June 21, 2012
It’s been utterly quiet around here lately. At some point, I just stopped thinking about food all the time. My mind was somewhere else.
Five – no wait! six? - years ago I made a career choice. I moved away from what I wanted to do when I was a child, because it was not quite how I thought it was going to be, and I could not cope with the differences. Besides, pursuing that career would mean no decent job for a few years at least. I took up another job, a job that was any job but that, because I didn’t want to have to deal with it ever again. It felt too painful.
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April 29, 2012
A few days ago a gift arrived at my door. It had travelled from the US and through time as well. I was holding in my hand a small bottle of home produced garum. I opened it and was hit in the face by a strong, strong smell. Fishy? Not quite. The manufacturer is Laura Kelley, the talented author and researcher; the recipe source is Roman. Garum is a mysterious historical relict. Fish, in this case mackerel, is piled with salt and left to mature at room temperature for a few weeks, then distilled to an almost clear liquor (read Laura’s post for much more information). Fish sauces are alive and kicking in the Far East, but they are not common any more in the Mediterranean. In Roman times, however, this great-grandfather of nuoc mam was a prized and popular ingredient. Why did we stop using it? It is a mystery. In Italy colatura di alici is still produced with a similar process, but it certainly is no common ingredient.
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December 16, 2011
Do you ever get periods when you are obsessed with some ingredient or flavour? Whenever I imagine to cook something right now, I think it would taste better if it contained some buckwheat. I am not sure what triggered it. It is a grain I’ve always found rich and complex and I’ve always been fond of. In the mountains around Milan, where I grew up, it is a common fare. It is a hardy, resistant crop able to grow in poor soils, and it actually likes the cool and rainy summers in the mountains. It does not need as much sun as ordinary wheat, a grain with which buckwheat bears no connection whatsoever, other than the name.
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September 18, 2011
I did not have the opportunity to enjoy this summer much. I grew to love summer over the years; it probably helps that I don’t have to endure any more the tropical heat and humidity in Milan, usually lasting about four months. It is difficult to resist the feeling of ripeness that pervades everything, the abundance of light in the sky and produce in the markets. But this year I was just too focussed and busy; it did not feel right. I have a sort of wiring, you see: summer needs to involve at least some holidays and laziness and outdoors. This particular summer was just full of events and fresh starts, worries and planning, and making sure everything goes smoothly. Not enough barbecues, not enough swims, not enough singing sitting around a campfire.
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September 11, 2011
I think Italians inevitably have a strongly felt relationship with the past. We see traces of it everywhere. Our particularly grand past left not only works of arts: it is quite common to walk on carriage tracks on a stone paved Roman highway, or that the basis of our modern water system actually follows a Roman aqueduct. These traces don’t have much to do with the hours of history at school, although an illuminated teacher may bring you to see otherwise. When I was a child I loved reading about the past, about archeology and lost civilizations; what I hated were the hours of memorizing dates and names of kings and generals and battles. I just could not see what a devastating impact those now boring and sterile events had had on the daily lives of those who lived at that time, how they had changed their world, as well as, in the end, shaped mine.
Now I am a little wiser but not much more learned, unfortunately. At least, I do recognize the vital role of kings and battles, and anyway this is often all we know. Normal people, people like us, just don’t leave a trail that will be visible after more than a few generations. Do you have an idea of many generations it is, 5000 years? I certainly don’t. I can’t imagine such a remote past, beyond the few facts historians are able to tell us.
And yet. Laura Kelley, the talented author and learned scholar behind The Silk Road Gourmet, is challenging everyone to get in touch quite intimately with possibly one of the first civilizations in history, the one on chapter 1 of book 1 of a history manual: the Mesopotamians. She has selected a number of recipes of Mesopotamian origin, adding new interpretations to the difficult and controversial translations. Of course the recipes are sketchy at best – but anyway, did you ever try to ask an Italian nonna for a recipe? I gave a try to ‘Meat with licorice’, one of the oldest recipes in the challenge and probably also in history, which I translated into a fancy looking gastro-pub style pork tendeloin with licorice sauce. It was delicious. If you have never thought of using licorice with savoury dishes, you should give it a try (I’m not talking about licorice candy, the black sweet strings or rolls, I’m talking about licorice root here – I’ve seen recipes using the black industrial stuff when researching this dish, but the idea really freaks me out). There are already many more interpretations of other dishes there if you want to have a look, from stews to pilafs to dessert, even. And even more dishes waiting for a modern eye revision. Head over to Laura’s and see if anything inspires you. There is a lot to discover.
June 21, 2011
My lifestyle lately has been a bit weird. My partner is travelling a lot because of work, and I’ve been mainly alone with my cats, spending weekends off to reach him wherever he is. I’m still trying to put together my thoughts on all the things I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of friends, and this always feels good. I guess a positive side of this crazy lifestyle of ours is that, although there is no place I can go to where all my friends are, there are a lot of places where some friends are. That’s good, isn’t it?
In this period I cooked much less at home: I am not used to cooking for myself alone, although I like to try now and again some ‘extreme’ experiments when no one is there to watch. Being out at weekends means that long, complex projects are not feasible. I ate out many times when travelling. I had really great food, and the funny part is that all of it was ‘ethnic’ food, although I was travelling around Europe. For someone coming from Italy, whose food is indeed seen as ‘ethnic’ in the rest of the world (the first time I found they store Italian ingredients at Tesco in the ‘world’ section, I did not know whether to laugh or cry, it just seemed so weird to me), this is very positive. There is much more in Italian cooking than greasy pizza and overcooked pasta, and this is true for all other food of the world. I felt a tangible wave of energy coming from these restaurants. They were all original, with high quality ingredients, populated by locals and by co-nationals alike (my number one criteria for choosing ethnic food when I don’t have recommendations).
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June 2, 2011
I know there is something going on in my life when my ‘draft’ count for new posts reaches unmanageable heights. I often just jot down any recipe I like and then delete it if I find out I don’t like it that much, or keep and add a story to it if I really like it. The process usually works quite well. I can be a very organised person, as much as I can be a total mess when I don’t care about something. I always care about cooking and blogging, so I am organised in it. But my life has been such an emotional rollercoaster lately that I can’t think of a reasonable, consequential way of cooking, or presenting ideas, or styling and taking pictures, or clearing my mind in whatever way.
I am in a frenzy of energy, but I’m less busy than usual, which means I end up shuffling things around and not getting anything done. Horrible feeling: I deeply dislike finding myself in this state. I think I should really be doing things and seeing people and making phone calls and then spend hours doing totally useless things. This reflects into the kitchen: I bookmark items and shop for random ingredients and then at dinnertime find not a single one of the ingredients I need.
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May 9, 2011
It is again that time of the year where white signals of smoke dot the valley.
Germans love grilling. Even at Christmas markets there is always a grill stand, with a spectacular round grill hanging from the ceiling, suspended over glimmering charcoals. They grill the much-loved Wursts in all varieties, but also Frikadellen (the über-fatty original of hamburgers), and pre-marinade steaks, mainly pork. There was a recent article on the local newspaper about how local political representatives decided to volunteer for grilling for charity – the CDU, the right-wing, conservative party, has decided to take care of the Würstchen, while the SPD, the more left-wing party, is going to barbecue pork steaks. Whether the Greens were offering a vegetarian option was not reported, but highly unlikely in my opinion. It was specified however that in order to simplify the organisation, the public should bring the drinks – that is, beer. Both parties are quite moderate in their positions anyway, and the newspaper made it clear that no political connotation would be given to food choice. Here is the picture appearing on the original article:
Another different grilling contribution is given by the numerous Gastarbeitern (guest workers) of Turkish origin who live here. I recently read a book written by a German-Turkish journalist, who grew up in Duisburg, a stone’s throw away from where I live. The title is sweet – “Einmal Hans mit sharfer Soβe”, Hans being the archetypical German boy. The title can be translated as : ‘A Hans served with hot sauce, please’. A phrase you’d use to order a kebab. Such a pretty way to capture the author’s torn identity between being German and Turkish, especially when it comes to finding the right man. She herself does not cook, but devotes pages and pages to her mom’s epic cooking and her dad’s equally epic barbecues. Allegedly in Berlin the Turkish habit of grilling in all spaces of public green, particularly in front of the Parliament, has caused some initial grumbles among the Germans, who, after an adjustment period, have actually joined the Turks in their grilling frenzy.
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May 2, 2011
If I were to invite you out for dinner where I live, I would bring you to my favourite local restaurant, an Afghani restaurant. Before eating there, I had no clue about Afghan food. Then one night – I think it was summer – for some reason our scheduled plan failed, we needed food, we did not feel like the same ol’kebab, and we decided to try this one, a bit randomly. I remembered driving past it while house hunting: the apartment we saw that night was the creepiest one ever, for the record, but it was worth going there just for noticing this place. ‘Kabul Restaurant’.
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March 20, 2011
I have to admit it. I am a serial spice buyer. I need to have them all. I cannot read about a spice and not have it. I want spices with the avidity of a collector.
There is a childish pleasure in rummaging through the messy closet that contains them all, in their unappealing plastic bags. At my mum’s home spices dwell in a neat, dedicated part of a drawer. Each of them is stored in a tiny tin or glass jar, collected over the years. Many spices have been there for ages, literally. I know my mum shares my fascination for spices, but quite frankly there is not that much room for spices in an Italian kitchen, so she buys them and they stay there until they grow tasteless. They have to fight for space with dried herbs, which my parents not only like, but also enjoy foraging themselves: one year I counted eight types of dried oregano, then there are wild juniper berries, myrtus, rosemary, sage, and let us not even start with caraway (which nobody likes, but is real fun to pick up). Now and again my mother will venture in a spiced recipe, with mixed outcomes: I still remember a vegetable strudel with coriander seeds she had read about somewhere. The coriander was whole, and it was the only spice, and it was a lot. I thought I hated coriander for years, and wondered how people could eat it. I did however like curry. I did not even know that curry was not ‘one’ spice. It came in jars, sometimes it was more pungent, others a bit bland, and it had the brightest colour. There was one dish we made with it: a Talismano dish with chicken and prawns cooked in coconut milk (we always used real coconut because you could not find canned coconut milk) and curry, served with ‘Indian rice’, o ‘riso all’indiana’ – which I was convinced referred to native Americans, for some reason, when I was a child.
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