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.