Cardoons on the Caelian Hill

CardoonsI came home to write and focus my thoughts, in between a trip to the market and my next outing in the afternoon. My head was full of musings and memories, perhaps a beginning…

But when I walked into our little apartment I heard the neighbor yelling at his wife, in his husky, brutish Italian. I hear him often, repeating one staccato phrase after another. Sometimes the two of them stand right outside our door and let the tirades fly; then one of them slams the door until their brass knocker clatters to the tile floor.  I feel like I’m on the set of an Anna Magnani film. And now I can’t write. Oh, another excuse… Looking on the bright side, though, I am certainly picking up a bit of Italian, tuning my ear to the cadences and structure of his repetitions.

Allora! Cardoons:

I’ve been feeling like an outsider here in Rome. It’s hard for me when I can’t find the words I need.  I feel so pathetic when I don’t know how to respond to simple questions, so rather than be caught off guard, I find I’ve been closing myself off from many casual interactions.

On one recent morning I walked to the outdoor market in Piazza san Cosimato just to have a look. It’s not a famous market, nor is it picturesque, but it’s our local, and it’s time I get to know it. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, and as usual I was reluctant to engage with anyone. Most of the seven or so produce vendors sell the same vegetables, although slight differences in quality and diversity are evident. In winter I’m seeing a lot of chicories, including loose leaf mixes; cabbages, onions, fennel and large, purple-tinged artichokes- and citrus, citrus, citrus. Even the run-of-the-mill clementines have leaves attached, and look so much more vibrant than what I’m used to seeing at home.

Many vendors called out to draw me in. A middle aged woman cleaved a winter squash on a wooden crate with ferocity, causing some snickers amongst the young assistants at the neighboring stalls. I decided I was her ally; in my mind I came to her defense: “What do you guys think is so funny? Life seems simple to you now, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, and this woman knows it- she’s seen a thing or two.”   Take that, pumpkin!  Another vendor, whose brown eggs filled a large bowl caught my attention. Purple spring onions were pretty, but not so fresh- and I wondered about the little boxes of new potatoes, each sold with a sprig of rosemary.  I wished I were invisible; I wanted to stare and get up close, to hold the eggs in my hand and inspect each bunch of rughetta. If I were invisible I could go to the cheese counter and lift each pecorino to feel its density, and inhale the scent of the robiola without having to speak a word.

As I inched closer to the vegetables a vendor spoke to me. I was so near the cardoons. His was the only stall who had them that day, and I was intrigued. Here was something I hadn’t cooked in many years, something I loved: “Cardo!” I spoke, using the incorrect singular form.  I wondered (to myself) why I hadn’t seen them more often, and whether it might be the end of the season.  But, no-  I recalled seeing rows of cardoons growing beautifully just two weeks earlier.  That day I had been standing outside the vegetable garden of the convent next to San Gregorio Al Celio on Rome’s Caelian Hill, peeking in through an old iron fence. The sight of the carciofi-like leaves, dusty, pale green and standing tall in their rows, had spoken to me. When I looked at them I saw myself walking from the garden with arms full of cardoons, and a serene smile. Funny; next I envisioned taking the cardoons into a spacious, quiet kitchen just off the garden, where I cooked them until they were tender, and they glistened with olive oil and lemon juice. I imagined also that there were friends in that kitchen, and I felt calm and content.  In that fleeting moment outside the convent garden, I had whispered to a leaf in the sunshine, without saying a word…  I want to be at peace.

I brought the cardoons home with me from the market- and they brought with them so much possibility.





Rainy Summer Evening


   Pretty Thinnings in the Rain

Pretty Thinnings in the Rain


We stopped by Sally’s garden just before the rain came, to help her pick peas. She’s been waiting and waiting for them. She likes to make a beautiful soup with them, simply puréeing blanched peas and a bit of lettuce with mint and broth, and thinning it all with cream. This takes quite a few peas, so I don’t ask for any today.  Besides, I know that I’ll be given free run of her garden later this week when she’s away, and we’ve already had our share of lettuces and herbs.  Living as I am, from moment to moment these days, I have no agenda other than to visit my friend and lend a hand.

As we picked and talked, a gentle mist blew in and settled around us, lower and lower.  Sally discarded fistfuls of pea vines and tendrils, and cast them between plant rows. I couldn’t help but snip the tops, and started my own little pile.

She gave a golden zucchini to my young son, who showed surprising enthusiasm.  A zucchini blossom had fallen on its own- so he took that too. He then handed me one precious pea, and I added it to my pile. Baby spinach plants needed a bit of thinning, so those went onto the pile too. Oh, and a few sprigs of basil, some celery flowers (so pretty, why not?) and chives. Sally handed two haricots verts, thin as bobby pins, to my little one – he ate them up before I even got a look.  And lastly, we were offered two tiny broccoli heads, so we snapped their tender stalks.

Just like that!  Peas all picked, appetite awakened, and he was off. As he ran up the path, all skinny legs and sandals, the drizzle turned to rain.  Dinner had revealed itself and I followed with both hands full.

Pasta with 8 Vegetables and Cream

This is an invitation rather than a recipe: if you find yourself with an assortment of tender vegetables, and the cream to enrich a sauce, I say take it and run. In terms of vegetable combinations, think of similar colors and varied textures.   We are only 3 now, but I made enough to serve 4

3/4 pound pasta (short, tubular or curved shape)

coarse salt, freshly ground pepper

extra virgin olive oil for cooking

3-4 handfuls mixed vegetables, such as: spring onion bulbs or leeks, zucchini and summer squash, sugar snap peas, asparagus, haricots verts, english peas, corn kernels, small broccoli florets, baby spinach leaves, pea shoots or other tender greens, basil, chives, mint.

1/4-1/3 cup fresh heavy cream

parmesan or pecorino romano for grating

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and add pasta; return to a boil and stir. While it’s cooking, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and coat the bottom generously with olive oil.

Make sure vegetables are cut to similar size and add the firmest ones first: chopped onion or leek, diced summer squash or zucchini, asparagus stalks, small broccoli florets and sliced sugar snap peas. Don’t crowd the pan with more than one dense layer; sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until barely tender- do not let them brown. Add remaining vegetables in succession- the firmest first. Reserve the most delicate leaves and herbs.

Stir to combine vegetables, and add the cream. Simmer rapidly until cream reduces by about half, 2-3 minutes. Stir baby spinach, basil, and other herbs into the pan. Add drained pasta when it is al dente, plus about 1/2 cup pasta water, tossing with cream and vegetables until all are combined in a creamy sauce; add more pasta water if the pasta needs more coating, and season as needed.  Divide among bowls and serve with cheese sprinkled on top.





The Garden Gives


Dill, Mint, Cilantro, Garlic Chives

Dill, Mint, Cilantro, Garlic Chives

Green things, LIVING and growing in front of my eyes- so audacious!  Shouldn’t you hide yourselves from me, spare me the sight of time moving on?  How am I expected to react to this loveliness all around me? Can’t stop myself from picking your leaves, sniffing the air, and imagining food to share- a future, even.

But that brings too much sadness with it, so I stop – and exist only for this moment.

Brooklyn Backyard Harvest


Plucked from the tangle

Plucked from the tangle

In the tiny, walled garden behind our house I have found inspiration among the herb leaves and raspberry bushes from June straight on through September. But now the scruffy, tangled vines and branches are a project: dry leaves need raking, branches need pulling. Days are getting shorter and soon I know my culinary inspiration will come from indoors and a desire to stir and simmer. So here is the last, golden harvest- and it promises to let summer linger for a while…