Sunday, January 10, 2010

Memories of Napoli: Part 1

About half way through my fall trip to Italy, The Mixmaster and I traveled to Napoli (Naples), a small town a few hours away from Rome. We weren't spending much time there, as we were on our way to the Pompeii ruins, but knowing that Napoli has some of the best pizza in Italy, and probably the world, a stop for a pie seemed like an absolute necessity. In Italy, most of the places we went to sold individual pies and not slices; they baked them for you fresh, and often in a wood burning oven. On our first day in Rome, we were amazed to be presented with what would be about the size of a Canadian "small" pizza, per person! But with all the walking, sometimes for 8 hours or more a day, we quickly got used to the increased portions. Italian pizzas are often lighter on the cheese, and it is focalized in the middle of the pie. But one thing that our palates quickly discerned to be the difference between Canadian and Italian pizzas (besides the thin, crispy crust) was the sauce.
Most North American pizzas that I've had, including the fabled New York pizza, seem to use ground tomatoes spiced with herbs for their sauce. The sauces in Italy were tangier, lighter in taste and colour. We soon realized that they were either made from scratch from ripe tomatoes, which don't have the sweet-ish taste of ground tomatoes, or they were made from canned plum tomatoes, pulsed in a blender with herbs. It made a world of a difference.
So, having disembarked from our train, we knew where we wanted to go, Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo (Via dei Tribunali 32, 081-446643), but not how to get there. And the circuitous streets and narrow lanes of Napoli took some getting used to. We finally arrived at our Pizzeria, a little testy with each other, and with our bellies growling. The pizzas at Gino Sorbillo were everything that the guide book said that they might be. There were a multitude of choices, exciting combinations, with prices ranging from 2.50 euros to about 8.00 euros. I had the Pugliese, with capricciosa, pomodoro, mozzarella, olive, prosciutto, funghi, and carciofini for 6 euros. It was as yummy and flavourful (with a smoky taste due to the well cured meats) as my hastily snapped photo suggests.
Oh, and on the walk to your next destination, you might want to pick up some famous fried risotto and cheese balls, at Di Matteo, located on the same street at number 94. They always have a crowd waiting patiently for them, and they are one of the things that Napoli is known for.
So, how does one go from Italian pizza with all it's tastes and textures to Pizza Pizza (note that there's no link...)? In part two of my post, I will detail, with recipes, my attempts at the perfect home pizza (which I made for a recent anniversary with a certain special someone).

Friday, January 1, 2010

Kitchen Appliances, Gadgets, and Doodads- Whatever to Buy?

In honour of the boxing week sales, I thought I'd discuss some of the most common kitchen appliances that people have, and rate them for convenience, etc. Now would be a good time to look around at stores and possibly snap up a deal if you're in the market for some given item.
I should say that I'd grown up in a very well-stocked house when it came to appliances. We had standing mixers, food processors, blenders, a full supply of baking equipment. We also had a very large kitchen in the suburbs of Montreal with plenty of cabinet space, and all the other unidentifiable things that middle class people in the suburbs have- access to big box stores when things are cheaper than in the city, a car to lug the appliance home, and my dad's income.
The average Torontonian on a budget has to think carefully about purchases, especially where kitchen counter space is often at a premium. One thing I've done to keep costs down is shopping at Goodwill for housewares stuff. Check out their website to find out their "half off days," where every item in the store is 50%. Goodwil is a great place to pick up vintage dishes, serving trays, and some small appliances; just be sure to check that they work well before buying. Another way of acquiring a desired item is to, if your friends and family are the types to buy gifts for your birthday, mention that you really need, say a blender, and would appreciate them helping you out. For some people, especially those of us with pain issues, some appliances can ease the strain on one's body, and are definitely worth the investment. So, on with the list:
  1. Food processors: Food processors are often among the most expensive of all daily use appliances, and according to some accounts, the most useful. Food processors are similar to blenders, except they also do such things as shred cheeses, slice vegetables, and mix and knead doughs. If you like cooking, but find it sometimes a hassle or difficult to do such things as knead bread, they might be worth a look. You can sometimes find them at Goodwill, and you can find some of the lower end ones at Sears and Canadian Tire for around $50.00 (just be sure that the processor does everything you want it to). The usual price range is $400 to $30 for some of the mini choppers.
  2. Blenders: The Mixmaster gave me a blender in the spring, and I love it. Blenders are good for making smoothies, pureeing soups and other sauces, and making such dips as hummus. They can also be used to crush ice for drinks. You can get a good one for around $60.00. One thing to look for is a removable blade for cleaning. While the glass ones are great, they are heavy, and with care, one with a plastic jar should last you a long time. Blenders always need some fluid to work (so when making dips, one would have to put in some oil or water to get the blades moving, for example). Mine is always about to be washed or drying, so it's in regular use.
  3. Espresso makers: A frivolous item it would seem, until you take stock of your actual coffee habit. If you're spending $35 or more on outside coffee a month, it might be a good idea to invest in a home machine and a travel mug. Yes, there is a wide range of machine costs, with some of them costing over $1500 (!), but a decent machine can be found for a little over $80. I have a small Delonghi that was a gift from family, and with the proper grind of freshly roasted beans and adequate tamping can make a pretty good espresso at home.
  4. Pizza stones: A specialty item, probably only for those who are nostalgic for recent trips to Italy (sigh). I bought mine a few months ago, and I love it. They are currently on sale at Kitchen Stuff Plus in Toronto, going for $10, which is much less than the $20 they used to be a few years ago. Pizza stones should be considered general baking stones; you can bake cookies, scones, and other baked goods on them. They take away the moisture and ensure the crispness of the food. If you like making homemade pizza, you will definitely notice the difference of baking on a stone, and so it might be an item to consider buying.
  5. Mandoline slicers: These are tabletop slicers that most often cut vegetables. As with most kitchen gadgets, there are the very expensive, the mid-range, and the crappy. Prices range from $150 to $15, but I would think carefully before spending anything under $30. Make sure that there are rubber grips on the bottom to ensure slip-free slicing, and that the blade is of a good quality. I'm not entirely sold on them; they require careful cleaning, involve repetitive arm movements, and might not end up saving you much in terms of time or body health. But, if you really do a lot of slicing in your food prep, they may be more cost effective than a food processor.
  6. Lemon reamers, garlic presses, and mortar and pestles, oh my: These are all items that are relatively inexpensive and are in regular usage in my kitchen. When buying a lemon reamer, I might stay away from the wooden ones, because with time they occasionally get discoloured or retain liquid. I couldn't live without my garlic press; I use it almost daily. I got mine from Ikea for under $7. It saves me a lot of time when it comes to mincing garlic; I simply pop the clove in my press and in two seconds the job is done. And finally, if you do a lot of Indian cooking, a mortar and pestle is an important addition to your kitchen. I use it to grind spices, though it can also be used to pound garlic and ginger for curries. I got mine from Gerrard India Bazaar (around Coxwell and Gerrard) for under $10. Though if you need something specifically for spice grinding and want to save yourself some pounding effort, an inexpensive coffee grinder might be a good option.
These are some of the most basic items out there, though an average cook can function without having most of them. And I haven't even mentioned the specialty items that one might find at high end stores; everything from special jugs to keep one's herbs fresh for $35 (umm, ever heard of an empty yogurt tub?!?) to $36 cake pans that bake cakes that look like 9 car trains. Okay, so maybe that last item doesn't seem so frivolous, come to thing of it. I mean, what epicurean with extra time wouldn't be tickled by the thought of making something fancy for the special little guy or girl in their life?