A Passion for Piedmont

Italy's Most Glorious Regional Table

For more risotto recipes see All About Risotto

Tucked away in a remote corner of northwest Italy and surrounded on three sides by mountains, the Piedmont region remains largely undiscovered by the casual traveler. Although Piedmontese wines are acclaimed worldwide, few have sampled the isolated region's equally extraordinary food. In A Passion for Piedmont (William Morrow & Co.; December, 1997; $28/hardcover), Matt Kramer brings the culinary traditions of Piedmont into our kitchens, introducing us to a simple and uncomplicated cuisine that nonetheless reflects the richness and complexity of flavors associated with the dishes of neighboring France.

Kramer's more than 150 recipes, developed during a year in residence, range from the diverse antipasti served in abundance by the Piedmontese to pasta, risotto, and polenta to main courses, typically of braised meats. Reflecting the Alpine geography of the region's perimeter, many of the recipes yield hearty, cold-weather fare.

In Piedmont, the meal always starts with antipasti. Dishes that can be prepared in advance include Stuffed Onions, whose golden, autumnal look makes them an ideal component of a Thanksgiving feast, and Spicy Cheese, a luscious mascarpone and hot pepper mixture served with boiled potatoes that is terrific after a morning on the slopes or a brisk winter walk. Among antipasti best made at the last minute are Potato Cake with Smoked Salmon, featuring a thin, blini-like cake and one of several kinds of sformati, little savory flans baked in ramekins. Perhaps the ultimate cold-weather antidote is Fondue Piedmont Style, or fonduta in Italian. Unlike its Swiss counterpart, fonduta is made with creamy Fontina cheese in lieu of Gruyere and served individually, not communally.

A Passion for Piedmont's substantial soups include Chestnut Soup with Milk and Rice, which the author describes as "the sort of consolatory soup you make on foggy fall days when the weather seems to be threatening;" Mushroom Soup, made with the fresh porcini mushrooms that grow huge and abundantly throughout the region; and Pasta and Lentil Soup, the dish of choice on New Year's Eve in the mountains.

A meal's primo course varies locally within Piedmont. In the gastronomically acclaimed Langhe district, it is pasta, either tajarin (tagliatelle) or agnolotti (ravioli). In the rice-producing Po Valley, it is likely be risotto. Tajarin is typically served with Butter and Sage Sauce or Meat Sauce; one appealing variation is Gorgonzola Sauce, made from Piedmont's most famous cheese. Options for filling agnolotti include Lidia Alciati 's Three-Meat Agnolotti Filling (veal, rabbit, and pork) and Cheese Filling for Agnolotti. Risotto may be prepared in a number of ways: scarlet-colored Red Wine Risotto, Mushroom Risotto (porcini, of course), or with any of a variety of cheeses.

A whole chapter is devoted to the region's signature Bagna Caoda, a "hot bath" essentially consisting of olive oil, garlic, anchovies chopped to a fine paste, and milk or cream. Served as a dip for breadsticks, raw vegetables, or cooked potatoes, it makes a substantial one-dish supper. Kramer's hearty polenta recipes, including Polenta with a Spicy Tomato Sauce and Polenta with Melted Cheese Sauce and Porcini Mushrooms, can also stand on their own.

The Piedmontese devotion to meat as a main course is both practical and emotional—fish is rare in the land locked region, and older inhabitants remember far less prosperous days when meat was just as scarce. Main courses featured in A Passion for Piedmont range from Rabbit with Sweet Red Peppers and Rabbit with Sweet Fennel to Beef Braised in Red Wine and Braised Beef with Capers to a simple, rich Calf's Liver with Pancetta, Bread Crumbs, and Parsley. Poultry recipes include Capon with Honey-Hazelnut Sauce, usually reserved for Christmas and other holiday feasts, Piedmontese Stuffed Turkey, stuffed with a mixture of boiled chestnuts, ground meat, sausage, and bread crumbs, and Duck Braised in White Wine.

As in other regions of Italy, a meal in Piedmont is most often finished with a dessert made from a seasonal fruit or nut. Typical are Hazelnut Cake with Chocolate, Apple Cake, and Fresh Chestnut Mousse. The recipe for Panna Cotta, or "cooked cream," calls for addition of a bit of gelatin to approximate the consistency of Piedmontese cream, so thick it is squeezed, rather than poured, from its container.

Kramer accompanies his exploration of the food of Piedmont with detailed commentary on the wines of the region, which he describes as "cleaner, brighter, and fresher tasting than anywhere else in Italy—anywhere else in Europe, for that matter." Interspersed with personal recollections and local lore, A Passion for Piedmont is an engaging introduction to an accessible and satisfying cuisine. Piedmont has long been praised for its wines. Now, thanks to Kramer, the Piedmontese table may receive the attention it deserves as well.

About the Author:

A food and wine writer for 20 years, Matt Kramer is a wine columnist for the Wine Spectator and Diversion magazines and The Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books on wine for William Morrow & Co.: Making Sense of Wine, Making Sense of Burgundy, and Making Sense of California Wine. Kramer moved to Italy for a year to research A Passion for Piedmont, capping a decade of twice-a-year trips to the region. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Karen, who has not cooked a single meal in the last 20 years.

A Passion for Piedmont
by Matt Kramer
William Morrow & Co., $28.00/hardcover
336 pages; December, 1997
Information provided by the publisher.


Red Wine Risotto

Risotto al Vino Rosso


The idea of a scarlet-colored, red wine-infused risotto can initially seem a little odd. At least some of our friends thought so. Yet not only is it one of the great Piedmontese classics, it's one of the best risotti you'll ever eat. Traditionally, the dish sails under the name of risotto al Barolo or risotto al Barbera, two classic Piedmontese wines. In the old days, Barolo was so inexpensive that you could devote three quarters of a bottle to a risotto and not feel profligate. These days, forget it: Barolo is way too expensive. Even Barbera is getting a bit too pricey, although there still are a few decent cheap ones out there.

All of which explains why I renamed this dish Risotto al Vino Rosso. Use whatever red wine you've got that's good enough to drink but not so expensive that you feel a pang when cooking with it. If you want to be authentic, by all means use a Barbera (my choice) or a Nebbiolo d'Alba or Spanna. But don't waste a good Barolo or Barbaresco. I have tested this recipe using a first-class Barolo and an ordinary, but drinkable, Cabernet Sauvignon. There was little flavor difference.

As for the marrow, it's essential. Marrow provides a flavor that elevates the dish to something truly remarkable. Many supermarkets sell sliced beef marrow bones. To get at the marrow, just scoop it out with a butter knife. Because of the fat in the marrow, there's no need for additional butter or oil. Give the bone to your favorite dog.

makes 4 to 6 servings

6 cups chicken stock
2 ounces beef marrow (about 4 or 5 bones' worth), coarsely chopped
1 medium-size yellow onion or 4 large shallots, very finely chopped
2-1/2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
l/2 to 3/4 bottle dry red wine
2 teaspoons tomato paste

To finish the risotto:

Large pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)

Bring the stock to a boil and immediately reduce it to a simmer.

Place the marrow in a large heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium heat. When most of the marrow has melted, add the chopped onion and cook, stirring, until translucent. Raise the heat and add the rice. Stir vigorously until the grains are translucent and the "pearl" in each grain appears clearly. Immediately reduce the heat to low and add two or three ladles' worth of simmering stock, just barely enough to cover the rice. Season with salt. Stir briefly. When airholes start to appear, add another ladleful of stock.

Continue to cook, adding more stock as necessary; each time you add stock, pour in a dollop of red wine. Do not add too much wine at any one time, however, as it is necessary to keep the heat of the risotto unchanged. (You don't want to boil the wine, as that would mute its flavor.) After about 10 minutes, when the risotto is about half-cooked, add the tomato paste along with some stock.

When the risotto is cooked, remove from the heat. To finish the risotto, stir in the pepper and nutmeg. Add the grated Parmigiano, stirring again. Check for texture. If the consistency is too dry, stir in a little stock. Add the butter, if you wish, stirring it in. Serve immediately on very hot plates.

A Passion for Piedmont
by Matt Kramer
William Morrow & Co., $28.00/hardcover
336 pages, 1997
Recipes and photos reprinted by permission.

For more risotto recipes see All About Risotto

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This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.

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