Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where Have I Been?

Puerto Rico!  Miami to my grandmother's condo for a few days first, then off to San Juan and paradise.

We spent a relaxing few days in Old San Juan and El Yunque, then took a little 8 person, petrifying plane flight to the island of Vieques, off it's coast.  Still part of Puerto Rico, the little island of about 9,000 residents won our hearts and stole the show, so to speak, of the vacation.  San Juan was beautiful and historic and charming and full of spirit, but Vieques, this teeny speck of an island full of pristine beaches, water in shades of blue that rival Monterosso, and smiling people full of slow paced island charm, was amazing.  Wild horses run free, a bumpy, long, deserted road through a forest leads to a beach you will have to yourself all day.  Stops at food trucks on the side of the road offer a mixture of island and hispanic cuisine, making picnics on yet another deserted, breathtaking beach.  The pictures we took are the screensavers on computers and phones.  We are both totally enchanted.

Miami, Diamond Beach, by my Gram's old condo

Old San Juan

Streets of Old San Juan

San Juan, view from the fort overlooking the cemetery and La Perla

Trip to El Yunque Rainforest...can you spot Manuel in the waterfall?

View from fort San Cristobal over the city

Our little tiny plane to our little tiny island of Vieques

Playa Caracas (Red Beach)

Sun Bay at sunset - totally unaltered picture

Farmer's market!

Green beach, Playa Punta Arenas

Orchid Beach, Playa La Plata

The pier in Esperanza

Playa Grande

Playa Caracas, right before a little shower

Hiding from some raindrops for a few minutes

Playa Media Luna

Can you see why?  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Home is where the food is

I haven't been writing much because I haven't exactly had that much to be writing about.  I'm in the United States, at my parents, eating, watching TV and wandering around New York while all my friends and family are at work.

Some vacation.

But, seriously, it is great to be home, even when it gets conflicting exactly where "home" is, and even more so when my family dynamic has changed dramatically this year with the passing of loved ones, selling houses full of memories, and moving my life across an ocean in the middle of it.  Sometimes, in all honesty, it feels a little bit confusing.

Confusion and all sorts of ails can be healed through food, fortunately, and this is one area my family excels at.  We had a party (theme: generic family party to celebrate being together) today that reminded me again that no matter where my carta d'identit√† or drivers license say I live, the same flavors find me with the familiar sensation of being at home.

Polpettone, normale - at least as normale as one can get made by an American gal in NJ
Polpettone, gluten free!
My mom's oven fried chicken with roasted potatoes and artichokes was the main course, which might have leaned towards the American side of the global food spectrum, but the antipasto - slivers of salumi, paper thin provolone, hard, spicy soppressata and bowls of little pickled vegetables and olives - teetered the dinner towards Italy.  To put the balance back towards the middle, I made a salad of quinoa and vegetables with a Lebanese dressing and roasted beets with feta and dill over arugula.  For a side with the fried chicken, we brought Monterosso al Mare to New Jersey, making polpettone, a traditional Ligurian dish made with cooked vegetables (potato, green beans, some dark leafy greens, carrots and so forth) mixed with egg and cheese, then blended and flattened out on a pan and topped with bread crumbs and drizzled with oil and baked until lightly brown.  The way Manuel's gram makes it uses more potato, sometimes meat, less "dark greens" (in this case, kale) and is normally not adapted for those who cannot eat the gluten in bread.  Keeping in mind the sort of "don't worry if you don't have 'x' just throw more of 'y' or find some 'z' " attitude of Italian cooking, I figured I had some wiggle room and took some artistic license with my polpettone.  I think it came out wonderfully, and even more so when I got to share a little of what I eat in my other home with my family in this one.

For dessert, crostate filled with homemade marmalade (plum and apricot) from Tuscany and everyone's-favorite-and-oft-mentioned Uncle Uccio.  I made one with an American crust, thinner and less sweet, and one with my Italian recipe, measuring out my grams until my significantly higher and sweeter apricot crostata came steaming out of the oven.

"Italian" crostata in the front, with apricot jam, and "American" plum in the back

Vegetarian nightmare.
I didn't realize the strange little pun of blending my foods from there and my foods from here today until we were cleaning up, and I was folding the crisp white deli paper holding the remaining wisps of prosciutto and putting it back in the fridge, where it will only last until someone's midnight snack.  Cooking alongside my mom in the morning like I always did with her and my Gram, preparing a dish I learned across the ocean by cooking alongside someone else's Grandmother, explaining it to me patiently in a mixture of dialect and Italian.  Cleaning up with my dad (or, now, watching Manuel help him clean up, but I was there for moral support), I'm reminded again how the act and tradition of preparing a meal and eating it together is just as important as what one eats.  It just helps when what one eats is fresh, milky mozzarella and soft, charred red peppers, falling apart in ribbons in olive oil, and when the company at the dinner table is always a big family, laughing and passing plates, happy to be together - in any language.

Friday, November 23, 2012

so much to be thankful for...

Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday, is a very special and bittersweet time for me to be back in the US with my family.  Though this year has brought us many blessings and sorrows, I am forever thankful for what we do have, and the wonderful people in my life, even those who are no longer with me.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone (even those who don't celebrate it)!

And, of course, the requisite turkey picture...

 Followed by a bit of our "cross cultural" celebration - American craft beers and Italian wines.  Salute!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive

For the many of you who have asked me about my family and friends after Hurricane/Megastorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast of the United States and my home state of New Jersey, I'm happy to say that everyone is safe.  Cold, in the dark, and unhappy, but safe.

Most of my family lives in Manhattan and Bergen County, NJ, which means that they either evacuated to the long off land of "Midtown" or, like some wonderfully feisty Great Aunts, stayed put.  They are getting power back, one by one, and now it's just some Aunts and Uncles and my parents who are left, quite literally, in the dark.  Some won't have electricity until the 12th or so.  After seeing pictures of friend's homes, destroyed, foundations blown out, roofs swept off, or thinking about unreachable elderly relatives with no heat and a snowstorm approaching, or others needing non immediately essential medical care that can't get treatment, I think they are the lucky ones.

After finally getting in touch with my parents and friends a few days ago, who lost telephone service and were keeping cellphones off to save battery power, I was able to exhale.

This year, weather wise, has left me on the receiving end of a devastating flood and mudslide, Hurricane Irene, 7 earthquakes, and a freak beachside blizzard.  As I've settled into my newly rebuilt life in Liguria, this news that my old home (where perhaps my heart always will be) is the victim of another brutal, ugly, and deadly natural disaster is bordering on incredible.  The odds are, as my boyfriend noted, astronomically low that these things would keep occurring in places where I live, lived, or am planning on returning to for Thanksgiving in a few weeks, electricity or not.  Is Mother Nature mad at me?  Is that undergrad paper I wrote examining the "myth" of global warming turning into a sick joke? (Note: it was for a debate class where we were assigned sides, not necessarily a viewpoint I share - and if I did, it's one I'd be rethinking seriously).

Italian news can be remarkably New York focused, and in the days leading up to Sandy and the days after it, there were photos of my demolished home state everywhere.  The Jersey Shore, something close to my heart, went from being something of an MTV-induced joke to something of a tragedy reminiscent of the floods here last October.  Seeing pictures of towns destroyed and livelihoods wiped away, hearing stories of lives lost, is reminder of the incredible destruction that Mother Nature can wreck closer then close to home.  It has happened, in fact, in my home.

As I've lamented many times, New Jersey gets a reputation it doesn't deserve.  When looking over the incredible vista at the outdoor tables here in Monterosso, squinting into the sun and smiling at Corniglia, perched on her throne, or Manarola hugging Riomaggiore and Vernazza smiling back from just a boat ride away, the Cinque Terre and the long stretch of pristine beach is paradise.

Tables sharing the same view ask where I'm from, and looking out at the villages remark, sarcastically, laughing, sometimes meanly"It's no Jersey Shore, eh?"

"No," I responded many times, seriously, quiet.  "And I miss the Jersey Shore".

That always shuts people up, dumbfounded that I would confess something that is so clearly a joke on my part.  Some laugh, assuming I'm joking along too.  Some just stare.

Like many New Jerseyans, I can make fun of my state, Bar A, Belmar and the Seaside Heights boardwalk trash (not garbage, grimy people) all I want, because it's mine - for better or for worse.  I can crack jokes about gum-snapping accents that make your ears painfully ring, or the stench by exit 15 on the Turnpike because it's my accent to make fun of and my state that has that quirky and disgusting smell for 5 minutes.  I can yell "fuggetdabawdit" while passing a car on a 5 lane highway next to a Sopranos set.  And along with these stereotypes that people want to think encompass my state, I can relish the sweet flavor of a Jersey tomato, warm from the sun and juicy as I sit in a field in Central Jersey surrounded by clean, green air and open farmland.  I can walk down the ivy dripping streets of Princeton, enjoy the view from a car ride up Skyline Drive, and snap pictures of lacy Victorian houses catching the last rays of the summer sun in Cape May.  I can eat cotton candy and popcorn on a boardwalk full of the smells of suntan lotion and childhood, and try and get the last of the sand off my feet before getting into the car to drive home on the Parkway.  I can search the boardwalk of Asbury Park for the sounds of music and a story from decades ago, chase the dreams of winning and the perfect night out in Atlantic City, or simply sit in a porch swing, huddled up in a Ron Jon hoodie and look out on the dunes in Long Beach Island.  I can drink a Corona after a day at the beach in Belmar with friends, walk the dunes at Sandy Hook, and have a backyard barbecue in Wildwood before hitting the Ferris Wheel, again, as always, envious I can't eat the grilled clams.

Seeing pictures of New Jersey is such devastation hurts in a different way then living through what happened here in Monterosso.  Though maybe I didn't live in LBI, Ortley Beach or Manasquan, I spent some of my most vivid memories there.  Many of the scenes that shape my life take place at the Jersey Shore, and, for better or for worse, all 180 something miles of my state is built on it, meaning I'm not the only one.  The Jersey Shore is a shared memory for us, a collective sigh of summer relief that we can all relate to, and look back with a nostalgic smile.

The Cinque Terre has a different view, a different charm, and is, by all accounts, the exact opposite of the other beach close to my heart that was destroyed last week, but the famous resilience and hard-headedness of the people here means that they have something very important in common with the people of my Garden State.  Having thick skins after being made the punchline of every joke in the United States, New Jerseyans know that we are actually holders to the best secret - we are incredibly lucky to live where we do.  We are tough people underneath the stereotype and the joke, and made of stone.  Like my little village here, we are people who do not back down to a challenge.

Getting from the bed and breakfast to the restaurant normally takes less then a minute.  In the past few days, it would take ten, fifteen, as people stopped me and asked how we were doing in New Jersey.  I was proudly surprised they even knew where it was, as it normally gets swept into the category of New York.  As I chatted with our local handyman, who is 110% Monterossini, he asked if there were people in my state that still lived there, and I responded, confused, that of course they were.

Then you will be ok, he said, firmly, assuredly.  If it is someone's home, no matter how destroyed, you can always rebuild.  Look what we did, he laughed, throwing his hands up to the sky.

He is right, of course, and it's true.  Where there are stubborn people with a deep love for where they live, where they grew up, and memories that run through their veins, you will always, sooner or later, be alright.  Come hurricane, flood or earthquake, with power or without water, hard headed people who love where they live will always have an dogged fire to survive and rebuild.

In the end, perhaps Monterosso and New Jersey aren't all that different after all.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

rome and then home.

After a short trip (really, less then 24 hours) to Rome to see off a visiting friend and do some shopping, I took the 6 am superfast train home, and arrived in Monterosso on a day that is hard to forget.

One year ago, the flood hit the village changing my life, and everyone else's.  We commemorated the day by closing all businesses in the town from 11-6, which, as I arrived off the train, squinting into the sun and looking at mud boots, sand bags and white flowers scattered through the empty streets to honor the day, it really hit me.  I headed to the old town, where everyone had gathered after the procession of the Madonna of Soviore, one of the most revered religious symbols in Liguria, was carried down from it's sanctuary over the village for a rare procession through town.  Quietly looking at pictures, sitting in the Church and praying, lighting a candle for a loved one, sharing a glass of wine in the all too familiar plastic cup surrounded by uniformed volunteer workers, people observed the importance and significance of this in their own personal ways.

The loss the town felt - and still feels - was staggering.  But today, in the piazza again under a tent, eating along side on paper plates as a community, I was again reminded of how far we have come, and that miracles come true.

Especially in Monterosso.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

the end.

The Cantina is closed.  The wall to rebuild monterosso is up.  And it's 26 degrees C.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My little laundry community

I've lamented before about the lack of a clothes dryer in our little apartment, but getting used to it was disturbingly easy and now it's something that I don't really even consider a necessity.  One of the things that used to be a phobia of mine and my broken Italian has now become something I kind of enjoy, especially when I step back and realize this is a very funny situation when you break it down.  Hanging out the laundry in the late morning is something I am hardly ever alone in doing.  Like many Italian homes, we have a little balcony with our clothespins and clotheswires that meets the balcony of our neighbor.  Our neighbors above and below, to the left and the right, across the courtyard and down the street have the same set up.  This means that on most days, when you are shaking out your sheets, glaring up at a rain cloud and mentally willing it to stay put, you are in good company hanging out your laundry.

First, it started as just my neighbor - a wonderful, brassy, outgoing Monterosso woman who would yell out advice and gossip to people as far as across the courtyard.  She engaged me every time in conversation and would translate the older women's dialect into more understandable Italian for me.  I would run inside and slammed the door, petrified.  I developed slight anxiety about hanging out the laundry, as having just woken up and getting thrown into conversation with several older Italian ladies in their various states of undress and pajamas, my brain was just not ready.  After a few months, without my neighbor present, I exchanged good mornings or waves with the other ladies.  One particularly tough one finally warmed up to me when I shouted good morning to another old woman passing by, who happened to me Manu's grandfather's brother's wife's sister.  The old woman yelled down, "Ah, she speaks Italian, the girl here?".  Manuel's relative (loosely used) responded, laughing, "Yes, she's learning, she can speak".  The older woman in question then looked at me and glared, but nodded, satisfied, and went inside.

Two days later she asked me if I was Brazilian.  I said no, and responded that I was American, and she again glared and nodded, satisfied (I'm not sure what she has against Brazilians), and went inside.

Finally, one day last week, with all the women outside shouting morning greetings, my neighbor yelled over, "Criiiiiiii," and asked how I was doing in the local dialect, I answered in Italian.  My old woman peeked down, glared as usual, and queried, "You understood that?".  "Yes," I replied, grinning, explaining that Manu's gram speaks it at home.  She nodded, again, but didn't glare, and I was convinced she smiled a little as I joined the conversation outside.  Slowly, the women started asking me questions, asking me if I had gone mushroom hunting yet, and I started asking back - what vegetables do you put in your polpettone?  A sentence here or there over a few months, and my anxiety has mostly gone.  I've gotten to know my neighbors a little bit through this incredibly normal daily task that is incredibly strange to someone who grew up in a house with a yard, a fence, bushes and a clothes dryer.  As I rattle off what's said outside to Manu inside, excitedly telling him how an old lady told me (vaguely, people are a little possessive about their secret mushroom spots) a porcini spot, I stop and grin and then talk about how wonderful it is that all the women talk out on the balconies.  He laughs back, constantly amused that something so incredibly normal here gives me such a kick, and, above all things, a blog entry.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Grandmother's House We Go

Frying up the polpette
There is literally nothing in the world more soothing and soul warming then a little grandmother cooking you lunch.  Unless, of course, she is joined in her cooking by the incredible and previously mentioned Zio Uccio.  After casually remarking that it has been a long, long time since I had a home-cooked meal cooked by someone other then myself, Zio Uccio showed up in the Cantina the next night beaming.  "You must," he said, eyes twinkling, "come to Manuel's grandma's for lunch Wednesday for a Ligurian and Tuscan lunch".

polpette, mmm

Manuel's gram made one of my favorite Ligurian dishes, polpette, along with her famous and famously un-re-creatable frittata di verdure.  Polpette are often referred to as the southern Italian classic, meatballs, but these Ligurian style fried snacks are quite different.  A mixture of rice, potatoes, herbs, chopped meat, cheese and old bread, then coated in egg and flour and breadcrumbs and fried, polpette alla Manuel's gram are crunchy on the outside, fried to a crispy golden brown, but soft and tender inside.
frittata di verdure - dark, local greens

The frittata is equally delicious, and unlike the familiar frittata, this one is heavy on dark greens and uses very little egg.  Using egg only as the binder as it's fried in a pan, it is the exact opposite of the more commonly seen egg-centric frittata.  Green, earthy, crunchy and cheesy, egg isn't even really evident in the flavor of the sliced frittata, served at room temperature with little bits of paper towel soaking up the green juices and oil.

Sauteed peppers, onions and potatoes make up peperonata, a classic Italian vegetarian dish that is literally one of the heaviest but most delicious vegetarian dishes one can eat.  Hefty drizzles of olive oil mean that what remains on the plate - the flavored oil full of sweet pepper and caramelized onion - is as delectable as the main part of the dish.

Finally, Uccio's contribution - risotto with wild mushrooms, as, he informed me triumphantly, "Mushroom season has arrived!"  With a half cup of juicy fresh tomato and the "chef's touch" of bright green parsley scattered atop the rice, we were, needless to say, incredibly full.
Risotto simmering away
Fresh mushrooms
Dessert, another Uccio specialty, of fresh strawberries in a sauce of cream, pureed strawberry, sugar, port wine and black pepper ("to make the strawberries pop"), left us so full that our dinner plans were quickly cancelled.

Uccio made me retake the photo as he didn't garnish it with parsley yet

An interesting take on strawberries and cream - and pepper.
Even if it's not my grandmother per se, it's always wonderful to eat food cooked by one, especially when you throw in a great uncle to boot.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Views from my favorite rock

Ma' Passu, one of the most photographed rocks in the Cinque Terre, also has some of the most incredible, crystal blue water.  During the season, the beach is framed by colorful sunbeds and beach umbrellas, but now, in the winding down days of summer, the beach is empty and the water like glass.

Sung about in dialect songs reserved for festivals, Ma' Passu is Monterossino for "the ocean passes through", as over time, the sea wore down the rock and the water runs through it.