Monday, November 26, 2012

Heavenly deviled eggs

So, I like eggs now. Sort of. Not every way--the thought of an omelet still makes me gag, and strangely, although scrambled was the only way I would consider eating them for about 20 years, I now do not prefer them scrambled--but I'll eat a fried egg (sunny-side up), and occasionally poached. And I've grown very fond of the deviled egg.

On the one hand, deviled eggs seem weird and tacky and kind of dated. They're so American. My parents used to make deviled eggs for parties when I was a kid and transport them in a special deviled egg carrying case, which I coveted both then and now. It was the kind with special little divots for the egg halves, plus a lid that snapped shut with a handle.

On the other hand, deviled eggs are a fantastic idea. Much like the twice-baked potato, with a few ingredients you can elevate something from basic to divine, while stuffing it back in its original package. Fun!

This was my first attempt at deviled eggs. I wanted to make them as an appetizer for Thanksgiving, and so I did a test run a few days earlier, which is what these photos are from. I had a little trouble boiling the eggs.  Why are easy things sometimes hard?  I used the bring-to-boil-turn-off-and-sit method and ended up with little dents and dips in the eggs, as you can see. The second versions looked much better, although of course I have no pictures to prove it. In that instance, I boiled the eggs the day before (just 10 minutes on low) and let them rest overnight, which seemed to help.

The recipe is based on Tyler Florence's deviled eggs that he serves as his wonderful restaurant, Wayfare Tavern. I found the recipe here, but tweaked it a bit the second time around: I decreased the capers and salt, added more mayo, and left the smoked paprika out of the filling. I also was out of celery leaves but in possession of chives so did a swap. And, I skipped the fried caper garnish in both attempts, though I have no doubt that would have been delicious. I just can't get into so much detail for what is essentially a snack. I did, however,  form a makeshift pastry bag out of a Ziploc and found the single tip I own so I could pipe the filling as artfully as I was able, which was not very.

These were quite the hit.  I expect these might reappear later in the holiday season and suggest you give them a try as well, if you're looking for something simple, festive, and a little bit retro for your next gathering.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

And Tuscany

Part 3 of 3.

I'll say it up front: I'm not much for the country, or the mountains, for that matter. I like cities, and I like the ocean.  It's no accident that I live in San Francisco, which gives me both. Being far from the ocean makes me feel squirrelly. But you can't go to the Italian countryside and not fall in love with it. It's crazy beautiful.

We stayed at a place called Vignamaggio, an agriturismo in Chianti. It looked like this:

It belonged to Lord Vignamaggio, who had a daughter named Mona Lisa, who supposedly inspired some sort of art project by a guy named Da Vinci. I'm not sure I buy this--but it was a fun urban rural legend to read about.

On the property, they make wine and olive oil and some delicious food. On our first day, we arrived in time for lunch. Here was our view:

We drank wine, of course.

Alongside we devoured this incredible crespelle, or crepe, stuffed with a cauliflower puree. This was one of the best things I ate on the entire trip. It sounds weird. Hell, I don't even like crepes that much, but I sure liked this one. Could have had something to do with the creamy sauce that I mopped up without even asking what was in it.

The husband had delicious ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta...served in a nice little puddle of oil and butter. 

While I had lasagnette, a small, self-contained lasagne stuffed with porcinis and burrata.

I'll give you a moment to think about that. PORCINIS AND BURRATA.

We only had two full days in Tuscany so on our first full one we drove to Siena. It was a pain in the ass to get into the city--we had to park our rental car (a Fiat Panda!) outside the city and take a shuttle bus in.  This is on account of the city being super old (as in medieval) and cars not being allowed in lots of places. We were a couple of morons trying to figure out which was the right parking lot to park in where we wouldn't get towed and then frantically trying to figure out how to buy bus tickets from the tiny vending machine as the bus, which only ran once every 30 minutes, roared toward us. Neither of us is good managing small moments of stress but we do have minds like dry erase boards so once we got on the bus and got to Siena, the previous moments of crabbiness and chaos were history.

Siena has 17 districts that are associated with forces of nature and/or animals (which, incidentally, are not all magnificent creatures like you might expect--tigers and lions and such. Among the districts, or contrades, are the caterpillar, snail, and crested porcupine). We hopped off the bus in the dragon district, along the alleys of which we noticed these groovy dragon streetlights. Not exactly medieval, but cool, right?

We stopped for lunch at La Taverna di San Giuseppe, outside of which there was a big wooden wild boar, bearing a cloth? cape? t-shirt? reading Tuscan to the bone.

This lunch turned out to be yet another highlight of our trip. We were there on a Saturday and the place, which was dark and cozy and crowded, seemed to be full of Italian families settling in for a leisurely weekend lunch. Being no strangers to the leisurely lunch, either at home or abroad, we settled in as well for mixed bruschetta; triangalletti (like spanakopita but filled with spinach, ricotta, and truffles); gemelli with smoked mozzarella, sausage, and broccoli; and papparadelle in venison, zucchini, and chianti sauce. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life--not fancy, but delicious,  comfortable, and welcoming-- the type of place I'd love to live near.

After lunch, we stumbled back into the daylight to check out the town. Siena's history goes back to the Etruscans, who settled there around 900 BC. You might find it interesting to read about the city's history here. In the meantime, you can look at some of our pictures. This was one of the main squares.

Here's a view of the city.

 I think this was a convent, but I can't be sure. Don't forget I'd drunk half a bottle of wine before this.

Siena has its own Duomo, which is beautiful and scary. I'm often a little afraid of churches and this did not help matters.

There was a storm brewing as I took this...literally. We got drenched.

In front of the church they had this statue of Romulus and Remus and their wolf mama. That's another story you may find interesting if you haven't read about it, or, like me, needed a refresher from your Latin 101 class (yes, I took Latin).

The only thing about Siena that we didn't love was that it was really touristy. I know that sounds stupid, since we're tourists too. But, as anyone who lives in a place that draws tourists knows: tourists don't see the real place. Between the vendors hawking cheap junk on the street and all the restaurants and shops that clearly cater to foreign visitors (easily identified as the ones who skipped names and instead put up big signs that said: "Pizza! Pasta! Burgers!"), it can be difficult to navigate your way around the fake stuff. I often feel bad for tourists coming to San Francisco who end up at Fisherman's Wharf. I have lived here for more than 16 years and I have been there exactly once, by mistake.

Anyway, it's a reality of being a tourist. You depend on books, which, even when they're good, often don't get you to the places you don't know you want to go.

On our next day, we ventured to Chianti in Radda, where we found this spot for lunch.

We ate this: doesn't get any better.

I'm sorry to say this is the last picture I took in Tuscany. But as you know, I don't take pictures at night. So the wine bar where we went, which was also a centuries-old butcher shop, is something you'll have to imagine. And our last dinner there, at Mangiando Mangiando, will also have to live in your mind. At this mom-n-pop joint, we had some of the most delicious food of the trip: ribollita again, paparadelle with wild boar ragout, tagliatelli with pork sauce, and a side of cavalo nero. One of the best parts of the evening was surreptitiously observing the elderly couple next to us, who, as we sat down were enjoying an elaborate charcuterie plate with their wine. I didn't realize until they left that they had been at the end of their meal. Post starters, pastas, and dessert. Pork to finish a meal!  I wanted to run after them to see if they would adopt me. Those people knew how to live!

That's the thing, though. Italians all know how to enjoy life. Among the many things I brought back with me from the trip was the feeling that we, or I, waste a great deal of time just getting through things--making it through the work week for two precious weekend days. Hoping the weeks fly by until our next vacation. I suppose that's natural, particularly in America. But, I think it's something I'd like to change. Life is what's happening now.

And of course, at the end of the trip, no matter how tired we were of shlepping our suitcases and wearing the same clothes, and--dare I say it?--eating in restaurants, we started to dream about our next trip. Stay tuned...

Sunday, November 11, 2012


 Part 2 of 3.

Although we could have stayed in Rome forever, Firenze awaited us. A quick 90-minute train ride delivered us neatly to the city, and when we arrived it was hot and muggy. We made our way to our hotel, which turned out to be the single best lodging experience of the trip. If any of you make it to Florence, I highly recommend staying at the Hotel David. Although located slightly away from the center of the city, it was warm, comfortable, affordable, and hospitable. And we didn't mind the mile walk (or bus ride, when it was raining) along the Arno River to the center of the city. Walking a few extra miles a day lets you eat even more gelato.

Although not as big and bustling as Rome, Florence is a lovely city, the birthplace of the Renaissance and full of art and beautiful architecture, including the striking Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), pictured here. You can't drive across the bridge; instead it's full of shops. From the outside it looks like little apartments smashed together.

The highlight of Florence, hands down, was seeing the statue of David.  It's enormous, beautiful, and moving. I can barely think of it without feeling it.

And of course, we enjoyed the Duomo...

And just walking around.

Like in Rome, everywhere we turned, there was something beautiful.

Naturally, we had some excellent food in Florence. Here was our lunch one day, a gorgeous spread of tomatoes, mozzarella, grilled vegetables, and prosciutto. I learned that a common practice with a plate such as this, and really most salads, is to serve the olive oil and the balsamic vinegar on the side so you may dress it as you prefer. In this case, they brought us something called balsamic creme, which was a very thick glaze that came out in glossy droplets.

Another day, we found the legendary I Due Fratellini, a sandwich shop--stand, really, that's been around since 1875. Here's the storefront.

There's no where to go in and nowhere to sit. You stand in line, order your sandwich, which is promptly handed to you in a thin paper envelope, get a glass of wine, and stand around eating it. I opted for porchetta. I'm pretty sure there was nothing else on it. No lettuce, no tomato, no cheese, no olive oil. Just pork. Yeah! Where have you been all my life, sandwich?

We snagged a spot by the shelf so we could put our glasses down and concentrate on our panini.

We had some fantastic dinners in Florence, too, including one at Osteria del Cinghale Bianco. This had been recommended by a friend who lived in Florence a number of years ago, and it did not disappoint. We ordered ribollita, the famous Tuscan vegetable soup thickened with bread, paparadelle with wild boar ragout, bacalao (salted cod) with white beans, and roasted rabbit with crispy potatoes. 

We also found a terrific spot for lunch one day, Volpe e L'uva, which specialized in small sandwiches.

We ordered quite a few: tuna and Armagnac, porcini and truffles, smoked goose and butter, plus crostone with truffled sausage. Here's a picture of the tuna and Armagnac sandwich.

I lobbied for a salad, too, to keep up with appearances

And there was some wine.

One of our best dinners of the whole trip was our last night in Florence, at Trattoria Gigi. We decided to stay close to the hotel and are glad we did--though perfectly average looking on the outside, the food was a real standout.

Throughout our trip, in addition to truffles popping up in everything, porcinis were everywhere. And when we ordered them, it was no joke. They came out in huge quantities, as if the cooks were just standing around with gigantic buckets of them in the kitchen, hoping to unload them. At Gigi, we started off with a plate of fresh fried porcinis. They came out in a mound, lightly battered, with just the right amount of salt sprinkled over them. We devoured them in about five minutes, termite-style, only stopping when we came face to face with the shiny bottom of the plate. I think I burned my fingertips. Who cared?

The husband followed this with a mixed fried plate of seafood and vegetables (he's from Kentucky--he can get his fry on!) while I opted for rigatoni alla amatriciana. Everything came out on plain white plates--no garnishes, no explanation from the waiter about the food's provenance, no fanfare. None was needed. Everything was simple, and perfect.

I'd love to return to Florence, to see the statue of David again, to eat some more sandwiches at I Due Fratellini, and to get back to Gigi. And to see many of the things we weren't able to get to in four days. It's a charming city and one we could have explored much more. But, we were Tuscany-bound.

I want this car.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Hungry Dog goes to Italy: Rome

The Spanish Steps.
Part 1 of 3.

A few weeks ago, we returned from Italy, and since then I've been struggling to pull a post together. Returning to real life has been difficult. When something you've looked forward to for a long time is suddenly behind you, you have to readjust your mindset. Daily life can look pretty boring in the afterglow of a great trip.

While you wipe away your tears of sympathy, I'll fill you in on our travels. Of the three places we visited, Rome was our favorite.  I'd heard mixed things about the city--its detractors said it was crowded, hectic, loud, and dirty. Turns out those things don't bother me. In fact, I felt much more comfortable there than on the precious streets of Florence or in the idyllic hills of Chianti, where we were largely surrounded by wealthy tourists.

We stayed in Rome on both the front and back ends of our trip, in two different places. At the beginning, we stayed in Trastevere, a lively neighborhood packed with restaurants and shops. At the end, we stayed in a funny little hotel in the Trevi/Tridente area. Although the lodging was nothing special, the location was preferable, as it was within walking distance to lots of sites and accessible to the metro.

We did enjoy exploring Trastevere, though. Here's the view of the street below our apartment, which was located along the Tiber River. Vespas were everywhere and everyone was riding them! Women in skirts and high heels. Little kids with their schools bags clinging to their parents' backs. Men in suits.

Next door to our place was a little grocery store which kept us in espresso, wine, bread, meats, and cheeses. Here's the front window.

Our first major site-seeing was the Vatican museum, which we found impressive (did you know they have a  modern art collection, including works by Salvadore Dali?) but also upsetting. The museum is filled with art and antiquities worth hundreds of millions of dollars and everywhere is gold and marble. Meanwhile, out front, old women are literally begging for crumbs, change, anything. Am I the only one that thinks there's something wrong with this picture?

Social injustices aside, the Vatican does have at least one thing going for it even to an atheist like me: the Sistine Chapel. I wish I could show you some pictures, but you're not allowed to take any. You're also not supposed to speak inside the chapel, but of course people do, so mostly what you hear are peevish guards hush-shouting, "SSHHHH. QUIET PLEASE." It was not lost on me that they assume the rude talkers are English speakers, which seems to be unfortunately accurate.

Here's the front of the Vatican museum. Not too shabby.

Our next order of business was the Spanish Steps (pictured at the top of this post), which we loved, and the nearby Trevi Fountain. Though packed with tourists, the fountain was an undisputed favorite for both of us.

It's HUGE.

Here's a closeup.

Rome has fountains everywhere. It was one of the things I discovered I loved most about the city--how many there were, how beautiful I found them, and how well they have survived.   In Piazza Navona, there are three fountains, the most famous of which is the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini. Not a great picture, but this is a view from one side.

We also greatly enjoyed the Pantheon. Did you know that when it rains, the water that comes in through the 27-foot oculus drains quickly through tiny holes drilled into the slightly slanted floor? That's some crafty design work.

It was hard to get a shot of the front of the's just so enormous. That, combined with my well-established mediocre photography skills, resulted in this being my "best" shot. Sorry.

The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill were also among the highlights of Rome. No matter how many photographs I've seen of these sites, seeing them in person is overwhelming. Although much of the original architecture is gone, it's incredible to see how much remains, in spite of the effects of time, wars, pillaging, people, pollution, and natural disasters.

Here's the floor of the Colosseum, where they kept wild animals and gladiators.

 Constantine's Arch.

 Roman Forum.

And here's a small thing I liked: Throughout the city, there are water fountains from which you can drink clean spring water. Like much of what the ancient Romans built, they continue to endure. We came across this one on Palatine Hill and filled up our bottle.

Sightseeing makes you feel like you've accomplished something, but to me, one of the best things about traveling is just wandering. We walked and walked and walked, because we like to, and because taxis are not easy to come by, and because the metro is limited. Plus, when you're eating multiple plates of pasta each day, plus gelato, plus wine at lunch and dinner, plus balls of mozzarella the size of your fist, you'd better walk so you can fit into the airplane seat on the way home.

We walked down little alleys, where we saw restaurants on every corner, preparing for patrons.

And chestnut roasting stations.

Beautiful buildings at every turn.

We walked to Campo di Fiori, a big piazza lined with restaurants and shops and filled with merchants selling flowers, pastas, wine, and cheese.

We discovered the smaller Piazza Farnese, where we stopped for prosecco and snacks one day. Pretty much everywhere we went, we found that when you order a couple of drinks, they bring out a stream of complimentary snacks. At Cafe Farnese, where we stopped to rest our feet and people-watch one afternoon, we got potato chips (a surprising Italian staple)...

 Arancini (fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella)...

Mixed bruschetta...

And little sandwiches.

People have asked us what was the best thing we ate on our trip. Let me tell you: the food was good everywhere, at fancy places, holes in the wall, odd little sandwich shops. On this trip, I confirmed what I long suspected: Italians have the best food. French people, Chinese people, Spanish people--you put up a good fight but you can't compete with the Italians. As someone without a speck of Italian blood, I feel I can say this without bias.

One day, for lunch at a plain old restaurant we stumbled upon, I had radicchio involtini stuffed with ham and smoked mozzarella.

 Followed by spaghetti with tuna amatriciana.

While the husband started with tomato and mozzarella salad.

And then rice and mussels.

Then espresso.

We had a standout dinner at a Sicilian restaurant called Le Gensola--so delicious that at the end of our meal, we made a reservation for the following night. Over the two nights, we shared, among other things, swordfish involtini with eggplant caponata; ravioli with sea bass, grey mullet roe, and sage; tagliolini with porcini and shrimp; and tuna polpettini with tomatoes.  We also had an excellent meal at Il Gabriello,  where I had the best rigatoni carbonara, period. We also tried grappa for the first time, which the husband declared could power a lawn mower.

Throughout our trip, we embraced a common practice of something the Italians actually call Happy Hour. This usually entails paying a modest fee for one drink and lots of snacks. Our last night in Rome, we made our way off the beaten path to Gusto, a wine bar frequented by locals after work. For 12 euros, you could have one drink of any sort and unlimited access to their buffet. At home, I hear "unlimited buffet" and I head in the opposite direction, picturing warming trays, that weird sterno smell, and desiccated food I probably didn't want to begin with. At Gusto, I sipped my Aperol spritz and ate fried Castelvetrano olives stuffed with mozzarella, arancini, grilled eggplant and zucchini, farfalle with cherry tomatoes, artichoke frittata, and couscous with chicken. Happy Hour indeed!

We had some great pizza in Rome. Among the best was at a little shop near the Vatican that my brother-in-law recommended called Bonci's. You walk in, point to what and how much you want, which they then cut with scissors. You can get as many kinds as you like. They weigh the pizza, throw it all in the oven, and when your order is up, you stand outside and eat. While we were there, we saw businessmen, police officers, and any number of locals stop in for a quick lunch.

We also had some good pizza at Obika, a mozzarella bar. We had eaten there once before for dinner (prosciutto with burrata; arugula with bresaola, cherry tomatoes, arugula, and fennel; and pasta with smoked swordfish, buffalo ricotta, and hazelnuts) and it was good enough to fit the bill for a late lunch one day when we found ourselves in Campo di Fiori again.

Pizza with prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella.

On our very last day, we found a perch at the top of the Spanish Steps. There's a church up there.  It's very, very pretty.

But instead of going to the church, we went to a nearby bar, where we sat on a patio and looked down at the steps and all the people, just like us, enjoying this beautiful city on a warm October day.

 I drank my last Negroni for awhile.

I felt sad to leave, but I don't need to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to know I will return.

Rome at night.
Next, we went to Florence.