Turning that Frown Upside Down or When a Glass of Wine Stands for the Restorer of Good Health

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A week ago, I had what is euphemistically known as a ‘procedure’ on my back.  A surgeon had to remove (cut out) an ulcerous epithelioma that was about 4 cm in length.  Thank goodness for modern surgery and local anaesthesia and the whole operation took about 45 minutes in all.  Surprisingly, the surgeon informed me that I could even drive that same day and that I should feel little discomfort and probably wouldn’t even require a pain killer.  He had explained that the procedure itself would of course leave consequences on my body, it would be as if someone had punched me, say.  Nice.

Turns out the surgeon was right and that evening, much to the horror of a lot of people who love me, I decided not to turn down a dinner invitation by my cousins in Rome.   I have two sisters who live in England.  One of them was in town and the dinner party was in her honour and I didn’t want to be a party pooper.  I did feel a little out of it, that’s normal after an operation, whatever people say about ‘procedures’ – the body, after all, has taken a knock and is in some kind of shock even as it hurries to heal the wound.  The evening was lovely, as is usual with my Tranquilli cousins, and I drank a normal amount of wine (a little less than I would when I am with these cousins when our intake of wine tends to, ahem, be bountiful so as to speak).  Sleeping wasn’t much fun because of course I could indeed ‘feel’ the wound and the stitches busy at work.  I was fine the next day.  No intake of pain killers.  Some discomfort, normal.  Not a good night’s sleep, again.  Even went to work on the Monday and that’s when I began sneezing.  Not a lot.  Very discrete.  And then it all began.

By Monday evening I was feeling very low, very weak and – horror of horrors – by 8 o’clock I still wasn’t fancying a glass of wine.  My wound started to hurt to the point that I had to take a good dose of ibuprufen, I ate very little, and went to bed without even one glass of wine.  More pain killers the next day, feeling awful, finding no rest whether in bed or on the sofa.  That restless tossing and turning.  No energy to read a book, watch TV.  But, and most of all, No wine!!!!  Feeling slightly better the third day.  No need for pain killers but still weak.  I forced myself to have three measerly sips of wine with my dinner.

Basically I had come down with flu.  Not coronavirus, just plain ol’ fashioned yearly flu. I am normally resistant to flu even though I do succumb to the odd cold and cough.  I am so very lucky that way, I enjoy very good health.   Please note, I wrote ‘enjoy’.

I think we have to enjoy ourselves in order to be healthy, whatever our DNA heritage.  I am very mindful of that old adage about “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  And drinking wine with friends happens to be one way of enjoying life, as far as I’m concerned.  I am a ‘wine o’clock’ person.  At a certain time of day (only in the evenings, I don’t drink at lunch) I hanker after a nice glass of wine.  It makes me happy.  And life is all right.  Of course I know what’s going on – it’s self medication in a way.  It’s illusion – one can and ought to be perfectly happy even without the wine.  It’s the donning of rose tinted glasses and so on and so forth.   It was very interesting for me to read in a book of  Ayurvedic medicine (which I’ve since lost so can’t quote from it, sigh) about how alcohol turns out to be the ‘sweetest’ of all ingredients within their system, sweeter even than sugar or honey.  Interesting, no?  What that boils down to, what it means is that: when one desires a glass of wine on a constant basis, one is really seeking sweetness in life.

Ain’t that the truth !

It would seem that the word ‘acohol’ itself, often attributed to Arabic origins, is actually Hindu!  “Therefore, when one learns that “kohala” (कोहल) is the Sanskrit word for an alcoholic preparation in Ayurvedic medicine, it becomes a near-certainty that the word “alcohol” can be located to the Indian subcontinent and its origins to ancient Hindu texts on medicine and science. In fact, one of the the texts of Susruta (the ancient Indian scientist to whom we owe the word “suture”) — Susruta Samhita — describes the three stages of human and animal behavior after the consumption of alcoholic beverages!” – quoted from a very interesting article by Abhinav Agarwal, I encourage you to read it: https://medium.com/@abhinavagarwal_/alcohol-an-etymology-1407d9de25f5.

Western Doctors can’t make up their minds whether a decent amount of wine/beer/alcohol is good or bad for you in the long run.   Mostly they say it’s bad for you.  I say that in the long run we are going to die anyway so we may as well enjoy ourselves on the way.

That said, I don’t believe in getting drunk and, I have to come out with it, so very many English and American people I come across drink far too much and often on an empty stomach.  That’s where the French and the Italians can show us how to adopt a more moderate (dare I say ‘healthier’) approach.  Wine is to be enjoyed with a meal or at least with some kind of snack.  Oh yes, and by the way, very young Italians do get into binge drinking as a social activity which was never the case a few decades ago.  So this is not about taking sides.  It’s about ‘noticing’.

I just quickly looked up some statistics on alcoholism and Europe has been described as the biggest region for alchol drinking in the world.

What it doesn’t specify is that drinking at mealtimes has always been, yes even since Biblical times, a cultural factor inherent in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin including the very Near East.  The Jewish Passover praises the drinking of wine!  There is a saying in Italian pointing out that a glass of wine is good for the blood.  In contrast, when Italians watch American films or TV programmes where people (mostly men) down great big gulps of whisky as though it were water, they gasp in horror.  “Ma come fanno?”, they say, “How do they do it?”.  I don’t know either.  I had a Scottish stepfather who was extremely fond of his daily dose of Whisky but that man always sipped.

During my early days at the UN in Rome (the Food and Agriculture Organization, acronym FAO), I remember being taken aback at the coffee bar where some men liked to order their coffee ‘corrected’.  A “caffé corretto” in Italian means a coffee with some kind of hard liquor in it.  Grappa or the like.  I just couldn’t fathom how they could desire one first thing in the morning!  The barman wouldn’t even blink, to him it was ‘normal’.  The Chief Medical Officer, my Swedish boss Dr Nordlund, certainly didn’t think it ‘normal’ and made sure that the coffee bar gently declined serving that corrected coffee until after lunch. I think it is probably true that in very cold climates, people do crave sheer shots of alcohol whereas in warmer Mediterranean areas, it’s more about the beer and the wine.  Young children would  be offered a shot of grappa in the mountainous part of Veneto before going to school.  Seriously, I’m not kidding.

Continence is the opposite word of incontinence (lack of self restraint as opposed to pee pee issues).  And it happens to be a word I use for the first time ever, here in this post.  It makes my lips purse.  There is so much moral indignation hanging over it, victorian-style double-standards, virtue bashing.    Ugh.  And yet, it has to be said that there is plenty of continence to be found as regards alcohol consumption in Italy.  Take the word ‘bar’.  In Italy a bar serves both coffee and tea and soft drinks and all the rest of it, as well as wine and spirits.  All day long too.  No restricting alcohol hours.  Drinks of every kind.  And yet I’ve never met a disruptive, ugly drunkard in any of the bars I’ve been to.  (Mind you, I’m not the sort to be in the wrong part of town at the wrong time of night, so maybe I’m being a touch too Pollyanna about this.)  When my poor innocent Italian mother went looking for a ‘bar’ in Hong Kong many many moons ago, with three young children in tow, hankering for a cappuccino, she was more than a little shocked to be shown to a place that was indubitably connected to the local sex industry.  (Looking back now, it makes me wonder what that kind Hong Kong person must have thought of my mother, asking for a ‘bar’ !!! Tut tut, AND with three young children, shocking.)

Non alcoholic apéritif drinks are very popular in Italy and there are plenty that will prefer them to a glass of wine.  All Italian bars serve these drinks called, duh, “analcolici”.  They make them sound like fun and they cater to those who want something ‘spicy’ without the alcohol kick.  They come, it must be said, in lurid colours too.  Crodino is bright orange.  Camparino a neon-bright ruby colour.  And just think about the oh so popular Spritz!  Just exploding with colour (and colourants too, I fear, ahem).  What I am trying to say, I think, is that the overall culture of drinking in Italy is about enjoyment, sharing, bonding and unwinding as opposed to drinking just for the sake of drinking (with the exception of the real alcoholics and the young binge drinkers). I know that I personally drink a lot more wine than my Italian friends, comparatively speaking.  I joke with them when I say that the reason I’m so healthy is that bacteria are scared of the wine I drink (well, it is true that alcohol kills bacteria).

The last thing I want to do is encourage people to drink heavily and badly, disrupting their health and causing unnecessary deaths.  This, what I think is a reliable source and report ( https://euobserver.com/social/145854) reckons that an average of 800 people die from alcohol related issues per day in Europe.  Hmmm.  That amounts to less than one percent of the total European population of 741. 4 million.  (I did the arithmetic and it comes to 0.960).  It may be under one percent but even so it just makes me very sad. Read the quote:

“According to the WHO report, “people of low socio-economic status had a three-fold mortality risk for causes of death fully attributable to alcohol use compared to people with high socioeconomic status”.

Globally about 0.9m injury deaths were related to alcohol, including around 370,000 deaths due to road injuries, 150,000 due to self-harm and around 90,000 due to personal violence.

In Europe, the work of several scholars shows a relevant relation between public violent incidents and alcohol consumption – the proportion was about 50 percent in the UK and ranged from 26 percent to 43 percent in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.”

Around 50 percent in the UK !!!

I don’t want to be sanctimonious and boring about it but …  in Italy there is, still, a Culture with a capital C around drinking that needs to be cherished.  The other factor that comes as no surprise is how the low socio-economic status weighs so heavily upon the statistics.   I hate poverty !  It’s the worst disease.  And it doesn’t bring out the best in people as so many films try to make us believe (films probably funded by those monsters, the world’s richest one percent).

Wine and alcohol aren’t the real problem when it comes to these studies, the meaning of life is.  The availability of the means to lead a decent life, from the very start, that’s what’s crucial.   Sigh.  If you haven’t heard of it, do please look up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It’s still valid.

All I can say is that last night, finally, at around dinner time I was really looking forward to my glass of wine.  I have a runny and red nose, I look awful but I feel that I am finally on the mend.

Cheers!  Here’s raising a glass to your health!

P.S. “Alcohol kills bacteria and preserves food. Culturally, it’s usually a center of social life. It features prominently in certain religions. Biologically, alcohol is a source of energy—10 percent of the enzymes in our liver are devoted to converting alcohol into energy, says McGovern” quoted from https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-origin-of-the-word-alcohol/

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Frascati Food Shopping, Aperitivo with Michelle, and a Genius Courgette / Zucchini Recipe

Mrs Masi and her family run a vegetable shop in Frascati and are open on Sunday mornings too.  They are the suppliers of very many restaurants in town.  I tend to be a democratic greengrocer and buy from more than one place but theirs is the venue I end up frequenting the most, as it were,  because … because half the time, I don’t know about you,  but I’m in a hurry, there is always so much to do.  This is how it goes: it’s getting to be evening, ideas for dinner need to be considered and scaled down, and off I trot to up the hill into town to get my meat and two veg.  The veg fromt the Masi family and the meat from the Chioccia family in Via dell’Olmo.

I believe that shopping should entail more than just a modicum of pleasure and what better way to celebrate the exercise than an aperitivo after all that strenuous activity?  Hence, on a regular basis now for some years,  I will meet up with my friend Michelle Smith at our favourite watering hole, the “Stanza del Duca” in the town’s oldest square. It’s just behind the historic Palazzo Vescovile, the bishop’s residence.  This is the heart of centuries-old Frascati and, in terms of neighbourhoods,  we consider it the way Romans would Trastevere.  Sleepy time during the day, bustling and alive in the evenings (not so much in January and February admittedly – but then that’s when we all go into hibernation).  Piazza San Rocco wakes up in the evenings, with its many wine bars and restaurants, and the people it draws, the mainstay demographic, are mostly young.  The daily “The Guardian” wrote a lovely article about the buzz in Frascati last September and I am borrowing a photo from it … hope I don’t get into trouble for doing so? 

guardian frascatiAnyway, here is a link to the article: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/sep/10/rome-frascati-wine-food-italy.

Michelle and I put the world to rights over a glass of wine or a spritz and our host, the inimitable Giancarlo delle Chiaie, is very generous with his pour as he is with his trove of stories aka gossip.  Mild gossip, I hasten to add, we are not malicious people.  We bang on about standards, and what the town administration fails to do, how short-sighted they are, versus our way of how things ought to be done.  Sigh.  And on the bright and light side, music plays an important role.  Giancarlo is a choir master and an accomplished organ player and his friend Romeo Ciuffa, who is also a regular at the Stanza del Duca,  is a professional musician and organizes many a chamber music concert in our neck of the woods.  And all that talk makes for thirsty work so Michelle and I will very often ask for a wee top-up to our glass as we carry on delving into topics that require our  undivided attention.

I often think that breakfast, while one is on holiday and without a care in the world, in a hotel say, is the nicest meal of the day.  One has the whole day lying expectantly before us and to look forward to, as we dig into our orange juice and coffee and toast and what have you.  Similarly, but more often for me, I think that aperitivo-time is the best time of day.  The cares of obligatory work are over for the day, in theory, and one can relax and be light hearted and broaden the horizon of mental attention.  Michelle and I can be very philosophical at aperitivo time.

Who is Michelle, you might ask.  Well, she’s not easy to describe in a nutshell … she is one of those people who is a dab hand at anything she does.  A jack of all trades who gets to be very masterly time after time.   Though living in the same area, we didn’t get to meet until relatively recently and we hit it off straight away.  For the purposes of this post let us say she is a sommelier, translator, and painter.  She set up a website (all on her own, every single bit of it !!!!) called easyfrascati.com.  And  I will come out and say it outight: one would think that Frascati’s town council would have gone to the intelligent trouble of setting up an informative website? But no, it took an English rose to do so. Tut tut.  Last, though she and I can wag our fingers disapprovingly, it’s not about self importance, Michelle is one of the most modest people I’ve ever met.  It’s because we care.  We see so much potential going unattended.   Dear, dear … shall we have another glass of wine before going home?

Michelle is also a good cook by the way and so we often discuss recipes.  “So, what are you cooking tonight?” will often start the conversation.  Which brings me to today’s recipe.  I got all excited because it is so much more than the sum of its very simple parts.  When one is a little strapped for time, one should still find the energy to make the main meal of the day a ‘special’ one.  What’s the point of living otherwise?

I got this recipe from Mrs Masi, and I thank her for it.  The only ‘long’ thing about it is its cooking time in the oven.  It can even be eaten at room temperature although I tend to think that it gives its best when served just out of the oven.

INGREDIENTS:  slices of courgette/zucchini, olive oil, mozzarella, thinly sliced onion, some parsley if you like it, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper

IMG_6715What you see are the sliced courgettes coated with olive oil, over which I sprinkled salt and pepper,  I then added little lumps of mozzarella.  I squeezed the mozzarella to remove some of the liquid.

IMG_6717I also added half an onion, very very thinkly sliced.  And an avalanche of roughly minced parsley.

IMG_6718Finish it all off with a layer of bread crumbs.  I suspect I drizzled some olive oil over the surface for good measure, before popping it into the oven.

IMG_6719And this is what it looks like when it comes out of the oven.  To be honest I can’t remember how long it cooked (just over half an hour) and I expect the temperature was 200°C.

This recipe looks like a lot of trouble went into it and yet it couldn’t be simpler to make!  Unless your name is Phylis Knudsen, you could even add a few ancovies to the mix.  (Bless her, Phylis can’t stand anchovies.)

So, what are you thinking about making for dinner tonight?  Please don’t tell me you are ordering in ….! 🙂

P.S.  If any of you should be in Rome and would like to do something a bit more bucolic and pastoral outside of the capital, please feel free to get in touch with either Michelle or me.   And there will always be a glass of wine and good food to put you in the mood …. 🙂

P.P.S.  I wrote about La Stanza del Duca in this post from last year.  Here is a link in case you missed it: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/a-duke-some-ladies-lots-of-hats-and-an-afternoon-tea-in-frascati/

Another Meatloaf, “Little Women” and Tailgating it in Rome

For once I shall do things the other way around, providing an intro to the recipe and ingredients first and writing my little ‘story’, the context, after.

If you want to spruce up an ordinary meatloaf, present it encased in pastry.

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Instead of Beef Wellington, you can dub it Meatloaf Wellington.  I chanced upon this recipe on the internet and am providing a link below.  It’s in Italian but no worries – even if you don’t speak the language, everything is so straightforward, you’ll get enough of an understanding to get started right away.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNlvwwC0e88

One of the reasons I did want to get started is that the last time I had made a meatloaf it had been a complete disaster, a ‘beautiful catastrophe’ as Zorba the Greek would have remarked (see my previous post harking back to it).  So I’m a bit sensitive that way, you see.  I am glad to report that my recent attempt turned out pretty well and that I was able to enjoy the leftovers as a kind of picnic in Rome the following day.

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INGREDIENTS

500g of minced meat, 2 eggs, parsely, salt and pepper, 2-3 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese, slices of cheese that will melt easily, slices of ordinary ham, slices of parma ham (optional), salt and pepper, sheets of ready-bought pastry.  An extra egg for coating the pastry.

I added plenty of freshly grated nutmeg and a scattering of lemon zest.  Also, I made my own pastry because the kind sold around here contains palm oil or hydrogenated fats and other nasties.  For that I needed 600g of flour, 300g of butter, salt and enough cold water to bring it all together. I did what one’s not supposed to do and that is use a blender.  I put the ball of very sticky dough in the freezer for one hour before using it.

Below is my neighbour and bestest friend Rossella … helping me roll out the home-made pastry.

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The video says to cook it for about 40 minutes at 200°C, let it rest and allow any liquid to drain away.  Once cooled, the meatloaf is encased in the pastry and cooked again for half an hour.  I would say that that is too much cooking and the meat dries out somewhat.  Next time, I shall limit the cooking to 25 minutes the first time.

My dinner guests enjoyed the meatloaf but we were so caught up in our conversations that we could have had cheese on toast and it wouldn’t have mattered.  Wine always helps of course (that is if you like drinking wine).  The essence of a dinner with friends is the banter and laughter and interruption and changing of subjects and not wanting to go away even when it’s very late.  But good food always helps.  Good food to put you in the mood.

The following ‘story’ is dedicated to all my lovely girlfriends, wherever you might be in the world, but boys are very welcome to read it too !

LITTLE WOMEN AND ME

Well, for starters my name is Josephine (I was named after my Italian grandmother Giuseppina) but everyone calls me Jo.

I grew up with two sisters, not three.  And I was a bit of a tomboy, as they used to say in those days.  I didn’t like it when I had to wear a frilly dress to go to a birthday party, I was always told not to ruin it which of course meant I couldn’t run around too much or climb a tree.  I much preferred wearing shorts.  I’ve always been a barefoot baby and liked nothing better than to take my shoes off as soon as I could.  Like any other woman, I adore shoes but my love for going barefooted has never abated.  I used to love running and playing with the boys, and was very ‘physical’ even, and would get into a fight if provoked.  Dolls weren’t really my ‘thing’.   Building huts was more fun.

The years I speak of, from about the age of five to twelve, I grew up in Karachi, which was then West Pakistan, followed by Teheran, and then Dhaka, which was then East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh.  My Scottish stepfather worked for a pharmaceutical company and that’s how we moved around a lot.  With the job came cushy houses, beautiful ones at that, with large verandahs and even a swimming pool sometimes.  Plush lawns and scented flowers.  And a team of people to help run the house – servants they were called then, or ‘the help’ I believe in the States?  The lap of luxury sort of thing.  Except there were many amenities that were not available in those countries, during those years.  One of which was TV.  I remember when a television set first appaered in our house in Dhaka, I would have been close to eleven.  There was only one channnel and  featured two English speaking programmes a day – the Man from UNCLE, the Lucy Show, come to mind.  And no TV on a Monday for some reason.  Perhaps a film once a week?  And there were power cuts on a regular basis, very often interrupting a TV show.

All this to say that we children had to entertain ourselves.  My two sisters were much younger than I, so the interaction was perforce one-sided, with me being the bossy older sister.  There was no question that I loved them, and we are incredibly close to this day, and we all slept in the same bedroom.  But I was bored, bored, bored so much of the time.  And lonely.  I craved company of my own age.  I did have friends, I did, but it wasn’t as if I could walk over to their house, I had to be driven their either by my mother or by the driver.  It had to be arranged, it couldn’t be spontaneous.  Also, friends would leave, their parents moving to another country, and that was always very sad.  I’ve never got over parting from friends.

I remember complaining about my boredom to my mother and her unruffled response was to tell me that she? She never got bored when she was a child.  Not helpful.  And so I’d invent games like the time I was a farmer … Robin Hood … an air hostess in an aeroplane.  After seeing the film The Sound of Music, I became Maria of course, bursting into song and prancing about.  I’d put classical records on and pretend I was a ballerina. I really enjoyed games at school and was good at all of them and just loved to beat the boys.  I loved going to school because there, finally, was some company for me.  It was called Farm View and there is a facebook page now.  It was a small international English speaking school and I was in my element, loving all subjects from arithmetic to history to painting to English Literature.  And French, of course.  When eventually I went to boarding school in England, I was astonished to discover that I was at least two years ahead of my French class.   But that’s another story, culture shock, stock and barrel.

Also, I enrolled in the Indian dancing lessons, with the lovely anklets that had bells on them.  The headmistress, Mrs Coventry, apparently nearly had a hairy fit when she learned that I was going to be performing an Indian dance as part of the school pantomime that year and was duly impressed to discover that I turned out to be a very graceful dancer.   My mother, bless her, thought I’d find solace in piano lessons and she drove me once a week to the teacher’s house.  We didn’t have a piano at home, so I would practise for half an hour before the actual lesson, which always included a cup of tea and a biscuit.  I enjoyed my lessons, very much.  When I was growing up, tea (the drinking of together with biscuits or a slice a cake or whatever) was an everyday ‘thing’, a precious pause during the day.

What I really enjoyed was reading.  The school had a library and took us to see films (old black-and-white films at that) at the British Council, which also had a library.  Oh the joy of reading!  It was the one thing that salvaged me from the loneliness, the boredom of an otherwise privileged upbringing.  I became a book worm.  I remember repairing to the bathroom to finish reading a book until well into the wee hours, shutting the door so I wouldn’t wake my sisters up with the light. I’d wake up bleary eyed the next morning but oh so satisfied.  My choice of reading was not exactly intellectual.  There was Noddy and fairy tales, the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew but Enid Blyton most of all.  Golly!, how I loved the Famous Five and other adventure stories. One of my teachers, Mrs Chowdury, had gone to university with Enid Blyton’s daughter apparently and I was sooooo impressed.  Daddy used to take me with him to the equivalent of a mall in our neighbourhood, called the D.I.T. Market.  Well, when I say ‘mall’, think small bazaar, really, and a dozen or so shops.  Any excuse to get out of the house and, also, a chance to buy some comics.  At the time there used to be a wonderful American series of comics under the heading “Classics Illustrated”.  They featured adaptations of literary classics such as Les MiserablesMoby DickHamlet, and The Iliad.  Wikipedia says “Recognizing the appeal of early comic books, Russian-born publisher Albert Lewis Kanter (1897–1973) believed he could use the new medium to introduce young and reluctant readers to “great literature”. I well remember The Last of the Mohican, Lorna Doone, many Shakespeare plays, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Last Days of Pompei, Moby Dick, The Three Muskateers.  AbeBooks.com says “We will never know how many youngsters who read Classic Comics and Classics Illustrated are now confirmed bibliophiles with homes full of literature, but we suspect the figure is high.”  Well, they caught me all right.  I can think of nothing sadder than a house without books.

And those books I did read, as well as the comics, were fodder for my imagination and I would often re-enact scenes from them in my make-believe world of play, not unlike the four sisters in Little Women.  Despite the tropical heat and the monsoons, you wouldn’t believe how ‘cold’ it could get in my rendition of Heidi’s mountain idyll.  My mother couldn’t understand why I insisted on amping up the air-conditioning to freezing levels behind her back in our bedroom.  Little did she know.  We only drank powdered milk in Dhaka but to me it was goats milk, of course.  Pollyanna played a pretty important part too.  To this day, I love the film with Hayley Mills, I still have the DVD.  The last time I watched it was probably ten years ago but to me it will never grow old or become outdated.  The punch line: if you go looking for evil in this world, you are sure to find it.

Of all these books and their heroes and heroines, however, it was Jo from Little Women that has accompanied me always.  Something about her spirit, her resolve, her human frailty coupled with her sensitivity and can-do enthusiasm made an indelible mark upon me.  I grew up with two sisters, went to an all-girls boarding school, and at one time had mainly women colleagues when I was working at the UN in Rome … I dearly love women and am a born feminist.  Yet, for all of Jo’s yang personality that I can identify with, it is with Beth that I have one huge trait in common.  I am a home body.  I don’t really crave ‘adventure’ as it were.  I wish all my friends and family could live close by.  And I always did want to marry and have children.  The follow-up book, Jo’s Boys, really touched a chord.  And for years and years I dreamed of opening a small school, where children would be treated with tender, loving, creative care.  And, such are the coincidences in life, I did marry a professor of sorts, just like Jo!  I’m still waiting to launch my inspirational cooking school … we’ll see.

In the end, it was cooking that became a way of life for me.  Cooking became my ‘adventure’.  And that’s how I came across the video recipe for this blog post.

PREPARING THE MEAT LOAF WITH ROSSELLA

It is Sunday and I am having guests to dinner, my favourite cousins and a favourite friend. I went to work the day before, a pasta class at the Minardi Winery, which ended just after 3 p.m.  After which I go to do the shopping and get home just before 5 p.m.   I eat something, whatever I can find in the fridge.  And I start preparing some stuff for the next day.  At 8 p.m. I shower and get dressed and go to a dear friend’s 70th birthday party, quite the bash, at least 60 guests.  By midnight I’m falling off my perch and regretfully leave at around quarter past.  Unheard of for me, I am one of those who ‘could have danced all night’ but not last Saturday.

I go to bed at around 1 a.m. but instead of falling into a deep slumber, end up tossing and turning all night.  I wake up all sleepy and slow and realise that I am going to need help to get through the day.

So I call upon my next door neighbour, Rossella.  Our flats are on the same landing.  We try and have coffee together regularly, the way we used to, but sometimes we don’t see each other for three weeks in a row now.  That’s how life has become for us, for us all, always busy, always in a hurry, strapped for time.

Though not obsessed with cooking the way I am, Rossella is no slouch in the kitchen and is also a tidy cook.  One thing at a time versus my 101 things going on at the same time.  Steady.  She was more than happy to oblige.  I do not mean this in any condescending way whatsoever but … Rossella, like many women whose children have left home and are without a partner or husband, is lonely.  Heck I get lonely and I do have a husband!  Our flat seems so quiet without the children.  Rossella is very capable and has run family clothes shops; her parents’ shop in Rome was the first to bring La Perla lingerie to the capital, it was quite posh.  She and her sister had to close it down a couple of years ago, after a full 80 years of operation.  She was always a working woman.  She keeps herself busy in many ways but … but if you are a home lover (like Beth!) and there is just you in the house … well, it can get veeery quiet.  Very.  Cooking together is soothing.  We spent a good three hours together in the morning, and another nearly two in the late afternoon. Indeed the meatloaf, except for the pastry, is all her doing. Grazie Rossella!

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Upon parting, we decided that we’ll meet once a month, with a few other girlfriends, to cook something new together.

The dinner went very well and, as I said, there were leftovers …

TAILGATING IN ROME ALONG THE TIBER

 

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I can’t remember exactly when we watched the 1994  “Little Women” film, featuring Wynona Ryder and Susan Sarandon etc. on television.  By ‘we’ I mean my daughter, my son and my husband.  Well, my daughter and I fell for it hook, line and sinker and I bought the DVD of course, or perhaps video tape, can’t remember.  And it became a sort of Christmas film-watching staple for us.  “Oh not Little Women again!”, my son her brother would wail.  And she and I would have to watch some appalling action film in revenge. The scene where Beth dies never fails to bring me to tears.  Just like the book, this film is moving without descending into the sludge of soppy.

So … did I fancy going to see the new Little Women film? my daughter asked me.  Sure.  Any excuse to see more of my daughter.  Not so sure I really want to see the film, but so what.  In Nancy Mitford’s “Love in a Cold Climate”, the character of Farve, the heroine’s uncle, is notoriously eccentric in his ways. And not one for conversation either.  Having to endure polite conversation at the dinner table, his hostess kindly enquires of him, in an attempt to break the ice, whether he has read any good book lately.  His retort is no.  He did read a book once.  White Fang.  It was so dashed good he never bothered to read another.

Well … that’s a little how I feel about the 1994 Little Women film.  It was so so very good, why go for a remake?

Anyway.  My daughter works in the centre of Rome (lucky gal) and parking comes at a premium. She finishes at 7 p.m. and the film started at 8 p.m.  There was going to be a bit of walking wherever I ended up parking which meant, which meant, that there wasn’t going to be much time to repair somewhere and get a bite to eat and a glass of wine.  Hmmm.  Head scratching and nose twitching, what to do, what to do?

Picnic.  In the car.  Like they tend to do in Great Britain on account of the weather.

It’s the only thing that would make sense.  I’d bring something for us to eat before the film so we wouldn’t starve.  Favourite daughter agreed.  What she did not know was that I had leftovers from the night before, by way of pastry-encased meatloaf.  She was expecting sandwiches and that sort of stuff.

I packed everything in the boot of the car, getting all eager beaver and into the spirit of things.  After faffing about for a good 15 minutes, my parking angel guided us to a perfect spot on the winding Lungotevere road, along the Tiber.  I just had to laugh.  We both had a good giggle.  We were almost directly opposite the imposing Palazzo Giustizia, St Peter’s lit-up dome just behind us, the Bulgari House with its garish lit-up roof-top palm tree about 100 yards down the road from us, and Piazza Navona also within spitting distance.  Glittering, beautiful, romantic, historic Rome lay all around us.  Just a few hundred yards away, also, was the princely Palazzo Borghese, which hosts the Spanish Embassy residence, where I had once had occasion to dine for a fundraiser.

And here I was tailgating it with my daughter, picnicking in the car.

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That said we had a jolly good dinner.   Please note, we ate inside the car and not in the middle of the road.  We ate off ceramic plates, with proper knives and forks.  We had the meatloaf en croute with a side dish of “broccoletti”.  I brought some ketchup along in case the meat turned out to be too dry (it wasn’t fortunately).  A couple of apples to finish off and, of course!!!, a glass of prosecco.

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Louisa May Alcott would have approved, she would have understood.

 

 

 

 

Meatloaf Disaster

Sheepish in Meatloaf Battle or … Cottage Pie à l’Italienne

I am reposting this because … because disasaters do take place in the kitchen just as elsewhere.  And can sometimes be remedied.  Ha ha.

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This was sunset over Rome less than two weeks ago, the sky lighting up with crazy colours that just beggared to be oooh and aaahed over.  Quite quite stunning, it had me in transports of delight over the wonder that is the world we live in.  I had a glass of wine in my hand and took the time to snap a few photos and then went back to the kitchen to finish off supper, all excited about my novice entry into the world of meatloaf.

I don’t remember ever making meatloaf though I might have many many years ago.  I’ve tried my hands at very many recipes.  Some families are meatloaf loving families — mine obviously was not.  I remember eating meatballs (polpette) as a child, but not meatloaf.  And to be honest, I don’t really recall loving meatloaf much either, when I have eaten it at other people’s houses — the meat always a bit ‘dry’ in the mouth and its consistency trapped in a flurry of indecision (“do I want to be firm or do I want to fall apart?”).  Not until I was served meatloaf at friends of ours last summer, and the texture and taste of this meatloaf was remarkably zestful, tasty and more-ish.  Enquiry revealed that a hint of mortadella was what made it taste so good.

And so I resolved to make one such meatloaf.  How hard could it be? yes?

I don’t want to go into it, my pride just can’t take it.  All I will admit to is … that it was disaster.  It was one of those “what a beautiful catastrophe!” à la Zoraba the Greek.  Take a look for yourselves.

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I started out right …  browning the loaves in the heavy pan, over a soffritto.
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And then things went from bad to worse …

 

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Finally, I could take it no more … and so removed some of the erstwhile meatloaf meat …

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And finished cooking it in a non stick pan.  Basically, I had made a meatloaf frittata!!! oh woe is me!  O me misera!

Thankfully it tasted all right but I am still smarting from the ignominy of it all.  It will be a long time before I attempt another meatloaf!

But of course I still had quite a lot of aspiring meatloaf meat still to be dealt with the following day and I was damned if I was going to go down the meatloaf frittata route again.  So, aha!, a spell of genius came over me.  I would turn that grotty looking meat into something very very heart warming: a cottage pie!  (Shepherd’s Pie is put together from leftover lamb from the Sunday joint, traditionally, and served as a family meal in the week …. whereas Cottage Pie was made with minced beef rather than lamb).

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I put the minced beef  into an oven dish …

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Smothered it in mashed potatoes …

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I garlanded it with a row of tomatoes cut in half.  I dotted chunks of mozzarella all over the place and added some sprigs of rosemary.
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A good drizzle of olive oil (always olive oil) ….

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And in it went into an oven (I presume at 200°C … that’s usually a good temperature) … for about 35-40 minutes.

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What can I say … my culinary face was saved …

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And I have invented a new dish/recipe: Cottage Pie à l’Italienne!
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“What a beautiful catastrophe!”

 

Remember that one? It’s a quote from https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/what-to-seek-in-zorba-the-greek/