Productive

Wait…what could this be…an update???? Surely thine eyes deceive!
Nope. I’m here, and [mostly] in one piece. What prompted a sudden revival of posting, you ask?…a weekend of blatant procrastination. I am none too proud of it, but the past 3 days have been painfully unproductive. And with 6 1/2 weeks still left in the semester, it’s not making me happy.
Today, however, for the first time in two months, I actually read blogs. I blew the dust off of my Google Reader and read. And I’ve decided, it was possibly one of the more productive things I’ve done yet during this absolute hell ,ahem, busy semester.
As I’m sure any current college senior can attest, that ubiquitous question “so what are you doing next year?” is the hot topic of the moment. And I will say it is quite a relief to a) know the answer and b) be able to ignore the GRE-mania that has taken over my friends and fellow tormented classmates. But, I can’t say I’m immune to my own self-questioning of is this what I really want. As I’ve been running around, making arrangements for gaining my 6 months of food prep experience required by the CIA, I can’t help but hear that very teeny voice in my head saying “oh, but this could be BAD. WHAT do you think you’re doing?” etc, etc – that same voice that held me back before Florence figuratively slapped me in the head.
One of the blogs I depended upon in Florence for restaurant recommendations had been left ignored, like all the others. I caught up on it today, and it all came hurtling back to me. Everything I learned – everything that Tuscany taught me – about food, and food as something inexplicably more, flooded my senses. Oh right – this is why I love it, why I want it. Duh.
I really do miss those yellow apples.
BUT, a number of other exciting things have happened in those few & far apart moments when I’m not metaphorically [usually] bound to my desk chair researching recipes from the 1940s. (My thesis and I….it’s a love/hate relationship. Not sure if I’m the love or hate…but that’s another post for another time.)
Fall Break was last weekend, and I spent it with my aunt & uncle in Georgia. Not only did I get to hang out with these adorable faces for 4 days:
Bosco, Banda, and
Buster!
…but I am also hoping (planning? let’s not jinx it just yet.) to spend the summer with them while getting the aforementioned food prep experience at a restaurant just down the street from their house. We went there – Three Blind Mice – for dinner and a little good-natured schmoozing with the owner/chef to check out that possibility.
My initial reaction to the restaurant itself was something to the tune of “too good to be true.” And I hadn’t even tasted the food yet. The decor is pretty perfect – you walk in and there is a wall of wines ordered by country of origin in front of you; a look to your left is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with culinary literature*.
*Side note: As a result of my thesis, I now have a venerable wealth of knowledge concerning what to call “food writing”: this includes, but is not necessarily limited to, ‘culinary literature,’ ‘culinary writing,’ ‘cookery books/literature,’ and ‘gastronomical literature/writing.’ Just in case you thought I was only trying to use fancy words…I wasn’t. That’s just a broad enough title.
But let’s get to the menu, right?

 

Now, I don’t know if you can see it, but if you look under appetizers, you will see a affettati board, which is Italian for literally ‘slices’, usually referring to meat. Look a little further down. Any die-hard Gillianasana fans remember finocchiona???  (Hint: here and here!) Only my favorite.sandwich.EVER. from my beloved sandwich shop/wine bar, Casa del Vino!! Y’all, I just about had a heart attack. I have not had the pure unadulterated joy of finocchiona since my last day.second-to-last sandwich in Florence.
…and then our waitress brought out the bread.
Ok, no olive oil & balsamic, but it is in middle-of-nowhere suburban Georgia. Let’s not push it, shall we?
I was seriously torn come decision-time, but I went with the Nicoise salad. I’m a huge fan of tuna in salad – but I hate ‘tuna salad’ (mayonnaise makes me gag. and shudder. and then gag again.). I actually make it all the time at home. That, and when my family and i were having lunch after touring Pompeii, my mom and I got this salad with tuna, corn, olives and arugula that blew our minds. Italy kinda does that.

 

Loved it. Especially because it was over arugula, my love for which knows no bounds.
My aunt ordered the Panzanella after I had another mini spaz attack over it (another fave of my mom’s & mine), but I actually didn’t love it. In another appeal to its audience, it included chicken and that was just kinda wrong to me. That and my pescatarian ways are slowly taking over. My uncle got the shrimp & grits (you see how awesome this restaurant is – it had rigatoni abruzzese just under shrimp & grits…genius.) and near licked his plate clean.
But, I will never forget the sage words (haha, get it? sage? like the spice…oh, never mind.) of my Italian cooking professor when he told us that the way to judge a restaurant is by its appetizer menu – CHECK – and its dessert menu.
We ordered 3.
My uncle ordered a chocolate-raspberry fontaine, a pastry of deep dark chocolate and raspberry filling enclosed in a flaky phyllo dough
I had a bite or two, but found myself a little distracted by the meringue-topped key lime pie…
…was amazing, mouth-watering, and basically exactly what I think of when key lime pie comes to mind, only maybe a step above. Even my aunt who hates key lime pie – and really desserts in general (I don’t know how I’m related to her either) – had a couple forkfuls. It was so light and perfectly tart, and didn’t have any of that icky gelatinous artificial mouth-feel that waaay too many key lime pies do. My fork was momentarily panicked when it could find nothing but a few graham crust crumbs left. Of course, then it found…

 

…the sticky toffee pudding.
Ok, now I am well aware of the reputation – or perhaps infamy – of British cuisine. That being, in layman’s terms, that it sucks. But I had heard of this dish before and being the dessert aficionado that I am, I was curious if nothing else to see what it was.
I did not expect it to be one of the fluffiest, most moist and caramel-y cakes ever steeped in a heavenly bath of liquid toffee. My aunt – you know, the one who “doesn’t like dessert” – and I dueled over the last toffee-soaked speck like two cats over catnip. I promptly texted my brother to inform him that his birthday present this year was going to be my recreation of this. It will be done.
The prospect of working here for a whole summer? Exciting is a sufficient but mundane word to describe how I feel about that!
And on the summer, I just might have a life again. A thesis-free life, at least!
I’m also writing a weekly blog for Converse (my college) – because, you know, I need something else. But it’s pretty fun 🙂 And the next post (up tomorrow I believe!) is all about my favorite topic – Florence!
Ok, back to…Henry James, a paper on Emerson, or chemistry problems. Gosh, what thrilling prospects.
Here’s to being productive.
~Namaste~
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Thoughts for Food

If you’re wondering where the heck I’ve been for the past couple of days…well, to be honest, I’ve been right here. I’ve been a BUSY bee! Sunday was spent writing my massive research paper on food blogs. But not before breakfast happened! We’re all starting to feel more or less ready to come home, and this weekend was the perfect opportunity to go to something we’ve been planning for a while – Sunday brunch! The notion of pancakes has never made me so excited.

Please notice that 1) this syrup is from the mythical land of VERTmont, not Vermont…hmm, I wonder if the Vertmont maple trees are better? and 2) that little bit of text on the bottom there says “Product of Canada.” Well, wherever Vertmont, Canada is – Italy likes your syrup. I however was unimpressed. But I was so happy about pancakes & syrup, it wasn’t all about taste.
And neither were the pancakes. Flimsy, flat, uninspired. I think they only made me crave real pancakes more…nevertheless, the brunch experience was fun. Under no other circumstances would paying $15 for 4 subpar pancakes be worth it, except for this particular one. Sometimes food isn’t about the flavor, but more for the experience that comes with it. Which is really what I love about it–food is not just about staying alive and thriving. It has symbols and meanings attached to it, it’s an event in and of itself. It’s just so cool, once you start thinking about it.
Which I clearly do all the time, because then I come here and ramble on about to to you 🙂
I swear paper writing burns calories. It’s like a marathon for your BRAIN. And my brain started to get hungry.

All things bright green and beautiful!
I bought some grapes at the grocery store because I needed a new fruit, and my salad was sadly lacking in color, so I figured, what the heck! Let’s throw some grapes on there! I love strawberries in salad – with balsamic vinegar, they are to live for – so I figured grapes couldn’t be too far off. They weren’t but I think my allergies have stuffed me up enough to not be able to really taste things. The sweetness complimented the beans very nicely though. 
After several hours of slooooow-going research, I needed a break. No better excuse for gelato.
Sorbetto al cioccolato (chocolate sorbet – no milk), soia alla vaniglia (soy vanilla), and coffee crunch!
The chocolate sorbet was perfect. I like it better than regular ice cream because it tastes darker and more like rich cocoa powder – I’m a hard core dark chocolate girl. No milk for me – the darker the better! The soy vanilla was wonderful, as expected – such a unique, creamy and sweet flavor! The vanilla is very present but there is a nuttiness to it that just makes it fun to eat. The coffee crunch was phenomenal – good coffee ice cream, not too sweet or strong, with these wonderful little bits of chocolate-coated-crispy-cookie-something or other that was just….mmmmmmm. No words. Just the one letter.
And then, a couple more hours passed, and it was time for dessert #2. Don’t judge.
I had one chocolate left from our trip to the Perugina store in Perugia, and it was calling to me…or maybe I just started hearing things after becoming absorbed into paperland. Either way, surrender to chocolate is always a good choice.

Does that say mousse??? Could this be true?

They can’t possibly have put actual chocolate mousse into that little thing…
or could they?

…OH YES THEY COULD!!
A little bite of fluffy, cocoa-y heaven in the palm of my hand. A spoon full of sugar may help the medicine go down…but a truffle full of mousse helps the research paper get written!
Alright, so I’ve been talking about this paper a LOT. It wasn’t so much hard to write as it was to organize. I was researching food blogs, their recent popularity and what it says about the role food plays in Western society. (Hence all the food rambling.) It didn’t turn out as groundbreaking as I wanted it to, which is usually how most of my papers go, but it was finished. I pulled my first all-nighter on it, actually. I just kept going and then before I knew it was 6 AM, the birds were chirping and the sun was rising. 
I would stay up all night while I’m in Florence writing a paper. What can I say, I’m a geek. Don’t hate.
I actually wasn’t sleepy at all, until I got to class of course. But it was actually kind of nice. I did some yoga, made some oats:
Banana-cinnamon oats + pineapple yogurt. Wicked good. (Told you I was getting a little homesick!) 
Class was a little rough, but Food & Culture is always a fun class to go to, and I had the prospect of this guy to look forward to:
Finocchiona  (fennel-spiked salami) + pecorino. I think I actually closed my eyes eating this it was so good. 
It was definitely a day for nap in the sun at the park. And so I did.
Alaina and, being the [fabulous] control-freak foodies that we are scheduled out all the restaurants we have left to go to, and because of an event this Tuesday night preventing us from doing Ethnic Tuesday, we went out tonight! Ethnic Tuesday–>Italian Monday. We checked out a cute little trattoria on the street that our school is on that I have been dying to try. And my major advisor–the one who told us about Sergio’s–also recommended it. Plus, we got to sit outside, and the weather is finally making that a very appealing option 🙂
I went with the spaghetti with fresh clams:
It was good, but HUGE – too much pasta! The clams were alright, I think it’s just that they don’t do much for me. I have no qualms eating them, but I always find them more or less flavorless. Mussels on the other hand rock my seafood-lovin socks:)
Tonight, however, was another instance of food as an experience. Sitting outside, sipping wine and chatting with friends over a meal made it a wonderful dinner, even if the food itself wasn’t the best I’ve had (which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – it’s a challenge to eat badly in Italy!). 
Isn’t it cute? A very enjoyable meal.
Tuesday is looking to be more or less eventful, and I hope to be saner and write less scattered schizo post…stay tuned 😉

Yogalicious

As well as I am doing, I cannot say the same about our Internet. It’s flakier than pastry. And I am not much for pastry.
On the other hand, there is not a whole lot to update about. April is not only a crazy month travel-wise, but school-wise as well – I have 2 presentations and a paper due next Monday and a massive research paper due the next Monday, and with my parents’ arrival next week and an impending trip to Siena this weekend, I’m a bit overwhelmed. Please forgive me if my posts are rather less prolific this week!
It occurred to, in thinking about all my to-dos, that during the school year all I say to myself is “just get through this week, month, assignment, etc” and I started thinking that here – but I had to stop myself. I want every minute here to last as looong as possible and I will not let looming schoolwork take away any of the fun and happiness this trip has left in store for me. Yes, I do want to do well because a lot of these assignments are actually very interesting (a presentation on chocolate? yes please!), but I don’t want their enormity to stress me out to a point where I forget where I am. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I plan on continuing to treat it as such. So there, perfectionist-me!
Ok, back to FOOD. Remember the yummy fennel-spiked salami I had at the olive oil tasting in Lucca? Well, I found it at none other than Casa del Vino, my Monday sandwich spot! I almost tried a new sandwich, but I saw ‘finocchiona’ on the list and had to have it. With pecorino, of course. 
Yup, just as amazing as I thought it would be. 
I promise, I will get it again and describe it as I eat it to try to nail the flavor a little more. Gosh, ordering this again–now that’s a challenge. NOT.
After classes, most of my day was spent battling with the Internet to try and get some of the mountain of research I have to do done [it didn’t end well for the research]. Dinner was a salad and soft-boiled egg on toast, unpictured because, well, they’re not exactly the most thrilling things to photograph.
Speaking of photography, I’m getting a new camera!!!!! My dad is bringing Frida’s replacement when they come next week. I’m so excited! Expect lots of “I have a new camera omg” pictures.
I think the all that intense hiking on Sunday followed by a mostly-sedentary Monday really took a toll on my body, and I was really feeling it last night. Though it was late, I decided to do a little yoga before hitting the sack. I need to do this more often! Though I didn’t get much sleep at all, I have a ton more energy today than usual and waking up was a lot easier! It felt sooo good, too. I know I have had a lot of good food, but yoga may be the yummiest thing ever.
After Italian and a quick trip to the market, I headed home for some much-needed oats:
Hide-and-seek eat!
And here’s lunch:
Fresh arugula + cukes + pecorino and good balsamic vin + olive oil. Sooooo yummy 🙂
The weather has gone a bit downhill since last week’s perfect spring warmth, but honestly I’m not too upset because I need every excuse to stay in and get work done before the weekend whisks me away! I would very much appreciate warmer weather though. Sitting in the kitchen with the windows wide open is such a wonderful feeling. *insert sigh of contentment here*
Yoga was actually a bit intense tonight, but that’s generally a good thing. We tried head stand for the first time. I have tried it before but have yet to get all the way up. The end result looks something like this:
Was certainly not going to happen on my first shot, but I got farther than expected. It takes a lot of balance. I am slowly improving my crow, though:
It’s actually really fun to try! I can stay up for at most one second, but one of my favorite things about yoga is that it doesn’t matter how well you able to physically execute a pose so much as that you are trying and slowly working up to it. And this is surprisingly easier than it looks! One of the best things about this yoga class here is that it has taught me new poses I probably would have been too hesitant to try on my own–yoga is all about the individual journey, but I do think it’s important to start out with a teacher because injuries can happen if the pose isn’t done correctly. 
After yoga, it was Ethnic Tuesday time! Tonight the roomies and I set our culinary sights on Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food, a Jewish restaurant near the synagogue. The main reason for our going here was 1 thing: hummus. All 4 of us love it and miss it terribly (we can’t find it sold anywhere!), and we were pretty excited about getting reacquainted with this chickpea-tahini delight.
This place was so cute! Quite small inside, with a cute little old man as the owner/waiter. We got hummus to share:
[Excuse the blur!]
Eaten with Tuscan bread. Fusion food at its finest!
I ordered tabbouleh, which is a kind of grain salad made with bulgar, parsley, onion, bell pepper, and olive oil.
It was delicious – especially mixed with hummus! I happily devoured it.
Alright, back to work – I’m giving a presentation on chocolate in my Food & Culture class next Monday! The research is actually pretty interesting. There have been a lot of cool studies done on chocolate! I wanted to take my presentation in a sociological direction & talk about chocolate as a comfort food, but I’m having surprising difficulty finding good solid stuff about it, and it is starting to feel a bit overambitious with everything else going on, so we shall see…I’ll report with some fun facts that I find!
~Namaste~

From Puccini to Pasqual

Oof, what an action-packed weekend! Lots was done, seen, and eaten – and plenty of fun was had to boot!
We started out Saturday on a day-trip with our study-abroad program API to the city of Lucca and an olive oil tasting. Lucca is a bit to the north of Florence, only about an hour or so away. I had actually been here several times already because the summer before my freshman year in college, my family rented a villa for a week just outside of Lucca. It was a great vacation, and I was happy to return! [Have I mentioned I love Tuscany? Cause I do. A lot.]
We began, as most of our API trips often do, with a guided walking tour of the city. It was a bit on the long side, but our guide was a little whacky, which always makes things more interesting! I do wish that the tour had been shorter so we could wander around more, but alas, it was not to be. I did learn some stuff though! The city is surrounded by a big old wall built (medieval era, I think – don’t quote me) to protect the city from the warring larger city-states nearby (like Firenze!). They even built a moat around the city and got all prepared for a HUGE battle, but on the day that the battle was set for, their opponents never showed up because they decided Lucca was too small to bother with! All dressed up and nowhere to go and no one to fight, they just kept the wall as is, and now it’s what Lucca is known for. I thought that was cute!
The amphitheatre (anfiteatro) here is actually one huge elliptical-shaped piazza! It was built in 2 AD and did look like a traditional amphitheatre (think small-scale Colosseum); in the Middle Ages, houses were built over the ruins that remained. You can still see a lot of the original wall layers here and there. How cool would it be to live over a Roman amphitheatre???

We also got to see the musical school that Puccini, who was also born in Lucca, studied at!! He went to the Boccherini Institute of Music, Boccherini being the dude that statue is of. I looove me some Puccini – my favorite Broadway musical ever is RENT, which is based on his opera La Boheme, but he also wrote Madame Butterfly and Tosca, to name a few. This may have been the coolest thing I saw in Lucca [music nerd alert!] 😉
This tower has a pretty cool story too. Those trees you can see on the roof are in fact growing out of the building – if you climb to the top room, you can see the roots in the ceiling! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do it. Next time, right?
For a small town, Lucca sure has plenty of churches!
Actually, in the 2nd-to-last church we visited, I got rather angry. Just inside the church–a beautiful, centuries-old place of worship–were racks and tables of souvenirs and postcards. Inside the church. Really??????? Aaaargh, it was just so outlandishly wrong to me, I couldn’t handle it. That just seems beyond inappropriate and downright offensive. At that point, I was ready for the tour to end. And what better to turn my mood around than food?!
I ordered, of course, one of the local specialties:
Minestra di farro (spelt soup)
I actually had this first on our little day trip to San Gimignano, and adored it! This one, however, was a bit too “soupy” for me – I only like soup that is suuuper thick, otherwise I just feel like I’m eating water and it’s just not as fun for me. The flavor was good, and the bread helped (what doesn’t bread help, really?), but I think I will stick to Sergio’s & Mario’s for my Italian soup fix.
It wouldn’t be a complete trip without gelato!
Raspberry + soy vanilla
The raspberry was just ok – a little artificial-y tasting, but the soy vanilla was really good! It was without sugar, which I think hlped because it let the nautral sweetness of the vanilla flavor to really sing. Not quite as good as Perche No in Florence, but that would be near-impossible to beat. I have been noticing soy vanilla/chocolate gelato flavors more and more, and I think it’s great! Eating too much processed soy is something to be aware of, but in general it has a lot of benefits. And I really like the flavor of soy ice cream – creamy with a really nice nutty taste. I was content.
After our [short] afternoon in the city, we hopped back on the bus and headed for Fattoria il Poggio, a nearby  farm we were visiting for an olive oil tasting!
Though this would be my second olive oil tasting, at the first one we didn’t get much guidance as to how to go about tasting the oil or what to look for in the taste. At this one, our guide explained that the best way is to take some oil on a spoon and let it go directly to the back of your mouth/tongue, then roooooaaarrr like a lion! The roaring will send the oil closer to your nose and you can feel/taste/smell the fresh aroma of the olive oil. It was, needless to say, a very amusing day at the farm.
These are the machines used to make the olive oil! [Below is the cold press the squeeeeezes the olivey goodness right out!]
Olive trees galore!
Much like my first tasting, we were served bread and other little snacks to enjoy with our oil. No complaints here!
Olive oil with a dash of balsamic in it, sundried tomatoes, olives, and some the best Tuscan bread I’ve had yet. And I have had a loooot of it. I will admit, I liked the olives/oil from the San Gimignano farm better, but this bread was whoa-so-good.
Salami! Took me back to when I was little and would go to a little Italian specialty shop in my town with my mom and they would give my slices of cheese and salami over the counter. Food memories are the best kind 🙂
This is a kind of salami specific to Tuscany called finocchiona because it is dotted with fennel seeds. Now while I am generally at all interested in any kind of meat except seafood and the occasional turkey or chicken bite, this was delicious. I made a mental note to seek this out in Florence–it would make a phenomenal sandwich!!! I need to describe it as I eat it because the flavor is so different and complex I can’t find the words, but just trust me – it’s good.
We finished with the classic Tuscan dessert of cantucci (basically Tuscany’s biscotti) and vin santo, a sweet dessert wine.
These are little bites of almondy sweet wonderfulness. They are not obnoxiously break-your-tooth crunchy but juuust soft enough to really bite into and then crumble in your mouth. 
This vin santo I actually really didn’t like very much; too alcoholic-acidic and not very sweet. I have had vin santo before and really enjoyed it, but this was meh. Blame my underdeveloped palate, I guess.
I am planning on trying this again in Florence [pretty much any restaurant you go to in Tuscany will have this on their dessert menu], just because I know I’ve had it before and liked it. And those cantucci rock!
We returned to Florence for a few hours and then went right back out – to our first soccer match!!! I was SO excited. Soccer is the sport here, and Florence’s team Fiorentina is like the Red Sox to Boston. They were playing Milan’s team Inter, who have been doing reaaaallly well and if they beat us tonight they would go on to  play for the championships. All donning our purple Fiorentina gear (I wore my Firenze sweatshirt), we took the bus to the stadium and let the games begin! I didn’t bring my camera because they warned us about the intense security checkpoints and I was afraid they wouldn’t let me in with it or something [you just never know in Italy], but it was lots of fun! I forgot how much I love soccer, both watching and playing. I guess a lot of people find it boring to watch because it takes a lot longer for a team to score than in football or basketball, but that is what I love about it! It’s so tense and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but not for too long, and I really like the fact that they have to work so hard for just one goal. It makes it all the more exciting when it happens! It was so fun to be in the stadium surrounded by the Italian fans and feel the atmosphere (and learn Italian swearwords). The game ended in a 2-2 tie. I also developed a major crush on defenseman Manuel Pasqual- #23, because he was reaaallly good and wore neon yellow cleats. 
It was the neon cleats that really did it for me.
My weekend adventures took me even further north on Sunday…stay tuned!
~Namaste~