Saturday, September 30, 2006

Let's lash

Frank McCourt is a brilliant writer. In his first book, Angela’s Ashes, he writes about what growing up poor in Ireland was like. He spends most of his childhood wet, cold and starving.

One of the characteristics I find most delightful is that throughout his books he displays an unabashed appreciation for food. The times his father brings home wages (rather than spending them on drinking) he goes to sleep knowing “there will be a breakfast of eggs, fried tomatoes and fried bread, tea with lashings of sugar and milk, and, later in the day, a big dinner of mashed potatoes, peas and ham and a trifle, layers of fruit and warm delicious custard on a cake soaked in sherry”.

Does this not make you want to “lash” your tea with sugar and milk?

(McCourt’s father, an alcoholic, rarely eats, claiming food is “a shock to the system”.)

I recently read Teacher Man, where he recounts how he almost got fired on his first day as a teacher for eating a baloney sandwich one of his students had thrown at another. (After picking it up, he notices the thick home made bread, the marinated sliced peppers, and knows this is no ordinary sandwich. Sure enough, the kid’s mother was Sicilian.)

You’ll be happy to hear McCourt’s career survived the incident, allowing him to remain a teacher for over twenty years.

Meanwhile, I wonder where I can find a comparable baloney sandwich.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

See for yourself

After recently visiting three very different regions in Italy I can say with confidence that there is no such thing as "Italian Food". Or, rather, the range of food that can be considered "Italian" varies so much from region to region that it defies categorization.

Our trip began with three days in Liguria, where I dreamed of bread every night. Camogli is on the coast close to Genova, and it was so hot we had to sleep with the windows open. The drool inducing smell from the panetteria below rises, wafts through the open window and seeps into your subconscious. They start work at 3:00 a.m. I don't need to tell you what you wake up craving for.

Liguria is where focaccia comes from, as well as troffie, pesto, sugo di noce, moscardini in umido, pesce in umido con patate bollite. We had gelato at least three times a day (after lunch, early evening and after dinner).

Our good friends Jacopo and Paola took us by boat from Camogli to San Fruttuoso for dinner one evening. On the way we saw Liguria from the water, its nooks and soft lights. I remember reading somewhere that when you cook pasta the water needs to be as salty as the Mediterranean, so I tasted it. Next time I’ll get it right.

We sat at a little table right on the beach, eating a seven course meal under the light of the moon.

After the coast, we went by bus up to the mountains to a small town where Luca's family, escaping the nightmarish, humid Milan heat, has spent every summer for the past forty years.

Whenever we visit Etroubles (which has approximately 200 inhabitants and is close to the border with Switzerland), Luca feels like a time traveler. The same six-year-old girl who used to sit behind the counter at the grocery store when Luca was twelve is still there, with her tangled red head, counting coins. Except that, on closer inspection, it's the daughter of the girl that used to be there. This phenomenon repeats itself as we walk through town in the boy on the swings, the teenagers playing soccer, the woman hanging her clothes to dry.

The food in Valle d'Aosta is stick to your ribs, rich, heavy, and slathered in butter, cream or cheese. Polenta e Camoscio, Polenta Concia, Fontina, Fonduta, Mocetta, Zuppa alla Valpellinese, Tegole, Carpaccio di Porcini. I had Zuppa alla Valpellinese and found myself in front of a deep dish of melted Fontina, which I then spread on thick, black bread with my fork. (You'd think "zuppa" would require a spoon. I love surprises.)

In Courmayeur, at the foot of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), I had the best yogurt I've ever tasted. The label on the glass container read "this yogurt is made only from milk of cows from the high Valle d'Aosta". As we drove through the mountains, I thanked all the cows who grazed there.

One of my favorite pastries are Brutti ma Buoni (ugly yet good.) They are amorphous blobs of heaven, made from egg whites, hazelnuts and sugar (no flour, no butter.) In search of the best, I decided to sample one at each pasticceria.

Despite the simple ingredients, the flavor and consistency vary greatly, from airy to crunchy to chewy to everything in between. I invited my husband, my in-laws and la Nonna, my husband's 96 year old grandmother, into this endeavor. I was to walk into each bakery, order 5 brutti ma buoni, and deliver one into the (ever so slightly disapproving) hands of each of my family members (Northern Italians pretend to frown upon excess. I say "pretend" because when it comes right down to the wire, they could turn it down but don't.)

It was in Cogne, a jewel of a town deep in a narrow valley, that I encountered the roundest, puffiest, most harmonious looking brutti ma buoni. I walked in and aghast, told the owner "These cannot possibly be considered brutti ma buoni. They aren't at all ugly."

"Regretfully, signora, we make everything in our pastry shop beautiful. These are indeed brutti ma buoni, only they are not brutti."

I looked around. This was truly a gorgeous pastry shop. Cookies piled high with different flavors of jam, goodies swirled in chocolate, meringues coiffed in cream, almond paste filled croissants dusted in confectioner's sugar.

Exercising atypical restraint, I stuck to our mission, ordered the usual five brutti ma buoni, and while my family still chewed I declared them the best in Italy. To be fair, I hereby disclose they couldn't object - they had gummy yummyness gluing their teeth together.

My political family is all originally from Lombardia (in this case, Milan) where we went to next. Typical Milan dishes are Risotto alla Milanese (which is made with saffron and is half the reason my blog is called 'Epazote and Saffron'), Osso Buco (which I admit I'm not a passionate fan of - but Luca's eyes bug out when he sees this on the menu, and when he breaks down and orders it he mops his plate clean with bread), Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded meat which even in far away places like Mexico we call "Milanesa") and Panettone, the high, fluffy, dried fruit encrusted dessert bread sold in Milan over the Christmas holidays.

I know that my initial declaration of there being no such thing as Italian food is really nothing new. It's that it's such fun to experience it for oneself.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What is Popeye going to do?

We’ve been told not to eat fresh spinach (regardless of where it comes from: restaurants, supermarkets, vegetable stands, even if its organic) until the source of the current E. coli virus is figured out. At least 157 people in 23 states have been affected (according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

Those who die of complications of E. coli usually die of kidney failure.

Most at risk are individuals with weaker immune systems: children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

It seems that the culprit behind the current outbreak is irrigation or floodwater that is infected (with feces.)

Besides the obvious cost of human life (and human health) I’m worried about this on so many levels.

- This is a huge blow to spinach growers and producers (growers in the Salinas Valley are plowing their crops under. I’ve seen the photographs – fields and fields of beautiful, green leaves are being buried. What a colossal waste.)

- This point, above, means that workers (many of them migrant workers) will not get paid.

- Fear could make consumers stop buying other leafy vegetables, as well as anything that comes in those ultra convenient, pre-washed bags of salad. In other words, the implications in the industry are still to be determined.

- Washing the spinach doesn’t help. Not even dousing it with chlorine or dipping it in bleach, as the bacteria is absorbed from the root and resides in the inner tissues of the plant. The solution implies a profound change in agriculture practices and is not in our hands.

- Spinach consumption in the United States had been increasing. In a country in the grip of an obesity epidemic, this is a tremendous setback.

- Vegetable processing plants routinely wash lettuce and other vegetables in chlorinated water to kill E. coli and other bacteria. I don’t know about you, but my na├»ve reaction to this was - WHAT? My vegetables are washed with CHLORINE?

Granted, chlorine is a disinfectant, but it’s also a health hazard and may trigger asthma in children. Among adults it has been linked with other health problems, including bladder and rectal cancer and may increase the risk for coronary heart disease. (My source on this last paragraph is Andrew Weil.) Yes, I’m grateful to chlorine for protecting me from E.Coli and for keeping my pool clean. But are there not other alternatives? Must I eat it?

- The prospect of a food-safety scare has a domino effect. Raw almonds are being plowed under as well. The dairy industry is under intense scrutiny.

We can only hope this forces an improvement on us. We need to better inform ourselves about what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. Stringent practices in the agricultural industry must be established (feces coming into contact with food typically consumed raw? Come on!) We also need to be responsible in our use of antibiotics and chemicals. First do no harm – right?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The last time I was in Mexico, I warned my cigar loving father about secondhand smoke. "It's so bad for you" I told him. He looked at me with what I can only call adoring disgust. "You" he said disdainfully "have become a Californian".

He's right. Here is further proof that I’m a (Northern) Californian:

  • I have forgotten how to cross a street. I put my foot on the pavement and fully expect cars to screech to a halt. In other parts of the world (like Mexico, Milan and even England) this could have fatal consequences.
  • I order a latte for breakfast. Non fat. In Milan, baristas looked at us blankly.
  • I say “Good morning! How are you today?” to complete strangers. In London, they almost had me committed.
  • I expect produce to be bountiful, colorful, cheap and organic.
  • I never ask "how is the weather?"
  • I consider pressed jeans to be formal attire.
  • Even in Italy, I missed tofu. (Don't knock it until you've tried my tofu lasagna.)
  • Huevos rancheros for breakfast, sushi for lunch, Asian Fusion for dinner.
  • I feel that "that's neither here nor there" and "it is what it is" actually contribute something to the discussion.
  • I have become addicted to open space. I realized this after several weeks in Italy (driving through high mountains and narrow valleys) and a visit to London. We went to Kensington Park, to an area called The Pond, and I sat on a park bench entranced by the swath of sky. California skies are enormously wide and I love looking at the Pacific Ocean and the swirls of windswept clouds as we drive into the office.
I live in the most beautiful place in the world. California is home.