To be or to buy, that is the question. . .

Americans traveling in Italy and other European countries notice early on that hotel rooms are a lot smaller! In fact, cars are small, homes have less square footage, and people have less stuff. And yet, these same countries rate high on the list when happiness is the measure.

Lately, I’ve been seeing research articles supporting the hypothesis that life experiences make us happier than the purchase of things. The Huffington Post has an article entitled “Proof that Life Experiences – – Not Things – – Make You Happier” (found here). It posits that before buying an item we think it will make us happy, but it is post-purchase when we realize that it is the experiences of life that bring happiness. Another article in Psychology Today (here) points to the creation of memories that live on long after the post-purchase “high”. What’s better is things that we buy to use with others such as the car enjoyed on a road trip with special friends and family!

Six months after meeting Marco in Sweden, he left his job, his family, and his friends and moved here for us to begin our lives together.  I found us a small, 600 square foot apartment in Arlington.  It was an efficient lay out with open living space, bright walls, lots of light, beautiful hard-wood floors, and a cute efficiency kitchen that opened into the living room.  We loved it! We often look back to that space and marvel that it wasn’t the lack of space that we recall, but the joy of being together!

I don’t typically love T.V. commercials. . . but the recent one by MasterCard, with the little kids discussing the 400 million unused paid vacation days of American workers is cute! The children share the numbers and go on to clamor for their collective parents to use the days. Just use one more vacation day. One more experience to enjoy and to remember. Please take time to be with us. . . priceless!

Italians don’t have to be begged to take their vacation time. . . and boy, do they have the paid days off. . .One list shows that the average paid days in the U.S. is 13 compared to 42 for Italy (found here). So, while they may have less stuff, they take their time off and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  This same thing is found in country after country where economically speaking there is struggle, yet, on the “happiness” scale, the people enjoy life.

My friend shared “The Happy Movie” with me.  You can find it at www.thehappymovie.com.  I have yet to see it, but she tells me that it makes the point that the research above is making. Here are the things that make people happy: 1. play, friends, and family, 2. having new experiences, 3. doing things that are meaningful, 4. appreciating what we have.

Roaring 20’s picnic with friends

 IMG_4869

 

 

 

Crostata

With Thanksgiving coming, here is a recipe that puts an Italian twist on an American favorite of apple pie. Crostata comes from the latin verb “to encrust” and is a pastry that can be made sweet or savory. The version here is from a friend, but some quick internet searching suggest it is from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa and is found here.

Marco usually makes this with apples, but we had peaches and blueberries in the house recently so this is what he did with it:

IMG_6752

Here are the steps to make the pastry:

  1. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor.
  2. Pulse until mixed well.
  3. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is pea-sized.
  4. Add the ice water through the feed tube and pulse, mixing well, but stopping before the pastry becomes solid.
  5. Turn onto lightly floured work surface and form into a disk.
  6. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Choose your fruit for the center. As I said, here he uses peaches and blueberries:

IMG_6747

The process for the fruit and crumb topping is:

  1. Peel, core, and cut the apples into 8th, then cut each wedge into 3 chunks.
  2. Toss the chunks with orange zest.
  3. Roll out the pastry into an 11 inch circle on slightly flour-dusted surface and place on a baking sheet.
  4. Cover the surface with the apple chunks leaving a 1 1/2 inch border.
  5. Combine the flour, sugar, salt and allspice in the food processor with the steel blade.
  6. Add the butter and pulse until crumbly.
  7. Spread over the apples and fold the edges into the center like below:

IMG_6748

 

 

Ingredients:

Pastry:

  1. 1 cup all-purpose flour
  2. 2 tablespoons granulated or superfine sugar
  3. 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  4. 1/4 pound (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, diced
  5. 2 tablespoons ice water

Filling:

  1. 1 1/2 pounds McIntosh, Macoun, or Empire apples (3 large)
  2. 1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
  3. 1/4 cup flour
  4. 1/4 cup granulated or superfine sugar
  5. 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  6. 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  7. 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
  8. 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced

 

Ragù alla Bolognese

How did I make it 20 posts without sharing my mother-in-laws recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese? I guess I must have waited for Fall to arrive.  The weather the last couple of days has been Summer-like, but I have Bolognese on my mind because I’m making Lasagne alla Bolognese for my mother’s birthday this weekend. . . so here you go!

In Italian cuisine ragù is a meat sauce and has its origins from the French word ragoûts from the period after Napoleon’s 1796 invasion of what is now northern Italy . As with any Italian dish, it has regional variations.  The Italian gastronomic society l’Accademia Italiana Della Cucina documents 14 types.  One of these is the Bolognese.  Ragù (this version)

Marco’s mother, being from the north, favors the Bolognese.  Several years ago she taught me how to make her sauce, but every so often when I mention the recipe, or, while talking on FaceTime, she sees me making it and she shares a “new” ingredient. I love my mother-in-law and I do “razz” her about the fact that she keeps changing the recipe! Perhaps this is her way of remaining useful! The most recent addition is the red wine!  So, the recipe below is the culmination of 17 years of knowing Adelina and many years of her own experience.

Several Italian recipes begin with the soffritto.  This is the Italian version of what also exists as mirepoix in France and sofrito in Spain. It is the base of many fine stocks, soups, stews, and sauces. For this Bolognese, we begin with the soffritto which is a finely chopped combination of carrots, celery (even thought Marco states that “life is too short for celery sticks”), and onions.  I use a food processor to do the chopping.  Then, we sauté until soft, in a nice extra virgin olive oil.

IMG_6731

IMG_6733

Add the meat.  Right now, we have landed on ground pork, ground lamb, and bratwurst.  Yeah. . . go figure. . . this is just what we like now!  I also made this sauce with ground turkey, ground chicken and I even made it with ground tofu burger as a vegetarian version (not so great for a “meat” sauce”). I use a potato masher to make sure that all the meat is ground finely.  You can use your hands if you’d like!

IMG_6734

Marco’s mother cans her own tomatoes each summer, but lacking that, she says to use the San Marzano tomatoes in a can.  I purée them in the food processor and add to the pot. You’ll notice I don’t have salt in the ingredients as my canned San Marzano come packed with salt and I think it’s enough.

IMG_6735

After adding the puree tomatoes add 2 or 3 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon of sugar (to deal with the acidity of canned tomatoes), and red wine that you drink. . .”QB” or “quanto basta“; literally “just enough for you” or “to taste.”

Just to let you know. . . Marco’s mother often says “QB” when relaying recipes to us.  My translation of this is that she has been cooking for so long and is so expert at it that she knows exactly what she is doing and you should too! But, of course, what she means is –do what you want and it better taste good!!

Now comes the key.  It’s not that hard or time-consuming to do steps so far.  We simmer the sauce for 3 hours.  Keep a cover on the pot but with a slight opening so that the steam can escape and the sauce can boil down. This is a critical step as the liquid needs to boil down and I’m sure chefs can tell you something about the chemical reactions that happen to produce a new, wonderful flavor. (I just tasted my sauce just before the 3 hour boil begins and it is boring!)

Near the end of the simmering time, Adelina says (14 years into the recipe history) add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of milk.

IMG_6736

I make enough to freeze for several pasta lunches and even some of Marco’s gnocchi!  This weekend I will use it for a wonderful Lasagne alla Bolognese which I will share with you all in the future!

Enjoy the sauce and play with the ingredients and quantities till you know what “QB” is for you!!

Ingredients:

  1. 1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Enough to ensure that soffritto is coated in the bottom of the pan
  2. 1 large carrot
  3. 1 large celery
  4. 1 large onion
  5. 1 pound ground lamb
  6. 1 pound ground pork
  7. 2 raw bratwurst (cut through the casing and add only the ground meat)
  8. 4 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes
  9. 2 or 3 bay leaves
  10. 1 Tbs. sugar
  11. 1 cup red wine (or “QB”)
  12. 1/2 to 1 cup of milk

Process:

  1. finely chop the carrots, onions, and celery
  2. sauté in olive oil over medium-high heat, till softened and the onions are golden brown (watch that they do not turn brown)
  3. add the ground meats and brown
  4. add the puree tomatoes
  5. add bay leaves
  6. add sugar
  7. add red wine
  8. simmer for 3 hours
  9. add milk near the end of simmering time

Same Marriage

In a recent “Ellen” show, she welcomes a gay couple to the stage and hands the mike to one of the men.  Then, down on bended knee, he proceeds to ask his partner to marry him.  The audience jumps to their feet, many with tears in their eyes.

After wiping away the tears from my eyes I thought about how wonderful it is that young people growing up today see this and many more images just like this on t.v., in the movies, and in many other public displays, large and small.  Daily, we hear about the latest State where it is legal for us to marry; with this weeks Supreme Court decision meaning legal marriage for gay and lesbian people in 30 States!

As we all know, it hasn’t always been like this.  Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I remember trying to find a moment alone (from a family of 8) in the t.v. room to sneak a peek at the film “The Boys in the Band”. . . just hoping to catch a peak of someone who might be like me. I remember sitting in the cinema seat in 1982 the time Christopher Reeves kisses Michael Caine in “Deathtrap” to the audible gasps of audience members.  And, I remember coming out in 1987 in the midst of AIDS fear and hysteria.

Ten years later, in 1997, Marco and I met in Sweden, fell in love at first sight, and decided after our week together that we would marry, have two children and live in France! And while it was nice to have shows like “Will and Grace”, which premiered in 1998, the reality for a bi-national couple to create lives together was not all fun and comedy! Marco was not able to immigrate to the U.S. by virtue of our relationship. Instead, we began years of Visa and Green Card challenges, even wondering at times if we needed to move to a different country that would include our identity as a couple in their immigration process. (Canada’s nice but way too cold. . .)

We did decide to marry in the year 2000 even though it would not be a legal recognition.  It was important for us to gather our family and friends to witness our commitment and celebrate with us. Then, in 2004, came the legal recognition of gay marriage in Massachusetts and the march towards Federal recognition began. I hope for the day when gay and lesbian people can marry in all 50 States.

Where is Italy on this? Marco and I often say that Italy is “behind” the U.S. on many things by about 20-30 years!  This is not a scientific assessment, but merely a way of saying that in many social and work/life issues, Italy is far from what we might call “progressive”.

Gay rights are just one example.  Our legal marriage is not recognized in Italy.  Even more disturbing, Matteo is not recognized as Marco’s son!  Several years ago we did reams of paperwork and appeared in a family court only to be told that there is no current law in Italy that would support Matteo being recognized as Marco’s son.

Italy is one of the few countries in Europe that does not recognize same-sex relationships in some way.  Lately, Mayors in 3 or 4 cities allow gay and lesbian couples to register their foreign weddings in city hall . Italy’s Minister of the Interior now says that all Mayors should stop this recognition of foreign gay and lesbian marriages.  The current Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, states that he would like to pass a law that would recognize same-sex relationships.  With the Vatican and it’s power over politicians, Italy is slow to move on this.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place in history where our family is the same as our neighbors.  We hope for a day when this is also true in our Italian home!

Local Beauty

One of the things I love about going to Italy is the beauty.  Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes.  It is seen in the architecture, the diverse terrain, art, fashion, and in the way the light lands or a fog bank rolls.  Italy is not only a feast of foods, but it is a sumptuous celebration of the senses.

Our decision to remain here, to live with the positives of Italian Culture in our day-to-day lives, is a conscious decision to cultivate beauty.  We decorate our home so that we find pleasure in the day-to-day living. We are sure to visit the local gardens in our small city.  We walk along the harbor.  We bike to ocean views. And, we are sure to visit our neighbor, The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), on a regular basis.

A friend recently posted on Facebook that he went to the latest exhibit at the PEM and that it was “peaceful”.  The show is “Calder and Abstraction:  From Avant-Garde to Iconic” and it is at the museum through January 4th.  A rainy day arrived so I headed over to check it out.  It is peaceful and it is beautiful.

I had never heard of Calder but grew up with mobiles in my house.  He is known as the originator of the mobile.  The exhibit is a feast for the senses as one listens to the sounds of abstract musical arrangements, looks at the works of art, and experiences the movement of the mobiles; art in motion with the resulting views and shading.

The Cafe at PEM

IMG_6935

Atrium at PEM

IMG_6936

Even beyond Salem, we are fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world, New England.  Short drives from Cape Ann, Cape Cod, Boston, the Berkshires, and many places in between.  We are not far from the mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  We can even enjoy the Maine coast on a day trip.

Salem, New England, wherever we live, we can cultivate our appreciation for the beauty around us.  Mindfulness is an approach at cultivating an awareness of the moments of life.  Tasting the food we are actually eating.  Feeling the touch of fabric on our skin. Hearing the drops of rain on the roof.  Seeing the beauty all around.