The Universal Language of Food

 There's a Jewish saying that all holidays end up with some kind of feast.  Whether you're explaining Chanukah or Passover to your friends, it can all be summed up by: "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!"  In the spirit of the moment, we had what is supposedly a traditional Egyptian meal this evening.  The recipe came courtesy of the Arab-American news program I listen to each weekend on our local community radio station.  They said this is traditional, although I am suspicious of the noodles.  I KNOW I have made a dish with this name before - recipe from Nikki and David Goldbeck's something-or-other Vegetarian Cookbook, which I used to use all the time, and it didn't have the noodles.  I do remember frying the onions for it.  The sauce was a surprise.  Once made, it looked and tasted exactly like the spicy tomato sauce I had in the kebab shops in Italy.  This is great, because now I could make it to top some felafel, or anything else!
Egyptian Kosheri

1 1/2 c brown lentils, soaked
1 1/2 c white rice, soaked (I used basmati)
1 c elbow macaroni (I used whole wheat)
salt and pepper

a few onions, sliced
vegetable oil

2 c crushed tomatoes (I just used the whole can)
1 c tomato paste
1/4 c  onions, minced 
10 garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes
2 tsp. vinegar
1 T olive oil
  1. Bring the lentils and rice to a boil, add the macaroni, and simmer for awhile until the lentils are soft.  (The only lentils I had were tiny ones, and I think they would have softened and disintegrated much sooner had they been large brown ones.)
  2. Meanwhile, fry the onions until they are quite browned.  (This took a surprisingly long time.)
  3. Saute the garlic and onion mince in the oil for a bit to soften them.  Don't let them brown.  Add the pepper and then the tomato and vinegar.  Heat thoroughly, or whatever.  It doesn't have to cook long.
  4. To serve, arrange a layer of the lentil-rice-noodle mixture, then the onions, and top with sauce.  
  5. Serves a million people, probably.  It made a ton.  Adjust amounts for a small family.  The photo shows only some of the leftovers arranged photogenically in a casserole dish.  There was at least that much more that went into the refrigerator. 
  6. Viva Egypt!

What game?

 Remember that thing about being Jewish in Wisconsin - when everyone wishes you a Merry Christmas but you feel left out because you don't celebrate it?  Well, I don't celebrate football, and yet there is a huge party going on in most Wisconsin homes right now, as the Green Bay Packers are meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers on the field of battle.  Or whatever. Reminds me of my favorite Onion T-shirt.

I'm not bitter or anything, just not interested.  And I certainly don't feel left out.  Why, this morning we got up and instead of attending the annual Mount Horeb Rotary Club pancake breakfast, we stayed in and made our own.  Blueberry, with maple syrup and some soy vanilla yogurt. Picture to follow when I'm not too lazy to get up and get my camera!

And then I went to the gym, visited a friend, came home and threw a bunch of stuff in the slow cooker (the jury is still out on how that will taste), and did homework.  I had planned to watch a movie, but too busy as it turned out. 

I had really meant to blog about soup.  We have been eating a lot of soup lately.  We LOVE soup and could eat it, or stew, or something in between, every night, so we've been cooking pots of stuff that last for days and nobody's complaining.  Why, on the day we came home with a blizzard threatening, the first thing I did was make soup.  
In Florence, we went out to dinner on a cold night, one of our last nights there.  The little trattoria was just around the corner from VB's apartment.  VB highly recommended the Pappa al Pomodoro, which is basically just pureed tomatoes, basil and bread!  We shared an order, as I didn't think I could eat a whole bowl of it.  Every bite was pure heaven.  I mean it.  Now I have to make it myself - or try to!

My older daughter, who shall henceforth be known as Polo Marco (because she journeyed from China to Italy) went for something called Ribbolita.  Or Ribollita.  Either way, it was billed as containing "black cabbage," which our server assured us is a "regional speciality."  (It tasted like Swiss Chard to us.) That soup was as good as, or even better than, the tomato soup.  
When I got home, I just knew I had to try making it myself.  I found several recipes online, and sure enough, they all called for "cavalo nero," which is Italian for "nothing you can find in Wisconsin in the middle of January."  I couldn't find Swiss Chard, either, but even though I used collard greens, it still tasted pretty awesome.  
This is the recipe I used. Please excuse the formatting.

3/4 cup dried cannellini

beans, soaked overnight and drained


4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 Spanish onion, thinly sliced


leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced


carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch



1 garlic clove, thinly sliced, plus 1 whole garlic clove

2 sprigs fresh


1 bay leaf

1 pound chopped

cavolo nero (black cabbage), roughly chopped


1/2 pound chopped white cabbage, roughly chopped


2 scant tablespoons tomato paste


3 cups water


4 (1/2-inch) slices Italian peasant bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper



Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano



Place the presoaked cannellini beans in a medium stockpot. Add water to just cover the beans and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and let the beans simmer until tender, about 1 hour.

In a 12-inch saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, leek, carrot, celery, sliced garlic, and herbs. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the black and white cabbages and cook until the cabbage has softened and the flavors have blended, about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the sprigs of rosemary and thyme and the

bay leaf. Add the tomato paste, and stir until the tomato paste is well distributed throughout the vegetable mixture.

Preheat the

grill or broiler.

Add the vegetable mixture to the pot with beans and water and let simmer until the flavors are well blended, about 30 minutes more. When the soup is close to being done, toast or grill the bread until both sides are browned. Cut the remaining garlic clove in half, and rub the toasted bread with the cut end of the garlic. Discard the


Serve the soup hot in 4 warmed bowls with the garlic bruschetta on the side. Garnish with a sprinkling of Parmigiano, to taste.

Speaking of cavalo nero, at that same restaurant I ordered a pasta with just olive oil and cavalo nero.  And something else; I forget what. So simple, and yet so amazingly delicious!  
I spoiled it all by deciding to order dessert.  For one thing, I didn't know what exactly would be in the chestnut cake, although I assumed it was like a flourless, nut-based cake I might make.  For another, I refused any cream or honey topping, so it was rather dry.  And three, if you're going to order chestnut cake you might first want to stop and consider whether you actually like the taste of chestnuts.  I guess I'd passed one too many chestnuts-roasting-on-open-fire stands, and couldn't resist any longer. It also had some fresh rosemary.... which made the flavor even more interesting, and less like dessert.
I would have been just fine without this dessert, as it turns out.  The girls loved their tiramisu!

A break from Italy IF you get my drift.....

 "One for the record books."  "A storm of historic proportions." "Blizzard warning."

Nobody could say we weren't thoroughly warned about the enormous snowstorm that blew through our midst over the last few days.  It was supposed to start Monday afternoon with a bunch of snow lasting into the next morning. Check.  Then, a break on Tuesday (yesterday) during the day.  Check, but with lots of wind as (I guess) it gathered strength across the great plains.  Finally, yesterday at 3:00 p.m., right on schedule, the monster blew in, sending horizontal torrents of snow that had already drifted across our road when we made it home around 4:00. By 5:00 p.m., Madison schools had already decided to be closed today - what a relief! Below is a view of our cars in the "ready" position, facing out and with the wipers up, around 4:30 as the storm was taking shape.
The wind howled, the trees whipped around, and the houses creaked with the strain all night long.  At 5:00, when A got up to call in to work (no way was he going to get out of our driveway), we noticed the drifts had obscured one of our furnace vent pipes, so he had to go out and dig it free.  Below is the same scene at about 7:15 a.m. (Car? What car? Sidewalk?)
It all stopped late in the morning.  Our neighbor, Dominic came through to plow out a narrow track in case we needed to evacuate, but the digging-out of the cars was up to us.  (Or rather, my husband.)  It was drifted and deep.  The broom-o-meter indicates just how deep it was at the birdfeeder.) 
The sun came out and the temperature hovered around 20 (although much less with wind chill), so I thought I'd better take a walk while I could - for the next few days, it's going to be waaaay below zero.  Check out the 'hood. Take that, Google street view!

Knowing I was going to be home all day, I took the opportunity to make a real wintertime meal: seitan "pot roast" n the slow cooker.  I followed a basic recipe by Robin Robertson.  It cooked all day and smelled great.  Actually, it smelled and looked just like our mothers used to make.... assuming they used seitan.... I cooked some brown and wild rice to eat on the side, and made some gravy to have on top.  If this doesn't say "homey," I don't know what does!


Felafel in Florence: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

 Remember when I said I was able to eat about 99% vegan food in Italy?  Well, I've found it helps to take things in stride when you travel.  That was the case when eating felafel.  I love felafel, although I rarely eat it.  That's because my mouth loves it, but my stomach does not.  It's probably the fried food thing.  Anyway, the felafel place in VB's neighborhood got rave reviews. In truth, it was a "doner kebab" place, where one could also get felafel and other foods.  "Doner Kebab" seems to be the equivalent of a gyros sandwich, and every such shop (and I saw many of them) sported the traditional leg of some very large mammal on a vertical spit.  VB took us out for felafel on my first night in Florence.  I'm used to the Israeli version, and what I had was new to me.  First, they took a large piece of flatbread, sort of like an extremely flat pita or a thick tortilla, and put it into some sort of press.  It was like a cross between a waffle iron and a tortilla press, and when the bread came out it had a faint waffle pattern across the surface.  They coated the bread with a spicy tomato sauce, piled on tomatoes, onions, and shredded cabbage, and added a few felafel patties.  For the girls, they spooned on some yogurt sauce (I had mine "senza" yogurt), and then for some reason, tossed on a few french fries.  VB says that's the way they do it there, and it seems strange, but does taste delicious!  Finally, they rolled it up tightly, wrapped it in wax paper, and we ate it like a sub sandwich. Contrary to my unspoken fears, my stomach did not complain later on.

A few days later, I had the opportunity to try another shop.  This one was in Pisa.  Pisa was about an hour's train ride away, and how could I not go visit a famous monument?  Of course, I had to do the obligatory "I'm holding up the tower!" pose...

...and view the souvenirs, none of which I purchased. 

It was, of course, as cold and rainy as it was in Florence, and we were thrilled to find a large, warm kebab shop.  This one had an enormous brick oven for baking their special flatbread; the workers were casually tossing wood into its maw.  I wish I had a photo of it, because aside from its size, its really outstanding feature was the way it was painted - in bright yellow and dark green - this oven would be the envy of any Green Bay Packer fan.  At this kebab shop, the bread was like a fluffy pita, split and stuffed.  My sandwich was incredibly spicy without any cooling yogurt, but I devoured it anyway. 

So where's the caveat?  Well, later on during my stay, VB showed us momentos from her trip to Brussels, Bruges and Amsterdam.  While in Bruges, she visited the Chocolate Museum (now that's a place I'd love to see!) and the Frites Museum, where she learned just about all there is to learn about making a french fry.  Hmmmmm.... seems that frying the frites in "pure beef tallow" gives the frites their "distinctive flavor."  I have to say, it didn't even occur to me to ask when I was consuming my food, and it's too late to not order it..... and  have no idea what I did actually eat.  Except that it didn't taste like "beef tallow."  If I'd even remember after almost 40 years!

Pizza here and there

 We're having a cold streak - even for us.  This morning the temperature in our valley was -18 (that's -28 C), and the high is not expected to be all that "high."  On Friday, the morning temp was -22.  The car was NOT happy to be asked to start!  At least it's sunny today, so the laundry I hung in the living room has some chance of drying in one day.  However, the house is pretty cold, and I'm sitting here in quite a few layers. 

In Italy, it was rainy and cold for the first four days of my trip, and after that it was sunny and cold.  In almost any photos of me taken there, I was frequently bundled up; many public places were only minimally heated.  One day in  Florence, VB took us to what she promised was the best pizza ever, and in my opinion she was quite correct.  The place was called Gusta Pizza, and there was a wait when we arrived. Check out their beautiful wood oven!

VB assured me there was vegan pizza on the menu, and there was!  The Italians do more with a few simple, good quality ingredients than we Americans do with zillions of toppings.  Notice that first on the menu is a pie topped with garlic, oregano, and olive oil.  

The girls opted for the Margherita, which only had a few dollops of mozzarella and some sprigs of basil.  Mine was delicious, and they said the same of theirs.  Can you tell I still had a bad cold?

Back at home, I made pizza this past Monday when we had a school holiday.  Normally Monday is "pizza day" at school, and I always bring some home for A.  I decided to make some from scratch, which we always really like.  I used the focaccia recipe for the base, and topped them with spinach, garden basil (yes, we still have some in the freezer), sauteed onions and portobello mushrooms, olives and peppers.  Oh, and garlic.  Notice A still likes some cheese on his; I mixed some ground walnuts into the spinach on mine and I like it that way.  It makes it a little pesto-y without going to a lot of trouble. 


Eating vegan in Italy

Before I went to Italy, people asked me how I was going to manage - after all, isn't Italian food loaded with cheese?  And don't they emphasize meat in their cuisine?  I always answered that I'd be happy to just eat pasta for a week, although it turned out I didn't have to do that.  My younger daughter, henceforth known as Va Bene, spent the entire semester there and managed as an ovo-lacto vegetarian just fine.  And I was able to eat 99% vegan food - any slips were either accidental or I just didn't make a fuss at that point....

I already knew of a vegan restaurant in Florence: La Dolce Vegan.  It sounded wonderful... unfortunately, it turned out to have been closed on the one day we journeyed to that side of town.  *Sigh*  Oh well, next trip!

Quite by accident, we stumbled across Ruth's Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant in Florence's Jewish neighborhood, which is where VB lived.  In fact, there is a historic synagogue (with accompanying museum) there, which was, of course, closed when we went there.  (It was Friday afternoon.  The next day, the Sabbath, was also Christmas.  On Sunday we went to Pisa.  And so it goes.) The synagogue, from the outside, was very beautiful and I'd love to see the inside sometime.

The restaurant popped up at the perfect time.  I had a terrible cold, and it was raining, and all I wanted was some soup.  Well, I had a wonderful bowl of minestrone soup there! 

Check out their clock, which of course is read from left to right.

The local supermarket had a bunch of Kosher products!

Next time: felafel!  And cooking at home!

The Tourist - Going to Florence

Lenny Bruce had a saying: if you're from New York, you're Jewish, even if you're not.  Conversely, if you're from the Midwest, then you're Lutheran, even if you're not.  Growing up in Cranston, RI, I felt, made me pretty much Italian even though I'm not.  Almost everyone's last name was Italian.  (First names too, come to think of it.) When it came to languages, our high school only offered French and Italian (I took French).  The high school band trip went to Italy (my brother went, and came back with leather pants).  The few Jews blended in almost seamlessly.  I never felt the need to actually visit Italy, and yet when my daughter decided to study in Florence, how could I not?

I left for Italy on December 22nd, a Tuesday.  The deal was, I'd fly from Madison to Chicago, Chicago to Charlotte, and Charlotte to Rome, arriving on the morning of December 22nd.  That made sense because Italy is 7 hours ahead of us, and the trans-Atlantic flight was 8 hours long.  However, it was not to be.  Weather was causing delays and cancellations all over northern Europe, and I thought they would not affect me, as Rome airport was fine and so were the American ones.  In fact, despite snow on the day of my departure, my flight was still on time when I left home. However, when I arrived at the Madison airport an hour later, my flight was so delayed that if I waited for it, I would miss my other connections. The solution?  "Your only hope of catching the flight to Charlotte is to drive to Chicago. You can do it in two hours," said the United Airlines gate agent.  So, with no warning and no breakfast for my husband, we found ourselves hustling down the snowy interstate to O'Hare International Airport.  I arrived just in time to check in for my flight..... that is, I would have been, if it hadn't been delayed.  "Your only hope is to get on a flight to Philadelphia, spend the night in the Philadelphia airport, and take a flight to Rome tomorrow night," said the US Airways gate agent.  "That's it?" I asked?  "That's the best you can do?"  It was, it seemed.  "But," she said brightly, "the only seat available on that Rome flight is in first class!"  With that crumb of consolation, I made my way to Security and a several hour wait to a city that was at least a few hours east of where I was then.  Oh, and did I mention I was getting sick at the time?  After an autumn of spectacularly good health, I'd woken up that morning with a sore throat, which developed into a cold as the day progressed.  By evening, I was miserable, and hoped a good night's sleep would help.  Normally, if I catch a cold it only lasts a day or so..... 

As luck would have it, Philadelphia was to be my return port anyway, as I had plans to attend my niece's Bat Mitzvah on the way home.  So I called the cousin with whom I'd be staying on the flip side, and was told I'd be welcome.... I did have to rent a car to get there, though.  The next day, I returned the car, got to the airport early, and waited around for my flight.  Notice the lovely Liberty Bell in the international terminal: it's made entirely of Legos!
Finally, it was time to board.  At the gate, I was surrounded by so many people who looked familiar, even though I didn't know them.... and then it hit me.  They all, every one of them, could have been my neighbor in Rhode Island.  And they all spoke Italian!  Anyway, just the process of boarding was exciting.  I boarded first, with all the other "first class" people - never in my life has that happened!  For the first time ever, I was on the other side of the curtain, and let me tell you, it doesn't suck.  From the seat (which reclines like an electric La-Z-Boy recliner), to the service (why do they treat people more nicely when they think you're rich?) to the food, it was pretty wonderful.  This was good for me, because by then I was feeling worse, not better, and had loaded up on all the over-the-counter medication I could find in hopes of surviving the trip without coughing and sneezing all over my neighbors.  I had only one "neighbor," which turned out to be both pilots taking turns napping; neither one of them was there very much.  Here's the seat:
When I was bumped off my original flight, I had the presence of mind to ask for my vegan meal to be transferred to the new one.  (You had to give at least 24 hours notice, and the airline was doing that much for me.)  Normally, on a flight, one receives a tray with the entire meal at once.  In first class, I received an enormous salad before the entree.  That's mixed greens with a little shaved carrot on top, and the greens were all fresh and delicious - no iceberg lettuce at all.  On the side were some fresh sliced strawberries and a roll with Earth Balance spread.  Notice how it's served on a cloth napkin with at least three forks!  (I guess the third one was supposed to be for dessert.)
It's a good thing the salad was so wonderful, because the entree itself hadn't survived the treatment it had received at the hands of.... someone... apparently the pilaf you see here had been put under some kind of broiler/ heat lamp/ something that was probably perfect for everyone else's beef but too much for what I was supposed to eat.  It should have only been warmed in the microwave, I'm guessing.  The rice and bits of vegetables were hard, dry and pebbly.  I ate the carrots and bok choy, sent back the rest, and went to sleep without dessert or any movies even. 
In the morning, they somehow did not have my breakfast, so I pulled out my trusty instant oatmeal (always carry that when traveling) and got some hot water and orange juice.  Now it was Thursday morning - for me, two days since I had left home.  I couldn't wait to see my daughters - one, already in Italy since September, and the other just off the plane from China.  If their plans had worked out, they were waiting for me in Florence, only two train rides away.  

First, though, I had to collect my luggage.  I was a little worried that it would have all been unpacked somewhere along the line by curious TSA staff who'd want to know why I was schlepping so many bottles of vitamins, bars of chocolate, packs of tea and oatmeal, and random gift-wrapped items into Italy.  For some reason, it was no trouble at all to pass through Customs; the agent could not have looked more bored as he flipped through my passport and stamped a random page.  To make this long story slightly shorter, I managed to navigate myself into Rome, find a train for Florence (although not an actual seat on it - I had to stand the whole 1 1/2 hours while holding up my suitcases), and after a half hour of mutual searching, into the arms of my waiting daughters....OK, this photo is from the end of the trip, but the daughters part is true!  


East Met West

I am back from Italy!  In fact, I have been back for two weeks exactly, but what with jet lag, illness, back-to-school (the day after I returned!), and a week of hosting a traveling daughter, I've barely kept pace with my duties around here.  Now, here in the U.S., we are beginning the three-day weekend associated with the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  To me, it will represent a chance to rest up, finally, and perhaps catch up with a few things.  I have many, many stories, photos of places, people, and food, and more.  In the meantime, though, I'm still sorting through things brought back from Italy, where one daughter was studying abroad, and another came from China.  In the above photo, you will see two kinds of yak butter tea (Tibetan specialty!), olive oil with mushroom and with herbs (product of Firenze), some kind of white chocolate liqueur (my daughter's), and Duff Beer, as seen on the Simpson's, but not actually available in the U.S.  And that's not the half of it! Welcome back, world!  

Cold days, colder nights

 As the winter solstice approaches, we are freezing.  At school for the past two weeks, I wore so many layers every day I felt roly-poly (and still wasn't warm enough).  At home, I wear a vest, long underwear, and a few shirts.  And that's in a house that actually has heat!  (Supposedly.... I guess we could keep the thermostat higher....)  This evening at 8:00 p.m., the deck thermometer says 0 degrees F (too lazy to go figure out what that means in C).  When it's this cold, I want to hunker down and eat soup.  Perhaps I've overdone it, though, two weeks in a row, when I made very large pots of soup.  One lasted almost all week, and what I made tonight may perhaps rival it.  The first was split pea soup. 
Tonight was "Clam-free chowder" from Vegan Guinea Pig.  If there's anything my Rhode Islander husband misses after 30+ years of vegetarianism, it's clam chowder.  (My aunt can attest to that!) So of course I had to make this recipe.  Although I can't ever remember eating clam chowder myself, and so had nothing to compare, I certainly thought it was great.  We didn't have oyster mushrooms, but baby portobellas worked just fine. 

Last night I made the standard husband favorite of pecan loaf, roasted potatoes and salad.  Yeah. 
It was sunny today, with a high about 13, and despite the cold I took my first outdoor walk in several weeks.  (I've been hiding out at the gym for some virtual walking, biking and rowing.)  My neighbors took a fabulous hike on trails though the woods.  I wish I had brought the camera, but perhaps the lens would have just fogged up the way my glasses did as I slogged along in almost a foot of snow.  

It's cold all over the world, I think, and snowy, and this makes for some intense speculation regarding my family's travel plans in the coming week.  You see, in two days I'm scheduled to fly to Rome to meet my daughters.  One's trekking from southwest China, the other may be snowbound in the Netherlands.  Will we all make it?  Stay tuned... but don't hold your breath.... I may not be able to post until we are all back safe and sound.  With luck, by next weekend I'll be eating (first finding, then eating) vegan pasta in Florence!

Snowed In

 Today we couldn't go anywhere because of snow.  They'd predicted it, and when it didn't actually materialize by yesterday afternoon, we thought they'd "misunderestimated," to quote our former president.  When relatives called us, we pooh-poohed their concerns, as the morning snow had changed to rain.  But THEN it began snowing in earnest, plastering the wet, then freezing, surfaces with heavy and dense snow.  It snowed all night, stymieing all efforts by my husband to leave the valley (though he certainly did try, at 4:00 a.m., to go to work).  Under that layer of snow on my car, there was a thick glacier that took over 1/2 hour for me to chip off; A had started the work earlier.

Flights were canceled, except for these birdies. 

Can you see the clothesline pulled down by the weight of the soaked, then frozen lines?

In the end we went nowhere, and I was sad because we had tickets to my student teacher's dance performance.  I had to console myself with some of her performance that have shown up on youtube. The other consolation was that nobody else in the area could go anywhere either.  Madison Metro buses weren't running, and almost every event was cancelled.  (Except for Ella's dance show!)

Because I was home, I did some cooking, although no photos of today's meals.  Last night, though, I made some kale-onion-seitan saute for rice, and some banana bread.

Oh, and seitan.

Today I made split pea soup, which I realized wouldn't be done by dinner time, so I quickly made some quinoa, buternut squash, and Trader Joe's "soycatash" with added vegetables. Our driveway just got plowed, so I think there will be no choice except to go to work tomorrow.  It was a nice snow day!