'When I tasted the creamy caramel gelato today, for a moment I felt as if I was in a gelateria in Italy," my husband said after we sampled the luscious vanilla, roasted almond and the intensely flavored pistachio ice creams.
We were at the Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. His comment made us reflect on the far-reaching Italian impact on fine food in the US. When we first arrived in California over 20 years ago, gelato, gourmet Italian ice cream, was just beginning to become chic.
At the expo there were many other examples of Italian influence. We sampled three kinds of fresh ricotta cheese (a soft white cheese) one made of whey (the driest), one made of whole milk (the moistest) and one made from half whey and half whole milk.
All were delicious, as was another favorite of ours, the delectable Italian cream cheese called mascarpone, including one flavored with caramel.
Although we had spent months in Italy searching for its most interesting gastronomic specialties, at the California expo we were able to sample foods we had never encountered before. Since dairy specialties made from water buffalo milk, like mozzarella di bufala or the Turkish heavy cream manda kaymak have been great favorites of ours, we were delighted to taste burro di bufala - butter made in Italy from that same milk.
The expo cheese experts demonstrated easy ways to serve the cheeses. For an appealing appetizer, they marinated small mozzarella balls in olive oil and threaded them on mini-skewers with oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, another Italian specialty that has become popular in the US during the last two decades or so. Ricotta was spooned into a small dish with strawberries and blueberries, then topped with sliced toasted almonds. Mascarpone was flavored with vanilla and spooned over fresh berries.
Another booth specialized in truffles. We tasted aromatic back and white truffle oils as well as porcini oil, made by macerating truffles or porcini mushrooms in extra virgin olive oil. A wonderful treat was truffle butter, made of butter mixed with chopped truffles.
There was even truffle honey made of white truffles infused in honey, which was served with mild cheeses.
Italians are bean lovers. At the bean booth we savored the biggest fava beans we had ever seen; "pregnant favas" was the way one visitor described them, while another exclaimed, "Those are favas on steroids!" There were also meaty-tasting reddish-brown borlotti beans, delicate white cannelini and good quality chickpeas, which cognoscenti in Italy use in minestrone and in pasta dishes.
Italians have long been enthusiastically spreading the delights of pizza and pasta throughout the Western world, but these used to be relegated to the category of homey foods. It is only in the last two or three decades that countless Italian luxury foods have become pervasive in fancy restaurants and delicatessens in America, whether or not these eateries identify themselves as Italian.
Italy has had a culinary impact on Israel too. You'll find fresh mozzarella at the shuk, and sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and Italian cheeses at the supermarket. Think how common tiramisu, the Italian coffee-flavored, mascarpone cheese-filled layer cake, is on Israeli dessert menus, and how easy it is to find ciabatta, the crusty, fairly flat slipper-shaped Italian bread, in Tel Aviv bakeries. At a new Israeli caf popular among the late-night crowd, Aroma Bakery Caf in Encino, a suburb of Los Angeles, even the scrumptious Israeli-Iraqi sabich, made with eggplant, hard-boiled eggs and humous or tahini, came on ciabatta instead of the traditional pita.
White bean salad with grilled vegetables and feta cheese
This easy salad is similar to the one I sampled at the bean booth at the Western Hospitality Expo. To showcase their beans, they mixed them with roasted zucchini and mushrooms and olive oil, then sprinkled the mixture with feta cheese. For a more colorful selection of vegetables, I add grilled peppers and diced tomatoes, as well as slivered fresh basil.
Although feta is not an Italian cheese, its salty taste makes it a perfect partner for the beans and it's easier to find both in the US and in Israel than its milder Italian counterpart, ricotta salata. Bulgarian cheese is another good choice. If you'd like to omit it, you might like to add small pieces of oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes or diced olives for a salty tang.
1 1/2 cups dried white beans, sorted and rinsed, or two 400-gr. cans white beans, drained and rinsed
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 sweet red or orange peppers
100 to 120 gr. white mushrooms
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 small tomatoes, diced (optional)
3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar (optional)
100 to 120 gr. feta or Bulgarian cheese, crumbled
If using dried beans, put them in a large saucepan and add 6 cups water. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until tender, adding salt after 30 minutes. Drain beans; reserve their cooking liquid for making soups.
Preheat broiler with rack 2 to 4 inches from heat source; or heat grill. Broil or grill peppers, for 15 minutes or until their skins are blistered and slightly charred, turning them every 5 minutes. Transfer peppers to a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand for 10 minutes.
Halve zucchini and mushrooms lengthwise and brush lightly with olive oil. Set on a foil-lined broiler rack or on grill. Broil or grill for 3 minutes on each side or until zucchini and mushrooms are slightly tender.
Peel peppers using paring knife. Halve peppers, draining any juice. Discard seeds and ribs. Do not rinse.
Cut peppers in strips. Dice zucchini. Cut mushroom pieces in half if they are large. Combine grilled vegetables in a glass bowl and add beans, tomatoes, basil, lemon juice, 3 tablespoons oil and salt and pepper to taste. Add remaining oil if desired.
Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with cheese.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy's latest book is Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).