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just getting older: when I was younger, it was all about feeling a citizen of the world, and let us not be bothered by outdated concepts like ‘nationality’.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.
I had half forgotten about this soup. I do this kind of things all the time. I have a leaky memory, to say the least – this is why this blog is a life saver for me, at least for recipes. I’ve always wanted to keep a diary of the books I read, the movies I watch, sometimes even the people I meet. I forget who the killer is five minutes after the end of a thriller. I forget reading books altogether: I’ve often found myself reading half of a book, and at chapter twelve realizing that yes, I have indeed already read the whole thing. I just keep little drops of memory with me from books and movies – the colour of a dress, the face of a beautiful actress, a particularly funny character. I forget people I meet, I forget technical details of vital importance. I am always embarrassed when people ask me what my favourite book or film is – if I’m lucky I remember the title, but don’t expect anything more than the knowledge that yes, I enjoyed that book immensely. This is why I have to be extra organised. I keep logs. I have lists.
I have a good memory for other random things. I remember number sequences really easily. I used to remember loads of poetry when I was in school, and I still do know some by heart. I remember where I’ve parked my car and where shops are and German grammar. Weird.
I should have told you about this first. I wanted you to have plenty of time before the Seville orange season is over to enjoy this sauce. But life goes on, and the days are short and the time to take pictures is even more compressed with these gloomy winter days, and my harissa was mouldy and I could not find it new nor had I time to make some. Whiny me.
Whining apart, I hope you have some time left, or you let me know how it turns out with oranges and limes, or other souring agents. I will stick to my favourite ingredient for this period of winter. Bitter or Seville oranges are a rare find in Italy. When we did find some, we’d always make Vin d’Orange, the most elegant and sophisticated drink ever. Very boozy too: all too easy to drink too much of it in the first warm days of spring, maybe on the first barbecue of the season.
Here Sevilles are plenty and cheap: all greengrocers stock them and they’d invariably warn me that I have picked up marmalade, not normal oranges. I buy loads of them, although I have never made marmalade with them. I make sorbet, curd, and a variety of orange flavoured cakes. I soon found out that Sevilles are brilliant in savoury food as well: wherever you’d use lemon or vinegar, roughly. Which is more or less everywhere for me.
World Nutella day found me unprepared this year. I’m in a period when my relationship with food is changing. I feel a need to become lighter and less cluttered in general, and part of it is reflecting in the way I eat. I have started again some physical activity, and although I am quite limited by my ongoing knee problems, I have recovered all of my addiction to moving. I finally feel my body becoming more compact, more flexible, the way I am used to feeling it. In this picture I just don’t crave unhealthy food that much. But everything in moderation, including moderation. It is World Nutella Day after all, and such occasion should not go unnoticed.
Meet my latest food crush. Crunchy and juicy, with a challenging but yielding texture interesting enough to make you want for more, but not actually get tired of it. A subtle whiff of smoke, the smell of a thousand and one nights, and its bronzed hue betray its Middle East origin, while a tiny hint of grass makes you dream of the wild outdoors. Like all love relationships, it wouldn’t work long-term, if it were not good for you.
Meet Freekeh, Green wheat. Think unripe grain, smoked to dryness. Better than it sounds. Easier than it sounds, too. I have never much liked simple whole wheat, but this is another story. This is up there with farro. This is marriage material.
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.
Summer is gone astray here. It rains and rains and rains. There are no chances to enjoy my favourite activities at home, which are two. I have a shared garden that nobody else uses, where we can have barbecues. We had no opportunity for a barbecue since last month. And then, I have a terrace above my head. I rarely go there, surely not in winter when it is covered with snow. But the views are great and it faces west, so sitting there in the evening with one of the excellent German beers and something to nibble on is a great way to unwind after a working day. There are a couple of challenges involved though: making sure the bare wood on the floor is not wet or humid, which requires this rain to stop for at least a couple of days; trying to convince the cats not to jump down from the roof; and managing to climb the very steep ladder down even after a beer. Which makes the snacking part vital. The food must be easy to carry (you need at least one hand to climb up that ladder, so one trip for the beer and one for the snack), it must be tasty, it must be healthy because I can’t keep on putting on weight, and then you have to have some dinner, right?
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).
It is easy to be carried away by memories, especially when they are connected to food. So bear with me. I know this recipe is simple, but this little side dish, blede con patate, chard and potatoes, is a symbol of what I want to carry with me.
I probably tasted it the very first day I moved out. I was going to live on my own, finally, something I’ve always wanted so badly. And now that was happening, me armed with a big, heavy suitcase, on a train heading east. The phone beeped, a message. The guy I’d met at the hostel the other time, he came from Milan like me, the mathematician with funny glasses. Would I meet him for lunch? Well, why not. It sounded good. A great start for making new friends in my new town, actually.
We met on a rainy night. It was not the first night for me in Trieste. I had already been there a few years before, and I remembered the landscape, the city gleaming over the water from the pier right below the hostel at Miramare. The pier, a great place where to sit and think, where I took all of the hardest decisions in my life. But that was yet to come: that night, it rained, and I was yet so much of a child. I came with a friend to take a test for a job. We were both nervous and depressed by the heavy rain. It was dinner time and we needed food, so we just crossed the piazza from the station and headed to the first bar. I have never returned to that bar for some reason, but it did surprise me. The food was good, fresh, something you don’t expect from the anonymous place right in front of the station. Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and fresh sardine. Fresh and good as they can be, and this can happen only at sea. We caught the bus to the hostel, the last one. It had stopped raining, and we walked in the scented air, a scent of rain and sea. And then we sat on the main room at the hostel , and it was full of young people like us, and we started chatting. Somehow the topic turned to food and I launched into one of my monologues that would eventually evolve into this blog – on gubana, a typical pastry filled with dried fruit and made with a brioche like dough (at least the version I was more familiar with from Friuli, but things change wildly here in a few kilometers) and how you should eat it with some slivovitz (prune spirit) to keep it moist. I noticed the guy with the funny glasses looking at me, his eyes gleaming with interest. I did not know it, but I had already conquered an ally for my culinary obsessions.
This salad looks a bit demure. It can be given a makeover with a nice presentation, on special occasions, but some people will keep thinking it is just another boring vegan blob. As if someone had invited also the ugly sister to a dinner party just to please the beautiful one.
It does not smell particularly strong – maybe a whiff of sour and mint if you go really close, but when it is at room temperature, it does not really hit.
And then you taste it, and it explodes. It smacks you in the face with smokiness, then unfolds its complexity as you chew through it. Fresh and sour notes come in, then meatiness and a hint of sweetness as you tackle the lentils, while the slightly bitter, crunchy, nutty walnuts predominate as you chew them last.
The heart of this salad is smoked aubergine, the one used for baba ghanoush dip. I had never smoked an aubergine before starting to learn about Middle East food. I always thought the natural destiny for an aubergine, the right, glorious end for its charming black beauty, is to be deep-fried in olive oil. More often than not I ended up playing it down, pan roasting it in cubes with just a bit of oil, roasting it in the oven, cut into wedges, or even grilling it, sliced. A defeat for taste.