Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Celebrating the New Year

Red Underwear for Sale
The New Year, Capodanno (head of the year), falls right in the middle of Italy’s Christmas season, which ends with Epiphany on January 6, and is celebrated with very high spirits.

You know the date is approaching when red underwear stalls open in the markets. It’s traditional to wear red underwear for luck on New Year’s Eve, and it must be new. Today, bikinis and thongs (for both men and women) top everybody’s list. It boggles the mind to see red thong underwear in size XXL.
Lentils and Zampone
Food plays an important role in New Year’s celebrations, too. Traditionally, people eat lentils and pork sausage. Lentils represent wealth, their round shape echoing coins. The superstition is that the more lentils you eat, the more wealth you will see in the coming year. The sausage is consumed in one of two forms: cotecchino or zampone. Both are made from a similar sausage mixture. The cotecchino is packed is a casing that’s about three-four inches in diameter (eight-ten centimeters). The zampone is stuffed into a pig’s foot. And it’s all washed down with Italian bubbly, spumante or prosecco. Restaurants offer cenone (big dinners).
Music plays a big part in celebrations, as well. Throughout the evening, there are free concerts in piazzas with people dancing in the streets all over Italy. Additionally there are classical concerts in auditoriums. One of the most popular concerts in Rome features gospel music. On New Year’s Day, a parade of bands coming from around the world marches to St. Peter’s.
One tradition, dominate in the south of Italy, involves throwing something old out the window at midnight. The idea is that you chuck bad luck out with the old year and face the new year with a new beginning. I’ve been told that people used to throw large pieces of furniture and other things that could prove dangerous. I once tossed out a chipped cup, but I made sure no one was standing underneath in the street. One young American friend, who was about nine at the time, heard my Italian New Year tales and asked if people threw out their old red underwear, since you must have new for the luck to be good. I chortled for a year, but just couldn’t bring myself to toss that out the window.
Rogo del Vecchione in Bologna
Fireworks displays explode across the boot at midnight. In Rome the major display is in the Piazza del Popolo, but there are other fireworks, as well. Along the coasts, boats light up their riggings on New Year’s Eve. And in Florence, the best views of the fireworks in on the bridges. Naples is famous for its fireworks, which explode over the bay. In Bologna, the  Rogo del Vecchione is the evening’s highlight. After a night of music and dancing, a large effigy of a man representing the old year is burned at the stake in a Piazza Maggiore.
In the south of Italy, people sometimes fire shots into the air at midnight, and everywhere kids toss firecrackers until well into the next day.

Buon anno!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Italian Christmas Treats

One of the pleasures of living in Italy is being able to sample seasonal treats, from the first strawberries that arrive in June to the roasting chestnuts that appear on Roman streets when the air turns cool. (I wrote about roast chestnuts on Novel Adventurers here last year.)

And at no time are the seasonal treats more enticing than at Christmas when traditional holiday sweets appear in the markets and pastry shops and even the supermarkets. Pastry shops assemble gift baskets with these confections and bottles of bubbly prosecco, and people scurry along the streets laden with bundles of delicacies to exchange with friends and families.

Here are some of my favorites.

Panettone
Panettone (Big Bread)
Panettone, a slightly sweet yeast bread studded with candied fruit and nuts, is perhaps the most common Christmas tradition. This type of bread, sweetened with honey, has a long history on the Italian peninsula, going back to ancient Rome

The modern bread has its origin in Milano where rival bakeries began producing it commercially at the beginning of the last century. It’s baked in a cylinder about ten inches (25 c.) in diameter with a dome pouring over the edges of the top.

The commercially produced panettone is packaged in cardboard boxes with little string handles, but the handmade versions in pastry shops is usually covered with paper or cellophane and tied with ribbon.

Pandoro (Golden Bread)

Pandoro is a close cousin to Panettone, but it is free of fruit and nuts and is generally covered in powdered sugar. It’s as tall as panettone, but has a diverse shape, with triangular edges.

There are many modern variations of the Pandoro, sometimes filled with chocolate or pastry cream laced with lemoncello.
Panforte (Strong Bread)

Panforte
Panforte comes to us from 13th century Siena. Documents show that this dense fruit cake was paid as a kind of  tax to monks and nuns of monasteries, due on February 7 each year.

The cake is long-lasting and travels well, and evidence suggests that the Crusaders carried it for sustenance on their journeys.
Panforte is made of figs, nuts, oranges, chocolate, honey, and many spices, including ginger. It is baked in a round tin and is coated with powdered sugar when it is done. Some commercially produced panforte are wrapped in rice paper.



Panpepato (Peppered Bread)

Panpepato is a precursor of panforte containing similar ingredients, minus the figs. The great variation is that ground black pepper joins the other spices in panpepato. This confection is baked in a little mound.
Torrone (Big Tower)

Torrone
Torrone is a sweet confection made from egg whites, honey, nuts (usually almonds or pistachios), and sometimes cane sugar. The more cane sugar added, the harder the torrone becomes. I prefer the soft variety because I like the taste, and my teeth can’t take the hardness.

Sometimes, torrone has chocolate mixed with the nougat; other times the nougat is covered with chocolate.
The history of torrone is a bit uncertain. There is evidence that the ancient Romans and Greeks, as well as the Arabs, made similar confections. The Romans, at least, used it as an offering to the gods.

But the name derives from the October 25, 1441 wedding between Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza from two of Italy’s great noble families. The father of the bride offered a vast dowry, including the city of Cremona itself. The pastry chef prepared a replica of the city’s bell tower in nut-covered nougat, calling it “torrione” which has settled to torrone.

Have a Happy Holiday






Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Many Shapes of Pasta

“Do you like fettuccine?” a friend asked as she was preparing to cook the pasta for a dinner party. Her question amused me because it highlighted the Italian obsession with pasta shapes. She didn’t ask me if I liked tomato sauce, or clam sauce, or any other accompaniment. She wanted, I mean really wanted, to know if fettuccine pleased me.   
The main pasta aisle in a nearby supermarket holds vast
quantities of dried pasta in a myriad of shapes and sizes.
There is more pasta on the opposite side, and fresh pasta
 resides in the dairy case.

This obsession with shapes and sizes of pasta permeates the culture. I once encountered a woman in a grocery store shortly before Christmas. She searched for a specific size of spaghetti. Spaghetti comes in many sizes, numbered roughly from one (what we Americans call “angel hair”) to thirteen, a very thick noodle indeed. I think she wanted size six and the store had only size seven. That just wouldn’t do. It didn’t go with the sauce she planned to serve.

I’ve always preferred the smaller types, angel hair and such, simply because they cook faster—in about three minutes, but I’m developing an appreciation for the thicker varieties after so many years here. Some of these can take fifteen minutes to cook.

Tradition governs which type of pasta should accompany which type of sauce. I’m not an expert on this topic, and I have to admit that my eyes glaze over when someone tries to explain. I think, but I’m not really sure, that you should use ridged pasta with creamy sauces and smooth pasta with chunky ragu or vegetable pasta.

Early in my days in Rome, I bought a series of books issued weekly with the newspaper featuring only pasta dishes. I didn’t get the index until the series ended. Imagine my surprise, and frustration, when I discovered the index was arranged by pasta shape only. You couldn’t look up “eggplant” or “rabbit” to find recipes by ingredient. The index listed fusilli, mezze maniche, bavette, pappardelle.

In my first years in Italy, more than forty years ago, I learned to make pasta by hand using a hand cranked machine. Taking the machine back to the U.S. led to my career in cookery because at that point, few people in America had ever seen a pasta machine. I taught cooking classes, wrote a newspaper column, and developed a fan base of people who liked to eat my pasta. When I began returning to Italy again in the 1980s, I boasted to someone about this “achievement.”

“Oh,” he said, “you don’t want to make pasta with metal rollers. You need wood to rough up the pasta and make it hold the sauce better.”

So much for pride.

One commercial pasta company here charges high prices for their dried pasta because it’s made with zinc rollers. Apparently the zinc roughens up the pasta surface in a way that steel doesn’t.

My friend Diana Collins, a poet and long-time resident of Italy has written a gleeful poem about pasta shapes and has consented to let me share it:

Fusilli
Fusilli Bucati Corti

Not spaghetti, penne, linguine,
macaroni o fettuccine,
not angel's hair, or little ears,
wagon wheels, or bow ties,

not pappardelle, macaroni, lasagna,
or tagliatelle, not shells to stuff,
ravioli, rigatoni, or tortellini,
but it's fusilli I like best

steaming in a dish.
Mattress springs from a plate-
sized bed, chewy curlicues
of durum wheat, twists

glistening with tomato, eggplant,
green peppers and squash.  Little
al dente sauce-loving coils that twirl
through mushrooms and cream

or plow through pesto with gusto.
Golden snippets of telephone cord
relaying long, spiraling conversations
between hunger and appetite.

This past weekend, I took a gastronomic tour with journalists covering the Italian culinary scene. Over two days, we spent about nine hours at table plus sampling wares at factories. Near the end of the last meal, I compared the various things we had eaten, including varieties of pasta. The man next to me said, “Ma pasta รจ pasta. What matters is the sauce that covers it.”

So much for my lesson on pasta shapes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Birthday To Remember

My birthday is December 5, not a good time for an American birthday, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People have barely recovered from the first and are in a frenzy to prepare for the second. I discovered long ago that I have to make my own party.

Montefalco
I always celebrate the event by having a massage. Last year, one of those milestone years, I traveled to a lovely hill town in Tuscany. In late afternoon, I darted into little shops for some cheese, sausage, bread, fruit, and wine. I had scheduled a massage in my room at 7 p.m. Afterwards, I gathered the sustenance on a tray beside me in bed and cuddled up with my Kindle (my birthday present to me). It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

The tradition in Italy is that the birthday celebrants treat their friends, not the other way around. In other words, you take your friends out to dinner; they don’t take you. That treat can be a simple one: a plate of cookies for the people in your gym class or a weekend in a castle if you have the cash. Most celebrations fall somewhere in between. I frequently take a group of friends out to a coffee bar for cappuccino and pastry.

Last year, on the day before, I prepared an elaborate brunch for friends. I made a torta rustica, cut fruit and cheese, tossed a salad. We drank spiced apple juice. For dessert, I served Chocolate Jack Daniels Whiskey Cake that I’d brought from Tennessee’s oldest bakery and stored in my freezer. And we made s’mores. At the end, with the help of my friend Sharon, I popped the cork on a bottle of prosecco that I’d picked up at a vineyard I’d visited the week before. It was a stunning birthday.

This year, I debated taking friends out for dinner or cooking it myself. In the end, cooking it myself won out because many restaurants are closed on Monday. And I wanted the best for my friends.

I scheduled the customary massage on the Saturday before, Monday being the day such establishments usually close. It was heavenly, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Since people were dribbling in from work, I needed a munchie hour before we sat down to dinner. I served Campari soda and a non-alcoholic drink popular here, along with a tray full of bite-sized snacks.

And since I had to teach a class from five to seven, I wanted a menu that could be prepared ahead. I settled on that old Silver Palate standby, Chicken Marbella, with broccoli and rice. Next came a fennel salad, then pecan pie.

I had specified “No Gifts,” but people brought flowers, wine, and Christmas crackers. For the uninitiated, Christmas crackers are party favors traditional in Great Britain and other Commonwealth countries. Each is made from a tube about the size of a toilet paper core, stuffed with a paper hat, a piece of paper with corny jokes and riddles, and a prize. The tube is festively wrapped. Two people grab opposite ends of the cracker and pull; one end comes off with a pop generated like the sound of a cap pistol.

Our Christmas crackers had a musical theme. Musical notes covered the crowns, and instead of a prize, each cracker contained a whistle with the sound of a musical note. Since we were five, three people had to take two whistles. One person had a small wooden baton, and following a numerical cheat sheet, conducted the orchestra. The first tune was 666 666 68456 which translates to "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the Way." How we laughed.

I took chocolate for my class. At the end of the lesson, I scattered them on my desk, and the students burst into Happy Birthday. And they weren’t too bad. Italians have great difficulty with the English “th” sound and usually say “Happy Burtday.”

I had a Happy, Happy Burtday.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing in a Foreign Land

Note:    For the first time, Italian Intrigues features a guest blogger.  Please welcome Cassy Pickard, another Sister in Crime. My first post on Novel Adventurers appears December 1.
 
Cassy Pickard
As writers we invent. We create worlds that first exist only in our minds and then we figure out how to put that on a page so others are invited to join us. We want readers to see our characters as people who are advancing through their struggles. We also want them to see the streets our creations live on, smell the aromas from where they eat, hear the buzz of the motorcycles along the street and learn about the details of their lives.
My stories take place in Italy. It’s a country I have been visiting for forty years. We own a house there. I go many times a year. And, I have learned that I can’t “feel” the country on Google or on any website. Let me share with you an experience I had a few years ago.
My husband and I were traveling in Italy and he made the genius suggestion that I stay on to research a portion of the book I was writing. “Take a week,” he said. “I’m fine heading back. You have lots to do.” I hesitated, then grabbed the moment.
I spent five days doing just that. I walked Rome in ways I had not done before. Even with the many times I have been there, this was different. I was looking for the apartment house my heroine lived in. I took photographs not of classic sites but of where my gal lived and worked—memories for me to be sure to keep for my pages to be written.
In Rome, women don’t usually jog or run. I planned the path for my protagonist to flee in a moment of terror and then I ran it. So, I literally busted my buns to get from Point A to Point B, timing it. I had to make the scene for my book real. People stared. One man yelled to me, asking if I needed help. I ended up joining a huge protest group who were rallying about civil rights. I realized it was a good place to hide from the bad guy chasing me. I almost began to believe he was real. My heart was pounding. The protesters were chanting. I had to pull out my map to reorient. I was actually slightly nervous to leave the safety of the large anonymous crowd for my imaginary pursuer could miraculously appear.
Piazza Campo dei Fiori
Then as I moved on to Piazza Campo dei Fiori, I had forgotten that the large farmer’s market filled the square. It was rich with details that I could never have found on Google or any other site. Chickens hung in the makeshift stalls, huge bins of herbs and spices lined the front of a number of vendors, a full kitchen shop was set up on multiple tables, and of course the flowers. I could have bought one of everything. I’m a total lover of outdoor markets.
I decided to have lunch at the edge of the piazza and watch the parade of people. With a glass of wine in hand, it became clear that I had to be there. I had to feel it, smell it, watch it, and then hopefully know it. And my dear character was right by my side. She loved it too. That was until I had to make her life much more difficult with what I plotted for the next scene.

Cassy Pickard has invented herself a number of times. She is a registered nurse, holds two master's degrees and a PhD in research methodology. She has been a health care consultant, an entrepreneur, and an associate dean at Yale University. Now she lives vicariously through her characters. She splits her time between Connecticut and Italy. Visit her at http://www.cassypickard.com/ and http://www.mysteriesandmargaritasblogspot.com/ or email her at cassy@cassypickard.com 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Italian Thanksgiving

Note: Today, I’m a guest on Writers Who Kill. These crime writers are creating a Thanksgiving Potluck with recipes from a slew of sleuth creators. Check it out at http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/ 


       Last year, I cooked a traditional American Thanksgiving for friends, complete with stuffed turkey and cranberries, and of course pumpkin pie. I’m doing Thanksgiving on a very small scale this year, using local ingredients and giving the feast a decidedly Italian flair.

I’ll serve a pumpkin pasta dish. When I wrote about pumpkins a couple of weeks ago, Ren left a recipe in the comments. I made it, and it was far too much for me, so I created something new with the leftovers. It was good enough to make again. I cooked together equal parts of onion and pumpkin. You could use canned pumpkin, but you’d need to cook the onions for a long time before adding the pumpkin so they’d be soft. In another frying pan, I cooked lean sausage in a bit of olive oil with a pinch of red pepper. When the sausage was done, I combined it with the pumpkin-onion mixture. I added a grating of nutmeg and fresh parmesan. This is already waiting in the fridge. Tomorrow, I’ll cook the pasta.

Involtini di Tachino
My main course is  Involtini di Tachino (Turkey Rollups). To make these, I will take turkey breast slices, top each with prosciutto, chopped spinach with a grating of nutmeg, and mozzarella. I’ll rolled them up and fasten with toothpicks or kitchen twine. Then I’ll brown them on all sides in a bit of olive oil. When they’re all good and brown, I’ll add a bit of white wine and braise for about twenty-five minutes. When done (and I’ll check with an instant meat thermometer to make sure they are done.), I’ll set them aside to rest while I finish everything else. Before serving, I’ll slice the rollups to make pinwheels.

My main veggie is Brussels sprouts with chestnuts. I’ve already washed and trimmed the sprouts, and Thursday morning I’ll pick up chestnuts from a chestnut roaster plying his wares on the street. That’s the lazy woman’s way out on a busy day, and since it isn’t a holiday here, everything else is business as usual. I’ll steam the sprouts a little ahead and plunge them in ice water to maintain the color. At serving time, I’ll melt a little butter and toss the sprouts and peeled chestnuts together.

I’ve made a compote of dried cranberries and oranges that’s tangy and sweet--just the right foil for the turkey. 

When I’m out buying the chestnuts, I’ll drop by the bakery for some crusty bread. I’ll pour a nice white wine from the Castelli and finish off with a cup of espresso and apple pie.

    I have a lot to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Heat Is On!

     The outdoor temperature in Rome has dropped to below fifty degrees F., and the heat came on around the city yesterday. Most apartment buildings have central heating that is regulated by condominium votes. By law, the heat must be turned on by November 15, and most buildings wait until the last minute. Even in very tony neighborhoods, this is the norm.
In some places I have lived, the heat comes on for a few hours in the morning and then goes off until early evening when it reappears for a few more hours. In the place where I’ve lived for the past eight years, the heat is always off in the morning. Yesterday, it came on at about six p.m., and probably went off around eleven. By that time, I had tucked myself into bed with my hot water bottle, so I’m not sure of the exact time.
When the weather gets colder in January and February, the heat will probably run from about one p.m. At least, that’s been the practice in the past. Fortunately, the weather has been extremely mild this year.
In recent years, some people have installed heating/air conditioning systems with individual controls, but most of the people I know with these systems still use them sparingly.
Because I never have heat in the morning and because I like morning showers, I bought a little heater that I use to warm up the bathroom in the morning. After my shower, I roll it under my desk to take advantage of its lingering warmth.
I’m lucky that my apartment is well-insulated. My window wall faces south, so unless a chilling wind blows from that direction, I’m usually warm enough with sweaters and extra socks. I just bought a fabulous pair of bedroom boots (they’re not slippers). They have removable cushions that pop into the microwave for a couple of minutes and keep my feet toasty warm.
When I first came to Italy many years ago, I wasn’t accustomed to the rationed heat. Even though my first apartment had an individual control for the heat, I caused a major problem by turning my heat up high. The furnace couldn’t handle the stress and belched soot all over the apartment adjacent to the furnace room. I rented a portable gas heater, and I cringe now to realize how dangerous that probably was.
Now, I’m used to indoor temperatures that reflect the outdoor ones without too much contrast. Thus, when I go outside on a cold day, I’m not shocked by the cold. And in summer, I don’t wilt immediately upon exiting a building. I now find the extremes of central heating and air conditioning in the U.S. very uncomfortable.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Creating a Murder Scene

       Rome has a thousand churches. When I began writing my novel that features murders in church, I couldn’t envisage building a new one, even in my imagination. I wanted a church that served as a real parish, not a pilgrimage point.
      
       At first, I looked outside the city center, examining churches in my own neighborhood. They are not historic; in fact, many churches near me date only from the twentieth century. I wanted something older, more in keeping with Rome’s past, so I looked elsewhere.  

Some of the key scenes of the novel take place in a restaurant that I put in a small piazza near the Pantheon. As the plot developed, it became clear that the church needed to be nearby, so, map in hand, I set off to explore the neighborhood. The Pantheon itself is a church, but it wouldn’t do. Too many tourists. Saint Louis of the French stands around the corner, but it also sees hordes of visitors every day.
Discouraged, I traipsed to a couple of other churches before stumbling towards Saint Mary Magdalene. An iron gate separates this church from a small piazza. Traffic speeds along the side, and across the street coffee drinkers chat at outdoor tables.
Four curved travertine steps lead up to the entrance. Inside, late Baroque and Rococo extravagance explodes. The altar holds six very tall bronze candlesticks supporting simple cream-colored candles and the busts of four popes. Rosettes, braids, and garlands adorn every surface. It looks as if a paintbrush dripping with gold has washed the entire sanctuary, from pope busts to capitals above the marble columns.
The piece d resistance rests on a gilded platform above the entrance: a pipe organ wrapped with putti and garlands, white stucco statues of allegorical figures and winged angels, all resplendent with garlands and scrolls. The paintbrush cut a swath here, too.
I knew I’d found my church when I walked forward. Near the altar, a priest—in collar and shirtsleeves—stood over an ironing board pressing altar cloths. A homey, neighborhood atmosphere.
I’ve since visited the church at different times of day. Once at evening mass, just three worshipers took part in the service. During Sunday mass, the church fills.
It fits my purpose. Even so, it seemed improper to commit murder in a holy space. To ease my conscience (and, as I've later learned to please publishers), I created an imaginary chapel for staging the murder.
I wanted to call it the Madonna Chapel, but Saint Mary Magdalene already has a chapel called Madonna of the Sick. That wouldn't do because it's holy space, and too public besides. I created another one reached through an actual door in the very real Crucifix Chapel. That door leads into the Via delle Colonelle where our murderer would have found very little privacy.
While I hesitate to invite tourists to visit here and interrupt my murderer, the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, known in Rome as La Maddalena, is worth a visit if only to see baroque design at its most outrageous.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beyond Jack O’Lanterns and Pumpkin Pie


           Italians rarely use pumpkin for desserts, but it is frequently eaten as a vegetable in winter months. Canned pumpkin can be found in expensive import shops for about $5-8 per can, but pumpkin is readily available by the slice. Supermarkets have sliced pumpkin wrapped in plastic in the produce section. In vegetable markets, you can usually get the stall keepers to slice off a chunk of pumpkin with you choosing the width of the slice.
I find pumpkin somewhat difficult to peel, so I usually pop it into the microwave for a couple of minutes before carving out the pieces. If I want pumpkin puree for something like gnocchi or noodles, I nuke it for about fifteen minutes, making sure to have it in a bowl to catch the liquid it exudes. Then I scoop out the pulp and set it in a strainer for about half an hour for the additional water to drain, then puree it in a blender or food processor.
If you want to use your Halloween pumpkin, or part of it, you can also cook it in the oven for thirty to 40 minutes, again making sure it in a pan with deep sides to collect the excess water. Otherwise, you’ll flood your oven. This fresh pumpkin puree tastes stronger and fresher than the canned variety. Substitute two cups of fresh puree for a one-pound can of pumpkin.
Cubed pumpkin sauted in olive oil with garlic and rosemary makes a welcome autumn side dish. Sometimes it’s cooked with olives or onions, often paired with rosemary.
Soups based on pumpkin come in many forms. Sometimes with chick peas or with spinach. Other times it’s cooked with onions and small pasta shapes. You can also find many different types of risotto using pumpkin. I love gnocchi, little dumplings, made with pumpkin instead of potato and topped with a gorgonzola sauce.
But pumpkin reigns in pasta dishes. It’s often a filling for ravioli or tortellini and other stuffed pastas. It can be used to make pasta dough and cut into tagliatelle or fettuccini. Pasta flavored this way can take a delicate butter and parmesan sauce or a stronger sauce made with sausage.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes:
Lasagne con Crema di Zucca ai Formaggi
Lasagna with Pumpkin Cream and Cheese
8 ounces of fresh lasagna sheets (green, if available)
2 cups fresh pumpkin puree or 1 one-pound can pumpkin
3/4 cup grated parmesan
About 1 tablespoon butter (to grease the pan)
1/2 pound Fontina or other semi-soft cheese, cut into slices
1/2 cup cream
Whole nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1.     Preheat oven to 350 F.
2.     Cook the lasagna noodles in a large pot of lightly salted water until just barely al dente. Drain and stretch out on a clean kitchen towel to drain excess water.
3.     Mix the pumpkin pulp with 1/2 cup of the parmesan, cream, salt and pepper, and a grating of nutmeg.
4.     Butter a baking dish, and lay down one strip of lasagna. Spread on some of the pumpkin mixture, a layer of Fontina slices, and sprinkle on some of the remaining parmesan.
5.     Continue assembling these layers until all the ingredients have been used.
6.     Place the lasagna in the oven and bake for twenty minutes.
7.     Remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for a few minutes before serving.
8.     Serve with extra parmesan, if desired.



Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'm Building an Ark

    The rain began falling in torrents around dawn, accompanied by flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder. It was the kind of intense storm that usually passes quickly, but this one stalled over Rome for several hours last Thursday. The city crashed to a halt.
The rain would appear to slack off, and people collected their coats and umbrellas and rubber boots to go about their business, then the rain and thunder and lightning would begin again. It was difficult to make out structures across the street because the heavy rain obscured visibility.
I didn’t have any appointments until two p.m., so I made minestrone and hot spiced apple juice as comfort food and snuggled up to my computer. The configuration of my apartment makes it impossible to see the street without going onto the terrace, so I was blissfully ignorant of the extent of the chaos.
At one o’clock, the sun came out, I polished my sunglasses, grabbed my bag and umbrella, and set out. I found the gates to the metro chained closed. Someone told me it was allagata, a word that means approximately 'made into a lake.' Since my local stop is shallow, I walked to the next stop, expecting to find it open. It wasn’t. I walked to the next. Closed. Then I began waiting for a bus. There were none.
In the hour that I was out, I was shined on by the sun, pelted by the rain, startled by the thunder and lightning. I finally gave up and canceled my appointments, but I didn’t learn the extent of the storm until I returned home to look at the news.
Rain flowed down steps into the underground like waterfalls, forcing one line--the one I use--to close half the route. The other line closed several stations due to flooding. In addition to that, water collected in the streets, forcing busses out of service.
While I was out, I had seen public works crews out trying to remove debris from the storm drains, but so much water had fallen in such a short period that it had the upper hand.
Water rushed into many businesses in my neighborhood and others throughout Rome. A small shop where I bought computer paper on Friday had lost lots of stock, including boxes of detergent, paper products and much more.
In central Rome, the rain tossed the city’s characteristic sampietrini paving stones as if they were coins, leaving great holes in the streets, described by one newspaper as 'chasms.' One man, living in a basement apartment, drowned in his bed.
The usual screams about how public officials handled the emergency are rampant. The mayor claims that it was a natural disaster and couldn’t be anticipated. The opposition points to other recent rainstorms, albeit not so severe, that produced chaos as well.
As the rain raged, information trickled. One of my friends boarded a bus that would have taken him within walking distance of home. On board, an announcement that the metro had reopened sent him off the bus at the main train station to take a subway home. Once off the bus, he discovered that the metro had not, in fact, reopened, and he found himself stranded at the train station.
Heavy rain is predicted in Rome today. Intense storms blasted the north yesterday with lots of damage. Four people died and six are missing. Mudslides covered highways and boats entered piazzas. 
The first thunderbolt just rumbled in Rome. It’s time to build an ark.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lining Up


            Few things are as challenging about living in Italy as waiting in line. It’s a special trial at the supermarket where there is no “ten items or less” line such as American supermarkets have. I cringe when I arrive at check-out with my three items just behind someone with a cart chock-full. Sometimes, the person will see that I’m carrying few items and allow me to pass. At others, the person will avoid all eye-contact to dodge noticing my piddling purchases.
            Unlike the British, who stand in orderly queues, Italian people tend to bunch up instead. In that way, people cut into the line without being obvious. There’s a funny little woman that I see in various parts of Rome. She has a bright spot of 1950s-era rouge on each cheek and wears a plaid golf cap. She always plants herself by the display rack flanking the checkout line and eases her way ahead of the others.
            Another tactic some shoppers use is to leave a partially filled shopping basket in line with the pretext of going back for a forgotten item. Then the shopper returns with an armload of stuff and drops it into the basket, perhaps going back a second time. If you step ahead of the basket, the returning shopper will often complain vociferously that you’ve usurped her place.
            The lines move slowly, too. In an early blog (March 23, 2011), I wrote about how cashiers stop a line by asking customers dig for small change. But that’s only one delay. Conversation has a similar effect. 
In general, Italian people are chatty, and cashier and customer often engage in spirited small talk during the course of a transaction. Italian people use lots of hand gestures when they speak, and the cashier will stop ringing up the purchases to use his hands to make a point. And if the story hasn’t finished after money has been exchanged and groceries bagged, it continues, leaving the other customers waiting.
My Anglo-Saxon need for order makes me wait my turn. So I stand behind those people with filled baskets. It really gets my goat when my turn finally comes to have someone come up and say, “I have only three items, can I go ahead of you.” Since I’ll likely have only one, or two, or three myself, I always decline. And I’m perceived as rude.
Where practical, business establishments now use the “take a number” system. At the post office, at banks, at my doctor’s office (where she has office hours on a first come, first served basis) there’s a number machine. If someone tires of waiting, or changes her mind, she often puts the paper number on top of the machine for someone else to use. It’s always a thrill to find a usable number that lets you cut ahead of others without a twinge of guilt.
At my favorite busy market, several stalls have the number system, but even there people find ways to break line with various excuses. At the salumeria (cold cuts and cheese stall), I’ve often seen people say, “But I didn’t know you had to take a number,” and insist on being served ahead of us waiting our turn.
At the fish stall, I heard the best excuse ever. It’s a very popular stand, and there are frequently twenty or more numbers ahead of you. One day, a woman pushed forward saying, “I can’t wait for a number; my daughter’s having a baby.” It was unclear to me if the daughter was on her way to the hospital and the woman needed to finish her shopping quickly. Or if the pregnant woman craved fish. Or if she wanted to eat a plate of fish before delivery. Or if the mother had just learned the news and couldn’t cope with shopping in her excitement. Whatever the reason, she made her purchase ahead of the rest of us.
            I do get frustrated and annoyed when these things happen. But I have to shake my head and smile, too. It’s these cultural foibles that weave the fabric of my life in Italy. There are annoyances everywhere. I try to enjoy these.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Touch of Autumn


            Although the daytime weather is warm enough for women to wear sundresses, there is a little hint of autumn in the early morning air. You notice that fall is coming, too, in the markets. Summer berries have disappeared. A few peaches and nectarines linger, but they seem a bit sad. Luscious grapes lie in great mounds: big pink ones; sweet black ones; smaller, but no less sweet, white ones.
            They can be so sweet that it’s like eating candy. I remember once sitting at a seaside campsite in the south of Italy. My companion had taken the car to do some errands that included buying food. I was puttering around, enjoying the sun.
The only thing I had to eat was a bag of grapes. I ate a couple and turned over in the sand to bake my back. Ohhh. Those grapes were good. I ate a couple more, and turned again. I continued in this mode for a little while, then I just sat up and ate and ate and ate. By the time my companion returned, the grapes were gone.
            Grapes make a good ingredient for cooked dishes, too. I’ve tried various crostade (Italian pies) made with grapes, sometimes paired with other fruit, and lots of cakes as well. The list goes on: sorbetto, strudel, and a bread called schiacciata.
But grapes also go well with meat. Poultry, either duck or chicken, and grapes make a nice combination, and I’ve even seen a recipe for goose liver and grapes. Here is a quick and easy dish that introduces autumn changes to our diet. You might want to try it.
Sausage and Grapes
1 pound Italian sausage
1 pound of white grapes (my original recipe calls for 32 grapes!)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine
Salt

1.     Prick the sausages in several places with the tines of a fork.
2.     Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the sausages and let them brown, turning frequently.
3.     When the sausages are nicely browned, bathe them with the wine. (You understand that I wouldn’t measure the wine, nor would most Italian cooks. Just splash a good spray from the bottle.)
4.     Let the sausages cook for about ten minutes, turning from time to time.
5.     Meanwhile, wash the grapes and separate them from the stem.
6.     Add the grapes to the sausages and cook for another fifteen minutes.
7.     Add salt to taste, if needed.