Archive for September, 2009

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.


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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wall 2

just wide enough to look or shoot through

I had an interesting personal-historical palimpsestic experience this morning on my way home from dropping Jack at school.  I wound my way to the market street, and went to the last stall, where there is a sign saying “Vendita Directa,” meaning that the fruits and vegetables are sold directly from farmer to consumer.  I don’t know how to explain the presence of bananas from Ecuador on the table, but oh well.

On my way home, I decided to take a little staircase I hadn’t seen before, which seemed to lead in the general direction of the American Academy.  It led to a sidewalk that ran along La Mura—the gigantic wall built around the ancient city.  I knew that the Academy was situated just over the wall, in a sort of nook near the wall’s highest point.  If I just walked along the wall, I’d find a way in.  I kept walking and walking along the wall, as it started to wind down the steep hillside.  Cars rushed by me on one side, and the high wall reflected hot sunlight on the other.  I kept thinking, there has to be a way through this wall!  And then I realized the historical and ironic nature of this walk—about a mile out of my way.  My position on the outside, and my desire to get in, put me in the place of the barbarians the wall was constructed to keep out.  I may be an American, and wearing jeans from the Gap, I thought, but I’m carrying a bag of figs, and I’m trying to learn Italian!

Finally, I decided to turn around, and this time, I spotted a woman pushing a stroller through a narrow doorway in the wall.  This passageway led to the park and playground right near the Academy.  I was in.

Now for some pictures.  Last night, a bunch of us at the Academy did our best to eat as Romans do.  We had a pot-luck barbecue, but there were no barbarian-style hot dogs or burgers on the menu.

I made pizza:

my pizza

Lars and Eva brought sausages to grill:


When the rain let up, we carried all of the food outside to a table under the trees:


The fire kept burning, and more meat came out.  This was the butterflied leg of lamb Russel and Annie bought at Testaccio on Saturday, along with some sweet cippolline:


It was a good spread:

the table

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I went on my first major market excursion today.  There’s a huge, semi-permanent haphazardly roofed, open-air market in the neighborhood of Trastevere, which is down the hill and across the Tiber from where we live.  (I still can’t get over being able to utter that last phrase!) From the outside, the market looks a bit like a temporary shelter for disaster victims.  But inside, the place is swarming with exuberant life in all forms.  Along one side, all of the stalls sell meats of every kind and cut–from legs of lamb to the most unique salame.  While I stood in line at one of these, the white-haired man running the shop handed Jack a large slice of the mid-priced proscuitto.  Grazie!

I’ll put in a bunch of pictures of the highlights I was able to photograph.  This was a bit challenging, since I had Jack’s hand in one hand, the handle of my rolling cart in the other, my purse slipping off my shoulder, and an inept vocabulary in my head.

A slice of some kind of heirloom pumpkin, anyone?

lg squash

What’s this mystery veg? (I’ll have to ask Mona, the chef here at the Academy.)

mystery veg

Chanterelles and porcini, like I’ve never seen before.



I was so awestruck by the porcini, I couldn’t bring myself to buy any. This is hard to explain, I know, but my first visit to this market was pretty overwhelming.  I’ll work up to the awe-inspiring ingredients with some practice.  Anyway,  I asked for a handful of chanterelles, along with some marinating olives.

Another awe-inspiring sight was the tomato stall.  It’s run by a farmer who grows only tomatoes.  Thirty or so different varieties.  He led our little group on a culinary tour, pointing to the tomatoes that are best eaten raw, those that are best in tomato sauce, those that are best with fish.  The tomatoes ranged in size from perfect little 1-centimeter ovoids to fist-sized ruched, wrinkly balls, and ranged in color from a blackish red-green to summer sun orange.

Next, I bought bulk wine.  A huge jug was only 5 Euros!  Hopefully, it’s not unquaffable.

vino 1

All in all, here was today’s haul.


We’re having a couple of the other families over for a casual dinner tonight.  Looks like we’ll definitely start with prosciutto and melon.  And if the figs last until then, they may go with honey for dessert.  We’ll do some kind of pasta for dinner.

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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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