Cooking in Southern Italy, where we were located, is characterized by lots of tomato dishes, made with the freshest pomodore (tomatoes) possible. The Italian name for the tomato means “apple of love” or “golden apple,” because the first to reach Europe were yellow varieties. Initially, they were planted as ornamental plants, but were not eaten because they were thought to be poison. However the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas.
Tomatoes have healthy properties that are now recognized throughout the world. They are good sources of Lycopene, one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin K, Vitamin E and numerous other vitamins and minerals.
The Italians consume approximately 50kg (110lb) of tomatoes per head per year, most of this in the form of sauces and purees. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in an array of shapes, colors and sizes . The most common shapes are round (Beefsteak and globe), pear-shaped (Roma) and the tiny cherry-sized (Cherry and Grape). Tomatoes can be red, yellow, pink, orange, green, purple, or brown in color. The San Marzano plum tomato, an heirloom variety grown in volcanic soil on the slopes of Mt.Vesuvius near the southern Italian city of Naples, is probably the most famous tomato grown in Italy. It was supposedly a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples in 1770.
When you select tomatoes for purchase, smell the blossom (not stem) end. The most flavorful ones will have a rich tomato aroma. If they are not yet ripe, keep them in a sunny window sill until they are ready to eat. Remember, too, that it is best not to refrigerate tomatoes or their texture becomes mushy and the flavor fades.
I spent the morning dicing and chopping different kinds of tomatoes for the recipes that we were making that day. I started with plump ripe tomatoes for use in making cream of tomato soup. Back at school, we would have peeled and seeded the tomatoes first, but they didn’t bother with that here. As I diced the tomatoes, I found myself still wondering if I was destined to be a Chef or if the future had something else in store for me.
I picked another tomato out of the wooden crate and placed it on the cutting board. I had always believed that God gives us certain talents and then provides opportunities for us to develop them, although we make the choices. Maybe I should evaluate my strengths and weaknesses? Would that provide a clue? Let’s see… I am tidy, well organized, patient, and am good at nurturing. In fact, some times I try to do too much for my husband and children. Creating recipes that bring pleasure to others certainly utilized all my talents and I thoroughly enjoyed all that I was learning, so maybe I was on the right track.
After the employee lunch of sliced pork roast, steamed zucchini and macaroni and cheese, I changed into a fresh apron and followed Alessandro down the steps to the restaurant by the pool to help with lunch service.
The special of the day was a sautéed sea bass, garnished with some of the tomatoes that I had chopped in the morning.
“You know how to make Caesar salad?” asked Alessandro as he gently shook the sauté pan containing the sea bass back and forth. “You teach me?” This surprised me. Wasn’t Caesar Roman? Surely every Italian chef knew how to make Caesar salad.
“Yes, I make Caesar salad. I write it down for you.” I pulled out the little tablet that I kept in the pocket of my chef’s pants and, mulling over the proper Italian terms, I wrote the recipe down for Alessandro. Maybe Eric was right – I could teach them something.
Later that afternoon when I returned to Positano, I headed down to the beach. I had heard that there were shards of pottery washed smooth by the sea lying along the beach much as we find beach glass in the states. I wanted to collect some of it and maybe make a necklace or bracelet when I returned home. I had forgotten that there was a music festival taking place in Positano this week. A huge wooden platform was set up on the beach as the stage for a series of performers that begin serenading the tourists at dusk with music that varied from jazz to classical.
I removed my sandals and walked in the cool sand looking for “beach pottery,” as the words of an Italian love song filled the air. It reminded me of the Andrea Bocelli CD “Romanza” that I listen to at home, and made me think of Craig. I had been away from home only a few weeks, but it seemed like much longer. As I bent down to retrieve a piece of blue and white pottery the size of a quarter, my cell phone rang.
“Hi, Mom. It’s Gretchen. What are you doing?”
“Gretchen! What a nice surprise! I was just collecting bits of pottery on the beach to bring back home. I thought maybe I could figure out how to make some jewelry out of it. What are you doing?”
“I can’t promise anything for sure, but I was thinking of coming to visit you. I have a trip coming up to Rwanda and since I have to change planes in Europe, I thought I might be able to stop in Rome and come down and see you for a couple of days.” Gretchen and her husband, Andrew, had spent their honeymoon in Positano so she was familiar with where I was working.
“That sounds like a great idea,” I responded. “We have a sofa that you can sleep on.” I reminded myself to make sure that Ben wasn’t going to be using it. Gretchen was very eager to hear about everything that was going on in the kitchen. We spoke for several minutes before she had to go. I hoped she would be able to make it to Italy.