Back when I used to lead backpacking trips, we had this saying: Finish with style. It meant ending the hike with as much aplomb as you had when you started. It meant neatly packing your bag on your last morning and calmly, strongly walking into the valley rather than slopping down the slope to civilization and a warm blueberry pie.
Let me tell you how our vacation ended, and you can tell me how much style we finished with: For lunch, we passed a yogurt bucket full of cold cooked chicken in tomato sauce around the car and piled it on Saltines with our fingers. The car was cramped, and at least one of us always had to sit in the so-called “dungeon” back seat, named for the lack of leg room and the pile of luggage towering up the left side. We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours as the Alps softly unfolded outside the windows, and a drizzly rain sent slim sheets of mist through the crags. The dog, fur filled with nubby burrs, sent white and black hair tufting through the car.
And here’s how we started the week: A rose and peach sun set over dusty olive trees and yellow sunflowers, heads heavy with seeds. The red sand city of Arezzo shimmering beyond the hills. Behind us, the villa cool and impassive; stones worn by 14th century nobles and servants scurrying with firewood and food, and later, the soft pad of praying nuns. For dinner that night, we walked down the gravel path to the nearby hilltop restaurant, where the only thing to think about was how many the grill platter should serve and when to uncork the wine already sitting on the table.
There was very little waiting to begin, as the waitress brought out platters of food. Garlic-y bruschetta thinly spread on crisp toast, fresh greens with balsamico, salty grilled steaks and ribs, rabbit, home-cured sausage, rounds of soft, rich liver. Family vacation had begun.
Besides gelato – and there was certainly plenty of gelato – we didn’t eat out much in Italy. We cooked most of our many meals in the villa’s kitchen, our backdrop the ancient, giant fireplace and the rolling Tuscan hills.
There was a different breakfast for every morning. Crepes filled with nutella and honey, jam, or cinnamon-sugar and applesauce. Bircher müsli for the after-yoga crowd: oats softened with yogurt and milk, sweetened with fresh fruit and peanut butter. Some days there were scrambled eggs and sausage and home-fried potatoes. Most days there was perfectly ripe cantaloupe.
For dinners, there’d be freshly purchased Italian pasta paired with any number of sauces: Pumpkin ravioli with butter-sage sauce, spinach tortellini with basil-cream, cheese ravioli with tomatoey marinara. Salads every night, made with Italian balsamico, regional oil, and flakes of shaved parmesan. Homemade pizzas topped with cheese and salami, onions, and basil. Grilled zucchini and eggplant. Fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with cheese. And every candlelit meal accompanied by wine and good conversation.
But our greatest culinary achievement was Chopped. Chopped, like its television predecessor, is a cooking game in which teams of two compete to create the most delicious meal from surprise ingredients chosen by an opposing team. Because we’re not all Iron Chefs, we modified the rules for maximum deliciousness: After being randomly assigned a course (appetizer, side, entrée, etc.), each team was randomly assigned to select three mystery ingredients for another team. Teams had 15 minutes to run through the grocery store, guessing at labels in Italian and selecting the strangest combination of edibles they could (keeping in mind they had to eat whatever came out at the end). After presenting the mystery ingredients, teams then had another 20 minutes to come up with a recipe that incorporated the surprise ingredients and shop for whatever they needed to round out their dish.
Unlike TV Chopped, there was no limit on cooking time, but like Chopped, dishes were judged based on presentation, creativity, taste, and how well the mystery ingredients were transformed and incorporated into the dish.
This is the second time I’ve played Chopped, and what’s always incredible to me is how inventive people can be when pushed outside their cooking comfort zones. And how delicious everything always is.
A giant watermelon tower surrounded by mini open-faced sandwiches was the result of the appetizer team’s gifts of watermelon, avocado, and focaccia. Another team’s carrots, prunes, and tahini became freshly ground hummus (a fun process when your Medieval villa doesn’t come equipped with a food processor) lightened with ground carrots and served with cheese-stuffed prunes and dates.
Green beans, flour and red wine turned into a side of beans, blanched in rosemary water, drizzled with red wine-balsamic glaze and served with a pistachio-parmesan crisp.
For the vegetarian main course, there was a silky risotto, dubbed the Arezzoto for nearby Arezzo. Given ginger, firm ricotta and pistachios, the team sautéed mushrooms and asparagus in ginger, then made a risotto of the vegetables, ricotta, and Arborio rice. Pistachios and a sprig of rosemary freshly plucked from the garden provided the perfect finishing touch.
David and I were in charge of the meat main course. With three packages of ground beef just begging to be used in the fridge, and our last day coming up soon, we were given an extra mandatory ingredient. With our other mystery ingredients of apple juice, grapes, and almonds, our offering to the table was Moroccan sliders. Seasoned with crushed almonds, cinnamon, chopped garlic, onion, and gorgonzola, the burgers were topped with an apple juice, grape, and balsamic vinegar reduction as well as slightly charred onion, sautéed mushrooms and fresh bitter greens. (Recipe coming soon…)
It was a feast. The candles glimmered as each team presented their dish to the table. We ate everything up, even the ceviche, David’s bonus presentation, just because nobody had ever had Colombian ceviche, made with ketchup, mayonnaise, garlic, and lime before. (Again, recipe coming soon…)
Of course there was voting – but what does it matter what the outcome was. We all won.
So before the judging commences about whether or not we finished in style, let me mention this: the chicken in the yogurt container that we spooned onto saltines with our fingers was delicious. We’d made it for dinner the night before from all the food remaining in the house. The tender chicken had soaked up the taste of basil, rosemary, and herbs de provence, the onions and crushed tomato in which it had been cooked. The saltines may have scattered crumbs everywhere, but each little bite was a perfect memory of the Italy we were leaving behind.