September 9, 2014

Farewell Italian Table Talk - On Inspiration and Favourite Cookbooks



Moving away from Italy was possibly the best thing I could do to truly become interested in the food of my origins. Before then, Italian food was just food, normal food, everyday food, something not worth talking about, not original, surely not interesting. I knew about regional differences, and I had a pretty clear idea of what the most iconic and traditional dishes from each Italian region were. Traveling around the country with my family, I would try the specialties of the area. Also, sometimes at home my mum would prepare something exotic like sarde al beccafico (rolls of butterflied sardines with bread crumbs, pine nuts and raisins, Sicilian style), or fagioli all'uccelletto (stewed beans, Tuscan style). Still, I was interested in the flavour, in the story maybe, but not in the recipe.

Living abroad, though, I became more of a nostalgic cook, and more curious about Italian traditional recipes linked to a place and a culture. I have been traveling back to Italy quite often, looking for traditional dishes, eating in local, honest osterie, imprinting the flavours of Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Friuli, Umbria, and Sicily in my memory. I also started to collect Italian cookbooks – something I never thought I would do – digging into recipes as much as into the travel stories and everyday tales the author would unfold around them. I discovered a fascination for traditional yet unusual recipes that were new to me, and I found it especially in books written by non Italian food writers – Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David especially. I loved seeing the food and the country through the eyes of someone who was not originally from there, but could still appreciate Italian culture and its local cuisines, and had the curiosity to go beyond stereotypes and write honestly, reporting regional differences and bits of the culture that Italians would bring in the kitchen and to the table.

And then, together with three talented women – Emiko, Giulia and Jasmine – we started writing posts for Italian Table Talk, a project about real, traditional, regional Italian food and its thousands of nuances and variations. This project was truly important in the process of rediscovering the foods of my origins – it pushed me to discover, cook, read, try, experiment and write about Italian (mostly Venetian) recipes that I probably would have never tried otherwise. It enabled me to recall memories and tell stories I would have possibly never written. In the two years we have been writing recipes and stories for Italian Table Talk, I cooked from memories, I cooked from family recipes, I even cooked from word of mouth. I cooked from books in dialect and made those recipes accessible to many. And finally, I cooked from books in English, seeing those recipes with the fresh eyes of an expat. 

To give a proper farewell to Italian Table Talk after over two years, we decided to talk a bit more about inspiration – where we look for it when it comes to cook Italian. We decided to talk about cookbooks: Emiko talks about her newly found love for a baking book, Carol Field's The Italian Baker, and cooks some beautiful Florentine schiacciatine; Giulia will tell us about Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy, and her recipe for roast chicken with vinsanto; and Jasmine writes about zucca sfranta, a pumpkin recipe from "Classic Italian Jewish Cooking" by Edda Servi Machlin.

As for me, I had no doubt I would have talked about Elizabeth David. She not only became my favourite food writer since the very first moment I could understand English, but one of the most inspiring sources for cooking Italian food I have ever encountered. Her tone is witty, her tongue is sharp, her tales drag you right in. Recipes are, of course, spot on, and seasoned with the most beautiful, engaging prose you will ever hope to find in a cookbook – you can almost read it like a novel. I love the way she tackles recipes by giving vague doses yet precise instructions, trusting the cook would be able to fill the gaps rather than being told the exact amount of salt called for. I love how, sometimes, she mocks English foods for being a complete disaster from a flavour perspective, and how Italian (and French and Spanish) food makes much more sense to her. She reminds me of another amazing English woman and fantastic writer and cook of Italian food, who recently told me the same thing – Italian food makes sense to her.





I have been cooking a lot from her book, Italian Food, lately. I have been making pesche ripiene (peaches stuffed with amaretti and baked until tender) over and over this past summer, not to mention the always perfect recipe for pollo ai peperoni, or peperoni alla piemontese with parsley and anchovies. And then, I have been cooking from her other books, enjoying gaspacho and always excellent rice-stuffed tomatoes repeatedly over the past warm months. I am now looking forward to heartier recipes as the cooler season approach.

I wanted to finish this cycle this way, with Italian food and a recipe from an English food writer, one of my favourite points of references when I reach for the kitchen and cook the food of my homeland. And I wanted to do it by sharing a beloved recipe of hers, and one I think embraces lots of the inner values of Italian food: Stewed lentils. This dish talks about simplicity, expressed both in the short list of ingredients, and in the easy, likely one-pot preparations. Also, about most Italian traditional food being often times intrinsically vegetarian, with legumes playing a crucial role in everyday meals. This recipe makes the simplest yet most revolutionary pot of lentils I have ever ever tried – cooked al dente, full of flavour, and a meal on its own with or without an egg on top.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed our ITT journey, and the recipes that came along. I also hope that, from our little corner of the web, we shared some interesting stories and insights, and made you a little bit more curious about the infinite flavours of Italy. It was indeed very enriching for us.

Thank you for following us along!



Lenticchie in Umido (Stewed Lentils) 
From Italian Food by Elizabeth David

12 oz. (340 gr) of brown lentils, a small onion, mint, garlic, olive oil. Wash the lentils and pick out any pieces of grit. There is no need to soak them. Cover the bottom of a thick pan with olive oil, and when it is warm melt the sliced onion in it. Add the lentils, and as soon as they have absorbed the oil pour 2 pints (1.13 L) of hot water over them. Add a clove of garlic and a sprig of fresh mint. Cover the pan and stew steadily for 11/4, 11/2 hours. By that time the lentils should be soft and the liquid nearly all absorbed. Now season with salt and pepper. Also good cold, with the addition of fresh olive oil and hard-boiled eggs.

Enough for four or five people.

Brown lentils are whole (sometimes called German) lentils; they do not break up in the cooking as do red lentils, which are not suitable for this dish.


August 20, 2014

Blackberry Crumble


I get asked a lot why I live here. Why did I end up in the outskirts of the city, in a so-called dormitory neighborhood populated in large majority by commuters and families to whom the city has little to offer anymore other than a secure, well-paid job.

The short answer is, I don't know. When we first moved here two and a half years ago (gasp!), we had absolutely no clue about what was trendy and hip – nothing did we know about 'where it's at'. All we knew was that we wanted an apartment on our own, that was decent and well-kept, with lots of natural light, a shower rather than a bathtub, and possibly with no carpet. One close to a tube station, and possibly to a decent grocery store. One not too far from were we worked. An apartment with all these features, and that we could afford, too. We eventually viewed this little one bedroom apartment in Wimbledon Park, with three windows in the day area and a view of the roofs all the way to London eye from the huge bathroom window. There was plenty of light for my pictures – which later on I discovered is pretty hard to screen, and to turn moody. So there you have it, the answer to my super-bright pictures: we have no curtains. The apartment was tastefully furnished, and with a lovely flooring and a big table for dinners with friends (four, as we only have four chairs).

I digress, as usual. The long(er) answer is, I don't mind living here. I have my highs and lows about this place, so quiet at night, so dead really. Sometimes, i crave being in the middle of the buzz, being at walking distance from a nice wine bar or a concert. Others, I feel so blessed for coming home to a quiet place where I can find some rest and solace for my achy, tired, overwhelmed brain. And then, there are the blackberries. Perhaps one of my favourite activities to do in late summer, the idea of being able to get out of the door and find blackberries to forage by the bowlful gives me the most childish, pure joy. I go out at dusk, when the park is quiet and you hear the ducks getting ready for the night, and the sun is sinking behind the hill. The air has chilled a bit, and there is no one on the road. I can let my mind wonder, finally, as I pick berries and fill my bowl, connecting with nature, and my thoughts.

July 30, 2014

Summer Fregola

And so, and now, another summer month has passed.

We took holidays at the end of August this year, believing it would have made our summer feel longer, stretching it further into early September. We are going to Sicily for two weeks (!), and I can hardly contain the excitement. In the meantime, though, as we roll out of one working week into another, I live with the uncomfortable feeling that summer is slipping through my fingers – too fast, too soon.

I have been resonating a lot with Molly's thoughts on feeling busy. Doesn't working in the summer feel so very unnatural to you? Don't you feel you are missing out on the best things in life? Picking berries, baking pies, watching clouds, sleeping in the sun, swimming in the ocean and eating lots of grilled fish, to name a few. Days are so long and (mostly) beautiful here finally – skyes are dramatic, the air is fresher and the sun feels like the most amazing miracle – that spending such precious, rare days enclosed in a cabinet makes me sad and pensive. I think of my dad, a teacher, enjoying his summer time off; and to myself, growing up believing that having at least two months vacation time in July and August is a very civilised way to go about things. Adulthood, I don't like you. Shall we make a law about this?

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 gazpacho. 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 gazpacho 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.

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.