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Tag Archives: holidays

Kilograms, centigrade and convection, Oh My!

24 Nov

24 November 2016. We are celebrating this most-American of holidays in Seattle with pouring rain, but surrounded by family. I am the chief cook but thanks to two able sous chefs, Ric and my sis-in-law Deb, I am not spending the entire day in the kitchen. Our nephew is supplying excellent wine and Alexa, the digital assistant will play any music I desire on demand. She also sets timers. I have fallen in love with her and a few minutes ago ordered one for our house. 

We are grateful to be back in the U.S. for the first Thanksgiving here in 5 years, but cannot help taking a look back on a fun-filled feast we held in Italy in 2013, when Ric and I cooked for 11 Italians on Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoy the look back and wish you all a very blessed holiday.

Thanksgiving 2013, A look back

I’ve prepared a lot of turkeys. A conservative estimate would be that I have prepared 40 over the course of about 36 years. My first was when I was in my mid-twenties and decided I had to be the hostess for Thanksgiving and my mom had to help. I was terrified of ruining the Butterball. The years we did not prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving at home I surely made one for Christmas or sometime during the autumn.  And I graduated over the years from frozen (Norbest with a built-in timer!) to all-natural farm-raised turkeys from an organic store. But the most satisfying turkey-venture was this year, in Rome.
Leonardo reads the menu - in English and Italian - as we start with the soup.

Leonardo reads the menu – in English and Italian – as we start with the soup.

Our friends, Alessandra and Francesco, invited us to prepare the feast in their beautiful apartment. They would provide the turkey and wine while Ric and I would prepare the contorni (side dishes). Knowing they had an Italian oven, which are smaller than most we have in the U.S., and since this type of meal is a bit unusual in Italy, we gathered over supper the Friday before Thanksgiving to plan our attack. I warned them that turkey takes time: I will be in your kitchen much of the day.  Since Thursday was a work-and-school day here for all but employees of the American Embassy, I worried it might be an imposition. But Ale and Francesco were undeterred and in fact invited a crowd to experience the American feast.  There would be 11 Italians at the table, plus Ric and I. We decided that if it would fit in their oven, a 7 kilogram  turkey would be a nice size, about 15 pounds U.S. Their friend Stefania would provide dessert.
Beautiful butternut squash and fresh sage on the way to making a velvety soup.

Beautiful butternut squash and fresh sage on the way to making a velvety soup.

Early Thursday we headed out to pick up artisan bread for the dressing and fresh green beans, managing to get in a 6 km walk in advance of the feast.  While we were inhaling the glorious smells at Roscioli, Francesco called and said “You need to talk to Ale. She has the turkey and it’s big.” Ale confirmed: her butcher has provided an 8 kg (17-pound) hen turkey and the butcher says it will take 5 hours to cook. Can we come earlier to start the cooking?
Ale's elegant tableware from Castelli, famous for ceramics.

Ale’s elegant tableware from Castelli, famous for ceramics.

We planned to serve the soup at 19:30 and the main course about 20:30, so we figured the bird needed to go in the oven about 16:30, if it weighed 7 kg. Now we had 8 kg to deal with, and (surprise!) a convection oven, which changes the cooking game considerably, plus the butcher’s recommendation to cook it in a low oven for 5 hours. Yikes!  Arriving about 14:45, Ric set to chopping herbs for my herb-butter turkey recipe. By 15:20, after calculating and re-calculating cooking time and centigrade-versus-Fahrenheit, we had herb-butter under the skin and put her in the oven trussed up as tightly as we could, just managing to squeeze her into the space available.  (Ric has a wonderful little app on the tablet that does all manner of conversions since our American-system brains have to constantly deal with length, volume, temperature and distance conversions.)  With any luck, she would be done by 20:00, giving 30 minutes for “rest” and to make the final prep.
Every good dinner starts with prosecco. Rita, Valentino, Francesco, Eleonora and Nello.

Every good dinner starts with prosecco. From left, me (elbow), Rita, Valentino, Francesco, Eleonora and Nello.

Whew! Deep breath, now all we have to do is monitor, baste, add broth, and prepare the contorni. Ric is a terrific sous chef and spent the next hour carving up butternut squash for soup, peeling potatoes, and various other tasks assigned, while the kids came and went. All-in-all Alessandra, Ric and I spent a compatible couple of hours doing prep, setting the table, chatting and enjoying the time immensely. At each check on the turkey, I worried it was getting too brown, but my research on roasting a turkey in a convection oven said do not cover with foil. By 17:30 I was nervous: it looked done. My brand new meat thermometer (Celsius, of course!) said it was done in most parts.  Can’t be! Two hours at 160C (325F) and it’s done!?!?!? The main event was still 3 hours off! We wanted the guests to see this magnificent beast, but how could we hold it safely not have it dried out like the scene from “Christmas Vacation?”
Ale said, “We must Google it!” We typed in “how to hold a turkey safely when it’s done early.” Amazing
Eleonora, Stefania and Francesco share the cranberries

Nello, Eleonora, Stefania and Francesco

number of hits! Who knew?  Survey says: aluminum foil, low low temp (about 200F), and moisture in the pan beneath the turkey.
Can I tell you this was the most beautiful turkey I’ve ever made? And the moistest? And the best-tasting? My updated recipe for perfection at Thanksgiving = The company of people you enjoy + Natural Italian turkey + Convection oven + Creativity and a little experience with turkeys.
Ignore the goofy-looking cook and focus on the bird: perfection!! Sara clearly finds me amusing.

Ignore the goofy-looking cook and focus on the bird: perfection!! Sara clearly finds me amusing.

I think the only side dish quite familiar to the guests was mashed potatoes. Gravy is not normally made in Italy, nor dressing/stuffing as we do in the U.S. (mine is made with sausage, apples and raisins). We managed to acquire fresh whole cranberries (shipped in from Massachusetts)  and made sweet potatoes with gorgonzola.  Stefania’s tarte tartin and homemade whoopee pies made for a festive and tasty finish.  See the whole menu here. Multiple portions were consumed and even the kids were adventurous in trying foods they’d not seen before. No one seemed to miss pasta.
Everyone who has prepared a Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey dinner knows that the final prep is chaotic. Getting stuffing, Potatoes, sweet potatoes, veg, gravy and turkey all on the table at the same time. Ronnie is a blur as he speeds to help!

Everyone who has prepared a  big turkey dinner knows that the final prep is chaotic, getting stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, veg, gravy and turkey all on the table at the same time. Ronnie is a blur as he speeds to help. Thanks to Ronnie, Ric was off clean-up duty for a change.

Dinner went off without a hitch. Except as usual, I forgot something, sending the sweet potatoes to the table sans the candied pecans on top, and I forgot the pepperoncini for the green beans. (I think I am the only one that noticed.)
Last year, our first Thanksgiving in Italy, we knew we would really miss the large crowd we tended to gather around our table in Portland, so we celebrated in a totally non-traditional manner. This year we had a memorable, wonderful day thanks to Alessandra, Francesco, their family and friends. We are very grateful to have been able to share the traditions and spend our holiday with them and to them for opening their home and kitchen to the American Invasion.
I am so getting a convection oven the next time we need to buy an appliance.
Thanksgiving green beans with red peppers and American bacon. Not your mother's green bean casserole.

Thanksgiving green beans with red peppers and American bacon. Not your mother’s green bean casserole.

I ragazzi doing what kids usually do after dinner.

Giordano, Leonardo, Giuseppe and Sara, doing what kids usually do after dinner.

Giuseppe and Giordano at table - even the kids liked the soup!

Giuseppe and Giordano at table – even the kids liked the soup!

Me with my friend and Italian teacher, Eleonora.

Me with my friend and Italian teacher, Eleonora.

Kitchen action stops fo a quick pre-dinner drink. Ale, Eleonora., Francesco and me.

Kitchen action stops fo a quick pre-dinner drink. Ale, Eleonora, Francesco and me.

 
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The wonder of Christmas lights

18 Dec
When we were kids, our parents used to take us out at least once every Christmas season to look at the lights in various neighborhoods of St. Paul, Minnesota. We so looked forward to those drives, wondering if the house on Snelling Avenue had the Santa, sleigh and reindeer up again this year (very special in the late 1950s/early 1960s) and marveling at the “rich people’s” houses where there were so many lights you knew they did not have any concerns about electrical bills. Our house always had a few strings of lights, but somehow the other neighborhoods seemed more exotic.
Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

When my son was small I’d do the same thing with him although eventually these viewings became what he called forced marches through neighborhoods in Omaha and Portland as we took to our feet instead of the car. Ric and I have continued the tradition everywhere we’ve lived and traveled, with fond memories of wandering down Peacock Lane & strolling through the Grotto in Portland. In Italy the private dwellings are not the focus, it is the public lighting.
Wednesday night we traveled through Milano, stopping for one night on our way to Paris, and made a point of taking a Christmas Lights Walk. Subtle, like Roma, nothing really garish, but people were out in droves enjoying a crisp-but-not-cold night, taking the kids to see Santa, shopping, and gawking at the tree in Piazza del Duomo.
Adding to the festiveness, a live orchestra was performing in a building overlooking the Piazza del Duomo. Christmas songs done in a swing style with a proper chanteuse singing in slightly accented English (‘Ave you-self a merrrrry little Chris-mas.…) blared out through open windows and over a magnificent sound system. People were paying rapt attention even though one could not see the musicians. It truly was festive!
Click on any photo for a slide show.
I am looking forward to the French experience in Paris where I understand the lighting is far less subtle.

One Thanksgiving just isn’t enough

26 Nov
In the U.S., our Thanksgivings were usually over-the-top: 13 people in our tiny condo for a 5-course meal, for example. This is definitely the holiday I miss most living abroad and replacing our U.S. traditions just doesn’t fit. So we do Thanksgiving differently. One year it was a non-traditional hike. The next we cooked dinner for 11 Italians at our friends’ house. Last year we fed ourselves on American nostalgia by touring the Norman Rockwell exhibit that was here. This year, we celebrated twice, because once is not enough.
A week prior to T-Day, the American Women’s Association of Rome held their annual Thanksgiving dinner and we joined about 110 ex-pats and Italians for an Italian-ized dinner at the ever-so-elegant Hotel Hassler. If you want a room there tomorrow night you would pay €330.00 non-refundable for the smallest room. For only an extra €100.00, you do not have to pre-pay and get breakfast too. Such a bargain. Personally I’d prefer a 3-night stay in a cute B&B in Venezia.
Elegant tablesetting at the Hassler.

Elegant table setting at the Hassler.

Cin Cin!

Cin Cin!

The AWAR dinner was beautifully prepared and served with prosecco and wine flowing freely. So freely I had to put my hand over my glass a couple of times to prevent the constant topping-off.  As I said, the menu was Italianized. Of course, there was a pasta, in this case perhaps the most delightful lasagna I’ve ever eaten, made with pumpkin and porcini. It was my intention to NOT complete each course, to pace myself and not overdo it. I managed to do so with the soup, but the lasagna demanded to be eaten. If there had not been 10 other people at the table, I might have finished off Ric’s too. (Note bene: all of the Italians finished their pasta. I was just trying to blend in.) While on the menu it looks like we had five side dishes (Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, corn, apple/soy cabbage, and chestnut with baby onions), in actuality only the sweet potatoes were a portion; the other four were a melange, more of a garnish than a vegetable dish.
OMG to-die-for lasagn of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

OMG to-die-for lasagna of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

 
Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

 
The little garnsih including the Burssles sprout and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu. More of a garnish,actually.

The little garnish including the Brussels sprouts and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu.

 
The dessert buffet was insane and totally Italian. I managed — only being polite — to down a wedge of something intensely chocolate. We finished the evening with a visit to the rooftop for a moonlit view over Roma. Fabulous.
Our “second Thanksgiving” is barely underway but is decidedly low-key. Setting up the house for Christmas, watching a movie or two (last night, the annual viewing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and later dinner with friends at a favorite trattoria. 
May those of you who celebrate this great American holiday have a truly blessed day. We look forward to hosting one of our classic dinners when we return to Portland. 
Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

 
Roma by moonlight from the hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

Roma by moonlight from the Hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

 
 

Island life

18 Apr
I’ve been wanting to go to the islands off the coast at Napoli for a long time.  More well-known are Capri and Ischia. Since we only had a couple of days, I picked Procida and made it a mystery-trip-delayed-birthday-celebration for Ric. It should have been beautiful weather. This was also our last getaway before retirement.  All I can say is that at least it wasn’t as cold as Tuscany in February.
We were able, as usual, to make the most of it despite the weather. When it was not inclement we headed outdoors. When it rained, we luxuriated in long hours of reading in our very pleasant room over-looking a marina. The food was terrific: fish and shellfish galore, crisp white wine from Ischia, and decent pizza. (See Our Weekly Pizza.)  Much like when we used to go to Cannon Beach, Oregon, in winter, it was a relaxing break from the everyday. It is nice to get out of the city.
There were many people traveling to-and-from Procida and Ischia, many clearly bound for homes of family and friends. The ferry out on Saturday was packed as many Italians travel at Easter. There were not so many tourists, but we were far from alone. Clearly others expected Mediterranean Spring as well.
If one is in Italy for a few weeks of intense travel and sightseeing, Procida would make a nice break, a “vacation from your vacation” as Rick Steves says.  Herewith a slideshow to give you a feel for Procida. Click on any picture to start the show.

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015!

6 Jan
The last two weeks have been busy what with four – count ’em – four holidays in Italy! December 25 and 26 (Santo Stefano) we spent in Ortisei (see prior posts), then returning from vacation we had two more holidays to enjoy: New Year’s Day and Epifania.  Life is good!
New Year’s Eve we traveled to our favorite trattoria in Roma, Antica Taverna. The owner Paolo and our favorite waiter, Giovanni, took good care of us and we enjoyed a protracted dinner with too many dishes to name them all and a steady supply of good red wine. The dessert was the only item I managed to photograph, a delightful tortino al cioccolato.  It tasted 10 times better then it looks. It was THAT GOOD.  We slipped out before 23:00 in hopes of finding a cab before the whole city descended into chaos. The buses stop running at 21:00 on NYE because they can’t make it through the streets effectively. Can you imagine? Shutting down the buses because there are too many people in the streets? The Metro runs but unfortunately nowhere near our home. We can walk from Antica Taverna to home in 75-90 minutes, but it was really cold (for Roma) and walking did not seem like much fun. What luck! We found a cab at an obscure cabstand near the restaurant! Got home in time to endure 45 minutes of neighborhood revelry.  Some year we need to be brave and go down to the party in via Fori Imperiali and see the fireworks over the Colosseo. Some year.
This weekend was the start of the winter saldi (sales). We had a couple of purchases in mind and headed out into a bright if chilly Sunday along with THOUSANDS of people making their way to our destination, a major shopping street near the Vatican. We made our way by bus to transfer to the Metro at Termini. The Metro was packed like the Japanese subway on a business day. I wanted to take a picture of how crowded it was, but I couldn’t maneuver to do so packed in as I was with my arms pinned! We wondered at so many people heading out to shop! We might have bailed in the Metro station but by that time we were like cows going through chutes and there was no turning back. Moo. When we got to our stop, the hoards headed down the street toward the Vatican. It was then that we realized they were headed to Piazza San Pietro for the Pope’s angelis. Shopping was busy too, but not quite the cattle drive.
Today is Epifania, the official end to the Christmas season, also called Befana, when the witch La Befana visits the children leaving candy for the good ones and coal for the not-so-good children. Having no young children around and having spent Christmas out of Roma, we decided to have a small group of friends for a decidedly non-traditional lunch. Is Italian-Swedish a fusion cuisine? Our new friends and soon-to-be-landlords had voiced an interest in Swedish meatballs, and she wanted to make a special Neopolitan pastiera for dessert. Combined with a purè di patate casserole, Swedish pickled herring, Swedish cheese, a beet salad, and Italian salumi, it was cross-cultural event. Unfortunately as we got into entertaining we forgot to take more pictures!
So now we have to go a week-and-a-half until the next holiday, Martin Luther King’s birthday. Hope I can make it!
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