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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “January, 2018”

The Myths Of Italian Cuisine

Italia!

How do you say “old wives’ tales” in Italian? There are lots, and myMEGusta looked into a few of them, some simply misunderstandings, and other, just plain odd ideas.

We scratched the surface of the subject in looking at that wonderful Italian dish, Salad Caprese, at its best in the summer time with bursting ripe tomatoes and freshly made mozzarella. Readers may recall that a fellow traveler insisted that it was not Italian, and no Italian person would eat it. Balderdash! It comes from the Isle of Capri, quite Italian, thank you.

Pizza with a side salad in Venice

https://mymegusta.com/2017/07/27/the-joys-of-summer-salad-caprese/

And this is representative of a lot of confusion about what is and is not Italian. United as a nation only in the 19th Century, Italy was a collection of city states with different cultures, climates, crops, and cuisines. The authentic cooking style in seaside Sicily, in the shadow of Mt. Etna, bore no relation to that of an alpine village abutting Switzerland.

Pizza!

So, myMEGusta rolls her eyes when advised that certain things are NOT Italian, or when specialties from one area are dismissively put down as unquestionably inferior to comparable foods and practices from another. They are, or can be, all wonderful.

Let’s talk about pizza. No, the heavily laden, gloppy pizzas of Papa Johns and its ilk are not Italian. “Hawaiian” pizza with pineapple is not Italian. The gentleman overheard on one Metro North train bemoaning that “there is no good pizza in Italy” after a disappointing trip there, was wrong; he just had a very American, un-Italian idea of what constitutes pizza.

Naples is considered the mecca of thin crust pizza, but it can be found just about everywhere in the country, with local variations. We have fond memories of eating a fantastic eggplant pizza at the unfortunately named “Bar Domino” (no relation to the chain) on the Lake Lugano shore, in the Italian sector of Switzerland. And the giant oblong and rectangular pizzas of Rome are crispy and delicious, meant to be sold by the piece.

Roman Pizza Dough

Sicilian Pizza

Sicilian pizza is another very real and authentic treat, essentially focaccia bread, as opposed to a thin crust, with toppings. Chicago deep dish pizza is an attempt to replicate this, and can be quite good, but only if the bread base is crispy and delish, and if the toppings are modest and top quality.

We recently saw a delightful picture of a very young friend eating pizza with her “nonni,” grandparents, on a trip to visit them in Milano.

And what about the concept that fresh pasta is, by definition, better than dried pasta? Wrong, again.

They are just different: Fresh pasta, found largely in the North, is made with eggs, hence the yellow tinge, and the best versions will use a softer flour. Yes, you can make this at home. Dried pasta, more Southern, is made with durum wheat, harder, with a higher gluten content and too stiff to work by hand, so it is factory made and sold dried.

Rolling fresh egg pasta

The best of both are equally fine, and will go with different dishes, fresh skewing to the North and dried skewing to the South. For example, you’ll probably see fettuccine served with a creamy sauce (no tomatoes) and spaghetti with a red sauce.

A recent issue of Saveur Magazine quoted a good-eating Ligurian talking about Genovese white sauce (celery, carrots, garlic, pine nuts, veal, olive oil) and their wonderful pestos, “And no tomatoes with your food in Liguria!”

Not all fresh pasta is great, and not all dried pasta is, either. Pay attention to the brand, and be willing to pay a little extra when you find one you like.

Spaghetti!

And, forget about the prohibition on twirling spaghetti with a spoon. No, it’s not correct everywhere in Italy, but it’s what’s done in Sicily, and we have confirmation on this from a friend who learned it from his Sicilian grandmother.

What about tiramisu? Italian ancestors from some regions will tell you that it’s an imposter. But, not so fast. Tiramisu is as Italian as can be, with several regions claiming its origin, from Renaissance Venice to 16th Century Tuscany. Whether it goes back that far in some form (probably) or not, tiramisu never really became widely known and loved until it was “invented” in 1971 in a restaurant in Treviso.

Tiramisu

Now, it’s time to plan a trip to Italy to do more research!

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Cashew!

Cashew Nuts

Who knew that a visit to St. Lucia in the Caribbean would yield a taste of freshly roasted cashews, made the old fashioned way over a wood fire, cracked and peeled by hand and still warm when gobbled up?

Cashews are another of the universally loved foods that originated in the New World, specifically, Brazil. Portuguese traders introduced them to Europe, and then to more exotic locales where they became wildly popular and a staple of local cuisines, like in India and China.

Cashew fruits, note kernel at base

Have you ever wondered why cashews are never sold in the shell, like most other popular nuts?

Raw cashew kernels

Cashews contain a chemical similar to the irritant found in poison ivy, and so they are never eaten raw. The thick, hard nuts are usually heat processed, by steaming or roasting, and this facilitates the necessary removal of the outer shell and skin.

Roasting cashews the old fashioned way

Cashews roasting in St. Lucia

They can also be processed by drying, which can be the case when they are marketed as “raw”, although that may just mean that they have had no further roasting (with or without oil) or salt.

Chinese spicy cashew chicken

The less processed nuts will show up in Chinese, Indian and other popular dishes, while the more processed (developing further flavors) will show up in a Planter’s can or in a little dish on an airplane.

Indian cashew rice

Cashews are particularly popular among vegetarians, because of their high protein content, and you can even find cashew paste and flour in an Indian market (or just go on Amazon or drive to Trader Joe’s). They also appear to be a viable food for those on Paleo diets.

One of myMEGusta’s good cookin’ friends uses ground cashews instead of panko for coating fish, a great idea which she is going to try!

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