Eating to remember… and forget

It’s been almost nine years since I lived in Italy and almost six since I last went back to visit, and sometimes I miss the damn place so much.

Let me be clear, there’s a lot I absolutely don’t miss, but sometimes, like last night while eating a homemade dinner of gnocchi in an herbed tomato sauce with olives and capers, I just miss Italy in general. I miss the food, the pace of life, the “not this” of it all.

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Note to self: eat more gnocchi

With Plated‘s help once again (cause you know, I’d be lost otherwise), I made one of my favorite Italian meals, and an easy one to boot: gnocchi, those perfect little pillow-like potato dumplings that are even easier to cook than pasta. My favorite thing about them? You’ll know when they’re ready because they’ll float up to the top of the boiling water they cook in, only after two to three minutes. Bloop bloop bloop.

My recipe card walked me through making a rich and flavorful, deliciously comforting chunky sauce, made with oregano and rosemary, garlic and onion, fat, juicy tomatoes, crushed red pepper, plump, buttery Castelvetrano olives (my faves), and the tiny little bursts of briny goodness that make every dish with them delicious, capers.

It all came together quickly and easily, and the end result was so very good that I think my stomach couldn’t help but remind my heart of all the times I sat around similarly easy, delicious meals, and how they made all the not-great things about Italy tolerable.

Saltie state of mind

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The Captain’s Daughter

My mind’s been elsewhere recently, and until this afternoon, I wasn’t really sure where that was. I thought it might’ve run away in light of my recent apartment drama (yup, my roommate and I are moving. Again.) or maybe checked out after my latest pseudo romance turned out to be another dead end (cue the T-Swift playlist), or possibly just felt drained from the House of Cards binge I’ve subjected it to (woa, season 2, WOA).

Likely, it was all of those things and more that drove it away, but today at lunch, the second I bit into a beautiful, sloppy sandwich at Saltie, I figured out where it had been all along: on a seaside vacation.

The way a certain smell or song can trigger a specific memory, so can certain foods, or more specifically flavors, just as easily conjure a place in my mind. Today, as I chomped away on a lemony, garden-worth of arugula, plump, juicy sardines, briny capers, creamy slices of pickled eggs and a zesty smear of salsa verde, all between thick, golden focaccia flecked with sea salt, my mind immediately went to a sunny day on a coastal town somewhere.

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A tasty mess

The carefree ease I felt while eating (and making a mess out of) that sandwich, listed at Saltie as the Captain’s Daughter, made me think that’s where my mind’s been all along. Maybe it wasn’t a lazy beach getaway that my mind took. Maybe it’s just been hanging out at a small sandwich shop in Williamsburg this whole time. Either way it’s good to know where I can turn to get my head and my stomachand consequently my heart on the same page.

Really, I should’ve known a great sandwich would’ve made everything better all along.

Saltie on Urbanspoon
 

Pigging out in Chitown

While I might appear slothlike, I’m really not, and especially when I travel, I like to hit the ground running. Even after a taxi-flight-taxi combo, the extra added annoyances of flight delays, last-minute carry-on bags having to be checked, and spending almost 3 hours wedged into the dreaded middle seat, as soon as Flaneur and I got to our hotel in Chicago I wanted to go OUT. There was a restaurant I was itching to go to and the next day just wasn’t soon enough. What if I died in my sleep and never made it?

So instead of kicking back and relaxing,  off we went in search of The Purple Pig, a restaurant one of my friends in San Francisco raved about and insisted I go to. Next time I see this friend, I owe her a drink at the very least because The Purple Pig was ridiculous–in the best way. Fireworks and a parade wouldn’t have made for a better welcome to the city.

Below, some food porn from our first night in Chi-town:

First out, from the antipasti section of the menu, were the fresh spring peas and bacon with spearmint. Fattest, most delicious peas I’ve ever eaten. I could eat this all day, every day.

Peas unlike any I’ve ever had.

From the salad portion of the menu,  rabbit panzanella with mixed herbs and lettuce, crispy capers, pickled fiddlehead ferns (that’s one of the curliecues in the left corner) and black truffle vinaigrette. Panzanella, a type of italian bread salad, is one of my favorite easy dishes but this took it to a whole new level. So many colors, flavors, textures. So. Much. Deliciousness.

A crazy heap of panzanella. Crazy good, that is.

Then from the fried items: sardines with shaved fennel salad and lemon vinaigrette. This is one of those dishes that makes you wish you were on vacation at the beach somewhere, maybe in Italy. But then when you realize you’re not, you’re still ok because you have these damn tasty sardines in front of you, and that’s more than enough.

Fried sardines: salty, tangy and just perfect.

Next, from the a la plancha part: pork jowl and grilled asparagus with oyster mushrooms and fried duck egg on top. This was probably, no definitely, my favorite. The pork jowl was tender and meaty, and when that perfect, orange duck yolk spilled over it? I could have cried if I wasn’t busy stuffing forkfuls in my mouth.

Pork jowl and fried duck egg. The people sitting next to us were blatantly staring at us while we ate this, food envy written all over their faces.

Last in our succession of savory eats, the pork neck bone gravy with ricotta from the smears section of the menu. A hearty, saucy, rich dish served with crunchy toast for smearing and dipping, this was a great example of what i consider comfort food.

Pork neck gravy and ricotta smear. As in, I want to smear this all over my mouth.

And then finally, dessert.  It wasn’t easy choosing but at the server’s recommendation, we went with the Sicilian Iris, a ricotta and chocolate chip filled fried brioche. Sounds magnificent doesn’t it? Oh, and it WAS. Something like a cross between a canolo and a bombolone, this thing was unreal. When it came it out, it looked like a round, fat, sugar-dusted donut but inside, it oozed, warm creamy ricotta with dark chocolate chips. Totally decadent, and so, so, so very good.

Sicilian iris: the sweet lovechild between the canolo and the bombolone

Not only was this one of my favorite meals in Chicago, but one of my favorite ever. I’d go back to Chicago just to eat at The Purple Pig again.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Remembering “The Best Salad Ever”

Now THAT’S a good looking salad!

A few years ago during my first summer in Italy, I had a salad so good, so fresh and delicious, so dead-on in hitting the spot on that sweltering July day, that immediately after polishing it off I proclaimed it “The Best Salad Ever.”

I’m not sure anymore if it was the salad itself that was so amazing or if it was just part of an amazing day and that’s why I remember it being so great, but all I know is that no other salad has ever left such an impression on me.

It had been a day ripe with stereotypes of la dolce vita. It was early on in my courtship with Flaneur and to really perpetuate stereotypes about silly American girls and the Italian men that chase them, we decided to rent a Vespa. We were spending the day on the beautiful (and ridiculously packed full of tourists) island of Capri and wanted an easy way to get around. Cramming into a non-air conditioned, overcrowded bus to then ride back and forth through Capri’s uphill twisty roads was basically a recipe for major motion sickness. So off we went, Flaneur driving and me latched onto his back like a koala.

After zipping around the island, soaking up the sun and generally loving life, we drove over to Punta Carena on the western side of the island, Anacapri, to check out the lighthouse.  We walked around the rocky shore, taking in the ocean view and snickering at the many slicked-down-in-tanning-oil sunbathers perched on the rocks, their skins resembling less like skin and more like fine leather handbags. Because Punta Carena is slightly more secluded than the rest of the island, when lunchtime came around there were only two choices: identical outdoor sandwich bars full of bathing suit clad Italians.

We picked one, Da Antonio, and after skimming the brief menu of salads and sandwiches, both of us settled on the same salad.

It’s a salad. No big deal, right? That’s what you’d think. Hell, that’s what I thought as I waited for it to come out. But when it arrived, piled high into a big round bowl, that salad was so much more than I expected. Lettuce, radicchio, tuna, tomatoes, capers, fresh mozzarella, onions and croutons, all under a generous pour of olive oil and a sprinkle of pepper. Again, no big deal, right? Wrong. This salad was great and with every bite came a burst of flavors and textures: creamy, soft mozzarella, round, salty little capers, sweet, juicy tomatoes.

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the fact that we’d built up an appetite. Maybe it was fresh ingredients. Whatever it was, that salad was fantastic, and to this day, the best salad I’ve ever had.

Fast-forward to a few days ago at the supermarket as Flaneur and I tried to decide what to buy and make for the following nights. A lightbulb went off and the idea to recreate The Best Salad Ever was born.

So last night I lovingly rinsed, chopped and mixed everything into a bowl and sat down to enjoy my favorite salad with the person I’d originally discovered it with. But alas, while the salad was good (and filling too) it was not The Best Salad Ever. Maybe it was the cramped living room, the unexotic Murray Hill or the bagged lettuce and canned olives, but the magic just wasn’t there. But the effort was and that made it an enjoyable dinner. And so The Best Salad Ever lives on in Capri and Da Antonio goes up on the places-to-go-back-to list.