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Contribution of a Quality Snack Item is Always Appreciated

June 23, 2012

Contribution of a quality snack item is always appreciated. This gentle request was at the bottom of an invitation to partake in a ping pong tournament this evening. The invite also listed some of the rules of the tournament. This one made me laugh: If someone leaves early or is incapacitated by alcohol, their opponent advances.  This was listed as a ‘new rule’ for this year. As this is my first year attending the tournament, I can only imagine the circumstances from last year that contributed to enacting the ‘incapacitated by alcohol’ rule.

It took me two seconds to think of the Quality Snack I was going to bring to the party – Spinach Dip. This recipe was handed to me by my boyfriend’s mom, who got it from the fine folks at Knorr. This is not a secret recipe by any means but it was completely new to me (was I under a rock?) until I had it at her house. I’ve made it so many times now that people ask me if I’m bringing my spinach dip to the party. I even have the recipe memorized down to the measurements. It’s not that hard really, the ingredients are a package of this, a can of that, and a cup of this.  Obviously this isn’t highbrow food with those types of ingredients but even your fancy friends will be digging in fast when this is served.

The recipe below is double the original one. I always make double since one recipe portion seems too stingy for a party and I like to set aside a little bowl of it for myself to enjoy the next day.

This dip is usually shown served in a carved out pumpernickel bread bowl, like some vessel from feudal times. I’ve seen it like that at parties, too. But I’ve also wondered what happens to the bread bowl at the end when all the spinach dip is gone? Do people tear apart the bowl feral-like and eat hunks of spinach dip soaked pumpernickel bread? That seems like something to be done at home in total privacy.

I prefer to serve it with Triscuits.  It’s also good on toast for breakfast. Or just eaten with a spoon straight from the dip bowl.

Spinach Dip
Slightly adapted from the official Knorr recipe*

2 10 oz. packages frozen chopped spinach
2 8 oz. cans water chestnuts
2 packages Knorr Vegetable Soup Mix
1 bunch green onions (about 6-8 stalks)
1 cup mayonnaise
1 ¼ cup sour cream

Defrost the spinach and squeeze out all of the excess water. Don’t skimp out on squeezing the spinach dry. You will have a runny dip if you don’t. Place the spinach into a large bowl big enough to mix everything together comfortably. Since you’ve squeezed the spinach and it’s likely in compressed clumps, I would recommend just tearing those clumps apart so it’s easier to mix the dip later.

Chop the water chestnuts into smallish size pieces and add to the spinach. Chop the green onions finely and add to the spinach as well. Rip open the packages of dried soup mix and toss them in. Add the mayo and sour cream. Stir well until everything is combined and evenly incorporated. You’ll need to wait two hours before the dip is ready. The dried soup ingredients need to soak in that moisture from the mayo and sour cream for the dip to taste good.

Party on.

*The quantity of sour cream and mayonnaise that I use is half of what Knorr recommends. This was a tip from my boyfriend’s mom. Trust me, you don’t need the original amounts of mayo and sour cream. Your dip would be drowning in the creamy.

Eton Mess

June 2, 2012

Even though we think we can, we cannot live by the internet alone. I say this as you are reading a food blog. It has a lot of answers, yes, and it has answered a lot of my questions – how to get gum off a shoe? how to catch a bat? what does lmfao mean? – and it’s also great for googling pictures of certain male celebrities without their shirts on.  But let’s not forget how awesome the newspaper is. The newspaper is like Christmas morning, you don’t know what you’re going to get and there’s a chance it could be something useless but usually it’s pretty good and you’re happy with what you find. The newspaper surprises you – you read it without entering anything into a search field, searching for something you already knew you wanted to find. It gives you something you didn’t think you needed or wanted to know or even knew existed in the first place. I thank the food writers in the Washington Post for writing so persuasively about fennel that I gave it a try. I never would have searched for fennel recipes on my own. And Ania and Anise have had a beautiful life together since that convincing talking to.

It’s so easy to find recipes now online, but with the newspaper, you cut out the recipe and stick it on the fridge. And there it is, in your face, beckoning, until you make it. You don’t have to feel bad about cutting up a newspaper, you’re just going to throw it out (I mean recycle it) anyway. Even with my best intentions, I never go through all of my online bookmarks – they’re wallowing somewhere in my browser, and I’m a bit of a hoarder with magazines, they just pile up, with well meaning post-it notes marking pages of recipes that will take me forever to get around to making. Cookbooks are a different story, though, I cook from them a lot. I think it’s because I paid a bit of cash for them and would feel guilty not using them.

Every Saturday, I love reading Lucy Waverman’s food column in The Globe and Mail. Her write up of Eton Mess got me off my ass to try it. I had heard about it and whenever I did, I thought to myself, that sounds so good why don’t I make it, and then the fleeting thought goes poof. But I cut out her recipe and stuck it on my fridge and it was the last thing I saw before I headed to the green grocers. When I saw those strawberries and raspberries there, I knew what I was making that night. It became my favorite dessert last summer. And it’s a strong contender for being my favourite this summer.

The original recipe only has raspberries, but I think that adding Ontario strawberries makes it even better and is a great way to eat those Ontario strawberries that are happening now.

OH! This would be great with fresh peaches and raspberries once we get into the depths of summer peach season. I sense a follow up post later this summer!

Eton Mess
(slightly adapted from Lucy Waverman’s recipe in The Globe and Mail July 23, 2011)

There are four parts to this recipe: fresh fruit, whipped cream, meringues, and raspberry sauce. The fresh fruit just needs to be prepped, the raspberry sauce is just a blitz in the food processor, you can purchase the meringues to make this extra breezy but please whip your own whipped cream. Don’t use the stuff out of a can.

I use these quantities as a guideline. If you like more whipped cream or fruit or more crunchy meringue, do what you want to do.

2 large egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice

*you can buy these and no one will know and if they know, they won’t care. But sometimes they are hard to find in the grocery store or bakery, so if you can’t find them, make them. They’re not too much work if you use an electric mixer. If you’re whipping the egg whites by hand, well, they’re a bit of muscle work.

If you’re going to buy the meringues, get about 10 to 12 meringues cookies since they’re usually smaller at the bakery.

Raspberry sauce
1 cup raspberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons superfine sugar

The rest of the good stuff
1 cup raspberries
1 cup strawberries
1 cup whipping cream, whipped with 1 tablespoon sugar

If you’re going to make your own meringues, and there is absolutely no reason you should feel compelled to unless you can’t buy them anywhere, do that first.

Preheat the oven to 275 F. Line your baking sheet with parchment paper.

Whip the egg whites until frothy, then start adding in your sugar 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue whipping until the egg whites are stiff, thick and very glossy. They should definitely stand up in peaks. Whip in the lemon juice.

Spoon the meringue mixture onto the parchment lined baking sheet in six dollops. Each dollop is a very generous heaping tablespoon of meringue. Bake for 1 hour or until crisp. I pulled mine out after one hour and they were a wee bit soft on the inside which ended up being fine but they could have probably used another 10 to 15 minutes. Once they are out of the oven set them aside.

Combine raspberries with lemon juice and sugar in a food processor and process until smooth. This sauce will be a hot pink colour.

If you haven’t done so yet, make your whipped cream. Whip your whipping cream and sugar together until it’s well…whipped cream. You’ll know it when you see it. You can whip this by hand with a whisk. Making whipped cream is less work then whipping egg whites for meringue if you’re nervous about getting a sore elbow.

Putting it all together:
Crumble your meringues into a large bowl. If the bowl you used for your whipped cream is large enough, just add the crumbled meringue into the whipped cream bowl. Drizzle in about half of the raspberry sauce you made and then fold in the raspberries and strawberries. When serving, either on individual plates or a giant nom-nom family style platter for everyone to spoon off a helping, drizzle the Eton Mess with the rest of the raspberry sauce.

Summer Deliciousness.

Asparagus Risotto

May 24, 2012

I cuss, you cuss, we all cuss for asparagus.
– The Far Side

I rode home today from work on my bike absolutely thrilled with the spring but more like summer weather Toronto is having right now. I smelled flowering trees and shrubs and some stinky garbage, too. But hey, stinky garbage just means the weather is warm enough for it to smell like that. I’m grateful!  I had a clear thought of ‘drink this in – this spring’. Yes, my thoughts are plagiarized from Anne Shirley. She would totally say something like that.

And then my stomach rumbled. What am I going to make for dinner? It’s glorious spring – why have I been on a steady diet of frozen pizzas for the last two weeks. I should be finding all that spring Ontario produce bounty at my favourite green grocers but I haven’t stepped foot into my favourite green grocers in weeks. Then I remembered that I picked up a bundle of Ontario asparagus from Loblaw’s. I will celebrate with that. I hope that little bundle of Loblaw’s asparagus doesn’t feel the pressure of my Must Have Spring Celebration. I would wilt under less stress than that.

That bundle of asparagus is all I had really to go on. That’s where risotto comes in handy. It’s really a pantry dish: Arborio rice, onion, olive oil, white wine (yes – a staple in my house), chicken or vegetable stock, Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. And like white wine, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a staple in this house, too. Yes, it’s a bit costly, but if you have it, a simple pasta (or risotto) becomes a proper meal with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. As my sister would say of something she finds out you don’t have when you should so obviously have: “It’s like not having shoes to wear.” This statement came when I told her I didn’t have a television set. And then she bought me a TV. And you should buy Parmigiano-Reggiano if you don’t already have some on the ready.

Asparagus risotto was my dinner. But don’t just stop at asparagus. Risotto is such a great base, you can add whatever you want to it. Dried porcini? Resurrect them with a bit of hot water and then add them and their liquid to the risotto. Butternut squash? Diced and roasted and then added to the risotto. Yum. Cauliflower and Leek is a great combo. Frozen peas make a good standby dinner of sweat pea risotto.  I could keep going, but I think you got it.

Asparagus Risotto

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small or half a medium onion, small dice
1 cup Arborio rice
1 bundle or bunch asparagus
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (don’t be stingy)

Heat the stock in a small pot on the stove until boiling. Turn down to low and keep it warm while you make the risotto. I have 5 cups listed in the ingredients. You might need less. But it’s a good idea to prep for having more than having less than you need.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium low to medium heat. Add diced onions. Do not let these colour.  Stirring occasionally, let them soften and become translucent. This should take about five minutes. Toss in the Arborio rice and stir to coat it in the olive oil. Stir constantly for about 2 to 3 minutes. Add a small glass of wine to the pan. It will sizzle. Pour yourself a glass, too. But larger.

Stir the rice until the wine evaporates completely. Add a cup of the stock. Stir.  With risotto you don’t need to keep stirring constantly. You need to stir frequently. That means you can step away for a minute or two at a time and then come back to continue stirring. When the first cup of stock is almost evaporated, add another ½ cup. Again, stir and stir frequently. Once that is almost evaporated, add another ½ cup. You’re about half way through adding your stock. You can now add the asparagus if you want to. I wanted my asparagus more cooked through than al dente. If you want the asparagus more al dente then add it maybe after the next addition of stock. After the asparagus went in, I added 1 ¾ cup more broth total but in increments (½ cup, then another ½ cup and then a final ¼ cup) as needed to the risotto, stirring after each addition and allowing that addition of broth to absorb into the rice. Once the rice was tender enough (taste it to see if it’s soft but has texture), I swirled in the generous tablespoon of butter. For the finale, I added a loose cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. You can check for salt, but the stock (if you’re using store bought) and the cheese have enough salt, you probably won’t need to add any.

Risotto shouldn’t have structure. When you plate it, it should ooze out onto the plate; it shouldn’t mound or stand up at all. Keep that in mind when adding stock. You want it to be a bit loose.

Viva la primavera!

Nachos with Flair

May 8, 2012

There’s something embarrassing about my food past, a skeleton in my pantry if you will, that I’m going to confess to you:  I was a waitress at T.G.I. Friday’s.

I didn’t set out to work there, it just happened. I had a hard time finding a job when I was in college and I needed a job to pay the rent. After lots of no thank-yous, I answered a classified ad. I went into the interview. The manager was not impressed with my waitressing experience (serving at weddings in Ukrainian church halls not impressive?).  He begrudgingly hired me. I agreed, begrudgingly (not outwardly, though). We were off to a great start.

I got two red and white striped shirts. I was told to wear black pants or a skirt, black shoes and a hat. I worried about the hat but I saw other servers wearing baseball caps so I relaxed a bit that I didn’t have to wear some ridiculous thing. I was given a name tag and I wrote my name in the blank spot.  I was advised that the flair minimum is ten pieces and I have to supply my own but they do have an emergency flair box in the office if for some reason I’m short. I asked if my name tag could count as one of the 10 pieces of flair. My manager was not impressed.

The flair would become my cross to bear, that is until the hat guidelines got a lot more strict – more on that later. I’m small and ten pieces of flair on my shirt was a lot, there simply wasn’t enough room, especially since my flair was larger, culled from a harried and desperate visit to the thrift store to outfit me for my first day of work. I wore a few flair on my collar and tried to fit the rest on my front. The weight of them dragged down my shirt, making my buttons pop open and they clanged when I walked. I tried to get away with less than 10 pieces, but in every shift meeting before service, the manager counted and I came up short. Even when I did have the 10 minimum, I still came up short, figuratively.  I was pulled aside and given the ‘don’t you want to do more than the minimum’ motivational speech.  I’m a waitress at a suburban, in the middle of Ohio Friday’s, it’s quite obvious that my aspirations aren’t what you would call above the minimum.

And if this scene sounds awfully familiar to a certain scene in Office Space, it is. I commend the screenwriter on the 100%, absolute authenticity of Jennifer Aniston’s flair travails.

Then things got worse. The manager instituted a tougher ‘fun hat’ policy. Baseball caps were expressly outlawed. The staff was getting away with not looking ridiculous enough.  We were advised to wear hats that were “fun”, i.e. something you would not see on a normal person in a normal situation. A Wisconsin cheese wedge hat and a Cat in the Hat striped tall felt hat were thrown out as great examples of what management wanted to see. They even tried to sell us on the idea that the more “fun” your hat was, the bigger the tips you would earn. No data was offered to back up this theory.

Look at these fun hats, can’t you just smell the extra tip money?

After this distressing news, we were given a few days to find said fun hats before we had to start wearing them. A friend mentioned she had a hat I could borrow for work (I wasn’t going to pay for one). It was a Kangol-style cap in bright red. The fashion was to wear it backwards. And I remembered that Samuel L. Jackson wore it backwards.  And that was what I did. I did not look as cool as him.

Yes, I suffered a lot of humiliation but to every tchochkey laden rain cloud is a silver lining. I met one of my dearest friends Meghan while working at Friday’s. I always admired how cool she still looked while wearing her flair and fun hat. She also rescued me from Friday’s. After a few months of working there, she realized how absolute crap it was and we both got jobs at a New Mexican restaurant where mercifully our uniform was a black t-shirt with a primitive wolf drawing on the back and a pair of chinos. No buttons, not even a name tag was required.

Aside from forging an inseparable bond with Meghan, T.G.I. Friday’s gave me my favourite way to make nachos. The key is not using melted cheese but cheese sauce. There’s more consistency and generous coverage with cheese sauce. The toppings are aggressively kept to the savoury basics – these are not kitchen sink nachos. You have chips, covered in oozey cheese sauce, topped with spiced and savoury ground beef, and then on top of all that, a bright, juicy tomato, onion-sharp, fresh cilantro pico de gallo. No beans, or guacamole, or sour cream or whatever else folks pile on top. These four elements are the perfect savoury nacho combination for me.

On the T.G.I. Friday’s menu these were called Friday’s Nachos but Nachos with Flair sound more fun, right?

Nachos with Flair
Inspired by T.G.I. Friday’s circa 1996.

One bag of your favourite restaurant-style tortilla chips (preferably triangles, not circles)

Pico de Gallo
1 white onion, finely chopped (about a cup when chopped)
2 good sized tomatoes, finely chopped
½ jalapeno, minced
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
juice of 1 lime

First up, make the pico de gallo. Chop everything and mix together. Add the lime juice and season with salt. Cover and pop in the fridge while you make everything else.

Spiced Ground Beef  (from America’s Test Kitchen)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground beef
½ cup canned tomato sauce or passata
½ cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar

Heat the oil until it shimmers in a medium sized skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens up, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and all of the spices and the salt. Cook until you can smell the fragrant spices. This will take about 30 seconds. Add the ground beef. While it cooks, break it up with a wooden spoon. When it’s no longer pink (less than 10 minutes), add the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and brown sugar. Simmer until the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens a bit, about 15 minutes. Check for salt and add a bit more if needed. Set aside and keep warm.

Cheese sauce
3 tablespoons butter
½ jalapeno, minced
2 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1 cup grated Monterey jack

Warm the milk first (microwave is fine).

Melt the butter over medium high heat in a medium sized saucepan. Add the minced jalapeno and stir for about a minute or two. Add the flour and stir constantly for a couple of minutes until the roux mixture is pale and frothy. Don’t let it brown. Whisk in the warm milk and keep whisking until all lumps have dissipated. Keep stirring constantly while the mixture gathers heat and begins to bubble. It will then begin to thicken. Once it’s thick enough – it should thickly coat the back of your spoon – add the  grated cheese and keep stirring until it’s thoroughly melted and the cheese sauce is hot. Taste for salt. You probably won’t need any but just in case. Set aside and keep warm.

Assembling your Nachos with Flair:
I like the tortilla chips to be warmed up. Preheat the oven to around 300 or 350.

On a large baking sheet, spread out your chips. Pop them into the hot oven and let them warm up for about five minutes. Meanwhile, if your cheese sauce and ground beef aren’t hot anymore, take this time to warm them up. Once the chips are ready, pull them out of the oven, and either using the baking sheet the chips are already on (lazy like me) or moving the chips to a plate (fancy), you’re now going to layer on your toppings. First comes the cheese sauce. Drizzle, drop, spoon it on. Be thorough. Then spread out the ground beef. Again, be thorough.  Layer on some more chips and repeat the beef and cheese toppings. Once you’re to the top, finish off with the pico de gallo. Do not wait. Eat them right away.

Meat Stuffed Peppers

April 11, 2012

This dish should make me sad but it doesn’t. It actually makes me feel oddly happy. OK – maybe happy isn’t the right word; it’s a bit too one-dimensional.  The right word, whatever it is, would combine comforted, fortunate, thankful with a bit of wistful.  The reason I should be sad is that I first made this dish right after my dad died. But instead of reminding me of the numb despair I felt, it reminds me of three of my favourite things that offered me comfort when I needed it most: my sister, cooking, and the library.

After the funeral, my sister and I not really having a firm return date to our lives elsewhere hung around with our mom and our brother at home taking care of odd jobs and just being together. We cut down a tree for our mom, cornered our brother about drinking too much pop and about other things we knew better than him (sorry Paul), went to T.J. Maxx a lot, and were fitted for bras at Dillard’s and found out we were both wearing the wrong size (happens more than you know!).  We went to the library, too. Since I was a kid, the library has been a favourite place of mine.  It offers solace, hope and much needed diversion. This time around it offered diversion and solace in the form of cookbooks.  I took out a lot of cookbooks and this is when I came across Lidia Bastianich’s Italian-American Kitchen. An Italian cook with a Slavic last name? How could I resist.

Darka, that’s my sister, and I always liked, but not loved, our mom’s stuffed peppers. They weren’t perfect but a dish like that had such potential: savoury meat and rice filling inside a vegetable (good for you!) baked in a bright tomato sauce. Should be a total yum but it wasn’t quite. Lidia had a recipe for stuffed peppers that looked simple and deliciously Italian. I showed Darka Lidia’s recipe with a “do you want to try this?” The reply: “absolutely.” Ingredients were purchased and we set to work in our mom’s kitchen, commiserating and laughing at how much we were fumbling in now unfamiliar territory: where’s the strainer?, where are all the baking pans, and mixing bowls?, and why are these knives so dull!?! It took us so long to get this dish on the table and we were mightily frustrated with all of our delays, but regardless of how much time we wasted trying to locate that strainer and how much we struggled with those dull knives, I had fun and found comfort  (both in short supply then) hanging out in the kitchen with my sister.

And how were the peppers? Lidia’s Stuffed Peppers are Potential Realized. The pepper in Lidia’s recipe was a cubanelle, not a green bell pepper that I find unpalatable in texture and taste when cooked. A cubanelle is a slim and long, kind of sweet pepper that keeps its texture when cooked. Lidia stuffs the peppers with a mix of beef, pork and veal for maximum flavour. And her rice? Arborio – a short grain Italian rice that adds a creamy starchiness to the filling. Fresh oregano (smells like summer) and freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano round out the stuffing. This dish is savoury, totally satisfying and, to me, a true comfort food.

Meat Stuffed Peppers
From Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (Knopf, 2001)
By Lidia Bastianch

1/3 cup Arborio rice
8 cubanella peppers, or other long, thin fleshed peppers, each about 6 inches long
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion chopped
8 oz ground meat*
1 large egg
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves chopped
3 cups passata or as needed

*use a mix of at least two different ground meats for better flavour: veal, pork, beef

Cook the Arborio rice in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender but firm, about 12 minutes. Drain and cool to room temperature.

While the rice is cooking, preheat the oven to 400° F.

Next up, prepare the peppers and start the filling. Cut the very top of the peppers and stem off and scrape out the seeds and membranes with a teaspoon. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until softened, about 4 minutes. Scrape the onions into a mixing bowl, add your ground meat, egg, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, oregano and cooked rice. Stir or mix together with your hands until evenly blended.

Divide the filling among the peppers, using about ¼ cup to fill each pepper loosely. Depending on the size of my peppers, I sometimes have a wee bit of filling leftover.

Place the stuffed peppers into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Rub the outside of each peppers lightly with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Roast the peppers, turning once or twice with tongs, until softened and lightly browned in spots, about 20 minutes.

Pour in enough of the tomato sauce to barely cover the peppers. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the peppers are tender and the filling is cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Moving On (kind of)

April 1, 2012

The Catania, Sicilia post will be the last in the line of Only Italy All the Time posts on Food Anthology. I didn’t realize until just now, when I counted on my fingers, how many months it’s been since when I started writing about Only Italy All the Time. It’s been six months (six months!?!!) that I’ve been thinking and daydreaming, experiencing and reliving and talking about my Italian adventure.  I’m not just moving on for you but for myself, too. The list of  recipes and ideas, that have nothing to do with my trip, that I’ve been dying to make and explore, eat and share has been growing and growing.

Italy isn’t disappearing entirely. That’s what I mean by moving on (kind of). The travel stories will come to an end but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to share the dishes that I learned from all the amazing Italians I met. They’re just going to be mixed in with the usual (but still fabulous) inspired food stories on Food Anthology.  I just need to fine tune my new Italian recipes by making them over and over and over again. Like, why don’t those sambuca-laced rice fritters scented with orange and lemon and studded with sultanas turn out the way I remember them? Oh, did I mention that they’re dusted with cinnamon sugar, too?  Or figuring out the right proportions for  the fresh spinach tagliatelle with gorgonzola, marscarpone and toasted walnuts. Or getting that Sicilian cannolo to taste like I’m back in Sicily. Is that even possible?  And there are other stories I want to tell, stories about Sticky Toffee Pudding and Clam Chowder and Nachos (and so much more) that you’ll love just as much.  So, let’s not dawdle anymore. We have a lot of eating and talking to do.

Catania, Sicilia

March 22, 2012

Palermo isn’t really merda even though it looks like someone in Catania thinks one of their sports team is. But this made me giggle as I picked up on a little bit of rivalry between Catania and Palermo, Sicily’s two biggest cities.  Palermo is on the north coast of Sicily towards its western edge;  Catania is on Sicily’s eastern shore close to the tip of Italy’s boot.  As we drove into Catania, my boyfriend and I were feeling a LA vibe, most likely from the mountains, the sun, the sea, the wide swath of smooth highway we drove in on, bridged by overpasses and flanked by houses perched on hills.  As the sun was setting we pulled into our hotel. We checked in and headed to our room. It was disappointing. Or we can just call it gross. The smell coming from the sink drain was so merda that we had to keep the stopper pulled tight so the fumes didn’t leak out and choke us as we slept. We kept the bathroom door closed for extra protection. The positive of having an absolutely grim hotel room is that it forces you to never be there, instead you explore the city until exhaustion forces you to return, pass out in your bed while not looking too closely at anything your body touches.

In the morning, we ventured back out to explore Catania. First stop – its famous fish market. To get there, we headed down Via Etnea until we came across a large piazza with a Duomo and a large statue of a somewhat anatomically correct elephant. The story is that the statue was built without any anatomical correctness. The local men found this to be such an affront (such a great word) to their virility that the statue was amended to be anatomically correct. But the fix doesn’t look wholly correct – maybe I know nothing of elephants? (I will not google what an anatomically correct elephant looks like.)  At the east end of the piazza,  a fountain with a statue of Neptune signals the entrance to Catania’s fish market. Also, the congregation of old Italian men with bags of fresh provisions also signaled that a market was near. There’s more than fish here but that’s the main draw. You can get everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, to every kind of meat and offal. It’s packed with people, there’s tons of shouting, everything being sold is eye catching:  it’s totally thrilling.

This is the pit of the fish market. These fishmongers mean business.  I was a bit intimidated to step into the thick of it thinking that a tourist like me (and my camera) wouldn’t be too welcome. I’m obviously not there to buy, just to browse. But everyone was, of course, friendly and let me snap away; a Buon Giorno! and a smile go a long way.  This pit held maybe about half of the fishmongers. There were more fish vendors under the arch and through to the other side of the building and even more fishmongers continued around the far corner of the building. Eels, skates, octopi, squid, swordfish, mackerels, mullet, and so many odd little sea creatures I couldn’t name were all for sale.

The market snaked off onto side streets and alleys. Fruit and vegetable stands, so many of them, full of eggplant (melanzane), peppers (pepperoni), oranges (arancini), cauliflower (cavolfiore) but purple! (porpora!), and tomatoes (pomodori), were crammed next to butchers of all kinds. Tripe, intestines (I think),  and other long, drapey, innards hung from hooks at butchers’ stands.  Some vendors were hyper specific, like the lemon guy. That’s all he sold and why not with all the fish for sale and Italians’ penchant for simple flavours especially with seafood. There was the parsley boy. He was young, about 10 or 12. He weaved around the fishmongers stands, approaching their customers so politely,  asking if anyone wanted fresh parsley (prezzemolo). He was so polite I was almost inclined to buy some from him. Maybe it would have freshened up our stinky hotel bathroom.

Fowl for sale amongst the fish.

A bridge marks the most eastern edge of the market;  the vendors keep to west side of the bridge. We ventured past the bridge and found guys selling stuff out of the back of their cars. Check out the loot this guy was selling from the trunk of his car. These are not knock offs. A random guy walking out of the market was giving this guy some serious accusatory heat, like this guy was selling stuff illegally outside the market gates (that’s my theory anyway since I didn’t understand what they were yelling about).  If they were to fight, my money would have gone on octopus guy. That eight legged tentacled thing would be a reckoning if used as a weapon.

That guy in the corner? I had the same look on my face as I took this picture.

After the fish market, we kept exploring. We strolled back up Via Etnea to Vincenzo Bellini Park. Long, wide steps led us to the top of the hill in the park. I thought that would be the end of the park but it extended along meandering paths for a few city blocks. Some of the pathways in the park looked like this, a mossy green, black and white mosaic underfoot:

This mosaic was one of my favourite things that I saw in Catania. I loved that something so artful  was was meant to be tread on, that whoever created it thought that visitors to the park deserved to have something so pretty just to walk on. There was a section of the park that had tons of statues of Italian notables. I turned to my boyfriend and said “let’s see how many we know.” I was looking for an opportunity to show off how Italian I had become. I didn’t recognize a single notable. Three months in Italy does not an Italian make.

Time for lunch. The thought of a big lunch didn’t do anything for us. I read about a little place called Millefoglie, a vegetarian restaurant. I am so not a vegetarian and initially I thought there was no way I was wasting a meal at a vegetarian restaurant but after so many big meals my body begged me to at least check it out. I popped my head in. It was completely charming. Inside were only about ten tables, some tables were longer than others and meant for communal dining. There was no menu, just the daily specials listed on a chalk board.  Flyers for art and music shindigs were plastered all over one of the walls. This looked like a place I would love to have in my own neighborhood. Fresh baked goods for dessert, on pretty cake stands, were lined up on the counter. The tables were all full of locals (not a tourist in sight!)  but there was a spot for two at a communal table. We squeezed in and found ourselves sitting next to Giacomo, a local graphic designer and artist, who spoke excellent English. He eats there everyday and is treated like a dear friend by the owners. You should have seen the friendly but fierce tussle when Giacomo tried to pay for his lunch. Giacomo designed some of the flyers for art and music events that were hanging on the wall. The owner didn’t speak English very well so he entrusted Giacomo to walk us through the menu on the wall. My boyfriend had the pasta with broccoli rabe and cherry tomatoes and I had a couscous with a squash and chickpea stew that had a nice spicy kick. For dessert, a chocolate pear cake and a couple of espressos. Tutto delizioso!

After Giacomo helped us navigate the menu, our chit chat turned to Catania. How do we like it? What have we seen? We like it very much. It’s so lively! We told him about the amazing fish market and our stroll through Vincenzo Bellini Park. Giacomo lit up when I mentioned the park. He asked me if I saw the beautiful mosaic pathways. Before he could properly finish his sentence, I jumped in and said Yes!! So beautiful! I took photos – have a look! We looked through my photos together (like the one above), oohing and ahhing. Jaciomo mentioned that the whole park was lined with these mosaic paths but most were ripped out when the city got money from the EU for ‘improvements.’ We, now Kindred Spirits over these mosaics,  were both vexed by lousy bureaucrats who took money for ‘ so-called improvements’ and had no appreciation for public art.

Before we left Millefoglie, we asked Giacomo if he could recommend a place for dinner that night.  He told us about a place MM!! in the fish market. He made the logo for the restaurant and is friends with the owners. He was worried that we wouldn’t get a table since we didn’t have a chance to make a reservation yet. But, he said,  since it’s a Monday and if you go early enough, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a table.  So….what’s early enough? Giacomo told us to go around 10pm. My boyfriend and I start laughing – that’s pretty late for us.  When you said early we thought we should go around 7pm. He said, half jokingly, that eating at 7pm is really just a late lunch. We sucked it up and waited until 10pm to have dinner. It was worth the wait.

MM!! was an old butcher shop (macelleria) that now houses a restaurant in its converted storefront. (The same family still owns the place.)  The walls are marble and there are meat hooks still hung around the room. They know meat and make their own sausages. They know fish, too. That famous fish market is literally a few feet from its front door. The owners select fresh seafood daily from their neighboring fishmongers.  The husband cooks in the back and the wife serves customers out front. There’s no menu, the wife lists off what they have that day. I understood the meat selections. I understood most of what the fish specials were. Except one. I ask in Italian what it is in English. She hesitates. I start listing off some fish names in English. She shakes her head no at each one. Ah! It comes to her. Red Mullet! When she finally remembered the right word and I understood her, I could tell she wanted to do a fist pump. I’ve been there – floundering in a foreign language and lo and behold, my brain comes through and I can communicate. I should have high-fived her success.  There were a few freshly made sausages. We picked the simplest one – just ground pork with salt and pepper. The sausages were so flavourful even though they only had the most basic three ingredients for a sausage. From the fish selection, we picked the grilled red mullet.  The fish was served whole, with garlic, parsley and lemon. I loved this meal.

I might not know any historically notable Italians from my three months in Italy but I have learned a bit of what makes Italian food so amazing: the best ingredients treated simply.  An abundance of flavour doesn’t need to come from piling on stuff.  These dishes were so flavourful because the ingredients were quality and  fresh.