Thursday, April 14, 2011

Want to Cook Italian? Start Here.

Why is it that I’ve never mentioned my preference for a cookbook before? I’m trying to focus my attention on Italian tomes, since my natural inclination is to cook Italian inspired recipes. There are certainly some strong representatives of several regional cuisines in my collection, but this one with recipes from Emilia Romagna by Biba Caggiano, the Sacramento restauranteur, is a contender for my favorite. Of all my books, this is  one of the few I have actually made recipes from, or use as a reference when developing my own recipes. I like to see the combinations of seasonings, ingredients and measurements she uses. Born and raised in Bologna, this woman knows how to cook. Because she travels to Italy frequently, she lists some fine Italian restaurants in all of her cookbooks. I’ve been known to plan trips around her recommendations! If it’s not out of print, you may find it used on one of these sites: or possibly

M & S Food Halls

Mark’s and Spencer’s (Marks & Sparks) is an established brand in British clothing and over the last decade or so, this institution of value for price, has made a big splash on the food industry in the British Isles. I’ve reviewed their fair trade chocolates and now I’d like to share a few thoughts on their house brand products in general. They are the excellent!

Take for example the “biscuits” represented in these photos. They are made of all organic ingredients and the recipes are clearly unique. Once, while on vacation in London, I decided to buy a small snack and ended up buying 8 boxes of cookies to take home, once I had tasted my snack of Scottish shortbread, where the butter did all but drip from the box. I have never had better. Luckily, I have twice had friends buy more for me while visiting both England and Ireland. This Pear and Ginger cookie was in the first purchase I made, and it’s still one of  my very favorites.

But seeing as I prefer milk chocolate, this next biscuit is my absolute favorite, so far.

Dubliner White Cheddar


If all the imported cheeses we are privileged to to be able to consume in this country, Dubliner, a white cheddar from Ireland seems to be the only Irish cheese to make it across the pond, with the exception of Cashel Blue. Luckily Kerrygold is a large enough operation to manage and satisfy the terms of the export contracts. Kerrygold, the same people that bring us fresh, Irish butter, both sweet and salted, certainly makes a case for more Irish dairy imports. Out of the imported cheddars, Dubliner is more robust and flavorful than the cheddars from Canada, Britain or Whales that I’ve personally tried. I recently used it in a macaroni and cheese recipe I was developing and it was the only option I had considered.

DSC06420 Not bad for a first try. I used grated parmigiano on top because I knew it wouldn’t melt well and decided to use it for crunch and forgo the breadcrumbs.

Sublimely Delicious Chocolate


I can’t seem to get away from buying and testing candy bars, while on vacation for two very good reasons.  Firstly, my walking increases and stimulates the appetite, while I’m  burning infinitely more calories than I do at home, so I can afford the fat calories I’m certain to ingest.  Secondly, they make nice little gifts to bring back home and share with friends. Friends, who at this very moment are wondering if they ever received a chocolate from me, and why not. Okay, you caught me, unless I buy multiples, they just never seem to make it home.


This Sublime bar caught my attention in a low end grocery store somewhere near the foot of Rue Cler in Paris and it was so very good with toasted coconut and almonds, that I’m certain to look for it again, and furthermore, if I manage to find it, I’m going to bring many bars home, really.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ferry Plaza Market

Of all the farmers' markets I attend regularly, Ferry Plaza has got to be the very highest in quality. The vendors seem to save their best produce for this market. How do I know? Many of them also sell at other markets in the immediate area and sell at lower prices reflecting the grade of the produce. I've seen them and made purchases.

But for the most part Ferry Plaza attracts small producers that are content to sell exclusively at the Saturday or Thursday market. The Thursday market is much smaller than the one on Saturday, and it's seasonal, not year round. New vendors are allowed to sell on Thursdays until they graduate to the Saturday market.

Some of the small producers sell specialty produce, much of it organic, not usually seen elsewhere.

But the market is not limited to fresh produce. There are meat and poultry producers


Several dairy operations providing yogurt, cheese, and butter

Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar producers

Flower growers and pizza vendors

Ranchers marketing preserves, nuts, candies and dried fruit

Smoked fish producers who also sell sandwiches

There are vendors selling fresh and dried herbs as well as flavored salt

The list goes on and on, but since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll be posting a slide show of Ferry Plaza Farmers Market soon.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I have been on the hunt for this cheese, since it first crossed my path and lips in Puglia Italy, the region where it originated. I was visiting family of a close friend and since they had invited us to stay for lunch, I wanted to bring along something we could all share. Having read about it, it was hard to resist when I found it.
Water buffalo milk is used to make this cheese, similar in taste to fresh, water packed mozzarella on the outside. On the inside it's another story entirely; the liquid center is thick cream that thickens further with excess bits and pieces of mozzarella from the cheese pouch that is formed to hold the cream during the making of the cheese. It has a very buttery, milky taste and is traditionally wrapped in leek leaves.

Since it has to be eaten within 48 hours of manufacture, it's not exported here to the U.S. often and rarely if ever to the West Coast, so it is starting to be made domestically with cow's milk. The above photo shows a Burrata I purchased in Boston, but more about that later. Officially, Italians would refer to these two cheeses as fior di latte, because of the cow's milk. It's a major breakthrough to have even an "inferior" version available locally.
I have yet to try the two pictured above from Corti Brothers in Sacramento, but they have the distinction of being the least expensive I have found (under $9). Cowgirl Creamery sells the product I tried and enjoyed from Gioia Cheese ($13.50) out of Southern California, depicted in the second photo. Close, but no cigar. As you can see, although extremely soft in the center, the Gioia Burrata is not oozing with cream. I ate it happily and it was delicious, buttery, milky, but I suspect it too was past it's prime. A- for taste, C+ for texture.

It's the closest I've had thus far in my personal tasting journey. The Burrata from Boston was indeed Italian, but far too old and by the time I cut it open, the center had dried out and was like the outer walls of the cheese except the center was falling apart. It lacked the characteristic buttery taste and was for all intents and purposes, a failed mozzarella.

Keeping with Italian tradition I served it with tomatoes and olive oil. I added Murray River salt flakes and a basil flavored oil too.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Deluca's in Boston

Deluca's is is always on my places to go list when we travel to Boston. If you happen to be in the Beacon Hill area of the city and want an Italian fix, this deli will do the trick. I can't remember the number of picnics I've made from purchases here, but if I lived in Boston, I'd come here on a weekly basis.

On our last visit I decided to try one of their "select your own" deli sandwiches at the minimal price of $5.99. The custom sandwich was irresistible.
My selection of olive bread, salami, mortadella, and hot coppa was exceptional. As I sat on a park bench, even the squirrels wanted some of the bread.
The imports are even better than the deli and I was delighted to pick up a few items I've never seen before, either in Italy or at our import stores.

The produce section seemed abundant for such a small store, and the shelves throughout were packed with quality items, many of them imports.

No matter what they carry, variety seems to be the key. Take a look at the olive oils that provide a good example of this practice in the store.

The Colonna flavored oils on the bottom left were interesting enough to buy. I selected Bergamont, Asian Spice (Chinese 5 Spice) and the Gran Verde with a distinct citrus taste.

The dairy counter had Burrata with the characteristic leaf wrapping from Puglia. It's imported by the store on a daily basis. Now that is something very special.

The holy grail of Italian imports, Burrata from Puglia is made from buffalo milk mozzarella surrounding an interior of cream and mozzarella pieces.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Delitia Butter

As I am of the opinion that Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, produces the best butter in this country (their Cultured Butter), it seems odd that I would be recommending an Italian butter. Odd until it is noted that Delitia butter shown in the above photo can be purchased locally.
Delitia is an importer of Italian, high quality food products and their butter seems to be the only one of their products that I find on a semi regular basis here in the Bay Area. It has a very distinctive, only very slightly "Parmigiano" taste, very high in butterfat. It takes a concerted effort to find that nutty taste, but it's there, and that is why I like this butter as much as I do.
I buy it whenever I can find it and sometimes freeze it. It can most often be found at Bryans in Laurel Village and Milk Pail. Costco imported a different brand of butter from the same area and it was excellent as well, but seemed milder in flavor.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Berkeley Bowl

Berkeley Bowl has to be the gold standard of super markets in the San Francisco Bay Area. When they announced a second store, many of us in San Francisco held our breaths and hoped it would be on this side of the bay; no such luck, but maybe the luck is in how close we actually are.

Can meat get any better than this? For the first time in 20 years, I made my grandmother's pasta sauce with a B.B. chuck roast from grass fed beef and it finally tasted like hers. As I forked over the money for it, I couldn't help but think that I could have purchased 2 from Costco for the same price. I could have but it would not taste the same. This says something very negative about agribusiness and their insistence on feeding cheap, subsidized corn to cattle )who cannot digest it properly), for better profit, not better animal husbandry or taste. 

The bakery department is also filled with products that are of better quality than we expect from a supermarket.

Just look at these photos for a sample of the variety of products available to a shopper for one particular item. The top left photo is just olive oil and vinegar, the top right shows the bulk olive bar. For someone who collects different types of pasta, this store makes it easy to purchase something new. And tomato sauce; the selection is so broad, it includes my grandmother's favorite brand "6in1" that I seldom find, except in specialty markets.

Produce at Berkeley Bowl is so special they even have multiple varieties of each fruit, and that is not limited to 3 or 4 Apples. I once counted 8 varieties of mangoes. Vegetables I have never even heard of before are abundant, but don't let me tell you, allow me to show you. I'm putting together a photo montage on the side bar of this blog. Here are just a few examples:
Pears and Apples

Cactus Pears

Black Apricots