Saturday, September 26, 2009

To Italy and Back - at Lunchtime

We have had company.  Normally, in years past in our other "destination spot" homes, this meant playing tour guide, finding scenic drives and regional restaurants, and showing our guests all the beauties of the area during their visit.  This time, however, it involved a vastly different itinerary that involved tiring trips up and down the three stories of the townhouse, hours huddled in the basement bent over boxes, sneezing from the dust while poring through things to decide what should be kept, stored, pitched or repositioned.

My uncle passed away last year, and the house has been left virtually untouched since then.  This has been a blessing, in that we didn't have to transport our own furnishings to live here, but has also meant that we have had to box up and rearrange things to make space to unpack and stow our own stuff.  Only now did we all learn the extent of his deep-seated pack rat tendencies!  It has been a somewhat tedious and quite emotional task, for me as well as my mom.  Family mementos, photos and sad reminders accumulated nearly as thick ly as the dust we battled.

After several days of this mood-dampening work, Mom and I decided to get out of our grungey sweats, put on street clothes, and wash the spider webs out of our hair to go out for lunch, and a little shoe shopping, as is our girls' day out tradition.

I found just the spot to perk up our moods; we had located an enoteca while searching for vino from the Motherland, and discovered a haven that was so much more than a mere wine shop.  Only something this Italian would induce me to brave the Beltway and bumper up in heavy traffic.  Hidden away in one of those fake "town center" malls that I so despise, we found a piece of Italian paradise set in a sprawling suburb of "sameness".  Il Vino is anything but ordinary strip-mall mediocrity.  It is like... a real Italian osteria!

Upon entering, there was a strong sense of deja vu.  Wine bottles lining the walls and a few small tables scattered about beyond the brick archways reminded us of our friends' enoteca and osteria in Rome.  When I asked about a specific vintage, pronouncing it the right way, the proprietor, Massimo, responded in Italian and kept the conversation flowing in the bella lingua, to my excited contentment.

When the chef, a Siciliano named Beny, came out of the kitchen to join in and recited the daily specials (also in Italian, of course), I was ready to kiss them both and weep with joy.  I heard beautiful melodies of musical food notes in the conversation:  mozzerella di bufala, gli gnocchi, carefully prepared tortellini from Emilia Romagna...ah, Italia, I sighed.

It was all so familiar, right down to the streaming strains of Radio Italia being piped in over the airwaves, that I was lulled into thinking I was in central Italy instead of a generic 'burb.  Glasses clinked, fragrant basil tickled my nose, pillowy gnocchi melted in my mouth, and mozzerella di bufala leaked a trail of creamy milky yumminess onto the plate to be soaked up with crusty bread.  And that gorgeous language stumbled off my tongue in conversation for the first time in three months. 

Only when we walked outside and were greeted with the garish glare of the PF Chang's and other chain stores did we remember that we hadn't left the US.  For an hour and a half we went to Italy, and it was a divine daytrip!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

O Foods Contest for Ovarian Cancer Month

Olive all'Ascolana is an Oh-so-good O Food

September is national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I'm getting both my blogs involved to participate in the recipe contest hosted by Michelle of Bleeding Espresso and Sara of Ms. Adventures in Italy, initiated to draw attention to the disease and its symptoms.  The gist of the contest is to highlight a food that begins or ends in O, while talking about what is commonly perceived as an uncomfortable topic.  For contest rules and information on how you can get involved, hop over to one of their lovely websites.  See the end of this post for important information on this disease.

My contribution to the cause?

The Original Olive all'Ascolana (pronounced oh-LEE-vay) - The Original Stuffed Olives from Ascoli Piceno

Unless you're a newcomer to this blog, you know that I lived in the beautiful city of Ascoli Piceno for three years, and only left by force, wailing and weeping.  It is a place that is very, very special to me, a place I call home, a place which I now know intimately. 

That also goes for the regional food!  The local specialty of Ascoli Piceno is a tasty little critter: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. Even Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives!  (Give a guy deep-fried meat and he'll eat anything!)  Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.

It is said that stuffed and fried olives have been around this area for two millenia, but they became commonly popular in the last few centuries because it was a practical (and delicious!) way to use up scraps of meat and cheese.

The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, that are very 'meaty'.  Local tradition dictates that the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit, which is hand-cramping business, let me tell you. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops for this time-consuming task.  (I willingly admit that I buy pre-pitted olives, as do many other Ascolani apparently, because they are widely available in town.)

The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta (which was a little too fatty for me, perhaps a contridiction considering these things are fried!).  As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot; some like nutmeg, while others say it overpowers the flavor.

I've seen little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make olive all'ascolana, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" to settle the matter. Since this was typical cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!

I recently posted the detailed instructions for making Original Olive all'Ascolana on my cooking blog, La Cucina, so I'm not going to repeat it here.  (It was feeling lonely and wanted to get in on the fun, too.)  I adapted recipes from two trusted born-and-bred Ascolane: my friend, Linda, and my former landlady, Dorina.  Both learned by watching and helping their grandmothers and mothers, so it doesn't get more authentic than that, folks!  Both were thrilled that I wanted to learn how to make them and willingly gave them their time-honored recipes.  I fiddled with them to get the quantity down to a more manageable level, and convert the measurements to American standards, but otherwise these are the Official, Original Olive recipes they gave me.

 But wait, there's more!

I'm not just going to link you over to a wonderful, regional recipe that will become a family favorite. Oh, no!

I'm going to let you in on a secret...

The best places in Ascoli Piceno to enjoy the famous olive all'ascolana.

Not all are worthy! As tempting and appealing as it may be to buy a paper cone full of olives from the stall vendor in Piazza Arringo...don't! They are industrially-produced and quite inferior to the home-made, real-deal olive. They are also usually not fresh-from-the-fryer, and believe me, a luke-warm, soggy olive is not what you're after.

So where should you go to get a real taste of this local delicacy?  (When ordering, remember that they are pronounced oh-LEE-vay.)

-Caffe Meletti. The historic caffe in Piazza del Popolo serves hand-made olive along with your lunch or aperitivo. Don't worry that they are not on the menu; order them anyway and a plate of fresh, hot olives will appear as if by magic. Order a glass of Rosso Piceno or Offida Pecorino and prepare to swoon.

-Ristorante Il Grottino. This family-run restaurant in Piazza Ventidio Basso is a hole-in-the-wall (almost literally) with great local fare...and some of the best olive in town. Get just the olives and a plate of pasta, washed down with some house wine, and you'll probably be pretty full.

-Cantina dell'Arte is an airy, good-natured place across the little alley from the hotel of the same name (different owners). We love their food and their service...and of course, their olive all'ascolana. They also have a small, cloistered patio for outdoor dining.

-Pasta all'Uova on via del Trivio. If you *must* stroll while munching your olives, go see Paola and Antonella at the fresh pasta shop. They make their olives by hand and sell them from their small prepared foods case daily. Closed Monday.  (Tell them Valeria says 'ciao'!)

Now...back to the main reason for this post - Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month:

From the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund:

  • Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States and is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women; a woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is 1 in 67.
  • The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and subtle, making it difficult to diagnose, but include bloating, pelvic and/or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; and urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency).
  • There is no effective screening test for ovarian cancer but there are tests which can detect ovarian cancer when patients are at high risk or have early symptoms.
  • In spite of this, patients are usually diagnosed in advanced stages and only 45% survive longer than five years. Only 19% of cases are caught before the cancer has spread beyond the ovary to the pelvic region.
  • When ovarian cancer is detected and treated early on, the five-year survival rate is greater than 92%.
Want to get involved? Join the cause and the contest! You can also donate to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund through FirstGiving!

Thanks to Michelle and Sara for their hard work in putting this contest - and more importantly - helping bring this issue to the forefront!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Clearing the Cobwebs

Ciao tutti!  If it seems like cobwebs have been gathering on the nest, it is because we have been in transit.  The vagabondi have yet again packed up and moved onward.  How many times are we up to since January?  Anyone keeping count?  I can barely keep it all straight in my memory at this point!

We feared that we would once again be loading and/or unloading in rain, as has been the trend in our lives the past several years.  Those Ohio late "summer" days were downright chilly and full of all-day downpours our last week there.  Very depressing.

My parting gift came in the form of a speeding ticket!  My first in a decade, I think it was a final sign that Cleveland wasn't going to be the place for us (as if the two accidents didn't already clue us in a bit.)  It was a bit hard leaving family behind once again, but job opportunities just weren't developing there, and we knew when we landed it would be temporary at best.  We are actually surprised that we were there for three months (gosh, they flew by!)

So now we're in our latest digs in Alexandria, Virginia.  We are very fortunate to be able to live in my uncle's house.  It has been unoccupied since he passed away, so we're clearing up the cobwebs, shifting and organizing things, and getting unpacked.  We have seen our friend Al, already knew some of the neighbors here, and some Slow Travel friends have contacted us about getting together, so we think we'll feel at home pretty quickly.  Now if we could just make peace with the traffic.  We're used to gridlock that comes in the form of sheep in the road!  This is a new world for us.

The first thing we unpacked was the espresso machine (you knew Bryan couldn't wait even 24 hours for that, right?)  We did find a good Italian wine shop with an out-of-the-ordinary selection at decent prices.  If any of  you know some good Italian or Mediterranean markets, let me know! 

Lest you think that my blog will be changing focus, let me put your mind at ease.  My heart is still residing in Italy, and I'll keep writing about it.  It's where my mind is always focused.

A presto!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Granddaughter's Tribute

Today is my grandfather's birthday, so I want to give him a rousing shout-out:  Happy Birthday, Gramps! 

We went to my hometown on Sunday to take him out for a brunch celebration.  Sunday was my sister's birthday, and ever since her first birthday they have gone out for lunch as a dual celebration, usually just the two of them.  We honed in this year, since it was only the second time in the past 25 years that I have been in Ohio during his birthday.

Grandpa has never been one of those who is coy about his age; he's 97 and pretty proud of it.  As well he should be, since he has a lot to brag about:  he lives alone in the same house he and my grandmother built 60 years ago; he cooks; he does his own laundry; and is still an avid reader.  He also drives, but limits himself to the backroads in the daylight hours only.

Every morning, just as he has done for more years than I know, he drives to "the barns," the county fairgrounds where the horses are kept.  He and his brother still own and train harness racing horses, just as their father did before them, and as my Uncle Ed's kids are keeping alive in the generation below them.  Grandpa used to give the horses their morning jogs on the track but gave that up on his 90th birthday because he said, "I don't bounce so well anymore."

The horse barn provided me with childhood memories and words of wisdom, Grandpa-style.  Nearly every Saturday morning of my pre-teen years was spent rising in the humid early mornings and driving with Gramps along narrow country lanes, passing cornfields and sprawling tracts of flat farmland, about twenty-five minutes to the town he grew up in.  "Town" being used loosely here, because there is basically one intersection with a traffic light, and clustered there was a general store, a barber shop, a diner-type restaurant, and the post office.  I think the general store and restaurant are gone now. 

Just outside town was the fairgrounds, which provided a grouping of barns and the most ramshackle grandstands you ever want to see.  The area beneath the stands was enclosed, and I didn't like going under there to reach the steps up into the seating area, for fear the whole wooden structure would come tumbling down on my scrawny little self.

In the barn I would be handed a pitchfork, knowing well that my task of the day was to schlep out the stalls before I could be rewarded with a ride around the track.  They usually kept three or four horses, which meant I had to hold my nose and clean them out, then generously sprinkle the stalls with fresh straw.  On the one occasion I whined about the chore, my grandfather boomed, "Hey!  Let me tell you something, kid...shoveling shit builds character!"  which pretty much turned out to be true. 

Afterwards came the pay-off for the pooper scooper as I climbed up on the sulky and rode with my grandfather for the horses' exercise laps around the track.  I still remember the silence of the countryside broken by a train whistle, the breeze of cool, humid air, the sound of the horse's hoofs methodically pacing the gravel track, and the small dirt clods they would kick up in our direction.  As I grew, I was allowed to hold the reigns.  Sometimes they would get obstinate and my grandpa would grab the lines while calling out, "Knock it off," or if they were particularly ornery, "Stop it, ya bastard!"

My parents were not always humored by the vocabular lessons I garnered from the horsemen, but then I heard just as bad or worse when we left the barns and stopped at my great-grandparents' house before heading home.  Everyone in town called my great-grandpa "Pop".  He had a stroke and most of his language was incomprehensible, except for the cuss words.  He'd mumble along trying to tell a story, which my grandpa seemed to be able to understand but I could make no sense of, until he cursed.  Out it popped crystal clear, which always made me giggle, and Pop would grin and laugh along with me.  My great-grandmother baked the biggest, best molasses cookies of all time; I've never tasted one so good since she passed away.

Grandpa still goes down every morning to rustle around the barns, chat with the horsemen, poke at his "baby brother" (who is 80), and feed the horses.  He catches up on gossip, evaluates the horses' training progress, gripes about the cost of feed, and returns home glad to have a task to look forward to each day.

My grandfather is a big guy with a big booming voice, and strong opinions to go with it. He delights in offering them to anyone who will listen. He has enjoyed intimidating three generations of small children with his deep rumblings like, "Sit up straight, you look like a question mark!" or, “What are you doing sitting in front of the idiot box?  When I was your age TV was called Books!”

My grandparents (on right) with her mother, brother and sister.

But he is also incensed by injustice, especially if an innocent is wronged. His blood will boil and his voice will boom forth, “It just isn’t right, garldammit!”  He may throw out some cuss words as neatly as the rest of them, but you won't catch him using the Lord's name in vain.  He has a long habit of "cripe" and "crimany" and "garldammits" to lean on instead.

He has a tough exterior with a softer heart than he wishes to let on, and he loves deeply in spite of himself. He and my grandmother shared a beautiful love story, and he still gets teary-eyed when he talks about her, 32 years after she died.  His memory is astounding, names and remembrances come easily and flow into enlightening stories.

His favorite pastime is wandering grocery store aisles and swoons when he finds a good deli counter filled with sharp cheeses.  He whistles when he walks, likes a good joke, a clever prank, and a good meal.  He used to say that Grumpy Old Men was written about him.  He is stubborn, outspoken, and politically incorrect at every possible turn.  (But you just gotta love the quirky old codger!)  I picked up a few genetic traits from him, for better or worse.

That is my grandpa, as he was and is today.  He is 97, and still getting along.  Happy Birthday, Gramps.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

How Art Can Change The World

Fiona Donovan has a big heart.  Living in Alexandria, Virginia, in the Washington, DC metro area, homeless people are not an uncommon sight to her- on park benches, along the roadsides, or roaming the streets.  She was especially bothered that there are children without homes and wanted to do something to help. That's when she struck on an idea to use her natural talents and create art, sell it and "give the money to kids who need homes".  She went to work painting and drawing, and now sells greeting cards, donating 100% of the profit to a local homeless shelter.

Fiona is five years old. 

Her mother, Amy, said it was all Fiona's idea; Amy and her husband, Scott, only helped her fine-tune the concept and figure out a business model.  Greeting cards seemed like the best idea, as the artwork Fiona created could be mass produced and distributed more easily.  It would also be something that can grow with her; Fiona can add new designs and themes as she produces them.  She is considering a Christmas card theme, but at the moment she is sticking with her original eleven designs.

They put up a website to sell the cards, but let Fiona choose the charity.  "Fiona chose the Carpenter's Shelter because they are in our city, and because they do so much to help children specifically," Amy told me.  They started selling the cards in early June, and last week Fiona delivered a check to the Carpenter's Shelter for $805.  Amy says, "We have surpassed our expectations with the donations and enthusiasm we have received. Many people have donated above the minimum amount."

                             Fiona and her parents presenting a check to the Carpenter's Shelter

Fiona is a talented girl; her mother says she has always been interested in drawing and painting.  "She likes to take art lessons and create her own art at home. She is constantly drawing. The other night, after watching a fashion show on TV, she immediately drew 6 different dress designs."
As for the artwork for the cards, Fiona used some pieces she had already created in art class, then made the rest over a two week period.  She told me, "most of them are oil pastels, sharpie markers, and watercolors. Some have paint and chalk pastels."  She wants to be an artist when she grows up, though I think her project shows she already is one.
When I asked her what she would like to say to the Pinon Tree readers, she replied, "Everybody should help each other."  Wise words.

Fiona's parents are rightfully proud of their daughter and her efforts to make a change in her community.  As Amy pointed out, "Not every kid on the first day of Kindergarten can answer the 'what did you do on your summer vacation' question with 'I raised $800 for homeless families.'  It's remarkable."

Indeed!  You can buy Fiona's cards or make a donation to the Carpenter's Shelter through her website, Fiona's Greeting Cards for Charity. 

I've never met Fiona or her parents (we have a mutual friend who told me about Fiona's project), but Bryan and I will be relocating to Alexandria in the coming weeks, so I hope to have the opportunity to meet them soon.

Brava Fiona!  As they say in Italy, "Hai fatto bene!