Chef Monica Pope writes about eating & cooking where your food lives

When in Umbria (or in Houston dreaming of Umbria)… September 18, 2010

Cooking my beautiful Cicerchie

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, August 21st

I brought home some dried Umbrian Cicerchie (aka “wild chickpeas”) from Berkeley.   Lisa Googles Umbria for the class:  it’s one of the smallest regions in the center of Italy, just east of Tuscany, north of Rome and west of the Marches (if you imagine the map of Italy in the shape of a boot, Umbria is right in the middle of what would be the calf muscle).

These lovely dried Cicerchie are the color of chickpeas, but the shape of a fava bean.   And they are beautiful.  I decide to cook them using a stew recipe on the back of the bag, but I substitute some ingredients that I don’t have.   It is a quintessential simple recipe that I just know Alice would love.  Traditionally, you would cook the beans with salt pork, which I don’t have, so I substitute speck or smoked prosciutto from La Quercia.   Lisa looks up La Quercia.  I know it is an American salumi company located in Iowa.  But what I didn’t know is that La Quercia means “the oak” and is the traditional symbol of the province of Parma, where prosciutto has been made for 500 years.  The pigs feed on the acorns from the oak tree.  The owners of La Quercia, an American couple, lived in Parma.  For them, the name unites Iowa, Parma and Prosciutto and the oak is also a symbol of patience, integrity, persistence and beauty — values this couple are guided by.  Values we should all be guided by.

Sautéing the speck...

I start by sautéing the speck and garlic in some olive oil.  I sent two pints of cherry tomatoes downstairs to Benjy for him to blast them in the oven.  Sarah is not sure about my instructions, but I know that Benjy will understand.  We want the tomatoes to be blistered, with the peel slipping off and the flavor more concentrated from cooking them.  They will be very sweet and will break down in the stew when added.

Blasted tomatoes

I’m cooking the Cicerchie separately.  As I add a little salt to the water, I panic as I realize that you shouldn’t add salt to chickpeas, especially if they are dried because they will never cook.  I hope these cook.  I decide not to worry since I always seem to finish on time no matter what happens.  Lisa presents me with a Google picture of Cicerchie stew – it has a lot more green in it, so  I send Sarah down to visit the Secret Garden folks to get some Chinese heart-shaped spinach; I ask for 10 or so leaves, but she comes up with a bundle.

Chinese heart-shaped spinach

I love cooking this way:  keeping it simple, just a few ingredients, finishing a dish or two in less than an hour.  It would be so pleasant if I had a glass of wine and some nibbles while we’re waiting.  Oh, it’s only 10:00 am, you say?  I wonder what time it is in Umbria…hmmmm.  I share with the class all the wonderful things that we have growing right now in Houston like peaches, muscadine grapes and (soon) persimmons, and so much more.

We tear off some Slow Dough ciabatta and dip it in the stew.  Now I really wish I had some wine, maybe an Umbrian red!  The stew would be really good after a couple of days in the refrigerator, too, but no one wants to wait that long.

NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at


Déjà vu… July 31, 2010

Bruschetta with Red Wine Fig Compote, Japanese Eggplant with Red Curry, Simply Wilted Bok Choy

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, July 10th, 2010

“We already did that one,” Megan says to me, aghast, when I tell her what recipe we’re doing for the Green Plum cooking class this Saturday.  I just hired Megan to be my kitchen assistant.  She reminds me that it was the class I did on the day that I met her and hired her on the spot.  I liked her spunk then, but now I’m being spunk-ed.  It was less than a month ago and I have absolutely NO memory of doing Armenian Eggplant.  “Wow, really?”   I guess I don’t remember it because I didn’t even blog about it (sorry, folks).

The Secret Garden has some gorgeous Japanese eggplant right now and Chinese chives.  Well, there’s more than one way to cook eggplant.  I like to cook eggplant…the right way.  Most people, including my own kitchen crew, don’t cook it right — that is, they don’t use enough oil.  Eggplant doesn’t cook to caramelized goodness without a lot of oil.  What I like about the Armenian eggplant salad is that we use the cooking oil that is used in sautéeing the eggplant as the oil part of the vinaigrette.  We season the cooked eggplant with champagne vinegar, cinnamon, and lots of parsley.  The cinnamon adds that je ne sais quoi-thingy I love.  I also add olives because I like cinnamon with green olives.  That’s not Armenian, but I’m not Armenian, so…je ne sais quoi.

I’m still going to do eggplant; however, I’m going to cut it differently and keep it simple.

I’ve just gotten off my Central Market cookbook tour:  five Texas cities in five days.  No wonder Lindsay Lohan is in jail — life on the road is tough.  I found out the hard way that Big D either doesn’t know me or doesn’t like me.  However, Ft. Worth wanted to take me home with them!  Or at least out to dinner.  One Ft. Worth-ian said that Dallas is about trendy and Ft. Worth is about tradition.  Hmmmm.

So, for this class, the first thing I’m going to do is a bruschetta.  Our growers have figs right now and The Houston Dairymaids have some Pure Luck Ste. Maure (an ash rind goat that is similar to a Bucheron) and SlowDough Bread Co. has some ciabatta.  So, I am going to make a jammy Red Wine Fig Compote.  Typically, I make this recipe with honey and lavender as a topping for a Provencal-style sundae with caramel semi-freddo and balsamic syrup.   Today, I am going to go savory with it for the bruschetta.  I tell the audience that they could also add some mustard seed or some ginger for a little heat, but you don’t have to.  I’m thinking it would be great with our walnut bread, but I’m not sure I say it out loud.  I seem to be jet-lagged even though I never left the Texas time zone.  I’m really not cut out for the cookbook tour circuit.

Pure Luck's Ste. Maure



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