The Weekend List 11/09/2013 (Italians don’t drink wine anymore, tradition vs. innovation)

— Italians are not drinking wine anymore. The Associated Press reports that it is more likely for certain Italian wines to be enjoyed abroad than in Italy itself. Well, that is just sad. Why would I care about this if I don’t even like and drink wine? Because beer is replacing it.

Italians’ change of attitude is going hand in hand with the increasing popularity of other, more casual alcoholic drinks — above all, beer, particularly among the young. While the average Italian’s consumption of wine is only a third of what it was in the 1970s, beer drinking has doubled.

But most importantly, the “made in Italy” brand is losing its grip on a society that is painfully unaware of its potential. (I am referring to a lot more than just wine.) I have been feeling blue about the state of Italian commerce, innovation and overall well-being for a while now. It’s true, I don’t live there anymore, but that country is still my home. I see and hear things from relatives and friends, and read the papers…every day. I am bitter that my beloved land is suffering in all facets of its delicate life. Italy is a complex and sophisticated dame who is surrounded by scandal and mockery. She is trapped in a tower, desperately waiting for her prince. I, for one, am scared shitless that this prince may bring Italy’s uniqueness to an end. More on this topic later. I have LOTS to say and ain’t afraid to say it.

Back to wine. I don’t know anything about wine, but I know that Italian wine is freaking delicious – so say the millions of people who think so, and coincidentally, my husband and father, two wine aficionados. Good enough for me.

With interest ebbing at home, more than 50 percent of Italian wine is currently exported, up from 28 percent in 2000. The biggest buyers are the United States and Germany. But sales are rising quickly in many new markets. In China, for example, they grew by almost a fifth from 2011 to 2012.

See what I mean? There are some people who still think we are worth something.

— Ah, the battle between tradition and innovation. I was SO glad to see The New Yorker’s Food Issue at my door step this week. New trends, new restaurants and…OMG… Massimo Bottura!

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The magazine highlighted the century-old schism between traditional mores and the spirit to advance in thinking and in practice. Bottura is a renowned chef of one of the best restaurants in the world: Osteria Francescana. (It consistently places in the top 5 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants). He is reinventing Italian cuisine with his wit and creativity.

Take Black on Black, his tribute, by way of squid ink, katsuobushi, and a black cod, to Thelonius Monk. Or Camouflage, his nod to Picasso, with a civet of wild hare “hiding” in custard under a blanket of powdered herbs and spices.

I have never eaten at Osteria Francescana, but I have been a fan of his cultural and culinary avant-garde for some time. I think there is so much more than spaghetti al sugo, or lasagne, or pizza to symbolize my country. Bottura, of course, has plenty of critics who believe he is destroying the very core of Italian cuisine, and by default, the fabric of Italian society. Give me a break. If there is anything Italy needs is a big kick in the ass and a bunch of people at its helm who know that the future is here, now.

— Be still my heart. This guide to Italian cuisine is priceless and oh so needed. Not to be a snob or anything, but there are certain ways in which people treat Italian food and food culture that drive me crazy. Let’s list a few:

Ketchup on pasta. This really shocks Italians.

Spaghetti Bolognese? No! Probably Italy’s most famous dish, yet there isn’t a restaurant in Bologna that serves it.

Red and white checked tablecloths. They don’t exist in Italy, even though countless Italian restaurants abroad use them.

Pasta with chicken – never in Italy. Americans regard this as “typically Italian”, says the report, “but we have to tell you: no one in Italy would serve such a dish”.

“Caesar salad”: unknown in Italy, even if its inventor, Caesar Cardini, was Italian.

Wow, I sound really bitter. Time for hot cocoa and some knitting. Happy weekend.

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Food Reads: Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone”

What better way to spend a rainy day than to read a good book, under the covers surrounded by my kitty cats? Not much, really. I have been reading a lot of food-related books lately, and it has only increased my appetite for more. This time, it was the great Ruth Reichl.

Reichl has had a pretty sweet life – full of passion, happy and sad memoriesI have read a few of her books in the past and for every single one, I found myself wanting to be Ruth Reichl, the food writer. Perhaps, one day.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table was all I wanted and more. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I was transported to the places Reichl visited (summer camp in France!), her cottage, her room, and especially her kitchen. At 7, she was already cool. Actually, at 7, she was already cooler than I’ll ever be. By the time she was a teenager, she could do no wrong in my book. There are so many instances where I wanted my life to mirror hers…to be her – from her life in a New York City apartment accompanied her trials and tribulations of a creative roommate, to just cruising through life with experience, grace and fierceness.

Her mother must have been hysterical, although probably not really easy to live with. The queen of “mold,” as Reichl calls her –  the failed parties, failed dishes, the 70’s…those were the days.


Her adventures as a summer counselor on Ile d’Oleron, France, brought back so many memories of hot, sticky Italian summers spent playing in the muddy grass and traveling around in my family’s RV.
Reichl’s spontaneous trip with Madame and Monsier Deveau to an isolated farm to discover the best berry tart on the planet was mouth watering, literally. But, why, Reichl asks, was that tart so my better than any other tart? “Good butter from fat cows and wild berries grown in the island air.” Wow. Doesn’t that make you want to get on a plane?

Her voice is unmistakable. Reichl’s wit is present at every turn: during her school years in Canada, in Manhattan apartments, in a commune in Berkeley, California. It almost makes you wonder whether you, yourself, are experiencing life at its fullest. Are you actually doing what you love? Sure, it may sound like a clique, but it’s probably the hardest question you will ask yourself and when you find that you indeed are not doing what you were intended to do in the first place, well…life can suddenly appear much brighter.

Food for thought.

The Weekend List 04/12/13

All day Thursday, I thought and lived as if it were Friday. Disappointment ensued when I finally figure it out. It has been THAT kind of week. I am looking forward to the next few days, chock-full of events and exciting beginnings.

First and foremost, the Charlottesville City Market celebrated the opening of its 40th season last Saturday! I happen to be on the board of Market Central, a non-profit organization that supports the market, its vendors and customers, and the farmers market is a big deal for us. Personally, perusing the stalls at the farmers market makes me giddy like a school girl: fresh produce, accessible food. It is really an educational tool for society.

1) In keeping with the social aspect of food and its production,  In When Eating is an Economic Act, interviewed Frederick Kaufman who has a new book out called Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food an important look into the politics of our food system. Give it a read.

2) There is something about celebrities and cookbooks that I find amusing. I can’t decide whether I am annoyed or revolted, but either way, it’s got to stop. Yet,  this take on Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a while. Hilarious does not do it justice. It’s so much more. had me at “hello.” She gets it.

This is my favorite excerpt:

While waiting for my pre-breakfast Best Green Juice to finish draining — “Just about as energizing as a cup of coffee,” Gwyneth has promised — I begin the recipe for my actual breakfast: Millet Fig Muffins. I dutifully measure out my gluten-free flour, my raw millet, my unsweetened almond milk. I grind flax seed, pinch fine sea salt, toss chopped figs in a spoonful of the dry ingredients, line my muffin tins with paper liners. It’s only noon, and I’m almost done cooking my first meal of the day.

Time to settle down with my green juice, which has acquired a bright emerald color and tastes like a cross between a lemon and a lawn, and wait for the timer to buzz.

Meanwhile, we have 20 to 25 minutes to ponder the meaning of Gwyneth Paltrow.


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I like Paltrow as an actress, and I even like the fact that she has taken the lead on the über local, fresh, no dairy, super healthy. But I can shake off the feeling that they, these celebrities, are all in for themselves. I know, I am naive.
Look at this list of celebrities with cookbooks:
Trisha Yearwood, Valerie Bertinelli, Stanley Tucci (ok, he is beyond awesome), Eva Longoria, Sheryl Crow, Gloria Estefan, Victoria Gotti (!!!!) and my favorite, Teresa Guidice from the Real Housewives franchise – wait…she has 3 cookbooks????? I rest my case.

3) Speaking of celebrities, Antony Bourdain sat down with Andrew Zimmern for a friendly chat on the eve of Bourdain’s new CNN show, Parts Unknown. The thing with Bourdain is that you either love him or hate him. No way in between. I love, love, love his bombastic, foul-mouthed persona. And he is a terrific writer.

In this piece, they talk about the writing process, mainly, Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, being called a gonzo journalist, to which Bourdain replies, “I’m an essayist”, and his hosting duties on that weird (very bad) show called The Taste – and the best part, both Zimmern and Bourdain recall reading children’s books to their offsprings and shed a few tears.

Focaccia Pugliese (potatoes and rosemary)

I’ve never been able to bake a decent focaccia – either hard as rock or chewy and off-textured. Imagine my skepticism when I decided to give a new recipe a try. Baking has to be my number one passion, I think. I mean, when I think about food, my first thought or memory is bread or cake. Coincidence? I don’t think so. If I could, I would bake sweets and savory treats all day long, hence my unrelenting drive to find baking/bread/cake/pies cookbooks with traditional and unexpected recipes. I’ll say that I would try anything at least once.

While browsing the aisles and shelves of our local bookstore, I found a little book, tucked away in a corner: 100 Great Breads by Paul Hollywood. What I found was a plethora of really simple bread and focaccia recipes that sounded and looked doable. I bought it immediately.

After a few hours of contemplating, I settled for a focaccia with potatoes and rosemary.

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The Puglia region is the hill of the Italian boot. Lots of good food and friendly folks. When I was young, my family used to drive to Gallipoli and camp there for a month. We had an RV and traveled around the coast and stopped at random camping locations throughout the area. I have really great memories of that time and I hoped that by baking something from that sunny land, I would feel the same Joie de vivre. I succeeded. I made this focaccia at least a dozen times since; I served it to my colleagues during a work dinner, to my friends at brunch and my parents at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here is what you need (my adaptation to the original recipe):

4 Cups of flour
1 Package of yeast
1 1/2 Cups of warm water
3 Potatoes, cleaned and sliced
1 Tablespoon of salt
3 Tablespoons of rosemary
Rock salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Combine flour, salt, water and yeast in a bowl and let the mixture form a chewy and elastic dough. Let the dough rest in an oiled bowl for one hour, or until it has at least doubled in size. I like to coat the bowl with a thin layer of olive oil to avoid the dough to stick – trust me, it has happened. Not pretty. I usually place the bowl close to a source of heat – that way, the dough rises a little faster.

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While the dough rises, clean, peel and cut the potatoes. I like to use yellow gold potatoes, bu you can try using any other you prefer. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper for the dough.

Once the dough is nice and plump, roll it out onto the said backing sheet and flatten it. Tip: to help flatten it more evenly, I use a round tall glass as a rolling pin and shape the dough to the contour of the sheet.

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Now comes the fun part. With a pastry brush, coat the entire surface of the flattened dough with extra virgin olive oil. Add the potatoes by placing them in whatever arrangement see you fit. Be creative.

Once you are done, add pepper; sprinkle rock salt and rosemary. Let the decorated focaccia dough rest for one hour. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven at 450F.
Tip: I like to cover the dough with plastic wrap, so that nothing will disturb it (cats included).

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Once the dough has risen, place it in the oven and bake it at 450F for at least 30 minutes or until the sides are dark and the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. I like to add a bit of extra virgin olive oil to the finished product.

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Ta daaaa! The focaccia is ready to be cut and served. Francesco and I like to eat it with dinner or as a snack. Put the leftovers in the fridge. Enjoy!

The Weekend List 03/30/13

What a week. Snow. Wind. Stay off dairy for 2 weeks (what???). Busy life. Not much time to cook. What is going on with the universe? At least I have you, blog, my nifty friend. Almost immediately after we ringed in the New Year, I made myself a promise: Chiara, get your blogging duties under control and re-start The Weekend List for crying out loud. So, here we are.

I love reading about food as I do cooking it. I have a running list of my favorite articles, profiles, recipe books and chef biographies that I have yet to share. But I will.
Let’s start with what captured my eye and brain this week.

1) Mary Roach‘s brilliant study of the mechanics of eating. ( The Marvels in Your Mouth in the New York Times. Roach is the author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.) Have you ever thought about how your mouth chews the food your ingest? She does just that, focusing on a study of the “human food processor” (your mouth) and how the chewing action or how you use your mouth tells something deeper about you. She writes:

Think of a peanut between two molars, about to be crushed. At the precise millisecond the nut succumbs, the jaw muscles sense the yielding and reflexively let up. Without that reflex, the molars would continue to hurtle recklessly toward one another, now with no intact nut between.

To keep your he-man jaw muscles from smashing your precious teeth, the only set you have, the body evolved an automated braking system faster and more sophisticated than anything on a Lexus. The jaw knows its own strength. The faster and more recklessly you close your mouth, the less force the muscles are willing to apply. Without your giving it a conscious thought.

I certainly have never given this much thought. Do you?

2) Richmond’s Style Weekly has turned the tables of a customers and interviewed chefs about what makes them tic (Cuts Both Ways). The results are not really surprising, but they certainly made me do an attitude check. Chefs apparently really dislike coupons and actually consider them “devaluing” their work. For one chef, free Wi-fi has become a “money killer”: customers come in, buy the least expensive items and plop their lovely behinds at a table and won’t move for hours. It’s not a coffee shop. It’s a casual eatery, and when you take up space the staff could be using differently…well, he has a point there.

My favorite quote: “Be a little more open-minded when ordering,” Doetzer also suggests. “That’s the only way Richmond can make any real progress. We’re not going to get anywhere serving crab cakes, but people expect them.” Completely agree – and not just about Richmond, everywhere.

3) This is a sore subject. I heart Trader Joe’s, but I have asked myself the same question. Where does Trader Joe’s Food Come From? As the Chow.com article points out, there are no TJ factories where the company could be producing food. And they are uber secretive about their product and marketing – I found out the hard way when I worked at an alternative weekly and rumors ran wild that a J was coming. They didn’t judge. Back to the article, this is chilling:

Those private-label products are made for it, in factories owned and operated by what is essentially TJ’s competition: name brands that can be purchased in other grocery chains.

I am heartbroken. Is it really true? Some of the examples on their list are uncanny. Food for thought?

4) Completely unrelated to food. I have often tried to pick up running regularly, but I stopped at the first hurdle. I have joined a running training program, I subscribed to running magazines, but nothing worked. The winter in Central Virginia is just too bloody cold for me to strap on any type of athletic gear. But this article caught my attention. The Barkley Marathon: A 100-mile foot race with unmarked trails and runners cannot use a GPS device or cellphone.

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Image: The New York Times

 

The Weekend List 10/20/2012

— Food is always on my mind – what to cook for dinner, what to buy at the grocery store, what to get at the farmers market, how to get fresh produce into every American kitchen. But I never actually sat down and asked myself, as a human being and as a journalist, does food writing really matter? And luck would have it that Michael Ruhlman answered this tricky question for me.

As he writes,

Because food is all around us, everywhere, easy and cheap, we’ve taken it for granted. Do you ever stop to wonder how it is that you can buy pea pods 365 days a year, whether you live in Maine, Montana, or Manitoba? Few do. The fact is, most people don’t think about food until they don’t have any. Then it’s pretty much all they can think about.

And we don’t think about food obsessively until it starts making us sick, which is what has happened in this country. Our food is making us sick in myriad ways. Our toddlers develop allergies unheard of when we were growing up. Children develop a type of diabetes once seen only in late adulthood. Obesity is rampant. And because of this we’ve become so hyperconscious of what we eat that we believe all kinds of nonsense. Dieticians once preached that eggs were bad for you–eggs! People far and wide still believe that fat is what makes you fat and that cutting salt and fat from one’s diet will make a healthy person even healthier. The way we produce food is destroying the land, polluting rivers and oceans, debasing the animals we raise for food and the workers who slaughter and process them. Nothing good comes from shitting where you eat, and this is what America has been doing for half a century.

So true. We have become detached from our primary resource and are now dependent on quick, unsavory meals that are deprived of any nutrient. Processed. Unremarkable. Frankly, ugly. Where did the art of cooking go? How about the art of eating even? We, as a society, should rethink our priorities.

Lots of fresh veggies from our garden.

 

— I have a soft spot in my heart for both of these men and now that they are debuting a new PBS show, well, I obviously cannot contain my excitement. Anthony Bourdain and Momofuku’s David Chang’s ‘The Mind of a Chef” follows Chang during travel and, of course, what is going on in his head. Chang is a visionary. I cannot wait to set my eyes on Season One.

 

 

— Speaking of another man I adore, The New York Times recently asked Jose Andres to show off his library. With more than 1,500 books, there are a few gems: 1825 first edition of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiology of Taste;” (his favorite) and a notebook that belonged to Thomas Jefferson’s chef, Honoré Julien, that dates back to 1795. Reading Andres is always a pleasant experience.

Any interesting food read you would like to share? I’d love to hear from you!

The Weekend List 03/05/2012

There is snow in the ground. After a week of mild temperatures and sunny afternoons. There is puffy, soft snow on the ground. My grandpa Pietro taught me how to “smell” snow…or, better, how to tell incoming snow by smelling the air. It always work. Milano’s climate is practically twin with Charlottesville’s: summer is hot and winter is cold. Occasionally, snow covers the landscape. So, according to grandpa, once the air gets crispy, wet, snow is coming. Last night, I felt it: crispy wind, perfect humidity and the scent of snow. It’s undeniable. I woke up this morning and what do you know. Snow happened.

– On a snowy day, there are a few dishes that hit the spot. Ravioli in brodo is definitely one of them. Saveur Magazine has a great recipe. Give it a try when the winter blues hit you.

– Elina Shatkin’s exit interview as a food writer at LA Weekly is a pleasure to read. Granted, food writing is something I have always wanted to explore, but knowing how food writers think, what’s inside their heads, is fascinating. There are so many food bloggers out there that I fear the craft is suffering. Although it may seem easy to write about food, the basic principle remains the same: writing, and Shatkin sums it up perfectly.

8. How do I become a professional food writer?
DO NOT quit your despised but lucrative day job, move across the country and expect to get paid writing work based on your Yelp reviews.

Now, it’s simple: WRITE.

My first question to aspiring writers is always: “Do you write?” You might be surprised — or not — how often the answer is no. If you want to be a writer, on food or anything else, you must spend a lot of time alone with nothing but your thoughts and a computer, a typewriter or a blank piece of paper.

In broad strokes, build a portfolio by writing for low-level websites, blogs and publications. Maybe start your own blog. You will make little or no money doing this, but you will have written stories and made connections that you can use to pitch editors for paid writing work. Keep in mind: Reviewing is only one type of food writing, and it is the subgenre for which you are least likely to get paid.

– Jose Andres can do no wrong. The Spanigh uber chef has added to the Washington D.C. food truck craze with Pepe (Andres is behind the truck’s Spanish twist on sandwiches). As the Washington Post reports, Pepe goodies range from $8 to $11, but there are a few exceptions, like the Pepite de Ternera “a thin, crusty baguette stuffed with seared beef tenderloin, caramelized onion, pepper confit and blue cheese.” Ah, two hours to D.C. is so doable!