Category Archives: seafood

Passing along Southern Italian Foodways to You

**Announcement!**

I would love to host you at my final cooking class of the summer in August, so email me now to reserve a space!

This class will focus on Southern Italian foods and cultural foodways, which, as you’ll see below, I learned a lot about while in Naples, Sorrento, and Sicily this spring. It was gorgeous. In fact, this was the sight that greeted me from the window of the hydrofoil as we docked- quite amazing.

Pozzuoli and Napoli held their own charms- views of the sea and charming locals high among them- but the next stage of my trip launched me into the independent mode of travel. From the seaside you see above, I scaled the cliff (ok, climbed the stairs) with my suitcase, and getting some advice from the tourist office, I scouted out a few small hotels before deciding on one.
The night of my arrival I wandered around the small town of Sorrento, glimpsing citrus trees in every yard, people in every cafe, and a bustling center of town, which included this gated corner alcove, apparently an ancient men’s club (so unfair).

I walked and walked until I was so hungry I had a hard time making a dinner decision… ending up with this spread, so I didn’t end up too badly…
Whole fried anchovies (unless they were sardines? I can’t find a good way to tell them apart when battered and fried), octopus, shrimp, and more- all celebrated the generous gifts of the Mediterranean Sea. Perfect for my sampler nature.

After a couple days like this, I went to see one of the most famous historical sites right nearby: Pompeii. Having gotten a good look at Vesuvius on the hydrofoil journey crossing the bay from Naples to Sorrento, I was excited to see this city that was buried in an instant, so long ago.

What bowled me over about the site was not the professionalism of the preservation or the views of the countryside (although the site was well managed, the surrounding suburb was rather scrappy), but the unbelievable detail brought to us whole and untouched from that distant culture. Here is a frescoed wall from a bath house. Such colors, thousands of years of ash and dust later!

I recently had “atavism” explained to me in an online course, and it was connected to the idea of a discontinued past, that past which is not linked to our present because we perceive it to be too different. Pompeii was nothing of the sort- the people living here had road ruts under repair, were building extensions on their houses, and had decorations lovelier than many expensive ones I’ve seen  in our own time.

Mosaics laid so precisely.

Signs lettered so carefully
and in recognizable script!

It made the tragedy of the deaths in the settlement all the more real. Here, the archaeologists had left their mark, finding the bodies burnt to ash, essentially vacuuming them out, and making plaster casts of how their bodies were found. It was both eerie and compelling to see the models, composed of some of the ash of the bodies themselves, on display in their final, frantic positions.


But since the one plaster model I saw was placed near the entrance I used, I had a couple hours after that of wandering around the narrow streets and peeking through other courtyards to sweep out the sad thoughts. Marvel at the art and society of this little town was the foremost emotion, and by the time I finished, I was ready for switching gears.

What did I jump to? My cooking lesson with Chef Lucia!

She had a menu planned and printed out for me, and we mixed it up a bit as we went along. Chef Lucia took me through an immense amount of details as we made our way through rolled beef, stuffed eggplant, and rolled eggplant (I requested the eggplant- love it!). One of the highlights of the class was the ballet dance of languages we all did, as her son translated for me, I tried to understand Lucia’s Italian, and she mostly understood my English. It made 2+ hours of standing on my feet in the little kitchen fly by, and that is saying something!


Chopping.

Tearing.

Mixing.

Heating garlic in oil!

There are proper ways to do everything, and traditional ways, too, as in whether you peel your cucumber completely or in stripes- one way gives you the Napolitano version, the other, the Sorrentino.


One of the add-on items on the menu was fresh pasta from potatoes, usually known as gnocchi (that is a link to an excellent tutorial with step-by-step pictures- go see for yourself!).

We used a pasta machine, the kind that clamps on the counter and cranks by hand, which led to some more ballet-like hilarity among the three of us. We also used a tool like the one shown  in the linked tutorial above, which looks like a miniature washboard. It is obviously a skill learned through repetition, to drag two fingers with a dollop of gnocchi dough over the wooden board in such a way to create the classic shape. I tried, but my pasta didn’t win any beauty contests!
It was a lot of fun, and even though setting up the class was stressful at the last minute, and finding the place was another adventure, it was all totally worth it.

Now I have this precious experience to share with you!

Have you taken cooking classes on vacation? How did it give you a different view of the location and the region’s people? Did it help you connect the region’s past with its, and your, present?

It’s magic!

Let us hear about it in the comments…

Food & Flora in Pozzuoli

Lucky duck that I am, I visited Italy earlier this year, southern Italy to be exact. None of that fashionable, decaying-but-romantic, artsy-wartsy way of life for me. No, siree.
Going down a hill in Pozzuoli showed me this structure- what purpose did it once serve?
 (Although I reserve the right for those to appear in future trip posts, of course)
This time, the idea was to relax, to not rush around sightseeing, to have a home base and merely get to know the pace of life of a different place, this one being Naples and the surrounding area.
It didn’t exactly fall out as planned. I took some advice to avoid the trains on the eastern coast because they’re old and less reliable, and ended up taking more than a day to travel to Sicily, which I in no way regret. If you have the chance, go and absorb Sicily. It is beautiful.
By the way, those are landscaping bushes for a public park in Pozzuoli, yes, but they’re also, wait for it, ROSEMARY! Why didn’t we think of this?
Wherever I was in Italy, I was keeping a weather eye out for places that looked like local hotspots for good food. I was not disappointed.
Wisteria vine scenting a sidewalk in Pozzuoli
Since I found so much beauty scattered around southern Italy, I also include here some of the beautiful plants and flowers I encountered.
First off, first meal, all-star favorite: zeppoline. A relative of the doughnut, this version is savory and can include herbs. It tastes salty, has a satisfying crunch from the lightly fried batter, and appears to positively melt in the mouth. I tried to replicate this at home when I returned based on 2 recipes in Italian cookbooks, but it didn’t achieve the lightness, saltiness, and snacky delight from those I had in Pozzuoli, my first night in Italy.

This is where I stayed: the Solfatara! Say it softly and it sounds like an incantation… and judging from the sulfurous steam emanating from the various pockets around this dormant volcano, there are some witches nearby brewing concoctions as well!
No, no, not really. I stayed just à côté, with some wonderfully generous friends who live high on a hill overlooking the Bay of Naples. So hard, I know.Not only do they contend with that view, but they also have to put up with the hillsides full of wildflowers, bursting forth with their colors. It was gorgeous, and this was still in mid-April when it was still overcast and foggy.

The second night in Pozzuoli led us to a local bistro-type place facing the bay with an outdoor heated patio, which was lovely for the temperature, but the heat lamp turned all the pictures electric shades of red and yellow. Notwithstanding the bad job of sizing up the light, the food there was excellent. We had the mixed appetizer plate, which contained zeppoline (I’d already fallen in love), mussels, egg and shrimp, octopus salad (another newbie but immediate favorite, unfortunately no good photos of the various ‘polpo’ we found along the way!), and a couple other things. Would you just look at how they present it? To be so proud of your work that it is a work of art- now there’s an accomplishment.

My walk on that same day took me through the public city gardens, called Villa Avellino. It is a very interesting site, with multiple levels, multiple churches, some waterfowl, public fruit trees, public water spigots, and this Dr. Suess-looking tree. Do you know what this one is? So arresting it was, standing out in bright orange and warm dark brown against the leaden gray sky…

Everywhere I ate, there were all kinds of fish- fried fish, fish in salad, fish marinated in vinegar. And they were all good! I normally don’t consider myself a fish person, but in the spirit of learning the place, I bit into crispy fish heads and chewy tentacles. I’m glad I did! I hope that one day I will be able to procure the right type of octopus to make such a salad myself. It would have to go down better than the zeppoline.
The simplest, and the best.

Land of Pioneer Courage / Molecular Gastronomy

Omaha, Nebraska

Why Omaha? Because anywhere can delight your senses, my dear readers. It’s all up to you. Well, mostly.

Omaha had a lot to offer a business traveler with only a couple evenings to spare. I did my research in advance, choosing two places that would represent different slices of the dining scene (so I thought): The Grey Plume and Boiler Room.

The Grey Plume was first, and a taxi ride out of downtown in a swish new redeveloped neighborhood called Midtown Crossing.

It started with a surprise: an amuse-bouche consisting of apple-huckleberry mousse, coffee panna cotta, rye crumble, and pickled apple slice, sprinkled with coffee powder (not iocane powder, although…)
I didn’t know I’d found the seat of molecular gastronomy in Omaha! But here it was, and compliments of the chef.
It was interesting, but when I asked about the coffee powder, I learned that it was basically tapioca starch that had been infused with coffee aroma- that doesn’t seem so frou-frou, now, does it?

The next dish (this one I ordered) was duck fat fries with fried egg and aioli. Yes, loads of fat in this one, but I shared. I did!
The waitress recommended upgrading to the goose egg, but this place was already expensive enough without add-ons, so I declined the up-sell. It was deliciously salty, runny, umami and all as it was.

My ‘main’ was pork 3 ways, served with nettles: a piece of leg, slow-roasted on a puree of spaghetti squash; a piece of loin on a spaghetti squash ‘coin;’ and pork belly 2 ways: a meaty, pinkish cut, and the more traditional glazed classic pork belly, served with baby fennel.
Hot mama. I loved the slow-roasted leg and the classic fatty pork belly. I didn’t love the chewy loin or other type of pork belly.

The next night I organized an excursion to Boiler Room, located downtown near the Old Market center.

***Here’s a good tip when dining out in somewhere where you need to watch your budget but everything looks scrumptious: try two appetizers instead of an entree. This gets you more variety, hedges your bets if you end up not liking something, still fills you up, and for about the same amount of money.
Here I tried the octopus galette and the tagliatelle with goat sugo- these are things I will likely not see again, so they were calling out my name…

The goat sugo was very good, the tagliatelle vaguely disappointing (too al dente for my dente), but the octopus galette was my favorite. Basically a seafood pancake at any Korean restaurant, this was stood out because it used octopus, and marvelous flavors as accompaniments: pesto, hazelnuts, and ‘claytonia‘ (which I was informed is ‘like a lilypad’, also known as miner’s lettuce). Very tasty.

I also enjoyed the decor of the place: very 2000s-loft-converted-warehouse, but with the special touch of matching, facing staircases. The waitors were forever scampering down one and up another, their upper bodies not seen to be moving, which amused me very much for some reason. Perhaps it made me think of the octopus moving along…

  
–While in town, we also had lunch in Old Market, at a place called Twisted Fork: a bar-restaurant with its own cheeky and less pretentious fusion creations. I actually didn’t get to eat much here, but I did grab a few of their fried pickles, and they were quite good. 
I’d say it’s a tie between these and the fried pickles at Upstream around the corner. And I always appreciate clever menu phrasing, which Twisted Fork had in abundance (e.g. “Things You Don’t Rope,” including chicken and salmon dishes). God bless those cowboys with a sense of humor.
 And give thanks for that pioneer courage (a phrase from the monument above) too–
a swell place, Omaha.
Have you been to Omaha? Are you from another place with Pioneer Courage? Let us know in the comment section, so we can come visit!