Thursday, June 30, 2011

Italy has boosted William's vocabulary and self-confidence - In Italia a William e' venuta la lingua lunga

William making a phone call in Diano Marina
Thanks to the one month immersion program in Italy, Tronk's favella (his ability to speak) has started to show its first signs.
Last year, in order to better teach William Italian and about Italian culture, John and I decided to take William to Italy for one month per year. This may seem like a huge amount of time. In reality, when you spend half of it making plans with your parents and a third of it replacing the stroller that got broken during the trip, four weeks is just a tease! We have come to this decision because I used to spend five to six weeks in France every year as a child - that way I learned French and about French culture more than the kids who were taking French in school. If you learned some French at school, you probably learned to asked a simple question this way: "Est-Ce Que [PAUSE] tu [PAUSE] aimes [PAUSE] manger  [PAUSE] pizza?" and not this way: "t'aimes les pizzas toi?". The latter, is the way French people speak!

During the month we were in Italy, John worked most of the time while I tried to take William to day care every day so that he would have to deal with Italian teachers, Italian kids, language and culture.

William celebrating an Italian kid's birthday. Cake made of focaccia!

William drawing at  at the Mary Poppins center in Turin, Italy

Art work William made at the Mary Poppins center in Turin, Italy
Actually, doing this served well its purpose. I don't know if it was the different physical location, the amount of  TV he watched, the Italian kids he was playing with, all the nicotine and caffeine in the air or the terrible 2s approaching but, while we were there, his vocabulary most probably doubled and his confidence boosted:
"vai! dai! dimmi, dammi, mangia, mare, yourt, cane, gatto, cappello, faccia, naso, occhi, lanza (meaning ambulanza), pizi'a, bandane (instead of banana), his first three-syllable word, and also expressions such as dov'e'? (where is it?), guarda palla (look at the ball)!" and so on.
Together with an explosion of Italian words, I was hit by a stubborn and pissed off kid which at times I struggled to recognize:

When the bus driver was waiting for the traffic light to change, William would go:
"vai! vai! a vai? a vai?" ("go!, go! just go! just go!") [EVERYONE LAUGHED IN THE BUS]

When I was about to start feeding him but could not find his favorite car, he would scream:
"no, pappa no! pappa no, no, no!" (no, food no! food no, no, no!)
"dammi cento! cento?...
noooooo, dammi cento!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
(give me the cento car! cento car? you are not giving it to me? give it to me !!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

At times, he was cranky and inconsolable.  He would ask for "pizi'a", the polizia car, which he had previously hidden, say under the bed. Then if only I was trying to offer him another car, he would explode in rage! It had to be that car. 

In Italy, the day care teacher I liked (the one who was not drinking 10 coffee cups per day and who was not threatening the kids to call the police if they were not behaving) found William sweet but also lazy, capricious and a bit too
arrogant and independent (hopefully this is a good thing). She said that at times he was wondering off the room to do his own things regardless of the class activities she was running in that moment. On the positive side, in Italy the rebel learned to get on cars and on chairs all by himself, to wait in a queue with other kids in the bathroom to get his diaper changed, to eat and drink by himself and to elegantly sit on an adult chair, while waiting for dinner to be served. On the negative side, my toilet training there went out of the window! We sort of just stop doing it. His fault, my fault, our fault? I don't know but now as soon as I say the word "toilet", William runs away and goes "cacca no, cacca no, no, no!" followed by rage.

In Italy his difficult behavior forced us to go back to using the pacifier all day long, just like when he was two months old, until a week ago, when our old William decided to come back. Luckily, the sweet boy came back but the Italian words stayed! He replaced "bandane" with "banana", "yourt" with "yoghurt" and more expressions flourished:

"Anche mamma pappa?" (mamma is eating too?)
"Viene anche zia?" (is aunt coming too?)
"C'e' tu-tu la'?" (is the car over there?)his biggest long-lasting obsession
"Aniamo bimbi oggi?" (are we going to see the kids today?) Aniamo bimbi lena?(are you taking me to the swing where the kids are? - his new obsession
"Poi aniamo daddy?" (are we going to see daddy later on?)
"Ba-Bye bimbi!" - when I go to get myself a coffee
"Bene pappa"
"Thank you mamma!"
"Sorry daddy"

Apart from the poop thing, I am happy my old William is back, that he is learning English again, as well as to be polite and respectful towards others and to trust that in everything in life there is bad but also good and that, overall, it is better to expect good. Now when the police car arrives, the children at the playground no longer go "Scappa! Scappa!" (Run! Run!), but "Urra'!" It is nice to be back.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My mom's cooking advice - Segreti di cucina della mia mamma

When you live in a country where the average mom who uses a kitchen of the size of a mansion and a spoon which costs more than my entire kitchen utensil set, feeds her children hot dog and microwaved vegetables that taste like cardboard, if not pieces of onions or pickles from her turkey sandwich, you wonder what happened to their mothers and to the mothers of their mothers and to the mothers of the mothers of their mothers. Were they all attacked by zombies in the kitchen, fathers included?? Or has their working life sucked all the fun out of their meals? At least the English are constantly joking about how bad is English food and they don't pay a 20% tip at their restaurants. Can someone explain to me why here in the US everyone is happy with the American food?

I always thought every other mom (or father, if not the mother) was as good as mine in the kitchen but I was wrong (my post what's wrong with the American cooking is about this). The thing is, I never really watched my mother cooking, nor I asked her for advice. For years I took her cooking for granted and went to seek the excitement of ethnic food. Then, unlike my friends who stayed in Italy close to their mothers,  I quickly had to adopt the London "do it quickly" cooking style, which means that you put chilli in almost everything you cook to hide the taste. Now that I live so much farther away from Italy and that I try to reproduce my mother's dishes at home to feed William on a daily basis, I have realized that my mother has passed to me recipes worth gold. But how do I cook her dishes exactly the way she does?

William going to steal secrets in my mother's kitchen

While I was in Italy, I  asked my mother (and carefully observed) what she really does when she is in the kitchen. Below are some of the answers I got from her in this occasion together with the precious knowledge she passed to me via Skype in the last year or so.

Use onions, not garlic, unless you are cooking fish
Use Barilla spaghetti and fresh juicy tomatoes
What ingredients do you need for a simple pasta dish, say for 4 people?
Mom:"Vegetable oil (e.g. better if arachides oil), half an onion medium size, juicy plum tomatoes in can or, even better, juicy fresh tomatoes and spaghetti or other type of pasta. The Barilla and De Cecco brands are good. For a simple pasta sauce I cut the onion very thin, so I don't have to remove the pieces afterwards, and brown it in oil. This is what I call  "soffritto". Garlic? Oh nooo, I don't use garlic for making pasta sauce. Basil? You can add it at the end when the dish is almost ready. It is not necessary though."

So when do you use garlic?
Mom:"I use one or two cloves of garlic when I brown fish or when I saute vegetables such as spinach and zucchini in oil"
Me: "Do you remove the pieces of garlic at the end of the cooking?"
Mom: "Yes, I don't want to keep eating garlic all day long!"

How do you obtain a creamy sugo?
Mom: "I remove the skin and the seeds from the tomatoes (or plums in the can), then I add the resulting sauce (called "passata") to the thin slices of onions browned in oil (called "soffritto") and cook it with the lid on for about 15 minutes"

How do you remove the bits of skin of the tomatoes in the plums that come from the can?
Mom: "I use a fork to get the juice out of the plums and remove the bits that come out while I am doing that before adding the sauce to the soffritto"

How do you eliminate the sour taste of the tomatoes in the sauce?
Mom: "I add few pinches of salt and half a tea spoon of sugar, then I cook the sauce with the lid for at least 15 minutes"

Can you add vegetables, say zucchini, or chicken to the pasta sauce or is it something that only foreigners do?
Mom: "Chicken, certainly not. If you want to add vegetables, carrots and zucchini for instance, you brown them in the soffritto with the thin slices of onions. Then, when you see that the hard vegetables (carrots) are cooked, you add the tomatoes"

What do you do to avoid that the pasta sauce dries up?
Mom: "I add a mestolo (large soup spoon) of salty water from the pasta or from the boiled vegetables. By doing that, the sauce will get creamy"

What do you do to avoid that risotto dries up?
Mom:"I add a mestolo (large soup spoon) of boiled water or vegetable broth, each time I see that it is drying up"

How do you prepare chicken and vegetable broth?
Mom: "To make chicken broth, I boil the chicken in water with an onion, a potato, two carrots, sage, thyme and a pinch of salt. To make vegetable broth, I boil an onion, carrots, zucchini, potatoes (and whatever I want to add ) with sage, thyme and a pinch of salt. Otherwise, I add stock to boiling water in a glass and melt the stock to produce broth by using a fork.". 

How do you decide whether you should add vegetable, chicken or beef stock?
Mom: "I usually add vegetable broth to risottos and to soups. I add beef broth to the other dishes. This is what I do but there are no hard rules. I often use the water from boiled vegetables or from boiled chicken. Enrica, tutto fa brodo! (everything makes broth)!"

In which cases do you keep the lid on the saucepan when you are cooking?
Mom: "What a question! The only time when I don't keep the lid on on a pan is when I have to fry and when I let the wine, water or broth evaporate. Usually, you should keep the lid on when you are cooking!"

At what stage of the cooking do you usually add salt?
"It depends on what I am cooking but as a general rule I would say... just before I am happy that water is released into the mix but I always make things cook first. If I breadcrumb chicken for instance, I add salt to the chicken at the end, once the chicken is cooked.  Oh nooo, I don't add any salt or other spices during the preparation of the food!"

How many minutes do you leave the veggies in the pressure cooker once you have reached the pressure point?
Mom: "I cook vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and beans for about 5 minutes. If I leave them less than 5 minutes they are not cooked enough"

What's the quickest way for cooking a chicken turkey or pork roll?
Mom: "You can brown the meat in a soffritto with thin slices of onion, add salt, pepper, rosemary and herbs de provence. Then you add white wine - remember to remove the lid to let the wine evaporate - then you add the vegetables (carrots and potatoes or peas - either not both). You cover with the lid and cook the whole thing for half an hour"

How do I make William eat vegetables?
Mom: "Boil chopped zucchini, carrots, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and pinto beans together with finely chopped onion, garlic and parsley in salty vegetable broth for an hour. Then put the resulting minestrone in a food processor to make a passato di verdura. Most children eat this! Alternatively, you can cook vegetables like spinach, carrots and mushroom  "in umido" (browned in olive oil and garlic, with added salt, pepper and a trito of parlsely at the end). Otherwise, you can steam them and then add salt and olive oil to them"

How do I make William eat fish?
Mom: "Cod? Boil the whole fish with head and tail in water with lemon and parsley. Then, serve it with olive oil, salt and lemon juice on it .Alternatively, you can steam a sole and add crushed parsley, olive oil, salt and lemon juice to it at the end. If you don't mind the extra fat, you can cook it in butter, then add salt, lemon juice and parsley towards the end of the cooking "

What do I cook when William has an upset stomach?
Mom: "When you were not well, I was always giving you white rice with olive oil, salt and parmesan,  and boiled chicken with veggies as a second course. Can you remember?"

What food can I prepare when I don't have time to cook?
Mom: "the simplest pasta dish takes at least 20-30 minutes cooking time.  
Me: "Can you think of something quicker than that?"
Mom: "Mmm, no. Less than half an hour? All I can think of is an omelette, or something cooked the day before, which only needs heating! Otherwise, you can prepare cold antipasti such as prosciutto e melone or a salad made of tomatoes and mozzarella with salt, olive oil and oregano, which doesn't take long to make".

What do you use the microwave for?
Mom: "I only use it for defrosting and for heating a previously cooked meal. Nothing else."

How about sandwiches?
Mom: "Is this what you are going to give your poor husband? I hope not!"
Me: "But mom, that is what he likes!"
Mom:"I don't believe it. He might be saying that to be nice to you. I will ask him!"

What advice can you give a mom who wants to learn to cook?
Mom:"You don't need to be a chef to cook but someone who likes food. You need to practice with the resources that are available locally and  decide for yourself what needs doing to cook what you like".

Grazie mamma and happy cooking everyone!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's wrong with the American cooking? - Che cosa e' successo alla cucina americana?

Italian mom cooking a simple pasta dish for lunch
Seriously, what's wrong with the American cuisine? As far as food is concerned, I have never thought of myself as fussy. In the UK, despite I was used to only eating biscotti dipped in caffe latte in the morning, I even managed to eat - and enjoy - black pudding (fried animal blood mixed with a filler) and sheep's pluck (heart, liver and lungs simmered in the sheep's stomach) for breakfast. Ok, perhaps in those days everything had the taste of beer but, honestly, in 13 years I traveled, I complained about food once. I was living in Galway, a small town on the west coast of Ireland, fish was overpriced, the alternative, if I remember well, was to eat jacket potatoes and subs topped with mayonnaise. My Irish friend was totally on my side. At times she was driving me around to help me find a place where to eat. At some point I remember she said that our best bet was to go to Subway. Back in England, food was no longer a daily issue for me. There were Pret a Manger restaurants in all towns and having lunch outside the house was never a problem. 

Yet, here in Boston, I am finding it extremely hard to get used to the local cuisine and I keep bumping into three types of American moms and combinations of the three.

First there are the moms who claim they love cooking. These are people who buy spoons that cost more of their wedding ring and books with everything but simple recipes (e.g. pheasant cooked in champagne with artichokes) These are people who decide to order take out food after realizing that they were supposed to boil the artichokes they have already put in the sauce. If I go to their house on a normal day, I end up eating an old piece of turkey or cheese dip for nachos, which was probably in the fridge for a month, as the container was the size of a petrol can. Smile. It could have been worse. They could have put on the table spaghetti from the fridge with peanut butter. I saw this in an American comedy! I can guarantee that not a single person with a sense of humor would laugh at this on the Italian TV. The first immediate and only reaction would be: yuck!

Then there are the so called hypster-moms who view cooking as a science fiction thing from Mars (or at least it looks as if they are using ingredients from Mars). These are the people who only buy organic products from local businesses. Ironically, most of the food these people buy consists of processed stuff such as hot dogs (pardon, only white meat!) and chips (only organic, off-course!), pre-chopped vegetables ready to be microwaved in the bag, which already started to go off in the bag when it was in the store, and everything rigorously whole wheat, pasta included. Whole wheat pasta is almost impossible to cook properly. It either gets overcooked and sticky or undercooked and too hard. In Italy the only people I saw eating that are diabetics. No wonder their children throw everything on the floor.

Then there are the bakers. These moms, most of them with part-time jobs, are working hard and I have deep admiration for them. In my entire life, I have baked two things from scratch: a simple lasagna and a simple apple crumble. These people? In a year, they bake everything you can possibly imagine: bread, quiches, cupcakes, chocolate cheese cakes, fruit pies - you name it and they will make it for you, as long as it is rigorously filled with sugar. Their house smell like a bakery shop and their children, sooner or later, will learn to bake. So what's the problem? Despite their amazing baking skills, these moms, when it is time to prepare lunch or dinner, will raise their white flag. They would rather grab a couple of fried chicken pieces from an old bag in the freezer, throw some fries with it and give it to their children than trying to cook something simple but fresh. "Signur! Pet food in Italy looks better!", commented William's babysitter in one occasion. So true. 

An Italian woman I know, who runs a home daycare in the Boston area, is a star to the eyes of the American kids she is taking care of and a devil to the eyes of their mothers, simply because, like the average mom in Italy, she is able to cook a simple dish of pasta with tomato sauce! Apparently, the kids attending her daycare, at some point, asked their mom to cook something similar (instead of giving them sandwiches for lunch) but their mother said that they did not know how.

Sure, pasta is an Italian dish but how about the American BBQ? I mean, not burgers but chicken or a nice steak, cooked on the BBQ?

Cowboy cooking  a simple meal on the BBQ
Why can't I find this more often on people's BBQs here in the US? Why burgers and hot dogs instead? Last week I was late at a party and instead of that lovely piece of meat my taste buds were longing for, I ended up with a burned burger. The healthier alternative? Salad covered with blue cheese and garlic. The week before I ended up with bad pizza from the nearby Food Court at another birthday party. The BBQ was there but the host decided not to use it to avoid the hassle.

I don't have to eat at people's houses. I can always go to a restaurant on my way to their houses. It is not hard to find one. The problem is that at most restaurants they don't serve restaurant food but overcooked pasta, corn (the food the Italians give animals to eat) and super flavored pieces of burnt meat with extra gluey sauces on top, covering the flavor of the meat. Most of the times all this is stuffed into a big chewy piece of bread that if my father ever had to eat it, he would leave his denture inside.

It could be worse. I could get an invitation to an "Italian restaurant". Below are some of the dishes that might be in the menu:

1) Pasta in alfredo sauce (with the unforgettable garlic after taste)
2) Spaghetti with meat balls dog style (where does this come from?)
3) Cesar salad (who had the idea of turning an healthy dish into a bomb of calories?)
4) Penne with chicken in wine sauce (great idea, let's add chicken to pasta!)
5) Pizza without tomato sauce - I swear I saw someone adding tomato ketchup to it!
6) Lasagna (made with tortillas)
7) Folded pizza to make it into a calzone

Italian readers, what would you do if you were me? Escape? I bet most Americans readers wouldn't mind ordering one of the dishes above. Sadly, I see more and more people here in the Boston area, Italians included, who have lived here for many years and who have got used to eating food that tastes bad and to even liking it. It makes me wonder if I am the one who is awkward about food here. Luckily, I am in the land of freedom and I can always say: "No, thank you. I am not hungry" and go to my secret chocolate stash in my handbag.