Milan on My Mind

There is a rather glorious documentary on CNN right now featuring actor Stanley Tucci as he eats and celebrates his way through Italy discovering the food, history and people who made all those regional cuisines possible. I am obsessed with this show so much so that I actually bought a 624 bemouth of a cookbook featuring all the regions and cuisines of Italy. I vowed I was going to cook my way through the entire book, recipe by recipe, once I retired and while I still plan to do that, I will have to tread carefully because my 90 pound pit bull puppy actually gnawed on 227 pages of the book when I was distracted by a video chat with my daughter and my frankly adorable brand new grandchild. To be fair, Annabelle did not eat any of the photos or recipes but I am still pretty steamed about it.

Tucci and his show are a serious draw to me because he’s also a unicorn like I am. His family spent a year in Italy while his father, an art history teacher, studied art and sculpture. Who does that? Kids who are lucky the way Tucci and I were that’s who. My family spent a number of years in Hong Kong when I was a child due to my dad’s burgeoning career. Those formative years make Tucci and I soul mates of a cultural sort. I always am drawn back to Hong Kong the way Tucci returns again and again to Italy. I wish I could say my Cantonese rivaled his mastery of Italian. For the record, it doesn’t. Though I’d stack my ability to navigate Hong Kong against his ease on the streets of Rome and Milan any day of the week.

Cookbook now safely stowed out of puppy teeth and paws’ reach, I got to thinking about my own adventures in Italy. I took my daughter to Greece (Crete, Athens and Delphi) and Rome, Italy for her 10th birthday. I had already been to Florence, Rome and Venice a few years earlier and I thought learning about Greek and Roman architecture and the food and those classic cultures would be a great way to celebrate her first decade on this earth. Luckily, she didn’t know any better and had a wonderful time. To this day, my daughter can tell, at a glance, the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns found in classic Greek architecture which is an indirect way of saying that that trip influenced her in many ways. Years later, I visited Milan on business and to my delight and surprise, my father and I recently swapped stories of our business trips to Milan. Mine was full of food discoveries and my eternal regret of never buying a dress from the Armani flagship store and oh, the architecture of the Duomo di Milano which made me weep with it’s stark and imposing beauty. My dad talked of meeting Olivetti and how the locals in Milan said they never heard of pizza and of the enterprising prostitutes who would sit on the veranda of the hotel having breakfast where he stayed, hoping to catch the attention of businessmen before they left for the day. Dad made a point of telling me he always declined their invitations. It never occurred to me to ask.

While in Milan, my food discoveries started at lunch everyday. We had flown from an unseasonably snowy, frigid Paris to Milan where the temperature was warmer, about zero actually, so it was still pretty cold. However, after starting the trip in 40-deg below zero Germany, Milan seemed like paradise to our frozen souls. And even with a light dusting of snow on the ground, so it was.

Have you ever had a dish that, all by itself, was so perfect, so delicious in its simplicity and flavor that it haunts you to this day? I have and a raw artichoke salad (along with one other dish I had in Olives Restaurant in the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas), haunts me to this day.

I was at CostCo with my daughter recently and we were doing what is known in the bigger family vernacular as a, “Big CostCo run”. That means I picked up some meats for my partner, a couple of things I like and she loaded up two full carts for her growing brood. It was wonderful to get to shop together, talk and joke. I found the giant bag of artichokes and that got me talking about our own trip to Roma and this tomato and bread soup that I’d found later in Milan on a business trip. We split the giant packages of mozzarella, discussed our mutual love of Irish butter and white cheddar, debated the merits of one chuck roast over another as we recalled how much fun we’d had in Rome and laughed over how my then-ten year daughter had confidently reassured me one night at dinner that everyone was OK, the restaurant was actually serving American food. Please note that the bistro had Fettuccini Alfredo listed on the menu which my daughter thought was American food since I made it so often for her. I am pretty sure what she had in Rome beat my version by a kilometer. Anyway, I told her I was going to try and recreate the soup and the salad I’d had in Milan. Always, a fan of my culinary exploits, she maintains full confidence in my quest.

The next day, I stood in front of my own stove and repeated a mantra that I will pass on here. Do not get fancy. Keep it simple, Keep it REALLY simple. Technique is everything. Everything. Focus on the ingredients. But first, back to Milan.

Despite the unusual spring cold snap, it was artichoke season and our host, also our local Italian rep and his father, the owner of the rep firm, took us to the same lovely restaurant every day for lunch. The dad didn’t speak much English, and, upon hearing my very Italian last name and that I could manage a few words in Italian, spoke to me as if I were fluent. Unlike the actor Stanley Tucci, I was not remotely fluent in Italian. Though his father speaking to me in rapid, nonstop Italian actually helped me listen really well and helped me with my Italian. Every day he would urge to me, “Prova l’insalata di carciofi, per favore.” Basically, try the artichoke salad please. And I did. Every day I would order this deceptively simple salad of raw artichoke heart sliced paper thin with olive oil, salt, pepper and a splash of lemon juice. It was heaven on a place, Perfection that I continue to try and replicate to this day.

So, putting aside the salad of my dreams for a moment, for the soup, I sautéed up some finely diced onions and some leftover cherry tomatoes until soft and wilted. I then added in a large lump of diced garlic and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper. I let it simmer a bit before adding in three roasted roma tomatoes, hot from the oven. Drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper on roma tomatoes cut lengthwise and roasted for 25 minutes in a 400 F-eg oven to get the right texture and flavor. I stirred thoughtfully before adding in a generous tablespoon of dried basil as I did not have any fresh. I threw in a dash of ground red pepper and some herbs de province. Stir, stir. I then added in a can of roasted tomatoes plus the juices and stirred again. Finally, I tore up a chunk of bread I’d been keeping in the freezer. The chunk came from a large leftover boule of sourdough bread that I baked from scratch but leftovers I’d not found a use for. I tore off about a cup and a half of small chunks and stirred again until they all softened and slowly dissolved. I turned off the heat and let the mixture cool a bit. Finally, I poured it all into a blender and added about 1/2 cup of low sodium chicken stock. You may need more or less depending on the amount of bread you added. Then I let it blitz until smooth.

The result was intensely flavored tomato heaven, the taste transporting me instantly back to Milan and the delicious and superbly prepared food. Italians are famous for using up everything, including old, stale bread, and my tomato bread soup screams frugal like nothing else.

As for the salad, I am still working on it. I need to slice the artichokes much thinner and add little chunks of pecorino cheese I think. The lemon and salt and olive oil is dead on but the texture needs help. I am breaking out the mandolin next time I attempt this deceptively simple but technically challenging dish.

As I made my soup, I pondered, why don’t people make soup homemade more often? Historically, soup has been around since at least 20,000 BC, In Xianrendong Cave, located in the Jiangxi Province, China, the first example of a soup bowl was discovered and now thought to date back back that far. For perspective and those of you unfamiliar with Chinese geography, the Jiangxi Province is roughly 500 plus miles going in a southerly direction from Shanghai. Interestingly, the ancient pottery in that cave showed scorch marks, suggesting the user had been cooking up a hot soup of some sort. Fast forward and, according to the Campbell’s soup website still way back in 1897, Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist working at the Campbell Soup Company, invented its famous condensed soup. Condensing soup allowed it to be packaged into smaller cans and sold at a lower price. To this day, condensed soup is usually doubled in volume by adding a “can full” of water or milk. This helped out busy housewives and cooks tremendously, myself included but homemade soup is still the one I prefer. Whether simmered all day or whipped up quickly right before a meal, homemade soup says love like little else can from the kitchen. When one of my grandkids or my daughter gets a cold I still bring simple chicken soup made from homemade chicken stock. It screams Nana loves you best like nothing else. For my daughter, I will add lemon and fresh ginger root but for the kids, simple chicken stock simmered with chunks of leftover chicken and chunky vegetables cut down to kid size beats sniffles and cold symptoms any day of the week. Like my tomato bread soup inspired by my trip to Milan, it speaks to love and care and respect for simple, pure ingredients.

So make some soup. Not only it is the quintessentially frugal thing to do but it is nourishment for the soul.

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