To Everything There Is A Season

One of my constant whines – I can only imagine the surprise it must be for many of my friends to think I would actually whine about something – when I first returned from Italy had to do with food. It just wasn’t the same in Canada. Things weren’t fresh picked – they had been shipped in unripened and allowed (or forced chemically) to ripen in the store. There was not flavor! No great variety! And many of the vegetables and fruits were available – if in perhaps a state of tastelessness – year round. There was no seasonality!

Now given the climate in Ottawa the idea of fresh picked does have its seasonal limitations – the probability of anything growing is low and the improbability of anyone harvesting at -32c are reasonably high. But come on now variety? Would that be so hard to do?

Though things are looking up for varieties – particularly heirloom vegetables – but this photo taken at a flower shop in Sorrento will give you an indication of the variety of tomatoes that are grown in Italy.

You say tomato – I say TOMATOES! Eleven!  Count them – eleven types of tomatoes.  You name the occasion and you’ve got a red (yellow or green) ball of goodness that was made just for Nona’s secret recipe.

Eleven – count them eleven different seed packets and none of them are “heirloom” – just your average Italian garden variety. Some for sauce, some for salad, some for roasting (god is there anything closer to heaven than roasted tomatoes?), others for stuffing, yet another for matching with a good Mozzarella di Buffala. I recall buying tomatoes from our local greengrocer (who by the way is still there and greeted us with big smiles and the hope that we were back to stay) and the first question was always: what are you using them for?

And of course what was available depended on the time of year – for everything. The watermelons were sweet and juicy in August but forget finding any on the market in September, artichokes were the last weeks of March and the first week of April, figs (the sweet, pale green skinned Italian variety) in June and July and this time of year: late October early November it’s kaki season!

A type of persimmon, but unlike any from North America I’ve every tasted, the kaki has a custardy texture with just a touch of astringency.  And apparently you can use it as an instrument to foretell the weather for the coming season.

Sidd joined me at Peter and Joe’s in savouring the joy of a chilled kaki ready to burst its orange skin and deliver creamy, custardy, astringent but sweet goodness.
I’m not sure if they remember my child-like (okay perhaps childish is a better adjective) joy when kaki season arrived but it was the perfect finish to a splendid meal with cherished friends in a place I love.

November 10 – 1871:Henry Morton Stanley locates missing explorer and missionary, Dr. David Livingstone in Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika, famously greeting him with the words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Spaghetti Frittata – From Our Christmas Pot Luck

The gang at work did a pot-luck lunch today so I thought I’d bring a touch of Italy to the festivities with a spaghetti frittata.  I first had this quintessential Neapolitan dish at Leon d’Oro, a quintessential Neapolitan trattoria in Piazza Dante.  My friend Wendy loving and accurately described this friendly family run restaurant, that she visited last month,  over at Flavor of Italy.

This is a great way to use up left-over spaghetti, vegetables or whatever catches your fancy.  Its a good buffet dish, a lunch/brunch dish with a salad or as a primi for a more elaborate dinner.

1/2 lb of spaghetti*
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
Fresh ground pepper
Other ingredients can be added – almost anything that you would normally use with spaghetti – bacon, cooked zucchini, roast peppers, basil, canned tomatoes or left-over tomato sauce. 

  1. Cook spaghetti until just slightly al dente – it will undergo further cooking later.
  2. Drain and toss while still hot with butter, Parmesan and parsley and allow to cool completely
  3. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl with salt and pepper
  4. Add the beaten eggs to the spaghetti and mix thoroughly
  5. If you are using other ingredients they should be added and thoroughly mixed in at this point.
  6. Spray a 11-12 inch non-stick skillet with Pam or 2 tablespoons of butter and heat over a medium burner until foam subsides.
  7. Pour mixture into skillet and spread to an even thickness over the bottom of the pan.
  8. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes without touching the pan.  The tilt the pan slightly and bring the edge closer to the centre of the heat.  Cook for  minute or so and then rotate the pan about a 1/4 turn and cook for another minute.  Continue until a full circle has been completed.  This will make sure it is cooked evenly. Lift the edge with a spatula to see if a nice golden crust has formed on the underside.
  9. Place a platter slightly larger than the pan upside down over the pan and turn it over.  Let the frittata plop onto the plater.  Grease the pan again and side the frittata back into the pan.  
  10. Repeat the cooking process above until the second side has formed a good golden crust.
  11. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges.  

It can be served hot, lukewarm or at room temperature but never just out of the refrigerator.

23 dicembre/decembre – San Giovanni da Kety

Castles of Rome

I don’t know it just seems to me that that rather literal translation of Castelli Romani just doesn’t say it! In fact I’m not sure there is a translation that would do the region justice.

Right on our door step – this Sunday’s jaunt to Ariccia took 45 minutes, okay according to TomTom (the GPS system) it should have only taken 33 but then good old Tom doesn’t always take into consideration that a whole lot of Romans are leaving the heat of the city on a Sunday morning. But the point is that within an hour’s drive of the apartment there are wonderful towns to head to for a look-around, a meal – often a local specialty, a nice regional wine and a pleasant stroll.

The area is built on the remnants of a volcano which means the ground is fertile and it’s been an agricultural area since people first settled in the area. Two of the craters form lakes – Albano and Nemi – which are a source of recreation for modern Romans as well as natural reservoirs for the surrounding communities.

The great Roman families of the Renaissance built summer palaces on the volcanic slopes of the area to escape the summer heat, stench and malaria of the swampy crowded city and enjoy the cool breezes of the hillsides. And of course the farms and forests around them provided produce, poultry, meat and game for their tables.

Ariccia was the summer stronghold of the Chigi papacy and the Palazzo – renovated to designs by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Alexander VII – was the summer home of the Chigi famly until they turned it over to the city in 1988. The Piazza and Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta in front of the Palazzo was also designed by the great Neapolitan born creator of much of what we see in Rome today.

Palazzo and Chiesa face each other across what once was a piazza and is now the main road into town. The fountains are capped with the familiar Chigi family crest. Bernini’s church was modeled on the Pantheon. He had been instructed by Alexander to make it a “Pantheon Marian”. The colonnades on either side, which once housed Papal offices, are now a bar and trattoria.

Behind the main altar is a fresco of the event that gives the church its name: the Assumption of the Virgin as painted by Jacques Cortois a Burgundian artist. The main decoration is the stucco work by Bernini’s faithful disciple Antonio Raggi that adorns the dome. He also created the striking Evangelists stucco work for Bernini at San Tomaso di Villanova in Castel Gandolfo. And just in case there is any doubt who paid for the building of the church – there’s that familiar Chigi crest again.

Church has always been theatre but in this case a church on Ariccia’s Corso Garibaldi has been turned into a theatre. Town centre was almost empty on Sunday afternoon – but I discovered all the action was the other side of the Piazza – mind you it was kind of nice to have the place almost to ourselves. In the hot summer sun that bougainvillea was almost blinding in its intensity.

And it seems that each town in Castelli has its own specialties – food or wines. Frascati and Velettri are known for their wines; Nemi as I mentioned a few weeks ago is the strawberry capital of the region; and Ariccia is the home of porchetta. In the Piazza alone there are three take-aways serving only this local specialty. A boneless pork loin is rolled, stuff with herbs and slow roasted over a wood fire. Then it is sliced and served – most often cold – with various simple additions. Porcine heaven!

Corso Garibaldi ends at a belvedere overlooking the fertile farm lands of the region and it was there that we settled in for lunch at Spazio Art’è, an enoteca that was featured, so the owners proudly showed us, in a recent edition of La Cucina Italiana. The service was friendly and when I mentioned I had to be gluten-free they sprang into action showing what I could and couldn’t have. So my anti-pasti was a sauted mixture of zucchini, arugula and ciccoria (chickory); followed by – what else? – Porchetta. The large plate of roast pork, enough that I took some home for dinner the next night, was served with prunes, pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. Dolci was a tangy lemon semi-fredo which was a refreshing end to a very satisfying lunch. The meal was washed down with a very nice white “Vertus” from the region.

Though it would be nice to go back and see a bit more of the Palazzo – we took an hour long guided tour of the main rooms of the Piano Nobile, many of which were used by Lucchino Visconti in The Leopard. There were a few other areas that we had left unexplored and look definitely worth the visit. And another plate of porchetta wouldn’t be so bad either.

13 luglio – San Dario

Kaki Time

No that’s not a misspelled fashion statement. Its Plantae Ericales Ebenaceae Diospyros time of year here in Italy. Its guaranteed that in late October-early November a wander past any fruit stand or market display will reveal white Styrofoam trays holding three ripe orange/brown/golden yellow squishy balls of delicious goodness. Or there will be bins of yellow hard fruit ready to take home and ripen on the window sill. And they will appear as a frutta along with the ubiquitous ananas (pineapple) on restauarnt menus.

In North America we call them persimmons, in other places they are Shizi, Date Plums, Black Sapote or Mabolo depending on the variety and location. The variety grown in Italy – 5th in worldwide persimmon production – is the Japanese persimmon or Kaki.

Persimmon is not a fruit that I ate much back in Canada – maybe in a pudding once or twice at Thanksgiving but that it would be about it. As I recall North American persimmons were small and even when ripe had a slight astringency that could be almost unpleasant. Not so the Kaki – Kakis??? what is the plural? – appearing in the markets here. They are large, plump and soft to the point of appearing to the unaccustomed eye as being overripe. When split open they reveal a sweet, custardy centre with two seeds encased in gelatin. And the taste – well for me it brings to mind the Ancient Greek appellation: Fruit of the Gods.

As well as having all sorts of medicinal and nutritional value it appears the seeds can be used as a weather oracle. According to Wikipedia:

It is said that one can predict the winter by taking the seeds out of some persimmons and then slicing the seeds. The shape that shows up the most inside each seed will indicate what kind of winter to expect.

The three shapes resemble three eating utensils:
A Knife – there will be a cold icy winter (as in the wind will slice through you like a knife).
A Spoon – there will be plenty of snow for to shovel.
A Fork – there will be a mild winter.

I’ll have to try that tonight and let you know what my kaki predicts – though I would be surprised if many spoons showed up here in Italy.

28 ottobre – I Santi Simone il Cananeo e Guido

Stuffed Peppers, Anyone?

Despite the name I’ve been assured the food is exceptional.
Apparently this restaurant was indeed once a Taxidermist’s. And Salvador Dali was one of their regular customers. One occasion as well as ordering a lion, a tiger, a rhinoceros for a show he was creating in the adjacent Plaza Real, he also ordered 200,000 ants! I’m still trying to figure out how you stuff 200,000 ants – and with what?

22 marzo – San Benvenuto