Biking in the backyard

People visit Italy for many reasons, the food, the history, architecture, scenery, the people and culture, but, one of my favorite things to do when we visit is biking through the streets of Cremona and the surrounding farm land. I enjoy the views, the exercise, and gentle pace of an Italian style bike ride. It’s popular to ride the streets of Italy, and so it seems that the drivers respect the bicyclists in the roads.

I’m also impressed each time we go to Italy with the varied ages riding their bicycles. It is common to see folks in their 80’s and 90’s pedaling along the city streets, running their errands. These same older adults walk to the store, climb stairs, and keep moving to carry out the daily tasks of their lives.

As you know, I read a lot on healthy aging. One of the best things is to keep moving. It’s good for heart health, it’s proven to aid memory, it’s  great for improving mood, it helps improve sleep, and it’s even recommended recently to manage chronic pain. 

Biking in Italy inspired us to begin biking right here, in our own back yard. Fortunately, our back yard has the scenes pictured in today’s post. We have a loop that brings us out to Winter Island in Salem, around a park called The Willows, and through bike paths along Collins Cove, and back to the downtown. Our City promises more bike paths to move people safely from place to place without coping with the congestion of car traffic. Last weekend, Marco and I took the bike path through conservation woods to Marblehead, and then along the coast and back to the wooded path.

Enjoy the photos of the views along the way. . . and enjoy your own backyards!

Buon movimento!

Home-canned tomato sauce

Last Sunday we canned 60 pounds of tomatoes from a local farm (click here for the process and a 3 minute cooking video). It was a nice day for it, the only raw rainy day of the long Labor Day weekend, so a nice day to have the house warmed by the boiling of tomatoes and jars! Matteo and Marco did all the cooking work, and I got to have my party too. . . following along, doing the cleanup!

We timed it pretty well, as we used the final jar of last season in the very same weekend. We made spaghetti al pomodoro. This is a simple sauce made by sautéing some shallots in olive oil. Then, once the shallots are tender, add the home-canned tomato sauce and simmering for a good 15-20 minutes. Add some salt, QB (quanto basta – to taste) and, if desired, a touch of heavy cream at the end. 

Another way we use this sauce throughout the year is for a simple pizza margherita. We start with Matteo’s pizza crust (click hear for the short cooking video and recipe). Then, spread the dough out on the pan and coat with a thin layer of the tomato sauce. Top with fresh mozzarella, salt, a drizzle of EVOO, and a sprinkle of oregano. Marco reminds me that, in Italy, the tomato sauce for pizza is always a simple tomato sauce like the one from our home-canned jars.

One more idea for your tomato sauce is the polo alla pizzaiola (click here for more details). The is like a stove top chicken parmigiana. Again, you begin with the shallots sautéed in EVOO.  Then, add the tomato sauce, salt and simmer for 15-20 minutes. In another pan, chicken cutlets are lightly floured and sautéed in olive oil. Salt and pepper them, once browned, and then spoon the sauce over and around the cutlets simmering gently over low heat until the chicken is cooked. Near the end, place fresh mozzarella slices over each cutlet and top with oregano. The cutlets can sit like this till you’re ready to serve and simply heat them up again.

Buon appetito!

A summery risotto

As summer slips away in Salem, a chill fills the air. The sun still warms at times of the day and can tease late July heat, but soon enough a slight breeze tells a different story. It’s a time of year to savor the last bits of summer and begin preparing for autumn. 

Marco and I don’t like the chill, and we love the summer warmth. As we wondered what to cook last weekend, Marco began searching the web for a risotto idea, something to warm us up a bit. We’ve also been enjoying fresh, local, ripe, tomatoes and want to hold on to the remnants of summer. So, Marco created this simple risotto that brings the ingredients of a caprese salad with the chicken broth body warming elixir of risotto.

 Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • half of a yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups carnaroli rice (or arborio)
  • 1 cup of white wine
  • 4-5 cups of chicken broth
  • 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 8 ounces of grape or cherry tomatoes cut in halves
  • 1/3 cup of chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon of butter

Process:

  1. sauté chopped onions in olive oil until soft, but not brown (8 minutes)
  2. add rice and sauté for 5 more minutes stirring often
  3. add wine and let it boil off
  4. add 1 ladle of chicken stock and cook the rice slowly
  5. as the chicken stock dries out, add more broth until rice is cooked (about 10-15 minutes)
  6. add one more ladle of broth with the mozzarella and let simmer until it evaporates
  7. add the butter and stir
  8. spoon onto serving plates and cover with tomatoes and basil

Buon appetito!

Bi-national blues

Years ago, I was complaining about everything wrong with America, when a good friend blurted out in frustration, “why don’t you just move!”  Of course, he didn’t really mean it (we had also been having a little wine), but, he had a good point; I was going on endlessly about how bad America is and how great Italy is that, at a minimum, it was good for me to dial it back a bit!

Twenty years ago, when Marco and I began our lives together, we embarked upon a path of a sort of country-less living. We neither feel at home in the United States, nor Italy. We are caught between the two cultures, the two worlds of our countries of origin. Don’t get me wrong, as this blog’s mission states, we live our bella vita life joining the best of both worlds, making our home with our family and friends in Salem, doing our best to bring forth the Italian culture in the midst of our American way of life. But, there is always an undercurrent of longing for the other.

Over the years, we’ve talked to many other bi-national couples and ours is not a unique story. When a couple joins together from two nations of origin, it often results in this feeling of displacement such that neither place is truly a match. Again, I’m not complaining, but simply stating our truth. We love our lives and wouldn’t choose any other path. . . as Dag Hammarskjöld said, “For all that has been — Thanks. For all that shall be — Yes”.

Perhaps this is one reason why we love fusion food. By that we mean meals that blend traditions and spices from more than one culture. In Boston we love Taranta, a restaurant that combines food of Peru and Italy. In Baltimore, we had sushi that merged the flavors of South American with their maki. In the Boston area the Elephant Walk group brings food from the marriage of French and Vietnamese cuisine. I suspect that food historians study how the foods we eat are shaped by the mingling of people down through the centuries. 

In an earlier blog I spoke about our new favorite cookbook, “Ottolenghi The Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Smi Tamimi. It merges Middle-Eastern flavors and inspirations with Italian and other influences born at a little restaurant in London. The recipe for this salmon with roasted red peppers and hazelnut salsa can be found by clicking here. 

We’ll keep feasting  on fusion and cultivating creative cultural intermingling, living with the wonderful awareness of the mixing and matching.

Buon appetito!

 

Deconstructed crostini of roasted figs, whipped ricotta, and balsamic glaze

When figs were in season, Marco whipped up his idea to de-construct a crostini with roasted fig, ricotta, and a balsamic glaze. Simple ingredients with a wonderful compliment of flavors; salty sweet ripe tart crunchy goodness. He used a panini press to toast the bread slices, then rubbed them lightly (click here to read more about how to make this simple fettunta right) with the cut half of a garlic clove, drizzled with EVOO, and sprinkled with sea salt flakes. He grilled the slices of figs. He whipped fresh ricotta with a small amount of heavy cream until reaching a desired consistency. Then, he simmered some balsamic with a little honey, reducing it about 1/3 to drizzle over the fig and ricotta fabrication.

A tasty appetizer or tapas to enjoy accompanied by other small sharable plates. . .

 

All or nothing

I’ve been thinking a lot about “all or nothing” thinking this week. It’s sometimes called “black or white” thinking. Philosophers may call it binary. It occurs when our mind automatically labels or judges something as this or that rather than seeing the myriad of possibilities that the world presents. 

I read an article recently about sexual orientation and it pointed out how the native Americans at the time of colonial conquest had a much more fluid concept of gender identity. The immigrants from Europe brought their binary concept of male and female while the native people had multiple terms for gender, and many roles for people such a males with feminine gender traits, who also had sex with men.

The binary, black or white thinking, often results in anger, anxiety, and irritability. If my view of the multi-facetted, diverse world we live in is rigidly defined by binary thinking, it is going to be constantly bombarded by evidence that challenges my sense of the world, producing raging anger, or a state of unease felt as anxiety. It’s no wonder that the treatment of anxiety is at higher levels when we live in a cultural climate of “us” versus “them” and Fox versus CNN.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps us to notice our automatic thoughts, observe them without judgment, and gently shift them to more helpful ways of thinking. So, if I have a rigid, black or white thought about other people’s gender identity, for example, I will likely live with anger or anxiety when faced with the diversity around me. If I want to heal this anger or anxiety, I will notice the automatic thought, accept it, and practice a new way of thinking that incorporates the evidence of life.

Another method of anxiety management is a good plate of pasta! I’ll leave you with a nice treat to eat. Here’s a simple way to turn the pesto sauce (click here) into another flavorful meal, by adding some fresh pomodorini (little pomodori, tomatoes). Simply sauté halved cherry tomatoes in olive oil till tender, add salt and simmer. When your pasta is al dente, add to the tomatoes along with a little of the salted pasta water as needed. When you reach a nice consistency, add your pesto and serve!

Home is at the table


Our first night back home from Italy we went to Firenze (click here), the restaurant in Salem, not the city in Tuscany! Our friends, Andy and Zamir, are the brothers who own this home-away-from-home Italian eatery. We each had the perfectly prepared whole grilled Branzino with roasted vegetables. More important than the wonderful meal was that we  were home; every time we eat there we are with family.

Just two days back from Italy and found ourselves at our first ever Dinner en Blanc! This is a pop-up dinner party, created in France in 1988 by a man who wanted to celebrate by eating an elegant dinner with friends in one of Paris’ beautiful outdoor spaces. He asked everyone to wear white so that they could find each other. This one was in the beautiful Chestnut street neighborhood and we enjoyed dinner with old friends and meeting new ones.

A meal can be a grounding experience. Across miles and cultures, the simple act of preparing and sitting to enjoy food brings all five senses to focus on the tastes, sights, sounds, smells, and textures of food and friends at the table. 

Also on our return home, Marco whipped up three tapas for our Sunday lunch together…another return to the routine at the meal-time table together. The one pictured here is simple and divine; seasonally ripe peaches wrapped in super-thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma with a mint leaf.

Buon appetito!

Beautiful shopping

I love the rhythms of the day in down-town Cremona. You can almost tell time by observing the daily activity. A weekday morning has a time when all the bars are busy making espresso for people heading into work. The city quiets down from 12:30 to 3:30 when many of the shops close for the lunch break. And, on warm summer evenings, the town comes alive again at about 10:00 when a stroll with friends and family, often with gelato in hand, takes place.

This shop owner, all dressed up and sweeping the side-walk in front of her store, is opening for the day. After sweeping, we watched her soap and scrub the walkway and then spray and shine her windows. We were siting, eating our brioche and sipping our cappuccino. Next store, another owner was performing the same morning ritual. Across the way, two other shop-keepers swept and cleaned and scrubbed and shined to prepare their shops for customers.

In addition to all of this work by each shop owner, the city has its own street and sidewalk sweeper machine that cleans regularly. The photo below shows the street where the little shop above is, so you can see how beautiful it is to shop here. The problem, however, is that every year that we come here, the shops have closed and new ones are trying to make a go. Just like in the States, shopping moved from the down-town centers to the malls in the outskirts of cities. There are also economic and political factors that affect whether there is a stimulating environment for an entrepreneur to open a little shop in these streets.

In recent years, the thing that succeeds in down-town Cremona is the eating places. Restaurants, bars, gelato stores are everywhere and they are full. This is also happening in downtown Salem. People are living and eating in these historic downtown centers. With the increased pressure from online shopping, malls are having a harder time in the States. A recent interest in shopping local, combined with the right entrepreneurial investments, might spur success once again, having beautiful local shops in our historic down-towns.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II in Milan pictured below is one of the oldest malls in the world and is right in the center, connecting the Piazza del Duomo and the piazza de La Scala. This was built between 1865 and 1877. Down-town malls like this and urban shopping predated the suburban malls and plazas. I hope that there is a pendulum swing of sorts and that our city and town centers continue to grow and beautify to become beautiful shopping destinations.

. . . “and they taste good!”

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find fresh porcini mushrooms in the States. If you do find them, you will be shocked at the price, and will pay somewhere over $50 a pound! Porcini are a delicacy in the mushroom family with a distinctive, delicate, and nutty flavor. So, you can imagine our delight when we arrive to visit Marco’s parents, and they are just back from the mountains where Enzo has been out successfully hunting porcini mushrooms.

Marco’s mother rushed to the freezer to show us the fruits of Enzo’s hunting labors. Below is a picture of a few of them. This summer they are having more fortune with the search compared to last year when Matteo and Enzo were left wanting. The best is to cook with the fresh plant. Barring that, the next option is the recently frozen fungi. Adelina also dries some and keeps in plastic bags to use later.

I asked Matteo what he likes about porcini hunting and he said, “it’s something that is interesting and I don’t do very often. . . and they taste good!” Below is a photo from three years ago when he discovered the largest one of the season. He knows how to distinguish between the true porcini and the poisonous ones that look similar, but could be deadly if eaten. After we leave Cremona to return to our Salem home, he continues on with nonni to the mountains where each day he and Enzo will head out on the hunt for the rare and tasty treats!


Ingredients:

  • porcini (about 20 ounces of fresh, 2 ounces of dried)
  • 2 tablespoons of EVOO 
  • 1 clove of garlic or QB (quanto basta, to taste), sliced thinly 
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • handful of chopped fresh parsley

Process:

  1. heat the olive oil in a pan, add the sliced garlic and porcini and sauté for about 5-10 minutes
  2. add the wine and simmer till it burns off (about 3-5 minutes)
  3. add the parsley and turn off the heat or lower until the pasta is ready
  4. cook the tagliatelle (click here for the recipe of home made tagliatelle) al dente in salted water and add to the pan, stirring well and adding some of the salted water from the pasta as needed 

Buon appetito!

Along fields of gold

The girasoli (sunflowers) in the photo are out of focus.  We are speeding by a field in the Czech Republic on our way back from Prague to Berlin at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. We only know the speeds because they are periodically put up on the screen. Otherwise, the journey is smooth, quiet, and comfortable; it feels like riding on a cushion of air and not the metal on metal screeching and jostling that sometimes happens on trains.

What a wonderful way to see the countryside of Europe! I normally think that it’s better to fly, because, why not travel in under an hour rather than close to five hours, wasting all that time, when we could get there faster? The train ride from Berlin to Prague lasts about four and a half hours. In the Eurail system, these trains are called ICE for Intercity-Express, and connect major cities in Germany, and other countries, at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour.

We rode through wheat fields with Sting’s “Fields of God” running through my mind. We passed by little cities, towns, and villages. One small town nestled between rolling hills and cliffs, sitting on a stream, joining the river Elbe (Labe in Czech) is pictured in the photo below. We followed along the Elbe for part of the trip, imagining its journey from the Giant Mountains of the Czech Republic, twisting and turning through Bohemia and through Germany before it empties out into the North Sea, northwest of Hamburg.

We stopped in Dresden, a city once known for its beauty, architecture, and museums (click here for source). Called the “Florence of the Elbe”, Dresden was destroyed in World War II. I imagined the terrible death and destruction, the division of a country post-war, and a current country united and coping with new forces of division. I recalled the beauty of Prague, a city untouched by the devastation of bombing and thought about what might have been in Dresden.

In addition to the views as we sped through Europe, I had time to read my latest novel, “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, which, coincidentally takes place in France, during the Nazi occupation of WWII. I had time to practice meditation. I was able to stretch and walk around the train. We even ate a delicious lunch in the dining cart; Marco eating a roast duck, Matteo a spaghetti alla bolognese, and me, an omelet. All the meals were well-crafted.

I asked Matteo what he enjoyed about the train ride. His first response was that he liked seeing the country-side. All three of us agreed, the highlight of the train was the view from the window as beautiful Czech and German vistas passed by. His second response was that he loved the fact that in the train, the feeling of speed was heightened because he could see things “whizzing” by!

For all of us, this train ride is now imprinted in our memories as an enjoyable experience, one that we could not replicate in an airplane, a car, or any other forms of transportation. We will remember the views, the passing of relaxing time, our meal together, and many meaningful moments along fields of gold.

Musings about Italian food, life, and culture from America

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