Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Meal of a Lifetime

My daughter used to love the Italian, German, and American food I made. The process of growing up turned her away from her heritage and turned her East. No, not Poland or Russia from whence the remainder of her gene pool came, but Far East. She spent months trying to figure out Korean broth while living in Ireland, she missed her favorite Korean restaurant in Oakland, California so much. Finally we went to the restaurant and got the recipe for her. She was in heaven. She still loves Korean food, but a trip to Japan caught her palate, and the other day when she got off the plane in San Francisco after coming from London she planned a stop for dinner at a well thought of ramen restaurant before we made our way home. The ramen at Santa Ramen in Santa Clara was delicious but I was not as delirious about it as she was. Other meals ensued, but finally we got to the meal for which I had been waiting for 30 years. The one she cooked for me.

A while ago while on her way to India for a conference her job sent her to, she took a few days off in Thailand, and took some cooking classes. I know all this because she sent me a picture of herself wearing a apron and holding a knife. The frame around the picture advertises a cooking school in Thailand. And she also gave me a Thailand durian refrigerator magnet.

When she said she would cook for us I expected Korean, but when she decided on Thai I was very pleased as we do not go out for Thai several times every time she visits us. So a trip to the Pan Asian food mall nearby ensued. After filling up a basket with all sorts of chilies, lemongrass, coconut milk, and Jasmine Rice (I got a 5 pound bag of Jasmine brown rice, figuring I'd substitute Jasmine for the regular brown rice I use when I make the twice monthly batch of dog food I cook up for the dog I never wanted.) The since we couldn't find it there, we went to a nearby Japanese market looking for Kefir Lime leaf. They didn't have it either, so we picked up a tray of fresh sashimi for an appetizer, a six pack of Sapporo, and another six pack of Mango Mochi. We went on to the local hippy "natural food" store. They lacked Kefir Lime leaf as well, so we got some chicken and went on to another little market. We didn't find it and gave up, went home, and she made her green curry without kefir lime leaf. Nonetheless it was absolutely delicious, the best green curry I'd ever had. She says while ready made curry paste is very good, making it yourself makes your curry even better. What makes my curry even better is having her cook it for me. I told her the day will come that she'll have to cook for me every day and change my diapers. She just made the next flight back to London.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Nonna's Day in Italy

Just the thought of a “Gluten Free Italy” convinced me that I needed a gluten filled Italy. Hence my absence from Curmudgeon.com for the last month. A while ago I came across a Google map of Northeastern Italy someone had made in 2008 of Slow Food’s Osterie (taverns) d'Italia, and I immediately started think about a road trip. Traditionally Italians have three categories of places to eat: Osterias--the simplest, Trattorias--still informal, and Ristoranti--formal. In actuality the categories are not so clearly defined anymore, and I think a more modern definition of Osterie would be "eatery" encompassing all three. While I don't think the limited addition of McDonalds and other fast food has changed anything, it sure has changed Italy as pointed out by some Italian friends. It has added a decent supply of easily accessible free public toilets.

My experience with Slow Food's Italian guide is that without being able to read a word of Italian you can pick a recommended restaurant at random and have a really great traditionally made meal for about $50 per person including a delicious local wine from a carafe. And don’t scoff at carafe wine. Usually the chef grew up in the area, and the meal is designed for the local wines. At my very first random restaurant pick from Slow Food I had the chef’s wife warn me that the wine list was for tourists and to drink the local carafe wine. Now we have eaten it this wonderful place since the early 1990s and now the local wine is bottled with the restaurant name on it. (And the owners' son, who was a little kid on our first visit, is 18 years old.)

I preplanned a heavy eating trip, with one important meal a day, and a light sightseeing tour of Northern Italy. We met our friends in front of a car rental counter in Milan’s Malpensa airport. We had already been in Paris for 10 days, but they had just landed after about 20 hours with two plane changes. So I’d scheduled a light day of driving, and zero touring. I drove this leg and as I hadn’t driven stick shift in about 35 years managed to convince everyone in the car in about 5 minutes that I shouldn’t be the driver. Nonetheless, I did pretty well once we got on the autostada.

One of our friends had never been to Italy (imagine that,) and the other had not been since before I had last driven stick shift. So our first stop was one on memory lane, for a light lunch snack at an Autogrill, many of which were built as classical mid-century futuristic restaurant bridges which span the highway. I had a plate of proscuitto and salami with a roll and a bottle of Pellagrino. It was sort of amazing when I think about truly nasty overpriced fast food you get at the food stops on The Garden State Parkway.

Afterwards, we drove on to a "Locanda" (inn) which my wife and I had been to before. It was in the middle of nowhere, with no website or email address, in an area which is much too uninteresting to appear in guidebooks, but beautiful and peaceful nonetheless. When we arrived it was less than peaceful, it being Mother’s Day afternoon and everyone within many kilometers had taken their Nonna out to lunch at this place. There was exactly one space available, and waiting for our car in the unpaved parking lot shaded by chestnut and olive trees.
Italian friends, with whom we had eaten at the inn once before had made the reservation by phone for us. We walked in, the open kitchen off to the right had a open wood grill as a center island with a huge hood over it to exhaust the wood and grilling smoke. I could see beef, veal, horse, chicken, and guinea fowl grilling. The aroma was incredible. Sadly we spoke no Italian, but it wasn't long before the staff figured out who we were, we got our rooms and our jet lagged friends crashed for a couple of hours. While they rested we unpacked and looked out a window down on a park like area with numerous Italian families standing around talking. My wife said she half expected them to break out in opening choruses of Cavalleria Rusticana. At that moment not speaking or understanding Italian wasn't so bad. The magic of the moment would have been ruined it if we had understood the everyday conversations below us.

We went into a nearby town and sat down at a café and drank what everyone else was drinking: an Aperol Spritz. Aperol is a concoction made of bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, and 11% alcohol according to Wikipedia. Don't bother asking because I have no idea what gentian and cinchona are. An Aperol Spritz which is slightly bitter like Camparri, adds ice, Prosecco, soda water, and a slice of orange, and it ends up less alcoholic than a glass of wine. While a bottle of Aperol sells for about $11 in any Italian supermarket it runs about $27 here in the U.S.A. (naturally.) It was served with potato chips and peanuts on the side. At every café we went to on this trip about three quarters of the people were having this florescent orange spritz.

By the time we got back to the inn the parking lot was empty as all the nonnas, mothers, children and grandchildren had gone home. We had dinner on the large terrace of the inn, which was set under a canopy of chestnut trees overlooking the countryside. It was warm, and quite spectacular. But the dramatic countryside scenery was a minor thrill compared to the food. We started out with a large platter of Salumi, paper thin excellent cold cuts, salami, coppa, pancetta, proscuitto, and mortadella. The best of Italian traditional meat curing is so simple and straight forward, so unlike American with added sugars, artificial flavorings and chemicals, that it was hard to get enough of these melt on your tongue, palate pleasing, naturally moist and sweet cold cuts. The "antipasti" was followed by "primi", a bis, two pastas. The tortellini, for which the nearby town, Valeggio sul Minico, is famous, was served in a small amount of the pasta's boiling water and butter. The hand made egg pasta was very thin, about half as thick as the fresh tortellini you get in the U.S., and was filled with a delicious stuffing made from the local cured meats and others were filled with cheese. They made the tortellini one gets in America seem like they are created out of cardboard and filled with canned pet food. The other pasta was also a thin egg pasta rolled with very thin ham and served with butter and sage. It was hard to decide which I liked better, they were both so good. We followed the pasta absolutely delicious "secondi." Some of us had grilled T bone veal steak and others grilled homemade sausage, and of course we traded so everybody got to taste everything. There were vegetables as well, all of which were undistinguished except for the delicious fried potatoes. I sometimes think vegetables in Northern Italy are for the tourists as well. We have noticed the wait staff is always slightly surprised when we ask about Verdura. As our Italian friends mother once told us, "We ate enough vegetables during the war." In all the whole meal went perfectly with the 2 liters of local, light, bubbly red wine. To be honest I can't even remember the desserts, but I see from the bill that there were 3 of them and my best guess is that I did not have one. Fortunately, we only had to walk upstairs and fall into bed.

Locanda Belvedere
Santa Lucia ai Monti, 12
Valeggio sul Minico, Italy