Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dopo Il Giorno di Ringraziamento: After-Thanksgiving in Rome


Ah, life as an expat in Italy. Though not always easy, of course, it is a sweet life on the whole. One of the upsides of living so far from home was the closeness this bred among friends. And nowhere was this bond more evident than over a huge meal -- which, for those of us who are or were Americans living in Rome, means Thanksgiving.

The first year I spent Thanksgiving in Rome, I was new, and bold enough in my kitchen job to ask for the day off of work. I made sure that our group of friends had our very own expat Thanksgiving to celebrate, with family favorite recipes and more side dishes than we could fit on any table. That first year started a tradition among us for the Big Rome Expat Thanksgiving. We had some basic rules to follow: everyone was to bring a dish (usually a side dish but sometimes an appetizer or a dessert), a small donation (to help pay for decor, plates and utensils, etc.), and a bottle of wine (in Rome in late November, that meant a lot of bottles of novello, the light, young wine perfect for drinking with turkey). The only guests allowed, with some degree of flexibility on a case-by-case basis, were Americans, close English-mother-tongue friends (often Brits), and significant others. The significant other category was usually the only way Italians were invited to join in our very American traditional feast.

This didn't mean that our table wasn't full of its fair share of italiani. So many in our famiglia romana had a spouse or S.O. who was Roman, or at least from somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Some of our Americans were half-Italian, our Italians half-American. But at the Thanksgiving table, everybody was an honorary American. 

Of course, Italians and particularly Romans are furbi: sly, especially when it comes to good food. So our Italian friends who knew they had no claim to a place at our expat Thanksgiving table also knew that there would be plenty of leftovers, and on a Friday, and really, that was the best part. 

"Thanksgiving," my friend Matteo once claimed, is the American holiday "piu' figo di tutti." It was a sentiment echoed year after year by my Italian amiciThanksgiving is the best American holiday, by far. It's because it's a secular celebration that's ALL about eating -- certainly as much as any Italian saint day or celebratory feast day. Italians can really appreciate that. And so can we, as Americans! My favorite part of the whole production was enjoying the leftovers, whether simply reheated or made into one fabulous panino, or converted into a sort of shepherd's pie, American style. 

I remember with particular fondness one Thanksgiving in the mid-aughts, when my friend and stand-in for little sister, Tilly, ended up sleeping over after the Thanksgiving meal, and we stayed up late eating il secondo dessert (dessert, part two) and binge-watching the American version of the series The Office until the wee hours. And, we put a dent in the excess of wine we had left over. 

We woke up late the next morning (ok, afternoon) and my Italian friends began calling. What are you doing for lunch today? they'd ask. Are you at home, and might it be okay if I passed by to say hello?  Some would ask, how about doing an aperitivo at your place tonight? Can I come by around 5 pm? We all knew it was a put-on. We all knew what they were getting at. And anyway, I'd promised my dear Italian friends for whom we'd not had room at the expat Thanksgiving table, that there would always be room for them to enjoy our feast the next day (when everything tastes better, anyway). I'd walk them through all of our dishes -- some regionally-inspired, like Martin's creamed corn casserole, others personal family traditions, like my Mom's spinach pie, and others historically traditional, like sweet potatoes and succotash. 

Gareth always loved his glazed carrots. GB made cornbread. I insisted on making whole cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries (the search for which is worthy of a separate blog post!), and I always wanted a few different types of stuffing because, well, stuffing is personal. And the desserts! I always made something chocolate, an apple pie, and either a pecan pie or chocolate-swirl cheesecake (or Lizzy made a pumpkin one)...and on and on. My Italian friends' faces would light up when I'd go through the history of the dishes, and why they were served on our holiday table, and who made them and why. And then we'd all dig in. Many of the flavors on Thanksgiving were completely new to the Italians enjoying them (cranberry sauce, pecan pie, corn casserole). Some were familiar (stuffing is like a warm panzanella, with no tomatoes or cucumbers or vinegar! Corn bread is polenta-adjacent!) All were delicious, and devoured. In my not-so-humble opinion, my apartment in Rome was always the site of some of the best dinner parties anyone has attended, expat or no. But no organized dinners were quite so joyous as the meals we shared among friends-as-family, reheated in casserole dishes and Pyrex platters, heaped onto paper plates, and washed down with Italian wine and great conversation on those late November afternoons.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad




Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh. The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.
They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.


 


Friday, September 2, 2016

RECIPE: L'Amatriciana, In Honor of Amatrice


  
Italy is dealing with a natural disaster of grave proportions right now. Again. The earthquake that struck central Italy in the areas of Rieti and Amatrice has devastated several beautiful and charming hill towns (of which there seem to be countless iterations peppered throughout Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo, and Le Marche). These are the core of Italy's charming and historic central regions that span from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west to the Adriatic on the east coast. In a country obscenely rich in tourist attractions of every variety, these smaller towns often get overlooked by many travelers -- often to the delight of local residents. These hill towns, somewhat unfortunately, are nestled in the Apennine mountains, which are essentially the geological spine of Italy, and run along a fault line where Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. So, as we saw seven years ago in L'Aquila, activity along these fault lines can be disastrous, and deadly. The images of Amatrice before and after, for example, are sad and humbling.

I've spent plenty of time in these central regions of Italy, as friends have houses in the countryside from Lazio to Umbria, from southern-central Tuscany over to Ascoli-Piceno in Le Marche. I've attended countless sagre (food and wine festivals) in these parts, traveled through mountainous, winding roads, often in search of a great little restaurant off the beaten path.
My memories of these parts, and the people here, are numerous, and fond. So it was heartbreaking last week that I was receiving play-by-play texts from friends a little too close for comfort to the epicenter of the earthquake, experiencing very scary after-shocks. And what saddened me to no end is the reality that last weekend was supposed to be the 50th annual sagra (festival) of Amatrice's most famous (namesake) dish, pasta all'amatriciana. I know many restaurants, both in Italy and in America, are helping out victims and towns that suffered heavy damages in the earthquake by donating a portion of their sales of pasta all'amatriciana to Italy's red cross. And that's great, but I don't have a restaurant and all I can do is encourage others to donate as much and as often as possible. And as comfort, I can instruct and share my recipe for my favorite Roman pasta dish. It's one that I turn to time and again, and it happens to be best at this time of year, when tomatoes are at their sweetest and most flavorful. 

A little note: guanciale is THE meat of choice in Roman pasta dishes. It may not always be possible to find it, but I promise you the search for authentic ingredients will always pay off. Pancetta (unsmoked bacon) can be used in a pinch, but guanciale is cured pork jowl, and the flavor is much more unctuous and distinctive. It does, in fact, go a long way towards making a good amatriciana into a great amatriciana. And so, without further delay, my trusted recipe for this Roman classic...

BUCATINI ALL’AMATRICIANA (4-6 people)


This is one of a few quintessential Roman pasta dishes. You’ll find as many different versions as there are trattorie in Rome: some prefer the guanciale soft, some crispy; some prefer a thin sauce, some a more chunky, hearty tomato sauce; some use any short pasta, others insist on the thick hollow spaghetti known as bucatini. Here is the version I prefer after years and years of trial, revision, and much animated discussion among my Roman friends. But 2 things are a must for the integrity of the dish: 1.) the meat must be guanciale, cured pork jowl and not any old pancetta, and 2.) the cheese must be the sharp, salty pecorino romano, not the more common parmigiano reggiano.


3-4 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, finely diced
¼ lb. Thickly sliced guanciale, cut into small strips
3 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, or equal amount of fresh plum tomatoes
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. bucatini (or pasta of choice)
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

-Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

-Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the guanciale or pancetta, cooking until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside.

-Add the olive oil to the rendered pork fat and once heated, add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.

-Add the tomato and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

-Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

-Add a generous toss of salt to the boiling water, and cook the bucatini until tender but firm, al dente.

-Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.

-Return cooked guanciale or pancetta to saucepan.

-Turn pasta to coat, add the pecorino, and turn to mix thoroughly.Add a glug of olive oil if needed. There should be a sheen to the pasta.

-Serve at once.
 


To donate to the italian red cross, start here:
http://www.cri.it/home
http://www.ifrc.org/en/get-involved/donate/
  

Friday, August 5, 2016

SEASONAL FOODS: Cherries


Is there a fruit happier than the bright red cherry? It decorates flirty dresses and bags, tops sundaes, plops in fizzy drinks like the Shirley Temple. And at the same time, is there a fruit more luscious and seemingly forbidden, aching to be popped off of its stem and into your mouth, leaving a wine-dark juicy stain in its wake? I won't get into the cherry as euphemism, but suffice it to say cherries are a beloved fruit, versatile in both sweet and savory preparations, and an absolutely delicious seasonal food. And, bonus: cherries happen to be great for you.

First, a little history. Cherries and cherry trees as we know them are native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, with several species in the U.S., a handful in Europe, and the remainder in Asia. The cultivated cherry (as well as fellow stone fruit, the apricot), is recorded as having been brought to Rome by Lucius Licinius Lucullus from northeastern Anatolia (also known as the Pontus region, or Asia Minor) -- most of modern day Turkey's Asian land, in 72 BC. Today, Turkey is still the number one producer of cherries in the world, with the U.S. as number two, followed by Iran, Italy, and Spain in 3rd, 4th, and 5th positions worldwide. In America, sweet cherries (prunus avium) are grown mostly in the western part of the country -- Washington, Oregon, and California. Tart cherries (prunus cerasus) are grown mostly in Michigan, Utah, and again Washington state. (Anyone who has bought cherries in supermarkets in the U.S. has seen the widespread domination of Washington state cherries -- and rightly so. They're delicious!)

As for nutritional value and benefits, sweet cherries are rich in beta carotene, potassium (a blood pressure reducer), and vitamin C. One serving of sweet cherries (about 1 cup) contains 90 calories and 3 grams of fiber. The catechins and flavanals in cherries contribute to the fruit's healthfulness as well.
Cherries are rich in anthocyanins and quercetin, bioactive compounds which studies indicate may work in synergy to combat cancer. This power pairing may also prevent some genetic mutations that can lead to cancer, and keep cancerous cells in check -- particularly breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancers. They are also anti-inflammatory, and provide cardiovascular benefits as well as mild fat-burning capabilities. (Note: tart cherries contain these elements but sweet cherries contain three times as many, found in the cherry's skin). And, the riper the better, as darker, ripened cherries contain more antioxidants.

Cherries also help with gout, a form of arthritis caused by an excess of uric acid in the blood which causes inflammation and swelling. Growing research shows that consuming cherries (both sweet and tart), and drinking tart cherry juice, lowers uric acid and inflammation. In the same way, cherries' anti-inflammatory properties ease joint pain as well as muscle soreness. Good news for those watching their sugar intake: cherries have among the lowest glycemic index (22) and glycemic load (3) values of all fruit. And, since tart cherries are rich in melatonin, a compound that regulates the body's natural sleep-wake patterns, the fruit and its juice act as natural sleep aids and improve the quality of that sleep.


Before you drift off to dreamland, though, let's discuss the fun stuff: that is, all the ways in which delicious cherries can be consumed!
We all know and love cherry pie, which just may be second only to apple as the most American of pies. (The George Washington-cherry tree legend also reinforces the fruit's American appeal). There are many forms of desserts, pies and pastries that are excellent with cherries, including tarts and crostate, cherry clafoutis, black forest cake, and cherries jubilee. But cherries also work wonderfully in savory dishes, sauces, and even cocktails. From the oxblood bing cherries to the yellow-blush Ranier cherries, look for a firm skin without blemishes, and a green stem as a sign of freshness.

Cherries happen to pair well with meats, and make a wonderful sauce for duck breast, seen here with a cherry port sauce. Cherries add a fruity note to a barbeque sauce in place of the tomato base found in many bbq sauces. Pitted diced cherries also make an interesting base for a salsa. I like to make one with red onions, chopped pistachios, fresh mint and basil, which I pair with grilled meats and sausages in the summertime. 
I also make an interesting savory pasta dish with cherries: first I prepare a veal ragu in bianco, meaning there are no tomatoes in this ragu, simply onions/celery/carrots. I cook the the veal ragu for a coupe of hours over low heat, and at the end, while I'm cooking the pasta, I toss in some chopped cherries along with some freshly chopped sage or rosemary, parsley and chives. It may sound strange, but it's one of the best pasta dishes in my repertoire

Of course, cherries are great as a plain old fruit, and as a part of fruit salads and plates. Served cold, they pair really well with melons. As for drinks, I love a sour cherry spritzer, because not only are they refreshing, but they're also helpful in regulating my sleep patterns. I love cherries with mint, so they're a natural in a summery mojito. 
And they also work well with dark liquors, so using cherry syrup or fresh dark cherries smashed with some bourbon or whiskey topped with club soda and a lime is good when you're in the mood for something with a real kick. Kirsch is a cherry liqueur delicious on its own and as a part of many mixed drinks. And of course, the original cocktail fruit was the maraschino cherry, an integral part in many classic cocktails recipes. Finally, let's not forget the beloved chocolate covered cherry. The classic is a cherry set inside a chocolate shell, and when you bite into it, the syrup in which it sets oozes out. I love a good cherry-chocolate pairing, but my preference is for a rich, baked chocolate mousse cake. In my version, a mousse-like chocolate cake batter is baked and then topped with an almond-scented whipped cream, and finished off with dark chocolate-dipped fresh sweet cherries. It's decadent, and dark, and perfectly sinful: just how I like my desserts.