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

Corn Nuts, and Salty Thoughts

 

Corn Nuts

I’m eating corn nuts and I can’t stop. Are they made from Italian corn, mais?  (Not mais, the French word for but, but mais the Italian word for corn!) I hope so.  If not I feel really gross about eating GMO corn from somewhere halfway around the world… but that wouldn’t be much more gross than I already feel in this heat. The corn nuts are salty and so incredibly crunchy that I can’t stop popping them into my mouth. I use the small spoon the bartender has provided for our salatini, and I try not to dip into the bowl with my fingers. We’re masquerading as fancy resort guests, my six-year old son and I, and I’m trying to appear as civilized as possible. It’s not easy; my sandals are dusty from walking up the trail from our rented apartment, and he looks pretty scruffy too. It’s after 5:30 pm and still as hot as the lower deck of an old ferry. I’m sipping a Campari and soda with a slice of arancia, looking out over the hillsides of Tuscany- somewhere south of Montepulciano and north of San Casciano di Bagni. Lap of luxury, Tuscany in summer. This place is really more of a cliché I’d say. Luxury to me is many things: floating in cool water on a quiet beach; not having to wait for a table at your favorite trattoria; being able to spend as much time as you like staring at a Caravaggio before someone stands so close to you that you can smell her shampoo. San Gimigniano was hellacious- wall to wall tourists (like us), wandering in a daze in the heatwave. But most other days we do pretty well, finding our own quiet places for retreating from the world.

Wow- Amazing! Everyone says to me: it must be so incredible to be in Italy for seven months. You’re so lucky!!!  (I always note the envy between the lines and hide my grimace). And yes it is incredible. Amazing, wonderful and special. Also, really challenging, disorienting and alienating. But on balance there is more to be gained than lost, for sure.  I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to change things up and live for a while in another place to do it. You don’t need to be in mourning like we are… grieving for our wonderful son and groping around for answers on how to live our lives. In fact, we were thinking of doing this before Lucian, our nine-year old son was killed by a reckless driver on a Brooklyn sidewalk.  How I would have loved to see him absorb the beauty of Italy, and the lessons inherent in its ruins! I have seen through his eyes everywhere we go, without him to help me do it. He taught me so many things, not least of them how to be enthusiastic about the world around me. Also: the geological layers that make up our planet, the order of our solar system, the hierarchies of the world’s tallest buildings, and the intricacies of a well-assembled sandwich.  The heroics of the Roman and Greek myths had recently captured his imagination. I wish he could tell me those stories every time I look at a sculpture. He was funny and smart and ever curious. Why can’t Lucian be here with us? Did we need to lose him in order to give ourselves this experience, this time to be close together and revel in sensory beauty? I don’t think that should be a necessary trade.

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Lucian steering the tugboat John J. Harvey, age 5

 

A Taste of Puglia in Rome

IMG_0390It must have been the last straw for my husband. I saw a tower of giant, rustic bread wheels at a street fair in Lecce and I slyly suggested we need bread for the train trip home to Rome; wouldn’t it be a good idea to get some now? I walked back with him to the stall where I’d seen the stack of slowly fermented, wood oven-baked Pugliese bread, and inquired about buying a portion of one of the loaves.  But as the woman was holding up about one quarter of a wheel, asking me: basta cosi?? my son pulled on my shirt and pointed to the candy and torrone stall next door, so I left my husband standing there. He was overwhelmed by the bread haggling into which I had led him, so he gave in and paid six euro for the portion… she refused to cut him a smaller one. He felt ripped off and annoyed and made snide remarks when I asked for help carrying a bag. Two days later, and I think he’s still holding it against me- just a little.

But I have to say I feel pretty good about the situation I got us into. Each morning we’ve eaten sliced, toasted Pugliese bread with honey or apricot jam. After school it fills out the snack plate, and now that we have house guests coming, I feel secure knowing that the bread supplies are good. I’ve been saving breadcrumbs every time I slice the morning toast too, so the bread is doing double duty.

It’s a funny thing, this Pugliese. Not the chewy, air holey, loosely structured bread I usually fall for-but instead it’s dense and has an even, fine crumb which is almost yellow in color. It’s not a tearing bread; it holds up to slicing and it toasts beautifully.  My latest obsession is with the golden and crisp crumbs this bread can turn into when treated just right.

Lunch today was an urgent and serendipitous affair- I returned home from the market and when I put my bag down it slid off the chair; two cracked eggs needed to be eaten right away.  Tiny datterini tomatoes, are just coming into the markets here- I bought some today, seduced by their redness, but they weren’t very juicy. A little bag of crumbs was waiting to be used, so, why not a crispy fry-up on a salad?

IMG_0427 Crispy Fry-Up Salad

Pour enough olive oil into a medium skillet to generously coat the bottom, and heat on  medium until shimmering. Add a single layer of breadcrumbs and watch until they begin to brown- quickly toss and stir, and continue cooking until all are golden brown, then tip them out onto a plate. If necessary, return any big crumbs to the pan and toss until they’re browned on all sides.

Wipe out the pan and pour in new oil to lightly coat the bottom; raise the heat to medium-high and fry eggs, letting the edges bubble in the oil until slightly crisp, and cook until yolks are as you like them. Add halved little tomatoes and sliced spring onions to the pan, season and cook until just softened, less than two minutes. (If you don’t have space in the skillet for the tomatoes and onions, then slide the eggs out and use the same pan for frying them up afterwards). The inclusion of pancetta or other bacon would be just fine… if so, crisp before adding the tomatoes and onions.

For each serving: Pour about half of the breadcrumbs over a pile of rughetta or other peppery greens which you have dressed lightly with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and scatter the tomatoes and onions over them; top with an egg and the remaining crispy crumbs.  Sprinkle with coarse salt and crushed red pepper.

Eat! With coffee or red wine??

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Yellow and Green/ Run, Don’t walk.

It was a sunny morning in Rome yesterday, and I woke up before the alarm went off. I opened the shutters onto the street, looked at the day, and I heard myself say to my six year old son: “Time to get uuUP! It’s a beautiful sunny day!” My voice was false, with a thin veneer of cheer,  but I think I tricked him. In reality I was a flat plane of arid land, nothing growing on it, nothing on the horizon. What was I looking forward to- what did I care about that day? This sunshine was better than the grey clouds of the day before, but I felt nothing.

After dropping my son at the school busstop on the edge of the Tiber river, I walked the round about way into Trastevere by going uphill on via Garibaldi and looping back down into the piazza san Cosimato. It’s a good little wake-up walk and helps me process my thoughts. Also, this is the most quiet route and I couldn’t bear the nuisance of having cars driving up behind me on narrow streets.  At the piazza I looked briefly at the market stalls without stepping close enough for anyone to speak to me.  I saw the gorgeous artichokes and thought about how much work would be involved in trimming them, and how I ought to feel inspired but instead I just felt dull, stupid and hopeless. I went into a pasticceria and drank a blood orange spremuta at the bar- it wasn’t as good as usual. I began walking home-  I passed my husband, G, outside the Settimiano arch as he was on his way to scout a location to show his architecture students and I noticed he was scowling a little, and had bags under his eyes. I wondered what I looked like to him, caught off-guard as I had been, out in the neighborhood with my morning face on, brewing my own inner storm. Ten minutes later I was in our apartment and in bed. It was not yet nine o’clock. I curled up into a ball and thought about how miserable I was, how exhausted.  I fell asleep.

I woke up and I thought: please don’t let it be really, really late. But when I looked at my phone it said 11:48.  I made tea and sat at my desk, and tried to look busy when G opened the door at 12, saying: do you want to go have lunch? I’m hungry! I didn’t tell him I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. I said yes, and stalled him until the dizziness of excessive sleep had cleared.  I knew going out for lunch when I was still half asleep was better than staying home alone. I’m familiar enough with this state, and it scares me; I’m not sure I can trust myself to stay floating above its slimy, black depths. So even if I ‘m not ready for lunch right now, lunch is where I’ll go. Call it self-preservation, a survival instinct-  after all, it has been shown that I’ve got one.  Didn’t I outrun that car, make a split-second switch of direction, too close to call, too rapid to pull my boys with me?  What would have happened had I been quick-witted enough to yank Lucian’s hand, and he had run with me, stayed with me? His little brother would have followed him, as always, and they’d both be fine.  RUN!

But I didn’t. And now here we are, limping along, like a three-legged dog.

So I went out for lunch yesterday at a place I should have known better than to go to; my judgement was impaired.  After eating we couldn’t wait to escape, to get away from all the tourists who surrounded us.  But before I went home I had to pick up something for dinner, so I retraced my steps… The market vendors were packing up, but a few crates of produce remained. Young zucchini with their flowers attached looked fresh, and I was suddenly decisive. Then I asked for a lemon: un bel, said the lemon man, tossing a plump one onto his scale.  I bought loose eggs from a basket too. After that it was clear to me what to do: I turned around and walked to the cheese counter, where I bought fresh, creamy ricotta.

Just the thought of lemon zest, ricotta, eggs, and zucchini made me smile inside.  Something bright and cheery would be good.  A frittata for dinner … I know the one who’s gone wouldn’t have eaten it, but I think his brother will.  It won’t ask too much of me and it will feed us well.

This is what I think about while I watch slices of zucchini sizzle in the sauté pan:

What do I say to my little boy if he asks again at bedtime: can you please bring Lucian home so I can give him a hug? Will his eyes be closed?  Will he look like himself? I just want to give him a hug.

I toss the zucchini just a bit before adding their flowers and pouring in the eggs and ricotta. I use the cheese grater for lemon zest and parmesan and scatter them straight into the pan- it all smells so good. I don’t have a broiler to finish this so I have to flip the frittata, sliding it back into the skillet to cook the runny underside.

And how to serve this? Our fourth plate is chipped- it looks like a large bite was taken out by a recent fall on the counter. Is it dangerous? I think the tiny shards of china are gone. Maybe I’m being careless, but I can’t let a little thing like that deter me. We’re making do with what we’ve got here. It’s not perfect, and certainly not what we ever could have wanted- but it’s what we’ve got.

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