July 14, 2014

The Time of Tomatoes


Friends, we are back from a short trip to Italy to visit my family. Spending some time in the garden with my grandmother, looking at her beautiful tomatoes, made me think of these memories related, you guessed it, to tomatoes. Possibly the strongest flavour and connection I have to where I am from, and to the most beautiful time of the year there: summer.

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On our first year in London, we tried to grow tomatoes. We had just moved from Italy in early March, and settled into our one bedroom apartment with no balcony or yard but lots of natural light and a big table by April.

Short after our move, Jesse declared one night at dinner that no, we didn't have to give up our little dream of a veg and herb patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. After all, there was no lack of light for photosynthesis and all that. And so he bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, and vases and he treated our seeds to organic dirt and compost. We placed some of the vases with dirt and seeds by the window sill, and some on the portion of the table we didn't use for our meals, the one we used as a desk but that could be sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.

It wasn't the most successful of our experiments. After a cruel selection of the best plants for lack of space, those who stayed grew so tall they almost reached the ceiling. We bought sticks, but the plants were standing in fragile balance, and I was knocking one down every time I ran the vacuum cleaner. Exasperated – from the dirt on the floor, the herds of small bugs flying around the house, and the visible lack of fruits on the plant which would have made all these effort barely worthwhile – I menaced to get rid of them all.

Jesse succeeded in dissuade me from it, and by the end of the summer, we managed to harvest fifteen cherry tomatoes of various colours from 5 plants. They were, as you can imagine, absolutely delicious, and they felt like the most precious thing we could put in our mouth.

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We haven't grown our own tomatoes since. But every time I go home to Italy and get the chance to eat homegrown tomatoes, I certainly get my fill. I love them simply washed and smashed, still warm from the field, on toasted bread rubbed with garlic, scrubbed with coarse sea salt, and moisturised with olive oil. I like them cut and seasoned with garlic, salt, oil and fresh basil and allowed to acquire flavours this way for a while, before adding to panzanella, or becoming the topping for softened friselle. I like them in fresh tomato sauce – cut and peeled, left in a sieve to loose their water for hours before cooking them quickly on the stove with lots of garlic, oil and again, basil. The same ingredients come back over and over, and why wouldn't they when they work so well together?

And then, I have a consuming passion for tomato soups. It started last winter, when I first tasted Jesse's tomato soup to go with English cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches; and it continues now, with countless bowls of gaspacho. The combination of sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes with vinegar and fruity oil is something that touches a soft spot in my taste centre – I surrender to it shamelessly.

I make my gaspacho starting from Elizabeth David's recipe in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The base, says David, is made of chopped tomato, olive oil, and garlic. The other ingredients make for welcome additions, and depend on taste and ingredients on hand. For this recipe, I used tomatoes, bread, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, spring onions, and ice, and blended everything with oil, vinegar and water until smooth. I finished the dish with more oil, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

Chop a pound of raw peeled tomatoes until they are almost in a purée. Stir in a few dices of cucumber, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, 2 finely sliced spring onions, a dozen stoned black olives, a few strips of green pepper, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, a little chopped fresh marjoram, mint, or parsley. Keep very cold until it is time to serve the soup, then thin with 1/2 pint of iced water, add a few cubes of coarse brown bread, and serve with broken-up ice floating in the bowl. A couple of hard boiled eggs, cowardly chopped, make a good addition. Sometimes these, plus a selection of the vegetables – the cucumber, olives, peppers, onions – and the bread, are finely chopped and handed round separately in small dishes instead of being incorporated in the basic soup.  
                                                              Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food, page 24-25


June 21, 2014

72 Hours in Copenhagen


I so love this place, I said. I really think I could live here.

'You can't judge a place by how it shows itself in the summer. You must visit it in the midst of winter to really understand whether or not you would want to live there'.


I have been traveling with different eyes lately. The eyes of someone who doesn't simply visit a place, but who is at the same time evaluating the elements of a life in that place. What does it feel to live here, I was thinking while walking through the neighborhoods of Copenhagen – along its lush parks and pedestrian streets. What does it feel to be able to bike everywhere, not having to take a crowded train to work, and living this lifestyle which seems so laid back, relaxed and human?

We left London on a rainy, misty day at the end of May and landed in a place where the sun didn't seem to ever go away. Days were long and warm, and we were pushed to the edge of our energies, eager to suck it all in, to see it all, to breathe the fresh air of a city where bikes outnumber cars and buses, where the breeze from the harbour clears the sky and allows the sun to shine bright, as high up as I had never seen before.

We have been lucky, they told us. It isn't always like that in Copenhagen, they said. Winters are long, and dark and harsh and demand a great leap of faith – the certitude that daylight will abound once again, sometime soon– to get through them. We were oblivious of all that for a while – everything was too bright and beautiful and warm and so very colourful in comparison to what we had left behind to picture such times would ever come. Only after a couple of days were we brought back to reality during a lunch at The Nordic Food Lab. We were, funnily enough, talking about the weather, praising the glorious days we had been gifted with, when one of the visiting interns said something that, for simple that is was, stuck with me since. 'This is just like any other day in LA'.
These thoughts, see, these glimpses would never even occurred to me if I was simply visiting Copenhagen, if I wasn't rather considering moving there. Would I be able to take it – the dark, the long winters, the cold, the expensive citrus? Would it be much different from London in that aspect? Would I trade a life in a place that is warm and summery and where I would feel like a living human being for most of the year for a life somewhere beautiful, slow-paced, functioning, yet so expensive and just, simply put, so Nordic?
 

The first impression I had of Copenhagen was that it looks a lot like the California you get to know through media – and the fair weather helped to complete the picture. Everybody is blond – I could have easily titled this post '50 shades of blond' – beautiful, tall, fairly fit, and surprisingly enough, lightly tanned. Every young couple seem to have at least one child, who is carried around in a bin-like attachment in the front of bikes. Everybody bikes in this town of over one million, which seems to reduce stress and crankiness, together with pollution, and is definitely facilitated by the presence of bike paths in both directions in every single road. Bikes have priority over cars. There are bike rush hours, they told us, and when it snows bike paths get cleaned before roads and sidewalks. I was in owe in front of such demonstration of civilisation, coming from a country where bike paths are a mirage and take decades to build, and living in another where bikers risk their lives among cars, buses, taxis and enjoy a good deal of fumes while at it. 

The pace of life is, of course, so dramatically different from the hectic rhythm of London - no one seems in a hurry, no one tries to take over you, I have never felt rushed by someone behind me or in someones trajectory. The only similarity I found with London – it must be a common thing among sun-deprived populations – is the eagerness for the outdoors. As soon as the sun is out, everybody is out, hanging out at the park with beer, eating their lunch along the canal, laying on the grass after work or school and enjoying those remaining four hours of sunshine.

June 17, 2014

A Venetian Crema with Almonds to Celebrate Two Years of Italian Table Talk

If I had to pick a sweet I am particularly fond of – and I am not fond of any sweets in particular – I would go for something creamy. Pannacotta, gelato, zabaione. Something where the the airy texture can make up for the sweet punch. 

It must be in my genes. The women in my family have never been great pastry chefs, yet they could always crack a good pudding. My mum's mum, for example, was known for making the best zuppa inglese in town, with layers of chocolate and marsala cream between cookies drunk with alchermès. My mum for her part, although she has never been the most keen baker, managed to pick up her mum's crema-making skills. So, whenever there is an occasion requiring un dolce – something sweet – she would usually skip the baking altogether, and go for what she was well-known for in our family: tiramisù. Such occasions were usually birthdays and the random ferragosto dinner, which, being on 15th August, automatically called for a chilled dessert. 

This is how my brother and I grew up – with tiramisù as a birthday cake, and the rich, palate-coating sweetness of crema al mascarpone mingled with the bitter accents of unsweetened cocoa and coffee; and with the idea of cake being so soft that it could be tackled with a spoon. Year after year, twice a year at least, our fridge has been dominated by the comforting presence of a large glass pan with a dark, powdery top barely able to cover the overflowing pale yellow cream. 

May 30, 2014

Burro e Alici


The thing is, I am not a butter eater.
In front of a loaf just out of the oven, I will reach for peppery olive oil and flaky salt. Butter can sit in my fridge, ignored, for months, until the baking hitch attacks.

But since our last trip to Rome – where I ate my weight in gluten and dairy – I have been using that packet of butter surprisingly often. It was either melted into a puddle, mingled with anchovies and used to season pasta. Or eased in thin yet un-spread layers over toasted bread, and covered with whole, plump anchovies only seconds before the first bite. It might partially be because of the desolate fridge we found upon our return – the butter, you guessed it, was one of the few things in there. Or else because anchovies are a beloved flavour in our house, and we never miss the occasion to fry some up. Whatever the reason, and as hazardous as this combination of flavours might sound to purists – fish with dairy? are you joking? – they are definitely a match made by a genius mind.