Follies of a Frazzled Chef: When Life Gives You Lemons…

…Make spaghetti al limone!

That’s spaghetti with lemon sauce, for those of you who didn’t quite make the leap there.

Yes, the Frazzled Chef was at it again, this time in a spiffy new grembiule (apron) that her dear friend gave her for her compleanno (birthday). And what’s a chef without an apron?!? Well, one very messy disaster, if you’re me.

But, I digress. Back to the pasta!

Lemon pasta can be made various ways. The first time I tasted it, it was penne al limone and it had been prepared by my Italian professor. This prof of ours wasn’t the stuffy, boring kind of prof you sometimes have the displeasure of trying to learn from. Oh no, this prof knew his way around the kitchen just as well as he did the classroom. He spoiled his students at the end of each term with a dinner at his place. The cena was always buonissima and the serata was always a pleasure to attend. (Grazie, D!) Twice he made penne al limone for us, and I loved it.

I’ve never had the pleasure of eating any sort of pasta al limone anywhere else, but my luck was changing. While leafing through one of his cookbooks,  I stumbled across Canadian chef and TV host, David Rocco’s recipe for spaghetti al limone. Naturally I just had to try it.

So out came the mixing bowls and on went the snazzy new apron. Spaghetti al limone seemed to be a pretty simple affair which required only fresh squeezed lemon juice, lemon zest, grated cheese, a few herbs and of course, the spaghetti. Semplice, or so I thought.

To set the mood and to help me to channel my concentration, I made sure I had an Italian playlist all queued up and ready to go on my iPod. A touch of the button and Andrea Bocelli’s voice was filling my kitchen, creating just the right atmosphere of Italianness that I needed to get going. While he sung on about how he missed someone  in Mi manchi (a beautiful song) I started hacking lemons in half and squeezing juice out of them until I could squeeze no more. After my cuticles were stinging sufficiently from all the acidity, I figured that I had enough juice, and went on to find some lemon zest.

Mom found me with my head and shoulders in the pantry. I was practically climbing around in there, looking for this elusive “lemon zest”.

“Ma, do we have any lemon zest in here? We’ve got everything else: oregano, thyme, basil, mustard powder, chili flakes…” I backed out carefully to look at my mom for an answer.

She had her hand in front of her mouth and it looked suspiciously like she was trying not to burst out laughing.

“Sarah.” She looked at me over the top of her glasses. “Lemon zest? Do you know where lemon zest comes from?”

“Lemons, Ma. Jeez, anyone knows that.”

“Yes, but do you know which part of the lemon it comes from?” She was talking slowly now, as if someone in the conversation didn’t quite understand something.

“No idea. Don’t care. Do we have any though?” I went back to rooting through the cupboard.

“Sarah, you get it from the peel! The PEEL!” she stressed.

“Excellent, Mom!” I turned back to face her. “But I need to know if we have any, not where it comes from!” Now it was my turn to speak slowly, like someone wasn’t quite catching my drift.

“Sarah! Youhavetogratethepeelyourself!” she yelled, exasperated.

“Gratethepeel…?” Just then, a little lemon-shaped lightbulb went on in my head. “Wait, I’m going to put lemon peel in my pasta?”

Mouth closed, mom gave an exaggerated nod. My left eyebrow arched up in question. Mom nodded again. Oh, the wonders of non-verbal communication!

“Fine.” I went to the counter and seized a lemon. “Thank you.” Mom set the grater on the counter for me and walked away. She was probably going to tell the world (i.e. Dad, my grandparents) about our hilarious little exchange. Humph!

I went back to my work with 100% seriousness. So while the musical stylings of Tiziano Ferro (La differenza tra me e te) swelled through the kitchen, I grated like I’d never grated before. I’d have the zestiest lemon pasta on the planet! After I figured I had enough zest amassed in the little pile on the counter, I dumped it into the lemon juice. It gave a satisfying splash. Then I thought of my next steps: fill a pot with water, don’t spill it as you set it on the burner, turn on the burner and let it boil. Check!

Next I had to finish that sauce. My iPod played on. At this point, I was adding the remaining ingredients and simultaneously doing a heartfelt duet with Fausto Leali to Ti lascerò. (Did you folks know I was multi talented?) I was belting out Ana Oxa’s part with all my heart as I added the grated cheese and herbs to my lemon juice and zest. I stirred in big, slow, sweeping motions in time with the music.

“…Lo faccio perchè in te ho amato l’uomo e il suo corraggio…” I started to sway a bit to the music. I sashayed over to the stove and lowered the spaghetti into the now-boiling water.

“…E quella forza di cambiare, per poi ricominciare!” I went back to my mixing, but with more gusto this time; The tension in the song was mounting.

I sat out a few verses so I could muster up all the sultry throatiness my voice could produce. This was it! Almost the end!

“Ti lascerooò!” Sway, sashay, flick of the wrist!  (See, I was singing, performing and cooking!)

Big ending now! Forza!

“Ti laaasceroooooò!!!'”  Sway, sashay, flick of the— Clang!

My metal mixing bowl clamoured to the floor. Obviously, the sauce went with it.

I’ll bet Fausto Leali and Ana Oxa never had to clean limone sauce off the stage after one of their performances. Humph!

For the record, I quickly re-made the sauce while the spaghetti boiled and it turned out quite well:

Spaghetti al limone

I’d call this a Frazzled Chef success!

Thoughts on Food

Food sustains life. If you don’t eat, you die. It’s pretty simple. And no, I didn’t have to go all the way to Italy to figure that out!  But food and food culture in Italy succeed in being both less complicated and more sophisticated than in North America. Please, allow me to explain.

Thoughts on Eating

Many North Americans view food as the enemy. What? Think about popular North American refrains: I don’t have time to make dinner every night! I can’t try this, what if I’m allergic?! I need to eat less, I’m getting fat! I’ll just zap something! I’ll just grab something quick on my way to _____!  I’ll have this [insert junk food here] to tide me over! Please nod your head if you’ve ever heard any of those. Yes, you’re all nodding.

We’re told to cut calories, curb cravings and cut out carbs. We live in a fad diet culture. Think the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, no-carb diets, high-carb diets, the Peanut Butter Diet. Slimfast – a diet that doesn’t require food, just drinks! Jenny Craig – a diet that requires mostly prepackaged food! Our thinking has become Man (or Woman) vs. food. It’s terrible.

Unfortunately for we North Americans, food is not often enjoyed and celebrated. Busy, stressful lives often don’t allow for the preparation of fresh, wholesome food, but breed the habit of relying on fast food, frozen food, and preservative-laden, pre-packaged imitations of food.

Many Italians, however, view food as an old friend, a lover even. To them, everything is acceptable in moderation- except for maybe peanut butter, but I’m working on that. You eat too much pasta one day, non ti preoccupare, you eat more fruit the next. You had dessert at Sunday lunch, so Monday you can go without. You want to lose a little weight, so you eat more salad and take a longer evening passeggiata. See how simple it is?

This isn’t to say that Italians aren’t worried about what they eat and how it causes their body to look. I’ve met many an Italian who is conscious of what they eat, but not to the point of depriving themselves or throwing them self into an extreme fad diet. One big difference I noticed while living, working and socializing amongst Italians is that they don’t snack. North Americans are told that grazing (snacking throughout the day, constantly munching something) can even be good for your health and aid in your weight loss attempts. In Italia though? No way! Non ci credo proprio. 

It was while I was at work that I really got a good look at the eating habits of Italians. Working in a busy tour operator in Tuscany in high season did not leave room for lunch breaks, so I chose to snack between phone calls on my 6.5 hour shift. I’d eat mostly fruit, the odd square slice of pizza or sometimes some yogurt, just to mix it up. So it’s not like I was mowing down on chocolate cake, bags of chips, burgers, fries and supersize-me amounts of Coca Cola.

However, one day as I pulled out a snack my coworker exclaimed, “ma, tu sei mangiona!” Now, I was not familiar with the word mangiona at that time, but I pieced it together pretty quick. Mangiare = to eat. The ending –ona = something big of the female gender. In  my coworker’s eyes, I was a big eater. A mangiona.

Another time I went to pull out a snack my boss exclaimed to the whole office (in his usual, really tactful way), “Sarah, come te mangi… è una cosa strepitosa, davvero..” Sarah, the way you eat is astonishing, really. 

Really? Was I a big eater? Was the amount and the frequency that I ate astonishing? Hmm. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I wasn’t fat, so I had to be doing something right. But then I thought about it some more. In North Americans’ eyes, aren’t Italians always the ones eating  five-course meals and drinking litres of wine at one sitting? Maybe. Forse. Puo darsi. But they sure as heck weren’t snacking before they did it, and since they saw me snacking they must have figured I ate all my snacks in addition to some really big meals. Which wasn’t true. (Most of the time).

Thoughts on Food

To an Italian, food is sacred. Dishes placed upon a table don’t just present food, but also tradition, culture and identity. How strongly Italians feel about food is often surprising to the average North American. We just don’t seem to have all sorts of rules about how certain dishes are supposed to be prepared, what you can eat when, and in which order things need to be presented and consumed. For most of us, we don’t see food as a link to our past, our country and our culture. But Italians, they sure do.

Understand this: Italians feel stronger ties to their region than to their country as a whole, due to the fact that for hundreds of years the Italian peninsula wasn’t Italy at all, but a cluster of regions, kingdoms, dukedoms, etc.  Someone from the heel of the boot is Pugliese first, then Italian even still today. The same goes for all of Italy’s regions. Heck, Sicilians barely even consider themselves Italian! And many Italian dishes are regional specialties. Try getting a plate of Tuscan pici in Calabria. Go ahead. I can tell you that you probably won’t be very successful. Or maybe some eggplant parmigiana in Tuscany? Nope, gotta go down south for that one. Food is synonymous with identity for Italians.

I’ve met different people who feel that Italians’ strong opinions on food and eating rules are silly and provincial. I mean who cares if you want to eat your salad before your meal instead of afterwards? What does it matter if you want to put butter on your bread instead of dipping it in olive oil? In the eyes of many North Americans, the Italian waiter who refuses to make substitutions to our spaghetti carbonara is seen as rude, not the protector of a longstanding tradition. The barista who tells you that you’re sure as heck not ordering a cappuccio after 10:30 am, but just a caffelatte, is considered anal-retentive. You don’t consider him a helpful teacher in your quest to abide by Italian cultural norms. If that is your quest at all.

At first, I too was a little put-off by these things. I remember asking a waiter in Rome to make some changes to the veal dish I ordered.

“No, signorina, I’m sorry, I cannot do that. Just trust me. Fidati. You will like what I bring to you,” was his response.

I had never had a waiter say anything to me except “of course we can make that substitution”, so I thought it was weird. But, when in Rome… trust the Roman waiters. (Isn’t that the old saying?) And I ended up eating some of the most delicious veal I’ve ever consumed in my life. Over time, I have come to accept and even embrace Italian opinions surrounding food. I’ll be the first person to tell you that cream doesn’t belong in Carbonara sauce and that butter on your bread is not an option – when I’m in Italy.