Sunday, November 9, 2014

Our Italian Feast and Cooking with Herbs

 October 2014

The Merry Weather Garden Club met on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at the home of Carla Snider in Imlac. Guests and members were treated to hors d’oeuvres with an Italian twist like bruschetta, garlic bread, and antipasto.

Carla was assisted in her “Italian Feast” by friends Mary Beth Tsoukalis who did the antipasto, Italian leafy salad, chicken Florentine, penne salad, and limoncello; Carla added an entrée of lasagna; Phyllis Daniel made the decorations, rum cake, lemon ricotta cookies and garlic bread; and Patti Acheson brought the cannoli. Each place setting had a card with a map of Italy and the luncheon menu that Carla’s daughter Anne created. The table decorations were carved loaves of bread that held flowers.

Guests of honor, Walter and Chris Citterio, praised the delicious meal and enjoyed the club’s camaraderie. Walter, who grew up in Northern Italy, is a chef renowned for his simple, healthy, and incredibly delicious recipes. His program on cooking with herbs was filled with tips by a true connoisseur who both grows his produce, cooks, and enjoys fine food.

Citterio began by explaining how important a garden is to Italian families. There are always flowers for the house and for the cemetery. Italian cemeteries are colorful and blooming with fresh flowers year around.

Citterio explained there are eighteen regions of Italy and every region differs so that favored herbs in Rome are not the favored ones in his boyhood home of Como. Italy’s history is one of invasion and the Mediterranean cuisine was influenced by invaders with the southern portion having Arab influences and the northern areas more French flavors.

The basic six herbs used most often are parsley, basil, bay leaves, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Citterio uses rosemary to flavor the oil.  When he roasts meat, he puts the stripped rosemary leaves in the oil and then takes them out after they have flavored the oil. He cooks the meat and then adds rosemary again at the end. Too browned or overcooked herbs can ruin flavor instead of enhance it.

He recommends bay leaves for stews, a good chicken broth, and cooking venison.  Bay is strong and can easily overpower food and you want its delicate flavor. Citterio recommends a marinade of sage, bay, and thyme for a good venison loin.

The two thymes, the common and lemon varieties, add flavor to foods. Citterio recommends using lemon thyme in seafood recipes. Parsley is also a favorite with seafood. He roasts a large fish with garlic and parsley and uses the two ingredients with shrimp and clam sauces.

Citterio explained that shrimp scampi is an American invention.  “Shrimp is shrimp, and scampi is scampi,” he said. Scampi is a baby lobster-important to know if ordering a meal in Europe.

Small basil leaves he uses for pesto. He processes and freezes them in ice cube trays then pops them in freezer bags to have when the growing season precludes fresh leaves.

Citterio uses tarragon in béarnaise sauces, as a dry rub for chicken, and chopped fresh into salads. Dill is stripped with the fingers because cutting it with a knife makes the herb dark. Citterio displayed beautiful, fresh, healthy herbs from his garden as he discussed how he uses them in his meals. Chives he uses in fish and soup stock, potato salad, and chopped to finish a dish. He reminded cooks never to use oregano in the cooking process-it is always added at the end or sprinkled on salads and bruschetta.

Many Italian dishes begin with a basic tomato sauce and Citterio shared his: crushed garlic is added to olive oil, then basil is added and then Citterio puts the lid on and lets the ingredients sizzle.  He adds the tomatoes and salt and pepper and simmers it.

Nutritious leafy vegetables he highly recommends are dandelions which he boils or steams and adds oil and lemon juice before serving; spinach, endive, kale and broccoli rabe. He often steams the broccoli rabe with pine nuts, raisins, and serves with pasta. His goal is to always maintain the natural flavor and keep dishes simple.

Garden club members inquired how he grew such green, perfect, and leafy herbs, and he explained he had no extraordinary tips.  He made his garden in what was his bocce field because he had no one to play bocce with. To fend off insects he uses soapy water.

The delicious meal served at Carla’s Italian Feast plus Citterio’s inspiring talk on cooking with herbs made for a perfectly delightful club meeting.