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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Rainy Summer Evening

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   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.

 

 

 

 

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