31 July 2011

LIFE: Livin' Easy

SARONNO, Italy – Saronno is quiet. The usual early morning bustle of people walking dogs and going to work has slowed to a trickle, and you don’t need a calendar to know it’s the last day of July in Italy. The Closed for Vacation signs started going up all around town last week as the summer exodus began.
 Trentino, Dolomite Mountains
Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading newspapers, carried an article this morning warning travelers that traffic would be heavy this weekend as an estimated seven million people are expected to be on their way to their much awaited summer vacation. Next weekend will be worse. As the major factories close, Fiat for one, another nine million will hit the road.

Most are headed for the beaches, the Adriatic or the Mediterranean. Both are popular.  Others will head for the mountains.  Others will head south for the beaches of Puglia where the sea is clear and blue, and the food is wonderful, or, Sardinia, or, the islands off of Sicily. 
The Beauty of Puglia
The islands are volcanic and each has a distinctive character. Stomboli is the strangest as it’s two towns are precariously perched beneath a volcano which does, every now and again, erupt. Panarea is tiny, lush and beautiful. Salina has two volcanic peaks, side by side and Lipari has archeological souvenirs of the dozen or so conquers who passed this way. 

The island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, is both beautiful and big enough to absorb its visitors. On the Adriatic side of Italy the tiny Tremiti islands are popular. Visitors come mostly for the day, leaving the islands quiet and peaceful in the late afternoon. You’d be hard pressed to tell that they have a long history as jail islands, used by the Roman Emperor Augustus (from which the month of August gets its name), and more recently by Mussolini.
Tremiti Islands
While Americans think that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are their God given right, the Italians would add paid vacations to that list. In the classification of paid vacation days worldwide, Italy leads the pack with 42 days per year. France is next with 37, followed by Germany 35, Brazil 34, United Kingdom 28, Canada 26, Korea 25, Japan 25 and the U.S.A. 13 days. 
So as the streets empty, the shops close, the quiet settles on Saronno, it’s a good time to take a deep breath, sit back and relax, read a good book and cook some great food. Sounds like a winner to me.  

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28 July 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: False Friends

SARONNO, Italy - A few years ago there was a quiet food revolution in the U.S.A. Dishes once only seen on menus in Italy, starting popping up on menus, and along with them a newly expanded food vocabulary. With a huge Italian population, Italian food has always been popular, but  the new wave of Italian food went far beyond spaghetti and veal parmigano. Dishes like carpaccio and vitello tonnato  started showing up on restaurant menus and TV chefs did their best to out Italian each other. All of a sudden everybody was an expert.  
Good Eating in Savona, Italy
As more and more Italian dishes enter the American food vocabulary, it’s easy to think those same words will work when you visit Italy. After all, spaghetti is always spaghetti and lasagna is always lasagna, no? For those two words, it’s true, but unfortunately with others, you might be in for a surprise.  

My own experience with this phenomena happened one afternoon in Saratoga, New York, when I was shopping at a very large bookstore near by cousin's house. After the tiny bookstores we have in Italy, it was an overwhelming experience and when I saw they had a coffee shop, I headed straight for it. 
Mystery Mix
 After looking at the menu I had no idea what they were talking about. A Coconut Cream Frappucino? A Pepermint Mocha? My head was spinning. I ordered a cup of regular coffee. The young girl behind the counter asked, “a latte?” “No”, I said,  coffee”. “A latte,” she reaffirmed. “No,” I said again, “I want a cup of coffee.” 

You can laugh, I can even laugh now, but at the time I was totally disoriented. Was I not saying what I thought I was saying – i.e. coffee? Why did she keep asking me if I wanted ‘latte’? What I didn’t know was that in the U.S.A. , the word ‘latte’ had taken on a whole other meaning.  
The Real Deal - Cappucino
Here in Italy, coffee is still coffee and latte is milk. If you want coffee with milk you can order a cafĂ©’ latte and get coffee with a lot of milk in it, a cappuccino, which is espresso coffee with steamed milk, or a marochino, espresso coffee with just a little milk. But if you order a latte what you are going to get is a big, tall glass of warm milk. 

And it’s not just Starbucks. The other day I was watching an old episode of Top Chef Masters, and the elimination challenge was to create two dishes, one using a sea food, the other with meat. The fish selections included sea cucumber, geoduck, fish liver and giant squid.

The turf section included kangaroo, goat’s leg, black chicken and some others I can’t remember right now. However, the challenge was for each chef, all renowned in their field,  to choose one surf, and one turf. When Jonathan Waxman’s turn came up, his surf choice was the giant squid. He said he was going to make fritto misto. 

Fish Fry Italian Style
The only problem is that to make fritto misto you need a misto, or a mix of things to fritto a.k.a. fry. 

Now I see that Chef Waxman, who is good at cooking American food, has written an Italian cookbook. He says, "The first thing I wanted to do is to demystify a lot of the terminologies. The second is to keep it so realistic in terms of items in each dish that people didn't go crazy, and the third thing is talk about technique in a way that is really straight-forward. I think a lot of people have gotten goofy in how to make gnocchis, how to make pizzas, how to make Bolognese sauce. I hope I give them a good road map on how to do them."
He’s right about the ‘getting goofy’ part, but he kind of missed the boat on the straight forward part. I took it to mean he was going to present authentic Italian recipes. But, if his recipes are all like the one I saw for Salsa Verde (Green Sauce), I am wrong. Chef Waxman's recipe for Salsa Verde and the Salsa Verde of Piedmont, where the recipe is said to have originated, are as different as apples and oranges. 

His recipe calls for cilantro (which is almost impossible to find in Italy), tarragon (a French herb only found here in its dried form) and arugula and basil. I won’t even go into the part about picking the bones out of the anchovies with a pair of tweezers. That just isn’t going to happen.   

The green in the Piedmontese Salsa Verde recipe is parsley. Just parsley.  It is true that each region of Italy has its own unique variation of Salsa Verde, but I've never seen one that calls for anything other than parsley. Any other green alters the taste and the balance between the green part and the other ingredients. What I think is that Waxman got a little goofy on this one. 

 Minestrone Soup
Another misunderstanding, this time on Top Chef, was made by guest judge Eric Ripart. This famous French chef chastised a contestant, who happened to be of Italian decent, for not making a proper minestrone because she left out the macaroni. She defended herself saying she had put beans in the soup. Actually she is right and Ripart is wrong. Italian minestrone calls for beans, not pasta. You can put pasta in it if you want, you can also put rice, you can put in whatever you want as long as it isn’t meat. There is never meat in minestrone, minestrone is a vegetable only soup.

With all due respect to Chef Waxman and Chef Ripart, here’s the authentic Piedmontese recipe for Salsa Verde. I’ll save the minestrone recipe for next week. 

Piedmontese Salsa Verde
 Piedmontese Salsa Verde

4  slices stale, white sandwich bread, crusts removed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 cups (packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves (stems removed) (about 2 large bunches)
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
5 anchovy fillets (in oil)
1 hard-boiled egg yolk
Fine sea salt

Place bread slices in medium bowl. Pour vinegar over them and let stand until bread softens, about 15 minutes. Squeeze dry.
Transfer bread mixture to a food processor (or you can use a mortar and pestle and do it by hand); add the next 5 ingredients and process until almost smooth. Transfer salsa to medium bowl. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Best if you let it sit for at least one hour before serving.  Can be made 1 day ahead, covered and refrigerated. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving; re-whisk before using.
Optional: You can add 1 teaspoon of chopped capers, or chopped cornichons.  

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24 July 2011

LIFE: My Neighbor Eddie

SARONNO, Italy - My neighbor Eddie, is a world traveler. He has driven to Russia, to India and even all the way to China. On his first trip to the U.S.A. he drove coast to coast, stopping off along the way to visit the Grand Canyon and lose a little money in Las Vegas. 
Off Limits -  Milan's Galleria
He has visited the fjords in Norway, had lunch near the statue of the little Mermaid in Copenhagen and enjoyed a leisurely dinner in Helsinki. Just last month he was in Spain and Gibraltar, and now he’s making plans to visit Australia right after the Christmas holidays. 

But there is one thing Eddie has never seen: the little streets and alleyways that make up the heart of so many cities. He’s never had the luxury of walking along a sandy beach in Southern California or exploring Germany’s Black Forest, or even seeing the side streets of Milan. Eddie is a paraplegic.   

He contracted polio when he was a kid back in the 1950’s, literally weeks before the Salk vaccine was approved. It left him without the use of his legs. But he gets around.
Out of the Car and Into the Segway
Eddie has fiercely resisted using a wheelchair, for him it would be an admission of defeat, so if he’s not in the car, he’s on crutches. But navigating on crutches presents problems. For one, he can’t carry anything, it’s difficult to push a grocery cart in the store, he can’t go up or down stairs without risking life and limb, and because of the pulmonary damage he has suffered, he can’t walk more than a few feet.  

So it’s no wonder he was anxious to tell me about his recent trip to Savona. (see http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.com/2010/08/on-road-savory-savona.html for more on Savona). But Eddie didn't drive all the way down there for the sun or the sea, or the food either, he was there to see a revolutionary product produced by Genny Mobility, a wheelchair Segway. 
Paolo Badano - The Man With the Liberating Idea
“What an experience,” he said. “Of all the countries I have visited I’ve never seen the center of the cities, I could never wander the streets and do what I did in Savona last week. Using the Segway we covered about 5 kilometers, (3 miles) going all around the city, up and down streets and through the squares, and it was exhilarating. I had total mobility. If I leaned forward, I went forward, if I leaned back, I went backwards, I could even go around in circles if I wanted to.”
The Regular Segways That Inspired Paolo Badano
The wheelchair Segway Eddie is so enthusiastic about was engineered by a young Italian from Savona, Paolo Badano. Paolo was in an accident back in 1995 and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Frustrated with his situation, he was always looking for a way to improve his mobility: but all his ideas were all based on the traditional wheelchair model, and none of them were particularly liberating.

 A Whole New World of Experiences
Then, a few years ago the Segway was introduced in Italy and Paolo started thinking. If the self-balancing Segway can transport a person standing on it, why wouldn’t it work if the person was sitting down? What he found was that it does. (See Paolo and his dog on the Segway at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KDVL9NfzgE

It was the Segway that Paolo designed that Eddie drove to Savona to see, and then fell in love with.  So now Eddie is plotting and scheming, trying to figure out how he can afford to buy a GennyMobility Segway. I hope he can. For such a free spirit, who through no fault of his own has spent most of his life without legs, it would a most wonderful, and liberating gift.

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21 July 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Put an Egg On It

SARONNO, Italy – Tatiana and Andrea brought over some vegetables from their garden yesterday, including one I hadn’t seen before, a trumbetta di Albenga. It’s a strange looking vegetable, pale green like a zucchini, but longer and curvy with a bulbous end. 
Trombetta di Albegna and Homegrown Tomatoes
It’s a cross between a zucchini and a pumpkin,  an Italian heirloom vegetable not easily found in produce stores, especially here in Saronno. It wasn’t that long ago that the trombetta was on its way to extinction, but then the Slow Food Organization stepped in and shined their light on it by adding it to their of endangered vegetables. Now it’s making a comeback.
The trombetta is grown in Albenga - hence the name - which is a small town on the part of the Italian Riviera known as the Riviera delle Palme. Albenga is the agricultural center of Liguria as it is one of the few areas in that mountainous province where there is enough flat land to farm. 

Albenga is a very old town. It was granted a Roman municipium by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC., and there are still several Roman sites nearby that you can visit.
Basketful of Trombetta di Albegna
For some reason the trombetta brought back memories of my father, who was a very creative cook. My daughter once said that we should write a cookbook using  his recipes and call it “Put An Egg on It”. It's a great idea and expresses perfectly his cooking philosophy. His modus operandi was to open the refrigerator, take out whatever he found, put it all in a frying pan with a little olive oil and garlic, and then ….. put a couple of eggs on it - ergo the name: Put An Egg on It. It was his special version of a very popular Italian dish, the frittata. 

So I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and make a trombetta frittata for lunch today. The beauty of a frittata is that you can make them with just about anything. I would not, however, recommend using left over beef stew or pickles, two bad choices my father used to make, but just about anything else is acceptable.

Frittata with Trombetta di Albenga
1  trombetta di Albenga
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 medium size onion, chopped, but not finely chopped
3/4 cup cooked white rice (optional)
4 eggs
1/4 cup  grated parmigiano cheese
1/4-1/2 teaspoon marjoram or tarragon
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper Q.B.

Thinly slice the trombetta. In a frying pan put  3tablespoon of olive oil with 2 cloves of garlic. Add the chopped onions let them cook while you slice the trombetta into thin disks. Add the sliced trombetta to the frying pan. When the trombetta is cooked, add the rice and let it heat through. 

In the meantime, beat the four eggs with the ¼ cup of parmigiano cheese. When the rice is heated, add the egg and cheese mix to the frying pan. Mix the egg into the rice so it doesn’t just sit on the top, and let it cook covered for about 5 minutes. Spring about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of marjoram, or tarragon over the top of the frittata. 

How long it actually takes depends on the ratio of egg to rice, so you have look at it and decide if it is cooked to your taste. If not, cook it a little longer, or turn it over to better cook the topside. You do this by placing a large plate over the frittata and turning the frying pan upside down. The slide the frittata back into the frying pan and cook it for another couple of minutes. It should not be overcooked as it will dry out. Serve it warm or room temperature. 
 The Real Deal
To go along with the frittata, I made a simple salad with Andrea's tomatoes using only olive oil and my coveted, super delicious balsamic vinegar, and some crusty rustic bread. Buon Appetito 

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