Balsamic Apple and Pecorino Toasts

Armed with the new understanding that I have to be unflinchingly kind to myself nearly all the time, I set out to enjoy a city, dammit. The trip from New Zealand to Italy took almost two days, including eighteen hours in the air from Auckland to Doha, the longest flight in the world. Arriving in Florence, one line for non-EU passport holders, which was only me, a "prego" and a stamp. No questions. Welcome to Italy. It was too easy, too pleasant. I came to love this attitude, a happy marriage of infinite stores of patience and plain good living that was so soothing to my natural state of agitation.

Not immediately though. Unbelievable jet lag kept me up until sunrise night after night, and my hopelessness and loneliness had dutifully tagged along on my trip back across the world. Do you know what having no hope feels like? It's permeating, damp winter chill that reaches your bones no matter how much you layer up. You can't sleep because your mind is spinning with all the shit that you did wrong that day and all the shit that you have been doing wrong all of your life. You sleep as late as possible just to pass the time, and when you wake up, you sigh with exasperation: how am I going to make it through another one of these? I'm just going to end up disappointing myself. 

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I signed up for a bunch of tours and tried to ensure that I always had somewhere to go in the morning so that I didn't sit around my apartment moping. I aggressively allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. Italian food is so beautiful. I bought myself new clothes, as I crucially needed some warm things, shushing the calculations in my head about how much I was planning on wearing them and how many outfits I could make with them in an impossible effort to determine their exact worth in the long-run.

After a few days of this kind of fake-it-til-you-make-it therapy, my sleep schedule normalized, and I woke up excited. I particularly loved just walking out my front door into the old, narrow street, gloriously empty and quiet in the first early hours, for a day in this city where everyone was kind but no one bothered me.

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Let me tell you a story. Six years ago, after I graduated college, I moved to Tel Aviv, invited to stay and be taken care of by this sexy dreadlocked DJ I had met while studying abroad there. I accepted, because as should be apparent to you by now, I take great leaps for men that I'm convinced are going to fill in my missing pieces. When I got there, he had cut off his dreads and become an actor. It only took him two weeks to kick me out of his apartment, a decision he blamed on his roommate. Luckily, I have family in Tel Aviv, and they graciously took me in until I found a job as a waitress and got an apartment. Four months later, my parents came to visit me. As my mom tells it, I had one cup, one plate, one fork and one knife, and shower curtains hanging over my windows. I was afraid to go outside when I wasn't working - I spoke very little Hebrew and was worried people would judge me and shopkeepers wouldn't be able to help me. I felt like everyone was looking at me, even that my neighbors across the street could see me through my windows and were laughing at me. The men were super aggressive, and just serving at the bar was enough contact for me to never go out socially. My mom marched, with me in tow, into every store on the main drag, to get proper curtains, a toaster oven with a hot plate on top, more cups and plates and forks and knives, a new filter for my air conditioner so it wouldn't drip on my head, and then left me all of the clothes she had brought with her, khaki shorts and pants from Gap that were perfect for working in the heat.

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This is what I did for myself in Florence, which I will always remember as the place where I was happy after so much pain. And not just my recent pain. The pain of years of not allowing myself to have exactly what I want. That doesn't mean I outfitted myself in Gucci and ate every meal at Michelin-starred restaurants, though I would like those things. It's actually much simpler. An Italian told me that he loved traveling to places where he didn't speak the language because he thought being forced to communicate non-verbally, like with universal hand signals, was an enjoyable way of connecting with people. I thought about that as I popped into every store, apologizing endearingly in basic Italian for only speaking English, finding a tailor for my ripped jeans, trading in my behemoth DSLR camera for a sleek mirrorless that would be easier to travel with, making conversation about bread, standing at espresso bars, digging through vegetables and fruit and clothes at my local market, saying yes to dinners and hikes and to myself - I cast aside everything I thought one SHOULD be doing in Italy and did what felt good to me. I resolved my immediate needs without analyzing them. I lived like I lived there, relaxing into a routine of coming home after a day of wandering the cobblestones, cozying up with milky tea and whatever cookies I had found most appealing in the bakeries that day, watching a little stupid television before settling in for a night of editing photos and writing. And I forgave myself for everything over and over and over again. I wrote it in my journal. I whispered it to myself in bed. I said it to my reflection in the mirror.

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The voice in my head, the one that's usually hurling insults at me, got quieter. Quieter than it's ever been in my life. Like it's running out of things to say, realizing that trying to manage my life with pure self-disdain hasn't made for a very pleasant 29 years. I swear, before now, being friends with myself (ugh, ME? fat ugly loser me?) had NEVER crossed my mind, because I'm not perfect enough to be worth even acknowledging. And my reasoning: how will I ever get better (thinner, chill-er, cleaner, socially adept, more intelligent, more employable, more dateable) if I'm easy on myself? Well...sorry, but buying myself beautiful pastries and holding my own hand and prancing through museums and laughing at my own jokes is really fun. Putting on clothes, skipping the part where I stare at myself from every angle until I identify the imperfections, where a dart in my sweater makes me look I have an extra half-inch around my waist, and I have to change three times and it takes an hour to get out of the house and I'm miserable anyway; instead doing a little "lookin good gurl" dance in the mirror and leaving. And that's how you treat a friend.

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Balsamic Apple and Pecorino Toast

Serves 1

You may encounter three kinds of pecorino in the store: young, semi-aged, and mature. The young cheese is the softest, mildest, and meltiest, while the mature cheese is crumbly and dry and packs a walloping flavor. I chose semi-aged pecorino for this toast as a compromise between the two, because I wanted an assertive flavor AND decent melt-ability. This is a good winter breakfast - super warming and super filling. As both the size of your bread loaf (I went with a boule) and the size of your cheese wedge are variables here, slice the bread so it fits in your sauté pan and slice the cheese to fit the surface area of your bread.

Elements

1/2 cup and 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, separated

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (aged 10+ years)

1 small tart red apple (Braeburn, Cortland, etc)

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 slices (about 3/4 inch thick) whole grain bread

2 slices (about 1/4 inch thick) semi-aged pecorino cheese

Sea salt and ground pepper

 

Equation

Whisk 1/2 cup olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl or glass. Chop apple into bite-sized cubes and add to bowl, tossing with a spoon to coat. Let marinate for at least one hour.

Heat 4 tbsp olive oil on low heat in a medium sauté pan. When oil shimmers, about 2 minutes, add the garlic. When garlic has started to brown, about 2 minutes, add both slices of bread to the pan and slide them around gently with your hand to get them good and oily.

After 3 minutes, take the bread out of the pan, scoop up ALL of the garlic with your spatula, flip the bread slices over and return them to the pan, and spread the garlic on top of both. If you leave any garlic in the bottom of the pan, it will burn. Put one slice of cheese on top of each slice of bread with garlic, and cover your pan with a lid or a plate. 

Check toast after 6 minutes - the bottom should be crispy but not burnt, and the cheese should be softened. This can take up to 15 minutes. Remove toast from pan and put on a plate. Spoon marinated apples on top and add a few extra drops of the oil-vinegar mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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