Sunday, September 05, 2004


AUGUST 20, 2004

We are absolutely certain of this fact, and the past year of living in Italy has only confirmed it. I’m eating so many things that I would never even THINK about eating in the states, and not gaining weight has become of great concern to both of us.

I’m somewhat of a picky eater…especially when it come to vegetables. I’ll eat broccoli and carrots and spinach raw, but NEVER cooked. The only beans I like are green beans (seasoned with ham, of course) and refried beans.

I never did like to put that nasty cheese in the green can on my spaghetti. If there is anyone reading this who’s still using that stuff…PLEASE!, do yourself a favor and buy just one piece of real, imported, Italian Parmigiano Reggiano. Grate some right before you serve your next spaghetti dinner, and I guarantee that you’ll smell the difference, taste the difference, and NEVER use that stuff in a can again! Really!

Since moving to Italy, we’ve discovered that if you cover it with olive oil and Parmigiano, we’ll eat it. The olive oil here is incredible. It’s such a shame that it’s so difficult and so expensive to get good olive oil in the states. In Louisville I found good oil at Lotsa Pasta and also at Williams-Sonoma. I was troubled to see that WS had oil that I considered to be old and out of date…good olive oil should be consumed within one year of pressing…be sure to check the label!

One nice thing about WS is that you can taste the various oils…they usually have pieces of bread and small paper cups to put the oil in. This allows you to taste the oil itself. Olive oils have different tastes…in Umbria, the oil is generally “fruity”, and we found that we prefer a more peppery oil…one with a little “bite” to it. Generally, Tuscan oils are more peppery than Umbrian oils.

More discerning palates use different oils for different purposes. We have two oils in our kitchen…a less expensive oil to use for frying, and the “good” oil. Our good oil varies…we usually go to different frantoios in the fall, buying the local, just pressed oil in five liter tins. Obviously we’re not gourmets, we’re just lucky enough to live where all the oil is good!

To really experience a good olive oil, slice and toast some good crusty bread. Peel a fresh clove of garlic and slice off the end. Rub this raw end of the garlic clove over the toasted bread, and drizzle it with some oil. Sprinkle just a little freshly ground salt over the oil…the salt helps to bring out the best in the oil. You’ve just made bruschetta…something that we could eat at every meal!

At this point some of you are probably snickering about all this “freshly ground” salt, and fresh garlic. And I previously urged you to freshly grate some Parmigiano….have I turned into some sort of food snob? Do I just have too much time on my hands? The answer to both these question is a resounding NO! We’ve come to realize that the reason the food here is so good is because all the ingredients are SO FRESH. Using the BEST and the FRESHEST ingredients does indeed make a huge difference.

Since moving to Italy I’ve discovered cannellini beans. These are a white bean, very common to this area. The Florentines are nicknamed “bean eaters” because beans are so common to their local cuisine. After we had some wonderful beans at one of the frantoios last fall, I was determined to figure out how to recreate this dish at home.

For my first few attempts I used canned beans. I drained the beans and added them to a skillet in which I had browned some pancetta and onions in olive oil. Once they were warmed through, a little more olive oil was drizzled over the dish at the table. We’ve come to believe that you can never have too much olive oil. Although the beans were good, they still weren’t as good as what we’d had at the frantoios.

I recently decided to try using dried beans, and I’m still playing around with my recipe. After checking several cookbooks, I think I might cook the beans in a chicken broth instead of plain water for an added richness. I cooked the last batch of beans with some type of ham…I thought it would be good for seasoning, even though there was no bone like a ham hock. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the results, so the next batch will be in the chicken stock.

Anyway, the point is that in general, these beans are incredibly delicious! So good in fact that I was anxious to see what else I could do with beans. At the dinner in Rotecastello a few weeks ago, we had a tuna and bean dish…served cold, as a salad. I found the recipe in one of my cookbooks. Incredibly simple, quick and delicious. To make this dish, you use about 3 cups of cooked, drained cannellini beans. Put these in a large bowl. Drain two 7 oz cans of tuna and flake them over the beans. In a separate bowl whisk together 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley, finely chopped. Pour this dressing over the beans and tuna and top with some thinly sliced green or red onions. Just before serving toss well.

Another dish that I’ve discovered is fresh spinach. Of course it’s combined with pancetta, onions, and garlic sautéed in olive oil!!! I just toss the fresh spinach until it’s coated and wilted…amazing!

The availability of cubed pancetta is so wonderful. I’m sure that this pre-packaged pancetta isn’t the best, but for every day cooking, it‘s so handy. Our local grocery, the Coop, has its own brand, and it’s available in sweet (dolce) or smoked (affumicato). I always keep several packages of each in the refrigerator or freezer.

One example of how the simplest of ingredients can combine to make the best of dishes is our favorite stand-by spaghetti dish. In a large skillet we slowly brown diced pancetta in some good olive oil, then add diced onions and garlic. To this we add cooked spaghetti…and at this point I have to mention the importance of using really good pasta. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fresh pasta, but it does have to be good quality. I really liked the brand at WS that came in the bright yellow package. Once again, I would encourage you to try this just once, and see what you think. To finish off the dish, top with freshly grated Parmigiano. Quick, simple, delicious!

Although I knew what fennel was, I used to think it was just a spice to be used for seasoning. I had seen the whole fennel bulbs in the produce section, but only in passing. I had no idea how they were prepared or how they tasted. In Italy, finnichio, as it’s called here, is very common. Once again I turned to my cookbooks for direction.

The first recipe I found called for the fennel bulbs to be quartered and simmered until tender. The fennel is then placed into a baking dish, drizzled with olive oil and topped with grated parmesan. Bake at 350º for about thirty minutes or until the cheese is browned. The fennel has a mild nutty taste and is a nice change from the usual au gratin dishes.

Another great find is the local cantina. You can stop in at these “outlets” and fill up your five liter jug (called a fiasco) with your choice of red or white wines. For an everyday table wine, these are great. We fill up at our favorite local place for about $9 for the five liter jug!

Of course you have to remember that until three years ago, Art and I had probably consumed less that one bottle of red wine between the two of us in all the years we’d been married. We just weren’t wine drinkers. We don’t know much more about wine now than we did then, but we buy a variety of wines, mostly inexpensive, and don’t worry too much about it.

One thing that we did realize is that red wine tastes better with food. Previously we would just have a glass of wine in the same way that you would have a beer, or a mixed drink. This just doesn’t work with red wine, and once we realized that, we started to drink more, but with meals.

We attended an interesting wine tasting while we were in language school. The owner of the wine bar did a great job in educating our palates, at least to the point where we realized that stronger spicier foods require a stronger wine. Neither of us has reached the point where we can talk about “fruity undertones”, a “strong finish”, or “hints of oak or grass, or whatever”, but at least we can now enjoy something that’s an integral part of Italian life and Italian cuisine.

Of course there are foods that I miss. I still wish that I could get fresh broccoli year round instead of just in the spring. I wish cheddar cheese was available, and good peanut butter and sour cream. Sometimes a large (fountain) Diet Coke with LOTS of ice would be heaven. These are things that will have to become special treats for when we visit the states.

To make up for some of the foods I can’t get in Italy, we DO have gelato. Some people might call gelato the Italian equivalent of ice cream, but that would be like calling Boones Farm wine the equivalent of a fine Brunello.

Thankfully I brought the things necessary to bake a cake since the Italian version of cake is more like a flavored bread. I brought tea bags to make iced tea. I have chocolate chips for cookies and an ice cube tray to make ice. I have American cookbooks, measuring spoons and cups, and my own pots and pans. I can still make most of the things I used to make in the states, but I’ve also bought a crostata pan for the authentic recipe that Rita gave me.

Gelato is made from milk, as opposed to cream. Because of this the flavors come through much stronger and fresher. Think about how cream coats a spoon…that’s how it coats the flavors. Gelato is simply amazing, and comes in more flavors than Baskin and Robbins could count.

When you order gelato it’s normal to get a combination of flavors. I usually get chocolate with banana, but if they don’t have banana, I’ll take strawberry. I think the fruit flavors benefit the most from gelato’s unique qualities. The peach is wonderful too. In addition to gelato we do have great chocolate…you probably know how I feel about the Perugina chocolate bananas.

I guess the one thing Italian that doesn’t interest me is the coffee. Although I love the smell, drinking it has no appeal for me. This is really a shame, since Italian coffee is almost a religious experience. Italians have coffee often…a quick cup here, another after a meal, a cup at a friends’ house, maybe one at the neighborhood bar. It’s strong and bitter and small…extremely small. Art discovered that he does like the Italian coffee after he learned what the Italians already knew…you need to add sugar to it…lots of sugar. Usually the Italians add even more sugar than Art does…and they like bitter tastes a lot.

I wander through the grocery and still don’t know what lots of the things are. The fish counter is filled with fish I’ve never seen before, and things that I’d never eat, even though I know what they are, like octopus and squid. The variety of cheeses and meats in the deli case is amazing…I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out the subtle differences in the many varieties of Pecorino. The sausages are made from many different types of meat, and each region seems to have its own specialty.

For now we ask for advice from the salespeople, and if we like something we make sure to remember the name. There may be many foods that we’ll never know, but there are more than enough delicious things for us to enjoy for years to come. And if there really is a heaven, we’re sure that eventually we’ll be able to sample the rest. Buon appetito!


To further prove just how incredibly delicious Italian food is, I can now say that after just one week of cooking school, I now love eggplant and zucchini (if they’re prepared properly of course), and I’m using things like capers and anchovies to cook with. I’ve finally realized that it’s not WHAT you eat but HOW it’s prepared, and that quite often an unusual combination of foods can have very amazing and delicious results.

I’ve been having lots of fun re-creating the dishes we made at cooking school, and from now on, I won’t be quite as nervous about trying something new…with the exception of offal…and I think that the reason this word sounds so much like AWFUL isn’t a coincidence! Only one question remains…how in the world am I EVER going to lose this weight I’ve gained? I think it’s time to get up from the computer and head out the door for a nice long walk!


At 9/06/2004 02:28:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Barb,
I want to introduce myself since i have been reading your website for about a month now. I am an expat living in rome with my italian husband. I really enjoy your blog.

my italian mother in-law who is from Padova and is an excellent cook. she makes the most delicious healthy food. on our recent visit to she made the most delicious soup with fresh veggies.



parte verde del cavolfiore o parte dura del cavolo verza o del cavolo cappuccio (o tutti assieme)

2 carote

1 patata

1 o 2 zucchine

2 gambe sedano

1 o 2 cipolle

1 o 2 spicchi d’aglio

salvia, rosmarino, prezzemolo, basilico

bietole o spinaci

2 cucchiai di lenticchie

2 cucchiai di farro e di orzo

Questi sono un po’ gli ingredienti base per fare il passato, ma si può aggiungere qualsiasi verdura si abbia in casa, anche se non proprio fresca, tipo le foglie più dure dei finocchi o quant’altro.

Una volta lavate le verdure, si tagliano a pezzi grossolani e si mettono a freddo in una pentola con acqua che copra almeno la metà del volume della verdura.

L’acqua non deve essere troppo poca perché le verdure non cuocerebbero bene, ma non deve essere troppa altrimenti poi il passato diventa poco denso.

Portare il tutto ad ebollizione e calcolare 45 minuti di cottura da quando l’acqua bolle.

Spegnere la fiamma, aggiungere del sale e ancora calda trattarla con il moulinex, avendo cura che non rimangano pezzi troppo grossi.

Quando sarà nei piatti, volendo si può aggiungere un fino di olio e del parmigiano. Se un poco liquida (si può anche aggiungere dell’acqua per esempio di bollitura di verdure) si possono mettere in ogni piatto dei crostini di pane. Meglio ancora se sul pane è stato sfregato uno spicchio di aglio.

At 9/08/2004 10:37:00 AM , Blogger Barbara said...

Thanks, but all I got for sure were the ingredients...the directions are a little beyond my skills!

At 9/22/2004 08:22:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barb - There is a great website that you could just cut and paste this into for a quick translation. It is also helpful when you are trying to figure out how to say something in Italian. Just go into and type in translate and the site will come up! Mary

At 9/23/2004 03:10:00 AM , Blogger Barbara said...

Thanks Mary...I assume you mean Babelfish, but I've never had great results with them. For a word or two they're fine, but for a lot of text, it's usually a confused mess.


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