Crisp and Cool, Quiet

img_7511The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.

I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.

I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.

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Buckwheat, Apples and Ghosts

img_5857Working from home has many perks (as well as some downsides). It’s hard for me to stay out of the kitchen when I’m supposed to be at my desk. Yesterday I decided to give myself something special for elevenses, as they say in England. I had made buckwheat pancake batter earlier in the morning for Theo, but then he was late for school and in the rush we didn’t cook them.  So later on I decided to make some pancakes. They were brown and warm and slightly crisp on the outside, but inside each pancake a slice of caramelized apple added soft sweetness. I drizzled dark Vermont maple syrup over them and sat with a cup of coffee. I warmed the milk and foamed it just the way I like it, and indulged in my mid morning treat, recognizing the goodness of it all.

Moments of peace come and go- for me they usually arrive courtesy of food, flavors, and treasured objects. My coffee cup, for example, was made in Orvieto. It’s wide at the top, and not too deep- perfectly scaled so my coffee doesn’t cool down before I can drink it all up. The pottery is painted in the traditional hues that many ceramicists of Orvieto have used for centuries: greenish-blue and accents of dark brown (is this the classic burnt umber of a Crayola box)? Its patterns and stripes are simple, repetitive. This cup feels good in my hands, and each time I pick it up I think of the day I bought it.

It was Lucian’s birthday- it would have been his 11th, and we were still freshly in mourning. Orvieto was a perfect place for this occasion. It’s a dramatic but quiet town built on a huge rocky outcropping, and it’s an easy day trip from Rome. Earlier that day we’d walked the trail around the old city walls, and picked wildflowers. Orvieto’s sloping streets are filled with pretty shops. There is plenty of traditional, good, Umbrian hill town food there, like umbrichelli pasta dusted with fluffy grated cheese and truffles, braised cinghiale, and roasted pigeon, and we rested with a hearty lunch.  At the center of the town is the stunning cathedral. Its black and pink bricks create narrow stripes, so uplifting and gloriously different from all the whites and greys of Rome- while gruesomely detailed biblical scenes carved into the facade signal a warning: know these ancient stories and be fearful.

I bought this cup I now hold in my hands from another Anna, whose small pottery studio was tucked just behind the main piazza. A few steps up a stone alley, her gate was canopied by draping vines of honeysuckle. I was so enchanted by them that I paused with Theo so Greg could take a photo of us. When a woman called out from the shadows of a doorway: Buon Giorno! we realized we were actually standing in the entrance to her shop, not on a lane, as we had presumed… and though we weren’t looking to buy any ceramics, we entered her space, respectful and quiet. I came away with a cup, though I wish I’d bought six, and a simple jar for decanting olive oil. It has a slender body with a narrow top for pouring, and is made from the warmly pigmented Umbrian clay.  Anna and her little studio were engaging and humble. When we left, we walked back towards the piazza, where I stopped to look at the photos I’d taken- and I realized that instead of a lovely, honeysuckle covered archway, the photo I had taken was just one frame, and it was completely black. A little ghost had been there and is with me still.img_9043

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Buddhist Chicken and the Star Man

buddhist chickenAccording to the label, the chicken was dressed in the Buddhist style- in the sense that its head and feet were still attached to its body. To me, having no knowledge of Buddhist death rituals, this conjured up a peaceful ceremony- one in which the chicken’s neck was twisted in some humane yet final way, while compassionate farmers took time out from their chores to stand in a circle. They quietly blessed its life while poems were read and chants were hummed.

But once out of its bag and splayed on my cutting board, this chicken was less mystical and more cartoon-like, in a rubber chicken kind of way, its funny feet in particular.  Rather than finding it gruesome, I found it riveting. I took snapshot after snapshot of it, turning it this way and that- first nude, and then sprinkled with a dark salt and spice mixture for greater, shadowy effect. Life cycle. Death is the theme this week; we all talk about David Bowie, a timeless, indefinable spirit; an artist in every sense, a man of many modes. He seemed to know all along that he was part of a greater star system, while some of us have our eyes on the ground for years, and we keep on going, earth-bound, until a shock wakes us up.

All week I felt the weight of death and childhood, and the years of life in between.

A friend’s Instagram post broke my heart Monday morning and made me cry. It was the photo of her son as a boy- a boy I only ever knew as a young man. Looking at the image, I sensed his soul immediately.  And I thought of my Lucian, the boy who I will never know as a young man. This fact slayed me. And the Bowie lyrics she quoted were from one of my favorite songs, Kooks, from the album Hunky Dory. Kooks is an ode to childhood, and parenting; a song of irreverence and familial love. The priority is joy. My heart is breaking today. For my young son, the living one, who is already the young man he will be: I wish I could catch the time in between then and now and preserve you as you are.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt

This mixture is dark grey thanks to the exotic, obscure and puckery Persian Lime powder. I buy it at the wonderful Kalustyan’s market in New York. It suited my mood to use it for this chicken rub, but if you omitted it entirely, the chicken would still be delicious. In fact, if you only used salt and pepper the chicken would be delicious, as this recipe is based upon the excellent Zuni Café roasted chicken method, developed by another shooting star, the late Judy Rodgers.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon ground Omani Lime (Persian Lime)

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 small chicken, buddhist or secular

Crush cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or the bottom of a skillet, and mix with the salt, Omani lime, black pepper, and ground cinnamon.

Use a cleaver to chop the head from the chicken, as close to the breast as possible, and chop off the wing tips. Rotate bird and chop off its feet at the bottom leg joint. Save all parts for stock. Rinse bird inside and out, and pat dry.

Rub with salt and spice mixture and leave to sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before roasting (or, preferably, refrigerate overnight, loosely covered, and bring to room temperature before roasting).

Preheat oven to 475º. Place a heavy pan just large enough to hold the chicken, or a sheet pan if you will add vegetables, in the oven to preheat for about 5 minutes; remove from oven, lightly drizzle pan with olive oil and place chicken on the hot pan. Roast until chicken is cooked through- you can tell this if the legs wiggle easily and the juice runs clear when the back of the thighs is pierced. For a small chicken (about 3 pounds or less) roast for 40-45 minutes. Rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Judy’s recipe calls for roasting this way for 30 minutes, and then flipping the chicken to finish it upside down for another 15 minutes.  I am sure this method ensures the breast is very moist… but I’m inclined to put my chicken in the oven and forget it while it’s cooking, so I can do other things, and therefore I roast it breast-side up all the way through. It comes out crisp-skinned, tender and moist, even so.

To roast with vegetables, such as butternut squash: spread peeled, cubed squash on pan first, leaving a space in center for chicken. Season with salt and toss in the oil. The sweet, roasted squash plays nicely with the middle Eastern flavors of this spice mix.

With our chicken we ate the world’s longest grain basmati, according to Kalustyan’s: Golden Sella Basmati…Cook according to package instructions- requires triple washing, and a long steaming time after cooking to absorb moisture.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt is pretty good on hard-boiled eggs too:

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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.