This post is inspired by my experience last Friday of going from, “I’m going out for dinner with friends” to “Ok, change of plans: I’m hosting dinner with friends” to “What the heck, I’ll invite more friends” to “Hang on a second, what am I even going to cook for these people??!” over the space of a few hours.
I mean, pasta, obviously, that’s pretty much the full extent of my cooking skills, but it’s amazing how my mind blanks when it comes to the question of what to put on said pasta.
So here, for future reference, are some dishes I know I can cook at short notice that are still nice enough to serve up to other human beings.
- Orecchiette with cime di rapa (turnip greens): This is what I made on Friday. It generally requires a trip to the shops since I don’t usually have fresh orecchiette or turnip greens on hand, but it’s dead easy: Get a big pot of salted water on the burner. In a frying pan on very low heat, do a good amount of olive oil with finely chopped garlic and anchovies and some chili paste, leave it to go all soft and flavoursome. Wash and chop the turnip greens, put in the boiling water, give them a few minutes to soften then add the orecchiette. Once cooked, drain, and then toss together the pasta, greens, and the garlicky-anchovy-y oil. Add salt to taste. (Here’s a recipe with actual quantities and cooking times; in Italian but it has lots of pictures.)
- Pasta with radicchio and olives: I wrote about this before. It’s my winter comfort food. I don’t think it’s “authentically” anything, besides, you know, delicious, but whatever.
- Puttanesca: Not going to look for a recipe to link, since the whole spirit of this is to throw together whatever tasty things are lurking in your fridge/cupboard: tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, chili.
- Carbonara: I keep those supermarket tubs of pancetta bits in the freezer along with a bag of pre-grated parmesan/similar cheese for carbonara emergency dinners. PRO TIP FOR LIVING IN ITALY: if you’re in conversation with a group of people from Rome and there’s a lull, try asking them how many whole eggs vs egg yolks you need to make carbonara for four people. Assuming you have an hour free for the ensuing discussions, that is.
- Zucchini “carbonara”: I learned this from a friend in Florence who cooked it for an easy Sunday lunch once. (Ugh, I know, that sounds like something you’d read in a tedious food memoir, but it really happened.) Thin slices of zucchini, cook in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile, cook your pasta. Toss everything together along with eggs and cheese like you would a carbonara, add fresh parsley and black pepper. (Here is a fancier recipe for basically the same thing; in English.)
- Potato pasta: This isn’t as quick as the others, but I’m reasonably likely to have all the ingredients on hand and it involves double carbs, which endears it to me forever. I do something in between this recipe (in English) and this recipe (in Italian) except I’m lazy about washing up so I do it as a one-pot dish: cook the potatoes until they’re just at the point where you can stick a fork through them, then add the pasta and a bit of hot water/stock to the same pot, stir occasionally and/or add more water as needed until the pasta’s cooked. (It will take longer than the cooking time given on the pasta packet.)
What’s your favourite easy recipe?
So besides winning the War on Pigeons (I am still proud of myself), what have I been up to recently..?
- Went wine tasting a couple of weeks ago with some friends on a gorgeous Spring afternoon. Rolling hills, rows of vines, magic light as the sun got lower. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to get out of the city until I squatted, absentmindedly patting a friendly farm dog, my eyes drinking in the open space in front of me. Turin is a beautiful city, but sometimes you need a distant horizon.
- (You’ll notice that’s a description of wine tasting that doesn’t say anything about wine. That’s because the current status of my sense of smell is that a lot of red wines are very pleasant to me, and I could even tell the ones we tried were better than my usual “what’s on special at Da Marco?” bottles, but the only note I can positively identify is the smell of olives. Which I smell in every red wine. Pretty sure a basic requirement for sommeliers is being able to distinguish the scent of wine from olive oil.)
- My friend C. and I tried to go out for brunch one Saturday, but brunch isn’t really a familiar concept here. “How about we host our own pancake brunch on the Monday public holiday?” I said. So we sent out a group message and got a handful of people saying they’d come.
“But you’d think the idea would be more popular!” she said… so we went on a bit of an invitation spree at church and suddenly we were spending the Sunday afternoon thinking about what we’d do if the number of people coming greatly outnumbered the number of chairs in my apartment.
In the end, we made pancakes for 15 people (only 3 in excess of the number of seats!), using 5 batches of this recipe which is the best (I know 3.5 tsp of baking powder sounds ridiculous, but it works! and you can’t taste it). We had a lovely brunch/afternoon of sitting around chatting with old friends and new. I even busted out my emergency Tim Tams later in the day, which is a sure sign of a good party.
After everyone left, we spied the dregs of a bottle of sparkling wine, and toasted our brunch-hosting success. (Moral of the story: always host parties with C!)
- Was at dinner on Saturday night with another friend A., and partway through a couple sat down at a table near us. The woman was so! familiar! I spent the rest of the meal wracking my brains, How do I know that woman? Should I go over and say hi? On the bus ride home, Does she live in my building? Or maybe she’s a friend of a friend? I’m sure I know her, I hope she didn’t see me and think I was blanking her. Finally, as I was lying in bed… Oh that’s it! She works in one of the lunch places near my work. So probably a good thing I didn’t go and say hi, since the full extent of our prior contact is “Prendo un panino” and “3 euro 50”.
“Now it feels like Good Friday,” said my Irish friend A. as she helped me butter hot cross buns still warm from the oven last night.
For as long as I’ve lived in Turin, every Easter I’ve thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hot cross bun right now?” But hot cross buns are not an Italian Easter tradition, and I’ve never found a decent substitute. (Yes, colomba has dried fruit, but the texture is totally different and there’s no spices.)
This year, I finally decided to make my own. Here’s how I did it:
Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve been quite good about keeping a journal… except that I always write the most when nothing very interesting is happening. All the times that I would like to be able to look back at with a record of what I did and what I thought about it are blank. And then I come to write entries for this blog and I sit there and flick through my journal and think, “What have I even done this week?!”
Part of the problem is that I am a very lazy/reluctant writer, hence my need for a post-it note, WRITE NOW, DESPAIR LATER. (Full credit to my sister for that piece of motivation.) It works remarkably well, probaby because it doesn’t pretend that the feeling of “urgggh I don’t wanna write” will ever go away.
But anyway, not having any useful notes of what I did this week, I’m stuck writing about what I remember off the top of my head. Which I’m sure will give you a full indication of how extremely glamorous my expat life here is…
I went to the markets the other day, where I remembered I needed some olives. There are lots of stalls with olives at Porta Palazzo, but I decided to go to the one with the free samples and showmanship. This was a terrible decision from the point of view of efficiency — the stand is busy (because: free samples), even as you’re being served, the guy keeps turning aside to top up the sample plates and yell at passers-by that they should come and buy some olives, and then you end up buying more than you’d planned (again because: free samples). But I think I ate enough in the way of samples to make it worthwhile.
Part of the reason I needed olives was because I’d just bought a bag of radicchio and I wanted to be able to make my radicchio pasta, which is loosely based on a dish you sometimes get in restaurants here, but adjusted to my tastes (salty & bitter):
- Put your pasta water on to boil and cook the pasta in the background while you make the radicchio “sauce”.
- Chop the radicchio into small-ish pieces, a few centimetres squared, rinse and drain.
- Heat oil in a pan, throw in the radicchio, add some of that stock that comes in jelly-like form in little plastic containers — as in, put a spoonful of that stuff in without adding any water.
- Stir as needed, and once it’s starting to cook add chopped up olives (I like olives with chili).
- Throw in some milk, let the liquid reduce a bit and/or add more liquid as needed. If you don’t have milk, use the pasta water.
- Once the pasta’s cooked, drain it and stir it through.
Bam! You have dinner. I had this for dinner tonight; I probably eat it at least once a week in winter.
Last week I had a stomach virus, the week before I had a flu. My goal for this week: do an actual five-day work week. (You mean I have another four entire days after this??)
Some other notes from my extremely glamorous not-at-all-moping-in-bed life:
- I went with some friends to Castello di Rivoli on Saturday. I’ve been once before, I should go more often. It’s a Savoy palace! It’s got contemporary art! On a clear day, it has amazing views to the Alps but even on a cloudy day like Saturday it has views to Rivoli and down Corso Francia to Torino.
We were almost the only visitors there, and possibly the guards were a bit bored because they’d follow us from room to room, not even in a subtle way, just following. On the top floor there’s a viewing platform and we tried to get a group selfie with the scenery behind us — “Never mind, a guard will be along in a minute and we’ll get them to take a photo of us,” we joked.
Also, how fabulous is this ceiling?
- I’m starting to vaguely plot and scheme some fun things to do in spring, which officially isn’t for ages but this winter has been so mild it’s felt like spring since about mid-December. Last spring was a bit crap, and listing fun things to do is my overplanner’s way of trying to make this one better. Ideas so far:
- Do something “cultural” in Milan. I’m there semi-frequently for work, but all I ever see of Milan is Stazione Centrale, the subway, and the office. Pretty sure that, as a major city, it contains more than that.
- Brunch! (Easter brunch?)
- Start eating gelato again. I’ve only stopped because everywhere seems to be closed in January. (Yes, “eat gelato” is indeed something I resolve every time I decide to make resolutions.)
- These peanut butter oatmeal cookies are delicious. I had been limiting my use of oatmeal in baking because I was having trouble finding it in Torino, but a couple of months ago I got a tip-off to try the Chinese shops in Porta Palazzo. For whatever reason, they have 1kg boxes of Quaker oats for something like 3 euro. Yessssss. #expatlife
- And I discovered a few weeks ago that some crazy people from New Zealand have a recipe for homemade golden syrup, which produces something not exactly the same as golden syrup you’d buy in Australia but ehh whatever it’s near enough. I am totally going to make Anzac biscuits one of these days.
Practical tips for future reference: To get to Castello di Rivoli from central Torino, take the metro to Paradiso then catch the #36 bus to the end of the line. From there, just keep walking uphill through the historical centre of Rivoli.
I’ve made a couple of Christmas cakes since I’ve been in Torino. The first was last Christmas. I wanted a hands-on project to take my mind off a busy period at work — Christmas was approaching and it seemed a good idea to make something “from home” to share with my friends here, so I emailed my mum who very kindly sent me her recipe. (In contrast, the week of Christmas, I was in Australia and tried to oh-so-casually ask my Oma about her famous Christmas pudding recipe, but no dice. Every thing else she’s ever cooked, she’ll happily write out for me in her immaculate European handwriting, but that Christmas pudding is going to the grave with her.)
Last Christmas’ cake worked out pretty well, especially considering I couldn’t find all the right dried fruits. So when summer rolled along and some friends and I decided to have a Christmas-in-July party, I decided a second cake was in order. The idea of the party was to have an Australian-style Christmas while the weather here suited it, for the benefit of the poor lost Europeans who have such bewildering ideas like “Christmas is a winter festival”. So I made a more Australian-style cake, swapping in glace ginger for some of the dried fruit, another trick I’d learned from my mum. I wasn’t as happy with that cake as the first one — I should have tweaked the alcohol choice to match the ginger — but it was still a good summer picnic cake to take hiking and even to carry across to Slovenia with me on my vacation.
So it’s inevitable: now it’s chilly in the mornings and they’ve put the Christmas lights on, it’s time for another cake.
Pretty lights: a message from Comune di Torino to make a Christmas cake already.
No ginger this time, but I’m using home-made mixed peel and sort-of raisins, and I’m planning on a 1-2 week soak for the fruit, inspired by the most touching story I’ll ever read about cake.
Go, read it, see if you don’t also end up with something in your eye, and a hankering for a nice, rich, Christmas cake.
Below is the recipe I use, as my mum very kindly typed up and emailed to me (I’ve included her comments).
Stop and think about what you’re doing right now. Would it be better with a peanut butter cookie? Yes, yes it probably would. These are my current go-to bickies, and they’ve got at least 3 things going for them:
- They’re very easy to make.
- They’re gluten free without being kinda gross, in fact they’re amazing, all chewy and peanut-y and sweet and a bit salty.
- They’re completely unheard of in Italy, so you can bring a tin of them to a get-together and not worry about competing with anyone’s grandmother’s traditional recipe.
Step by step (the recipe is closely based on this one, but with added cinnamon and without the salt):
- Obtain peanut butter. If you’re in Italy, this is the hardest step. The big supermarkets are often a decent bet, though I’ve been surprised by both Crai and Carrefour Express supermarkets sometimes. Try near the Nutella (don’t get distracted and buy Nutella instead of peanut butter…) or possibly the ‘foreign food’ shelf. If you’re in Torino, the Pam supermarket in Lingotto sells a jar that’s big enough for 2 batches of these cookies. The brand is called “Save” and it’s pretty nasty peanut butter for eating (as you would imagine from the name — does “save” ever bode well for food?) but it’s fine for baking with.
- Everything is measured by volume not weight. If you don’t have measuring cups, 1 cup is 250 ml, so a drinking glass is probably about the right size. Depending on your peanut butter jar, that might well be about 1 cup.
- Cream together 1 cup peanut butter with 1 cup sugar. You want to mix them so that all the peanut butter has sugar in it, and all the sugar has peanut butter on it.
- Add 1 beaten egg, 1 teaspon vanilla, a decent shake of ground cinnamon. I’ve never measured how much cinnamon I use, sorry to be vague! You want enough so the cookies taste vaguely American, without overpowering the peanut butter.
- At this point, the dough will probably be quite sticky. I suggest you pop it in the fridge for a while, it will noticeably improve the texture of the final product and make it easier to form the cookies without getting sticky goop all over your hands.
- The time the dough needs in the fridge is about how long it takes to heat the oven to 180C, so turn it on now.
- To form the cookies, make 1.5-2cm diameter balls, and flatten them. Do some fancy criss-cross pattern with a fork, if you like, but I just squoosh them down with my fingers.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes.
- DON’T TRY TO TAKE THE BISCUITS OFF THE TRAY UNTIL THEY’VE COOLED. They will fall apart! Wait until they’re cool enough to touch. I have made this mistake multiple times. It does result in a lot of broken cookies which I have to eat myself because I couldn’t possibly serve them to other people. Ahem.
- There is no Step 10, so let me tell you a story about going to the supermarket to buy eggs the last time I made these biscuits:I’m waiting in line at the checkout, when suddenly the old lady in front of me spins around, exclaiming and waving her hands as if she’d seen a rat or something. Turns out, she’d spotted the woman behind me, wearing sandals. In October. Wouldn’t she be cold?! How could she not be wearing socks and shoes?At this point, she’s on a roll with being dramatically appalled about things. Look at the batteries! 8.40 euro! That’s [I don’t remember how many] lire! For batteries! I murmur something polite about ‘yes that does seem expensive’.So we get talking, which is mostly her talking and me trying to keep up: Where am I from, it’s obviously not Italy? Australia? Really? Her father spent 2 years in New Zealand! What on earth am I doing in Italy? A scientist? Oh madonna! She clutches my arm in mock horror. What do I think of Torino? I like it? Good. But it’s not like it used to be, back in the days of Fiat, it was such a more elegant city. She’s 91, she says.And she thinks my name is ‘uhzoe’, because I subconciously hesitated when she asked me. Oh deary me.