Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Provençal Vegetable Gratin

While on the topic of good food, here's a great summer dish. Easy to put together, healthy, and absolutely delicious. Go to your local farmers' market to get the ingredients, and be sure to get some heirloom tomatoes, they make all the difference between a good dish and a fabulous dish. Makes 2-3 servings.

3 large potatoes
1-2 zucchini
1 eggplant
1 large red pepper
4 shallots
3 cloves garlic
3 large tomatoes
Salt, Pepper
fresh thyme
olive oil

Peel the potatoes, slice thickly (about 1/4" or 1/2cm thick) and layer on bottom of lightly oiled casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt and fresh thyme (rub the thyme first). Wash and cut the other vegetables (except for the tomatoes) -- slice the zucchini, dice the eggplant, cut the pepper into chunks, and thinly slice the onions and garlic. Mix everything together. Put half of the vegetables on top of the potatoes, season with salt, coarse pepper, and fresh thyme. Add a few drops of olive oil and then place the rest of the vegetables on top and season again. The tomato skins can be removed, if desired; slice the tomatoes and place on top of the vegetables. Season again with salt and thyme and cook in preheated oven (ca. 180°C or 375°F) for about an hour. Check occasionally that the tomatoes don't turn black (if this happens, cover with aluminum foil). Drizzle with olive oil and serve with french bread. Freshly grated parmesan can be added if desired, but is usually only needed if there's not enough salt on the veggies.

(from Wolfram Siebecks Kochschule für Anfänger)

Thoughts on food in Italy

First things first: Italian food is really good (honestly, who doesn't like Italian food?). Which is why there's another blog post devoted to it. Some random thoughts.
  • It seems like when Italians go out to eat, they want to have Italian food -- preferably home-style food like mamma makes. While we haven't eaten out too often, this has been the cuisine we encountered. It's good food, but every now and then I wish they'd put a more modern spin on the dishes, though maybe we'd have to eat at more expensive places for that.
  • I sometimes miss the variety of modern, innovative restaurants in Charlottesville.
  • Ethnic ingredients can be hard to come by. The nearest big grocery store (comparable to American supermarkets), Esselunga, has a small shelf with some international foods such as soy sauce, tortillas and peanut butter, but for anything more specialized than that, you need to go to an (somewhat expensive) international food store downtown. Some of the things I've searched for in vain at a regular grocery store are: black beans, cilantro, turmeric, naan, chinese noodles, cardamom.
  • The pasta section is about the size of the cereal section in an American supermarket; the cereal section is about the size of the pasta section in the US.
  • Italian pizza rocks -- thin crust, personal pizzas with just the right amount of toppings (usually minimal). Even the frozen pizzas from the store are pretty good (and cheap!).
  • There's a large variety of cured meats, all of which so far have been excellent: more varieties of salami and prosciutto than you could ever eat, as well as mortadella, bresaola (breh-SOW-la), pancetta, speck, and many more.
  • Cheese: it's all about the pecorino.
  • Produce at the market is (mostly) an excellent quality, and I'm always amazed when I get a big bag of vegetables that ends up costing only a few dollars. Produce in the US is terribly expensive in comparison (but if you're in Charlottesville, check out C'ville Market).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Quattro Stagioni

Für alle deutschsprachigen Leser ein Buchtipp. Als ich in Deutschland war habe ich gesehen, dass "Quattro Stagioni: Ein Jahr in Rom" von Stefan Ullrich in den Bestsellerlisten war und habe es mir gekauft (und inzwischen auch gelesen). Ullrich ist Italienkorrespondent der SZ, und beschreibt auf amüsante Weise seine Ankunft und sein erstes Jahr in Rom mit seiner Familie. Viele der beschriebenen Erlebnisse (z.B. die erdrückende Hitze im Sommer, die Tatsache dass die Italiener bei jeder Gelegenheit, und vor allem im August, an den Strand fahren und an ihrer Bräunung arbeiten, oder den Ärger mit den Dienstleistungen, vor allem natürlich der Telekom) kamen mir bekannt vor und ich musste immer wieder schmunzeln und mir sagen "ja, das habe ich auch erlebt." Insgesamt eine nette kleine Lektüre.

Two churches

Since Kristen is in the US again, and I'm in Florence alone for another few days, I went to visit two churches I hadn't been to that she went to see during her explorations in June and July. Being another beautiful day, I biked through Cascine park to the city and to the Church of Ognissanti (All Saints). This is one of the few baroque buildings in this otherwise Renaissance architecture-dominated city. Even so, the baroque facade and interior were added later, the church itself being quite a bit older. Inside, the highlights were frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, though one of the Ghirlandaio frescoes was not there. From there, I walked across the river past the dozens of tourists on the Ponte Vecchio to the Church of Santo Spirito. This was quite the contrast to Ognissanti, since it was designed by Brunelleschi, the master of Florentine Renaissance architecture, himself and was built (mostly) true to his design. Where Ognissanti was overdecorated, Santo Spirito seemed almost bare, although it, too, contains an overabundance of religious art, but it's much less in-your-face, which I appreciated.
On the way back, I stopped at a gelateria and spoiled my appetite for dinner with a portion of pistacchio and ricotta-fig gelato.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vacation & Argentina pictures

It's August, and in Italy that means vacation. In contrast to other countries, where employers try to organize a bit so that there's always someone in the store or in the office, in Italy everyone just goes at the same time. So for the last few weeks, the number of stalls open at the market has decreased, many restaurants are closed, and one of the free newspapers printed a list of food stores that remain open in August. And so I, too, have traded the 35 degrees in Florence for the 19 degrees in Germany for a week.

Speaking of vacation, I've finally put up some pictures from our trip to Argentina in February and March here.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Additional Comments on Conclusions after Two Months Here

Refer to this post for the original list.

1. The concept of customer service still doesn't exist here, although I will say I've found a few places that will try to help you and/or not rip you off. In general, they aren't familiar with the idea of keeping customers by providing a good product or good service.

2. They don't snuff out their cigarettes, they just drop them on the sidewalk. Also, while they don't smoke in indoor public spaces, a space with a roof and 3 walls is considered outside.

8. I put this in a comment somewhere, but another fake meat product that I like is Yves canadian bacon.

10. Piaggio, which I see a lot, is the parent company of Vespa.

15. Some things that cost less here: watermelon, bottled water (only at supermarkets, not downtown), some vegetables, some cereal (though the selection is fairly small), pineapples (even though they come from Costa Rica), generic brand pasta (by the way, they do have Barilla here), wine
Some things that cost more here: pine nuts (aren't they an Italian ingredient?), ramen and lo mein noodles (though I haven't checked Prato yet), sun dried tomatoes (aren't those also Italian?), other things Italians apparently don't eat (peanut butter, soy sauce, corn, dried chilis, etc.), electricity, sun screen

17. Mosquitoes can disappear

21. I've actually seen dried cranberries and cranberry juice in more than one store here, but they're definitely not common. There's not really a word in Italian for them either.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

What I've Been Doing

If you're wondering what I've been doing for the past 2 months (aside from the items about which Ben posts), here, without regard for parallel structure, is a list. If you weren't wondering, this list will probably bore you to tears, so just stop reading now. I included anything that was productive and/or (e/o) took more than 5 minutes.

wash dishes; do laundry; read; do sudoku and crossword puzzles; look at Italian daily newspaper you get at bus stops; grocery shopping (at supermarkets and Lidl); go to the market; water plants; cook (or start cooking, because I'm so slow at it); argue with telecommunications companies; buy a bike; buy a fan; surf the net (at internet cafes and at the apartment); watch the Simpsons, Monty Python, 30 Rock, various moovies*; sort music on ipod; listen to music on ipod; listen to radio; clean the apartment; get codice fiscale; sign up and pay for language course; find out about health insurance; get accurate visa application and instructions; sightsee; get passport-sized photos; find out about permesso di soggiorno; keep mosquito netting up; get bus tickets/passes; make cell phone work here; recharge cell phone minutes/money; realize how stupid and stingy Bank of America is; go through Italian book; figured out why external hard drive wasn't working; see where Ben works; put the awnings and roller shutters up and down; take out trash; read about other cities in guidebooks; try to figure out cheapest way to withdraw Euros (still working on that); go to Cascine market; hunt mosquitoes; look for cheap books in English; put on sunscreen; figure out which busses to take; pay bills in VA and otherwise try to deal with online banking issues (trying to resolve an issue via email is futile. The responses you get are completely worthless.); watch a cooking show in German; listen to and watch the European Cup; look for magnets; proofread article; tried to find non-skinny-leg, non-bellbottom jeans; answered phone calls from people who had the wrong number; learn how to use the appliances in this apartment (our washing machine can't be operated without an instruction manual. See photo below.); think of blog entries

*do you get it?