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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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