I flirt with vegetarianism from time to time. It’s healthy and environmentally friendly and helps assuage my occasional guilt when I think about eating animals. However, as a chef it’s nearly impossible to go meat-free, even though I do manage at least a couple of veggie only days every week. I’ve discovered all sorts of new grains to cook with and new ways to make them delicious, as more and more of my clients are also seeking hearty, healthy vegetarian options. It was on our recent trip to Italy, a most unexpected place to find a vegetarian destination restaurant, where I was inspired anew by terrific skill and taste.
We’d spent a full day in Florence touring the sights and eating but inevitably, on our drive home, my stomach started rumbling again and we had to come up with a plan for dinner. I searched for my now well-worn list of recommendations that our friend had sent, hoping to find something easy and simple, near our little village, but still remarkable in some way. Back and forth with my map, I pinpointed one listing that might just fill the bill, the Country House Montali. I called as we raced south on the A4 (there really seemed to be only one speed) and the woman on the line greeted me like a long-lost friend, accommodating us immediately and giving me lots of directions on how to find the property. “You just keep going up, up, up,” she said. I hung up, relieved to have another meal settled upon.
It wasn’t until then that I started to research this little country hotel on top of a mountain and discovered that it’s a vegetarian haven for travellers who have a hard time satisfying their meat-free needs while on vacation in this carniverous country. The Daily Mail, The Guardian and the BBC have all written this place up as one of the best around. Each recounted a meal full of extraordinary tastes and novel techniques and proprietors that were beyond compare. We were later told that young chefs from around the world come and complete internships alongside Chef Malu Simoes, hailed as one of the best vegetarian chefs in the world.
We did indeed drive up and up and up, as the lady on the phone directed. The paved road ended and we continued on, very slowly, stopping to take photos of the incredible views of the surrounding countryside and hoping very much that we wouldn’t meet any cars on their way down the mountain. At the summit there was a fork in the road: an abandoned castle to the right and a road veering just to the left. Flummoxed, I called the restaurant again. This time a man answered and he told us to turn right. “When you see unicorns and bears you’ll know you’ve arrived,” he said. A little further on and olive groves surrounded us and then a lovely stone house appeared just around a curve in the road.
Proprietor Alberto Musacchio came bounding across the front lawn to meet us as we parked our car, a little dog nipping at his heels and barking. I can truly say I’ve rarely been so warmly welcomed anywhere. It was distinctly cold and rainy, but he showed us around the property (a swimming pool with views the crowning glory) and invited us to a little bar area to wait until dinner was served. I flipped through the Country House Montali’s cookbook The Vegeterranean, while my husband took advantage of the views with his camera. Slowly the rest of the diners gathered, all Brits staying at the hotel, begrudgingly enduring weather no better than they’d find at home.
Ahead of us were four exciting courses. To start a little amuse bouche of focaccia with green and black olives, rosemary and sea salt. Next a martini glass beautifully filled with curried quinoa, red pepper, mozzarella and tomatoes with a mozzarella foam and to accompany it a couple of fried zucchini flowers with the slightest hint of goat cheese inside. Next was a surprising dish of stroganoff with seitan instead of meat. Alberto, who was our waiter as well, explained to us how the seitan alone takes three hours to prepare. Now this is where I sort of veer off the path of vegetarianism. I don’t love dishes that classically have meat in them being re-done without meat. It was a good dish, but not my favorite of the night, a little heavy and out of place in the comparison to the delicacy of the rest of the dishes. Next came a divine calzone filled with radicchio, pear and smoked cheese. A little thimble of cauliflower foam and sweet cippolini onions were served with it. Finally, for dessert, we were given a chocolate chilli lava cake with liquorice ice cream that was so subtle and creamy I thought I’d gone to heaven.
On the way out I asked Alberto if he’d sign their cookbook for me and he was happy to oblige. Recipes for all of the dishes we ate that night are inside as are many more that look delicious. Part of Alberto and Chef Malu’s goal is to train future generations of chefs in their precise and time-consuming love of all things vegetarian and the book helps spread that message. Since coming home, the recipe that I’ve most wanted to duplicate was the calzone with radicchio, pear and smoked cheese. Over the weekend I finally decided to dive in and make little empanada sized versions to take to a friend’s home for a BBQ. The result was delicious (even if I did completely overfill the pastries) and I am including the adapted recipe here so you too can take a stab at a wonderful mixture of flavors and textures that can perhaps get you thinking about more meat-free options. Next challenge? That liquorice ice cream…
1 head radicchio, cut in eight wedges
salt and pepper
1 green pear, peeled and cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons white wine
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
8 ounces puff pastry
3 tablespoons diced Taleggio
3 tablespoons diced smoked Scamorza cheese
1 egg yolk
Get your grill pan nice and hot on your stove. Toss the radicchio with olive oil, salt and pepper and place it on your grill pan, charring on all sides evenly. Remove it from the pan and allow to cool. Now grill the pear slices, remove and set aside. Chop up the radicchio and pear. Saute the shallot and garlic in 2 tablespoons more of oil in a pan, but don’t allow to brown. Add the radicchio and pear and cook for a couple more minutes. Now add the walnuts, wine and vinegar. Remove the garlic cloves and season with more salt and pepper to your taste. Allow to cool before adding the diced cheeses.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a sheet tray with parchment paper. Roll out your puff pastry on a floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Using a round cutter cut out about 5 inch rounds from the dough and place a tablespoon of filling on one half of the circle. Brush the rim with egg yolk and fold over, making sure to seal tightly. Crimp the edges with a fork, use more egg wash on top of the parcel and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Allow plenty of room around each parcel on your baking tray. Place in the oven for about 25 minutes, until they are well-browned and puffed up. Serve warm.