La vita bella degli funghi

I couldn’t wait any longer to share some photos of the goodies Robert and I found in the market at Parco delle Cascine. The park runs along the Arno on the western side of the river and hosts an outdoor market every Tuesday. I first discovered this park on Monday when I decided to venture sul Arno for a morning jog. Unfortunately I didn’t take into account who would be chillin at a large public park before 8 am. I first passed a few shady characters sleeping on benches which kind of spooked me but there were other joggers on this route so I wasn’t too too concerned. Then the freaks came out to play:  I heard some weird moaning coming from behind a line of tall bushes so I (Curious George that I am) tiptoed towards the sound to try to figure out what was going on. Peering over the bushes, I witnessed a group of 20-30 people in circle formation holding hands chanting and swaying and shouting incomprehensible words while looking towards the sky or maybe to an invisible friend they all shared. Not sure. But I realized at this moment that I’d have to explore other early morning jogging options as joining a cult was not part of my study abroad plans.

ANYWAY, the park on a Tuesday during the day is great! There are a bunch of fruit and vegetable vendors along with home goods and clothes being sold. Robert and I were naturally attracted to the food guys and first crossed paths with a nice looking cheese stand. The cheese guy first gave us a taste of a Parmegiano-reggiano which was smooth and had a great depth of flavor. He then enthusiastically offered a sampling of Grana Parmegiano which instantly hit my taste buds in a completely different way. The Grana definitely had more of a bite to it and there was a zing at the back of my throat after eating the small sampling. I liked it for its pronounced flavor, thinking it would be great over pasta or simply cut in chunks and served with some crusty bread and olive oil. We bought 500 g of the Grana for only 5 euros! Our best deal of the day by far.

I just want to note that when I talk about food it is completely based on my personal experiences and emotional reactions to what I encounter (and consume). I am eager to learn and explore the greatness that is Italian cuisine but am a novice when it comes to knowing the histories and facts on the subject. Prior to leaving for Florence, I picked up Fred Plotkin’s book, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, which I have been dissecting every chance I get.

Plotkin is American and has lived in Italy on and off for the last 30 years. His book is split up by region where he provides in-depth descriptions of the varying cuisines found throughout Italy. He also provides personal anecdotes and gives suggestions on where to eat. I have a feeling Gourmet Traveler will become my Bible of sorts. But back to the food writing insecurities, I hope you’ll be patient with me as I explore using words to define how food tastes and makes me feel.

Some of the goodies we picked up:

A view of the Grana, tomatoes and spicy green olives. Beautiful ingredients for a light lunch or antipasti.

 

Small, sweet tomatoes that we made in salads the past days but would probably work well as a fresh tomato sauce sautéed with oil and garlic.

 

Now onto a life changing food experience: In-season Mushrooms! It wasn’t until recent years that I took to liking mushrooms. When I worked at Naturally Good Health Food Store in Montauk I came to appreciate the meaty quality of the vegetable where many vegetarian customers relied on a nice thick Portobello grilled (usually topped with soy cheese – a smart protein source that unfortunately does not coordinate well with my digestive tract…) and stuffed in a pita or bun as a fulfilling lunch option. Also adapted from NG is a nice stuffed Portobello that I make by first grilling the shroom skin side down and then filling it with a mixture of sautéed (and drained) spinach, parmesan cheese, garlic, lemon zest, pignoli nuts, oil, s+p and finished with a little mozz melted on top. Delish!

So back in the market, Robert and I met a nice vegetable vendor which is always helpful when exploring food markets in Italy. I usually decide which stand to buy from based on 2 key factors. 1) The visual quality of the foods displayed (maybe I’m just a sucker for aesthetics but a nice, carefully planned out spread of produce that takes advantage of the wonderful colors and shapes of fruits and veggies makes an impression on me). The 2nd factor is the way the vendors behave. I appreciate people who seem like they will be patient with me as I don’t always know the name of the vegetable I want and have to rely on hand motions and broken Italian to describe what it is I’m looking for. Unlike most markets I’ve been to in the states, in Italy, the customer should not touch the produce. Instead, you have to wait you turn to get the vendor’s attention and then he/she will walk around and bag and weigh what you request. I find this process frustrating as I (and I think most Americans) enjoy touching and choosing each item for ourselves, knowing that our judgment of the perfect pear or tomato may be different from the next persons. Anyway, such is life and this particular vendor was smiling, eager to help us and I’m pretty sure charged us correctly (you’ll also find if you pay attention that many vendors overcharge foreigners when they get the chance). This happened to me when I hunted down some rucola and radiccio and the vendor tried to charge me 1 euro 80, an insane price for what I was getting. I could tell instantly this guy was a clown taking advantage of un’Americana but all I could was repeat the total with a question mark in my voice and he dropped the total to 1 euro 70. Thanks buddy.

I had so much fun preparing these mushrooms for dinner Tuesday night I thought I’d share with you their journey into il mio stomaco. 

View of mushrooms with an herb called nepitola. The vendor explained that these two ingredients go hand in hand. Ted, the other tenant in my building is a foodie of sorts (teaches classes on Italian cuisine) and did some quick research to find out that nepitola is part of the mint family. I think the herb will pair well with veggies like mushrooms, eggplants and peppers.

 

Chopped:

Sauteed:

Mangia:

To cook the mushrooms I generally follow the same process. First I take a paper towel and wipe down the tops and trim the stems if they’re hard and very dirty. Chop the mushrooms separating the stems and tops. Heat up a little extra virgin olive oil and 2-3 small cloves of garlic at medium-high heat. Once I smell the garlic I add the chopped stems (the stems take a bit longer so they go in first) to the saute pan and stir occasionally for 3-4 minutes. Then add the tops. The mushrooms will quickly absorb most of the olive oil in the pan but don’t get worried! In a few minutes they’ll release all the water they’re holding onto and you’ll see the magic working. After 7-8 minutes or so the mushrooms should start shrinking and becoming moist. At this point I add a little black pepper and whatever herb I’m using (in this case it was the nepitola, but at home I also use 1 or 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped thyme – if you don’t have fresh herbs you can substitute a teaspoon of dried herbs). With the herbs I also add a smidge of butter (less than a tablespoon). The butter creates a glossy coating over the mushrooms and just a little will boost the flavor immensely. I wait until the last minute or so before seasoning with kosher salt. The process is so easy and rewarding. I would suggest giving it a try next time you see a nice pile of shrooms at your market. Robert and I ate the mushrooms with grilled chicken that was prepared in a simple oil and dried rosemary marinade. We also had a few boiled then grilled (for marks) potatoes. The meal overall was perfect for a cool night in Florence. It is amazing how in just a week the evening air has changed from sweltering to a cool breeze. 

I’ll finish the post with just a few food pics I’ve taken over the last week. Enjoy!

 

Breakfast of figs and nectarines from the market with Leutenbach honey (from Robert's home town) over plain yogurt.

 

First dinner cooked in the apartment! Robert picked the pasta (which I think look like water bugs). Sauteed some oil and garlic, added 2 chopped zucchinis, sauteed some more, added a can of chopped tomatoes, sauteed til liquid reduced (10-15 mins), added s+p, so easy, so delicious! Finished the dish off with a dollop of ricotta, a smidge more olive oil and some cracked peperoncino pepper.

 

Picked up a handy grill pan for the stove top at Ikea and went a little grill crazy one night. Simple marinate of oil, apple cider vinegar, s+p for the zucchini and peppers, and with the potatoes added dry rosemary. Surprisingly satisfying considering it was a meal of 2 veggies and a starch. I usually love my proteins but this worked well finished with a salad (and maybe a gelato...).

 

Robert showing off his grilled vegetable sandwich (obviously taking advantage of the previous night's leftovers). I added mozz and a little prosciutt to round out the wedge. Rob and I took a day trip to San Vincenzo, a small beach town in southern Tuscany, near Livorno. After a few intense days of apartment stuff, we needed to get away and had the perfect day soaking up the sun and enjoying some home made sandwiches alla spiaggia.

 

Rob suggested I add this photo of me at the beach (no worries Ma, I was wearing a strapless bikini top... not totally Euro just yet!). He said my friends may especially appreciate this pic because I am making a typical "grumpy Lauren" facial expression. At this moment I had just gotten up from a nap and was probably still adjusting to the sun (or whatever!). Don't know! But here I am, grumpy and also happy to be sipping an Aranciata on a beach in Tuscany. Not. Half. Bad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Lauren Raffaela

Ciao ragazzi, mi chiamo Lauren. I am writing from Florence, Italy where I am in school for a Masters in Museum Studies. When not in school I spend my days strolling the streets, trying to look like a local. I love to people watch, go jogging before the city is awake, have small talk with old ladies and am constantly stopping to read menus in restaurant and cafe windows just to see what they're up to. My favorite gelato flavor is noccioloso and I try to control my intake to one (or two...) a week. My blog focuses on my adventures and discoveries - both about this beautiful city (and country) and about myself. If you would like to touch base or have any questions please feel free to leave a comment on my posts and I'll be sure to get in touch. Grazie and ciao!
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One Response to La vita bella degli funghi

  1. Nicole & Andrew says:

    GAH ALL THE FOOD! Seriously drooling. Shrooms don’t grow that well in the desert, can’t really find any local sources unless I go up in the mountains and pick them. Mmmmm craving a NG portabello sandwich (pre-store sale of course)..And yes that pasta looks like the rolly water bugs, icky. Andrew and I are doing really well out here….we are moving into an adorable vintage 1930s adobe casita in a few weeks. So excited! Can’t wait for the next update, I love that your letting us into your fabulous life via blog hehe 🙂

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