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, 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 at the same school he attended, 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 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.

 

 

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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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.

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For the Love of Speck (Lunch in the Dolomiti)

IMG_6724We are in the craggy Dolomites… Dolomiti to the Italians. We left watery Venice and its low-lying beauty for these heights. What a change: It’s hard for me to believe this is Italy. The locals speak Ladina, which sounds Germanic to my ear, and yet I detect Italian words within the conversations. White snow is clinging to rocky peaks, but the bare earth is peaking through- signs of spring.  Spring or not, Greg and Theo ski- and I watch children take ski lessons from our window at the foot of the bunny hill and take short walks; mostly I write in the comfort of our wooden chalet.

The food served here seems to be mostly pork, cheese, mushrooms.  The white wines are as fresh as mountain water, and reds are soft and delicate.  Supermarket shelves hold herbal tisanes, sauerkraut, polenta, barley and farro, alpine yogurt. Packages of nuts and seeds, for a healthy mountain diet, are a pleasant surprise- they are so scarce in Rome.

This is the home of speck. I love speck- it’s a lightly smoked cousin of prosciutto, and I like the fact that it’s usually quite dry. It’s wonderful when sliced very thin. Enormous slabs of it were in the case of a small village market so I asked for some, using my Italian to communicate (ha!) how I wanted it sliced (taglia fini?)- but feeling like I ought to know some German to bridge the gap. I was pleased with my own ability to communicate, but when the speck was handed to me, it was a bit too thick for a sandwich.  Oh well, I can still use it, of course- no problem. I bought some coffee too, and a bag of barley mixed with dried porcini for soup.

Then a wander up the main street of La Villa led me to the café attached to a bakery-panificio, bakerei was painted on the wall.  Inside, behind lace curtains, the bar and a few tables and banquettes were shiny and spotless …the decor, which had probably seemed fabulous in 1981, seemed charmingly retro to me. The Carpenters played out of the speakers; the glass case was filled with slices of apple strudel, cream-topped cakes and poppy seed-filled pastries.  A kind older woman in a very plain apron asked in her quiet voice if she could help me.  I hoped for soup, asking if she had anything “non dolce”. She said yes, panini: speck, salami, prosciutto cotto; or formaggio. Inside I groaned, wishing for something lighter, a vegetable.  But I asked for speck and sat outside on a plastic chair, overlooking the town. I expected a hot, pressed panino, very plain. This is what she brought to me, saying buon appetito twice. When I saw my sandwich I wanted to hug her.

Speck PaninoIt was perfectly sliced, arranged with care into a pretty rosette- and served open on an chewy caraway and anise-seeded brown roll. An extra touch of pride was evident in the single cornichon, fanned with a flourish.  A little love, food made with care, a universal language.

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Venice in Black and White

IMG_6343When I think of Venice I first think of color and light.  The colors of the city, though, are in transition; some are fading- bleached by the sunlight that bounces off the lagoon- others are growing green with moss, or becoming speckled with dark dots of mold. Buildings are rippling blue reflections, and grey stones become darker as they step down into the murky canals.  This transience can make it seem as if there’s a scrim over the buildings, loosening the definition of their edges just a little bit. Painted shutters are chipping, walls are leaning, cornices cracking.  The water has an elusive palette too- more green than blue; clear and opaque at the same time.

But the food I seek in Venice is monochromatic.  I will always remember my first plate of spaghetti with squid ink on the island of Giudecca when I was in my early twenties, and how my napkin was marked with black each time I wiped my mouth. I proudly practiced my Italian on that trip, my culinary terminology earned through studious reading of Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David. It swept me away, seeing the foods I had imagined brought to me on plates, and I gobbled it all up. Through the years of culinary work and raising two children, when travel seemed impossible, I had to hang onto those taste memories in order to conjure up recipes for restaurants and food publications. Preserved in my mind, they were vividly black and white- it was not difficult to do:

Pasta al nero di seppia; creamy baccala mantecato on grilled polenta; tender pieces of cuttlefish in black ink with white polenta morbido; sardines in saor (those melting, soft onions); marinated white anchovy fillets; frittura of the tiniest squid, whiting and shrimp– their little black eyes popping through the crisp batter- and tender rings of white calamari

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And then finally, I was to see Venice again. What a treat to return to this beauty: a city on water, solid yet shimmering, full of alleys and mystery. Its tarnish suited my mood, rubbed rough from mourning and in need of gentle inspiration. Its prettiness lifted me.  I sought local flavors, those black and white memories to match my black clothes. Occasionally some diced red tomato snuck into my pasta with spider crab, or I permitted a dramatic leaf of port-colored radicchio onto my plate. A “spritz Aperol”, like an electric sunset, was fun for a while. I sifted through lists sent to me by friends and colleagues; they stood me well, those friends. And over three days I tried to see and taste as much as possible. I walked until I ached, wished I could swim. And now I have the beginnings of my own list.

I know what I like; Carnevale costumes, glitter and feathers are not for me. Mostly, when in Venice, I will remain in palette: a simple black mask; scrimshaw; or the worn black tire dangling from the prow of a boat.

 

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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