routines

About a month into my time in Italy, my host family moved to their house in the country, where they live in the summer with the grandparents. The house was huge, very old, and seemed quite haunted at night. This was, for some reason, the ceiling of my bedroom. It was a tiny little bedroom–white walls and a green carpet that looked like a golf course–and this ornate ceiling. I don’t know who painted it or why it was this elaborate. I tried to ask and got no answers.

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Anyway, this was obviously a way of living I was unaccustomed to. I was in a tiny little town, living in a huge house (see, it’s usually large city, tiny house) and NO WIFI! But there were two things that I was accustomed to that translated beautifully– coffee and pasta.

Every morning, I walked Cristina and Francesca to their summer camp whose name just translated to Kid’s Summer. It was close to the town center, as much of a center as the town had. We had to walk down a long, long hill from our house, and near the end of it, it got the kind of steep where the backs of your ankles just ache from the pressure. We would chat and chat. My favorite kind of chat was asking the girls “do you have _____ in Italy?” This could be concepts, TV shows, foods, literally anything that I had not yet noticed in my time. I’m sure they got irritated with it. We would sing our favorite songs. I was (still am) particularly obsessed with Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu,” and the girls got me into an Italian combo rap/ballad song called “Piccole cose” by J-Ax and Fedez and they would also sing Zara Larsson’s “Symphony” but didn’t know any lyrics except “I just wanna be part of your symphony.” I heard that song today and my heart panged for them. Anyway. The walks were tough but we had fun. We always had fun!

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When I got back to the house, sweating from the uphill walk which was 9 times worse than the downhill one, I wanted to just chill for hours. AND CHILL I DID. This was where the second part of the morning routine happened. Stovetop espresso, babaaaay. I was taught to make espresso by Cristina. Who is 8. It was one of the first moments I had with her when I got to Turin. It was breakfast time and I asked how to use the espresso maker. Cristina was absolutely thrilled to show me, climbing up on a footstool to grab her materials. If an eight year old could do it, I figured I could as well. So began my routine. I would get back to the house, start my espresso, and put some milk on the stove to heat up. This method of making coffee became ritualistic in the most satisfying way. It didn’t feel as comforting to put ground coffee into my Krups coffee maker at home. I liked hearing it sputter on the stove, watching the liquid pour over the little spout. I loved the smell.

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I would froth the milk then. They had a little contraption that you could heat the milk in on the stove and then stick an attachment in that would froth it. This is another thing that I’m sure I could find in America but it just seemed so clever and continental that I could barely stand it. I could make near-perfect cappuccino foam in seconds, foam that I could never manage whenever I had to make espresso drinks at a past job. So I would take it out to the garden, a place that became the embodiment of peace for me. It was perhaps the most singularly peaceful place I’ve ever been. I would park myself on a foldable lawn chair with my handmade cappuccino, my journal, my headphones.

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I had no wifi for Spotify so I would listen to music from high school that I had downloaded from my laptop. I would listen to my music and drown in my nostalgia as I am wont to do. I would journal and stare at the sky and land across from me. To me, it was my perfect place. The breeze could get me, it was shady and blue and green in equal amounts. There was endless sky and endless trees and land. It made me feel balanced and completely content. This right above was what I stared at for hours.

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Al fresco dinners were another routine. When it wasn’t raining, we would eat dinner outside in the garden, in my peaceful place. I would set the table with their tablecloth and their beautiful china, and we would eat. Me, my host family, and their grandparents. I was around the Badinis’ grandparents for over a month and I just wished I could speak Italian or they could speak English, neither of which were true.

Let’s have a quick aside about the grandparents: Nonna was the kind of queen bitch I would love to be when I’m old. She made things happen, she was in charge, and she was confident. Nonna secured her iconic position in my head when she straight-up wore a crop top at the age of probably 88. AND SHE WAS WORKING IT. OBVIOUSLY. She ruled and made an incredible risotto. Nonno…well, I’ve never wanted anyone else to be my grandfather more than Nonno. I have one great grandfather, but I also have a list of “dream grandpas” on my phone that include Junior Soprano, Joe Biden, Richard Gilmore, and Bernie Sanders. But Nonno TAKES THE FUCKING CAKE. I knew maybe four words that he ever spoke but I KNEW he was the sweetest man I’d ever met. He had joy radiating around him. Every time I was around him I just wanted to hug him and really wished it wouldn’t have been weird if I had. One day I realized I had no idea what Nonna‘s real name was. Evidently I was not alone. While Francesca and I were setting the table one evening, I asked:

Me: “Francesca, what is your grandmother’s real name?”

Francesca: “Um…….I don’t know.”

I asked Giulia the same question when she arrived at the table, and she notified me that her name was Giuseppina, but everyone called her Giusetta. I thought those were both so beautiful.

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I will not lie to you in an appearance to seem perfect: THESE DINNERS WERE STRESSFUL. Every person at the table (eight of them!!!) was speaking rapid Italian and it makes you feel incredibly isolated. I would try and speak to the little girls to try and hear some familiar words. They would speak to me in English for a bit and then revert back to Italian, which I, of course, understand. But at a certain point, I just succumbed to it. I would recognize certain words and try and figure out what everyone was saying. I would try to make it a game with myself. And sometimes I would just eat my dinner and look out at the mountains and continue to be incredulous. My dad says to start every day with a sense of wonder. That was never a problem this summer.

-Sophie

not actually pronounced “sank tear”

I think the most magical thing I saw in all of my time in Italy were the five towns of Cinque Terre. This was planned about as last-minute as possible, but I’m so happy it all worked out. Cinque Terre is the place where my mind goes when I start to reminisce sappy and happy about the whole summer. It was two days and it was absolutely magic. That’s the only word. Magic.

We woke up early on a Saturday morning and took the train to Monterosso, which is the town with the main stretch of beach. Pink flowered trees against pink buildings, colorful lines of umbrellas, the prettiest clear blue water the color of seaglass, big dramatic cliffs and rocks in the sea, the enveloping smell of fried seafood served with lemons in paper cones. It all smelled like the sea. Not the ocean. Every time I said “the ocean” while recapping my trip, my host mom and the little girls I was au pairing always said “the sea! it’s the SEA!” Having not grown up anywhere near an ocean OR a sea, I seemed to think they were somewhat interchangeable. Not the case. From the second I walked out of the train station in Monterosso, I was charmed and amazed. We ate lunch in this magical little tucked-away garden area, where we were surrounded by all kinds of flowers but we could still see the sea right in front of us. I had pesto pizza and Prosecco. Pesto is the specialty of the Ligurian region, so I had it a lot that weekend. I used to be addicted to pesto, so much so that I made myself unable to consume it for years. Ligurian pesto is something entirely different. So smooth, so pungent, so garlicky! It was so fabulous, and I’m committed to making pesto that would make a Ligurian proud. It’s all about the ingredients, the component parts. I’ll try my best, but my basil is not grown in that special Italian soil. Afterwards, it was gelato time. After a month, I had settled on my perfect combination–stracciatella (what is basically a milk-flavored gelato with chocolate shavings) and raspberry. It was one combination I found where the fruit flavor didn’t taste strange with a non-fruit flavor. It was enough chocolate to satiate me but not enough to make the fruit flavor taste weird. I later found out it was my host daughter/sister’s favorite combination as well. 

After lunch, we went to the beach. It had been forever since I had been on a beach, and I was so happy. It was cloudy basically all weekend, which turned out to be good because it cut down on the number of people everywhere and it wasn’t so miserably hot. I laid on the expensive linen souvenir blanket I bought because I forgot to pack a towel in my tiny backpack, listened to the waves crash, and got incredibly depressed and upset reading the classic light beach read of A Little Life. Had to put that down because it was distressing me so much. The sun came out for a bit and I fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on getting in the water since I’m not the biggest fan of swimming in open waters, but there came a point where I was just so sweaty and it looked so inviting. So I swam and I’m glad I did. It felt amazing and it was so salty and it felt so free just trying to float, trying to wade myself backwards. I was so happy in that moment. None of it felt real. That feeling came over me so many times during this summer—this stuff doesn’t happen to me, I don’t get to climb over the Adriatic Sea and look at pastel clusters of Italian houses. That’s other people. That has never gotten to be me. I felt very lucky and very disbelieving.

That night, we took the train to Manarola and walked up the side of this cliff to a beautiful bar we had heard lots about. The views were unreal. Not real at all. There were no words but magic magic magic. We got to the top and the bar was closed but we mooched off their view and said we would go the next day. We sat on a bench on the side of the cliff and took it in for a while.

Corniglia was my favorite town of the whole bunch. We took a rickety little bus up to the top of the cliff to get to the center of the town and I was so nervous. The town was so adorable—little colorful alleys with tiny precious shops, baskets of lemons, trattorias, rainbow paper lanterns. I was smitten. I was obsessed. We had lemon basil gelato at 10:30 in the morning. After a thorough exploration of Corniglia, we took the train back to Manarola to go to Nessun Dorma, the bar/restaurant on the cliff. We were first in line but some boneheads cut us. I had pesto bruschetta and a lemoncino spritz overlooking…everything. Have I ever felt more famous?! The answer is no. Of course I haven’t. We did make it to every town but Corniglia, Monterosso, and Manarola were the highlights.

My only souvenirs from the weekend (the only souvenirs I need) were trofie pasta and a jar of Genovese pesto, which is the base for one of the region’s signature dishes, trofie al pesto. It’s composed of trofie pasta (a shape of which I had never heard!), pesto, baby potatoes, and green beans. I made it (minus the vegetables—sorry we didn’t have them in the house!!) and had it for lunch for several days. I would eat outside, on the table overlooking the mountains in my favorite garden, and I felt grateful for beauty and for life and for pasta and for everything that led me to the space I occupied in that very second.

-Sophie

a moment in the sun

At 5:30 pm, I was sitting on my windowsill, which seems like something I’ve always wanted to do, even if I hadn’t ever explicitly thought that. I threw my right leg out the window, let it soak up sun and swing. It is summertime in a big, ancient house in northern Italy and I am in the rare mood in an non-ventilated European summer where I want to sweat, where sweating would seem so luxurious and free. I finished my book of Anne Sexton poetry, reading the nicest words and looking over occasionally to watch the handfuls of Italians stroll our quiet street. I could smell espresso brewed on the stovetop from my perch. The sky seemed so blue and the angles of roofs were so satisfactorily sharp against it. I peeled pointy skin from my heel and it is smooth now. Cristina arrived back from the sea with her grandparents, her tininess tanned and wearing nautical blue and white. She jumps into my arms and I sway her back and forth.

ricotta & egg raviolo with brown butter and crispy sage

I went into the experience of living in Italy for a little over two months almost entirely blind. I was going to live with a family, but I didn’t really know that much about them. I was going to live in some city in the North, but I’d barely heard of it and didn’t look it up too much. I had a shockingly tiny number of questions about this whole thing. I was just planning on going with the flow. I did have one question and that was “AM I EVER GOING TO GET SICK OF PASTA?”

The answer to that was kind of, but only nearing the very end of my time. That is, two months of at least one dish of pasta a day. That isn’t to say that that’s so strange for my culinary routines at home. But it’s different in Italy.

From Italy, I spent four days in Paris and after those four days, I was already craving a bowl of noodles. I arrived back in Texas, had my obligatory margarita and enchiladas for dinner, then had pasta again the next day. Doesn’t take long for this girl to come back to her problematic fave.

Which brings me to this beautiful pasta. The entire time I was in Italy, I was dreaming of Nancy Silverton’s Mozza cookbook, which was waiting for me at home, having been gifted to me for graduation in May. I had only gotten to make one batch of fresh pasta from Nancy’s book before leaving, and I was craving to read it cover to cover and cook some of the hundred incredible dishes. The one dish that I could remember seeing and dying over was this one: the ricotta and egg raviolo. One enormous, singular raviolo filled with a disc of seasoned ricotta and a beautifully bright egg yolk. Cutting into this brown-butter soaked square to a gushing yellow yolk is something Nancy Silverton herself can only describe as “sexy.” She ain’t LYING! I couldn’t wait to take on this quite ambitious dish.

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This was so worth the effort. Completely restaurant-quality, sumptuous at-home dining. Unapologetically rich. Totally perfect. I ate three. I very rarely have to take a nap after a dinner at home, but you bet I did with this one. I loved this process–I especially love kneading fresh pasta dough, where therapy meets exercise meets your favorite food.

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I’ve only cooked four recipes from it so far, but the Mozza cookbook is my favorite cookbook as of late. Each time I flip through it, I find something new, exciting, and scrumptious that I want to add to my to-cook list.

I hope to write a little bit about my summer in Italy on the blog to direct to anyone who may be curious. It’s quite hard to fit two months into a reply when someone asks how it was. As a result, I have been reverting to “it was wonderful!” and they generally leave it. But I’d love to share, so I’m writing this segment as an incentive to myself to actually write some things!

-Sophie

it was a very good year

I’ve always had a strong desire to be Italian-American. Italians and Jews are sort of cut from the same cloth, but there is something about the concept of “Sunday dinner” and calling red sauce gravy that really works for me. Eating baked ziti and Italian deli meats all the time doesn’t hurt either. That being said, I am fully obsessed with The Sopranos after my sister forced me to watch it this past fall.

I remember growing up on the outskirts of The Sopranos–mainly, I remember the VHS box sets that rested beneath our television and I remember being barricaded out of my parents’ room each Sunday night to protect my sister and I’s untarnished eyes from curb stomps, gunshots to the head, and mafioso sex with women who aren’t the men’s mafia wives.

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I love any television show that can build such a rich, lush culture and world. It does such a marvelous job at creating this north Jersey Italian-American world, and I, for one, find it intoxicating. This 21 year old girl sometimes dreams of being a 48 year old male mafia leader, my stomach spilling over my pants as I smoke an expensive cigar at the strip club and nurse a neat scotch. It is just as fun, though, to act as the Carmela Soprano and bake a beautiful baked ziti for your family. Ever the world-builder, I constructed a playlist of Italian opera music, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra to float around our dining room as we ate.

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I used Smitten Kitchen’s ziti recipe, even though I went so far as to buy The Sopranos Family Cookbook for a single penny on Amazon. I’m just not sure it’s classy enough for me to actually cook from–I am very elitist when it comes to my cookbooks and I kinda bought it for the novelty of it all. We’ll see if I ever crack it open to cook from–or even to use some of fake-Carmela Soprano’s entertaining tips.

The moral of the story is that I love a good themed dinner. It was a very good dinner. My playlist is here if you’re interested!

my 10 kitchen mainstays

I am always interested to see what other people always keep in their kitchen.

  1. Full-fat ricotta cheese

This has been a more recent mainstay, but I just love ricotta. I have plenty of recipes that I love that feature ricotta (Smitten Kitchen’s baked ziti, the turkey and ricotta meatballs from Small Victories, etc.) so I love when I can buy a tub for a recipe and have leftovers. One of my favorite quick uses for ricotta is stirring it into a jarred marinara sauce to make a luxurious pink sauce for pasta. It totally transforms a bland store-bought sauce and makes it something special. It’s also the base of all delicious fancy toasts. Lately, I’ve loved toast spread with ricotta, topped with a smashed soft-boiled egg, and drizzled with honey and salt.

2. Dijon mustard

Obviously. As an emulsifier for salad dressings, a spread on sandwiches, or as part of a marinade, dijon is a real powerhouse. I love its flavor and go through jars constantly.

3. Brown sugar

I find myself using brown sugar all the time. I love it in my morning oatmeal and it’s also delicious on salmon when you mix it with the dijon mustard above!

4. Eggs

Another obviously. This is me.

5. Parmesan cheese

I have created a life in which, no matter how barren my pantry is, I can always–always–ALWAYS make an enormous bowl of cacio e pepe for myself.  Butter. Spaghetti. Parmesan. Pepper. I ALWAYS HAVE THESE THINGS. Trader Joe’s has great prices for their Parmesan because they keep the rinds on. This makes me feel better financially and if you keep the rinds, you can use them to flavor soups and pasta sauces.

6. Trader Joe’s frozen soup dumplings

I am so obsessed with these and I don’t even know if they’re actually that good. They keep me satiated when I am away from my one and only, Monkey King Noodle Company, whose soup dumplings I crave even when it’s 102 degrees.

7. Panko bread crumbs

Panko is a really easy way to make things a lot more delicious. I use panko the most in spaghetti pangrattato with crispy eggs and panko-crusted salmon, two dinner staples that are easy to make and pretty budget-friendly.

8. Salsa

My favorite salsa ever is Clint’s Texas Salsa, which, paired with crispy-thin, perfectly salted Xochitl tortilla chips…is close to a perfect meal. Salsa is essential for the easiest chicken tacos ever–boneless skinless chicken breasts, half a packet of taco seasoning, a jar of salsa, and a little bit of water in the crockpot on low all day. My mom introduced this “recipe” to me and it’s one of our favorites at home, one that I’ve just gotten to take with me to school after I got a combo rice cooker/slow cooker for Hanukkah. I also need salsa whenever I make breakfast tacos at home and it’s usually good on a rice bowl of some kind. Which brings me to…

9. Rice

Even more so now that I have my game-changing new rice cooker! I make a batch of rice that I keep in the fridge to reheat (and often make it crispy— seriously amazing). Easy, filling, endlessly adaptable in combination with so many of the other ingredients on this list.

10. Garlic

I am incurably obsessed with garlic. I literally don’t think anything could be too garlicky for my little taste buds. It is seemingly the base of every dish I make. I love garlic’s versatility: it can be made sweet and succulent by cooking it in olive oil, it can be rubbed on toast for an easy upgrade, and it can even be smashed into submission to make a salad dressing! I made spaghetti aglio e olio for the first time the other night and cooked it with 6 cloves of garlic (quadruple the suggested 🙂 THIS IS ME!). I will always always have it.

toasted coconut marshmallows

We’ve all seen the Stanford delayed gratification marshmallow experiment videos in Psychology 101– a child gets to eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes alone with the marshmallow without eating it…and get 2 marshmallows. Had the researchers been using these, might I say phenomenal homemade marshmallows, I think there would be far more children failing the test.

I got super into marshmallow making during the holidays. I first made them (using Ina Garten’s recipe) for the box I made for my Food 52 holiday swap-ee. I packed her box full of goodies then sneakily ate what was left of the marshmallows I made for her. And I’m telling you..homemade marshmallows are otherworldly. Decadent but light as a feather, completely melting in your mouth, the most beautiful sweetness! I was hooked on making them and couldn’t wait to try Ina’s toasted coconut version, pictured below.

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The addition of toasted coconut (one of my favorite ingredients…ever) makes these almost like a real dessert. Couldn’t you imagine it at a trendy restaurant with a tiny espresso cup full of the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had? I’m kind of loving that idea just for a dinner party of my own. A pack of these make wonderful hostess gifts or a sweet homemade gift during the holidays, and they are so easy to make.

-Sophie