08 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA - Pearfectly Wonderful

SARONNO, Italy - A dear friend of mine is coming to visit next week. It’s her first trip to Italy. It’s always difficult to have first time visitors because there are so many things to see and do here, and I never know where to begin.

Do I take her to Rome, Florence, and Venice, the holy trinity of the tour companies? Do I concentrate on the Lake Region and take her to Fisherman’s Island on Lago Maggiore for lunch? Or how about an afternoon boat ride on Lake Como with an aperitif in Bellagio? A day in Lugano, Switzerland? Or maybe a couple of days on the Italian Riviera? And I can't forget about Milan. There’s so much to see: the Duomo, the Galleria, the Duke’s Castle, the Last Supper, the shopping, oh my.

And when we get back from our outings, be they long or short, what are we going to eat? I’ve been working on a menu for the past few days but it is still very much a work in progress. While my refrigerator is standard size for Italy, it really isn’t very big. And the freezer, well if it weren’t for my coveted stash of Crisco that fills the entire bottom drawer, there would be a little more room in there but….

What I need are recipes I can prepare in advance that actually improve in flavor as they sit. Right this minute two things come to mind: the first is a Spring minestrone. By the time she gets here the primizia, or first little vegetables of the season, should be on the market. Baby zucchini, tiny green beans and baby carrots are all good candidates for a Spring minestrone.

And to make my minestrone even more Spring like, I’ll probably top it with a small dollop of pesto just before I serve it. It’s a Genovese thing. An Italian thing is to serve minestrone at room temperature – tepid, not cold – when the weather is warm. In fact you have probably seen bowls of minestrone sitting out on buffet tables in trattorie when you visited Italy, especially in Tuscany.

As for desert, I just may make poached pears before pears disappear for the seaon.

During the winter months I like to serve pears poached in red wine, a good full bodied red wine from Piedmont is usally my first choice.

The pears turn a deep reddish purple color, are beautiful to see, delicious to eat and perfect for a dinner party because I can make them ahead of time. I like to serve them with vanilla gelato or thin wafer cookies, but even pound cake is good with them.

For Spring I can use the same recipe for poached pears and just change the wine. I like Prosecco because it isn’t too sweet or too dry, and it gives the pears a wonderful flavor without overpowering them. You can use a dry Spumante too.

It’s important to pick pears that are not too ripe. I like to use Bosc pears because they have a good flavor and they hold their shape well when poached. Sometimes you have to shave a little off the bottom to get them to stand up in the poaching liquid, but you would have to do that no matter what type of pear you used. Just be sure the poaching liquid covers them all the way up to the stem or they won’t cook evenly.

The perfect topping for pears poached in white wine is melted chocolate. That combination is called Pere al Cioccolato Fondente in Italian and Poire Hélène in French.

The chocolate topping is super easy to do. Just break up a bar or two of good quality chocolate, dark chocolate is best, and let it slowly melt in a bagno-maria, which is nothing more than a pot or ceramic bowl set over another pot of simmering water.

That sounds really good. I think I’ve just decided the menu for one day. Now if I can only figure out what to do for the other twelve.

Photos:(1) pears poached in white wine; (2) pears poached in red wine; (3)the pear stands alone.

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