Back in the summer I reported how all the Italians were walking around Ischia claiming the biggest, reddest, juiciest tomatoes. Well, nowadays, they’re claiming the biggest and best mushrooms. Since you can’t simply grow mushrooms in your backyard, there’s a frenzy in all the wooded areas around the island. In the wee hours of the morning, people go on secret recon missions seeking out mushrooms that might have sprouted overnight.
People have “their spots,” where they go to find the fungi every year, and they don’t want to reveal these places to anyone. If they agree to let a relative tag along, they bring them to other places that are poor in mushroom stock to throw people off their scent. Even husbands and wives don’t know of their better half’s mushroom places. Nephews betray their uncles to get to the mushrooms in the family spot first. In fact, it’s completely awkward if you run into a friend or family member while making a run to find mushrooms. You don’t want to be rude and ignore anyone, but you don’t want to share your finds either.
People continue to seek well into the afternoon in the hopes that one of the early birds missed a mushroom here or there. Some of those early birds sell their mushrooms for a premium on the street (and it’s perfectly legal with these kinds of mushrooms). Then, once you have your stash, you share photos and stories flaunting your flair for finding fungi. You also throw these skills in the face of the loved ones you lied to (and perhaps knocked out of the way as you leaped toward a mushroom under that tree on the mountain) by sharing the images of whatever meal you cook using the mushrooms (think spaghetti with olive oil, mushrooms, and pepperoncini or atop a wood-fired pizza). Once again, I’m not among the mushroom mongers hiking the hills of Ischia seeking out the good stuff. But I have been happily eating and judging whose mushrooms are best. Right now, it’s a tie. I guess we’re going to have to have a bunch of tie breakers. Oh well, more mushrooms for me.
Today, I’m serving a delicious entry in the Our Paesani column on ItaliansRus. I wrote all about my favorite places to eat in Ischia, Italy, which is a foodie’s paradise. Of course, I also describe in great detail some of my favorite dishes at each place. Consider this fair warning – you will get hungry when you read this. You may also have pregnant-lady-like cravings for fresh seafood, cured Italian meats, and authentic pizza (see above) sprinkled with romance in an unmatched island setting. Just sayin’. Buon appetito!
The dreamy dessert above was among the sweets I served at my son’s second birthday. Since the party was pizza themed, we made three types of fruit pizzas. But this was the star by far. It tasted like caramel apple cheesecake with crunchy honey roasted peanuts on top. Normally, one could make this “pizza” fairly easily. In the States, you can purchase sugar cookie dough for the base, honey roasted peanuts in a jar, and caramel sauce from the ice cream toppings aisle. You’ll find none of that in the supermarkets in Ischia. But I had to find a way to make this deliciousness once I fell in love with the photo of Fall Fruit Pizza on the Enjoy Life, It’s Delicious blog. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
So, I used my mom’s handy sugar cookie recipe for the base. Her’s is a really old one from a magazine. Really, any sugar cookie recipe would suffice. Then, I followed the instructions for the cream cheese icing that is on the Enjoy Life, It’s Delicious blog. (You can get cream cheese, which Italians call “Philadelphia” all over Italy, phew!) Then, I sought recipes for making my own honey roasted peanuts and caramel sauce.
I went with the Food Network’s Almost Famous Honey Roasted Peanuts. This was super easy to do (the real work was shucking the peanuts while Baby Boy wildly threw the shells all over the kitchen and playroom). And the results were astonishing. They were so good that I had to keep myself from eating them all before the party. Guests polished off the remaining honey roasted peanuts within a day of the party (we all live in the same house, so they could stretch it). Then, I chose Ree Drummond’s Easy Caramel Sauce, which is also on the Food Network site. It won because it was easy, and it lived up to its name. This came out well, but I wish it would have been slightly thicker. I think I need to simmer and stir just a bit longer next time around. Live and learn.
When we got closer to party time, I was busy assembling salads, so I instructed my sister-in-law on how to assemble the fruit pizzas, and she did the decorating with the various components. She’s the best baker I know. I think she created quite a vision in the fall fruit pizza above. I highly recommend this dessert, and I think making each ingredient from scratch turned out to be a delicious inconvenience. Thank God Italy has nothing to save a girl time.
One of the best aspects of living abroad for a bit is getting to go to a foreign supermarket on a regular basis. True, I’ve been coming to the ones here in Ischia since I was 2 years old, but they remain foreign and never cease to amaze. Besides always seeming to find treasures, such as the green apple juice above, which tastes like sour apple candy, it is also always an experience for the senses and the memory bank. For starters, these supermarkets are not super at all; they could be closets in the giant American ones I frequent back in New Jersey. This is an island, so the stores are pretty tiny. It’s hard to even get Baby Boy’s super-sized American stroller inside a few of them, including the one closest to our house.
On our last trip over the weekend, we went to a supermarket that was completely new to Baby Boy and me. It is considered to be the biggest one in Ischia with two floors separated by elevators. Consider it the penthouse of supermarkets on this here island. Upstairs you’ll find paper and party goods, cleaning supplies, and beauty supplies. Downstairs is all about the food. With more room to breathe, I thought for sure Baby Boy would behave. I think it just made him feel a little too comfortable, like he was back in the States. He began by taking off his shoes and throwing them into various aisles from the seat of the carriage. I picked them up and put them in my bag. I thought that would resolve the problem. Nope.
Instead, he insisted I carry him. Next, he wanted to be put firmly on the ground wearing nothing on his feet but socks. Since he’s heavy as a 30-lb. bag of flour, I obliged just for a minute. He spread his arms out like an eagle and ran down the aisle trying to knock over whatever was in reach. He managed to pummel and stumble over a couple of potties and some baby food before I snapped him up. Figures, he goes right for his own stuff. I thought it was Wal-Mart-like of the Ischitano supermarket to have goods like a potty right next to the food. There were also pots, pans, brooms, and shovels. I found it to be a baker’s paradise with all sorts of neat gadgets – tube pans, tart pans, little metal cupcake pans (which Italians wouldn’t use for cupcakes, but I would) and tons of ingredients for baked goods, including chocolate chips specifically for cookies and muffins (which I haven’t seen anywhere else). Then, there’s shaved chocolate, rainbow sprinkles, decorative marzipan and fondant, and slew of other sweet delights. I picked up some cupcake liners (which are extra small because Italians don’t use them for cupcakes) that look like the skin of a giraffe. Very cool.
When we were finally in line, my husband and I were rushing to pay the cashier and pack up all the stuff in the flimsy biodegradable bags; I know, they’re good for the environment but they barely make it home without a rip. Baby Boy had other ideas. He snatched a giant umbrella that was for sale and with his Hulk-like strength started waving it above his head. I took it away from him and put him back in the carriage for a moment. I turned around, and he began trying to climb out. He had one leg dangling over the side of the cart when my cousin, who happened to be in line behind us, alerted me to the situation. I had to hold him in one arm and pack bags with the other. The lesson: If you’re taking Baby Boy to the grocery store, make sure a relative is always the one behind you in line. Since this is the small island of Ischia, home to pretty much all my ancestors from the beginning of time, that shouldn’t be a problem. Oh, and don’t forget the green apple juice.
We’ve been in Italy for nearly four months, but it is starting to feel as though we’ve been here forever. The first sign of homesickness for me is the cravings I’m having for foods that I simply can’t find on a small island in Italy. I know what you’re thinking. The cuisine here, especially when cooked by the natives is superb, so why am I complaining? You’re absolutely right. When I’m in the States, I sometimes long for those fresh, melt-in-your mouth mussels and clams that I eat here. And I yearn for a Neapolitan tomato or pizza. But while I’m here in Ischia, I want tacos piled high with cheddar cheese and guacamole and lo mein and steamed pork dumplings and – God help me – I NEED a hamburger, a real American hamburger with a hot dog on the side. Of course, who could live without bacon? I know who. The Italians. They just don’t know what they’re missing. Indeed, I want that hamburger and that hot dog wrapped in thick, center-cut, smoky bacon with cole slaw and pickles and greasy New Jersey diner French fries on the side. There, I’ve done it. That’s the menu for my return to America next year. We better book an appointment with the emergency room, too, because if I eat all that I’ll probably go into cardiac arrest.
Obviously, Baby Boy and I are also big fans of bagels from the tri-state area (see photo above). We can’t even get those when we head south to Florida. In fact, it’s the one thing my sister, who lives in Florida, requests whenever she comes home to Jersey. And, in an ironic twist of fate, after having introduced Italian friends and family to the wonders of bagels, they request them when we return to Ischia, too. Yep, we have actually brought a dozen bagels (and come to think of it a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts) in our carry-on luggage as a souvenir for the Italians. We have also brought Italian sausage, marinated artichokes, and imported prosciutto (Italian ham), all of which are super available in Jersey where the majority of Italian Americans live, to my sister in Florida. Why am I telling you this? For Italians, food is home. Even if you are far, far away from the land that you love, you can get a taste of it in every bite of its cuisine. My heart is grumbling with hunger for New Jersey right now.
Italians don’t know of cupcakes. They are simply not among the menu of desserts that Italian mammas whip up in their kitchen. But who doesn’t like a cupcake, right? So, on the 4th of July I introduced my Italian relatives to the wonders of biting into an icing-laden, moist funfetti cupcake. And last weekend – oops – I did it again. Only this time around, I made some with vanilla icing, some with chocolate icing, and all with way more decoration. I used rainbow sprinkles, Oreos for Mickey Mouse ears, and white chocolate shavings (those are not in the photo). Since this was my third attempt at making cupcakes and icing from scratch, I had gotten significantly better at it. No one in the house seemed able to resist ’em, least of all me. (I used the same confetti cupcake recipe as last time, the same chocolate frosting recipe, and this super easy vanilla frosting recipe.)
Cupcakes are every American moms go-to treat. It is what you make for your kids’ birthdays and holidays. And there’s something about cupcakes – tiny individual cakes – that makes you feel special and cozy and loved. Well, I was happy to share this bit of Americana with my Italian family. I owe them; after all, they provide me with authentic Neapolitan pizza, homemade tomato sauce, and all the home-grown fruits and veggies I can eat. Indeed, my favorite cultural exchanges are the kind I can bite into. And boy, I could go for a cultural exchange right now. How ’bout you?
Now is the time of year when Italians the world over insist that their tomatoes are redder and bigger than yours. My father will bring relatives in his New Jersey garden, show off his tomatoes, and take down anyone who puts down his pomodori. He is certain to harvest his treasures before every chance of rain to ensure none of them split or rot. And he’s even hidden them from guests, who might want to take a bite out of one of his tomatoes. The eggplant and zucchini he is happy to give away. But the tomatoes are his pride and joy. Italians reading this are thinking, “So what? Doesn’t everyone act like this?”
At the moment, I’m living in Ischia, where this competition is almost an art form. Giving someone tomatoes from your garden is a way of both demonstrating that you should win the contest, but it is also a great honor for the recipient. Since I don’t grow tomatoes myself, I often get to be a judge. This means that people bring me their tomatoes, and I have to make the sacrifice of eating them. Boo-hoo, I know. My husband and I have decided that we could live on only tomatoes and bread (bathed in great olive oil and basil fresh from the garden, of course). This is our way of saying to the tomato growers of Ischia and elsewhere, “Bring on the competition, baby! Yes, we’d love to help you discover if indeed your tomatoes are redder and bigger than everyone else’s.”
I’ve spent many a 4th of July in Italy, but this was by far the best one ever. I turned my Italian relatives into patriots for the day, had them drape the American flag in every corner of their kitchen, fed them American food (which you will see below), and forced them all to proudly wear – yes, I insisted they wear them proudly – Old Navy tees with the American flag on them (and yes, all 13 of them and one friend obliged). Rather than just describe what we ate (since that’s all real Italians will care about anyway), I decided to share the photos with you.
Confession: I did make one Italian dessert, strawberry tiramisu (in the photo above), but I dressed it in red, white, and blue. If you like the sound of the tiramisu (you’ll like the taste even better), then click here for the recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. Although my cousins in the States can’t get enough of her version with Cointreau, I replace the one-third of a cup of liquor with one-third of a cup of orange juice (so you’re doubling the amount of orange juice) and leave the rest of the Cointreau out, so the kiddies can enjoy it, too.
For the main course, I made chicken wings. I know tradition calls for hamburgers and hot dogs. But the hot dogs aren’t beef in Italy; they are wurstel, which is pork and the burgers just aren’t American enough. They have this weird after taste. Chicken, on the other hand, is delicious here. Recently, you’ve been able to special order wings (Italians don’t usually eat ’em). My Italian relatives beg for this dish. This is another old recipe I picked up from Giada De Laurentiis. It’s like American-Chinese food adapted for Italian people because it includes balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Since my mom sent me brown sugar (which is not available in Italy as you know if you read my blog entry about chocolate chip cookies), this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever made for them.
The corn on the cob wasn’t the winner I was hoping it would be. Unfortunately, nothing beats fresh New Jersey corn. Although my in-laws were able to find a place from which we could order it, the kernels were huge and no matter how long they boiled, they remained pretty tough. Still, taking my mom’s advice to put sugar and butter in the water and add more butter afterward, made the flavor good.
Caesar salad is an Italian American dish. Most real Italians don’t know of it. When I made this for my relatives for the first time last year, they screamed with pleasure. So, I knew it had to be on the 4th of July menu. I was happy to serve it in the punch bowl my husband and I received when we wed in Ischia nearly five years ago. It made a beautiful presentation (as did all the wedding gifts we got to put on display). I used a Ceasar dressing recipe from Once Upon a Chef, but I eliminated the anchovies. Most recipes call for raw eggs, but this one doesn’t, which is appealing to me because I’m afraid we could all end up in the hospital for salmonella poisoning.
Decorations are always on hand for 4th of July because I’m always here in Italy for the holiday. I had tons of stuff from years past, and my mom sent some more in a package. We decked ourselves and the dining area in red, white, and blue.
My nieces don’t all like strawberries, so chocolate-covered confetti cupcakes were my back-up dessert. Of course, the flag had to be featured on top of each one. I’ve only made cupcakes from scratch one other time, and my two-year-old niece and 18-month-old son had to help me the first time. So, these, which I did solo, were infinitely better. (For starters, the icing ended up on top of the cupcakes instead of into the mouths of babes.) I used Baking Bites’ recipe for the cupcakes (minus the almond extract because I couldn’t find any in Ischia), and About.com’s Guide to Southern Food’s icing recipe, which is so simple that I’ll probably never buy pre-packaged icing again.
A 4th of July party – or any summer get together – is incomplete without watermelon. Rather than just cut it into wedges, I had my husband slice half a watermelon and then use a star cookie cutter to make shapes. Whatever melon was left after he cut out the stars was cut into chunks and eaten as well. Of course, those flags made yet another appearance. Wouldn’t be 4th of July without the red, white, and blue!
On a hot summer’s day or a cold winter’s night, I can enjoy rich, creamy, sweet, and refreshing ice cream. Gelato is an even better substitute. I can eat it in a cone, in a bowl, on a stick. It is indeed my No. 1 comfort food. So, last year when I was gearing up to return to the United States after a three-month stay in Italy, I decided to look into buying an ice cream maker. After research and budgeting, I settled on purchasing the ice cream maker accessory for my Kitchen Aid mixer. I made a slew of ice creams, most of which my family devoured. One batch of eggnog ice cream was a miss. The rest were all winners. In fact, my cousins are still raving about the gingerbread ice cream from Christmas. Here in Italy, I haven’t given up. I bought the accessory for my Kenwood mixer here, and I’ve already added some new recipes to my repertoire. I can’t take credit for these works of food art. I have recipes written and shared by others to thank. Here are the ones I suggest you make at home as soon as you can. After all, wouldn’t homemade ice cream be the perfect 4th of July dessert?
Vanilla Ice Cream – For this one, I use the recipe from the Kitchen Aid mixer manual, which has been reprinted at My Recipes. You can add strawberries (as suggested at My Recipes) to make strawberry ice cream, which I’ve done and is delicious. Or you can crumble up Oreo cookies and stir them into the ice cream by hand before you put it in the freezer to make cookies and cream. Whenever I make this cookies and cream version, my guests eat it all and we’re left with no ice cream. I think they would lick the bottom of the container if it was socially acceptable. Still, eating the plain old vanilla is a treat, too. And I enjoy sandwiching it between homemade chocolate chip cookies for a dessert sandwich.
Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream – This recipe from Amanda’s Cookin’ is by far the simplest one I’ve made so far. And it comes out perfectly. The latest version I made of this featured Kinder chocolate because that is what I had on hand, and it gave the ice cream extra punch.
Pineapple Ice Cream – Anyone who has ever had a Dole Whip at Disney will love this homage to it by Our Little Family Adventure. It’s creamy and delicate and the final blast of flavor in every bite is unexpected in the most wonderful way. Yes, we ate it both as ice cream, soft serve, and in a float (with pineapple juice).
Fior di Latte Gelato – Americans have vanilla and Italians have fior di latte. Literally translated it means “flower of milk,” and that is kind of what it tastes like. It’s probably my favorite gelato flavor for its simplicity and versatility. You can use it in an Oreo milkshake or to make an ice cream cake. It can be sandwiched between cookies or smothered in chocolate sauce or Nutella. Or you can eat it plain. This recipe by the Italian site misya is simple, but it requires conversion for those not used to cooking in the metric system.
After Baby Boy had his umpteenth tantrum of the day – and it wasn’t even noon yet – I sent my husband to take him for a walk. You see, today was my husband’s day off and I was planning to use the time to finally catch up on work. From my mother-in-law’s kitchen, I could hear Baby Boy shrieking with displeasure. His shrieks soon turned to hollering. I watched from the window as he kicked and screamed at his father as though he was the Boogie Man himself. I went outside and decided we should all go for a walk together. It worked and after a little while Baby Boy fell fast asleep.
In that moment, my husband’s shoulders relaxed, he turned to me, and said, “Let’s go to Zi Nannina for lunch.” After I said, “Oh yes please,” he had to find out if one of the most romantic and praised restaurants on the island would be open in the next 10 minutes at noon. Otherwise, we’d go home. Who wants to risk waiting around for Baby Boy to wake up and lose his mind at the restaurant? We were fortunate that it was open and since my husband knows the staff there well, we were welcomed with open arms – even after Baby Boy woke up and started running around on the patch of grass, one of the few lawns on the island. Regardless, I decided that these impromptu dates when the stars align (read: hubby has off, I’m working late afternoons, and Baby Boy is initially sleeping) are something we should make part of our routine more often. I was all the more convinced after eating the divine seafood (see photos below). By the way, we sat on the porch with the view above at our disposal throughout the meal. Sigh.