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.