Gumbo and Other Italian Feasts

Italian Gumbo dinner in Anghiari

Our friend Rossella is Italian through and through.  She has never been to the US and is not likely to go.  However, she has a fascination with New Orleans.  Coincidentally, that’s where our friend Myra is from.  Myra has been here once before and had a pasta and pizza making lesson with Rossella.  This time, Rossella wanted a New Orleans cooking lesson from Myra.  So we had that most New Orleans of dishes, shrimp gumbo.

Ingredient Search

Myra came prepared with her gumbo recipe.  The only problem was making sure we could find all the ingredients.  A trip to our local Gala (the supermarket) provided everything we needed with some modifications (no andouille sausage here).  Myra is an extraordinary cook and loves all things food and cooking.  She lost her mind in the Gala.  Our Gala is small, not like the big Super Gala in Citta di Castello.  But everything is fresh and mostly local.  That’s one thing that frustrates me about the food delivery system in the US.  In Atlanta, I can get blueberries from California, but not from Georgia.  In Italy, the produce is mostly local with a few imports from Sicily and Africa.  It’s also mostly seasonal – you’ll only find artichokes during artichoke season.  And where else can you find a whole leg of prosciutto waiting for you to take home and slice up?

Myra wanted to make cheese straws for snacks, a classic Southern treat.  You can add different cheeses to the basic recipe for variety, but cheddar is the iconic ingredient that give them that classic taste.  Have you ever tried to find cheddar cheese in Italy?  In a land of wonderful cheeses, cheddar does not exist.  How can that be?  England is not that far from here and I know that have cheddar.  I think someone is missing an importing/exporting opportunity.

The Lesson

Myra taught Rossella the basics of making a roux and adding the layers of flavor that define a good gumbo.  Michelangelo was ready to translate as needed and we munched on cheese and salumi as the big pot bubbled away.  Soon the aroma of New Orleans permeated the house – a rich, meaty smell that promises a big bowl of deliciousness coming your way.  The result was as good a gumbo as I’ve had.  As we were slurping it down on the terrace, overlooking dusky Anghiari, I commented that it was a sure bet that no one else in town was having gumbo for dinner.  They didn’t know what they were missing.

Introducing people to new foods is part of living, to me.  I love it when people visit us in Italy and experience something for the first time.  Rossella is drawn to New Orleans and the food there is unique – unlike anything else in the US.  I could have stumbled my way through something New Orleans-like and she wouldn’t have known the difference, but having a native who has been cooking this her whole life is like having Jacques Pepin cook you an omelet.  You think you know what it’s like, but you really don’t until you have the real deal.

Even though we forgot to offer coffee after dessert, it was a great evening.  A blending of cultures, foods and friends.

Italian Meals

Food is on the top of the list for many visitors to Italy, as well it should be.  This is certainly the case for Myra and since she is here for a good, long visit we have been cooking at home quite a bit.  No one wants to eat out every meal, so we plan a combination of outings and meals at home.  I have to say that having Myra spend her vacation at your home gives you a vacation from cooking.  I enjoy cooking, but for Myra it is a passion.  Many is the evening where I’ve had my feet propped up sipping wine while Myra is chopping and sauteing away in my kitchen.  I feel a little bit guilty about this, but, hey – who am I to ruin someone’s vacation?

Italian Restaurants

Since we don’t eat out that much, we’ve chosen our restaurants very carefully.  While it’s hard to go wrong here, the pressure is on for us to make sure Myra is getting a top notch experience.  After all, when you cook like she does, a restaurant better deliver something fantastic or she’ll be left thinking that she could have made it better herself.  Since I’m a mediocre cook, I never run into that problem.  Here are some of the highlights from our outings.

Granduca

One of the best meals we’ve had was at Granduca, a restaurant here in Anghiari owned by the most adorable young couple.  Guilia runs the front of the house and Matteo cooks in the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen.  How he turns out such wonderfulness in such a small space is a mystery to me, but he sure does.

Osteria Bartolini

On a recent spectacular day we decided to drive to the Adriatic coast for a walk on the beach and lunch because – well, because we could.  We had a wonderful meal at Osteria Bartolini on their patio right next to the marina.  We had an assortment of seafood, including a fried everything platter that was divine.

Pizza

What would a trip to Italy be without pizza?  We finally got around to having pizza recently and visited one of our favorite places – Pizzeria Baldaccio.  They have this super thin, crispy crust that I just love.  So did Myra.  I’m not saying whether that entire pizza was eaten – what happens in Anghiari stays in Anghiari.

Pizza from Baldaccio in Anghiari

Home Cooking

I cook almost every day.  I know it seems like we go out to eat a lot, but we really don’t.  We realized early on that we couldn’t do that (no matter how tempting) because 1) it can get pricey, and 2) we simply can’t eat like that on a regular basis.  I’ve kind of settled into a way of cooking here that marries the way I used to cook in Atlanta with some Italian influences.  Lots of roasted vegetables, some grilled meats, and pasta, polenta, or risotto once a week or so.  I think about what I have on hand during the day and supplement with a walk down to the butcher to the vegetable market if needed.  Then I start prepping in the late afternoon.

Myra has added a whole new dimension to dinner planning and preparation.  Her culinary wheels are always turning and she develops and refines menus throughout the day.  She starts chopping early in the afternoon and the whole house starts smelling like something wonderful.  I wish I was that organized and forward thinking, but I just can’t think about starting dinner until late afternoon.  It’s a wonder to me as I watch her flutter around the kitchen, washing this vegetable, chopping that herb.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I know that dinner is eminent, but it seems so far off to me that I have a hard time connecting this midday activity to the evening meal.  But Myra sees it all in her mind and pulls it all together as I sit back in wonder.  Here are some of her creations.

Thank Goodness for Hills

Eating like this I am very thankful for all the hills we have to climb around here.  Otherwise, I would be unable to fit through the door.  Myra, I’m glad you enjoy cooking for others on your vacation.  You are welcome here anytime!


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