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.


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.





Monday Sunday Blues

Summer of Solace

Just as Sunday is the end of the weekend, so Labor Day is the Sunday of the summer- the day before it all begins again.  In the morning I remembered what a Sunday used to feel like: it felt like a luxury, borrowed and treasured. It felt like there was all the time in the world for whatever we wanted: bacon, french toast, waffles or pancakes.  Sunday mornings were elastic and we let things unfold until the children needed to be released to the outdoors- shepherded, as city life necessitated, to the parks and playgrounds.  But that was before.

Beautiful Vermont!  We have, of course, fallen in love with you. I knew this could happen. But what I didn’t know was that a whole summer of seeing your cool green, hearing your frogs and crickets and just being, could not heal me.  A salve is all I can hope for. “Healing?! Whatever that means” another mother of a boy killed by a car last year, said to me.  She’s right I’m sure: there is no such thing as healing now.  For me what’s helped has been space to breathe, with the knowledge that I’m always held close by friends and family. Retreating from too much noise and activity has made me calm. I’ve worked to treat myself well.  This was to have been our summer of solace. But loveliness was crowded out by sadness, and this has been the summer of watching my surviving son learn to be an only child.  He has also been learning to swim, daring himself to go a little bit deeper and a little bit longer every day.  And he’s reading pretty well now, dipping into favorite books again and again- some of these books were inscribed a long time ago with his brother’s name. He’s working hard all the time, and he’s doing all this without his big brother to cheer him on with his sweet smile and words.

After my little boy awoke on this Sunday, he ran down the lane to play with his friends. His dad had gone fishing early, so I had the house to myself, space to stretch out- and time to bring my tea to bed. I finished the Laurie Colwin novel I’ve been reading, in which the sudden death of a young woman’s husband teaches her to see her own depths. Looking out the window over green rolling fields to Mt. Ascutney I felt the ripples of the moment wash over me.

I needed this quiet morning to myself. After I finished the novel I thought about breakfast. I could skip cooking completely if I wanted to. What would make me feel most free?  I tried to imagine eating a simple boiled egg, outside on the grass by the pond. Or toast with a slice of gorgeous, ripe tomato, and salt. Hmm, cereal? No cooking involved there. Give yourself time to do something else, I told myself- get out of the kitchen!

But I knew what I wanted to eat: a Sunday breakfast. Earthy buckwheat pancakes, big as a plate; deep blue, local berries and maple syrup. The sun shone through the glass bottle of syrup, refracting amber onto the kitchen table as I stirred batter in a bowl. I fed myself today, and made enough for us all to eat tomorrow.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Syrup

Delicate Buckwheat Pancakes

This is an adaptation.  There is a copy of The Joy of Cooking in this kitchen which has been used so often it’s lost its cover and its spine; therefore I can’t say which edition it is – but my research leads me to guess 1964.  The recipe for Buckwheat Cakes on page 215 calls for buttermilk. In the absence of buttermilk, I used a combination of yogurt, milk and water. The recipe produces a batter which can be spread almost as thin as crepes in the pan; it makes light, slightly crisp pancakes. But what really drew me to the recipe is that, according to The Joy of Cooking, the batter stands up very well to “several” days in the refrigerator.   I like to make these individually in a small skillet so I can really swirl the loose batter into a crepe-like griddle cake.

Sift before measuring:  1/2 cup all purpose flour

Resift flour with:

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Whisk in: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour

Pour into a large bowl: 3 1/4 cups buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup whole milk, 2 3/4 cup plain, whole milk yogurt and 1/2 cup water)

2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for skillet

Add dry ingredients into liquid ingredients, and stir just enough to combine. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate.

To cook, pour a large spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) into a medium-hot skillet of sizzling, melted butter. Reduce heat to medium and swirl pan to spread batter into a thin pancake.  When pancake is filled with bubbles, flip; if it won’t flip easily, wait a few more seconds until the bottom has crisped slightly, and try again. Cook just until set on second side, and transfer to a plate or a a warming tray; raise heat to medium-high and repeat. Serve with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, of course.