Monday, October 31, 2011

In Memory of Katie Becker: 1990-2006


This posting is not really about food. It's about my niece Katie. She had diabetes. On October 30, 2006, she skipped dinner, took her nightly insulin shot, and went to bed. By morning she had passed away at the age of 16.

Halloween has always reminded me of Katie. Her parents were active members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization that meets to re-enact medieval life. Running around in costume was part of her childhood. As she got older and discovered Manga, she frequently looked like an anime character, but always still looked unmistakably like Katie.

Her diabetes first manifested on Halloween when she was in elementary school. After an evening of eating trick-or-treat candy, Katie ended up in the emergency room. At a very young age, Katie quickly adapted to regular blood glucose checks, regulated diet, and the insulin shots needed to keep her alive.

This did not slow her down in the least. She came to see me in Maryland every summer. We visited DC and saw the Smithsonian museums. We went to Otakon, the Manga convention in Baltimore, and heard one of her favorite writers speak.

Katie also introduced me to social networking through the Deviant Art community. She was a prolific poster, and I watched her develop her drawing and writing through her profile posts. She became very adept at the Manga style of drawing and quickly moved beyond fan fiction to create her own universe.

Katie's last visit in the summer of 2006 still haunts me. And haunts is the right word. She was in that inevitable transition toward adulthood. She was starting to clash with long-time friends and thinking about what it was she wanted in life. She wanted something from me that summer, too - something specific. I tried to give her what I thought she needed for her own good, as adults often do to the young people who trust them. What I wanted to give her was the knowledge that she could be anything she wanted to be, that life had some struggles, but that it is really an open road, and that she could make her own destiny. She was incredibly bright and creative, and I had no doubt at the time that she could succeed at anything she chose to do, and I wanted her to see this in herself. I am not sure what she thought I was trying to do. I do know that at the end of that visit, she was distant.

The beginning of the school year included two fainting episodes at school. I called her - a rare move on my part. Even though we chatted through Deviant Art, I was somewhat of an absentee aunt, something I regret to this day. She informed me that everything was fine, and I took her word. Then came another fateful Halloween.

After learning of her death, I logged into Deviant Art and read her postings from the time she return from her annual visit up to her death. I then saw what I had previously missed - the intensity of her struggle, her frustration as her efforts to forge her way in life led to misunderstanding and even greater frustration. The hole she left grew larger as the feeling that I had somehow failed her seeped in.

After the funeral, as we took on the monumental task of cleaning her room, I found a little wooden box in her desk. Inside, tied up in a little ribbon, I found every card I had ever send her - birthday cards, Christmas cards, the random Valentine - all neatly bundled together and kept in a very special place. I began to realize how important I had been to her.

As adults, one of our responsibilities is to care for the next generation, whether we are parents, teachers, care-givers, or the mysterious aunt who moves far away and only shows up for Thanksgiving. They look to us for guidance, acceptance, love. I will never know if I succeeded or failed in my responsibility to Katie. She died at a time when she was just starting to struggle out of the chrysalis of adolescence, when her whole life was just around the corner.

I am left with more than just memories - she could not resist a blank page, and I still find old journals, sketchbooks, work planners with little drawings and notes from her scattered randomly throughout. I am also left with the reminder to take my role as an adult seriously. The children who look up to me count on it.

Katie, a few weeks before she passed

There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, also known as Juvenile Diabetes, is not preventable . This type of diabetes is genetic and is passed from parent to child. There is treatment but at present no known cure. This is the type of diabetes Katie had. She inherited it from her father, and so did her younger sister.

Type 2 diabetes used to be called Adult Onset Diabetes. It typically manifests itself later in life as part of the degenerative, aging processes. In my lifetime, this has changed. I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in my 30's. I was overweight. When I lost the weight, the diabetes went with it.

But now children are developing Type 2 diabetes. When Type 2 diabetes develops in a child, it can be just as life-threatening and potentially devastating as Type 1.

For more information, or to make a donation, please visit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Food Over There was Amazing But.....


When you travel overseas, your diet inevitably changes for the time you are away. Even visiting places that are not so different, like Western Europe, there are foods very similar to what we can find at home, yet not quite the same. The concept of something as simple as salad may be quite different (I couldn't find one without olives, capers, anchovies, and other things I do not eat regularly). After two nearly back-to-back weeks in Milan eating full-fay dairy, meat that has been cured differently (and, in the case of hams, with much more salt), having pasta and wine at almost every meal, my insides feel very different. I now have the daunting task of getting myself right. Here are some guidelines for the gastronomically weary traveler that worked for me during my week between trips, and that will be used by me again in the event that my cold doesn't flush things out.

Getting Back to Basics
First, breakfast has got to change. My hotel in Italy had a wonderful breakfast buffet that was included in my room rate. And every morning I hit it hard. Scrambled eggs (real eggs, not from a carton or reconstituted powdered eggs) with ham and salami and mortadella and strange cheeses washed down with coffee with steamed full-fat milk meant that I hit my body with more fat during that first meal than I typically consume during my normal breakfast and lunch combined. So, my first step is to switch to that most basic of breakfasts - oatmeal.

I'm not talking instant oatmeal or even quick oats. To really get back to normal, you need some dietary fiber. You need Scottish-style steel-cut oats. Add some fruit and nuts (or my favorite - peanut butter) and you've got a good, solid breakfast. If you have limited time for breakfast, make a pot on Sunday and reheat a portion a day. (Here's a link to my recipe). Or, if there's a Whole Foods nearby, they offer it as part of their breakfast bar.

Regulating Blood Sugar
The oatmeal will also help regulate your blood sugar, especially if you have been someplace where wine is just part of the meal. Personally, I don't drink a lot of alcohol or eat a lot of sweets at this point, so the pasta-wine-dessert-liqueur dinners in Italy really got to be a bit much. Amazingly delicious, but just a tad over the top. All the simple carbohydrates left me feeling a bit wonky - restless and night and groggy in the morning. To get your blood sugar right, along with the oatmeal, add fresh juice to your diet for a week.

Again, I don't mean the not-from-concentrate varieties of carton juice. I mean go to Wegman's or Whole Foods or the local food co-op and cough up the $10 for a gallon of orange or grapefruit juice that they have juiced on premises that day. The natural sugar of the juice will help you adjust to the missing wine and dessert that your body may now expect, and the additional nutrients and fiber will help balance out your sugar levels.

Cleanse
Most people shy away from this word for the obvious connotations. If you are cleansing, you are expelling things from your body. Do not be afraid. I have one simple addition to your diet that will make a big difference.

Most cleansing packs that you can buy really overdo things, as do the drinks and teas. Plus they taste terrible. My method also tastes a little weird, but it involves one supplement, not a mighty cocktail. It's chlorophyll.

You can find liquid chlorophyll at health food stores, co-ops, and (of course) Whole Foods. Pick up a bottle and follow the instructions to reconstitute. Drink a glass in the morning when you first get up and one in the evening before bedtime. It does taste a little strange, so I use about a cup of water and I drink it quickly. And brush your teeth afterward. The bottle will most likely carry a warning about staining. This warning is for more than your clothing.

Yes it will flush the system. No it won't make you bloated or gassy or make you sweat or strike at inopportune times. What it will give you is a good dose of plant-based protein, something I was sorely missing in Italy, where most of the vegetables I found were cooked to a mushy hell. (Not to say that they weren't tasty - they were. But overcooked veggies have much of the nutrition cooked out of them). There are a whole host of other purported benefits associated with chlorophyll. Just know that it will make you regular in a fairly unobtrusive way. It's supposedly a blood purifier, so it may also flush out your respiratory system. You won't become a sneezing, snotty mess, but you should keep some Kleenex handy.

Eat Light
My only other advice is to just take it easy that first week back. Eat a lot of soups and salads and fresh fruit. Scale back the dairy and bread and salt. Drink plenty of water and fresh juice. Take a walk whenever you can. Go to bed when the clock tells you to. And remember all those wonderful flavors and textures and try your best to make them at home.



Friday, October 28, 2011

Parting Thoughts on Milan


The last time I left Milan, it was not so bad. I had been here a week and knew I would be returning and was ready to go home. This visit, though, is my last visit for the foreseeable future. There are many things that I will miss:

The sausage, especially mortadella. Even though I can find Italian sausage in the US, it is different here, more meaty with very little filler. It has an iron-y, liver-y flavor that is not masked with too much salt or paprika and tastes very much like what it is.

The red orange juice from the hotel breakfast buffet. It's like nothing I've ever had. It tastes only vaguely like regular orange juice, but is sweeter. I did find a carton of it at the pastery shop I have been frequenting and am bringing it back.

Also, the A-C-E juice that I love so much I gained a reputation for it among my project team on my last visit. It's orange, carrot, and lemon and is full of vitamins A, C and E.

Parmalat yogurt. It's not tart, and not because they add a bunch of sugar and starches to it. It's simply not tart. This may be a result of the selective irradiation of the milk to kill only harmful pathogens. With more of the natural cultures in the milk, it's possible that less encouragement is needed to culture it into yogurt. However they do it, their yogurt has a natural sweetnes and a smooth texture and none of the modified food starch, tapioca, guar gum, or other assorted bullshit that ends up in American yogurt. Oh, and it's made with full-fat milk. Nothing like a little cream to add body and flavor.

The surly food server at the cafeteria of the school I have been working with. I have heard him speaking English with the European students, but he does not speak English to me. Even though his insistance that I pantomime what I want from him is at least slightly annoying to everyone behind me in the line (try acting out "soup in a to go cup with a lid"), I will miss this daily routine. My fumbling Italian was always rewarded with a request to repeat until I pronounced it corrrectly, which has helped me learn more of the language. And even though I smiled at him every day at lunch time, I never ever saw him smile back. At me or anyone else.

The way everyone just walks everywhere. This may be the key to their good health.

And, of course, my project team. I have been embedded with them on these two visits for software training and for the first week of usage. They are full of energy and very easy to work with, even with the linguistic limitations. It has been wonderful fun being over here with them.

So now I must pack up and prepare to return home. Gareth will be waiting for me at BWI. This chapter in my life has come to a close. I will always remember what a fine adventure it has been.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Heart Belongs to Milan


The rain in Milan stopped in time for the Wednesday open air market. And while the sky did not clear completely, the streets were relatively dry and the day just a little bit brighter.

I've heard about the Wednesday open air market from others who have been to this part of Milan. It is held on the boulevard adjacent to the campus I am visiting. I walked past it on my previous visit as they were setting up but did not get a chance to go back until after all the vendors had packed up for the day.

This morning, I took a moment to wander around while they set up shop - farmers selling fresh produce, fish mongers, and plenty of tables full of sweaters, scarves, jeans, even underwear. I made a mental note to sneak out at some point in the morning and do some shopping.

"At some point in the morning" turned out to be 12:45, or just before lunch. I go there just in time, too. Many vendors had already broke camp, and the few remaining were in the process of closing down. I did manage to procure a couple of scarves and a very nice argyle sweater.

And of course when the opportunity to eat authentic street food in a strange city presented itself, I lept at it. Today's lunch was bought from a butcher's wagon at the market who sold items by weight. I ordered two small skewers of meat that look like kabobs. When I asked if they were, the butcher scoffed and replied in very rapid Italian that he was not inclined to repeat for the tourista Americana. He did tell me that they were chicken even though they did not look at all like chicken, which is a phenomenon I have encountered before. I also got a side of what looked like batter fried veggies of some sort. I love veggies and do not really care what variety. And, if they are battered and deep fried, they will taste good. Everything was placed in little paper bages made out of lightly waxed butcher's paper - the perfect container, and much preferable to styrofoam or plastic, especially items fresh from the fryer. I always feel a little freaked out when my take out leaves a perfect imprint in the side of the styrofoam box it was packed in.

I stopped by the school cafeteria for a couple of juice boxes (A-C-E juice, my new addiction) and returned to my work area to eat.

The batter fried veggies were actually young squash flowers. You may ask yourself why do that to squash flowers when there are so many better ways to prepare them. I will look into this and cover it in a future post. Even covered in batter ad fried to a crisp, they are very good. They taste very orgainic and green and a little sweet in the same way fresh green beans are sweet. The batter was light and did not detract from this, and the deep frying left little residue.

The kebobs were something else altogehter. Alternating meat and veg, I hardly recognized any of it. There was indeed chicken on the skewers. What part of the chicken I will not say as it is a part that is found in that little paper packet inside the chicken when you buy it at the store that goes to one of three places - the gravy, the cat or the trash. Here in Italy, it goes on the skewer with some cherry peppers, a little sausage and some yellow tomatoes. At least I think that's what it was. I loved it.

Something about an authentic street dining experience really makes me feel like I have been to that city. Like my sampling of every hot dog stand in every US city I have visited (it was actually a taco shack when I visited LA), I now have a barometer against which to gauge Milan. Like all my other dining experiences here, it was extraordary, providing me with yet another meal I will not be able to get at home.

Batter fried squash flowers and not-kabobs

A-C-E juice which I am now consuming by the liter

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Risotto 2: Risotto Solo


Last night's rain turned into thunderstorms that continued throughout the day today. While I am enjoying the thought that I am in Milan, it is questionable how much I am actually enjoying Milan itself this week. I am fairly certain of one memento I will be bringing home with me this time as the ache I thought was pain from my luggage is settling into a slightly feverish feeling. The flush in my cheeks confirms it - I am catching a cold.

I had so much luck with risotto last night I decided to try for risotto number 2 tonight. Trattoria Alla Vecchia Maniera is directly across the canal from my hotel, and I have been eyeballing their menu since I got here. My travel guide says that a trattoria is a mom and pop restaurant. I do not think this is entirely accurate. While it may be run by a family, there is much pride in their establishment. This trattoria looked far more upscale than any other place I have visited and very well kept.

The busboy let me in a little before 7:00, the official dinner hour. Upon accertaining that I was American (this took all of 30 seconds -  the lack of scarf is indeed a dead give away), the traditional Italian music was gleefully replaced with Depeche Mode by said busboy. This was only tolerated by the management for a couple of songs. A compromise was soon reached, and the music was changed to the local pop music station. I will never forget that I heard Rebecca Black for the first time over risotto in Milan.

Even though the risotto is billed as a dish for two, the matron (and obvious prorpietor) served me a half-portion of risotto with cheese. And while this trattoria is definitely more upscale than the Bella Riva, you wouldn't knwo it by the risottto. This was not the same risotto as the risotto I had last night. The grain was different and felt much more like regular old rice, and not even cooked differently. The sauce was the more typical startchy liquid that always reminds me of leftover rice water. The abundance of cheese throughout the dish was its saving grace. That and the shreaded raddicchio, the bitter red and white stuff that you find in most packages of spring salad mix. Turns out if you cook it, it actually becomes palatable, adding only a slight edge to the otherwise creamy dish and just enough to make it interesting. Overall, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts in this version of risotto.

I let the matron select my wine and felt somewhat pleased with myself when she brought me a crisp, dry white. And I was right - this is a good wine for a risotto.

And because she had been so accommodating of my risotto solo request, I felt  obliged to order dessert. I had my second Italian tiramisu. This time it was served in a custard dish and tasted more of mascarpone. The yellow cake soaked in coffee was in the center, creating a bottom layer of cheesy custard that was less dense and rich than the top. When I get back to the States, I can nver eat tiramisu again.

And it struck me as I sat alone in this trattoria with a full belly and a warm feeling of gestation setting in that I was indeed alone in Italy, and what a grand adventure life truly is. I will miss Milan tremendously after this trip. Knowing this makes me want to stretch my time out as I do not know when I will return. I will make the most of my final two days, rain and cold be damned.


Inside Trattoria Alla Vecchia Maniera





Risotto Solo with Dry White Wine and Acqua Naturale


The gratuitous Tiramisu

Risotto 1: Il Classico Risotto di Milanese


It was a cold and overcast day In Milan today that turned into a chilly and rainy evening. This was no warm early autumn rain, either, but an icy rain that stung when it hit my skin with no hint of the very recent summer. This was an early winter rain that foretold of snow and sleet and weather blowing down from the nearby mountains. I now understand why everyone here wears scarves, and I wish I had packed one of my own.

I found solace in a familiar place as I returned to Daniele and the Bella Riva cafe on the canal, the site of my first meal in Milan (and a few more after that). They offer two varieties of risotto - Il Classico Risotto di Milanese and Risotto with mushrooms. The Milanese risotto sounded more authentic to me, so I chose that with a glass of red wine that I left to Daniele's discretion. And as my last visit to Milan spoiled me to baklava, tiramisu and canoli, I am now spoiled to risotto. Tonight I have had the real thing.

I have often wondered at the appeal of risotto. It has always struck me as improperly cooked rice, including the risotto from the Legg Mason cafeteria which serves the international banking sector. When I prepare rice in such a manner I usually get the business, yet it is considered some kind of fancy dish when it comes out of the right kitchen. Now I understand. This risotto was something completely different. The rice was firm and chewy but did not feel underdone. The starch from the rice did not permeate the sauce it was cooked in and there was no hint of the pastiness that has plagued my risotto experiences in the past. This is not rice at all but a different grain altogether. Denser and heavier than rice, this felt closer to barley but still had the mild flavor of rice. It felt more like fiber than starch and had enough backbone to convince me that it was a meal unto itself despite the absence of meat or veg. And, while I did not know this at the time, I would wake up the following day still satisfied from this meal and not quite ready for breakfast until well into the morning.

And the sauce was exceptional. It had a warm flavor - if warm were a flavor, it would taste like this sauce - warm and golden and rich but not heavy. If the grain was dense, the sauce was a perfect juxtaposition of light sunshine. It didn't taste like anything I have ever had before, yet there was something familiar about it that I could not quite place. It reminded me of my mother's chicken noodle soup, but did not taste like chicken. I thought it might be saffron at first. About half-way through, it occurred to me that it might be tumeric, a seasoning that is used in some chicken boullion. This would also explain the golden yellow color. It was definintely not something I get at home, though. There was also that buttery creaminess reminiscent of the strangozzi I had the last visit that is supposedly olive oil. I never quite believe this becasue American olive oil is so heavy and bitter and pungent and this oil tastes and feels and smells the exact opposite. If this is olive oil, I want some of it. I believe there was also a hint of cream, but not much.

It was crowned with a pile of grated hard cheese in the center of the dish. As I made my way around the edges and worked my way to the middle, the cheese melted completely which made for a remarkable finish.

In retrospect, I would have selected a dry white wine to go with this dish rather than the tangy red Daniele picked. The wine he selected was similiar to what I was ordering two weeks ago, and kudos to him for remembering my tastes. I don't think it complemented this dish the way a crisp, dry white might have.

Overall, though, it was a satisfying end to a dreary and challenging day.

UPDATE: I did a little research this morning, and last night's risotto was most likely seasoned with veal marrow and saffron.



Bella Riva Cafe



Il Classico Risotto di Milanese


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Holy Crepe


Tonight I had my first crepe in Europe. This time through Navigli, I am noticing that many of the gelati places I overlooked last time are also creperies. They look to be almost as ubiquitous as our burgers and fries, as if the crepe were European fast food - food you can make to order and turn around quickly, except in this case it is something the diner savors rather than stuffing it in while driving, working, etc. I am once again enjoying the full stop of all other activities while eating over here.

Tonight's crepe was not at all like what I've gotten in the States. It was a thin pancake of something completely unfamiliar, and I wondered if it was spelt, or farro, which seems to be common here. It was also seasoned with herbs and a little salt. Once it was almost done cooking, it was layered with salami sliced so thin it was just slightly opaque, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and arugula, plus something that was drizzled on top just before the crepe was folded up that I thought was olive oil. It turned out to be something spicy almost like Tobasco.

My crepe was simply folded over and cut into bite-sized pieces and delivered on a paper plate with a plastic fork. The meat was warmed, the cheese was melted, the arugula was slightly wilted, and the tomato was uncooked. I sat on a bench inside and enjoyed.


The Creperie that was right in front of me


The Crepe

Things to Do in Navigli When You're Jet Lagged


It's Sunday in the Navigli neighborhhod of Milan and I am checked into my hotel. This simple acheivement was not quite as easy as it sounds. I knew I would arrive a few hours before I could check in, but I didn't realize it would be a full five hours. My plane landed at 8:00. By 8:30, I had cleared boarder control, claimed my baggage, and was in a taxi headed for Milan. 30 minutes and EU 90 later (taxis charge more on Sundays), I was at the hotel without a room to retreat to. The concierge told me to come back at 2:00. He stored my suitcase and sent me on my way.

Knowing I would need some legitimate breakfast upon my arrival, I used the morning of my departure the last time to venture away from the touristy area around the canal and found several promising options for this morning. Alas, not a storefront was open, save for a single cafe.

It was bustling this morning and filled with young people with carry-on luggage, much like me, only they all looked and acted like regulars. Not a word of English was spoken in the place, and I got through my order in passable Italian, although cappucino e patisserie is not the most complicated Italian phrase.

It was heaven. Especially after the minimalist breakfast provided by the airline. The pastry was actually a croissant filled with creme and dusted with course sugar. The cappucino was hot and bitter and rich with full-fat milk, pasteurized via targated irradiation to selectivly eliminate pathogens rather than the American method of cooking the bejeezus out of it until everything is dead. Milk that retains its natural enzymes is indeed richer, sweeter, more filling. I wonder at our fear of irradiation given our enthusasim for microwaving plastics. But that is an entirely different topic and one I will evaluate at a later date. If I remember.

Full of caffeine and sugar and with 4.5 horus to go, I got out the camera and proceeded on a photography expedition. This being my second visit, I widened my radius and saw a little more of the city, incuding the larger canal that feeds the one my hotel is on. And, soon enough, about the time church let out, some of the smaller cafes started opening for brunch.

I found a little place that billed itself as a Parisean cafe right on the canal and wondered how I missed it a couple of weeks ago. When I asked about sandwiches in broken, US-accented Italian, they offered me a cheeseburger. After a little tete-a-tete, I managed to order the much sought-after ham and cheese sandwich. And it was ham, not sorrento or capricolla or any of those other heavily cured varieties. It came with lettuce and tomato on a crusty baguette and I was so starved for the protein that I had consumed most of it before I realized I had neglected to take the requisite photo.

After lunch, I wandered around a little more and eventually made my way to the local church, a beautiful little stone structure that has been serving the neighborhood since around the 10th century. Shortly after entering, I made the acquaintance of Bascillica "just call me Billy", a Romanian musician recently transplanted to Milan. He was very inerested in being my friend for the week despite not really paying attention to the answers I gave to his simple questions. Once I showed him my left hand and the wedding band, Bascillica "just call me Billy" disppeared as quickly as he had arrived.

At that point, I realized that what I really needed was a hot shower and a nap - yes, a nap. I know it violates the first rule of jet lag, but given that the last three Saturdays in a row I've flown across the Atlantic in one direction or the other, I decided that I am a special case. I returned to the hotel shortly after noon and there was a room waiting for me. One hot shower later and I am ready to get caught up on my sleep.


Open air market - sadly, no fruit, just flowers


Closed on Sundays


Closed on Sundays


Closed on Sundays


Voila! Cappucino e patisserie

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rising to the Occaision


Gareth has decided he is now in competition with the chefs of Europe and is upping his game. Not that I'm complaining. And this is actually a logical conclusion on his part. Before I left for Milan, he asked that I pay particular attention to what I ate - the flavors, the textures, the different combinations of food. Which I did. He read my blog while I was away and then did a complete debriefing upon my return.

Then he cooked me pasta. The so-called fresh pasta from the dairy case at the grocery store. He asked me how it was, and I gave him a shrug and a "meh". Later he told me that I just kept moving it around on my plate and staring at it with kind of a mix between a frown and a sneer. And I thought I was being subtle about it.

Not one to back away from a challenge, he went to work in the kitchen.

He figured out how to make grocery store olives get that smooth taste and buttery texture like the olives I ate in Italy - rinse them in water, gently simmer them in apple juice, and then rinse them again. Who knew?

He also decided that we shall now shop at Wegman's even though our grocery bill will double. That way we can enjoy meat from their small but impressive game section, as well as a variety of European cheeses and an amazing selection of produce. Plus goat milk butter, creme fraiche, and other exotic items that are now within easy reach. It's a quality of life decision that I certainly will not argue with even if it takes from my shoe budget.

So, here are the highlights of the meals I had this week before he got pulled into homework and school and I got pulled into a software deployment.

PS - After this second trip to Milan, my next work trip is to Paris. I can't wait to see how he follows up on that one.


Seared duck breast on creamed green veggies with olive oil toast. Veggies are zucchini, celery, celeriac and leek

Pork with a pear compote and olives, asparagus and leek

Duck and shrimp in an herb cream sauce over previously acceptable grocery store  fettucini

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Arrivederci Milan


All this week I have been writing about how different the food and the whole dining experience is in Milan - wonderful textures and strange new flavors that drift just slightly away from familiarity. There is a genuine pleasure in dining here. People stop what they are doing and gather together for several hours to eat and drink and socialize. Restaurants do not insult you by presenting your bill before you ask for it. And wine or beer is expected as it aids the digestion (or so my new Italian friends tell me). Even a caffe from a vending machine is consumed not at the desk while you are working, but in the hallway or outside in the open, and you stop what you are doing to relax for just a few minutes.

The most important things you can learn before traveling is how to greet people in their native language, how to say "please" and "thank you", and how to express gratitude. Even though I have been the recipient of the slower-and-louder-but-not-in-my-language method of translation here on several occaissions (and sometimes it does work), a few simple words of gratitude go a long way - "buono" after a meal means "that was good", "grazie" and "prego" for thank you and the acknowledgement, and "scuzi" when you are obviously in the way or otherwise do not know what you are doing. These things all helped me manage through simple interactions with the people here.

Mostly what I noticed this week, though, is really how similar we all are. Everyone responds to a smile and a genuine effort to connect. The people here seemed to appreciate my enjoyment of Milan and helped me with my limited and feeble Italian (they also understood the slightly more advanced Spanish I was able to throw into the mix). My first trip out into the larger world has shown me that it is a beautiful place inhabited by wonderful  people. Everyone should leave their own country at least once if possible to cacth a glimpse of this.

Today I go back to the US. I'll need to relearn English as I have been speaking a mix of basic English, Italian  and Spanish with even a little of my college French emerging from the depths of my memory. I will need to pay attention to traffic when crossing the street. If I eat out, I will need to remember to finish in an our or less to make way for the next customer. I will need to remember the deep political and cultural divisions at home and curb my opinions which have been soo free-flowing this past week. But mostly I will get a home-cooked meal to share with my spouse and my cats, and this will be the best part of all and everything will be quasiasi again.

My final shot of Milan is the similar-yet-very-different coffee vending machine that was right outside the training room we occupied this week on the campus of the school we have been working with. Watch for the little stir stick that gets dropped into the cup and you can hear me laugh.

video

Friday, October 14, 2011

Family Dinner with New Friends

I spent the last several days fairly seriously engaged in the work I came here to complete. We wrapped everything up successfully, and I am now preparing to leave Milan tomorrow morning. The final preparations for the deployment of our project included a traditional Italian dinner with the US and Italian teams.


We started with wine at a bar very close to our hotel. My Milano counterpart selected a bottle of Traminer Arimatico, a white wine from a very specific region of Italy and something we all presumed would be difficult to find back in the States. (I have two bottles in my suitcase.) She said it had a unique taste, and she was correct. I have never tasted anything like it. At first, it tastes almost too tangy like a chablis, but then it mellows into its own, a nice balance between sweet and dry.

Italian happy hour seems to invariably include a buffet of meats, cheeses and fruits. The bar we visited provided us with two plates of couscous and a basket of potato chips. This couscous was tossed with tomatoes and herbs. And, surprisingly enough, the potato chips tasted exactly like the Utz I get with a deli sandwich back in Baltimore. It was an unexpected taste of home in my adventure abroad.

We all piled into a cab and rode to what was described as a typical Italian restaurant, outside the tourist areas and someplace where we could experience authentic Italian dinning. We were a large group and were presented with the option of ordering three pasta dishes to share. That made sense for this size of our group. More wine was ordered, and the pasta arrived in waves.

As usual when wine is involved, I cannot remember the names of the dishes. I do know that the first was in a meat sauce, or  ragu, and was tomato-y sweet and salty enough to make me wonder if it was actually an anchovies sauce. The second dish was spaghetti in a tomato and pepper sauce. This was also sweet and very slightly spicy. Everyone got very excited for the third dish and let us know that it was the best of all. And they were right. Again, it was spaghetti, but this time tossed with hard cheese, olive oil, and lots and lots of ground pepper.

We passed the platters around and refilled each others wine glasses and all talked very loudly about our opinions. It's an interesting time to be in Italy with what I believe is the 58th confidence vote for their PM taking place today. We also discussed US politics - Obama's mistakes and our obstructionist Congress and what the Republican Presidential hopefuls are lacking.  My colleague from work artfully explained our current political stalemate in a way that made much more sense than my usual screed. It seems no topic is off limits here, and even if people do not agree, they don't get offended or engage in conversion. We all just kept eating and drinking and talking at the top of our lungs and it did indeed feel very much like a family dinner.

But now I am winding down. My colleague, who has been to Europe several times this year alone, likes to say that sometimes you just want a turkey sandwich. I think I know what she means.




Happy Hour

Evening in Milan

A typical Italian restaurant




Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tastes Like Chicken


When visiting a foreign country, you may not always know what you are eating, and it's possible to eat something that is not at all what you think it is. This happened to me yesterday at lunch time. I visited the cafeteria of the univeristy I am working with in Milan and saw a breaded cutlet of some kind. The server said it was chicken, which may be what they tell all Americans who inquire. One bite and I knew it was definitely not chicken. Three bites later, I still did not know what it was. But it tasted pretty good, and as anyone who knows me knows that is often the only criteria I need to proceed. Although I did not know it at the time, that is where the trouble began.

By the time the day was over, I was feeling bloated and uncomfortable and had an unfortuate taste in my mouth. This did not prevent me from visiting Duomo Plaza and having a thoroughly enjoyable (and more regonizable) dinner last night. But, by the time we got back to the hotel, I was unable to sleep as my belly prepared for full rebellion.

At the time, I thought it was merely the coffee content of the tiramisu. By the time I posted my last posting, though, I suspected it was something else entirely.

After a rough night of tossing and turning, I got up int he morning and attempted to go about my business. Breakfast did not sit well, and I was sluggish and unfocused during the morning's work and could not even stomach water.

I had a blissfully simple lunch of baked fish and steamed spinach and even a little soda to settle my belly. And, about 24 hours later, I was fine again. Which goes to show that even the school cafeteria in Milan has its own variety of mystery meat.

Outside My Comfort Zone


Last night I faced my irrational phobia of the subway and won. The Milan metro is clean and efficient and not at all like its US counterpart beyond being underground and covered with graffiti. It is easy to navigate even with all the signage in Italian. There are maps of each line with the stops clearly labeled. For EU 1,50 you can go wherever you want.

We ventured outside Navigli and took the Metro to Duomo Square. This is the area of Milan that everyone has seen in movies with the enormous church, its former courtyards and alleyways now lined with restaurants and fashion boutiques. We did the gawky tourist thing and took a million pictures. Then, as the sun sank behind the walls of the former fortress, we wandered the alleyways window shopping. I did try on a pair of designer sunglasses at the TOD boutique, but was not prepared for the full Milan shopping experience.

Dinner was at a small restaurant that spilled out into the walkway as so many cafes do in Milan. It was an old marble building lined with wine. One of my business colleagues chose a chianti that was full and tangy but not nearly as tart as the chiantis I have had in the US. She has been an amazing resource for me on my first visit to Europe, and not just in the area of wine. She is very patient with my inexperience and provides all sorts of helpful hints on how to navigate foreign terrain. And she does know how to pick a good bottle of wine.

Along with the chianti, I had my favorite Italian dish - raviloi filled with spinach. This came tossed with an unfamiliar butter sauce similar to the sauce I had with Sunday's dinner. And still the only flavor I recognize is butter, but I know there is more to it than that. It is smooth and a little creamy and just a little oily and very very good. The raviolis were tender and filled with spinach and ricotta but not as full as the raviolis my colleague had on Sunday. Still, they tasted incredible. There is nothing like hand-made pasta, tender and slightly chewy. People who have only had dried pasta do not really know what pasta tastes like.

For dessert, there was an amazing selection, including a creme brulee covered with glazed berries, a lemon bomb and everyone's favorite Italian export tiaramisu. I had to try it. And it was nothing like its American rendition. This was a sizable slice of primarily custard covered with a generous coating of what tasted like cinnamon and espresso powder. The custard was rich and very creamy and more milk than egg. There was no hint of sweet cheese in this tiaramisu like I usually get in the States. At the very bottom were two small pieces of cake soaked in espresso that was sharply bitter next to the custard and provided a juxtapostion that was utterly satisfying. The network administrator in our group got the lemon bomb and let us taste. The light cake was covered with a thick layer of cream. The lemon flavor was strong and natural and not too sweet. The next time I see this on the menu, I will definitely try a full serving.

We walked off at least part of the dinner and saw the statue of Leonardo da Vinci. Most of the shops were closed by the time we finished dinner. A quick metro ride later, we were back at the hotel, and I was in bed, wide awake from the tiaramisu but happy.

Chianti



Ravioli with that buttery sauce

Five minutes later.......

The cafe

Tiaramisu

Monday, October 10, 2011

Milan: Day Two

I just had a chunk of baklava that was so sweet I think one of my teeth is about to fall out. Next door to my hotel is a lovely Greek restaurant. This being as close to Greece as I have ever been, I gave it a try.

First there was the pita bread - hot from the oven and sprinked with some herbs that we did not have to order. It just appeared with our appetizer. Which was amazing despite how it sounds - tuna with lemon and mayonnaise. The tuna was fresh tuna and the mayonnaise was home made and the lemon was just right. And, suprisingly enough, it did not taste at all like tuna salad even though it sounds like it should have. I am discovering that everything in Europe melts in your mouth, slowly and wonderfully coating your insides with the warmth of good food. I have never experienced this with tuna and mayonnaise until tonight.

Dinner was grilled lamb ribs with fresh tomatoes and onions and a side of fries. (Even the fries are better here, and I thought we invented them.) The lamb was tender even being cooked a bit longer than I like it. It tasted like meat and salt and fresh grill. There were no sauces with this dinner, not even ketchup for the fries, but I can't imagine wanting to put anything else on that meat. I chewed the bones and licked my fingers un ashamedly.

And then came the baklava - the larges piece I have ever seen in my life. And unlike anthing I have ever gotten in the States. It was the saem in that it was philo dough filled with chopped nuts and spices and honey. But the spices were fragrant and strong - cinnamon and nutmeg and clove plentiful enough to make my lips tingle. The honey was sweeter than the standard clover honey in the US and tasted like the raw honey I get at the farm stands on Harford County. About half way through I knew I was done, but I pressed on until the very end. The flavor still lingers so intensely the rest of the dinner is fading into memory. There are wosre things than a mouthful of baklava.



Pita Bread




Tuna and mayonnaise, but not tuna salad

Lamb with fries

Greek beer



Oh baklava how my teeth ache






First Meal in Milan


Milan is indescribable. The buildings are all stone and brick in browns and yellows with the the lower six feet invariably covered in graffitti. The streets are a narrow bumpy mixture of cement, blacktop and brick and without lanes. Cars, mopeds, bicycled, pedestrians and even street cars all traverse together without honking or cursing or accident. I am unable to discern who has the right of way - they just all seem to know and no one gets hurt or insulted. I think road rage is non-existant here.

I am in Navigli near a small canal lined with restaurants, shops, cafes, bars, adding chairs, tables, sofas, and street gypsies to the already busy street. I close my eyes and the Italian language feels like some strange ad beautiful song as the foreign sounds run together rather than resolving into recognizable words. This is no longer the feeling I got at Heathrow that even though everyone is still speaking English that I am now the one who sounds funny. This is complete emersion into a place where I do not speak the language. It is frightening but beautiful.

We take dinner at the Bellariva Cafe sitting at at table that is quite literally in the street. Even though it is a mild evening and we are right on the canal, there are no outdoor pests save for the gypsies selling cheap swag. The menu is written on a large slate that hangs above our table but the waiter provides is with a printed version that is in English, more or less. I am learning that the English in Milan still mostly adheres to the Italian idioms and phraseiology, which is only mildly confusing and completely enjoyable. 

Our waiter is Daniele, a name he informs us is a woman's name in English. I think he has some good-natured fun with us this evening, teaching us simple Italian and keeping the gypsies at bay. We start with the only wine that any of is recognize, an order of bruschetta and an order of mussels in lemon. We also get a small bottle of balasmic, a small can of olive oil , salt and pepper  - "for the bruschetta, not the mussels" we are instructed. The bruscetta is actually fairly standard fare and similar to what I have gotten in Little Italy. But the mussels - they were amazing. The sea-salty pungent (and often gritty) mussels we get in the States taste like an entirely different animal from these. These taste like they were harvested that day. They are incredibly clean, too, smooth and buttery and drenched in lemon. The wine is light and clear and slightly fruity and is quite honestly the best wine I have ever had.

For dinner, we each try something different: tagliatelle ragu - a thick pasta in a meat sauce, ravioli di melanzane - meat ravioli with tomato and eggplant, spaghetti frutti di mare - spaghetti with mussles, and strangozzi - a thick noodle tossed with zucchini, tomato and mussles in a buttery sauce. This last dish was mine and was complete heaven. The pasta tastes fresh and I now understand better what Gareth is aspiring to in his home made pasta. This is and-cut, but is thinner and lighter, though it tastes very close to Gareth's. The zucchini and tomato are very lightly cooked and feel like they were tossed in at the very end to get warmed just enough to release some of the natural sugars but no long enough to wilt. To me, this is vegetable perfection. And the sauce was amazing. I assumed it was butter, but the more I eat the less familiar it tastes. It is devoid of oinions or garlic or any of the other flavors we associate with Italain food, By the end of the meal, I am not sure what it was and cannot sufficiently bridge the langauge barrier with Daniele to find out. He also brings us a white wine for dinner that is sweeter than the red we have finished and goes very well with everything.

We all sample each others food and each feel that what we had ordered was the best dish on the table.

At this point, we are jet-lagged and full and two bottles of wine in and should be proper drunk. We are not, though, whether because we have eaten enough to absorb the aclohol, are drinking a hgher calibre of wine or are just simply too giddy about being here is difficult to determine. And honestly I really don't care. I am out in the world with strangers and have just eaten the best meal of my life. And then Daniele tops it off with a small shot of something that he says comes after every meal. Being Americans, we toast each other and knock it back, much to his (mild) horror. The first flavor I feel is sweet lemon on my tongue, immediately followed by the unmistakable burn of alcohol. This is much stronger and stays in the moth and throat for some time, prompting all of us to grimace and shake our heads. But while Daniele explains to us how we are supposed to sip it after dinner to aid our digestion, I notice that my palate has cleared, my mouth is fresh, and my belly is settled. I ask what it was that we drank and where I can get some to take home. Daniele just says that it is lemon and alcohol and leaves it at that.


And this morning I awoke at what would be my usual waking time on a Monday - 5:00 AM local time - feeling refreshed and ready to go. No hangover, no heartburn, but also no hunger. I love Italy.






The view from our table

Across the canal

Bruschetta

Mussels

The moon rising

Bellariva Cafe

Bellariva Cafe

Daniele taking a break

Strangozzi

Dinner is just about complete

One of the many foot bridges

Up the canal

Down the canal

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Last Night's Dinner


Last night Gareth made a special "Bon Voyage" dinner for me to celebrate my first trip overseas, and it was most excellent. After just one bite, I gave it the superlateive "Holy Christ" rating and then hunkered down for some uninterrupted gestation.

I did manage to post a photo on Facebook and have received some inquireies into how the meal was prepared. It was one of those free-form Gareth meals that came together based on his skill and my tastes. Here's an approximation that hopefully makes sense:

Start with packaged raviolis form the fresh pasta section of the grocery store. We used Wegman's Three Cheese raviolis and prepared them according to the instructions on the package.

While the ravioli is cooking, prepare everything else. Slice up the duck breast and cook skin-side down in a heavy skillet. Once the skin has been browned and some of the fat has melted, turn them to cook the meat.




Saute some mushrooms in a separate skillet. Gareth used baby bellas and shitakis in goat butter.



Chop up some fresh herbs for the sauce. Gareth used basil, thyme, cilantro and oregano.




Slice the heirloom tomatoes and  let them soak in a light vinegar, like champagne vinegar.





Cut up some asparagus and add to the mushrooms.




Toss a loaf of bread in the oven to warm without stepping on the cat.





As the asparagus is cooking, make a simple roux out of goat butter, cake flour, heavy cream, a little goat cheese and the minced herbs. I do not have a shot of this. I tried but I got in trouble for "getting in the way" - a serious kitchen faux pas (see the above photo of the heirloom tomatoes, shot from under his slicing arm, which also got me in trouble). Also, we had issues with the roux being too rich. Turns out a little fresh nutmeg will resolve this and balance it out. Use a micro planer to grate the nutmeg into the roux. 

At this point, Gareth added the meat and veg to the sauce and let it finish.

Also, don't be afraid of the goat dairy in this dish. Goat butter and cheese provide a richer, fuller flavor to cooking. The food will not end up tasting like goat, or even musky like goat meat. There will just be an added dimension - almost a gaminess - that conventional cow dairy cannot provide.


And here is the finished product -  ravioli with a single slice of duck breast covered in creamy mushrooms and asparagus with heirloom tomatoes on the side and a little goat butter for the bread. 

Total prep time was about an hour.