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

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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The No Recipe Chicken Recipe

All that hot weather shopping at the outdoor market yesterday led me to write about my summery, salty salad with an egg on top. But the dinner I was really shopping for gets an honorable mention:IMG_9382So simple, it’s something everybody already knows. But there you have it: pan fried chicken cutlets with lemon and olive oil; a salad and crispy potatoes. Who wouldn’t want that for dinner on a hot evening?

Walking home with my chicken from the market yesterday I wondered why it is that usually, (when in America) I feel awkward about asking a butcher to cut up or pound my chicken for me. Am I afraid to take up too much time, because there’s always a crowd at the counter in Brooklyn? Or maybe I feel that because I can, then I must. Yes, I know how to do it myself; I know how to cut a chicken into eight pieces, bone out thighs, make paillards, all of that.  But sometimes it feels like a chore (or at least the washing up of everything the chicken has come into contact with when what I really want to do is get on with cooking does). I know that most people in the U.S. are not buying their meat at a butcher’s shop, and I don’t always have that chance either. Here in Rome, however, there seems to be one one every block, and several within each market; and for better or worse, these butchers seem to have a bit more time on their hands…

At home in New York, the best nose-to-tail, locavore butchers certainly don’t sell chicken breasts. Of course, it makes perfect sense- why would they? Well, I thought they might have a few in the case once in a while, after having taken the other parts from the bird, but no. Oh, I know because I’ve had to ask, my head down, anticipating the thinly veiled scorn of the guys behind the counter when, one day, I urgently needed some chicken breasts for recipe development at the magazine.  Sorry! I know it’s not as tasty as the dark meat, nor does it lend itself to delicious, longer cooking methods, but sometimes a golden, quickly cooked piece of white meat is just the thing. Especially when the weather is hot and I have a child to spend time with before dinner.  It used to be that my two boys would entertain each other while I frantically dashed around, cooking for them while unpacking groceries and emptying lunchboxes.  Now my little guy is here alone with me so I like to keep my attention on him more than on the stove. Also, if I allow myself to ask the butcher to slice the chicken for me, not only will I get four or five thin scallopine for the same price as a chicken breast half (a petto as opposed to two petti, I realized with chagrin after ordering a single petti yesterday) it will also give me a dinner prep time of about ten minutes, and more time to talk with my son about how he made the bumpy mosaic tile he brought home from school.

So, I did. And because I had already washed that lively, peppery rughetta at lunchtime, I was even able to sit down with my bitter orange-infused gin and tonic before dinner.

The No-Recipe Chicken Dinner Recipe

Heat a large skillet over medium-high flame and add olive oil to coat the bottom. This is a good chance to crisp up any leftover boiled potatoes you have to serve alongside the chicken, which I did. When they were golden brown and crunchy I poured them out of the pan onto a plate, and added a bit more oil to the pan. Now the seasoned chicken cutlets went in one at a time, with just enough space between so they didn’t steam. (2-3 per pan). Tell me if I am insulting you by giving instructions for something this simple.  Once they are golden on the first side (2 minutes or so), flip each one and cook until barely springy when poked, about 1 minute more. Transfer to plates and repeat.

To me, the best way to eat this is just with a pile of fresh salad greens. Both are drizzled with lemon and olive oil (or a garlicky vinaigrette), and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and fresh pepper. A few shavings of parmesan or pecorino Romano over everything is an optional flourish. Lemon on the side, certo.

 

 

 

A Nicoise Panzanella Moment

cooling effect

Suddenly, it’s hot in Rome. Hot.

Fa caldo. Fa caldo tutti insieme- I’m pretty sure those were the words that came galloping out of the mouth of the organic vegetable vendor at the market today. It’s hot all of a sudden! She said some other things too, which I didn’t quite catch.

I was shopping for dinner, looking all around the market to see what was best today. The rughetta (rocket, arugula)  looked lively, which is more than I can say for the other limp greens I saw (although one vendor had a freshly spritzed crate of cicoria, which gave me a pang…a momentary desire to hold onto the winter and spring vegetables I’ve been loving and never let them go; to stop time from passing).

But here we are, it’s May…I mentally prepared for a seasonal update. Cucumbers are coming in now and hers looked good. They would be juicy.  I needed eggs, so I bought six from her stall.  And rosy, tight garlic heads with stalks- all were biologico.  Ok, good. One of my favorite simple summer dinners is chicken with a salad. I had the salad…so I crossed over to the butcher and pick up some petti di pollo, which he sliced in fine scallopine for me.

It was so hot, I walked home directly to get the chicken in the fridge.  But once at home I realized I’d forgotten about lunch.  What could I make with what I had, the familiar refrain? I needed something cool and healthy and salty.  Egg, rocket, cucumber…. I made an eight minute egg.  I had some stale but delicious olive bread from Le Levain bakery, so the toasted olive bread became the base for a salty, savory, juicy and satisfying salad.

IMG_9356This is how to make a sort of panzanella– or maybe it’s a Nicoise bread salad. Or do the oregano and olives make it a Greek one?

Toast sliced olive bread (or just toast plain, rustic bread and then add olives to your salad). You could rub the bread with a garlic clove when it’s warm, to impart just a whiff. But have you ever had garlic so fresh it’s still juicy? Mine was, so I decided to thinly slice it and add it to the bowl, yum. And some best quality anchovies from a jar- I’ll eat six fillets, but you should decide for yourself.  The toasted bread needs to be torn with your hands and then moistened. I don’t like it to be soft as pap, so I pour in a little bit of water, and then a few drops more, just until the bread is tender. I add balsamic vinegar and olive oil; a few crumbles of dried oregano and a pinch of spicy crushed red pepper go in and it all gets tossed really well.  Now the green. I tear the rocket leaves and add them to the bowl along with thick half moons of cucumber.

That’s it. I slice the egg in half and marvel at its yolk. Did you know that in Italian the egg yolk is referred to as the rosso (red)?

 

If I Could Save Thyme in a Bottle/ Blanquette de Veau

IMG_8542I approached the butcher’s counter today with no thought other than: spring vegetables. The market at piazza san Cosimato looked so much more verdant than it did one week ago, before we left town. I saw a small piece of rosy veal behind the glass – it was just the right size for the three of us, and looked perfect; compact and muscular with tender fat in between. After a few clumsy words (including brasato, which I think impressed the butchers that I knew my stuff) and a little bit of pantomime, including me slapping my left thigh, dinner was in my bag. I returned to the produce stalls, and walked home with bright, fresh peas, young carrots, leeks and a lemon. I knew the veal was good for slow cooking, and I had decided to try my hand at blanquette de veau.  I know, it’s a little bit weird to make that when in Italy. But I’ve been thinking about making a spring trip to the kitchen of Buvette Paris, and blanquette is one dish that is pure comfort food to many French people. My little boy has eaten brasato di vitello here in Rome, served totally plain in its brodo and liked it- so I decided I should make us all a good dinner for our first night home.

While he was still at school I simmered the veal in salted water with leek trimmings and thyme (the only herb I have here, and my true favorite). When it was tender I turned off the stove, leaving the veal in its aromatic poaching liquid. I crossed the Tiber and met the school bus…then it was time for the daily gelato.  On our way home from the gelateria, my son proposed visiting the Orto Botanico, a botanical garden in Trastevere.  At 4:30 the sun was strong, and the bright, spring grass and tall palm trees looked inviting. As we wandered amongst them, though, a sadness swelled inside me.  I recalled mornings spent at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with him when he was a toddler while his brother Lucian was at school, and many other memorable days spent there as a family. One of my favorite photos of my son Lucian is of him with his friend Walter, both less than three years old, carrying walking sticks and wearing winter hats in the BBG. A couple of years ago, when Walter turned eight, I made a photo book of some moments they had shared over the years; dressing up as astronauts with white paper jet packs, and covered in mud, laughing in our little garden. I knew then that their friendship was shifting but they remained connected, picking up where they left off each time they saw each other. Now, walking in the Orto Botanico I wondered what Walter thinks when he looks at the pictures in the book I gave him. How did his parents break it to him that Lucian had been killed, and how had he reacted?  I hope he holds that book forever.

IMG_8504Back at home I focused on my blanquette...preparing more leeks and carrots to simmer in the broth, and I started a bechamel sauce in another pot; traditionally cream is used, and the sauce is thickened with a roux and egg yolk, but I only had milk today. I was winging it, feeling good. All the meandering thoughts from the garden had left me, replaced by the urgency of making dinner. I briskly stirred milk to make the creamy sauce. I added a wide strip of lemon peel to the veal pot, and fetched more thyme from the patio. As I stood at the counter, rapidly plucking the leaves I remembered a chef I once knew telling me how much he hated it when cooks threw thyme in to a dish, coarse stems and all, in a misguided attempt at being casually rustic. My thyme today had tender stems, but I stripped them anyway I wanted my stew to be soft and pure, with only a few flecks of delicate leaves. Next thing I knew I was deep in a meditative state, stirring, skimming, tasting, boiling rice, blanching peas… all the while only half-conscious of my actions because the thought of thyme led me on a long trip down memory lane, to Cambridge, Mass, 1992.  Hard work in the kitchen, a romance gone wrong, staff parties and afterhours fun. A famous chef who honored me with his respect, and hired me years later to work on special events what had he seen in me? And then, 2004: an off-season walk down a Massachusetts beach, with my first baby strapped to my body. I’d seen the chef passing by, we’d waved, not sure whether to stop and chat. What a lifetime away that day seemed now! I recall my self-consciousness at my new role as mother; the physical changes and lack of freedom. My sweet baby, Lucian, waving his hands up and down and closing his eyelids against the wind, his first exposure to the coastal breezes. His life begun and ended between then and now; celebrated and mourned. All these thoughts passed through a few thyme leaves. There is no escaping the persistent sadness; memory infuses every moment.   And so we go up and down, round and round… another spring is here, and still my days go on; feeding a little boy and hoping he will enjoy his meals and grow (turns out he didn’t like this one)…

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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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