A desire to escape city life led Kate Winslow and her husband to the most serendipitous of arrangements: a year in Sicily, drinking in local culture and researching their inaugural cookbook.
They'll share their experiences at noon Dec. 15 at Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson, where they'll demonstrate recipes and sign copies of the book, "Coming Home to Sicily: Seasonal Harvests and Cooking from Case Vecchie," written with Fabrizia Lanza. (Admission is free, but register ahead at marketdistrict.com.)
Ms. Winslow, who grew up in Edgewood, wrote for the now-shuttered Gourmet. But she and husband Guy Ambrosino, who had lived in New York City for several years, were just "done being in the city" by 2009, she said. The faltering economy only encouraged their exodus.
As they pondered where to land, a Gourmet co-worker plied some contacts to arrange a month-and-a-half stay for the couple with Ms. Lanza, who had just taken over running the Case Vecchie cooking school in Sicily. The deal was that the couple would teach some classes at the school and edit recipes for Ms. Lanza. On the side, Mr. Ambrosino, a documentary photographer, would take photos for use in the school's newsletter and website.
That the couple spoke neither Italian nor Sicilian was no hindrance; the school caters mainly to American, British and Australian guests who stay overnight on the grounds, taking perhaps a dinner class one night and then breakfast and lunch classes the next day. So Ms. Winslow and Mr. Ambrosino could teach in English.
Their son, Elio, meanwhile, attended a Catholic preschool in town and learned "sink or swim" to understand the locals, his mom said, to the point where he sometimes translated for his parents, despite being only 3.
A month after their arrival in Sicily, Ms. Winslow learned about the closing of Gourmet, which only seemed to confirm the couple's choice.
They went about soaking up Sicilian life, photographing the grape and olive harvests and observing the laborers in the fava bean and lentil fields right outside their apartment windows at the cooking school. Ms. Lanza spoke English, but none of the other workers did. But "everyone there was patient with us," Ms. Winslow said, and with many laughs and hand gestures navigated cross-cultural communication.
The month and a half stretched into almost three months, until mid-November 2009. Their life during those months couldn't have contrasted more starkly with life in New York City. "The working of the land is not hidden -- it's all in your face out there," Ms. Winslow said of the beautiful Sicilian landscapes dotted with agricultural fields. And the locals were "private about things," she said. "They thought it was kind of odd for people to come in and think how special this is."
With such photogenic material and a wealth of cooking school recipes before them, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Ambrosino began to contemplate a cookbook. Anna Tasca Lanza, Ms. Lanza's mother and the founder of the school, had written a successful cookbook in the early 1990s, so it seemed natural to try a second.
Meanwhile, the couple and Ms. Lanza clicked. Although Ms. Winslow and Mr. Ambrosino wanted to go home for the holidays, Ms. Lanza told them, "We have tasted each other now," and asked them to come back as soon as they could.
They returned for nine additional months in 2010, continuing to work at the school while writing a cookbook proposal. But the cookbook itself wasn't a reality until after they returned to the U.S., so the text emerged mainly from back-and-forth email drafts between Ms. Lanza and Ms. Winslow, each contributing equally to the writing. And Mr. Ambrosino found it necessary to make one extra trip to Sicily to photograph the tomato harvest, a key ingredient in an Italian fresh-ingredient cookbook.
The couple couldn't be more pleased with the finished product. Ms. Winslow had worked on other books at Gourmet, and Mr. Ambrosino had spent much of his career in photojournalism. But this was the "first book we felt so invested in," Ms. Winslow said, noting that she loves the fact that the book is peppered with action shots and landscapes as well as food photos. All the recipes were developed by Ms. Lanza and her mother. Ms. Winslow and Mr. Ambrosino hope to demonstrate four at their Market District appearance: Eggplant Caponata, Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Oregano (see below), Blood Orange Salad with Red Onion and Black Olives, and Grilled Sweet and Sour Squash.
The book has had the added effect of cementing the couple's future career plans. Before this book, Mr. Ambrosino had done no food photography other than the occasional fun shoot in their home kitchen. But photography is "about composition and light and being interested and being curious," he said, and his natural curiosity about the ways people grow, process and prepare food drove his ideas for the cookbook. Now he and his wife, living in Lambertville, N.J., are both embroiled in writing cookbook proposals, photographing and testing recipes for another author's cast-iron-skillet cookbook, doing photography for Applegate Farms organic and natural meat company, and hoping to do their own book again.
"We're super-focused on doing this together now," Mr. Ambrosino said.
Why bake when you can just take a little walk around a church social hall and get all you need? Here are three such events:
Regent Square: 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Waverly Presbyterian Church. $12 for a small box or $20 for a large box of homemade holiday cookies, plus homemade soup-to-go for $6 per quart. 412-242-0643 or waverlychurch.org.
Whitehall: Nut, apricot and poppyseed rolls ($13); lady locks ($8) nut horns ($10) and other homemade ethnic delicacies. 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Holy Trinity Cathedral. 412-882-3900.
Downtown: Stop by on your lunch hour! 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 14 at Smithfield United Church of Christ. 412-281-1811 or smithfieldchurch.org.
Ginger beer tasting: Sharp Edge Bistro Sewickley and Village Candy team up to present an adults-only tasting of retro ginger cocktails at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Village Candy in Sewickley. For ages 21 and over. Free, but register ahead by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. 412-741-1490.
Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Oregano
- 3 pounds potatoes
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, preferably wild
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
Cook whole potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender. Drain. When cool enough to handle, chop the unpeeled potatoes into large chunks. Heat the olive oil in a very large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then add the potatoes. Sprinkle the potatoes with the oregano and salt and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown and very crisp, 15 to 20 minutes (keep watch so the potatoes do not burn). Serves 4 to 6.
-- Fabrizia Lanza with Kate Winslow, "Coming Home to Sicily" (Sterling Epicure, Nov. 2012, $30)recipes - foodcolumn
Rebecca Sodergren: Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com and on Twitter: @pgfoodevents.