Feb 25, 2009

Vin brulé, love potion N°10

Vin brulé, northern Italy's mulled wine

There's nothing quite so warm and welcoming when it's cold out, than a steaming mug of Vin Brulé, or heated, spiced wine.

This Medieval warm wine's birth can easily be attributed to monks, who were known to be expert apothecaries. In monasteries where they led their sober existence (no pun intended) they were dedicated, among other things, to the preparation of wine.

The French term used in Italian Alpine regions for “burnt wine”, is the deliciously aromatic hot beverage in many ways similar to the Anglo Saxon mulled wine or Scandinavian Glögg. Corroborating, reinvigorationg and a potent disinfectant, our vin brulé is an accepted cure against the common cold and winter-related blues. Traditionally native to mountainous areas – where the frigid weather is more frequent – it is often served in high altitude mountain resort lodges, and can therefore explain curious ski slope behavior.

Despite the blazing sun tapping on my windows, the Roman air is still quite nippy. So here goes.
Here are quantities for 2 good drinkers:

1 liter (1 quart) full-bodied red wine
1 unwaxed organic orange
1 unwaxed organic lemon
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
8 cloves
A dash of grated nutmeg (don’t overdo)
200 g (1 cup) organic brown sugar

Soak the orange and lemon in water and baking soda to rid the rinds of any residue grit. Rinse in cold water and towel dry. Cut the rind thinly with a kitchen knife eliminating as much white pith lining as possible, as this causes the preparation to turn awfully bitter.
In a saucepan, pour in all the ingredients, that is, the wine, sugar, spices and slivered citrus peel. 

Bring to a slow simmer over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly or until the sugar has dissolved. Now comes the tricky part. Carefully avoid becoming human torch while lighting the surface of the wine with a long match, not a lighter or any other fire clicker device. The alcohol contained in the wine will catch on fire and you must let it blaze until completely exhausted. During this phase children, pets, body hair, clothing, etc. should be kept at a safe distance.
When the flame dies, filter the wine with a heavy-gauge mesh strainer and serve steaming hot with a cinnamon stick in terracotta, tempered glass or china mugs. Keep several blocks of dark chocolate handy and sip slowly, inhaling sublime vapors while nestled in your lover’s arms snuggled before a wood-burning fireplace. Salute.

Strozzapreti with porcini, pumpkin and truffle

Making homemade pasta, brushing the grit off fresh porcini mushrooms, simmering pumpkin in butter and sage, and flaking truffles on the designated slicing implement, constitute some of my highest culinary moments of bliss. Combining the lot and making dinner is my epitome of gastonomic ga ga. Here’s a seasonal autumn/winter recipe I love to make, prepare and scoff in equal measure.

The term strozzapreti (literally priest chokers) carries with it the implication that the cook’s intent is that these rather hearty half-dumplings half-cavatelli type pasta, will catch in a priest's delicate throat as they're going down. I doubt it, they are simply very good and might simply be the avid eater’s big mouthful, whatever the religious belief.

Strozzapreti, Porcini, Zucca e Tartufo
Ingredients for 4 epicureans:
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) all purpose flour, sifted
150 cc (1/2 cup) mineral water (not sparkling!)
A pinch of salt

Sift the flour in a large mixing bowl, add the salt and water and knead the dough until a thick lumpless ball forms, this should take no longer than 6 minutes, as over-kneading will make the dough excessively hard.
Divvy up the dough in apricot-size balls and separate them on your work surface (preferably wooden) dusted with more flour.
You can now proceed to shaping it into your strozzapreti. Roll the dough balls flat with a dusted rolling pin, to a 1/2 to 3/4 inch thickness. Fold the flattened dough over like a burrito and cut 1/2 inch slices. Undo the strands and dredge them in flour to avoid sticky situations.
Now to obtain the typical strozzapreti shape, you have to take each individual strand and roll it between your palms. The result is a ‘rolled up towel’ shape, one very suitable for virtually “grabbing” the sauce.
Dust a kitchen towel with flour and rest the strozzapreti on it for about 30 minutes before cooking.

Now onto the sauce.

200 g (1 cup) fresh porcini mushrooms
200 g (1 cup) fresh pumpkin pulp, diced
1 small black truffle (if you can get your hands on a delicate white tartufo from Alba, even better)
1 sprig of fresh sage
200 ml (7 fl oz) whole milk
50 g (1/4 cup) butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Clean the porcini by rubbing them gently with a damp cloth and chopping off the soiled part of the stems. Slice the larger ones and halve the smaller caps and stems.

In a large enough skillet, sauté the pumpkin in butter and sage for 3 minutes, over vivacious heat. Add the milk, lower the heat and cook for 5 more minutes. Now add the chopped mushrooms, adjust seasoning and cook for 10 more minutes.

In the meantime bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil and cook your strozzapreti al dente (this will take a lot less time than regular dried pasta, so keep a close watch).
Drain the pasta and transfer it to the warm skillet where the sauce is, and blend well off the burner. Dish out and then sliver the tartufo wafers directly in the individual plates. No Parmigiano this time, the tartufo would otherwise suffer.

A good wine for this cold weather extravaganza is a Colli del Trasimeno or any rosé that will allow the mixture of flavors to remain intact while sustaining the contrast between the pasta’s tenacious nature and the sauce’s velvety softness.

Buon appetito.

Feb 24, 2009

ore 21, an essay in Italian

Una giovinezza trascorsa ad aspettare. Fin da quel primo pomeriggio di primavera. Ero adolescente e come quella prima giornata di sole, ero innamorata del primo amore. Aspettavo.
Ho aspettato finché fuori si è fatto buio e mentre vedevo calare la luce, appesi e pronti per essere indossati, sbiadivano una camicetta e una leggera sottana, fresca di cotone e nastri appena stirata. Avrei dovuto indossarli quel pomeriggio ma fuori è diventata sera. Aspettavo di metterli e fare quella passeggiata col mio primo amore. Quella passeggiata, né l'amore, né il momento arrivarono mai e ho rimesso nell'armadio la camicetta e la leggera sottana, fresca di cotone e nastri appena stirata.

Come ho aspettato triste quell'amore non puntuale e mai giunto, ne ho aspettati altri. Anche ora, dopo tempo––dopo la giovinezza––aspetto ancora con quella stessa sciocca speranza di sentire il ronzio del citofono. Sono trascorsi anni e amori, e lunghe citofonate di allegria e brevi passeggiate. Ma ancora aspetto, come quando da ragazza innamorata guardavo appesi sul gancetto dell'anta i vestiti pronti della primavera. Ci sono volte che nascosta guardo fuori la finestra mentre aspetto. E mentre lo faccio sento ancora quel sapore non proprio dolce in bocca. Il sapore dell'attesa. Aspetto.

Aspetto ancora. Attendo l'uomo che adesso ritarda perché forse sta passeggiando con una ragazza fresca e giovane, vestita di primavera. Sto aspettando che mi venga a prendere per portarmi via. Ancora attendo, chissà perché. Possibile ch'io non mi sia ancora stancata? Io la Maestra, Campionessa, la Sacerdotessa dell'Attesa! Sono secoli che perfeziono la mia arte. Non ho mai perso il sorriso. Ho aspettato sempre speranzosa e ciascuna volta l'attesa è stata inutile. Inutile e vuota come la casa dove me ne stavo lì, ad aspettare.

Pronta, le valige chiuse. L'affitto pagato. Il gas spento. Aspetto.
Ma è tardi, fuori s'è fatto buio e lui non arriva.

Feb 23, 2009

Oscar night rituals

I'm jet lagged. I spent the night in L.A. yesterday and the body’s schedule is not yet in synch with the clock ticking on my bedside table.

Every year come mid winter, hordes of movie buffs, cinephiles and fans gather in séance-like covens to worship the Academy of Motion Picture’s viril statuette and its artist, thespian and author recipients. Here in the Old World - 9 hours ahead of Hollywood - we like to party hard and late to watch the Oscars through dawn. Buffet style snacks, loads of chocolate, pretzels & chips, espresso and gallons of booze accompany us through the wee hours and the overly long acceptance speeches of the less interesting categories. Bets and prognostications, theme dress-up (it is Carnevale after all) and convivial merry make the 6 hour-long Notte degli Oscar an annual must.

My virtual flight of fantasy landed early on the Kodak Theater’s red carpet, as ushers were still buffing the brass velvet rope holders, cameramen tweaking their equipment and florists busily assembling the last colorful arrangements. As the celebs and their limos began spilling onto Hollywood Boulevard, I dwelled – my stiletto heels burrowing into the soles of my feet – brushing gowns with Nathalie Portman, Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep. I winked at Robert Downey Jr and socked Mickey Rourke in his granite shoulder. I tried hard to chase after Sean Penn, but that slender wife of his kept bouncing me off. Once I finally filed into the Oscar shrine, I managed to get front row seats and followed the event’s succession of surprise presenters and acceptance speeches through the night.

The first celebrity to grasp Uncle O’s statuette was the sexy guapa Penelope Cruz who claimed she just might faint. The documentary winner "Man on Wire" was the first Oscar acceptance speech to include magic tricks, its star Philippe Petit furthermore showed his gratitude by balancing the Oscar on his chin. The Best Animated Feature Film? The award in this category was picked up by Wall-E and his beloved Eee-vah (yippee!). Dustin Lance Black tried hard to hold it together while accepting his original screenplay award. That’s when I started sniffling. I tend to get quite get emotional at the Oscars.
The most powerful and touching Oscar moment pinnacled as the Hollywood crowd rose to its feet, with several nominees getting teary-eyed, as Heath Ledger’s family stepped up to accept his best supporting trophy for "The Dark Knight." Ledger's father, Kim Ledger, said the award "would have humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be truly accepted by all you here tonight, his peers within an industry he so loved." Sister Kate Ledger told the audience the honor will go to "your beautiful Matilda," which drenched quite a number of tissues for me. I also was moved by the inspiring "All my life I've had a choice between love and hate. I chose love… and I'm here." A.R. Rahman’s speech, the shy and quiet man who won both best score and best original song for Slumdog Millionaire and clumsily sang on stage between awards.
Sean Penn won for his portrayal as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's excellent Milk, his speech reflected the recent Proposition 8 issues in California and featured quite a bit of good light-hearted comedy.
Kate Winslet’s out of breath gratitude opened with a humble "I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t made a version of this speech when I was 8 years old staring in the bathroom mirror and this was a shampoo bottle," as The Reader actress told the audience. "Well, it’s not a shampoo bottle now. I feel very fortunate to have made it all the way from there to here."
In one of yesterday's sweetest moments, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle jumped up and down like Tigger the hyper tiger from Winnie the Pooh after winning for best director. Explaining his eccentric behavior, the British filmmaker said he'd told his children that "if this miracle ever happened, I would receive it in the spirit of Tigger." It was a Slumdog Millionaire sweep, the rags to riches story infact held the last smile with the Best Picture win. Steven Spielberg took the stage to announce the winner of the Academy Award for best picture. This was the 8th and the final win for Slumdog in the 81st Oscar Night. The entire cast and crew climbed on the podium to receive the award. And it indeed made me smile as I coasted down from the clouds and landed face down on my bed where E snored quietly.
The early morning school day alarm buzzed me awake at 7:40 am, shattering the coma-like nap I had slipped into just moments before, and erasing all Hollywood glitz. Until next year, that is.

Feb 22, 2009

Honey Mustard Salmon recipe

Mine is an intense feeling of deep affection for the sweet & tangy combination of honey and mustard. But I was tired of basting the usual glazed ham with it so I decided to try it with fish.

Mirko, my fishmonger as well as recipient of large part of my earnings, had a wonderful stall yesterday. Silvery, shiny and glossy – the splendid sea creatures glinting in the light, seemed to still be leaping off the thin layer of ice and seaweed lining his crates. As my eyes feasted on the brilliance of the fish, my nostrils tickled meeting the succulent smell of deep sea – clean, intense and fresh.
Mirko proudly called me over and fanned out his peacock tail, boasting his catch. "Guarda, Signo' che abbondanza!" And abundance it surely was: mounds of locally harvested scampi, mantis shirmp, mussels and tiny venus clams; wiggling silver anchovies and red mullets; cases overflowing with turbots, ambejacks, john dorys… It was a plentiful banquet for the senses. I even got a complimentary oyster, dramatically cracked open and dribbled with lemon juice in front of other fellow shoppers and amused bystanders. Mirko does that with me a lot. More to lure unfamiliar clients into purchasing his goods, than actual spontaneous generosity. I however am always game, never turning down the offer to demonstrate the sampling act. It’s all part of the deal.

I went home with some moscardini, which I will stew with tomato and garlic tonight, and 4 salmon fillets for the honey mustard marinade recipe. I was tempted to buy the balsa wood 12-piece oyster crate, but I couldn’t afford all that bounty in one go.
The broiled salmon lunch turned out quite well yesterday, and my Italian guests – who usually look upon sweet/savory blends with suspicion – were actually very pleased.

4 salmon fillets, 1/2 inch thick
50 ml (1/4 cup) balsamic vinegar
50 ml (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive olive oil
50 ml (1/4 cup) organic honey
50 ml (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Set oven dial to broil.

In a tightly covered container, shake all the marinade ingredients well.

Steep the fillets in a large bowl with about half the marinade for at least 15 minutes, but no longer than 1 hour.

Fifteen minutes before beckoning your guests to the table with a resonant "A tavola!," place the salmon - skin side down - on the broiler pan rack. Broil 4 inches from heat for 10 to 15 minutes, basting occasionally with the marinade, until the salmon flesh flakes easily with a fork.

I served it with assorted roasted potatoes, yams and yucca (but you can use whatever tuber grows in your area) lightly seasoning them with salt and nothing else.

Pop the chilled bottle of sparkling Champagne and simper.

Feb 18, 2009

Mozzarella in Carrozza recipe

Native to the Roman surroundings, this peasant antipasto is a precursor of modern day finger food. Despite its name, which literally translates to "mozzarella in a carriage," splendid mozzarella in carrozza cannot travel to picnics nor stand uneaten for more than a few minutes after cooking, as resting fried mozzarella tends to become gummy.

To be eaten in absolute disorderly fashion, producing long stretchy ribbons of melted cheese, greasing chins and fingers alike. A scrumptious delight that bestows immense joy to soul, mind and taste buds.

Ingredients for 4
8 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
2 small mozzarella bocconcini, about 3 oz each (don't use Bufala in this case, too watery. Fior di Latte – cow's milk mozzarella – is a better choice)
1 glass of cold milk
1 cup of unbleached flour
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt to taste

Stuff the bread with thin mozzarella slices, leaving enough margins to close the "sandwiches" by crimping the edges with a little pressure (good thing about this kind of bread is in its flexible yielding nature). Line up two bowls; fill one with the cold milk and the eggs, and one with flour. Season either one with a pinch of salt.

Heat plenty vegetable oil in a frying pan and maintain at a lively temperature. When the oil is hot (ideally 180° C - 350° F), quickly plunge the sandwiches first in the milky-eggy mix, then in the flour. It's a messy and terribly aphrodisiac operation. Gently lay the sloppy sandwiches in the frying oil and keep turning until both sides are sunny golden and crisp.

Park your piping hot fried morsels briefly on a paper towel before devouring.
If you happen to also have a nice chilled bottle of white Falerno del Massico, or better – a nice rosé – you've got yourself a treat.

Above images courtesy of Autumn Azure for the Home Cook Project

Feb 16, 2009

Visiting the eye hospital emergency room in Rome

This sunny frozen Roman morning I had the pleasure of spending two full hours in a public Italian ophthalmology clinic. I plucked my number out of the electronic turn-o-matic machine and waited for my turn in a semi-deserted waiting room where I chatted with a plump jolly old lady for 20 odd minutes, and then my first turn was up.

Before anyone ever got a look at my swollen left orb, a mousy nurse with a tattered beige cardigan - which clashed horribly with her teal scrubs - took my particulars. After briefly checking me out, she proved rather quick at her diagnosis. She informed me I suffered from a vulgar conjunctivitis (which is a haughty name for pinkeye) and handing me another number, asked me to go back to the waiting room, warning me that the doctor had just left the building. Rolling her eyes she mimed the international espresso gesture of a cupped hand and a swirling spoonful of sugar.

I walked back to my cheerful old lady friend with the cataract. We spoke some more about the weather and the price of broccoli and then my name was mispronounced over a loudspeaker. I walked into the examining room where a young doctor was typing something on a computer keyboard (his Facebook profile update, I think) and a middle aged male nurse was poring over what looked like a level 2 sudoku. Guess the espresso hadn’t kicked in yet.

I explained that my vision was not impaired, but that waking up with a glued eye made me nervous. I occasionally wear disposable contact lenses and, reminded of my brother’s unfortunate contact lens incident a few years ago, where his *life* had been at risk, I rushed to the eye hospital emergency without a second thought. I’m explaining this because after reading what the mousy nurse wrote in her pre-anamnesis, both Number Whiz Nurse and Distracted Doc asked me in unison “Why the heck are you in this examining room here, where’s the emergency?”

I guess you have to be holding your eyeball to justify going to the Pronto Soccorso, is what I answered back as I jutted my face in the forehead/chin slit lamp contraption. The ophthalmologist started flashing all sorts of wild color beams in my eye and with a metallic monotone voice kept saying, “look left, look right, look at me” in a loop. Only when he ripped a small orange strip of what looked like litmus paper did a glint of sadism cross his glance but it was too quick for me to register because in a flash he touched that very strip to my bewildered eyeball.

Not the sweetest of sensations. He asked me to blink in his parrot voice and looked at my green cornea and bloodshot eyeball some more. Then he performed another quick action that made me shriek. He virtually took my upper lid and turned it inside out like he was neatly folding a pair of bobby socks. He looked some more then massaged it back down. As he went for the bottom, I asked if he was going to play that trick again but he smiled and told me he was done.

He used 2 fingers much like I do to type up on the keyboard of his computer his diagnosis and dismissed me handing me a tissue. “Don’t freak out, it’s the reagent,” I didn’t understand until I dried the tear that lingered on my puffy left eye and saw it was bright yellow. Highlighter yellow, fluorescent tears. Psychedelic mama.

With a prescription of antibiotic eye drops and gels to last me a week, I skipped out of the outpatient department like a fifteen year old high on candy. The heavyset old lady was still waiting for the atropine to dilate her pupil fully, but she waved at me from a distance. Ciao, Nì.

Feb 14, 2009

Valentine's Day protest

Merely a therapeutic exchange of bacteria and germs? According to a group of wild European scientists, kissing is a very healthy activity, much like going to the gym. I love to kiss, whatever the health consequences. A good kisser is a gem, and finding one that can live up to my osculation standards is not an easy task.

It must be true, what the doctors say. Kissing does make you fly. Making out lifts your mood and reduces cholesterol, your ticker pounds with excitement while cutting down the risk of heart attack. Trading saliva causes the migration of a gazillion bacteria that stimulate the immune system. And it works like natural plastic surgery: 25 facial organs are employed in a passionate French bisou. This of course if you’re not in Zambia, where kissing is forbidden! The reason lies somewhere between soul-stealing and magic.

A recent survey announced that the majority of kissers (64.5%) bend their head to the right when engaging in an ardent smooch, an automatic reflex developed in early neonatal age. The kiss is ageless and pure.

This long preamble is my convoluted way of protesting. I stand by the rights of lovers but I will not celebrate Valentine's Day. I will not honor the Saint of consumerism. I’m not game for the global scale marketing trick to sell flowers, cards and chocolates. Today, February 14th, metric tons of lingerie will be sold to stupefied customers worldwide. G-strings, brasiers, lace bustiers, thongs, culottes and whatnots will generate an enormous flow of cash and giant display of cellulite.
Computer viruses will peak today, be sure to save a back-up of all important files before the cynical hacker of the day infesting cyberspace lures you into opening chain letters and promises of instantly delivered love and sex.

Hectars of characters will be punched by cell phone keypads all over the world to send instant messages. Pennies and more will be spent on sms epistolaries filled with enough acronyms to nauseate a bureaucrat. The common Italian Valentine’s Day sms lingo revolves around the quintessential TVB for "Ti Voglio Bene," TAT: "Ti Amo Tanto," or TVUMDB to say the complex "Ti Voglio Un Mondo Di Bene," which obsucrely translates to I love you in the the quantity of the world.

In Italy 15 million red roses will be purchased, plus 5 million among orchids, African daisies, tulips, violets, etc. The money payed for this monumental gesture flirts with numbers close to 70 million euro. In this horrid moment of economic crisis, at least florists will be smiling. Transporting the flowers sold on this festive occasion all over Italy will cause the release of more than 4 tons of CO2, another reason why I will not celebrate.

There are two stories that account for Old Val's election to patron saint of lovers. One ancient legend narrates that the nosy bishop overheard two lovers quarreling and interrupted the brawl bestowing a red rose. Another less consumeristic version holds that the martyred Valentine became patron saint of lovers because he dared to celebrate the marriage of a Christian woman to a pagan Roman legionary.

I for one will celebrate *tomorrow*. San Faustino is the saint honored on Single's Day: The Revenge. And although Faustino’s sappy mission is to find for each girl the perfect boyfriend, I will celebrate Feb.15th as my day as I have been doing for the past years. I will gift myself with a potted plant, perhaps an olive tree or a lemon tree and watch it grow and produce goods of my own. I will enjoy a candle-lit dinner with not one but four or more male friends, with whom there has been and never will be any “history.” I’ll paint a wall a new different color and rearrange the furniture in my bedroom to let in some positive Chi. I will buy only books and music, read poetry and elevate my soul with fair trade chocolate and copious amounts of bold red wine. I will reduce my carbon footprint by riding my bicycle and eating locally farmed goods.

On this festive non-Day I will not be considered a zitella, a spinster. I'll be the rotund, fun-loving and sexy single mom I love to be.

Feb 12, 2009

Dreaming is gratis

bureaucracy |byoŏˈräkrəsē| noun ( pl. -cies) a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
• a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system.
• the officials in such a system, considered as a group or hierarchy.
• excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of such a system eg: the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government.

I have not been able to post much this week. Say thank you to ruthless Italian red tape, traffic, foul weather (highly influencing my mood and functional skills), too short 24-hour days, menstrual cramps, E's tantrums, unemployment and a general money-chasing moment which has lasted too long.
There are however remedies to the above-mentioned obstacles to positive thinking. Many of them involve good food&drink, stimulating conversation, profuse usage of crayons and stickers, unexpected sunny days, reminding myself that the beach is only a 30km drive away, the company of friends and family, and dreaming.
I do that a lot lately. Dreaming (often with eyes open) and napping with E are among the best free-of-charge activities I like to engage in. They match very little else in terms of joy and satisfaction.
Right now my no.1 daydream entry is Escape. Here are a few images and thoughts associated with my latest reveries.

A lovely agriturismo in Alto Adige.

A hot air balloon ride.

A beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting.

A gorgeous Tuscan landscape in Garfagnana.

A lazy midday ride on board the S. Giovanni.

Venice, period.

African skies.

Positano at sunset.


Hidden Mediterranean coves.

Sangiovese grapes.


E's art.

Local&organic oranges (self harvested).

Feb 8, 2009

A sweet little pastry shop downtown

Usually looking in the window of an Italian pasticceria or cake shop is to feel one's fillings twinge and one's heart lift; but not here. The inconspicuous entry to the Pasticceria Cinque Lune is for connoisseurs only. A small door, covered by a minimalist brown awning beckons only the experts to enter and relish their sweet destiny within.

The Italian Sunday tradition is all about keeping it lazy, lax and leisurely. This means waking up not too early, calmly reading the entire paper cover to cover, and eating breakfast in bed. For some, going to morning Mass, for others taking a stroll in the Centro Storico. One activity common to all however is making a stop at the local pastry shop and picking up the mandatory “paste” for dessert.
Il pranzo domenicale, the family’s Sunday lunch is a big deal here. Much more so than dinner, which usually is a piping hot cup of broth, a glass of bold red wine and not much else. Lunch on Sunday means getting the family around the table and making it a habitual and cheerful gathering: lots of great food, laughter and conversation, kids vaulting about high on excessive doses of sugars, grown-ups catching up on mutual work week endeavors, gossip, etc. The meal usually is structured in the typical 5-element menu: antipasto, a pasta or risotto dish, a protein main course of meat, poultry or fish, a vegetable side dish (or more than one, if the cook is in the mood), and dessert.
And this is where the requisite 11am stop at the pasticceria comes into play. Today the narrow retail section of the Pasticceria delle Cinque Lune was jam-packed to full capacity. Blame it on the midday sun that gave us Romans a breather from a solid week of rain, or perhaps the aroma of the freshly baked typical Carnevale specialties frappe, castagnole and zeppole emanating from the tiny pastry workshop and wafting into the streets. We had to fight our way to the head of the confused line to get our kilo of assorted goodies.
Pastries are sold by weight, dusted with extra confectioner’s sugar and wrapped in the trademark red paper and gold twine. E scoffed 2 deep-fried zeppole on the go while we chatted with la Signora Anzuini at the cash register, noticing how he had grown since Christmas, when she last saw him.

Pasticceria Cinque Lune infact also makes excellent 100% certified organic panettone, pandoro, torrone and other traditional Roman festive sweets, like pangiallo Romano, ricciarelli, pampepato and panforte. At Easter, the pasticceria confects decorated chocolate eggs of all sizes and cocoa content, each holding a little gift-wrapped surprise within its polished haves. This should come as no surprise, the “Five Moons” after all boasts its fourth generation of pasticceri artisans since its founder Salvatore Anzuini opened shop in 1902, so besides interesting German pastries like Krantz, Stollen or a fantastic semi-sweet braided breakfast bread, Claudio Anzuini and his team bake mouthwatering custom-made birthday cakes, monumental Mont Blancs, tarts of all types – the best being of course crostata di visciole – Sacher torte and the establishment’s signature "antichi romani," an ancient Roman recipe for crumpled puff pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, honey and poppy seeds. Not to mention the pasticceria mignon: bite-sized versions of the above mentioned cakes, classic pastries, sfoglaitelle, fruit tartlets and more.

My mother’s abundant Sunday fares pacified our appetite and prized our gluttonous nature. The Carnevale pastries from Cinque Lune escalated our blood-sugar levels through the roof. At least until next Sunday.

Pasticceria Cinque Lune
Corso Rinascimento, 89
00186 Roma
Tel. +39 06 68801005

Feb 5, 2009

Confessions of a rampant Nutella junkie

Of all forms of temptation to sin, I think chocolate is what turns me on the most without foreplay. Honey colored slabs of glossy, firm milk chocolate; tiny white chocolate pralines; snapping bars of dark, bitter chocolate; choco-coated coffee beans. I can’t resist. As a rampant chocoaddict, I'm forced to indulge, greater forces moving me.
Nutella, a delicious creamy spread staple that has marked generations of Italian children with premature lust, unwanted calories and acne, is today’s drug of choice. On this rainy Roman day, we Nutellaholics celebrate its pure spreadable joy.

Many chocolatiers produce their own nutella-like products, but nothing beats the original contained in the trademark stout glass jar with white screw cap or the mismatched tumblers with the snap top boasting the same 70’s red and black label. The unchanged illustration below the logo is a steadfast Italian icon. Mid afternoon merenda snack meant thick slices of crusty bread slathered with Nutella and a guaranteed energy boost capable of orbiting us to Pluto.

Today, February 5th, 2009 – World Nutella Day – I officiate as Nutella High Priestess (E is way too small for such mundane and Dionysian pleasures). I solemnly jab a hole in the gilded seal, cerimoniously tearing it open. The ciabatta is warming in the oven, and the ecstasy of thrusting just-washed fingers in the virgin tranquil sea of its surface is the prelude to a lustful moment of private Nutella plenty.

Here is a recipe I want to share as a sign of grateful thanks for Michelle of Bleeding Espresso and Sara of Ms Adventures in Italy, for proclaiming and instituting World Nutella Day.
Grazie, mie care sorelle!

Quantities for 4 Nutella Virgins (or 1 aficionado):
250gr (1 1/4 cups) whipping cream
2 tsp confectioner’s sugar, sifted
3 tbsp Nutella, or more to taste

If you are among those who store half opened jars of Nutella in the refrigerator, please refrain from reading any further. This means that a) you actually manage to have any left over, and b) you show no respect for Nutella’s signature creamy nature. In both cases you win my distrust.

Whip the cream with the confectioner’s sugar until quite firm. Add the Nutella, blending it softly with a wooden spoon in round, loving motions. NOW refrigerate the combined elements of your pseudo-mousse for 15 minutes, if you can resist.
Can be left plain or garnished with sifted bitter Dutch cocoa, a cinnamon stick and a few mint leaves before applying to face.

Feb 4, 2009

Asparagus, fried egg & love

The morning spent tying myself up in red tape around the city in the rain left me virtually lifeless and with no desire to eat, let alone cook. So thank God for asparagus!

I boiled the asparagus uncovered in lightly salted water for 8 minutes.

I fried 2 eggs over easy in cold pressed olive oil.

I warmed half the ciabatta I bought this morning.

I poured a glass of Aglianico.

I shared the tips with E and performed acrobatic scarpetta (sopping runny egg with bread).

I brewed the espresso.
I'm smiling.

Feb 3, 2009

Candles & Moonlight on Energy Saving Day

For the fifth consecutive year running, showmen Cirri and Solibello will once again ask their listeners to actively participate in a huge clean energy protest, with a simple throw of a switch.

The play on the famous Giuseppe Ungaretti poem M'illumino d'Immenso - ‘I flood myself with light of the immense’ - in this particular case puns on the word "meno," less. Therefore 'I am less lit' is the event's catch phrase.
M’illumino di meno (or "I will use less light") is both one of the most important awareness campaigns on energy saving and a widespread symbolic one day event. It was first launched on 16 February 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from developed nations, came into force.
The initiative was first launched by Caterpillar, the popular and successful live radio show which reaches more than a million listeners daily. Caterpillar is broadcast by Radio2, the entertaining channel of RAI, the Italian Public Service Broadcaster. The program airs from 6pm to 7:30pm GMT+1, Monday to Friday and deals with major issues and themes in the world in an informal and ironic way underlining contradictions and paradoxes in our society.

National Energy Saving Day’s philosophy is to convince as many people as possible to focus on saving energy. Everybody will be asked to reduce their private energy consumption to the minimum during the show’s airtime from 6:00-7:30pm GMT+1 worldwide. This allows for maximum visibility in the media and the largest participation by common people concentrated on one single Energy Saving Day.
The most visible effect is created by “energy silence” which consists in the symbolic turning-off of most important monuments and main Italian city square illumination. Institutions, general public, companies, shop-owners, schools, restaurants, gyms and any other kind of association will be participating in their own peculiar way: by switching off shop window sign, computers or electronic equipment in laboratories, organizing candlelight dinners and so on.
The fifth National Energy Saving Day will be held on 13 February 2009. The initiative has received for the second year the Patronage of the European Parliament and aims to grow into a full-fledged European experience.

Notable participants include the President of the Italian Republic, and other high ranking Italian government officials have turned off the lights of the Quirinale, Palazzo Madama and Montecitorio government buildings.
The town administrations of the most important Italian cities also joined the campaign: Rome has turned off the Colosseum, Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain; in Milan, the Duomo, Palazzo Marino and Piazza della Scala; in Turin, the Mole (remarkable the switch-off during the Torino 2006 Olympics Games in 2006) and the Superga Basilica; in Verona, the Arena; in Florence, Palazzo Vecchio; in Bologna, Piazza Maggiore; in Venice, Piazza San Marco; in Naples, the Maschio Angioino; in Siena, Piazza del Campo; in Catania, Piazza Duomo; in Palermo, Piazza Pretoria; in Agrigento, Valle dei Templi. Thousands of restaurant owners have organized candle-light dinners and have offered menus prepared using low energy consumption.
City Hall meetings, association assemblies, and sport team’s trainings have been held in the dark.

Actual savings of the day (as measured by the National Electricity Network) in 2006, here are some figures:
Energy was reduced by the equivalent of the daily consumption of a city the size of Turin. In 2007, it was as if 5 million lamps had been turned-off!

Source: millumino@rai.it

The invitation extends to everybody. WHEREVER YOU ARE simply switch off any unnecessary and non-vital electrical devices and appliances on National Energy Saving Day February 13, 2009 from 6pm to 7:30pm GMT+1.

Feb 2, 2009

Madamina il catalogo è questo

I love lists. I make all sorts of them. Usually handwritten, and commonly portable: my lists must always travel with me wherever I go. I have inherited this from my father, Insane List Master Supeme. My best expressions of writing are shorthand registers scribbled on odd scraps of paper, receipts, restaurant bills, post-it notes (man's second largest contribution to humanity after plastic wrap), or any other writeable surface in my posession that can fit in my handbag or better yet, in my wallet. My house is one big artistic collection of shopping checklists, to-do lists, wishlists, books I want to read, restaurants I want to eat at, people I want to write actual pen&paper letters to, etc. My enumeration of duties, tasks and missions is boundless. The wall by the phone is decorated with an ever-expanding graffiti mural of useful numbers to grocery stores, ethnic cuisine takeaway, butcher, CSA, pharmacy, wine supplier, hairdresser, manicure, wax parlor, yoga class hours; and recently pediatrician, playgroup, car pool, etc. Many items of my Lists never get entirely crossed off, those that do make me feel like I’ve conquered monumental endeavors.

In a moment of deep emotional distress, around the age of 30something – time when perhaps others too draw a balance of life thus far - I found myself compiling one very important inventory of personal identity skills and resources. It was divided into two columns, on one side it rolled down quite a large number of abilities, led by my proficiency of several languages, professional competence, my aptitude for adapting easily to change, down to one-handed cartwheels and kissing. I guess I needed that list to see my accomplishments in black and white in a ridiculous attempt to perk myself up, but it didn't work very well because in the I AM NOT column, the first item listed was: a mother. Something my age, single status and a pesky ovarian cyst rendered highly unlikely.

Years have passed and I have lost that list. I'd be curious to scroll down it's silly contents now that so much water has flowed under the proverbial bridge. My job has taken me places both physical and emotional enough to orbit me to the moon and back; I have shed my skin a hundred times, re-inventing the new me each time like a phoenix from burning embers. I have traveled, banqueted, lived and loved like there was no tomorrow. I have managed gargantuan efforts and plummeted into deep chasms of solitude to be where I am now: a pretty lofty place surrounded by simplicity, beauty, art and family. Above all, my old aspiration entry n.1 is a definite check mark drawn with a fat red felt tip marker. The indelible kind that bleeds right through the stack of lists below.

Now that motherhood, maturity, life and a shred more wisdom have encouraged me to look at my existence with a smile, I no longer need to keep a record of lifetime goals.
But I do have a few more items still leftover from my Ultimate Wishlist, and they are:

1) Swim with a dolphin at open sea;
2) Scale Mt. Kilimanjaro, and from its snowy summit, gaze down at the birthplace of mankind;
3) Take a hot air balloon ride over a beautiful landscape;
4) Spend a pamper week alone in a yoga retreat in Bali, Indonesia;
5) Wake up to the sound of a seagull’s raucus call and crashing waves (a long way of saying I want to move to the beach);
6) Learn to type with 10 fingers;
7) Get my sommelier certification degree;
8) Publish my first manuscript;
9) Grow my own produce and herbs in a vegetable garden;
10) Take a writing workshop vacation in a country I’ve never visited before;
11) Help build a school in Africa;
12) Take singing lessons;
13) Travel with my son to Australia and South America;
14) Learn Russian well enough to read Cechov and Dostoevskij in original;
15) Volunteer in a soup kitchen;
16) Repower my house with solar panels;
17) Lose about 20 pounds;
18) Make more lists