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Misguided

Milan's funky Navigli neighborhood at night. Photo by Matteo Carrasale, taken from the great article in La Cucina Italiana on Milan's aperitivo scene (click on photo to be taken to article)

Translating a guide book serves as a pretty good yardstick for measuring how well you know your town. I’ve been working on translating a guide to Milan for the last couple of weeks, and it makes me realize not so much that I don’t know my fair city (of the recommended activities, I’d done them all except for visit one out-of-the-way gelateria – OK, and I haven’t technically done a “walking tour of Art Nouveau architecture” but I have passed by and admired the buildings referred to in the guide), but that since I had a child, I just don’t get out enough.

A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I had a rare bambino-free Saturday night. The pressure was on to come up with something amazing to do. It felt like this was our ONE BIG CHANCE to have a social life. I looked through restaurant reviews and show listings and nothing really caught my eye. In the end, I told my husband that we should just go out for a nice aperitivo (Milan is famous for its aperitivo, which is like a happy hour but with large buffets of food that end up being a free dinner – read more about it in La Cucina Italiana magazine), which is something we haven’t done in a very long time. His response? “I think we are too old for aperitivo…”

It is true that aperitivo is also popular with a younger crowd, but I wasn’t planning on going to a place frequented by the hair-gelled 19-year-olds who throw back the Negronis while still seated on their scooters outside the bar. I was sure there had to be a place for us. Then in translating this guide, I came across a different kind of aperitivo. The Terme Milano (a spa and wellness center created inside some of the city’s old Spanish walls) near Porta Romana offers sparkling wine and a light buffet to those who enter the thermal baths after 5:30 p.m. As it says at the end of the video below “You bring the bathing suit. We will take care of the rest.” In fact, the price of admission (35 Euros after 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday) includes towels, robes, flip-flops and courtesy kit full of bath products. We haven’t tried it out, but since “taking the waters” is popular with the age-spot set (though in this era of plastic surgery and high-tech dermatological treatments, does anyone even get age spots anymore?), I don’t think there is any fear of being the oldest people poolside with our complimentary spumante.


Remember how I was extolling the virtues of my son’s preschool a couple of weeks ago? I’m still very happy with it, but the one major downside of preschool is that the kid picks up (and brings home) germs. Next to the lunch menu, the school posts the illnesses going around. About a month ago, it was scarlet fever (check, he got it). Then it was lice (dodged that one). He hadn’t been back at school but a few days when he got a nasty case of bronchitis, which he shared with the family and which has brought us all to our knees. I had a high fever for four nights straight and am still feeling all weak and wobbly.

This is all my way of saying that unless we want to talk about how many of those little packets of Kleenex I’ve gone through in the last five days (about 16 packs – I counted!), I have very little of blog-worthy to report. Yesterday while my son was playing with Play-Doh, and I was shivering under a blanket half supervising him and half reading the local weekly newspaper, a story caught my eye.

Apparently, for Mother’s Day the local McDonald’s opened up its kitchen so that mammas could come in and see how the food was prepared. Accompanying the article was a grainy photo of a group of women in hair nets and white chef’s coats standing in a sterile fast-food kitchen. I’ve noticed that McDonald’s here goes way out of its way to point out that the ingredients are 100 percent Italian and that the portions are smaller than in the U.S. As of yet, my son is not that interested in fast food (doesn’t really eat hamburgers and can take or leave french fries). We bought him a Happy Meal once, but he was more taken with the toy and my husband ended up eating the food.

Appealing to Italian mammas is probably another smart move on the company’s part. I’ve seen how the mothers pick apart the meals at preschool that I rave so much about and those are all fresh and cooked on site. The other day I heard one of the mothers complain to the teacher that that day’s lunch of lasagne and roasted chicken sounded too “heavy” for kids so small. You can’t please everyone, I guess. So, that’s all I’ve got. Can someone pass me the Kleenex?

Many Italian mammas got this azalea plant for Mother's Day. The plants were sold in piazzas all over the country and could be picked up on one's way to Sunday lunch. A gift not requiring much thought but at least proceeds went to a good cause!

On the weekends, we have a sort of breakfast non-routine. I eat cereal and drink hot tea while my son drinks his bottle of milk. My husband usually checks his email and eats nothing. Mid-morning, those two head out to the bar in the piazza and have “cappuccini” (a real cappuccino for my husband, “milk foam” for my son) together while I get things done around the house. For Mother’s Day, I wanted the three of us to sit down together for a “real American breakfast.”

Here there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as mother being treated to “breakfast in bed” or sent off for a spa day. It seems kind of like “business as usual” with mamme cooking a big Sunday lunch and then cleaning up after it. I told my husband, “Whatever you do, don’t go to the local piazza and buy me one of those lame azaleas that they sell to people who left it to the last minute to buy something for their mothers.” My husband quickly pointed out that the proceeds go to cancer research, so I assumed that was the gift he had in mind. Oh well, at least it would be for a good cause!

I recently bought a waffle iron on Italian eBay so my plan was to test it out for Mother’s Day. When I got the waffle iron, I realized it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It makes thin waffles (calling them “gaufre” in the recipe book) that are slightly thicker than an ice-cream cone. I decided to go ahead anyway with a banana waffle recipe I found on the Internet. The plan was to serve them with whipped cream since maple syrup isn’t readily available here, and I didn’t have time to track it down.

Mother’s Day morning I woke up and began the preparations for making waffles. My husband had his computer on the kitchen table checking his email, and my son was immersed in cartoons. Anticipation for the “big, American breakfast” did not seem to be building.

“Can you move your computer? I am making waffles and want to set a nice breakfast table,” I said to my husband.

“Waffles? Pesante…” said my husband. Since he normally doesn’t eat breakfast, a cracker would be “pesante” (heavy) to him.

I made the waffles and finally got everyone to the table. After a couple miniscule, very thin gaufre/waffles, my husband started holding his stomach dramatically and saying “I don’t know how I’ll eat lunch.” My son was more interested in playing with the spray can of whipped cream than eating his waffles.

This was not the Mother’s Day I envisioned, and it made me think of a post I’d read recently on Rebecca’s blog about raising children as an expat parent. Rebecca is an American married to an Italian. They live in Umbria (and rent out holiday apartments on their farm) with their two young sons. Recently, Rebecca’s eight-year-old son worked up the courage to tell her that he – gasp – does not really like peanut butter.

This got me thinking that today my two-year-old prefers cappuccino to waffles and tomorrow it may well be Nutella to peanut butter. And then what? Barbera to Budweiser? Mmm, in that case, I’d have to agree with him.

Easy chicken cutlet

Quickie toddler meal: ricotta with "vitamin-enriched" extra-virgin olive oil and avocado pieces served with breadsticks (in my son's "name" cup, which has been blacked out to protect the innocent mini gastronome!)

When I was pregnant with my son, I thought a lot about whether I’d raise him vegetarian since I am vegetarian. I decided that because my vegetarianism stems from being a really picky eater as a child (the thought of eating an animal has always made me gag) – and not from moral reasons – that it didn’t make sense to force him to eat the way I do. But because I do pretty much all of the cooking for our family, I didn’t know how I’d handle the situation. My husband is not vegetarian but on a day-to-day basis he ate what I ate, and if he wanted meat for dinner, he would buy himself a steak at the butcher’s and throw it on the grill. This system worked for us pre-child, but I wasn’t sure how it would work if I had two carnivores in the house. Well, we’ve crossed that bridge, and I think we’ve finally got a pretty good system down.

D is now almost two-and-a-half. He typically gets carbs at preschool for lunch (yep, he’s all about the primo course) so I like to try to give him protein at night. If I haven’t had a lot of time to cook, I’ll give him ricotta or even “la Feeeeladelfeeea” (Philadelphia cream cheese) and some breadsticks or tiny vegetable sticks to eat it with along with some prosciutto. Here they sell a lot of cheeses in these little cups that are perfect portion sizes for kids. And they also sell this special extra-virgin olive oil for children that is “vitamin enriched.” Because I’m a sucker, I buy it and I will sometimes drizzle that on his food. When I was a kid, I took those chewable Flinstones vitamins. My kid gets his vitamins in the form of extra-virgin olive oil.

Le ricette per il tuo bambino

If I’m forced to, I will cook meat, typically chicken. Milan is famous for its cotoletta, which is usually made with veal. Children especially seem to love the cutlet. I make an easy chicken cutlet in the oven. I got the recipe from a book called Le ricette per il tuo bambino (“Recipes for your child”), and I make it quite often. One interesting thing about this book is that the author often suggests using gomashio (a Japanese dry condiment made from sesame seeds that is used a lot in macrobiotic recipes) as a replacement for salt. I make my own gomashio by toasting sesame seeds and then grinding them down with the mortar and pestle and adding a touch of salt and some dried nori seaweed flakes, which are a great source of calcium and iron. I keep gomashio in the cupboard in a jar as a condiment just as I keep pesto in the fridge or freezer at all times – both are tasty and healthy additions to many meals.

Chicken cutlet so easy even a squeamish vegetarian can make it

1 chicken cutlet
2 teaspoons of bread crumbs
1 teaspoon of gomashio
Enough olive oil to brush over the cutlet
Optional: salt

Mix the bread crumbs and gomashio together in a bowl. Rinse the cutlet and pound it down with a meat tenderizer (or whatever you have at hand for this purpose). Brush the cutlet with oil and then put it in the bread crumb/gomashio mix making sure both sides are covered well. I usually cook this in the oven (180 degrees Celsius/325 Fahrenheit) on a greased pan for about 25 minutes or until it is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. If it is very thin, it will probably cook fast so check it after about ten minutes and flip it if you need to. You could also cook this the more traditional way and fry it in oil or butter on the stove, which might be more appetizing for an adult. Salt to taste at the end.

Traditionally the cutlet is served with a side of potatoes or salad. My son likes eating it with mayonnaise for some reason. Buon appetito!

Reminds me of one of those off-track betting places in New York City. Minus the drunken gamblers and other shady characters. The scent of desperation is the same...

I spent my morning here yesterday. It’s the hospital where I gave birth. The first time I walked into this place, I was carrying a cup of urine in a plastic farmacia bag and had no idea where I was supposed to go from here. The informazioni desk was closed. Anything you must do in the hospital here (and you must do many things in an Italian hospital that you’d do in your regular doctor’s office in the U.S. during a routine office visit) can’t be done until you check in and pay upfront in this big room. You take a number out of a machine that has cryptic instructions written on it, such as “Press one for tests and visits that may or may not be covered by the regional health plan.” There’s even a line to take a number and you can feel the impatience of the people behind you who just want to get their numbers and then go stand and wait under the digital boards until its their turn to wait some more.

The very first time I came here, it was too much pressure for a hormonal and nauseated pregnant woman.  I hightailed it out of there, chucking the bag of urine in a trash can. The pregnancy experience later became a book (or I should say manuscript as it wasn’t technically published in its entirety) and can be read about more in-depth here.

Anyway, yesterday I was here and since I have been half-naked in corridors throughout the place, I sort of felt right at home. That is until I got to my appointment and got a 30-minute tongue-lashing from the doctor who was supposed to perform a test on me and couldn’t do it because my primary care physician hadn’t written the correct thing on the referral. It was pretty much the equivalent of a “t” not having been crossed in medicalese, so it was my primary care physician’s fault not mine. “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the situation,” said the doctor who pointed out that both she and I had wasted a chunk of our morning and I had paid for a test that couldn’t be performed. Sigh.

So what did I do? I sat down in this big room feeling dejected and watched the numbers tick by as I ate a disgusting granola bar I’d bought at the supermarket the day before. I had bought it because the name me laugh. It was called “Mokaccino,” which does not sound like something that would normally appeal to Italians. Italians don’t even have a “k” in their alphabet though using English spelling sometimes makes things “cool.” Slathered in cheap milk chocolate, there was nothing “mocha-” or “cappuccino-” like about this granola bar. And because my breakfast was so lacking in inspiration and healthful properties, I had to fantasize about the things I’d cook later on to redeem myself. When life gives you lemons…

This may or may not be my son eating/playing with his first homemade pizza at age one. I may or may not have made it with a polenta and wheat crust.

The blogs I like the most give me a sense of the writer, what he or she really thinks and the things that really go on in his or her life. Typically, the more personal a post is (without taking the oversharing to an extreme, of course), the more interesting it is to me. When I write, I like to “keep it real.” Since this is a blog that will touch on a lot of topics that are near and dear to me, I imagine I’ll be pretty forthcoming. That said, now that I have a child, I’ve become a bit more paranoid and protective. It’s one thing if my name and face are out there, but how much should I expose my son? Do I merely call him “D”? Do I post pictures of him on the site? What do you guys do?

Isn’t that the story of my (Italian) life? See, first course in Italy is the carbs – usually pasta or rice. Second course is usually meat or fish. Since I’m a really strange eater for some inexplicable reason that goes way back to my early childhood vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, much cheese or dairy, I usually skip second course. My two-year-old started preschool a few months ago, and it would seem that though I’m not raising him vegetarian, he also doesn’t have much use for il secondo piatto either. Every day when I pick him up from preschool, I stop outside the room where the teachers have listed what the kids ate that day. Next to my son’s name, more often than not they write “All first course, no second course” or sometimes he takes “bis” (seconds) on the first course.

And the school lunch menu? To die for. There’s not a sloppy joe or a french fry in sight. The kids eat in courses – antipasto, primo and secondo and everything is cooked fresh in the school kitchen each day by robust older ladies wearing hairnets and wielding rolling pins. No need for a Food Revolution here. I’ll be posting some recipes straight off the menu, like apple-and-cheese risotto and lentil cakes (in Italian called “polpette,” which is basically a meatball but in this case there is no meat), which aren’t just fit for bambini. Viva la pappa!

P.S. I know this post is lacking an image or media of any kind, which is a Web 2.0 no-no, but I’m still working on all of that. Isn’t the header cool, though? It is the handiwork of one of my oldest and dearest friends who happens to be a kick-ass designer. More info on her later!