Category Archives: Italy

Food Flashback: Dishes of Holidays Past

With the holidays around the corner, I’ve been thinking of festive dinners from past Christmases and New Year’s.  We usually spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my family but my husband likes to cook a special meal at home for New Year’s Eve, which is actually a day known for feasting in Italy.  The most memorable New Year’s in recent years was the one we spent with his parents in Liguria.  It was the first time he had spent the holidays with his family in years.  Together with his parents, aunt and a few family friends, we enjoyed a homecooked feast that included baccala, squid ink pasta with seafood, baked fish wrapped in pancetta, fresh egg nog and other delicacies.  

Even if we’re not in Italy, we try to continue the food tradition for New Year’s and/or Christmas depending on our schedules.  One year, my husband made a Ligurian specialty called Cappon Magro. This is an elaborate holiday recipe that includes a rich variety of seafood (white fish, shrimp, lobster, oysters or mussels) and vegetables (french beans, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, artichokes, green olives and beets) plus eggs and a parsley-capers green sauce.  As you can tell from the long list of ingredients, it’s a recipe only made for special occasions.  

Lining Up The Cappon Magro Ingredients:

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The Finished Cappon Magro

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Another favorite of mine is cotechino with lentils. The lentils resemble little coins and signal prosperity for the New Year. The cotechino is a specialty pork sausage from Modena, Italy that is simply delicious.

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Simple Living, Italian Style

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to meet many Italians through my husband.  I feel very comfortable among Italians but I would never claim to be an authority on the country or its people.  I think my experiences are very different from that of most Americans and has allowed me to see through both negative and “positive” stereotypes. 

When I say “Italians”, I’m referring to Italians born and raised in Italy, not Italian-Americans. This is an important distinction because the two are very different and encounter different stereotypes.  Thanks to the glut of travel / lifestyle magazines and TV shows, Americans often embrace the “positive” stereotype that Italians enjoy a simpler life a la “Under A Tuscan Sun”.  They eat and dine well, spend quality time with friends and family, and live stress-free lives somewhere among vineyards and rolling verdant hillsides.  While these images have some truth in them, the reality of the average working Italian is far different. 

Most of our Italian friends have full-time jobs. Most continue working once they have children. They endure crowded cities and tough commutes.  Weekends can be packed with chores and errands.  Modern Italians are caught in the same rat race as Americans.  In fact, if I had to pick a stereotype, I would say that Italians are generally stressed-out and cynical.  If you believed them, nothing seems to work, everyone is corrupt, and cost of living is too expensive.

Scratch the surface, however, and there are subtle differences.  These little differences are things I try to embrace a simpler life despite my own hour-long commute and hectic life.

It will take several posts to really do justice to this topic, but here are some of the things I’ve noticed:

1 ) Always Eat Well: Despite their busy schedules, Italians seem to make good food a priority.  I still remember a Milan subway station that was full of shops, including food vendors who sold excellent pre-made items as well as high-quality ingredients like prosciutto, pancetta, parmigiano, bread, extra virgin olive oil, pasta and more.  My husband obviously subscribes to this philosophy.  This existence of this blog is a testament to this! The frugal aspect: If you learn to cook, you can eat very well for less.

2 ) Paint The Walls Even If You Rent: If I were single and renting, I would never have painted the walls of our house.  My husband has a more ‘live in the moment’ philosophy and I have to say that he is often right.

We’ve painted the walls of almost every room. We planted flowers and put in fencing.  He even replaced the bathroom cabinet. (We kept the old crappy one so we can re-hang it when we move.)  Of course, we try to minimize expenses by covering the worn-out carpet with large area rugs and by using large planters instead of putting everything in the ground.  By treating the rental like it’s ours, the house really feels like our home. The frugal aspect: We don’t buy more house than we can afford.  We live in a high cost of living area. I’ve done some online calculation and it’s actually cheaper for us to rent than own even if we stay put for 30 years!

3 ) Take A Real Vacation, Not A Stay-cation: Yes, Italians get four weeks of vacation a year and we get a measly two weeks.  However, it’s not just the time-off, it’s the attitude. Many Americans I know don’t seem to have much interest in seeing the world and don’t even have a passport!  The frugal aspect:  Travel is only as expensive as you make it but it’s also very possible to see the world on a tight budget. 

4 ) Don’t Talk About Work: There’s an amusing scene in Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona (Spain, not Italy, but oh well..) in which the title characters meet up with fellow Americans. The topic turns to technology (DVR, Slingbox or something like that) and work, work, work (What do you do?). Americans really identify themselves by the work they do, or at least it appears that way at first.  In contrast,  unless you ask, Italians don’t talk about work much even if they hold a very interesting  job. They’ll talk about anything else, especially if it’s food-related.  By the end of dinner, they’re usually talking about the next mealThe frugal aspect: It’s important to focus on the truly important things in life: food, home, family and friends, travel and life experiences. 

You don’t have to wait for your next trip to Italy to enjoy the Italian life. Learn to cook, paint your house even if you rent, and the next time you are at a dinner party, don’t talk about your Tivo or work!

Confessions Of A Food Smuggler

It’s a good thing this blog is anonymous or someone could report my husband and I to the FDA!

First, those food smuggling days are long over. The last time that we tried to bring back some cured Italian meats and dried porcini, we were hauled over to an inspection area and had our bags scanned inside a giant X-Ray machine. It was a random search but both of us got pulled aside!  The dried porcini was vacuum-packed and hid inside clothing but of course this isn’t foolproof. While the machine scanned our luggage, I looked around for drug-sniffling dogs who might also have the sense to alert authorities to smuggled bresaola, speck and pancetta.

As if our own personal scare wasn’t enough, a friend coming from Italy tried to bring us various Italian delicacies only to have it confiscated at the airport. Luckily he wasn’t fined.  Another acquaintance was not so lucky. He received a fine AND was red-flagged in their computer system, thereby insuring that his luggage will be searched for years and ending his food smuggling days.

As much as we love authentic Italian pancetta, speck, bresaola, porcini and other hard or impossible to find foods, we don’t want to risk a huge fine just for our culinary habits.  Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that travelers from Italy are classifed as ‘most likely to hide food in their suitcases’  by airport officials.

Has anyone ever tried to smuggle foods into this country? Were you or anyone you know ever caught?

Size Doesn’t Matter

In November 2008, there was some ‘controversy’ at Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blog “Bitten” about the size of his small kitchen.

In response, he wrote:  “I got a bunch of e-mails that say, “Can you believe all this stuff about your crummy kitchen?” But the whole idea is that you don’t need a fancy kitchen. You don’t need fancy equipment, and you don’t need fancy recipes. When I show people my kitchen, they believe it. But I hate my kitchen also. I bump my shins on the dishwasher. There is not enough room to put stuff. It’s a terrible stove. It’s a terrible dishwasher. I don’t have room for the pots I’d like to have. I’ve cooked in much worse, though. I’m used to it.

As someone who has a small kitchen, a 11-year-old dishwasher, no ventilation fan, a mini-fridge with a tiny freezer, no microwave  and mismatched pans, I wholly sympathized with Bittman’s plight.  We had to get very creative with space in order to turn ours into a working kitchen. It’s much more user-friendly than when we first moved in but it’s far from the large, elegant kitchens you see in lifestyle magazines, which make it seem like you can’t cook unless you own a professional range, a gigantic fridge and the most expensive kitchen gadgets.

I’m with Bittman in that you don’t need the fancy kitchen to cook well.  From my casual observations, the opposite is often true. Some of the worse cooks own fancy cooking equipment and many of the best cooks work in simple kitchens. We have a family friend with a palatial estate that is often a part of historic home tours.  She is also an excellent cook. Yet her kitchen does not have fancy appliances, her pots and pans are well-used, and the place has a casual, lived-in feel. In contrast, I had a co-worker who bragged endlessly about her professional stainless steel kitchen range (Viking?). It was so beautiful that she was afraid to use it. Plus, she wasn’t much of a cook to begin with.

Someday we would like a bigger kitchen, too, but we know that the size (and the fanciness) really doesn’t matter.  And I promise to stay away from professional style stoves no matter what.

Val d’Aosta

valdosta_maison_blogSurprisingly my husband and I did not eat ourselves sick during this last trip to Italy. Very surprising considering we spent a few days at the town of Arnad in Val d’Aosta, or the Italian alps.  That region is known for its heavier, hearty foods like lardo di Arnad, fontina, tomino cheese, fondue, meat and polenta.

Based upon a friend’s recommendation, we found a quaint trattoria that catered to workers, which means affordable prices and good food (and lots of it)!  Antipasti consisted of a fresh ricotta-type cheese, cipollini, boiled potatoes, cotechino, blood sausage, lardo and more. I thought this was the primi and proceeded to taste everything before my in-laws warned me that this was just the beginning…

After that, there were 2 primi. We skipped one and saved our appetites for “zuppa valtellinese”. Zuppa means soup in Italian but this was closer to baked pasta than soup. This delicious and hearty dish is usually made from dried bread, fontina and savoy cabbage, but this chef subsituted the cabbage with a wild local spinach that grew in nearby mountains for a few brief weeks in the summer.

They also served two secondi – roast goat and roast pork. Both were good but the goat was definitely the more exceptional of the two.

Then they served more cheese, gelato and coffee. By now we had polished off at least 2 bottles of water and 2 bottles of red wine!

Okay, maybe that day, we did eat ourselves sick.

There are no pictures of this meal.  We were too busy eating!




A Day In Liguria

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One of things we always miss most after returning from Italy is eating well with friends and family. It sounds like such a simple thing but somehow people are always too busy in L.A.  I thought I would post a photo of a simple typically Ligurian meal we had –  zucchini frittata, cannellini bean salad, foccacia, oil-cured wild mushrooms, rice salad (not pictured) and wine. The Ligurian region is known for its healthy, unpretentious yet delicious foods so we were able to indulged without feeling heavy afterwards.

In a way, what made this afternoon even most memorable were the little imperfections.  Our hosts live in a stone farmhouse  surrounded by colorful flowers, vegetable gardens and olive trees and with an unbeatable view of the ocean. At first glance, it was the kind of place pictured in tourist brochures to entice visitors to Italy.  However, upon closer inspection, it was obvious that the house was lived-in, work was being done in the gardens, and it was not quite the kind of home you would see in glossy magazines. I guess that’s how I like it!