For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

January 14, 2013

Tell me yours...

Special diets are nothing new. In fact, new diets seem to pop up like mushroom on a rainy day; some interesting, some scrumptious, some suspect and some probably lethal in worst cases. To me special diets have been a part of my life as far as I can remember. Gaining either in kilos or in knowledge has pushed me to try all kinds of things. Talking about diets, however, is a whole lot different today than it was in the past. I'd like to argue that before the word 'diet' was strictly linked to losing weight or keeping yourself fit. It was even a sensitive and a very private matter: being on a diet was nothingyou wanted to share with the rest of the world.

Safe to say, both of these aspects - the purpose of diets and taking about them - have changed. Nowadays, there might be little or even no correlation at all between diets and weight loss. Neither are they an embracing or an awkward topic of conversation, quite the contrary. Diets are "cool, hip and trendy". It's almost like having no diet at all is lame. Besides, following a specific diet can be both fun and challenging. In addition, diets speak for an individual's awareness, choice and identity in regards to food. Still, as it is with everything, this diet trend has its positive and negative sides.

On the one hand, people forced to follow a strict diet due to a medical condition; a food intolerance or obesity, can more openly talk about their rigorous food selection and thus get motivated and feel more comfortable with it. On the other hand, I feel like (medically conditioned) diets are not taken seriously any more. A person with a gluten intolerance dining out is suddenly considered as a pretentious narcissist making chefs' jobs annoying for no "real" reason: "She's just trying to lose weight or something" was, unfortunately, the response I got from my chef last weekend as I informed him about a customer's request to not have any croutons or breadcrumbs on her dish. I left my grouchy chef to solve this problem - his attitude - on his own. There was nothing I could say or do at that point to convince him otherwise. It's a shame since little did he know that lady in question was in fact celiac, and may I add, didn't really seem to care much about weightless or any other self- indulgence for that matter. Oh well.

...and I'll tell you mine

Like I said, being on a diet of some kind is as common for me as brushing my teeth before going to bed. Choosing to not eat a certain food item or not being able to eat one is like child's play - or so I thought. So seeing as I seem to enjoy testing all kinds of things on myself when it come to food, and because apparently eating isn't complicated enough abstaining from gluten and refined sugars, I thought I'd add a substantial challenge to my everyday eating habits. Why would I do that to myself? Why not! 'Why wouldn't I?', is a more suitable question I'd say. My reasons? For no extraordinary reason other than curiosity and over-eating during the holidays.

I decided to call it my "no SCAM month" (no Sugar of any kind, no Cheese, no Alcohol and no Meat). And no, there's not even a tiny part of me seeking to become vegetarian, vegan or sober for that matter. I simply chose to refrain from SCAM because of my genuine love for them all. If you don't see the point, it's fine, I won't hold it against you in any way. Neither will I encourage you to try it if it seems ludicrous to you. For me, it's like a game, a challenge to measure my self-control.

I had been through a month without alcohol before. It was tough, I won't argue the contrary. Okay, I'll be totally honest with you, I didn't last a whole month. But I did 26 solid somber days. It's still
something. Do I have issues with alcohol? No, I don't think so. I simply wanted to try the (in)famous tipaton tammikuu ("dropless January") many Finn do during the month of January (because they've most probably had a tad too much fun during Christmas holidays...). With the wary memories of that experience, I dreaded the 'A' in SCAM the most. Giving up meat, cheese and sugar didn't sound too bad.

A week into no SCAM, a friend of mine who was curious to know all about my irrational new diet came over. She was hungry. Luckily, I had some leftovers that would be fast headed up to tame her hunger as she would listen to my monologue. A quick stir-fry later we sat in my kitchen with a big steaming plate of food in between us. I gave her a fork and watched her eat with great appetite while I went on and on about my holidays. Somewhere between me describing the delicious tortellini I ate on Christmas lunch and the finger food I had cooked for New Year's Eve, I instinctively grabbed a fork to try whether my food was any good. One bite, two bites, mmm good, talking and talking... "Edith, what are you doing, stop!" I almost choked on a piece of reindeer meat. Damn it! Meat! I had accidentally eaten meat out of reflexes. My first reaction was to spit it out, but that seemed exaggerated. After all, it was reindeer meat brought from Finland by my dear Mother. And to think
that a minute earlier I had told her about my new month long diet. It was going be a lot harder than I thought.

After my reindeer accident I realized it. It's not about abstaining from whatever food item per se, it's about all the collateral social difficulties that come with. As long as you eat alone or prepare your own lunch box, pretty much any diet can be respected without a problem. But try attending a dinner party with all your individual restrictions and you'll probably end up not getting many invites in the future. Just saying... Now in my case, I'm lucky being a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences and being surrounded by people that are nuts about anything food related. My weird food behavior this month has been rather well received. Still, two weeks in my diet I've found it hard to lead a totally normal and ordinary life. My opinion about the importance of food from a sociological point of view is even further reinforced. Food is everything it really is.

Today my classmates and I embark on our very first "stage"/study field trip to the region of Veneto. The focal point of the trip is to taste the gorgeous products that the producers we'll visit make for living. Not only do we get the privilege to gain an insight on the quality, labor and efforts needed to provide the product, but we are also being welcomed to the everyday lives of these people. I seriously have a hard time picturing myself saying no to the adorable elderly man who offers me a piece of cheese made with his bare hands.  And if I would decline, I'd without a doubt seem arrogant, disrespectful and ungrateful. But what if I'd be milk intolerant? It would probably be an awkward situation too, but I'd have a solid reason from my abstinence. And we're back to my core argument. Maybe I spoke too soon. Maybe "voluntary diets" are still a hot potato. Maybe one still needs a medical condition to back up unusual food selection?

January 2, 2013

Christmas Italian Style

It’s 12 am. She’s running the show like she has done it forever, like she’s on autopilot, like she could do it in her sleep, so it seems. She’s giving orders, she’s checking, double-checking and triple checking each little detail. Everything has to be perfect. And so it is. In fact, no one makes a move without her consent. She’s the Mother, an Italian Mother – a concept unto itself. And it’s Christmas Day, December 25th.

Amazing Italian women in three generations.

 I find myself in the midst of Christmas hullabaloo at my Italian family’s mountain house in Valdipetrina, close to Città di Castello, in the region of Umbria. It’s my very first South-European Christmas.  Back home in Finland, this same scene took place the day before so I’m feeling slightly disoriented. Here, there’s no snow, no Christmas tree, but the entrancing smell of the oven roasted capon fills the house with its exquisite odors and leaves me no doubt that it’s Christmas. Different country, different day, but the heart of the celebration is universal.

* * *

Paola, the Mother, had started preparations early that morning. Even though I could’ve slept for what seemed like an eternity upstairs in the huge warm bed, a higher force made me wake up and carried me straight to the kitchen, for Paola had promised me the night before that she’d teach me how to make salsa verde according to an old traditional family recipe. Not even the sweetest sleep could ever top that.

Knowing my Italian mamma, I had a feeling that I’d walk into a kitchen where everything would be pre-prepared and fully under control. I was right. “Buongiorno Edith! Did you sleep well?”, I got the most loving embrace and kiss of the cheek. The tiny woman cooking in her pajamas, wearing a flower printed apron was the most adorable sight ever! I felt privileged to have been included, to be part of their Christmas tradition, to be there doing what has been done each year, each Christmas Day for as long as the family has existed.

After a quick shot of coffee it was time to get busy, “Edith take out your notebook and pen, you shouldn’t miss one single detail”. Yes Chef! Each step along to way to the final product was precise and handled with utter care: the fresh homegrown parsley, the core ingredient, had been washed and dried and gently swaddled in a white linen towel; the eggs were boiled and peeled and placed in an old porcelain bowl where three eggs fit like a glove; the anchovies lay in oil in a plastic container; the jar of capers was already opened and had a little silver spoon leaning against it.

Paola started picking the parsley leaves and asked me to remove the little hard yoke from the inside of the egg white, “you want to use only the leaves to get the bright green color, and the eggs, we’ll use it all, but in different phases, you’ll see”. I could only acclaim the accuracy of her technics. This recipe has been done exactly like this for decades, it was palpable. Her hands worked with admirable confidence, but on the same time, she was careful to make no false moves, as if her mother-in-law, the woman who had taught her, would be watching her every measure like a hawk. Also, now it was her time to teach. She made sure that the little Finnish girl far away from home would learn it all perfectly and punctiliously.

When all leaves were freed from stems, she took out a curious little devise, a type of manual grinder indispensable for the preparation of salsa verde. Little by little, she pushed down the greens leaves into the grinder, rolling four times clock wards and one time backwards, four times clock wards, one time backwards, repeating the movement over and over. Slowly, like falling snowflakes painting the landscape white, the vivid green grinded parsley covered the bottom of the glass bowl. Halfway through, she added olive oil “this will keep the parley from oxidizing” I smiled and nodded and made a little footnote to the recipe in my notebook. First she added the anchovies, then the capers and finally the egg white one by one, and then again she continued grinding the parsley. As a final step, she mashed the yokes by fork, not the grinder like she had done with all other ingredients. She mixed the yokes to the salsa and continued amalgamating the yoke by fork “I don’t want to see any yellow color, I want it smooth like silk”, so decisive, so determined. And I knew the secrets and all the little tricks and the detailed instructions.

Just as I thought that I had received the most precious Christmas present of all and I sat down by the dining table to fully digest the experience, a priceless scene took place right before me. So far, the kitchen had been the mother’s territory. The other family members, the father and the daughter, were busy wrapping presents and lively arguing to which of the two cars the gifts would be put in. They were suddenly very curious about what was going on in the kitchen. Honestly, I don’t think anyone could’ve resisted that heavenly smell. The capon was done and Paola had taken it out of the oven to rest before cutting. It tempted each living creature. Its power on the hungry souls in the house was undeniable. It was mother’s turn to take off the apron. It was the father’s job to cut it. As soon as she was gone, Massimo and Cecilia were like two little mice around the porridge.

“Vai via! Vai via, cazzo!” the father tried his best to keep his hungry daughter away from the crispy skin. But she couldn’t resist and neither did he have the heart to stop her. The two certainly took care that not a single little piece would go to waste. “Don’t eat the bird!” I heard Paola shouting from the shower upstairs. Safe to say, she knew her loved ones well. Massimo and Cecilia are too busy drooling over the delicacy that they didn’t hear a thing. Besides, I was the amused spectator of a lovely sit-com; I didn’t want them to stop. “This thing, I love it deeply. It’s dense, almost sticky, it’s my favorite, what can I say” Cecilia’s fingers and mouth were all caked with the caramelized capon drippings. “This is the best, best part of all, enjoy!” she fed me with a juicy piece of skin drizzled in jus. I felt perfectly at home to say the least. I knew that despite the “wrong” day of celebration, I’d be eating extremely well this Christmas, but after that teaser I was absolutely thrilled about the culinary experience I had in front of me. A very merry and delicious Christmas indeed!

* * *

It’s 13 pm. Only a few hours to go.

In Umbria, cappelletti a.k.a tortellini are an integral part of the Christmas Day lunch. I got my own gluten-free ones just for me!