Archive for September, 2009


Prettiest when raw, these swirly colored pink and white beans are a satisfying bite-size.  I bought a large handful at a market stand the other day, and Jack helped me shell them yesterday afternoon.


My idea was to mix up a nice cold bean and grain salad.  In some chicken stock, I simmered the beans until al dente, not mushy, and in another pot simmered a friendly blend of whole grains: farro, brown rice, orzo, and some others.  When these were done, I tossed them together with minced fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes and red pepper.  Whatever you have on hand would be good.  For lunch today, I dressed it with vinaigrette, and put a big spoonful of it on top of a mache and treviso salad.

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Last night, the kitchen opened for dinner.  The kitchen at the American Academy is not just any kitchen, but is the heart of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, which was founded a few years ago with the help of Alice Waters, and is directed by the former Chez Panisse chef, Mona Talbott.

We dressed Jack in his nicest shirt, and walked over from our apartment building, where all the fellows with children live, to the courtyard, where a long table was set for dinner. (The picture is dark, but you get the idea.)


Before dinner, some of us congregated in the little bar to sip prosecco and meet and greet.  Most of our dinner companions had just arrived yesterday, after over-night flights, and were feeling pretty dazed.  But what a nice reception for them!  Here was the menu:

Spaghetti alla chitarra con pomodorini del orto
Pollo alla romana con  I peperoni
Crostata di susine

Spaghetti with roasted tomatoes from the garden and breadcrumbs—bread chunks, really, toasted up with olive oil; chicken legs braised with red peppers; plum galette.  Mmm… it was nice.  Jack is learning how to eat like an Italian:

J spaghetti

He just needs a little help with technique.

This morning, after dropping Jack off at school, I set out to do some shopping.  First, I had to buy one of the carts that Romans roll behind them when food shopping, because they do so much walking.  I didn’t know what they were called, but I saw one hanging outside a little hole-in-the-wall hardware store.  (Actually all of the shops are so-called holes-in-the-wall.)  They weren’t displayed in the store, so I looked up “wheel” in my phrasebook, and asked in Italian for a “bag with wheels,” while pantomiming the pulling motion.  The shopkeeper understood, and ducked into the back room to pull out a selection of colors.  I picked out a purple one, and pulled it behind me as I set off to find the 2-block-long open air market in the neighborhood.  First, I made a quick stop at the bread bakery I wrote about the other day.  The line was long, as usual, but moved quickly. They also do a big restaurant-delivery business:

bread deliv

bread shop

I bought something I haven’t learned the name of yet.  It was a flat roll the size of a large bagel, with green olives on top, surrounding a tomato slice.  I also bought another bagful of those yummy little biscotti.

At the market stalls, where one could buy everything from socks and bras to organic beef (“biologico”), I bought a potted basil plant for the basket hanging from our kitchen window grating.  I stopped at an “erboristoria” called “L’erba Gatta” (Catnip, I assume), where I found a nice selection of organic grains, sugar, and dried fruit, along with every variety of natural body product.


The place was pretty chi-chi, so I limited myself to raisins and red lentils.


On the way home, I saw a cute car for sale.

car for sale

No grand showrooms here, just narrow driveways and shop interiors, for displaying their small autos.  Coming from the American South, it’s hard to get over the smallness of the cars here.  Of course, they do just fine, and look fun to drive.  An SUV is a real anomaly here.  Americans should stop widening their streets, and start buying Smart cars.

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We find ourselves snacking on fruit a lot.  There are so many reasons why.  First of all, there so much of the juicy stuff in season.  I was walking along this morning, not planning on buying food, when I saw one lonely market stall, with the most bulbous figs! I bought a basket, and we ate most of them before I remembered to take a picture:


What I should have done is have my son hold his little fist on the plate, too.  Then, you would have gotten an idea of the size of these gorgeously squishy, heavy fruits.

Jack loves the melon, though.  He’s not a fig guy, so far:


Jack had his second day of school today.  I went with him again, and left for a short while.  Tomorrow he’ll stay through lunch.  I’m excited about their lunches.  The culture of food in general at Scuola Arcobaleno is no less Italian than you would expect.  Every morning, each parent leaves a piece of fruit in a basket by the classroom door.  This week we’ve seen bananas, pears, apples, peaches, plums, grapes, and kiwi (some of which are obviously not of Italian origin, but some of which are very local).  At 10:00, the teachers cut the fruit into pieces, and one of the children carries around a plate, and like a little caterer, offers everyone a piece.

Lunch puts a food-focused parent like me even more at ease.  Each child lays out his own place setting, and pours her own water out of a pitcher.  Then, they are all served a primi and a secondi.  A two-course lunch, involving fresh vegetables and big bowls of pasta!  And this is not the pasta that blubs out of a huge can with some sweet sauce distantly related to tomatoes.  This is the real thing.  The only thing that will disappoint me will be my four-year-old son’s ability to accurately report what he had for lunch.  The usual answer to that question, for any kid, is, “I don’t know.”  But I’m hoping he’ll be able to bring home some culinary tidbits in Italian for me.

It’s especially interesting to be having this school-lunch experience at the moment when there’s a parental, grass-roots uprising in the U.S. against the atrociousness of school lunch there.  That problem, which I hope schools, cities, states, and the Obama administration will work to solve, is of course part of the much larger problem in the U.S.: the lack of a culture of food, and the economics of food, in which the cheapest food is the worst for you.

Anyway, though, I want to touch on our other fun today: checking out the view from Fontana dell’ Aqua Paola, which is on a hilltop in our neighborhood:

view 1

(Is this really my life?)

view 2

taking a bus home from a long walk in Trastevere, (which we got to by taking the long staircase downhill from this fountain):

Jack on the bus

and spotting a cool weather vane that reminded me of home:


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We made our first gelato-destination-trek yesterday, after asking around about the best shops in the neighborhood.  Miami Gelateria, conveniently located about halfway between our apartment and Jack’s school, makes theirs in-house, and offers an array of flavors, from the tangiest limone to the densest chocolate, with everything nutty and fruity in between.


They serve typical cones or cups with large, melty scoops, and they also make mini, dipped cones.  The minis are about 6 centimeters (trying to think metrically, here) high, are dipped in dark chocolate, then a bowl of chopped nuts, then served, to eager little hands.  You can eat one in two or three bites.

After contemplating the selection, and learning new words in the process, Jack chose melone and Peter and I shared a creme caramel.


The texture is airy and fluffy, compared to the hard ice cream at home, and the flavors were undiluted essences.

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On Jack’s first day of school, I stayed there with him for a couple of hours, to ease him into the experience of a new school in a new language.  We left just before lunch, and took a looping, indirect way home, stopping at market stalls and shops along the way.  One of my destinations was a half-block of street closed to cars, where vendors were selling fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese, and household odds and ends.

mkt st

We bought bags of the pink-and-white-swirled fagioli borlotti, and of blackberries that taste as sweet and meaty as pears.  Not a trace of tartness, which is a surprising sensation!  To be honest, I only bought the pricey 3-Euro basket because Jack fondled them.  The unspoken rule of etiquette at the markets is: you touch it, you buy it.

veg mkt

Next time, I think I’ll get some of these elegant peppers:


The most delicious item we bought, though, was the melon.  Sweet as honey and juicy as, well, juice:


Next, we went to the bread shop, which is the most nondescript shop I think I’ve ever seen.  What you have to do is follow the scent of baking bread with your nose, and look for a bunch of people standing around chatting happily, and moving in a constant stream in and out of a narrow door.  That’s the line for bread.

bread store

Once inside, I was crammed shoulder to shoulder with people buying multiple bags of bread, biscotti, pizza, and cornetti (croissants).  Jack stood in a corner, with his backpack and sunglasses on, eating an apple.  He looked as nonchalent as a true Italian.  The only proper name of a bread I knew was pizza bianca (what we call focaccia), so I asked for that and used gestures and alternate “grazie”s and “per favore”s to indicate how much I wanted.  Then I asked for quattro biscotti, and pointed at these cute little lemony-almondy cookies:


Oh, boy, were they good.

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This is one of the aspects of living in Italy I’ve been looking forward to.  There is such an onslaught of brightly packaged processed food at kids-eye level, (ok, and grown-up eye level) in American supermarkets, that it’s difficult to avoid loading your cart with boxes of convenience food.  The array of breakfast cereal is astounding, and hard to resist.  Breakfast cereal, to follow this example, is also very expensive, considering the ingredients, and is loaded with sugar and sodium—even the “healthy” varieties.

I was thinking about these things as I walked through the aisles of the GS—the big supermarket near Jack’s school here in Rome.  There are a lot of crackers and bread products that are far from “fresh,” but in general, there is a dearth of processed foods in an Italian supermarket, compared to those in the U.S.  You certainly won’t find any large jars of pre-made tomato sauce (loaded with high fructose corn syrup and sodium).  And breakfast cereal?  Instead of a gazillion choices, there were just a few.  And if you want to spend 7 Euros, you can get a small bag of honey-coated puffed farro.  Farro!?  That would only go over in a natural food store of some sort, in the U.S.  Also, note the price (don’t forget the exchange rate).  My conclusion is that Romans don’t eat much cereal for breakfast.

I was also thinking about these observations when I read this article in today’s Times, about a new green checkmark label that is supposed to lead consumers to healthier food choices.  Froot Loops apparently received the checkmark.  The idea that consumers are so stupid as to need a green checkmark to tell the difference between a Froot Loop and an apple in the first place, and that they are too stupid to know that Froot Loops actually aren’t a healthy choice, is astonishing, and really depressing.

So, what did we have for breakfast here in Rome?  Whole-grain toast with honey (or, ok, I admit, a bit of Nutella), coffee, and milk.  Good food.


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Disclaimer: I didn’t sleep at all on the way over, and I walked about 7 miles today, so I don’t have much of a mind to write.  But there’s so much to be excited about.  And I did forget my camera in the supermarket, but that’s just as well, because I would have wanted to post about twenty pictures: of the twenty-two varieties of ham at the deli counter, of the low, low cheese prices, of the interesting juice selection (I bought a lemon-orange-carrot blend), and of the cute little carts that you tow behind you, rather than the “buggies” of the U.S. that, according to a John Cheever character, “unsex” you when you push one.

My new friend Antonia also took me to the market stalls this morning, where I practiced my Italian phrases associated with purchasing, etiquette, and numbers, and bought beautiful greens, figs (figi), eggplant, peppers, a microfiber sweeper, and a citronella fumigator.

I’ll bring my camera next time.

Later in the day, after a lunch of arugula, wheaty bread spread with tapenade, prosciutto, and fresh asiago (not hard due to age, and lighter and sweeter in flavor), we took the stairs down to the hipster neighborhood of Trastevere with our new friends.  I spotted the sticker of a like-minded person, on the window of a hand-crafted wooden instrument store (mandolins, tambourines):

omg sticker

We bought “pizza” for the kids along the way–and it isn’t quite what you think.  Some of it looked like its American progeny, but “pizza” also refers to thin bubbly bread sandwiching sliced cheese or prosciutto and mozzarella.  (Actually, Jack had this variety of pizza for breakfast, while Peter and I had nutella-spread cornetti (croissants) and cappuccino at “Cafe G.”)

We bought umbrellas for the boys, Nicholas and Jack, and they tried them out at a fountain, out of which flows rock-cold, clean, fresh water, with which we also filled our bottles:


We crossed the Tiber, and saw the remnants of an ancient Roman bridge:


We saw a fountain, with fish, turtles, and men involved in a choreographed effort of ease:

turtle fountain

And, finally, we came back to the apartment to cook dinner.  In the fridge was a two-liter plastic bottle filled with Sardinian wine.  Really.  Our new friend Cory gave it to us last night.  He’d bought it—and had the emptied water bottle filled—at a local wine store that offers two whites and two reds—out of casks with taps.  Can’t wait to find that place.

I made a bowl of pasta with all of the local veggies I’d picked up: round, bacci ball sized eggplant, fresh onions, zucchini, red pepper, Roma tomatoes.  Nothing unusual, really, but everything was fresh and local.

1st dinner

At the table, we added freshly grated parmigiana reggiano and anchovies, both of which were shockingly cheap at “the GS”!


I like it here.

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J suitcases

We fly to Rome tonight.

Tomorrow, we’ll have to eat, and there will be markets nearby.  I’ll try to overcome my jet lag enough to snap some pictures and write a short post.

Until then….

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I said I’d do a bit more on roasted fowls as a follow-up to that Moby-Dick passage.  Instead, last night, I braised chicken legs with Moroccan spices, and stirred it all up with some roasted eggplant.

We’re in Brookline for a few days, before we take off for Rome (tomorrow!), so I went to Whole Foods for the ingredients.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a Whole Foods, mainly because of where we’ve been living, and re-entering that hate-to-love-it-love-to-hate-it temple of food was an interesting experience of thrilled disappointment.  I know this is the classic complaint against Whole Foods, but I’ll voice it again anyway: Where is all the local food? Why is all the produce from California when Massachusetts farmers’ markets are bursting with bounty right now?  I know, it’s the logic of industrial organics, the economics of scale.  But I was still disappointed.

Anyway, I shopped as locally as I could for the basic recipe I had in mind.  The spices and herbs were already at the house.  I needed just a few organic chicken legs, two eggplants, and some Israeli cous cous.  Here’s what I made:

moroccan chix

Moroccan Chicken
serves 4-8, depending

1 onion, chopped
4 chicken legs
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. honey
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 tbs. salt
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 lg. can whole peeled tomatoes
2 tbs. chopped fresh marjoram

The chicken tastes best if you start the day before, and marinate it over night.

With a mortar and pestle, crush caraway seeds, salt, and garlic together, then combine in a large bowl with lemon juice, honey, and olive oil.  With mortar and pestle, crush the other seeds, then add all the spices to the lemon-honey mixture.  Put the chicken in this marinade, coat all over, and refrigerate over night.

Preheat oven to 400. Toss cubed eggplant in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast for 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, saute onion in a dutch oven, add the tomatoes, add the chicken, and braise for 40 minutes or so.  Before serving, over cous cous, stir in the eggplant and let it all sit and blend for a few minutes.

(Take the spice amounts as rough measurements, and season to your taste. i.e. Add more cumin!)

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