As you all know, I am a foodie. I may have more pictures of the food from vacations than the friends (I know what they look like!).
This trip, in addition to enjoying many meals out, I wanted to cook. I enjoy cooking and went to the markets for fresh ingredients for meals. As you've heard in the earlier blog entries, the welcome meal was typically a caprese salad. Some of the ingredients I bought for other meals were bread, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, grano padano, pecorino, baked ricotta, gorgonzola, chestnut honey, basil, parsley, some fresh chicken to be grilled and used in salads and pastas, and some fresh ricotta to be used on a spoon into my mouth. What you may not know is that I am also a pepper person. There are lots of us, some more serious than others. I know several people that carry their own pepper and grinders. I am not such a pepper person. I will, however go to extremes to have fresh cracked pepper.
When I was in Italy many years ago, I discovered the containers that have the grinders in them for pepper, nutmeg, etc. I was thrilled and used to bring them back with me from trips. Now they are readily available in the states, and I was pleased to see one in Betta's kitchen. However, when we tried to use it, it took about 83 twists for every 7 grains of pepper and the grains. That may have been tolerable, but what finally came out was almost powdered. I called in reinforcements. Bobby, a retired tool and dye maker, looked at it and said it couldn't be fixed. Jim, a retired school psychologist and public housing administrator, took a look and nodded confidently. After a bit of time, he smiled and announced that all you had to do was pull as you twisted. He offered a demonstration, but I was distracted by a fresh fig.....................Anyway.................at the next meal, I had my arugula, pomodori e pepperoncini ensalada dressed with the finest olive oil (insert angelic choir singing halleluliah here), balsemic vinegar (thanks, Lylaine) and sea salt all shiney and poised for pepper. I grasped the grinder, pulled and twisted. Pulled and twisted. Twisted and pulled. Pulled and............uh huh. No pepper. Bobby shrugged an "I told you so" shrug. I had to make do with minor pepper dust.
The next shopping trip, I picked up another pepper grinder. This is where there is a difference of opinion. I think that I asked Jim to pick up a grinder. He thinks that I picked it up. In either event, someone picked up a grinder bottle of pepper. At the next meal, my grilled chicken pici with pesto awaited the crowing glory of coursely cracked pepper. I again grasped the grinder and while removing the protective plastic seal on the top, realized that it was not a grinder at all, just a bottle of pepper corns. I had already tolerated a non-perfectly garnished salad, I could hardly accept the same for my lovely fresh pasta. The gauntlet was down.
I looked for alternatives. I took stock of the area. I had Neopolitan bread (more on that later, in the power tools entry) fresh produce, a pasta drainer and lots of wine. Lots of wine! My McGuyver alterego jumped to his feet "A wine bottle and a ziploc bag.....stat!" I dumped the peppercorns into the ziploc bag and instructed Jim to get a wine bottle and get rolling (someone had to take command!). Jim stood rolling the wine bottle across the peppercorns, using his whole body weight against the plucky berries. After 5 minutes or so, he had about 1/10 tsp of cracked pepper. I claimed it for my pici and threw up my hands in defeat.
Quietly. Thoughtfully. Ben went to the utensil drawer. He removed 2 tablespoons. He put some pepper corns in one and placed the other on top and pressed. In about 30 seconds, he had perfectly cracked enough pepper for all of us to use.
THAT'S MY BOY!
I mentioned Jim. Jim is half of Kathy and Jim Ranney of St. Patty's Day Breakfast fame. You already know that he is not the best pepper grinder fixer or pepper basher with wine bottles. What you do not know, and he has until now kept from most of the world, is that Jim is a bread and bread product addict. You may think this an overstatement, but condsider the inventory after one shopping trip with Jim:
Sesame bread sticks
Rosemary bread sticks
1 loaf Umbrian bread
1 loaf Semolina and white bread
1 loaf round bread with hole in the middle (you can imagine the name that loaf got....)
1 loaf Neopolitan Bread
1 loaf "what the hell is that one Jim. Are you kidding me with this??" bread
1 bag peanut flips (more on that later.........on second thought, forget the peanut flips)
The preceeding is what he bought AFTER my intervention. Had I not been there, we would have needed an api to get the yeast goods home.
After a couple of days, it became clear that Jim, while a professional bread eater, was not going to have time to consume all that he'd bought. Solution? Panzanella!
For the uninitiated, panzanella is bread salad. For Jim, it's a dream come true. My simple recipe follows. It is delicious and beautiful. I took a picture, of course, but so far have been unable to get them to show up in the text....
Slightly stale bread cubes (in our case a half a ton...you may want to use less)
Cubed fresh tomatoes (about 1/3 more bread than tomatoes)
Diced sweet onion (not a lot, just enough for the flavor and crunch)
Torn fresh basil or parsley or both (lots)
Salt and pepper (you can forego the wine bottle/spoon adventure if you like)
FINEST olive oil you can lay your hands on
Toss all together and allow to marry for several hours (turning as you think of it) or overnight in frige. YUM!
Writing that, I remembered a phrase that an italian woman told me when we were talking about pasta and sauce. She said, "The sauce. It is condimente, non ingrediente." I loved that. A condiment, not an ingredient. That is the way the onion should be used in the panzanella................
This leaves me with the power tools portion of our posting. It is also bread related. It would be natural to think that all the bread in Italy is delicious. It would be natural, but erroneous. The Umbrian bread is just plain bad. It's dry and without flavor and doesn't even look appealing. The Neopolitan bread has character. It has a soft middle and a NOT SOFT crust. I am told (Suzy) that the people of Naples throw out the middle and only eat the crusts. I wonder, if that's true, if the anthropologists that study their remains in the future will know why their teeth are worn down more than those of the Umbrians and others north of Napoli.
You all remember Dan, don't you? Well, I had gotten a loaf of Neopolitan bread from Anna's store to serve with the caprese I had when Dan and Constance and Lylaine arrived. The next day, I asked Dan to slice some bread to have with the prosciutto, salamis and cheeses. I should say here, that this bread is NOT for sissies (not that Dan is a sissy). Well, the assault began with a medium-sized serrated knife. It became immediately clear, that this was not the tool for the job. He then went to a large knife, but without serration. Defeated. Then the large, serrated knife I had bought at market just for the job.........I guess you could say it worked, but Dan had broken a sweat and we had half a piece of bread. Dan looked up, out of breath, hands blistered and bleeding and asked if there was such a thing as a Home Depot in Italy, because nothing short of power tools was going to cut this bread! It was only a slight exaggeration. In the coming visits to Anna's for bread, we requested the pane piccolo (small loaf) and found that we could get our knife through it for 4 days before we had to take it to a construction site.
Bread is very significant to the different regions and significantly different. When Suzy told Betta (from the Emilia Romana Region, north) that she was getting bread from Naples, Betta sort of rolled her eyes and muttered, "no salt". It was clear that she was NOT a fan. When Suzy and I talked about it, she said that this went back centuries to the salt tax wars. There was a tax on salt and some refused to pay it/use it. When the tax was initiated, they stopped putting it in their bread. To this day, their descendents continue not to use it in their bread. This is one of many examples in Italian culture, where following a thread to the past reveals purpose in the present . I was thinking...anyone that will continue making bread without salt perhaps a thousand years after the tax is serious about tradition! This is a simplification, but such a dedication to tradition is at the heart of much of the Italian/regional culture.