Monday, November 11, 2013

Artichoke Omelet the Florentine Way

virgin oil of aceitunas (IMPERIA)
How about a nice "tortino" Florentine-style made with some tender spring artichokes?

There are lots of recipes for this on Internet but, as far as I can see, most of them are WRONG!

In principle, with this recipe you should obtain a fluffy omelet that rises in the oven like a soufflé and is filled with crisp, flavorful pieces of artichoke.

I've had this only a couple of times in Florence, in one of those old-fashioned trattoria where you just know that you're eating traditional food of the best kind, and it's taken me several tries before I could perfect the recipe.

I could refer you of course to Artusi, the author of the definitive treatise on Tuscan cuisine, but I'll share with you the little secrets that I have discovered that ensure your tortino will come out just right. 

It's very easy to do but it requires some care. AND good ingredients. Of course, that's a general rule: if you want to prepare good food you just can't skimp on the quality of the ingredients. For example, for frying, I ALWAYS use olive oil. Not necessarily the best most expensive quality, but it's got to be real olive oil: it has a great advantage over all other types of oil on the market. Because of the way it withstands heat, it fries a lot better. AND it's the least bad for your health. AND the best tasting.

Now, back to the artichoke tortino. Turn your oven on (especially if it takes time to heat up like mine does): set it at 180° or mark 6 or whatever heat you normally use to roast a chicken. In other words, hot but not too hot.

Then start with the artichokes. You need 2 small ones per person (or a big one/person - but better small). I use the small variety you find in Italy, the ones with leaves tinged with a lovely violet color.

Actually you can use any type of artichoke, provided you prepare them correctly: you have to peel the stem (to get rid of the thick, string-like fibers) and take out all the external leaves that are tough. Then cut off the artichoke tips, leaving only about half the leaves on, or even less. 

Be vicious about it! 

Once you overcome the impression that you're throwing everything away, it is in fact very satisfying to get rid of all those dark green leaves! What you should have left in your hand is just a tiny, tender, yellow-leaf artichoke, maybe half or less of what it looked like before you started hacking at it.

Then cut it in 4 or even 6 pieces lengthwise. And scrape the inside to get rid of that hair which is in the center and is obviously inedible. 

At that point, quickly throw the pieces in cold water to which you've added the juice of 1/2 lemon: the purpose of this is to prevent the artichokes of turning black on you.

Next, lay all the pieces on kitchen paper and pat them dry. Then throw them in a bowl and flour them.

Heat olive oil in a deep pan (at least a couple of inches) and when it's close to smoking (but NOT smoking!) throw your floured artichoke pieces in. 

You should shake off the extra flour and throw them in ONE by ONE. Let them fry until they're a nice golden color and crisp. Take them out with a perforated spoon and set them to dry on paper.

Now prepare the omelet in the usual way, beating together  two eggs per person (but never make a tortino with less than 3 eggs: it won't work!). Salt and pepper to taste, a little grated parmigiano (optional) and throw in the fried artichokes.

Oil (or butter) an oven-going pyrex dish, pour the egg-artichoke mixture in it, sprinkle with a little grated Parmigiano cheese and put the whole thing in your (now hot) oven.

It takes about 20 minutes to bake (or more depending on the size of your tortino). Watch it rise and turn golden. Check  with a toothpick to see whether it's done, but then it's a matter of taste: some people like it real done, others prefer it moist. In any case, don't be disappointed when it starts to come down after you've taken it out of the oven. That's normal: after all, it isn't a French soufflé! It's just an oven-baked omelet...

Ma che buono!

Have a nice glass of red wine ready and warm crusty bread and let me know how you like it!

It's a guaranteed comfort food...
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Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Mystery Swiss Cheese: Schabziger and What To Do With It

I recently received from a Swiss friend who stayed with me in our house in Umbria a lovely gift: two little forms of green Schabziger, a mystery Swiss cheese made in the Glarner mountains, following a 550-year old recipe.  

And it's not made anywhere else. Today, there is only one manufacturing plant for this cheese, in the canton of Glarus, run by Geska A.G. since 2000.

It comes in very small forms, each only 100g, and here it is, looking smart in its classic green and white box, I remember it from the time I was a kid (and I won't tell you how long ago that was!):

It is a dry, skim cow milk cheese flavored with a special herb called blue fenugreek that is (surprisingly) also widely used in Georgian cuisine. The plant blooms in June and looks very pretty:

Schabziger reportedly was first made by monks in the 8th century. The exact specification on how to make this cheese was laid down during a cantonal assembly in 1463. As noted by Wikipedia, the cheese from that moment, bore a stamp of origin, making it one of the earliest protected brands in the world.

This so-called "green Swiss cheese" is in fact little known outside of Switzerland. The only two countries where it sells are Germany and the Netherlands though it is commercialized in the United States under the brand name of Sap Sago. Nobody knows why, possibly a corruption of the way the name sounds in German or a reference to "sap" as in tree sap, the vital lymph. Apparently it was brought to America in the 19th century and sold in New York pharmacies, thus presumably seen as having a medicinal value - which indeed it has, since it is very low in fats. But that may also be a reason why its use remained limited, since it was associated with medical use rather than seen as a normal food.

It is normally grated, mixed with butter and spread on bread. But I thought there should be other ways to use it. I googled some recipes and the best site I came across is this one run by Geska, click here to see the website and here to download their best pdf brochure. 

But I thought I'd experiment, using Italian products like mascarpone. One obvious use for Schabziger is to sprinkle it over Fettucine all'Alfredo, replacing the grated Parmesan. But I thought I'd try it over boiled potatoes. So here is the dish I concocted last Sunday, really simple to do: 

Ingredients for 4 persons

  • 1 form Schabziger, grated 
  • 5 medium-sized potatoes, boiled and peeled 
  • 150 g Mascarpone (or any other available cream cheese) 
  • butter 
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled 
  • grated nutmeg 
  • breadcrumbs (as needed to cover the dish)  
  • pepper and (optional) very little salt (remember the Schabziger cheese is salty even though the Mascarpone isn't)


1. Rub a pyrex dish (that goes in the oven) with a garlic clove, then butter it. 

2. Slice the boiled potatoes (thick slices) and lay in the dish

3. Mix the mascarpone with enough milk to make it a little creamier and add the grated Schabziger and a pinch of nutmeg

4. Cover with breadcrumbs and dot with butter

5. In a warm oven for ten minutes, then turn on the grill until a golden crust is formed. 

Here it is, enjoy!

Tastes great, it accompanies beautifully any roast meat and is even good by itself with a nice glass of red wine!


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