Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bean there, ate that

It's been an interesting couple of weeks here in Sicily. I was lucky enough to be introduced to some great people in Palermo, including Davide (who took me to the place on the left this past Saturday for a party - imagine hundreds of people dancing in this funky looking piazza - and introduced me to stigghiole), the two English Davids, the Canadians - Frank, Sabrina and Nick, some Germans, Estonians, Welsh, Polish, Philippinos - I hope I'm not leaving anybody out.

Of course, I really wish that Angela was here to meet all of these people with me and share these experiences. I know that everyone would love her and it would be a lot more fun. January and February flew by, and I'm hoping that March goes by quickly. I mean, how long can I be expected to go without my special lady???

I haven't been doing a ton of cooking lately, mostly simple stuff, but tonight I decided I was going to finally make something with fava beans, especially since they've been looking so good at the produce stand a couple of blocks away (they've been piled up in huge mounds outside everyday for awhile - the beans must be good, because by the time I come home every night, they are practically gone!). I removed the beans from their pods over lunch (is there a word for this? My brain is on lockdown - I want to say de-podded, but not only is that completely wrong, it makes me sound like a moron). I went into tonight without much of a plan, except that I knew I wanted to use the pecorino sardo I bought today at the new market in town, plus some lightly fried garlic. Cheese and beans wasn't going to be enough, so I made some pasta to go along with everything. When the pasta was done, I blanched the beans in the pasta water for a few minutes while I heated up the garlic in a little bit of olive oil. I minced some huge parsley leaves, set that aside and then dumped the fava beans in an ice bath. I pinched the beans out of their protective sacs and quickly tossed them in with the still-warm pasta. On top of that went the cubed pecorino cheese, then the minced fried garlic, the parsley, a heavy pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper and finally a healthy drizzle of my friend Nunzio's olive oil.

Ultimately, everything came out great, although next time I think I'll use a firmer pecorino and shave the cheese over the plate at the end, instead of using a softer cheese and cubing. Also, I wonder if roasting the garlic would be a better idea - the fave are sweet and nutty; while the garlic was a nice contrast, I wonder if frying it made it too pungent. Maybe roasting would keep some of the contrast but also allow the sweetness in the garlic to pair up nicely with the fave? Any thoughts 5 followers???

And no offense Davide, but this was much, much better than lamb intestines in the middle of the night (although my friend tells me that if you find the right place for stigghiole, they melt in your mouth like butter...).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Extra acciughe...

If I had access to a time machine and could go back twenty years, I'm sure that 11 year-old me would have a lot of questions for grown up Scott. "You live where?!?" or "how'd you get to be so awesome???" He might want to know if girls will eventually start talking to me and I could tell him that the answer is, "Yes!"

I could also warn lil' Scott about the future - which girls would be nothing but trouble, where not to hide beer in and around the house (answer: the bushes, the fridge in the basement) and how to plan for a career in a normal 9-5 establishment (ok, I still have no idea about that last one...).

Eventually, I'm sure I would bring up food. At 11, I wasn't really that interested - I knew that I hated pesto, if only because my father had several hectares (look it up Americans, it's like an acre) of basil growing in the backyard. My brother, who became a vegetarian when he was 7, insisted on eating nothing but pasta with pesto, pretty much up until he came to visit me here in Balestrate, when we fixed him with a tasty panino con prosciutto cotto at 5am in the morning, after several Morettis.

I would probably tell mini-Scott about all of the great food here in Sicily - the arancini, the vastedde, the fruit, the vegetables - I could go on and on. I'm sure that I would mention one thing that would come as a shock to my pint-sized self: I love anchovies. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would eat anchovies on a near-daily basis, I would not have believed you. To me, anchovies were something gross - salty and slimy. Maybe if you wanted a secret rendevous with Kirstie Alley, you'd order them on your pizza (random reference, I know), but otherwise, if an anchovy was walking towards me, I'd cross the street and walk on the other side. No thanks, not interested.

Today, however, I use anchovies in all kinds of ways. Just today, anchovies were incorporated into my lunch and my dinner. For lunch, I made pasta con i broccoli arriminati, literally pasta stirred up with cauliflower (here in Sicily, cauliflower and broccoli are synonymous, at least from what I understand; if you were in Puglia, cauliflower would be cavolfiore and broccoli would be plain ole' broccoli). I made this dish over the weekend and liked it so much that I wanted to make it again. It is a classic Sicilian meal - cauliflower, saffron, pine nuts, onion, currants, anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs are pretty much the only ingredients. There are many different variations; I used the link above, but you could also try Mary Taylor Simeti's book Pomp and Sustenance. The first time I made it, I melted some anchovies over direct heat in a tablespoon of olive oil. Simeti includes a note, which I ignored the first time, suggesting to steam the anchovies in oil instead of using direct heat, because the anchovies could turn bitter. I adjusted by including this step today and it did make a noticeable difference in the anchovy flavor of the dish - less harsh, definitely more sweet, with a pleasant suggestion of fishiness. In the end, the anchovies were mixed in with all of the other ingredients for one of the most complex and tasty lunches I've ever made for myself.

For dinner, I minced more anchovies and sundried tomatoes and I stuffed and steamed a couple of artichokes again. I seriously love this dish. I served it alongside a simple sandwich of prosciutto cotto, lettuce, mustard and good crusty bread from the #1 bakery in Balestrate.

Sorry, past me, but anchovies are pretty damned tasty. You've got another 15 years or so of anchovy freedom, but soon you'll be singing the praises of these slimy little suckers, just like Huey Lewis sang the praises of going "Back in Time."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Layla in Italiano

Last week, while visiting one of the producers that I work with, I met another ex-pat living and working here in Sicily. Hayley met her husband in England and they moved to Sciacca seven years ago. I feel bad, because I kind of gave her a hard time when she told our clients that caponata was sort of like "English chutney" and I pointed out that caponata probably outdates chutney (although I was thinking of chutney as coming from England - I didn't take into account it's roots). Anyway, after the presentation, I spoke with Hayley about her experiences here in Sicily - I was especially interested about how she became fluent and more importantly, how long it took her. It would be worth mentioning at this point that I am incredibly impatient when it comes to learning a new skill - in my life I've taken sax, drum, piano and guitar lessons, but I couldn't stick with it for more than a few lessons. I remember my third guitar lesson vividly - I wanted so badly to be a virtuoso, for my teacher to say "you have been blessed with a gift!" - that I couldn't stand struggling through the basic chords. I wanted to be playing "Layla" and instead I was mired in the drudgery of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."

Back to Sciacca. Hayley was great - as I've found most ex-pats, she was more than willing to talk about her experiences and offer sage advice to the new guy. She talked about going through three stages - the first stage, when she first moved here, was simply being able to survive and communicate on a basic level. She said this took her a couple of years. After that, the second stage, was when she was comfortable enough to find her own voice in Italian. This was something that really struck me - it seems simple, but I think I needed to hear someone else say it. I'm not at that point yet, but I'm trying to do more to engage people and not simply shy away from conversation. Finally, Hayley said that the third stage for her was becoming fluent. I hope it doesn't take me seven years, but I've grown to accept that these things don't happen overnight.

Since I moved to Sicily, I've tried all kinds of ways to study vocabulary words and nothing really seems to work - it always seems forced when I just sit down and write flash clads. I've decided to kill two birds with one stone - since my family (for some reason) likes to hear from me on this blog, I am going to start keeping track of new words that I learn. The nice thing is that I can add a few words at a time and save the draft - when I have ten or so words, I'll post everything. Of course, for my Italian-speaking friends, I am bound to make mistakes - please don't worry about correcting me in the comments, or by slapping me across the face with some baccala while yelling "Get your act together!"

In order to keep this blog from becoming completely boring, I'll try to work in a story or an explanation why I had to look these words up in the first place.
Words for today:
amabile (ah-mah-BEE-lay) - lovable (or with regard to vino, sweet), tender, nice, amiable (well that makes sense...).

friggitoria (free-gee-tore-REE-ah) - a shop where they sell an assortment of fried foods. That's what it's called? At least now I have a name to go with the place that's fattening me up!

merenda - meh-RAYN-dah - an afternoon snack or break. I like these!

fluidificante - flew-ee-deef-ee-CAHN=tay - this could be one of my new favorites - not only because it sounds like what it describes, but because I learned this word by using the wrong word in its place. I went to my friend Domenico's bar the other night to watch the Manchester United - A.C. Milan match and I showed him my list of calcio terms. I filled up a couple of pages in my moleskine notebook with words and phrases that would help me become a better ultra tifoso (Italy's version of the hooligan). My old favorite phrase was "Autogol clamoroso" - which is basically a shocking own goal. Domenico, fascinated by my nerdiness, quickly noticed one mistake - I wrote terzino volante to describe an attacking defenseman. Terzino was correct, but Domenico said that you would never really say volante - in fact, the more appropriate phrase would be terzino fluidificante. I've got a lot to learn about calcio in Italy, but spending some time with Domenico was a great learning experience - I made a mistake and then learned the more natural way to speak. Maybe learning "Layla" wouldn't have been so tough after all...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Old movies and timeless recipes

It's been pretty quiet here in Balestrate over the last couple of weeks. Either last weekend or the coming weekend should have been the annual Carnevale festival, but this year the town planners just couldn't come together with a plan, so it was cancelled. The piazza is quiet, most of the restaurants are closed for the season (although there is a new creperia/gelateria/bar opening soon that looks pretty good. For a tiny town of 6,000 people, we'll now have 7 sources of gelato!).

I've been trying to catch up on old movies that I've somehow missed over the last 30+ years. 12 Angry Men, (spoiler alert: he didn't do it!), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (made the opening scene from Inglorious Basterds seem derivative, just swap beans for milk), On the Waterfront (my favorite IMDB trivia - Marlon Brando wasn't in the car when the camera was only on Rod Steiger in the famous "I coulda been somebody" scene - he was at an appointment with his therapist).

I've also really enjoyed watching Italian movies in their original language, with English subtitles - it's been a great way to hear Italian and instantaneously see the translation, although I really try not to watch the subtitles. In the past few weeks, I've watched I ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), Cinema Paradiso and I plan on watching La Dolce Vita and Rome Open City. I loved Cinema Paradiso, of course, as many of the scenes were shot in familiar places and the story was so touching - I'll admit I got a little lump in the throat at the montage of cut scenes at the end! And Bicycle Thieves - I always thought it was "The Bicycle Thief", but if you've seen the movie, you'll understand why the true Italian translation makes sense - was truly amazing. I might be mistaken, but I think the stars were not professional actors (someone correct me if I'm wrong). The son was so good, the expression on his face when he sees what his father resorts to in order to keep his job. It's such a testament to great storytelling and direction that a movie with such a simple premise could be so riveting and devastating.

I've been cooking some as well - mostly because having the stove and oven on helps keep the apartment warm. My grandfather sent me his split pea soup recipe and I jazzed it up a little bit with some stinco di maiale (ham hock). The ham was delicious, so sweet - it was my first time using the hock for soup making. Not a ton of meat, but for 2 euro, I got at least 5 servings of soup out of it!

My fruttivendolo had a sign out for a vegetable called "coste" (Phillies fans: not that Coste) that I thought looked like bok choy. I looked it up in my Italian dictionary and there was no translation. My friend Fabbiola, who works at the little market, suggested that it was similar to chard. I tasted it raw - it had a crunchy texture with some nice salinity. I brought some home, steamed it with some couscous and a little olive oil, soy sauce and cumin.

I made stuffed artichokes twice this week - they were so good the first time, I wanted them again right away. Again, nothing too fancy, just some breadcrumbs, parmigiano, minced anchovy, sundried tomato, chopped celery leaf (in place of parsley - the fruttivendolo was out and I've got a big mazzo of celery that needs to get used up), and minced garlic. I learned a cool trick from Mark Bittman - Ang and I have been watching the Minimalist videos off the NYTimes website for the past year - he suggests if you don't have a steamer, you can turn two ramekins upside down in a pot, fill it with a little water, and then put a plate on top of the ramekins. You put your food to be steamed on the plate and cover and you have a DIY steamer! (This may be common sense to most people, but common sense doesn't always come easily to this brain!) Anyway, I steamed two artichokes for 35 minutes and made a little pasta to go along with it. Simple and really, really delicious.

Finally, I turned that famed master of Italian cuisine, the maestro of la cucina, the one, the only...Jaime Oliver. OK, it was a macaroni and cheese recipe. I don't even know how I ended up on this page, but something about fontina, mascarpone, parmigiano and mozzarella spoke to me. I couldn't tell you the last time I made mac & cheese (maybe back in the Beige Block days at Penn) but this seemed like another easy and delicious recipe to try out. It was indeed - although I think I'm going to continue to pay more attention to what the nice little nonna down the street has to say about Italian food as opposed to Mr. Oliver.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

All by myself...

Once again, I've let a huge amount of time lapse between posts. I was gone for a month, now I'm back in Balestrate, but this time I'm alone - Ang is staying in Philly for a few more months to help out her sister with her new baby and work and save a little. Last summer was great, but we pretty much relied on public transportation to get around Sicily. The trains here are somewhat reliable, but s...l....o.....w. (And occasionally they break down. In the summer. When it's 1000 degrees outside.) Towards the end of the season we rented a car and it was great - we drove to the other side of the island and the puttered around to a bunch of little spots that we normally wouldn't have access to. Anyway, the thought behind Ang's 3 month working stint is that we could do more of that this summer if we had a little extra saved up. Plus, we'd like to fly up to Milan to see my friend from high school and Africa is literally a short boat ride from here. We like to joke that we can see Gaddafi's house from here...

So I am on my own. It has been hard so far, I've only been back for two weeks, but it feels like much longer. I decided that I would start this blog up again - I know that it won't be widely read, but without having someone here to talk to at night, it's either this or watching Season 2 of Mad Men over and over and over (that wouldn't be so terrible - that show is pretty amazing). Plus I am rededicating myself to learning Italian - I've set a goal to practice at least for 45 minutes a day, I'm writing down words that I don't know and generally just trying harder to listen. It has been more difficult than I imagined; my vocabulary could be a lot better, but every now and then, when I'm not really thinking about it, I'll just start having a conversation in Italian. They are usually pretty short and I'm sure grammatically incorrect, but I'm able to get my point across, understand the response and not get flustered. If I can grasp on to those moments, hopefully they can power me through the tediousness of learning the basics of a language from a textbook.

I've been doing some cooking as well. It may come as a surprise, since my profession is food, to learn that I am not the world's greatest chef. Hell, let's knock me down a peg or 10. I just learned how to dice an onion the other day. But I do love to eat, and for the past 4+ years I've been completely spoiled by the love of my life, who also happens to be a damn amazing chef.

It's been so amazing to be here in Sicily with Angela and see what she can do with the local ingredients available to her. I'll never forget, after we had been here only for a couple of months, when we invited two of our friends from Balestrate over for dinner. I have a photo of them from that night, but what I wish is that I had taken a picture of their faces when this American girl served them caponata - a dish that originated centuries ago several kilometers from here and that they had grown up eating. I could see the skepticism in their eyes - then they tasted it and their faces changed - and they went back for seconds.

Angela left me a couple of quick and easy recipes to start with, one for pastina, which is just pasta cooked in chicken stock, with an egg mixed in at the end and another for cous cous with steamed veggies, cumin and soy sauce. I've made both twice and tonight I made a soffritto (simply onions, celery, carrots and garlic sauteed in olive oil until golden) and then tossed in some canned tomatoes, tomato paste and anchovy paste. I tossed the sauce with some bucatini, grated some Parm (I was desperate for parm last Wednesday, all of the other stores were closed and for some reason the banco di salume only had preportioned cuts of parm in shrink wrap. I'm trying to use this stuff up so I can get another hunk of the real stuff. Bleech...) and drizzled some of our friend Nunzio's olive oil on top. With some bread from the 2nd best panificio in Balestrate - it's closer to the office than the best - it made for a pretty nice meal. The way I see it, I'm using these three months as a test period, kind of like America's Test Kitchen. I'm going to figure out what I can and can't do well in la cucina and then knock my lady's socks off with my skills when she gets back. That and my funky dance moves.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

SoSushi - why sushi in Palermo is so good...

Angela and I have been in Sicily for well over a year now and as you all know, we've been eating pretty well. While Balestrate is pretty quiet in the winter, we're not that far from Palermo, so most weekends we hop on the train and go to the city - we love to go to the market (usually Ballarò, our favorite), or just grab a snack and walk around. The street food in Palermo is famous for good reason - you can easily eat awesome stuff like panelle, pane ca' meusa, boiled octopus, and sfincione on the cheap. Palermo is a town for eaters, and so far, we've never left the city hungry.

Amidst all of this great food the one thing we've been missing is sushi. We were serious sushi hounds back in Philly, making frequent trips to our favorite restaurant in New Jersey, Mikado (good and cheap), or occasionally splurging at some of the nicer spots closer to home. Actually, the best sushi I've ever had came from our friend Han - when I was working at Di Bruno Bros., my desk was in the basement, far away from the rest of the offices (it's not as bad as it sounds, I enjoyed the peace and quiet). My work area was right next to the prep room where all of the sushi for the store was prepared by Han, who had come to work for Di Bruno's from Genji. Han was a little crazy, with a thick Indonesian accent that made him hard to understand half of the time, but he was pretty skilled when it came to making awesome sushi. I would take a couple of minutes to sit down at my desk and Han would come out of the prep room, ask me if I wanted anything and then come back with a plate of sushi, regardless of my answer, the rice still warm, everything really fresh and clean. I'd wolf everything down and go back out on the floor happy and full.

Anyway, I miss those days and I know Ang misses getting her sushi fix as well. You can imagine how excited we were when I found out about a new sushi restaurant that just opened in Palermo a couple of months ago called SoSushi. SoSushi is a fast growing chain of Italian sushi restaurants, mostly focusing on take-away and delivery service. We hopped on a train yesterday and headed to the city, with the sole intent of trying this new place out.

Without going into every little detail about our lunch, I have to say that SoSushi was very good. The owner, Andrea, and the head chef, Shien (not sure on the spelling, but I'm pretty sure he's not related to Martin or Charlie) were very welcoming - our excitement was pretty obvious and it was rewarded with a couple of extra items that we didn't order. Shien talked about how they have to keep everything pretty standard for now, as people in Palermo warm up to the concept of sushi (for a population with such access to exceptionally fresh fish, you'd think they'd be lining up for this stuff), but the fatty tuna sashimi and the additional plates that we tasted gave us a pretty outstanding example of how good sushi could be in Palermo.

The key to all of this is the fact that the local fish merchants don't normally have much of a market for some of the key cuts used to make the finest sushi and sashimi. For example, I was surprised to see tuna belly as part of the standard lunch combo. Shien explained, with a devilish smile, that most restaurants in Palermo don't use the belly, so he can buy it for much less than you would expect. I haven't had a lot of experience with tuna belly, but this was a real "wow" moment for me - it was so buttery and silky, I felt like all of my senses were switched on to appreciate this moment of pure enjoyment.

This was also true for tuna cheek, which we watched Shien prepare with a pocket blowtorch, lightly cooking the outside for a warm exterior and a cool interior. Tuna cheek is another rarity - normally a costly ingredient that merchants reserve for their best customers. Here in Palermo, Shien knows what to ask for and the merchants are generally happy to sell a part of the fish that otherwise might go to waste.

The other standout was the sardine - a more widely utilized ingredient in la cucina povere - served sashimi style with a tiny dollop of minced pickled ginger and chive. Pretty, delicate and delicious - Ang and I turned to each other, smiling, our mouths full, our stomachs happy. When we left, we walked on to our next destination, going over each dish, feeling like we had discovered something new and exciting about Palermo - we want to spread the word, but don't tell the guys selling the fish!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?

So, we haven't written an entry in a few months. We've been a little busy sucking up the Sicilian sun, drinking lots of garage wine and eating plenty of tomatoes. Scott's been busy with work and I've been busy with my casalinga duties, you wouldn't believe how much dirt accumulates on the kitchen floor everyday.

September is here. Most of the tourists have left town, there is no longer live entertainment every night in the piazza and no more late night parties on the beach. The fall is officially upon us. Usually the end of summer and beginning of autumn is my favorite time of year. Probably because I'm usually in Philly and I'm just not a huge fan of summer at home. I hate being stuck in the city and having to endure sweltering heat and no beach in sight. Ugh. Being in Sicily during this change of the seasons has had the opposite effect on me - there's not as much to do in town, no more summer visitors staying at our place and the sneaking reminder that I won't be home for Halloween or Thanksgiving, my 2 favorite holidays.

So, to cheer myself up right now I'm going to do a short recap of the summer fun-ness that we had but didn't blog about. Here are the highlights:

-Hiking up Mount Etna with Reen and Mike. Dressed very inappropriately, we all decided to drive as far as we could up the volcano and then start walking. Reen and I were wearing ballet flats, big sunglasses and scarves, the boys were wearing equally silly footwear, but we did it anyway. I should also mention that we were surrounded by goats for the entirety. It was surreal. During our 2 day road trip we also managed to fit in Céfalu, Ortigia, Siracusa, Alcantara and dinner at a crazy pizza place in Acireale. Not bad, eh? Thanks for driving like a total lunatic, Mike! We never could've done it without you. Look at the picture closely, we are dressed like idiots AND we're standing on a volcano AND there's a bunch of animals behind us.
-Riding bikes at Favignana. We took a hydroil to an island just off the tip of Trapani and rented bikes. It was absolutely gorgeous.
-Alex Case. He decided he wanted to come for a visit and booked the flight a mere week before. He came in like a tornado, turned this town upside down and had us out nearly every night until 5am for 10 days. Can you believe that there is a bar in town that serves pasta and sandwiches at 5am? Well, Alex found the place and I think we drank them out of Birra Morretti, too.
-La France. I hit up Paris and Chartres with my Mom and sister and we had a blast. We walked, talked and ate for 3 days straight. I couldn't have asked for anything better!

One good thing about the fall here in Sicily? The olive harvest is coming soon. Yum.