24 December 2008

The most wonderful time of the year

Christmas Eve is the big day for food in my book. Over the years, I've taken the square peg of my family's Christmas Eve dinner and shoved it into the round hole of a southern Italian Vigilia. The traditional, old-country Vigilia has grown into the Feast of Seven Fishes in the US. Since Christmas is a holiday that lends itself to changing traditions, my version consists of whatever exotic foods I can get my hands on at the specialty grocers in St. Pete in the lead up to Christmas Eve. I'm crazy for cured meats, real cheeses and anchovies in as many forms as I can find. My skill at throwing together a cheese course has led my friends to refer to my Christmas Eve shindig as "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses," and I find that hilarious.

Last week, the delightful women over at Design Boner clued me into a new source for next year's Vigilia victuals. Check this out:
Mostarda d'uva
Snow cone sauce.
From the villages of the Italian Piedmont, where it's been around for centuries, 
mostarda d'uva (grape mustard) is a thick, savory-sweet condiment that's eaten extensively with polenta, boiled meats or cheese. I'd be content to put it on a piece of toast or a grilled cheese sandwich, too. One look at the ingredient list will tell 
you this is special: Barbera wine grapes, freshly cut quince, sugar, cloves, dried pears, orange and lemon peel, and an array of spices, all simmered till it's the texture of chutney. Roberto Santopietro, who makes it, told Ari, "You know, it's excellent with snow." Thinking he'd misunderstood, he said, "You mean with granita?" "No," he responded firmly." With snow." You see, in the mountains they go out and gather freshly fallen snow, then serve up a cup of it topped with a spoonful or two of this.

Man! That sauce sounds incredible and it's right up my alley. The sauce and the illustration come from an online food emporium called Zingerman's. Zingerman's is an actual store in Ann Arbor, MI; but their online catalog will have to hold me over until I find myself in Ann Arbor. Their website is this food-lover's idea of heaven. They have everything from salt-cured capers, salt-packed anchovies (!), and Finocchiona (a fennel and pork cured sausage) to fresh breads of more varieties than I could count. These people carry the sorts of things I'd live on if I could. And just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I stumbled upon this:
Garum Colatura
Ancient Italian fast food.

This is one of those foods for folks looking for something both old and new – and flavorful. It’s an ancient convenience food that gets deep flavor without much work.
I’d never heard of garum colatura until I visited the Italian coast south of Naples. There I discovered it’s the liquid that’s drained off the barrels of traditionally cured anchovies. Made much the same way it was 2000 years ago, it’s used as a quick way to give great anchovy flavor to a dish without having to fillet, soak and chop the fish. Locals still use it regularly, mostly on pasta.

The best meal of my Neapolitan trip was a bowl of pasta cooked al dente that had been tossed quickly with garum, some very good olive oil, chopped garlic and a touch of dried red pepper. Our accountant, Jim, likes to mix it with olive oil in a 3:1 ratio oil:garum. He uses it as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables. Jim isn't your everyday accountant

Garum is what the Ancient Romans used as an all-purpose seasoning. I suppose it was the Roman equivalent of ketchup. Now that I think of it, American ketchup evolved from garum to begin with, so I think that's a pretty accurate analogy. Whether or not it's accurate is immaterial however because these people sell garum! Amazing! My God, the further into their site I dig the better it gets. They have a section of licorices for die hard fans too. Guilty as charged on that count! Give me real licorice any way you can imagine it and I'll be a happy man. This website is the stuff of my sugarplum visions. Licorice, salami, anchovies, real cheese and crusty bread, life doesn't get much better. Check them out.


Talk to me!