Showing posts with label communicating in Italy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label communicating in Italy. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking (A Review)

Frugality is once again sweeping America, and with good reason. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, the housing market stagnant. Everywhere families are trying to squeeze the most out of what they already have. Yet this is nothing new for veteran cookbook author and cooking instructor, Pamela Sheldon Johns. In her latest book, Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking, she taps into this renewed interest in resourcefulness and brings us a collection of 60+ recipes that highlights the beauty of simply prepared food. Sheldon Johns, who has lived and worked in Tuscany for more than 20 years, set out to answer a simple question, "What did Italians eat in hard times?" She gathered the answers from her Tuscan neighbors, friends, and local Italian food producers who told her of extreme hardships during the years prior to, during, and shortly after World War II. Yet they still managed to eat and eat well. Their secret? Preparing what's in season, focusing on fresh, locally produced food and never letting anything go to waste.

The book, beautifully photographed, centers on recipes and food that graced the tables of peasant farmers. This is cucina povera or poor kitchen. The food of everyday, working class Italians and not the wealthy land owners. And that's what makes it so exciting to cook from. Although I found familiar recipes such as Pasta al Forno or Baked Pasta, and Bruschetta al Pomodoro, Toasted Bread with Tomato, I didn't find the run-of-the-mill entries like lasagna. How refreshing!

I started out by fixing Panzanella or Bread Salad. This marriage of reconstituted day-old bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions dressed in a garlicky oil and vinegar dressing is pure comfort food. In fact, several of the recipes in the book call for leftover bread. (Tuscans used to bake their bread only once a week and with the absence of salt as it was highly taxed, the bread quickly dried out.) Other bread-inspired dishes include Pappa al Pomodoro, a Tomato-Bread Soup, and my favorite, Ribollita, the Classic Tuscan Vegetable-Bread Soup. Although the step-by-step photographs had my mouth watering with anticipation, the four-day preparation left me thinking this version of Ribollita will have to wait for when I have more time. Yet the Pollo Arrosto al Vin Santo or Roasted Chicken with Vin Santo Sauce couldn't have been simpler nor tasted any better, and was a huge hit with my finicky children. The sauce is the star of this dish, a fusion of pan juices and the sweet desert wine. A slice of thick, crusty bread is a great accompaniment to wipe every last drop from your plate.

Another kid-pleaser was the Gnudi, Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings. These "nude ravioli" so named for its lack of a pasta covering, reminded me of gnocchi but lighter in flavor and so much easier to make. I served them with a covering of simple tomato sauce. The recipe easily doubled and the leftovers made great after-school snacks for a week! (Remember--never let anything go to waste!)

My final foray (for now, at least) was Pomodori, Fagioli, e Cipolline or Roasted Tomatoes, Beans, and Onions. Another super simple dish of hearty vegetables anointed with olive oil and then quickly baked in the oven just long enough to sweetly caramelize. It was a fulfilling side dish to my roasted pork dish although it could be a meal in itself. A loaf of bread. A glass of wine. What could be better?

Buon appetito!

Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
by Pamela Sheldon Johns
Buy it now from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC

Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Speak Like an Italian

My Italian is terrible but I've managed to communicate well while traveling in Italy.

On my first visit to the country years ago, I didn't try to speak the language. Although I knew a little, I was too afraid. It wasn't much fun. On a subsequent journey, I traveled to more remote areas where few people spoke English, forcing me to use what Italian I did know. The result was surprising--people understood me!

Montepulciano, Italy
It didn't happen overnight. My method for communicating evolved over a week as I learned the tricks to this linguistic stuff. Armed with a handful of useful expressions that I learned from great little book called, See It and Say It in Italian, I conscientiously tried to talk as a native when asking for a hotel room or ordering food--just like an actor playing a role. In stores, I'd eavesdrop on people gossiping, then pick one word and speak it exactly as they did. Italians often enunciate every syllable as if it were the most important sound in the world. At first I thought I sounded silly, but to a local, I sounded Italian.

Understanding the Italians is easy once you realize you don't have to comprehend every word they say. One will do. I anticipated what the person was going to say based on the current situation, then listened for key words rather than trying to translate every word rapidly flying from the speaker's mouth. So, even if I didn't grasp three-quarters of the sentence (often the case), I guessed at the intent and answered accordingly, and 90 percent of the time I was right.

For instance, suppose a waiter approaches your table and begins clearing the plates. He looks at you and asks a question. You have no idea what he just said, but you did hear the word secondo. You can surmise that he's asking if you want a second course. It doesn't matter how he asked. The important thing is you understood! If you want to eat more, nod your head and give him your order; if not, ask for il conto (the bill). See how simple?

Be forewarned though: If you get too good at bluffing (which is essentially what you're doing), Italians will think you're fluent which could prove embarrassing. For example, years ago in the Tuscan countryside, I had successfully "faked" my way through a great steak dinner (bistecca alla fiorentina) making small talk with the owner of a rustic trattoria outside of Barberino Val d'Elsa. I had him so fooled that while we were eating dessert, he came to our table to ask me to translate for an American couple who had come in asking to make a long-distance phone call. Since I had been drinking a bit of wine, the job seemed simple. The couple told me their problem and their need to use the trattoria's phone and I then turned to the owner and repeated their request slower and louder--in English! Everyone just stared at me like I was crazy.

Still, there are other times when I don't understand a single word an Italian is saying to me and rather than trying to bluff, I smile brightly and use my "emergency" sentence, "Sono una stupida Americana. Non parlo Italiano," or, "I'm a stupid American. I don't speak Italian." It always gets me a laugh and lots of sympathy.

I promise--if you take a little time to familiarize yourself with this beautiful language, you'll be richly rewarded.

Buon appetito!