For the Love of Speck (Lunch in the Dolomiti)

IMG_6724We are in the craggy Dolomites… Dolomiti to the Italians. We left watery Venice and its low-lying beauty for these heights. What a change: It’s hard for me to believe this is Italy. The locals speak Ladina, which sounds Germanic to my ear, and yet I detect Italian words within the conversations. White snow is clinging to rocky peaks, but the bare earth is peaking through- signs of spring.  Spring or not, Greg and Theo ski- and I watch children take ski lessons from our window at the foot of the bunny hill and take short walks; mostly I write in the comfort of our wooden chalet.

The food served here seems to be mostly pork, cheese, mushrooms.  The white wines are as fresh as mountain water, and reds are soft and delicate.  Supermarket shelves hold herbal tisanes, sauerkraut, polenta, barley and farro, alpine yogurt. Packages of nuts and seeds, for a healthy mountain diet, are a pleasant surprise- they are so scarce in Rome.

This is the home of speck. I love speck- it’s a lightly smoked cousin of prosciutto, and I like the fact that it’s usually quite dry. It’s wonderful when sliced very thin. Enormous slabs of it were in the case of a small village market so I asked for some, using my Italian to communicate (ha!) how I wanted it sliced (taglia fini?)- but feeling like I ought to know some German to bridge the gap. I was pleased with my own ability to communicate, but when the speck was handed to me, it was a bit too thick for a sandwich.  Oh well, I can still use it, of course- no problem. I bought some coffee too, and a bag of barley mixed with dried porcini for soup.

Then a wander up the main street of La Villa led me to the café attached to a bakery-panificio, bakerei was painted on the wall.  Inside, behind lace curtains, the bar and a few tables and banquettes were shiny and spotless …the decor, which had probably seemed fabulous in 1981, seemed charmingly retro to me. The Carpenters played out of the speakers; the glass case was filled with slices of apple strudel, cream-topped cakes and poppy seed-filled pastries.  A kind older woman in a very plain apron asked in her quiet voice if she could help me.  I hoped for soup, asking if she had anything “non dolce”. She said yes, panini: speck, salami, prosciutto cotto; or formaggio. Inside I groaned, wishing for something lighter, a vegetable.  But I asked for speck and sat outside on a plastic chair, overlooking the town. I expected a hot, pressed panino, very plain. This is what she brought to me, saying buon appetito twice. When I saw my sandwich I wanted to hug her.

Speck PaninoIt was perfectly sliced, arranged with care into a pretty rosette- and served open on an chewy caraway and anise-seeded brown roll. An extra touch of pride was evident in the single cornichon, fanned with a flourish.  A little love, food made with care, a universal language.

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Venice in Black and White

IMG_6343When I think of Venice I first think of color and light.  The colors of the city, though, are in transition; some are fading- bleached by the sunlight that bounces off the lagoon- others are growing green with moss, or becoming speckled with dark dots of mold. Buildings are rippling blue reflections, and grey stones become darker as they step down into the murky canals.  This transience can make it seem as if there’s a scrim over the buildings, loosening the definition of their edges just a little bit. Painted shutters are chipping, walls are leaning, cornices cracking.  The water has an elusive palette too- more green than blue; clear and opaque at the same time.

But the food I seek in Venice is monochromatic.  I will always remember my first plate of spaghetti with squid ink on the island of Giudecca when I was in my early twenties, and how my napkin was marked with black each time I wiped my mouth. I proudly practiced my Italian on that trip, my culinary terminology earned through studious reading of Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David. It swept me away, seeing the foods I had imagined brought to me on plates, and I gobbled it all up. Through the years of culinary work and raising two children, when travel seemed impossible, I had to hang onto those taste memories in order to conjure up recipes for restaurants and food publications. Preserved in my mind, they were vividly black and white- it was not difficult to do:

Pasta al nero di seppia; creamy baccala mantecato on grilled polenta; tender pieces of cuttlefish in black ink with white polenta morbido; sardines in saor (those melting, soft onions); marinated white anchovy fillets; frittura of the tiniest squid, whiting and shrimp– their little black eyes popping through the crisp batter- and tender rings of white calamari

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And then finally, I was to see Venice again. What a treat to return to this beauty: a city on water, solid yet shimmering, full of alleys and mystery. Its tarnish suited my mood, rubbed rough from mourning and in need of gentle inspiration. Its prettiness lifted me.  I sought local flavors, those black and white memories to match my black clothes. Occasionally some diced red tomato snuck into my pasta with spider crab, or I permitted a dramatic leaf of port-colored radicchio onto my plate. A “spritz Aperol”, like an electric sunset, was fun for a while. I sifted through lists sent to me by friends and colleagues; they stood me well, those friends. And over three days I tried to see and taste as much as possible. I walked until I ached, wished I could swim. And now I have the beginnings of my own list.

I know what I like; Carnevale costumes, glitter and feathers are not for me. Mostly, when in Venice, I will remain in palette: a simple black mask; scrimshaw; or the worn black tire dangling from the prow of a boat.

 

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Cardoons on the Caelian Hill

CardoonsI came home to write and focus my thoughts, in between a trip to the market and my next outing in the afternoon. My head was full of musings and memories, perhaps a beginning…

But when I walked into our little apartment I heard the neighbor yelling at his wife, in his husky, brutish Italian. I hear him often, repeating one staccato phrase after another. Sometimes the two of them stand right outside our door and let the tirades fly; then one of them slams the door until their brass knocker clatters to the tile floor.  I feel like I’m on the set of an Anna Magnani film. And now I can’t write. Oh, another excuse… Looking on the bright side, though, I am certainly picking up a bit of Italian, tuning my ear to the cadences and structure of his repetitions.

Allora! Cardoons:

I’ve been feeling like an outsider here in Rome. It’s hard for me when I can’t find the words I need.  I feel so pathetic when I don’t know how to respond to simple questions, so rather than be caught off guard, I find I’ve been closing myself off from many casual interactions.

On one recent morning I walked to the outdoor market in Piazza san Cosimato just to have a look. It’s not a famous market, nor is it picturesque, but it’s our local, and it’s time I get to know it. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, and as usual I was reluctant to engage with anyone. Most of the seven or so produce vendors sell the same vegetables, although slight differences in quality and diversity are evident. In winter I’m seeing a lot of chicories, including loose leaf mixes; cabbages, onions, fennel and large, purple-tinged artichokes- and citrus, citrus, citrus. Even the run-of-the-mill clementines have leaves attached, and look so much more vibrant than what I’m used to seeing at home.

Many vendors called out to draw me in. A middle aged woman cleaved a winter squash on a wooden crate with ferocity, causing some snickers amongst the young assistants at the neighboring stalls. I decided I was her ally; in my mind I came to her defense: “What do you guys think is so funny? Life seems simple to you now, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, and this woman knows it- she’s seen a thing or two.”   Take that, pumpkin!  Another vendor, whose brown eggs filled a large bowl caught my attention. Purple spring onions were pretty, but not so fresh- and I wondered about the little boxes of new potatoes, each sold with a sprig of rosemary.  I wished I were invisible; I wanted to stare and get up close, to hold the eggs in my hand and inspect each bunch of rughetta. If I were invisible I could go to the cheese counter and lift each pecorino to feel its density, and inhale the scent of the robiola without having to speak a word.

As I inched closer to the vegetables a vendor spoke to me. I was so near the cardoons. His was the only stall who had them that day, and I was intrigued. Here was something I hadn’t cooked in many years, something I loved: “Cardo!” I spoke, using the incorrect singular form.  I wondered (to myself) why I hadn’t seen them more often, and whether it might be the end of the season.  But, no-  I recalled seeing rows of cardoons growing beautifully just two weeks earlier.  That day I had been standing outside the vegetable garden of the convent next to San Gregorio Al Celio on Rome’s Caelian Hill, peeking in through an old iron fence. The sight of the carciofi-like leaves, dusty, pale green and standing tall in their rows, had spoken to me. When I looked at them I saw myself walking from the garden with arms full of cardoons, and a serene smile. Funny; next I envisioned taking the cardoons into a spacious, quiet kitchen just off the garden, where I cooked them until they were tender, and they glistened with olive oil and lemon juice. I imagined also that there were friends in that kitchen, and I felt calm and content.  In that fleeting moment outside the convent garden, I had whispered to a leaf in the sunshine, without saying a word…  I want to be at peace.

I brought the cardoons home with me from the market- and they brought with them so much possibility.

 

 

 

 

Home Away From Home (with Pilfered Packets)

Welcome to Rome

             Welcome to Rome

We arrived in Rome on the 30th of December and unloaded our 4 giant suitcases and 6 carry-ons at the hotel Domus Sessoriana– a convent-style accommodation which was historically for those on religious pilgrimmage to the Basilica next door, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where relics such as a piece of THE cross, and other amazing artifacts can be seen. They are housed in a glass vitrine and each one is set into an elegant silver piece decorated with amazing metalwork- details as fine as jewelry. There is a piece of worn, splintery wood from the cross that Jesus was nailed onto encased in silver; as well as a nail, a thorn from the crown… and a large section of bone from the doubtful St. Thomas’ finger. It’s all very gruesome- and fascinating.

Enormous paintings grace the hotel’s lobby and stairwells. Beneath the hotel rooms, down a long, long, long corridor with arched ceilings, is the dining room where we, and the mostly European, cost-conscious travelers ate breakfast. Each morning a buffet of run-of-the-mill pastries, bread, ho-hum cheeses, and such was set out for hotel guests.  Our son Theo invited many giggles and adoring looks as he walked from the buffet to our table, sloshing pineapple juice onto its saucer (and the floor) and returning repeatedly for cornetti and slices of provolone cheese (which he declared the Best Cheese in the World).

As we were to be camping out in our room for several days until our apartment was ready for us, I felt justified in taking bits and pieces of food to hoard for later. Our evenings were spent in the room, where we would spread the pressed white linen hand-towels over an ottoman and eat our dinner picnic-style.

Having been a mother of two for about ten years, and a seasoned camper and traveler before that, I’ve always got my eye on pilferable packages of portable goodies. The best score from our breakfast buffets in Rome turned out to be little discs of Bel Paese cheese, which Theo loved. Basically a cheap, cream-cheese like spread, it was the perfect foil for the smoked salmon I’d bought for New Year’s Eve (and was storing outside on our stone windowsill -the temperature was well below 40 at night, and kept our food preserved adequately). The window was about 8 feet tall and looked out over a small, enclosed garden with some dormant fruit trees. One evening when I opened up the window to bring our picnic supplies inside, I noticed a large grease spot on the stone (so sorry!) and saw that the sun had reached the sill during the day and melted our butter, which had oozed out of its romantic Italian packaging and coated the package of salmon, as well as some soppresata and some cheese. No matter-  when the sun went down, the butter congealed again, and I learned to keep the packaged fish and meat upside down, the silver cardboard reflecting the sun’s rays away.

But I digress. When, after 4 or 5 days, we were able to move our whole operation into our very own apartment in Trastevere, some little packages of Bel Paese came with us- a house-warming gift of sorts. Our new home had a tiny kitchen equipped with some flimsy non-stick pans. We began filling the refrigerator gradually with food, but for the first few days we couldn’t find a decent market and bought only the most basic supplies at a mini-market.

On Theo’s first school morning in Rome, I was shuffling around in the semi-dark when he asked if I could make scrambled eggs. We had eggs, yes. Could I make them extra-cheesy, as we used to do at home in Brooklyn? Nope- I did not have cheddar, or any other melting cheese. All I had was a bit of pecorino Romano, salty and dryish, for grating on pasta. But, sleepy as I was, I still had my wits about me. So I just said yes to my son: Sure! I can make them extra cheesy.

I quickly whisked eggs with a fork in a coffee cup (no bowls in our kitchen!), melted butter in a small pan and began scrambling. I seasoned with tiny airplane packets of salt and pepper. I grabbed a Bel Paese packet from the fridge and ripped it open- when I stirred lumps of the creamy spread into the eggs and they melted before my eyes, I knew I was onto something good. A little bit of grated pecorino added a whiff of real cheese flavor, and another dot of butter lent the final touch; extra creaminess. Et voila! é qui!

The eggs on his plate, my six-year old approved: these aren’t extra-cheesy; they’re MEGA cheesy! Off to scuola.

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What I Can Hold in My Hands

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It’s dark before five and the lights are shining on our little tree. Yesterday I had an urge to bake gifts to give to friends: tiny brown sugar-apple cakes, compact and rich. These I wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a bright bakers’ string. Cheery, satisfying and good; they looked adorable all wrapped and ready to go.  Before heading out to visit a friend, I baked off a double batch of cakes and prepped a large amount of granola, also for gifts. I don’t really have time for all this- I’m supposed to be packing and organizing my home, tying up loose ends; paying bills and suspending magazine subscriptions. We’re moving to Rome for the semester and there’s so much to do.

So what does all this baking bring me at a time like this? I can’t help but wonder where my priorities are. I know that busy hands help me put off doing the things on my list- I’d call it productive procrastination. Busy hands help me manage my feelings; and busy hands are also a way of remembering.

These apple cakes are filled with memories. About ten years ago I created the recipe for a magazine story, which featured a gifted ceramicist and her stylish husband. Our team from Martha Stewart Living brought a van and two cars filled with food and props from the city to the country, where we laid them out and spun a story out of pictures. In their kitchen I cooked mushroom and pumpkin soup, and spread artisanal cheese on wholesome bread. Then I checked with the photographer before darting out to the bathroom, where I unpacked my plastic breast pump and anxiously listened to the voices of my co-workers on the other side of the door while the pump did its work, extracting the nourishing milk from each breast. I would bring it home in little bottles for my first baby, Lucian. No matter that I had been away from him for two days. This mundane activity gave me a sense of purpose and allayed my guilt; if I could produce milk for my son while I made this beautiful meal for the ceramicist and her husband, I was still a virtuous mother.

The baby is gone, and now so is the child- taken much too soon. The hole that remains is so large. Can I fill it with my boundless love for the one who’s left behind – little Theo? Not completely. So here, in this new landscape of mourning, I take what I know and turn it into these warm cakes; lightly fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg and filled with warm apple slices. This is one way I can feel sure-footed while the ground underneath me shifts and I see the tilt of the planet as if from above. I can hold these in my hands before I give them away- they are nourishing and good.

 

Small enough to hold in my hands

Small enough to hold in my hands

 

Pasta e Fagioli for My Heart’s Ache

A Rich Base for Pasta e Fagioli

A Rich Base for Pasta e Fagioli

What is a simmer? A rapid one is agile and productive; a gentle one is steady, rhythmic. And there is also the bare simmer. Although on the surface a bare simmer hardly seems to be moving, there is work going on under the surface, a huge effort constantly deployed so it can quietly maintain itself.

It’s all been at a simmer for me. A bare one, that is- a hard-working, silent one- since November 2nd. Unspeakable tragedy has struck, and nothing will ever be the same. So what is the new normal? I don’t know yet. The kitchen stopped calling me. Comfort was brought to our door instead. The visitors poured in and helped out. Friends and family are getting us through, day to day. Meals arrive from them and they feed us, those dear ones- some of whom I’ve never met.

But something needed to bring me back- if only for a day. Was it the cold snap? I had an instinct to get out and be free for a moment- which for me meant a short walk alone; the first time in weeks that I didn’t need someone by my side. And then a short walk home, my canvas bag filled with vegetables, coffee beans, slab bacon. Snapped out of my gloom for a moment, I gathered up a few pieces of myself and found them in the kitchen.
I heated olive oil in a heavy pot and toasted fennel seed (should have bought that fresh fennel bulb!) until aromatic. I added diced carrots, celery, onion and garlic, and a bit of green cabbage and let them go until they were golden and sticky-soft, stirring often. Thinly sliced stems of lacinato kale- cavolo nero- went in too. I added a generous amount of tomato paste and two bay leaves and topped it all up with water.  Quick-soaked dried beans (navy and calypso) simmered all afternoon in a separate pot. I found a tiny rind of parmesan -the only one lucky enough to have escaped the uncharacteristic fridge-purging I had done in December (it had been a moment of stark recognition: cooking was not going to be part of my foreseeable future, not until an ounce of my old desire returned).  I guess this was the day; I scrubbed the rind and added it to the pot.  I stirred in the beans and their liquid and seasoned it all with salt and thyme.  Though I told myself I was heading to my desk several times, I found I could not leave the stove. After tending my soup nearly constantly, I chose a pasta- a short shape, chiocciole, so good for nestling those beans and vegetables in its curves.

What became of this whole pot, its humble contents simmered gently and mothered by me- one lonely child, needing attention? It became a comforting soup- no, thicker than a soup- as it was rich with savory oils from the parmesan rind, creamy from the marriage of bean and pasta starches- aromatic from vegetables and herbs. Can pasta e fagioli help me find a way to be here, with myself and for us all?  And yes, it’s true- there is one less at the table to share in this meal. Can I not still cook and keep his place, just as we keep him all around us?  I think I will try; in the quiet moments of gathering, peeling, chopping and stirring lie the remembering.

 

A bowl of comfort topped with grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil

A bowl of comfort topped with grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil