(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: February, 2012

Easily amused…

Found these this morning in Tiger, while looking for A4 size folders.

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Signs of spring

Monday, wash day.  The sun has just left our kitchen balcony, but it was there earlier today.

Two weeks ago it was snowing.  Now it’s spring.  I’ve always said that I should shouldn’t expect too much from living in Italy until spring, so it’s nice that it  seems to be coming early.  And here are some of the things I like:

  • We have doors that open onto balconies.  And we’ve been keeping them open.  It makes the apartment feel bigger.  We can hear people talking and smell dinners cooking. But it’s normal noise, not cars with their stereos turned up so loudly that they set off car alarms, like in New York.
  • We have more light.  It bounces off the walls, hits your shoulders and feels warm.  It lingers longer in the evenings.  Sometimes it looks magical.
  • I can see stars, more than in New York at least.  I haven’t been out on the balconies to look that much yet, because it’s still cold, but I’m starting to stand out there for a few minutes when I close the shutters at night.  I can’t tell you how happy I am to see them again even just for a few minutes.
  • I’ll be able to plant herbs.  We had herbs in New York, on the roof deck, but these will be right outside the kitchen door.
  • I can hang out laundry.  Just for the sheer novelty of it, and to get it out of the bathroom.  Italians are big believers in airing things out and putting them in the sun.
  • School will be over, or better, soon.  This has been a tough year for Sarie. She’s always trying to play catch up, and never knows what’s going on with her conservatory schedule until the last minute (this is partly language, but partly just the way things are).  But after her AP exam in early May, she should have more breathing room.
  • Bob is reading.  I missed that.  Moving, learning a new language, and starting a new job can be exhausting, so sometimes you just don’t have the energy even to read something for fun.
  • It’s gelato time!  Italians like getting ice cream as much as New Yorkers like sitting in sidewalk cafes.  Both will start their preferred activities before it’s really warm enough.  Today as I started on a walk, I noticed a trickle of people coming in my direction licking ice cream cones.  Soon they formed a steady stream, and by the time I got to knots of people eating ice cream and talking, I knew wasn’t far from the source.  For a minute I thought there had been an accident, because I saw a crowd gathered near an ambulance, but no, the paramedics were just getting ice cream, too.  The line at the gelateria was out the door.
  • The park is crowded.  I went for a long walk in Parco Valentino, which was packed.  People had staked out small territories with blankets, and at the edges, there were small soccer games going on.  It reminded me of the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond in our old “backyard” near E. 80th St., where we used to spend weekends with Sarie when she was small.
  • I’m starting to understand the language!  As I walked through the park, I heard little snatches of talk, and much to my surprise, I understood some of almost every conversation.  In New York, I used to like to collect little snippets of what people were saying as I walked by, because it made for an entertaining cross section of city life.  Among things of Italian I heard yesterday:  “Are you hurt?” a dad called to a preteen girl who fell off her skateboard. “It’s a dead leaf,” another dad sighed, to a toddler who was apparently picking up everything in his path and asking what it was. “Bagna cauda at our house?” said one couple to another as they finished their walk. And my favorite, growled by a ponderously stomping little boy, whose grandma was obviously ruining his game of being a fierce dinosaur: “No, I don’t want you to give me a kiss!”

Not a bad start to spring!  And it’s only February.

A few scattered links

As a break from Italy news this week, I thought I’d add a few links to things I’ve been reading.

Authenticity of Trove of Pollocks and Rothkos Goes to Court, Patricia Cohen (NY Times): This article is an interesting study in glamour, judgment, and credulity in Manhattan art world and further afield.  There’s also an air of mystery novel about it. There was a screaming question in my mind as I read it, though, so see if one leaps out at you, too.  (The NY Times offers 20 free article per month, but even after that, you can sort of read over the subscription message that comes up.  Plus, I think there was an exemption of some sort for links, but I’m not sure whether the link sender has to have a subscription.  We don’t.)

The New American Divide, by Charles Murray (WSJ): This is a sample from Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart.  I could have chosen any of about a dozen reviews I’ve read of this book, but I finally decided on an excerpt from the book itself.  I can’t read Coming Apart until Bob brings back a copy from New York in March (he wants a paper copy), but I find the thesis, that American is dividing into an elite class and an underclass, both compelling and disturbing.  Having spent my first years in a once-prosperous small town that has now been almost eviscerated, and having also lived in Manhattan for almost 14 years, I can see at least some truth in what he’s saying.  Whether or not I will agree with his prescriptions, I don’t know.

A side note: Murray is himself controversial because he co-wrote The Bell Curve, and because he is a Libertarian, but what some people may not realize is that he is not a “right-wing” Evangelical.  He is probably taken for one at times because he makes moral prescriptions in his books.  But a more truthful description of Murray might be “agnostic Libertarian statistician.”  I am none of those, but still think he might have something worthwhile to say.

My Stardust Memories, by William Zinsser (The American Scholar): I don’t remember where I came across this one, but it was just an entertaining read.  Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well, which I enjoyed reading a couple of years ago, so I liked coming across an extra essay of his.

Next Time, Try ‘Unflagging,’ Geoff Dyer, (NY Times): At the risk of running out your stash of free NY Times articles, I’ll add this one, too. It’s on the overuse of the word “tireless” in journalism.  My favorite part, though, was an incidental anecdote:  When asked about his position in literature, Vladimir Nabokov’s reply was, “Jolly good view from up here.”

Happy reading!

Gianduia

Every time I go to my cooking class, I pass by the window above and admire the sheer cleverness of these gianduia eggs.  Gianduia is a mixture of chocolate and hazelnut paste that was invented during the reign of Napoleon, at a time when chocolate was hard to come by.  Hazelnuts are plentiful in Piemonte, so someone had the idea of grinding them to a paste and mixing them with chocolate.  It tastes very similar to Nutella, which is also from Piemonte.  And this store, Gerla, apparently specializes in gianduia.

The top photo, from the same store, is of Carnival masks.  Carnival is next Tuesday. Truthfully, clowns give me the creeps, and these monkeys are a little creepy too, but maybe they’re supposed to be.  The one that caught my eye was the realistic mask that looks like a man’s face.

And it’s not entirely coincidental that a gianduia store would have Carnival masks.  Gianduia is also the name of a commedia dell’arte figure who is supposed to be a typical Piemontese.  He’s a man (usually wearing a tricorn hat) who gets along with all the ladies, though he has a girlfriend.  Maybe that’s why these masks give me the creeps!

At  €38 per kg., I found it easy enough to pass up the clever gianduia eggs. But I do have a box of gianduiotti, which are small gianduia candies (perhaps resembling a tricorn, or at least a bicorn, hat?) at home.  They’re yummy, but one of them is enough.

Rice pudding!

The finished rice pudding.  These Nutella jars are really coming in handy for desserts!

Saturday was cooking day for me.  After spending the whole week doing taxes, that was a nice break.  I made broth and then tried out one of my cooking class recipes.

For dinner, I made a dish I first had at my friend Barbara’s home in Greenwich Village.  It’s a Bittman dish that our family nicknamed “burned Brussels sprouts.”  When we had them at Barbara’s, we couldn’t stop eating them!  They’re almost like crispy little hash browns, but with all the virtue of vegetables. With tonight’s Brussels sprouts (don’t you like how I put the vegetable first?), we’ll have pork chops and a Dolcetto di dogliani, which is a light red wine. And then we’ll have dessert, which is what this post is mainly about.

First, though, I can assure you we don’t eat like this every night!  The rest of the week has been quick vegetable dishes. And I was out late two evenings in a row.  I wanted to celebrate everyone being home, and Sarie finishing her Western Lit midterm.

But anyway, the dessert:  This was my favorite part of this week’s cooking class, which was on rices and pastas.  Rice pudding with carmelized oranges on top.  It’s as good as any rice pudding I’ve ever had in the US, whether the Southern kind with raisins (slightly burned) or the kind I used to get in Thai restaurants in NYC.  Perhaps you can tell that rice puddings are way up there on my list of desserts.  They even rate an exclamation point in the post title!

So I took photos as I made it.

This isn’t such a well-focused photo, but it does give you an quick glance at the ingredients. Your vanilla bean should still be flexible.  And unfortunately, I had to use UHT cream.  Fresh cream is rather hard to find in our neighborhood!

Ingredients include:  70g. rice, 1/2 l. milk, 250 g. cream, a piece of vanilla, and 70 g. sugar.  Yes, I know, it’s metric.  I’ve got some new metric measuring devices, and I’m trying to learn the system.  You can convert if you want.

A word about the rice.  I used Ribe.  It’s a “fine” rice which is even rounder and starchier than Arborio, which is considered “superfine.” (By that standard, I don’t know what they’d call Basmati, but they do sell it here.) The rice is supposed to fall apart into a pudding.  Other rice varieties in the same category include L’Ariete, il Cervo, il Drago, l’Europa, il Loto, il Razza 77, URB, il Ringo, Il Rizzotto, il Sant’Andrea, lo Smeraldo and il Veneria.  Good luck!  I’m just including them in case you have Italian groceries nearby.  But even I only found one, Ribe.

First you blanch the rice by putting it in cold water and bringing the water to a boil, then rinsing immediately.  I made this easier by sticking a strainer over a saucepan.

Then you mix the cream, milk and a piece of cut-open vanilla (the one they used in class was about an inch long) together with the rice.  It will look like way too much milk for the amount of rice, but that’s okay.  Simmer for 50 minutes over low heat, stirring from time to time.  Then add the sugar and cook for ten more minutes.

Note: The pudding needs two hours to cool to room temperature, so it helps to start it early.  We actually didn’t have quite that long, though, and it was still good.

Pudding thickening in cream and milk.  You can see I was browning Brussels sprouts at the same time (I had two pans of sprouts going.)

Meanwhile, prepare the orange topping.  For this, you need an orange per serving, 140 g. sugar (the recipe was for four servings), and a tablespoon Grand Marnier per serving.  You don’t have to use the Grand Marnier, but it adds to the flavor.  The bottle I had to buy was so big, I’m going to be able to make this pudding for years.

I used navel oranges, which are sweet and have a thick peel, but they’re a bit hard to section.  Zest the oranges. Then take a paring knife and cut away the peel, finding the right curved stroke to cut away all the peel without cutting too much into the flesh.  Obviously, tangerines and sectioned, fibrous types of oranges aren’t going to work so well for this.  After peeling, stick your knife into the side of each section and cut out the section without getting the fiber, dropping the sections into a bowl.  (Again, the type of orange makes a big difference here.)  Fold the leftover divisions over like a book as you go.  When finished, squeeze the remaining juice into the bowl.

Blanch the zest in boiling water, then rinse.  This removes the bitterness. Again, cooking in a strainer comes in handy here for quickly removing the small pieces.

Blanched orange zest cooling in the strainer.

Put 140 g. sugar into a saucepan, pour some of the juice into the sugar (I used about half), and heat over a “lively flame.”  (I love Italian descriptions!) Hmm, I don’t think it means to burn it, but do get it bubbling so that the mixture turns a lighter color.

Then add the remaining juice and cook it until it becomes a light syrup.  The recipe doesn’t say how long, but I promise, it works.  You just want the sugar to dissolve.

Add the zest, and then add a tablespoon of Grand Marnier, if you’re using it, for every serving.  Simmer for a few more minutes and let cool.

In the spring, you can make strawberry topping with 250 cl. white wine  and 125 g. sugar instead, using a little extra water to give it the right consistency.

Finished orange syrup cooling the sauce pan

Finishing up the typing on Monday, I got so hungry thinking about this dessert that my stomach started growling!

Oh, and one other thing I learned about rice this week:  Never try to make a risotto out of brown rice, even if it is a short grain rice like Arborio.  I thought I’d get healthy and substitute brown Arborio for the regular kind, and the girls in the grocery store even said I could do it.  But it takes about two hours, never quite releases its starch, and by that time your vegetable soffritto is mush!

Someone probably could have told me this, but I am a confirmed experimenter, and with food at least, don’t mind throwing caution to the winds occasionally.  No doubt I got what I deserved when I had to stand at the stove for two hours stirring in so much liquid that eventually I ran out of broth and started using water.  So now I’m giving you the benefit of my experience–If you want brown rice, there are all kinds of dishes that it works well for, but for risotto and of course for pudding, starch is a good thing!

Midwinter food

A recent vegetable broth.  I’ll be cooking chicken broth tomorrow.  It would have been today, but the butcher said the hen wasn’t pretty enough and told me to come back!

What to cook for dinner? It’s midwinter and I’m starting to want something spicy, something, NOT Italian. When we first arrived it was still high summer food-wise, and I could just go pick up anything at the market and make a meal out of it, because it really didn’t need much done to it.  Plus, since I didn’t have my own kitchen until November, things had to be simple.  But now is the time when my recipes and my cooking style really have to adapt to living in a new country.  My usual midwinter dals and spicy Thai curries are inaccessible. So tonight I’ve settled on romanesco broccoli soup with more than the usual amount of cayenne.

Meanwhile, here are a few notes on what I’ve learned so far about shopping for food in Italy:

Cooking here really is seasonal.  Even within the season, you never really know whether you’re going to find the produce you came for when you go to the store or market, so I usually take a list for several recipes when I go shopping.

But in addition to seasonal produce, there are seasonal bakery items.  Before Christmas, panettone, or Christmas cake, was everywhere.  After Christmas, bugie season begins.  Bugie are little fried crisps of vanity cake with powdered sugar. They’re perfect for dipping in coffee or tea.  But the Italians don’t usually drink enough coffee to dip.  I wonder what comes next?  Or is pastry itself a season?

These aren’t bugie.  They’re some kind of little wheels dipped in honey.  But they show why you can’t dip cookies in macchiato, and besides, they’re good!

My breads of choice are altamura and integrale.  They’re both round loaves that you slice through as you need them.  You can buy loaf bread in a wrapper, but who’d want to?  It’s insipid stuff and strangely thick.  Altamura is a yellowish loaf, perhaps made of semolina, that’s not too dense or too full of holes.  Integrale is whole wheat, but you have to watch what you get, because it varies.  Some of it is so hard you’d need a chainsaw to cut through it.  It’s dark, and it crumbles if you look at it.  But I’ve found some across the nearest avenue that’s excellent, not too dark, not too light, and it makes great toast and soup bread. (I judge all bread by whether you can put butter and jam on it with morning coffee, which I think makes me not-so-Italian.) The only problem is it’s a little pricey, so I treat us to it now and then sort of like I used to go to Silver Moon on the Upper West Side.

Altamura

A few tips on shopping:  Don’t touch the food. I’m not sure if this is a law, or merely custom, but you don’t pick up your own produce at a market.  You ask for it, one item at a time, and the vendor picks it up and weighs it.  And it’s a social ritual. The good thing about this is that it forces you to converse with the vendor.  If you do it often enough, you start to make friends.  And learn Italian.  And it’s not like you’re stuck with what they pick up. You can say, “Oh, not that one, please.  I’d like one that’s a little riper,” or whatever, once you learn how to say it in Italian.

At the supermarket, you can pick the produce up up, but they provide plastic gloves.  And you weigh it before you go to the checkout counter. People look at you funny if you don’t.

As I mentioned above, I’m now in the process of adapting my recipes.  Some of them just aren’t going to happen.  I had to leave all my tamarind, dals, and lemongrass in the US.  Even my favorite muffin recipe isn’t turning out right. But I’ve figured out a way to make apple-chipotle salsa burritos, as long as my chipotles hold out.  Italians have something sort of like a burrito, but a little breadier, called a piadina.  And tonight I’m going to try to adapt my favorite broccoli soup recipe.  The sticking point, literally, is the cheddar.  Italians never heard of it, and don’t have anything like it.  When you say you want a strong, savory cheese, they shrug and point to the toma.  Grana padana is closer in taste, but won’t melt as well.  So I’m going to try it with a bit of both.

Romanesco broccoli, for tonight’s broccoli and potato soup

And finally, I’m taking a basic cooking class for six weeks.  I’m about to start week three, which I think is about sauces.  So far we’ve done vegetables and eggs.  The classes go from 7:30 until 11:00 p.m., and then we eat what we’ve cooked.  Unfortunately, I’m not the world’s most alert and witty person at 11:00 p.m., even in my native language.  So mostly I just listen.

Yes, the entire class is in Italian.  I understand a bit more than half of what’s going on.  Thankfully, there is a woman in the class who works with Bob and knows English pretty well, so she can help me when I get stuck.  But she wasn’t there last week.  That’s when I really wanted to speak Italian, so I could “get” the jokes.

Something else funny that I noticed:  When one person comes into the class, they greet all the others with “Ciao!”  “Ciao!” responds the group.  Every time.  It’s like going to AA, or being Norm in Cheers.  Actually, it almost feels like kindergarten, but I like it, even though it’s so NOT New York!

Below are a couple of photos of things I’ve tried so far from the class.

1. Vitello (veal) boiling in a vegetable broth per the butcher’s instructions 2. Mixing up some crema pasticceria, which then went into the fridge, 3. 4. The finished vitello tonnato.  By the time I finished hand whisking both the crema and the mayonnaise for the tonnato (literal translation: tuna-ed), I couldn’t move my arms.

I enjoyed making the vitello tonnato.  Not because of the food itself, but because of how it was done.  I made my own mayonnaise for the tonnato, and then went to my favorite vegetable lady to ask for cucumbers, or cetrioli, which puzzled both of us, because you wouldn’t think of tuna sauce having cucumbers, and she didn’t have any anyway because it was winter.  “It was on the recipe.  But I copied off the woman next to me.” I confessed. “Maybe I got something wrong!”

The vegetable lady tapped her head, and then said something to the other woman who works there.  Then she brightened up, “Oh, I bet she meant preserved cucumbers!”  Pickles.  Of course, pickles go with tuna salad, no matter how finely ground.  “But you don’t need them,” she reassured me.

When I asked for thinly sliced veal at the butcher, I was even more surprised. The butcher pulled out a veal loin and tied it up with string.  “You boil it for 40 minutes with carrot, celery and onion,” he told me.  Then come back down here at seven and I’ll slice it for you.”  This really charmed me.  I wasn’t so sure about the 40 minutes because the best carpaccio is very rare, and it turns out I was right, but I loved taking my veal roast out in the snow after dark and having the butcher slice it thinly on his very nice machine.  Next time I’ll try 30 minutes and see what happens.

Lazy update: I’m blogging-challenged lately and didn’t have any nice conclusions to draw from my cooking this week, and besides, life intervened and I didn’t finish the post, but I we did eat the broccoli potato soup.  Only problem was, my food processor doesn’t work here and the little romanesco broccoli florets bounced around in the food mill rather than straining through, so I gave up and served it in chunks.  Bob and Sarie missed the gruel-like texture, but I thought it looked pretty with the little bright-green Fibonacci swirls intact.

Oh, yes, and I haven’t made the broth yet.  I need a long afternoon at home for that.  But the hen, when opened, yielded a finished egg and several half-formed ones!

Perhaps this photo is a little too close up to look savory, but here’s the finished soup with the florets floating in it.

Southern snow

It has been snowing since Saturday.  While Italy more known for sun than snow, it does dress well in white.  Bob took the picture above on the way home from work.  It’s of Largo Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the many elegant public spaces in Torino that features a bronze statue.

I took the other photos below (except the last two) at home this morning.  Pardon me for not being able to resist a few Pixlr effects.  I just learned how to add them and maybe got a little carried away!

When I close my balcony shutters in the evening, they scrape the top of the snow and bring it into the apartment.  So I’ve been keeping a broom and dustpan next to the doors in the living room, where the shutters bring in the most snow.  Every time I sweep up the snow and dump it back onto the balcony so it won’t soak the parquet, I’m reminded not only how different the architecture is here from New York, but also now it’s inherently more suited to southern climes.  No one sat down on a committee and decided this–it just suited.  Torinesi know enough about snow to have plows, salt, and snow tires.  But don’t ask the elegant women to forgo their high heeled boots, and what Torinese would dream of living in a home without a balcony?

Photos above, top to bottom: 1. The view outside my breakfast room/study into the courtyard 2. View of the balcony doors from our bedroom (note the semi-tropical plant, covered in snow, on the balcony next door) 3-5.  Views from the back balcony into the back courtyard, where there are some more colorful flowers just out of the photo. 6. Less elegant, but very comfortable, women from New York, walking home through the Roman quarter in waterproof, low-heeled boots.  7.  The height of snowy elegance–the Palazzo Madama in the center of town.