Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Il Giorno del Ringraziamento

That's what I heard Peter telling our neighbors about Thanksgiving. The Day of Thanks. And a beautiful day it was. After some rain the night before, (By the way, the heating guy came Wednesday AM  and fixed the water pipe in no time.) the skies had cleared and the morning sky was a breathtaking blue. The fields were crisp with frost and the chimneys in the village below were already busy burning off the damp. What a great beginning for T'giving 2008.
First, after trying to fit the bird into our largest roasting pan, I had a novel idea. (I never did find out how much it weighed. Peter told me that the butcher said a little over 4 kilos. I think it was heavier.) When Peter goes out to buy the paper and his bread, ask him to go to the hardware store and buy a bigger pan. And he brought home a real beauty for 15 euro! That done, I put the turkey on top of some chopped vegetables, breast side down and put it in the oven. With the timer set I'd turn it over after an hour. The cream cheese frosting (or, as we call it in the Philadelphia area,"icing") was a learning experience. I'd often seen the silver foil packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese in stores here. Never tried it, though. I looked at a recipe for cream cheese icing in "Joy of" and saw that you could do it in the food processor. Good idea. So I followed the recipe, everything good and cold and gave it a whirl in the FP. The cream cheese promptly turned to a soup. I just stood there looking at it. The butter was suspended in tiny dots in the cream cheese soup and the sugar was just going along for the ride. A lovely goop. But it tasted just fine and I spooned it over the carrot cake and figured my audience would never know the difference. So, that's that for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Italy. Same way with the gravy. I didn't make any. The turkey was so moist and delicious I figured why cover it up. Now I think that the compulsory gravy was needed to cover up the sins of the many dry turkeys our mothers cooked over the years. I started everything off with little puff pastry tarts made with gorgonzola, walnuts and pear with a savory custard poured on top. Everything was "tutto bene" as we say. Just fine. I ate quickly. I couldn't get enough of the flavors of  Thanksgiving. And the cranberries were right next to me. Not a tomato or head of garlic in sight all day.
 Yesterday, I was up by seven and the turkey was already morphing into stock and whatever. Lunch was hot turkey sandwiches. I explained the concept to Peter. You don't pick them eat them with a knife and fork. When he came in from the garden and saw them covered with gravy (I finally made it.) he quickly said, "We must have bread on the table." I explained that there was plenty of bread under the gravy and not to fear.
Today is Turkey Tetrazzini. Named after Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940), born in Florence, an Italian coloratura soprano. Legend has it that chicken tetrazzini was created for her in San Francisco. This turkey will keep me busy for the next few days.
I hope the rain lets up today. The big outside fair for Christmas is in Stia tomorrow. Vendors come from all over and sell everything you can imagine. You can buy everything from turtles to a bra. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Ce ne ha sempre una." It's always something.

This is a very handy sentence to memorize in l'italiano because you're sure to need it more than once. I wanted to write about our Sunday lunch in Umberto's Woods and today there was a quiet time after lunch this afternoon. Piero was napping with Lucy (our gorgeous diva dog),the lunch dishes were in the sink (braised cabbage with sausages with polenta), my Red Bull was cold..and then BANG! A water pipe exploded under the sink and water was blasting all over the kitchen and into the bedroom with a mighty force. Piero shot out of bed and went outside to turn the water off. Thank God he was home. 
So, now we are without water until the heating guy comes. Piero called him right away and found out he was at the dentist. When we finally got in touch with him he said that he'd come tonight and look at it and return in the morning to do the repairs. No water until ?
My first thought was brining the turkey. Where am I going to get the water? Fortunately, here in Stia we have a spa where the water is always flowing. The water is actually bottled and sold under the name "Maxim's" and it's owned by Pierre Cardin (aka Pietro Cardin) but he left open taps for the common use here in town. The water is known for it's curative properties...especially for reducing cellulite. So watch out Faith Popcorn.... There could be a new trend. Brining your turkey in spa water!!! All turkeys should have that lean, smooth look before heading into the oven.
Piero headed for the Terme (we call it the "water place") with a carrier filled with one and a half litre plastic bottles and more for whatever we might need in the way of cooking and drinking. As for our plumbing needs, there is a lavatoio (old stone tubs with water from a spring) at the end of our road. Once upon a time you could drink the water but now it's used for washing cars and watering plants. Pasquita uses it for some laundry from time to time. The slabs of stone in the front of the tubs are angled just so for slapping and kneading the clothes. 
Piero filled up some five litre wine jugs and brought them up the road and I put them in the bathroom. What would we do without these sources? It sounds  like we're roughing it but this is the way it is here. We're really very fortunate to have these two water sources so close by.
Tonight I'll put the turkey in the big plastic laundry tub with the spa water and brine it. I'll ask Piero to get a piece of wood to put over the top and we'll put it outside overnight. It's cold enough. We had snow yesterday and today, so glorious and silent. Today was one of those extra brilliant days you get the day after a snowfall. Bright and clear but with everything thawing you really can't do a wash or hang anything on the line. Plans go awry. It's the way of the world here.
But I have a turkey in the fridge waiting for it's spa treatment..
Ciao, I hope to get back to you domani.
P.S. It's 6:30 the next morning..
The fun didn't stop there last night. As we were attempting to rearrange the turkey in the bucket for maximum coverage of the brining solution it split sending another few litres of water over the other side of the kitchen floor. And the heating guy never showed up, naturally. I hope he's here in the next few hours.
Ciao for now.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Turkey Day in Tuscany Part 1

Peter ordered the turkey from the macelleria (the butcher shop) last week. I'm pretty sure he told him that it should be a small turkey, I didn't ask him, but he knows if it's too big I can't fit it in the little Fisher-Price oven. That happened the first year and I had to do some serious pre-cook carving to get the bird comfortably set in a pan and on the rack without it grazing the top of the oven. Didn't make a very nice presentation but I learned something..get a small turkey.
I really don't know why I'm doing the whole T'giving thing at all. I mean it has no significance here in Italy and Peter doesn't really like "meat" (he calls everything meat...two legs or four) or leftovers. Although I made turkey tetrazzini last year and that went over well. Probably because it was half pasta. This will be my fourth T'giving here. The first two were without cranberries and believe me, I really missed them. Last year, my best friend, Marybeth, sent me two cans from the Publix in Florida, one jellied and one whole berries. That was a big decision and I guess I chose the whole berries because the jellied is still on the shelf in the black hole. Sometimes I think I'm doing it because of that can of cranberries. I mean what else can I eat it with? Chicken, I guess, but not the same thing, really.
I'm a big fan of brining so when Peter brings the bird home on Tuesday I'll stick him in a brine (laundry basket works) for a while and then air dry him in the fridge. We'll have a potato puree, that much I know. Not mashed but pureed like silk. Peter does that brilliantly. There will be a stuffing.. probably one with chestnuts and sausage since they are favorite foods for both of us. One of the more problematic dishes is the vegetables. Italians like their vegetables well cooked,"ben cotto", really well cooked. Pasta is al dente. Vegetables are not. And there isn't much room for compromise. Green beans, carrots, cauliflower all are reported to be "hard" when I cook them. Maybe the next generation of Italian cooks can popularize vegetables tender but firm, but for now I'm eating...dare I say it...soft vegetables. Not quite ready for Gerber Kids, but on the way. Awful.
I don't know about dessert yet. I was clicking through the NYTimes T'giving recipes and saw a pecan and apple pie. I'd love to do something like that but there isn't any maple syrup or Karo syrup here. That chocolate/pumpkin cake looked good and I might look at that again. Or I just might do a carrot cake with buttercream icing. My cakes are usually a hit because all the recipes are from somewhere in Italy but the few "American" cakes I've made have been graciously received and disappear quickly.
When I really think about why I do this it's clear I do it for myself. For Peter it's just another meal. I enjoy all the prep, the amazing, evocative aroma of the turkey, carving that first slice (P does it all with a plastic handled steak knife...tender bird.), the sage in the stuffing, the tang in the cranberries, all the flavors of home and the memories of my mother stuffing the turkey the night before and making me laugh every year when she made the turkey "chew" the stuffing. I remember the agonizing temptations of the prepared dishes waiting to be warmed up, the sound of the electric beaters whipping the cream for the pies, the scraping and shuffling of the turkey pan when she was making the gravy. It's about family and tradition no matter where you are. The only thing I'm missing is the Macy's parade and the football games.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Artichokes for Them and Mushrooms for Us

Peter had a successful morning in the woods looking for mushrooms and came back with a basket full of mazza di tamburo, or drumsticks, because they grown on tall stalks and the cap is a tight, knobby, elongated. dome The chicken and dumplings were ready to be served (it passed) and after we sat down to eat I mentioned that it looked like we were down a few more artichoke plants. "Not again", he said. I wasn't really sure because I just took a quick look when I went out to get some parsley. Sure enough and I could even see the hoof prints. He's down there now stringing up another kind of barricade in the front of the garden, the terrace side. "We cannot go on this way anymore. I must get more fencing," he sighed. If you could see the mangle of thorny bushes that the deer have to get through to get to the garden you'd really wonder how they did it. Poor Peter. He spends hours in the garden planting the vegetables and turning over the earth. It's really his baby.
 Let's change the subject for now...The mushroom hunt is a very, very, big thing in this neck of the woods. With all the rain we had last week the woods will be filled with funghi now. Our neighbor, Pasquita, came up the road with a basket yesterday. I could hear Peter ask her where she got them and then laugh. Cardinal rule of mushroom hunting is never (never!) disclose your particular spot. It a known fact that a husband won't tell a wife where he finds his mushrooms. Our neighbor, Purgatorio, has a spot off road and three hours into the woods where he has found plenty of porcini that he can sell for a great price. Anyway, back to Pasquita. She's a Papiano girl, born and bred. At eighty something we should all look so good and be so interested in life. I've seen her come up the hill with her basket filled with these really tiny mushrooms called chiodini, "little nails". She must have to get on her hands and knees to get them.  Whenever Peter finds a mushroom he's not sure about he says,"I'll ask Pasquita. She'll know." And not only about mushrooms! She knows everybody and dare I say it, everything about them, too. (If you know what I mean.)
Driving along the roads up here in the mountains you see cars parked in the middle of nowhere at an ungodly early hour. And I can hear Purgatorio's motorbike start up and down the road he goes with a basket and a long stick attached to the back. It's all about i funghi. It becomes even more of an experience when you bring them home and cook them. Peter brought some home recently and threw a couple of big ones in a pan with some olive oil and salt and pepper. That's when it becomes a religious experience. The flavor is rich and earthy and exquisite. Those were the kind he found today. Everybody thinks  porcini are the best but there are plenty of other gems in the woods. Besides the salt and pepper the mushrooms are also seasoned with nepitella, a wild mint that grows along the side of the road. I'll go out and pick some now. I'm sure we'll have these beauties for dinner tonight. Another fantastic budget meal courtesy of Mother Earth.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Feeding The Man

There was a lot of cooking going on here last week at lunch time. Pork chops braised in Chianti and Marsala,, spaghetti alla carrettiera, baccala with potatoes (our own home grown!), and apple turnovers. I went against my grain and prepared Roman broccoli (a fascinating and beautiful vegetable) with a bechamel sauce and baked it. And yesterday there was a gratin of leek, artichoke and those potatoes again. I threw a little fresh thyme in there too and it worked out very well along with chicken with rosemary and lemon and a chocolate amaretti cake. I usually don't adulterate the vegetables with a sauce but I know Peter (he's the guy next to me in the picture) loves bechamel and that sort of thing...and after all it was our anniversary. We met in Florence six years ago, November 16, 2002. Yes, that's another story.
But some things don't go over well at all with in point, last week's Hungarian cauliflower soup. Some are a mystery to him-cole slaw. And some are a surprising success- wilted spinach salad. He said he'd never eaten raw spinach before. Some flavors aren't part of the everyday Tuscan palate at all but I've held my breath and watched the verdict. Indian food and apple spice cake have both been a hit, although Peter keeps wanting to add water or some kind of liquid to the basmati rice. "No Peter, it's not risotto, darling."
Now I know that he likes my Bolognese sauce (thanks, NYTimes) but one time I noticed he was shoving the pasta around the plate. He's usually happily stabbing away at the tortiglione. He never says what's on his mind so I had to go into the sleuthing mode. The perp was the penne. Doesn't like it. Something about the consistency. I pulled out a bag of the tortiglione. "Look, one's cut straight and one's cut diagonally, and you can taste the difference?" Evidently, he does. Same thing with fusilli. It makes him gag. I'm positive this has got to be an Italian thing. My friend Susan, her family won't eat pasta that can't be twirled. So which on are you? A stabber or a twirler?
Today we had lasagne for lunch. Peter made it last night before we went out for a pizza and some bubbly. He said it would only take a few minutes to put it together. He went to the cellar for a jar of our sauce, started, the bechamel and within a few minutes, just as he said, it was made and we were out the door. The result? It was just fine. But I can't possibly tell anyone what he did. I'll just call it "Don't ask, don't tell Lasagne".
I want to make chicken and dumplings for him tomorrow. My mother used to make it and my father would always lovingly tell her that she just couldn't make it like his mother. I don't think I'll run into that response because Peter has never heard of dumpling, in English anyway. I'll keep him guessing and see if he figures it's "passatelli" in Italian.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Midnight Salads for All

The stove and the freezer (!) arrived at 9:40 this morning. Right on time. I saw the delivery truck winding its way up the road as I looked out the window and I quickly ran down to the garden to tell Peter. As he came up through the gate he said, "They got in again. They ate all the brussel sprouts, the broccoli, most of the cauliflower and a few artichokes." Our friends, the deer, must've had a feast last night. Damn!
The garden, or l'orto, as well call it here, sits high above the road on a terraced hillside. Peter really thought he had reinforced the fencing well enough on three sides especially after the deer had helped themselves to all the lettuce at the beginning of the summer. As it stands now the garden looks like a very large cage. The back wall of the garden is just that...a 15 foot high stone wall. But there's one spot where the fencing isn't very secure and that's where they got in. Just like in the summer, they smashed a few tomato plants on their way in, but didn't eat any. No pomodori in their salads, I guess.
So Peter's in the garden right now assessing the damage and seeing what he can save and I'm sitting here with the new stove. It's on and so far it has effortlessly sailed up to 450 degrees. What a difference a door makes. The burners..well, 3 work and the tiny little thing doesn't work. I can live with it. Believe me, I can, I can! I didn't watch my old friend go out the door but I did take one last picture of her this morning when Peter went into town to buy the paper. Her tin foil smile lit up that corner of the kitchen.
Here I was all set to write about "Feeding The Man" today and then the beasts got in the way. Oh, they must've had a blast last night. Surprised they didn't knock on the door and ask for some olive oil.
The freezer is a beauty. It's of the chest variety and quite large, too. Now, all we need is for our neighbor Purgatorio to go out and bag a wild boar (are there any other kind?) to put inside. We've wanted a freezer for so long and were so lucky to find it and the stove on the same day. Anyway, it's humming along nicely in the cantina. We thought we'd finally have plenty of room for all our winter vegetables in the new freezer, but now--- well, kind of an O. Henry twist to the story, don't you think?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The New Stove and My Old Pal

We'll be welcoming a new stove into our kitchen on Saturday, we hope. And I say hope because we've had some really bad luck getting a stove delivered, but that's another story. The stove I inherited was a mess to begin with. There are four gas burners. Two on the right side work without any problem....although it's hard to get a large pot and a large saute pan back to back. On the other side we have a burner that won't light without an extremely delicate touch (and then it can't be regulated) and the other is a tiny little thing that's good for warming tiny little things. The oven door blew out before I got here and has been variously replaced with a flattened olive oil can, a lasagne pan and now, a pressed out piece of an old washing machine. (Tuscans, at least the one I live with, don't throw anything out.) There are gaps in the door that I have plugged up with heavy duty Reynolds Wrap and more flattened aluminum take out pans. Some of the knobs have fallen off and they get a wad of Reynolds Wrap ,too
Baking is a real dicey project for me. I have two oven thermometer from the States hanging on the racks and depend on them, stealing quick little peeks at them to see if the old girl can hit 350 or better yet 400 degrees without getting flustered and losing heat. I'd named her early on the Hail Mary stove.
Now, the "new" stove isn't really new. In fact it's the same model and color as the one we have now. It's just the better looking twin. We found it at a used goods warehouse near Arezzo. Great place, it has everything. And there she was the long lost twin just sitting among the other has beens.And she's brown just like her sister. I'm thinking if this stove is 40 years old it was probably called "autumn bronze" or something like that, in Italian of course. (Can't imagine having to keep a white stove white.)
To tell you the truth, I'm a little sorry to see the old girl go and I'm thinking about the last things I'll cook with her. I remember how I'd button her up with tin foil before a big project and set her on her way. There's no last lap for the old girl. I'm just about crying right now...
Addio, my friend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Room With a View

Welcome to Mangia Tutto! In Italian that means "eat everything" and to illustrate that the day before yesterday I made risotto alle ortiche for lunch. 
Ortica (plural is ortiche) is basically a weed and it is otherwise known as"stinging nettle". I know this because in the summer when I walk to the garden in flip-flops my toes always hit the ortiche and there is an annoying little tingling sensation that lasts for a few minutes.
Piero, who otherwise will be known here as Peter, my Florentine sweetheart, has often mentioned ortica as something to cook with. And he has picked bags of it to take to his friend Eva in Florence. (Poor lady lives in the city and doesn't have the pleasure of weeds.) So this week I came across a recipe for this risotto with ortiche and I decided to try it. Not bad at all and really economical considering it's a weed.
Italians really do make the most of everything that nature gives them in the way of food. We're in the midst of chestnut season right now. During the war the country was so poor that chestnuts were a plentiful source of food for them. Drying them and making flour and then making the simple cake, castagnaccio, of the flour and water. Just this past weekend we had the Chestnut Festival here in our little town and I had a steaming piece of castagnaccio and washed it down the vin wine steeped with cloves, sugar and an orang peel. It really hits the spot. Peter had polenta made of the chestnut flour and a dollop of sheep's milk ricotta. And then you could have the polenta fried and dusted with sugar or the whole chestnuts with get the idea. Everything chestnut. In the center of the piazza there was a huge chestnut roasting pan spewing smoke and the irresistible aroma of roasting chestnuts and people come from all over to walk around and look at the craft tables, eat chestnuts, drink the steaming wine and enjoy the music and a day in the country.
In Mangia Tutto! I hope to write about these little snippets of country life here in the Casentino. And also to keep you posted on what's for lunch this week. Right now, I have to get the cake out of the oven. It's an olive oil cake. Today's pasta is tagliatelle with chicken liver sauce.