A sandwich by any other name

One thing Naples is seriously lacking in is street food. That’s not to say there aren’t places where you can get a quick bite to eat but there are no food carts or, perhaps a strictly North American idea, food trucks. Fast food exists in a totally different dimension here. Sure you can go to a McDonald’s but don’t expect it to be like one of the five McDonald’s within a mile of your house in Smalltown, USA. (They just opened a fancy new McDonald’s outside of town that features a drive-thru, or McDrive, if you will. The excitement is overwhelming. The Neapolitans are probably beside themselves with joy. And I’m pretty sure it’s the only one in the entire area, perhaps the entire country, who knows.) To the discerning palate only the french fries taste the same. And the chicken nuggets. Maybe the cheeseburger. But, and this is what gets me, you need to specifically ask for ketchup. Who do they think they are? Chick-fil-A? Get over yourself already. (Related: can you open a Chick-fil-A franchise in Italy? Need to investigate…looks like that would be a negatory. Bumm. Er.)

Anyway, one of my favorite fast food places to grab something at is Ciao Pizza. They offer standard fare in the way of pizza and panini. (Aside: For those who don’t speak Italian panini is actually the plural of panino and now that you know you can go to restaurants and shake your head at the stupidity of people when they call every grilled sandwich (singular) a panini (plural). Also not every panino need be heated and even if it is not is still a panino because panino means sandwich. And just an FYI: the plural of pizza is pizze. [peetzay]) Just as I do in the states I tend to get hooked on a certain flavor combination once it has proven to be both delicious and safe to eat (see: cheeses I have loved). In this case my go to panino is one with prosciutto crudo and rucola (arugula) on a chewy roll. There are others that have ham, turkey, and even some veggie options. Most of those are served on ciabatta. One thing about Italian panini is that you’ll be hard pressed to find any condiments on them because the idea is the ingredients provide all the flavor you’ll need. Does that mean the panino will be dry? That is a distinct possibility. Will the bread be fresh, chewy, and delicious? Most definitely. Will a drink be required? Certainly. Order a Coke because it’s made with real sugar (just like when you were a kid!) or Fanta because it has real orange juice in it (you can see the pulp floating around!). If you want to be like Greg you’ll order a disgusting bottle of “fizzy water,” which is basically seltzer water, and as everyone knows seltzer water was invented by the devil.

Ciao Pizza also offers a variety of pizza options as well, some of them have pretty interesting combinations. One I’ve always been tempted to try, but just can’t bring myself to eat, is covered with french fries and hot dog slices. I just don’t get it. I’d much prefer the hot dog in a bun with a side of fries. The idea of slapping it on my perfectly good slice of cheese pizza is just nutballs. The kicker with this pizza in particular is that the people I’ve seen order it ask for packets of mayo so they can put the mayo ON the pizza. What? Brain cannot understand.

A couple years ago Greg and I went to check out the town of Tivoli and Villa d’Este. It was a pretty cool place and the Villa has an amazing garden with a huge man made waterfall, fountains, and a water organ. It’s definitely worth the trip. On our way out we stopped at a little cafe and bought some sandwiches. Always one to try something new Greg bought one with tuna and artichoke on white bread. At the time I was skeptical but after tasting it (and I believe eating the whole thing) I was hooked. It’s a super simple sandwich (yay aliteration!) and I make it all the time. You just mix canned tuna with mayo and add some chopped artichoke hearts. It sounds bizarre but it’s delicious. I found it again at a cafe in Rome when my friend Angela came to visit. Being a Roman style sandwich means I can’t find it down here but I’m fine with my prosciutto and arugula.

There are lots of other options at other fast food locations but those are for a different post that I’ll write at some point in the future. Probably. Okay, probably not. Maybe. We’ll see.

Sweet Cuppin’ Cakes

Every time I make cupcakes I think of Sweet Cuppin’ Cakes from Homestar Runner. I used to watch those StrongBad emails ALL. THE. TIME. They were so stupidly funny. Kids’ Book will always be my most favorite of favorites. Anyway, semi-completely-unrelated to this I made cupcakes yesterday. For reasons I have yet to figure out US boxed cake mixes are not sold in Italy. Personally I think this is a huge mistake as the Italians go nuts for the box mixes at the US commissary. The only box mixes you can find over here create dense, dry cakes that are not unlike the cakes you would find in a pastry shop or at a restaurant. I personally am not a fan of dense cakes unless it is a lemon poppyseed pound cake and in that case I will eat the whole thing myself. Many of the recipes you find online end up producing denser cakes that either end up dry or have a ton of ingredients all in an attempt to keep the cake moist. A year or so ago I decided to try the chocolate cake recipe on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa container and have never looked back. It is so light and fluffy and not at all dry. It has a nice chocolate taste but doesn’t feel like you’re eating something so rich that you couldn’t have two or three of them.

Traditionally, as in all four times I’ve made these cupcakes, I’ve made a buttercream frosting that is either vanilla flavor or the vastly more popular and delicious Bailey’s Irish Cream flavor. Not having a hand mixer here and making the hard but necessary decision to leave our fancy new stand mixer back in Maryland meant I was not able to make the buttercream for these cupcakes. I just don’t have the arm strength. It was a disappointment since my only other choice was to go with store bought frosting. Let me just tell you up front that aside from the Bailey’s frosting, which is way too easy to eat in large quantities, I am not a fan of frosting. I’ll take a glaze or a light coating of icing but those cakes with gobs of flowers and 2″ of frosting as well as a thick layer inside make me want to barf. The smooshy texture and super sweetness just make me sick so I’m very particular about the sugary coating of my desserts. I went with a vanilla Duncan Hines creamy something-or-other frosting knowing that I could just add some real vanilla extract to it to make it taste less, um, crappy. (My apologies to those who like store bought frosting. May I suggest making your own some time so you realize how horribly wrong you are to like it? Have you looked at the ingredients? You should.) I also bought some little sprinkles because I like cute things. What? You eat with your eyes first so why shouldn’t my food be cute?

Anyway, I made the cupcakes per the recipe and mixed up the frosting. The vanilla extract made the frosting a lot more liquid-y than it would normally be but it tasted infinitely better, the only real problem being the grainy texture inherent to things that are mostly artificial. Buttercream frosting has an amazing way of melting in your mouth simply because it is literally four ingredients – butter, confectioners sugar, milk, and vanilla. I don’t even want to think about what could be causing the grainy mouthfeel of the store bought stuff. Ugh. That being said I put the frosting in a ziplock bag, snipped the corner, and piped out a thin swirly cap of frosting onto each cupcake. With the finishing touch of the sprinkles the cupcakes were done. Twelve of them were sent to work with Greg because we are NOT going to eat two dozen cupcakes by ourselves. Just, no. We had a couple last night and they really weren’t that bad. Below is the recipe for my more traditional version of these cupcakes (it’s the same as on the container but I’ll post it anyway):

Cupcake Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup Hershey’s Cocoa

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin pan with bake cups. Mix the dry ingredients together and then add the liquids making sure to add the boiling water last. The batter will be quite runny. Depending on how big you want your cupcakes to be fill the cups 1/2 – 2/3 full. Bake for 22 – 25 minutes depending on your oven. (I checked after 20 because our oven runs hot.) Allow to cool slightly in the pan before removing to a cooling rack. Makes 24 – 30 cupcakes. Frost.

Bailey’s Buttercream Frosting ingredients:

1 stick of room temperature butter

3 – 4 cups of confectioners (powdered) sugar

3 – 4 tbs of Bailey’s Irish Cream

1 tbs milk

Place the butter in a large bowl and mix until creamy. Slowly add the confectioners sugar 1/2 cup at a time (it will fly out of the bowl so prepare to get covered) until you get the desired consistency. Once the sugar has been incorporated add the Bailey’s and the milk. Now here’s where taste comes into play – if you like a strong taste of Bailey’s you may need to add more than the 3 – 4 tablespoons. I’ve been known to add 6 – 7 because I want it to be obvious. This is totally up to you. In the event the frosting ends up softer than you’d like just add a little more sugar to stiffen it up.

To frost the cupcakes you can either just use a pastry knife and slather it on or use a ziplock bag that has the corner snipped off. The larger the hole the wider the strip of frosting will be so keep that in mind.

I’m always on the look out for other cupcake recipes so if you have any good ones that you’ve tried be sure to pass them on!

Me and cheese go way back

Hey you! Do you like cheese? I don’t mean those neon orange pre-wrapped slices of cheese product, although at one time I thought they were the bees knees, no, I mean curdled animal milk. Do you like curdled animal milk? Maybe I should start over. Excuse me, are you a fan of cheese? When you think of snacking does the image of a nice block of sharp cheddar come into view? Or maybe a lovely salad with gorgonzola, walnuts, and pears? How about a french baguette and some brie? Those are all delicious options but may I offer you something even better? Something so deliciously creamy it almost melts in your mouth? A cheese that has a sweetness that cannot be replicated by other lesser cheeses? That little white ball of amazing that doesn’t need to be consumed with anything else but still plays well with a super thin slice prosciutto or a freshly picked tomato? What kind of wonderous cheese is this? Why mozzarella di bufala, of course. What? You’ve never heard of such a thing? Or maybe you’ve heard of it but never tried it? Oh, so you’ve tried some form of it in the Italian restaurant down the street and don’t see what the big deal is? I’ll tell you what the big deal is, you need to get yourself on a plane and come to Naples to try some mozzarella di bufala, for reals.

See, here’s the thing, me and milk products we don’t get along so well. We had a nice thing going for years and then one day…let’s just say we’re no longer friends. The thing is that for whatever reason I can eat buffalo mozzarella with no problem. Since I haven’t eaten cheese in a couple years I’ve kinda been going crazy with the mozzarella. The best way to eat it is straight up but the other night we had it with prosciutto and tomatoes, it was pretty delicious, I highly recommend it.

Tonight we had one of my favorite things to get at the local restaurants here (they all have pretty much the same basic menu) and that’s gnocchi alla Sorrentina. It’s fluffy little potato dumplings in a cheesy tomato sauce. It’s super easy to make and takes only about 10-15 minutes because I use store bought ingredients. You certainly could make everything from scratch but as I’ve repeatedly stated I’m pretty lazy and need to be highly motivated to make anything that takes more than 30 minutes. The recipe follows:

Ingredients:

1 package of gnocchi

1 1/2 – 2 cups of tomato sauce

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil (or a couple leaves of fresh basil, torn)

12 ounces of cubed mozzarella (buffalo mozzarella is preferred but any will work)

1/4 cup of shredded parmigiano reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

sugar or honey to sweeten the tomato sauce is optional

The gnocchi only take a few minutes to cook so it’s better to do the sauce first but make sure to put the water on to boil. Put all of the ingredients except the gnocchi and cheese in a pot and bring it to a simmer. At this point you’ll need to check the seasoning for the sauce – if it’s on the bitter side adding a little sugar or honey will help get rid of that. Once the water boils make sure to salt it before putting in the gnocchi. After cooking for the allotted time (usually 2-3 minutes, they’ll float when done) drain the gnocchi and return to the pot. Add the tomato sauce and the cheese to the gnocchi and stir to combine. Recipe makes enough for 2-3 people.

Traditionally this would be put in a dish and placed in the oven for several minutes to melt the cheese further and create a sort of crust but, again, lazy me isn’t going to take that step. We had it with some chewy Italian bread and some red wine. If you can’t make it over here to try it then at least give it a try at home.

Buon appetito!

Fantasia Gelati

On my way home this afternoon I stopped at Fantasia Gelati for a little dolce indulgence. One summer when I was here they had an amazing peach gelato that tasted as if I was eating a fresh from the tree peach, it was incredible. Since then I’ve kept my eyes peeled for the reappearance of this tasty treat but I have yet to see it. The beauty of the summertime is, as with the produce markets, that there are gelato flavors that don’t show up any other time of year. While looking for the peach my eyes rested on a container with a bright pink gelato inside it. The great thing about the gelateria is that they put the actual flavor on top of the gelato meaning that if you’re going to pick a lemon flavor you’ll see an actual lemon sitting on top indicating that that flavor is, in fact, lemon. Get it? No? Too bad, I’m moving on anyway.

Sitting on top of this neon pink gelato was a slice of watermelon. Immediately my excitement rose because, as my mom can tell you, I love anything watermelon flavored. If it’s an option I will take it. Given how the minds behind Fantasia Gelati are always coming up with new and interesting flavor combinations I wasn’t at all surprised that they would create a watermelon gelato. I also had no doubt that it would be delicious as I have yet to try one of their gelati that was not amazing. Considering my last battle with a gelato cone didn’t go so well (it melted faster than I could eat it) I decided a cup would be a much safer option. And not wanting to go crazy I ordered a small. In Italy, most gelateria will allow you to choose pretty much as many flavors as you want (within reason) and cram them all into the cone or cup. While this sounds like an excellent way to try a bunch of different flavors at once I can only imagine the gag inducing combinations one could come up with. I like to keep it simple so I asked for just the watermelon; why cover up the flavor with something else? (Aside: When you get a gelato, whether in a cone or a cup, they like to give you this extra mini cone with it. I have yet to figure out exactly why. It’s not like you can create a second cone with it, I mean, you’re not going to walk around double-fisting gelato or anything. You can certainly scoop some up with it but it’s a three bite cone at most, I just don’t see why they include it. There must be something I’m missing. If you know the answer please let me know in the comments.) So! The point! I’m getting there, keep your pants on! Anyway, the guy scooped my gelato, put in on the counter, and after battling my way through the crowd it was in my hand. I walked outside, sat on a bench, and took a picture. What? Did you think I would taste it first? You don’t know me at all. Right after I took the picture I tasted it and I couldn’t get over the flavor, it was the most delicious gelato I had ever tasted. It pretty much blew the peach gelato out of the water. My immediate reaction was a mixture of bliss and regret. The flavor was so fresh and authentic, my brain almost couldn’t process it, I wanted to eat it all right then which is what led to the regret – I should have gotten a bigger cup.

I have no idea how long the flavor will be available but I do plan on trying to get more before it’s gone. I wish you could capture taste in a photograph because then you all could enjoy it with me.

Vomero Market

Today I wandered over to the market in Vomero to check out what kind of stuff the vendors were selling. It’s only open in the morning and since I like to sleep in I don’t usually get up the hill in time. There were all sorts of things for sale, clothes, shoes, jewelry, produce, meat, household goods, pretty much anything you can think of. It’s also packed with people, vendors calling out their specials, women trying on shoes, kids running around, it feels almost chaotic and yet not.

I walked through the stalls piled high with clothing, boxes and boxes of leather sandals, bins of buttons and beads, and racks of dresses. I took a diagonal path through the produce stands and checked out table after table covered in colorful fruits and vegetables. I don’t know where it all comes from but it looked as if it had just come off the vine. Our kitchen is ridiculously small, and with there only being two of us we can’t really keep a lot of food around, especially stuff that spoils quickly. Of course that didn’t stop me from wanting to buy everything.

Because there is so much in season there are almost too many options, so I stopped at one stand where a woman told me about some white peaches from Sicily that were very sweet. They’re small and flat so I bought a kilo. I also bought half a kilo of roma tomatoes that looked delicious. We chatted a little bit; she asked how old I was, did I study or work, stuff like that. She asked me to pick a tomato up off the ground for her because she couldn’t bend over and then explained that she had just had surgery and couldn’t bend at the waist for about two months. She runs the stall with her son and their produce was some of the best looking in the whole market. The prices were very reasonable as well. She said she hoped to see me again which is extremely likely considering I tried a peach as soon as I got home and they are incredible. It’s seriously like eating candy. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such a sweet peach before.

If you’re ever in Vomero early in the morning make sure you stop and see the market, you won’t be disappointed.

I like food, do you like food?

It has been suggested that I write about the food I eat over here. As many of you know I’m not above taking “artsy” photos of my food, much to the chagrin of Greg, so I guess I could start writing about the food in those photos. The hardest part about living over here, if you’re not lucky enough to have access to the military base, is finding all of the ingredients to make certain things. (I just saw peanut butter for the first time the other day.) A lot of asian and South American food options are out of the question simply because you won’t find most of the stuff you need to make them. It’s not that you couldn’t make something more exotic, you’ll just have to work a little harder at it, and as previously stated I’m pretty lazy. Italy goes by the rule of only selling what is in season in their markets. Unlike the US where you can find most produce year round (usually of lower quality when it’s technically out of season) you’ll be hard pressed to find stuff like that here. When things become available people jump on them as was evident at the command picnic on Saturday when our tub of cherries was gone in mere seconds. The upside of this is that everything is amazingly fresh and incredibly delicious. While looking over the produce last week I bought a cucumber and some of the reddest cherry tomatoes I’ve ever seen in a grocery store with no real mind of how I was going to use them. On a second trip to the store we bought some arugula and on that super hot evening, when it was too hot to cook, I made a modified greek salad. It was plenty of food for the two of us, although we did supplement with some mozzarella di bufala because, why the hell not. I like to make balsamic vinaigrettes because they’re sweet and tangy so unlike a true greek salad this one had a dressing (and a leafy green). So here’s my first attempt and writing a recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cucumber – peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes – quartered
  • arugula
  • 1/2 block feta cheese – crumbled
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp honey (optional)

Process the cucumber, tomatoes, and arugula and place in a bowl. Crumble the feta on top. In a separate bowl, or dressing shaker bottle, mix together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and honey. The honey will help to emulsify the dressing and sweeten it just a bit but is completely optional. Finally add salt and pepper to taste. You can of course add more or less of the oil and vinegar depending on how tangy you want it to be. Pour the dressing over the salad just as you are about to serve it. Enjoy!

It’s a pretty straightforward salad and it would be easy enough to add or substitute other things such as blue cheese for the feta, spinach for the arugula, and maybe include walnuts, pecans, red onions, peppers, or olives, whatever floats your boat. You could also sprinkle on some oregano for a more authentic greek salad taste. If you try it let me know what you thought of it.