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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Monday Sunday Blues

Summer of Solace

Just as Sunday is the end of the weekend, so Labor Day is the Sunday of the summer- the day before it all begins again.  In the morning I remembered what a Sunday used to feel like: it felt like a luxury, borrowed and treasured. It felt like there was all the time in the world for whatever we wanted: bacon, french toast, waffles or pancakes.  Sunday mornings were elastic and we let things unfold until the children needed to be released to the outdoors- shepherded, as city life necessitated, to the parks and playgrounds.  But that was before.

Beautiful Vermont!  We have, of course, fallen in love with you. I knew this could happen. But what I didn’t know was that a whole summer of seeing your cool green, hearing your frogs and crickets and just being, could not heal me.  A salve is all I can hope for. “Healing?! Whatever that means” another mother of a boy killed by a car last year, said to me.  She’s right I’m sure: there is no such thing as healing now.  For me what’s helped has been space to breathe, with the knowledge that I’m always held close by friends and family. Retreating from too much noise and activity has made me calm. I’ve worked to treat myself well.  This was to have been our summer of solace. But loveliness was crowded out by sadness, and this has been the summer of watching my surviving son learn to be an only child.  He has also been learning to swim, daring himself to go a little bit deeper and a little bit longer every day.  And he’s reading pretty well now, dipping into favorite books again and again- some of these books were inscribed a long time ago with his brother’s name. He’s working hard all the time, and he’s doing all this without his big brother to cheer him on with his sweet smile and words.

After my little boy awoke on this Sunday, he ran down the lane to play with his friends. His dad had gone fishing early, so I had the house to myself, space to stretch out- and time to bring my tea to bed. I finished the Laurie Colwin novel I’ve been reading, in which the sudden death of a young woman’s husband teaches her to see her own depths. Looking out the window over green rolling fields to Mt. Ascutney I felt the ripples of the moment wash over me.

I needed this quiet morning to myself. After I finished the novel I thought about breakfast. I could skip cooking completely if I wanted to. What would make me feel most free?  I tried to imagine eating a simple boiled egg, outside on the grass by the pond. Or toast with a slice of gorgeous, ripe tomato, and salt. Hmm, cereal? No cooking involved there. Give yourself time to do something else, I told myself- get out of the kitchen!

But I knew what I wanted to eat: a Sunday breakfast. Earthy buckwheat pancakes, big as a plate; deep blue, local berries and maple syrup. The sun shone through the glass bottle of syrup, refracting amber onto the kitchen table as I stirred batter in a bowl. I fed myself today, and made enough for us all to eat tomorrow.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Syrup

Delicate Buckwheat Pancakes

This is an adaptation.  There is a copy of The Joy of Cooking in this kitchen which has been used so often it’s lost its cover and its spine; therefore I can’t say which edition it is – but my research leads me to guess 1964.  The recipe for Buckwheat Cakes on page 215 calls for buttermilk. In the absence of buttermilk, I used a combination of yogurt, milk and water. The recipe produces a batter which can be spread almost as thin as crepes in the pan; it makes light, slightly crisp pancakes. But what really drew me to the recipe is that, according to The Joy of Cooking, the batter stands up very well to “several” days in the refrigerator.   I like to make these individually in a small skillet so I can really swirl the loose batter into a crepe-like griddle cake.

Sift before measuring:  1/2 cup all purpose flour

Resift flour with:

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Whisk in: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour

Pour into a large bowl: 3 1/4 cups buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup whole milk, 2 3/4 cup plain, whole milk yogurt and 1/2 cup water)

2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for skillet

Add dry ingredients into liquid ingredients, and stir just enough to combine. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate.

To cook, pour a large spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) into a medium-hot skillet of sizzling, melted butter. Reduce heat to medium and swirl pan to spread batter into a thin pancake.  When pancake is filled with bubbles, flip; if it won’t flip easily, wait a few more seconds until the bottom has crisped slightly, and try again. Cook just until set on second side, and transfer to a plate or a a warming tray; raise heat to medium-high and repeat. Serve with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, of course.