle the ingredients so they form a paste.

- Using the fork – or even better, a small whisk – add the olive oil in a thin stream until a vinaigrette forms.

- Add salt and pepper to taste, or more oil if necessary. Toss puntarelle in vinaigrette and serve.

QUICK BITE: ITALIAN CLASSICS: Prosciutto e...

Every so often, we pay homage to the Italian classics: flavor combinations so wonderfully matched, it's like they were created by ancient Roman gods of taste with perfect palates! We recognize that the creation of prosciutto alone is a miracle in and of itself -- a product so varied and nuanced in the many parts of the world where it's produced that it elicits rapturous poetry and steadfast allegiances. But that's for another time, another blog post. 

Right now, it's all about the salty with the sweet. The unctuousness of a silky paper-thin slice of prosciutto (the best is when they're actually gossamer, like a whisper of a silk curtain hanging in the window of a Renaissance palazzo...sorry, but you can see what I mean about eliciting poetic phrases!). The perfume of a sun-ripened melon, its flesh so sweet it practically melts as you slice it. Now, I'm usually a San Daniele girl when it comes to prosciutto (and yes, I do lerrrv pata negra, the Rolls Royce of cured pig, but that's Spanish, and for now we're sticking to Italian) -- I love San Daniele's sweetness and complexity. But here, paired with melon, I'm going to have to come down on the side of the classic Prosciutto di Parma. It's saltier than most hams, in part due to the diet of the local pigs used (they're fed leftovers from the parmigiano-making process). This saltier prosciutto is a nice contrast to the sweetness of the melon.

And since we're in late summer, we can also enjoy the crops of fresh figs available now. Prosciutto e fichi  might be an even better pairing than the classic prosciutto and melon. Blasphemy? Not at all! Italians celebrate this pairing both raw and cooked. I always anxiously awaited the day that the Forno in Campo de' Fiori's next-door takeout sandwich shop posted the hand-written sign "Pizza Prosciutto e Fichi" in the window. 

This meant that while the ingredients were still on hand, one could order a piece of their famous pizza bianca, warm and stuffed with prosciutto and sliced fresh figs. Sometimes I'd stop by my favorite cheese shop-on-wheels in the Campo market, to slather some buffalo milk ricotta cheese inside this glorious panino. I can taste it in my mind right now. Another delicious summer treat, at the beginning or end of a meal, is a fresh juicy fig cut in half and wrapped in prosciutto, thrown on the grill to slightly char the ham. What the figs add, besides their unique flavor, is the textural crunch of the hundreds of little seeds inside the fruit. Salty, sweet, crunchy, savory...and a touch of umami . What' not to love about prosciutto and melon? And figs?

Buon estate!

(Happy summer!)

QUICK BITE + ESCAPES: Mangiare al Mare!

There's nothing that captures the essence of the estate romana (Roman summer) like eating a seafood meal at the beach. Rome is only 22 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it an easy day trip in a car or even on a scooter. If you're free, it's great to go midweek for lunch, when it's less crowded, or on the weekend mid-afternoon to stay for aperitivi, sunset, and a seafood dinner. Dining alfresco while looking at the water really heightens the enjoyment of a great meal of antipasto, pasta, frutti di mare, and pesce.

Along the coast near Rome, the beaches of Ostia, Torvaianica, and Fregene are filled with locals coming to enjoy the sun, the sea, the sand, and the foods of summer. Popular dishes include antipasti like alici marinati (marinated fresh anchovies), and polpo con patate (octopus and potato salad), dressed in extra virgin olive oil with a spritz of lemon. These dishes are perfect with a crisp white wine or even a glass of prosecco, as is customary as an aperitivo in Italy. 

After the antipasto, moving on to a primo piatto featuring local ingredients is a must. The classics? Either spaghetti con le vongole veraci (spaghetti with tiny clams in a garlic, olive oil, and white wine sauce), or pasta allo scoglio (a mix of shellfish, shrimp, calamari -- whatever is local and fresh -- with tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and a splash of white wine). 

In Lazio and south, oversized paccheri are often featured with shellfish -- we enjoyed this one particular version with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. No matter which pasta you choose, these dishes are made to then"fare una scarpetta," using some crusty bread to sop up all the delicious sauce. The go-to main dish along the coastline, the dish by which you can judge a restaurant's seafood chops, is the fritto misto, or mixed fish fry.

Here, pieces of calamari, baby fish fried whole, and shrimp so tender and delicate you eat the shell and the legs along with everything else -- are dusted lightly with flour, tossed in the fryer (olive oil gives the seafood great flavor and crispness), and gently sprinkled with sea salt. A squeeze of lemon at your discretion. When it's not done properly, it's very average, but when it's prepared well, it's the essence of the mare mediterraneo: the perfect Italian summer meal.

Allora, tutti al mare!

QUICK BITE: Bresaola Salad

It's a perfect flavor combination -- a concept which appears in Italian cuisine so frequently. Think about it: who first conceived of tomato, mozzarella, and basil together? Genius! And so it goes with bresaola, rughetta, e parmigiano. Bresaola is prosciutto's beefy cousin, cut from the lean top round of the cow, and salted and air-dried. It hails from Valtellina in Lombardy's northern alps, but is eaten all over the Italian peninsula. When sliced extra-thin and arranged on a plate, it's topped with peppery arugula tossed in extra-virgin olive oil, and shavings of parmigiano reggiano cheese. Drizzle a bit of a balsamic vinegar reduction on top, and via! You've got an amazingly flavorful light lunch that delights the eye and the palate. And it's much better for you than pizza -- though, admittedly, it makes a great sandwich stuffer nestled inside a piece of warm Roman pizza bianca

Perfetto!

La Fiorentina

Yeah, I like vegetables. Sure, a good salad can be fab. And fresh seafood is one of my top gustatory pleasures, especially in warm weather. But what food really hits the spot, scratches an itch, makes me go ahhh? (Well, yes, chocolate...but that's for another time). For me, it's a primal thing. A visceral thing. And when I get that craving, I need it: meat. Specifically, beef. A wonderful, toothsome-but-tender steak. And the granddaddy of them all -- I don't care who you are, or where you're from -- is the bistecca alla fiorentina.

Now, I lived in Rome for a long time. And there are Tuscan restaurants in the country's capital city, for sure. But there's something about actually being in Tuscany that speaks to the overall experience of sinking one's teeth into this beautiful hunk of meat. I've enjoyed the bistecca alla fiorentina  in its city of origin, at some famous old-school trattorie in Florence ("fiorentina" means Florentine, for the uninitiated) -- which is great. There, you're surrounded by like-minded eaters, feasting on roasted rosemary potatoes, perhaps some wilted spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil (another Florentine staple), and washing it all down with a nice Chianti. A recent trip to the outskirts of Florence had me enjoying just that, with the fiorentina artfully presented to us as the photo here shows, almost as if we were guests at a regal banquet: gorgeous, ruby-red beef sliced from the bone...bone included, of course!

But I've also enjoyed the bistecca in the countryside of Tuscany, sitting in the patio of a roadside trattoria in Chianti, hidden from view of passers-by. For a few lucky locals and my friends and I, the high flames of the outdoor grill licked the meat and singed its outer crust. Its only seasoning? A few twists of cracked pepper and sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of that opaque Tuscan olive oil, in all its tannic, electric-green glory. Or in the outdoor patio restaurant of our agriturismo, overlooking hills where the very beef we're eating has been raised. 

Here it's served with a green peppercorn and rosemary-infused olive oil drizzle, and it's amazing, lip-smackingly tasty, particularly with another classical accompaniment: fagioli all'uccelletto ("bird style" cannellini beans, cooked with tomatoes and sage). Is it sweeter outside of the city, eaten closer to the Val di Chiana where the Chianina beef -- the beautiful bovine breed that makes the fiorentina what it is -- comes from? Sometimes it feels that way. But whether in the urban setting of Florence or the hills of Tuscany...well, either way, you're pretty close to paradiso!

Call it an Italian Porterhouse or T-bone, containing both the fillet and the controfiletto  -- the tenderloin and the short loin -- but the bistecca alla fiorentina must be about 3 fingers thick, and it must be cooked only to rare or medium rare, otherwise the consistency is ruined (let's not speak of the integrity of the beef itself). It requires no seasonings other than salt and pepper -- preferably a flaky sea salt with some texture. Then dress with great-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to cut the richness of it all. Basta. That's all. When enjoying a great piece of meat, you need no more than the basics to really, profoundly scratch that itch, that carnal craving. Just add fire.