Green Walnuts, Nocino, and Baptist Johns

The green walnuts have arrived!

Today, June 24th, is the day that Florence celebrates its patron Saint, San Giovanni (a.k.a. John the Baptist), and traditionally it’s also the day when unripe green walnuts are gathered for making nocino, a complex, nutty, and slightly bitter dark brown liqueur. It’s usually served as an after-dinner digestivo, but can also be used to “correct” a shot of espresso, poured over gelato, mixed into cocktails, or used in place of vanilla extract in baking (biscotti would be a a good application for that). Green walnuts are only available for a brief span of time every June and last year I missed the window of opportunity, but this year I managed to get some before it was too late. I ordered 5 pounds of green walnuts (about 40 walnuts) from Haag Farms in California; they were delivered to my doorstep just in time (I’m leaving soon for a trip to London). Although I’ve spent some time on walnut farms, I’d never really examined a green walnut up close. I sliced one in half to see what it was all about. The fetal walnut looked like nothing so much as a tiny, translucent brain. It had the shape and form of a walnut but was clear and jelly-like. Weird! Fascinating!

A green walnut, halved. It’s like “The Nut with Two Brains.”

Cutting through these suckers was not easy, even with a sharp chef’s knife and even though the immature shells lining the inside of the green husks were still quite thin. It took some muscle to cut them. (Also note: If you care at all about your manicure, wear gloves for this part. The walnut juice will stain your fingers, nails, and cutting board an icky yellow that later turns dark brown.) Once I had 25 of them quartered, I placed them in a large glass jar with 1 quart (4 cups) of 190-proof Everclear. What’s that you say? Everclear is illegal in Massachusetts? Yes, I’m aware of that. Let’s just say I had it smuggled in from a less puritanical state where people have the freedom to infuse their own liqueurs. I also added the zest of one lemon, a few cloves, a stick of cinnamon, some coffee beans, and half of a nutmeg. Recipes vary wildly on the spices — some add juniper berries, vanilla beans, or orange zest. I decided to be very sparing with them, since a good nocino doesn’t taste strongly of any individual spice; the hard-to-describe green walnut flavor should predominate: nutty, slightly bitter, a touch oaky and medicinal, and a bit vanilla-y and sweet as well.

What you need to make nocino.

Once everything was in the jar, I closed the lid tightly and gave it all a good shake. Most recipes for nocino instruct you to leave it in a bright, sunny spot to macerate, but that seems counter to all logic about infusing liquor. Light can degrade and destroy flavor/aroma compounds, so I chose to store my big moonshine jar in a cool, dark cupboard, just like I do when I make limoncello.

All ready to hurry up and wait.

Just a few hours later, a peek into the jar revealed that the walnuts had already begun to oxidize and turn black (particularly any that were sticking out above the water line) and the liquid had turned a dark, evil-looking, greenish-black. Yikes. Just what exactly was I brewing up, here? The last nocino that I had was an ersatz commercial version, which had been tinted brown with caramel coloring. I assume that the real deal is supposed to be this scary color.

Mmmm, delicious?

And now…the wait begins. Most people advise letting it sit for about 40 days before adding simple syrup, then letting it sit for at least another month before straining out the solids. At that point it is, in theory, ready to drink, but common wisdom–and the “Order of Modinese Nocino“–dictate that to really get something special, you need to then let it age and mellow for at least a year (better yet, two). I’m not sure I have that kind of patience, but we’ll see what happens. As it is, it’s torturous to have to wait two months to taste it. This will be a long-term project, obviously, and I’ll post follow-ups as it progresses. If you want to try your hand at nocino as well, get your orders in quick — the magic time for green walnut gathering is just about over (if not over already).

The formula that I used is a mixture of one from my friend Judy, one that Haag Farms sent along with the shipment of green walnuts, and my own inspiration (nutmeg just seemed to go well with walnut).

Nocino

25 green walnuts, quartered
1 quart (4 cups) Everclear
4 cloves
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg (grated on all sides)
10 coffee beans (I used Blue Bottle Finca El Majahual)

Simple syrup: 3 cups sugar dissolved in 4 cups water

  • Wash walnuts and quarter lengthwise.
  • Place walnut quarters in large glass jar with Everclear and spices. Seal tightly and shake well.
  • Let sit in a cool, dark place for 30-40 days.
  • Add simple syrup and shake well. Return jar to a cool, dark place and let sit 30-60 days.
  • Strain out solids. Store nocino in tightly sealed glass bottles or jars. It can be used immediately, or aged for an additional 1-2 years for the best and most complex flavor. The bitterness lessens with time.
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Buddhini, jiggling tranquilly in a sea of tropical fruit…

A few years ago, my friend Brendan gave me a delightful gift that I absolutely adore — an ingenious set of dessert molds in the shape of little Buddhas — and I finally have gotten around to using them. Their name is a clever pun in Italian; “Buddhini” means “little Buddhas,” and is also a homophone of budini, or “puddings.”

I used a Thai jasmine-flavored agar dessert mix that you can easily find in most Asian food markets; it’s also available in almond flavor. You simply dissolve the powder mix in boiling water, pour into the molds, and refrigerate for at least an hour, or until firm.  I supported each mold in a small bowl by bunching up paper towels and using them to prop the molds upside-down.  You could also insert each one in an appropriately sized drinking glass or jar.  Once they have set, unmold by gently squeezing each mold over a plate, and serve with an assortment of tropical fruit (fresh, canned, or a mixture). A refreshing dessert for the summer. Yes, I’m aware that it’s not yet summer in Boston — or anywhere near it — but I can dream, can’t I?  I’m getting tired of root vegetables and hearty stews.

Want to try making Buddhini yourself?  You can find more information on the molds — including many recipes and where to buy them — online here:  http://www.nobodyandco.it. They’d also work great with ice cream, pudding, panna cotta, or any other type of dessert or savory treat that firms up in the fridge or freezer (they are not, unfortunately, oven safe).

A frissedhra

I was delighted to stumble across a package of “friselle” in a small market in the North End the other day. These are a regional specialty from the south of Italy (Puglia, to be precise) and are difficult to find in other regions of Italy, let alone in the U.S., although I did once see something quite similar on an island in Greece and assume that they are eaten there in the same way. Perhaps friselle even came to Puglia via Greece, as the area was once colonized by the Ancient Greeks (some small villages exist in Puglia where people still speak a dialect of Greek).

Also known as “frise” or “friseddhre” (in Pugliese dialect), they are twice-baked, ring-shaped rusks, usually made from a mixture of whole-grain durum wheat and barley, which somewhat resemble hardened, halved bagels. Friseddhre must be first soaked in cold water for approximately 30-60 seconds to soften, and then they are drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and served topped with diced tomatoes, capers, salt, pepper, and fresh oregano. I also will usually rub half of a clove of raw garlic on the frisella before soaking it. They may not sound very exciting but they’re quite tasty and wholesome, sort of a larger, softer, more rustic version of bruschette.

The capers I use are salt-packed capers that I brought back from the Aeolian Islands in Sicily. Salt-packed capers are harder to find in the U.S. than those cured in vinegar, but if you can find them, they are well worth the extra effort and cost (ironically, in Italy the salt-packed capers are cheaper and it’s harder to find them in vinegar!). I’ve converted many former caper-haters by introducing them to this type; instead of tasting strongly of vinegar, the delicate flavor of the capers shines through, and I find that the texture is better as well: firm and slightly crisp, rather than soggy. To use them, you just need to rinse them well, then soak them in some cold water for about 20 minutes to half an hour, then rinse and drain again.


A Visit to the Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Image via Wikipedia

As you wander through the maze of vendors hawking leather goods and souvenirs that crowd the streets of the San Lorenzo area, you may notice a large, grey-and-red structure towering above the stands.  Many visitors to Florence never venture inside this building, either unaware of its contents or intimidated by unfamiliar shopping customs, and in so doing, miss out on one of the city’s greatest gastronomical treasures.

Inside, this cavernous, two-storey space is full of bustling shops and stands offering fresh produce, meat, fish, pasta, bread, local cheeses, wines, herbs, and spices – in short, all of the ingredients for preparing fantastic meals at home, packing a gourmet picnic, or to bring home with you as souvenirs of your visit to Florence. You’ll often find higher quality, greater selection, and lower prices than in many local supermarkets.

The iron-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market) was constructed in 1874 as part of a project to renovate the ancient city center, at the same time as the city’s other indoor daily market at Sant’Ambrogio. It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni and inspired by the Les Halles marketplace in Paris. In 1881, the organization of the stands was entirely changed, resulting in the scheme which continues to this day.

The entire ground floor (piano terreno) is mostly occupied by the butchers (macellerie), delicatessens (pizzicherie), fish vendors (pescherie), and bakeries (forni), as well as several bars, mini-markets, and lunch places.  Most of the fruttivendoli, selling fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, and flowers, are located upstairs on the second floor, or primo piano.  Amidst the shouts and laughter of the vendors you can make out, if you listen carefully, what’s in season and fresh for the day. Italians eat very seasonally – the best tomatoes are available in late summer, citrus from Sicily in the winter months, fresh figs and melons can only be found in late summer, and fragrant porcini mushrooms can only be had in September and October.

Italian cuisine in general and Tuscan cuisine, in particular, can be quite simple in comparison to some other European culinary traditions. The abundance of such fresh, high-quality ingredients often obviates the need for complex sauces and cooking techniques—the pure flavors are able to stand on their own.

A little help with ordering: sliced meats and cheeses are usually ordered in “etti,” with one etto equaling 100 grams, and 2 or 3 etti being approximately equivalent to a package of cured meat as sold in a supermarket. Produce can be ordered in etti or kilograms, or by number of pieces. One of the few disadvantages of shopping in the market is that you are not allowed to touch the produce on display, but instead must trust the vendors to make selections for you.  Attempts to choose your own fruit and vegetables will most likely be met with stern admonitions from the shopkeepers. However, many vendors, particularly those selling meats, cheeses, and sauces, are happy to let you taste their products before buying.

For those without access to a kitchen or with less time to devote to cooking, many vendors on the first floor also offer a wide variety of ready-prepared dishes (piatti pronti), which can be heated for you and packed to-go, as well as marinated roasts and pre-formed hamburger patties in interesting flavor combinations such as alla carrettierra—with garlic and chili peppers—and “braccio di ferro” (“Popeye”)—made with spinach).

For a quick lunch, the Central Market is a great place to stop, and many who work in the area do so regularly.  Following are some recommendations for meals in the market:

Pork’s: Different fresh pasta dishes offered daily.  Every other day Filippo makes lasagna, and his mother Benita prepares Sicilian specialties.  There is always a large variety of panini and grilled, stewed, marinated, or fried vegetables on display in the glass counter, and they can prepare a platter for you based on your selections.

Nerbone: A Central Market tradition.  Famous for panini made with lampredotto (a form of tripe and a Tuscan specialty) or bollito (boiled beef), as well as a full menu which changes daily.  For your panino you can choose the addition of piccante (spicy red chili sauce) and/or salsa verde (green sauce made with parsley, garlic and olive oil), and whether or not you would like your bread bagnato (dunked in meat broth, French-dip style). Friday’s menu usually features fish.  You can either order your food to take away (da portare via) or eat at one of the tables, next to life-size full-color photos of the friendly staff!

The Central Market in via dell’Ariento is open from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday, (closed on Sundays).