The Heart of It
When we moved to Martina Franca for good, we knew what we would find. We’d been coming here for years and years, sometimes for a few months at a time. We knew our neighbors, where to buy mozzarella and which nearby beaches have the best sand and the shadiest parking. We chose this new life with our eyes wide open.
Yet every day here has been a revelation. From the decidedly odd to the warm and wonderful, discovery abounds. We’ve made new friends along with the old, found country roads we never new existed and have joined most of Italy in serial phone company and natural gas provider switching. From Vespa-riding Santas at Christmas to shrouded processions of the faithful on patron saints’ days, our lives have a new, captivating rhythm. So it is with more than a little bemusement when I follow online forums populated by expatriates originally from all over the world who live in Italy. Many of the individuals who post frequently are lovely, sharing experiences good and bad with humor and equanimity, finding the absurd and the wonderful in everyday life. But other voices are, by turns, angry, resentful, condescending and deeply unhappy to be here. The focus is invariably negative, moving
quickly from peevish observation to Hyde Park Corner-like ranting, taking no prisoners along the way. It takes my breath away, so I’ve chosen a hiatus from the virtual soapbox lately.
Instead, I think often about what makes our experience what it is. Of course we experience setbacks here. We are often confused and occasionally indignant about cultural norms for which we have no real frame of reference. But instead of railing against the injustice of it all, we tend to laugh. If we’re truly stumped, we ask friends for help. We try hard to refrain from passing judgment. Mostly, we just open our hearts and look for common ground. And laugh some more.
We’ve met other like-minded expatriates here. It’s been an unexpected benefit of our Italian experience to learn something more about cultures that aren’t American or Italian while living in neither of those countries. Often these perspectives help us cope with the inexplicable while helping us embrace still more ways to live a good life. Through one of these friends, I discovered an English chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with whom I’ve fallen a little bit in love. Perhaps you know him through his Dorset, England restaurant, River Cottage. His recipes, though English, embrace locally grown and raised foods prepared thoughtfully with deep, infused flavor, which is actually perfect for the bounty of Pugliese ingredients we use every day. And when we need a break from orecchiette, I’ve turned repeatedly to his River Cottage Every Day book for inspiration.
In the market the other day, one of my favorite vendors gave me basketful of butternut squash. They aren’t all that common here and she told me no one knew what to do with them. She thought I might put them to good use, so I carried them home and set about roasting, steaming and braising them in pearl barley risotto. Then another friend gave us a gorgeous pumpkin from his garden, so we were awash with the winter squash family. This time, I made an unusual squash soup from River Cottage Every Day featuring the very last of our mail order peanut butter from England. In many ways, this soup is a metaphor for our lives here. Local produce gifted by Italian friends, American-inspired peanut butter showcased in an English recipe in our Pugliese kitchen. It warmed our hearts.
Zuppa di Zucca—Butternut and Nut Butter Soup Ingredients: 1 butternut squash (or pumpkin), about 2 lbs. 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 small peperoncino (hot dried chili pepper), finely chopped A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated 1 small garlic clove, chopped Kosher or sea salt Freshly ground black pepper About 5-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock (see this quick stock recipe) ¾ cup crunchy or smooth natural nut butter (I used peanut; almond butter is great, too.) Juice of 1 lemon ½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley Method: Halve and peel the squash, then scoop out the seeds and cut the flesh into ½-inch cubes. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot, add the onion and cook gently until soft and translucent. If necessary, add a little water to keep the onion from browning as it cooks. Add the peperoncino, ginger and garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the squash, sprinkling a little salt and pepper over the top. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes.
Pour in the stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently, partially covered, for about 20 minutes, until the squash is soft—you should be able to mash it easily against the side of the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until very smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, put the soup in a blender but do it carefully in batches, filling the blending container no more than 1/3 full each time you blend. The hot soup expands in the blender and can easily create a kitchen disaster of epic proportions.
In a bowl, whisk the nut butter with a little of the hot soup until well blended. Return this mixture to the soup in the pot, stir well and heat through. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice and chopped parsley. Serve each portion with a dollop of yogurt and some toasted squash seeds, if you like. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uses lime juice in place of the lemon juice and cilantro in place of the Italian parsley, but we’re in Italy, where cilantro and limes are especially thin on the ground. Free free to improvise, wherever you are. Serves 6.