Comfort and Joy
Christmas is little more than a week away and our little town is hopping. From living nativity scenes that re-imagine village life at the time of Christ’s birth to the somewhat less charming Villagio di Babbo Natale (Santa’s Village) in our town’s main square, our wintry air is charged with the electricity of the season. And all this activity reminds us of what we cherish most at this time of year: a sense of community and belonging that we’re slowly but surely building here.
In contrast to last year, our first “full time” holiday season in Italy, we find ourselves with too many invitations and not enough time. There’s something about becoming a resident, not a tourist, that changes everything. We’re here to stay, not just for a few weeks or a month, so we’re collaborating on day trips, dinners, hikes, bike rides, holiday meals and house-sitting—pretty much the things you do in your own town and are thoroughly engaged in the life of the place.
As expatriate, it’s easy to forget that the people in your adopted home don’t really need to develop a friendship with you. They were born here, are surrounded by an extensive family network and lifelong friends and have complicated work lives that they carefully juggle among endless engagements. We, on the other hand, have left all of those relationships behind—at least for the time being—and hunger for the human connections that sustain us. So developing these new threads of familiarity takes time, but it’s so incredibly sweet when it happens.
On a more practical level, our time here has served to develop a wealth of practical knowledge. We know the best place to find utterly beautiful fish for the meatless vigilia di Natale, when and where to park our little car to ensure the closest walk to our house during the pouring rain and how to dry our clothes during the winter without a dryer. We’ve learned that our plans for the day could change at a moment’s notice, so flexibility and a sense of adventure have been our companions on incredible new adventures. And on San Martino (November 11th) gelato ceases to be offered at our local bar, replaced by seasonal chocolates until Easter.
We are settling in here in ways that continue to surprise and delight us. Still, our longing for our children, our friends and our own families that are so far away remains a gaping hole that cannot be filled by the joy we’ve found in new friendships. At times like Christmas, the ache is especially acute. No amount of Skype time, messaging and emails can bridge the miles and the sheer physical need to touch them all.
The other day, we brought lunch to a friend here who had recently suffered a mishap while negotiating a flight of especially treacherous stairs in his centro storico home. These staircases, typically made of limestone, granite or marble, often have an uneven
rise and a shallow tread. We’ve got three flights of them at our house, too, so we’re particularly attuned to the potential for disaster. Our friend was hospitalized, and then immobilized in bed and his companion was desperate since she’s caring for both a new baby and a teenager. We arrived with comforting winter dishes tucked away in baskets and joined them for a retelling of the story, savory stew and plenty of Puglia’s autoctonous susumaniello wine as a consolation. Isn’t this the essence of community? A year ago, we didn’t know this couple. Now we’re part of a web that reaches through town and out into the country, binding us just a little closer to our nuova storia in Italy.
Whether you’re in Italy or Iowa, when you share food that is meant to speed the healing process, make sure your contributions are especially comforting. It also helps if your dishes aren’t particularly fussy, travel well and are easy to reheat. I have a few seasonal standards that work well; last Friday’s lunch was no exception. Try this stew when it’s icy cold outside and you know your recipients love mushrooms of all kinds. Pair it with a classic pommes dauphinoise (creamy potato gratin with gruyere) or another type of potato gratin you like. A bitter winter greens salad or classic winter vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower in a mustardy vinaigrette cut the unctuousness of the gratin. And dessert? Domenica Marchetti’s chocolate zucchini cake from her phenomenal new book The Glorious Vegetables of Italy made with almond flour and extra virgin olive oil feels sinful but is actually health promoting. Community building never tasted so wonderful.
Spezzatino di Vitello con i Funghi—Veal Stew with Mushrooms
(adapted from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s Veal Stew with Wild Mushrooms in The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook)
2 lbs. fresh wild mushrooms (chanterelles or porcini are great)
1 oz. dried porcini
2 medium onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs. boneless veal shoulder, cut into small stewing pieces*
¼ to ½ cup all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 cup dry white wine
1 tsp. fresh thyme, minced (or ½ tsp. dried thyme)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
Clean the wild mushrooms carefully, but don’t wash them. Trim the tough (and dirty) stem ends and any soft spots. Brush away any leaves, twigs and obvious dirt that cling to the mushrooms, working gently with a soft brush or a sponge dipped in water and squeezed very dry. If you can’t find wild mushrooms, don’t despair. Use a mixture of shitake and cremini mushrooms or whatever you can find on offer locally.
Put the dried porcini in a small bowl and cover them with very hot water. Let the dried mushrooms soak for half an hour. Roughly slice the fresh mushrooms into ½-inch pieces. Very small cremini or button mushrooms can be quartered. Dried porcini don’t need to be cut into smaller pieces unless they are very large. Set all of the mushrooms aside.
In a heavy skillet, sauté the onions in the olive oil over gentle heat until soft; about 15 minutes. Towards the end of this cooking time, add the chopped garlic and the parsley. Remove the mixture from the skillet and set aside; wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel. Return the heat to medium and add a little more olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
While the onions are cooking, remove the veal from the refrigerator and place the pieces on paper towels to absorb any moisture. Pat each piece of veal dry with a paper towel. Put the flour and a little salt and pepper to taste in a plastic bag and add the veal to the bag, no more than six pieces at a time. Shake the bag well so that each piece of veal is lightly coated with flour. Set the veal cubes aside, making sure that the flour-coated pieces don’t touch one another. Repeat until all of the pieces have been similarly coated.
When the oil is hot, add veal cubes to the skillet, making sure there is plenty of room around each cube. Brown each cube on all sides, then remove them to a plate while you finish browning subsequent batches of them.
Wipe the skillet with a paper towel once again, return the skillet to the stove, pour a little more olive oil into the skillet and add all of the mushrooms at once. The mushrooms should sauté over a lively flame. First they will absorb the oil, then they will start to release their moisture. After about 15 to 20 minutes, return the onions and veal cubes to the skillet. Pour in the wine and the dried mushroom soaking liquid into the skillet. The liquid should just come up to the top of the meat; you may need to add a little stock or water. Add the fresh or dried thyme, stir well, and taste for salt and pepper.
Simmer the stew uncovered for about 45 minutes. Then, raise the heat to high and cook for about 5 minutes. If you have too much liquid at this point, remove the veal cubes and continue to cook the liquid over very high heat to reduce its volume. Return the veal cubes to the stew, taste for seasoning and add a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavor.
Serve immediately or cool to room temperature and store overnight in the refrigerator—this stew is perhaps even more wonderful the second day. Serve with a potato gratin if you are transporting the stew. If you’re eating the stew at home, it pairs brilliantly with fresh, pillow-y soft polenta.
Serves 6 with enough leftovers for someone’s lunch the next day.
* If you can’t find good-quality, humanely raised veal, feel free to substitute pork or lamb.