Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Second Winter: Musings about living here for more than a year

I've now been living in Italy for about 14 months... and I have to say that the reality of living here is different than I expected.  Some things are better, some are worse.  Some just, well, different.  I'm finding that I am much more homesick that I expected.  I have lived all over the place, in various parts of the world, but until now there was always an end point, like living in Asheville until I went to college, or living in Greensboro until I graduated college, living in Ireland until my visa expired, or living in Kentucky until I finished grad school.  Now that I am living in Italy and married, there is no 'end point', which I find to be fairly unsettling.  I love my husband and I love Italy, but I still get 'itchy feet'. 

I think I never got very homesick before because in the various places I have lived (or traveled to for extended periods), I always knew that I'd return to my family between each adventure.  Now, home is in the snowy Alps, and I am (probably) permanently on the other side of the globe from my family and lifelong friends.  To cope with this, I'm clinging to my Appalachian roots a lot more than I expected.  I play more Old Time music now than I ever did in the US, I'm always cooking southern food (pies, biscuits, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, roasted squash, etc), just made a patchwork quilt for a friend's baby, we are learning to brew beer at home because Italian beer generally tastes like poo, and I sometimes talk to myself in an empty house in a strong southern accent to keep myself company. 

That's not so say I haven't embraced the local culture, because I have.  I have a much deeper appreciation for wine than I ever did before, am enamored with the local cheeses (and am having some success making them myself), my favorite place in the world is inside the 2000 year old aqueduct up the road from here, and I can chat pretty well in Italian now.  I don't stand out as obviously as I did a year ago, and am learning how to maneuver my way through the Italian way of life. 

Things I like here
-Socializing generally revolves around food and cooking
-There are GIANT snow-capped mountains poking up everywhere.  Seriously, it is crazy.
-I can see glaciers from my kitchen
-Just about everyone can cook and they (nearly) all appreciate good, well made food
-Roman ruins absolutely everywhere, and the 2000 year old town I live outside of has 2000 year old walls surrounding it. 
-The pace of life is slower.  Things happen eventually, and people aren't rushing around like headless chickens
-There are still the small specialty shops.  Bread shops, pastry shops, meat shops, pasta shops, cheese shops, wine shops, chocolate shops...even shops that ONLY carry socks. 
-I can walk 5 minutes to get raw milk from the dairy vending machine.
-I can walk 2 minutes past to a great produce market where they grow much of what they sell. 
-The Italian language is beautiful
-The 'aperitivo'.  It translates as 'appetizer'... but it is so much better. Before dinner, when you go to a bar and get a glass of wine, they have a spread of tasty little appetizers that are included with your drink.  In the US, folks go out for a cup of joe.  Here, folks go out for an aperitivo. 
-FREE (or cheap, in some cases) medical care and medications!
-cheap public transportation exists in multiple forms, even if it isn't always reliable because the drivers are on strike what seems like half the time
-cobblestone pedestrian-only streets
-My giant rabbit, Genepy, who was saved from being cooked in a polenta sauce.  She weighs 6 kilos, and snores very loudly when she's not following me around like an imprinted duckling.

Things I don't like
-The Italian language is hard, especially when people talk fast, in dialect, strange accents, and use funny expressions
- If you have a prescription medicine, you must go every two weeks to the doctor to get a new prescription.  Even if it something you have to take for your whole life.  And then the Pharmacy probably doesn't have it because everyone is always on strike
-Bureaucracy.  I know it sucks everywhere, but here the laws change so often that no one (seriously! no one!) knows them even if it is their job.  Which means nothing ever gets done, and they end up doing funny things.  Like, I couldn't start working until my house was measured. 
-I don't know where to go to buy random things... like stickers, for example. 
-Ingredients are different.  If I want to make foreign food, like Mexican, I need to bring the ingredients from the US.  So I have a freezer full of masa harina, grits, cornmeal, and biscuit flour I hauled over since those things don't exist here. 
-Traveling ain't so easy when you live in a snowy, narrow valley in the middle of no where in the Alps
-I really, really miss my family... thank goodness for Skype, though.
-Most people want to eat my pet rabbit
-I feel like a baby because I don't have an innate knowledge of how to get anything done here, as I would in the US.  I want to sell jam and homemade cosmetics.  What offices do I need to go to so that I can start the process? Who knows!

It's a balance.  I love it here, but sometimes it annoys the living daylights out of me.  Overall, the balance is tipped in the direction of 'yippie, I love it here!', but it isn't always easy.  Life the past few months has been particularly crazy, as I stopped working as a medical physicist after only 6 months (contract issues... I was actually quite good at my job), and we are working towards running a B&B later this year.  It's one that someone we know already started years back, and needs someone to run it (me! me!).  I discovered that I have some kind of crazy natural born talent for jam and cosmetics (lotions, creams, etc) making that I will try to capitalize on.  My language skills are far better than a year ago; now I can talk to most people about most things, even if my grammar is...crappy.  It is dark and gloomy and snowy here, but I think we actually have far less snow than in the US at the moment, and snow is to be expected in the Alps, I suppose.  It's so strange... in the winter, the view literally looks like a black & white photo.  Everything is in shades of gray. 

Another thing...until a couple of years ago, dancing (lindy hop and contra dancing) were my life since about 2001.  I haven't hardly danced a step since I moved here, and it kind of feels like something has died inside of me as a result.  I still feel like a dancer, if though I don't really dance anymore.  However, upon realizing that, I bought myself a ticket to Barcelona for the New Year, so I am rocketing off tomorrow morning to dance for a few days! I also bought a pass for the European Swing Dance Championships in June (also in Barcelona), so that is another thing to look forward to. 

Oh, one thing I didn't mention above, but since it is Italy, it must be said.  The shoes here are gorgeous. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Homemade Veggie Burgers! mmm....

There are a good few things I want to write about, but since a number of people have been asking me about this particular topic lately, I'll go with it!

A bit of background: I've been a vegetarian for 18 or 19 years now, and I take care to make sure that I have enough protein in my diet, as it can be easy for a veg to overlook.  A lot of vegetarians just grab for their jar of peanut butter (if they live in the US), a block of cheese, or a can of beans and call it a day.

But... why do that when you can make something that is more balanced, tasty, AND easy?  Veggie burgers are the staple of many veggie diets, but generally they are the type that are in a box in the frozen food isle.  Even if you go to a nice restaurant and order a veggie burger, it is...well, always from my experience....from a box in the freezer.  It never occurred to me that veggie burgers were something that normal people could make at home, until my husband got me a really great book, Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, by Lukas Volger. I have to admit, I am terrible about following recipes.  I generally just look at one to get inspiration, and then go my own way.  I followed some recipes in this book the first few times, but now that I just make 'em up as I go, and they turn out great.  I really do recommend this book, though.

A note on beans: Yeah, you can used canned beans, but they are generally loaded with preservatives and just aren't as tasty as the real thing.  The 'real thing' is easy, you just have to think of it in advance.  Before you go to bed, put some dried beans in a bowl, cover with water, and leave them there for 12 hours, plus or minus whatever time is convenient to you.  Rinse and then put in a pot and cover with fresh water and simmer til done.  Time will depend on the bean.  They are so much tastier this way.  And cheaper. 

Ok, so here is the 'Easy Bean Burger' recipe at the beginning of his book, slightly adapted.  It really is easy! And tasty! And versatile! You can also make them into tiny patties to put on a salad, which is fun.  And you can wrap up uncooked burgers and stick them in the freezer for up to 2 months. 

Easy Bean Burger
1 1/2 cups cooked beans
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1/4 grated parmesan
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoons salt
14 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup tasted bread crumbs (plus more if needed)
2 Tbs olive oil
(Optional tasty things to add in: chopped fresh sage, pesto, chopped sun dried tomatoes, chopped walnuts, etc)
**if you don't have all of these ingredients, don't worry.  The necessary ingredients are the beans, eggs, salt & pepper, bread crumbs, oil... but it is better with the other things.

-Preheat oven to 375 F
-Mash the beans in a bowl, and fold in all ingredients except for bread crumbs.  Then add bread crumbs, and add more if it is too loose.  It should be nice and wet.  Let sit for 5 minutes or so for the crumbs to soak up extra moisture.  Shape into 4 patties (or more, if you want mini burgers).
-In an oven safe skillet (like cast iron pan), heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add patties and cook until browned on each side, which should take 5-10 minutes total.  Transfer the pan to the oven and bake 12-15 minutes more until the burgers are firm and cooked through.  (if you don't have an oven safe skillet, cook over heat in whatever you have, and then cook in the oven on something that can go in the oven, like a cookie sheet or aluminum foil.

Serve however you want! I like to make my own buns (so easy! Get that book I told you about for the recipe.  Or just make normal bread, using half whole wheat, and form into balls, and use an eggwash to make seeds or whatever you want on top to stick) and also to make my own baked french fries and pickled red onions. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making Part III

In addition to making those other tasty cheeses in previous posts (especially queso fresco...mmmm!), I've been working on two new cheeses!

Cheese #7: Molded Cheese Rounds

This is basically a farmer-style cheese, made into to little rounds.  Before trying them, I thought 'TOMINI!', but alas they were only tomini in form, although they were still tasty.  Tomini are a common cheese fresh around here, and I'm trying to find a recipe so I can make them, too.

Anyhow, this was my first cheese made using cultures.  For how much cheese is made around here, no one seems to have a clue as to where I can get cultures.  I think that the local cheese makers probably have their own cultures that they propagate, and most folks just don't make cheese at home anymore.  So, although I live in the land of cheese, I ordered my cheese making cultures from the UK. 

For this cheese, the ingredients were milk, a mesophilic (low temp) culture or buttermilk (which doesn't exist here), rennet, and salt.  The molds were made out of paper cups with holes punched in them, and it was pressed with other paper cups filled with water. 

 I was supposed to gradually heat the milk in a simmering double boiler removed from heat, but as I pasteurized the raw milk first and was too impatient to cool it and then reheat it, I just let it cool down to the right temperature. 
 I added the mesophilic starter, and had to let it sit for an hour.  It started smelling nice and cheesy after that! Then, I added the rennet and let it sit for another hour.  Then, the miracle happened.  So, SO cool.  The milk turned into a gel-like solid.  As if the whole thing turned to jell-o.  It was pretty darn awesome.  I cut the curd with a whisk, heated them back up, drained, salted, and then divided the curds up between the cups. I pressed the cheeses, turned them (hard to get those darn things out!!!), keeped pressing, turned, and left the little cheesy suckers overnight.

  Then I took them out, let them dry off a bit, and VOILA! Cheese! They are really tasty, especially with a little bit of just pressed olive oil mixed with a little bit of pesto drizzled on top.

 Cheese #8: Ricotta Salata

Ricotta Salata is basically pressed, molded, salted, and slightly aged ricotta.  There are different ways to make ricotta... directly from the whey after making mozzarella, milk added to whey, or just from milk.  Add acid, and you have ricotta curd, and strain in a cheesecloth.  Then you pack it all into a mold (I was lucky! I finally found one... the last one for sale! a farm shop at the bottom of my driveway), and press it.  I don't have real cheese presses yet, so I had to improvise.

See? Lovely cheese in it's mold.  I made the mistake of not sticking in in with some cheesecloth the first time, and it got stuck, so I learned my lesson and it's now living in cheesecloth in the mold.  As with the other molded cheese, it needs to be flipped in the mold a few times that first day.

 Out of the mold! Isn't is beautiful?  This is before it's salted every day for a week, and then aged for a month.  I just finished the last salt rub (I see why it is called salata, as it will be SALTY) yesterday, and need to wait for 1 to 3 weeks more before diggin' in.  I'll let you know how it turns out!

In  other, very VERY exciting news... I spoke with Reuben the Cheesemaker yesterday at the Mistletoe Festival.  He makes fantastic goat cheese.  I've been to his place at the top of the mountain a couple of times before, and actually was there when a goat went into labor and gave birth, which was incredible.  He said that not only can I buy goat milk from him, come February when the goats give birth again, but he'll teach me to make cheese!  They are only making cheese for 10 more days until spring, so I will be going up there soon, to apprentice with a fantastic cheese maker.