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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lunch With Daniella: Cinque Terre, Part II

Our perfect hostess, Daniella

It’s mid morning. We lounge idly in canvas backed lawn chairs, on the sun-blessed terrace of Daniella’s eclectic home and wait for her to return with a chilled bottle of Prosecco.  Below us, in the near distance sits the placidly picturesque blue Mediterranean and old town Monterosso, with its colorful buildings clustered on the hillside below us.  It’s our fourth day in the World Heritage Site of Cinque Terre (Chink-co-terra).

We’ve wandered the cobblestones, admired the work of artisans, stared up at laundry hanging on the balconies of ancient buildings, slain the fatted calf a dozen times over, and soaked in the culture of the small fishing villages turned tourist Meccas.   This morning we wandered the local market, admiring fresh vegetables and fresh catch, while throngs of locals bartered and filled their shopping bags. Have we had enough?  Seen it all?  Not hardly, no way.

We’ve already met so many people.  Franco the short, graying taxi driver who lost his cab, Elania, the beautiful girl who works an outdoor café on the waterfront, another taxi driver named Franco, several watercolor artists, and Swiss, German, and yes---Italian--- tourists.

We’re wonderfully accommodated in one of Daniella’s hillside villas and now we’ve walked up a hundred stone steps to get to her home for an afternoon’s Italian cooking lesson.  Let’s be more specific and call it a Ligurian cooking lesson, for this is the Italian Riviera, spread along a rugged coastline, with its own tastes and styles of cooking.  Much of it features local olives, lemons, and seafood straight off any of the many small fishing vessels that line the harbor and rest on the sand.  Daniella even has a lemon tree on the terrace.

The promised Prosecco arrives and we are ever grateful.  We sip gently and pop fat green olives in our mouths, between bites of deliciously crunchy bread.  

Wonderful, giant capers!

Yes, I already feel as if I could live here, so long as the money holds out and my liver doesn’t desert me.  If wine is as good for you as they say it is, my arterial plaque is in for the fight of its life.  No, Prosecco is not from around here, but Prosecco has a vast variety of local cousins that have already helped us down quantities of fresh seafood. Now I’m wondering what new wonders of the Ligurian kitchen Daniella can show us?

First off is the kitchen itself.  It’s built into a corner of her terrace and is so quaintly lovely it should have come out of a romantic movie, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.  In addition to an array of cooking implements hanging serenely above the tiles on the wall, there’s a four-burner gas stove, and a stone sink I plan to steal.  Except for three things:  it’s too heavy, more wine may slow me down, and Daniella’s husband may be too ferocious.  I don’t know for sure, but I can’t take the chance.

The expansive terrace is itself an architectural dream, with tiled floor, green plants, colorful flowers, that fruit bearing lemon tree, and glorious views in every direction.  Daniella turns out not only to be an exceptional cook, but a talented decorator.

The basil must be thoroughly dry.  Daniella shows us how.

See, I meant to simply tell you about a cooking lesson, but got carried away.  Cinque Terre is like that.  A bombardment of sun, style, friendly people, and an entirely different way of life.

So, back to cooking.  But, first I must mention the second wine Daniella served, a local white, and it is delightfully fruity and dry.  But, it’s not the best, says Daniella modestly.  Wait until you taste our best local wine.  If the wine we’re sipping is not the best, my knees may weaken and I may try out my Italian tenor’s voice.

So, as I said, back to cooking.  We’re going to make pesto, casserole chicken, lasagna, and baked fresh fish.  Those are the common American names.  I’ll give you the more charming and descriptive Italian names later.  You can be sure, all the dishes will include fresh – from the garden and the sea – ingredients.

First we hand make the basil pesto in an old stone mortar.  And with the first stone-on-stone scraping of the pestle against the mortar, Daniella begins to delight us with tales of food and family, heritage, and the wonders of an Italian-American wife living with a locally born Italian husband, in the most Italian place in the world.  Along the way, this requires her listeners to acquire a taste for several more bottles of local wine.  Her fascinating story, enthralls us with all the elements of history, romance, and family struggles that make up a great novel.
Ingredients for Lasagna 

The creamiest, more delicious Parmesan!  An essential in all the dishes we prepared.

But, once again I digress.  With the pesto, the remainder of which is made in a food processor, we have the first ingredient in what will become the most delicious lasagna I’ve ever tasted.  The other ingredients include flat pasta, of course, plus a silky béchamel sauce, and a generous handful of pine nuts. 

Lunch is a hands-on culinary experience!

Making the béchamel

The oven is inside and in it goes, while we start work on a wonderful chicken casserole, called Pollo Piero.

Other ingredients for Pollo Piero

The main ingredient for Pollo Piero is skinless, bone-in, chicken thighs, followed by a deluge of bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and seasonings.  

Note:  Italian cooks do not normally use onions and garlic in the same dish, although for the accompanying asparagus dish a full head of unpeeled garlic will have the bottom sliced off and accompany the vegetable platter as it’s slipped in the oven.

Sea bass, right off the boat, is baked Liturigan style, meaning rosemary, salt and lemon in the fish cavity, with more of the same and olive oil over the top.  Yes, it’s a whole fish, with the sides slashed to permit the oil and lemon to penetrate the flesh.

For dessert, we have freshly made lemon cake, with cream and berries, along with short glasses of Daniella’s homemade Limonchello.  To make Limonchello, there are only four ingredients: lemons, vodka, water, and sugar.  Lots of recipes online.

Daniella’s lunch only lasts about 4-5 hours.  I stop counting after the second bottle of wine.  Delicious doesn’t really explain it.  A lunch on her terrace is an all-encompassing experience of incomparable tastes, scintillating conversations, carefree humorous banter, all delivered under blue skies, and in the glow of scenery that will forever live in memory.  A complete adventure in Italian living. Now if I can only figure out how to separate Daniella from her stone sink…


Sunday, April 23, 2017

On to Cinque Terre, Part I

If you’re flying Cheap Air, vacation doesn’t start until you reach your destination. Cramped. Petty. Infuriating. They pat you gently with a pittance for airfare, then give you a saber thrust to the wallet for check-in, luggage and seatbelts.  Ok, I exaggerate about the seatbelts.  But the safety card on the back of the seat in front of you reads, “In case of emergency, please have your credit card ready.”

I’m reminded of the retail quip:  Quality, Service, Price, pick any two.  With Cheap Air, you only get one pick and it doesn’t begin with Q or S.

The vacation roars off when we leave Pisa Airport behind and step out into the blazing sunshine.  Waiting for us is Danni, our dapper, dark haired Italian chauffeur, attired in a lightweight gray suit, with a smile as broad and bright as a morning sunrise.  On our lengthy Mercedes ride from Pisa to Monterosso, Danni captures us with a running commentary about Cinque Terre and personal glimpses into Italian family life.  “My momma loves to cook and now she tells me I shouldn’t eat so much!  Momma Mia!” He pats his stomach and waves his hands. The rest of us are staring at the road.

We're headed to Cinque Terre, a lovely spot along the Italian Riviera.  Cinque Terre means five lands and in fact is five villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Cornelia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.  The area is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The white mountains of Carrara marble flash by as we fly with desperate speed down the Autopista.  Ignoring our white knuckles and terrified stares, Danni enthralls us with things to do and see.  I ask about the economic situation in Italy.  ‘Momma Mia!”, plus more hand waving, thankfully without screeching brakes and ripping metal.  Danni lives a charmed life and we’re grateful.
Note the green-silver olive trees

Ever been on twists and turns, up and down mountains, on a steep road suited for donkeys and skateboards?  Ever faced a determined wide bus when you’re staring down a cliff that drops off into the steep, rocky infinite? Sporty.  Engaging.  Didn’t know I could hold my breath that long.  Anything else I notice?  Besides the white knuckles and blood dripping from my lower lip? Olive trees.  Miles of stumpy trees with green and silvered leaves.  Speckles of tiny communities of three or four stone houses reclaimed years ago from the rugged landscape. 

We’re riding a time machine back into the charming Italy of the 1950s and it gets better from there.

Cinque Terre is a marvelous necklace of jeweled towns strewn across green mountains and the rocky coast of the startlingly blue Mediterranean.

Looking down from our splendid, hillside accommodations, I marvel at azure waters, placid harbor and sandy beaches.  Anchored sailboats ride the gently ruffled sea.  Families wander the long, curving beach, while the setting sun casts a magnificent orange glow over the forested mountains and towns.

Monterossa itself, the largest of the five towns, is a warm and friendly place.  In only a day, I catch more smiles than I’d seen in a year.  Makes me want to make Italy my home.

Our local taxi driver, Mateo, carries us downhill on an impossibly winding road to the city proper, then steers us to a wonderfully rustic seafood restaurant that we will visit more than once, La Barcaccia.  Rustic yes, but the food stands out, as does our smiling, chatty waitress, Sabina.  A soft, blueberry flavored aperitif magically appears, accompanied by a plate of farinata, a skillet bread made from chickpea flour.

Farinata and blueberry infused white wine

RECIPE:  Mix a cup of chickpea flour with a pinch or two of salt.  Add a cup or so of water and mix well.  Continue to add enough cold water to make a thin soup.  Leave it for 30 minutes to allow the flour to absorb water. If it froths, scape off and discard the froth. After soaking, the gruel will still be fairly thin.  Dot in a few dry herbs, if you want. Pour portions of the batter into a hot, well-greased skillet as you would pancake batter. (Most recipes call for the dough to sit for as long as four hours, but I had great luck leaving it only 30 minutes.)

Succulent mussels in a light tomato broth
Then comes fresh fish, crispy calamari, Parma ham, greens with a bare sparkle of lemon and local olive oil. A local white wine salves the pain of being in this coastal paradise and having to face four days of exploring wonderful, sunny villages awash with friendly natives.  Momma Mia!

End of Part I

Saturday, April 1, 2017

RAISIN CAKE? Oh, heck yeah!

All the while you thought grapes were just for wine and Roman orgies.  Not so.  And don’t lie, you haven’t been to a Roman orgy is years, so how would you know?  Bet you don’t even know where your toga is. 

Wine, of course, is another matter.  I can tell by the little red wiggly veins that you have a nose for wine.

Let’s go past an adult view of grapes and wine, all the way back to raisins. I look at raisins as the transition between childhood and adultery adulthood.  Maybe your mommy even explained raisins as granddaddy grapes.  Let’s take a closer look and fumble through some history.

One question that always comes up is, “How do they get the seeds out of raisins?”  That’s an easy one.  According to ‘Today I Found Out’ ( raisins from seedless grapes have been around since antiquity.  Dried fruit travels well and by the early 19th Century the raisin trade led to a great boost in commerce, especially between Greece (an exporter) and England (an importer).  The Brits, then known only as The Engs, did a lot of baking with raisins.   Only kidding about The Engs. As any schoolchild knows, in 1707 with the Acts of Union, Scotland joined England and Wales to form Great Britain. By the time raisins were big boys in the world of commercial trade, Great Britain was already Great Britain and raisins were a big item in commercial baking.

 English baking, or is it Brit baking?  Anyway, the most famous and historic raisin bakery items were and are hot crossed buns. You still find them in bakeries all over The Commonwealth.  Remember the rhyme “One a penny, two a penny, hot crossed buns?”  Lots of symbolism and dark church history involving hot crossed buns.  Dictates about when you could sell them, punishments, etc. ‘Fraid you’ll have to do your own Googling.  I’m hungry!  We’ll streak on to making some Raisin Cake! As usual, this recipe is simple and simply delicious!

Raisin Cake

2 Cups raisins
2 Cups water
½ Cup vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons butter
1 Cup cold water
2 Cups white sugar
4 Cups flour

1 Teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and baking soda
½ Teaspoon Kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC)
Grease and flour a 9 x 13 baking pan.  I used a glass pan, greased it with butter, then dusted it with flour.

Put raisins and two cups of water in a saucepan and boil for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat.

Melt the butter and add it to the vegetable oil.  I heat butter and oil together in a microwave.  Add the mixture to the raisins, along with a cup of cold water.

In a large bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients.  Add the un-drained raisin mixture to the bowl and mix well.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured baking pan and slide it into the pre-heated oven.  Bake for 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on your oven), or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

You’ve just make a sensational, flavorful amalgamation of childhood and adulthood, with some history tossed in!

I like to add a dollop of freshly whipped cream to each piece of cake.  Settle back, sip some coffee and calm your restless guests with a perfect after dinner treat.