Updated: Jan 21, 2021
October was not my month.
After a week of eating everything in sight in Sicily, I returned to school at the beginning of the month to take my fourth and fifth classes, Tradition of Italian Food II and Pastry Techniques II, a course load I was initially excited about but ultimately not mentally prepared for.
My days started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. We had papers and projects to work on outside of class. I had my personal freelance work to do on top of that. It was too much. I wasn't enjoying myself in the kitchen, and I didn't feel like myself outside of it.
I made mistakes in class. I got the easy task of pre-cooking spaghetti and rendered it crunchy and broken — twice. I burned a béchamel sauce. I even oversalted a salad for staff meal to the point of inedibility — good grief!
None of these things made the world explode, but they happened in the midst of my worst mistake of all: comparing myself to classmates who had been working in restaurants for years. While they butchered rabbits and flipped pasta like professionals and were asked to do extra tasks by the chef, I sulkily chopped onions, punishing myself for my mistakes and telling myself that cutting stupid vegetables was probably all I deserved to do.
I felt this way for three weeks. I knew I was wrong, that I was taking life too seriously and that if I just lightened up, the dark cloud looming over my head would disperse. But I wasn't exercising or sleeping enough or writing and exploring Florence as much as I wanted to, which are the things that usually make me feel sane.
So I let the cloud stick around. It would all be OK once these classes ended, I told myself. I'd have a fresh start in the next academic session and would resume my normal state of optimism.
I'm not proud of my procrastination (on cultivating a healthy mindset, that is), but, one week later, I'm pleased to report that sleep, exercise and positivity truly work wonders, and I'm finally feeling like myself again.
More specifically, a weekend of good food, beautiful places and funny interactions helped too.
Friday night, I celebrated the end of Stress and Self-Doubt Season by taking myself to dinner at Burro e Acciughe, a seafood restaurant I'd always wanted to try because of its enticing name: Butter and Anchovies. I finished a whole plate of tube-y sedanini pasta with lime and grouper fish (gee, those creatures are ugly!) ragout. It was spicy from pepperoncino, a little herby from dill and totally silky except for the flaky pieces of fish. Each bite tasted better and more interesting than the last. After hauling my rotund belly out of the restaurant, I met my friend on the Santa Trinita Bridge, where we sat drinking a tiny bottle of wine, talking and looking at the Ponte Vecchio. I realized it was the coolest bar in town.
The latter half of the night was less romantic — and that was when I was on an actual date! Matteo, an Italian fellow I'd met on Tinder, proposed that we meet in front of the Santa Croce church for a drink around 11:30 p.m. (red flag). He showed up a little after midnight (another red flag), bought me a spritz (green flag) and we strolled around as he asked me questions in crappy English and I questioned him in crappier Italian.
Things were actually going pretty well until he parked me on a bench in front of the Duomo to:
1) jokingly but incessantly insult my Italian language skills (it's only OK when I do it!),
2) insist that my afternoon coffee order called the macchiatone "non esiste" (uh, it does exist, I've ordered it!), and
3) shove his tongue in my mouth. I've known you for like an hour!
Matteo was trying to be cute, I think, but the whole disappointing interaction was an insult to Filippo Brunelleschi and his Dome of Florence if you ask me. Ah, dating in 2019.
I had a much more solitary Saturday, which I think was necessary — you know, so my subconscious could restore its faith in the male species.
I ate a sandwich with creamy stracchino cheese and spicy red pepper spread on the way to Orti del Parnaso, a park with a big dragon sculpture that winds down a staircase and overlooks the horticultural gardens below. I read from a very good novel, "Manhattan Beach" by Jennifer Egan, and strolled a half hour east to Pasticceria Badiani to pick up pastries for a dinner with my Italian family (a proper post on them is yet to come) that night.
But the real delights started when I stopped to get a coffee in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata on the way home. I took a seat outside between two elderly Italians, drinking a macchiatone (@Matteo) and listening to a group of teenagers singing in the square.
"What are you studying?" the old gentleman by my side asked me in Italian spoken at, much to my delight, a decipherable speed.
"I'm studying cooking!" I answered enthusiastically, and then asked him if he was waiting for the church next door to open. He was, he told me. There would be a beautiful service that evening.
"Do you know the American composer Leonard Bernstein?" he asked, taking off his Beats headphones and showing me the orchestra video playing on his iPad screen. "He is very famous."
"No, but I'm sure my dad knows him because he likes music and plays the trombone," I struggled to answer in Italinglish.
"What does your father do?" Giuseppe asked.
"He works in banking," I answered. "È noioso." (It's boring.)
And that's when Giuseppe told me that he works in finance too.
"Oh, it's not that boring," I said.
He laughed, and then a pigeon pooped on his iPad.
"È buona fortuna, it's good luck," he said.
And then I knew it was time to go; this interaction couldn't get any better.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Giuseppe," I said.
"Piacere, Sara. Buona fortuna a te," he answered.
Now it's Monday, I'm feeling positive and ready to start my week, and I'm thinking that Giuseppe's pigeon-poop luck rubbed off on me after all.
Last week, my fellow Career Program students and I were tasked with creating a menu for and cooking the light lunch service at Fedora, FUA's student-run pastry shop and cafe. We made things like ossobucco with deep-fried polenta, pear and gorgonzola ravioli with cauliflower puree, and tasty salads using everything from octopus to autumnal veggies. Here are the two recipes I had the biggest hand in testing and cooking.
Pasta con le sarde
By no means my dish, this Sicilian classic is a little salty, a little sweet and extremely aromatic, so you should make it if your sense of smell needs a little rejuvenating. If you can't find fresh sardines, you can use fresh anchovies instead.
Ingredients for 1 serving:
--The fronds of 1 fennel bulb (It's the leafy part that looks like dill.)
--A pinch of dried saffron pistils
--1 piece of stale bread
--100 grams of spaghetti
--Two tablespoons of finely diced yellow onion
--Two anchovy fillets (the kind from the jar, not the fresh ones just yet)
--About 4 fresh sardines or anchovies, filleted, cleaned, and cut into smaller pieces
--A tablespoon of raisins, rehydrated in a small bowl with water if dry (don't skip this!)
--A tablespoon of pine nuts
--Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Blanch the fennel fronds in boiling water for 2 minutes. Save the cooking water, which you will use to cook the pasta. Transfer fronds to cold water to preserve the color, then drain, dry, and chop into small pieces.
2. Bring another small pot of water to a good simmer, not quite boiling, and add the saffron. This will infuse the water with saffron's color and flavor.
3. Chop the stale bread into tiny crumbs, then saute them with a little bit of olive oil until toasted. Set aside.
4. Bring the fennel cooking water to a boil, and cook the pasta before it's done; you'll finish cooking it in the sauce.
5. Meanwhile, saute the onion with olive oil and salt over medium-high heat. When it's fully cooked, add the anchovy fillets, which will sizzle loudly and disintegrate into the sauce.
6. Deglaze the pan with a good ladleful of saffron water, and let the mixture reduce and thicken a bit. Add the fish, raisins, pine nuts, and chopped fennel fronds, and stir. Taste, adding salt if needed.
7. When the sauce is thickened and the pasta is nearly ready, use tongs to transfer the pasta to the saucepan, stirring and flipping the pasta vigorously until it is coated with the sauce, adding more saffron water as needed.
8. Serve the pasta with all of the saucy bits and top with toasted breadcrumbs.
Rustic farro soup with pancetta, white beans and Tuscan kale
No one ordered this dish (it was a really slow week with most students on break — sad!), but I enjoyed taking the reins on it. When I made it for the first time, I added all of the vegetable stock in at once instead of pouring it in little by little. This made the soup a little too liquidy rather than creamy, so Chef had me scoop out most of the liquid from the pot, blend it with an extra can of beans and then add the puree to the soup to make everything nice and creamy. You can go this route, or you can just remember to add the stock little by little until you get the consistency you want.
Ingredients for about 4-6 servings:
--100 grams (3.5 ounces) pancetta, cut into small pieces
--2 yellow onions, 2 celery stalks and 1 big carrot, all chopped into the same bite-size pieces
--Any dried or fresh herbs you like, such as bay leaf and thyme
--Vegetable stock, as needed
--1 pound of farro
--1 can of cooked cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (plus an extra can if using the puree)
--1 bunch Tuscan kale
--Salt and pepper, to taste
--Good extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling at the end
1. In a large pot, cook the pancetta over medium-high heat until crispy but not completely browned, as it will continue cooking during the next step.
2. Add the onion, celery, and carrot, and stir. Add herbs, and season as needed.
3. When the pancetta is crispy and the vegetables are soft, deglaze the pan with a ladleful of boiling vegetable stock, and stir.
4. Add farro and enough stock to cover the mixture, and bring to a boil. Cook until the farro is a few minutes away from being done, which could take 10 to 30 minutes depending on the type of farro you're using.
5. When the farro is nearly done, add the beans and kale, along with more stock if needed. Cook until the kale is soft and wilted, and add salt and pepper as needed.
6. If making the puree, remove the liquid from the soup, blend with extra beans, and return mixture to soup. If not, simply serve the soup topped with an extra drizzle of olive oil.