Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Homemade Italian Liqueurs

Over the course of 2011 we will explore a number of different Italian liqueur recipes. Some of these recipes include familiar ingredients, such as citrus and herbs. Other recipes contain unique ingredients, such as green walnuts. And one recipe uses an ingredient that surprised me: fresh milk.

The American edition of Larousse Gastronomique defines a liqueur as “an alcoholic drink of more than tablewine strength, usually incorporating some form of spirit.” Although accurate, for our inquery this definition is too narrow. We will focus on infusing ingredients in a neutral alcohol that contains added sugar.

Commercially made liqueurs abound. Some of these products are good, but most have no soul. Homemade liqueurs made with quality ingredients are better than their commercial counterparts. Likewise, certain Italian liqueurs are difficult to find outside of Italy. If you want to try Nocino (made with green walnuts) or Latte di Vecchia (Old Lady’s Milk, made with fresh milk and citrus) you might need to make your own. Luckily, creating these homemade liqueurs is easy and a delicious way to take advantage of seasonal offerings.

A recently translated Italian regional cookbook published by Oronzo Editions features a number of Italian liqueur recipes. The book written by Maria Pignatelli Ferrante and translated into English by Natalie Danford is entitled Puglia - A Culinary Memoir [2008]. This excellent book is worth seeking out and adding to your cookbook collection. We will use this book as a springboard for our inquiry.

Ferrante writes that there is a long tradition of preparing homemade liqueurs in Southern Italy. “Having liqueurs around meant the host could always offer ‘a little glass’ of something to drink. In fact, the word bicchierino, which literally means ‘little glass’ is synonymous with liqueurs.”

All of my cookbooks on the food of Puglia speak to this region’s gracious hospitality. Ferrante reports that during a special occasion, such as a wedding or baptism, a host would serve rounds of liqueurs to guests. “To make clear that the refreshments were abundant and varied, a different color of liqueur was offered to the guests on each round.”

I hope you enjoy this upcoming series. If you decide to try out a recipe or two, I encourage you to share the fruits of your labor with those with whom you enjoy to Bunbury.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Soupe à la Citrouille

Did I mention that I am more than fond of soup? I often begin a review of a cookbook by scrutinizing its soup offerings. Surprisingly, I have few books on soup in my cookbook collection; these single-topic cookbooks rarely satisfy me. An exception is Lois Anne Rothert’s The Soups of France [2002]. Why does Rothert’s book succeed where others fail? Each recipe in her collection has integrity. The ingredients are treated directly and honestly. These soups, in the best sense of the word, are wonderfully simple.

The Soups of France shares a catalyst with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food and Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta: the desire to preserve a disappearing yet defining food heritage. In her preface Rothert writes: “The Soups of France is more than a cookbook in the usual sense of the word. It is instead an essential work of safekeeping…Many of these ancestral soups, their origins obscure, are being lost, as the French, like the rest of the cosmos, move into the twenty-first century. I want to stem that tide.” Much appreciated, I say.

Rothert organizes the recipes into chapters based upon a soup’s featured ingredient(s): fresh vegetables; dried beans and grains; fish and shellfish; meat and poultry; game and wild delicacies; and cheese and eggs. She presents soups from seventeen French regions.

France’s diverse geography and the historical influences from neighboring countries result in a remarkable range of soups: from Alsace Lorraine there is Potée Alsacienne, a pot of beans, sausages and pork; from Bretagne there is Soupe Locmariaquer, a soup of poached oysters in a potato-leek cream; from Provence there is Soupe au Pistou, a vegetable soup with fresh basil; and from the Rhône-Alpes there is Soupe Savoyarde, an alpine cheese-glazed root vegetable soup.

A favorite recipe (and there are so many from which to choose) from The Soups of France is from France’s Atlantique-Bordeaux region. The recipe is for Soupe à la Citrouille, a delicious roasted pumpkin soup. Pumpkin soup can be sublime if treated simply. This particular recipe uses water in place of stock. Leeks and carrots combine with pumpkin and celery root to create a simple yet satisfying soup.
  • 1 pound peeled pumpkin flesh, cut into 1-inch cubes (2 cups)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 slender leeks, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
  • 4 young, slender carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 celery root, 5- to 6-inches in diameter, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice (about 1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 8 to 9 cups water
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Lightly grease a baking sheet and spread out the pumpkin pieces on it. Roast in the oven until the pumpkin becomes very lightly colored and slightly shrunken, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy 4-quart soup pot over medium heat. Cook the leeks, stirring often, until lightly colored, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the pumpkin, carrots, celery root, salt and 8 cups (2 quarts) of the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially, and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

3. Working with 2 or 3 ladlefuls at a time, purée the soup in a blender or food processor, processing each batch for at least 30 seconds. Return the purée to the soup pot, add the cayenne pepper, and season with black pepper to taste. If necessary, add as much of the remaining 1 cup of water as needed to thin the soup to a good consistency.

4. Taste and add more salt if needed. Reheat the soup over medium heat, swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and serve immediately in heated soup plates. Serves 6.

Some final thoughts. Rothert writes that a winter squash, such as butternut, can stand-in for pumpkin. Use extreme caution when blending hot ingredients, especially in an upright blender; always work in small batches. (I often use an immersion mixer to make this soup.)