Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The dangers of raising a foodie child...

Can you tell I'm catching up on my reading? Just when I caught up on the essentials that I missed while on vacation, I did a Miami for 4 days, San Diego for 2 days, home to Boston on the red-eye kind of business trip that would normally knock me flat when I got back into the office, except that I'm slammed with projects right now and don't have a free minute to rest my mind. While a bout of insomnia keeps me up, thanks to my mind's inability to rest, I came across this article from blogger/writer Elizabeth Minchilli and I thought it was appropriate after reading the Hungry Monkey: Perils of raising a foodie.

It's also behavior that I recognize in both myself and the husband - we're firmly in the food-obsessed camp, and I think I'm somewhat glad we don't have children since I would probably find myself in the position of trying to ship guanciale legally...

That's my kind of science class

The NY Times is covering a topic that's been the buzz in Boston for a while now - Harvard's From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, an undergraduate course that uses the kitchen to convey the basics of physics and chemistry. In reading the description of the class, something like this might have made me more interested in physics if it required an examination of the elasticity of fruit jellies. The celebrity chefs are conducting free lectures that are open to the public - I hope to get into one soon!

NY Times: Harvard Food Science Class

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cooking class in Umbria

The husband made truffled scrambled eggs for a breakfast this weekend. The combination of good quality farm eggs perfumed with black truffles with whole grain toast was delightful and made me nostalgic for the short time we spent in the Umbria region of Italy. It's also thanks to the cooking class that we took in Umbria that we now know how to use truffles properly. 

We stayed at a rustic B&B outside of Perugia and on the outskirts of Assissi called Alla Madonna del Piatto - Agriturismo in Umbria, run by a lovely couple (Letizia and Ruurd) who were academic researchers in their former life (in entomology, of all things!). This is the view from our room:

If this looks rural, it's cuz it is - we drove 3 miles from a major road  up a steep hill on a dirt road to get to the property. Despite the somewhat harrowing drive (not nearly as bad as in the Amalfi), the view and the solitude was worth it when we got there. I wasn't able to get a shot with the flocks of sheep that dotted the countryside, but they were definitely roaming around. We heard the sheep dogs in the middle of the night, ferociously barking to protect their charges from some threat. We were told it was likely wild boars who would try to attack the sheep. It was also the start of the hunting season, so at times we would be gazing at the hills and hear the very distinct echo of a gunshot.

In addition to running the B&B, Letizia also holds cooking classes in her kitchen. I didn't take any photos since I was doing some of the prep and drinking wine in between steps, but one of the participants took amazing shots that you can hopefully see here: Cooking class. It was a fantastic setting for learning a little about Umbrian cooking. In addition to several fig trees on their property that the husband climbed on our last day in order to pick some fruit for a picnic, there were these beauties in the backyard:

Quince tree

Giant rosemary bush
Our comings and goings were supervised by Google, the truffle hunting dog. I can't remember her breed but it is an Italian breed related to the Portuguese water dog. I was disappointed that she didn't bring us any truffles. Apparently she eats figs, and got very upset when the husband went up a tree to pick the figs, probably because she didn't get any. 

As for how to use truffles properly, it's amazingly simple - whether using a butter or preserve, add it at the very end of cooking. If you add it earlier in the cooking process, you will end up cooking off the truffle flavour. Worked perfectly in scrambled eggs, pasta will be the next attempt once we're ready to eat pasta again (that will still be a while).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


You would think after my recent ice cream kick that I'd be visiting every gelateria that we could find. Believe it or not, we only went to two for a grand total of 3 gelato tastings. And I have no pictures of any of the flavours we tried or the places we went to. We just ate them.

We went to the same one in Rome twice, at the top of the list of Elizabeth Minchilli's roundup of gelato in Rome. Damn it was good. She's right when we says it's hard to find - it's tucked away in a maze of alleyways. The first time we actually didn't have any problem tracking the shop down, but the second time (a week later), it took us easily a half hour of walking in circles coming from the Vatican to get our bearings.  Gelateria del Teatro's offerings were worth the crankiness that ensued as we tried to find it again. The tiramisu was tasty, but the pistachio made from Sicilian nuts was divine. After having the epitome of gelato, I think I'm hanging up my ice cream making skills for a while and just live off the memory. That and the Venchi chocolate that we brought back - that'll keep me going for a while.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The pizza debate: Rome vs Naples

As you've probably gathered, travel itineraries for the husband and I revolve around food. We seriously research the cities that we go to, whether in North America or Europe, and make sure we have an extensive list of places to eat. We hit the historical high points like people with ADHD - we have no patience to stand in line to get in to the Coliseum and hear a tour guide drone on about the history, nor are we particularly keen to give our money to the Vatican to see the interior of the museums, as incredible as they are. Our method of touring an area is to kill time, see as many things as we can in as short a period and burn off calories before we eat again. How many history buffs/art appreciators have I horrified with that description? Do not travel with us if you're looking to appreciate the significance of these incredible historical sites.

We prefer to walk the neighborhoods and become immersed in the local culture as best as we can, even though we stick out like sore thumbs and don't really speak any Italian. That's why we would try to find the least touristy coffee shop and neighborhood trattorias to see what everyday life was like. In addition to canvassing friends for suggestions, we've generally relied on food travel shows like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie, but I think this was the first trip we almost exclusively turned to food bloggers for recommendations.

The blogger that we relied on most heavily for this trip was Elizabeth Minchilli, which can be found here. Her site is an excellent resource for a foodie visiting Rome - the list of posts that we consulted are below. We visited 4 restaurants and 1 gelateria based on her recommendations and were pleased with them all. The pics below were taken at Pizzeria alle Carette in the Monti neighbourhood, our first night in Rome.

We ordered a white pizza with buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil - that was it. We thought we'd get one to share, which we did and it was delicious. This pizza was nothing like what we've had in the US, though we will need to go to Brooklyn and Arizona to the famous pizza places to compare - thin, crunchy wood-fire oven charred crust and hot, gooey cheese punctuated with bursts of fresh tomato and basil. We polished off the first pizza, paused for a few minutes, then decided to order another one, exactly the same. While we waited for the next pizza to be baked, we ordered another round of drinks:

My glass of prosecco was only 2.50 euros - how could I not indulge in several rounds? This was round 2. Actually, I think we stopped at round 2 and succumbed to jet lag. I also think I drank for 10 days straight, usually both at lunch and dinner. My liver is recovering, now that I'm home.

Because the Roman pizza was so enjoyable, the husband decided that we would make a stop in Naples after touring the Amalfi coast and before we headed up to Umbria to try the Neapolitan version of pizza. He had read an article by GQ's Alan Richman (yes, the one that Anthony Bourdain called a douchebag in his book) that described how the higher water content of buffalo mozarella combined with tomato sauce and less oven baking made for an inferior pizza - his article is at Alan Richman - Pizza in Naples.

Well that was a bad idea. You can't pop in to Naples to get a slice of pizza. We sat in traffic trying to get to the city center for a good 1/2 hour, and once there we moved at a snail's pace because of the congestion. The city is crowded, run-down, loud and generally chaotic and I didn't like at all. It made Rome look perfectly civilized and spacious in comparison. I don't know what pizza place we ended up at, but Bill Clinton's picture taken with the staff was on the wall so I assumed it was one of the better known places.

Alan Richman was right - the Neapolitan version was a soggy mess. The husband ate a small pie, and since I declined the second one (I was wearing white and didn't need to be decorated with tomato sauce), we gave it to a homeless man and got the hell out of that city. I am never going back to Naples if I can help it. Rome wins for me in both pizza and as a tourist destination - I hope to get back there sometime soon.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Recovering from jet lag without Italian coffee really sucks!

While I'm thrilled to be home, I am not enjoying the first day of Italian coffee withdrawal. We thoroughly embraced the Italian coffee culture while on vacation in Rome, Amalfi coast and Umbria by starting our day with a cappuccino and a pastry, followed by at least one espresso/macchiato later in the day, if not two. It helps when you have a view like this:

View from a coffee bar in Positano, Italy
We followed the Italian custom of consuming coffee and eating breakfast at the bar, instead of lingering at a table. Not only was it incredibly cheap (two cappuccinos and two pastries usually came to less than 5 euros total), we also enjoyed the surprise of some of the staff when we insisted on standing at the bar - judging by their reaction, it seemed like tourists usually opted for seating.

The bar was also a great vantage point to watch the locals up close in action. Man, Italians can pound back their coffee and cram their pastries down their throat in no time flat. Granted, portion sizes for both the coffees and pastries are much smaller than in the States, but 3 gulps and 3 bites was all it seemed to take to consume a cappuccino and a croissant. I'm a notoriously slow coffee sipper, so trying to drink at the Italian pace was a challenge. I'm generally a fast eater, but I was usually covered in powdered sugar by the time I was done with whatever pastry I'd chosen that morning. We weren't there long enough for me to figure out how the Italians could eat/drink at the speed they did at breakfast (lunch and dinner were definitely more leisurely) and still look impecceable, but it was a long enough period for me to get used to their coffee culture and become thoroughly addicted.

We tried to get our coffee fix at home by going to Bloc 11, a coffee shop in Union Square (Somerville) that uses Intelligentsia coffee, which became our go to brand after our visit to Chicago in the spring. We tried to recreate the experience by ordering a cappuccino for me and an espresso for the husband. The espresso was ok, but the cappuccino made me downright ill. I'm inconsistently lactose-intolerant, which means that often I'm fine with dairy products but out of the blue with no predictable pattern, I'll get sick from a milk-based item. In Italy, I drank full-fat milk in cappuccinos every day with no problems, but the one I tried from Bloc 11 made me nauseated and dizzy for a good 5 hours. That's never happened before, so I think it has to do with the amount of milk they used - this one had at least twice the amount of milk than the cappuccinos I'd been drinking in Italy. I used to drink Americanos before, but now that I'm used to the strong stuff, I'll have to order macchiatos if I can bring myself to return to Starbucks. That or else we're going to be purchasing an espresso maker for home, something that we were wondering if we were going to do before we left. I'm hoping we can make do without one but we'll see how long we can hold out...

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