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Archive for November, 2009

The forecast was for rain for the long Thanksgiving weekend, but each day, we had mist and then sun.  That was a nice turn of events, because we had lots of touring of Rome to do with our visitors.  Yesterday morning, I had to swear to everyone that I didn’t plan it this way, but en route to Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, we ended up walking by both Antica Caciari (where we bought fresh ricotta, fresh pesto, and fresh sausages) and Roscioli, my favorite forno (where we bought fig bread, hearty bread for dinner, and a torta di mele—apple cake—the last of which I’ve been wanting to buy since I first laid eyes on it).

Some other observations…

Sorry, this is gross and unappetizing, but interesting.  Don’t park where the starlings roost:

What would beauty be without shit?

Now, though, let’s turn to beauty.

Lion and pinecone: fierce, lordly, evergreen; pignoli, carne, regeneration, peace, power, teeth, needles, mane, shade.

Giant Bernini-designed river god, at ease in his musculature, reclining in the center of Piazza Navona:

The oculus:

Another, humbler, dome:

Mmmm… so moist and appley.

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turkey links

A food blog with nothing to say on Thanksgiving?  Sorry to disappoint, dear readers.  Mona and Chris and the RSFP cooked an incredible feast on Thursday.  Alice Waters is visiting the Academy.  I had lunch with her on Wednesday, but on Thursday, we stopped in at the Academy just for the pre-dinner Puccinis (related to Bellinis and Mimosas, but made with freshly squeezed mandarin juice.  Wow!).  But when everyone went in to the dining room, we came back to the apartment to greet our guests, who arrived with flowers and some delicious Barbaresco. Later I braised some chicken and served it with roasted tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes—with some olives and a bit of anchovy in the sauce.  It hasn’t been a very foody weekend, though because Jack has a stomach bug.

But I’ve been enjoying these mouth-watering blogs over the past few days:

Smitten Kitchen

Tribeca Yummy Mummy

Still Life with Whisk

and especially this one by Maira Kalman.

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No.  I’m not talking about that mystery conglomeration “corn dog” that masquerades as meat, but meatballs, served cocktail-catering-style on little wooden skewers.  We took Jack to a cocktail reception last night, and his favorite items were the polpetti, or, meat lollipops.  (My favorite was the split date posing as a dish for gorgonzola and a walnut quarter.)

The reception, here at the Academy, was for the new American ambassador to Italy, David Thorne.  Alice Waters was also there, having come from a big Slow Food event, and planning to stay in Rome through Thanksgiving.  I think you can guess which dignitary I was most excited about meeting.

This morning, Jack said, “Mommy, can you make polpetti?”  Yes! And you can help!  So, after dropping him off at school, I stopped at the Super Carni—a little butcher’s shop owned by a grandparently couple, which sells lots of organic products—and asked for “del bovino per polpetti.”  Probably not very correct, but he understood.  Remember how I mentioned that Italians are always, in a tacit and politely bossy way, telling you the proper way to do things?  Well, I had asked for beef, but after half-picking up a piece of beef, he set it down and reached instead for the chunks of veal, which he then put through the old-fashioned meat grinder twice, making sure the texture was to his satisfaction.  I love the immediacy of this operation.

And of this one:

For the recipe, check out this post.

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We’re so coddled here, with the wonderful food prepared for and served to us at the Academy.  So it was with real satisfaction last night that I prepared a meal requiring what felt like authentic labor: beheading fish and whisking for a good half hour.

The meal was utterly simple, and maybe that’s why it was so much fun to make.  I started in the morning at the open air market on Via Nicolini, where I bought a pile of fresh sardines.  The fishmonger threw in a handful of parsley too, which is one of the nice gestures these Roman vendors always make.  It’s both generous and bossy of them: “here, have some herbs” and “if you’re going to cook that, you really should have this.”  (This attitude actually seems to be a regional—or even national—trait.)  I bought lemons at another stall, mixed chicories at another, some apples, brocoletti, and then some pizza bianca at Pasticceria Beti.

Here are the fish, before their “dressing”:

There are a few ways to prepare sardines—going from minimally to maximally meticulous.  I chose the middle road.  The minimal would be just to clean the scales off and cook them whole.  The most thorough would be to cut the heads off, clean the guts out, and bone them before cooking.  The middle way, which Robinson Crusoe would have advised, is to break the heads off with your hands; the attached guts follow; and the boning is easier to do when the fish are cooked anyway.

Sardines are very nutritious, as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in the mercury and other contaminants that settle in the big fish higher up on the food chain. They are very high in selenium and vitamin B12 and high in calcium, niacin, and phosphorus.  Are these good reasons to feel virtuous even when you fry them in butter?

After a good descaling rinse, they’re ready to be dredged in salted flour and fried up in a mixture of butter and olive oil, at high heat.

Before doing that though, I made the aioli with a whisk—and with the assistance of Junior Wells’s Hoo Doo Man Blues, prosecco, and Peter.  I followed Alice Waters’s recipe from The Art of Simple Food.  Start with garlic and a pinch of salt mashed with a mortar-and-pestle; add a 1/4 tsp. of water and an egg yolk. Starting drop by drop, whisk in 1 c. extra virgin olive oil. (When you’re not working with the help of electricity, this takes a good long time.)

The resulting meal was simple, cheap, yummy, and fun.

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In my last post, I attempted both to recommend Food Inc., and to criticize what I saw as the overly facile closing message (“vote with your fork”).  There was more to the event, here at the American Academy in Rome, and there is a positive alternative to the dark suggestion of the film that Monsanto may well take over the world.  Briefly, these follow-ups/upsides have to do with braised pork and grass-roots.

Let’s start with grass-roots.  Since the screening, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how depressing the film is.  It seems to offer only the meager solutions of “voting with your fork” and waiting for policy change to adjust the prices of food.  Obviously, more needs to be done and can be done.  One of the people I’ve talked with a lot about these issues is Mona Talbott, the executive chef here.  She is passionate not only about great cooking but also about reforming American food culture through cooking education.  An over-reliance on convenient but unhealthy fast-food is in part a consequence of a general lack of cooking skills and knowledge.  Another part of the problem is the misconception that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked food.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  The Rome Sustainable Food Project works on a tight budget to provide nutritious, delicious, and sufficient food for all of us.  Mona points out that the world’s oldest traditional diets, like that in Italy, have had such long histories of sustaining people in part because they can sustain—with complete nutrition—the most people.  In other words, traditional diets are complete, and they are poor people’s diets.  The basis of the Italian diet is the lowly triumvirate of beans, grains, and greens.  These are affordable. Pasta is cheap.  The cheapest cuts of meat are delicious when cooked slowly.

But cooking, which often isn’t learned in the family anymore, needs to be learned if families are to be fed on these inexpensive foods rather than on fast food.  Actually, many people don’t know anything about food anymore, much less cooking!  If you take a look at my friend Sharyn’s comment on my last post, you’ll see what I’m talking about. She teaches in a university, and her students don’t know about the seasonality of any foods.

Several things need to, and can, happen, with a grass-roots effort. More communities can take on the reform of school lunch on their own, and even put in edible schoolyards (playground gardens) and teaching kitchens.  Children, then, can teach their parents about seasonality and cooking.  Or they can learn about food and cooking by asking their grandparents, as their doing with the help of Bioversity’s campaign Diversity for Life.  Cooking schools can teach home cooking.  Institutional kitchens—like the one here, with its unpaid interns—can double as educational kitchens.   Old routines, like canning parties, can be revived.  (Mona mentioned this today, and you might recall one of my recent posts about the biodiversity scientist I met recently, Stephan, who has fond memories of tomato-canning parties in a neighbor’s garage.)  Children can be taught the basics of cooking, and along with those, the comforts and thrills of cooking, by being included in the process of growing and making food.  With the encouragement of children and community-based campaigns, working parents can be convinced to plan ahead and find the time to put together a healthy meal—even if it’s just rice, beans, and something green.

Mona, who has cooked for the best restaurants and wealthiest people, wants to devote herself to this grass-roots cooking re-education effort when her tenure as the head of the Rome Sustainable Food Project ends.  She’s a real inspiration.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *

Immediately after the film screening on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion with two of the farmers who sell their organic foods to the Rome Sustainable Food Project: Enzo Foi, who came with Filippo da Sole, from the farm and agriturismo destination Lo Spicchio; and Giuseppe Brandizzi, from the organic dairy Biola.  The audience had many questions about organic agriculture (agricoltura biologica) in Italy, food politics in Italy, and the differences between the U.S. and Italy on these matters. Enzo told us, without the wish to romanticize Italy for the mostly American audience, that the main difference between the U.S. and Italy, in terms of industrial agriculture, is scale.  Here, as in the U.S., there is a large industrial-farm lobby that shapes the politics; synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used (although the European Union has outlawed GMOs and rBST); small-scale farmers are going out of business.  But, also as in the U.S., there is a movement to expand sustainable agriculture, and to encourage buying locally produced food, and some politicians are helping to promote these causes.  (There are, of course, differences.  Italians know how to eat and have a culture of food, for one!)

More important than the help of politicians, though, is the grass-roots movement exemplified by these men and their families, who are educators and cooks as much as they are farmers.  They farm and cook and eat the way they do because they want to preserve the land, foods, and traditions that have sustained people for centuries and that could—if not cared for—be lost to oblivion.  If you’ve seen Food Inc., consider the proud strut of this rooster compared to the falling-down factory chickens:

Lo Spicchio gallo

After the film and discussion—and in spite of the revolting images of factory farming we’d just seen—we all eagerly went upstairs to the dining room to eat a meal prepared with the ingredients from Enzo’s and Giuseppe’s (and a few others’) farms.  We ate Lo Spicchio pork braised in Biola’s whole raw milk; cardoons roasted with lemon and buttery breadcrumbs; polenta; local red wine; and the most flavorful “blondies” I can imagine. (We eat a lot of braised meat here, in part because Mona and Chris like to cook the whole, traditional, foods of everyday Italians.  The braising cuts are the cheapest cuts.  The other night, Chris and the interns cooked up an amazing meal of braised lamb with harissa, chickpeas with greens, and cous cous.  Simple. Complete. Delicious.)

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Images are powerful—especially moving ones.

I’ve done so much reading about the industrial food system, about big organics, about sustainable agriculture.  None of the content of Food Inc., which I saw yesterday at the American Academy screening, came as a surprise to me, but it still made a powerful impression because of the combination of music, images, sounds and words that only film can do.  The timing involved in these combinations—as in the moment when a voice (Eric Schlosser’s, I think) says that one hamburger may contain meat from thousands of cattle, while we watch a huge turd-like tube of ground beef ooze out of a stainless steel hole—induces a visceral response in a way that a book or an article in the New York Times can’t do.  I hope lots of people see the film.

Other strong impressions:  the scenes depicting the terrible treatment of workers were very moving—especially the night-scene of the illegal immigrant arrests, when the workers who are part of the system that ensure cheap food for Americans are rounded up and shoved like animals—in fact, much like the chickens, pigs, and cows we also saw being rounded up for slaughter.

Another: almost everyone is overweight—the farmers, the families, the politicians.  The only ones who are thin are the heroes of the film, and some of the male illegal immigrant workers.

And another: the scene of the family stopping at a fast food restaurant for their dinner, because a dinner for four only costs $11.98 and because their commute will not get them home until 9 at night.  This scene is followed by a trip to the grocery store: the youngest (overweight) daughter wants fresh fruit, so they look at the price of pears.  Too expensive.  They move on to the processed food aisle.

The major flaw in the film is the treatment of this family’s situation, however.  The issues of economic class are presented, and then left hanging.  Yes, Michael Pollan speaks and has written about the need for policy change that will make healthy food cheaper than processed corn-based food.  But this hugely important idea  is only given a few seconds in the film, whereas the hammer-it-home message at the end of the movie is given many minutes and many flashy images.  This message—that you vote with your fork “three times a day”—is deeply flawed.  On the one hand, it would have us all following Samuel Kayman’s implicit advice to shop at Wal-mart for our food.  But more importantly, this message blatantly ignores that family who eats fast food for dinner.  Not only does it ignore them, it disenfranchises them.  They are too poor to vote with their fork.

There was much more attention to the issue of food safety, and some optimism about effecting policy change in the direction of greater food safety.

In the end, though, even though there were gestures of hope—like the inclusion of Joel Salatin’s paradigmatic farm—the overall effect was bleak.  I hope we can achieve major policy changes, of course I do.  But Food Inc.’s most lasting impression is that big business controls the government, and that without millions of dollars to use as weapons against it, Monsanto will take over the world.

The colorful gleams of text at the end—“you vote with your fork”—were pretty pathetic talismans held up against that dark overlord.

For some follow-up thoughts on a more positive note, please check out the next post.

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I’ve been thinking about these a lot, lately, because of the work I’ve been doing for Bioversity.  And because of the food I’ve been eating here in Rome.  Farro four times a week? And cauliflower, I have to admit, has been an underutilized species in my household, if not in general—until this fall.

I’ve written about farro, and I’ll write about some others in the future, but right now, I’m thinking about one NUS in particular which I was surprised to see on the list: pistachios (in Italy)!

IMG_2748

What about pistachio gelato?  And those gorgeous green cakes we saw in Venice?

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Most of those pistachios come from Iran.  The word pistachio derives originally from the Aramaic word pistaqa (rendered phonetically), and Iran is still the leader leader in pistachio production and exportation. According to the International Society for Horticultural Science, “in 2003, Iran as the most important pistachio exporter and USA as the second exporter [had] a share of 69% and 8.9% respectively in the world exports.”

Bioversity, an organization in Italy dedicated to researching and educating about agricultural biodiversity, and to revitalizing neglected and underutilized species, led a campaign starting in 1993 to conserve and promote the production of pistachios (and arugula, oregano and hulled wheats) in Italy.  NUS are important as we think about the future of agriculture because of their ability to grow in climates other, perhaps higher yeilding, crops will not—for example the hot, arid climate of southern Italy.

Pistachios are a good source of protein, fat, fiber, vitamin B6 and thiamine.  They also make a delicious snack, especially when salted!

The most pistachioish gelato I’ve ever tasted was made at Il Gelatone in Venice.  Mmm!  I hope the pistachios didn’t come from one of the most repressive regimes in the world….

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