Photo Journal: An Italian family tradition – tomato sauce making day

There’s actually not all that much I want to write this morning; I’d rather the photos do the talking. Last weekend heralded our family’s annual tomato sauce making day at my grandparents’ house, something I’ve been meaning to capture on film for a few years now. As you may have notices from my blogging habit, recording memories is important to me, and I wanted to share some of the pictures I took to give others a bit of an insight into a centuries old Italian tradition that continues in the backyards of countless emigrants in Australia today…

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Photo Journal: Our Italian family’s Christmas Eve tradition

Merry Christmas!! I hope everyone enjoyed the day with their loved ones and made it onto the “good” list and had a visit from the jolly man 😉

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Seeing as how Christmas is (to me, anyway) more about spending time with the people you love, and also as how this blog is in large part my digital time capsule, I wanted to share something a bit special this morning as we all rush off to open gifts and deliver trays of pavlova to the family lunch table. I wanted to share a few pictures of our most important and enduring family tradition; dinner with dad’s side of the family and his parents’ house. More commonly and affectionately known as “The Feast.”

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Traditionally, Italians don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve; instead, they indulge in seafood. And so every year, Nonno hits the Preston Market, sparing no expense for the freshest prawns, calamari and lobster he can get his hands on (and being a decades old customer, he gets some pretty good stuff).

The Feast happens Christmas Eve, every year, without fail. I’ve only missed one; last year, because we were in Chicago (eating Italian food at Eataly, because anything else on Christmas Eve would be sacreligious). International travel not-withstanding, it’s a given that we’re all there every year. Mum and dad, my auntie and uncle, us three girls plus our other halves, and my cousins. Nonna and Nonno host every year in their big, beautiful house, and whatever else has been going on is forgotten for the night. This year is the first year we’ve done it without mum and dad; it’s their turn to be overseas this year. So I thought I’d capture a bit of the fun for them so that they wouldn’t have to completely miss it 🙂

 

Tradition dictates the following:

– But first, wine. This year’s conversation between Nonno and I:
“Jessica. Wine?”
“Yeah, why not Nonno?! Just a little bit though, I’m driving.”
“No! Let’s get drunk!”

– Food. Calamari come first. If you arrive early enough, you make your way to the pizza room to “help” fry them (read: eat a few pieces before anyone else). Once served at the dinner table, fights to the death over the golden grilled pieces of deliciousness are not uncommon. My cousin has been known to eat more than the rest of us combined (that kind of behaviour has now been outlawed).

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– Then comes pasta. Because that’s what Nonno wants to eat. Every. Single. Day. There are also those two idiots who have as much freshly grated parmesan in the bowl as pasta – I’m one of them.

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– Next up: giant mutant prawns and lobster. They’re fresh and clean and absolutely enormous, served with lemon wedges, tartare sauce, and a simple salad dressed with olive oil, salt and vinegar. My uncle waits (sometimes) for everyone to take their share of the salad, then proceeds to eat his share straight from the big metal bowl, while laughing maniacally at whatever’s going on around him.

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– Also a few bowls of bocconcini. Nipple jokes are inevitable. They don’t make us giggle any less now that we’re all adults.

– And don’t forget the fruit platters, Lindt balls, coffees and Nonna and Zia’s zeppole – Italian sugar-coated donuts made from the lightest, fluffiest dough. Zia even made a few balls and filled them with Nutella; further proof that Italians are the original hipsters. We’ve been making this stuff for years!

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The only thing missing this year was mum and dad, who are currently enjoying a beautiful, cold Christmas in a little Italian town with mum’s extended family 🙂

So, from my family to yours, Merry Christmas and Buon Natale! I hope everyone had/has a great weekend 🙂

Music in my life and on the streets of New Orleans

IMG_6716When we moved into our current house, we decided to take my childhood piano with us; for various reasons, I didn’t feel like I could keep it here anymore, and so my sister took it with her this weekend as she and her boyfriend moved into their new home. It was a little strange to see it roll out of my life once again; I knew it couldn’t stay, but it still hurt a little to see it leave…

Music has always been a big part of my life. I remember my mum and grand mothers singing to me as a child. I cant tell you why I remember this, but I vividly remember mum singing “Under The Boardwalk” to me as a teeny tiny kidling (probably one of my earliest memories of life, actually), and her mum singing in Italian to me, “farfallina, bella bianca, vola vola, mai si stanca…” (Butterfly, beautifully white, flying flying, never tiring…).

Music was in dad’s blood, too – he played guitar, exceptionally well, and I grew up listening to his records-  Queen, The Beatles, Neil Diamond (and yes, we had an actual record player in our house). And his father loves music almost as much as he loves pasta (anyone who knows my Nonno and knows that he eats pasta pretty much daily, will know what a big deal that is). Despite being well into his 80s, he’s the first one on the dance floor, dragging my giggling Nonna along with him, at any family wedding, party, what have you. The look on his face, eyes closed and smiling serenely when he listens to his favourite music, will be forever ingrained in my mind, for which I am so grateful.

I grew up playing the piano and singing a little, but rarely for an audience; I was a painfully shy child who did her best to go through life appearing as mediocre as possible, so as not to ever risk standing out in a crowd. I was talented, learning mostly by ear and memory, and usually only using the expensive sheet music my parents bought me on the first play or two while learning a new piece, and then discarding it and playing by ear (much to mum’s chagrin), but I was so damn shy; the day the school choir director finally plucked up enough courage to tell me she wanted me to sing the solo at the next big school assembly, I promptly burst into tears and ran out of the school chapel where we practiced, effectively quitting on the spot. But music is still in my blood, I’ve always loved it. It’s always been there. To this day, the three things I can’t leave the house without are a book to read, a notebook to write in, and my iPod; I need to have music. I can’t work in silence at my desk for 8 hours each day – when everyone else is working away like pantomimes, I have one ear bud in, listening to something, anything, to keep me sane. I can feel music in a way I can’t actually explain or describe… Without realising, as I listen, my fingers often start playing away on my thighs, as if playing along on a piano keyboard.

That was another reason why New Orleans felt like home to me; music is everywhere. It’s on the streets and in the bars, it lives within the concrete footpaths and the bones of the locals. It is everywhere. And it is GOOD. I don’t actually know why I have any other music on my iPod at the moment – I have a play list that consists of a few Rebirth Brass Band records, a few Trombone Shorty records, and the first and second Treme soundtracks; I’ve been listening to that same playlist for around 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, for the 3 or 4 months last year leading up to our trip to America, and ever since we got back in January. Almost the only time anything else is played is when I’m at the gym running on the treadmill (entitled “Move, Bitch!” plays then. 5 points to anyone who knows gets the song reference there).

In a city where everyone has more talent in one finger than most of us have in our entire bodies, you see musicians everywhere, and every single one of them, from the kids to the grown ups, manage to create magic…

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Eat here: Lievita, Melbourne – and the importance of a strong father-daughter relationship

Lievita
298 High St, Northcote
http://lievita.com.au/

 

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It’s only been really recently that I’ve been noticing how many women have really shitty relationships with their dads. There are some women who grew up without their fathers around, others who grew up with abusive fathers, others still who grew up with their dathers around, but were completely disinterested or disconnected from them. I’ve noticed that the majority of women that I know now don’t trust their dads enough to talk to them, don’t think their dads care enough about them to warrant sharing their problems, think their dads are assholes… every time I hear another comment along that vein, it shocks me even more; I’ve realised that I’m in the very tiny minority of women who have a really great relationship with their dad! This is my dad, by the way – and this is one of my favourite photos of us, because when people see it they usually say I look so much like him, which is pretty cool 🙂

I’ve heard other people describe my dad as very hard working, but quietly so – “you’d never know just how hard he works because he’d never complain about it,” very, very generous, incredibly logical and intelligent, “the patience of a saint, especially with a wife and three daughters,” kind and compassionate almost to a fault, “the calmest person I’ve ever met,” and “such a good bloke.” They’re all right, of course; I’ve never met another person like my dad, and I doubt I’ll ever respect anyone else on earth more than I respect him. He’s been my role model and guiding light my entire life. We differ greatly in many things (I’d rather go and get tattooed while he’d prefer to attend Sunday mass), we have very different temperaments (he’s so much more together than me, so much more understanding and patient and calm, whereas I’m a bit more highly strung and prone to stress-induced freak outs). But he’s taught me some of the most important lessons in life:
– The necessity of hard work and the fact that nothing handed to you on a silver platter is really yours.
– Your family might shit you sometimes, but they are still your family. Look out for them, even if they don’t seem to appreciate it, because one day they’ll have your back, too.
– That you’re better off doing it right the first time than rushing through it and having to re-do it.
– Being angry at someone and holding a grudge is going to hurt you a lot more than it’ll hurt them.
– Work hard for what you want, but when you’ve done all you can, it’s ok to ask for help if you need it.
– You can’t always get what you want; be grateful for what you already have.
– Treat people the way you want to be treated; if you want to be respected, show respect to others first.
– Just because you’ve married someone, doesn’t mean you get to take them for granted and stop saying please, thank you or I love you.
– If you’re stressed out or worried about something, do what you need to do to change it. If you can’t change it, worrying isn’t going to help anyway, so stop stressing out so much.
– Your sisters might shit you, but you shit them (and your parents) too, sometimes.
– Money really, truly, cannot buy happiness, but more importantly, it can’t buy dignity or respect.
– It’s never too cold for ice cream.
– There’s always room for dessert, especially if it involves Nutella. And if it doesn’t, Nutella would probably improve whatever dessert is.
– There’s always time for pizza.

I love hanging out with dad; we try to make an effort to go out for dinner, just the two of us, every few weeks. He’s busy running his own business and making their new home and garden beautiful, and I’ve got a lot going on too, but no matter how busy I am, I’ll always happily cancel other plans when dad asks if I’m free for dinner! I’ve been wanting to visit Lievita for AGES, and dad said the pizza there was fantastic (the man knows good food), so like the good Italians we are, we visited for our father-daughter dinner date last night 🙂

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In Italian, “lievita” means leavened, or risen. Traditional, the street food way to serve pizza in Rome is al taglio, served by the slice, in squares. You don’t get round pizzas or triangular slices in Rome, it’s all done by the square slice and sold not as a set price per slice, but as a set price by weight. And Luca at Lievita, after having risen his dough for an impressive 72 hours, runs his business in the same way as its done in Rome; a window full of beautiful, colourful pizzas, topped with only two or three quality ingredients (it’s all about quality over quantity), from which you order al taglio, and pay according to the weight of your slice/s. Amazing. How has it taken so long for an Italian to take their street food to Melbourne like this?!

Dad’s been to visit Lievita more than a few times, so I let him order for us. First round was:
TOP: Potato, rosemary and guanciale (a cured meat that comes from the pork jowl/cheek area) – this one was my favourite, I love potato on pizza, and the guanciale was SO GOOD!! Perfectly rendered fat, heaps of flavour, just magic!
BOTTOM: Cherry tomato, mortadella and parmesan – loved the mortadella all warm and crispy, and heaps of it!

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Round two:
TOP: Eggplant, mozzarella and tomato – this is the way eggplant should be eaten.
BOTTOM: Chicory and ricotta – I had no idea something so simple could taste so good. Holy wow. Random combination, not something you’d see in your standard pizza shop, but if they have this one there when you visit, absolutely grab a slice!

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Round three:
TOP: Zucchini. Just a zucchini pizza. How the hell do they get the zucchini to taste so good?! It’s creamy and salty and got so much more flavour than you’d ever believe possible for a plain zucchini and nothing else pizza.
BOTTOM: Cherry tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil – again, so simple, but because the ingredients were of such incredible quality, this was just so beautiful… super sweet tomatoes and basil sat perfectly on a crispy bottomed, fluffy dough base.

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I’m not going to write a big, long, wordy review full of pretentious terminology about how well the elements worked together or crap like that. This is good, simple, honest food, and it doesn’t need it. Quite simply, this is the best pizza I can ever remember eating. Including the pizza al taglio I ate in Rome. Honest to God, it truly was. The ingredients, while simple, are of the best quality, and the pizzas only have two or three ingredients each – that’s the hallmark of good Italian cooking, only a few ingredients of the best quality will outshine a complex dish with a dozen mediocre ingredients. But the biggest difference, I believe, is the dough – 72 hours worth of rising time makes for the most spectacularly light and airy dough, with the perfectly crisp and crunchy base. No soggy bottoms here.

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Oh, and next to the pizza window, there’s another window with loaves of bread, panini, and dolci (sweets). Dad got excited when he spotted a lone sfogliatella left in the window; his auntie makes the best ones, he says, but given the quality of the pizza here, he was willing to give their version a chance; risk well taken, dad. A traditional southern Italian pastry filled traditionally filled with orange flavoured ricotta and often candied peel, this was the best restaurant take on the traditional home made stuff that I’ve only ever enjoyed fresh out of the kitchens of family members that I’ve had to date.

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There’s really not much else to say – Luca is doing an incredible job with Lievita, and all of the hard work he’s put into the place has more than paid off. The only way to end this post is to tell you to give your dad a call if you’re lucky enough to have him as a part of your life and let him know he’s a pretty good egg, and then, if you’re in Melbourne, take him out for pizza and beer at Lievita.

 

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Cook this: Almond Amaretto cake

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Sundays, growing up, were always “family days,” spent with grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and I’m sure this will ring true for a lot of others with an Italian background. As I’m getting a little older, though, that’s changing; I’m understanding that I’m needing a little more time alone, and time to look after me. The one thing that won’t ever change, though, that still makes me as happy and comfortable and safe as it did when I was a child, is seeing my grandparents. This post and recipe is a bit of a shout out to Dad’s parents, who are two of the most incredible people I know. Well into their eighties, they are so self-sufficient it almost defies belief and logic. That my beautiful little Nonna is still growing all of her own produce (literally everything from carrots to strawberries, zucchini to tomatoes, figs to grapes grow in their ENORMOUS garden – see below for a little bit of it), spending hours on her hands and knees digging up the sweetest carrots and that Nonno is still climbing up small step ladders to pluck me a small bowl of the figs I’ve loved since I was a tiny little person is both crazy, and at the same time, I can’t imagine it any other way.

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But don’t think it’s limited to fresh produce; Nonno does his own alcohol, too. A genuine purveyor of quality home brew. Wine and spirits, thank you very much. And every time we visit, we get sent home with half a car full of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as a little bit of whatever’s just been bottled; last visit was Amaretto, a sweet, almond-based liqueur. I really like Nonno’s Amaretto, particularly for use in baking. It’s insanely strong (really, I shudder to think of the alcohol percentage…), so you don’t have the problem of it all being baked out when you add some of the home brewed stuff to your cakes, which means it’s still got that distinct flavour and kick that I remember so vividly (and fondly) from all the cakes and biscuits that I used to eat when I was younger.

I didn’t really have a recipe in mind to use when I got the bottle from Nonno the other week, so I had a flick through one of my older cookbooks, the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking Around The World (1975 edition), purchased for change at the Grub Street Book Shop a few years ago. I found this recipe which I screwed around with a little and ended up with a cake that Nonna and Nonno would have been pretty happy with, had husband and I not eaten it all within 48 hours.

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What I changed:

– Swapped the walnuts out for toasted, slivered almonds (left whole, not ground)

– Used the juice and peel of an orange instead of a lemon

– Added a standard shot glass of Nonno’s Amaretto

 

Other than that, I used the recipe and method as printed in the cook book, and got a great result – it was somehow dense, yet light and moist all at the same time, with the almonds really bringing out the flavour of the Amaretto, and the orange flavour sitting nicely with the almond. A bit of whipped cream would have been perfect with it (note to self for next time), and a little icing sugar dusted lightly on top wouldn’t have gone astray either (if I’d had any in the pantry). It’s one I’ll definitely make again (don’t think husband is going to give me much choice there), and I’ll double the recipe next time so I have some to bring to Nonna and Nonno!

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