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Archive for the ‘Nuts’ Category

The gelaterias are opening their doors.  Puddles in the cobblestones sparkle in the sunlight. Rainstorms are rushing through, and leaving in their wake warm spots and green buds.

During one of these post-rain spells yesterday, Jack and I walked down to Trastevere to buy a birthday present for Agnese, whose party is today.  Our favorite destination for toy and art-supply shopping is Piazza San Cosimato, which has an open air market, a playground, great scootering terrain, and three toy stores.  After picking out a magic wand and a set of stamps complete with ink-pad and pouch, we went to the playground.

After bouncing and climbing and swinging and staring at the winos, Jack was ready for our next stop: Fior di Luna gelateria, where all of the ingredients are organic, local, and/or fair trade, and the gelato tastes intensely of its few flavorful parts—whether those are pistachios, vanilla beans, or blood oranges.  This gelateria also uses only seasonal ingredients, so the flavors that dominate now are citrus, nuts, and chocolate.

Spring is on the way, though.  Look at the flowers popping up in the Bass Garden!

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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)!

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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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Dylan turned five, and Jim turned ninety.  We celebrated with them both.  It was a busy, delicious day filled with tasty tidbits—of both food and conversation.

Dylan and his parents live in a fourth floor walk-up in Trastevere.  Sarah offered me a cafe latte as soon as we arrived, which was welcomed on a blustery morning.  She had clearly been working for hours on the food, which was spread on their square table that sits invitingly in the middle of the open eat-in kitchen.  There were assorted sandwiches for the kids to scarf down, two kinds of chicken salad with greens, a cous cous salad, a hummus platter, sliced cheeses and salumi, crackers, two kinds of cupcakes, and, warming in the oven, pizza rossa (pizza topped with tomato sauce) and lasagna!  The party rolled along at an Italian pace, with people arriving as late as 12:30 for an 11:00 party.  The kids went from sandwiches to cupcakes to chocolates, in between sessions of semi-organized play, and the parents went from coffee and oatmeal cookies to wine and lunch. The crowd was made up of Arcobaleno and ex-pat community friends; most of the parents switched fluently from Italian to English, and the kids played together in a happy bilingual, prelingual, nonsense, and gestural chaos.  I tried to get a picture of the “fishing for chocolate” game, but only captured a bit of the party’s buzz:

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The rest of the afternoon was down-time for me, but Jack was ready for more socializing, so we invited Lulu up from apartment 1.   She and Jack play together so agreeably.  They played “store,” which involved emptying Jack’s clothing drawers onto the bed and making play money.  They drew and painted pictures of “ghosts eating people.”  They played “boat” in a printer box, and rode up and down the hallway on Jack’s scooter.  We made kettle popcorn, and Lulu told us that her dad is such a kettle corn expert that every kernel is popped.  She also told us it was her mom’s fortieth birthday.  Happy birthday, Anna!

After putting Jack to bed, and leaving him with his kitchen-intern babysitter, Jaimi, we went next door to the Ackermans’ apartment for a birthday dinner party.  What an honor to be Jim and Jill’s guests!  They are the most elegant, lively, curious scholar-artist couple, and they brought together some wonderful company. And Jill, who loves to help out in the Academy kitchen, cooked a fabulous, finger-friendly meal.

We started with steamed artichokes—it’s high carciofi season here in Rome—dipped in brown butter.  Next, along with Mona’s chestnut bread, Jill served her own fish stew, with a soaked crouton, flavorful aioli, tiny local clams and some small whole-roasted fish to lay on top.  Jeffrey managed to get a good picture of this dish:

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After arugula salad, before melon and crostata, and with vin santo, we read aloud some short pieces we’d brought with us to honor Jim—as a friend, historian, Michaelangelo scholar, man, artist or all of these together.  Since the text I read is in the public domain, and was the least personal, I’ll copy it out here.  It’s Lord Byron’s description of seeing and being in St. Peter’s Basilica, from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Thou movest—but increasing with the advance,
Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,
Deceived by its gigantic elegance;
Vastness which grows—but grows to harmonize—
All musical in its immensities;
Rich marbles—richer painting—shrines where flame
The lamps of gold—and haughty dome which vies
In air with Earth’s chief structures, though their frame
Sits on the firm-set ground—and this the clouds must claim

Thou seest not all; but piecemeal thou must break,
To separate contemplation, the great whole;
And as the ocean many bays will make,
That ask the eye—so here condense thy soul
To more immediate objects, and control
Thy thoughts until thy mind hath got by heart
Its eloquent proportions, and unroll
In mighty graduations, part by part,
The glory which at once upon thee did not dart,

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; even so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our Nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, stanzas 156-158

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My mind and time have been taken up with other writing projects during the past week—my dissertation, about which I won’t talk here, and my story/pamphlet for Bioversity, about which I will talk, at some later date.  But I have to steal a few moments from eighteenth-century literature to do some musing on marjoram.

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Every Wednesday night at the Academy, the RSFP kitchen cooks an entirely vegetarian meal with local, seasonal ingredients.  Last night, the highlights of the meal were hazelnuts (chopped on a bitter green salad with beets) and marjoram.

Marjoram is often thought of as a meat herb because it can hold its own alongside the most flavorful lamb or venison.  But last night’s main course was potato gnocchi with marjoram and chopped walnuts, pecorino and some wilted green (something chicoryish but not too bitter… plain old spinach?).  It was a risky dish, because the piny astringency and almost medicinal zest of the marjoram could easily have overpowered the humble little gnocchi.  That’s why I’d like to praise, along with the herb so evocative of wildness, the kitchen staff here.  Not only did they create delicate gnocchi for almost fifty people, but they seasoned it delicately with one of the strongest herbs.  The dish had to have been prepared with gentle fingers—to keep the gnocchi fluffy and to crush the leaves of marjoram without mincing out the flavor.  The wine pairing was exquisite, too: a slightly effervescent, green-grassy crisp white from Lazio.  Like a vinho verde, but even greener.

Thanks, guys!

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Going to Venice for a long weekend is like being transported to a different realm.  In this immersed city, we immersed ourselves in grand-scale Renaissance art, long winding walks, gelato, spritz (Amaro—a bittersweet red liqueur—and prosecco), and seafood.  What everyone says about the acoustics stands out as a strong sense memory: without the sound of cars, the ear hears the click of heels on stone, voices talking, murmuring, laughing, and the soft splash of water against stone and brick.  True, there are motor boats, but their rumble is nothing after the roar of Roman traffic.

We ate well.  Oh, yes we did.

On the first night, we turned the corner from the little alley where we were renting an apartment (with 5 others from the American Academy), and happened upon Paradiso Perdito, a wonderfully unlost paradise of seafood, pasta, off-beat music, and attractive diners and servers both young and old.  Here’s a sampling of that meal.

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antipasti

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vino di casa pump

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frito misto

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amazingly flavorful garlicky pasta with a never seen before crustacean

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squid ink pasta

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Jack fell asleep on my lap.

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see the rosemary sprig?

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nicely boned

Other highlights: The dolci, which we all agreed were better than any in Rome.

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how many pistachios are in this torta?

This place especially, which Lisa discovered at 7:30 one morning, by following the aroma of buttery baking, had the most amazing almond croissants we’ve ever had.  They weren’t overly sweet and flabby like so many, but were improbably both dense and flaky, and were almost savory in their delicate sweetness.

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bread turtle?

I didn’t actually take any photos of anyone eating gelato, because I always had a drippy cone of my own to control, usually with some combination of fruity and nutty.  My favorite duo: cherry and hazelnut.  Jack’s favorite: strawberry and cherry.  But this is the place to get it:

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We happened upon this graffito, which to me says, “Is this a gelato I see before me?”

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We also saw lots and lots of art.  Jack was inspired to do some painting, and then ran off to chase pigeons.

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We took one gondola ride, but it only went across the Grand Canal, took two minutes, and cost 50 cents.  Still, it seemed to make everyone happy.

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Susanna & Stephen

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Peter

Our last meal was at the Anice Stellato—the Star Anise—and it was a meal to remember.  I wasn’t so good at photographing every plate, but my favorite dish was a lamb tenderloin rolled in crushed pistachios.  Oh, my….  The wine, a local carmenere blend, and an antipasto plate called sarde in saor, with sardines, polenta, and pickled onions, also stood out.

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Jack enjoyed hanging with the grown-ups.  And I think they liked his company too.

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Aurelia, Jack, Richard, me

(For more photos, check out my Flickr page.)

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ciambelline

These are complex subjects in Italian life.

There are many tacit rules that guide coffee culture (observance of which would be to the benefit of American coffee drinkers).  One rule, which I just broke—knowingly, so does that make it ok?—is that no milk should be consumed after lunch.  A cappuccino, or a caffe con latte, is an appropriate breakfast or late morning drink.  One should drink it standing at a marble bar, or sitting briefly while eating a small pastry and talking a lot.  (Addendum: what we call a “latte” contains an amount of milk Italians would think obscene.  A twenty-ounce cup of hot milk with a bit of esspresso served in a paper cup and called a “venti”?  Horrors!)  After lunch, the only acceptable coffee behavior is to drink a caffe (espresso) or a machiato (espresso dabbed with milk foam).

Today, it’s about fifty degrees outside, and I’m wearing a long-sleeved but thin cotton dress.  I was cold, and I just didn’t think an espresso would do the trick of warming and comforting me while also giving me the jolt to go on with my dissertation-writing (or blogging, as it may be).  I asked Gabriel, the Academy bartender, for a cappuccino, and received a look that combined raised and furrowed brows.  Ah, well.  I’m a barbarian.  (Addendum #2: I bought the dress in Vermont, and it has a Vermont theme: deer.)

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self-portrait in deer dress

Alright, on to the cookies.  Again, a comparison with cookie culture in the U.S. is instructive.  A sugar-heavy blob the size of your palm receives the name of “cookie” at home, and might more properly be called “unhealthy meal-replacement item” because why eat a meal when you have a quarter-pound cookie with your venti latte?  Here in Italy, cookies are called biscotti, and they are more like delicately sweetened, tiny, crunchy biscuits.  With my misguided cappuccino after lunch, I nibbled a pistachio biscotto that tasted like lightly sweetened crushed pistachios, with a hint of butter.  It was just perfect.

The biscotti above are of a particular species of cookie called ciambelline.  They’ve been catching my eye here and there for awhile, because they are usually labeled ciambelline al vino rosso, and they look like little doughnuts.  I finally bought some the other day, at a nearby family-run forno (bakery/oven) called Panificio Beti.  (Addendum #3: the breads are all displayed on a low counter behind the glass, and beneath each type is a list of the ingredients, which are few and of the best quality.  I like this kind of proud transparency.)  They had on display five different kinds of ciambelline: vino rosso, limoncello, walnut, anise, and one other which I think was just a savory version of vino rosso (no sugar).  I asked for uno per tipo.

Back at home, I brewed some coffee in my beloved Bialetti, and broke off a bite of each.  Not having had them before, I was pleasantly surprised.  They were hard, not chewy, and they had just a trace of sweetness.  Traditionally, they are made with olive oil in place of butter, and are served after dinner with sweet wine, in the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio, where Rome is.  These are cookies I’d like to have around at all times.

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The other day, Jack and I went to a corner of the Bass Garden far away from the windows of the library.  We sat down beneath the olive trees and umbrella pines, and started to pick through the grass for pine nuts.  They kept falling from the trees as we foraged.  There were so many, but they were tricky to find by sight alone, because their black striations make them blend in with the shadows of the grass blades.  We found more by feel than by sight.

Jack decided to plant one, excited about the (far off) possibility of growing a tree.

planting a tree

We gathered a big bowlful, but they’re not easy to eat.  The shell is so hard, and the nut so small and soft, that we often end up crushing the whole thing with out nut cracker.  Oh well. The novelty of it is fun.  And when we do get a whole nut, the taste is so nutty, with no bitterness.  There’s a touch of astringency at the end, but mainly the taste is of a toasty oil.  That’s not something you notice in a handful of frozen pine nuts thrown into a Cuisinart for pesto.

pignoli

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