Jan 31, 2009

Butterflies in my stomach

Image © unaformichinaincucina.blogspot.it

My guests just left. There are red wine rings all over the wooden Ikea table and the house still smells like sautéed onions and snuffed candles. Tom Waits is growling a ballad in the background, and I'm putting off doing the dishes 'til tomorrow.

Cooking in this little kitchen is like juggling in a phone booth. I've managed to make a complete mess, but I'll deal with it in daylight, not now. Now I just want to wind down, write a little and read a few pages of my book before slipping into Morpheus' arms.

Friends showed up early in order to hang out with E. before his bedtime, and kept me company while I cooked dinner for them. We dished and laughed and simply enjoying each other's company, unbuttoning inhibitions and restraining garments as our tummies filled, pledging our reciprocal affection as the wine flowed in our goblets. We ate like sharks and solemnly vowed to make it a weekly appointment. Our different stories, generations, backgrounds and nationalities made the conversation simmer with variety and sexy accents.

Before dozing off to the light chatter of our conversation, E. bounced on 4 different sets of knees and even got to taste this evening's Barolo, the lucky little brat. His snoring is louder than usual, I wonder if the nip of wine he got has anything to do with it.

500 g (1.1 lb) Farfalle type pasta
1 bunch of radicchio Trevigiano (the more tapered head), trimmed and cut into thin slivers
150 g (3/4 of a cup) Caprino or any mild goat cheese
2 shallots, finely sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
150 ml (3/4 of a cup) beer
2 tbsp milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sauté the shallots in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until translucent. Add the radicchio and season with salt and pepper.
Simmer over a mild flame for a few minutes, wetting with the beer. Let the beer evaporate, add the crumbled cheese and stir in the milk gradually.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil, cook the farfalle al dente (springy yet opposing somewhat of a bite), drain and add them to the sauce. Toss well to blend flavors and coat the pasta, adjust seasoning and drizzle with a wee bit more olive oil.
Buon appetito, ragazze.

Jan 30, 2009

Among the duties of a parent

Pablo Picasso
My son walked up to me today and out of the blue stunned me with "what’s a Picasso?"
It took me a while to figure out how a 3-yr old could know anything about modern art, let alone the name Picasso. But I eventually put two and two together. He's a huge fan of the '95 animated film Toy Story. In one of the opening scenes, one of the characters (Mr. Potato) undoes his face, jumbles all his features and says "Hey look, I'm a Picasso!" to which the interlocutor Piggy Bank after a blank stare replies, "I didn't get it."
Apparently neither did my son E, hence the candid question.

So we opened my laptop and started browsing images of the Andalusian genius' work. We were both surprised to learn that his first oil painting "The Picador" – word, which we repeated over and over for several minutes, rolling our Rs with very macho Latin flair – the boy Pablo painted at age 8.

We also discovered that during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Picasso had the French Resistance smuggle him bronze to cast secretly from the regime that didn’t find his artistic style fit for their taste. Through another interesting bit of Picasso trivia, we found out that in his Montparnasse posse – which included folks like Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp, to mention just a few – poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. During interrogation, Apollinaire sheepishly pointed to his “friend” Picasso, who was therefore also brought in for questioning, but both were immediately released. I can just picture what happened in the usual Montparnasse bistro hang out later that night.

I tried to explain Mr. Potato’s joke by showing E paintings of cubist ladies, and their rearranged profile/facial features. We browsed many cubist works of art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the various portraits of Dora Maar, Le Rêve, Femme Assise au Chapeau à Plume, and the painter's self portrait.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso

When we arrived at Picasso's black, white and grey depiction of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, I leafed past it and mumbled something about war being horrible, but E held down my hand on the mouse pad and said, "I want to see the war, show me" so I went back and enlarged the desperate, angular and touching painting to full screen. E became silent and we both took in how solemn and serious the moment was.

My little boy pointed at the horse, the bull and the screaming upward human face of a woman grieving over the dead child in her arms. I tried to explain about Spain, about young people fighting, panicked horses, torture, buildings wrenched by violence and chaos. As we looked into the grand mural, with words fit for a toddler, I tried to gently convey the helplessness and tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts on people, especially innocent civilians.

After a long moment of quiet contemplation, which to a child is normally intolerably infinite, E looked into my eyes and said, "Ho capito adesso, mamma," –– I understand now, mommy.

He got it. He got Picasso.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Jan 28, 2009

Forkfuls of bliss

After two consecutive weeks of rain, chill and gray skies, this morning’s sun came as a godsend. As did J’s impromptu invitation.

After picking up E from daycare and dropping him off in his nanny's loving arms, I dashed off to Trastevere where lunch among old friends on a dazzling sunlit terrace overlooking rooftops was waiting to happen.

J, F and I spent our matchless midday meal catching up on our cluttered lives, making merry in the blazing sunshine while downing copious amounts of fruity Pignoletto and devouring J's delicious swordfish and fresh tomato spaghetti.

The conversation swerved between film sets, script notes, exotic weddings, acting lessons, our mutual colorless sex lives, books, religion, private jets, friendship, wealth, home improvement injuries, supermarket prices and grand plans for the Future.

For dessert we pounced on the sugar coated zeppole and the fried bigné di S. Giuseppe F had picked up on his way over, and J brewed a gallon of espresso in his 15 demitasse-capacity stovetop moka. As Jimi Hendrix sensually licked and bit the strings of his Fender Stratocaster in the background, the afternoon waned into an orange sunset.

I love my friends.

Jan 27, 2009

2009 Year of the ox

My son's birthday falls on Chinese New Year's Day this year. Yesterday, January 26th, we celebrated with early morning cuddles, clinking cappuccino and milk mugs in the kitchen, and drove to school where his teachers crafted a special birthday crown and served my lemon cake for dessert. I baked it during yet another insomnia spell the night before. My gorgeous enamelled vintage Gasfire cooker is a historic fixture of my little home, and so much a part of me, that I could never part with it.

But while the stove is overly powerful – its 5 burners charred and intimidated by the force of the flames within – the oven can only be described as loffio, a great Italian word that combines the terms listless-weak-limp-dull-lame in one perfect onomatopoeic expression. So between the dinner wine, the wee hours and the loffio oven, my son’s birthday cake turned out a disaster. Ugly, uneven and (I fear) dry. Kids apparently are not judgemental palates – as long as sweet and celebratory, they'll gobble anyhting – because none of it was left when I went to pick up my little boy.

Despite the foul weather and a hissing cold wind, I decided to go check out the Roman Chinatown for some New Year's celebrations. E agreed to dancing dragons and fireworks, I reveled in the anticipation of the free food samples.
Piazza Vittorio and its vicinities is Rome's declared Chinese quarter, today's party was in and around Via Principe Amedeo, where two large orange and red dragons with green eyes, mile-long tails and an amazing set of dentures bopped in the rainy street before us. When the rain got too out of hand, the parade moved inside the marketplace. The Mercato di Piazza Vittorio, now called Mercato dell'Esquilino, one of Rome’s most important and traditional markets. It was originally located outdoors at the center of Piazza Vittorio and used to be run mostly by Roman vendors. In recent years, as the Esquilino district evolved into a largely multicultural neighborhood, the market was moved indoors in a former milk plant just east of the piazza, and its vendors as well as its shoppers, are now represented by a wide variety of ethnic groups. The Esquilino market is an interesting place to visit to immerse yourself in an exotic atmosphere. Here you will be able to puzzle at the odd shapes of unknown fruits and vegetables; be overpowered by the bright colors and intense smells of spices; you will be discombobulated by the din of a multitude of different languages. Mostly, after having purchased 26 different types of rice and an equally high number of spices, you will have had a different experience of the ever-evolving Eternal City.

Yesterday we learned one significant trait that closely associates the Chinese New Year to the Italian one, and that's Luck. In Italy on December 31st, we Italians wear red underwear, eat propitious foods like lentils that symbolize money, gamble, light firecrackers at midnight, and discard old stuff welcoming the new year in.
It so happens that the Chinese too are very superstitious, and the epitome of their prosperity-summoning rituals, favoring fluke and all possible ways of evading misfortune, pinnacle on their own Lunar calendar New Year's eve, just like us. Chinese people too wear lucky red which symbolizes fire, that according to legend can drive away bad luck; they will often gamble at the beginning of the year, hoping to get luck and prosperity; eating fish and chicken is customary because the names of these foods sound like the words surplus and success; just like in Italy, the Chinese clear out clutter from the house to let new Chì energy in, and explode huge quantities of auspicious fireworks. The only difference is that in Italy we don't parade 30 ft long feathered dragons or play huge drums. It is believed infact that the loud beats of the drum and the deafening clang of the cymbals together with the fierce face of the dragon dancing aggressively can evict bad or evil spirits.

The following is a list of beliefs I picked up as I chatted up the Esquilino Chinese residents yesterday, mindless of the cold rain:
1. Opening windows and/or doors is considered to usher in the good luck of the new year.
2. Switching on the lights for the night is considered good luck, and also scares off ghosts and spirits of misfortune that may compromise the luck and fortune of the new year. E particularly liked this custom and suggested we adopt the habit year round (he hates the dark).
3. Sweets, dried fruits and nuts are eaten to ensure the glutton a "sweet" year.
4. It is important to have the house completely clean from top to bottom before New Year's Day for good luck in the coming year (however, cleaning the house on or after New Year's Day is somewhat of a fortune no-no).
5. Some believe that what happens on the first day of the new year reflects the rest of the year to come, setting a precedent.
6. Wearing a new pair of slippers bought before the new year, is considered good luck because it signifies trampling on the people who gossip about you.
7. Changing different things in the house such as bedding, clothes, sofa covers etc. is also a well respected tradition in terms of cleansing the house in preparation for the new year.
8. The number eight is very, very lucky!

Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year to party. Twelve showed up, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality. Those born in Ox years tend to be stable, fearless, obstinate, hard-working and friendly. Famous people born in the Year of the Ox include: Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Dvorak, George Frideric Handel, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charlie Chaplin, Anthony Hopkins, George Clooney, Walt Disney, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Clark Gable, Jim Carrey, Oscar Peterson, Vincent Van Gogh and Barack Obama! The Chinese horoscope says the powerful Ox sign is a born leader, being quite dependable and possessing an innate ability to achieve great things. Hooray for the 44th President!

This is typical Chinese New Year’s food:
Buddha's Delight: An elaborate vegetarian dish tipically served by Chinese families on the eve and the first day of the New Year. A type of black hair-like algae (pronounced "fat choy" in Cantonese) is also featured in the dish for its name, which sounds exactly like the word for "prosperity".
Fish of every sort is a must. The pronunciation of fish makes it a homophone for "surplus." A whole fish represents togetherness and abundance. Also a whole chicken for prosperity, which must be presented with a head, tail and feet to symbolize completeness. Noodles should be uncut, as they represent long life. Duck symbolizes loyalty, while eggs signify fertility.
Jau gok: The elemental Chinese new year dumpling. It is believed to resemble ancient Chinese gold ingots, therefore wolfed down in huge amounts.
Mandarin oranges: The most popular and most abundant fruit during Chinese New Year – jin ju – another fortuitous sounding word.
Bakkwa: Chinese salty-sweet dried meat, akin to jerky, which is trimmed of fat, sliced, marinated and then smoked for later consumption or packed in red boxes as a gift.
Yusang: Raw fish salad. Eating this salad is said to bring good luck. Usually eaten on the seventh day of the New Year.
Taro cake (aka dim sum): The pan fried square cakes are semi-crunchy rice flour pockets filled with pork and Chinese black mushrooms, or sometimes Chinese sausages. I sampled mine topped with chopped scallions.

Chilled and wet, we bounced back home still intoxicated by the vibrant red festivity, exotic perfumes and serendipity oblivious of the incessant rain. We brought home a noisy little drum, a carved turnip in the shape of a fortunate carp, some paper lanterns, a calligraphy poster, two Chinese knots, papercuttings, couplets and 700 types of Oolong tea.

Niú nián jí xiáng
(good luck in the year of the ox)

Jan 25, 2009

Passeggiata in Rome's centro storico

Glinting cobblestones and aroma of toasted chestnuts. That to me sums up Rome's centro storico.

I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to take a stroll around Campo Marzio today. The "Field of Mars," number IV of the 22 historical districts of the Eternal City, retains the name the Romans gave to the whole area between the walled city and the river where their invincible army used to drill the troops. In modern day Roma, Campo Marzio is considered the heart of Rome's trendy, sparkly and commercial centro storico.

Campo Marzio - Rome

I pushed the three wheel stroller past the contemporary snow white stark lines of the Ara Pacis, which shares the same grounds as the majestic Mausoleo di Augusto, the tomb of the first Roman emperor. I ambled past the Pantheon and stopped at Sant'Eustacchio for an energizing Gran Caffè, complete with dollop of "cremina" – the emulsified froth of the first concentrated espresso to spout from the machine whipped with granulated sugar. I took a peek at the spiraling belltower of Sant'Ivo ai Portoghesi, I admired the window at the funky pen shop near San Lorenzo in Lucina, and I pretended not to look in the windows of two of my favorite shops: Angelo Feroci and Volpetti alla Scrofa.

Angelo Feroci butcher in Rome

The first is probably among the best butchers of the city. The family run store’s turn of the century furnishings are shadowed by the incredibly fresh and tasty meat served behind the eight foot counter. I am a carnivore, and I love my steak. I am therefore naturally attracted to the place more often than my wallet can allow. During busy store hours, upstairs mamma Feroci prepares all sorts of high quality ready-made dishes for the avid customers waiting downstairs. It is common to find more ladies than gents, shoulder to shoulder at the high marble counter. This may be due to the fact that all the male family members and employees are quite good looking. They even have a calendar out, with pictures of the butcher hunks carving quarters of beef in viril poses. Not kidding.

Volpetti Via della Scrofa in Rome

On the other hand, Volpetti is a historic neighborhood deli, founded in 1870. In Italy similar establishments are what we refer to as salumeria, gastronomia or alimentari, and tavola calda when hot dishes are served. But Volpetti trascends all definitions. You can walk in and do your grocery shopping at the large section dedicated to prepared meals, from pasta, to vegetables, roast meat and fish, as well as a vast choice of cheeses, cold cuts, sausages, regional Italian delicacies, pizza, salads and a decent selection of table wines. Or you can stand briefly at the counter for a caffè, or dine seated at a table in a separate room at lunchtime; watch the half-dozen patient countermen shaving wafer thin slices of prosciutto, sawing off hunks of grape-leaf-swaddled pecorino, scooping out olives, and spend your months pay in take out.

Volpetti's legendary rice salad with caviar, salmon and mayo

I personally have to keep away from Volpetti for two big reasons. Their meatballs and their signature insalata di riso. One is an ongoing relationship between me and the dish. My thighs, buttocks and tummy, their final repository. Meatballs are the emblem of home cooking and rarely served other than in the family. When a rastaurant serves meatballs, serious ground leftover meat action has been taking place. Yet at Volpetti polpette are a given, you order them and eat them waving away the thought of leftover meat as you moan with pleasure at every bite. They come in two versions which are always available, either dredged in breadcrumbs and fried, or stewed where they are smothered in a delicious and simple tomato sauce.

During summer, the seasonal magnet that periodically draws me to Volpetti is the boutique's famed and trademark tossed rice salad, insalata di riso. A dish normally (again) prepared at home, something to cool off with in the summer heat, and somewhat of a recycle bin unto itself. My rice salad usually includes leftover grilled veggies, diced salumi, chopped frittata, a vast array of oil-preserved artichokes, eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin, etc. Just toss in what you like with boiled minute rice and you have lunch. Oh, but not at Volpetti. No, their insalata di riso is a minimalist trumph of luxe. Few elements, great taste. The parboiled rice dances among sensual slivers of smoked Scottish salmon, clusters of black and red caviar, fresh steamed and shredded lobster tails, boiled scampi tossed with a featherweight organic homemade whipped mayonnaise. When I have guests over for dinner, I usually buy a crateful to go and serve it as antipasto along several chilled bottles of Jermann Vintage Tunina, sit back and watch my guests have a gastronomic epiphany.

Vintage finds at Porta Portese Sunday flea market

Fortunately both stores were closed today, being Sunday. I daydreamed hard and long of possible purchases and reveled at the recipes I could have prepared as I bumped into a mercatino on the way home. This was one of many spontaneous and roving weekend antiques market stalls that dot the city year round, and where you can buy virtually everything from antique furniture, to second hand clothes, to vintage jewellery, old turn-of-the-century postcards and curious Mussolini memorabilia (there are still folks who dig that stuff). I like to wander without a specific goal. I mainly look at the faces of the vendors, trying to guess their story.

I once bought what I thought was a unique Art Nouveau Lalique-style vase only to find its carbon copy a few weeks later at Porta Portese, Rome's most famous flea market. I never again ventured into the antique accessory bargain negotiation. On the other hand I've been happy to notice quite a few organic and traditional foods stalls recently. The Sardinia cheese and honey kiosk with the 4-headed flag flapping in the crisp Roman breeze; the Umbria counter distributing free samples of truffle paste and freshly baked brustengo; or the Liguaria booth, laden with cold pressed olive oils, biodynamic wines and a rainbow of jams.

Today I stopped for a chunk of Tuscan Pecorino and picked up a loaf of Altamura bread at the Puglia tent. I got home, folded a snoozing E. into the king size bed we cosleep in, and snacked on my guaranteed genuine purchase, waiting for the night to fall. Buonanotte Roma.

Jan 24, 2009

Winters go down better with soup

It has started raining again. E. is snoring softly in the bed a few feet away. The pattering of raindrops behind the window panes and the rhythmic inhale-exhaling of my son's golden slumber create a unique and soothing incidental music, fitting for this moment: my first post on my first time blogging.
I switch his nightlight off and carry my laptop from my desk to the open space dining room/kitchen down the hall. God bless wi-fi.

The lights are dim, and another sound has added on to my all-natural musak. It's the minestrone simmering on the stove. I uncork a perfect bottle of Sassoalloro 2006, slide into a pair of tattered jeans and smile as my glasses fog up with the heavenly vapors spiraling from the bubbling pot.

Were it not for the spectacular double-rimmed rainbow embracing the centro storico this afternoon, the kiddie party was the usual agglomerate of frantic moms, scattered dads with iPhones taking silly pictures of their own kids, and the occasional bejewelled wealthy granny. I've grown accustomed to the whole Italian toddler birthday celebration routine. The miked clown, the balding magician with the wrap around hair, the overly loud salsa music and the groaning soap bubble machine. As usual at these events, I couldn't keep my hands off the silver dollar-sized mini pizzas, single bite croissant sandwiches with prosciutto and bufala, the lobster vol-au-vents. The venue was a guaranteed four star buffet, Antonini's canapées are rarely a disappointment. E. is tired, shy and wants more soda. The cake isn't anywhere in sight. We resist, if nothing out of curiosity.
With E's little hand firmly clasped to the hem of my vintage frock (that and my kajal eye make up got quite a few disapproving glances form Mink Coat Grandma #1 and Cashmere Mommy #9), I down a flute of warm Berlucchi, grab our coats and pack up the phallic sword partyfavor produced by the pimply balloon twister, a handful of lemon flavored gelatins and we're outta there. E. fell asleep in the car coming home, and carrying his limp 15-kilo body, umbrella, handbag, balloons, candy etc was no piece of cake, but I managed it. I always do.

So now, in the warmth of our 2-room apartment, the silence and the comfort of the simplicity I'm about to dine on are a panacea for my bleeding eardrums and upset soul.

If you've had a similar day and 20 minutes on your hands, assemble:
2 quarts of bouillon (ok you can cheat and make it with a stock cube)
OPTIONAL: 1 cup prosciutto cotto (regular deli ham), diced
1 1/4 cups fresh spinach, stems removed
2 fresh zucchini, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp pesto sauce
1 1/2 cups tubetti-type pasta
2 tbsp brandy
1 cup baby peas
Extra virgin olive oil
Profuse amounts of grated Parmigiano Reggiano and extra virgin olive oil

Bring the stock to a rolling boil in a large high-rimmed stew pot. Add the garlic, spinach, zucchini, onion and prosciutto (if you're using it) and simmer over mild heat for 10 minutes.
Add the pasta and cook it just shy of al dente (springy yet retaining some bite). Stir in the brandy, pesto sauce, and the peas until it's all well amalgamated and the liquid almost completely absorbed (I like my minestra quite thick). Drizzle a thread of olive oil and remove the pot from the stove. Dust with lots of grated Parmigiano and serve piping hot.

The rain's subsided somewhat. I sip the wine. I hit publish.