On my first trip to Italy, I learned the word retardo. On my second trip, I learned how to make vinaigrette.
These memories came to mind as I made my dinner last night. I wanted to write that I learned to make vinaigrette on my first trip, but careful consideration proved that to be false.
My first trip was by military aircraft to Vicenza Airbase. Because neither Switzerland nor Austria permitted US military aircraft to pass through their airspace, a roughly one hour flight took three hours. We were forced to fly around the Alps, but at least the French let us in. Vicenza offered no appeal, so we decided to take a train to Venice. I learned that all Italian trains run late, but at least the country has passenger trains.
My second trip was also by airplane, but it was with Lufthansa. This was my daughter’s first trip, first time in an airplane, and first time in Italy. (It must have made a lasting impression, because she married an Italian.) I recall watching the waiter at the small hotel beside Lago Maggiore whip up a vinaigrette in a shallow plate with a fork. He dissolved salt and pepper in white wine vinegar and then drizzled in olive oil while constantly whisking. Fantastic. I follow the same method, but have yet to equal the taste. Still, this is far superior to any bottled variety.
The photo shows the view from the hotel where I learned to make vinaigrette. Of course, it was taken at breakfast on our terrace, one floor above the dining room.
I am not a fan of Jamie Oliver, the English “celebrity chef”, but he does stir things up in the field of media attention to food and eating habits. He tried to improve school lunches in Britain and was ruthlessly attacked. It seems that mothers would rather bow to children’s desire to eat unhealthy food.
I bring up his name, because I noticed a headline in which he stirs another kettle and emotions, cooking up only controversy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that his latest salvo hits a target. Photos or video footage of poor people’s homes always reveal the presence of modern electronic amidst the squalor. During riots, looters always seem to hit the electronics shops, not the grocery stores.
My conclusion is that he is correct. Numbing the brain (have you scanned programs currently available on television?) has priority over filling bellies with healthy fare. High levels of sugar, salt, and fat in cheap food is enough to dull both hunger and thought. Sadly, Mr. Oliver is again cooking up only a furor in which few will be interested and nothing will change.
I do not like the taste of coriander, which is difficult to avoid if Asian cuisine. I recall its copious use spoiling my enjoyment of grouper at Hong Kong dinners. Earlier, I thought that lemon grass was the of the unpleasant taste sensation, until I learned the true culprit.
I have found that a mere hint of this herb can provide an interesting accent, but cooks tend to use too much...which tips the balance into the unpleasant camp. We do not use this at home, because I wish to avoid the risk of being forced to eat something I will not enjoy.
Today, we visited a Michelin-starred restaurant for lunch. The set menu included everything I like...except the desert selection: melon soup with coriander ice cream. Of course, I informed the waiter of my aversion, but she counter with her shared feelings and surprise at tasting the desert. I decided to live on the wild side and not demand a different desert.
Wise decision. In fact, I enjoyed the coriander ice cream, to the extend of praising the chef. He explained that he had made the ice cream using coriander seeds and not leaves (as if I knew the difference!). The lesson here is that one should be willing to try something risky, but only if the waiter recommends. Of course, this leap of faith will never extend to Indian cuisine, which one must only look at to know that it cannot be good...
A stack of bags of charcoal outside the grocery store sparked a thought. That is one pain in the neck from which I no longer suffer. The best invention is the gas grill. There is no buying bags of charcoal each week (weather permitting, which has not been the case this year), no struggling to light a fire, no messy ashes to dispose, and no rusty grill. We even use the gas grill in the winter, as well as on Spring days that feel like winter, because it is so easy to use and to clean.
Anyone suffering from myopia or gender bias or stereotypitis will misinterpret the below photo and be unable to guess not only what's cookin' but also who
Most should be familiar with the Simon & Garfunkel song, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. I heard this for the first time many years—decades even—ago. I was a big fan of the two and others of their genre. At the time, the words in the title had—for the most part—different meanings for me.
I knew parsley, which was a green thing used to garnish restaurant meals. I recall my father popping this into his mouth and praising its nutritional value. I followed his example for many years, but lost the habit in Germany, where parsley is used as an herb and not a garnish. Because of that, I now eat more parsley than my father ever did.
Rosemary was a girl's name, mostly used by Catholic families in the town where I grew up. Fortunately, I did not understand the difference in religions, and I lived in a family in which prejudices were non-existent or not mentioned (except by my grandmother, one of the all-time leading bigots, but no one paid her much attention or teased her).
A sage was a wise person. I learned this word, when compelled to memorize vocabulary for school. I might have been apprised of another meaning, but only the one mentioned stuck in my brain….until I became more interested in cooking and herbs. I now have a sage bush in my garden, but know no sages.
Thyme was misunderstood: I assumed they sang about time. That's a problem with the English languages: many words sound alike, but have different meanings. English might be easy to learn, from a grammatical aspect, but vocabulary can be challenging.
Herbs and spices were not as widely used in kitchens of my childhood, adolescence, or military service. I recall only salt—the processed variety—and pepper—those black flecks in a little-used shaker. My mother had cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves for baking. I recall her advice to add clove to chicken soup, and I had a weakness for cinnamon toast, which I have not enjoyed for years—decades even.
Now, my herb contains sings the same song, with several additions that might not fit into the lyrics. Each herb is used regularly and adds a distinct note to any dish. I do not know how I lived without them, but have learned that my childhood was not as good as I had imagined. Everything in life is relative, but one must first learn about differences. I have even learned to differentiate between qualities of herbs and spices. Anyone with taste buds and a brain knows that sea salt is far superior to industrial table salt, and even sea salt has quality variations. I have even come to appreciated freshly ground peppercorns, after avoiding industrial pepper for most of my life. Fresh thyme is essential on grilled vegetables, in minestrone, and in many other dishes. Although sage is not my favorite, I tolerate a leaf in saltim bocca. Rosemary cannot fail with any variety of lamb, and a touch adds to the flavor of roast potatoes. As with any herb or spice, too much of a good thing can be really bad.
I liked the song from first hearing, and now I can enjoy the true meaning of the words and the culinary pleasures they provide.
Below is a sure sign that Autumn has arrived...
After climbing a ladder to pick apples, making a crust, peeling and slicing, and preparing the filling, a fine specimen is ready to go in the oven...
One thing I learned years ago is that, if I want things like my mother used to make, I must make them myself. My wife is a great cook, but she grew up with different foods and flavors. The first step I took was to buy a copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, because that was her favorite. By carefully following whatever recipe I chose, I could come close to the flavors of my youth. Occasionally, I had difficulty sourcing the exact ingredients in a foreign country, but most are the same everywhere.
Over time, I settled into a rut of making the same (few) items. An annual favorite (not always restricted to Autumn) is apple pie. One finds pastries with apple filling in various other lands, but none tastes like one made from a Betty Crocker recipe. My efforts come close to the flavor I recall my mother producing.
And, the taste of the finished pie is as good as it looks...
I do not understand why people settle for or choose bad, mediocre or uninteresting food. French and Italian people understand the importance of ingredients, preparation, and presentation, which is why one can eat so well even in simple, inexpensive restaurants (bistro, trattoria). For example, the best sandwich I ever ate was at an Italian highway rest stop.
Today, we went to the "farmers" market. I write "farmers", because many stands feature fresh produce being sold by re-sellers, which have sourced local and imported goods at the wholesale market. I patronize real farmers, who have picked produce before coming to the market. This might not be as fresh as we used to source, when my father would buy corn from a farmer's truck beside his field, but close enough.
I also patronize the one Italian guy, who brings fresh produce from Italy for each market day (a drive that I do every few years and take two days to do it). We bought fantastic tomatoes, each being a different, irregular shape and unlike bland, uniform factory tomatoes one finds in super markets; huge artichokes; ripe melon; flavorful peaches; peppers; mushrooms; and Italian bread for bruschetta.
On the way home, we stopped at the Turkish fishmonger to find something to grill. We arrived late, so the selection was less than usual. The tuna looked inviting, but would not be ideal to grill. We considered sea bream and sole, but chose a large sea bass, which was fresh from the Atlantic and not a farm.
The poor sea bass surely imaged a different life than landing on hot grill after being gutted and stuffed with parsley, thyme, coriander, and lemon, but that cannot be helped. A fresh salad, including cucumber from my garden and home-grown green beans made ideal side dishes. Something that cannot fail is a nice bottle of white Bordeaux wine, well-chilled, of course. A rose from the garden decorated the table, which was also simple to cut in the garden.
How easy was that? Shopping was fun—much more fun that pushing a cart through a sterile super market. Preparation was easy and quick, almost simpler than opening a package of frozen fish and heating the oven. The table was set in not time.
Desert took a bit longer, because I made vanilla ice cream, which we topped with coulee from berries bought at the market. I do not recall any ice cream tasting this good.
Again, I cannot understand why people do not enjoy life. It's so easy…
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.