Rome Two Ways, Part II – With Family

My father has lived in Genazzano, a beautiful walled hilltop town east and slightly south of Rome, for about 5 years now. I’ve not visited nearly enough for my taste, and I’m sure not for his either!

View From My Room - Genazzano
View From My Room - Genazzano

We are quite fortunate to have been adopted into his wife’s small but extremely generous family. From the moment we met on the terrace of their farmhouse, it was as if we had always been family. Their home in “campagna” (the countryside outside of town) is one of my favorite places to visit in the world… one of only two places that could ever take me from my beloved NYC!

On a recent visit, after spending several days alone in Rome, my father brought me directly from the train station to the house in campagna for a welcome lunch. As you can imagine, this was no simple lunch! Spaghetti with spicy red clam sauce, merluzza (cod) with tomato sauce, wild quail braised in white wine, and  fagiolini (a type of green bean) baked in béchamel, served with three types of local wines… then on to fresh fruits, cakes, espresso, and grappa to finish it all off… and this was a “simple” lunch!

After such a glorious welcome lunch, the late afternoon begged for something quiet and peaceful. My father’s wife is an architectural historian (to simplify the description) and the best personal tour guide to the ancient towns around Rome (and the city of, for that matter) that you could possibly ask for – and she speaks perfect English (unlike the rest of the family, who speak as much English as I speak Italian – you can laugh now!).

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We spent the rest of the day in the ancient town of Palestrina (all you ancient-Rome geeks, eat your heart out!) visiting the Museo Archeologico Prenestino – the National Archeological Museum of Palestrina that is housed in the former Palazzo Barberini-Colona built upon the ancient temple to Fortuna. The ever-growing collection of impeccably preserved mosaics are well worth the trip… private family tour guide not included!

Thursday’s Media Review: More Reasons to Wander

Wednesday is the day most of the major newspapers in the US publish their food sections. That’s why I chose Thursday as a “media review” day… it usually takes me that long to read everything I’m interested in. By the time I catch up, I’m so inspired by one thing or another, or several, that I want to share my thoughts with whoever will listen, or read along, as the case may be (that’s where you come in, dear reader!).

This morning, a couple of articles on the New York Times online Dining and Wine page caught my attention. Both taunted my inner gypsy with new places to wander both near and far.

As for the “near,” there was a piece on five upcoming NYC food festivals in an article by Dave Cook called “A Little Taste of Somewhere Else.” The Indonesian Food Bazaar in Astoria, Queens unfortunately conflicts with the Filipino cooking class I’ll be teaching on Sunday; and now I am torn between the Paella Parade at Water Taxi Beach and the Philippine Independence Day Festival in Midtown next Sunday – decisions, decisions! I’m sure it won’t be difficult to convince my Swedish friends to accompany me to the Swedish Midsummer Festival near Battery Park on June 19; and I’m sure I can find some curious water-gun-packing partners in crime to join me for the Rakhaing Thingyan Burmese New Year Water Festival on July 12. I can cover several continents within a month without ever getting on a plane… hope you’ll join me!

As for the “far,” an article originally published in the Arts section, “Food Vendors: A Thai Tradition With a Twist of Innovation” by Brian Mertens, has renewed my longing for a visit to Thailand… and all the talk of innovative street vendors can’t help but make me think of Singapore as well. Time to look into getting an Asia Airpass and finding a way to make some long-held travel dreams come true!

Rome Two Ways, Part I – Alone in the City

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As I mentioned in a previous post, on a recent visit to Italy, I decided to spend a few days alone in the city before heading south to Genazzano to spend time with my father. My last day in the city, I wandered from piazza to piazza taking in the sounds, smells, and more than my fair share of gelato. My time alone in Rome was quite a contrast to my time with family in “campagna”… here’s an example.

One of my stops was the market at the Campo di Fiore, one of the most popular sites with tourists that is equally popular with locals. As I marveled at the heaps of exotic (to me) puntarelle and the bushels of purple-tinged artichokes in all sizes, I wished for a kitchen and a large group of friends and family to feed the many dishes my mind was preparing in a fantasy of olive oil and fresh pasta.

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I stopped for real Roman pizza at a small bakery at the far corner of the piazza then purchased a bag of olives “nero al forno” (roasted black olives) to bring back to my room. Later that evening, I relaxed with a bottle of Frascati, the local white wine, and my treats from the market sat on my small terrace in the back of the Hotel Artorius. The view was of the rooftops and tiny yards behind ancient buildings – laundry and flowers hung from every available perch. This now trendy neighborhood was an ancient slum even at the time when Julius Caesar purchased an apartment building here for his daughter as a wedding gift! Places like this always “speak” to me on a deep level; some things must be appreciated alone.

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Then there are the many experiences that would not exist if it were not for large groups of loved ones! More on that in the next post…

Diva Toscana

T.S. Tomato Sauce

I originally wrote this in October 2008, I’ve edited it a bit for this, but the heart of the story remains strong. I’ve been thinking about my friend Sandra quite a bit lately – especially since I know I recently missed her infamous “Fish Night”! This, as she will not be surprised to see, is all about her (isn’t everything, Bella?!).

 

Group photo from Josh

Under the guise of a business trip, I left the Roman countryside for three days and nights at the Tuscan seashore. My plan: to visit a vacation cooking school called Toscana Saporita  on the Camporomano estate near Lucca, where owner Sandra Lotti has been holding court for over a decade. Despite the scenery, the fabulous food and wine, and the beautiful men (more on that in a bit!), meeting Sandra was the highlight of my journey.

As I planned my trip to Italy, Toscana Saporita was recommended by a colleague who had visited in the past – our schools have an ongoing relationship; several of our alumni work, or have worked, with Sandra over the years. In preparing me for my visit, I was told, “the woman who runs the school is a real Diva”… given the source of the remark, I considered this high praise and looked forward to the visit even more! This certainly did not prepare me for the whirlwind of energy, knowledge, and passion for life in a blonde wig that is Sandra!

To say she is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about her culture and sharing it barely scratches the surface. Diva-hood is a big part of her charm (no wilting flower here) – she has a heart of gold and a tiara to match! Sandra does not simply teach, cook, and write of Tuscan food and culture, she exalts it… she preaches with the zeal of the most devout evangelist… from food selection to the cooking vessel to accompaniments chosen, she has a sermon for each step of the way. Then she feeds you – before the primi is over, you are hooked for life!

Like any good Diva, Sandra does all this surrounded by a crew of talented, passionate, warm-hearted, fun, and incredibly beautiful young men! During my visit, each played a role in a well-orchestrated interactive performance that drew the guests into their inner circle of private jokes, familial play, friendly competition, and absolute passion for good food. I’d never leave my kitchen if I shared it with these guys!

I mentioned a blonde wig. Sandra recently completed chemotherapy for breast cancer and is eagerly awaiting the return of her hair. In the meantime, she dons a sassy blonde wig that has a personality all its own! To me, everything about Sandra was inspiration enough already… the fact that she is a breast cancer survivor who continued to inspire students each day throughout her treatment, and continues to live life at a level of passion and intensity that would exhaust the average person, only make her more fabulous!

As I mentioned, this was written last year (in October)… since then, Sandra’s lovely locks have returned in full force… she’s even blonde again, and seems sassy as ever! I can’t wait to see her again someday soon!

Americanization of Immigrant Cuisine

Big words! Especially to me, since that was basically my Master’s dissertation subject. After all those months of studying Chef Boyardee, Ragu, and Stouffer’s Lasagna I wondered how I would translate it into something a bit more readable to the masses. There’s still hope!

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Today’s drizzle of hope came from, yet another New York Times article… “A Chili Sauce to Crow About” by John T. Edge (a gastronome’s hero, of sorts). It is my belief (as you may read in my dissertation, if you are a sucker for punishment) that, when immigrants arrive in a new country, they bring with them the flavors of memory and that this is not always a reliable reflection of what they truly ate in their own countries. From there, the flavors are reproduced using foods available in their new homes (in the US, California seems to play a huge role in sourcing flavors, as you can read in Edge’s article & my dissertation). As demand increases from the immigrant population, the product becomes mass produced and discovered by those in the “host culture” (native foodies). The native foodies adopt the new product and eventually disperse it throughout the mainstream population rendering it all but recognizable to the original immigrants and completely unrecognizable to those in the country whose migrants created the product.

In “A Chili Sauce to Crow About,” Edge takes us on this journey with one of the most popular chili sauces on the market in the US today – Sriracha (aka Rooster Sauce). Technically, Sriracha is as American as it gets… it’s creation is a contemporary “American dream” scenario of a Vietnamese immigrant creating a sauce flavored to mimic his memory of home for an immigrant community. He makes this product in a former Wham-O (frisbees and hoolahoop) factory in Southern California from American ingredients, names it after a town in Thailand, and sells it to American chefs who make French-sounding sauces from it!

The story ends with the ultimate Americanization… Sriracha is now used in menu items, as well as as a condiment in the most American of American Applebee’s (as well as P.F. Chang’s and some red-states chain called Roly Poly)… it is also available at Wal-Mart!

Haute Hong Kong (reposted)

My recent trip to Asia included four days in Hong Kong. This wasn’t your average trip to Hong Kong – this was Haute Hong Kong – only the best! I am incredibly fortunate to have a smart, successful, fun-loving, and extremely generous sister who had to be in Hong Kong for business en route to our family vacation in the Philippines. This involved staying in luxury accommodations at the Four Seasons Hotel and dinner at Lung King Heen, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in the Four Seasons.

Our evening at Lung King Heen (“View of the Dragon”) was made extra special by the advanced introduction to the executive chef, Chan Yan Tak, by Chef Alain Sailhac, Dean Emeritus of The French Culinary Institute. On Chef Sailhac’s recommendation, Chef Chan created a special tasting menu of traditional Cantonese dishes for our table of four… a special honor for which we are all deeply grateful.

The evening began with a visit from Chef Chan Yan Tak, a stout quiet man with a commanding presence and few words of English. We assured him that we were adventurous eaters and placed ourselves in his masterful hands. Here’s what happened next:

Amuse Bouche:  Kimchi

Assorted Appetizers:hong-kong-4-2009-001

Dong Po-Style Braised Pork Belly, Scallop with Pear and Spicy Salt, Crispy Taro Dumpling with Crab, Crispy Frog’s Leg with Spicy Salt 

 

Soup:  Shark’s Fin Soup with Bean Curd and Crab Meat

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Fish:

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Wok-Seared Star Grouper in Soy Sauce, and Steamed Grouper with Crispy Mung Beans

 Meat:

Peking-Style Chicken with chestnut flour jelly dumplings

Vegetable:

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Braised (tiny) Baby Bok Choy with Maitake Mushrooms

 

Noodles: Crispy fried noodle cake with hot and sour soup-style sauce

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Dessert & Mignardise:

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Mango Tapioca Pudding with Mango Tofu and Mangosteens, and

Handmade walnut pastry with walnut filling, Handmade Egg pastry with creamy dense egg filling, and Green tea jelly roll

Food and Culture, Continued

It’s Chef’s Night Off again, and with the schedule I’ve been keeping, I’m going to take advantage of the short post night.  Last post I brought up a different view of food and culture… tonight I have another point of view on that same subject. This time, it’s a brief observation on the culture of cooking techniques.

I just got home from yet another event with Nils and Dave… this time a class at DeGustibus Cooking School. Nils and Dave are famous for their high-tech approach to preparing delicious food. Nils is also famous for tubular shaped food, but that’s another story… maybe tomorrow if I don’t come up with something better by then! Anyway, the class tonight was essentially about using familiar and not-so-familiar equipment to create unique spins on familiar dishes. For example, one of the first courses was a Hamine Deviled Egg (see photo) – a simple deviled egg made from eggs that were hard boiled for an hour in a pressure cooker causing a Maliard effect and a change in the sulfur compounds (or something like that). Translation: the egg whites turned mocha brown like dulce de leche and the flavor changed from your basic sulfur-y hard boiled eggs to something much more like chicken livers – a bit gamy in a pleasant way. We served them with salmon roe and chopped chives… they were, as usual, delicious!

Hamine Egg

I’ve always been a classicist when it comes to cooking, so working with Nils and Dave has been a career-changing experience for me… at first, this was not a good thing, in my eyes. But, I’ve developed a strong appreciation for their passion for quality and deliciousness (a favorite word of all of ours). Sometimes, experiencing other food cultures can simply mean learning a new way to make an old favorite and appreciating the intellect and passion that went into it. The great thing about Nils and Dave (aside from the cra-zazy cocktails?) is that they are always eager to share their their new discoveries and enthusiasm with all.

Again, get off the bus, talk with the “locals”, always be willing to learn something new.

Food and Culture

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This is not your typical article about food and culture – far away places, the history woven into particular treasured dishes, how people interact, and how hierarchies exhibit themselves through foodways – at least that’s what initially comes to my mind. But, as I said, this is going to be a little different.

As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions recently, I’m a bit more “engaged” in my work than I’d like – at least time-wise. However, as I’ve also mentioned before, I am extremely fortunate to do something I love for a living, so spending an awful amount of time doing it is not so awful. I love what being a chef means… the good, the bad and the ugly of it. I also love what being a chef has become to me.

I just returned home from the second night of a push that will last seven days and nights. This is on the tail end of a similar week, so I’m already a bit jaded and exhausted. However, I felt like I needed to acknowledge the exceptional experiences I’ve enjoyed during this time. My work with the French Culinary Institute goes far beyond teaching classic culinary techniques to career-minded students. My position involves spending a great deal of time working outside the academic environment in many facets of the food and beverage industry and beyond, including events with philanthropic societies, the design industry and other creative endeavors.

In this capacity, I spend time meeting and getting to know a wide range of people from all walks of life… from famous chefs and restaurateurs, writers, designers, thinkers, philanthropists, and creative entrepreneurs (even the sex industry has come up more than once lately!). It’s fascinating to experience what life will offer you if you are passionate, open-minded, and willing to allow your vision to encompass more than the neat package deal most people are willing to settle for. 

Life is a journey. The all-inclusive package tour is not for everyone. Step off the tour bus, walk alongside the locals, taste the treats offered to you, talk to strangers. You may find yourself a far richer person for doing so.