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Risiera di San SabbaOn my second morning in Trieste, it was a relief to see the sun finally beginning to peek out from an otherwise cloud-covered sky. I still had the sniffles but was feeling a little more energetic after getting close to nine hours of sleep. Since I would be spending about three and a half weeks in Friuli–Venezia Giulia’s capital city, it was a welcome change not to feel pressured to spend every waking moment in a ceaseless cycle of sightseeing. My new leisurely approach left plenty of time to sleep in, to wander aimlessly, to relax and enjoy myself without feeling hurried. In advance, I had laid out a general plan for my stay, with no more than one destination each day and lots of open-ended time to hang out with my friends at Pasticceria Penso across the street.

I set out midmorning to catch a bus to the Risiera di San Sabba, located in the industrial outskirts just south of Trieste. This former rice-husking plant was taken over by the Nazis during World War II and served as a prison for hostages, political prisoners, and Jews, as well as a transit camp for deportees on their way to Auschwitz. When the Germans fitted the building with a giant gas oven, the Risiera became Italy’s only concentration camp to be used for mass exterminations. At least five thousand prisoners are believed to have been executed here between the 1943 German invasion and the liberation of Trieste in 1945.

Risiera di San SabbaIn 1965, the Risiera di San Sabba was declared a national monument. Inside the austere brick and concrete structure, visitors can view actual prison cells, the death chamber, and a permanent exhibit of photographs and documents. The crematorium was destroyed by the Nazis during their retreat, but some of its remains are still visible along one wall of the stark courtyard. Today, the space where the oven once stood is memorialized with a large steel pavement and serves as a chilling reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Feeling rather somber afterward, I slowly made my way to the bus stop and rode back into Trieste’s city center. There, I had lunch at one of the city’s traditional buffets, Siora Rosa. Not a buffet in the American “all-you-can-eat” sense, but more of an old-world fast-food counter providing quick bites for dockworkers and shopkeepers, this particular establishment had been in business since before WWII.

I ordered the parsuto in crosta, a traditional Triestine dish in which a leg of prosciutto is wrapped in a layer of dough and baked to form a crust. The thick, pink slices of ham were served with another local specialty, chifeleti di patate. These were prepared with potato dough similar to gnocchi, formed into U-shapes, and deep-fried. I was expecting them to have a nice, crispy outside and a soft interior, but these had been reheated in the microwave and came out dismally soggy and limp. To wash it all down, I ordered a glass of local, red Terrano wine.

After lunch, I stopped at a bakery on Via di Cavana and bought a mini version of each of Trieste’s three native desserts: presnitz, putizza, and pinza. While I had previously sampled these at Pasticceria Bomboniera—and would soon have a chance to try them again at Pasticceria Penso—I wanted to taste yet another bakery’s recipes for the sake of comparison. In addition, I bought a small bag of fave dei morti, the tiny pink, brown, and white almond cookies that were popular during the months of October and November.

Trieste's Municipio buildingI had plenty of questions for my baker friends, about these desserts and much more, so next I paid a visit to Pasticceria Penso. Brothers Antonello and Lorenzo Stoppar were both there, and as usual, they invited me into the kitchen to watch them work. I would have many such days in the coming weeks, perched on a stool with a front-row view, the life cycle of desserts passing before my eyes in a calm flurry.

When the shop closed at 1:00pm for the family’s afternoon break, I took a long walk through the winding streets around Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia and found both a bookshop and an Internet café still open. After checking my email—I had brought along my laptop for writing, but there was no available Internet service at Residence Liberty—I headed back to my apartment.

My thrown-together dinner was much the same as the previous evening: a salad of greens and tomato slices, bread, cheese, a scrambled egg, and leftover string beans and potatoes. I also sautéed some eggplant with onion and garlic.

Getting used to my new kitchen was requiring a great deal of adaptability and patience. When I first arrived, the fridge was not cold, so I had turned down the temperature—apparently much too low, for this morning all my food was frozen. The microwave was so tiny that the only dish that would fit was a small saucer, and even that needed to be tilted awkwardly sideways—not ideal for reheating food. And without the luxury of a drying rack or sufficient counter space on which to set my dishes, I had to dry each piece immediately after washing, using a hand towel from the bathroom—the same towel that was doing double duty as a potholder.

Even though I had become very accustomed to traveling alone, evenings on this trip would prove to be a rather lonely time of day for me. During dinner, and for several hours afterward, I would usually watch television, endeavoring to improve my Italian language skills. Sometimes my fiancé and I would talk briefly on the phone. Sometimes I would organize my notes and make plans for the next day. More often than I’d like to admit, however, I found myself turning to repeated, mindless games of Solitaire to pass the time until I was ready to hit the sack.

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insalata di pere e MontasioFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Insalata di Pere e Montasio (Pear and Montasio Salad). While Friuli’s most acclaimed cheese, Montasio, is commonly used in this salad, I have also seen it prepared with formaggio di malga (cheese produced during the summer months in one of Carnia’s malghe, or mountain dairy farms). For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Trieste statue On my first morning in Trieste, I woke up with a full-blown cold. The symptoms had crept up on me during my lengthy train ride from Budapest, and it was clear that I needed to spend this first day taking it easy.

Upon my late arrival the previous evening, I hadn’t had time to fully take in my new accommodations at Residence Liberty. In the morning light, I could see that the apartment was quite spacious—bigger, even, than my old studio apartment in San Francisco—with a separate narrow kitchen, a large bathroom off the foyer, and high ceilings in the main room. The living area was furnished with a couple of upholstered chairs, a small round table, an armoire, and a desk. The double bed occupied one corner and could be curtained off by floor-to-ceiling draperies, giving it the feel of a separate room. Blue-and-yellow floral curtains framed the windows that, from the eighth floor, overlooked a sea of terracotta-tiled rooftops. Though the windows rattled noisily in the strong bora winds, it was still mesmerizing to lie in bed that morning and watch the rain patter rhythmically against the glass.

I had been thrilled at the prospect of having my own kitchen for a change, but disappointment set in when I saw that there was no oven—just a stovetop burner atop the mini-fridge—and that the microwave was scarcely large enough to hold a saucer tilted sideways. Nevertheless, it was imperative that I stock the kitchen with essentials to last for my three-week stay.

When I could no longer postpone the inevitable, I pried myself out of bed, took a hot shower, and headed outside to the blustery streets. As luck would have it, I found a tiny supermercato on the next block, and there I bought staples like milk, juice, butter, eggs, bread, cheese, yogurt, and muesli, plus a few cans of fruit and fish. Since my kitchen was completely bare, I even had to buy salt, pepper, and olive oil, as well as supplies such as dish soap, sponges, and napkins.

The supermarket did not carry any fresh produce, so I dropped off my bags of groceries at the apartment and then headed to the Mercato Coperto on Via Carducci. This indoor market was filled with produce stands, and I picked up an assortment of bananas, apples, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, potatoes, string beans, onions, and garlic.

On my way back from the market, the handwritten menu outside a restaurant called Bagutta Triestino caught my eye. Their daily special was minestra di bobici—not only would this soup be perfect on such a rainy October day, but I could cross off another dish from my “to-try” list. This was my fourth trip to the region specifically for the purpose of researching its cuisine for Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy, and I had already tried most of the dishes that would eventually make it into my book. There were still a few, however, that remained elusive, mostly due to the seasonal nature of certain ingredients. Bobici was one of those that I had so far been unable to find.

Originally a specialty of the Istrian peninsula—and meaning “corn” in the Triestine dialect—bobici is a vegetable soup containing three key ingredients: corn, beans, and potatoes. Bagutta Triestino’s version was also loaded with carrots, onion, and fava beans. The steaming bowl was just what I needed for my stuffy head!

Later, after a much-needed nap, I set to work preparing my first meal in my new apartment. Because of my lengthy stay in Trieste, my game plan was to eat lunch out every day and then stay in and cook for dinner—a strategic means of saving both money and calories. The kitchen, however, was only marginally equipped for cooking. Since the only cutting board and skillet were too filthy and full of gashes to use, I resorted to slicing everything on a plate (with an extremely dull knife) and using the one medium-sized pot for cooking absolutely everything. This made the whole process more time-consuming than it should have been, having to cook each element in succession rather than simultaneously.

First, I boiled some potatoes, coarsely mashing them, skin on, with some butter, salt, and pepper. Then, in the same pot, I boiled the string beans and gave them a final sauté with some garlic and olive oil. Finally, I scrambled an egg—yes, in that same pot—which I served with the vegetables, an undressed salad of greens and tomato slices, a slice of bread, and some cheese.

Since the kitchen had no storage containers, and I hadn’t bought anything like plastic wrap or aluminum foil, I covered the bowls of leftover potatoes and string beans with plates before stashing them in the tiny fridge. Washing dishes was tricky, too, as there was no drying rack or dishtowel. I snagged the extra hand towel from my bathroom, but there was no place in the kitchen to hang it, except over the back of a chair. By the time my meal and chores were finished, I was beat and ready to collapse into bed and shut my eyes until morning.

Minestra di BobiciHere is my recipe for minestra di bobici. The sweet corn and salty pancetta provide lots of flavor, making this one of my all-time favorite soups.

4 ounces dried borlotti (cranberry) beans
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
6 cups water
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 ears corn, or about 2 cups whole kernels
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. In advance, place the beans in a small bowl and cover with water. Let soak for at least 12 hours, or overnight; drain.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and pancetta; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Add the beans and 6 cups water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, for 2 hours.

3. Add the potatoes to the pot; return to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium; cook until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

4. Shave the corn kernels off the cobs using a sharp knife; rub the blunt edge of the knife over the cobs to extract their milky liquid. Add the corn kernels and the liquid to the pot, along with the black pepper; cook 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt.

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asparagi con uovaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Asparagi con Uova (Asparagus with Egg Salad). Late April and early May mark the peak of white asparagus season in Friuli, when the town of Tavagnacco holds its annual Festa degli Asparagi. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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TriesteOn the morning of my departure from Budapest, I awoke extra early in order to catch my 8:35am train to Trieste. Despite hitting the morning rush on the subway ride to the station, I still managed to arrive with 40 minutes to spare. Since the agent did not make a seat assignment when I booked my ticket two days earlier, I had been concerned about finding a seat if the train were to be full. I needn’t have worried, though, as only one other person shared my compartment during the entire journey.

At breakfast in my hotel, I had swiped a few snacks for the trip: a slice of whole wheat bread, a bit of cheese, and an apple. I also had the sandwich and bananas that I had purchased the previous afternoon. It was going to be a really, really long day!

I settled into my window seat to watch the passing scenery. When we passed Lake Balaton, I thought at first that we had inexplicably reached the sea, for the expanse of blue was so vast that the distant horizon appeared nothing more than a blur of sky and water. The other passenger in my compartment was an older Italian gentleman who relentlessly persisted in his attempts to converse. Normally, I’d relish the chance to practice my Italian, but I was by now getting a sore, scratchy throat—the beginnings of a bad cold.

When the train pulled into the station at Zagreb, Croatia, the gentleman got off, and I would end up having the compartment all to myself for the duration of the trip. By midday, the sky turned gray and cloudy, and I tried to distract myself by reading one of the paperback novels I had packed. With each border we crossed, there was a lengthy wait as officials boarded the train and checked every passenger’s passport.

Despite the gloomy weather, I found the countryside in Slovenia to be quite lovely. The train ran alongside a river with quaint-looking houses on the opposite bank. Shortly, rain began to fall. When we stopped in Ljubljana, masses of people boarded the train, though I still remained alone in my compartment.

Finally, the train pulled into Monfalcone, Italy, where I was to make my connection to Trieste. We were running a half hour behind schedule, arriving just as my connecting train pulled into the opposite platform. Surrounded by a small crowd of people trying to make the same connection, I scrambled off the train, found the stairs to the sottopassaggio (underpass), and lugged my rolling duffel back up to the correct platform—only to watch the train pull away. We had all missed it by mere seconds! A quick check of the schedule revealed that there was, fortunately, another train to Trieste in just 10 minutes.

By the time I arrived in Trieste, it was 8:15pm. Since I had been to Trieste several times before, I knew exactly where I was going: the Residence Liberty, kitty-corner from my favorite bakery, Pasticceria Penso. It was a 20-minute walk from the station, but the rain had mostly tapered off into a light drizzle. As my sore throat was now progressing into a sneeze and runny nose, I was just happy to have finally arrived.

When I had emailed Residence Liberty the previous week to confirm my reservation, I had given them my anticipated arrival time and was assured that they would wait for me. It was thus without any qualms that I approached the apartment building and, seeing that the front door was locked, rang the bell for the reception desk. No one answered. I kept pressing the buzzer over and over, as the minutes ticked by. Still no answer. Just as I was starting to panic, the door opened. It was only a guest leaving, but he let me enter, announcing ominously that the reception had already closed. Now I truly began to panic! Sure, I felt relieved to be indoors out of the chilly night air, but I still wanted nothing more than to curl up in the comfort of what would be my bed for the next three weeks.

Steeling myself to spend my first night in the lobby, I began to look around for a place where I could at least sit down. The sound of my luggage wheels must have been startling, for just then a weary-looking older man appeared around the corner of the darkened reception desk. He looked at me as if to say, Who the hell are you? When I introduced myself, he informed me that the reception was closing in 15 minutes, at exactly 9:00pm. Apparently, he had not been privy to my previous email exchange.

Given that he actually was closing up for the night, I felt like I had dodged a bullet of monumental proportions. What if the next train had been 15 minutes later than it was? What if I had not been let into the building when no one was answering the doorbell? I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I waited for the elevator to carry me up to my apartment on the 8th floor.

As I was unpacking my essentials, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I did have one banana left, but I wanted to save it for breakfast, since I wouldn’t be able to buy groceries until sometime the next morning. I took a quick trip out around 9:30pm, hoping to find something to eat. There was only one place open in the immediate neighborhood—a takeout pizza joint, where I got a slice with mushrooms and scarfed it down within minutes. I made it back to my apartment just as the rain began falling again, eager to crawl straight into bed.

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Dobos torteIt was my second and final day in Budapest. I had planned a self-guided walking tour of the eastern Pest side of the river, arranging my route not only to see some of the famous sights but also to hit as many bakeries as possible—not to sample sweets in all of them, necessarily, but to indulge in the visual fantasy of pastries and chocolate.

My morning consisted of a three-hour stroll past such landmarks as the Great Synagogue, Varosliget Park, the Széchenyi Baths, and the Budapest Zoo. I only managed to find one of the pastry shops along the way but resisted the temptation to order anything. I did locate Gundel, purportedly the city’s finest restaurant and where I was hoping to have lunch. One of my main reasons for visiting Budapest was to sample authentic Hungarian gulyás, and I had read that Gundel’s version was outstanding. However, as I stood perusing the menu posted outside, I was disappointed to find that the dish was not being served that day.

So I took the Metro’s yellow line—the oldest subway in continental Europe—back toward the city center and Deák Ferenc square. Since it was a direct trip with no transfers, I was able to buy a single ticket and avoid the hassle I had experienced the day before. From there, I wandered awhile longer, searching unsuccessfully for yet another restaurant on my list.

I ended up near Csarnok Vendéglő, where I had enjoyed a delicious meal my first evening. I decided to eat there again, since I remembered seeing gulyás on the menu. The restaurant was packed with a noisy lunch crowd, but I was able to snag a free table outside. Naturally, I ordered the gulyás, which was more of a soup than a stew, prepared with a little beef and lots of potato and carrots. I also tried the mushroom appetizer: stuffed with chicken livers, the mushroom caps were pressed together in pairs, deep fried, and served in a red wine gravy. For dessert, I was hoping to order the chocolate palacsinta (crêpe), but sadly, they were all out.

After lunch, I walked to the Parliament building and sat in the square to rest a bit and reassess my schedule. Because of my change in plans at lunchtime, I wouldn’t be able to make it to some of the bakeries farther afield, but there was one located just north of Parliament. Once I had rested sufficiently, I paid a visit to Szalai Cukrászda and treated myself to a slice of dobostorte. Like all the ones I had seen in both Vienna and Budapest, this one had the requisite six thin layers of sponge cake, the top slice covered in thick, crunchy caramel and the rest filled with chocolate buttercream.

My next stop was the Great Market Hall, just a couple blocks south of my hotel. The vast Neo-Gothic building comprised three floors, the main level filled with rows and rows of food stalls, selling a variety of produce, meats, spices, and sweets. There, I replenished my supply of bananas—my perpetually reliable, easily transportable snack, which I would need for the following day’s train ride to Trieste. On my way back to Hotel Art, I also picked up a sandwich for my lunch on the train.

For dinner, I went to a restaurant called Greens, which was on my trusty guidebook list and that I had passed by earlier near the Synagogue. The review raved about the variety of vegetable dishes, all prepared Hungarian-style, such as pumpkin stew and spinach in cream sauce. There was no menu posted outside, so I took a chance and went in. As it turned out, the only vegetables on the menu were fried cauliflower and fried mushrooms. So instead, I ordered the paprikás csirke (chicken paprikash) and a “mixed” salad. The salad consisted primarily of iceberg lettuce tossed in a creamy, pickly dressing, with four tomato slices, a mound of pickles, and a dollop of sour cream. The chicken was prepared with a creamy paprika sauce that was surprisingly bland, and served on a huge plate with about three cups worth of tiny, doughy dumplings. When I had finished eating as much as I possibly could, it looked like I had barely made a dent in the food. They offered palacsinta on the dessert menu here as well, but I was so stuffed, I reluctantly had to forgo the crêpes yet again.

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pinzaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Pinza (Easter Bread), in honor of the upcoming holiday weekend. While this sweet loaf was originally prepared in Friuli as a special Easter treat, it may now be found in bakeries year round, particularly in Trieste. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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