28 November 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Thanksgiving Italian Style

CHIAVARI Italy – Last November, when I was still living in the suburbs of Milan, I decided to invite a table full of Italian for a real American Thanksgiving. I knew I would be moving to the Riviera after the first of the year, and this would be the last chance for us all to get together.
it's All AboutTurkey
I like Thanksgiving food, roast turkey and dressing, candied sweet potatoes, veggies, salad, cranberry sauce, hmmmm, makes my mouth water just thinking about it, so all of those things were on the menu. I wanted the Italians to have a taste of the real America but since I also wanted them to be happy, I added pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage as a first course. 

It’s a difficult to find traditional Thanksgiving foods here in Italy, especially cranberries  and sweet potatoes. In other years I’ve gone up to Lugano, Switzerland to do my Thanksgiving shopping but I didn’t make it up to Lugano this time so I had to scratch the sweet potatoes and the cranberry sauce from the menu. No problem. I decided to substitute Italian mostarda for the cranberries – mostarda being a mix of small fruits like apricots and cherries that have been preserved in a spicy syrup, and as for candied sweet potatoes, well, even if I had found real sweet potatoes they don’t sell the type of brown sugar I need to candy them anyway, so they would have to be off the menu too.

What was left was pumpkin ravioli, roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, some kind of vegetable, salad and pumpkin pie. That sounded ok. Actually it sounded pretty good. Mashed potatoes, no problem, potatoes we have by the bushel full, salad too. Sara offered to bring her mother’s potato and prosciutto torte, so that was good and Silvia offered her boyfriend Max’s Tiramisu. 

I Would Have Been So Happy to Make Pumpkin Pie
Not exactly American fare, but I did want them to be happy. I wanted to be happy too and so it was a disappointment that pumpkin pie was going to be scratched from the menu because the closest thing to a pumpkin in my local market was butternut squash. Reluctantly I settled on pears poached in sparkling white wine with a dark chocolate sauce.  

Now I had pumpkin ravioli, roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, zucchini and carrots, green salad, Sara’s potato and prosciutto torte, Max’s Tiramisu and poached pears with dark chocolate sauce. Now to find a turkey.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday going around to the grocery stores in Saronno trying to order a turkey. My oven is small so I wanted one that weighed no more than 12lbs. My first stop was the grocery store where I do most of my shopping. 

“I think that’ll work,” the butcher said to me, “but come back tomorrow and I’ll let you know for sure.”

No problem. I’ve ordered turkeys from them before and they always delivered. Next day I went back to find that the butcher I had spoken to was not there, there was another guy. I told him my conversation with butcher No. 1 and asked about my turkey.

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “There’s no way I can get you a whole turkey this week, it’s too early. Whole birds are not available until the week after next.”

“But how much of a problem can it be,” I asked. “Just pick up the phone, call the distributor, tell them you need one now.”

He just shook his head. No can do.

Fine. Surely Walter, who has been supplying Saronese mamas with poultry for more than 20 years out of his hole in the wall store in downtown Saronno can get me a whole turkey. 

“I’m not sure,” said Walter. “Let me call my supplier, hang on a minute.” He picked up his cell phone and dialed a number and explained to whoever answered what he wanted. Then came a series of “ahha, ok, I see, hmmm, va bene, etc.”

He put his hand over the his phone and said, “he’s checking, but it’s going to cost you 20€ a kilo.”

What? 20 euros a kilo! That’s about $14 a pound. Are they out of their minds? What in hell do they feed their birds at that poultry farm? Truffles and caviar? We're talking turkey here, not some exotic creature. 

“Ah, hold on a second,” I say fanning myself with my hand to keep from fainting. “Let me think about this for a minute before I commit to spending $168 of my hard earned American buckeroos for a turkey.” 

But before I could even begin to think about it, Walter put his phone down, shook his head and said, “He can’t get it, sorry.”

So even if I had agreed to the outrageous amount of $168 for a turkey it was not available, not even from the guy who makes his living selling poultry. That stinks. Alright now, there are other grocery stores in this town, let me shop around a little more.
Dreaming of Roast Turkey
At Grocery Store No. 2 the butcher shook his head and said flat out, “not possible, it’s too early, sorry.” Now I’m getting worried. I trot up to Grocery Store No. 3.  

The butchers in Grocery Store No. 3 are glassed in behind a tall counter I can hardly see over, and they certainly cannot see me. Not being the kind of woman that is easily deterred, I walk into the back of the store – entering absolutely forbidden territory - and signal to the butcher that I need to talk to him. 

He seems like a nice guy, and I explain what I want. He says okay, he will order a turkey for me, maybe not quite 12 lbs, but at least 8 lbs. I say, “okay, fine.”  I am resigned to taking what I can get.

“Just one thing,” he says, “you have to pick it up on Thursday because that’s when the poultry come in.”

No problem. My Thanksgiving feast was on Saturday, so picking up the bird on Thursday was fine with me. Maybe I should tell you at this point, in case you are wondering what all this to and froing is about, that there are no frozen birds in Italy. Actually there is no frozen meat at all, frozen fish, frozen vegetable, even frozen pasta yes, but meat . . . no.

Allora, with the turkey ordered I felt better and got on with the rest of the things I had to do. Thursday morning I hike up to Grocery Store No. 3 – which is without exaggeration at least a mile from my apartment. I am not exactly thrilled at the idea of walking back home carrying 12 lbs. of raw turkey, but Thanksgiving comes but once a year and some sacrifices must be made.   

When the walked into the grocery store and the butcher saw me, his face fell. “I’m sorry,” he says, “they didn’t send it. Maybe they didn’t have one ready for today, can you come back tomorrow?”
Crap. I was disappointed, he seemed disappointed but it didn’t matter how disappointed we were, there was no turkey to be had that day. Next day I went back, a little annoyed at having to trudge up there again, but like I said, …… Thanksgiving only comes once a year. 

This time, when I saw the hound dog look on his face, I knew there was no turkey in my future. No roasted turkey, no candied sweet potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no green bean casserole (did I mention there is no Campbell soup here?), no pumpkin pie. Time to reprogram the menu app.

New menu. Pumpkin ravioli, two capons with dressing and gravy, mashed potatoes and gravy, zucchini and carrots (my secret recipe), Sara’s potato and prosciutto torte, mostarda, Silvia’s Tiramisu and poached pears. Hummphf, that doesn’t sound very Thanksgiving like to me. 

My first reaction was to make up a bunch of signs and protest the Italian Industrial Alimentary Complex that controls what I eat and when I eat it, my second reaction was to roast up the capons, mash the potatoes, make the gravy and the rest of the stuff, put it on the table, break open a couple of bottles of wine and enjoy sharing a meal with people I really like. Which is what I did. Still makes me mad though.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

24 November 2013

LIFE: Giving Thanks

CHIAVARI, Italy –If there is one thing I know it is that it is difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking about Thanksgiving. For me, it’s hard to get into the spirit of Christmas until I’ve had Thanksgiving. But here in Italy, where they love holidays that fall on Thursday and extend into Friday and even Monday if they can get away with it, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  It’s not that they aren’t fascinated by the idea of giving thanks for what you have, but what do they have to be thankful for they ask. For those of us looking in from the outside, we have to think they are kidding, right? They’re not. 

A Pox on Your Play 
It’s not that they don’t think life is good, Italy is beautiful, or the food isn’t the best in the world. They actually do. But not being too happy about something is part and parcel of the Italian DNA.  If you are too happy about something, no, I take that back, if you show that you are too happy about something, you risk putting a jinx – the malocchio or Evil Eye - on the very thing you are happy about. 

The Evil Eye is best described as a curse that can be triggered by something as simple as a compliment.  For example, if someone tells you your baby is beautiful, beware! The fates have been tempted. You must immediately make the sign of the horn to protect your child from the dreaded Evil Eye.
Let's See, It's Heel Here and Then Three Turns to the Right
When I first moved to Italy, a Genovese lawyer told me that if I wanted to succeed in Italy, I would have to stop smiling so much.  And not only that, but if someone asked me how I was, the answer should never be –‘great.’ A better, safer answer, he counseled, would be “in somma.” Which loosely translated means, “I’m doing the best I can but it’s a struggle.” Truth is, at that time “in somma” was closer to my reality than “great,” so I had no problem adopting the more “Evil Eye” proof response.

Superstition has been part of Italian life since the dawn of time.  Using your fingers to make what is called in Italy “the horns” is in reality a version of a crescent moon shape which is representative of various Moon Goddesses worshiped in days of old. Interestingly, the finger horn can also be a sign that your wife is cheating on you - evidently a cheating wife is considered one of the worse curses of all.
Extra Added Protection 
A few years ago, when I found out that here in Italy having a bird in the house – either as a pet or by accident – is considered bad luck, it triggered a memory of something that happened years ago. I must have been about 4 or 5 years old. I was with my Grandmother in her kitchen, watching her cook. Out of nowhere a white pigeon landed on the windowsill and walked the few inches of the window sill and came inside the kitchen.

When my Grandmother saw the bird she became visibly upset.  She stopped cooking and went out into the hallway and sat down in the chair that was always by the door. I remember her hands were in the fabric of her apron and she was squeezing them together. A nervous gesture.  I stood next to her and waited to see what was going to happen next. Then she turned to me and said, “my brother is dead.”  That was all she said. And her brother, who was in the Italian army serving in Ethiopia, had indeed been killed in battle.  Like I said, I was only a kid   so I filed it away along with all the other strange things grownups do and say and didn’t think about it again, until now. I read somewhere that the bird in the house is a very old superstition, but I wasn't able to find out how it got started.
Bye Bye Birdie
Turns out there are other things, like covering your mouth when you yawn – which I always thought we did just to be polite, are also based on superstitions. The real reason we cover our mouths is so evil spirits don’t enter our bodies. After all, God gave Adam life by breathing into his mouth – so what’s to stop the Devil from trying the same trick?

Then there is that old habit of saying Bless You, when someone sneezes. That simple saying is a carry-over from the days of the Roman Empire when sneezing was a sign that you had a dreaded disease. When someone sneezed the Romans thought it best to offer up a short prayer to the king of the Gods, Jupiter. A “long may you live,” or “may you enjoy good health,” or a simple “Jupiter, help me” would usually do the trick. Whichever one you chose brought hope that Jupiter would protect you if from whatever the other person was sneezing out. For the unfortunate sneezer, the hope was that Jupiter would help them expel the disease within and keep them healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just in southern Italian thing. In Milan they take the Evil Eye and other superstitions very seriously. The worn out nether parts of the mosaic bull on the pavement in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Milan is proof of that. Even those who claim to be non-believers can’t resist the Milanese tradition of twirling around three times on the bull’s dangling bits in the hope that it will keep the evil spirits at bay and bring them luck. So the next time you are in Milan make sure you visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and give it a twirl. You won’t have any problem finding the bull mosaic, there is always a crowd of people waiting there to take their turn.
 A Cimaruta
If you are the nervous type and don’t want to wait until you get to Milan, you might want to wear a cimaruta around your neck. Some even hang this Italian charm on their babies cribs to protect them from the Evil Eye. After all, there’s no point in tempting fate. At least with the protection of a cimaruta, you’ll gain favor with the Goddess Diana, Queen of the Italian witches, and that can only be a good thing. I know I’m going to get one and hang it on my computer. Better safe than sorry, no?

So while we Americans have no problem roasting up a turkey and brazenly give thanks for all we have, the wary Italians prefer to go about their business of living large and enjoying life by pretending they are suffering through it all. So now that you know the rules, cross your fingers, touch wood, and make the sign of the horn because I am going to wish you all a Very Happy Thanksgiving.


This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks, and the badge is kind of crummy, but it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy.  I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like.  Thanks. 

21 November 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Zabaglione and St. Giovanni

CHIAVARI, Italy – Half the fun of cooking in Italy is finding the stories behind the recipes – and as you all know by now – everything you eat in Italy has a story behind it - absolutely everything. Today’s recipe for zabaglione, a wonderfully simple dessert made of egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine is no different.
 Zabaglione and Biscotti
My love affair with zabaglione goes back a long way. Whenever my grandmother thought I was looking a little pale, she would whip up a glass of zabaglione and serve it to me as part of my afternoon snack, a sort of Italian smoothie. As I had my snack she would tell me stories about the brave doctors and nurses who were saving lives in far off Africa. Of course I had to take a bite of what she was feeding me in order to hear what happened next, but who wouldn’t want to know what happened when the doctors and nurses in Africa found a lion in the hospital? It was exciting stuff for a four year old. But the one story she wouldn’t have been able to tell me is the story of zabaglione. It’s definitely not suitable for four year old ears. 

Actually there are several stories out there regarding the origin of zabaglione, but this is my favorite. This zabaglione story starts in the northern Italian province of Piedmont – home of the Slow Food Movement. It seems a Spanish monk, a certain Fra Giovanni de Baylon, arrived in Torino sometime in the late 1500’s, and was assigned to the church of San Tommaso, the same church that is still on the corner of Via Pieto Micca and Via San Tommaso. 
Church of San Tommaso, Turin, Italy 
One of the things Father Baylon brought with him from Spain was his favorite recipe of eggs and sugar fortified with a large dose of a sweet wine from Cyprus. He soon settled into his duties as pastor of San Tommaso church but after a few months of listening to the women of Torino complain about their husbands lack of interest in making love to them, Father Baylon started giving them his special egg, sugar and wine recipe telling them to feed it to their husbands. It will rejuvenate them, he told the signoras of Turin, and you will be as happy as a new bride.

Apparently it worked. In 1680 Father Baylon was sanctified by Pope Alessander VII and the people of Turin began proclaiming far and wide the wondrous rejuvenating recipe Father Baylon had given their city.  Saint Giovanni de Baylon’s last name soon became San Bajon in Piedmontese dialect, which, when applied to his famous recipe was transformed to l’Sanbajon, and later Italianized to zabaglione.  And that is how zabaglione became famous throughout the world and Saint Giovanni Bajon became Turin’s patron saint of food.  

You can serve zabaglione with cookies, fresh fruit, whipped cream or with a little bit of story and lots of love.
Serves 4

8 egg yolks
100 ml of dry Marsala or Vin Santo
160 grams white sugar

Separate the 8 eggs, discarding the whites (or freeze them to use in other recipes). Put the sugar (1) and the egg yolks in an deep stainless steel bowl (that you can place over a bagnomaria), and whip them together with an electric mixer (3) until it forms a foamy, smooth almost white cream (4). 

Slowly add the wine little by little continuing to beat the mixture so it absorbs the liquid (5). When all of the ingredients have been well mixed, place the bowl over simmering water (the bowl must not touch the water) and continue to beat the mixture for 10-15 minutes or until it becomes smooth and creamy and dense (6). At that point the zabalione is ready to serve. 

If you prefer to serve it cold, remember to stir it as it cools in the refrigerator to avoid the wine from separating and settling on the bottom of the bowl. 

It’s important that you use very fresh eggs and make sure the water in the bagnomaria just simmers and never boils, otherwise the texture of the zabaglione will be compromised.