Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving turkey stuffing recipe

In the spirit of service journalism, I'm sharing our internationally acclaimed stuffing recipe from last year.

For a 10 lb bird
1 loaf of old, stale bread. A good loaf. Not Wonder.
A good clump of fresh parsley.
laurel leaf
150 grams of sliced pancetta (or, even better, guanciale)
600 grams of chestnuts
1/2 kilo of "polpa di maiale e vitello" or minced pork & veal
4-5 eggs
a glug of milk
12 teaspoons of Cognac (yes, this is the secret ingredient!). For those of you wondering, yes, Armagnac works just as well.

1. Throw chestnuts into boiling water (30 mins). Afterwards, deshell and throw contents into a bowl. Chuck in the blender. Blend.
2. Cut your stale bread into cubes. Crack open the eggs and add the milk. Mix together to get a mushy mash of old yellow bread. Add diced parsley. Add the diced onions. Add the diced celery. Add the diced carrots. Mix more.
3. Throw the pancetta into a blender and whip up into a mash.
4. In a big bowl, add your mushy bread, your pancetta mash, the chesnut mash and the minced pork. Mix well.
5. Add your cognac.
6. Let sit for half-hour.
7. Turn your oven on.

Now, prepare your bird. (it really should be sourced from your local butcher and not one of those plastic, tasteless, Butterball creations, but even if it is, we've got you covered.)
1. Rub the outside of your turkey and in the cavity with a clove of garlic. Cover your bird with a few strips of pancetta/guanciale.
2. Sprinkle salt on same. Add laurel.
3. If you are feeling decadent, throw a tablespoon (or two) of the Cognac into the cavity as well.
4. Fill your bird with the stuffing. Place in the oven.

After 20 mins, drizzle a glass of white wine on the bird. Repeat after an hour. Keep covered (with aluminum foil or oven paper for duration of cooking.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Buon Ringraziamento!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ao! 'Oppy 'olloween!

That's how the locals say it here in Garbatella. No pesky "h" to slow them down. I'm really pleased the Romans have adopted Halloween, or at least a number of the shops have here in Garbatella. It's always been a favorite holiday of mine. When else could you dress as a pirate and not get funny looks? (speaking of which, have the Somalis ruined that choice of costumes this year? Hope not.) Back in my London days (during the Bush Administration), the locals were hostile to Halloween. They saw it as some creepy American import and wanted no part of it. Sure, Halloween is a creation of the all-powerful rubber mask lobby, but as a form of cultural imperialism, it's pretty benign. I'm sure the local bakery feels the same way.

Why is Halloween so great? You get to carve up pumpkins. Lara, Stefano and I went to work on a real beauty after dinner last night. Here's our handiwork.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

This post brought to you by: Italian in-laws

It's the end of the last big summer weekend here in Italy, Ferragosto (orginally named for Ceasar Augustus' traditional holiday, "Feriae Augusti," and then nicked by the church). No doubt, the summer will plunge on here for another 6 weeks at least, but the first wave of holidaymakers will be returning to work tomorrow after several much-needed weeks' rest.

Us? We're in Perugia. With the in-laws. We seem to have spent a good portion of the summer with them (I'll explain why in future posts), including during our cherished summer holiday. I wrote this next bit a few weeks ago, but only now am getting around to publishing it... Here goes:

We're back from a lovely weeklong vacanza in La Maremma, a region of Southwest Tuscany with fantastic beaches, great wine, amazing food and those classic hilltop towns. La Maremma is a real gem -- a rare piece of Tuscany that is off the tourist trail, and yet close to Rome. Keep it a secret!

We vacationed with the in-laws, which cues up a new Top 10 (well, there's just nine) list. This one -- "Top 10 (erm, 9) clues you've been on holiday too long with your Italian in-laws" -- reads as follows:

1. you race to the breakfast table to get first crack at the family blood pressure kit.

2. at the beach, your mother-in-law is quick to point out the Jesus in the driftwood.

3. you're quick to correct her -- that's Jesus *and* Mary in the driftwood!

4. After repeated warnings, you begin castigating other random mothers who allow their children in the sea a mere three hours after lunch.

5. your father-in-law punctuates every mosquito kill with an "Obama!," even in church.

6. even your father-in-law, who knows nothing of the sport, grumbles about the Mets at the breakfast table.

7. likewise, you too grumble about the cosmic injustice of more than 30 years without an Italian pope.

8. you no longer cringe when your father-in-law, an art critic, suggests to the lovely husband-wife team who run the Slow Food trattoria how they could improve the food, even before it's served.

9. you agree, the Tuscan coast is lovely and all, but it just doesn't compare with the land-locked Umbrian Riviera.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Graffiti, art or blight?

I have this tendency to grumble to anybody who'll listen about Rome and its graffiti problem. Our 'hood, Garbatella, in particular, is covered in grammatically dubious expressions of teenage love scrawled on the side of walls, on benches, on playground swings. Slow-moving nonne, I'm convinced, are at risk of getting a "Ti amoooo, Giovanna" declaration across their house dress. Nobody else seems to share my irritation though, so I thought I'd grumble about it here.

You see right outside our apartment lies the university, Roma 3. There are acres of clean wall space that are just taunting the aspiring graffiti artist. Until recently. A bunch of characters every other weekend sneak down to the tracks below the house and go to work on the wall of one of the university buildings that abuts the railway. I've begun to document the gradual transformation from nondescript building to urban canvass. With it, my opinion is beginning to change...

The first batch of photos were taken on the morning of June 1st after I noticed a new batch of boxy letters scrawled on the building below:

And then, last night I woke up around 3 a.m. to catch an inning or two of the Mets-Yankees game. It was a warm evening and the windows were open and, at one point in between innings, I hear that unmistakable rattle of spraypaint cans. I peered out from my salone into the darkness below and could just about make out two figures in black busy at the foot of the same building. Remarkable to me was that they did the work completely in the dark. They had no lights and there was just a sliver of a moon in the sky. Here's their handiwork:

The latest embellishment is certainly an improvement. So, I'm starting to refine my opinion of graffiti. If done well, it's not so bad. It adds a little color and life to otherwise drab city walls. The meaningless exclamations, hastily chucked up on a building, they are nothing more than vandalism. The graffiti artists should be more angered by these amateurs than me.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marche, as the church saw it

Here's a wall map mural from the 1500s found in the famous Vatican Map room. It shows the provincia di Ascoli Piceno "back in the day." Yes, I'm a total map geek. Naturally, I zoom in on "Mandola," 16th Century shorthand for "Amandola," evidently.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Therapeutic mud

No, this is not a post about thermal hot springs. It's about mountain biking, a day out with the fellas for a 50km (that we somehow screwed up, and turned into something closer to 65km) giro across northern Lazio.

In the spirit of service journalism, here's the map:

The trio included Stefano, our fearless guide. Here he is after demonstrating how to extricate yourself from knee-deep mud.

Next comes Bruno, a trained medical professional who is fond of recounting in mouth-watering detail favorite meals from across Italy. Starving, pedaling along the trail, the effect of these stories is vivid hallucinations. Dishes of pasta, steak and potatoes seem to appear one after another along the trail the closer you get to lunch hour. Mirages, all of them. Drat! Here's Bruno, settling for a picnic of panini and tepid water.

I brought up the rear, snapping photos and asking questions.

Turns out Italy is filled with routes like the one we took yesterday. They're vestiges of the railroad age, a grand age indeed in Italy. A century ago, Italy built an incredibly comprehensive network of rail lines, connecting just about every town, village and city to the outside world, bringing passengers and commerce to even the quietest out-of-the-way place. The automobile put this age to an end. Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of km of old rail lines. Perfect for mountain biking!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Berlusconi v. the Queen

Rule Number One: Use your "inside" voice when you are in the Queen's company.

The full story is here, courtesy of, gulp, The Daily Mail.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where Romans go for coffee

Sure, the Pantheon is pretty impressive. But if you see determined Romans stream past around the back, paying little attention to the place, it's probably because they are on their way to Caffe' Sant'Eustachio for un caffe' vero. The constant queues are testament that this could be the best coffee in the world.

William Grimes back in 2002 wrote in The New York Times about the place:

When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio cafe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble.

For the pastry chefs among you, check out this informative video about making tiramisu, with Sant'Eustachio coffee of course.

Don't mess with a man in tri-colore wig

The Azzurri this year are having a rough 6 Nations tournament. There was much hope for the future of Italian rugby after a few promising victories against the French and the Welsh in years past, but this year, nah, not so fast. The Italians cannot seem to put a full 80 minutes together and they don't seem to have a try in them as the tournament wears on.

Still, the Italians are proud of their club. And, as the Azzurri took the lead against the mighty Welsh in the second half and battled to the 71-min mark with a 15-13 lead, you cannot blame the home team fans from getting a little carried away. Stefano, sitting next to me (pictured above, proudly displaying the national colors of Peroni red; Matt of Gastrokid fame is next to him, Matt's lovely wife, Jowa, just out of the picture) at Stadio Flaminio yesterday, started heckling a bemused Welsh supporter late in the second half as the poor guy left his seat, for a beer no doubt.

As the guy walked past, Stefano yelled at him:
Go home, friend! You are cooked! Boiled!

Surprised, he looked up at us. Speechless. Go home!, Stefano yelled again. The Welsh fan turned and walked off, to cheers from the nervous Italians and the good-natured Welsh sitting all around us.

A few minutes later the Welsh stormed down the field and scored. The Welsh never looked back.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A photo tour of Garbatella

I mentioned below it's such a spectacularly sunny day today here in Rome. Walking back from buying the newspapers I snapped a few photos with my N95. (There are also some old shots too).

First stop: the market. It's been under construction, the sign reads, since 2004. There hasn't been any progress on the structure since we moved in 18 months ago. But today, I see, there's a fresh coat of paint, declaring Fascism is still off-limits. The old lefty spirit of the 'hood is kind of quaint these days. Today the Left in this country is becoming more fragmented and irrelevant every day, sad when you consider the alternative, Berlusconi and his lot, have zero credibility outside of Italy. Garbatella reflects the decline of The Left. The PD (Partito Democratico) HQ closed up shop a few weeks ago. Still, you can see colourful mural homages to Che and Castro and even Bobby Sands just a few steps from this delapidated market. Perhaps there's a metaphor in there. Not sure.

Walking downhill now you come to the Basilica of Saint Paul's, Rome's other basilica. Most pilgrims head to St. Peter's across town while St. Paul's sits quietly on a flat patch of grass between the river and the hills that lead into Garbatella. It's really impressive inside, particularly the cloister where relics of the early Christians abound.

We get nice sunsets from time to time too.

I blog for the trees

Remember the Lorax?, the Dr. Seuss character who... of course you do. Yep, he's the one "spoke for the trees." Left, right, center, Taliban, we all like the trees.

In Rome, we have the wondrous pini maritimi, it's a maritime pine tree that is pruned in such a way so as to resemble an open umbrella, perfect for summertime shade. In southern and coastal Italy, the pini maritimi are an iconic fixture, like the toilet-brush-like cyprus that adorn some of the tonier hills of Tuscany, Umbria and Marche. Wisely, these benevolent giants -- the pini -- are protected by the state. And they line most of the streets here in Garbatella, our 'hood. Even though their root structure tends to ripple the pavement and sidewalks, no one would speak out against the beloved pini maritimi. They are so stunning they function as a nice distraction from the endless grafitti, the latest Giovanni + Giovanna per sempre declarations, and even the garish mutande flapping in the breeze. When you enter a courtyard here in Garbatella, you are first greeted by the pini, then the rabble who live underneath them, then more pini. Somehow, they bring harmony to, Ao!, this part of Rome.

But, there's a problem. A nasty infestation has hit several species of pine trees in Southern Europe, and, it appears as if it's now here in Rome. As a result, the state is chopping down 155 of these trees in Garbatella, the local press reported this week.

I took a stroll around the neighbourhood today. It's one of those glorious early spring days here in Rome. The light is incredible. I tried to make out which ones seem fit enough, and which ones must go. They all seem fit to me. I want them all to stay! I'm having a Lorax moment. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lamb + Artichokes = Heaven

Poor Barbara & Fulvio, our old neighbours and good friends. We've been promising them a coscio di agnello con carciofi (leg of lamb with artichokes) dinner for weeks now. Finally this week we set the date. It was last night. But la nostra famed cuoca, Xtina, was unavailable to cook. What to do? Send in the Yank. Yep, me. Don't gulp. It was, I humbly write, a real pleaser. But it took a bite or two into the meal before everyone agreed. The look on poor Fulvio's face when he was informed l'americano had done the cooking was priceless. He'd been looking forward to the meal for days only to find out last minute that the clumsy understudy was filling in. Later, after many incredulous compliments, they were even more pleased with the outcome. Maybe they could pull it off too? And, in the spirit of service journalism, you can too:

Ok, here's my recipe, as whispered in my ear by a very patient Xtina:

1 Leg of lamb (make sure your butcher gives it a few good whacks first with his samurai knife along the bone)
garlic clove
white wine
olive oil
fresh sprigs of rosemary
prosciutto (one thick slice)

Take your leg (no, not your leg, the lamb's leg!) and rub it all over with salt. Coat lightly with pepper. Drizzle olive oil all over the leg.
Cut your prosciutto into long thin strips and drape over the lamb.
Next: cover the lamb with rosemary sprigs and diced garlic. Squeeze a half lemon on the lamb.
Let cook at 180 C (360 F) for about 10 mins. At 10 min mark (more or less) soak your leg in a nice white wine. Don't be shy.
Cook for another 30 mins, and then:
Add your diced potatoes. Apply more wine (as needed). Salt them potatoes, of course.
Let cook another 30-40 mins.

What kind of wine? Depends on your tastes. But I'd say something on the dry side. Not a girly Chardonnay in other words. We do most of our cooking with Falanghina, an Italian white from south of Rome. Works for fish, roasts, lamb, whatever. And, you probably can find it in your 'hood if you ask.

Now, your artichokes. This is artichoke season in Italy, so the markets are usually brimming with these tasty stalks. It's much less labor if you can find them pre-plucked. Even, still there's work to do. Cut them just below the stem (don't throw out the stems!) and slice the heads into 4 pieces. Surgically remove the "hay" (Xtina's description) from the center and maybe cut the pieces in half again. Cut the stalks into cubes, leaving the gnarly tips for the trash.

In a deep pan under a high flame, coat the pan in olive oil and chuck in your diced garlic clove. Chuck in your artichoke pieces, and, after three minutes, soak with wine. (Between the lamb and the artichokes, you may go through a half- to 3/4 bottle of wine.) Coat with salt. Stir occasionally so they don't burn. Turn down the flame and cook, covered, for a half-hour. Add wine as needed.

Note: if you are serious about your lamb, go to a trusted butcher and ask on which days they get them in. Fresh = best.

You can thank me later.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

R.I.P. John Martyn

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What brought you here

I know why I am here. This 'lil blog is a place for me to vent/spout/rouse/amuse/assume/observe/opine/maybe inform/you get the point. But what brought you here? I thought I'd visually represent (thanks to my new favorite geek tool, the word cloud builder Wordle... Can you tell I'm procrastinating on more serious work?) some of the search terms ISB visitors have plugged in to stumble upon this blog. I took the most recent 100 traffic referrals and pulled out the search terms then plugged them into Wordle. Eccoli, i vostri pensieri/interessi:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fix it again, Fiat

I couldn't resist that headline today, even if it earns me cold stares the next time I'm in Perugia. What am I referring to? Today's column on The Big Money.

And, check out our Brand Watch column for a great new Heineken ad on the airwaves in the Netherlands. Soon to hit on a TV near you. (if you still watch TV)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Belated Best of...'08

I'm bringing back the somewhat annual "Best of..." list, a list that bloggers with failing long-term memory compile to recall some of the finer places they've eaten, wines imbibed and random good times. How bad is my long-term memory? I forgot to write a "Best of" list last year. The most recent one dates back to Best of...'06. Here's what I said then.

As for '08, here goes:

Best Meal (Italia): I know everyone hates when the big match ends in a tie, but that's okay here on this blog. Yes, there are two winners for '08: fittingly, one is from the South, the other up North.

On 4th of July, we went to Il Braccionere located at the very top of Ischia. It's easy to spot from the ferry boat. Look for a light on the top of the highest point on the island, then look up again. We ate heaping portions of roast coniglio (rabbit) served in a ceramic bowl. Finger-licking good, as the Colonel used to say.

A few months later we found ourselves in Northeast Piemonte, in the city of Biella. There, you can find Ristorante Baracca (there's no truth to local rumors they will be changing the name to Ristorante Baracca Obama after Tuesday's swearing in ceremony), famous for its boiled tongue. My initial report can be found here.

Best Meal (fuori Italia): This is a long overdue nod to my favorite (regular) restaurant in London, Brindisa, a few paces from Borough Market, por tapas bonitas. It's one of the highlights always of my regular trips to London these days. The acorn-fed joselito is always a pleaser, as is the fritatta.

A very close second for '08 was Naka Naka in Chelsea (the other Chelsea -- the west side of Manhattan) for really nice sushi and a duck appetizer that was out of this world.

White: I usually jot down the names of pleasing lesser known producers (and lesser known varietals) for this annual list. When it comes to wine, I'm a silly populist, I guess. Here's my fave for '08: a 2007 Pinot Gris from the valdaostano producer Lo Triolet. Marco Martin, the name behind this wine, really needs to invest in a proper web site, one that can help us find/order his very distinct wines. Simple, pleasing, reasonably affordable. Also, his Gamay '07 is an exceptional red, a table full of stinco-eating Italians agreed.

Red: Staying close to Rome, it's Casale del Giglio's Mater Matuta '04. It's a shame the price keeps going up, maybe a sign they're doing something right with this vintage.

Usually, Il Sette Bello adds beaches, gelato and films to this list, but I'm going to leave it at just wine and food for 2008. It's all I can remember.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Surviving the downturn (Tip No. 19)

In today's Il Sole 24, Italy's top financial daily, Davide Paolini writes that the financial crisis could likely result in an improvement in the quality of food we eat, bringing about a resurgence of cibi poveri ("poor food") to the typical Italian home. Traditional foods like Baccala' (cod), sardines and pasta fatta in casa (pasta made-at-home) will return to Italian homes, a nice consequence of an otherwise paralyzing economic crisis.

Cue our first attempt to make pasta at home. A big success!, I write before tasting.