Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Inspired by Italy: Visit to Palumbo's and My First Multi-Course Meal of 2013

Inspiration and ingredients for my first multi-course meal of 2013
On December 1st, a new shop opened up in town that seemed to fill a void; though Italian cuisine wasn't unheard of here in Granville, the ability to find high quality, imported Italian ingredients was revealed to have been a bit of a tougher challenge when Palumbo's Italian Market moved in. Just barely a month later, I finally made my way to Palumbo's and drew inspiration from the available ingredients and Italy's diverse gastronomy to come up with a not-so-traditional menu for my first cooked meal of the year. On the menu: Antipasti Pizza Bread with Red Pepper Cream Sauce; Roasted Tomato and Basil Salad with Mozzarella and Citrus-Infused Olive Oil; Eggplant Involtini with Ground Beef and Ricotta; and Limoncello Gelée with Strawberry Cream Spheres and Orange Lemonade Granita, Garnished with Candied, Sugared and Chocolate Dipped and Drizzled Lemon Peels. 

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But before I get to the process of completing this first menu of the year--and wow did this one turn out to be a process--I want to virtually introduce you to Paul and Cindy Palumbo, owners of the aforementioned establishment. Paul's family comes from Italy, while Cindy is German through-and-through (except when she's finessing Italian food fare). Their shop imports authentic Italian ingredients direct from Italy (such as red Italian olives, also known as cerignolas) and items from purveyors who remain true to traditional practice such as those that can be found in relatively nearby Pittsburgh. (In fact, they drive to Pittsburgh regularly to source some of their items.) In addition to the individual ingredients, Paul and Cindy also cook and bake Italian foods, from eggplant parmesan to lasagna, and Italian love cake and fresh loaves. A few dining tables are even set up should you want to dine in family style, and as if that weren't enough, Paul and Cindy are more than happy to explain what's in stock and how you can use them in culinary applications. The pair are certainly ones you should meet so do stop by when you're in the area. (Note: they're not open on Mondays.)

With all of that said, I took quite a bit of time on Monday night to walk through my proposed menu and decided that dessert was going to be the most complicated of them all; it wasn't necessarily difficult because each component was difficult to achieve but more so because some components were dependent on others being prepped and I wanted to waste as little as possible. In any case, as you may very well know, the point of this blog is to attempt to guide a coherent order of events as eloquently as possible (key word: attempt). To begin, I carefully squeezed out all of the juice from 3 lemons. And by carefully, I mean try not to destroy the lemon peel in the process; this is particularly important because we still need the zest of one of them. To a fourth lemon (L4, the whole one shown below), I carefully peeled the lemon rind cutting as close to the lemon flesh as possible.

For the first two lemons and L4, I used a sharp paring knife to then filet as much of the pith (the bitter white part) off the rind itself. (I implore you to take your time and be extremely careful; I eventually got the hang of this but got nicked in the process and switched over to a paring knife. And do be prepared: this is perhaps the most time consuming part of any preparatory step.) Once all of the tedious work was out of the way, and inspired by this candied lemon peel recipe, I got 2 cups of water into a small pan and onto medium heat. As I waited for it to come to a boil, I then julienned the lemon peel segments and waited for the water to come up to a full boil before adding the julienned peels to the water.

While that was going, I took the remaining lemon peels, zested them (again, only the yellow parts; set this aside for the time being) and took out the glasses in which I would be serving the final product. After about five minutes had elapsed, I took the lemon peels out and took them out as directed; to the liquid, I stirred in 2 c granulated sugar, and brought this up to a boil again, at which point I returned the lemon peels and left them to boil until translucent.

As that was going, I fileted the remaining lemon, segmenting it as shown above.

Be sure to keep an eye on the lemon peel; once they became translucent (you should be able to see the bubbles hitting the underside of the peel), I turned the heat off the pan and transferred the peels to a few sheets of paper towel to dry off. Check out the colour differentiation here. After carefully spreading them out to dry (this is a bit sticky of a process), I sprinkled granulated sugar over them.

Finding inspiration in this recipe, I then started on my take on Martha Stewart's limoncello gelée. In a small sauce pan, I began to heat up 1.25 c limoncello on medium heat. As I awaited for the limoncello to boil, I grabbed the four corners to create a bit of a pouch and gently tossed the peels to coat them in sugar. Sift out the excess sugar and allow this all to dry off completely before storing them.

Returning to the liquid in which the lemon rinds had boiled, I transferred the subsequent lemon simple syrup (so called by the candied lemon peel recipe) to a freezer safe dish and added to it the lemon juice I had earlier squeezed. To this lot, I then added 3/4 c orange juice (with pulp), gave it all a stir and got this into the freezer to be scraped yesterday morning for the eventual granita component of the dessert.

When the limoncello started to boil, I shut off the heat and added one regular packet (2 oz) of lemon Jell-O, along with the juice of the remaining lemon quarter. Once completely dissolved, I stirred in 1 c cold sparkling water.

After placing a lemon segment in each glass (cut to size and quantity; this recipe was perfect for 12), followed by a bit of the lemon zest, I carefully filled each one about halfway with the limoncello mix, and then even more carefully got this all into the fridge to begin setting.

To finish up the gelée component, I wanted to add a strawberry coulis as I find that lemon and strawberry typically go well together (though, tradition dictates lime and strawberry), and I thought a swirl of strawberry in the gelée would look pretty cool. Rather than chopping all the strawberries and pushing through a sieve as I would usually do in making a coulis, I sped up the process and placed a dozen strawberries in a processor and added 1 heaping tsp granulated sugar and 1 tbsp crème fraîche in the hopes the resulting sauce would be thickened; and my word, it worked! I ran this liquified mixture through a sieve to strain out as many seeds as possible and then stirred in another tablespoon of crème fraîche for good measure.

I transferred this mixture to a plastic bag, made a small cut into one corner and then began to pipe the sauce over the gelée-filled glasses which I had taken out of the fridge after about half an hour. However, the cut I made was a lot smaller than I planned for and the sauce ended up falling in droplets and remained suspended in the gelée, a very cool, but unintended effect. However your sauce ends up turning out, pipe it over your gelée (I ended up leaving mine as about a dozen droplets) and then get everything back into the fridge to firmly set overnight (or at least a couple of hours). And with that, all of the dessert components were complete. [As an aside, the strawberry crème is delicious over fresh strawberries.]

Yesterday morning, I got up a bit early to work on the arrabiata sauce inspired by this recipe (which is self-proclaimed to be the best arrabiata sauce..ever). Just prior to lunchtime, we would be cooking our eggplant involtini (inspired by these recipes 1, 2, 3) in this spicy sauce; and as it's slightly involved (though this could be started and left alone to simmer within 15-20 minutes at most. And so, I began by dicing up 1 c onion (turns out 1 c is equivalent to one small onion, so you don't need two as shown above) and mincing 6 cloves of garlic; both ingredients went into a sauce pot to sauté in about a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil for five minutes. Since I don't own a tin opener, I then got to work on opening my tomato cans "Iron Chef style" as I call it. (Officially, I would recommend buying a tin opener, but admittedly the Bobby Flay approach works.)

After the onion and garlic turned slightly opaque, I added to the pot 2 tbsp light brown sugar, 1/2 c red wine, 2 tbsp freshly chopped basil, 1/2 tbsp crushed red pepper flakes and 1/4 tsp ground black pepper. A few minutes later, I added to this lot a large can of diced tomatoes, a large can of petite diced tomatoes and a small can of tomato paste.

Leaving the sauce to begin reducing, and as per Cindy's instructions, I rinsed the frozen Italian loaf I purchased on Sunday under some cold water and then got this onto a baking sheet for 17 minutes at 350°F. 17 minutes later, I turned off the oven and left the bread inside, then turned off the heat from under the sauce pot, and went to the office.

Around 10:30am-ish, I went back to my house with Career Exploration and Development colleagues and homecooks Kathleen and Brian. Turning the oven back on to 350°F to slightly warm up the bread and the stove to medium heat to continue reducing the arrabiata sauce, the three of us got to work on completing the rest of the menu. As Brian sliced up two eggplants for the involtini noted above, followed then by two pints of grape tomatoes sliced in half lengthwise (which we subsequently drizzled some citrus-infused olive oil which I bought a while back in Cincinnati and got into the oven to roast for about 25-30 minutes) and four bocconcini diced into small cubes for the eventual caprese salad, Kathleen got to the first scrapping of the somewhat sticky (because of the simple syrup) granita and then got to work on putting items one would typically find on a traditional antipasti platter (also, here; the four basic food groups generally being cold cuts, marinated vegetables, cheeses and olives) onto the Italian loaf I sliced in half. As our sauce base, we used a shmearing of Palumbo's red pepper cream sauce. I initially planned on making the sauce from scratch, especially after reading this, but Cindy had made a relatively recent batch by the time I got to the store. Given the cream and butter already put into it, I definitely didn't mind saving time with this step. While Kathleen worked on the antipasti pizza bread, I sautéed a diced onion and three cloves of garlic in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and then cooked in the lot about 2 lbs ground beef with about 1 tbsp dried Italian herb mix. With the antipasti pizza complete, we transferred this to the oven to bake until the cheese melted and just started to lightly brown (about 20-25 minutes). Once the beef was fully cooked on my part, I transferred about 2/3 of this mixture to a bowl and added a guesstimated cup of riccota cheese. Mixed thoroughly, this became the filling for the eggplant involtini.

So that the eggplant could become pliable enough to roll without breaking, Kathleen wisely suggested we steam the eggplant slices in a bit of water, as shown above. As eggplant tends to act like a sponge, the steam loosened it up without getting incredibly soggy as would be the case if we did this in oil. Depending on the thickness of the eggplant slice, about 30 seconds on each side should do the trick. The other options would be to grill or bake the slices. At least this way we could more easily control how much heat/moisture the egg plant took. By this point, the arrabiata sauce reduced and thickened very nicely (if it gets to be too bubbly, reduce the heat), so I turned off the stove and ladeled some of the sauce into our baking dish. As each batch of slices was ready for rolling, Brian stuffed the eggplant slices and laid them on the bed of sauce. When finished, he topped each involtini with a bit more sauce and then we got this into the oven to bake for about 20-25 minutes. [Remember to watch the time on the antipasti pizza. Most likely, this should be done by the time you're ready to put the involtini in; take the bread out for the time being. You can quickly warm it up just prior to serving.]

Meanwhile, with the remaining ingredients from Palumbo's, Kathleen put together an extra dish: i.e., an actual antipasti platter.

And with the roasted tomato, mozzarella and basil salad components fully prepared by Brian by this point (we left them separate so folks could put together their own version of caprese), we set the two trays out to join and complement the already vibrant colours.

Shortly thereafter, the rest of our colleagues from our respective Centers arrived and it was time to take out the eggplant involtini...

...and to slice up the antipasti pizza bread.

Seriously, oh my yum.

And as if all of this wasn't enough, I assembled the dessert I had prepped the night prior. Wow, was it worth it. Atop the limoncello gelée (essentially, a gelée as far as I'm aware is anything containing gelatin; while one could refer to this version simply as Jell-O, I think the presentation and use of additional non-tradition Jell-O ingredients work in naming this as such) with strawberry crème spheres, I added a scraping of the orange lemonade granita and garnished it all with the candied lemon peel (in the glass) as well as a pair of peels dipped and drizzled with semi-sweet chocolate. As it turned out, this was a perfect way to cleanse the palate and end a great meal with great colleagues. For these and even more photos, check out the album here.

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