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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