puntarelle

All things Italian on a snowy weekend in Montreal

I normally view grocery shopping on a weekend as a result of poor planning, and do it reluctantly. What a surprise it was last Saturday  to make 2 new discoveries. Montreal is not known for its richness of things Italian. It pales in comparison to Toronto and NYC, but now there is hope!

First, after doing my scurvy-fighting order at Chez Louis, I stopped into Nicola Travaglini, a new fine food shop, complete with a few tables to enjoy the yumminess that was being cooked up in the back.   They had a whole roast pig on the counter (yum for some, cover-your-eyes for others) and possibly the best breadsticks I have ever eaten. Sorry, there are no photos of those – I devoured them before I snapped a pic.

Doesn't it smell great?

Doesn’t it smell great?

On my way home, inspired by my discovery, I thought to go to my favourite cheese shop, Yannick.  On the way, I passed by a new café, grocery and bistro. I had to stop and check it out.  Dispensa is a new gem on Bernard, conveniently and so Montreal-like next to Cheskie’s kosher bakery (their babka deserves a post).  Dispensa is the new project from one of the brothers who opened the Italian Pantry on Monkland Ave.  It is tiny, looks great, and is on my must-try list.

Getting home and unpacking my bags I realized I had an Italian feast on my hands…delicious cheese, breadsticks, and my favourite-hard-no-impossible-to-find vegetable, puntarelle.  It is a veggie that is loved in Rome, and tastes like celery IF celery tasted good.  Fresh, crunchy, and delish.

I tried growing puntarelle last year, and couldn’t figure it out…apparently, after the bulbs (much like fennel) are picked, they are left indoors in the dark so shoots are “forced”. Those are the yummy parts.  Hopefully someone reading this can tell me what to do once I have harvested the bulbs.  The leaves are bitter, but tasty if blanched and sautéed with garlic and a squirt of lemon.

untrimmed puntarelle

untrimmed puntarelle

Outer leaves removed, shoots exposed.

Outer leaves removed, shoots exposed.

1 head puntarelle

1 clove garlic

2 anchovy fillets

juice of 1 lemon

olive oil

A pinch of chili pepper and/or black pepper

1. Remove the outer leaves of the puntarelle. Set aside to blanch and sauté if desired. Slice the inner shoots, wash well and place in a bowl of iced water until required.
2. Pound the garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar. Add the anchovies, lemon juice and enough oil to give a pouring consistency and keep grinding until the anchovies have broken up.
3. Season to taste with pepper(s).4. Drain the puntarelle, place in a serving bowl and pour the dressing over. Serve at once.
Puntarelle, sold ready for salad in Italy. I wish.

Puntarelle, sold ready for salad in Italy. I wish.

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No, “Extra Virginity” by Tom Mueller is NOT the “Fifty Shades of Grey” for Foodies.

But it IS an incredibly compelling book that is changing the way I taste and buy olive oil. My “go to” favourite is from Chateau D’Estoublon.

It is hand-picked, cold pressed from a single varietal and worth every penny (and that is a big pile of pennies.) My taste buds know that it is delicious. It tastes of sunshine, grass, and artichokes. But after a morning of reading I now know why so many other oils taste like… oil, while others are the elixir of the gods.

My lazy Sunday read has reminded me that there is great food writing that recognizes how process, whether it be growing, cooking or eating can be life(style) changing.

Listening to “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton on several long car trips this summer transported me to Italy. The Interstate signs disappeared as I saw and smelled the kitchens described in the book. Once back home, Gabrielle’s gritty voice inspired me to (unsuccessfully) grow puntarelle in my garden this summer. While the actual plant grew perfectly well, I was faced with an impossible reality – I had no clue how to harvest the plant and force it to produce the crunchy shoots that make this variety of chicory so deliciously irreplaceable. I sautéed the bitter leaves and they were…ok. If anyone has any clue, please let me know – I have the seeds safely stored in case I try again next year.

Another few hundred miles led me to listen to “The School of Essential Ingredients” by Erica Bauermeister.  It is a story about life, people, and the magic of food. The book follows the lives of eight students who meet weekly for a cooking class. That doesn’t sound promising, I know, but soon you see that each student is looking for more than recipes, and they are taught by a woman who is complicated enough to understand the power of food.

My bedside reading this week is “52 Loaves, a Half-Baked Adventure” by William Alexander.  In his own words, it is “My take on the six-thousand-year-old staple of life, 52 Loaves explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, the futility of trying to re-create something perfect, our deep connection to the earth, and the mysterious instinct that makes every person on the planet, no matter their culture or society, respond to the aroma of baking bread.”  For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that I’m a “breadie” and this book is right up my alley.

Enough writing for now, I’m eager to learn more about the “sublime and scandalous world of olive oil”.  I will share my knowledge in the days to come.  In the meantime, here is an image of how food and words sometimes don’t work.

Unexcelled? Even my spell-check is shaking its head; and why the American spelling of “Flavour”?