Saturday, July 22, 2006


there have been too many graduations these past weeks, too many trips up flights of stairs and to the curb with furniture, too many suitcases packed and unpacked, too many bottles of spumante to toast the end of an era.

on a ethnographic note: Italian graduations in no way resemble American ones; they're formally more similar to the process I went through getting my MPhil, that weird degree in between an MA and a PhD that is unrecognized by anyone who has not or does not aspire to complete it. The would-be graduate files into a lecture room with an entourage of supporters, sits facing a panel of bored professors who ask a few questions about the thesis paper the candidate has prepared, and attempts to improvise something intelligent. The professors shuffle around papers that probably have nothing to do with the process at hand, perhaps listen in to a few minutes of the ten minute discussion, and uncerimoniously cut off the discussion to dismiss everyone, confer for thirty seconds, then readmit everyone to shake hands, pronounce the candidate graduated, and that is it. Everyone files back out into the hallway to hug and kiss and laugh, crown the graduate with a laurel wreath, pop champagne corks and light cigars. Songs are sung, ritual humilations of the "dottore" enforced, and the family takes everyone for a drink or meal. Then they party.

new dottoresse: M and G, sorellina J plays piano

M refuses to wear the laurels

"flowers" for S: chickory, peppers, a fungo and Beethoven

S, aka "Dottore Cicoria"

the dashing Dottore G

Sunday, July 09, 2006

may I rant a moment?

I use regularly. I like having the recipes at hand here far away from my favorite cookbooks, and I generally trust the quality of anything published in Gourmet.

But I am a masochist when it comes to the recipe reviews. I have enough experience and imagination to understand a recipe at first glance -- that is to say, I can read it and critically analyze, "that seems like a lot of butter...." or "I avoid cakes mixed this way", or, "wow, why didn't I think of that?". So, after a recipe has been run through a professional test kitchen 30 times, I figure either adapt the basic gist and take responsibility if my creation is less than stellar, or follow the recipe because the recipe is what I want to make. On epicurious, anyone can write a review of how their version of the recipe turned out, no matter how many deviations from the recipe they've devised. Writing a recipe review of a formula not followed is like writing a book review of a movie. I cannot bear to read, and yet I continue to read, and fume at the likes of: "well, I used American cheese instead of buffalo mozzarella because it's the only thing my kids will eat, and since there was no prosciutto at my grocery store I bought Oscar Meyer ham.... and I have to say, this recipe is terrible. I won't be making it again any time soon."

I imagine these people as having smaller than average heads and short arms. They believe they like to cook but go about it in a vicious, mean-spirited way. They cook in bad faith. They have no sense of even-handedness, no clue which dishes are sacred classics - already perfected by centuries of experience, no olifactory skills. They serve Dr. Pepper at the dinner table. Their kitchen decor is "comfy country". They wear clothing with embroidered Disney figures on denim. They cannot identify the continent on which you'd find Angola. They do not like mushrooms. And they all write recipe reviews, inevitably negative, never imagining that the missing variable is their own skill.

The recipe assassins and defamers will rot in hell.

and mucca!

Mucca is Misti's best friend. she likes to come over to play in the garden.

(mucca by the way means cow)

meet Misti

new roommate V has unloaded all her things into the other bedroom in Via Broccaindosso. I too now have a permanent space here, having been promoted from Broccaindosso wannabe to resident, making current occupants me and M, Groucho, V, and the new puppy Misti.

Misti is four months old, still unsturdy on long gangly legs and still has a soft puppy fuzz. She keeps me company in the kitchen, watching me cook from her favorite spot under the chair. If I have anything edible at hand she listens very very attently.

Friday, July 07, 2006

forgotten fruits

I've been coveting the neighbors' nespolo for months, every time I peer over the garden wall into their abandoned yard. They visit every few weeks to mow the sad lawn, but leave their apartments empty and their gardens to the prowling neighborhood cats: the massive tiger-striped Theo and his girlfriend, the white and black one that lounges on the opposite roof, the black hulk that appears every so often to pee on my oregano and thyme. I need to find a cat-bane herb to keep them from entirely killing my garden.

The nespolo goes on, blissfully undisturbed, producing metric tons of its tiny yellow fruits. The tree is thick with big silvery leaves, and the nespoli look something like apricots with an exaggerated blossom scar. I considered them inedible until I finally researched what they are -- medlars.
Medlars, it turns out, don't reach their peak until after the first frost, like the native persimmons my brothers and I hunted as kids in North Carolina. They turn wrinkly and brown, and only then does the flesh inside turn sweet, which is why they lend themselves to metaphors like Chaucer's:

This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers --
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers,
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree.
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
This white head reveals my old years;
My heart is as moldy as my hairs,
Unless I fare as does the fruit of the medlar --
That same fruit continually grows worse,
Until it is rotten in rubbish or in straw.
We old men, I fear, fare like that:
Until we are rotten, we can not be ripe;
(From the Reeve's Tale: 3869-3875)

After the neighbors' last visit I found my garden littered with trash they'd tossed over the wall. I interpreted this as an act of war. I'm planning a midnight raid sometime this fall, after the first frost.

In the meantime, my pomegranate has gone from blossom to fruit in a few short weeks.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

green walnuts

I'm struggling to describe the scent of green walnuts. Resinous. Woody. Astringent. Hints of musk, something like the smell of a pile of raked leaves in early autumn, not dried leaves but the smell of green still in them.

Green walnuts to make nocino. I found them at my fruttivendolo after a few anxious days past the appointed June 24, the feast day of San Giovanni Battista. On that pagan midsummer's celebration cum Catholic holiday, tradition holds that the walnuts be gathered before the dew has evaporated. I'd had an eye out for walnut trees to no avail. But the matriarch of the delightfully weird family that runs my favorite fruit and vegetable store had set aside a basket from their family's tree. I recognized them, to her astonishment, and bought a few euros worth. The signora and I have what is known in Italian as "un feeling" -- if I stop by when she's not busy she will advise me on recipes and fill up bags of the last yellow cherries of the season, discounted; I tell her what I'm making for dinner, ask advice about which tomatoes to buy. The "feeling" doesn't extend so far, though, that the best tomatoes aren't also the most expensive....

Once home, I wiped the noci (walnuts) clean and set to quartering them. This was a task for my kitchen machete, a rusting antique I found in a bottom drawer that does double duty as my garden machete for mowing the lawn and pruning -- to my friends' and neighbors' amusement and horror.
A swift smack of the machete cleanly halved the noci, and another produced pieces small enough to fit into the neck of a demijohn. The tannins left greenish brown stains on my hands and chopping board, and immediately turned the pure alcohol I used to cover the noci pieces to a swampy color.

A side note: I was confident from the color and astringent smell that I was dealing with tannins, but checked my instincts with Dr. Duke's phytochemical and ethnobotanical database. As the title suggests, it contains exhaustive information about plants' chemical components -- for example, how much strontium is in walnut husks? -- as well as reported uses of these chemicals and plants. I use it for my amateur botany interests. Anyone with enough of a science background to know what counts as a heavy metal, to know that ascorbic acid is vitamin C, or enough curiosity to wonder, "Am I getting enough molybdenum in my diet?" might find it interesting. It takes great restraint here not to begin ranting about ignorance, I'll save my "anti-oxidants are just the same vitamins and minerals in the same goddamned fruits and vegetables you always knew you were supposed to eat, dumbass! Go choke on some broccoli!" abuses for another post.

The noci get enhanced by a little cinnamon, lemon zest, and cloves and sit until the end of the summer. Then I'll add sugar and water, filter out the noci, and bottle the liqueur. It will still need to mature for three months, at which point it will be chilly enough for the strong, bitter liqueur to be particularly welcome before bedtime.

There is something satisfying in the waiting, thinking ahead to winter evenings, pleasures deferred. I'm bottling up a part of the summer. In with the green walnuts and spices go a memory of this June, who I am now. All of the meanings of serving thimble glasses of nocino to guests, the presentation of "I made this with this moment in mind" are intensely personal and social. I'm acting out an ancient ritual. So if any friends or hellenic gods in disguise stop by this November, I'll be prepared.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

American food

Most of the time I don't miss American food. I am, afterall, in the capital of the region that makes Parmesan cheese, prosciutto di Parma, tortellini, balsamic vinegar di Modena, and any number of lesser known specialties like passatelli (thick noodles made with breadcrumbs and cheese), and the great unknown wines of Romagna. I buy great white table wine, a local fruity pignoletto, at 7 euros for a five liter demijohn. I am well fed in Bologna.
I'm sure I've written something of the sort before, but it bears repeating because the local food is so good. However, there are days when I'd kill for a homemade chocolate chip cookie. My imported supply of chips ran out weeks ago, soon after I a first batch to introduce to Italian friends at the Italy-USA world cup match. "SSSSHhhh!!!" C. kept telling me when I presented them as "biscotti americani", "You're going to get us beat up!". But for all the hissing at the US team going on in the crowd, the "biscotti americani" were acknowledged as "the best biscotti I've ever had".
Since I do nearly all my own cooking, I have plenty of opportunity to make my own American food. But sometimes this is a challenge: how do you make a cherry crumble in a place without oatmeal? I've brewed my own vanilla extract for American desserts, and searched for brown sugar everywhere (finally found as 'organic cane sugar' in a supermarket). There are no little summer beets for beet and goat cheese salads, no molasses for my kickass barbecue sauce, no jalepeno peppers to make salsa, no tortillas, no cheddar cheese for cheeseburgers, no corn on the cob, no sugarsnap peas, no maple syrup for the first pancakes my friends ever tasted. Not to mention the tacos al pastor or rice vermicelli with barbecued pork and springrolls or crystal shrimp dumplings or baklava I was accustomed to find near home in New York.
As a result, I've become a master of substitution. Tonight's July 4th meal, overshadowed by the Italy-Germany world cup semifinals, includes barbecued chicken, cucumber salad, and peach cobbler. The cucumber salad and peach cobbler aren't much changed, other than making mint the herbal note instead of the classic dill with my cucumbers in yogurt. But my kickass barbecue sauce, which usually requires a hefty dose of bourbon, a couple star anise, and molasses has become a grappa, fennel seed, chestnut honey and hefty dose of espresso glaze. Necessity of the mother of invention: it still kicks ass.

1 large onion
2 big cloves garlic
2 leftover demitasses of espresso (M's study group this afternoon forgot they made coffee)
cayenne pepper
black pepper
fennel seeds
chestnut honey

I can't provide real quantities of most ingredients, since barbecue sauce-making is a taste-and-adjust art form. Very very slowly carmelize the onions and garlic, both finely minced. Add the spices and allow to become fragrant, about 10 seconds, then dump in espresso and honey. Start sqeezing in ketchup soon after, then a few glugs of grappa. Depending on the ketchup and the honey (ketchup varies widely in amounts of sugar and vinegar, while honey always does its own thing, depending on the region, the bees, etc) you'll want to adjust sweetness and sourness to taste. And salt.
Basically a tomato-based barbecue sauce is always a soffrito base (onions) plus sweet(brown sugar, honey, molasses, fruit, marmelade, or something weird like soft drinks), plus sour - partially from tomato product (paste, chopped, sauce, or ketchup) plus additions (usually vinegar, though I've used rhubarb or tamarind with excellent results), plus salty (salt, soy sauce, worchester), plus additional levels to the flavor profile: spices, whiskey or beer or grappa!, cayenne, etc. Any cook should have their own barbecue favorite.

Being a North Carolinian, I favor vinegary sauces, even if I'm making a non-Carolina tomato barbecue sauce. I'm holding out for a whole pig and the day I can convince M. to dig a fire pit for a real Carolina bbq. Hushpuppies and slaw and banana pudding and all...

Happy 4th of July from a self-exile.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

pretending I'm Wm Saphire for a minute

One of the great advantages of being affiliated with a big American university is access to the library, which in this day and age includes any number of databases, journals, reference works, etc online. This means that while living in Italy, I can use their services daily. I get a kick out of foiling the NYTimes online's attempts to gradually convert ever greater parts of their site to subscription only, creeping through the back door with Factiva or other fulltext services to see the latest Michael Pollan or editorials.

All of which is great for staying on top of the news, or at least the news that does not involve soccer players or their girlfriends, former royalty turned mafiabuddy-prostitutionkingpin-gamblingimpresario, the sexual predations of politicos, or
other antics of silvio and his robber-baron buddies. But for nerd-ly satisfaction, the Oxford Emglish Dictionary online can't be beat.

Today I logged onto the OED with my morning coffee to find an etymology (doesn't everyone wake up with a burning desire to know how 'snorkel' weaseled its way into the English language?). These were listed on the main page as recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary:
First impression: the OED editors have been hanging out in New York. Second: 'yada yada...' is a good addition, but the etymology offered is "Imitative of the sound of human speech, prob. influenced by (or perh. an alteration of) YATTER n." -- isn't it Yiddish? I'm nearly positive it's Yiddish. Third: 'bouncebackability'? So maybe I'm a linguistic conservative, but what's next? 'sticktoitiveness'? And fourth: 'air kiss' just smacks of socialite affectations. My suspicion that socialite slang might be included while other 'lesser' types would not turns out to be unfounded. A cursory review reveals that 'ho' and 'ghetto blaster' are actually in the OED, and phrases like "ghetto fabulous" can be found in the quotes.

Another linguistic note: the road to hell is paved with emoticons (ugh, even the name irks). I refuse to cave to the semi-literacy that enables that practice.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

scampagnata -- escape from Bologna

Instructions: Wake up all your friends as early as possible on a Saturday morning. Corrale them, some mortadella sandwiches, beachtowels and bottled water into a Fiat Panda. Drive into the Appenines as far as possible, until the backseat passengers are groaning with carsickness. Hike into some unfamiliar forest along something resembling a path, following the sound of water.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

super frittura

When I discovered that fresh anchovies cost only 2.50 euros a kilo, I decided I needed to learn to clean fresh anchovies. Cleaning fish is never a task I take lightly, and cleaning little fishes seemed even more daunting. I imagined myself starring in a 'Lucy works in a cannery' episode of "I Love Lucy". Luckily anchovies are fairly simple: snip the fins, cut the belly, gut and remove the head and bones in one clean sweep. No hilarity ensues.


I love little fishes. Smelts, sardines, fried, marinated, salted... I would keep a tank of alici, anchovies, in my kitchen if it were plausible (I have researched the possibility).

This particular anchovy was destined for a mega fritto misto at Via Broccaindosso last night. Despite the 98 degree heat we gathered around a cauldron of oil to fry up alici and totani (see holy squid!) and french fries accompanied by cold beer.

Monday, June 12, 2006

what am I eating

...salads. lots of salads.
here's a favorite, which appears on my table often and in various guises:

1 clove garlic
juice of one lemon
4-6 anchovy filets
olive oil

I play fast and loose with the porportions, depending on how I feel: more or less garlic or lemon, salt, anchovies. Crush the garlic with a swift, humane blow, remove the skin, toss into your salad bowl and cover with salt. After a few minutes under salt the garlic is easier to mash. Mash with a fork, add anchovies and mash them as well. Squeeze in lemon, generously drizzle olive oil, and whisk. Give it a generous grind of fresh pepper while you're at it.

I love this on crisp steamed green beans and flat beans, taccole. Be sure to toss in the dressing while your steamed vegetables are still warm. Boiled potatoes are also delicious added to the green bean salad. Other good options: cherry tomatoes, olives, tuna, hard boiled eggs... Let cool for an hour, and you'll find the vegetables absorb the flavors and soften a bit.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

my new favorite website: James Lilek's Gallery of Regrettable Food. for those of you who like to laugh until you cry. warning: contains bodily function humor.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

holy squid!

Yesterday's New York Times online lists 'guilt-free fish' in Holy Mackerel... which happens to omit a class of seafood I've been thinking about since I prepared a member the other day with sublime results: cephalopods. Calamari are probably no big deal to anyone who enjoys seafood, but can you recognize a well-cooked octopus? Let alone the difference between a polpo and a moscardino? (both translate as 'octopus' but are different species: moscardini are littler critters)

My accidental discovery of the culinary possibilities of seppie, or cuttlefish, began with an exasperating trip to the market where my normal fishmongers were closed and the one I found open had nothing I knew how to prepare or could purchase without selling a kidney. So I bought a kilo of cheap and hideous seppie, filthy in their own ink. I got the fishman to clean them for me, batting eyelashes and asking very very nicely. The cleaning is no small task -- I would have mangled them if I'd done it myself. Like all cephalopods, seppie have a creepy, alien anatomy : an oblong cartiledge familiar to bird owners as the white thing for Tweety to sharpen his beak on, disporportionately large eyes, a beak and ring of teeth hidden at the base of the tentacles. The fishman wrapped the pieces up neatly, still in their own ink, and I cycled home to get them in the fridge. I marinated them for about an hour in the juice of a lemon, olive oil and a little salt, then grilled them on a cast-iron griddle about 8 minutes a side, deglazed the griddle with a glug of white wine and drizzled the juices over top.

Prepared simply, the seppie were fabulous: tender and the sea flavors undisguised. My friends and I finished our portions and fought to wipe the pan with pieces of bread, not leaving a drop of inky sauce wasted.

Which brings me back to the omission of these mollusks from the guilt-free fish list. The over-fishing of certain popular fishes, like Chilean seabass, was a major motivation for the NYTimes article. There are many underused fishes deserving of fine restaurant and home cook attention. But there are also the throw-away fishes that wind up trailing at the end of a fisherman's line, often equally deserving of a place at table. As a child I was told stories of how fisherman in my native North Carolina in recent history considered shrimp nothing more than bait. Having cleaned several times my own weight in shrimp, I understand how these weird underwater bugs might seem unworthy of the effort to render them edible. But today we rarely see them with their ugly faces still attached -- they come decapitated, shelled, deveined, without legs and often precooked to our markets. I recently pointed out cicale, or canocchie, to my father as an example of the unfamiliar seafoods available here. He responded, "They have those are in North Carolina too. But no one eats them."
While it is possible to inadvertently pierce a lip trying to eat what little meat is in the cicala tail, the flavors are rich and worth a little effort. They are often included whole in a zuppa di pesce, a fish stew, for the depth these flavors add to the sauce. I can imagine them as an addition to fish stocks, and they'd make a marvelous bisque.

So here is my own fish list, of the Italian seafoods I think are worth some attention and certainly deserving of a fate more dignified than bait. Italian names are followed by a rough translation to English and the scientific name for specificity. These are no beauty queens, but delicious, I promise.

Part I: Cephalopods
polpo -- octopus (Octopus vulgaris)

moscardino -- baby octopus (Eledone moschata)

moscardino bianco -- baby white octopus (Eledone cirrhosa)

calamaro -- squid (Loligo vulgaris)

calamaretto -- baby squid (Alloteuthis media)

seppia -- cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis)

totano -- squid (Ilex coindetii)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

I won't bore you with the contrite prodigal blogger drivel, but lately I've been spending my spare writing time planning a new project for the blogosphere. Or rather, a real, permanent web home for my food and travel writing, in anticipation of shifting my energies permanently towards that part of my life.

Some hints of what you can expect: articles on lesser wine varieties, descriptions of my visits to local sagre, the festivals in little Italian towns celebrating their one major product, food history, essays on biodiversity, recipes...

Friday, May 26, 2006

cinque terre fotos

Last week I took brief trip with my parents to the Cinque Terre : Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, 5 towns perched in the maritime Alps on the coast of Liguria. The trails that connect the towns were difficult in some places, but rewarded our efforts with spectacular views...