I also don't recall the Italian restaurant scene being very much into old fashion cooking. I think that came later with the advent of Slow Food (but again, I was a broke student so what would I know?). Pizza was fast food. But also I enjoyed hamburgers and fries and a vanilla milkshake when out with my friends. That is what you do as a teenager I think, right? Tuscany had still to become the huge tourist phenomenon that it is today. Back then you could still get into the Uffizi without reservation (not that I have been....) and weddings in a castle were not in vogue yet.
My passion for food existed already before I decided to try all cuisines of the world (I was one of those kids who always enjoyed food, rarely would miss a meal or even a course and often would have to be stopped from eating too much - and that was from even before I could walk or talk), but I guess I wasn't very adventurous because I had not had any exposure to anything but Italian and Italian-Chinese food. But living in London in the '90s meant that I was there during the English food revolution: you can find any kind of restaurant in London. Those who think that it's all pork pies and over cooked roast beef are seriously mistaken. Plus it's such a cosmopolitan city that you can't help but mixing up with a variety of cultures and therefore be exposed to their cuisines... one of my best friend when I first moved to London was from Indonesia. Shame we lost touch...
When I decided to take my alphabetical dinners on tour, I wasn't really sure it would be possible to find all ingredients to make an Indonesian dinner in Florence and I even toyed with the idea of bringing some from Atlanta but Eric talked me out of it (something to do with custom restrictions, go figure). As it turned out, as mentioned earlier, I needn't have worried. The central market in Florence had pretty much all the spices I needed and even more. I wish I had a photo of what that market looks like. It's a mix of what you would expect of an Italian market (salami and sausages hanging from stalls, fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly cut porchetta sandwiches, olive oil, wine, porcini and black truffles that you can smell from a 50 feet distance, men and women shouting orders but you get no clear idea of where the line might be, espresso machines steaming tiny quantities of coffees and luscious cappuccino - and no, what they give you at Starbucks is not a real cappuccino) but also a couple of Asian stores operated by Philippine expats and Sri Lankan that cater to those that moved to Italy from the Far East as well to those Italians that are curious enough to want to try something a bit different. And interestingly enough, these store keepers have somehow adopted a bit of an Italian style while keeping up with their own traditions and fashion sense. So they integrated well but didn't have to give up who they are. I am glad to see this is happening in Italy. When I left, foreigners from Asia or Africa weren't really integrating well in society but were rather marginalized. Now many of them work and own their own businesses.
But I continue to digress. It is just very interesting to me and so I wanted to share my experience in more details.
The plan was for me and Eric to cook a few dishes for the family and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that there would have been 11 adults and 2 children at the table (my mum and dad, my sister Daniela with her husband Alberto and my niece Egle, some lovely friends of my sister Maristella and her husband Iacopo and my nephew Lapo). Eric and I got up at around 10am - got to love vacation - ran to the market to buy some additional last minute ingredients and then went to pick up my parents who were also providing a few ingredients and some salami and prosciutto to start off the evening (ok, not exactly Indonesian but I wanted to edge my bets in case of disaster). We all piled into our rented Fiat New 500 (which is a very cute car - soon to be launched in the US - but had the power of a horse drawn carriage) and made our way to the home of Iacopo and Stella who had graciously offered their kitchen and home for the occasion.
I want to take the opportunity to apologize for the mess. Eric and I have both discovered that it is not easy to cook in someone else's kitchen. But we did our best to keep disruption at a minimum and managed just fine despite the fact that the beautiful set of knives that my sister owns (handmade and expensive knives from Scarperia, near Florence) had not been sharpened since... well... probably since they were purchased!! I think I will get them a hand sharpener as a "thank you for letting us mess up your kitchen" present! Also, Atlanta needs to get a lesson from Italy on recycling: every kitchen there has at least 3 trash cans, one for all recycling material (all paper, all glass, all tins, ALL plastic), one for the non-recyclables and one for composting materials. Eric and I do our own composting here at home; we have a spot we use for composting material on the backyard but we have to be careful with what we put there as we don't want to attract more rodents (like we don't already have enough tomato thieving squirrels hanging around).
We set up to work immediately and gave a few tasks to my mum and dad to keep them occupied (Stella and Iacopo don't own a TV to my mother's dismay) but it was mainly Eric and I that prepared the meal. And we had quite a few dishes on the menu. My intent was to have various foods to find something that would have pleased everyone and I think it was a good idea since there were quite a few "favorite dish" of the evening. I did not get a score, nor did I type up a menu (although I will write one up for my binder # 3 - feel free to ask to look at the binders next time you are invited) but I will try to describe all the dishes as best as I can since in the midst of things we didn't really take any photos although I know my sister Daniela took some pictures and if she sends them and I can load them later on.
Dinner was a great success! The guests began to arrive around 7.30pm but Eric and I were still cooking so Stella and Iacopo pulled out wine, salami and cheese to keep everyone happy until dinner was served (at around 9pm).
We started with Sate Ajam (Chicken Sate) served with Peanut Sauce. The chicken (thighs cut in pieces) was marinated in a variety of spices (lemon grass, cumin, coriander, garlic and onion) mixed with Sambal Ulek or Oelek (an Indonesian sweet chili sauce which I found for sale in the central market) and Kecap (read as ketchup) Manis (Indonesian sweet soy based sauce that I made) for 2 or 3 hours. The chicken was tender and very flavorful and could have gone well even alone; but why would you want to do that when it was accompanied by a really nice peanut sauce that I made with peanut butter and some of the same spices used to marinate the chicken? My mother rejoiced when she tasted the sauce! I am not the only peanut butter junkie in the household - I introduced it to her the first time I went to England in 1988 or 1989 and it's been a favorite since (but she's not allowed to buy it and thankfully she forgets it exists or she'll be doing more damage to her already too big waistline).
Then I served Ikan Pedis - Hot Fish wrapped in cabbage leaves. The recipe called for mackerels but I couldn't find them at the supermarket and the sales person at the fish counter didn't really know of a good substitute and I had no time to look up an alternative on Google. You see, we bought the fish on December 30th and the Ipercoop (very large supermarket in the suburb of Florence) was a mob: I think the lady that served us at the fish counter was there as a temp and there were so many people shouting orders that I just didn't dare dilly dallying in case she moved on to someone else; so I chose based on geographical location: most of the fish on sale was from either the Atlantic Ocean or from the Mediterranean Sea but there was a variety from Australia called Ricciola in Italian (Greater Amberjack in English) and it turns out this is a relative of the Hamachi. So, probably not the best substitute for oily mackerel but it actually turned out really well.
Unfortunately they didn't offer to clean the fish at the supermarket but they showed me how to (I never have had to clean a fish before). Thankfully my mother professed to know what to do and so I put her to work at the kitchen sink to gut the fish for me. Here is how the fish looked after they had been gutted:
After, we served Beef Randang - Indonesian Beef Curry on basmati rice and it was a good idea to have a lot of rice as it turned out to be a bit hotter than I intended it to be. I think the hotness was given by the paprika (I perhaps put a little too much hot paprika in it) and by the chili peppers (although the sales guy at the stall assured me they weren't really too hot...). Thank God I put a lot of water and coconut milk in! It was that kind of chili that doesn't hit you as soon as you take a bite. It was the one you feel at the back of your throat after about 20 seconds of chewing! So there was a lot of, mmm, nice, not too hot and then followed by a few tears and coughs and "pass the wine" rquests as the food went down! It was actually tasty and a favorite of hot food lovers (Eric really liked it and it was a favorite of someone else but I now forget who).
Then we served Babi Panggang (tenderloin of pork) with Babi Panggang sauce. A note on the pork: my mother had invited us to lunch one day but forgot to tell us (she said she did and we said we'd go but I don't recall the conversation taking place). She had bought enough food to serve 10 but since we weren't about to go to lunch that day, I suggested she keeps the pork for the New Year's Eve dinner. What I hadn't realized was that it wasn't pork tenderloin but some mixture of pork loin stuffed with ground pork covered by 2 large pieces of crusty bread and wrapped in bacon! WTF. Oh well, no panic, I told myself. After all we had beef, chicken and fish already... However, Eric managed to take all the pork pieces apart, removed the bread and put it back together so we could marinate it in more spices for a while. We then baked it in the oven surrounded by shredded white cabbage and served it with a sauce that very much resembled sweet and sour. This was also a favorite dish of one of the guests. Forgive me but I just cannot remember who said what and as I said I didn't ask for a score.
Probably the least favorite dish was Sambal Goreng Buncis which was basically spiced French beans in tomato sauce. It was nice but a bit non descriptive compared to the rest of the food. I think it should have cooked less and it might have been better if I had added some sesame seeds to the beans. I forgot I still had them on the stove end ended up burning the pot! I hope Stella and Iacopo managed to clean it up...
By now everyone was getting seriously stuffed and I guess it was time for me to announce to my parents that what they had been eating was not from a repertoire of special Italian recipes (nor English, nor from the US) but Indonesian food but by then they were so astonished at the fact that their daughter and her husband could whip up some delicious food that I could have told them anything!
Iacopo did say he liked the fish best and asked if I would publish the recipe on the blog (http://alpharecipes.blogspot.com/).
But it wasn't yet over: dessert! We opened the first bottle of spumante to sip with my Indonesian dessert (Spekkoek - thousand layers cake). This was really a Dutch legacy but it was an intriguing dessert as it was really made of butter, egg, sugar and spices. You make a batter, divide it in 2 and then mix one of the batters with a mixture of spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, aniseed, nutmeg and ginger). Then add one layer at the time and cook in the oven. The result was really excellent. It even looked nice as you could clearly discern the different colors of the layers so the inside of the cake looked striped. It was served covered in icing sugar.
Daniela had made some really delicious coconut cookies and one of Stella's friend (I forgot her name, shame on me) brought a really delicious chocolate and nuts cake to be served with whipped cream (but she insisted the cream was rancid so we left it aside).
We were at the dinner table for quite few hours and interrupted the eating and drinking only at midnight to welcome the New Year with sips of Spumante and to watch the fireworks show put up by the next door's neighbor in front of the house. My sister's home is in the Chianti hills in the middle of absolutely nowhere (it used to be a very large farmhouse that has been divided into 4 or 5 big units - a couple are for sale if you're looking for a new home in Tuscany). To get to her house you have to drive through an unpaved road. While I don't think I could permanently live there as it is a tad too far from everything, I have to say the night sky is really beautiful at night. Since there are no other houses in the vicinity, the night is very very dark and the stars really shine brightly. We were lucky as it was a beautiful clear night although quite cold!
I have to say that I had a few worries about the success of this dinner but I shouldn't have worried. Everyone ate (well the kids didn't - their loss), drank and was merry and so we had a lovely time. Eric and I were tired at the end of the evening and a bit relieved when Stella and Iacopo insisted on not having us washing up (I wonder if they felt the same way after they saw the kitchen...) so we all packed up at around 2am, got back in the cars (Eric had to scrape a thin layer of ice off the windscreen of the 500) and drove back to Florence ready to start 2011.
Here is the complete menu:
Sate Ajam - Chicken Sate
Ikan Pedis - Hot Fish Wrapped in Cabbage Leaves
Beef Rendang - Indonesian Beef Curry
Babi Panggang - Tenderloin of Pork
Sambal Goreng Buncis
Spekkoek - Thousand Layers Cake
Now, back in Atlanta, I am already planning my 2011 dinner parties... well, at least I am thinking of the next one which is Jordan...
Happy New Year to everyone!