Leaping In

We are back in Brooklyn, and our little boy is entering fourth grade. It’s the moment we’ve been dreading since his brother Lucian was killed by a car, when he was also in fourth grade and at the same school, almost four years ago. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a reenactment; like sleepwalkers going ahead without being able to stop or speak, just walking numbly into things. To me the first week of school felt threatening, a looming terror- but in fact so much of the reality is mundane and rote: the school letters and lists, the daily routines we need to apply, the new sneakers to buy.

All this past spring and summer it was the anticipation of Theo’s move to his brother’s level, from Lower to Upper, that had me, us- and definitely him- in knots; we were worried, he was angry. Or we were angry, he was sad; only he was unable to say it so he acted out in every possible way. I had lost my faith in the future. Now that I am here in the unavoidable moment I see the smiles of the excited kids and optimistic parents, and I feel like a ghost of myself. I have memories, clear as today, of his brother standing at those same lockers, talking with his friends, on fire with the excitement of learning, wanting to come into school early to rewrite a paper, because he was full of fresh ideas.

Here we sit at our kitchen table, after a preliminary half day of school, a warm-up, and I know we are all completely exhausted. I’m putting my best foot forward though, for Theo; now gearing up for dinner before the school year truly begins. I’ve cooked something up for us, something unplanned, at Greg’s suggestion: pasta. We have some excellent sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in the freezer, which will defrost quickly. There are greens too, waiting to be used, also from the Kinderhook farmers’ market…these things are feeding me a connection to summer peace, to a village in the Hudson valley. We are doing our best to feed our little/big son, the angry/sad one- and do it early so he can get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’ll wake up on the right side of the bed tomorrow morning if we get this night off to a good start. I can lead with purpose when I’m in the kitchen; the rest of the time I feel pretty lost. We set the table, three at one end together with our bowls so close they are almost touching, and eat until we are full.

Pasta with Pork Sausage and Broccoli Rapini

Serves 4

Extra virgin olive oil

Four plump pork sausages from Lovers Leap Farms, in 1 inch slices

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 large bunch broccoli rapini, in 4 inch lengths

1 pound short pasta such as shells, gemelli, fusilli

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of finely grated pecorino Romano

I use my largest large cast iron skillet to brown sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in olive oil while the pasta water comes to a boil. I salt the pasta water generously and wait; nobody is near enough that I can trust they will appear in the kitchen once the pasta is cooked. I pull garlic from the basket on the counter. The purple, papery skin on the cloves is tight and so juicy because it’s that time of year.  I smash the cloves lightly to open them, then give the garlic a coarse chopping before I throw them in the skillet with the mostly cooked sausage. In go the greens- I’ve washed them, and the water still on their leaves speeds up their cooking- wilting them down quickly over a medium high flame.

Once the pasta has been cooked and scooped into the skillet with a strainer, I stir over low heat and pour in almost a cup of starchy pasta water from the bottom of the pasta pot to thicken and bring it all together. This, and a healthy pour of olive oil with a handful of grated cheese hold the ingredients to the pasta and turn one panful of disparate things into a warming bowl of pasta. Pass the cheese please.

 

Going for a Dip

This election day has got me all- I don’t know what- amped up and wishful, I guess, and a little nervous too. I just can’t wait until this long season, with its animosity and tension, its media fixation and wasted energy, is over.  A week ago I was feeling really panicked about the nation’s future, but today I am feeling hopeful. When I saw the queue around the block and when I walked into my neighborhood polling place- a public school gymnasium- and saw that instead of the usual half-empty room, there was an additional one with a quadruple, snaking line leading into the voting room, I felt elated. People really wanted to exercise their right to vote today. And as much as I have mixed feelings about continuing to abide in this part of Brooklyn, where I have experienced so much violence and sadness, I am still full of love for the community. I was overcome with emotion when I watched my ballot sliding into the scanner, and I almost cried as I said Thank You to the kind church-lady volunteer who helped me through the process. I love the mix of people around us here. I saw families I have known since Lucian and Theo were babies, and people who’ve lived around the corner from us for years, with whom we’ve never spoken. Many strangers, some friends, one collective push forward.

We’re going to be with neighborhood friends this evening watching the results. When we were invited, we decided comfort food was in order. I got all fired up to make good old-fashioned “French” Onion Dip, and I bought many bags of Tyrell’s salt and cracked black pepper potato chips for dipping. Last week, when I was feeling more pessimistic, though, I was thinking maybe I’d make Devils on Horseback, and present them with an ironic flourish… but now I’m glad to say a crowd-pleaser is in order: something with depth- something sensible, kind, comforting and reliable.

img_6172Cooking the onions earlier today was fun- I made a large batch ( 3 pounds of onions) so I had two pans going to caramelize them efficiently. After they were browned and very soft, I cooled them down and went about my day.  Later on I pulsed them in the food processor with sour cream, and a few dashes of the excellent Red Boat Fish Sauce (or use another Asian fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce) and a drop of sherry vinegar. Done.

Now I’ve got some delicate bubbly rosé chilling and I’m ready to start dipping in.

Caramelized Onion Dip

Serves 8-10

olive oil

1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced

coarse salt

1 cup sour cream, preferably organic (better texture and a real, cultured cream flavor)

pinch of sugar, any type

pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Asian fish sauce, about 3/4 tsp or to taste

sherry or balsamic vinegar, about 1/2 tsp, or to taste

Coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet with olive oil and place over high heat. When oil is shimmering, add onions and a large pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and beginning to soften. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until meltingly tender- 25-30 minutes. Add a pinch of sugar. Set aside until cooled to room temperature.

Transfer onions to food processor with sour cream and pulse until coarsely pureed. Season to taste with remaining ingredients. Best if allowed to stand for at least an hour so flavors can mingle.

Serve with the best potato chips you can find, and a bottle of sparkling wine.

 

POST SCRIPT

In hindsight, maybe Devils on Horseback were in order…

devils on horseback

Remove pits from large dates, such as Medjool. Tuck a small knob of blue cheese inside each date and wrap with thinly sliced bacon or pancetta. Roast in a hot oven until sizzling and the bacon is beginning to brown. Serve warm.

These are good served without bacon too. But I think the bacon is the devil part, and that’s the salient point. Don’t forget the napkins! Things may get messy.

 

 

Buckwheat, Apples and Ghosts

img_5857Working from home has many perks (as well as some downsides). It’s hard for me to stay out of the kitchen when I’m supposed to be at my desk. Yesterday I decided to give myself something special for elevenses, as they say in England. I had made buckwheat pancake batter earlier in the morning for Theo, but then he was late for school and in the rush we didn’t cook them.  So later on I decided to make some pancakes. They were brown and warm and slightly crisp on the outside, but inside each pancake a slice of caramelized apple added soft sweetness. I drizzled dark Vermont maple syrup over them and sat with a cup of coffee. I warmed the milk and foamed it just the way I like it, and indulged in my mid morning treat, recognizing the goodness of it all.

Moments of peace come and go- for me they usually arrive courtesy of food, flavors, and treasured objects. My coffee cup, for example, was made in Orvieto. It’s wide at the top, and not too deep- perfectly scaled so my coffee doesn’t cool down before I can drink it all up. The pottery is painted in the traditional hues that many ceramicists of Orvieto have used for centuries: greenish-blue and accents of dark brown (is this the classic burnt umber of a Crayola box)? Its patterns and stripes are simple, repetitive. This cup feels good in my hands, and each time I pick it up I think of the day I bought it.

It was Lucian’s birthday- it would have been his 11th, and we were still freshly in mourning. Orvieto was a perfect place for this occasion. It’s a dramatic but quiet town built on a huge rocky outcropping, and it’s an easy day trip from Rome. Earlier that day we’d walked the trail around the old city walls, and picked wildflowers. Orvieto’s sloping streets are filled with pretty shops. There is plenty of traditional, good, Umbrian hill town food there, like umbrichelli pasta dusted with fluffy grated cheese and truffles, braised cinghiale, and roasted pigeon, and we rested with a hearty lunch.  At the center of the town is the stunning cathedral. Its black and pink bricks create narrow stripes, so uplifting and gloriously different from all the whites and greys of Rome- while gruesomely detailed biblical scenes carved into the facade signal a warning: know these ancient stories and be fearful.

I bought this cup I now hold in my hands from another Anna, whose small pottery studio was tucked just behind the main piazza. A few steps up a stone alley, her gate was canopied by draping vines of honeysuckle. I was so enchanted by them that I paused with Theo so Greg could take a photo of us. When a woman called out from the shadows of a doorway: Buon Giorno! we realized we were actually standing in the entrance to her shop, not on a lane, as we had presumed… and though we weren’t looking to buy any ceramics, we entered her space, respectful and quiet. I came away with a cup, though I wish I’d bought six, and a simple jar for decanting olive oil. It has a slender body with a narrow top for pouring, and is made from the warmly pigmented Umbrian clay.  Anna and her little studio were engaging and humble. When we left, we walked back towards the piazza, where I stopped to look at the photos I’d taken- and I realized that instead of a lovely, honeysuckle covered archway, the photo I had taken was just one frame, and it was completely black. A little ghost had been there and is with me still.img_9043

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Tiptoeing Away, and Taking Tomatoes With Me

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That’s it for summer as we knew it, 2016… School is open and I’m getting back in the swing of some things I had almost, just almost forgotten about.  Like fitting in everything I need to do before two fifteen on most days so I can get to school, and having to plan dinner when I’m not anywhere near ready to think about eating. I’m not sure I’m ready to button up and stop living from moment to moment. Among other ways I’ve let it all go: I’ve ignored my pantry and my freezer. Now it’s time to wipe those shelves, throw out last winter’s uneaten candy, and restock. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

During the first days of September I tiptoed slowly towards fall, but I kept a strong hold on summer. I lingered upstate in our quiet, Hudson-area village, and spent long days with my son Theo before he had to go back to school, to the third grade.  My little boy will soon grow into a big one, leaving only a trace. There are only some things you can hang on to; the days were getting shorter. I made a last grasp, just to see how much of the summer I could keep.

At the farmstand up the road, tomatoes were selling for ten dollars per case… that’s heavy: a  25 pound box, about 11 kilos, or about half a Theo. The tender ears of corn were five dollars for 13 – a baker’s dozen- and so very, very sweet.

The linoleum-covered floor in my summer kitchen tilts comically, and there isn’t much counter space. When we moved into the house I purchased a small kitchen island for chopping on.  Now I stationed myself there. Before long, the narrow wooden surface was fully covered in tomatoes. I don’t have a lot of equipment, nor was I prepared with jars and supplies for canning- but I do have a new foodmill and I was very excited to use it. Truthfully, in my heat-induced torpor I was looking for the simplest possible way to preserve the summer.  So, in between our yard sale adventures and an afternoon visit from friends, I made a batch of tomato sauce in my largest pot. And when that visit turned into dinner, I decided I would save my energy and work in stages (in fact, two days is preferable so that your sauce can chill down nicely before you need to put it away for its hibernation). That night I stood in the little kitchen after everyone had gone to bed, turning the handle of my food mill and watching slips of tomato skin pile up in its metal teeth. When the tomatoes were effectively a purée, I cooked it down until it was a light sauce, and then returned the giant pot to the refrigerator for the night. The following day I divided it into smaller containers and froze them. Any extra tomatoes were peeled and frozen whole. And before we tidied the house and loaded up the car for the city I quickly cooked the corn cobs, then shaved off yellow kernels into a pile… I watched the steam rise, and when it dissipated I knew it was time to bag those little bits of sunshine up and pop them in the freezer; not saying goodbye, but more like arrividerci. Until we meet again…

img_4984September Tomato Sauce

Recipes for tomato sauce sometimes call for a pinch of sugar.  Towards the end of cooking time, taste your sauce to see if it is lacking a certain mellowness that a bit of sugar can help along. But I can’t imagine that any September tomatoes you cook with aren’t sweet, holding inside, as they do, all the sunshine and warmth of your summer days.

15 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot by 1/4  inch, about 1/2 cup

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)

a handful of fresh herbs stems: basil, thyme and marjoram or oregano, or a mixture

crushed red chile, optional

1. Quarter tomatoes through the stem. Place a large, heavy pot or a stockpot on the stovetop and add oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook just until you can smell the fragrance and garlic is becoming soft, do not let it brown AT ALL. Add the tomatoes all at once, and a large pinch of salt. Raise heat to medium high and cook until the tomatoes on bottom begin to collapse, about 10 minutes. Add herbs and continue cooking, stirring often to distribute tomatoes, until the pot is full of bubbling, juice and tender tomatoes, about 30 minutes. Mash the tomatoes up a bit with the spoon.

2. Let tomatoes cool, at least 20 minutes, and up to two hours. Strain through a foodmill fitted with the coarsest blade. The skins and some of the seeds will be left behind, and you’ll need to scrape them out of the food mill from time to time. The tomatoes will be a coarse purée. For a smoother sauce, use the smaller blade.  Return all of this loose purée to the pot.  Place it over medium heat and cook again, stirring occasionally until deep red, saucy and as thick as you like it. I didn’t cook mine for very long; a sauce with a light body and fresh tomato flavor can be a lovely thing to have on hand in winter. When you defrost it, you may need to add a bit of simmering time until it’s thick enough to coat your pasta, but it will be a versatile thing, and can be used in place of canned ground tomatoes- and so much more flavorful. Taste and add more salt, and a pinch of hot pepper if you like. Cool to room temperature before transferring to smaller containers and refrigerating or freezing.

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Golden Blur

cropped-IMG_7773.jpgNow the golden haze of leaves is shading darker and deeper, and the clocks have been set back an hour. We’ve passed through the ring of fire- November 2nd, a day I wish I could erase. It’s time for me to turn my attention to what lies ahead. I made myself a large calendar, with boxes dated through December; we’ve been caught unprepared for winter holidays, as usual.  I feel a sense of panic. But then I remember- it doesn’t matter to me any more whether or not we make the perfect plan. I guess I’ve gained perspective. The pressure’s off; I don’t feel like celebrating. Lucian’s spirit hangs over me while I rush through the familiar battles of city living and try to find my balance- on the streets, and in my days. I still don’t understand that he’s gone. He became so much a part of my being while he was alive, that I will never lose him. Somehow that’s a comfort.

Another comfort has been the responses to my article in the October issue of Vogue magazine, A Glimmer of Life. I have received so many words of support, love, encouragement and genuine empathy, that I’m bowled over. I am still absorbing the idea that it’s a public piece; this story that is so very personal. It felt good to write it, though, and in some way the process of doing it has helped me. And now, you are helping me too. I have not yet been able to reply to all of the friends, family and- amazingly- strangers who have reached out to me to say: I care. But if you’re reading this now, please know that I am so grateful for your words.

Pomodori for Late September

IMG_6512I discovered pomodori al riso– roasted, rice-stuffed tomatoes- in the middle of a Roman summer. They were plump and appealing, sitting in the case of a rosticceria; packed almost to bursting with short grain rice, and cooked until soft; they begged me to eat them. I didn’t hesitate- they had been blackened in spots by the heat of a pizza oven in which they were cooked, and I found them irresistible.

I ate those pomodori ripieni sitting on a stool in a busy shop at lunchtime; with a slice of porchetta and a small plastic cup of wine. They were served at room temperature like so many Italian contorni. They would hold up well, I figured- so why shouldn’t I also bring some home to turn a whole lot of nothing into dinner? Simple brilliance; we should all be making these in the States too – and I will! I declared. These tomatoes are going to take New York by storm!

When I returned to Brooklyn on the first of August it was as hot as Roman summer, but twice as humid- there was no way I was turning on my oven. Besides, I craved spicy, exotic flavors and fresh, crunchy salads- I wanted all the things I hadn’t tasted for seven months: Vietnamese salads and banh mi, tacos and tamales, soba noodles and sushi. I cooked long grain rice, and spooned harissa and kim chee on the side. But as August crept further along in its leisurely but ominous way, I could no longer ignore the tomatoes. A pack of smoked bacon permanently installed in my fridge, I was prepared for any BLT emergency, and I adapted to the season; we picked up corn at the farm stand and markets and ate it with tomatoes at every meal in the last week of August. We embraced Americana: burgers and grilled steak, chips and dips. And finally, I was ready to return to Rome. By early September, all that made sense anymore was a sliced, juicy tomato with nothing but a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of crunchy sea salt. I regretted not having planted basil in my garden, and began using mint and my scruffy, leggy oregano instead. I brought home balls of fresh mozzarella, and good, chewy bread.

Now, late in September- I’ll call it Indian summer even though it’s officially autumn- I feel a chill in the mornings. I shut my kitchen windows. Tomatoes are big and ripe, heading towards their demise, and I am ready to turn on my oven. I could use a little bit of warmth. So for now, until the last tomatoes of the season are gone…

Pomodori al Riso

These are simple to prepare, a really genius idea for a person who doesn’t have much time to prep- I have been able to set them up in fifteen minutes, and then pop them in the oven long before I needed them for dinner. They do their own work in there the rice slowly absorbing the liquid of the tomatoes, and the flavors of garlic and herbs. You can serve them right away, or let them sit out for up to four hours until it’s time to eat.  Recipes always warn against over-stuffing the tomatoes because they will burst in the oven, but don’t worry too much; any burst tomatoes (and leftover ones) are delicious, and can be chopped up and stirred into soups or just eaten on their own cold, room temperature or reheated.

The Recipe:

Choose a baking dish just large enough to hold the tomatoes snugly together.  You will need one medium-large beefsteak tomato per person, Slice off the top half-inch of each tomato, making a little cap. Keep the stems on, and reserve. Using a spoon or a paring knife (or both), scoop put the insides of each tomatoes, being careful not to pierce the skin. You don’t need to be precise and fussy, just get out the juicy pulp and leave the walls intact. Collect all pulp and juice in a medium bowl. Salt the interior of each tomato and set upside down to drain while you prepare the filling.

For each tomato, add 2 tablespoons short grain, risotto rice (such as arborio or canaroli) to the bowl of pulp. For a filling to serve six people, mince one large, juicy garlic clove and stir into tomato-rice mixture.  Add a handful of finely chopped herbs: basil, or parsley, or mint and oregano and season well with salt and pepper.  Fill each tomato about three-quarters full of this mixture and place in the baking dish. Return the tops and drizzle the tomatoes with a very generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. Let stand at least 30 minutes, and up to one day before baking so the rice can begin to absorb the liquid (refrigerate if more than 4 hours).

Preheat the oven to 400º F.  Bake uncovered until the rice is tender and tops of tomatoes are beginning to brown (they probably won’t blacken and blister sexily unless you have a pizza oven), about 45 minutes to 1 hour ( the cooking time will depend on how long you soaked the rice and how ripe your tomatoes are). Check them occasionally catch the tomatoes before they collapse with satiation.

pomodori ripieni