Shape Matters

Last week we attended one of the most beautiful weddings! From our hotel on the Amalfi coast we drove to a five-star accommodation, built amidst the ruins of a convent. The ceremony itself took place in the open air shell of the chapel ruins, overlooking the sea, on the cliffs of the Amalfi coast. Rose petals were strewn over the floor of the antica cappella.

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Then, we moved to a cocktail reception on the terazzo overlooking the small fishing village and the Mediterranean sea. From here, the guests strolled down the steep hill on a paved-over donkey path to the piazza of the fishing village for a photo on the steps of the church and a gelato at a local gelateria.

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We drove along the winding coastal street to the wedding party. This was held at the hotel nestled along the terraced hill of lemon trees and grapevines. The food was beyond beautiful, abundant, and cooked to perfection! We enjoyed everyone we met and dinner time conversation with new friends. Then, we danced the night away and into the early hours of the morning finishing with a three o’clock moon-lit dip in the pool on the lower terrace.

Coincidentally, when the clock struck midnight, Marco leaned over to me with a gentle kiss and said “happy anniversary”. . . it was the 17 years to the day that we met in Sweden! Which brings me back to this blog and the goal of learning from the Italian culture. The day before the wedding, we overheard some American tourists remarking upon the pasta section of the menu. “It’s just another pasta name, the shape doesn’t matter!”

The shape of the pasta does matter. At the restaurant, we chose a spaghetti con le vongole, spaghetti with clams. This is a simple dish with olive oil, garlic, clams, clam juice, salt, pepper, and parsley. This same dish would never be prepared with penne!

Spaghetti con le vongole at the Amalfi Coast

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I asked Marco’s mother why the shape of the pasta is important and she said, “il formato della pasta conta!”. (The form of the pasta counts!) I asked her “why”? She said again, with even more animation, “il formato della pasta conta!”. No matter how many different ways I asked, she just repeated the same phrase.  This is just one of those things that Italians just know, it’s in their blood, it is a part of their culture and heritage, passed down from years of cooks.

Mia suocera (mother-in-law) did elaborate. She said that it is important to use a pasta that goes with the sauce. She offered examples that are helpful. She said that a thin pasta like linguine or spaghetti is better with a sauce that has oil as a prominent ingredient, thus, the spaghetti con le vongole. A creamy sauce is good with a pasta which has a hole in it so that it can seep inside and add to the flavor; she gave ragu as an example. A larger solid pasta is good with a sauce that has larger pieces in it; she used farfalle for a pasta con gamberetti e zucchine.

Great cooking is both science and art.  So, while Italians may agree with the principle of matching pasta with sauce, I found out that individual taste can still vary greatly.   After dinner (during the “let it out” phase of our meal time – see the previous blog of that title), my suocero (father-in-law) shared his ideas about which shape is best. He prefers the shorter and thicker pasta shapes.  Some of us stated a preference for the number 7 thickness of spaghetti while others preferred the number 5. My suocera argued for the longer thinner pasta shapes.

I suggest that you play around with the science and art of pasta shapes.  At the beginning, follow the three guiding principles that my suocera presented above.  Then, play around with the different shapes depending on the sauce that you make.  Be creative with the process, listen to the opinions around your table, get excited about it, argue about them, and above all, enjoy your food. . . all the while remembering. . . that shape does matter!

 

 

Living on the Corso

In the summer of 2004, Marco and I were strolling the Corso of Cremona on a warm summer evening. As we are want to do, we stopped to peak at properties for sale. We do this in places that we visit and love. We stop and dream a little about owning a place in the vacation destination of the moment. Of course, Cremona is vacation, but also childhood home of Marco and a place with many family and friends, our home away from home!

So, I don’t know what was different this particular time that we stopped to look at properties. . . but  we went a step further. We said, “those prices are doable”, “we could get a mortgage and scrounge up the down payment”, “why don’t we make an appointment and see a few”?

We did meet with a realtor. The price that caught our attention was of an average apartment in the downtown with dated bathroom and kitchen. We did the math and schemed of renting it out and dreamed of owning property in Italy! We then said to ourselves that if we own a place, we want to be proud of it.  Would we want to live there? The little apartment was nice, but not of the quality that we would be proud to own. So, we kept looking.

Then, we discovered another realtor that was advertising a renovation in a downtown historic building. We loved the location, loved the plans, and were able to walk through to see the demolition of the old while dreaming about how the new would look once finished. We fell in love with it and went through the process of offer, mortgage, and eventually furnishing it so that we could begin renting to tourists. We bought our place on the Corso and named it Due Colonne!

Due Colonne before and after (for more photos, please see the Due Colonne page of the blog)

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Returning home to Salem was a challenge that year! We loved our home and our city, but after the downtown condo of Cremona, we found it hard to return. At that point in Salem, almost 10 years ago, the center didn’t have as much happening. There were not as many restaurants and night spots. There weren’t many nice shops or places to buy everyday food or wine. Many buildings were boarded up, including the one where we live now!

As you recall, our pact is . . . to live as much of the Italian lifestyle as possible here in Salem. One part of the pact struck us as we returned from Cremona, having purchased Due Colonne . . . we loved strolling through the downtown of Salem, our own “corso”. We often pushed Matteo’s stroller, wondering where everyone was. It was a beautiful, walkable center (apart from the boarded up buildings that I mentioned above). We had grown tired of spending our weekends caring for a larger home and a yard. We wanted to enjoy our weekends with family, friends, food. . . and strolling!

So, one day, walking the “corso” of Salem, we noticed a fine historic, boarded-up building in downtown Salem, with a huge banner on the side advertising luxury condos for sale. We wondered. We dreamed. We decided that it would need outdoor space and parking. We made an appointment to see the demolition of the old and dream about the renovation.

Salem Condo before and after

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We bought our home in downtown Salem. We have our outdoor space, a roof-deck with potted plants. We enjoy the weekend strolls throughout the center of Salem and to the harbor. Ten years later there are now many excellent restaurants. We have some nice shops. We purchase all our wine at the local wine shop (and they import all our favorites from Italy)!  We buy our bread at the local artisanal bakery.  An excellent cheese shop is on the way. We step from our door to the historic streets, the museums, and the architecture of our small city of Salem. We enjoy our lives on the Corso!

 

“Sea water” pasta

In a recent blog entitled “Pasta in Bianco”, I mentioned Matteo’s friend who loved the pasta so much that Matteo dug out the hidden recipe and shared his treasure. The friend went home and asked his mother to make it. Several days later, when his friend was visiting again, he reported that it just didn’t taste the same as when we made it!

Marco and I suspected right away what the problem was. The pasta water was probably not properly salted. Sounds like a minor issue, but this is a common mistake of many home cooks and even many restaurants. The only way to give some seasoning to pasta is by salting the water generously.

After researching this a bit it seems that the average amount of salt suggested for one pound of pasta is anywhere from 1 to 3 tablespoons with the average being 2. My favorite teacher, my mother-in-law (mia suocera) teaches that the water should taste like sea water! (Don’t be afraid, you’re not going to eat all that salt, you are only boiling the pasta in salted sea water so that it can absorb some of the salt flavor)!

Opinions vary about whether the water is boiling when you add the salt. Some insist on this, while others say it is done while the water is cold (so that one doesn’t forget)! Mia suocera adds the salt when the water is cold. This works for me too, because when I try to wait for the water to boil, I forget to add it. . . and we don’t want to eat that pasta!!

About 1 Tablespoon of coarse sea salt for 1/2 pound pasta

Years ago, before meeting Marco, when I was making spaghetti (then, pronounced Spageddy) with a jar of store-bought sauce, I probably didn’t salt the water, and, if I did, I would put a pinch or two. I was hedging my bet that the overly salted and spiced jar of mass-produced sauce would give the pasta enough flavor. I also may have sprinkled a little iodized salt in the water, all to no avail in producing tasty pasta. No matter how spicy a sauce is, the pasta will simply not absorb the flavors of the sauce without salting the water. In addition, you should not use iodized salt as it can give the pasta a metallic flavor.

What salt should I use, you ask? Most Italians, including my suocera, use coarse sea salt crystals. I’m sure there are other possibilities such as kosher salt, but I’m sticking with what generations of italian cooks use!

Another thing I did before Marco, was add olive oil to the water. Somehow we were all taught that this would keep the pasta from sticking. In reality, the only thing it is sure to do is make the pasta slippery so that whatever tasty sauce you spend time preparing will slide off. The secret to keeping pasta from sticking is to give it a quick stir after about a minute or two in the boiling water, and then a quick stir every so often after that.

How many of you take a piece of the “spageddy” and toss it on the refrigerator to test and see if it sticks? If it sticks, it is ready. . . How many of you rinse the pasta in cold water before adding it to whatever sauce you’ve prepared? How many of you let the pasta sit around for a while before sitting down to eat?

Now, there’s all kinds of science about this. . . glycemic index, something to do about starches, something about molecules. . . All I know is what generations of italians do. They cook the pasta al dente (literally to the teeth). Mia suocera does this without a timer. She knows when to begin tasting pieces of the pasta to catch it just after the last hard part in the center is gone. Marco and I simply put the timer for the lesser of the two times suggested on the box!

Once the pasta is al dente, either take it right out of the boiling pot and put it into your sauce with a strainer or quickly strain in a colander and immediately place into the pan with the sauce. This should all be done quickly, without the pasta cooking any longer. Of course, some of this varies depending on the recipe.  You may stop cooking in the boiling water a little before al dente to cook some in the pan (as with carbonara). In addition, depending on the sauce, you may want to save some of the starchy water from boiling to add to your sauce for thickening.

The happiest day of my life was when I bumped into Marco at a conference in Sweden! Not only did we fall in love and begin our lives together, creating a family, but it began my journey of eating pasta cooked correctly. I haven’t bought a jar of store sauce since then. I slowly learned to salt the water correctly. I now eat pasta al dente!

I guarantee you that if you try the methods above, you will improve any pasta recipe. . . and you may begin to notice when the water has not been salted!

Moving, naturally

One of the striking things you see in Italy is seniors on bicycles! It took me awhile to get used to it. Grey and silver-haired folks pedaling slowly about their business in town and in the countryside; going about their daily chores or off to a visit. Women in their “Sunday best” biking through the streets.

These images remind me of a book that I read recently on healthy aging entitled, “The Blue Zones: 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest” by Dan Buettner. The author is a National Geographic writer who studied several communities throughout the world where a statistically significant number of people are living into their 90’s and 100’s! He and his team carefully researched each community and its demographic data, interviewed the older adults and their families, and documented the themes that emerged. One of the blue zones is a region in the Italian island of Sardinia.

As the title suggests, there are 9 lessons that emerge when studying the different locations throughout the world. One of the lessons is “moving naturally”. As you may imagine, the people studied are not from the gym-going baby-boomer generation. These are older adults with lifestyles that include natural movement. While the circumstances may vary, each of the blue zone communities of centenarians have daily doses of physical activity.

In the Okinawa blue zone the older women rely on a lower body and core strength from lives spent squatting. They sit on mats and not furniture so are up and down many times throughout each day. In the Sardinian example, the men studied live in a hilly section of the island where they continue to shepherd the sheep into their 90’s and 100’s! In the California blue zone as well as all the others, physical activity was a daily reality.

I had an adoptive grandmother named Buzz who lived a healthy life through to the age of 96. She lived all 9 of the lessons of The Blue Zones, including the natural movement in everyday life. She never stepped foot in a gym, but she walked 2-3 miles a day. It wasn’t a miracle fountain-of-youth remedy for aging. . . but, the fact is that we age from the day of conception onwards and the natural movement and 8 other lessons allow us to do so in healthful ways.

I could have sworn that I had a photo of an older woman riding her bike through the streets of Cremona, going about her daily tasks. Suffice it to say, I have several photos of this I’m my mind’s eye! We are heading to Italy in a couple of weeks and I will be sure to snap some photos of this so that you all can see what I am picturing. For now, here is a photo of Marco on one of our little jaunts through the farmland surrounding Cremona.

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So, bringing this back to Salem and our bella vita. . . we actually went biking last night after dinner. It was Italian style pedaling. We went slowly, allowing our food to digest. (If you try this for the first time, you actually have to tell yourself to pedal very slowly. . . you have to “putz” on purpose)! We pedaled to the Salem Common and further to see if our friends were home. Just like in Italy. . . they were finishing up dinner on their patio, by candlelight. We stayed for an oretta, chatting.

 

 

 

 

Pasta in Bianco

One of our son’s favorite meals is Pasta in Bianco.  He likes it so much, that, when he was younger, he decided to write the recipe on a scroll, tie it with ribbon, enclose it in a protected container, and hide it away.  It was his secret recipe that had to be hidden away like a treasure!

It’s a very simple dish with only three ingredients, four if you count the salt in the water.  In addition, it takes as long to cook as it does to boil water and cook the pasta!

Grana Padano

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Pasta

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 Sea Salt and Butter

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Ingredients for one serving:

  1. 70 g of pasta
  2. 1/3 cup of grated Grana Padano
  3. generous amount of sea salt for boiling water
  4. 2 T butter

Process:

  1. Boil water for pasta and add a generous amount of sea salt to the water (a required step which allows the salt to flavor the pasta when cooking – – never put salt on pasta dishes after it is cooked).
  2. Grate the Grana Padano.
  3. When the pasta is done (al dente), drain and add some of the grated cheese and some of the butter.  Stir.  Add some more of cheese and butter.  Continue and taste until it is to your liking.

I try to keep current on articles and books about healthy aging.  And, I’m not a nutritionist, but I try to stay up on the latest research about healthy eating.  It seems like a guideline lately is to focus on foods that our grandparents ate.  So, if it wasn’t on our grandparents table, don’t eat it.  In addition, research is pointing to the dangers of processed foods for the heart and health of the human body.  So, what about Pasta in Bianco as an alternative to a box of a popular band of macaroni and cheese?

In researching the prepared macaroni and cheese there is much controversy around the use of yellow dye number 5 and 6.  Some research presents a possible link to hyperactivity in children.  One of the dyes is derived from crude petroleum oil. . . yuck!!  In addition, the salt, fat, and sugar content of prepared, processed foods is excessive and unhealthy.

There is much research on the nutritional and health consequences of processed foods, but that is for another writer! . . . my blog is about what I learn from Italy.  The simple point here is that Pasta in Bianco is a healthy, tasty, natural, and easy alternative to the processed versions we call macaroni and cheese.

Better yet, let’s continue to learn from the children.  One of Matteo’s friends went home raving to his mother about a pasta dish he had at Matteo’s house.  He went on about what great cooks Mark and Marco are.  He now requests this every time he comes for a visit.  Come to find out, it was Marco’s simple Pasta in Bianco!

Matteo retrieved his scroll from the hidden treasure chest, wrote out the secret recipe, and shared it with his friend.