Friday, June 23, 2017

New York Times article on historic Italian libraries

Here is an unusually good article on historic Italian libraries, published recently in the New York Times. It has to do with ancient  libraries seen from the perspective of the tourist (albeit cultivated) and not the scholar. As shown in the piece, these libraries are not just about books and manuscripts but also about beautiful art and architecture.

Despite being a trained librarian and mega book lover, I myself neglected this aspect in my twenty years in Italy. I passed by the Marciana in Venice many times and never went in. This is mostly due to the forbidding nature of many of these places, which are carefully guarded and not tourist-friendly. Which is understandable, to a certain extent.

If you go, make sure to prepare beforehand and confirm rules for access.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fun way to increase your cooking repertoire

I thought about this brilliant idea a while ago, but I'm just now getting around to posting it.

Here it is: you choose an ingredient. Not a main ingredient like rice, pasta, bread, vegetables, meat, fish. But an accessory ingredient, so to speak. Garlic, onion, different kinds of oil, different vinegars, different kinds of pepper, herbs (preferably fresh), spices, fresh lemon, fresh ginger, truffles (yum) and so on. You get the idea. Then you acquire said ingredient (not a token amount) and use it up over a shortish period of time, like two weeks or one month. This will force you to get inventive and out of your rut and comfort zone. Do not be indiscriminate and put ingredient x anywhere- that will not improve your cooking skills or expand your repertoire (is that a pretentious word in cooking? sorry). You probably will also lose money and time.

Here's an easy example. What is the most used herb in Italian cooking? Basil? Origano? No- it's parsley. The Italians say "e' come il prezzemolo, e' dappertutto". He's like parsley, he's everywhere. Start out by acquiring the fresh parsley. Try both Italian flat leaf and curly types. Compare and contrast (I only use the former). You might want to get a parsley plant or two. You might want to grow your own, and then start a herb garden. Try making salsa verde (both Italian and Latin American). Try making omelette aux fines herbes. Tabbouleh.  Experiment (it won't be too risky with parsley). Look up its nutritional value. Look up recipes and try them. If you know foreign languages, look up foreign recipes with parsley.

If you follow this over a period of months, or years (why not?), you should significantly improve your cooking skills and food knowledge, and have fun doing it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Donna Leon, Earthly Remains

This is the 26th novel of crime writer Donna Leon, who sets her books in Venice, where she lived for decades. Let's cut to the chase: it's very good. It came out a couple of months ago, and I usually obtain books from the library or Overdrive (e-books through library). But when I heard it was set on the island of Sant'Erasmo, I had to have it right away. Sant'Erasmo (below) is a really big but sparsely populated island near Venice, known for its vegetables and dear to my heart, as most of the islands near Venice are. So I shelled out sixteen something and got it on Kindle through the diabolical invention of one-click ordering on Amazon. It was worth it.

Our police inspector Brunetti is packed off to said island for r and r. He goes alone and meets an interesting old man with whom he rows around the lagoon and talks. Sounds boring but is not. Complications ensue, involving widespread pollution, corruption, and bees dying off. The peeps are interesting, and Leon shows that she has perfected her wry (she would call it bleak) view of human nature. There are more or less sympathetic characters, but she is masterful here in showing the ambiguity and difficulty of moral action across the board. A sort of philosophical-ecological tale with plenty of local color (literally, in the case of Burano, also featured along with Sant'Erasmo).

Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trader Joe's frozen porcini chunks

There are some ingredients of Italian cuisine that are hard to come by in the States. Radicchio tardivo di Treviso, seen below, is one of them.

NOT porcini

Another one is porcini mushrooms. I've come upon the dried variety, of course, but there are obvious limitations. Next best would be frozen (also a compromise, but still.) So last week I was at my local Trader Joe's when I came upon their frozen porcini mushroom chunks. And bought them, naturally. Net weight 8 oz., price $3.69. Not bad. Imported from France. It must be a new item, since I haven't found anything on the Internet about them.

My first use was from frozen in a simple pasta dish. Pretty good. The second was even better. I sauteed fresh onions in olive oil, added riced cauliflower, stirred, added the flavorful water from bag, added the porcini (cut into smaller pieces). Bit of grated parmigiano. Very good. An herb or two would make it even better. I'm thinking thyme.

Obviously not a substitute for fresh porcini picked while hiking in the woods of Tuscany, but better than being porciniless.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tampa Italians

We generally think of Americans of Italian origin as associated with the Northeast (well, with the exception of New Orleans.) But another Southern town has a significant presence of Italian-Americans, and they started coming around 1885. That city is Tampa in Florida.

The history of the Tampa Italians (who were overwhelmingly of Sicilian origin) began with the establishment around that time of Ybor City. The area, just outside the downtown center of Tampa (which was tiny at the time), was founded by Spanish-born Vicente Martinez-Ybor (EE-bor). He set up cigar factories in Key West; subsequently, when the Key West Cubans (of whom my paternal grandfather was one!) got uppity, he decamped to Tampa. He and other Spaniards built a number of factories, which were mostly manned by Cubans but also a number of Italians (including many Italian women, who were relegated to the less desirable and less skilled task of stripping the tobacco leaves.)

Other immigrants were attracted, such as Germans (who specialized in the decorative cigar boxes) and Jews (who were often merchants). Italians in the cigar industry spoke Spanish. The various ethnic groups began separate social clubs/organizations, which provided instruction, entertainment, socializing and even medical care. Here is the Unione Italiana in the center of Ybor City (7th Avenue). It is still active (probably less active than it could be.)

Most of the Ybor Sicilians came from the province of Agrigento in the South of Sicily (chiefly known for its magnificent Greek ruins). Specifically, they came from two villages, Santo Stefano Quisquina and Alessandria della Rocca. Another immigrant came from nearby Cianciana- Santo Trafficante. He and his son Santo were heavily involved in the Tampa Mafia, with his son Santo Trafficante Jr. becoming (improbably) one of the biggest mobsters in the US during his lifetime. It should go without saying that the great majority of the Tampa Sicilians were not involved with the Mafia. At present, there are a number of peeps of Sicilian origin in Tampa, many of them in prominent positions.

Ybor City and its immigrants is a fascinating topic. You can find out more by reading these books (which I have read and recommend): Mormino, The Immigrant world of Ybor City and Urso, A Stranger in the Barrio: memoir of a Tampa Sicilian.