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:
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.
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!