Dreaming up the perfect Italian dinner
Behind the Scenes
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two part series about the culinary discoveries made in an Italian weekly market.
Did you take my advice and enjoy a nice bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba this past week while waiting to see what other gastronomic treasures we would discover in Alba, Italy’s expansive mercato? I did, along with the last piece of the Castelmagno d’Alpeggio DOC Chiara Boschis gave me in July. Now, after enjoying those gustatory pleasures, I’m ready to pick up my basket and complete the shopping for our imaginary Piemontese dinner.
Delicious ‘eggy’ ribbons
We bought what we need for our antipasti — and it didn’t cost us an arm and a leg despite the strong Euro — so now we turn our attention to our pasta course. While there are so many choices, we’re in Piemonte where “tajarin” (pronounced “Ta-YA-reen”) is about as typical as you can get.
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How best to describe tajarin, those egg-rich ribbons of thin, flat pasta that shuns fussy, complex preparations? Why not simply say, “Molto buono?” In its simplest form, it only requires butter and sage. In autumn, when white truffles are hopefully plentiful, enjoying tajarin with butter and a few shavings of those deliciously smelly “Alba diamonds,” is an express ride on the train to epicurean heaven.
Tajarin makes a great nest for light meat sauces, particularly sugo di coniglio (rabbit sauce). As though prescient that I would write about tajarin this week, fellow Piemonte-phile, Marcella Newhouse told the story of tajarin with rabbit sauce on her excellent food and wine blog, http://www.enote camarcella.wordpress.com. So let’s go “molto tradizionale” and make Newhouse’s rabbit sauce. However, given that we’re a little short on time, we’ll pick up some homemade tajarin from one of the pasta vendors in the mercato, although she posted a great recipe for the pasta you should try sometime.
Sugo di coniglio
Like all the best food in Italy, this is an incredibly simple dish to make. We’ll need a pound of rabbit meat, fresh tomatoes — we’re in an Italian market, so why would I use anything else but fresh ones? – garlic, onions and parsley. Easy enough to find. We’ll go back to that mound of garlic I told you about and choose a beautiful, firm white bulb off the top of the pile. Never the bottom!
In America, images of the Easter Bunny spoil our desire for rabbit. However, Europeans, particularly the Italians and French, love the furry critter. Sidebar: How is it in America we readily accept Mary’s Little Lamb on our plates, but not rabbit? It tastes like chicken, literally. But I digress.
Let’s visit the butcher-on-wheels where we’ll find high quality, fresh, local meat. On several occasions, I bought beautiful veal and lamb from him. No doubt, his rabbit is fresh and delicious. However, to make my life a little easier, I’ll ask him to bone the headless rabbit. Although I do like rabbit sauce, I am an American, and despite decades abroad, I still have my own aversions to eating the Easter Bunny.
We’ll also need red wine for the sauce. Newhouse’s recipe calls for red wine or broth. I never pass up an opportunity to cook with wine. Needless to say, we have plenty of wonderful regional choices. Perhaps I’ll use Dolcetto from Cantina del Pino in the Barbaresco region. It’s a simple red that will add nice flavor to the sauce. White wine is also a good option since rabbit is a white meat.
Never boring wild boar
Since we’ve gone to the mercato on a beautiful autumn Saturday, let’s go with an autumnal main course (secondo piatto, or simply secondo): sugo di cinghiale (wild boar sauce) on polenta. I know it’s a bit redundant and some might scoff at my choice of another sugo, but it’s my imaginary dinner, and I’m entitled to choose those dishes I love the most. This is definitely one of them. Besides, I have my mind on a great bottle of E. Pira e Figli by Chiara Boschis Barolo Cannubi 2004. It will cost me a pretty penny, but worth every cent for this luscious Barolo.
As I’ve mentioned before, wild boar “calls out” for polenta. Would love to know when some Piemontese farmer decided long ago to combine slow braised wild boar that he shot on his land with the course ground corn he grew. It was definitely a culinary equivalent to the “Big Bang,” because it created a wonderful flavor combination.
I love the wild boar ragu recipe chef Nick Haley, of Zino Ristorante, taught me. For that, we’ll need a wild boar shoulder, Roma tomatoes, leeks, carrots, onions, garlic, celery and fresh herbs such as thyme and rosemary. Don’t you agree it’s wonderful to find all these great ingredients actually grown in dirt in such a relatively small place under blue skies? Remember, it’s my virtual trip — a dream of sorts — so of course the sky is blue and the air is crisp today.
Here’s a tip on the wild boar. In the United States, you can find wonderful game from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas. They sell wholesale and retail. Their boneless wild boar shoulders are high quality and not too gamey.
Once again, we’ll use red wine for the sauce. My preference for this dish is Deltetto Roero Nebbiolo Braja. This winet makes a rich sauce that perfectly complements the gamey wild boar.
Now our dolce. It’s autumn. Ripe, delicious apples — unadulterated by surface wax — are plentiful in the market. Ca’ del Baio’s Luciana Grasso is an excellent Piemontese cook who makes delicious crostata di mele (apple tarts). She also makes crostata di ricotta al mele that is really a Calabrese specialty. The market is a great place to buy fresh ricotta, so I think we’ll make that simple dessert to go with a bottle of Moscato d’Asti from G. D. Vajra in Vergne, above Barolo.
Are we finished? What about some formaggi? It might be an overkill, but since we’re here in the midst of beautiful cheeses, let’s buy a few for a small cheese plate before our dolce. Remember, it’s my dream.
I always stop at my favorite husband and wife cheesemongers who sell high quality Castelmagno. Although I prefer Castelmagno d’Alpeggio from Des Martins, it’s not available in the mercato. There’s a great purveyor who sells only Parmigiano-Reggiano out of his small truck at the top of the mercato’s north entrance. I’ve never seen him when he’s not surrounded by pushy patrons, not content to wait for their number to be called. It’s quite a sight. His hard, granular cheese is lovely and well worth the wait. Keep in mind, you have to think like a local and push to get your number!
We’ll also buy a nice piece of Piemontese toma, a semi-soft cows milk cheese. Gorgonzola is also a Piemontese cheese that we’ll buy for a little touch of blue on our modest cheese plate.
One more thing — flowers. The mercato is full of flowers. I’ll buy a few stalks of sunflowers to add a touch of golden autumn colors to our tablescape.
We’ve spent the morning on a delightful epicurean treasure hunt. It’s now time to return to our rented apartment at Villa Sole in Treiso, just a few kilometers away in the Barbaresco appellation.
Mangiamo! Let’s eat.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.