Tuesday, April 22, 2014

EXPERIENCE THE CLASS SYSTEM IN A CAT CAFÉ

You might have heard of a pop-up cat café in opening on Thursday in New York. Cat cafes are popular in Japan (although I've read they originated in Taiwan), and on my 2010 Tokyo adventure, I made sure I visited two of them in the company of Anna (from the excellent Tamago Craft). So, dear American cat people: I know you're drooling at the idea of sipping a delicious gourmet coffee while petting kittens and relaxing to a symphonic harmony of purring. What you're going to get instead, it's a bitter lesson in class system. And let me add this, it's about time!

Notice the patrons pretending they are not crushed by the cats ignoring them.
(www.swide.com)

If the New York cat café is anything like the ones in Tokyo, you will be spending a good fee for entrance, drink watered-down and overpriced cappuccino in fancy but not-too-fancy china, and you'll sit there in excited discomfort for your allowed time (many places have a hourly fee) while painfully beautiful pedigree cats avoid you like the plague. In the best of cases, these cats will just sit in their carpeted scratching-post lofts with their back turned to you. In the worst of cases, you will try to sit next to them only to see them leave immediately for the aforementioned carpeted scratching-post lofts. These cats won't acknowledge your calls, won't purr, won't make eye contact: The only thing they'll make very clear is that they think you're low-class scum.

At times an eccentric cat might approach you for a quick petting session, but it will hurry back to its friends immediately afterwards to show you that was just an ironic social experiment. It's the cat version of the purely aristocratic thrill of occasionally mixing with the peasants.

For you American patrons, visiting a cat café is going to feel like winning a lottery ticket to an archduke's ball, but without any introductory niceties. At this ball, nobody is going to dance with you, nobody is going to socialize with you, nobody is even going to give you the slightest impression they want to see you again. And everybody will look a million times better than you ever will (and they know it).

Thanks to these cat cafes, America can finally experience what other countries around the world are dominated by: an immovable class system, the self-hatred of the lower classes, the awesome power of apparently helpless beings, albeit beautiful, heartbreakingly beautiful beings.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

HAPPY EASTER, BITTER MEMORIES

Easter 2007. Bold times.
Today is Easter, my favorite food holiday in Italy, which is surprising since my family must have celebrated it perhaps 3 times total. During Easter time, Italy is inundated with wonderful desserts such as chocolate eggs (hiding gifts!) and my favorite traditional cake, the colomba pasquale, or "Easter dove", a sweet and wonderfully soft bread sprinkled with candied citrus and topped with sugar and almonds. Colomba is not easy to find here, so you can only imagine I much I missed it, especially in my first years as an expat.

In 2007, emboldened by the small group of accolades Italian Dead Chef had, I decided to make my own colomba for Easter. I found a recipe from a reputable-looking blog that required about a day's work and 5 rises for the dough. All bakers out there know this was a Masterchef's endeavour, but I was blinded by the Vuitton-style paper mold I had found at Sur La Table, and I felt invincible.

As you can see from the picture, my colomba came out really pretty, and the sugar topping was perfect. Unfortunately, those were its only qualities.

The first sign that something was wrong was that my freshly-baked colomba was a little heavier than I expected. In fact, it weighed like a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey. It also emanated an extremely pungent whiff of yeast, evidently used in mindless abundance. The taste? My colomba was gummy and wet, bitter and alcoholic: completely and inexorably unedible.

I threw the colomba away and ran out to find a substitute. For the following three days, my colomba laid at the bottom of my trash can, together with the egg shells, the empty bags of roasted almonds, and the empty packets of organic pastry flour. With all that yeast, I was afraid it might resuscitate. You never know with these Christian holidays.

BLOGPOST SOUNDTRACK

If you're one of the very few people who likes to listen to music while perusing websites, here is a choice song that goes with this Easter post. The song is "Vola colomba" ("Fly, Dove") and was a massive hit in 1952. My parents, who were innocent children when this song was released, will run hiding under the couch if they hear this, but I can safely listen to it ironically from the safe distance of two generations removed. Sing it, Nilla!

Monday, April 7, 2014

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY

I have not written in a while, and the reason is that I have been busy and stressed. I can't even remember what I ate, but I'm sure there was a lot of pasta with pesto and undefined gruel. So I leave you with some thoughts from the past three weeks. I thought about putting the titles as hashtags, but then I felt like an idiot and reverted to normal formatting. I'm still fundamentally shy.


STILL GRATEFUL

I spent the last three weeks in the throws of the anxiety and excitement of the DC school lottery. For those who are not familiar with it, it's that process by which your child's name is picked among thousands of others to be one the lucky children in DC who can enter school at age 3. Luckily we did win the lottery, and my oldest son will be going to school in the fall. He also just guaranteed a spot for his little brother two years from now. My only concern: Will winning the DC school lottery diminish my chances of winning at a real lottery? Because that's kinda my dream. 


TYPE ASSHOLE

I think the problem with many Type A personality people is that they actually believe that the world would be a better place if everybody thought, acted, spoke, and looked exactly like them. That's the kind of people who cannot conceive that people might enjoy a little bit of slack in life. Really, you can't get that worked up if a guy younger than you decides to grow a beard. Get a fucking grip.


CAESAR PIZZA PALACE

For the first time since I've moved to the United States I have been to a "pizza parlor". It was called Cesar's Pizza Palace and it was located in a strip mall. It looked like a car mechanic converted his/her garage into a restaurant by way of painting the walls with trompe-l'œil grape vines. I was expecting my taste buds to commit suicide and my sarcasm-o-meter to explode, but you know what? The pizza was pretty good. I did order a safe option, though: ricotta and broccoli rather than chicken pineapple.


THE HOUSEHOLD THAT NEVER SLEEPS

My baby naps only 40 minutes at a time, and my oldest decided to stop napping altogether. So I decided I'm going to stop wasting energies trying to sleeptrain them, and I will instead refocus on
training them to let me sleep. Now I need two iPads, 3 dozen toy trucks, and a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

MY ITALIAN PANTRY: KIRKLAND PESTO

Pesto is one of those godsend products that can solve any meal with minimal effort. Just slap it on pasta or other grain/starch products (farro and quinoa especially), add it to a bland soup, serve it on potatoes, or mix it in a frittata, and you'll have a perfectly delicious dish that tastes fresh, luscious, and complex.

Of course, it all depends on the quality on the pesto. If you are a proud inhabitant of Liguria, where pesto is from, you can just make it fresh whenever you want, and it will taste better than any other pesto forever and ever. If you are not from Liguria but are still a better person than most, you can pound together basil, Parmigiano, pecorino, pine nuts, extra-virgin olive oil and garlic with a pestle and mortar right in time for lunch and still have time to look down your nose on the rest of the world. However, if you are anything like me, you're more than happy to buy some ready-made pesto to keep in the fridge to use when you feel lazy, but not lazy enough to eat cold leftovers from last month's brunch with friends.

"100% Imported Italian Basil D.O.P." and other ingredients. Wait...




So let me make my first product recommendation in this blog, starting with a pesto that is not painfully expensive and that tastes pretty damn Italian. I'm talking about Kirkland Basil Pesto sold at Costco in 22-oz jars for $9.40. The ingredient list is pretty good for commercial pesto, with Genovese basil, extra-virgin olive oil, Parmigiano, and pine nuts in the mix. Yes, there is sunflower oil and other strange stuff, but I have to confess that most commercial pesto in Italy uses plenty of shortcuts, replacing extra-virgin olive oil with safflower oil, pine nuts with walnuts or cashews, and adding extra weirdness such as powdered milk, margarine, palm oil, and dehydrated potatoes.

I've had a few guests from Italy in recent months, and they all loved the pesto and its price. One guest went back home with a jar, and another, daughter of a true Genovese, asked me to buy it again for the next time she'll come visit. The jar is pretty huge, so you might want to try to freeze it in cubes so you can make sure you use it all. As for my family, we go through 22 oz. quickly and without any problems. It's the overwhelmed-work-at-home mother's best friend.

Bucatini is not part of the original recipe. Sue me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

COCONUT MINICAKES? JUST CALL THEM PANDECOCCO

In this post, I'll put my pitch-perfect irony aside because I'll be reminiscing about my son as a 18-month-old, a wonderful time during which he was perfectly playful, agreeable, happy, and most importantly, so plump and round he could be easily drawn in 2D as a series of overlapping circles.

One of the first multisyllabic words my son pronounced was pandecocco. It is not a proper word, actually, but just some cute Italian-sounding gibberish that he loved to repeat over and over. Pandecocco sounds a lot like "pane di cocco," or coconut bread, but there's no way he meant that. I often asked him to point to a pandecocco around the house, and the closest explanation I got was him cheerfully pointing to the USB port on my laptop.

Months passed, and my son slowly stopped invoking pandecocco, but I remained intrigued... So intrigued I decided to bring this adorable nonsense into the real world in the form of a proper coconut bread. This would also serve as a trick to hear my son say "pandecocco" again and again into his preschool years and possibly until his voice changes. (Then I guess the magic will dissipate.)

Pandecocco became a coconut cake inspired by this Key Lime Coconut Cake by Gourmet. I made a few modifications to make it less sugary and super-quick to prepare (i.e. much less fancy, sorry). And then yesterday, I simply spooned  the dough into a muffin pan to have 12 little pandecocco to make my son's little head explode. Worked like a charm.

The resulting mini-cakes (I hesitate to call them cupcakes, although this is pretty much what they are... Also because that would confirm my fear that you cannot have a food blog without having cupcakes just show up at some point, which is a terrifying thought, really.)... Sorry, where was I? So, the resulting mini-cakes are very moist, fragrant, and not too sweet, and they will give you a whiff of summer in this very miserable end of winter 2014. Serve them for breakfast, for a snack, or even as a dessert. They were brought into this world by a toddler, so keep them playful.

A cluster of Pandecocco









PANDECOCCO

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 stick unsalted butter (softened)
1 cup sugar
1 tbps lemon extract
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
3/4 milk
1/4 cup plain yogurt
Extra-virgin olive oil (spray)

Equipment: small baking pan, non-stick 12-well muffin pan, electric hand mixer, mixing bowl.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F and spray the wells of the muffin pan with the extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Toast coconut in the oven using a baking sheet for about 8–12 min, or until golden. Be careful because it gets from golden to burnt very quickly.
  • Using an electric hand mixer with the dough attachments, beat together butter, sugar, and lemon extract until fluffy. Beat in eggs.
  • Using a wooden spoon, stir in flour, baking powder, and 1/2 of the toasted coconut. Stir in milk and yogurt. Dough should be lumpy.
  • Spoon batter into the muffin pan and sprinkle with the remaining shredded coconut.
  • Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 15–20 minutes.
Pandecocco! (There's nothing else to say, really.)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

FUCK LOVE: BAKING WITH ANGER

I've had a couple of rough weeks. My preschooler is livelier than ever, the baby refuses to nap, and my PMS returned after a one and half year reprieve. My mood could best be pictured by a flock of rabid harpies flying straight out of Dante's Inferno. Luckily I remembered my motto, written in magnetic letters on my old dishwasher:



I do believe that cooking, and especially baking, has a therapeutic effect. But I'm not talking about the serene yoga-bliss advertised by slender crafters and macaroon-enthusiasts with lovely wavy locks on Pinterest (not that I'm judging). My baking therapy is an emergency intervention to save me and my family from an imminent, cataclysmic nervous breakdown. 

I'm not sure how this works, exactly, but I know that as I prep the dough, my anger dissipates. It might be that I get an outlet from the ultra speed and strength I apply to mixing the ingredients while rabidly biting on a kitchen towel. More effective than punching a wall or screaming in my nursing pillow: Baking gives my anger a worthy purpose and a crowd-pleasing result. Baking with Anger also brings an unexpected bonus. When you're angry, you tend to be less precise, often adding more of the ingredients you need. Your shaky, frenzied hands will sprinkle too much salt, chop too many olives, melt too much butter, and add way too much baking powder. (I made some furious pancakes that looked like country loaves once. They were amazing.)

A savory muffin filled with hate.

So yesterday, when I was on the brink of explosion, I decided to make muffins. Just announcing the intention of making muffins is a great start towards mental healing: Kids are immediately made happy and, more importantly, SILENT by the idea that they are soon going to have their favorite treat. 

I used this recipe for "savoury muffins" from Grab Your Spork, which calls for olives, spinach, dried tomatoes, and feta (the last thing you need in these dire times is to shove sugar-based muffins in your preschooler's mouth). I didn't have all the required ingredients, so I ended up with olive tapenade, chopped leftover kale, grated Parmigiano, and turmeric, because now I basically add it to everything. The muffins turned out great: super-flavorful, soft, and moist. My son ate 6 of them in 24 hours, which is not completely surprising since he has his parents' appetite, but still.

Notice the hand of a happy child.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

PALERMO: HANDS UP! YOU'RE SURROUNDED (BY STREET FOOD)!

You have to be a pretty terrible food tourist to come back from Palermo, Sicily, bored and with an empty camera. In this city, street food is fantastic and available EVERYWHERE. Whereas Venice requires thorough investigative work to dig out the really authentic spots, in Palermo you only need to stumble outside to find incredible local foods served pretty much everywhere. Outdoor markets, carts, delis, gelaterie e friggitorie (delis specialized in fried food), restaurants and trattorie, street festivals, and bars are open pretty much around the clock to make your taste buds as happy as can be. In a matter of a few hours, you'll realize you need to make room for another mealtime in your day. Just thinking about it makes my stomach growl. But it's almost brinner here after all!

Here is a compilation of street foods I ate in 2010 during a 5-day trip to Palermo, including two brief visits to the towns of Erice and Marsala. My travel companions and I fell in love with the delicious treats of Palermo and with its regal, multiethnic, and mysterious charm. (One of the great mysteries of our stay, for example, was the disappearance of my room's toilet seat two days into my hotel stay.)



FOODS TO TRY IN PALERMO


#1 FRIED CALAMARI

Here's a great afternoon snack I had near the Vucciria (the most famous outdoor market in Palermo). The fish was fresh, sweet, and crispy. No heavy and herb-rich breading like you would find at an Italian-American restaurant. I believe these calamari were only dusted with flour, but I'm not sure.


#2 HYGIENE FIRST

Again in Vucciria market, where a fishmonger is cleaning bottarga (tuna roe) on a fountain ledge, while some plump stray dogs (not pictured) gather around. We all know you would NEVER, EVER witness anything like this in a U.S. farmers' market, but on this issue I have to side with Palermo.


#3 GRILLED FISH

Grilled fish is omnipresent on restaurant menus in Palermo, and rightfully so. The fish is wonderful and cooked to perfection. Swordfish steaks are lightly breaded and oiled, just as described in Genesis before the original sin, I believe.

#4 SFINCIONE

The sfincione is a cross between a pizza and a focaccia and is available from carts pretty much everywhere in Palermo. It is served warm, topped with a little bit of tomato sauce, garlic, onions, and a mix of grated Pecorino and mollica (breadcrumbs made from the soft inside of the bread—no crust). So soft and flavorful, the sfincione is one my dearest memories of Palermo.


#5 PANI CA' MEUSA

And here is Palermo's gold, in my opinion: the Spleen Sandwich, or, to use the name coined by my brother-in-law, the Spleenburger. The shop where I bought the sandwich in the photo had a huge menu on the wall listing the prices for up to 50 spleenburgers. You need 34 sandwiches? No need to ask the cashier: The price is on the wall. This was my first time eating spleen, and I will tell you it is not as intense as you might imagine. The juicy meat is slapped on a roll, dredged with spleen gravy, and then sprinkled with grated Pecorino. Verdict? I could pretty much eat this forever around the clock.


#6 BABBALUCI

Babbaluci is the Sicilian name for little snails. In this picture, you can see 2 lbs. of babbaluci we ordered as an afternoon snack. As much as I loved the idea of this snack when I pressed my travel mates to order some, I have to admit that seeing the snails' little eyes and mouths up close annihilated my appetite. Babbaluci, adieu!



#7 ARANCINA BOMBA

You might know arancini as small, breadcrumbs-coated rice balls that look like little oranges (hence the name). The Palermo version is called bomba because it's massive, and can better be described as about one and a half portions of risotto rolled up, deep-fried, and served as a snack. Kissing an arancina bomba before eating is not customary, but it's hard not to do.



#8 SPITINI

If you're anything like me, you had already taken notice of this brick of beauty in the preceding image, and you are there wondering, "Hey, what about that doll?" Well, the brick is called spitino, and it's a breaded and deep-fried masterpiece of architectural design made of slices of white bread alternated with meat ragù. Some recipes have the sandwiches dipped in béchamel sauce before the breading. Mr Bee was mesmerized by the spitino, which he referred to as deep fried lasagne. Whatever you choose to call it, this alone is worth a trip to Italy.



#9 PANELLE AND CROCCHÈ

I know you see the fries, but it's the rest that is worth noting. The round potato croquettes are, as you can infer, the crocchè in the title. The small fried triangular snack on the back are panelle, which are chickpea fritters (mind you, they are made with chickpea flour, not whole chickpeas). The small cups are filled with salsa rosa, which is basically Russian dressing. Not the sauce you would expect in Sicily, I know. But Italians love salsa rosa, and you need to accept it.


#10 RICOTTA

Fresh ricotta has been my favorite food since I started eating solids. I hope you'll then understand my horror when I moved to the United States and realized that ricotta here is available everywhere, but in a version so corrupted and distorted to make it completely unrecognizable from the original. I don't want to start a debate on this right now, but please know that ricotta is NOT made with lemon juice and vinegar. Sicilian ricotta is made from sheep's milk and is used in a myriad of knockout recipes. In this open market, we found baked ricottas covered with olives, caramelized onions, and herbs. We were lucky enough to taste them right there at the stand, while sipping some cold beer served to us by the stand's owner. My version of happiness.



#11 ERICE'S GENOVESI


A few hours from Palermo, on the left corner of Sicily, you will find beautiful Erice, an ancient Greek town on top of Mount Erice. In this picture, you can see (from left to right), small cassate, cannoli, and finally the genovesi, Erice's specialty. Genovesi are shortcrust pastry filled with cream and served strictly warm right out of the oven. You'll find them at Maria Grammatico pastry shop. 



#12 CANNOLI SICILIANI

This is me, in a pastry shop in the town in Marsala, holding my soul mate, the Sicilian cannolo (I specify "Sicilian" because where I come from a cannolo looks like this). Our friend and guide from Marsala took us to this shop because the ricotta filling is made last minute, and not simply every morning like in most other pastry shops. I didn't dare confess that even the last Sicilian cannolo abandoned in a sewer for a month and covered in dog hair is a trillion times better than those you find anywhere else, but the thought of another level of deliciousness for the cannoli I had tried in Palermo shut me up.


#13 THE MEAT WASTEBASKET


Mr Bee and I had heard tails of terrifying and delicious mystery meats offered in veiled secrecy from beneath large baskets by gentlemen at the far edges of Palermo's markets. We looked for the telltale baskets at each market we visited, but saw no signs of these mythical vendors. However, on our last day in the city while revisiting one of our favorite markets I encountered this gentleman sitting, as described, at the edge of the market behind a huge covered basket. I approached him timidly and asked for a sandwich, and I stood there watching him rummaging in the basket with his bare hands and fishing out strips of warm meat that he then slapped on bread. The specialty here is frittola, which consists of waste bits of veal left after butchering (fat, cartilage, tendons). This type of frittola was served on a roll, but I hear you can also eat the meat bits on their own. It was an exciting, scary, delicious mid-morning snack that tickled and awoke my Sicilian blood.