You might think he's doing something else. But in reality, he's learning how to sit/stay, and not doing a very good job of it (he eventually learned how to do so beautifully ... sort of ).

sabato 17 marzo 2012

Wearing o' the Green

The past is another country: they do things differently there.
- L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

Oh! The drums go bang,
And the cymbals clang,
And the horns they blaze away;
McCarthy pumps the old bassoon
While I the pipes do play;
And Hennessey Tennessee tootles the flute,
And the music is somethin' grand;
A credit to old Ireland is McNamara's band.
- lyrics from "McNamara’s Band"

Last March 17th, Italy celebrated 150 years of accepting its Constitution. It was a strange day, visually, in Florence, as we watched many Italians walking around in the center with little Italian flags affixed to lapels: it was the first time in all the years of acquaintance I've had with this country that I saw Italians celebrating their Italianness.

Italians tend to identify their "paese" (country) with their birth city. They are Florentine first, and Italian second. Ditto the Roman. Ditto the Milanese. (If you find this idea somewhat confusing or absurd, do please consider the Texan, the New Yorker – and I’m not talking Upstate, the Californian.)

(No one’s chest – as far as I can tell – swells when he or she says that he/she hails from Dubuque.)

(Not that there is anything wrong with Dubuque, mind you.)

For those of us from the United States, and other parts of the Anglophone world, parts of Great Britain probably excepted, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Green beer’s the norm, and lots of folks eat corned beef and cabbage.

My Cousin-in-Law Michael, who is really Irish, had some interesting thoughts about this day, and debunks some commonly-held myths about Irish cuisine and other things: “Yeah, seemingly corned beef and cabbage, as it is eaten here, is a Jewish tradition, picked up on the Lower East Side. They didn't bring it with them, that's for sure.

The Irish never wore kilts and never played bagpipes. Never ever. Try Scotland.

In spite of many efforts, St. Patrick's day in Ireland is the poor relation of the festivities here, in Aussie, etc.

Traditional Irish music is a niche market in Ireland, too. Bars and hotels host sessions, but they are mostly to snare the tourist. Americans think of Whiskey In The Jar, etc., when they are asked to name an Irish song. When your average 25 year old Irish is asked to name an Irish song, he'll say Sunday Bloody Sunday, Zombie, The Boys Are Back In Town, Gloria, et al.

According to the most recent UN study I saw, the Irish drink significantly less beer per capita than Americans.

Irish dancing is WAY more popular in America than it is in Ireland.”

And then a pet peeve : “Luke Kelly of The Dubliners group was asked did they have anything like the Munich Oktoberfest in Dublin. He said yes. O what do you call it, said the interested German. In Dublin, said Luke, we call it Friday night. In which case, I add, Musikfest is Friday night between eight and nine, before things really get started.

And, as you well know, Patty is a girl's name. I hate hearing St. Patty's Day. Paddy should be the contraction, if one is needed.”

Wanting to know more, I turned to the highly suspect, but always entertainingly informative Wiki:

“Saint Patrick's Day …is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated internationally on 17 March in Dublin, Ireland. The tradition came about at the instigation of the Irish Protestant organisation [WHO KNEW?] The Knights of St. Patrick. The inaugural parade took place on 17 March 1783. In what has been described as an act of cultural re-orientation the British established a new focus of ritual and spectacle in the figure of St. Patrick, a pre-reformation saint who appealed to both the Roman Catholic and Irish Protestant traditions in Ireland … The day is generally characterised by the attendance of church services,wearing of green attire and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol,which is often proscribed during the rest of the season."

Why we wear green:

"Originally, the colour associated with Saint Patrick was blue. Over the years the colour green and its association with Saint Patrick's day grew.Green ribbons and shamrocks were worn in celebration of St Patrick's Day as early as the 17th century. Saint Patrick is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved plant, to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish, and the wearing and display of shamrocks and shamrock-inspired designs have become a ubiquitous feature of the day.In the 1798 rebellion, to make a political statement, Irish soldiers wore full green uniforms on 17 March in hopes of catching public attention. The phrase "the wearing of the green", meaning to wear a shamrock on one's clothing, derives from a song of the same name.”

My kind of parade:

“The shortest St Patrick's Day parade in the world takes place in Dripsey, Cork. The parade lasts just 100 yards and travels between the village's two pubs.”

Cabbage doesn’t much figure into the Italian diet, at least not in Tuscany (it's probably really big in the Alto Adige). Red cabbage is virtually impossible to find in our part of the world: what’s available is what's known in the States as Savoy cabbage (the curly, delicately-hued, shades of green vegetable) and verza or krauti (our “normal” cabbage”).

Sorting through some papers, I found this recipe jammed in an envelope, the postmark 10 March 1981. From my mother, it contained a recipe for "Old Fashioned Cabbage Soup."

No idea why it’s “old fashioned.” Nor if this recipe is hers, or perhaps her father’s (her mother couldn’t cook to save her life which is why, perhaps, my mother and her siblings became good cooks; my Uncle Bill was an experimenter, a culinary pusher-of-boundaries: he was eating snails, oysters Rockefeller, and telling us it was ok to like the remains of last night’s clambake for breakfast the following morning – this was a radical idea to us, in single digits at the time; while some people in the 60s were tuning in, turning on, and turning off – we were eating corn on the cob for breakfast).

The recipe is as my mother wrote it. So do please read through it before setting out – have all the ingredients ready to throw into the cauldron. To quote M.F.K. Fisher: “This is one of those breathless operations which demand, as does all Oriental cooking, that the ingredients be prepared before anything starts the final gallop between the skillet and the table.”

Old Fashioned Cabbage Soup

Saute 2 cups shredded green cabbage and ½ c. finely chopped onion in 3 tablespoons butter until tender. Stir in 3 tablespoons flour, ½ tsp. each caraway seed and salt, ¼ tsp. each pepper and paprika. Remove from heat; gradually stir in 2 cups milk.
Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil and stir one minute.

Remove from heat and add ½ pint light cream and ¾ cup (3 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese: stir until melted. Return to heat if necessary to melt cheese but do not boil. Top w/small crackers (oyster). Makes 4 cups.


M.F.K. Fisher, “Some Seeds of this Planet,” in With Bold Knife and Fork, Berkeley, 1968. This book was recently shredded by the Puppers, and is in pieces., “St. Patrick’s Day” and “McNamara’s Band.” The song, written in 1946, was a hit for Bing Crosby. Various schools of thought exist re: the proper lyrics.

ERIN GO BRAGH! Or, to paraphrase my Cousin-in-Law, Happy Friday Night!

venerdì 3 febbraio 2012

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup

One of the last teachers was an Algerian with a bright eye and ear. “What,” he asked me with a subtle air of impudent challenge, for he was politically wary and like to ascribe this wariness to cultural gaps (mine, not his), “is a beautiful sentence to you – a perfect phrase?” Without any thought, I answered, “Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup.”

- M.F.K. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork

It’s cold here in Tuscany, thanks to winds from Siberia which assaulted our shores two nights ago and dumped a pile of snow in our back yard – indeed, in many an Italian back yard. We receive mixed signals about how long this is going to last: two weeks, says one school of thought. All month, says another.

Both are horrifying. It’s not supposed to snow in this part of the world, the land of silver-gray olive trees, and rustling cypresses. At this time of year, it’s supposed to snow in places like Connecticut, where a friend reports that the temperature yesterday was 59°F. A Canadian friend in Toronto wrote to say that we were receiving the snow intended for them.

This is the first snow fall for the Puppers, and they revel in it. Many years ago, when Tillie experienced her first snow fall in upstate New York, she minced her way through it. Not these Puppers: they attacked it with gusto, and spent the first morning after the snow fall ignoring freezing temperatures. They opted to spend the entire morning outside thrashing around.

We, instead, have not. We’ve hunkered down. Hunkering down, culinary-speaking – and of what else do I write? – means carbohydrates, and lots of ‘em. Last night’s dinner was baked polenta with a venison ragù. The venison couldn’t have been more local (we probably knew it when it was a deer), and organic to boot. We’d been eating it for a couple of days, and were somewhat tired of it, but it was Canine Inappropriate, as I’d laced the sauce with generous amounts of dark chocolate (can be toxic to dogs) and hot pepper (our dogs like hot food).

The mixed greens/sliced cucumber/mushroom salad went untouched. Instead we went for the goat/cow’s cheese, a nutty, totally satisfying cheese from Switzerland. We would have gone for another cheese from Switzerland, a soft, supple cow’s milk cheese embedded in herbs, but Harry got to it while I was engrossed in a book. The Scallion caught him at the end, munching on a piece of toast. Oh well.

The first day of the snow, we invited the Scallion’s mother to lunch, and we started with a cauliflower soup with Parmesan cheese. Two nights ago it was Jane Grigson’s most delicious vegetable soup, made different by the addition of crushed allspice berries. We ignored the salad then, too. Tonight it will be Jane’s cauliflower/fennel soup (both are in season just now).

To my mind, it’s hard to get excited about cauliflower – unless it forms part of a perfectly formed curry laced with so much spice it all but disappears – or if the florets are fried, as they do them at a lovely trattoria in Florence.

The English have a dish called cauliflower cheese, and though there are variations on it, it tastes pretty much like it sounds.

“Cauliflower,” writes the late, great Alan Davidson, “[is] a variety of the common CABBAGE in which flowers have begun to form but have stopped growing at the bud stage … [it is] therefore richer in vitamins and minerals than other brassicas.” He then goes on to say that we really don’t know where it comes from – perhaps the Near East (doesn’t it seem as if most everything hails from there?) or Cyprus. Or more likely, the Arabs (if not the Near East, then Arabia).

Well, a couple of days ago I had a head of cauliflower, and I had some cheese … in this case, not just any cheese, but a superlatively good hunk of Parmesan picked up in … yes, Parma. Hence the following recipe.

The book I was absorbed in (Dorothy Whipple’s They Knew Mr. Knight) when Harry ate the cheese has a paragraph that had me scratching my head – not because of the book (Dorothy Whipple is marvelous) but because of the nature of the comfort food.

The breadwinner of the family, Thomas Blake, has just come home from a most trying day. He has a ne’er-do-well brother, Edward.

“Did you see Edward?” asked Celia.

“I saw him,” said Thomas grimly. He was reluctant to say more, but Celia, with wifely disregard of his reluctance, persisted.

“What did you do about it?”

“Oh, I’ve taken him on at the works,” admitted Thomas, frowning.

“Have some more cauliflower,” invited Celia soothingly.

Zuppa di cavolfiore con Parmigiano/Cauliflower soup with Parmesan cheese

6 c. cauliflower florets
1½ c. leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 T. butter
4 c. vegetable broth
1 c. white wine
1½ c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Grated nutmeg, optional
¼ c. cream, optional

Prepare the vegetables before starting out.

Melt the butter in a deep pan over medium heat, and add the leek. Cook ‘til softened but not golden or browned. Add the cauliflower, toss to coat, and pour in the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes (or until the cauliflower is pliant). Add the wine about halfway through.

Remove from the stove, let cool slightly, and press through a food mill on a medium blade (if you want a more refined soup, run it through again on the smallest blade; if you don’t have a food mill or are simply lazy, throw it into a blender).

Return the contents into the pan, and add a couple of gratings of nutmeg and/or the cream.

Serve immediately.


Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, New York, 1999.
M.F.K. Fisher, “Especially of the Evening,” in With Bold Knife and Fork, Berkeley, 1968.
Jane Grigson, English Food, London, 1974.
Dorothy Whipple, They Knew Mr. Knight, London, 2003 (reprint). See

For fried cauliflower florets, take yourself to lunch (no dinner)at da Sergio, Piazza San Lorenzo 8/r, 055/281 941, closed Sundays. Or make your own: see Marcella Hazan’s in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, New York, 1992.

In Memoriam: Cocco (b. 2003 - d. 2 February 2012): a most noble, loving golden retriever. He's now in most excellent company in the Happy Hunting Ground, and will be sorely missed by Terry and all who knew him.

mercoledì 21 dicembre 2011

Hard Candy Christmas

We’re coming upon Christmas, and we’re all supposed to feel full of joy and good will. If you’re not feeling full of joy (and we know who we are), we should at least try to feel full of good will, and go through the motions of perhaps stringing lights on a tree (if we decide to have one), of baking Christmas cookies (if we can be bothered), of playing Christmas music (if Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” won’t reduce you to tears), and of giving Christmas presents.

My Facebook wall is cluttered with many food writers promoting their own, just-published cookbooks. End-of-year lists promote the ten best of 2011. It’s pleasing to see that Yotam Ottolenghi has broken into U.S. consciousness (his “pepper tofu” might be the best tofu recipe, ever) – his Plenty was named one of the 10 best cookbooks of 2011 by the Washington Post.

My mother always gave me cookbooks at Christmas. I often returned the favor. It ran in the family: my sister also frequently gifted my mother with cookbooks, and we consistently and predictably gift our brother-in-law with them. (He is becoming the best cook in the family.)

My mother almost always inscribed these books. She was feeling a little full of swagger when she inscribed 1986’s present – in this case, Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen in the following manner: “Merry Christmas to the 2nd or 3rd best cook in the family.” Clearly she thought she was the best, though whom she meant by the 2d best cook will elude me forever.

I own Marcella’s entire oeuvre, and I have always been partial to this, because I think it is her best. Is it because it is the only Marcella my mother ever gave me? Is it because when I made her “Baked Stuffed Bluefish Fillets” for my visiting sister my sister proclaimed me a marvelous cook? (It was the recipe!) Do the recipes taste better because my mother inscribed it? Unclear. But what is clear is that so many of these recipes have entered our repertoire, and have been part of our lives for 25 years.

In 1987, she gave me Deborah Madison’s (with Edward Espe Brown) Greens Cook Book. My mother had carefully cut off, in triangular fashion, as everyone did and does, the price tag. Her inscription? “Merry Christmas to the Gregarious Gourmet!” I can remember spending many an enjoyable evening in front of my mother’s roaring fireplace mentally devouring the recipes – this was the most sophisticated vegetarian cook book at that time, period. It was well-written, insightful. Better than that, the recipes were stimulating unlike those in Diet for a Small Planet, which exhorted us to eat vegetarian, whose recipes would have driven any well-meaning vegetarian wannabe to the nearest steakhouse. The recipes were stultifying, and could easily have done double duty as paperweights.

(That same year, for my birthday a couple of months before, she’d given me the 2d revised Joy of Cooking, with the following inscription: “Happy 28th, S.H. The great chef will get even greater!”)

1994 brought me Provencal Light by Martha Rose Shulman, and the inscription? “Merry Christmas, Patti. You can (and may!) practice on us anytime!” (Us, in that case, referred to her second husband who, unlike my mother, really didn’t much like food at all.) This volume isn’t nearly as dog-eared (excuse me Pups and Puppers) as her earlier Mediterranean Light, though I am very happy that it's on our shelves.

Chez Panisse Cooking arrived in 1998, with the inscription: “Merry Christmas, S.H. from a sous chef [my mother] and a salad boy! [non-food-loving second husband].” We cooked many, many wonderful things from this book, and we still overdose on all the marvelous green garlic recipes (our introduction to that product) every spring. In fact, the spine has cracked between pages 112-113. At left, “Green Garlic and Cheese Soufflés” and on the right, “Green Garlic Soup.”

Her inscription with the 1999 (Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook) book was simple and to the point: “Merry Christmas, Patti/with love, Mums.” This was the first time in nearly 20 years that she didn’t sign her second husband’s name (he’d died that February) and even the printing of the book reflects the fact that things were awry. The “Sweets” chapter is totally muddled; the printer must’ve had a mechanical malfunction. One recipe appears over several pages. Apt, however.

I am 100% clueless how Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook came to be such a laughing matter in our family, but it did. It was the first, and only, coffee table cookbook she ever gave me, and it came via early in 2000. She had one, too (I gave my mother’s copy to a dear cousin who loves to cook), and so did my sister. In fact, she gave it to me as a joke. It’s a glorious cookbook, brilliantly produced, but who really has time to make “Fricassée of Escargots with a Purée of Sweet Carrots, Roasted Shallots, and Herb Salad?” (Like St. Francis looking for inspiration and then receiving the stigmata, I just randomly opened the book and that’s what appeared.)

[Please don’t get me wrong here: I would kill to eat anything made by Thomas Keller –perhaps even snails.][Years ago, while Sunday lunching at a friend’s house in Florence, a Ducasse-trained chef – who made our Sunday lunch – stoutly defended the cookbook as a “how to” rather than a “do it” kind of thing, and his point was well taken.]

The Puppers chewed the hell out of this book just a few weeks ago, and it now needs to be re-bound.

My mother came from the United States twice to visit us. The first time, in 2007, she gifted us with Marion Cunningham’s re-revision of her Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It’s a glorious tome, sadly uninscribed, with a faint whiff of dog pee on it (Harry).

The second, and last time, she visited was in 2009 (the last time I saw her not in a hospital), and she brought with her the Momofuku cookbook. She would not have figured that one out by herself; it was my sister’s wise counsel that led her to gift me with it. The inscription, her last to me in cookbook-giving, was simple and to the point: “Merry Christmas, S.H.!”

I took two books from her shelves last month. One was one I’d given her – Anna Thomas’s Vegetarian Epicure in which I’d self-righteously inscribed (as only a junior in college can do): “May you turn your wandering eye to meatless vistas. Merry Christmas!” This in 1980.

Did she cook out of it? I know she loved the Cheddar corn chowder, and the book’s spine is inexplicably broken on popovers/hot herb bread on the left, corn bread on the right. (As much as I adore and treasure this book, it seems somehow dated.)

The other was the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook (1962), and I am sure that my mother took its lessons to heart. It’s a most amazing volume. It tells the fledgling cook how to put meals together, how to rely on canned goods (among other things). A two-page spread entitled “ Plan meals the easy way – borrow these ideas” puts the whole meal in perspective: Meat/Starchy Food/Vegetable/Salad/Dessert/Nice to serve. She eschewed the “Choose variety meats for change” – if we ever ate sweetbreads or kidney, the four of us must have been dining somewhere else.

The beauty of this book? Right up front, on the page that starts with “Why nearly 9,000,000 women cherish this cook book” is an explanation as follows: “the new Cook Book is easy to use” because it 1) has a washable cover, 2) has loose-leaf binding, and 3) it has tab-index pages (and, just so our priorities are straight, chapter 6 (Candy) precedes Casseroles and one-dish meals (Chapter 8), Chapter 9 (Cookies) … we don’t get to Meats/Poultry/Fish ‘til Chapter 13).

“Ideas for lunch-box meals:” Deviled Ham and Pickle Bunwiches (bunwiches?), Potato chips, Perfect iced tea, olive and celery (the salad or vegetable section), and brownies and/or a Ripe Pear. My mother didn’t pack many lunch-box meals for us once she, a single parent, went back into the work force. We were among those kids who “bought” and our elementary school lunches, if memory serves, cost 35 cents. Would that she had made us bunwiches!

The book seems largely unused except for the dog-eared pages in the pastry section. Thinking about it, my mother came a long way on her culinary path. From Better Homes and Gardens to Momofuku ...

This year I make her stuffing, to go with our turkeys (two boneless/stuffed with good stuff from our butcher) and remember that the last time I ate it, she was in our kitchen, making it herself.

As you may have gathered, my mother was a marvelous cook. She particularly went all out during the holidays, and this recipe I associate with Christmas at her house. For those of you not living in the United States, you can substitute speck.

Happy Holidays/Tanti Auguri.


8 oz. package cream cheese
1 c. sour cream
¼ lb. dried beef (or speck)
¼ green pepper, chopped
2 T. dried onion flakes*
½ t. garlic salt
2 shakes of pepper
2/3 c. pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put nuts in a shallow baking pan and toast until golden brown – about 5 minutes.

While the nuts are baking, combine the remaining ingredients in a one-quart casserole. Remove the nuts from the oven, put them on top of the dip, and bake for 20 minutes.

Serve immediately on rye or sesame crackers.

*Do dried onion flakes even exist anymore? Probably yes, somewhere. Use diced red onion instead.


Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Cooking, New York, 1988.
Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook, New York, 1962.
David Chang and Peter Meehan, Momofuku, New York, 2009.
Marion Cunningham, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, New York, 2006. 13th ed.
Marcella Hazan, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, New York, 1986. HEINOUSLY OUT OF PRINT.
Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook, New York, 1999.
Deborah Madison, The Greens Cook Book: Extraordinary Vegetarian Cuisine from the Celebrated Restaurant, New York, 1987.
Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker, The Joy of Cooking, New York, 1997.
Martha Rose Shulman, Provencal Light, New York, 1994.
Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, New York, 1999.

For lyrics to as sung-by Dolly Parton Hard Candy Christmas, go to

giovedì 1 settembre 2011

Vegetable Porn

You know you’re old, or that you’re getting older, when your interests shift from keg (and bong) hits, when you cease to use that obnoxious phrase “pulling an all-nighter,” (why not push one?), when you go to bed long before midnight … and your interests have turned not to whom you might be having sex with tonight but to the flowers and vegetables in your garden. That is, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Instead of bragging about how many shots of tequila you could knock back (where I grew up, we had a ritual of attempting to down 18 shots of whatever upon the advent of one’s 18th birthday; that none of us died, and that one of us actually did it and lived to tell the tale … well), now we’re bragging about our vegetables.

This braggadocio is most seen on Facebook where, it seems, everyone feels compelled to post photos of luscious produce grown by him- or herself – perfectly-formed zucchini, tomatoes the richest of reds, heirloom this, exotic that.

Call it Vegetable Porn.

Our greatest gardening success story is the three volunteer cherry tomato plants sprung from our compost pile. (You might wonder why we compost if we don’t have a garden. Well, we try to have a garden, but each year, even though the compost gets richer and richer, our garden morphs into the Tuscan equivalent of the Gobi Desert.)

We could blame the weather. It's been really hot in this part of the world for too much of July and August. Last week's heat wave seems, mercifully, to have abated. When it’s that hot, watering regularly really becomes key, and you have to accept the fact that your illegally-imported Silver Queen corn has just withered into Halloween doorway decoration many months in anticipo.

And then we look in our garden, at the tomatoes – in some cases, the tomato – on the vine, and we wonder why we even bothered in the first place. We drive by our neighbor’s lush garden, he of the Green Thumb, and curse him secretly, while we smile broadly and wave hello.

We could blame The Puppers. They kicked off the proceedings nicely in early spring by eating most of the mixed Japanese greens (contained in a large terracotta pot). We could blame them for all the chicken wire that prevented us from picking the lavender when it was at is absolute aromatic best; we could blame them for the fact that the irises …no! wait! That was Harry! He’s the one who trampled the irises… well, you could blame The Puppers for the fact that the bulb garden, pride and joy for many years, is now a sordid, tangled web of weeds.

We could blame one of the semi-feral cats for using the it-used-to-be-lovely thyme plant as an outdoor litter box. (Fortunately, we have other thyme plants, and we will put down pine cones, and pieces of citrus, as those are two things that cats hate, according to Google.)

We could think about blaming ourselves.

Lunched recently with Terracotta Sculptress. Over fajitas and a chicken club (yes, dear reader, we were at the Hard Rock Café), I moaned about our shortcomings and failures in our what-could-be-a-really-wonderful garden if 1) we only watered more and 2) we only had more time. Terracotta Sculptress, formerly an avid gardener herself and a confirmed buona forchetta, confessed that she’d basically given up on her basil. Silently, we probably were both thinking, “And how hard is it to grow that?” At least, I was.

Lunched equally recently with the London-based Musical Lads who have a lovely little spread near Barga. Theirs is a small, but lovingly well-tended garden teeming with lavender, tomatoes, and other stuff. When we finalized plans to meet, they asked if we wanted some of their tomatoes, then said, “Oh, no, but you have your own.” Imagine our shame-faced state when we confessed that no, indeed, we did not (to tell two men, one Canadian, the other English, that we have no tomatoes! The Scallion is Italian: it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle ). We accepted this charitable donation with humility and deep gratitude. We do not even have tomatoes … except, of course, for those Blessed Volunteers.

Add to jealousy of the success of various vegetable garden its evil twin: guilt. If you live in the Tuscan countryside (we do), ought we not to have a beautiful garden? Isn’t it expected of us? Why live in the country, if not to have a beautiful garden teeming with things to eat, the stray herbaceous border? Should we turn our attention to livestock and perhaps get a goat, or some chickens (which really aren’t, properly speaking, livestock. But they certainly are not plants.) We share our space with a flock of sheep, and they seem to be thriving. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something?

While I write this, a mini-drama unfolds in the kitchen. You can see photos on the right. At first, I thought it was a rat, but when it ran across the stove, the Scallion pointed out that it was a mouse. I confess I stood on a chair as Rosie waited it out (how 50s of me, and why the chair?). Rosie stopped waiting it out a little while ago, and my guess is that the rodent beat a hasty retreat (who wouldn’t, with seven dogs in attendance?)(Waldo’s sister Zoe has been spending some quality time with us.)

Yup: we live in the country, have no tomatoes, and have a mouse who wants to come to dinner. And, at present, a grasshopper walking up the wall. (He appears stoned.)

Here’s a tasty recipe for those of you who have too many tomatoes and simply don’t know what to do with them. This isn’t mine, but heaven knows where I plucked it from … we’ve been eating it since the 80s.

Tomato Pie (for those of you with excess tomatoes)

1 c. fresh fine breadcrumbs
3 c. sliced, peeled, vine-ripened tomatoes that have just recently picked (about 1 1/3 lb.(
1/3 c. thinly-sliced red onion
2 c. grated Cheddar cheese (about 6 oz.)
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
3 strips bacon or pancetta, halved crosswise, optional

Preheat the oven to 325°F and butter a nine-inch pie plate. Sprinkle ½ c. bread crumbs evenly on the bottom of the pie plate. Arrange half of the tomatoes on top of the bread crumbs, and top with half of the onions. Sprinkle half of the Cheddar on top and repeat layering (omitting bread crumbs). Pour eggs over all, and add salt and pepper to taste. Top the pie with the remaining ½ c. bread crumbs, arrange the bacon strips (if using) on top of the pie. Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes.
This tastes good hot and cold.


It is no more, thanks to Rosie.

lunedì 4 luglio 2011

Hey baby, it's the fourth of July

On the stairs I smoke a
cigarette alone
Mexican kids are shootin'
fireworks below
Hey baby, it's the Fourth of July
Hey baby, Baby take a walk outside

Thank you, John Doe. Thank you, Exene. Oh, thank you X, and may those of you who have that blessed album blast that song loud and clear today. Happy Independence Day! Sadly, the only fireworks we’ll have here are those inside our heads. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse in the sky from our men and women at the nearby U.S. base at Camp Darby. Here’s hoping.

It’s the first Fourth of July for the Puppers, who turned eight months old yesterday. They will celebrate by watching us eat bbq’d ribs and a delicious pasta salad concocted by Canadienne Red (who has a new moniker: Impeccable Housekeeper). They will listen to me read the Declaration of Independence aloud to a resigned Scallion (this is an annual ritual; he’s used to it). Hopefully, Pups and Puppers will understand the relevance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Goddess knows they have all three.

Did you know that an Italian called Filippo Mazzei, friend to Thomas Jefferson, and long-time lover of liberty, helped him out with a phrase or two in that most marvelous document? Filippo’s family had been producing wine in the greater Carmignano area (west-ish of Florence) for about four hundred years when he and TJ became pals; Filippo’s descendants continue to produce seriously good wines in the greater Carmignano area (and elsewhere) ‘til this very day. (Indeed, I shall hoist a glass of their eminently drinkable, eminently affordable (3.19 euro at any Esselunga) Cappezzano later today.)

This from wiki:

In 1773 [Filippo] led a group of Italians who came to Virginia to introduce the cultivation of vineyards, olives, and other Mediterranean fruits. Mazzei became a neighbor and friend of Thomas Jefferson. Mazzei and Jefferson started what became the first commercial vineyard in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They shared an interest in politics and libertarian values, and maintained an active correspondence for the rest of Mazzei's life. In 1779 Mazzei returned to Italy as a secret agent for the state of Virginia. He purchased and shipped arms to them until 1783.

After briefly visiting the United States again in 1785, Mazzei travelled throughout Europe promoting Republican ideals. He wrote a political history of the American Revolution, "Recherches historiques et politiques sur les Etats-Unis de l'Amerique septentrionale", and published it in Paris in 1788. After its publication Mazzei became an unofficial roving ambassador in Europe for American ideas and institutions.

This contribution was acknowledged by John F. Kennedy in his book A Nation of
Immigrants, in which he states that: “The great doctrine 'All men are created equal'incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, was paraphrased from the writing of Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer, who was a close friend of Jefferson. A few alleged scholars try to discredit Mazzei as the creator of this statement and idea, saying that "there is no mention of it anywhere until after the Declaration was published". This phrase appears in Italian in Mazzei's own hand, written in Italian, several years prior to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Mazzei and Jefferson often exchanged ideas about true liberty and freedom. No one man can take complete credit for the ideals of American democracy."

"Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti. Quest'eguaglianza è necessaria per costituire un governo libero. Bisogna che ognuno sia uguale all'altro nel diritto naturale.”

[“All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law."

Happy Fourth of July!

And to any siblings/cousins who read this, shall we meet at Springers?

Canadienne Red found this recipe lying around at a YMCA somewhere in Chicago. She provides us with the recipe, and then her marvelous adaptations.

Canadienne Red’s Most Wonderful Orzo Salad

Official Recipe:

4 garlic cloves
4 medium carrots, peeled & cut into 1-inch pieces
2 T. extra v olive oil
½ lb. orzo
3 cups chicken broth
Salt & pepper to taste

Finely chop garlic in a food processor. Add carrots & pulse into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces.

Heat 1 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add orzo & stir until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add the carrot/garlic mixture and stir to blend. Pour in 2¾ cups broth and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Simmer & stir over low heat until orzo is tender and broth is absorbed, about 12 minutes.

This recipe makes a risotto-like side dish.

My version follows in next message. Put the two together the way you choose, Baby.

This is my first version (as a salad): I blanch the carrots almost whole first. Then chop them up to suit the size of the pasta and place them aside. Next, I cook the pasta (orzo/semi di melone/ puntalette/riso) to al dente, drain, and then add a bit of olive oil to make them slippery. Then, I saute the garlic and some finely chopped sweet onion, adding cumin, coriander, cardamon (all ground) Add the cooled ingredients together in a large bowl. Taste (of course!) and add necessary flavours olive oil for sure, sale/pepe, perhaps a bit of lemon juice and/or zest, maybe a touch of sesame oil? Very good & Excellent!

And my twist on hers: I toasted the cumin and coriander seeds, and then mortar’d and pestle’d them.

Canadienne Red's second version: I sort of followed the original recipe, but I added a 1/2 cup of white wine to the pasta after it had browned and let it reduce before adding the broth. Sauteed the sweet onions with the spices and added them after the "risotto" was cooked. Then added sale/pepe, lemon zest, lemon juice, more olio, more sale.


Lyrics to “Fourth of July” by X. for facts on Filippo Mazzei.

For fun, go to, click on “Just for Fun,” and do today’s quiz.

martedì 14 giugno 2011

Flag Day

It’s Flag Day today in the United States. On this day in 1777, the Second Constitutional Congress adopted the stars and stripes; in 1916, Woodrow Wilson made June 14th the official date of celebration, and in August 1949, it became official. (Um, why did it have to become official twice?)

Italy celebrates Flag Day on January 7. That day marks the occasion when, in 1797, the Italian flag was adopted. Highly puzzling, this, as Italy did not become a nation until much, much later (like, 1861). The Scallion theorizes that this flag was adopted in northern Italy after Napoleon made that part of the world his. No matter. Did the (Italian) Founding Fathers pick the colors red, white, and green to honor Dante, who thought that those colors symbolized the Theological Virtues (red/charity, white/faith, green/hope)? Or were they already thinking, as early as all that, that one day they’d have a queen called Margherita, and they’d name a pizza in her honor? (Red/tomato sauce, white/mozzarella, green/basil).

In Italy on this day in history? The aforementioned Dante does his stint in 1300 as prior, embraces White Guelf-ism, and is soon afterwards kicked out of Florence for picking the wrong color (Black Guelfs were the New Black).

(Let’s all praise the Powers that Be that he was kicked out. If he hadn’t been, would he have felt the urge to put a whole lot of his fellow Florentines in hell? Would he have written his ultra-divine Commedia? If he hadn’t had an axe to grind, would we still have Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso?)

Today I would like to raise a tentative flag, a success flag. It’s looking as if The Puppers are just about housetrained. Given that they are well over seven months old, one could be inclined to mutter under one’s breath “About f’ing time.” Two little experiments related to running short errands and leaving them uncrated leads to this absolutely astonishing thought. Both times we returned home to find nothing – and I mean nothing – on the floor. Even Wilma, the Submissive Pee-er, did not leave a little submissive puddle this morning.

Indeed, this is a cause for celebration. Or it could be, if we thoroughly trusted these evil, cunning, rotten Puppers. So we’ll put the celebration on hold, and perhaps combine 4th of July festivities with continence successfully achieved.

Of late, lots of action, relatively speaking, in our part of the world. The Pups have had a veritable field day with wild life. Just the other day, Rosie flushed a badger on her morning walk, and Lulu shredded her second garter snake (she must be reminded that garter snakes are our friends). Many visitors have passed through, including the lovely Heather Souvlaki, R.N., and our equally lovely niece Mme. E., R.N.

The weather’s been crapola, though today the tide seems to have turned. In fact, at the beginning of the R.N. Duo’s stay, the weather was so crapola that we made meatloaf for dinner and invited them, and the Scallion’s Mum, down. A couple of days ago, while sipping a most wonderful pinot grigio at a local boite, the barwoman turned to me and glowed about the weather: “è settembrina,” she enthused. That means the weather’s a bit like what we get in September (literally, "It's Little September."). I did not point out – though I was tempted – that in September, most of us have fading tans. Tomorrow marks the middle of the month, and most everyone around here is pasty. We look like the English on any English beach in August.

Perhaps the weather has caused people to act oddly? Just the other day, in Caffe Paszkowski in Florence, I observed strange behavior on the part of four North Americans (it would be so very satisfying to say that they were Canadian but, as they did not have their requisite identifying marker – the maple leaf, mind you – on their persons, it seems safe to conclude that these four came from south of the (Canadian) border) ... at any rate, the parents and son (with, presumably, girlfriend) were seated at two tables inside the place. These two tables are for locals, regulars, who want to sit without paying an upped-up service charge.

Both of these tables sported beautiful fruit cups, waiting to be gobbled up, and I thought, “How odd. I didn’t know that Paszkowski does this of a morning.” I looked at the counters, through the glass cases, looking for evidence that I could buy one of those things, too.

Impossible. This dawned on me as I watched the young man eat spaghetti from a plastic container. Paszkowski does do a lovely light lunch at lunch time but, as this was 8 o’clock Sunday morning – a time well removed from lunch – the only possible conclusion to be drawn was that these four lousy tourists thought it perfectly acceptable to eat last night’s leftovers at an historic Florentine bar since they ordered cappuccini to accompany this.

I should have waved the flag.

The following meatloaf recipe is very freely adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Polpettone alla toscana” from her Classic Italian Cooking. Once you make meatloaf her way, you’ll probably never make it any other. (At least, I don’t.) She rolls the loaf in breadcrumbs, and then gently cooks it stove-top. It is sumptuously succulent. She also uses dried porcini to give the loaf’s sauce great depth. To my mind, this is one of the best meatloaf recipes, ever.

Mine’s a little different. “The loaf should be firmly packed, not loose and crumbly, so that when it is cooked it can be cut into thin, elegant, compact slices,” writes Marcella. If you do her recipe, you can slice it into thin slices. If you do this one, you’ll probably be reduced to scooping it up with a spoon.

Since I posted this, Marcella and I have exchanged some fun correspondence. I haven't really told her this -- though I'm sure she'll read it here -- that she really was my Julia Child. Though I respect and adore J.C. (we attended the same college, for starters: quite a bond in itself), Marcella Hazan was my entry into cooking fantastic Italian food. Her recipes are lucidly written, very tasty recipes. And here's what she has to say about my meatloaf recipe:

(From Marcella Hazan): "Thank you for the complimentary words. All recipes, mine included, accommodate another cook¹s tastes (or foibles). It¹s okay about making
crumbly polpettone, but I suspect it¹s more a question of laziness than of predilection. Polpettone is not hamburger."

Oh ... she's so, so right. Love my foibles, and cook from her.

Polpettone settembrina in giugno (September meatloaf in June)

1 lb. ground beef
½ lb. sausage, casings removed
4 slices prosciutto crudo, finely chopped
2 slices mortadella, finely chopped
¾ c. freshly ground Parmesan cheese
1 egg, preferably organic
A solid cup of best-quality bread crumbs
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 c. red wine (white, if that’s all you’ve got)
1 lb. button mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 T. butter, divided
2 T. olive oil, divided
3 c. canned plum tomatoes, chopped
In a large mixing bowl, toss the ground beef, sausage, prosciutto, mortadella, and Parmesan cheese. Don’t overmix.

Heat 2 T. of the olive oil and throw in the chopped red onions. Cook ‘til absolutely soft. When cool, add to the meatloaf mix.

Now heat the butter and olive oil and add the sliced mushrooms. Cook ‘til all the liquid they could possibly throw off has been thrown off.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of butter and olive oil in a Dutch oven. Form the meat into a loaf-type vehicle, and gently roll in the bread crumbs (which you’ve placed on a flat surface). Brown the loaf on all sides in the Dutch oven. When that’s done, add the red (or white) wine, the tomato sauce, and mushroom mixture. Put a lid on the oven, and forget about the loaf for about 50 minutes.


Flag Day stuff from

Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cookbook, New York, 1973. Do note that our copy of this is in several pieces. Do also note that I apprised Marcella Hazan of this fact in fairly recent correspondence. She suggested I get a new copy. I told her that the fact that it was in pieces (13, I just counted) was evidence that she writes very very good cookbooks.

Caffe Paszkowski, Piazza Repubblica 6, Florence, 055/210 236.

This from Terracotta Sculptress and her Something Secret to Eat, who has had great difficulty posting on the blog (as have others; I shall look into it):

Dear P, As usual, wonderful post! Thanks for the M.F.K. Fisher info...where have I been?

You're lucky, you're half as unfortunate as we, since the Scallion is 50% English. I'll have the babe bring back several bakers dozens of Ranch dressing for you addicts in July. My secret? A half bag of Ronzoni wagon wheels, a small jar of Prego spaghetti sauce, and a can of Kraft Cheddar Parmesan cheese (the nuclear orange kind.) Overcook the pasta and drain. Simultaneously dump sauce and cheese into pot. Stir, but do not reheat. Eat with chopsticks. It has comforted me during my PMS for years, and pray it will do the same for my menopause.
Brava, P!!!

Thank you, Sculptress!

Stupendous photograph of roses in our backyard courtesy of The Scallion.

martedì 7 giugno 2011

Something Secret

“Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat. He is downright furtive about it usually, or mentions it only in a kind of conscious self-amusement, as one who admits too quickly, “It is rather strange, yes – and I’ll laugh with you.”
This from the late great Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992).

M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food, which is life to many of us. If you don’t know her, you should; and if you don’t know where to start, do please start with The Gastronomical Me.

This leads me back to secret food. I know of many cases of young women (and older women) with secret things to eat, but these have often led to obsession and weirdness: like a young friend who would open her mother’s refrigerator door, find the Ready-Whip, open her mouth, and squirt it down her throat.

Quick fix, secret.

That’s actually not having something secret to eat. That’s having something secret to shoot up (or, in this case, down). Or expel, later.

M.F.K. Fisher’s secret culinary vice is too lovely for words. While she was young and in love and living in France with her first husband, and after he’d left after a tasty lunch and just desserts (do, please catch my drift, and tell me that I’m not reading too much into this passage (again, from “Borderland”: “It was wonderful [their recently-rented pension] – big room, windows, clean white billows of curtain, central heating. We basked like lizards. Finally Al went back to work, but I could not bear to walk into the bitter blowing streets from our warm room.))”

What happens between lizards, the punctuation mark (a period, in this case, and Finally is anyone’s guess).

M.F.K. Fisher’s secret thing to eat was segmented tangerine pieces, which she would string, and then heat them up on a radiator, placed on top of yesterday’s L’Ami du Peuple (from Strasbourg). Beautiful, sensuous. Literary. Orange.

My something secret to eat is embarrassing. It’s so less soigné, so less high falutin’ … so, perhaps, scarily, White Trash.

It’s Ranch dressing from packets. White. Doesn't need to heat up on a copy of Tirenno. Not even La Repubblica. Indeed, not even il Sole/24 Ore.

A dear friend called Campobello writes a side-splitting blog about life in Italy ( . She, like many of us, has made the sometimes unfortunate mistake of marrying an Italian man. She, like few of us, blogs about her in-laws in ways designed to make you laugh ‘til you cry ‘til you weep ‘til your sides hurt. She freely admits that she’s breaking a Cardinal Rule of Blogging: thou shall not blog about your in-laws. Fortunately for her, her in-laws do not read English.

In one of her most recent blogs (see May 26th), she alluded to stockpiling packets of Ranch Dressing. This made me realize that we were fellow addicts.

Many years ago, if you wanted a product from the U.S. or anywhere that wasn't Italy, you had to beg your friends/family to tote the product. In the past fifteen years, this has largely changed (you don’t have to grow your own coriander: with luck, you can find it at the Mercato Centrale in Florence; you don’t have to ask a beloved English aunt to bring you Marmite, as you can always find it at Vivimarket on via del Giglio, or even at a well-heeled Esselunga (again, both of these fine posts in Florence); you always, always, always, have to beg friends and family to stop en route to the airport from New York at the nearest bagelry and ply you with bagels, as bagels in this part of the world are pathetic facsimiles). You get the picture.

But then there’s the case of Ranch dressing. It doesn’t exist in Italy.

Ranch dressing includes buttermilk (an impossibility to find here in Italy, though a local cheesemaker has, in the past, promised us the buttermilk run-off from his sheep; we’ve somehow never gotten around to taking him up on this offer), sour cream (used to be impossible to find; bless all the Germans who vacation near where we live, because now it’s easy), minced green onion, garlic, and other things.

Wiki relates that, since 1992, Ranch dressing has been the best-selling dressing in
the United States surpassing Italian dressing (which, it should be noted, bears absolutely zero resemblance to what Italians put on their salads).

It’s called Ranch dressing thanks to Steve and Gayle Henson who, in 1954, opened Hidden Valley Ranch (near Santa Barbara). Wiki also relates the most alarming fact that Clorox bought them out and “reformulated the dressing several times to try to make it more convenient.” (This will cause me to look on my dwindling packets with some amount of alarm). Clorox’s biggest adjustment was was to add dried buttermilk to the mix, so that you don’t have to add the Real McCoy when mixing it up.

It’s also really, really high in fat.

Last spring, Heather Souvlaki asked us if we ever used prepared foods. Truthfully-ish, I said, No. In fact, I hoard packets of Ranch dressing as if I were hoarding a Faberge egg or two lifted from some down and out Russian noble. We’re down to two packets. Would someone please visit us, and soon?

Pasta salads are pretty much a made-up American thing. However, whenever I’ve served this to Italians, all I can say is that there are no leftovers.

Tortellini salad with Ranch dressing

1 lb. spinach/ricotta tortellini
1 packet Ranch dressing
1 c. mayonnaise (as always, preferably Hellman’s)
1 c. low-fat yogurt (you might wonder why, and I do, too)
½ lb. green beans, tailed, topped, cooked and chilled
½ lb. Swiss cheese, cubed
½ lb. boiled ham, completely optional, cubed
Handful of fresh chives, snipped

Mix up the Ranch dressing at least an hour before you plan to eat the salad: throw contents of the packet into a mixing bowl, and add the yogurt and mayonnaise. Thoroughly blend, and then stick it in the refrigerator.

Cook the tortellini according to package instructions (cooking it, probably, for at least one minute or two less), drain, and run under cold water.

In a big bowl, throw in the tortellini, the beans, Swiss cheese, and boiled ham (if using). Pour in as much Ranch dressing as necessary (in all likelihood, you’ll have some left over to dip pretzels in). When it’s all mixed up, add the snipped chives.

M.F.K. Fisher's essay concludes: “The sections of tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.”



M.F.K. Fisher, “Borderland,” from Serve it Forth, in The Art of Eating, New York, 1976.

For her obituary, see Molly O’Neill’s glowing tribute of 6/24/92 in the New York Times.

Photograph of Lulu and Dwindling Packets of Ranch Dressing, June 2011.