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.

pomodori ripieni

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)?

 

Rainy Summer Evening

Image

   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

Brooklyn Backyard Harvest

Image

Plucked from the tangle

Plucked from the tangle

In the tiny, walled garden behind our house I have found inspiration among the herb leaves and raspberry bushes from June straight on through September. But now the scruffy, tangled vines and branches are a project: dry leaves need raking, branches need pulling. Days are getting shorter and soon I know my culinary inspiration will come from indoors and a desire to stir and simmer. So here is the last, golden harvest- and it promises to let summer linger for a while…