Do you think it is possible to have a sort of an aftershock after moving? I think I have. It’s been a few months now, but I still feel shattered. I find it difficult to commit, to attach, to plan. Maybe I’m just getting older: when I was younger, it was all about feeling a citizen of the world, and let us not be bothered by outdated concepts like ‘nationality’. I still think that we are first and foremost human beings. But well, there are differences in our daily lives depending on where we live, especially when we grow older and so much of life is dealing with the little details of the society around us.
An alternative and popular technique for cooking pasta is to cook it as if it were a risotto, adding water a little at a time. It does require slightly more attention than the normal method, and certainly cannot be applied to all sauces, but it is more convenient for an easy weekday dinner, since it really is a one pot meal. It is all the more surprising that I never used it while I was living at home with my parents, and only started when my partner told me of his favourite way of making pasta with chickpeas.
The technique works particularly well for two categories of sauces: seafood sauces, where the starch in pasta actually binds an otherwise too thin sauce, and legume-based pasta, and I make all of them like this now . It is a bit like making a pasta e fagioli, but with less water so you can eat the end result with a fork. It is particularly forgiving, since you don’t have to stir that much, provided the food does not stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
I always feel a bit disappointed when January comes and spring is not already here. The days are still grey, the nights are still deep and long, vegetables are still cabbage and roots, and I’ve already had my fair share, thank you: I’m ready for spring. Not that it is cold, not here, and not that I expect spring or summer to be any less rainy – if anything, I know from experience they will be more.
Christmas day this year was just like that. A grey, overcast day, warm, short. We woke up suitably late, opened our presents, had pancakes for breakfast, and then we got to work. Our family was in Italy, we were here all by ourselves. It felt unusually quiet and intimate. We spent the morning making roasted squash tortelli. We ate them for lunch, and they were like little pockets of sunshine.
.. It’s been quite quiet around here lately, hasn’t it? I have barely opened my computer – any computer – in the last two weeks. I needed time, I’ve been needing it for quite a long time: time off, simple as that.
It’s been two long weeks of taking time. I stayed here in my new home or quite close by, alone or with my partner, or with some friends. I’ve been missing my family, an inevitable feeling at Christmas. But all in all, it was a great time. I had time to talk it over and to think about what I want to do: although I have not taken any decision yet, I feel more confident and in control. I had time to explore the surroundings with the leisurely lazy pace of the local, not the frantic-holidaymaker-who-ticks-all-the-boxes pace I usually have. I had time to sleep, to start taking care of my garden, to read books.
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.
A while ago, Sigrid asked her readers to share a grandmother’s recipe for an apple cake or pie. Adding the link, I realized it was quite a while ago, much longer than what I intended; on the other hand, this is just the best period ever for making apple cakes. I actually have two of those recipes that are part of my tradition; they both are recipes my mother regularly made for me. One of them is a simple, moist apple cake, perfect for dunking in milk. I think the recipe comes from my grandmother, but who knows where she took it.
The other recipe is a more challenging and ‘grown up’ dessert: strudel di mele. Strudel is a thin layer of dough rolled with something in it; it can be savoury, or more often sweet. Most people are accustomed to the variety made with puff pastry, quite greasy and sugary, which I don’t particularly like. The original has a thinner, less fat dough, quite common in the (also) German-speaking part of Italy and in Austria. In the regions where Austria met the Balkans, like Slovenia, an even thinner version is wide-spread, with almost no fat in it: actually, given that Wikipedia traces the origin of strudel to Levantine pastries like baklava, this is probably the most faithful version. The recipe we use in my family definitely belongs to the latter group; it comes straight from a lady who ran from the occupied Istria to Italy at some point. She was Italian – or rather, she spoke Italian as a first language, but her hair was blonde, almost white, and her eyes were blue; I’m not sure whether she would have considered herself being Italian, since these otherwise straightforward adjectives can be quite unaccurate and very dangerous when applied to some sensitive parts of the world. Her granddaughter is my mom’s best friend. She too is blond, in a way very few Italians are.
It is easy to overlook things I am used to. I don’t think much of them, I have always done them in this way, and I take them for granted. A wrong attitude surely, and particularly undeserved when it is directed to Italian classics. I always have some ace up my sleeve, that makes it easier to smile and invite someone over for dinner, even if it is late in the evening and I have prepared nothing, or to resist to another greasy takeaway, considering that more or less with the same time and effort I can have a plate of home cooked food ready at the table.
The secret to all of this is pasta. You probably already know that, given the popularity of events such as Presto Pasta Nights. It is all too easy to turn pasta into one ‘piatto unico’, a little feast that will leave everyone with a happy belly and a smile on their face. I have a few recipes I always resort to, and this is one of my favourites. It is easy to tweak and twist, but complication is not really required, and actually, it should probably be discouraged here.
Sunday evening. We’ve been packing all weekend, and then fixing the last few things in the house: filling holes in the wall with plaster and painting them (my plastering skills are something I am so proud of, one of the few things for which I am apparently a natural). Then a tour of the apartment, to double check what is left for packing. I went through the kitchen cupboard and realized I had not packed my pasta machine yet.
Of course there is a box where it could sit. It should.
Well. I’ve always wanted to try a twist on pasta, and there is some basil sitting on the fridge so.. . so here I am making home-made pasta in the middle of a removal. And you know what? I totally recommend it.
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.
I think the best Italian food that never makes it abroad are the soups. I guess it must be because they don’t look glamorous enough to be included in Italian restaurants (and anyway, I still have to find an Italian restaurant abroad nearly as good as some restaurants in Italy), and they are that good because of difficult to source ingredients. If you have travelled in Tuscany and had a chance to eat any of the soups there, you know what I am talking about. They redefine the somewhat boring concept of soup: they rely on arrays of vegetables, herbs, heirloom pulses and grains, little bits of meat, and of course olive oil, to produce drop-dead-gorgeous flavours and textures. And it is not only Toscana of course, although my favourite ones are from there.
Last weekend I went to the local market with a fresh pair of eyes, determined to try something new. I have realized with a bit of a shock how lazy I have been in my food choices. I like carbs, vegetables and fruit. I’ve tried all the funny looking vegetables at the Vietnamese shop, always have at least three varieties of rice in my pantry, and have eaten all the types of organic, wood-oven bread they sell at the market. On the other hand, I don’t like meat, especially if I can’t identify what is in there, so I have left the huge selection of Wurst and Aufschnitt (cold cuts) largely unexplored. Also, I don’t like vinegary food very much, so no Gewuerzgurken (pickled cucumbers), Sauerkraut, and the endless ready-made salads on sale. But I know this is mainly laziness, cooking with what I’m comfortable with instead of pushing my boundaries a bit to discover new flavours.