Thursday, August 25, 2011

Risotto phobia

In something of a twist from my childhood, I made dinner for my family last night. My sister did the dishes and provided the other half of the comedy as I fashioned a risotto with yellow squash and some simple crostini with fresh basil and a salad. Risotto was something that we ate growing up, but not often. Because of this, I always had a misconception that it was a difficult dish to make. My mother, who can cook anything on this earth, didn’t make it more then every few months, and my grandmother, who can cook any dish in all of southern Italy, the same. Since these superheroes of the family dinner weren’t making risotto, I had always assumed it was not for novice home cooks like me to even try.
Now, in Liguria, we eat quite a bit of risotto, about once a week or so. Manuel’s grandmother even gets creative in seasonal ingredients, making us Google a recipe for a pumpkin risotto this winter after being gifted with the perplexing variety of squash. After we presented her with a few recipes she waved us away and said she would just do it on her own. Of course, it was delicious, since I’m assuming she has been making risotto for most of her 79 years. Watching Manuel and his family eat risotto by flattening it out into the bowl, each grain of the Arborio rice patted down, then eating from the outside in, similar to how Americans eat mashed potatoes with a gravy well, I knew that this consumption tradition spelled disaster for me. I wanted to try to make risotto desperately, but knowing what I know about food habits and what it says about the anthropology and the practice of eating the dish, I could see that this had a special place in the hearts of Italians. A good risotto would be the ONLY risotto consumed.
The risotto fear was at its height when, at the local market, a moment of sheer madness gripped me and I pulled a box of Arborio rice down from the shelf. I would make risotto while Manuel was at work, and then, if it came out badly, I could throw it out and say I didn’t start making lunch yet when he got home. I would be saved!
Now, I’ve never been one for following recipes, so after reading a few I figured I had the basics down and got to work. My plans were foiled when Manuel came home early, poking around the kitchen, peering into the pot and smiling. “I haven’t had rice for so long!” he exclaimed happily. After a few tastes, he sat down and ate 2 bowls full. I warned him if I made it wrong, he needed to tell me or else he would spend the rest of his life eating overcooked, glue-y risotto, but he assured me it was, really, delicious. Slightly overcooked, but that was pretty much his fault since he was the official risotto taster. Victory was mine!
Risotto, I have now learned, is not a difficult thing to make – it just requires that you pay attention. You have to stay active for about 30 minutes, which can be too much for some people, such as a supermom who has just sprinted home from work to have a hot dinner for four on the table, still wearing her suit and heels. Like many Italian dishes, it is not overly complex and dependent on 75 different spices or ingredients, it just needs some time. Even concerning desserts, another area that I always despised (though now I know it stems from my inability to follow directions). After making the dinner for my parents last night, I made a summer fruit crostata for my friends for a rainy picnic today. Though at this moment I’m in New Jersey, it’s not hard to bring a little bit of Italian seasonal cooking and some of my sunny life in Liguria to this earthquake and hurricane ridden stretch of the U.S.

Risotto with Zucchini/Yellow Squash
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 large zucchini or yellow squash, diced
2 cups Arborio rice
Salt and pepper
¾ cup Parmesan cheese (or more to taste)
¼ stick of butter
Handful of parsley, chopped
Bring the broth to a low simmer in a large saucepan on a back burner. In a large stockpot on the front burner, sauté the onion and garlic in oil until translucent, then add the zucchini. Cook until soft. Add the rice and cook lightly, stirring constantly, until the rice is translucent. Add a ladle-full of the simmering broth and stir in until all the liquid is absorbed into the rice. Continue adding the broth slowly in this manner and stirring until the rice is al dente (you should have used almost or all of the broth). Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese and butter. Season with salt and pepper and parsley. The risotto should be creamy but not glue-y and still a little firm.
Serves 4.
Note: when making this for Manuel I used zucchini that had the flowers still attached, which is common in Italy. Along with stirring in parsley, I also added the flowers, with the stems removed and thinly sliced.

Summer Fruit Crostata
The crostata is, literally, one of the easiest desserts to make, requiring little from the pantry, and can be adapted to whatever ingredients you have on hand. Apple in the autumn, berry – even Nutella and, well, anything, since I am of the opinion that Nutella is the best substance in the world.
1-cup flour
3 tbsp. sugar
Pinch of salt
1 stick butter, very cold and diced
3 tbsp ice water
2 ripe peaches, sliced
2 plums, sliced
Pinch of flour
1 tbsp sugar
Juice of ¼ lemon
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar and salt and pulse a few times to mix. Add in the butter and pulse 10-15 times until the dough forms little balls the size of peas. Add the ice-cold water and mix until the dough forms itself into a big ball. Remove from the food processor, form into a mound and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Mix the sliced fruit with the flour, sugar and lemon in a separate bowl.
Once the dough is properly chilled, roll out on a floured board until it forms about a 12” circle and is reasonably thin (but not too thin). Fill the center with the fruit, and then fold the edges around like a little package. It’s ok if it looks crooked; it’s supposed to be “rustic”.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the edges are golden brown.
Serves 8.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A spuntino by any other name

There has been much written about the Italian diet, health and nutrition by people much more knowledgeable and with many more degrees then me, so I won’t try to go into a great amount of actual fact about how I am now able to eat copious amounts of pasta and not gain a pound (or kilogram as it were). The United States, as many Europeans seem to think, outside of major cities like New York and San Francisco, is something of a vast wasteland of poor food habits and huge steaks, which isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim. When I express my pleasant surprise about being able to eat pan fritto con stracchino - fried dough stuffed with a creamy, rich local cheese – and not immediately feel obese, no one else blinks an eye. Where in the U.S. I would spend a few minutes doing that instant calculation many women can do in seconds, rounding out the amount of yoga hours it would take to neutralize a heavy meal, I look around this small little corner of Liguria and the even bigger cities and am constantly surprised by the absence of any gyms or health centers.

Not to say that every day is a fried dough and cheese induced binge, but living here follows what is definitely a reasonable way to eat. Provided one avoids any semblance of a breakfast in this country, which usually consists of some pastry filled with sugar with more sugar on top, drizzled with nutella or dunked in a sweetened, milky caffeinated beverage – Italians certainly have a sweet tooth, and that is incredibly evident in breakfast.

A day usually begins with coffee (usually= always) with sugar. Not aspartame or splenda, but straight up sugar – dramatically different from New York. Lunch can be anything from a foccacia to something more substantial – pasta, a protein, vegetables. Eggs, too, make up a lunch, not a breakfast, and a frittata, to mirror the writings of Elizabeth David, and a glass of wine, can make up quite a nice supper. Today, for example, I had a salad with mixed greens, milky mozzarella, salty capers and anchovies and ruby tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and 3 soft, fresh slices of bread. 3 espressi, a sweetened

iced tea, a ginger beer, and 5 pan fritto pieces so far have rounded out my daily food consumption. For dinner, I will more then likely eat either a few pieces of steak and a small salad of arugula, or a swordfish with a light tomato broth with a small serving of pasta. All in all, it’s not an incredibly heavy amount of food for one day, considering. In the U.S we are encouraged to snack. All daylong – we are, let’s face it – a snacking culture. Even the prevailing diet wisdom of the day encourages a series of small meals rather then the few big ones eaten in Italy. Here, however, the snacks are small. The pan fritto is a portion of 8-10 pieces, and is usually split. A “pastry” bar or a “cake bar” or a “whatever you want to call it “ bar usually maxes out at about 250-300 calories a portion, some even remarkably less. And you eat only one. Nutella is eaten in a small spoonful, and on a cookie or two – though I’m still wrestling with that self control Nutella issue. The ham is fresh, there is always some fruit or a vegetable – and even the drinks are smaller. A can of coke here has 139 calories, and you drink, again, only one.

The portion size has been analyzed to death between the U.S. and Italy, but more then that, I think it’s the quality of the food. Here, no one uses Splenda or covers their foccacia with wasabi mayonnaise and bacon. Foccacia, the way we eat for lunch, isn’t that bad for you – a few slices of meat, some cheese and greens. I have long been a friend of the carbohydrate, and in that, Italy is constantly proving me correct in my theory that it is not bread that makes one fat. It’s what you are putting on it. If it’s fresh, you don’t need all those other things. In addition, its only about 5 inches in diameter, which counteracts the “foot long” sub that really makes one think – do you really need to eat something that is one-fifth of your height?

Though Italians are known for their huge feasts and meals, on a daily basis, they are a remarkably weight conscious culture with one of the lowest percentages of obesity in the world. Walking down the street eating a huge gelato causes friendly teasing about gaining weight, ordering a second portion draws half-kidding, astonished “mamma mia”-s from friends. Everyone wants to give you advice about weight and digestion, and, like the weather, they are all experts in their own little way.

What I think is the soundest piece of advice I have heard and seen in practice is one from a different nutritional school of thought. If you take the time to eat real food, you don’t need to spend so much time figuring out how you can enjoy its substitutes with half the fat or calories. “Can I make this lunch even less fattening?” becomes “eat and enjoy” quite easily. You stop when you are full – it’s not a difficult concept to master, but one easy to forget.

Eating that foccacia with proscutto and brie fills you up more – and, more then that, leaves you satisfied – more then a veggie burger with soy mayo on spelt bread. Coming from someone who has walked that line many times before, trust me when I say that it is true. Salads only get you so far in life, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating bread.

Just be careful with the nutella.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Going fishing...for laundry

I have learned some really strange things since moving here – things I honestly never thought there was a “right” way or a “wrong” way to do. Hanging clothes on the drying line, for example. Like many Italian homes, we don’t have a clothes dryer, which is something I miss greatly about the U.S. (not something I miss as much as a dishwasher, but that’s another story). I learned what I thought was the best way to maximize the limited space on the 4 lines outside our terrace, and, also, the small bucket of clothespins we have. Through trial and error, I learned about marks the pins leave on the neck of a T-shirt (pinning at the underarm is much better) as well as where to put my underwear (closer to the house so the other laundry covers it and it’s not a discussion topic amongst the older Italian women living above and below me) and other things I brushed off as useless in the States, but things that caused Manuel great amusement that I simply didn’t know to do. Today, for example, I learned how to “fish” for laundry. As I was taking in some items drying outside, my neighbor showed me how she uses a fish hook and fishing line to retrieve any items that fall off into the terrace 3 stories below. When I pointed out the beach towel I dropped 2 days ago, now dangling on a lemon tree below us, she shrugged. For things like that, we need to make friends with the people below us so they will return our fallen clothes. Which caused me some confusion as to why she showed me her laundry fishing gadget in the first place, but there might have been another reason that was lost in translation.

Another laundry related issue is the ability to forecast the weather. I have yet to meet an Italian person who doesn’t have some unique way to predict inclement weather, and who is eager to share their secret method with you. “Ah, Cri”, one of the guys who sits outside the Cantina every night said, pointing at the mountains sloping into the sea to the north, “When there is a cloud like a hat on Punta Mesco, it will rain tomorrow”.

“Grazie”, I reply, confused, as his advice directly contradicts Ema, who asserts that the weather, in fact, comes from the opposite direction, and the presence of no cloud means fair skies. Manuel, also, is another one – looking off into the distance of the vast Ligurian Sea in front of us, and with a satisfied nod, he eyes the laundry.

“You had better take that in. It’s going to rain tonight”.

I, on the other had, go online and look at the weather report, which does no good either. Liguria is a little part of Italy that acts like St. Thomas. It will be brutally, unrelentingly hot, then a small storm will pop up, clouds descend, umbrellas fly over and laundry soaked for 20 minutes, before resuming a smirking sun, seemingly amused by the inconvenience its fickle behavior has caused. Now wise to these weather games, when I’m laying out at the beach and a few drops start to fall, I follow the lead of the Italians, who sleep right on through or slink under an umbrella for a few moments. Tourists, cursing, grab their things and stomp away from the beach, and I laugh silently thinking of how much more that stomping will intensify when they get back to their hotel and the sun comes out.

It’s not an easy thing to just “run home” and grab something here. Yes, Monterosso is a small town of about 1,000 people (though in the summer it’s about 12,000), but our apartments and condominiums are built mirroring the landscape. Nestled into rocks and cliffs, an apartment without a 3-story walkup is more uncommon then one with the 147 stairs it takes me to get back home. All in all, its not a bad price to pay to be at a crystal blue sea in a few minutes, but you certainly check your bag – and your laundry and whatever weather forecasting tool you subscribe to – before you leave the house.

The same goes for grocery shopping. When you want to buy something at the market, you really have to remember that this needs to go up those same stairs with you. Which makes shopping both easy and hard - yes, you go more often, but on days when there is little in the house, making lunch is a test of ingenuity if you don't want to have to run down that mountain. Today, for example, I gave chicken a Maltese twist and fashioned some easy sides with what I had from the farmers market. It worked well, though I'm still, literally and figuratively, wrestling with my American discomfort with dismembering whole pieces of chicken.

In addition to all of these things I’ve learned, I’ve learned quite a bit of Italian. I speak fluent “itanglish” at this point, and it’s more then enough to confuse waiters, ticket office sales people, and certainly any tourists I encounter. Twice now, Italians have commented to me – in Italian of course – that there are a huge amount of foreigners in Monterosso, lamenting, shaking their heads as they think they’ve found a partner to complain with. After I inform them that I, as well, am a “stranieri”, the usual awkward laughter ensues followed by, occasionally, a comment of how “brava” I am in regards to my ability to speak Italian. Usually, that’s the point where I flee before I embarrass myself and prove them wrong with my usual confusion of the subjunctive and my penchant for making up verb gerunds, but they certainly don’t need to know that. As long as you can fake it enough, it’s usually ok for me. I’m sure there are grammatical rules I break every time I open my mouth, but I feel like what I’m learning now is how Italian people act when they speak. Faces, filler words, hand gestures and noises of agreement – clucking of tongues in disapproval and heaving sighs – they’re all different then in the United States, and I feel like, in spite of all the things I’ve learned, this is the most useful of all. Learning to think like an Italian – not in Italian, per se, but like one of the many passionate people waving their hands yelling about the weather while fashioning ingenious laundry fishing lines – is one of the most important parts of being here.

"Maltese" Fried Chicken

3 kg chicken pieces (thighs work best, but anything with skin - and fat - will work well)

olive oil

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 small white onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

1 large spoonful of capers, rinsed

2 roma tomatoes, diced, with seeds and juices

1 lemon, juice only

Cumin, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, garlic powder - 1 large spoon, spice ratio depends on your taste (garam masala also works well too, provided the curry portion isn't too high)

Parsley, salt and pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat along with garlic cloves. When the garlic begins to sizzle, pat dry chicken pieces, season with salt, pepper, and some of the spice mixture, and fry on one side 5-7 minutes or until they begin to brown. Turn over pieces and cook the other side in the same manner.

Once chicken is browned (but not cooked through) remove from the pan, set aside, and reduce the heat to cool the oil enough so that it won't burn the vegetables. Then add the onion, carrot, celery and capers - cook until fork tender. Add the tomatoes and lemon juice, mix all together and simmer. Put the chicken pack in the pan, skin side up. Coat the skin with the remaining spice rub, and cover, simmering the chicken in the sauce for 10 minutes. Flip the pieces over and simmer on the other side until chicken is cooked through.

Serves 4.

To serve: garnish with chopped parsley, salt and pepper. I served this lunch with a crisp green salad, chilled green beans dressed with lemon, and some sauteed zucchini and onions.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

il visto e arrivato!!

Life in Liguria just got slightly less complicated. The working papers that I have been waiting for since January finally arrived in La Spezia. Now, the La Spezia offices need to check out my background as well as the De Fina's before issuing the official documents that I will need to take to the U.S. before actually applying for the visa. After I apply for the visa, I need to wait about 15 days in the United States, then re-enter Italy as an official worker.
Downside (and it's a large one) is that since we waited 7 months for the papers to just get processed in Rome, I have little hope in the Italian government - whoever is left, since it is August now and everyone is on vacation - that any of this will get done before I am required to leave to country August 12th so I don't overstay my tourist visa and cause a whole host of other problems.
It's so interesting trying to analyze what the hardest part of Italy is. I try and explain to disbelieving tourists I encounter every day here at La Cantina di Miky that it's actually not the language, the culture, the "Italian" way of life, but the difficulties from moving from a city like Manhattan (or even Princeton) to one as small, albeit charming, as Monterosso al Mare. You can't buy hangars. Clothes. Or, most importantly, cilantro, which is weighing heavily on my mind right now as I eye the Mexican and Southeast Asian food products in our cupboard I brought from the U.S. with grand hopes of cooking lavish ethnic dinners and winning over the hearts and stomachs of Italians.
This blog is a new concept for me - I want to use it less as a "diary" or sorts of my experience living here in the Cinque Terre, but more as a tool to discuss Italian cuisine, gastronomy, culture and the differences I see every day.
Of course, a few anecdotes and recipes along the way.