Two Cooks Who Can “Stand the Heat”

On one Saturday afternoon, just as I was arriving back home on my bike from a long ride in the valley below, Paola and her cousin, Giuseppina, caught me and invited me to go with them to pick figs from an abandoned grove of trees. I was warned that they were not watered or cared for, but Giusy was sure that there were plenty of figs for all of us.

A bounty of figs from abandoned trees

A bounty of figs from abandoned trees

I put my bike away and followed them to a locked gate nearby, and we entered with a key that Giusy had borrowed, finding about five fig trees on a steep terraced hill. I was still in my biking shorts (a big mistake—the tiny tiger mosquitoes in the high grass had a buffet dinner on my bare legs), but I followed, helped to bend down branches to be stripped of figs, and soon we were carrying back a huge basket full of green figs with both dark red and light pink centers. We had eaten our fill of the best ones, under the trees as we picked, and headed back to my place nearby to divide the fruit. Giusy, it turned out, was still overwhelmed with figs from her own trees, and so Paola and I split the 30 or so pounds of fruit we had carried back up the hill from the trees.

Washed and sorted, ready to cook

Washed and sorted, ready to cook

Figs peeled and chopped for the jam

Figs peeled and chopped for the jam

In just an hour later, I had washed and sorted the figs (saving the best ones for eating fresh), peeled and diced most of them, and begun the process of making some fig jam (“marmalata di fici”). The color was dark, thanks to the many figs with deep red centers, and soon the combination of sugar, figs and orange zest (to enhance the fig flavor and cut the sweetness, a personal favorite) was boiling and reducing on my stove. When it reached a stage where I could see that it would jell, I filled four glass jars, and soon was hearing the “ping!” sound of the jar lids as they each vacuum-sealed.

Jam mixture ready for cooking

Jam mixture prepared for cooking

Finished jam, ready to pour hot into prepared jars

Finished jam, ready to pour hot into sterilized canning jars

By the time I had finished, it was nearly time to show up at Paola and Leonardo’s for my invitation to “pizza night.” Arianna was going out with Luca than night, so just the three of us would be sharing a casual dinner of pizza and beer. I arrived as Arianna finished up the last of the pizzas (cherry tomatoes, scallions and rosemary, plus olive oil), with two others that Paola had assembled already on the stove, waiting for the oven to reach the proper temperature to start baking the pizzas.

Before her date, Arianna helps finish the last pizza

Before her date, Arianna helps finish the last pizza

Paola never seems to run out of ideas for mixtures for great pizzas, and this night was no exception. Big slices of eggplant covered one pizza brushed with tomato sauce, with lots of fresh mozzarella over the top. When that one came out of the oven, Paola added torn fresh basil—and it was a wonderful combination.

Eggplant and mozzarella pizza, awaiting the oven

Eggplant and mozzarella pizza, awaiting the oven

Paola adds fresh basil before serving

Paola adds fresh basil before serving

Baked eggplant pizza, with fresh basil on top

Baked eggplant pizza, with fresh basil on top

Another pizza was divided into two sections: one with sliced figs and Gorgonzola; and the second half was covered with zucchini, cheeses, and sliced “wurstel” (hot dogs). That made a total of four types of pizzas, with 18 slices in all. Somehow, Paola never seems to take into consideration that we are usually only three people at the table—but Leonardo often makes up for what Paola and I cannot eat.

Two combinations in one pizza

Two combinations in one pizza

Gorgonzola and fresh fig slices combined

Gorgonzola and fresh fig slices combined in one combo pizza

Pieces of zucchini and fig pizzas

Pieces of both zucchini and fig pizzas

Leonardo is always asking if I like the pizzas, and if I think they can open a pizza restaurant in California and be successful—because her toppings combinations are always good ones. I agree—they are sometimes unusual, but I have never had a pizza that I didn’t enjoy a great deal.

Tomato, scallion and rosemary pizza

Tomato, scallion and rosemary pizza

Beer and pizza--a winning combo, always

Cold beer and hot pizza–a winning combo, always

Paola and I both spent time in the kitchen that day (and I brought a jar of warm fig jam with me as a gift for them to try) and I think we both had a chance to prove that we can “hold our own” at the stove (my marmalata) and in the oven (her wonderful pizzas). It’s good to be us, enjoying the things we cook and bake, and also it’s good to be our friends who get to eat our cooking!

 

 

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