GUILTY PLEASURE

I felt guilty, shameful. Was I being unfaithful? I stared for a few moments, then slowly reached out my hand. I touched the jar. Cumin. It was a gateway spice, I knew that … and where would it lead? This wasn’t merely smoked paprika, which I could pretend was Spanish, similarly Mediterranean. I would have to buy chipotle, too … and maybe jalapeño. My heart beat faster. And little red flakes of peperoncini. I didn’t even like spicy food. Cumin was all too, you know, Southwestern. Not the acceptable southwest, like Calabria or Sicily. This was undeniably Arizona/New Mexico. I couldn’t even say it outloud.

I bought a small jar. And then on impulse, a jar of dill to make Tzatziki with some of our cucumbers. Greek. Mediterranean, sure, but not my true culinary love. What was becoming of me, my pledge to cook all Italian all the time? What’s next … shoyu? Or a yen for not just any fish, but, but (gasp) sushi. I love sushi. And 3 cats who would love to love sushi. That could lead down the kung pao highway … or to pad Thai.

Then. I downloaded a recipe for Baba Ganoush. I claimed that it was merely because I liked saying the word. Baba Ganoush. At least it contains tahini, which sounds Italian … it is, after all, an -ini food.

At least David hadn’t noticed. The jars sat on a shelf in the pantry, hidden among the cinnamon and ginger. I touched the jar once in awhile … sniffed it in case some of that characteristic fragrance came through the still-sealed cap. No, nothing to reveal my secret.

I was craving … avocado. Hass, voluptuous and yielding, creamy on a slice of rustic bread with a grind of pepper and salt or complementing the crunch in a salad. We bought one … not $1.00 (we are spoiled), but 3.48 euros a kilo.

I saw black beans at the grocery store. And put them in the cart while David watched. We do zumba, I explained, stammering, and that’s a lot of Latin music … this is just to keep the zumba energy going between lessons. He nodded.

A few months later, I had a weak moment. I broke down. I was making cauliflower. When I had diverged a couple of years before and began adding bright yellow turmeric to our vegetables, we rationalized that it was super healthy as well as flavorful. Plus, I had seen an Italian TV program, and one of the segments was about an ingredient that Marco Polo brought back from India … curcuma (turmeric) … so despite the fact that it was virtually ignored when he schlepped it home in the late 1200s, I had passive approval. I had then tried turmeric on oh-so-Tuscan cannellini beans. But today would be different. Three, four, five shakes of the cumin … generous shakes … stirring it into the olive oil and garlic. Then smoked sweet paprika … and one shot of the peperoncino. At the end, I added … oh my … pumpkin seeds.

“What are you making? It smells delicious,” David asked. And it was … the dish was very good, try as I might to think it wasn’t so. Bold, bright flavors with just a little bit of heat. Was it a slippery slope, was I doomed???

Thankfully, I came to my senses. The next day I went into our yard and basked under the sun and appreciated our Tuscan view. I plucked fresh sage and rosemary … inhaled slowly and deeply. I read Hazan and Scicolone and Willinger … and felt better. I watched a few episodes of “Eat Parade,” the mini-program on RAI2 (and available 24/7 on the website) that nourished my Italian culinary soul while we lived in Los Angeles.

That night, David grilled bistecca. Simple, pure Florentine, grilled blood rare (“walk the cow through the kitchen quickly,” as my father used to tell the waiter), with coarse salt sprinkled when it was on the plate. Roasted potatoes with rosemary and a hint of garlic. And I soaked beans for the next day.

I was recovering.

With a glass of chianti classico in hand, I remembered what had drawn me to Italy and its culinary wonders. Plus I had so many fresh ingredients in my own back yard. Literally. There was no need to look far afield for variety … it was all here on this peninsula. Seafood on the shore … sheep near the summits. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had ruled the northeast, so when I make wiener schnitzel, I simply call it cotoletta milanese.

Macerata …
Lucca …

I also reminded myself that Italians love American desserts … that could be my flaw. Brownies and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chip cookies. And some recipes I had tweaked, just a little, so I could pretend they were more Italian. Hazelnuts replaced walnuts … ironically, many of the walnuts sold here are imported from, you guessed it, California. So are almonds and prunes. Californian and Italian … I make fusion cuisine and call it Calitalian.

Italian food is regional food. And everyone’s nonna (grandmother) is the best cook in the country. The dividing line between the butter-is-better north and the omnipresent olive oil of the south runs through Tuscany … like the equator … so I could use either guilt-free.

Night and day, Florence is the one …

Lasagna Bolognese … with rich meat sauce and bechamel. Lasagna Napoletana … light tomato sauce and oozing with ricotta and mozzarella. I enjoy both … and make both, depending on what is the refrigerator. For baking cookies, butter provides the melt in your mouth magic that makes you reach for another one. And when you eat a cookie made with olive oil that is intense with spices or nuts, you say “oh yeah” as you reach for another.

And the myriad of pasta … like French cheese, you can eat a different one every day of the year. Long or “fork”, dry or fresh, classic or exotic flour, stuffed … even fried. Basil pesto is perfection, the marriage of a few ingredients silkily clinging to linguine. Or cacio e pepe … pecorino caressing spaghetti with neither butter nor oil, and freshly-ground black pepper on top.

How much more did I need?

That jar of cumin is probably stale by now. But I still eat avocado … once in a while.

Our caper pant …
Pappa al Pomodoro … Panzanella …

PAPPA AL POMODORO

Quintessential. This is one of many recipes using dry bread. It is essentially two ingredients, so you need to use the best quality available. If you don’t have tomatoes fresh from a garden, use your favorite canned ones. A crusty artisanale loaf of bread will work well. As with all Italian recipes, there are many variations … this is the one we like.

Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 lbs. tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped (or 2 -26 oz. cans of tomatoes, with juice)
6 oz. dry bread, cubed
Salt
Fresh basil

- Saute garlic in olive oil. As it starts to brown, add the tomatoes and juice, several basil leaves and some salt.
- When the tomatoes start to boil, add the bread. Stir so all the bread is submerged.
- Lower heat to simmer, then cover.
- Cook until the bread is super soft/mushy… at least 30 minutes. (At this point, you can pick out the tomato peels which are now separated from the pulp. You can also use a stick blender to puree.)
- Stir in several leaves of chopped basil.
- Serve hot or at room temperature … at table, everyone is encouraged to drizzle your favorite and most flavorful olive oil on top.
Enjoy!

PANZANELLA

Our friend, Giovanna, gave us some capers … grown in their garden and cured with their homemade vinegar. That was the first time I had added capers to my Panzanella, and it was delicious. Again, there are as many different versions as there are cooks.

Dry bread … cubed and soaked in water until soft, then squeezed to remove excess water
Tomatoes … diced
Cucumber … peeled, seeded and diced
Onion … diced
Capers (optional)
Salt
Pepper
Wine vinegar (NOT balsamic)
Olive oil
Basil leaves … sliced in large pieces

- In a large salad bowl, combine bread, tomatoes, cucumber, onions (and optional capers)
- Add salt and pepper to taste, and a small amount of vinegar … toss. Drizzle with olive oil … toss again. Add basil … toss.
- Let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour or so. Taste for seasonings, toss again.
Serve.

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.