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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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How to Make the Perfect Salad

August 18, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

Carlino's-Salad_platter350dpiSalad looks simple on the surface, but a great salad is a complex and sophisticated balancing act. Too little of one flavor profile or too much of another can turn an otherwise great salad into a less than satisfying start to your meal. Conversely, the right grace notes transform lettuce leaves and dressing into a revelation. Salad can be exciting, but only when it’s done right.

The Basics of Great Salad

No matter which specific ingredients a salad contains, it should be a balance of a few key flavors and textures. A single salad doesn’t need to be overloaded with items, but it benefits from variety; aim for at least three or four different textures and flavors in proportions.

Green salads start with great greens. Whether you use iceberg lettuce or choose a more flavorful lettuce like red leaf, romaine or butter lettuce, the greens that make up the foundation of your salad should be fresh. With a few intentional exceptions, such as a wilted spinach salad with bacon or a steamed kale salad, you want greens that still feel as crisp as if they were freshly picked. Combining greens is an excellent way to incorporate variety into your salad, so don’t feel constrained to lettuce alone.

To many people, a great dressing is more important than the salad it graces. The classic Italian dressing blends oil and flavored vinegar with herbs and spices, but creamy dressings are also popular choices. As with the greens, the dressing should have top-quality ingredients. Using high-quality balsamic vinegar, a light olive oil and freshly ground black pepper will produce vastly different results than ordinary cider vinegar and common oil.

Toppings range from carrot slivers to croutons, but salad toppers still follow the logic of complementary flavors. If your salad has slivers of sweet citrus fruit or dried figs, shavings of tangy, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are a delicious match. Crunchy toasted nuts go well with creamy bits of Gorgonzola cheese. Bites of creamy Brie work beautifully with crisp, tart fruits such as pears or apples. Create contrast with your salad toppings to bring out the best in each of them.

Putting It All Together

Greens need washing, but too much handling will bruise them. Chefs get around this dilemma by washing salad greens a short while before serving instead of immediately before preparing the salad. After bathing the greens in ice water, they spin the leaves in a spinner or let them drain in a colander. Once the greens rest long enough to shed most of their moisture, the cook finishes with a quick pat from a clean, dry cloth shortly before serving.

When you dress the salad makes a huge impact on its texture and taste. Dress it too soon or serve it too late and it loses its fresh appeal. Wait until the last minute, and you may not have enough time to mix and toss thoroughly. The best time to dress a salad is a few minutes before it reaches the table. It’s up to you if you prefer to add some toppings before dressing the salad, but save items that could absorb the dressing or melt into them until after this step. Dried fruit, diced meats and nuts can go in early, but keep croutons and crumbly cheese out of the mix for now.

How you dress your salad makes a big difference in its flavor. Dressing by hand – adding a small amount of dressing, then turning the salad thoroughly to coat every leaf – gives the best results, but if you’re pressed for time, you can use tongs or salad forks. It’s always best to underdress the salad at first. You can always add more dressing, but you can’t subtract it once it’s in the bowl. After you portion the salad to individual bowls or plates, arrange additional toppings on each serving for a professional touch.

If you’re stuck for inspiration, try our Italian fruit salad and discover how sweet, tangy, salty and fresh flavors can work together to create a salad much better than the sum of its parts.

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The Flavors of Toscana

August 2, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

If Rome is the soul of Italy, then Tuscany may be its heart. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance that later spread throughout Europe, Tuscany – or Toscana, as it’s known to Italians – contains Florence, Siena, Pisa and the home of the world’s most beautiful marble, Carrara. The region’s rich cultural heritage extends to its culinary history, too; every time you enjoy a Florentine dish or appreciate the simplicity of great minestrone, you taste the fresh flavors of Tuscany.

The Tuscan Landscape

Like most Italian regions, Tuscany loves the sea. The region’s western coast provides a bounty of fresh seafood, including the calamari, octopus and mussels that form the basis of cacciucco, a hearty Tuscan seafood stew. One of the oldest fishing communities in the world is Castiglione della Pescaia. Even if you don’t speak Italian, you might spot the town’s fishing roots in its name; “Pescaia” loosely translates to “fishery,” and the people here have fished the Mediterranean since Roman times.

The Tuscan coast is mild, but away from the warm waters of the Mediterranean, winters can be harsh. That’s ideal for developing great soil, which is why Toscana was the Roman breadbasket for centuries. Gently rolling hills are ideal for growing wheat and grazing sheep or cattle, so it’s no surprise that many of these ingredients feature prominently in Tuscan cuisine. Sheep’s milk cheeses such as pecorino and morello are fixtures on Tuscan menus, but they also excel at producing creamy fresh cheeses from cattle, including a regional version of mozzarella that replaces the traditional water buffalo milk the more familiar cow’s milk.

Tuscan wheat has gone to make semolina for pasta and flour for breads for centuries. Over time, wheat farmers have bred strains to handle harsher weather in the mountains and milder temperatures closer to the coast, giving rise to summer and winter wheats that can make anything from crusty Italian breads to a tender, fine-grained panettone studded with dried and candied fruits.

Olives also grow beautifully in southern Tuscany. Some trees that produced oil for Roman diners still bear fruit for olive oil today. Tuscan oils are regarded as some of the finest, but many of the region’s olives also wind up as antipasti or flavorful accents in a salad. Spinach, lettuce and cress grow well in the region’s low-lying areas while citrus fruits prefer higher ground.

Dining Alla Toscana

A region’s geography shapes its national palate, and Tuscany’s abundance has gifted it with one of the world’s most delicious native cuisines. When Caterina de’Medici married into Spanish royalty, she missed a taste of home cooking and imported Tuscan chefs to create the flavors of Florence for her. Today, dishes with spinach are still called Florentine in her honor.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Tuscan food. A Tuscan cook believes that too much ornamentation of a dish just gets in the way of appreciating the vibrant flavors of native ingredients. Given Toscana’s abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats, it’s no wonder that natives embrace elegantly simple preparations. Sauces are used sparingly as accent flavors rather than to cover up a dish.

Tender veal piccata epitomizes the Tuscan attitude to food and embraces the best of what the region has to offer. Flavored with Tuscan olive oil, its crisp exterior comes from the area’s abundant wheat fields and the flour they produce. To keep any flavors from getting lost in the dish, the light sauce comes from deglazing the pan with a splash of white wine and a squeeze of local lemons to brighten it. Butter from the region’s dairy farms finishes and enriches the sauce without concealing the dish’s other flavor notes.

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Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time

July 20, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

Carlino's_Pompeii_Mount_VesuviusJust a short distance from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was once a thriving Roman village with thousands of residents, many of them wealthy. Like its neighbor, Herculaneum, it drew visitors to its pleasant climate and beautiful baths. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., blanketing the city under as much as 8 feet of ash in a matter of minutes, the historian Pliny the Younger witnessed the destruction. Although he didn’t know it, the author documented not only the cataclysmic end of Pompeii as a living city but the birth of one of the world’s most valuable archaeological resources. Since its rediscovery in the early 1600s, no site has been more closely scrutinized, yet Pompeii still holds mysteries that fascinate all who see or read about it.

The ash that flowed down Vesuvius’ slopes to engulf Pompeii was a tragedy in its time, but the blanket of debris preserved the city almost perfectly, freezing it in time and giving modern people an unprecedented look at Roman lives. Unlike other sites that offer only a few fragments or ruined buildings, Pompeii shows the evidence of how people truly lived – how they decorated their homes, what they liked to eat and even how they spent their leisure time.

Pompeii was probably a vacation spot or resort town for wealthy Romans, archaeologists believe. The town had a busy port, but it also had a big entertainment industry, much as vacation destinations do today. The city of 20,000 had an amphitheater, a gymnasium, multiple bath houses and a well-developed plumbing system that undoubtedly made life in Pompeii especially pleasant. With more entertainment venues than temples, Pompeii was apparently where people went to get away from the throngs in Rome and enjoy themselves.

To the Romans, baths were more than a way to stay clean and comfortable; they were a social event. Pompeii’s baths had running water, heated floors and alcoves for dining that suggested people spent much of their days in the bath house. One building, the Suburban Baths – so named because they’re farther from the large villas and closer to middle-class insulae – is particularly well preserved. The art on its walls was lively and, to modern standards, shocking, but the Romans and Pompeiians who went there probably didn’t find the nudity surprising. The placement of the frescoes suggests that the Pompeiians may have used the images to remember where they left their belongings; each locker-like area had a different ribald image.

Another major feature of the city was its large amphitheater. Romans loved live entertainment and plays, so archaeologists weren’t surprised to find a theater. The fact that the building held so many people, though, suggests plenty of tourists who wanted to catch a show while they were in town. During Pompeii’s last few years, the amphitheater may have been closed by the authorities because of a riot during a gladiatorial exhibition. Graffiti nearby shows a Campanian or Pompeiian fighter defeating a rival with the caption, “Campanians died too when they beat Nucerians.”

Graffiti is everywhere in Pompeii, and much of it still resonates with modern visitors. “Celadus makes all the girls sigh,” for example, doesn’t look too different from what might appear in a present-day locker room. Other graffiti statements preserved for all time include insults, declarations of love and friendship, and racy advertisements for brothels. One villa that historians dubbed the House of the Moralist for its virtuous graffiti, reminds visitors to “postpone your tiresome quarrels if you can, or leave and take them home with you.”

Some of the most eloquent images from Pompeii come not from what its citizens wrote but from how they lived. Pots of rouge still contain traces of red dyes used to make lips and cheeks rosy. Tiled hearths still had bread in ovens, giving bakers a glimpse of how the Romans ate. One baker’s household still has a portrait of a husband and wife on its walls, evidence of the pride the proprietors took in their work. He holds a scroll and she touches a stylus to her lips in the image.

Pompeii was once a pleasure garden for the wealthy and a home for the prosperous middle-class merchants who served them. Today, it’s a reminder that we aren’t far removed from the past.

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