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)!!!

Reflections on Italy (through an edible lens)

Ciao Readers!

I have begun to crystallize my thoughts from our recent road trip.  And, while I could just share those thoughts directly, I believe I can best illustrate them though my favorite medium – food.   Every time we traveled to Europe in the past we were always in search of the local specialties – pasta and pizza in Italy, cheese and croissants in France, and so on.  So we really paid no attention to what other types of food were available or what the eating habits of the locals were like.  This trip changed all that.

As you may recall, I have gone on many wild goose chases trying to source ingredients to prepare non-Italian foods and have tried the few foreign food places we have found here.   However, the conclusion I have come to (which has been validated by numerous Italians) is that Italians like Italian food.  Not only do Italians like Italian food, but they like all things Italian (apparently even their felony-convicted former Prime Minister).  Not only do they like Italian things, but they like them pretty much to the exclusion of non-Italian things.  That is why (in a direct way) it’s so hard to find variety in food here, and (in a more subtle way) why I feel such a strong sense of being a “stranieri.”  As the Italians I have discussed this with put it simply, Italians, especially Florentines, are “chiuso” (closed).  (Interestingly enough, these Italians usually take the form of folks who don’t feel that way – the man that owns the little Korean grocery and is married to a Korean woman; my language exchange partner who has traveled the world).   To be honest, until this trip to Paris and Amsterdam I didn’t realize the rest of Europe wasn’t the same way….

My first clue that things are not the same throughout Europe came while walking down our street in Paris.  While of course there were amazing French bakeries and bistros (more in a later post), there were tons of foreign food places.  Not one or two – tons!  The next clue came when we decided to try out a Japanese place we saw (we had to choose which of several we saw within a block).  We went during lunch and the place quickly filled up – with Parisians – businessmen and older women and everyone in-between.  Other than ourselves, we only heard French spoken.  And, much to my surprise, almost everyone was eating with chopsticks!  (As background, I have only ever seen two Italians eat with chopsticks – one being my language exchange partner who lived in Korea for 6 months and the other being a woman at PinGusto who was unsuccessfully trying to stab her sushi with one.)   This was not some exotic experience to these folks…it was lunch.  (For us it was our first unagi [eel] and non-salmon sashimi in 6 months.)

We had pretty much similar experiences throughout Paris.  Even at the upscale Lafayette Gourmet market, in addition to French foie gras (again, more in a later post), there was an entire stall for Chinese delicacies.  The regular grocery stores had things we thought didn’t exist in Europe – cheddar cheese and Oreos and Asian sauces and more.  And, while I have to say the hot sauce was nowhere near hot enough for my taste, the chips we got at the Mexican restaurant “Fajitas” were those fabulous thin-crispy ones I miss so much.   There was at least as much variety in Amsterdam (as well as the ability to eat before 8 p.m.).  And, while we enjoyed the local specialties there as well (stay tuned), we had what I could consider the best Thai green curry I’ve ever had.  Now, no offense to my favorite Thai place back in Albuquerque, but instead of 80% bamboo shoots (as I’m used to), my curry was filled with every vegetable on the planet.  Thinking the curry was going to be tamed-down for European taste buds (as was the Paris hot sauce), I made the mistake of asking for it “hot” and got what I asked for (anyone whose ever eaten authentic Thai understands what Thai hot means).  I loved every last mouth-searing second of it!!!   (Sadly enough, the hot sauce at the Amsterdam Mexican place we tried, while billed as “habenero,” was only about medium-Pace level hot.)

Now, I know you may be thinking it was weird of us to be eating all these non-French, non-Dutch foods on our trip… As my Lonely Planet “Amsterdam Encounter” put it (under a review of a Mexican place): “[Mexican food] is probably not why you came to Amsterdam.”  However, for us it was just the culinary (and thus cultural) relief we needed.  (Amsterdam also gave us our first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and first bagel in the past 6 months.)  We also came across an American grocery store – one with real American groceries (not the fake Filipino graham crackers or Swedish tortillas of Vivi Market).  Now, before you get too excited for us (especially after you see the picture of the front window, below), know that the prices were insanely high.  I have to admit, we did each treat ourselves to one thing, but pretty much just “ooooo’d”  and “ahhhhhh’d” (just as an example, one thing we did not splurge on was a normal sized Reese’s candy bar – 2.10 euros, or about $2.80).   We chatted with the proprietor and he said he has many customers from Florence, including a professor who comes 4 times a year and fills up an empty suitcase!   Interesting.

The result of these culinary discoveries was that I realized Italy really is the fairly homogenous society I suspected it of being.  And it likes it that way.  The second discovery was that other parts of Europe are much more international and open to foreign influences.  I hate to say it, but I felt much more comfortable and welcomed in Paris and Amsterdam than I do here most of the time.  People seemed friendlier and less annoyed at the Italian/French/English mish-mosh I was speaking.  I have no idea why the French get a bad rap – this is the 3rd time we’ve been there and people have always been nice (saying “bonjour”  and “s’il vous plaît”  probably helped).

I have many more reflections that fit better in upcoming posts, so for now I’ll leave you with some of the non-local food we enjoyed (or admired) on our trip:

The Groceries of My Dreams

Ciao Readers!

In looking back through this blog, it’s almost scary how much time I spend thinking about food…  and here I am again (sorry, you have to wait till Monday to read about the Guggenheim!).  Sometimes in life ya just gotta give in and spend some time wistfully daydreaming about things; for me that means dreaming of what I would buy at the grocery if I could (i.e., if it were available, not if I could afford it [like caviar]).   Here’s the stuff dreams are made of:

Groceries I Dream About Now

  • Poore Brothers’  jalapeno potato chips
  • a bag of restaurant-style extra thin/crispy tortilla chips
  • really HOT salsa to dip those chips in (a nice local NM favorite like Sadie’s or El Pinto)
  • roasted green chiles (this time of year, ones that were fresh-frozen)
  • Tostito’s queso (yeah, I know, not very glamorous, but add green chile and YUM!)
  • a bag of shredded cheddar/Monterrey jack/Colby mix
  • pecans
  • ziploc bags
  • sour cream that’s sour (and yogurt that’s got a bite)
  • good quality cold cuts of the non-pork variety
  • Reese’s peanut-butter cups, Andes mints, Hershey’s kisses (it’s weird, they have yummy chocolate here [though rather hazelnut-centric], I just miss my comfort candies)
  • 100% juice other than orange (ooooo, maybe a nice pomegranate/cranberry combo)

(There are many other foods about which I dream – huevos, bagels, pho, pad thai – but this list was solely for the grocery store in my dreams.)

And, as it is my goal to be “fair and balanced,” I also include a list of:

Groceries I’ll Dream of Back in the States

  • several varieties of fresh pesto
  • many varieties of delicious prosciutto
  • countless varieties of pecorino cheese
  • truffle stuff! (sauce, butter, cheese, spread)
  • fresh (and CHEAP) loaves of Italian bread
  • dry pasta in every shape and size you could imagine (also CHEAP), and tons of fresh pasta as well
  • Ciobar (ridiculously thick hot chocolate mix)
  • whole rabbits (okay, that one will actually be in my grocery nightmares…)

Ah, the stuff of dreams:  poorebrotherssalsa

What groceries would you/do you miss if you couldn’t/can’t get them?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING (Italy Style) !!!

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY TURKEY DAY!!!

Okay, I know I said I was working past my culture shock and the need to replicate state-side foods, but now it’s Thanksgiving!  I’m not a big traditionalist, but Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday and filled with many personal traditions.  Except for the few years where folks have come to share the day with us, Thanksgiving usually goes something very close to this: we wake up early and get the turkey in the oven before Steve takes me to run some Thanksgiving-day-themed 5k (usually the “Turkey Trek” or “Hobbler Gobbler”); we get back and finish all the cooking (enough to feed way more than the 2 of us); we then get in our p.j.’s and watch a day-long marathon of holiday movies while we stuff ourselves (favorites include “Pee Wee’s Christmas Special” and “Scrooged”).  Now the question has been, how will we celebrate in Italy?

First off, clearly Thanksgiving is not a holiday here – Steve has to work and I’ll be going to school (not sure I mentioned, but I started back) – so Thursday is not going to cut it (though I do plan on setting my ipod/nike gadget for a 5K on Thursday and running my own Turkey Trek).  Mostly, though, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving a little late (which is okay – one year our families came for “fake” Thanksgiving a week late because it was easier for everyone to travel then).   However, while the date may be off, the food will be pretty darn close.  I started sourcing ingredients a couple of weeks ago.  And, since I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get it all right, we had to have some “test runs.”   I made a test-run pumpkin pie with condensed milk from Vivi Market, using store-bought Butoni “pasta sfoglia” (puff pastry) for the crust and making my own pumpkin puree from a big chunk of a green pumpkin-like thing I got at the grocery (they actually sell Libby’s canned pumpkin at Vivi, but it is stupid expensive and the fresh stuff worked great!).  Steve beat the fresh cream by hand, and voila!  Not too shabby (photo of the pieces we shared with the Rosticerria guys):

I didn’t think we were ever going to find yams as I’d been keeping an eye out for awhile, but whatd’ya know, at Mercato Centrale there is a small Central American food vendor tucked away in the back and they have them (also baked a couple of those for a test-run).  Turkey (parts) and potatoes and green beans are no problem (and they have great, fancy mushroom creams here to use with the green beans).  I planned very far ahead for the stuffing and brought a box mix for cornbread, to which we will add stale bread (adding day-old baguettes became a new tradition in 2008 when we were in Paris at Thanksgiving and that’s how I made stuffing) (alas, though, no green chiles – another personal traditional twist on stuffing).  The final piece of the puzzle was the cranberry sauce…. I tried and tried to source some fresh cranberries, but to no avail.  So, I broke down and bought one of these very tiny (very expensive) jars of ocean spray sauce at Vivi Market:

As for the holiday movie marathon, I actually brought those DVD’s, and while they don’t play on the Italian tv system, they do play on my laptop – so we will be spending “Thanksgiving” with Bill Murray, as always!

Whatever your own traditions, please have a warm and wonderful holiday! Cheers!

Foodie Heaven! (Mercato Centrale)

Ciao Readers! (and Happy Halloween!) (and Happy Birthday Henry!)

Wow – I just got back from a trip across town to Mercato Central (the central market) – wow!  I can’t believe we’ve been here almost 3 months and I just “discovered” this (well-known) gem!

So here’s the scoop – in my effort to not be a tourist in my adopted home, I have been going to Sant’ Ambrogio market (which I have blogged about).  It is the “real” market for locals – and don’t get me wrong, it’s great and where we get most of our fruits and vegetables.  The Mercato Centrale, from what I had read, is where the tourists go (it’s right by the big outdoor leather market in the center of town) – so up until today I avoided it like the plaque.  Big mistake!  While some of the food is obviously geared towards tourists (fancy bags of multi-colored pastas at equally fancy prices), the market is a foodie dream and has lots of “normal” amazing food on offer.  (And, compared to the usual “tourists,”  the venders thought my Italian was “benissimo.”)

I actually went in search of yet another weird ingredient to replicate comfort foods (dried cranberries [for granola], which I found in the dried fruit stall pictured), but ended up discovering an entire new food-shopping haven (as an aside – I often write several posts on days when inspiration hits me – I wrote this one before I read the articles about culture shock – no more wild goose chases for now!).  Not only are there all of the beautiful prepared foods pictured below, there are numerous fresh-looking meat and fish stalls.  I had kinda given up hope finding any foodie markets as cool as the ones in Bologna, until today!  YAY!

Bon appetit!

A Trip to the Grocery

While  the grand finale of my “Assimilation” series continues to percolate, we will take a diversion back, again, to my favorite topic – FOOD!

Though the beautiful specialty shops and market stalls featured in earlier posts are still the more traditional and foodie way to shop in Italy, modern “American-style” grocery stores are popping up everywhere.  When you need several things and don’t have time for the pleasure of market shopping, a trip to the “supermercato” is in order.  Upon first glance, you might think you are in a grocery store in the US; however, you soon realize there are several subtle, but significant (and interesting) differences…

Produce – in Italy YOU weigh your own produce.  First, you take a pair of provided disposable plastic gloves, then you select your fruits/veggies and put them in a bag, you pay attention to the number on the bin as you will input it into the scale, you put your item on the scale, punch in the correct code, and out prints a label with the item/weight/price which you affix to the bag.  (As an aside, at the markets you never touch the produce, you ask the proprietor for what you would like).  For stranieri who don’t know the system and just put stuff in a bag and take it to the checkout, rolled eyes and a trip back to the produce department await.  However, as I discovered, there are exceptions…  One day I was buying artichokes (actually I bought artichokes MANY times – they are locally grown, plentiful, delicious and cheap) – I could not find a number on the bin anywhere – I searched and searched – leaving me with the dilemma of either giving up my beautiful artichokes or going to the checkout without a properly affixed tag….  Of course I wasn’t giving up my artichokes!  At that point I learned that some items have a fixed price per item and you needn’t weigh them (hence the missing number).  I got through checkout happily WITH my prized vegetable and WITHOUT having suffered any scorn!

(sorry no photos of weighing veggies, but here are some beautiful artichokes:)

Product selection – the grocery stores in Italy are pretty comprehensive, even more so since just a few years ago when we were there.  You can get almost anything you can get here (plus a ton of things you can’t get here).  You can even get Italy’s version of tortilla chips (“Amica Chips”), though they taste nothing like what you expect a tortilla chip to taste like.  It’s hard to explain – they have the same 3 ingredients – corn meal, oil and salt – yet they taste like slightly charred polenta and not at all like a Tostitos…  In any case, back to the main cultural difference…  You CANNOT buy any kind of medication whatsoever at a grocery or any other kind of store other than a “Farmacia.”  Nothing, nada, niente – no ibuprofen, no sore throat spray – nothing.  Any medicinal-like product at all requires a trip to the pharmacy and a request to a pharmacist (and a king’s ransom – 8 ibuprofen cost about as many dollars – the trade-off being, of course that doctors and prescriptions are free).

Checkout – this one still cracks me up.  In Italy, the checkout people sit in chairs and YOU are responsible for just about every part of the operation from unloading your cart to putting it away AND sacking your own groceries (either in the bag/cart you brought, which is the norm, or you have to ask for plastic bags for which you are charged).  And remember, you’ve already labeled and weighed everything as well. (You can take it a step further and use a self checkout lane, which are much more commonplace than the ones popping up here). While to us this may seem like a serious lack of customer service, it actually makes the (very long) lines go faster.  There are 2 sides where checked foods go, so while you are sacking your groceries the checkout person is already ringing up the next customer (and not having to weigh anything) and just putting their groceries down the alternate side.

Personally, I love grocery shopping in Italy.  I feel like I am on a cultural excursion each and every time.  Not just because of the subtle differences in the process, but of course because of the selection of foods and the subtle differences even with similar products (portion size comes to mind).  Once I discovered the secret to shopping in Italy (go early to avoid the crowds), I looked forward to running out of things as an excuse for my next field trip.  I felt a bit defensive in class one day after we learned the difference between “fare la spesa” and “fare shopping.”   “Fare la spesa” signifies “doing the shopping,” but with an air of chore to it (it was explained as shopping you have to do – for food, cleaning supplies, etc.), whereas “fare shopping” entails the “fun” kind of shopping (for clothes, shoes, etc.).  One day a teacher asked a student what she did for fun over the weekend and when she said “fare la spesa” everyone giggled and her misuse of the language was corrected (fare shopping).  I still take issue with those definitions!

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