La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part III, Eating)

Ciao Readers!

Today we finish our foodie tour of Lucca (sigh).  So far we’ve covered shopping and cooking – today we simply indulge in EATING (and drinking wine – after all, it is Italy)! While Italian food is not that “difficult” to cook, there’s nothing like having it expertly prepared for you at a local restaurant (or osteria or trattoria or pizzeria).  And, of course, enjoying it over a leisurely two-hour lunch with friends (or dinner, if you can wait to eat till the restaurants open at 8:00 p.m.), just adds to the pleasure of the experience.  Since I still can’t figure out a proper way to share these experiences with you, all I can do is try and paint a picture with words (and pictures).  Join me for some of the dining-out highlights from my trip… included a leisurely lunchtime visit to Gli Orti di via Elisa with two of my lovely classmates from language school where we enjoyed an amazing antipasto platter (the little white square thing is not cheese as it appears, but baccala – perfectly prepared salt cod spread) as well as lovely half-bottles of local wine and maccheroni (the local specialty pasta as we learned from the “cooking” post) with fiore de zucca (zucchini flowers). Instead of trying to describe how wonderful the food and company were, just take a look at the experession on my face – I think it says it all.

There was also a solo visit to indulge in more grilled “polipo” at Il Cuore (actually a gourmet food shop, with a few chairs outside for eating).  I am sorry (and not) to say it put the grilled octopus from Marea in NYC to shame (as good as that was) – melt in your mouth tender and fresh from the sea.  I sat outside in a little square on a beautiful day making “yummy noises” till the very last bite of my seafood salad (and also enjoyed a plate of truffle-infused delicacies).  Add Steve and it would have been the perfect meal:

Next, while I think we both agreed the food wasn’t the best we had in Lucca, my classmate Terri (pictured holding up some fried stuffed anchovies) and I managed to finally stay out late enough one night to eat dinner out, at Ristorante L’anciua Pesce Povero.  I guess we should have realized from the “povero” (poor) in the title that at the ridiculously low price of 20 euros for 4 starters, a main dish, a half bottle of wine (each), bread, coffee, sparkling water, dessert, coffee and limoncello that we were not going to get giant plates of whole fish (“pesce”) (though we did get our mutual favorite, the pictured plate of fried anchovies).  While not as drool-worthy as other meals we shared, we agreed that we enjoyed the family-style meal (no menu), the fact that is was almost all local patrons, and each others’ company!

And, finally, no trip to Italy would be complete without the quintessential Napoletana-syle pizza (thin crust, super hot wood-fired oven).  I’m a traditionalist and stick to the margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil)  – this is the best one I had on my trip, from a nifty little pizzeria only blocks away from my apartment (which I unfortunately did not discover until the last night of my stay):

Until we eat again…..

La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part II, Cooking)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Passover and Easter!

So, today we’re going to cook in Italy – specifically my language classmate, Terri, and I are cooking with Chef Giuseppe from “Extra Virgin” cooking school.  As you may recall, I have taken a variety of cooking courses in many countries, ranging from the super casual paella cooking with a fun bunch of well-lubricated Australians in Barcelona to the more “professional” kitchen of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (ooh la la).

While honestly, I already knew much of what we learned (cooking in Italy, unlike France, is “simple” in the best way – a few excellent ingredients combined to perfection), the class with Chef Giuseppe was a wonderful way to end my stay in Lucca (and yes, of course, a DELICIOUS one!).  (As a side note – Chef Giuseppe was featured on House Hunters International with his American love interest, Liz – Liz and I e-chatted about our respective experience with house hunters before I arrived.)  We met up with Giuseppe in the morning and went to a few small shops to get ingredients for the day, where he would fill us in on the products and their “back stories” (and have long leisurely chats with the proprietors).  Once we arrived at the “palazzo” (their apartment, which is Artchitectural-digest-worthy gorgeous!) we were offered drinks (including, of course, prosecco) and enjoyed olive oil and cheese tastings with mini-lessons before we got to cooking. There was obviously great attention to detail paid before we even arrived as there was a beautifully printed menu and place cards with our names on them (more “ooh la la”s).

As I was feeling tired and lazy on my last day in Lucca, and Terri was interested in mastering technique (though she is actually a “professional” herself – she sells her artisinal homemade gelato in her native Seattle!), I mostly nibbled and drank prosecco while Guiseppe and Terri cooked (and Giuseppe somewhat obsesively cleaned-up behind us throughout the day). Don’t let the photo of me laying out the maccheroni to dry fool you (yes, that’s what Lucca’s local specialty pasta is called, and yes, it’s pronounced “macaroni”), Terri did the hard part – all of the kneading of the dough.  The cooking ended with a drool-worthy multi-course meal (artichoke frittatta and salad, risotto with asparagus and truffle butter, maccheroni with ragu, all topped off with a dessert of buccellato (Lucchesi specialty sweet bread with anise), strawberries and lemon custard), served at a beautiful table with well-paired wine.  We left with little gifts, the aprons you see us wearing, and a little cheesiness for good measure (“official” certificates).  Buon Appetito!

La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part I, Shopping)

Ciao Readers!

Did you think I forgot you?  Never. I just got busy with language school, leisurely meals…and a cooking class before I left Lucca (and now I am busy with things we lawyers do – not very interesting or delicious blog fodder).  But before the glories of Italian food totally fade from memory, I thought I’d share some of the highlights….

First – and the focus of this post – there is grocery shopping in Italy.  And by “grocery” shopping I don’t necessarily mean going to a grocery store (though if you’re interested in the somewhat amusing “how to” of grocery stores in Italy, check out this earlier post); it will as likely (or more likely) be a cool little outdoor market selling whatever is fresh and local at the time (at this time it was artichokes and strawberries).  Admire some of the market offerings from this past weekend – fruits and veggies and cheeses, oh my!  I am already suffering pangs of longing for the strawberries and cantaloupe I had – why doesn’t the fruit here taste that sweet?!? Then, of course, you can wander into any of the little specialty shops – handmade pumpkin tortoloni, truffle tasting or pistachio cookies anyone?  And no day would be complete without a stop at a panificio (bread shop) for a daily loaf of fresh bread (mine would usually run about 50 cents). It was all so darn YUMMY! (And affordable!) I have to say, I went grocery shopping here yesterday and I was just sad* – look at the fancy lettuces I bought at the grocery store in Italy (last photo)…then zoom in and look at the prices – yes, that’s right – mere cents for fancy speckled radicchio and frisée and baby arugula….

*Of course, when we lived in Italy and ingredients to make Mexican food were nowhere to be found I was equally sad – as they say “L’erba del vicino è sempre piu verde” (roughly, the grass is always greener….)

Next time…join me in my cooking class!

Fast to Fancy – NYC Food is Fab!

Ciao Readers!

So, as I sit here in Lucca Italy on a rainy Sunday and try and think deep thoughts (time to think = large part of my motivation for this trip), I’ve decided a light-hearted blog about food (what else?!) fits the bill until I have something more profound to share….

Every time I go to New York I am overwhelmed (in a “I wish I had more room in my stomach” way) by all the food choices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d be adrift without a steady supply of New Mexico green chile (everything’s better with it – including matzo ball soup!), but it’s a big wonderful world full of food out there and no matter what you want, New York has it (in contrast, NM does not have any of the following things we enjoyed on our trip): Octopus cooked to perfection? -check. NYC style pizza and linguini with clam sauce? -check. Lobster rolls to rival Maine? -check. Korean food court? -check. Egg bagel with whitefish salad? -check. 100+ year-old Italian bakery with tricolor cookies? -check.  Shake Shack? -check and check! But instead of continuing to drool in my mind, I’ll “share” some of these delicacies with you – Bon appetite!

Two subways and a walk for the tri-color cookies of my dreams (and some requested pignoli cookies for our friend Sue, formerly of NYC) – totally worth it:

Carbo-loading before the NYC half at our perennial favorite, John’s – YUM!

An expedition to Food Gallery 32 in “Koreatown” for spicy squid and bibimbap:

Our splurge lunch at Marea on the outskirts of Central Park (I didn’t have the chutzpah to pull out my camera too often in this place, but here’s the best thing we had – from the menu – “POLIPO – grilled octopus, smoked potatoes, pickled red onion, radish, chilies, tonnato”):

A trip to a hip new food court, where Luke’s Lobster serves a mean lobster roll (i.e. butter soaked bun filled with sweet and tender lobster):

And, of course, the joy of once again requietting my new-found love of a “fast food” burger – SHAKE SHACK!

Thanks for reading (and dream-eating with me)!!!

Ode to the Perfect Fry

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY FRIDAY!

Today I wax poetic about the most humble of foods, but one that if done correctly can be elevated to soaring heights of yumminess….the simple fry (or frites).  Probably a remnant of my 1.5 years working at McDonalds as a teenager, I used to think fries were junk food, never really thought much about them, and definitely was too snobby to eat them. Oh, how misguided was I!?!?!

If done correctly (in the European fashion – sorry, yes, they really do kick our butts in the fry department), fries are hot and soft and fluffy in the inside and brown and crisp (never greasy) and slightly salty on the outside. (And by the way, it is most likely that the Belgians, not the French, invented the fry, though Thomas Jefferson and WWI soldiers discovered them in France).  The key is to 1) soak them in water for a few hours before frying (then dry), 2) fry them twice (once on lower heat to cook through, the second time on higher heat to crisp up), and most importantly 3) be patient! – a proper fry is worth waiting a few minutes for it to take its last hot bath in oil (for the love of the gourmet gods, NO heat lamps!).  If you really want to gild the lily, serve with a euro-style mayonnaise sauce and use duck fat or ox fat or some other extraordinarily unhealthy but delectable type of animal fat for the frying (yes, this is coming from a person who was a vegetarian until age 31 – what can I say, I saw the light).  (If you ever happen to be in the area, Duckfat in Portland, Maine makes the perfect duckfat fry.)

Since we’ve been back from our trip Steve has tried to make fries twice – both times successfully, the last time, perfectly!   The pictures in order: Belgium frites in Brugge, French fries in France, frites in Amsterdam, jalapeño fries I MacGyvered in Italy, and last but not least, the fries Steve made last week (insert drool here):

Eating and Art in Amsterdam

Ciao Readers!

Today we go back to one of my favorite topics – the art of Van Gogh, with some yummy food thrown in for good measure. Despite catching colds and being rained on for several days, we ate well and overloaded on art while in Amsterdam. Being from land-locked, non-cosmopolitan New Mexico, any opportunity to eat interesting foods (and any from the sea) is a welcome opportunity. And any chance to see great works of art, another score. Instead of going on about everything we saw and did, I wanted to focus on two highlights – our “Rijsttafel” (rice table) dinner and the Munch/Van Gogh comparative exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum.

Rijsttafel – Since Indonesia was a Dutch colony for about 300 years, it’s no surprise that the Dutch gained an affinity for Indonesian food.  However, while the “rice table” is made up of a grand sampling of Indonesian dishes, this way of presenting them is uniquely Dutch.  It was created as a way for Dutch folks to sample dishes from islands all around Indonesia at the same time. And lucky for us! I lost track of how many dishes came out (you can count for yourself, below), but they were each unique and yummy (or at least interesting) in their own way. Some dishes reminded us more of Thai food (chicken in peanut sauce), while others had more of an Indian flare (curried goat).  They all had some level of heat (an added bonus for us chile-loving New Mexicans) and next to the meal in Rouen, it was the second-grandest feast of our trip – Yum!!!

Munch/Van Gogh Exhibit –  Man, I really have a hard time wrapping my brain around how I went from being someone without a passport to someone who has been to the Van Gogh Museum 4 times in the past 8 years!!!  Since I’ve gone on about Van Gogh in several posts, I’ll stick to the unique exhibit we just happened to catch during its final week in Amsterdam –  “Munch: Van Gogh.”  The exhibit focussed on the parallels between the two artists, who, while painting about the same time and some of the same subject matter, never actually met. One really cool thing was there was a TON of paintings on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, including one of the iconic “The Scream“-s (though since it’s done in crayon, I guess it’s not technically a “painting”).  The other cool things was, in addition to the hundreds of Van Gogh’s usually at the museum, they had many more on loan from around the world (including one from the Kröller-Müller Museum we’d been to the day before).  It was such an overload of amazing art that they actually had Stendhal syndrome boxes you could close yourself in to calm down!  All in all, between the Kröller-Müller Museum, the usual Van Gogh’s on exhibit and the on-loan Van Gogh’s, I think we saw almost 300 Van Gogh’s on this trip!!!

Pictures of Amsterdam, the rice table, a Munch/Van Gogh self portrait comparison (the one picture Steve was able to take before being reprimanded – unlike the Kröller-Müller, no photos allowed), and some seafood thrown in for good measure….enjoy:

 

A: A lovely local lager, the world’s best chocolate, a ginormous yummy bratwurst, 8 oz. of water; Q: What does 5 bucks buy you in Brugge, Belgium? (or “A glimpse into the grumpier side of travel”)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Birthday week to me (and Brian, and Joseph)!

Lest you think that my travel tales suffer from rose-colored-glasses syndrome, today’s post will only be partly about fun and deliciousness, with some grumpiness thrown in for good measure.  While it’s really hard to have a bad time traveling the world (seriously, you’re on vacation, you’re seeing famous sites, you’re eating yummy food – how bad can it be, even with the travel delays and noisy hotel rooms?!?), once in a while your mojo just gets off.

Brugge, Belgium has been (and still is) one of both Steve and my favorite places.  It’s got that great old world charm, it’s small and friendly and walkable, it’s quirky and quaint, and it has the BEST chocolate on the face of the planet.  We first came here in 2008 during our grand tour; at that time the movie “In Bruges” had just come out and Brugge really hadn’t been discovered by tourists yet.  Since then I think Brugge has started suffering from what I call “Rick Steves Syndrome.”  (For those of you unfamiliar, Rick Steves is a great PBS travel host, and we honestly owe a great deal of our travel skills to his guidance, though his following can be somewhat cult-like).  We first discovered this syndrome in the Cinque Terre in Italy – what used to be a sleepy gem on the sea that only locals knew about is now a place teaming with tourist, replete with “Rick Steves Recommends” signs hanging in restaurant windows.  Brugge, especially the prices in its restaurants, seems to be similarly suffering from its “outing” by Mr. Steves.

Syndromes aside, we did have a fabulous time here – we stayed in an apartment in a quirky historical tower, strolled (and ate at) the fun Christmas market, enjoyed a great New Year’s eve (future post), toured the windmills when everything was closed on New Year’s Day, hung out at a local pub, ate amazing fries (again – see Steve eat the same fries in 2008, below), and indulged in what we consider to be the world’s best chocolates (from Dumon Chocolatier).  We also hit a little bump in the road, in the form of an eight once bottle of water costing 4.50 euro (5 bucks).

Usually when we travel we mostly leave our food choices to serendipity, but when there are special things we want to eat, I do a little research and maybe even make a reservation (like at the place in Rouen). Since mussels is on my “must do” list in Brugge, I researched some places to enjoy them.  I found De Vier Winden, and even knowing it was located in the main tourist square, Frommer’s assured me it was “INEXPENSIVE” and has “amazingly cheap meals considering its location” (seriously Frommers, you have way too much money and too little perspective if you think this place was cheap).  Now, to be fair to this restaurant, despite being a touristy place, the food is actually quite good. Couple that with a waiter who speaks 7 languages (I tried out French and Italian with him) and a great view of the medieval buildings from the windows, and you have the makings of a lovely time. Until you try to order tap water (or more specifically, in very polite French, “l’eau de robinet”).

Now, you must understand that all over Europe people order and get tap water – it is a common occurrence (not just one of those things only silly American tourists do). While I was willing to fork over the way-too-high prices for our mussels and steak, I had to draw the line at 5$ for an 8 oz. bottle of water (and since it arrives with the cap already removed, I don’t think my suspicion that it IS actually tap water is completely unfounded). You can see the tiny bottle in the picture, below, behind my admittedly delicious mussels. It was at this point that the waiter informed me (in English) that it is forbidden by “the boss” to provide tap water, and why would you, seeing as they have such high quality bottled water (fyi, you can buy these same bottles of water at every convenience store for about 45 cents). While I was tempted just to cancel my order for water all together (and drink the bottle in Steve’s backpack), I could see that Steve was getting increasingly uncomfortable with my (admitted) further questioning of the denial of tap water, so I caved. At this point, Steve was left feeling (understandably) that I’d “harshed the buzz” of our one splurge meal in Brugge, and I was still feeling pretty grumpy about being gouged like a stupid tourist. Needless to say, a memorable meal for the wrong reasons.

So, we were compelled to have a heart-to-heart about “water-gate,” our respective reactions to it, and so on. However, once the discussion was over, I decided to turn this into a running joke the remainder of the trip. Every time we would eat something cheap and yummy, which was most things (the bratwurst pictured, herrings sandwiches (3 euros), frites, a kebab, etc.), I would say something like “Aw, I could have gotten 8 oz. of tap water for the price of this giant sandwich!” in feign disappointment (and laugh maniacally at my own joke). After a while even Steve had to laugh. Thus, the title of this post.

Photos of Brugge, the infamous water, the more delicious things 5 bucks brings, our cool apartment, and more – Enjoy:

 

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