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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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.

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Lucian steering the tugboat John J. Harvey, age 5

 

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.

 

 

 

A Nicoise Panzanella Moment

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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)…

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