23 August 2009

Making Jam

When you live with family in Sicily, most of your relatives will have some sort of fruit tree, vegetable or herb growing in their garden. The other day, we went to the house in campagna of Leo’s Aunt and Uncle, where we picked the last remaining Mulberries of the season. It was a new discovery for me as I had never had them before, nor had I ever seen them before. But there I was, dressed in black and wearing surgical gloves to pick this super staining, incredibly juicy, dark purple fruit.

It all started with a trip to Punto Gelato (my favorite gelato stand with the best, freshest flavors), where, in my ice cream fueled curiosity, I read Gelso listed under the fruit flavors and I asked Leo what it was. He had no idea either--which sparked his curiosity. Noticing the granita machines spinning icy fruit slushies, he sees this dark, rich purple colored one with the sign calling it Granita di Gelsi. He asked his childhood friend behind the counter what gelso was and I see this surprised look on the man’s face. “Come....non ti ricordi i cevusi? (how can you not remember mulberries?)” He recounts how he and Leo used to spend the afternoon up the tree behind the arcade eating the cevusi till they were covered in purple. But it was the word, cevusi, that brought it all back--not gelsi in Italian, but cevusi in dialect. I tasted the granita...but I couldn’t place it. He tried to explain that it was like a blackberry, but it grows on a tree. I still couldn’t place it. Finally, when we got home, I looked it up in the dictionary, and there it was: mulberry. From that night on, Leo could not stop talking about i cevusi and how it was his favorite fruit as a child.

My grand master plan was to pick this fruit to make a clafoutis, Leo’s favorite dish for breakfast. But after several attempts, the final blow came when I turned my oven on to preheat and it blew the fuse for the whole house! Apparently, our oven consumes more electricity than the breaker allows. Even though I was offered to use the large toaster oven that Leo’s mom uses to make most of our meals, I couldn’t imagine cooking a cake in a toaster oven for an hour.

So what to do with all these ripe, juicy berries? I thought about a commercial I had recently seen for packets of pectin to make quick and easy jelly. Hmm...mulberry jam...that would be delightful. The next thing I know, I’m standing over a bubbling pot of molten mulberries; stirring constantly. I turn off the flame, check the consistency, add a little lemon juice and bring to a boil for a final minute. At this point, I have no idea if I’m doing it right or how it will come out; but I’m following the directions. After carefully ladling the dark purple concoction into jars and closing them tightly, it was all done.

The moment of truth came the next morning at breakfast. I set out the normal routine: fette biscottate (dry, crunchy slices of bread that’s more like a cracker), ACE juice (a blend of orange, carrot and lemon juice that is really yummy), caffe' (espresso), some cookies and a jar of fresh mulberry jam. I gotta say, I was impressed--it was thick, chunky, sweet but not too sweet and sooooo good. SUCCESS!! I made jelly and it came out great.

Making fig jam

Later that day, I was given a huge container of very ripe figs from an aunt’s tree across the street. “Nicole, these figs won’t last long, do you want to make fig jam?” What a silly question! Of course I want to make fig jam. That might be even better than mulberry jam. So there I am, again, standing over a bubbling pot of molten figs, stirring constantly. But this time I have more confidence and I know it will come out good.

The lasting effect of this escapade is that now I have become the official jelly maker. Not only do I think about the fruits available next season that I can make into jelly, but word has spread and now relatives are bringing containers of fruit to the house in case I want to make more! In autumn there will be apples, pears, oranges...oh, the possibilities...

15 August 2009

Italian Immigration

Even though I arrived in Italy with a Family Schengen visa, I needed to present myself to the Questura or immigration office, within 8 days of my arrival. My husband and I head over to the police station and get buzzed in by a guy sitting behind thick, bulletproof glass where he watches the surveillance monitor of the front door (and the variety show on the TV behind him). He tells us to check in with the man with the beard, but there is no one else around. The waiting room has several, dilapidated green chairs, covered with stains and small tears. The walls are decorated with faded 1970’s pictures of all the different offices of the Polizia (there are many, just to complicate things and make more bureaucracy. We walk past the Tunisian family waiting their turn and try to figure out which office we’re supposed to go to. There are multiple doors, all of which are closed with the windows literally blacked out--so no one can see them not working, as my husband says. Our attention gets pulled to the entrance door by the sound of the buzzer. An officer enters the building and Leo stops him with a quick description of my needing to present myself within 8 days of arriving and asks which office we are supposed to go to. With an air of “don’t worry, I’ll take care of you” the stylishly appointed officer take us to the room at the end of the hall, opens the door and starts telling the two officers inside that we are there because my permission has expired and--“No, no, no! Nothing has expired!” Leo interjects. One of the officers responds that if my permission has expired, then we need to wait our turn and they will help us. Leo already knows how this will go...

As we wait, we watch the people coming in and out of the station; more stylishly appointed officers, plain clothed people and several girlfriends and wives. Yet no one seems to have anything to do, as they all stand around chatting, disappearing only when one of them offers the other a caffe’. The only one who seems to be doing anything of importance is the guy who has to buzz the door open every time someone wants in. The funny part is that no one seems to know exactly how the door works, even if they work there! For each person that came in, its the same exercise: Try the door, which doesn’t open; look inside the glass to see the guy that buzzes them in--and not because they don’t know that the bell is right next to them, or that the guy can see them on the monitor, but because if they make eye contact, then the guy can see that it’s them, in which case he’ll give them special treatment by buzzing them in because they know each other--not because buzzing people in is this guy’s only job. So, if he doesn’t buzz the door instantly, then the person reaches for the bell, just as you hear Buzz, buzz, buzz of the door. But in that moment, the person standing there has moved over to the door bell on the side and doesn’t open the door in time, and when they try to open it, the door stays locked. So again, they peer inside at the guy, who then buzzes the door again, and the person outside finally gets the door open. Miracles never cease.

Out of the stairway comes the man with one of the biggest beards I’ve ever seen. Ah, that must be the guy we were told to talk to. From behind his glass covered desk, he informs us that we do, in fact have to wait for the office we were shown before. So we take our seat, as it’s clear we’ll be there for a while. After about an hour, three people enter, looking very much like locals and speaking the local dialect as well as anyone else here and saying hi to everyone in the station as if they were friends. But then they take a seat in the waiting room with us and start speaking in arabic. Leo looks over at one of the women with a puzzled look, as if he’s trying to place her face from somewhere. A few minutes pass, and an officer passing through stops to say hi to the guy, they shake hands and chat a few minutes. Then the officer goes into the office we’re waiting for and motions for the guy to come in. The women follows as well, all smiles and within ten minutes, they come back out, thanking everyone and leaving with big smiles. Yeah, this is the place to know people, because it will ALWAYS get you a pass to the front of the line. Just as I’m sitting there thinking how much ass kissing that guy must do around here, Leo finally realizes where he had seen that woman. He remembers her from his childhood when she lived in the square by his house, and next door to his cousin. The gossip was that she was a prostitute that serviced most of the police station! He said there was always a police car parked out front of her place. She looked much different back then, but she’s still the same, tall blond. And here I thought it was ass kissing that got all that special treatment!

Another 30 minutes pass and finally we get called into the office. Leo sits down in front of the officer behind the desk and I sit in the chair next to him, which just happens to be directly behind the large, flat panel monitor of the officer’s computer. Leo hands him my passport, open to the page with my visa and explains that the Italian consulate in Los Angeles instructed us to check-in with this office within eight days of my arrival to process my permanent residency. The officer looks down at my passport with a confused look on face.

“So, her passport is expired?”

I can see that Leo is about to scream--but he takes a deep breath and repeats what we came to do. The officer then asks for all the documents, which we don’t have because we were told just to bring in my visa. Leo explains that all the documents have already been filed, my case is already underway and all I need to do is register my local address. The officer insists that he can’t do anything until he has all the documents. This is the best part--the officer rips a skinny piece of scratch paper off of the stack of printer paper and hands it to Leo, asking if he wants to write the list of needed documents or if he wants him (the officer) to write it himself. Wide-eyed and stupefied, Leo informs the officer that it’s his job, he’s welcome to write it himself. The officer complains that we probably won't be able to read his writing (Leo wonders if the officer is literate--you never know), but he’ll go ahead and do it anyway. He then proceeds to slowly chicken scratch a list of every document we would need to bring. As he’s talking through this list, I’m trying to be part of the conversation by leaning all the way to the side to see around the computer monitor. The computer monitor. The big, flat monitor that goes with the big, fast computer sitting on his desk. The one he’s not using--or maybe doesn’t know how to use. So, after he finishes scribbling the long list, he says:

“I think that’s all you’ll need”...

As if he has never had to process a new foreign permanent resident--at the immigration office. I'm sure there are multiple files in that big computer of his with a nicely typed list of what is needed. Unfortunately, he doesn't know that. Leo regrettably looks over the list, knowing that something will of course be missing because you can never do anything in one attempt here.

“Do we need any photos?”

“AH! The photos, I forgot to write that down; you need six”.

SIX?? Gee, that seems like an important thing to ad. He grabs the scrap of paper back and adds the final bit of information. He then picks up my passport, scrutinizes my visa again, as if he’s never seen such a visa before (or maybe he was just trying to read) and throws it back across the desk. With that, we get up to leave quickly before Leo breaks out in a rage over how backwards his country is.

Buzz, buzz, buzz goes the door as the person outside is reaching for the bell. We open the door to leave before the poor guy behind the glass has to buzz the person in again. The moment we step outside, Leo starts his rant about how it could be possible that the office of immigration doesn’t have a pre-made list of the necessary documents needed for applying for permanent residency, and how could he never have seen a family visa before and why the hell we left that office with a hand scribbled piece of scratch paper that most definitely is missing some key information that we’ll need to bring.

But as angry as he is, I find the whole thing quite amusing. Because I knew what I was getting into--of course, everything I expected is bit more exaggerated here in Sicily--but I knew that nothing would get done easily and there would be lots of waiting wherever we go and there would always be someone cutting ahead of us because they know someone...
But for me, it’s all worth it, because I get to live in Italy.

Making Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The process of making old-fashioned pomodori secchi (sun-dried tomatoes) is actually incredibly easy. So easy, in fact, that you really don’t have to do much of anything. And yet, the mere mention of these shriveled little things seem to excite the senses and conjure up visions of Italian lunches overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany.  So how can something so simple to make only be known to us from jars imported from far away lands?

First and foremost, the key to making great sun-dried tomatoes is delicious, ripe, juicy tomatoes.  You cannot have good sun-dried tomatoes without great tomatoes. Period. And due to the cardboard like flavor of our good old American tomatoes, it would explain why we are not known for sun-dried tomato production.  But, thanks to the ‘growing’ popularity of organic gardens and home-growing, you can take your own juicy tomatoes and give it a shot. 

In Sicily however, you don't need your own garden to get amazing tomatoes. Here, they are just sold on the side of the street, in wooden crates.

Good tomatoes are not the only necessary ingredients. 

Here is what you need:
-Delicious, ripe tomatoes (plum or roma are best)
-Good quality olive oil
-Hot, dry weather with plenty of sunshine (August is the time this is done in Italy)
-An absorbent and breathable surface (wood is the traditional surface used)
-Protective cover, i.e. screen, toile or cheesecloth
-Time. Lots of time

Wash and cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise and arrange them on a portable surface, like a wood cutting board or a small table. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and place them outside in full sunlight. Cover your tomatoes with some type of screen or netting to keep insects and other stuff off your food. For best results, put your tomatoes out in the morning and take them inside in the evening. During the night, humidity rises and can undo some of the drying from the day, and prolonging the moisture can encourage bacteria. I should mention here that if you don’t have a hot, dry climate, don’t try this—it won’t work.

When using small plum or roma tomatoes, you will need anywhere from one to two weeks for them to completely dry. This is where patience comes in. But, it’s a fun process and bringing them in and out each day keeps you up on the progress.

When your tomatoes are finally dry, they are ready to be jarred. This is where they will take the unmistakable flavor you know. You could taste them at this point, like I did out of curiosity, but I don’t recommend it. They are hard, sour and just kinda yucky. Lay the shriveled tomatoes one on top of the other in a jar. Pack them in well, top with a clove or two of garlic and a few basil leaves if you have it. Then you fill the jar with extra virgin olive oil, seal it up and store it in a cool dark place for at least a month.

When your tomatoes are sufficiently marinated, they are ready to eat!

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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