Recipe: Giovanna’s Spinach Casserole (and I know my chickens)

Many years ago, I worked as an editor at an Italian food magazine where I must have translated thousands of recipes. I had fun this morning translating Giovanna’s recipe below.

Giovanna’s Spinach Casserole

An old, simple, and tasty recipe.

Wash the spinach well and then wilt in a pan with a pinch of salt. Squeeze and then use a sieve to purge the spinach of its water. Sauté in a pan with a little bit of butter.

Make a béchamel and seasons with salt and pepper to taste and a dash of nutmeg. Fold the béchamel into the spinach and add freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, 2 whole eggs, and 1 egg yolk. Whisk the remaining egg white until it forms peaks and then carefully fold it into the spinach mixture.

Grease a loaf pan (or a bundt cake pan) with butter and then coat with a thin layer of flour before transferring the spinach mixture to the pan. Heat the oven to 375°, arrange the pan in a bain-marie and bake for 40-45 minutes. Remove the loaf from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes before turning it out on to a serving platter.

Serve with a fondue, with mushrooms, or chicken livers.

*****

Tracie P’s comment reminded me that I had neglected to post about Giovanna’s rooster and chickens!

franco ziliani

There’s a wonderful expression in Italian, a phrase you might hear a mother or a grandmother utter when she can predict a child’s desire or request: conosoco i miei polli (I know my chickens). If you ever get to stay in an Italian farmhouse estate like Giovanna’s, you’ll notice that the chickens (like Giovanna’s) have very distinct and often peculiar preferences about their daily routine and pecking order, as it were. Hence the familiar, affectionate expression…

Thanks again, Giovanna, for sharing your recipe!

And for my fan of the “burning disappointment,” please don’t despair! Next on deck: Beppe Rinaldi on natural yeast… Stay tuned!

Barbaresco Rio Sordo: Giovanna, cry me a silent river

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Above: Giovanna Rizzolio is a delightful woman, wholly committed to terroir-expression wines and the traditions of her beloved Barbaresco. She presents her wines every April as part of the Vini Veri tasting.

The inestimable Italian wine raconteur Mr. Franco Ziliani certainly never promised me a rose garden but he most definitely delivered a bunch of roses when he o so generously introduced Tracie P and me to his dear, dear friend Giovanna Rizzolio (above), who runs a wonderful bed and breakfast on the cozy Cascina della Rose (literally, rose farm) estate, owned by her family for two generations, atop one of my favorite vineyards in the world, Rio Sordo, with a view upon Rabajà and Asili (the latter two considered by many the greatest expressions of Barbaresco).

Mr. Ziliani (arguably one of Italy’s greatest wine experts) is a huge fan of Giovanna and her wines and an even bigger fan of her estate, where we all stayed the night of our tasting and dinner, as Giovanna and her significant other Italo’s guests.

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Above: I just had to take this photo. It’s the view from the bathroom of the guest room where Tracie P and I stayed, looking northward (Rabajà and Asili to the right, out of frame). One of the coolest things about being in Langa with snow on the ground is that you can see where the “snow melts first.” In the olden days, everyone will tell you, grape growers planted Nebbiolo where “the snow melts first” because the melting of the snow reveals the growing sites with the best exposure.

A home-grown Piedmontese, Giovanna is as true to her land as her wines are: she makes some Barbera and Dolcetto but her best rows, situated at the top of the Rio Sordo cru, are devoted to her beloved Nebbiolo (even before she made wine, when she was still working in the schmatta trade, she told me, she drank Barbaresco almost exclusively).

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Above: One of the coolest things about tasting with Giovanna in her cellar is seeing the exposed subsoil, a cross-section as it were, where you can see the white calcareous marl that makes Barbaresco and Rio Sordo such unique expressions of Nebbiolo.

The top of the Rio Sordo vineyard, which literally means deaf or silent river, runs parallel to the Tanaro river (just to the northwest). It’s essentially an underground river: as they search for the water below, the roots of the vines are forced to dig through the calcareous marl and in turn render the rich fruit necessary to make fine wine.

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Above: Giovanna showed me this tear drop, a product of the silent underground river. Photo by Tracie P.

The wines of Rio Sordo are softer than the more potent wines on the northside of the valley. Rio Sordo doesn’t enjoy the ideal exposure of Rabajà and Asili. But it’s for this very reason that I have always loved this cru: the wines don’t take as long to “come around,” as we say. As with Pora, the fruit emerges at an earlier moment in the wines development and what gorgeous fruit it is! I thought Giovanna’s wines were great, especially the 2006 Barbaresco Rio Sordo.

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Above: Giovanna loves cats, as is evidenced by the image on her label.

But the thing I love the most about Giovanna is her attitude toward wine and life in Piedmont. Whether it was tales of dealing with unscrupulous wine pundits or the INCREDIBLE spinach casserole she served at dinner, she speaks with an honesty and integrity uncommon in the supremely competitive world of Langa wines. Her house atop Rio Sordo came to her long before the renaissance of Italian wine began and her love of Langa shines through in her personality and her wines.

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Above: Giovanna’s wines are available in a few American markets.

I’m not the only one who digs Giovanna and her farmhouse bed and breakfast. Doug Cook, of AbleGrape.com, and his wife Rachel are frequent visitors. I highly recommend staying there: I can’t think of a better way to be in touch with Langa and the folks who live and make wine there.

Giovanna, you can cry me a river, anytime you like, honey! Thanks again for a wonderful stay and tasting…

Here’s Diana Krall singing “Cry Me a River” with our friend Anthony on guitar….

Do Bianchi becomes VITELLO-TONNATO-WIRE!

Above: The best vitello tonnato of 2010 was prepared for Tracie P and me by our friend Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose in Tre Stelle (between Neive and Barbaresco). I’ve eaten a helluvalotta vitello tonnato over the last two months, with TWO (yes, TWO! COUNT ‘EM!) trips to Piedmont in as many months.

I love vitello tonnato. I could eat vitello tonnato every day. I’m not kidding. In fact, while I was in Piedmont with the Barbera 7, I literally ate vitello tonnato four times in four consecutive seatings, over three days. That’s 1.33333 servings of vitello tonnato per day.

Above: Getting to have dinner in someone’s home in Piedmont was a real treat for me. I’ve traveled to Piedmont so many times for wine but you always end up in Michelin-star this or Michelin-star that… Always great but nothing beats exceptional homecooking like Giovanna’s. Supper began with traditional Piedmont salame.

I am fascinated by vitello tonnato — culinarily and intellectually. And, gauging from all the comments here and on Facebook in the wake of the recent vitello tonnato pornography, you’re fascinated by vitello tonnato as well.

Above: And no Piedmontese meal is complete (lunch or dinner) without raw beef, in this case, homestyle.

That’s why I’ve decided to give up all the petty politics and ego-driven parochial bullshit of wine blogging to devote my blog exclusively to vitello tonnato and its epistemological implications. Veal with tuna and anchovies and capers. The basic ingredients alone and their highly unusual but thoroughly delicious combination will occupy volumes and volumes… The dissertation I delivered in 1997 was about Petrarch and Bembo, apostrophes (no shit!) and dipthongs (no double shit!) and episynaloepha (no triple shit! look that one up, Thor!). But this, ladies and gents, I assure you, will be a mother of all dissertations.

Above: But the true pièce de résistance of Giovanna’s superb repertoire was this sformato di spinaci, a spinach casserole topped with a fondue of Fontina and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I couldn’t resist a second helping. Simona, you would have LOVED this.

Seriously, back from Mars now, I don’t have time to blog today because I’m on my way to San Antonio to make a living. It won’t be long before I pick up the narration of our February trip to Piedmont again — the meals, the wines, the tastings, and most importantly the people. Giovanna runs a wonderful bed and breakfast in Barbaresco country and her wines are killer.

And all joking aside, I have a great deal to say about vitello tonnato (no kidding!).

Stay tuned…