Sunday, November 30, 2008
To make this, you need to have prepared a quantity of ragù - enough to spread twice over the contents of the oven dish you will be using - and without too much meat in it, beforehand. Most Italian cooks I know make a lot and freeze it in portions, ready to use in dishes such as this. On the day you wish to assemble the dish, you also need to fry some thin aubergine slices in olive oil before you start. Now here is Gina's recipe for this amazing first course:
For 8 people:
Cook half a kilo egg tagliatelle until al dente. Drain and put half into the base of an oven dish. Mix with half the ragù. Spoon some grated caciocavallo cheese over , then add some chopped, fresh ricotta and some chopped provoletta. Now put in the aubergine slices, some slices of salame [or ham if you prefer] and, if you wish, some chopped hard-boiled egg. Cover with the rest of the pasta, the rest of the ragù and some more grated cheese. Cook in a hot oven [200 - 220 C] for about half an hour. Cut like a cake and serve.
I must admit I like the crispy bits best!
Friday, November 28, 2008
I loved these fancy jars of mixed antipasti, espied in the supermarket this morning. I so wanted one but reminded myself that it is easy enough to make these concoctions at home - easy enough, that is, except for one thing; keeping the layers separate. I have had some success at this, though, by laying cocktail sticks crosswise over each layer.
But take a closer look at the jars and you will see that one is shaped like a fish and the other like a pig. So what I want to know is how did they get these creatures' olivey eyes to stay in place? [I nearly bought a jar just to find out!] Any suggestions, readers?
The good wishes that I have received here from commenters over the past few weeks have helped me enormously during this difficult time and I cannot thank you all enough.
In addition, Ellee, knowing that Elizabeth Jane Howard is one of my favourite authors, sent me Love All. I couldn't put it down and can't remember when I enjoyed a novel so much. Thanks, Ellee. Then Anne sent me this lovely turquoise pendant - my favourite stone and I'm sure it will protect me. That was so thoughtful of you, Anne.
And now my friend Trubes has dedicated this post to me. Do have a look at it, as it really made me laugh. Grazie, Trubes.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
I wanted a quick supper so here's what I did with what I had: Cut some chicken escalopes [really thin ones] into strips. Seasoned one side of each with black pepper and coarse seasalt. Griddled the strips for about 1 minute per side. Spread the seasoned sides with pesto - some with green [which I make] and some with red [which I buy]. Rolled 'em up [imperfectly - hence the strategically placed lemon slices] and secured with cocktail sticks. Served on rocket and basil. It tasted good!
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
A friend gave me a lift to one of these establishments today as I just had to do something about my clothes, having lost so much weight since becoming unwell. I have been sartorially lost without being able to wear my black trouser suits! Last night I took a deep breath and bundled nearly all of my winter clothes into carrier bags so that the "mice" could tell me what could be reasonably altered and what could not. [I didn't want to frighten Rosa by giving her the whole lot to deal with. Besides, even I know that jackets are hellishly complicated to adjust.]
Now, I have never been any good at standing still to be "pinned and fitted" at the best of times but it is much more difficult with my current balance problems. However, the "mice" ladies were very kind, letting me hold on to the arm of one of them whilst the other tugged, tucked and pinned.
Business is good in the little shop and the variety of garments being brought in by customers of all shapes and sizes proved that very few women are of stock size; yet we all continue to beat ourselves up over this!
It turned out that all the items I had taken there can be altered and the cost for the taking in and shortening of 5 pairs of trousers plus a pair of jeans, 5 jackets and a dress will be around €220. I figure that you can't go out and buy yourself a whole new wardrobe for that price so it is worth it. You cannot sell your non-fitting clothes to a "nearly new" shop as you can in Britain - not that you get much for them and I long ago decided I'd rather give them to the Oxfam shop - but there are no charity shops here either, such is the disdain for second-hand goods, apart from precious antiques.
Incidentally the "little mice" were very elegantly dressed and have on display some soft, flowing garments which they have made themselves. I am going to take a closer look at these next time I visit.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Friends Roberto and Roberta, who live down at the Marina di Ragusa, have decided it's Christmas, so I was delighted to join them and their other lucky guests for a jolly, Anglo-Italian 1pm - 6pm feast yesterday.
The menu consisted of: antipasti of marinated aubergine, marinated artichokes and olives; bocconcini di mozzarella; various little tartlets and pastries and arancini [rice balls]. Then there was pasta al forno followed by beautifully cooked chicken and barbecued pork accompanied by cavolfiore in pastella [cauliflower in batter] and green beans. For dessert there was Trapani melon [the juiciest in the world, I am sure] and other fruit and then Roberta's pièce de résistance - bread and butter pudding, only it wasn't as it was made with panettone!
Finally I did admire this innovative carafe stopper.
Grazie, Roberto e Roberta!
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
Thursday, November 20, 2008
A nice drive down to the sea with Linda and Gino this morning. At an almost deserted Marina di Modica, the sea shimmered with tantalising colours in the autumnal light and a beautiful hibiscus was in full bloom.
Some discerning [mostly German] campers have taken up residence, in their vans, in one of the squares; apparently they shut up their homes for the winter, thus saving on fuel, and spend the season here. Not a bad idea, is it?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Most of you know that I love cooking and do not mind how long I spend in the kitchen perfecting some new recipe or adding special touches to an old one. That is, however, the only pleasure I derive from domestic tasks and when it comes to housework I have to admit that it gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to scrub a bath till it sparkles, polish some object till I can see my face in it or sweep my balconies till they are so pristine that you could eat your meals off their tiles. Housework, then, gets done when visitors are due or when things get on my nerves enough and even then, it is likely to be of the “lick and promise” variety. [I talk to my floors, you know, telling them firmly, “That’s all the cleaning you’re having today” lest they get their hopes up.] I’ve got better things to do!
Recently, though, I’ve been unable physically to do even my perfunctory mopping or dusting [the latter activity consisting of dusting till I get bored – about 5 minutes - at which point I spray the Pronto polish around in the hope that its smell will fool people into thinking I’ve been thorough]. I confess I had started to feel guilty about the situation , so my friends found me that rare Italian treasure – a nice, reliable cleaning lady.
Well, there were 2 nice, reliable cleaning ladies on the first occasion, as when Rosa [the “boss” of the pair] asked me if the state of the place warranted her bringing her sister-in-law to help, I had to answer in the affirmative. So along they came, at 8 am one morning [the crack of dawn to me but quite late to them] and they began by inspecting my cleaning equipment. Irma had warned me: “No Italian woman will be able to clean without a Vileda-type mop and bucket” [she meant a bucket with one of those draining contraptions over it] and I should have listened, but I figured that I already had a mop of some sort and 2 buckets, so what was the difference? I soon found out, as both ladies explained at length their need to go into battle armed with not 1, but 2 Vileda mops and a drainer-bucket. Then they cast experienced eyes over my array of cleaning products – floor cleaner, wood cleaner, glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, bleach and hob cleaner – and made a list of about half a dozen more essential items that I didn’t even know you could get. Finally my collection of cloths – all bought on impulse at the supermarket on days of good intentions – was examined and this, at least, passed muster. Linda, who was here, gamely dashed over to the supermarket to buy all the necessities and came back laden with these and a receipt for 33 euros. Now, I will spend 33 euros on a mascara or lipstick without turning a hair but 33 euros on cleaning materials??! Oh, well, there’s a first time for everything!
At last the 2 intrepid ladies started work and my goodness, how they worked, for 6 solid hours, without stopping for a break or even refreshments! I could only look on, stunned, as they worked miracles on floors, balconies, shutters and glass doors, cleaning nooks and crannies that I didn’t realise existed. The floors were mopped over not once, but 6 times, reader and I feared the tiles would crumble from the shock!
Italians believe in damp dusting and I watched – I was going to say “electrified” – as they passed damp cloths over plugged-in electrical appliances, reminding myself that it would be all right as they did this every day. I did, however, draw the line at the idea of a wet cloth going over my books! [I’m not houseproud as you will have gathered but I am fanatical about the state of my books and the order they are kept in.]
At the end of the 6 hours the ladies declared that they would need another whole day to “finish” [(Italian perfectionism] so 2 days later they were back and we went through the whole performance again.
Since then, dear Rosa has agreed to come once a week, for 4 hours and what a marvel she is: The moment she arrives, all windows and doors are flung open, whatever the weather and Simi watches in consternation as her main bed [in the bedroom] secondary bed [here in the study] and floor cushion [in the lounge] are unceremoniously dragged onto the balconies and her toys placed with several thuds on the dining table. Every item of soft furnishing in sight is thrown into the washing machine and then Rosa sets to, ironing, dusting, washing floors – whatever I ask – and what pride she takes in her work! Last week she dusted my 912 ornaments and put them all back precisely in their places and in the bathroom, without being asked, she arranged all my make-up samples in categories. She really does sort me out and I now look forward to “Rosa days”. I have come to regard her as a friend – another bright spot during a difficult period and an Italian treasure, indeed.
Monday, November 17, 2008
The Caffè Consorzio are offering a set weekday lunch menu of a primo or secondo plus a dessert and drink for only 6 euros per head so Irma and I decided to try it today. We were both delighted with their couscous di verdura and beautifully presented coppa di frutta.
Sicilian storms have precluded much use of the computer for the past couple of days but this morning dawned brighter. On my way to a medical appointment in Ragusa, I took this photo of the approach to Ragusa Ibla to share with all of you.
Friday, November 14, 2008
... or several, in delicious culinary concoctions made by friends, will, it is hoped, keep the doctor away!
With regard to health, I am making progress, though it is slower than I would like [pazienza!] and meanwhile, my wonderful friends here continue to spoil me: at lunchtime Linda appeared bearing British comfort food in the form of a lovely apple crumble, then at teatime my friend Maria Elena arrived with what she described as a "small" torta di mele [apple cake]. I don't think I'm going to remain thin for much longer!
Maria Elena is a well-travelled woman who used to own a little coffee shop near here: I used to go there to buy my weekly supply of Arabic coffee and she would pull out a low bench for me, make a brew of whatever new coffee flavour she had in that week and we would gossip about the world as seen through the shop window, recipes and men of a certain age and their ways.
Family commitments have now taken Maria Elena away from her shop and I miss those chats; but she still finds time to perform kindnesses such as this.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
On 15th November we are officially allowed to "light up", that is, to switch the central heating on, here in the Ragusa area and this is the first in four Sicilian winters when I have almost arrived at that date without desperately longing to switch it on before. The temperature has been a pleasant 18 C on most days recently but Saturday was cloudy and rainy, so Irma decided to make brodo colle palline [broth with little meatballs] to start lunch:
First make your broth which you can, of course, do well in advance: You will need a half kilo piece of chuck beef steak or similar cut; the meat should have a little fat on it. Put this in a pan with abundant water, a tomato, some celery, an onion and seasalt and boil for about 2.5 hours, until the meat is tender. Strain it and keep the broth. To make the meatballs, mix 200 gr minced beef with some breadcrumbs, grated parmesan , chopped parsley, crushed garlic, salt and egg to bind and form the mixture into tiny balls with your hands. Bring the broth to the boil, add the meatballs and boil for 1 minute. Then add some pastine [small pasta - about 100 gr per person] and cook until the pasta is ready. There should still be a lot of liquid at the end of cooking. [Serves 4 - 6.]
This is just the thing to make you feel loved and comforted on a cooler, autumn day in Sicily - or on a stormy night like this one, now that I come to think of it!
Monday, November 10, 2008
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Friday, November 07, 2008
While I was in hospital, a friend who works there composed this for me during a night shift and brought it to me the next morning. I was very touched by this and it helped me a great deal. With her permission, I now share it with you:
Se la vita ci richiede
di camminare su un sol piede
non conviene indietreggiare
ma piuttosto affrontare
ed il nuovo fronteggiare
anche se in tali congiunture
si fanno avanti vecchie paure
che prospettano sciagure
per tutte le zone oscure,
succede di reagire in modo scomposto
con la ragione fuori posto,
ci si ribella alla creazione
si va in sterile ribellione
ci si arrende mancando l’occasione
invece di appogiarsi al bastone.
Sta a ciascuno indovinare
in quale posizione ci si deve collocare.
Quel che adesso è un problema
è l’ignoto che crea pena
ma la diagnosi verrà
e l’atteggiamento cambierà.
If life requires us
to walk on only one foot
it doesn’t help to look back.
Instead, we must face it
with new ways of coping
even if, in such circumstances
old fears come to the fore
in all our dark places.
Sometimes we react in panic,
not using our reason
but if we rebel against creation
we rebel uselessly
giving in and missing our chances
instead of leaning on a stick.
Each of us must work out
where he stands.
What seems a problem now
is fear of the unknown
but the diagnosis will come
and your way of facing it will change.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I’m sure everyone else is writing of momentous world events whilst I continue to prattle on about Sicilian culinary delights. Still, many important political decisions are made during “working” breakfasts and lunches, I’ll wager, so that is my excuse!
Some time ago, I featured mostarda as it is known to Sicilians – a solid preserve made from grape must and wood ashes. Yes, ashes! [Don’t worry; they are filtered out.] I find the texture too leathery but at the weekend I tasted the fresh version, as made by Gina’s mother-in-law. This is much lighter and is eaten as a dessert. I found it refreshingly different and very pleasant.
The reason that it shares the name mostarda with the mustard-based fruit relishes of northern Italy is that the Romans used to mix mustard seeds with verjuice instead of vinegar and in the Middle Ages, for a time, the vinegar was replaced by must, so some etymological confusion arose.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
My wonderful friends here are in touch every day, run me around for shopping and various medical appointments and are conspiring to feed me up, reader!
At Gina's last Sunday there were these lovely ravioli, filled with sweetened ricotta and cooked in a pork sauce, then various meats cooked in the same sauce, followed by these crispelle di riso from which the honey was just dripping. The other day, also at Gina's, I was treated to pasta with dried porcini and frittata with salad. There were also slices of freshly cooked pumpkin [not shown] seasoned with chilli pepper.
Linda brought around some comforting pasta al forno she had cooked and on Saturday night Marco and Giovanna turned up with plates of focaccia, arancini and pasticci [pies, meat ones in this case].
Gina has also managed to get me to Raffaele the hairdresser's, for sitting around being ill is one thing; but sitting around being ill with your roots showing is quite another!
Saturday, November 01, 2008
“Everyone”, runs an Italian saying, “does their time in la galera [prison] or l’ospedale.” As it is just over a week since I "escaped" from the latter institution, I feel it is time to describe it.
To begin at the beginning: since August, I have been experiencing episodes of balance loss; nothing much at first but then they became more frequent. By 9th October, I was only getting to work because kind friends took me there and collected me and I fell over 4 times during that week. I had also lost weight dramatically, without dieting, during the same period. Finally my GP decided that the best course of action would be for me to go into hospital for a week or so, as all the necessary tests could be done quickly and on the spot. This meant kennelling Simi suddenly and I was most upset about this, as by the 14th, when I was admitted, I was so scared I had some awful neurological thing that I feared I would never see her again! But I knew it was the only thing to do so off she went to Mr Enzo’s establishment and in I went.
Let me say at the outset that I received excellent physician care and I cannot praise their thoroughness enough. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the only way you could get such a complete check-up in the UK would be to pay for it. I was always treated as an intelligent person and test results were communicated to me straightaway. I very much appreciated this courtesy.
Very little, then, of what I have to say below is intended as criticism; I just think that some of you might find the comparisons interesting.
In Britain, the first thing that you lose when you go into hospital is your dignity as you are weighed, prodded and immediately called by your first name. Here, you retain the dignity of signora but the first thing that you lose is your privacy: Imagine, now, a 4-bed women’s ward, with ample lockers and hangers for your clothes plus a normal bedside table-cum-locker each. Yet there are no screens or curtains! When one of you is to be examined or treated all visitors are asked to leave the room but everything happens in full view of the other 3 patients. The old lady in the bed next to me was too ill to be moved for a surgical procedure, so this was carried out in the ward. Not even for this was she afforded the privacy of a screen. The other 2 patients slept through it; I pretended to read.
The next day, the old lady was sent home to die. I really felt for her family, as I had lived through anxious, sleepless bedside vigils such as they kept when my mother was so ill, but I never had to wash or change her when she soiled herself or the bed. Yet night after night relatives did this and more for their loved ones, even turning and lifting them and administering treatment. In fact, the whole system works on the assumption that you have a relative there. I can see the human side of this, but I do not think that male relatives should be allowed to spend all day and all night on a women’s ward when their loved one is not that ill [or female relatives on a male ward]. It can make things awkward for other patients.
Mind you, the lack of privacy has its funny side. All information is conveyed to you within earshot of your fellow-patients and the kindly lady opposite me took great pride in being able to reel off everybody’s symptoms and diagnoses for the benefit of any newcomers. The correct response to this, I learned, is to utter “Pazienza”, “È così [“That’s how it is”] or “Siamo qua” [“We are here”]. You absolutely must sigh deeply for dramatic effect before saying the last of these and you must have your hands placed firmly in your lap whilst you speak.
Now, I was not incapable of getting to the bathroom but I nonetheless found it a precarious expedition! For one thing, could someone please tell me why there are no toilet seats on any of the loos in the entire hospital?! This didn’t seem to bother anyone else [“pazienza”, etc] but for someone as wobbly as I am these days it made life more difficult! And I found myself crying from fear of falling every morning as I attempted to shower. The nurses [2 for the entire ward of 7 rooms] just do not have time to accompany you while you do your ablutions! Please do not infer from any of the above that the nursing care is poor for it is not; there just isn’t enough of it.
Visiting times [largely ignored] are 07.30 – 08.30 [presumably so that relatives can help with bathroom visits and bring in food], 12.30 – 2. 30 and 6.30 – 8.30 pm. Only the Italians could visit a hospital and behave as they would at a festa, with children bouncing on the beds, the women gossiping loudly and happily and the men forming their own little “gossip groups” in the corridor. And perhaps it isn’t so bad for the patients after all. I felt rather sorry for the visitors, actually, as only one hard little chair is provided at each bedside; not even the patient has the luxury of being able to sit in an easy chair for part of the day! I certainly did not lack visitors myself, with wonderful and loyal friends coming in every day, bringing gifts and taking care of practical needs such as washing. One day, nearly all my women neighbours turned up, including the lady who took a year to acknowledge my greetings after I moved in here. I was most touched by that. There had obviously been some sort of “neighbourhood conference” as no one had seen me or the dog for a few days and they had noticed that my shutters remained closed. So along they came, determined to find me!
Meals, apart from breakfast, were quite good. I’ll never know why the Italians, who produce arguably the best food in the world at other repasts, either neglect or make such a mishmash of breakfast. At 7.30 am a horrible, dark brew masquerading as “tea” was brought around, and into this evil-looking gruel people happily dropped slices of fette biscottate [French toasts] and ate it as if it were the consommé du chef. For lunch there would be a choice of pasta or soup, plus a meat or fish main course with a contorno [nearly always green beans]. Then you would get some fresh or “cooked” fruit [ not stewed, as you might imagine, but the whole fruit cooked to soften it]. In the evenings there was always the same nourishing, vegetable soup, served with bread and a choice of ham or cheese. The nurses would bring the food to you, but not clear it away so again, if you were bedridden, the system depended on your having someone there who would do this for you. You also got a bottle of mineral water every day, but not a glass to drink it from! – You were expected to bring your own supply of plastic beakers. At least in this hospital you were provided with plastic cutlery at each meal; I have heard of hospitals here where you have to take in your own.
Oh, I am forgetting one very important detail for my lady readers! One of the doctors had the eyes of handsome Mubbs from Holby City!
Well, there you have it: I survived and am now home with” Dr Simi”. And the diagnosis? It seems that I have advanced osteoporosis and it is this that is at the root of everything. I knew, of course, that if you have osteoporosis, you are likely to break something if you fall; what I had not realised, however, was that the condition can so debilitate you that it can cause you to fall in the first place. So if anyone out there has knowledge or experience of this, I would be really grateful to hear from you.
Meanwhile, I am still tired and weak, walking with a stick and certainly cannot work next week. The future looks uncertain but at least my brain is working – or so they tell me!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Italian medical system, all who took care of me in hospital, my kind GP and all the friends, on and off line, who have been so very kind, concerned and supportive.