Sunday, September 27, 2015

Tuscan Toast

One of the nicer aspects of our trip to Tuscany was the hospitality afforded us at the local bars. You sit down, order a bottle of wine and they slide you a plate of bread, cheese and prosciutto. It happened to us the first time when we were on our way to shop at the market in Bagno A Ripoli.

The Italians drive like madmen on incredibly narrow roads that barely accommodate two small cars. A nasty accident happened in front of us (yes, there was blood) and we had nowhere to go. There are no shoulders on the side roads in Italy. Only buildings and walls. So an accident means that all traffic stops until the ambulance and tow trucks clear the scene. We parked our car and found a little hole-in-the-wall bar. We ordered a bottle of wine to pass the time and out came the bread, cheese and prosciutto.


So we played around with some recipes back at the villa and I used what I learned to make a meal out of it last night. I purchased a 12-pack of warm flatbread at Costco for $5.99. That became the basis for our meal. The next step is to add some oil to the bread. I drizzled truffle oil on the flatbread pieces and then spread it with a brush. If you don't have truffle oil, just grab some olive oil.

Then I added some truffle salt and cracked black pepper. Again, if you don't have truffle salt use regular salt or any other seasoned salt. But just use a light dusting as there is usually a lot of salt in cured meats.

Then comes the cheese. For the first flatbread, I used sliced pecorino. Flatbread #2 got shredded provolone while the last two got shredded mozzarella. No need to be scientific by measuring it. Just eyeball it. Just pick a cheese you like and have at it.

The last step in building your Tuscan toast is to top it with cured meats. For last night's meal, I put prosciutto on two of the flatbreads and smoked Italian sausage on the other two. Again, you can choose any meat you want, but I found that cured meats work best.

I chose to grill my flatbread. But you can achieve similar results in the oven. Set your oven to 400ยบ and place the toasts right on the oven rack for 10 minutes. If you do grill, you only need a half-chimney of charcoal. Then stack your hot coals to one side of the grill and put your toasts on the opposite side (indirect cooking). I also added some mesquite to the coals for a smoky flavor (spectacular!). Cover your grill with all the vents wide open and the toasts are ready to eat after 10 minutes.

It's an incredibly simple meal to prep and cook. If you have kids, it's great way to let them build their own Tuscan toast. It also works great for a crowd. Just set out flatbreads, cheeses and meats and let everyone build their own. As they say in Italy, "godere"!

Wine pairing: If you are having a Tuscan meal, you must wash it down with Chianti.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Choucroute Loaf

I have not posted the last two Saturdays as I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Tuscany. Our good friend Debbie Drill suggested a year ago that it would be fun for our group of three couples to rent a villa in Tuscany. After an extensive internet search, we settled on Villa Paolina. High in the Tuscan hills, it's about 40 minutes outside of Florence. While the setting and views were incredible, the furnishings and artwork simply took our breath away. Check out the photos:

Because the villa was at the top of an incredibly high hill and the only way to get there was by car on a  truly challenging, single lane road....we never ventured out at night (thousand-foot sheer drop-offs if you erred). So the six of us would hit the market by day and cook up a feast every evening. Now I know we were in the heart of Chianti country, but I was absolutely blown away by the quality and cost of the wine.

A spectacular bottle of Reserve Chianti Classico could be had for just 4€ ($4.48 US). That same bottle would set you back $20 in the states. All of the Chardonnays produced in the region are remarkable and unoaked and sell for 3€ to 5€. The village of San Donato In Collina, which sat at the base of the hill we lived on, had a wine store that sold wine just like the tap houses do here in Minnesota. You bring in an empty bottle of wine and they would fill it up for you for as little as 1€ ($1.12 US).

One of the things I picked up on our trip to Tuscany was making meals using flatbread as the base to create a number of entrees. I'm going to do that tonight and will take photos so that I can share that with you next Saturday. But today I am going to share a fascinating meatloaf recipe with you. The recipe harkens from the Alsatian region of France.

Now the French would never give their food a banal name like meatloaf. So they call this Choucroute Loaf. Let them call it what they will, this is one of the most unique and delicious meatloaf recipes I have ever tasted (hats off to chef Melanie Bernard!). Imagine ingredients like apple, smoked ham, rye bread, horseradish, mustard, beef, pork, veal and applesauce. Better yet, don't imagine. Just make it, for nothing is easier than meatloaf.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tart apple (I like Granny Smith), peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ pound smoked ham, minced
1 ¼ pound mixture of ground chuck, pork and veal
1 cup rye bread crumbs
4 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
cup unsweetened applesauce

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the oil and cook the onion over medium heat until it is soft, about 4 minutes. Add the apple and garlic and cook, stirring, for two minutes more. Cool the mixture for a few minutes.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, gently combine the onion, apple and garlic mixture, meats, bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons of the horseradish, mustard, thyme, caraway seeds, pepper and eggs. Shape the meat into a 9-by-5-inch loaf or just pat into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, smoothing the top.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together the applesauce and the remaining horseradish. Spread over the meatloaf and bake until the loaf is firm and brown, about 1 hour.

Wine pairing: Almost all of the wines of Alsace are white, which I would not want to have with this meatloaf. So I would recommend Chianti Classico.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Grilled Asparagus with Chili Lime Butter

When I'm cooking meat on the grill, I like to grill my sides at the same time for the sake of convenience. Grilled asparagus is always a favorite as it will cook up in about 5 minutes...which is the same amount of time I rest my meat after grilling.

When picking out asparagus to grill, always opt for thick spears. Skinny spears cannot stand up to the heat of the grill and will overcook. And make sure you trim the base of the spears off. The base is quite fibrous and not at all tasty. The chili lime butter recipe is a favorite of mine...I often use in for corn on the cob as well.

3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon lime zest
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 1/2 pounds thick asparagus spears with base trimmed
1/4 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper


  1. Combine butter, chili powder, cayenne, red pepper flakes, and lime zest in small bowl. Brush asparagus with butter mixture, sprinkle with salt, and season with pepper to taste. 
  2. Grill asparagus, turning once, until just tender and caramelized, about 2 to 3 minutes per side (move asparagus as needed to ensure even cooking). Transfer asparagus to platter and serve.

Wine pairing: Unfortunately, asparagus is a pairing disaster with tannic reds and oaky chardonnays. I would select a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc if you are eating chicken or fish. If you are eating red meat, I'd recommend an ice cold Pilsner beer.