Corn Nuts, and Salty Thoughts


Corn Nuts

I’m eating corn nuts and I can’t stop. Are they made from Italian corn, mais?  (Not mais, the French word for but, but mais the Italian word for corn!) I hope so.  If not I feel really gross about eating GMO corn from somewhere halfway around the world… but that wouldn’t be much more gross than I already feel in this heat. The corn nuts are salty and so incredibly crunchy that I can’t stop popping them into my mouth. I use the small spoon the bartender has provided for our salatini, and I try not to dip into the bowl with my fingers. We’re masquerading as fancy resort guests, my six-year old son and I, and I’m trying to appear as civilized as possible. It’s not easy; my sandals are dusty from walking up the trail from our rented apartment, and he looks pretty scruffy too. It’s after 5:30 pm and still as hot as the lower deck of an old ferry. I’m sipping a Campari and soda with a slice of arancia, looking out over the hillsides of Tuscany- somewhere south of Montepulciano and north of San Casciano di Bagni. Lap of luxury, Tuscany in summer. This place is really more of a cliché I’d say. Luxury to me is many things: floating in cool water on a quiet beach; not having to wait for a table at your favorite trattoria; being able to spend as much time as you like staring at a Caravaggio before someone stands so close to you that you can smell her shampoo. San Gimigniano was hellacious- wall to wall tourists (like us), wandering in a daze in the heatwave. But most other days we do pretty well, finding our own quiet places for retreating from the world.

Wow- Amazing! Everyone says to me: it must be so incredible to be in Italy for seven months. You’re so lucky!!!  (I always note the envy between the lines and hide my grimace). And yes it is incredible. Amazing, wonderful and special. Also, really challenging, disorienting and alienating. But on balance there is more to be gained than lost, for sure.  I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to change things up and live for a while in another place to do it. You don’t need to be in mourning like we are… grieving for our wonderful son and groping around for answers on how to live our lives. In fact, we were thinking of doing this before Lucian, our nine-year old son was killed by a reckless driver on a Brooklyn sidewalk.  How I would have loved to see him absorb the beauty of Italy, and the lessons inherent in its ruins! I have seen through his eyes everywhere we go, without him to help me do it. He taught me so many things, not least of them how to be enthusiastic about the world around me. Also: the geological layers that make up our planet, the order of our solar system, the hierarchies of the world’s tallest buildings, and the intricacies of a well-assembled sandwich.  The heroics of the Roman and Greek myths had recently captured his imagination. I wish he could tell me those stories every time I look at a sculpture. He was funny and smart and ever curious. Why can’t Lucian be here with us? Did we need to lose him in order to give ourselves this experience, this time to be close together and revel in sensory beauty? I don’t think that should be a necessary trade.


Lucian steering the tugboat John J. Harvey, age 5


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)…



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.


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.