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Archive for the ‘Fungi’ Category

Of activity, that is.  (The real flurries are more like blizzards, falling on friends and relatives all up and down the east coast.)

But life here has been moving so fast, and what do I have to show for it? No photos of food, anyway.  The food has disappeared before the camera reached it.  Friday night they served latkes with dinner, and many of us ate three or more.  They were just so good!  Crispy crunchy on the outside, soft and hot on the inside, potato goodness throughout.  Our Saturday lunch was another bonanza of flavors.  The risotto, in particular, was impossibly delicious.  Lemony, smooth, perfectly toothsome.  That evening, yesterday, we hosted a pizza party.  Twenty or so friends filled our living room, bringing beer, wine, chocolate, good stories and loud laughs, and I somehow managed to keep serving hot pizza in defiance of the size of our oven.

(I’ve actually done some roasting, baking, and pizza making in it.  My grandma used just a toaster oven for years….)

The pizza came from our local favorite, Pizzeria da Simone.  People are constantly coming in and out of this pizzeria on Via Carini, at all hours of the day.  Pizza rossa for breakfast?  No problem.  We got a whole range of toppings last night: zucchini blossoms and anchovies, sausage with cheese, sausage with mushrooms, spicy sausage with tomato sauce, mushrooms with tomato sauce, prosciutto with cheese, mortadella with artichoke hearts.  It was all devoured before I thought to take a picture.  I love Roman style pizza.  The crust is like what we’d call flatbread, but isn’t completely flat, and the toppings are combined in moderate twosomes or threesomes.  None of this deep dish everything nonsense.  (How will we ever reacclimate?)

This morning, Peter and I, along with Ramie, Rena, and Lisa, ran the 10K “Christmas Run” in Villa Pamphili.  The scene was a fascinating cultural tableau.  We were some of the only Americans in the crowd of 400.  The race was set to begin at 9:30, but the organizers and pace-setters lingered in the cafe adjacent to the “Punto Jogging” for an extra 15 minutes of leisurely cappuccino sipping.  Finally, after we had been jumping up and down in the 28-degree air (that’s Farhenheit!) waiting, the pace-setters, who wore color-coded balloons, took their places and the race got off to a silly, stumbling, good-hearted start.  Some of the runners, being typical Italians, talked the whole while.  Except on the uphills.   The course, like the balloon-following, was whimsical, winding through forest on narrow, muddy trails, and up grassy hillsides sparkling with frost, past fountains and the chestnut-lined avenue on this awesome piece of land that until recently was a massive chunk of private property on one of the prettiest hills in Rome.  I ended up running in a pack of middle-aged men, who were yelling and laughing to each other the whole time, (Ciao, bello!  Buon Natale!  Attenzione! along with much commentary on the mud puddles) and one other woman, who wore a set of red antlers.  Some people were dressed up as Babbo Natale (that’s Santa to you) and many wore the elf hats they gave us at registration.  It was a fun-run with decidedly Italian inflections of the good life: the cafe at the finish was mobbed with sweaty people sipping espresso, talking loudly, and gesticulating heartily.  The men wore tights, and the women’s black eyeliner was unmussed.

Back home, Peter and I polished off the leftover pizza, and I cooked some pasta for these elves:

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This past Saturday, we hosted our first dinner party here at our Rome apartment.  The guests were six parents and five children under age six.  It was a swirling whirl of activity, with chair and table shortages, and yet we broke only one wine glass.

I had planned the menu around several types of abundance and constraint: the produce that is in season at the markets, the number of guests who were omnivores, vegetarians, or plain-pasta-preferring children, and the odd assortment of cookery tools available to me in this lightly furnished apartment. Planning a meal like this has something in common with other types of composition—blank verse or water color, perhaps—in which there are particular forms and materials available, with particular possibilities and limitations.

Is this too cerebral an introduction to something as sensuous as a good meal?  The pleasures in cooking go both ways for me.  But let’s get down to what we had.

Id’ been wanting to cook that Roman cauliflower cousin, variously named broccoflower and broccolo romanesca.  I decided it in the meal for its strange, fractal, architectural beauty.

brocoflower

I had bunches of carrots, which I decided to braise:

carrots

I’d also been passing “the funghi guy” with his mini-truck full of chanterelles and porcini, every day.  The meal would have to include these things.

sizzling porcini

The menu came together, with a few more shopping trips:

For snacking and sipping, we had the following: wine-brined black olives, Jeannie’s treats—mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto on toothpicks with prugne (yes, prunes, or, dried plums, if you prefer)—and a deliciously crisp local organic white wine that Marjorie brought.

Next, came the kids’ meal: pasta with red sauce.  Really, why fancy it up with any other name?  They did have freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, those lucky little blondies.  (Don’t worry—they’re drinking water, not that prosecco, which we drank):

kids meal

After clearing the kids’ dishes, I served up the main meal:  chicken legs braised in Sardinian white wine with porcini, polenta, braised carrots tossed with parm, and broccolo romanesco roasted with bread crumbs and fennel.  The only contorni (vegetable side dish) I managed to photograph was the cauliflower.  (It was delicious! I had some for lunch today, with some of the leftover chicken.  Maybe even better as a leftover.)

roast romanesca

There were so many conversations going on, many of which I barely dipped into, because I was busy talking with Jeannie and Marjorie about food and Rome.  Both of these new friends are passionate devotees of good, whole, local, organic food.  Jeannie is a journalist currently working on a book about food, and Marjorie owns a tourism business—called Insider’s Italy—that focuses on sustainable travel and food-related adventures in Italy.  Her newly created trip, “Farm to Fork,” is absolutely inspired.  Not only does the tour take families to the best markets in Rome for sustainably produced Italian specialties, but it also takes them back in history to the Roman markets of 2000 years ago, and is carbon-conscientious.  (You must check out their website.)

We had set the kids up with a movie, before we started eating.  They entered an instant collective trance:

movie

We grown-ups were happily eating and talking, and almost didn’t notice that the silence behind the closed bedroom door had ballooned into a hurricane level of noise.  Uh oh.

Cookie time.  I’d bought thirty of those chewy/crunchy amaretti from the bread place on Quattro Venti. It was a fun night.

Roasted Broccolo Romanesca

2 heads broccolo romanesca, broken into its “trees”
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 shallots, broken up
assorted dried or fresh herbs
1 fennel bulb, sliced
home-made rough-crushed breadcrumbs
plenty of olive oil, salt, and pepper

Combine these ingredients—reserving the breadcrumbs until later—on a pan.  Roast in a preheated oven (400-450) for 15-20 minutes.  Sprinkle with the olive-oil tossed breadcrumbs, and roast for another 10-15 minutes.  Serve warm or room temp.

Braised Carrots
based on Marcella Hazan’s recipe

8-10 large carrots
salt & pepper
1 tbs. sugar
2 tbs. butter
1/2 c. grated parmigiano-reggiano

Slice carrots into thin discs and spread in an even layer in your largest skillet. Just cover with water, sprinkle in the salt, pepper, sugar, and butter. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the carrots are wrinkly and almost browning.  If the water runs out, add a bit more, tiny bit by tiny bit.  Take off the heat and stir in the parm.  Serve immediately.

Chicken Legs Braised with Porcini

4-6 chicken legs
plenty of stock and white wine
3 garlic cloves
3 shallots
dried or fresh porcini
dried or fresh thyme
butter & olive oil

Brown the chicken legs in butter and olive oil over moderate heat until skin is crispy on both sides.  Add the smashed garlic and sliced shallot to the pan to brown a bit.  Pour in a combination of half wine/half stock just to cover the chicken.  Add porcini and thyme, salt and pepper.  Simmer for 30-45 minutes, until chicken is tender and almost falling off the bone.  If you want to, reduce some of the braising liquid with some butter for a richer sauce.

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I just happened upon a new, exciting flavor combination.  With a still-heavy bag of chanterelles in the bottom of my fridge, and a ball of mozzarella needing to be pulled, I decided to make pizza.

For the crust, check out this post.  For the topping, I sauteed green onions, garlic, 1 sliced sage leaf and a small sprig of rosemary, and a big pile of chanterelle chunks in butter and olive oil.  I brushed the crust with olive oil, spread the veg, sprinkled on the mozzarella strings and some grated parmesan and salt, and baked it for about 15 minutes.

We opened a bottle of one of the staggeringly cheap, good local wines, a rosato frizzante (is just what it sounds like).

The combo was the best kind of thrilling comfort food that I love so much.

For dessert, we each had a little amaretto cookie I’d picked up this morning at the bakery on Quattro Venti.  These cookies—I tell no lies—are perfect.  The outside can be tapped with a fingernail, but is chewy, not crisp.  The inside is a moist, chewy crumb that pulls apart with delicate resistance.  The flavor is pure essence of almonds, sugar, butter.

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porcini cart

I’ve seen this truck full of gorgeous mushrooms on successive mornings for the past week.  I hadn’t stopped to buy any though, because we’ve had so many dinners there and everywhere, but not here, in our own dining room.  Yesterday, though, after bringing Jack to school, I walked back by a route that would take me past the fungi guy.

I asked for “some of those”—in Italian—and pointed.  That was enough.  He started loading up a small bag, and when I said, “basta, grazie,” he put it on the scale and mumbled something about “dieci.”  In other words, let’s make it an even ten. Euros that is.  He heaped some more in the bag, and I was too sheepish to say no.  Despite the cost, too, a part of me was thrilled to be walking away with such a mound of perfect chanterelles.

chanterelle pile

I’m not just trying to justify my spree by saying this, but this picture really doesn’t do justice to their size.  The biggest ones are as broad as my palm.

These mushrooms are so flavorful—with such a delicate combination of earthiness, sweetness, and nuttiness—that they’re best served by simple cooking.  Tonight, I’ll be making a pasta dish in which every ingredient is there only to stage and spotlight these graceful plants.

I don’t have hand-cut papardelle, but here’s a version of the dish I had at Pane e Salute, in Woodstock, Vermont.

Chanterelles with Fresh Papardelle

enough pasta to serve four as a first or main course
1 small shallot, minced
1 sage leaf, sliced, or some fresh thyme leaves
1/2 c. dry, light-bodied white wine
freshly shredded parmesan
a pile of chanterelles, sliced into nice, bite-sized pieces

Sauté chanterelles and shallot in butter over medium heat, seasoned with salt and pepper.  Remove them to a plate, and deglaze pan with wine.  Reduce it a bit.  Meanwhile, boil pasta until al dente.  Add the chanterelles back into the pan to warm.  Toss the pasta with olive oil and parmesan, and serve topped with chanterelles and more cheese.

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I find that what I cook for dinner here in Rome is similar to what I cooked in Vermont or Alabama.  The only difference is that the ingredients are generally better or cheaper.  For example, last night I made bucatini (long, skinny tube pasta) with the ingredients I had in the fridge from previous days at the markets: chanterelles, dandelion greens, prosciutto, fresh onion, garlic, parmaggiano reggiano I’d grated with a hand-grater.

greens

It was delicious.   And made with ingredients that would have been much more expensive in the States and would have been seen with a halo, or rather a tiara, above them, which spelled out “e-l-i-t-e f-o-o-d.”  Ingredients like dandelion greens, for instance, are perversely seen as unusual, elitist, and foodie-fetishized by the general public.  This is unfortunate, because they are so delicious and easy (to grow and to cook).

Here in Rome, everyone buys and cooks huge bunches of dandelion greens, varieties of chicory, treviso, radicchio, and countless kinds of beans.  Everyone buys multiple varieties of tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes and not like paper towels injected with citric acid.  I was talking to Mona, the chef at the American Academy, about this observation a few days ago.  She had a few explanations.  One is that Italian cuisine is based on greens, grains, and beans.  To Americans, this sounds like “health food,” but think about what an amazingly varied pyramid-foundation these food groups provide.  Everyone in every socio-economic group here eats greens, grains, and beans.  Another reason has to do with land ownership.  Historically, land has been owned by the church and leased to small-scale farmers.  The “get big or die” dictum doesn’t really work here.  Agricultural land and the regional cuisines are seen as part of a national heritage, too, and so there are social, cultural, and economic motives for preserving the status quo when it comes to food.

I don’t need to rehearse for my readers the problems with the farm bills of recent history or the problematic ramifications of agricultural subsidies in the U.S.  Everyone knows that large-scale monocultures of commodity crops like corn and soybeans end up being favored over diversified smaller farms that might grow dandelion greens alongside sweet onions, tomatoes, and melons.  The consequences of this kind of agribusiness are a dumbed-down or simply wiped-out cuisine, a boring selection of cheap food that must be jazzed up with corn-derived substances and packaging to sell, diet-related diseases, a general lack of cooking skills, and a silly politicization of good, real food, whereby fresh fava beans are seen as chi chi.

I’m learning things here that could be taken home.  (OK, get out your corn-tassel pom-poms for this): C’mon, America, let’s get real!

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I spotted a forager at the Farmers’ Market in Hanover.  He was busy behind another farmer’s stand, borrowing the scale to weigh his haul of early chanterelles.   He divvied out the cache of beatifully gouda-colored fungi into straw baskets.  $8 each.  6 hours of foraging had yielded six baskets, he told me.  I’m sure those six baskets were picked up in a flash, after which he probably ducked back into the woods.

chants

When cooking, they smell, and then taste, of nuts and apricots, earth and sunlit woods, fruity wine.

Lacking rabbit, I’ll cook them up and toss them over chicken.  Sauté until they release their juices, in butter, with pancetta, herbs, and minced shallot.  Maybe a few pinenuts.

Rosé…

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shiitake1
Umami.  It’s the earthy, meaty taste that mushrooms, meat, and long-simmered stocks have.  Aged and fermented foods have it too: hard cheeses, Thai fish sauce.

I bought a few handfuls of local shiitakes at Dayspring Natural Foods, sautéed them in olive oil, and tossed them in a salad with romaine, spinach and a vinaigrette made with Dijon, sherry vinegar, and olive oil.  The dark tang of the sherry vinegar was a perfect match with the umami of the shiitakes.  It’s my mushroom of choice.  In comparison, so-called “buttons” taste like dirt.

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