I wanted to re-visit Italy for many of the obvious reasons; the history, the incredible flavors, the beautiful people, terra cotta roofs against clear blue skies and those great yellow ochre walls of Italian buildings. However, the best souvenier I brought home was a renewed respect for honest, seasonal ingredients used simply to produce vibrant nourishing meals.
Each city boasted at least one glistening market, or in the case of Bologna, a whole district of stores, stalls and stands, with cured meats, fragrant cheeses and blood red tomatoes, cherries, basil, chilies, eggplant and zucchini. Was it coincidence that the cherries we sampled were the epitome of cherry, or was it just the romance of the setting. I still don't know. Maybe it was the the lowered expectation when told these blond, blushing beauties were Maraschino Cherries. (Side note: turns out the processed, plasticified, red dyed cherries at the bottom of my Manhattan, DO start out as Ranier cherries, an American similar variety) In any case, their tart sweetness has entered my permanent sense memory beside my Mom's pecan pie, my first taste of frais de bois, the smell of shaved white truffles and Iranian Imperial Blond Oessetra Caviar.
What we didn't see this stiffling sunny July afternoon was asparagus, blood oranges, porcini, brussels sprouts or artichokes. All of which I could find in a local high end NYC gourmet shop. What the Italian nonnas know that so many of us don't is that food has seasons, and you just shouldn't be eating asparagus in Italy in July.
And I'm more guilty than the least offender, providing asparagus in the barren snowscape of winter to my highly opinionated, and more highly uninformed corporate clientel of paper pushers, secretaries and junior executives that my catering company serves. But let's set that aside for now, as it's clearly the 2000 pound gorilla in the room.
To my mind, we lose out the most in ignoring the tightly focused bounty of fall and winter vegetables. Parsnips, turnips, kale and mustard greens, chanterellle, brussels sprouts, carrots and the wide array of autumn squashes, kabocha, delicata, sweet dumpling to name a mere three. It' so easy to toss out a summer vegetable array with tomatoes, sugar snap peas, corn, summer squash, sweet peppers and eggplant. More challenging and rewarding is to celibrate the richer, deeper flavours of autumn. Goddess be praised, if only for the annual rebirth of white truffels.
In my next post I hope to dive deeper into some thoughts on autumn flavors and ingredients. Until then...