Friday, April 17, 2015

Italy is Eatily

I loved the enthusiasm of these chefs in the Mercado as they worked. They were singing together as they mixed the pizza dough when I took this picture. It sounded like an Italian opera to me, and I think they loved that I was amused at their gleeful enthusiasm as they entertained their hopeful customers. I mean who doesn't want to be serenaded in Italian? What a great way to lure the customers.....
On a recent trip to Florence, Italy, I was reminded of the tremendous influence of Italian architecture, art, music, fashion, cars, science, and yes, how Italian food has enhanced our lives. Even if we never enter the kitchen to stir a pot of spagetti sauce, Italy resides in all of us. Can anyone imagine life without pizza or pasta?

Since I believe making a sumptuous meal can be a tremendously creative endeavor, I sought out some Italian cooks/food artists in markets, restaurants, and street venders. I wanted any expert secrets about how to make food more flavorful and nutritious from these Tuscan artisans. It was a delightful search for a few days to hear their experiences and feel the pulse of their excitement for their native Tuscany food. Without a doubt, a few kindred spirits were found on the streets of Florence.

In my opinion, the real indicator of a great cook is how they they use herbs and spices to make the ordinary become extraordinary.The people I met were tremendously eager to share their honed recipes and tips. With no exception, they were all people who joy in creating good, healthy food.  I had wonderful conversations about what makes a good olive oil, and the seemingly divine soul in Tuscany that grows tantalizing food. If any of my new friends thought you were even slightly interested in their food affectionado, their expressions literally lit up; they grinned and started talking with their hands to explain their passions about their own culinary experiences. An infectious, joyous spirit permeated their stories and anecdotes. I was elated to be their audience, and insert a few questions while they peppered their opinions and advice.

I have always been of the opinion that since you have to nourish your body every day, you might as well be a little bit interested in learning how to make those meals more tasty and nutritious. When I moved to the Middle East, one of the first things I did was to plant my herb garden so I am always interested in learning how to make a simple vegetable more delectable. Here are just a few tips I received from my new Italian friends:

--to add flavor to grilled steak or fish, use a gremolata, instead of a creamy or oily sauce. A gremolata is an Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, fresh parsley and lemon zest. 
--oregano, an herb that is both sweet and spicy, is perfect for Italian sauces.
--instead of using a slice of lemon, lime, or even orange to flavor your water, try a sweet basil leaf .
--Roast beets with thyme, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
--Roast acorn or butternut squash with cinnamon, coriander, rosemary, olive oil, and garlic. The same blend can be made for carrots and parsnips. Roasted vegetables with herbs and spices are tasty over polenta.
--layer your pizza next time with basil leafs, depending on how much flavor you desire.
--drizzle some "good" olive oil on your soup, with some croutons. Use olive oil as much as you can, instead of butter.
--add whole peppered corns to sauces over meat. No need to grind them.
--Add fresh, minced rosemary leaves to mashed potatoes or cut up red potatoes that are baked with about a tsp. or two of olive oil.
--Learn more about your heritage on how to cook old recipes, especially those from holidays. It will bond you with your family and ancestors in an interesting way. You will understand them more when you know what they ate. Designate a few days of the year when you can prepare what they ate, usually at holidays or special family occasions.
--Fruit for dessert, both dried or fresh is delectable.
--Grow an herb garden to flavor your food. Make your pestos, marinades, salad dressings from scratch.
--anise is an interesting, unique flavor for pastries and bread.

This man was waving with a happy grin at the passerbyers in the market. The colorful fruit and vegetables, and his ebullient spirit, even for a glimpse, made me even happier to be in Italy.

This man could not speak much English. But  since we both love herbs, we were able to communicate. He gave me some fresh new ideas to bring more piquant flavors to vegetables.  Brief exchanges can have lasting influence...for good.
A baker who was getting ready for Easter with his pies, breads, and pastries. He made a great effort to tell me about the pastries he was making for Easter in his minimal English. I could tell he was proud of his work, to bring his Italian heritage to people through food.1427393708
Some jolly, playful pizza makers. Making food for them was not a chore.
Getting the pizza dough ready to throw. Lots of smiles and laughter to show us how they created their pizza.
Every pizza seemed to be made with so much care in the Mercado, just like it was for a family member.

The Pete receiving his pizza that was so lovingly, personally prepared for him.

Soups's on! Meet Katrin who was a kindred spirit because we both love to make a hearty, rustic soup. It is always my quest to find a sumptuous  soup; I can say soup in about twelve languages to prove my point. Beethoven apparently said, "Only the pure and heart can make a good soup."  I will try to live up to his declaration.  But it is always delightful for me to find people throughout the world who have my passion to stir and simmer a delectable soup. 

Soup just seems to have soul. Katrin was indeed a soup wizard,. Here is a a picture of her cauliflower and broccoli soup (no cream). She drizzles the famous Tuscany olive oil on the soup, with some homemade croutons. Her other soup (carrot curry) was immersioned with rice. There was a line serpentining around the stall to buy her delicious  soups. For lunch that day, I had two bowls. Better than dessert for me....
There were many gelato stores, seemingly on each street. The picture below is of their family who started this store in the 1920's on the street. Impressive.
Elias enjoying his daily gelato.
The first night in Florence found us in a small cafe. The cooks behind the counter were thrilled to share about their collections of cheese, cut meats, and bread.
The first night in the cafe I had what else....some soup. The people of Italy often have white beans to accompany a meal, but the soup was perfect that night. Here is the recipe, give or take:
Two Italian proverbs about food that I wholeheartedly agree:

At the table with good friends and family, you do not become old.

A small kitchen makes the house big (and I would definitely order an herb garden, and if I were lucky, an olive tree).
                                                      One more story:  
One of the extraordinary happenings of our Italian trip ( five days) was meeting the same taxi driver in Florence twice. We only took three taxis in Florence, and the first night was after dancing in one of the plazas, Paulo took us back to our hotel. We had a delightful conversation that night in his Italian, some English, and my mediocre Spanish. Two days later, we were out flagging another taxi, and here Paulo comes again. I said, "What are the chances to meet you again?" He replied, " There are 700 taxis and 1,000 taxi drivers in Florence." I have always taught my children that you never know when you will see someone again so be kind. It was particularly interesting because the first time we met him, we all instantly became friends. To meet him again, well, it was marvelous, just like seeing a long time friend--especially when you are far from home. 

To all my new friends I met in Italy:
addio , il mio amico. e io vi vedrĂ² di nuovo

Translation: good bye, my friend, and I will meet you again.


  1. Oh I feel hungry now!! I loved the picture of the vegetable stand with the PILE of artichokes, we are having artichokes this week, yum. ;) Thanks for your cooking knowledge, it really is an art and an acquired skill with experience. I want to try some of the spice blends you listed with the veggies, yum! Amen to herb gardens! I just planted this week and it makes me so happy. I love when I water that I can smell the herbs. :)

  2. Yes, I agree. Herbs have some of the best aromas in the world. They always make me feel more alive.