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.

 

Summer Cooking Is…

Summer cooking is… Standing barefoot in the kitchen next to the screen door, stirring pieces of day-old bread and garlic cloves in a cast iron skillet, until the garlic cloves soften enough that you can smash them with the back of the wooden spoon. They let out a sweet, roasted smell and infuse the olive oil that slicks the bottom of the pan.

Slow and steady, just don’t break a sweat. That’s the extent of any cooking I’m doing on this day in July, when the air is so full of humidity that it has got to spill any minute now- burst from air into water.  I don’t have any ideas, and there’s not much in the fridge. Theo’s home from camp for lunch.

Lentils, thankfully cooked two nights ago, can be the substance of our meal. I lift them, ever so inefficiently, one spoonful at a time, from their cool cooking liquid with a slotted spoon because I am much too lazy to search the kitchen for the strainer. In a small bowl, I toss the lentils with a splash of vinegar, some salt and a bit of pungent vinaigrette from the whole grain mustard jar… lentils absorb- they can take on extra acid, extra salt, a little more olive oil. And a tip: always make dressing in your mustard jar, even if it’s just a way to eke out the dregs.

On the counter I unwrap a wheel of goat cheese from its paper.  I brought it back from a recent trip up north;  I admired its blue ash coating at a stall in the marché Jean Talon, Montreal. It is tender to touch and soft on the palate. The crunchy, garlicky croutons, still slightly warm, are ready and waiting to be tossed with a mixture of peppery salad greens in a bowl. Lunch can just be this.

A Working Lunch

So here I am, in self-imposed exile, trying to write my story.  I’m alone in a warm house, it’s very, very quiet. The snow outside the windows looks like it’s beginning to melt. I don’t go out much, and I don’t have to- there’s plenty to eat in the fridge. I enjoy scrounging through the vegetable drawers to see what I can come up with. I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking for myself, but I do think about my meals plenty. Even so, I should probably write more than I’m actually writing. Stalling? Right now I’m toasting a piece of somewhat stale baguette with a thick layer of fresh goat cheese (the kind that comes in a log), and some thyme leaves on top. First I used that trick of sprinkling the bread with water and toasting it lightly to bring it back, before I spread it with cheese and popped it in the toaster oven again. The goat cheese will melt a little. The thyme will give it that incredible, savory perfume that reminds me of summer and feeds into a long held fantasy about eating meals outside, somewhere in Provence. It usually happens when goat cheese and fresh thyme are united: I can feel the hot sun on the top of my head, and on my shoulders, where it blazes through the sand-colored fabric of my shirt. There’s a bee buzzing lazily around, and we linger at the long table, our feet in the grass. I gaze out at the lavender fields and…

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The toaster oven beeps. I drizzle a healthy amount of the most delectable olive oil (the one I reserve for special moments) on top of my toast, and impatiently take a bite before I put it on a plate with some cucumber slices. I sit, looking at my lunch and thinking about it for a few moments. Do I even like goat cheese warm and melty? I always think I will, but then when I eat it I think the texture is off-putting, a tiny bit slimy, in a state of pseudo-melt. And I usually don’t like chevre added to an omelette or other egg dishes, because I think it’s overpowering. But here, today, it’s perfectly fine, a creamy match for the extra crunch of the now-resuscitated baguette, and that whiff of thyme…

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Then I’ll eat. And read a page of a magazine. At some point (pretty soon) I’ll feel guilty about spending too much time sitting here eating and reading, and not enough time writing- so I’ll stand up and put my plate in the sink. Time to start thinking about dinner.

 

Crisp and Cool, Quiet

img_7511The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.

I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.

I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.

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Midnight in Rome, Un Anno Fa

IMG_4039The walls of our room in the old convent flickered and glowed, as if powered by an arrhythmic force. I closed the ten-foot drapes and returned to our bed, but I couldn’t keep the light out; it burst through the edges where the fabric curled just a bit and swayed, letting in a whisper of winter air. I lay on the starched white sheets, my young son’s head on my belly, and watched the show play out. We stared, mute- isolated together- as everything flashed around us. It was well past his bedtime, but it was his father who slept. Soon my boy got up, tucked himself behind the curtain, and reached up to pull the brass handle. He pushed open the old window, and I could see my paper-wrapped butter, bottle of wine, and package of sliced soppresata resting on the ledge outside; staying cool for tomorrow.  Beyond, small bursts of fireworks shot up from every surrounding roof and terrace, and I tried to picture what the enthusiasm of thousands of Romans looked like. I couldn’t, having nothing on which to base my imaginings. I joined my son at the window and we stood with our hands and elbows on the tiled sill, witnessing our new city. It felt nothing like home, and I felt nothing like celebratory. It was the eve of a New Year.

We’d eaten bread and creamy robiola earlier, with clementines and slices of fennel, and we’d shared acqua frizzante from the bottle, all while perched on the edge of the twin bed. A white napkin was laid out to cover a small ottoman, and we had spread our feast upon it. Outside the city waited for us to learn its streets and its famous marvels, but inside I held my breath. We had made it this far, the three of us. Now what?

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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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