Tonight is a perfect winter night for an Italian “hot bath”. A bubbly incensual infusion of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies called a “bagna cauda“. A hot bath for dipping chunks of crusty bread, celery stalks, steamed onions and cardoons (thistles). This hot dip from Piemonte shares Italian cold weather cuisine with a winter brasato and a Valdostana fondue.
Typically served in a copper cauldron or terra-cotta pot placed in the middle of the table it is designed for communal food bathing.There are several variations on this sauce including one with an enormous amount of garlic (5 heads) that simmers in milk for an hour before entering into the bath. In fact heavy cream is sometimes added to make this a warm milk bath that will have you envious of the ingredients that enter the ritualist pool. For the rite of bagna cauda is one of a convivial atmosphere with friends and family gathered around the simmering pot of sauce waifing through the air entering into every pore of your being leaving you awash in a satisfying glow.
L’ammazzavampiri (garlic canapé) is proported to be so heavy on the garlic that it takes its name from the Italian verb ammazzare meaning “to intentionally put to death” hence the name ammazzavampiri ” vampire killer”.
A traditional bruschetta ammazzavampiri begins with slices of pane casereccio , a durum wheat bread from the town of Genzano in Lazio. Outside of Italy any firm, country-style bread sliced about ½ inch thick will do although few will have the chewy, elastic crumb of this pane. Grill, toast or broil the bread until is a deep golden brown. A classic ammazzavampiri has an extraordinary amount of whole peeled garlic cloves rubbed over the warm bread. Then it is sprinkled with coarse sea salt and generously drizzled with the season’s freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Serve with an Amazza Vampiri cocktail apertivo to entertain your ghoulish guests this Halloween.
Someone once asked me what my favorite Italian ingredient was. Italian food star Mario Batali has a whole list of favorites from A to Z. An assortment that includes buckwheat flour, bergamont, guanciale (hog jowls), rabbit and raddichio. Marcella Hazan’s epic tomato sauce is made with just 3 ingredients; Italian canned plum tomatoes, unsalted butter and onions. A web site called the Kitchen goes out on a culinary limb mentioning garam coloratura, a sauce of fermented anchovies as one of their 10 favorite ingredients for Italian cooking.
I think the Italian pixie dust that brings a taste of Italy to almost any dish is a well seasoned herb and spice mixture. One whiff brings to mind everything you recall about the romance of Italian cooking. Oregano generally leads the way joined by basil, marjoram, thyme, and crushed rosemary.
Considered to be an essential kitchen “staple”, a sprinkling of Italian herbs and spices can add flavor, color and texture to your cooking. Peppercorns, parsley and sage create more flavorful combinations with e.v.olive oil and garlic defining a cultural identity that makes Italian cooking one of the Top 10 Cuisines in the World.
Italian cooking ingredients are among the most used and abused ingredients in the world. Perfect for creating the iconic dishes of Italy, they often fall short when misused; their flavor potential wasted.
Here are 5 top things not to do with some of Italy’s most beloved ingredients at the risk of having an Italian Nonna chase you around the kitchen with a polenta stick.
- Never let garlic burn. Saute oil on a low to slow medium flame and cook gently until very soft. Don’t let the garlic burn or turn brown or it will taste acrid and bitter and impart that flavor to your whole dish.
- Never refrigerate a tomato, not even after the tomato is ripe. Refrigerating kills the flavor, the nutrients and the texture of Italy’s most beloved ingredient.
- Never forget to salt your water when making pasta. Salted water flavors pasta. Salt the water in the cooking pot just as it comes to a boil. As the salt dissolves into the water, the pasta absorbs the salt along with the water as it cooks. If you cook the pasta in plain water and wait to salt until afterwards, the pasta will taste bland no matter how delicious your sauce and . . . always follow the package instructions for proper cooking time.
- Never use “light” olive oil. Light olive oil is heavily refined undergoing several chemical processes to create a neutral oil with little if any of the flavor and healthy components of extra virgin olive oil. Some producers make olive oil extra light by adding a dash of virgin olive oil to other oils, such as vegetable or canola. If you’re worried about calories, skip the tiramisu. Light olive oil has the same fat content as regular oil, the word “light” is used in reference to the color and flavor.
- Don’t undercook mushrooms. Mushrooms have a savory flavor that is only enhanced by proper cooking. All it takes is some patience. Our Nonna cooked the best mushrooms. If porcini were not available she would use button mushrooms and they would still taste like the forests of Italy. In a large, shallow pan heat up some extra virgin olive oil, butter and finely chopped garlic. Add sliced mushrooms and cook long enough to release as much of the inherent moisture (water weight) of the mushrooms as possible, avoiding a soggy sauté. The volume of the mushrooms will decrease dramatically and becoming nicely brown . Once you’re at this stage you can add salt, pepper and Italian herb seasoning (oregano and marjoram) and if you choose deglaze the pan with some wine and cook some more. Your pan should have well-cooked mushrooms with a delicious glaze.