Since last I posted here on Red Ramekin, Jonathan and I took a lovely (if too short) vacation to Italy - Tuscany, to be more precise - where we ate, relaxed, and found a bat (like, the animal, with wings) in our bathroom, among other things.
We were there for a week - the perfect amount of time to break the routine, get some sun, and just be somewhere else for a few days. And it didn't hurt that we had the good fortune to stay in an extremely spacious and beautiful villa in the Tuscan hills. Except for the whole bat-in-the-bathroom thing, the place was absolutely magnificent. Old stone walls, huge windows, a gorgeous kitchen, and a crystal-clear swimming pool overlooking the valley below. Yes, it's a tough life, but somebody has to live it.
Our plans didn't include anything terribly exciting; we mostly walked around quaint little towns, did some extensive nocciolo "research," and hiked around Cinque Terra, a series of tiny seaside towns built into cliffs along the ocean. Our flight home was out of Rome, so we took a train there on Saturday morning, spent the afternoon walking, sightseeing, and completing more of the afore-mentioned gelato research. After much waffling and indecisiveness, we even found a place to eat dinner, where we enjoyed our last few hours in Italy before leaving early Sunday morning for the airport.
[boats at Cinque Terra]
But let's get to the point. Everyone knows that the real reason one goes to Italy is the food. Real, live, Italian food, at the source. Needless to say, this was the part of the trip about which I was most excited. And for the most part, I wasn't disappointed.
I'll be honest and say that the food in Italy didn't blow me away. Of course, we didn't eat at the best restaurants, and were fairly limited in our choices due to the location of our villa. We stayed in a pretty remote part of Tuscany, far from major cities, so our cuisine was mostly local, simple, and basic. However, we still managed to have several lovely farro salads, some delicious pasta dishes, and a good salad or two, filled with olive-oil-soaked Italian tuna. And let's not forget the nocciolo (for those unfortunately uninitiated, nocciolo is hazelnut-flavored gelato).
I was pleased to find that the local markets had plenty of good produce and other foodstuffs. On my first day in town (Bagni di Lucca, in case you're interested), I picked up a large carton of juicy, green figs - by far the best I've ever had. I've always loved figs, but I didn't know they could taste so good. In terms of the dry goods, Jonathan and I stocked up on farro (we brought about 5lbs. home with us, and would have brought more if space had permitted), and our favorite giant white beans.
But the most memorable of our eating experiences had to be the dinner we had at our new friends' house. We met a nice Australian couple one morning at the local cafe who were around Jonathan's mom's and stepdad's age (did I mention that we traveled with them?). We got to talking, and before we knew it, had an invitation to dinner at their house, not far from where we were staying. However, this was no ordinary dinner. It was pizza, made in a real, outdoor pizza oven. Now, I'm a big fan of homemade pizza, but I've never had the opportunity to use a real pizza oven. I've read about it, seen it on television, have spent hours exploring the possibility on all manner of pizza-devoted websites, but this was my first chance at actually using one.
And it did not disappoint. I came prepared with some homemade, whole-wheat dough to complement the white that Cheryl, our hostess, had on hand, and we got to work topping them both (after a tour of their grapevines and some prosecco, of course). The pizza had the distinctive char and crunch of real pizza - something you just can't replicate in a regular oven. I'll admit that the white-dough pizza was a tad tastier than the whole-wheat (I don't usually eat white flour but give me a break - I was on vacation), and had a crackly texture that the chewier whole-wheat couldn't muster. But both were delicious. And the company wasn't bad, either. We finished off our meal with little drams of sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur that I found surprisingly refreshing.
[cantuccini, and other yummy treats]
The second-best food of the night, however, was the amazingly delicious eggplant caponata that we ate before digging into the pizza. It was my first introduction to the stuff and damn, was it good. Eggplant, peppers, olives, capers, pine nuts, vinegar and plenty - and I do mean plenty - of olive oil. Although I haven't had the chance to recreate that night's amazing pizza, I've already given that caponata a couple of tries. I haven't quite made anything as good as Cheryl's, but I've come close. And with an ingredient list like that, how can you really go wrong?
So, for today, no pictures, as I haven't quite perfected my caponata technique. But here is a starter recipe for basic caponata. You can also find plenty of recipes online and in cookbooks - this stuff is a staple, and for good reason. One good tip is to salt and drain the eggplant before cooking. It helps get rid of excess water and also helps to mitigate the eggplant's natural sponginess. The measurements here are very rough - just taste and adjust as you go along. Buono appetito!
[me and Jonathan at Cinque Terra]
Copycat Caponata2 Japanese or other small eggplants
Kosher salt, for sprinkling
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 small, hot pepper (optional, but good), diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thinly
1 large onion, red or yellow, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
~1 small can crushed tomatoes
~1/4 c. each capers and chopped green olives (or to taste)
2-3 tbs. toasted pine nuts
big handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
3-4 tbs. red wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 - 1/2 c. olive oil
1 tsp. sugar
Italian herbs (oregano, basil, etc.), to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
Dice eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Set in a colander and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Allow to sit for about an hour. After an hour or so, squeeze eggplant to remove excess water. Pat dry with a paper towel. In a heavy pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add eggplant and cook, stirring, until eggplant is soft, about 5 minutes. Remove eggplant from pot and set aside. Heat a bit more oil in the same pot, and add onion, celery, and peppers. Cook until very tender, about 10-15 minutes. Halfway through, add the minced garlic. If vegetables start to brown, add a splash of vinegar, white wine, or water to the pot. Once vegetables are cooked, add tomatoes and eggplant back to the pot, and cook for a few minutes more, until everything is thoroughly cooked and incorporated. Season with the sugar and a bit of salt, pepper, and herbs. Add the capers and olives to the pot, along with a few splashes of vinegar and another drizzle of oil if the mixture looks a bit dry. Once everything is heated through, add the fresh parsley. Taste for seasoning, and add extra vinegar according to your tastes. Add the toasted pine nuts at the very end, reserving a few for garnish. Serve with bread or crackers. Serve the leftovers with rice or pasta for a delicious lunch.