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Santa Barbara, CA, United States
I enjoy creating original wine-pairing recipes that are healthful and delicious. I work for Touring & Tasting a Santa Barbara based wine club and national magazine as Food Editor. However, I am not paid for this blog and the opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I received my Personal Chef Skills Competency Award from the SBCC's School Of Culinary Arts. In 2012, I started Inside Wine - Santa Barbara with pal Lila Brown which features wine tastings with winery owners and winemakers. I also serve on the Board of the Santa Barbara Culinary Arts group, which had Julia Child as one of the founding members and funds scholarships for SBCC culinary students in her name.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Il Porticciolo: Haute Cuisine in Italy's Lake District

If you ask an American if they know about the Lake District of Italy, the first thing they tend to mention is George Clooney. He's the most visible of the celebs who have homes on the shores of Lake Como. The largest and most picturesque city on that lake, Bellagio is the subject of many paintings, with its grand formal gardens, sun-dappled stairways and grandiose villas lining the shimmering water. In the summer, there are hordes of tourists soaking in the romantic atmosphere and hoping to catch a glimpse of the movie star in person.

But, if you're looking for a quieter place, more affordable, with the same breathtaking views of the Alps and limpid lake water, try Lake Maggiore. The most westerly of the lakes, it is on the border of the Piedmont and Lombardy regions and it provides a convenient base to explore the wine regions producing Barolo, Barbaresco, Valpolicella, Dolcetto, Soave and Prosecco, among others. Lake Maggiore is laced with ferry routes, a fun way to see the art galleries of Stresa, the Swiss town of Locarno at the north end of the lake, the white peacocks and villas of the Borromean Islands, and other interesting locations. I've stayed twice in the Laveno area, which is home to the funicular that ends with a panoramic view of the lake and mountains--and to Il Porticciolo restaurant and hotel.

Hotel Ristorante Il Porticciolo is built nearly on the water. One can peer down from the lake-side rooms and see the waves lapping against the base of the hotel. I was there five years ago with a yoga group and we enjoyed the warm summer evenings on the restaurant patio overlooking the sparkling lights of the lake at night. The food was wonderfully fresh and innovative. Proprietor Giovanni Bassetti and his son Riccardo created delicate and flavorful entrees like lemon risotto and many types of lake fish in aromatic broths. When I returned this spring, I found that in the intervening years, Chef Riccardo had been in Paris working as Chef de Partie for the 3-star Michelin restaurant Le Maurice and as Premiere Chef de Partie for the world-renown Joel Robuchon at his L'Atelier Etoile.

Chef Riccardo returned with a new skill set for haute cuisine and is turning out fabulous food. His innovation continues, but with elevated technique. Two of my favorite dishes were Beet Gnocchi with Valcuvia Goat Cheese Snow; the Cream of Asparagus Soup with Egg, Parmesan Wafer and Joselito Ham; and the Cone of Chicken With Curry, Potato Puree and Caramelized Green Onion, which was plated to look like a landscape of path, boulder and pine tree. The cone-shaped chicken was coated with very finely minced parsley. Everything was hand-made, including the bread and lovely plate of miniature pastries.

Chef Riccardo has shared one of his recipes with me, seen below: Branzino With Leek and Clam Broth With Lime. The hotel has undergone extensive renovation and modernization. For information on their hotel or restaurant, visit their website:

Branzino With Leek and Clam Broth With Lime
Chef Riccardo's recipe tantalizes the senses with aromatics and delicate flavor. Branzino is a European sea bass with a sweet and mild taste.

Ingredients For the Clam Juice

1 pint live clams

approximately 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves of garlic

approximately one bottle good white wine

4 tablespoons butter

Ingredients For the Branzino

2 Branzino fillets

1 lime, juice and zest

2 small leeks

1 cup clam juice (recipe above)

herb garnish: argula, green onion, chervil or dill
extra virgin olive oil for garnish

Directions For the Clam Juice

Clean the outside of the clams with a stiff brush and water and discard any that have opened. Coat the bottom of a large, deep pan with oil and turn the heat to medium low. Cut each clove of garlic in half and add to the pan, cook for a couple of minutes until browned. Add the clams, then cover them with the white wine. Cover the pan, turn the heat to low and cook until the clams open.

When ready to use the clam juice, strain off one cup and pour into a small pot. Heat over low and add the butter, lime and zest. Stir until butter is melted and well mixed. Divide between two plates with raised rims, before plating the fish. Serve the clams as a side dish or save for future use.

Directions For the Branzino

Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil to cook the leeks until tender. At the same time, heat a steamer pot to steam the branzino--this should take about 12 minutes.

Place a cooked leek and branzino on each plate over the clam juice and garnish with aromatic herbs. Drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil over the top.

In Istanbul, Everything Is Possible

Two weeks before Taksim Square was used by protestors to demonstrate against Turkey's prime minister, our Celebrity cruise ship docked in this historic city on a Touring and Tasting's "Wine Festival at Sea" with Thacher Winery and Venteux Vineyards. I had some trepidation about traveling to an Islamic country, fearing Turkey might mirror the grim scenes of Anti-Americanism and civil unrest of Afghanistan and Egypt. But, bolstered by the rave reviews the destination received from friends, we stepped off our cruise ship for a day and a half port stay with a sense of excitement. The positive reports turned out to be true, but in retrospect, the civil unrest we read about later should not have been a surprise.
Cruise ships dock at the passenger terminal in Karaköy. It is a short walk from the bay called the Golden Horn which bisects the European side of Istanbul; the southern half of the city is on the Asian continent. Perpendicular to Golden Horn is the Bosphorus Strait that connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The view across the bay is the dramatic skyline etched with the rounded domes and pointed minarets of the Old Town.

To get there, we were determined to negotiate a one way taxi ride, then walk between the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Guidebooks warned that drivers would persist on negotiating a longer tour. As it turned out, our driver "Genghis" (‘Cengiz’ in Turkish) offered to be at our disposal for 3-4 hours for just 100 American dollars. With four of us sharing the cost, $25 apiece seemed like a good deal, plus it would save our aunt with a knee problem from a great deal of discomfort. It turned out to also save us a great deal of time.

After a stop at the fish market where the fish were so fresh some were leaping out of their buckets and flapping on the sidewalk, Genghis headed up the sinuous, one-way streets leading to the Blue Mosque. The traffic was horrendous, but the snail's pace gave us time to take in the bustling street scene of tourists and Turks, cafes, rug shops, jewelry stores, hotels and restaurants. Istanbul felt more cosmopolitan to us than Rome, with throngs of tourists from all parts of the world, including the Persian Gulf. Women in black abaya, and occasionally in the full coverup complete with burqa, were not uncommon--though most women were dressed in European style. Noteworthy was the cleanliness of the city. Unlike Athens or Rome, all the buildings were in good condition and every shop filled with enterprising shopkeepers. As testament to Turkey's economic growth, no storefronts sat empty.

We discovered Turks make good salesmen. All the ones we met were looking for a way to create some business for themselves or a friend, but in an extremely courteous and friendly manner. Without exception, we were impressed with everyone we encountered. We found that Genghis had arranged to have his friend Ahmed serve as our guide, at no additional charge, by walking us from one site to another. It was here that we found real value, as Ahmed miraculously led us to the front of each of the long lines at the entrances. When asked how it was possible to go in without waiting at the end of the line, he just smiled and said, "In Istanbul, everything is possible."

We marveled at the immensity of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, but fought the crowds inside the Topkapi Palace since Ahmed had not bought a ticket and was not at our side to insert us into the front. We missed seeing the jewels and precious objects in the Treasury as the line looked to be 30 minutes long, but saw the gorgeous tiled interiors of the rambling compound, including the Bagdad Kiosk with its spectacular mother-of-pearl and inlaid tortoise-shell walls.

We had the chance to pepper both Genghis and Ahmed with questions about Turkey. We learned that business is thriving and that both men own property and cars, thanks to working more than one job. Both complained about Prime Minister Erdoğan, saying they see themselves as "modern Muslims" who don't want to lose the freedoms they gained under their first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We saw many Turkish flags with a picture of Atatürk hung in shops and restaurants. Ahmed explained that "modern Muslims" are ones that believe in Allah, but don't participate in the daily calls to prayer. They are friendly with the West and want Turkey to remain progressive and modern. Sadly, Ahmed has a wife and child that are American citizens--her parents live in the US and the child was born in the US--but he cannot get a visa to visit them. As an American, I felt conflicted. With the recent Boston bombing, caution on the part of the State Department is understandable, yet I felt sympathetic with this affable, hardworking man.

By this time, we were all hungry for lunch. But, first, Genghis wanted us to see the rug shop of his friend. A hand-tied silk rug for just $2,000, DSL shipping included, sounded like a good deal. But, there were no takers and we went on to a restaurant for fish in the center of Old Town. The fish was not inexpensive--25 euros a plate, but it couldn't have been fresher or better.

The next stop was the Grand Bazaar, encompassing over 5,000 shops selling everything from pashmina scarves and jewelry to spices and water pipes. "Take a picture of the gate with your phone! If you get lost, show it to anyone.
They'll get you back here! I'll be waiting!", was the last thing I heard before we were swept up in a tidal wave of people funneling into the largest covered shopping complex in the world. At that moment, the arresting sound of daily prayer bounced off the walls. I was struck by the sheer volume and mesmerizing sound of the song. No one else seemed to even notice as we were squeezed in the entrance. The Bazaar's website says 250,000-400,000 people visit each day; imagine the population of a medium-sized city deciding all at once to go shopping and you will have an idea of  the size of the crowd. Inside, we found an array of shops with dazzling displays, but were fearful of losing our way, so limited our window shopping to the aisles near our entrance.

Afterwards, Genghis wanted to take us to the souvenir shop he runs with his family, but by then, most of the day was gone and our legs were tired. We had spent twice the amount of time negotiated, so we tipped him 50 dollars for his patience and good service. Back on the cruise ship, we traded stories about our day in Istanbul. Some had taken a tour, some rented a taxi, some walked from the European to the Asian part of the city. The sentiment was unanimous that, despite the crowds, Istanbul was the highlight of our cruise and everyone wanted to return.

The next morning, with just a few hours left in port, we struck out on our own and walked to the Spice Market and Rustem Pasha Mosque along the waterfront with gulls wheeling in the wind and a myriad of ferries and boats stirring up waves. Waiting for the Spice Market to open, we walked around the adjoining plant nursery admiring the piles of seeds. There many more piles of seeds inside the Spice Market, plus heaps of herbs, spices, salts, plus other shops with glittering jewelry and jewel-like lights. The shopkeepers do their best to entice customers in with sociable conversation: "Where are you from?", "Taste these dried figs.", "Have a taste of Turkish Delight."

Laden with vacuum-packed bags of spices, we stopped at a shish kebab place for a lovely lunch of lamb meatballs served over fried pita, with tomato sauce and yoghurt. We felt regretful as we walked up the gangplank to the ship, wishing our time in Turkey had been longer. It was heartening to be in an Islamic country and feel so welcomed and safe. We would have liked to see the modern part of Istanbul, with its upscale nightclubs and restaurants. As we sailed away from this vibrant and open city in a country that borders Syria, Iran and Iraq, we wondered about its future. Will a push towards fundamentalist Islam change the cordial atmosphere? Or will the demonstrations keep the government open and the city welcoming to the West? In Istanbul, everything is possible.

Turkish Meatballs in Tomato Sauce with Yoghurt
These tasty meatballs can be grilled or fried in a pan and are a perfect pairing for a rich Syrah. The crispy pita, sweet tomato, savory meatballs and tangy yoghurt create an unforgettable combination of flavors and textures.

Ingredients For the Meatballs

1 pound ground meat: beef or lamb or a mix of the two
1 cup bread crumbs
1 small onion, minced small
1 clove garlic, minced small
1 egg, beaten
1/3 bunch parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup flour
1 cup sunflower or olive oil, if frying

Ingredients For the Fried Pita
4 pita
olive or sunflower oil, about 1 cup, in parts

Ingredients For the Tomato Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 large, ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 bunch of parsley, minced
about 1 cup yoghurt, as garnish

Directions For the Meatballs

Mix together all the ingredients except the oil. Knead them together well. Wet palms of the hand with water and form small meatballs, press into discs. Sear on both sides on a grill or fry in a hot cast iron or heavy-bottomed frying pan until browned on both sides but not cooked all the way through--they will cook completely in the sauce.

Directions For the Fried Pita

Float a thin layer of oil in a cast iron or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Heat over medium low until the surface of the oil dimples when you tilt the pan, but not as hot as to let the oil smoke. Fry as many pita as will fit into your pan without overlapping, turning to cook both sides until light golden brown. Add more oil as needed to keep the thin layer of oil for frying. Drain on paper towels and chop into rough 2" squares.

Directions For the Tomato Sauce and Final Plating

In a pan over low heat, cook the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Add garlic and stir, then add the tomatoes and raise the heat to medium. Stir and cook for a few minutes, then add the tomato paste and sugar. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Add the meatballs and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Serve over fried pita and garnish with a dollop of plain yoghurt.

Serves 4. Pair with a rich Syrah.