Friday, June 29, 2012

Cures for food boredom

It happens, from time to time, that I simply get bored with food.  It was worse in grad school, when I literally spent every minute of my day writing about food, reading about food, talking about food, serving food, and then eating food - it just stopped being interesting.  In Italy, the arguable capital of passionate food lovers, this same boredom starts to creep in but for other reasons.  I eat every meal, more or less, at the Cantina.  Don't misunderstand this as a bad thing - our food is excellent, and it's wonderful having fresh, hot, delicious meals every day that I don't need to cook or, more importantly, clean up.
Having said that, being allergic to shellfish, shrimp, calamari and pretty much everything fun, coupled with eating dinner at midnight most nights, limits what I can eat or want to eat at such a late hour.  There are, sadly, only so many anchovies one can eat.  I try to mix it up with steak, local cheese plates, delicious salumi, sword fish, but I'm a girl who needs a little hoisin and sriracha in her life, and there are only so many weeks I can go without throwing harissa over something.
This week, using easy ingredients I found here at the town market, along with a little southeast asian and northern african pizzazz, I put together two easy lunches that served as dinners as well for a few days - at least until the curious staff at the restaurant got to them.  These plates are easy, healthy, and delicious, and certainly helped brush off some of my food boredom.

Chilled Sesame Soba Noodles with Veggies
Serves 2

1 bundle soba noodles (buckwheat noodles that are wonderful for you and now quite easy to find - even here)
Two big handfuls of thinly sliced raw vegetables - I used one cucumber, one zucchini, a shaved carrot, and a head of raddichio
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp thai red chili paste
Juice of one lime
Handful of diced scallions
1 spoonful of grated ginger
1Tsp honey
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
Sesame seeds

Cook the noodles according to package instructions, being careful to not overcook them (they get glue-like and that is never appetizing).  Chill them quickly by leaving them in the strainer and running them under cold water.  Mix in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, whatever you have around, as long as they are chopped thin and long, which makes them easier to eat with the noodles.  Combine remaining ingredients in a separate bowl, mix well, and drizzle over your noodles and vegetables.  Toss well, garnish with sesame seeds and a bit of hot sauce if you like.

Northern African Inspired Chickpea and Zucchini Sautee with Quinoa
Serves 2

1/2 Cup Quinoa
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 red onion, chopped thinly
4 small zucchini, sliced thin
1 cup of chickpeas, rinsed well
1 small can of tomato puree
1 1/2 tbsp harissa (a Northern African spice blend you can find pre-made, or you can make your own - I use paprika, chili pepper, cayenne, garlic, salt, cumin, coriander and caraway)
1 lemon
Chopped cilantro
Cilantro Ice Cubes - my savior.  Rinse cilantro and shake dry gently.  Chop finely, leaving a bit of the water,
and put in an ice cube tray in the freezer.  The water will freeze the cilantro together,
and whenever you need to add some to a soup or sauce, just drop a cube in.

Prepare the Quinoa according to instructions.  While it is cooking, in another large sautee pan over med-low heat, cook the onion and garlic in oil.  When the garlic starts to golden, add the zucchini and chickpeas, and cook until the onions and zucchini are soft.  Add the tomato puree, and cook for another 5-7 minutes.  Add the harissa, mix well, and continue cooking for another few minutes.  When the ingredients are very soft, almost falling apart, turn off the heat and add the juice of half a lemon and sprinkle cilantro over the mixture, then mixing everything in.  Serve hot, over quinoa.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

giant death bugs

I'm scared of bugs.  All bugs.  I've never touched a worm in my life, I scream when something lands on me, and spiders and I have been fighting a lifelong war.  College roommates of mine may remember that in lieu of squishing these creepy crawlers, I'd trap them under drinking glasses and wait for someone to get home and do it for me.  I've gotten over the annoyance that when I scream or ask someone to remove a bug from my presence, people scoff that I'm "such a girl" or "a baby".  I don't like them.  That's that.
I've gotten lucky in Italy that I've only had one spider encounter in our house, and instead of insects jumping out of the bushes, we have little lizards scampering up the walls (which, I can't lie, have startled me more then once).  However, in the place of other creatures, I've learned of two new threats to my existence and sanity here in Italy that I've never seen before.
One is simply named the "giant line of death caterpillars".  A few months ago, at the start of the spring, a ling line of caterpillars that seemed to link head to tail, started crawling along on the stairs.  It was a long line of what seemed like dozens of little caterpillars linked, and I walked over it, thinking nothing of their harmless American cousins that little kids (not me, obviously) play with.  Manuel, on the way home, hopped over the line and started cursing worriedly in Italian.  "You cannot touch these," he said, seriously, as we hurried home, "you will get a fever and die".  This became a joke for a little with me, as I thought he was mildly exaggerating the danger of a harmless caterpillar, but when I saw a few older Monterosso women in nightgowns lighting the caterpillar line on fire, also cursing worriedly, I got to Google.  Apparently, the "pine processionary caterpillar" is another matter entirely, and a quite dangerous one.  These bugs thrive in pine trees, stripping them dry then linking in these lines to form their next victim.  The dust from the tree can be as dangerous as the hair on the insects, which is a threat to small pets and children, not familiar with their danger.  I covered myself with a giant head to toe shawl climbing the stairs for the rest of the death caterpillar season.
Now that they have gone on their way, the summer has brought another old nemesis of mine, the giant black death bee.  The calabrone is a bee that is shiny and black and about 1-2 inches long.  Imagine a giant bumblebee in Darth Vader's suit.  Manuel told me that his dad was stung by one once and in the hospital for days with, you guessed it, a fever.  Fortunately, the latter part of the story changed, but these bee stings can be lethal to those allergic and, again, kids and pets.  This I needed no warning, as these bees are scary and threatening looking - the english name, Valley Carpenter Bee, does not do it justice.  Giant death bee is much more appropriate.
In addition to this cast of characters, we have regular bees (which make good honey and such gorgeous flowers), snakes (which, oddly, I'm not scared of) and some wild boar to boot.  On the sailboat the other day, we were discussing Liguria with my Aunt and Uncle and our boat skipper, who spoke little English, but enough to say that much of Liguria is the "wild side".  All of these creatures, like them or not, might scare me but beat New York cockroaches and suburban skunks any day.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sail away

My Aunt and Uncle are here, and as a delayed birthday present, Manuel rented a sailboat with a skipper to take us around the area.  We sailed as far as the small islands by Portovenere, stopping for swims along the way (the weather was about 30 degrees, so swim stops were very much needed), and we had a simple lunch prepared by our skipper.
Our boat waiting for us

Corniglia from the sea


A Madonna in the ocean.  With a seagull on her head.

Ciao, boat.  See you soon, I hope.
For a girl who can't swim very well, I have always been enamored by water and boats, and sailboats are now at the top of my list.  It really is the best way to appreciate how small and special these towns are, as they peek out from giant rock formations that crash into the sea, sloping down from terraced vineyards.  I'm glad I got to share it, finally, with some of my family.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Full on summer

Paving Via Molinelli!

My weather whining has paid off and we are rewarded with summer sun and temperatures in the high 20's (mid 80's), a cloudless sky, and still seas all week.  The forecast, though remarkably unreliable, backs this up and I'm hoping for once it's right.  As we enter the weekend, the towns start to fill up with  Italians trickling in for weekends at the beach from the cities, and I start to again loop my head around speaking to several tables at the same time in several languages.  I've been doing a lot of flood explaining lately, as people come in lamenting about "poor Vernazza".  Poor Vernazza, indeed, but it's a good sign and a little frustrating at the same time that people don't even know that we were also on the brink of being destroyed.  It's a testament to the great amount of work that we've done, and the amazing job of rebuilding Monterosso undertook this winter that we are as beautiful, if not more, then before, but it does get frustrating when people don't understand that the last little flood fixing up that is going on is not poorly planned street work.  Via Molinelli is being paved this weekend, after being ripped up and gutted in the flood, and more then one group has commented on the "Italian" non-sensical behavior of paving a street in the prime tourist season, as though they could simply just wait.  As though the street was never filled with meters of mud and water.
I'm the first one to complain about Italian non-sensical behavior, but it's funny that the last signs of flood cleanup are being construed as poorly planned town maintenance - that the last little pieces of the puzzle would be seen as the biggest.

I've also realized that this world is full of disasters that destroy lives and towns and cities every day.  About once every few days, someone asks me about the flood and the recovery, then follows with a horrible story of their own - a group of women who saw their town destroyed in the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.  New Zealanders from Christchurch who saw their lives crumble in the earthquake.  New Orleans natives who never made it back after Katrina, now living in Virgina.  A group of Thai girls who have their own horrific experiences with flood, one of whom lost her house.  It's sometimes surprising to me that our disaster didn't make the front page of every newspaper in the world, but then you take a step back and realize that though the flood was the only thing you have talked about, thought about and had nightmares about in the past few months, the rest of the world has their hands full too.

Now, more or less, it seems like NOT seeing what happened here in October is easier then seeing it.  The water is blue, scattered with canoes and surf boards, the beaches are colored with towels and umbrellas, and the restaurants, thankfully, are full of diners smiling and commenting on how wonderful Monterosso looks.  The familiar smell of asphalt wafts down Via Fegina, and visitors walking by wrinkle their nose.  And I smile, again remembering how thankful I am to have streets.  And people to come in and walk on them, noses wrinkled or not.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Finding some sun

Baia del Silenzio, or the Bay of Silence

We woke up to another cloudy Wednesday here in Monterosso, and I really couldn't take it.  We have one day off a week to laze around at the giant beach I stare at most hours of the day, and another beach-less Wednesday was not in my cards.  I would find a beach with some sun.  Knowing how the weather here changes quickly and even from town to town, I recruited my easygoing boyfriend for a little field trip to Sestri Levante, a town about 20 minutes away and one I had only been to for dinner.  As we were getting ready, I discovered that this is another town that Manuel, having lived his whole life only minutes away from, has also never been to during the day.  I have seen pictures, read hotel reviews, and knew it was probably worth seeing - and far enough from these hills that seem to be trapping clouds over our little village.
20 minutes later on a very easy train ride, we would up in the town, which is more like a "city" here.  A short walk led us to the main shopping streets, which were full of clothing stores, a manicurist (!), cute gelateria shops (I counted 6) and little alleyways that wiggle below the intricately painted facades that are so typical of Ligurian seaside villages.  Sestri Levante, often only referred to as "Sestri", had a blue, cloudless sky and plenty of sun.  No one told us about the wind.
Sestri is more or less on a little peninsula that juts off from the main part of Liguria. Surrounded by two beautifully named bays, the Baia Delle Favole on one side, and the Baia Del Silenzio on the other.  The Baia Delle Favole, or the "bay of fairy tales" is named in honor of Hans Christian Anderson, who lived in the town for a little bit in the 1800's, and is a beautiful stretch of beach with private clubs and colorful umbrellas.  The Bay of Silence is more intimate, a small horseshoe of sand, and a little bay of striking aqua with boats bobbing peacefully a few meters out.
Your choice of lounge chairs
The little windy streets turn into wind tunnels as you pass through the buildings towards the blue water in front of you.  Manuel actually was walking with his shirt attached to him by the wind blowing towards him.  Our day at the beach was a half hour, and we left with tons of the fine sand they have in this area attached to our face and in our hair.  Drinking mojitos at a beach bar more towards the peninsula and away from the bay was a much better idea.
Baia Delle Favole
Perhaps the most surprising thing was the lack of tourists - or anyone - in the town.  Big, grand hotels lining the shore seemed empty.  Hundreds of beach chairs occupied by only a handful looked sad and lonely.  Restaurants, at 1:30-2 pm, were full of tables set with starched linens and waiters quietly standing, arms crossed, bored.  We asked the older waitress at lunch where all the guests were, and she sadly responded that this season has been the slowest in memory.  When hearing we were from Monterosso, she perked up, assuming the reason Sestri was slow was because we were still slow from the flood, and that lack of tourists in the Cinque Terre was trickling over to the other Riviera towns.  When we responded that we actually were doing really well so far this season, she was surprised.  "Here," she waved her hands to show us the majority of empty tables, "there is no one."

A little bit of wind

It was sad, but at the same time another reminder of how very lucky we are to have the tourism that we do in Monterosso - the Cantina has been full almost every night.  Guests are leaving much earlier, as many booked a room after the flood outside the Cinque Terre, but come here for day trips.  Maybe they are even staying in Sestri, but eating meals and exploring the Cinque Terre during the day.  Regardless, if you have the time, Sestri is definitely worth a visit, with it's enchantingly windy bays and shopping options.

Empty now, as they depend on Italian tourism, that picks up later in the season, the waitress explained, it's a lovely little seaside city to have to yourself.  And I'd imagine they have wonderful wind-surfing as well.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Streets paved...with flowers

Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year - Corpus Domini.  Though Catholic, I guiltily confess it's not because of the religious significance of this important holiday, which commemorates and celebrates the joy and presence of Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist.  It's mainly because of the incredible flower mosaics that weave through the streets and alleyways of Monterosso to celebrate the day.

There are many reasons given for the Italian tradition of creating flower mosaics on the streets for Corpus Domini - from Sicily to Lazio to Liguria - but my favorite is that the patterns, which almost always have religious significance, lead straight to the Church, in case anyone forgot.  It's like a beautiful but very pointed nudge.  The day ends almost globally with a procession of the priest and the faithful, as the lead the Eucharist to the Church, and another story tells that the tradition of the flower mosaics was to usher the sacrament into the Church with joy and beauty.

Either way, it's gorgeous and unique - the mosaics are intricate and take lots of planning.  First designed then sketched in chalk, hands of all ages take part in filling the outline in with flower petals, colored sand, coffee grinds, painted salt, rocks, twigs and so forth.  The final product is beautiful, and even more poignant when you remember that just a few months ago we didn't even have streets.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The cultural melting pot of Monterosso

There are so many great things about living here, but last night I realized a new one that I have been perhaps taking for granted.  I'm from a pretty international area - New York and New Jersey have more then their fair share of different cultures that weave into a global hodgepodge that takes influences from the farthest corners of the planet.  Sushi isn't even "ethnic" anymore, and people flock to new openings of cuisines they can't even find on a map - Sri Lankan (spicy and like Thai and Indian had a culinary offspring), the provinces of India, Ethiopia, all the countries and colors of South America, Mongolia, Northern Europe, and so forth.  If Antartica had a cuisine, a parade, an anything, you bet we'd have it in New York.
What I found myself engaging in culinary in the city - a sort of culinary tourism if you will - I'm immersed in here.  Instead of sitting down at a table and interacting in a culture by eating it's food, I'm in a place that fills with tourists, and not all of them American.  It's a lesson in tolerance every day - it's easy to say one culture is loud, another rude, another demanding,  but there are wonderful people and idiots in every country, and I've encountered both.
Today, I started the day learning how to say hi in Vietnamese, and smiling that the United States is the only country where you can ask a group of people eating and chatting excitedly in a foreign language where they are from, and they say happily, "California".  The Vietnamese table was followed by a incredibly sweet elderly French couple from Marsailles, who spoke no Italian or English, but yelled, laughing, "Mamma Mia" every time I dropped a plate off, and gave me the international thumbs up, waving and giggling.  They were a few tables over from another German couple, eagerly trying their Italian, but dropping in German words every few seconds "eins espresso per favore" which made my heart melt.  A gorgeous Swedish couple dropped by for dessert, smiling, blonde, with relatives in New York and soft accents.  A couple from Turino with their newborn ate leisurely, taking pictures, sipping wine.  Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders were everywhere, along with Brazilian families who speak words here and there for Italian mixed in with Portugese.  An Indian family wolfed down spicy vegetarian pasta - prepared spicy, just for them - as next to them an older couple from Minnesota told me this was a trip they saved up their whole lives for.  An Italian family on hoiliday asked me, in Italian, to babysit their two incredibly rowdy toddlers, the mother not really kidding - hair out of place, brow furrowed as she chased them down the road.  I talked white wines with a couple from Monteral, who then befriended a table from Lyon next to them, and we parted with a "Bon soir".  I went home that night with a bar full of Italians, chatting after finishing long days of work at other restaurants in town.
If anything, it's made my resolve to learn French (after I get this Italian in my head), and to learn a word or two in every language.  You can't imagine the look of surprise on someone's face when you tell them "Cheers" in Norwegian or Tagolog, or ask them if they want another round in Japanese.  Good or bad, it's always something new, interesting and different - and after a year like we've had, I've never been more thankful for these people coming to visit us and help us after what we've rebuilt.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thank you

It's amazing to meet people who read my blog.  Thank you all so much for coming here, coming in and saying hi, and making my day - really, it's wonderful.  Grazie mille :)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

More birthdays

This time, it was mine.
I don't know if I'll ever get used to having a birthday without my family and friends around, but it does get easier the more friends I make here and the closer I get to Manuel's family.  It's not the same, but it is nice in a different way.
The Vernazza apartment - on the second story - still mud lines
As I've explained, this month has been full of parties.  Openings after the flood, followed by the kick off of festivals and two other birthday parties of friends, week after week has been cake and prosecco filled.  That's why for my birthday, which though technically was on Friday but celebrated on Wednesday since the Cantina is closed, was spent doing nothing cake related at all.  We woke up late and did my favorite activity in Monterosso - took the tourist boat around.   Tourist or not, seeing the Cinque Terre by boat is really the most amazing way to appreciate how small and isolated this little piece of coast dotted with villages is, and even when you know that they are small, it's still a great view.
birthday tian :)
We had a long lunch in Vernazza, which was more amusing when our waiter picked out Manuel's accent and then figured out how they knew each other and were, in fact, related through some sort of marriage, as Manuel's grandparents were from Vernazza.  The lunch was beautiful, and it's really great to see Vernazza getting back on it's feet, but at the same time, it was Manuel's first time seeing Vernazza since the flood, and while we were there we checked in on their first floor apartment there.  So many months later, with our lives busy, mud-free and totally back to normal, it's a hard blow to see mud again.  It brings you crashing back down to Earth to see more things to fix, more mud to scrape off, more walls needing to be gutted.  Vernazza looks so much better then it did, but, understandably, it's not where it was, and this wasn't easy to see for the first time for me, let alone for someone who has lived their whole life here.
View of some of the mudslide remainders from the boat
After we left, we sailed over to Riomaggiore for cocktails at the little bar right before the Via Dell'Amore, which has the most amazing view.  At the right time in the afternoon, you have the place to yourself,  hanging over the water, sitting in the sun and gazing at the sea.  Then, back to Monterosso.  A perfect Wednesday ended with dinner back at home at Miky, where I can eat all sorts of wonderful things from the sea that I'm not allergic too, and when you know the chef, your food allergy anxiety is non-existant.
Corniglia by sea
A perfect birthday Wednesday could only be topped by a perfect actual birthday.  I wanted to do something I've never done before, and I picked paddle boarding.  I'm a scaredy-cat, worry-wort who can't swim quite well, so this was a bold move.  Thanks to my other American-Monterosso ladies, I walked to the beach Friday morning to umbrellas covered in ballons, prosecco, cake, fruit, and my fears staring me right in the face.  I tried it, and couldn't really stand up too well (mainly because I saw a huge jellyfish swimming underneath me and didn't want to fall on it) but it was still quite fun and I'm excited to float around town again.  Ironically, my beloved tourist boat was stirring up some waves that made my fledgling paddle boarding even more wobbly.  Friday afternoon, I headed to work, but was surprised by a "not" surprise party with all of Monterosso that night.  Manuel's mom and great-Aunt brought in a huge cake and bottles of prosecco, and conveniently, all of our friends (and then some) happened to be there for the occasion.  Randomly, two mixologists from San Diego were there drinking, and whipped us up some great cocktails later on in the night.  It never ceases to amaze me how many randomly odd things happen here.  Last week, a nude New Zealand man wandered over to the Cantina, literally - totally naked - and wanted help finding his hotel room and clothing.  He didn't even remember he had left his more drunk wife inside the room.  This week, flaming cocktails and a dance party.  Two weeks ago, an angry Japanese chihuahua.  And two more earthquakes to boot.

The most wonderful place for a drink

My third birthday cake

guest bartenders whipping up flaming drinks
At least it's never boring, and I had a great time at all my birthday celebrations.  It would have been made better only by having my family and friends here, but it's really wonderful to read facebook messages and e-mails to remind me of all the love and wonderful people I have in my life, all over this crazy world.