Finding My Inner Foodie In Sicily

Meg Nesterov

I really hate the F-word. I think it’s overused, lazy and borderline offensive. I’m talking about the word “foodie,” a concept we have rallied against here before, yet the movement seems to stay strong and keep evolving with the advent of the latest bacon Frankenstein dish or artisanal ketchup. I do love food, and sometimes a meal (or more often for me, a really good peach) can be transformative. My singular “fancy” New York dinner in over a dozen years in the city was a worthy splurge at Momofuku Ko, made all the more enjoyable as we dined in jeans, listening to the Violent Femmes. In my career in travel PR, I have had the luck to dine in some of the world’s best restaurants, multiple times, for free. While I loved trying pine needle risotto and lobster spring rolls, I hated the feeling of being fattened up for the slaughter, of having to pace myself through 15 courses, of feeling like a competitor in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and being expected to pay a day’s salary for the privilege.

While I can appreciate a lovingly prepared, picked-in-its-prime, artfully presented dish, sometimes I think food is just a means to an end, quick fuel to keep you going. I’ve eaten many a “dirty water” New York hot dog without giving it a thought, had microwave popcorn for dinner, and subsisted on beers and ham-and-cheese toasties on the road. I’m one of those people who “forgets” to eat, and especially now that I have a toddler at heel all the time, I often wish I could just take a pill to replace the tasks of cooking, eating, and cleaning up after. Preparing a multi-course meal on the scale of the average Japanese or Italian home cook is just not in my wheelhouse. Or could it be?

We recently took a two-week trip to Sicily, the last “big” trip we’ll take before my baby turns 2 next month and we have to start paying for her tickets. The highlight of the trip was a week spent in a rented farmhouse outside the town of Noto in the southeast. Set amidst lemon trees and a small river to wade in, the interior was especially the stuff of “Under the Tuscan Sun”-style fantasies: three bedrooms with beamed ceilings and iron beds, a cozy living room loaded with an international assortment of books and board games around a Moroccan-style fireplace, a bathroom with soaking tub (a rarity in Italy, where claustrophobic showers that flood the bathroom are the norm), and the pièce de résistance: a huge kitchen with a long dining table, large center island, and lots of light and space. The sort of kitchen you might imagine yourself in, barefoot in a fabulous sun dress, cold glass of wine in hand, chopping herbs just picked from the garden, while your beaming child munches on organic fruit and your relaxed husband takes a break from staring out into the valley to light the coals for your 5 euro steak filets. That pretty much sums up my week.

Cooking each night with the resources of Italian supermarkets, food specialty shops and green markets broadened my palate as well as my waistline. When artisanal, organic and locally made foods are the norm and not the exception, being a foodie becomes more human, less pretentious. I put my college minor in Italian to the test when going to the butcher, the baker and the gelato maker. In Sicily, it is socially acceptable to eat gelato for breakfast (sometimes on a slightly sweet brioche roll), but as the weather was starting to heat up and even the small town gelaterias had a wide range of flavors to sample, I thought it fair to eat twice a day. The highlights were milk & honey in Noto and a peach bourbon in Modica; there were no low points in the ice cream sampling. Adopting the local customs, we planned for a primo, a salad, and a main course each night. Sometimes we’d be too stuffed from a bruschetta-like salad and frozen pizza enlivened with spicy sausage, basil from our garden and roasted cherry tomatoes; we would have to forgo the herb-and-parmesan rubbed pork chops we grilled until the next night.

Did I mention I’m also not a tomato person? While I like a marinara sauce as much as the next gal, I never could handle the texture of a raw tomato: seedy, watery, anemic. A sun-dried tomato held some appeal, but I’d still eat dishes like bruschetta like a culinary Russian roulette: one bite delicious melted cheese, the next would be all slimy seeds and rough skin. Living in Turkey with amazing produce had warmed me to the idea of a raw tomato, but after nearly a year back in the U.S., I was back on strike. In Sicily, staying close to the town of Pachino, a tomato Mecca, I ate them like potato chips, even adding them to already tomato-heavy pasta dishes and pizzas. Who knew the wee cherry tomato could be so bursting with flavor, so devoid of seedy ickiness, so much like a fruit?

We’ve now been home in Brooklyn over a week and life is slowly returning to normal. The jet lag has abated enough that I can stay up later than 9 p.m. again, and the scale is less angry at me than when we first returned. I’ve been experimenting with how to use the pistachio pesto (add lots of garlic for pasta, spread extra on sandwiches) and pistachio cream (dip berries, or as the Internet wisely suggests, spoon directly into mouth) purchased in the markets, and am hoarding the sun-dried Pachino tomatoes for after summer. I’ve made bruschetta a few times, though the cost of decent tomatoes and fresh mozzarella in Brooklyn would make most Italians choke on their crostini. At least at home I could rediscover what’s great about not being in Italy: non-Italian food. Avocados returned to my salads, Chinese moo shoo pancakes were now available, and salmon roe was just a quick subway ride to Brighton Beach away. While I miss the twice-daily gelato fixes, Sicily taught me that enjoying food doesn’t have to be pretentious or expensive, and you can always follow your stomach to what’s most freshly available in your area, whether that’s spaghetti with fresh tuna and red pesto sauce or a perfectly done burger and fries. And sometimes, microwave popcorn makes a fine second course.

Learn Tuscan Cooking At Historic Wine Estate And Boutique Hotel

chiantiThere’s certainly no shortage of cooking schools and classes to be found in Italy, but the type, quality and locale vary wildly. If you’re looking for something focused on the good stuff – like eating – within a stunning venue, Castello Banfi Il Borgo is likely to make you as happy as a pig in … lardo.

This stunning historic estate, comprised of 7,100 acres of vineyards and olive groves, is located near Montalcino, one hour south of Siena. It was created from restored 17th- and 18th century structures adjacent to a medieval fortress known as Poggio alle Mura, and is owned by the Mariani family, well known for their Brunello di Montacino wine.

The seasonal, contemporary Tuscan menus used in the classes are taught by the property’s English-speaking sous chefs, who are from the region. Classes are offered exclusively to guests of Il Borgo March through November, based upon availability (advance reservations required). Two hundred and twenty euros will get you a demo, hands-on class, and four-course lunch paired with estate wines.

Other activities offered through Il Borgo include foraging for porcini mushrooms and chestnuts in fall, driving the hills of Chianti in a Ferrari or Maserati (but of course), hot air balloon rides, shopping excursions, and more. Even if you decide to just kick it in one of the 14 Frederico Forquet of Cetona-designed rooms, you’ll be able to indulge with bath amenities made from estate-grown Sangiovese grapes. That puts the “ahh” in Montalcino.

Overview of Siena, Italy

Eating in the Horn of Africa: camel, goat and. . .spaghetti?

Horn of Africa, Somaliland
When my wife and I went to the Horn of Africa last year for our Ethiopia road trip, we were eagerly looking forward to a culinary journey. We weren’t disappointed. Ethiopian food is one of our favorites and of course they make it better there than anywhere else!

While it came as no surprise that the food and coffee were wonderful, the cuisine in the Horn of Africa turned out to be more varied and nuanced that we expected. The two countries I’ve been to in the region, Ethiopia and Somaliland, have been connected to the global trade routes for millennia. Their national cuisines have absorbed influences from India, the Arab world, and most recently Italy.

Ethiopians love meat, especially beef and chicken. One popular dish is kitfo–raw, freshly slaughtered beef served up with various fiery sauces. I have to admit I was worried about eating this but I came through OK. Chicken is considered a luxury meat and is more expensive than beef. One Ethiopian friend was surprised to hear that in the West chicken is generally cheaper than beef.

Ethiopian booze is pretty good too. Tej is a delicious honey wine and tella is a barley beer. They also make several brands of lager and one of stout.

I’ve also spent time in the Somali region of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Living in arid lowlands rather than green and mountainous highlands, the Somalis have a very different cuisine than the Ethiopians. A surprising staple of Somali cooking is pasta. Actually on second thought it isn’t so surprising. The former Somalia was an Italian colony for a few decades. Italian food is popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia as well and makes for a refreshing change from local cuisine. Some Somalis are still pastoral nomads, moving through the arid countryside with their herds of camels and goats much like their ancestors did centuries ago. Pasta is a perfect food for nomads–compact, lightweight, nutritious, and easy to prepare.

The only downside to eating pasta in the Somali region is that Somalis, like most Africans, eat with their hand. I made quite a fool of myself trying to eat spaghetti with my hand!

%Gallery-136247%Goat is a popular meat in the Somali region and is served in a variety of ways. I love a good goat and have eaten it in a dozen countries. It’s tricky to cook, though, and can easily be overdone and end up stringy and flavorless. Good goat, however, is one of the best meats around. For some expert opinion, check out Laurel Miller’s fun post on the cultural aspects of eating goat.

While goat is the main meat for Somalis, what they really like is camel. These ships of the desert are expensive, so camel meat is usually reserved for special occasions like weddings. Wealthy, urban professionals eat it fairly regularly, though. At the Hadhwanaag Restaurant and Hotel in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, expert chefs slow-cook goat and camel in clay ovens that look much like tandoori ovens. The meat comes out deliciously tender and fragrant. Lunch at the Hadhwanaag was easily one of my top five meals in Africa.

Oh, and don’t forget Somali tea! A mixture of black tea, spices, and camel’s milk, it’s almost identical to Indian chai. The perfect pick-me-up after a long day seeing Somaliland’s painted caves or looking for your next edible ride at the camel market.

The Horn of Africa has an unfair reputation for warfare and famine. This is because it only gets on the news when something bad happens there. It makes a great adventure travel destination, though, and the determined traveler will find fascinating sights, friendly people, and great food. With any luck I’ll be back there in 2012!

ItaliaOutdoors introduces ski adventures for wine and food enthusiasts

italiaoutdoors offers ski vacations that combine food and wineBeginning in December, 2011, ItaliaOutdoors will host snow and ski tours that also include activities for food and wine enthusiasts. These small group excursions will give participants insight into the culinary culture of the Trentino Alto-Adige region of Northeastern Italy.

Each tour can be customized to fit any fitness level and budget, from shorter trails to advanced mountain climbs. Groups will be limited to twelve participants and trips are all-inclusive (aside for airfare). And the best part is, no matter which package you choose, daily wine tastings are included.

The guides for these tours are Vernon McClure and Kathy Bechtel, two extremely qualified individuals to give participants a top-notch trip. McClure has more than fifteen years of experience designing, leading, and teaching ski excursions in Italy and throughout Europe, while Bechtel is a trained ski instructor as well as a chef with formal wine training. In fact, she hosts her own food and wine television show in Sugarloaf, Maine, where she shares travel-inspired tips and recipes.

For more information or to sign up for a tour, click here.

Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]