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.
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!