Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Greetings From Greece

Yassou! and Chronia Pola! (Greetings and Happy Holidays!)

We're still in Greece having a nice, rustic time. I'm only able to update this now because we're in town today. In Volos it's chilly but sunny and nice. We came up for the day for our anniversary (3 years today!) and of course to get some supplies. In the house in Labinou, we're rather isolated so this is the nearest place to get produce and all the other things we need (laundry list, I tell you. You wouldn't want to know).We went to a market this morning for fruit and veggies and there was one lady selling live chickens! I don't know if they were for egg-laying or killing as soon as you got home.

Being in Labinou, a tiny hamlet on the Aegean, means doing it yourself. We build fires for warmth since it's actually just a summer place made of stone with no heating built-in. I've been wearing 2 pairs of nylons under my jeans, 3 t-shirts, and 2 sweaters in the house. If we want hot water, we build a fire to heat the water tank. Other than keeping warm, we cook (also helps the temp.). Between breakfast, lunch , tea time and dinner there's a lot to do. For Christmas, we went to a friend's winter cabin (we were sweating in their insulated house after being used to all the sweaters and the nylons and the fireplace...) Anyway they served wild boar in a prune and apricot sauce as the main course. It was delicious! I expected a sort of gamey taste but there was none. Sorry, no recipe here.

At the house, in late December there's no snow; we're too far down the mountain for that. So all the wild "field greens" that's "weeds" to most of us, are available for the picking. In Greek they're called "horta". There are 10 or so kinds of dendelion type herbs that in cool weather are delicious as cooking greens. In hot weather they get bitter. Here in Greece the people who live in the countryside pick these greens throughout the winter and spring and there are even cookbooks dedicated to recipes for them. This is not just a Greek thing though.
As a household chore, my mom used to have to go out into the garden and pick the salad from the back yard when she was a kid. My dad's pristine lawn full of miracle grow and pesticide did away with that so I never learned the trick of which greens to pick. I had to come all the way to Greece for that! The basic recipe for cooking these greens goes like this:

2 pounds of cleaned but not chopped dark greens
1/2 lemon
2 tbsp the best extra virgin olive oil you can find*
1 tbsp salt plus salt to taste

Bring 1 liter of water to the boil (water doesn't have to be that abundant with recipe)
Add the greens in bunches.
Cover the pot and bring back to the boil.
Boil until tender (3-4 minutes )
Drain and serve hot or room temperature with salt, extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
*This is a great chance to appreciate the flavor of great extra virgin olive oil as you just drizzle it on at the end and never let it touch heat!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Happy Holidays Everybody!

We're headed for Greece this morning to spend Christmas and New Year's Day. Have a wonderful holiday season. See you in January!

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Hi Everybody,

Gabriel's birthday party was a fun exercise in embracing imperfection. I had a good time once I decided to relax and stop worrying about not having the "perfect" dinner party. Since tonight is our big Secret Santa finale, we had to go Christmas shopping before making dinner yesterday. When we got home we had to rush through the dinner prep and cut 2 things out of the menu. I didn't melt down a giant chocolate bar and form it into the shape of a soup pot nor did Gabriel make 2 main dishes, just the uvezzi. It takes a crisis to make us do things like normal people. In terms of sheer force of will, Martha Stewart's got nothing on me. She may make her pate feuillete to perfection, but she's got 10 assistants behind her making sure all goes well. I try the same things and get about halfway. The napoleon cake last night took several hours and I didn't even make the puff pastry dough myself. The fondant sugar topping was an exercise in culinary chemistry, a lot like making sugar caramel but more picky and exact. It solidified completely on contact with the top of the cake so there was no way to make the swirlies with the espresso-chocolate frosting. I just wrote "Happy Birthday Gabriel" on the top with it. The creme St. Honore (basically, an egg custard and a meringue whipped together at the last minute) that went between the layers of puff pastry was delicious but ran out all over the sides of the cake which had me trying to get ground hazelnuts to stick to and mask the gooey sides as guests were arriving. So I know how to make a Napoleon taste good, but I have yet to make one look good. It's Gabriel's favorite birthday cake, so there's always next year!

At dinner, Paola asked for the spanakopita (spinach pie) recipe. It goes like this:

1.5 lb (600 grams) of chopped, frozen spinach
1 large leek cleaned thoroughly and roughly chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely minced
1 package of feta cheese (or a 5"X3"X1" slice) crumbled
2 tbsp dill
salt and pepper to taste
1 package of thawed phyllo dough
2 tbsp olive oil plus some for brushing.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Place 1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add the onions. Stir for 1 minute, then add the leek and cook the mixture stirring, until translucent. Place the frozen spinach in a large pot along with 1 tbsp of olive oil over low heat. Allow the heat to melt the spinach, then cook until the liquid has evaporated. Add the onion and leek to the pot. Mix thoroughly, take off the heat and add the feta and the dill. Mix in and add salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool.

In a large baking dish (mine is an oval 16 in x 10 in with 2.5 in sides) brush the bottom and sides with olive oil. Roll out the phyllo dough and brush the top of the first sheet with more oil. There should be just enough oil to roughly coat each sheet. Place the first sheet in the baking dish and let the corners lay over the sides for the moment. If the phyllo is not a long as your baking dish, place the first sheet over to one side and the second over to the other side alternating with each new sheet. Also shift the direction of each new sheet so that the corners are laying over the baking sheet at all angles. Place at least 6 layers down before putting in the spinach filling. Layer the filling in and continue layering phyllo sheets on top. Once the last sheet is on, fold all the phyllo edges onto the top of the dish making a beautiful decoration.
Place on a rack in the middle of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Check often for color. Most of the dish should be golden brown when it comes out of the oven and the irregular edges on the top can be a darker brown. If they're browning too quickly, bake at a lower rack in the oven.

Let cool for 10 minutes before slicing with a serrated knife.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Gabriel's Birthday Dinner

Tomorrow we celebrate Gabriel's 40th birthday with a 10 person dinner party. We're going Greek this time (Gabriel's half Greek) with a few Geneva touches. He is not big on deserts but he LOVES dark chocolate and once a year he eats a Napoleon (or as he calls it, a "mille feuilles"). So today I dropped the ball and decided to buy the puff pastry or "pate feuillete" rather than make it. Making it is very time consuming and I'd say it takes at least one complete failure before you get the hang of what to do. Maybe one day I'll tell you about that process.

Here's what's on Gabriel's Birthday menu: (recipes to follow in the next few days)

Pelion olives and roasted nuts
taramasalata (cod roe dip) with bread

Primo piatto: spanakopita (spinach pie)

Secondo piatto:
uvezzi (chunks of lamb shoulder in a casserole with orzo pasta and tomato-oregano sauce)
spezofai (Greek loukaniko sausage fried with onions and green peppers)

Traditional Napoleon with a filling of pastry cream and blackberry jam topped with sugar fondant
A Geneva "Marmitte": a *soup pot shaped dark chocolate container filled with marzipan vegetables

*The soup pot made of chocolate and the marzipan veggies symbolize an old myth. On December 12, 1605 the forces of Savoy tried to invade Geneva but and old lady at the edge of town heard them coming and dumped her huge pot of vegetable soup on the head of one of the soldiers thus sufficiently scaring the others and giving enough time for Geneva's army to prepare to repel the attack.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Susan Campbell, Stealth Composter

So, yesterday I told those of you living in apartments how to make a balcony compost bin. Today I have to tell you about our neighbors' reaction to all this. Many of our neighbors are retired Italians who, after World War II came up to Milan to work from other, less industrialized parts of Italy. It seems that they don't know much of the world other than their old villages and this neighborhood. One couple who lives on our floor has never been to Venice. For 50 years they have lived a 3.5 hour, 30 euro train ride away from Venice and they've never been. We once mentioned to another couple, the Morettis that we had gone to the Chinese restaurant around the corner for dinner and they winced and mentioned that there was a good pizzeria nearby. I don't believe they have ever eaten Chinese food before. Once when I was making Indian food, I went over to their apartment and stupidly left my door open. I could see the look on Mr. Moretti's face once the curry aroma wafted past his nose. He actually looked scared! So, there seems to be some tension between this old guard and the newer, younger, foreign inhabitants of the neighborhood. Italy has had experience with large-scale immigration for only about 10 years now . And that, after a long history of emigration to places like Canada, the U.S., and Argentina. So we foreigners are something of a shock to these old tossers. I hope they can get used to us.

Anyway, the point is, these people are not very used to people with different customs and they think Gabriel and I are from Mars. And I know it because I heard them gossiping about us.

When Gabriel was building the compost bin, he did it out on the back balcony and the friendliest of our neighbors, an Italian senior citizen, asked what he was building. He said, "una scatola" "a box" and left it at that. We were afraid what the collective group of nosey neighbors would try to do if they knew that we were building a compost bin. It might have smelled bad or attracted bugs. I was afraid of a building conference where all the neighbors would vote out compost bins or some other such reaction.

Anyway, I started to place all my coffee grounds, carrot peels and any other vegetable matter (except potato peels, they never decompose and they start sending out little potato shoots) until one morning we heard the Morettis, the nice neighbor and some unidentified voices gossiping about what we do with that "box"! They went on and on about how they've seen me put egg shells, lettuce, orange peels and you name it in there but they've never seen me take anything out! They have no idea what this compost bin is and they are certain we're Martians. So now, I put my veggie scraps in a covered bowl in the kitchen and wait for cover of darkness, then I turn off the kitchen light, sneak out onto the unlit balcony and dump my days-worth of contraband compost!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How to Build a Balcony Compost Bin

About a year ago, on an ecological mission, I went out to the open air markets of peripheral Milan and scavanged 6 orange crates (a bigger version of those wood or chipboard clementine cases.) I wanted a balcony composter to feed my plants and cut down on taking out the garbage. At first I wasn't going to be so Martha Stewart about it; I was just going to buy a balcony composter online. The problem was that almost all the kits I found were really big or really expensive. So I decided to illicit Gabriel's help and make one from scratch. Look out Martha, here we come!

Here's how we did it:

I dismantled the orange crates and bought enough metal screening to make 2-11inch (or 28cm) by 22inch (or 56cm) pieces plus 1-17inch (or 39cm) by 57inch (or 143cm) piece. Gabriel made a wooden frame. When Gabriel comes home, I'll ask him to tell you how he did that. Gabriel took one of the crate bottoms and fitted it over the bottom of the frame. Then he followed with the orange crate sides leaving about a 1cm or 1/2 inch space between them. He lined this box with the 3 pieces of screening: the smaller two fit inside and are nailed to the narrower two sides of the bin and the large, long piece lines the 2 wider sides and the bottom making a U shape. Once the screening was nailed intact, I rolled 3 newspapers and lined the bottom of the box with them. Gabriel bought 2 metal hinges and nailed them to one of the wide sides of the top rim of the box and also to another orange case bottom which serves as the compost bin top. We have placed this bin on top of the largest plastic planter saucer you could imagine.

Coming up next: "La scatola" gossip: all about our nosey neighbors' reactions to "the box"!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Do you know what gobagool is?

The Sopranos is probably my favorite TV show. Living in Italy now and having had no cable back in Chicago means that I rent the episodes 3 at a time and marathon my way through each season. I was just looking through the Soprano’s Official web site dictionary page called Mobspeak. A lot of the vocabulary you find there is just regular Italian. “Che peccato” means “what a pity” not just for the mobsters, but for everybody in Italy. Other entries look like they come from Napolitano, Calabrese or Palermitano dialects. But one of the terms made me cringe: “gobagool”.
I don’t mind the alternative spelling from the standard Italian “copicolla” or sometimes “coppa”. Anyway cuts of meat in Italy can be called all kinds of different things from region to region.
I don’t mind the Southern Italian pronunciation that changes c’s to g’s and p’s to b’s. Actually that pronunciation makes me feel as if I were back home in Chicago rather than far from home in Italy. In line at a Chicago deli, you'll often hear an older person asking for muzzarel' and prosciutt'.
What bugs me is the definition. The Sopranos lexicographer thinks gobagool is “something to eat” Well any self-respecting pork store patron knows that gobagool ain’t a turkey sandwich. It’s capicollo, salted, cured pork shoulder rolled into a wide sausage shape and sold either mild or hot. I used to get mine at Caputo’s in Chicago, now I get it at Piccolo Eden around the block. It’s not just “something to eat”, it’s a great thing to eat.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Back from Rome

Hi Everybody! We just got back from Rome last night , what a city! Why can't our jobs be there instead of in Milan? So many artistic masterpieces! Caravaggio paintings everywhere! Bernini sculptures wherever you turn! Even the city bus is like taking an architectural tour! "All aboard! Next stop, Colisseum, after that, Palatine Hill!" I don't know how regular, everyday Romans ever get anything done. Sorry aboout all the exclamation points but I can't help it; I'm overwhelmed!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

L'orto in Milans' Periphery: Susan Campbell, Korean Gardener

For years I have gardened outside of Chicago and in Minnesota. The greatest place I’ve had the chance to grow flowers and vegetables was the Soo-Line Garden in Minneapolis, an organic community garden right in the heart of the city. When we first moved to Milan I wanted to see if I could replicate a bit of that experience. We spent the first 6 months in Italy renting a small apartment on the south-west edge of town from a friend. As luck would have it, behind our building there was a huge public park and some pirate vegetable gardens (public land pirated for private garden use – not exactly the community spirit I saw in Minneapolis!) that had been “legalized” some years ago. By the time we got there, this land was run by “Italia Nostra” which only allowed Italian retirees to garden there. Being neither Italian nor retired, I had to settle for the next best thing. The gardener who informed me of these rules said that if I came and watered once in a while and pulled any weeds I saw, I could have some of his harvest.
I had been in Italy for a very short time having just come from Paris. The beginning of the War in Iraq made Paris a rather hostile environment for Americans and I quickly learned that to avoid aggressive treatment from people, I’d tell them I was Canadian if they asked. You wouldn’t believe how much the French seem to LOVE Canadians! Must be how they refrain from invading other countries… Anyway, this gardener, Glauco (yes, that was his real name!) asked me where I was from and I quickly said, “Canada”. Evidently he went home and told his wife that there was a foreign woman who was going to help around the garden. She asked him what country I was from and he answered, Korea. I guess Korea SOUNDS kind of like Canada. So she asked if I was rather short and had the typical Asian facial features. He said no, that I was very tall and pale (which is true) so they ended up both very confused. The next time I saw him, he asked me where I was from again. Suddenly I panicked thinking that he somehow knew I had lied and some typically American trait had come out without my wanting it to. When he told me what he had told his wife, all my paranoia of Anti-Americanism melted. Glauco didn’t know too much about the world around him, bless his heart, but he had great talent for gardening.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dinner Parties

When Gabriel and I were living back in Minneapolis as grad student and post doc, we developed high-end taste that exceeded our means. So rather than going out to restaurants, we would stay home, invite people over for dinner and cook. Gabriel is an expert at Greek food. Spanakopita, taramosalata, stuffed peppers, lemon chicken with oregano... I vacillated among Italian, Indian, Mexican and Thai.
When we moved here to Milan, we met a great group of friends who do the same things. One couple is Simone and Valeria who fell in love with Asian cooking, especially Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese while doing their medical internships in St. Louis, MO. They brought back a rice cooker, 12 place settings of chopsticks, and mini bowls for mixing soy sauce and wasabe. They've had Thai dinner parties with fabulous chicken in green curry sauce and roll-your-own-sushi parties. But they also are masters at Italian cuisine. They taught Gabriel how to make a real Bolognese sauce for pasta and now it has become a weekly staple at our house.They taught Gabriel how to make a real Bolognese sauce for pasta and now it has become a weekly staple at our house.The last time they had us over was the day they defrosted their refrigerator. They needed to cook a rabbit and a pheasant that were in the freezer, so they came up with this dinner: The pheasant was cooked in a tomato sauce with capers and olives. The rabbit, in a "battuto" of finely minced carrot, celery, onion and garlic. They were both delicious!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Well, here it is: the pig ear recipe I promised! You can't wait, can you... Well first I'm going to give you a little background info. Gabriel and I ate this last night at a friend's house and it was delicious! Not kidding, really good! The recipe here is a combination of tradition handed down from Milanese grandparent to Milanese grandchild and info from the web. Tradition and technology! Our hosts, Paola and Marco are the only two indigenous Milanese I know. Milan is like New York City - a place full of people from everywhere else. Most Italians I know here have moved here themselves for work or have parents who did. Not these guys, their grandparents are steeped in these culinary traditions, so Paola and Marco have been eating this dish since they were kids. In fact, Pietro and Pookie (Alberto), Marco's 7 and 10 year old kids sat at the table with us and devoured pig feet and tail. I couldn't get over it! At the age of 10, I would have refused to be in the room with somebody eating a pig tail. Not that it ever happened, mind you.

From what Paola and Marco printed for me, and the explanation I got last night, I can give you a pretty good idea of how this dish goes:


2 lbs pork ribs
1 lb pig trotters (that's "feet" for you non culinary types)
6 ozs of pork skin cut into 1 in squares (raw, not the fried George Bush I kind)
8 ozs of Monza sausage (any mild, medium grind pork sausage would do)
1 tbso butter
1/2 cup white wine
2 medium onions
4 carrots
3 ribs of celery
3 lbs savoy cabbage washed and roughly chopped
4 cups meat stock
salt to taste
*Optional: pig tail, pig ear

Boil the trotters, optional tail and ear, and skin for 1 hour and drain. Meanwhile mince the onion, carrot and celery very finely, almost into a paste with a food processor or a "mezzaluna" knife. Place the vegetable mixture (called a "battuto") into a very large oven-proof pot with the butter. Sautee battuto until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture starts to turn golden. Add the wine and the ribs and cook covered for 1 hour. Add stock to keep the mixture moist. After 1 hour, add the sausage, the boiled, drained trotters and skin and the cabbage. Add stock just to cover the meat and vegetables. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes more. Periodically skim the fat that rises to the surface to keep the broth clear.

Polenta is often suggested as an accompaniment for this dish but last night we soaked up the delicious golden broth with Simone and Valeria's home made sour dough bread. It was wonderful! I tasted the skin and trotter and was pleasantly surprised by their smooth, soft texture. Simone assured everybody that the skin was mainly collagen, that is, protein and not fat.

*A note on "alternative" meat: It seems like much of post WWII America has been prosperous enough (and maybe foolish enough) to "live high on the hog" and eschew all those "other" parts of the pig. As a kid, I think I tried liver once, hated it and was never presented with such a thing again. I know my grandparents ate organ meats and other cheaper parts as a way to make ends meet. Here in Italy as well as in Spain and even Switzerland organ meats are not so ostracized. I can attest to hese countries having lived there but I know that most of the world accepts this type of food. Also in African-American communities all over the U.S. these foods are prized. So if you'd like to try the trotter, ear, tail and skin or chitterlings, for that matter go to an African-American meat store like Moo and Oink in Chicago or many immigrant neighborhoods. In Minneapolis, Gabriel used to find veal tongue in a Mexican butcher shop on Nicollet Avenue.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Bachelor Pad Pasta Recipes

Fettucine (or Anything Else) Alfredo
Pasta Aglio Olio Pepperoncino
Pasta Alla Carbonara

Piccolo Eden

These are my butchers around the corner, the ones that saved my turkey roulade on Thanksgiving. They are the only Italian butchers left on via Padova for miles. Most of the family-run butcher shops have gone out of business trying to compete with the ever more popular supermarket. These guys, do such a good job, though and their prices are low. There's another type of butcher on every other corner, the Halal, or Islamic butcher. They cater to a very strong Muslim community here in our neighborhood but don't really compete with these guys. They don't have pancetta or prosciutto or any of those lovely salamis you see behind the guys at piccolo Eden. Another reason why these guys are still around and going strong is that they too cater to the large immigrant communities here on via Padova: our neighborhood is home to many Peruvians, Chinese and Philippinos as well as Ukrainians, Rumanians , one Swiss and one American. Today I got into the shop and saw 2 enormous pig heads on the counter. They were incredible! And I asked if they were going to cut them into certain pieces (the ear, for example is an ingredient in "casseula", a traditional Milanese winter stew of pork and cabbage-recipe to follow tomorrow) but they said, no, Philippinos buy them and roast them whole in the oven. No recipe for that follows tomorrow or any other day. Anyway, the many Halal butchers in our neighborhood can't (by law!) compete with that. What the Halal butchers ARE good for is convenience. They are open ALL THE TIME! This may not seem special to you convenience-coddled Americans who can grocery shop at 3am if you please, but in Milan almost everything is closed on Sundays and after 7:30 pm all other days (not to mention the siesta time for small businesses). If you run out of eggs, sugar, spices, etc at an off hour, they are there for you. They also have filo dough, tahini, molasses and a lot of other things, which can't be found in any other part of the city. SO I'm ecstatic that piccolo Eden, the Italian butcher shop and Al Mulk, the Halal butcher shop are around. They make my living and cooking in Italy a lot sweeter.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fettucine (or Anything Else) Alfredo

My brother, Brian also loves “Alfredo Sauce” which is something I haven’t seen here in Italy so far. It’s a staple of Italian restaurants in the States but here many of my Italian friends who have traveled abroad think it isn’t Italian at all. It seems they’re wrong, though. Anna Maria Volpi writes that it may have been Hollywood’s discovery of Rome in the 1950’s that made Roman restauranteur, Alfredo de Lelio and his signature sauce a big deal for Americans. Famous Hollywood starlets and leading men were photographed sitting at the restaurant behind heaping plates of fettuccine alfredo. The simplicity of the dish may owe to its lack of recognition in Italy. Since it’s so easy to make, why even think of it as a recipe? It’s also full of cream which, as I’ve said before is not well appreciated among Italians. So maybe this dish spread directly from Alfredo’s place to Hollywood to the rest of America without ever hitting most of Italy. Anyway, Brian loves the sauce on broccoli, pasta, red bell peppers and just about anything else. Here’s the recipe:


1 tbsp butter
½ cup whipping cream or *half and half
several good scrapings of freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup grated parmesan or romano cheese or a combination
1 egg yolk, beaten **optional
1 tbsp minced flat Italian parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the cream and heat through stirring. Add the nutmeg and cheeses. Stir until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is uniform in texture, no lumps. If you’re using egg yolk, add it now and stir constantly until it is incorporated. This mixture should reach a simmer (barely barely boiling, just a bubble here and there, no more!) and cook for 3 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat, pour over cooked pasta, veggies or chicken breast. Sprinkle the minced parsley over everything. Enjoy.

*I’d go for the half and half if putting this over fettuccine because, as a pasta dish, this is already heavy. As a sauce for veggies, or lean chicken breast the richness of the whipping cream wouldn’t hurt.
**Again, this will make the dish richer and heavier, I wouldn’t use it over pasta but it could make a richer addition to say, steamed broccoli.

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