sabato 7 giugno 2014

Me on a plate

For those of you who follow Masterchef, whether the US, UK, Australia or Italia versions, one of the recurring questions posed to contestants is "what  dish represents you on a plate?" As I was planning the dish I would present at my audition in Rome, this question really stuck out in my mind. Besides something that would be as delicious as possible re-warmed, I wanted to be sure that it "represented me on a plate".

 I tossed around many ideas in my head, it was Monday evening and I would have to depart for Rome on Friday. Whatever I brought would have to hold up to the trip and  wait to be re-warmed the following day. I called my high school friend and confidante of nearly 40 years Carmen, to share the news and see what she might think. We both like to believe we share a spark of psychic ability which flares into an illuminating light every now and then when we are together. At the end of our phone conversation we both thought the same thing- duck. Why duck?  And so duck became the springboard to the creation of me on a plate. It also meant that it had to be ordered from the butchers' and not available until Thursday.

My early years in Cortona, especially the first year, was one of discovery; of the country, the people and most importantly myself.  It had been probably the most significant leap of faith I've ever taken when I decided to follow that gut feeling and stay in Cortona after my study abroad experience here ended, without a plan, against all common sense. What better inspiration than my beginnings here?

I decided that an Asian style soup dumpling would travel and heat well, but I wanted  them to contain my Italian experiences. I decided to create a triptych of original dumplings which would be pre-cooked in broth, presented dry,  each one garnished in a small bowl with various herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruit chosen to complement each one. At the time of serving, I would pour hot broth from a tea pot over each dumpling, letting the garnishes infuse the broth to complement each dumpling-or at least this was the  idea.

Dumpling 1- "O Mare Mio"  Oh Sea of Mine... a scallop and shrimp filled  dumpling . I  rolled out the wrapper dough layered wtih small,  whole parsley leaves - Translucent when cooked so the pink shrimp and scallop coral filling was visible. It's crescent shape curved to resemble the crustacean inside. Garnished with grated fresh ginger, thinly sliced green onion threads and parsley leaves it was probably the most traditional tasting and represented my nostalgia for  my home town, San Francisco's seafood. Of course if available, I would have stuffed it with dungeness crab.

Dumpling 2. " Un ricordo di Janna" - A Memory of Janna  was a dumpling that told the story of a spring day with my Russian/American apartment mate for a time in Cortona. We could pay the rent, but our pantry was pretty bare. We would take long walks all around the city, up to the fortress to pass our days  One early spring day we were walking in a meadow below the fortress and found it to be filled with sweet smelling wild mushrooms. Janna  was certain they were edible. We started gathering as many as we could, we didn't have a basket so she took off her black velvet wrap (it was 1986 and she was rocking Madonna)  we filled that then we both gathered more into the folds of our long skirts. All the while I interrogated her - How do you know they are edible? "My grandfather always took me mushroom hunting." - "In the US?" "No, in Russia." "But didn't you say you immigrated to the US when you were 9 ??!!"  I refused to eat any until we brought specimens to the local bar/pizzeria where I'd washed dishes and waited tables to be examined and a verdict could be given. The usual afternoon clatch of  card players gathered around to view our spoils, some were fungaioli  (mushroom hunters) but a bit unwilling to pass judgement on any mushroom which wasn't a porcino. Claudio, a county police officer and mushroom enthusiast dropped by to visit his sister, the owner of the bar and pronounced them edible, Brumani gentili he told us. A triumphant Janna quickly gave me instructions on how to prepare them in a casserole with potatoes as they did when she was a child in Kiev.
I wanted to capture this day and  my fond memory of Janna in this dumpling. I prepared the noodle wrapper with a smattering of poppy seeds and enclosed a filling of brumani mushrooms procured for me by friend Chef Matteo Sciarri, chopped savoy cabbage and chinese dried cloud ear (mook yi) mushrooms. This one I garnished with finely julienned borage leaves ,  a few of the miniscule, bright periwinkle borage flowers and  fragrant fresh thyme leaves. I sealed the dumpling with a series of pleats to form a round dumpling with a small top knot.

Dumpling 3 " Odo ad Otello" Ode to Othello . An ill- fated duckling was the inspiration for my final and what I feel was the most successful dumpling. Filled with  duck meat roasted in  porchetta spices and sauteed finely diced apple and fennel bulb.

 Porchetta spices in this small corner of  Tuscany/ Umbria is unique from any other place.  A blend of fennel flowers or pollen , is chopped finely with garlic salt and pepper and a bit of rosemary. This spice blend is used on the whole deboned roast pig sold at market stands, on duck and rabbit and on the large Regina carp caught in the Trasimeno lake.  Moving to the west or north the blend of spices changes- the rosemary increases and the fennel flower disappears. I wanted to use this distinctly Cortonese flavor in my last dumpling. I pleated along both sides bringing them together in the middle to form a leaf shape. I decided the garnish would be fine matchsticks of apple and fennel bulb with a few airy fronds of fennel leaves. I took the skin from the neck and made it  crunchy crispy  to add as the final touch of garnish.

My first winter in Cortona I found housing  3 1/2 kilometers outside the city at the farmhouse of a German family. In lieu of rent I found myself the custodian and caretaker of  4 hens, 2 ducks, 7 penned geese and their pet crow Iago. Prior to their departure to winter in Germany I was given instructions in their very rudimentary and broken Italian. My Italian linquistic skills at the time were pretty much at the same level but in some way I understood that the free range animals were to be accompanied to their stall every evening, the light left on in the chicken coop for a few hours after dark, then they were to be  released in the morning. The mean, hissing and frightening geese were to be fed every day.Iago's cage was to be put out in the morning and taken in at night. I had a small electric water heater which held 10 liters of water for showering and for heat I had a wood burning stove in their studio guesthouse which I would need to buy coke fuel for or I could (or so I understood) cut wood to use in the stove. I saw more snow that winter than in all of the  28 years I have lived in Cortona.

I woke each morning and let the ducks and chickens out of their stall. I went to feed the hissing geese and took Iago's cage into the courtyard between the main house and my guest house. I washed up with ten seconds of warm then freezing cold water, cut wood if neccessary for the evening fire, then started the 1 hour walk towards Cortona to have a hot lunch in exchage for dish washing and waiting tables at the pizzeria/bar. Not too long after lunch, before it got dark,  I would walk back to the farm, for nearly two weeks  that winter there was snow on the ground which made it a difficult yet beautiful walk.. Not having children to torture with this tale of my character building past  has become a deep regret.

As you can imagine this San Francisco raised girl  had little experience in raising livestock. After a few days, I came back from town to find that one of the ducks was on it's back in the stall. I knew enough to surmise that this was not right. I took him into the house, found a box, wrapped him in a towel and stoked up the stove to keep him warm. I made a mush of water and feed  which I hand fed him through the night, sleeping close by. He was still alive the next day and looked a bit perkier. That morning  the German family's neighbor, Signora Ida came to visit. She had been told that I would be staying there alone and she had come by to check and see how I was doing. Her visit  pleased me, most of all I was anxious for her expertise in caring for the sick duckling.  I showed her the little creature, and anxiously strained my brain to comprehend her advice in caring for  him. "There's only one thing you can do..." Yes, tell me, tell me... "take it over by the side of the road over there"  hmm - is there some special medicinal plant there? I wondered..."Then take it by its leg...." she circled her arm over her head " and throw it as far away as you can" Noooooo!  I was horrified! Uh thank you ,  I think I'll see if he gets better first.  As she bid me farewell she repeated her advice "It's the only thing to do."

This horrifying thought was put out of my head later that day when a dark blue Giulietta pulled into the courtyard. My friend Alessandra pulled up and stepped out, her Doc Martens crunching into a leftover patch of snow. She had come to accompany me to the discotech near Arezzo where I made a little cash by running the coat check. Alex looked over the runt duckling who was starting to move around a little more. As the crow was named Iago, she decided that the duck should be called Othello.

A few days later a call came from Germany- it was the mother of the family - how was I ? Fine, but the duck was not doing too well. What should I do?  Without missing a beat she said "You can make a roast."

And so poor Othello lived on borrowed time. I stayed on with the family another month or so after they came back from Germany. I proudly showed them that Othello was still alive, however they seemed to be more concerned by the fact that Iago had done a disappearing act one day from his cage (never to be found again) and that I had been expected to go out to the woods to find suitable pieces of wood to cut for my stove, not use the dry pieces they had stacked away which were cut to the proper lengths for their stove.
It was clear that it was time to move on when I came back to the farm one afternoon to find a yellow orange pair of  little webbed feet sitting on a sawed off tree stump.

Fast forward to April 11, 2014.  I 've tucked away  these stories of my  Tuscan life into 3 bites or so, hopeful that these little bundles will tell my story, open the conversation for me to tell my story. Open doors to a new part of my story.

- to be continued-

3 commenti:

Unknown ha detto...

So charming, amica!!

Unknown ha detto...

So charming, amica.

Carlotta ha detto...

Grazie amica! e bentornata!