Weird Italian Food: Part I

You wouldn’t believe the strange animal parts that Italians bring to the table (and expect people to savor, with gusto).

After 3 months 4 years SIX years of first-hand experience, I can assure you that squeamish eaters won’t last long in this country.

In Piedmont, which is where I live, THE most traditional and frequently consumed antipasto is carne cruda.  That’s right, raw hamburger meat on a plate (when you say it in Italian it does at least sound more appetizing – pron: kar-nay kroo-dah).  You’ll find it on just about every menu in every restaurant in the Langhe Roero area.  The people go crazy around here for a good carne cruda, they even drive all the way from Torino just to eat a plate of the stuff.

What makes carne cruda so special?  Well, let’s break down the ingredients….uh  ingredient.  The veal comes from a race of cows known as the Razza Piemontese (the Piedmontese Race). These bovine fill the hearts of the Piedmontese people with pride and joy, and are NOT your run-of-the-mill variety.  This extra special race is principally raised here (and by here I mean HERE, the city of Alba and the surrounding Provinces of Cuneo and Asti – about 3,000 square miles) .  In fact it’s often referred to as carne cruda albese: carne cruda from Alba.

Two hundred and eleven years ago.   That’s when the Piemontese started breeding this variety in the region.  And we’re not the only ones that think these cows are special.  The Razza Piemontese is known on an international level for its fantastic nutritional characteristics.  It has a particularly low fat content (.5% – 1% as compared to the average 3% of most bovine), less cholesterol than many white meats and even a lower fat content than many fish. (Maybe I should start a new fad diet based on these white beasts!   They’re so darn cute I wouldn’t even have to pay a super model to be the face of the fad.)

Carne cruda was originally chopped by hand (battuto al coltello) and in fancier restaurants you can still find it prepared this way.  Home cooks and average trattoria usually grind the meat in a meat grinder or purchase it already ground from their macellaio di fiducia (faithful butcher).  Once you’ve acquired your meat, always fresher than fresh (you never hear of anyone getting sick after eating carne cruda) and usually eaten the same day it’s purchased, you dress it with some salt and pepper, a little olive oil and garlic.  Adding a bit of lemon is optional and there are opposing schools of thought for and against the use of lemon in this dish (some say it hides the true flavor of the meat, others argue that it “cooks” the bacteria out a little bit and like the subtle lemon flavor).  Every family seems to have their own way of preparing carne cruda, some add just a few whole cloves of garlic and take it out before serving, others grind the garlic and mix it right in with meat.  Some slice the meat in carpaccio fashion instead of grinding it.  It is often served with a healthy grating of truffles in season, but they deserve an article all for themselves…  If you come to Alba this is one of the dishes that you should DEFINITELY try!

Note from the author: This is one of several articles in a series that I started writing in April of 2005, just a few months after moving to Italy.

In those first months  I forced myself to eat carne cruda so as not to seem rude and to avoid promoting the negative reputation that Americans have as been wasteful.  One of my first (and most memorable) experiences with carne cruda occurred shortly after the famous Meat Shopping Adventure. I offered to help Carmela, the woman who ran the local hangout in Sinio, to help with lunch.  She had me mix the meat with the garlic, oil and lemon with my (thoroughly washed) bare hands. I’m sure you can image the satisfying feeling of squishing and squeezing a huge bowl of ground meat between your fingers (we’re talking ground meat for 30 here folks).

But sometimes it’s hard to eat food you’ve prepared (ever killed and plucked a chicken, cooked it and then eaten it?  Cleaned chicken livers of their stringy bloody veins, prepared them in fegatini style and then savored every last morsel?)  Sometimes I love eating the things I prepare, and sometimes it just can’t stop thinking about the original product or the process.

If the thought of eating a whole plate of raw hamburger meat makes your stomach turn (seconds, anyone?), remember that this meat ISN’T like the normal hamburger meat we Americans eat on a regular basis.  These bovine are raised in a very natural way so to avoid the growth of connective tissue that makes meat tough.  Moreover, these cows have less of this connective tissue than most other varieties of cows to start with. In fact a good carne cruda has very little of that white stringy stuff in it, but is almost completely red.  (I just hate getting connective tissue stuck between my teeth, don’t you?)  Nowadays, as long as there’s plenty of fresh bread to go with it, I actually enjoy a plate of the Piemontese delicacy.


Stay tuned for more weird foods that you never would have imagined were typical Italian dishes.

The Power of Deglazing

Before my first stint in a professional kitchen I had no idea what it meant to “deglaze” a pan.  This is one little trick that transforms mediocre meals into vastly tastier cooking.  Here’s a quick video with a good explanation on how to deglaze.

P.S. I started writing this post on June 7, 2004 and figured it was about time to finish it…

A Week of Artichokes!

A couple weekends ago on a trip to the mercato (farmer’s market), I ran into a Sardinian guy selling artichokes at the can’t-be-beat price of €7,00 for 20 artichokes (that’s about .46 american cents each).  The only stipulation was that you had to buy twenty – or ten for €5,00, but why get 10 when you can get 20 for €2,00 more?!?  Needless to say, we were eating artichokes all week – and loving every minute of it.  Here’s what we made:

Artichoke Pasta

Pasta with artichokes

Orecchiette with sundried tomates, toasted pinenuts, basil, capers, olives, mozzarella

Directions:  toast pinenuts in a dry frying pan, swirling frequently.  Add a little oil, garlic, onion and sweat till transparent.  Add finely sliced artichokes, chopped sundried tomatoes, olives, capers and a couple ladles of pasta water.  Cook on low till desired consistency and artichokes have cooked through.  Add more olive oil if sauce seems dry.  Stir sauce into cooked, drained pasta and add diced mozzarella.

Artichoke Risotto

Slice artichokes finely and cook in a pan with garlic, onion, and olive oil, adding a cup or two of stock or water as onion starts to brown.  You can use whatever kind of rice you prefer and either prepare it separately, or add it to the artichokes and cover with stock or water until rice is cooked.  Serve with plenty of grated cheese.

Pan Roasted Artichokes

Prepare as above, adding pinenuts and olives if desired and serve as a vegetable side dish.

Steamed Artichokes with Hollandaise Sauce

Steamed Artichokes with Hollandaise Sauce

Steam whole artichokes, almost covered with salted water in a large pot for 30-40 minutes or until soft.  Meanwhile, prepare hollandaise sauce.  I know that seems like a lot of butter, but trust me, it’s worth it!  I like my hollandaise extra lemony.  The real fun of this dish is in how  it’s eaten:  Dip artichokes leaves in sauce and scrape the meat off each leaf with your teeth.  To die for!!

Cold Artichoke Salad

Hard boil eggs and separate the yolks.  Slice raw artichokes on a mandolin, add crumbled egg yolks, flakes of parmigiano (parmesan cheese), dress with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Franco’s Funghi


Pictured above is Luca’s Dad, Franco with his harvest of the day (our dinner tonight!)  It’s mushroom season here in Piedmont and we’re lucky enough to have an expert scavenger in the family.  Not to brag or anything, but these were the most flavorful mushrooms I’ve ever eaten.  They were so freaking good (of the porcini variety).  We’ve actually been eating them all week (apparently when the mushrooms are out, they’re OUT).  On Monday with steak, on Tuesday in Ratatouille, and tonight baked in the oven with sliced potates, onions and rustic pancetta.  Too bad for you that Internet isn’t more multi-sensorial, or I’d send you all a whiff and a taste.  You’ll just have to use your imagination (or come visit!).

The area we live in is actually internationally reknowned for it’s mushrooms – we’re five minutes outside of Alba in the Langhe region, which is the White Truffle Capital of the World.  It’s always pretty easy to get truffles around here in season – they’re still expensive, but in these parts there are no added shipping fees, so that helps.  There are actually two truffle seasons – Fall is the more important White Truffle season (late September through mid December) while Summer is the Black Truffle season.  Experts say that the white truffles are more fragrant and flavorful, but we’ve had some extremely awesome black truffles that were much better than many of the more expensive white truffles.


Here’s Franco in October of 2005 with the fruits of a successful mushroom scavenge:


Old Country Ambiance and Avocados

seedsOne of the best things about living abroad is the old-country ambiance that seems to have infiltrated the entire nation. Admit it, when you think “Italy” you think stone streets, gondoliers in Venice, old people with gold teeth and spaghetti with meatballs.  And to an extent these American stereotypes of the Italian way of life are on target: most roads in city centers are stoned and not paved, there are an awful lot of rowed boats in Venice, 4 out of 5 people have at least one gold tooth if not a whole set, and…well, I hate to break it to you, but nobody actually eats spaghetti and meatballs in Italy.  It can be romantic, but in many aspects, Italy is a backward country.

Take the mail for instance, I only get one English language magazine subscription, but in the two years that I’ve subscribed, it hasn’s once arrived on time.  Now, you may think that getting culinary news a month late could be a real disaster, but it’s really a blessing in disguise because by the time you get your Bon Appetit or Cook’s Illustrated, all of the featured foods are in their prime!

This was definitely the case this month when I tried out Bon Appetit’s recipe for Salad with Avocado-Lime Viniagrette and Spicy Pumpkin Seeds.  It is so incredibly awesome that I’ve already made the salad twice and the spicy pepitas four times in the last two weeks.  Their “viniagrette” is more like a garlicky spicy green goddess dressing than a viniagrette.


Luca mixing things up

The method for the pumpkin seeds is so much easier than the oven-baked version I usually make – BA made the recipe way more complicated than it needed to be – I mean who has chiles de árbol laying around in their pantry?  I used some cayenne and a mix of other random spicy things I found in our spice cabinet and they came out great.  I made the same substitution in the salad had great results too.  I also switched the cilantro that the dressing called for with parsley, which is way easier to find here.  Had to leave out the cucumber (Italians DON’T do cucumbers, at least in our neck of the woods) and the jicama (yeah…never seen that around here either…), and I switched the cotija cheese to parmigiano instead.

I guess I made more changes than I thought, but it was still an incredibly wonderful salad – the dressing and the spicy pepitas are the key ingredients, you can change up the other ingredients without any real problem.

I’ve also made some interesting crepe recipe discoveries lately, but that’s another story…


My Finished Avocado Pepita Salad

Mid-Week Mini Vaca

We went to Torino last night to participate in the Gusto del Territorio – an iniziative to promote typical products from various regions of Italy and unite chefs young an old for an exchange of innovative ideas.  In short, we ate and drank for four hours.  The event (part of a series) was hosted by the restaurant L’Birichin with guest chef Walter Miori from Trentino.  It was an awesome night.  Here’s what we had (I’ll let you use your imagination): 


Aperitivo Welcome  –  Isac Le Baladin e Super Baladin – Birrificio Le Baladin

Spuma di seirass (see below) ed agro di mosto San Giacomo

Polentina di Storo con sarda in saor 

Tartare di “carne salada” con verdurine e bavarese agli asparagi

Canederlotti alla verza e puzzone di Moena su burro e tartufo del Baldo

Pancia di maiale con polenta di patate porri alla crema con tartufo nero, salsa al miele Valdivia

Guayaba, frutto della passione ed Olio Terre Rosse

La torta sbriciolina con zabaione al Maso Grill

Bicchierino alla cioccolata modicana Quetzal, grappa Solera Selezione e gelatina al tabacco 



Ferrari Perlé

Ferreri Perlé Rosè

Tenuta Podernovo Tenuto igt Toscana

Lunelli Maso Grill

Cow’s, Goat’s & Ewe’s Milk Whey

The name Seirass, Seras derives from the Latin Seracium and is the local name for Ricotta in Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta. The product has many different forms in the region, ranging from rounded cones to cylinders or an upturned basketshape. When dried and salted, it may have a roundish shape and varies in weight. The cheesemaking technique is the classic Ricotta method – the whey is heated to 90°C – with the difference that Seirass del Fen whey comes from mountain dairy milk used to make Toma cheese.  As is well-known, the whey of soft cheeses produces soft Ricottas while whey from cooked cheeses gives a more solid product. It is also difficult to obtain ricotta from pasteurised milk naturally. After 12-36 hours, the Seirass is taken out of its moulds or cloths and kneaded by hand with white salt. It is then exposed to the atmosphere. This operation is repeated several times. The cheeses are then placed in a dry, well-ventilated room to dry, after which they are wrapped in freshly cut hay (fieno or fen). In some cases, the Seirass is also lightly smoked.

Body: the fresh cheese has a delicate, lumpy body while the mature version has a firm, translucent, brownish-white or straw-white body.
Height/weight: varying from 2-5 kg
Territory of origin: Seirass is made almost everywhere in Piedmont, but hay maturing is typical of the valleys around Pinerolo.

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