From Food to Book Great food does not have great secrets
Since I was a young girl, I have always been aware of the importance of food, as a sociological concept as well as a cultural one, not to mention the not-too-romantic stomach cramps of starving men and women: for their psyche, food has a very important but different role. I have often used cooking as a soothing ointment for my soul: an inexpensive but excellent remedy like a releasing laugh. It would be nice if my stories of recipes could positively affect more than one reader. Every single culture celebrates its important moments - from birth to mlarriage to success - with food. Because food, cooking and related activities, like shopping and setting the dinner table, are, over all, an act of love towards oneself and one's guests. So here I am, an Italian journalist (that's me) - born and raised in Trieste (a former Austro-Hungarian colony with Venetian and Slovenian influences), who lived the life of the sophisticated capital of world fashion (Milan) and spent eight years in that cooking melting pot which is Southern California and particularly Los Angeles before landing back in Milan - and see what her (my) cooking experience was. This background has also detached me from the orthodox Italian cuisine with all its imperatives and life became much easier. That's why I easily understand the great difficulty Americans find in trying to replicate dishes from highly sophisticated but poorly written recipies found in coffeetable style cook books that do not take into consideration the cultural differences in food shopping. I will avoid this, I promise, also because great food does not have great secrets. Take for instance the taste of a simple vegetable like spinach planted in the Italian countryside and apparently the same spinach cultivated, let's say, in Iowa. You cannot compare one to the other: the percentage of iron is different so the taste will be different too. This means that there will be a certain diversity in the same recipe when prepared in different parts of the world. And this was also the main difficulty I had in cooking in Los Angeles as well as in other places where I lived. Every recipe will come with a short likely story because, as I said before, food has always been part of my life and has often transformed insignificant circumstances into great occasions.
Trieste I grew up in a traditional family in Trieste, in the far north-eastern part of Italy, 100 miles east of Venice, on the Slovenian border. Strange place, strange setting, even more strange, the people. Our character is forged by “bora” – the strong cold wind which blows from the Carpathians – able to define our behavior, our way of dress, and our taste overall. Taste in food, I mean. In wintertime we eat smoked pork, much ham and prosciutto, thick soups, pasta with rich sauces and finish our meals with Austrian style cakes and pastries. The other seasons are a fish feast: Trieste is a sea town and we have a variety of daily fresh fish that we cook with pasta, rice, or simply on the grill or in the oven. Yes, when I was a child winter was a special season. I remember wearing thick three layer sweaters knitted in the evening by my mother who, between a simple beige stitch and a brown slip one, would ask my father: «My dear love, what do you want for dinner tomorrow night?» My grandmother usually intervened at this time: «Remember, Annie, he also comes home for lunch. We have to cook twice». I understand that all this may sound funny to the reader. But it did not to me. This boring and annoying conversation seriously bothered me; evening after evening, this absolutely unimaginative small talk. I started to refuse food and become anoressic. It took me a long time to adapt to a new life and finally to be able to learn from the situation and solve all my problems with an innovative and personal approach to cuisine. This simple, fresh recipe is dedicated to my mother, a very traditional cook who – at her venerable age – still has not tasted goatcheese or capsicum and does not like raw onions, as well as to her mother, my grandmother, who never had cheese in her long life. What a way to shake off my childhood troubles all at once with this appetizer!
Fresh cheese and raw onion salad Serves 4 Preparation: 10 minutes Cooking time: 5 minutes Ingredients: 1 pound of fresh goat cheese 1 small red onion 2 sweet green capsicum 2 slices of country bread olive oil, parsley, ground pepper Slice the cheese and divide it into 4 dishes. Peel and slice the onion; wash, clean the capsicum removing the seeds and slice it. Wash and cut the parsley into small sprigs. Arrange all this over the cheese. Remove the crust and cut the bread into square pieces. Fry the squares in a small pan spread with extra virgin olive oil until they become crispy. Divide the croutons among the dishes. Serve with crushed black pepper. Itâ€™s easier if you buy supermarket style croutons. You will gain five minutes althougn the taste will suffer a little bit.
When Dana met Harry Dana arrived in Los Angeles with her daughter Ellen on a weekday in April 1991 on a TWA direct flight from New York. We did not go to pick them up at the airport. We decided that, if the two young American women really wanted to live in this open space called Los Angeles after 20 years spent in Italy, divided between Florence and Milan and a variety of short and long trips in Europe, they needed to start from scratch all by themselves. The only thing we did for them was rent a car and book a nice not-too-expensive hotel in Beverly Hills. And we shortly disappeared. Welcome to Los Angeles. After that unusual arrival Dana, my husband (they have been good friends for 25 years) and I lived a rather ideal life until spring 1996, when we â€“ this time â€“ moved back from Los Angeles to Italy, leaving Dana as our personal lifeguard at the Pacific Ocean. The three of us worked together, shared exhilarating moments and dark periods; we saw Ellen earn a degree at the same School of Cinema that George Lucas attended and a MFA at the American Film Institute. During all of this, Dana and I often cooked together, inviting each other with the excuse of a beach walk. So when Dana met Harry, a vegetarian Jewish native of Los Angeles, after having cooked real Italian food in Italy for her former Italian husband, I felt comfortable suggesting this simple Italian first course with Eastern European echos and an accent of nouvelle cuisine for an intimate dinner. He loved it and she cooked it once more. Unfortunately Dana no longer spends much time in her oceanview kitchen: not long ago Harry made one more effort toward the Buddhist style perfection becoming strictly vegetarian. Now he eats only potatoes. Should I invent a new potato recipe just for him? I do not have time now. I will do it next week.
Pasta with smoked trout and green pistachos Serves four Preparation and cooking time: 15 minutes Ingredients: 1 pound of short pasta (penne, orecchiette, etc) Barilla or De Cecco 1 envelope of smoked trout 2 handfuls of green unsalted peeled pistachios 1/2 glass of beer and 1 spoon of brandy or other dry not aromatic liquor 1 clove of garlic extra virgin olive oil, Worcester sauce, salt and pepper, fresh from the garden herbs Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 2 tablespoons salt and cook pasta. Respect the cooking time suggested on the box. Meanwhile, blend green pistachios in the food processor with beer (first let the gas evaporate) until they become creamy. Put a tablespoon of oil and the crushed clove of garlic in a pan and stir until almost browned. Stir in the pistachio compound. Now, add the trout cut in small pieces, stir one more time and sprinkle with aromatic liquor, toss with crushed red pepper and a sprinkling of Worcester. Cook for a couple more minutes. Drain the pasta and add it to the saucepan with 3 more tablespoons of olive oil. Toss to combine for 1 or 2 minutes over a high flame. Remove now from heat and let stand covered for a couple of minutes before serving. Add fresh thyme or mint to taste.
Chairs for dinner Usually this does not happen in Milan. As you know, people here are quite formal: they do not usually take their own chairs to dinner. But we were back in Milan after 8 years spent on the shores of the Pacific Ocean between beautiful Santa Monica and magic Malibu and we wanted to have our old friends to dinner. All our belongings were somewhere in the world inside a container. Nevertheless, on Wednesday night in our small apartment in an elegant street in the center of Milan, we gave our first dinner party. We had only two chairs: all the guests had to come, by taxi, on foot, by subway, with their own folding chairs. Everybody loved the idea: Giulia, the fashion editor of one of the trendiest Italian publications and her husband, a businessman dressed in blue and grey; Amilcare Ponchielli, great grandson of that Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer who wrote La Gioconda, used by Disney in Fantasia and his wife Mariuccia who works at the University; and Dino, deputy editor of a newsmagazine with his Finnish wife, the blond Ursula. We could not postpone the dinner any longer because we had been invited by them every time we returned to Italy. The day before the dinner, I bought special wine and shopped around to find Kosher meat and fresh vegetables. On Wednesday I cooked all day preparing a large variety of appetizers and making potato dumplings as a first course, not to mention all the rest. I was not even tired, but rather over excited. The dinner turned out very well and, beside the chairs, everything else was simply perfect, especially the company. Our friends had great fun: the only problem occured when they were leaving with their chairs: Arthur, our 85 pound German Shepherd born six years ago in Newport Beach, California, was not at all happy that they were leaving with something that he thought belonged to the house. We tried to explain it to him, but he still thinks that the chairs were his. Here is what I cooked as a main course.
Turkey Rolls Serves four Preparation: 10 minutes Cooking time: 15 minutes Ingredients: 8 thin slices of turkey breast (ask the butcher to pound it a little bit) 8 thin slices of ham (the diet style is also fine) 8 thin slices of Emmenthal (the one with limited fat will do) 8 big fresh sage leaves 2/3 table spoons of chive Extravirgin olive oil, salt and pepper Put a little bit of salt and ground pepper on both side of the turkey slices. Place down a sage leave in each one covered by a slice of ham and one of Emmenthal. Roll them up and seal them with a toothpick. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, add the chives and the turkey rolls. Sauteâ€™ till golden brown, stiring once in a while. Add the white wine and cook 10 minutes. Cut the rolls in four little pieces and serve covered with their sauce accompanied by steamed vegetables or arugola salad. You might make the same recipe using chicken breast or waffle style slices of veal or beef. You can also use two kinds of meat, giving a choise to your guests.
Il Corrierino dei Piccoli Since I was three years old, I have been expert at cutting: ordinary knives, scissors, cutters, trimmers, poultry shears, shredders, carving knives had no secrets to me. What did I cut? Everything I could get my hands on, although I preferred to cut wool socks. I used to leave a pair as it was while cutting one or two more at the ankle so that, after sewing them all together, I could walk back and forth in the long corridor of my family’s apartment with very colourful pantyhose. I also wore, of course, my mom’s heeled shoes and an old neat leather purse in my right hand that I had seen in a picture taken by my father where my mother was trying to keep it from a very naughty one-year-old Patrizia. But the recipe published in “Il Corrierino dei Piccoli” - the weekly magazine for children that came out every Sunday, was by far my best cut. At that time I was already mad about the noise and smell of paper, as well as about cooking. So - wearing my special pantyhose, this was my favorite two-stage exercise: first the magazine cutting and then the cake cooking for the delight of all my family. I want to share with you this simple and successful recipe, which I have already tried a numbers of times in joyful moments both as a child and in college.
Cocoa cake with dry cookies Serves 6 Preparation: 10 minutes Cooking time: 5 minutes Fridge time: 3 hours
Ingredients: 1/2 pound of dry simple cookies 1/4 pound of brown sugar 1/4 pound of butter or margarine 3 teaspoons of cocoa 1 egg A few drops of vanilla essence Pound the cookies. Put butter, sugar and cocoa in a little pan until butter melts. Set aside until lukewarm, then add the egg and vanilla essence. Stir for a few minutes and add the crumbs. You may want to add two big handful of raisins to the compound. Transfer the mixture to a mould spread with butter, press with a spatula to flatten slightly. Chill it for at least three hours. Overturn the cake onto a serving plate and slice it. Serve with coffee or tea. Children might like to taste it with a glass of orange juice. You can also prepare the cake one day in advance or on Saturday morning so it will be ready for an afternoon children party.
Traditional salmon «This is so good that I want to marry you», said my husband who at that time was not yet my husband. The poor guy was asking me to marry him at every meal twice a day, but this time, over the salmon, he was damned serious: «We’ll get married at Christmas», I surrendered. At that time we had been living together for several years in a rented country style house in Brentwood, California, four miles inside a canyon. Our yard was a real zoo with coyotes, raccoons, deer, woodpeckers and parrots who used to hike down from Santa Monica Mountains probably attracted by the smell of roast fish and bread baking that wafted from the house. I have to confess that I “stole” – well, not really, I was “inspired” by the recipe during a summer holiday spent in Missoula, Montana. There was not very much choice over there, other than grilled steaks and fish over the charcoal. So when we were led into a high tech local brewery with an attached kitchen, we felt we found a gold nugget. We were in Montana after all! We went to that restaurant for three evenings in a row and become friends with the waiters. Once at home, I tried to reproduce the recipe by re-inventing the recipe from the memory of the taste. And here it is with my sincere apologies to the original chef. His or her salmon was fresher than what I found at the supermarket, but what can we do?
Montana-style salmon Serves two Preparation: 5 minutes + two hours Cooking time: 10/12 minutes Ingredients: 1 pound of salmon tail (it is the leanest and less fishy taste part) light soy sauce sake 1 teaspoon sesame oil 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 crashed red capsicum 2 big garlic cloves, crashed 2 shallots, peeled and minced 2 tablespoons minced mint Put the salmon tail in a glass bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Stir well and be sure the salmon is covered by the liquid (use half part of soy sauce and half of sake). Let stand at room temperature for at last two hours. Strain the fish from the liquid and lay it down in a ovenpan with a little grill inside and put it on the medium rack of a preheated oven and grill at 400/450 degrees. Let cook for 10/12 minutes until golden brown. If you see it is browning too quickly, cover it with alluminum foil. Cut the salmon in half lengthwise, divide it into two dishes and serve it with boiled potatos. P.S. My husband and I got married in Palm Springs, California on December 27th, 1992. We still call this recipe â€œTraditional Salmonâ€? not because it is cooked in a traditional way but as a reminder of a turning point in our relationship.
Fahrenheit All what I knew about Fahrenheit at the time I left Milan for Los Angeles I learned in my Italian - English dictionary. I did not know then that I would soon need a conversion table to roast a chicken in my oven and to buy vegetables at the supermarket. I also started to learn about 99% fatfree sliced ham, A&D low fat milk, hard mozzarella cheese for pizza and garlic croutons. To tell you the truth I did not know that the long experience in my family kitchen would have been almost useless. This was a never-ending trip around my American stove - that of course did not work in the same way of the Italian one - and I took it as a real challenge. I unconsciously helped myself by remembering what I learned at school a long long time before, when I used to translate Omero’s passages from Greek to Latin. This is the process. First, you clarify in your own mind the author’s meaning, then you interpret and transform the sentence before translating it. This is not easy when you have to work with two dead languages. As you may notice, I am a survivor. Sooner or later habits learned in school become part of your real life and eventually your food recipies. I arrived in Los Angeles with an Alitalia direct flight from Milan on the Eve of the New Year 1988, and was immediately welcomed by a slight earthquake. ”What the hell, everything is shaking” I thought after a rough international flight and accusing Claudio, my 6.2 not-yet-husband, of tossing and turning too much in our Californian king size bed on wheels. After sleeping 24 hours in a wonderful suite at Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Claudio and I were ready for our new life. We rented a small accomodation in Marina del Rey, close to the beach, and this is my first uncooked dish successfully avoiding Fahrenheit troubles.
Stuffed tomatoes Serves two Preparation: 15 minutes Ingredients: 4 round ripe medium size tomatoes 1 small can of tuna in olive oil 2 tablespoons of black olive pate’ 8 basil leaves and some parsley Extra virgin olive oil, ground pepper Wash and dry the tomatoes. Cut the tops and remove seeds. Keep tomatos upside down. Meanwhile pour off the oil from the tuna and put fish in a small bowl with the black olive pate’, washand cut basil and parsley, and a pinch of pepper. Mix well. Fill the little tomatoes’ holes with the mix, cover them with their hats and place them on a serving plate. If you use tuna in water, add a pinch of salt and one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to make it smooth. This is an easy and tasty side dish to enhance an ordinary steak.
The wok It was a chilly and windy August in San Francisco when my husband-tobe first took me to the United States. Claudio, an Italian journalist with a Sixties style “California Dreaming” passion, was organizing a big layout about the San Francisco police department with his good friend and great photographer Douglas Kirkland. Once there, on the wave of “The Year of the Dragon”, a movie that had just been released, I spent a lot of time alone in Chinatown, trying to experience Chinese culture and wanting to go into their kitchens as I was falling in love – I, an Italian woman – with this millennial cuisine. I could not resist buying either sauces or brushes or tools and useless gadgets. And - worst of all - I surprised myself by being absolutely out of control in front of a giant professional wok which was on sale. On my way to the hotel my enthusiasm waned as I wandered how to hide the flying saucer and face Claudio. So I decided to put the pot - lid off - in the middle of the bed and jump into the shower when Claudio would knock on the door. And so I did. But my doubts vanished when, coming out of the bathroom Pink Panther style, I found Claudio literally adoring the wok even though we barely had room for it in our small luggage. Once at home I started the long process of adapting Chinese cuisine to Italian taste dealing with the ingredients that you can find in the market next door. Here is my first try.
Shrimp & radicchio with white rice Serves 2 Preparation: 5 minutes Cooking time: 15 minutes Ingredients: 1 pound of medium size peeled shrimp 1 small head of radicchio 1 medium size white onion light soy sauce and crashed red pepper Bring water to boil and cook 1 1/2 cups of rice. Meanwhile cut, peel and slice onion, throughly wash radicchio; cut it in 8 pieces. Pour 4 table spoons of oil in the wok and start to cook at high heat. Add sliced onion and stir well. Continue to stir otherwise you risk to burn it. When it starts to become transparent and brown, add the shrimpand mix for a few more minutes. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce and then the radicchio that you have already dried in kitchen paper or in a towel. Continue to mix for 5 minutes and if you find there is too much liquid, pour off the extra sauce. Otherwise the compound wonâ€™t have the savoury taste you desire.
Recipies and stories: from Los Angeles to Milan