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?




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??




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.




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.

IMG_6825 IMG_6827


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.





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.