Friday, July 31, 2009

Berry dilemma

The one thing that is a "must-do" every summer is to get out of Phoenix and head towards cooler places. Preferably somewhere green. It makes living here a little more tolerable. This summer, I was lucky to be able to take 2 vacations. Italy and Portland. But Portland didn't count. I had to go shopping. To pick berries. And preserve them. Then bring them back to Phoenix. You see, berries don't exist in Phoenix, or anywhere in Arizona for that matter. Really, it's almost bad enough that I'd consider packing my bags and moving to a place with a small berry patch. Everyone needs to live somewhere relatively close to berries. Once you've seen fields and fields of berries, walked along and picked wild blueberries in a city street, bent down to pick and taste the bursting red fruit...once you've seen it and experienced it, you can't go back. You can't settle for the Trader Joe's berries. Even the Whole Foods berries are lacking the sweetness that can only exist when you pick them straight from the bush.

Of course, I make things a hundred times more difficult when I decided a few years ago to eat mostly local and seasonal fruits and veggies. I give myself a 2 state radius, but prefer to eat food grown within my state. My exemptions are bananas and avocados and cherries and mangos, because, well, I can't seem to live without them. How could I walk past the guy with the mango cart, selling mangos on a stick, with limes and chili? I couldn't resist. So what if they're from Chile or Australia or Argentina? I might have a big carbon footprint when I pop a cherry in my mouth or eat a banana, but I'll make sure to offset it by riding my bike somewhere...for a year.

So, I was craving strawberries. I called Flagstaff farmers markets in the north...nothing. I called Sierra Vista farmers markets in the south...nada. I called my forager friends and asked if they found any berry patches in the Valley. Empty. Zilch. No berries in Phoenix.

So, the next logical step was to fly to Portland and pick them. Technically, I'll be eating local and in season. Only it happens to be in a different state. And I had to fly to get there. But that's besides the point. Then, there's the issue of preserving them and bringing them back home.

Luckily, my friend Emma and her family were happy to have me visit them. She and I left the kids and spent an afternoon picking beautiful organic strawberries on Sauvie Island, a small island just off of Porland. It was a cool morning and we had a nice drive around the island before we found the perfect, fresh, u-pick strawberries. 2 hours later, 50 pounds heavier, and $80 dollars spent, we headed home to start cooking.

How I make Strawberry Preserves:

2 Quarts of strawberries (or a big pan full of strawberries)
2 cups of sugar
one or two lemons

* clean and de-stem strawberries
* cut in half or quarters
* put about 6 cups (enough to fill a large stock pot) of strawberries in a bowl, little at a time, and begin to mash them. They'll start to produce sauce. If you want the preserves to have more strawberry chunks, then don't mash too much.
* place the mashed strawberries into a large stock pot.
* add 2 cups of sugar
* add one or 2 lemons (to preserve the color)
* cook about 40 minutes, stirring often. Cook until mixture is thicker
* scoop off the top layer of foam. (you can save it/set aside and use it to put over ice-cream!)

* while strawberries are cooking, disinfect canning jars and lids. We used the dishwasher and set it at the hottest setting.
* Be sure to not touch the lids by hand. Use tongs to remove and place on a clean, dry towel. Dry lids.
* When the Strawberry mixture is done cooking, and still VERY HOT, pour into HOT canning jars. The canning jars AND THE STRAWBERRY PRESERVES should be hot, so they seal appropriately.
* Close the jars and place UPSIDE DOWN for at least 5 minutes.
* Turn right-side-up after 5+ minutes. If you hear a POP, then the jars are sealed! If you don't, then you need to re-do that jar.
Heading over the Sauvie Island bridge to pick some strawberries.

Emma and I picked 4 boxes of strawberries. We definitely have enough to get us through the summer. Then some!

Step 1: washing and de-stemming the strawberries. They look so pretty!

Step 2: this is after about 30 minutes of cooking the crushed strawberries. Almost ready for canning.

Step 3: Emma is putting hot preserves into the clean, hot jars.

Jars and jars of strawberry preserves. It was actually really easy to do, only it took all day to finish.
It might have made more sense to just buy them from someone, but now I can say I know how to jar!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Italy Part Three: Sicily

As I sit in the airport, waiting for my flight that will bring me back to Sicily, I notice the people around me, waiting…impatiently…and I realize I’m among Sicilians. First, there are the group of incredibly obnoxious boys and men who complain loudly to each other and to anyone that would hear them, that the delay is entirely too long. They’re wearing the trademark Mafia sunglasses - but I highly doubt the Mafia would have anything to do with these loud and incredibly annoying bunch of boys. They go on and on for more than the one hour delay to Catania. Then, I notice the young boy who is accompanying his grandmother home. He makes sure she has a comfortable seat while he stands in the long line, occasionally going back to her to see if she is OK, if she needs anything. And the others, too. Even the strangers seem to be taking care of this elderly woman who is too old to stand and wait. Someone goes to get her espresso from the machine (yes, there are espresso machines instead of Soda machines in the airport). Another woman, a stranger, volunteers to walk her to the bathroom before we board the plane. Yup, I begin to realize that I’m about to visit a place that isn’t so strange after all, but feels oddly familiar.

I spend 11 days in Sicily, total. Almost all of it with my family: my cousin Giuliana and her partner (il fidanzato) Alfonso, my Zia Maria and Zio Angelo, and my little cousins Giuseppe (Peppe) and Roberta, and some days my cousin Gabriella and her husband Nunzio.

Most of my days here are spent eating, relaxing, tagging along with my cousin to work, exploring the nearby towns and cities, and eating some more. I should say something about the eating habits of the Italians in general, and the Sicilians specifically. The most obvious difference is the time difference of when people eat. In the North, lunch is around noon, dinner about 8:00pm. That was about the same in Tuscany; dinner around 8 or 9:00pm.

In Sicily, lunch (pranzo) begins at 1:00 and continues through 3 or 4:00pm. During this time, all stores close, workers go home, and meals are prepared. Prepared. That means that meals are cooked on hand. And I don’t mean sandwiches or a light lunch of salad. Pranzo consists of a Prima Piatta (first course) which is something simple…sliced cheese and olives, then the main meal which can be pasta in one form or another. Or a vegetable dish. You finish your lunch with a cup of espresso, rest, run errands, then return to work. They work until 9:00pm, and then come home for dinner. Dinner (cena) is typically eaten at 10:00 or 11:00pm. The course is similar to lunch in that there are 2 or more courses, and pasta is one of the courses. Meat is eaten more at night than during the day, accompanied by wine or beer. We chat, play cards, then go to bed…around 1:00am.

Food - the love of food, the appreciation of food, the careful preparation of food, and the cultivation of food – is obvious in Sicily. You see evidence of this in every town. From the large daily markets spotlighting the regional specialties, to the small fishermen bringing in their catch to feed the local community, to the numerous corner stands and vegetable trucks selling cantaloupe and watermelons from the area, and to the hundreds and hundreds of square miles of olive trees dotting the landscape. As I walk down most streets I notice a sweet, slightly familiar smell – the smell of Fig trees. They grow like weeds here. And they’re incredibly huge. You see them growing out of old brick walls, in abandoned yards, in the corner of a busy intersection – they’re everywhere, and they give off this sweet perfume that is uniquely Mediterranean.

I spent some time at the 3 major cities – Catania, Siracusa, and Palermo - the 3 points that make Sicily the island shaped like a triangle. Of these cities, I spent the most time in Catania, 3 days, and fell in love with the architecture of the place, the old buildings housing immigrants from Africa, Asia, India, the countless museums and churches, and the markets. Catania is situated under the shadow Mt. Etna nearby and you can see evidence of the mountain by its black rock beaches nearby. The beaches are beautiful and the water is clear. During the day, I’d eat granita with briosche (a type of french sweet bread), Orancini (deep fried or baked rice balls stuffed with ragu, spinach, cheese), drink coffee and wander the streets.

Siracusa is an amazing old city, with streets so narrow you could almost touch the walls with your outstretched hands. The history of this place is incredible and the water is spectacular.

I spent the least time in Palermo, but it was the one place I wanted to visit the most. I was there only a few short hours, but I characterized the city as nothing short of chaotic and incredibly loud, to say the least. Palermo is a city of immigrants; situated on the port closest to Africa, there are many immigrants from that region, as well as a healthy population of Muslim and Indian immigrants. Although there are hundreds of churches and other historical sights, it seems like Palermo hasn’t had the time or the money to preserve these spaces. They’re scattered among the traffic, the busy streets, and modern buildings popping up everywhere. I’m told this is the best city of all of Sicily, I wish I could have seen it that way.

The heart of Sicily is where I spent most of my time - the center of the island where there are rolling hills, olive trees dotting the landscape, towns atop mountains surrounded by walls or old palaces. My parents are from Nissoria, in the province of Enna, population 2,000. Enna, the highest town atop a mountain in all of Italy, stands close by. Leonforte (the Strong Lion) is the town where my cousins currently live, only 10 km from Nissoria. It is beautiful and quaint and quiet.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Italy Part Two: Siena

After spending 3 beautiful, relaxing days in the north of Italy, I take a train down to Siena, Tuscany, where I will be for the next 4 days. To describe what Siena is like is to describe a living museum; a complex system of narrow cobblestone streets, Italian gothic arches, a maze of neighborhoods, churches, museums, theaters, small shops, gently rolling hills, Cypress trees, a round and simple medieval 13th century piazza, all abuzz with the sounds of tourists, children, street vendors, scooters, and sparrows flying overhead.

I could have picked a quieter town. One not as overwhelmed with tourists. But as I was standing at the train terminal in Ventimiglia I couldn’t make up my mind as to where I wanted to go. Siena was the first train out that morning…so I bought my ticket and called the tourist office to find me a small room that day. And it’s a good thing I did. Siena may be a city full of tourists, but it is also a city where people all over Europe come to study, to learn, to play and to live. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I ran into a group of French Erazmus students, studying there for a year, only 3 hours after my arrival and would be stuck (gladly) with them for the remainder of my time there.

After finding my room – a very overpriced and large affitecamere (room in a house) – I ventured out to the main Piazza…Piazza del Campo. I bought an Espresso and a gelato, thus beginning my daily habit of eating and drinking lavishly for the next 2 weeks, and sat on the Plaza to people-watch. People-watching is a great past-time of mine. I love doing it. I love watching families, lovers, kids and friends play and talk and mingle about. I can do it anywhere and I think I’ll always enjoy it. After some time I came to realize that Italy can be a very difficult country to travel to alone. Traveling alone, in general, isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s something to do only when you’re sure you can handle it. Good thing I’m a pro at this, or else Siena would have sent me on a tailspin right back to my therapist. But no, for me, I just sat back and wondered how I would manage here for the next 4 days.

I started walking around, getting used to the winding, narrow streets all leading out to the walls surrounding Siena or to the Piazza sloping in the center of the town. Just outside the crowded streets and buildings I see a park nearby and walk toward it - I naturally tend to travel in the direction of green space and gardens – and find myself in front of a large gated entrance to the park. My Italian has not come back to me at this point, so I’m struggling to read the sign…is it public? Is it private? Can I walk right in? Just then, I hear 2 young students speaking and laughing as they’re coming into the Park. They’re carrying boxes of pizza and bottles of wine and rum. I ask them if they know if the park is private and they ask me if I’m Spanish. So far, no one in Italy has confused me for an American. Instead, my broken Italian with the Spanish words and apparent Spanish accent has confused just about everyone I meet. The park is public and I am quickly invited to spend the evening with these 2 wonderful and funny and incredibly generous French men. And with about 10 of their French and Italian friends.

There is something to be said about Serendipity, or Coincidence, or the Universe knowing just what you need at the time you need it. I don’t know how it works, or why it works, but it does. Maybe I just notice it more than others, but it happens all the time to me. I find people that come into and out of my life in a ways that are always meaningful. Meaningful not only to me, but also to them. They have enriched my life just a little as I think I have enriched theirs.

So for the next four days I start my day with coffee, gelato, a walk in town, visit a church or 2, then head to a friends house where lunch will be made, cards will be played, and an excursion will take place. That, followed by dinner and drinks. Or, maybe a free concert at the Parco di San Matteo. Or, some live jazz at the International Jazz school, conveniently situated in the heart of Siena.

After a few days I switched to a cheaper hostel, took a day trip to nearby San Giminiano, and wandered the small walled, mountain village where medieval knights and kings once sparred for control of the walled city where the long-gone Etruscans built their cities and lived on the land. Oh, and I did that while drinking espresso and eating gelato…of course.

I was definitely getting prepared for the next, and biggest, part of my trip – Sicily. Luckily, some of the students I spent time with were from Sicily, Sciacca and Capo d'Orlando. They prepared me what was to come by singing me traditional Sicilian folksongs or teaching (re-teaching) me how to play Scopa or Briscula, old Sicilian card games that I used to play with my Grandfather when I was younger. Finally, and the most notable, was when they sat me down and reminded me that I will never be a tourist in Sicily. Not as long as I have parents who were born there…I’m simply going home to be with my people for a bit. So, after 4 glorious, restful, happy days in Siena, I packed my bags and did just that – I was heading back to my homeland.

Eating gelato...daily


French friends...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Italy Part One: Ventimiglia

Started my trip to Italy with 4 days at the eco-village of Torri Superiore, near Ventimiglia, Italy. After hours of flying, then taking a train for 6 hours (which should have been 4 hours), then arriving in Ventimiglia too late to catch the necessary bus to the town of Torri, then finding a hotel to sleep for the night...I celebrated my birthday...finally. At 11pm on June 12th, I had my dinner of Gnocchi and pesto and a large glass of red wine! The next morning, I catch the first bus to Torri and arrive to an amazing, old, restored village where 10 families live and many visitors come to relax, learn, study, work and enjoy the surrounding area.

For me, I sat and relaxed. There is a beautiful and clean, cool river that runs just below the town. Every afternoon, I would head down there and take a swim in the river. This river is amazing...there are big rocks where you could jump off and into the water. The water was clear and deep. Fish everywhere and big frogs that you can hear at night. I would swim upstream, past one small cascade, then continue up to the next cascade and then swim through this small canyon wall until I reach the final cascade. Then, I would sit back and float downstream. Until I hit a rock, or the water calmed enough for me to get out and dry off on the big rocks. I did this every day...for 3 days. Beautiful.

The meals are communal, so we all eat together at 1pm, then again at 8pm. We sit and talk and get to know a bit of how our lives are outside of this place. Lucky for me, it has been easy to meet people, so far. My Italian is less than good (its pretty rotten, actually). So, Ive been able to talk in Spanish and they respond mostly in Italian. Its a good understanding we have!

The food is mostly vegetarian and produced from the nearby farms or the small garden that Torri has. The surrounding area of Torri has over 3,000 olive trees, which have been cultivated for hundreds of years. Now, about half produce fruit. Everything here is terraced, so you can see olive trees all along the mountains, and, in the mornings, its shrouded by fog.

Its a good way to integrate myself into this country. Meeting and seeing people in the North and how they are, their accents, their language. There is a French air about the North, the italian accent is different than I know, but the people are nice and helpful...which, to me, is important!!

River in Torri

Farmers Market in Ventimiglia

France - Italian border

Village of Torri Superiore