Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hotel Star Ratings in Italy and Europe

If you ever travel to Europe, you have to know that the star rating here is a little skewed from our standards in America. I'm sure many of you have heard this before, but if you haven't, please keep in mind that the star rating for European hotels are usually one star less from what we expect. So if it says that its a 4-star hotel, it's probably a 3-star and maybe even possibly a 2-star... eeek... I know, scary right?

Well, I am currently looking for a hotel to stay in at Rome at the beginning of September for the Guns 'n' Roses concert we are going to (so excited!) Anyways, I have to say, I don't know what I would do without TripAdvisor. It is truly a lifesaver! And the funny thing is, that almost 90% of the hotel reviews I am reading has to comment about the star rating and how it should be lower than what is listed. Theory and stereotype confirmed! Myth confirmed! =)

So please, do yourself a favor, and ALWAYS look up reviews on TripAdvisor for any hotels you book. If you are traveling on a budget and don't really care, then more power to you. But, if you are hoping to stay in a luxurious European hotel, do NOT let the pictures fool you. Either they have a REALLY good photographer or you really can't see the dirtiness in the pictures or the pictures were taken when the hotel was barely built.... 50 years ago....

Thank you TripAdvisor... =) I heart you...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Story of Sant'Anna

So Sant'Anna falls on July 26th of every year and is my "onomastico" as they call it here in Italy. I am sure Catholics and Christians are well aware of this and how every day is dedicated to a saint or of some religious event. I, on the other hand, was not aware and surely never celebrated it in the States, let alone were my parents aware when they named me. But here in Italy, your "onomastico" is just as important as your birthday.

So, I just have to share how touched I was when my husband's family came to give me their wishes and shower me with gifts. It was a surprise and surely unexpected. I am so happy to have them as my family and they have definitely made my transition here in Italy much easier.

So a little bit that they taught me yesterday about Saint Anna is that she was the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus Christ. Pretty big deal right? I would say. =) The story bears that Anna and her husband Giacomo, after years of childlessness, were visited by an angel who told them they would conceive a child. For this, Anna promised to dedicate the child to God's service. Giacomo and Anna were believed to have given Mary to the service when she was three years old. Thus, Anna is known as the patron saint of women in labor.

I love it. I can't believe that I have gone my whole life not knowing the history behind my name. All I ever thought about before was how common my name was and how I wished I had a more unique name. Gosh, doesn't that make me sound so L.A.? haha... Well this was how I thought when I was a kid. Obviously I have gotten over that. But, after hearing this, it makes me appreciate my name even more and it's a nice, wholesome view of names rather than our generation now that only refers to meaning of names.

Oh, how we have tainted traditions and gone away from the roots of everything and move to the superficial.... It's nice to know that traditions are still followed here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Project "Tomato Sauce" 2010

So I have been getting so many inquiries from my friends and family when I talk about how my family here in Italy makes their own tomato sauce every year. I mean it blew my mind the first time I heard about it and couldn't even imagine what it entailed. However, it is very common for Italians to make their own tomato sauce for a couple reasons. First of all, they use tomato sauce like Chinese eat rice.... it's a staple. Secondly, they have easy access to purchase a large amount of tomatoes since there are fields all around them. Thirdly, they can stick with someone they trust and ensure that no medicines have been used. Fourthly, store-bought tomato sauces contain preservatives and who knows what else. So, once a year in the months of July and August when tomatoes are best for picking and grow naturally, Italian families everywhere get together and make their own tomato sauce to last well over a year. To them, it's just another chore they are doing, to me, it's a learning process and a beautiful experience.
Okay, just to give you a little run down of the process and what
it entails... And unlike what my friend thinks, we do not put them in a huge container and stomp on them with our feet as Lucy did with grapes. =) So I apologize but I will have to kill that stereotype.

1. Wash all the bottles that have been saved up for the year and allow them to dry.
2. Start picking out all the stems and bad tomatoes from the crates.
3. Rinse and wash all the tomatoes a bucket at a time.
4. Start boiling a huge bucket of water over a big fire. And when I
say huge I mean like the picture below:
5. Once the water is boiling, dump in a load of tomatoes to cook.
6. Once they are softened, about 20 minutes, drain them in a basket with a linen cloth to drain the water.
7. Then put them in this machine that separates the juice from the pulp. As seen in this picture below:
8. Then add salt to the sauce that has been produced and mix.
9. Then start filling up your bottles with the sauce!
10. Some of the bottles will just have sauce. In other bottles, we fill them with fresh tomatoes and then fill in the rest of the open gaps with tomato sauce and top it off with a couple basil leaves. See picture below. Don't the tomatoes look perfect?
11. Let the bottles cool then top them off with their caps.
12. In another HUGE container, start filling them up with the bottled tomato sauce laying down.
13. Once the container is filled about 7/8 up, fill the container with water.
14. Start a fire underneath and cook once again until the water boils.
15. Once the water boils, blow out the fire, but leave the bottles in there to sit until the next day for cooling and removal.
16. This second time cooking allows the bottles to seal tightly and with the salt added allows the tomato sauce to be preserved and stay good for well over a year in "natural" preservation. Another reason why the sauce doesn't go bad is that the tomatoes are picked from their vines at the exact appropriate time they should be picked. This is the key point to remember here.

* Please note that Steps 5 to 8 are repeated however many times you have of crates of tomatoes. On our first round, we had 350 kilograms of tomatoes (around over 700 lbs) and it was about 6 rounds of boiling making around 180 liters of tomato sauce. This was day one, day two is next week and my husband's dad wants to make 400 kg at that time!

And that, my friends, is tomato sauce made the genuine Italian way! Cool right? It's a whole lot of work and a lot of sweat and some bickering amongst the family, but I love it! =) There is truly nothing like traditions to get the family together. Hope you learned a thing or two and enjoyed my reenactment. =)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Guiltless Oven-Baked Pasta


So we all know how absolutely yummy and delicious a nice plate of lasagna or baked rigatoni is with its layers of meat, tomato sauce and cheese. However, we also know how extremely full and guilty we may feel after eating it. In an effort to eat more healthy and get all the guilty pleasures of a baked pasta without the guilt, I have invented my own baked pasta that will leave you satisfied but feeling light and far from guilty. In this dish, I take away the fattening cheese and the greasy ground beef but keep the flavor and fulfillment in tact.

Stuffed Pasta Shells

Servings: 4
150 grams of large pasta shells
500 grams of ground chicken breast
1 medium-sized brown or white onion diced
1 large carrot diced
1 cup and half of frozen spinach
1 cup of chicken broth
1 bottle of store-bought tomato sauce (I make this from scratch but you can buy the bottle since everything else is very time consuming)
salt, black pepper, olive oil

First, bring one pot of water to a boil for the pasta shells. Once it is boiling, throw the pasta shells in (with a little salt). For the pasta shells, make sure to cook them al dente. If the package says 14 minutes, cook it for 12 minutes and then remove. Once you drain the water from the pasta, rinse the pasta through with cold water and set aside.

If you are unfortunate like me and cannot find a butcher who will grind up chicken breast for you, then go ahead and buy whole chicken breast and put it in another pot of boiling water. You can cut them into smaller pieces to cook more quickly. Once they are cooked through, remove and cut/shred into tiny pieces to be used for the stuffing and set aside. Otherwise, if your local supermarket supplies ground chicken breast, then you are set and ready with this step.

Heat up a large pan and drizzle with oil. Then add the onion and carrot. Cook until the onion is translucent and then add the shredded chicken to the pan. Cook for another two minutes and then add the spinach. Cook for another minute and then add one cup of chicken broth and cook until the broth has evaporated. Add black pepper to taste. Then remove the stuffing from the heat and transfer to a bowl to cool down.

In another pot you should have already heated up your tomato sauce. I personally do not like store-bought tomato sauce or do find that I have to add more for flavor. Based on your own preferences, add garlic, oregano, salt, basil, black pepper, etc. to taste as you like it.

Okay, now that everything has been prepped and cooked we are ready for stuffing. In a large casserole, pour a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the casserole. Then, start taking one shell at a time and spooning in the stuffing. Then place them nicely in rows in the casserole until you have finished stuffing all of them. Once you are done, pour another layer of tomato sauce on top to fully cover all the shells.

If you must have cheese, go ahead and grate some parmesan cheese on top since it is the least fattening (mozzarella is the best though....). Place in oven and bake for about 45 minutes at 375° F.

Remove, serve, and enjoy! =)

I hope you like this recipe as much as my husband loves it!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

An Italian Wedding

I have had the fortune of experiencing many weddings of different cultures and all of them amaze me and touch my heart. For those of you who know me, you know that I loooooove weddings. Everything about them. There's just something about the celebration of love bringing together all your loved ones on one special day that is just magical. It's the one day a little girl dreams of all the time, the day a parent bittersweetly shares, and a day that can never be forgotten.

In Italy, I have yet to attend a true Italian Wedding but I have had the pleasure of witnessing all the details of the before and after. My neighbor just got married this past Sunday and it was such a beautiful and heartwarming morning. As usual, she got ready in her home and had hair and make up done at home. The staircase leading up to her home was wrapped in flowers for the Big Day. Then slowly, you would see people starting to gather outside at the bottom of our staircase. My husband and I joined them as we awaited for the Bride to come down. She then showed up at the top of the staircase and was welcomed by an applause by all of us. She was then accompanied down the stairs by her father for pictures and to more applause. Once she got to the bottom of the stairs she was greeted with a bunch of kisses and best wishes from people from the town. And these are just acquaintances, not even guests of the Wedding but people that know her and wanted to give their blessings. A very sweet gesture.

They then set off in their cars to head to the church where her fiance awaited. Of course, all along the way, the train of cars were honking their way through our streets. The Chinese do this as well as other cultures... It's nice to see things in common with different cultures. =)

After about an hour ceremony in the church, they come out and take more pictures and are greeted by more people giving them their best wishes. Then it is off to the reception. However, before heading to the restaurant, they make one more round honking around their home town(s). The honking truly does convey the accelerated excitement that the bride and groom are now married. When arriving back into their hometown they are greeted by some of the town people who have decided to put a ribbon along the street for them. Almost like a ribbon cutting ceremony, they await for the Bride and Groom to come and get out of the car to cut the ribbon and be given even more happy wishes! I love this part. Sometimes a couple can end up coming across a few of theses and are so touched by the overwhelming love and support by the people of the town.

Then they are off honking away to head to the reception where the reception normally starts around 2:00 in the afternoon and ends around 10:00 in the evening! Eight hours of eating. Now, is that a party or what? There are about ten courses in an Italian Wedding and it is truly a party where everyone is eating and drinking and having a good time.

My mother-in-law tells me that we live in the best area. We are in the town center and the newly married always pass our street. And she is right! Even though I may not know the couple, I loooove it. I love coming out to my balcony once I start hearing a plethora of honking and watch as the Bride and Groom come in their car. Then there is always the couple that own the Fish Shop (Pescheria) below us that have the ribbon cutting. Then the Bride and Groom walk to the bar a little more down where the bar owner pops a bottle of champagne for them. Like I said, it's magical. =)