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Archive for the ‘Fruit’ Category

quail spigot

So, yes, there are bananas from Ecuador at all of the markets here, and much of the beef comes from Brazil.  But this is also the land of plenty when it comes to local foods.  When my new friend Anna and I were walking with our little ones around the Bass Garden here at the American Academy the other day, we just kept saying, “wow, isn’t this paradise?”  Here’s a sampling of what we saw—in this over-the-top edible yard (and this is after much of the summer vegetable garden has been tilled under).

One last lonely cherry tomato:

a little tomato

Plum trees so heavy with clusters, the fruit is dropping to the ground:

plum cluster

Olive trees dripping with thousands of olives:

olives

Fig trees, not with fruit this late, but still with a beautiful canopy:

fig canopy

Grapes:

grapes

Also growing in plentiful patches here are hot peppers, sage, and persimmons.

Anna and I, along with Lulu and Jack (4) and Jesse (2), took a leisurely tour of the garden, stopping to admire and sample all of the fruit, and to take a drink from the gurgling fountain:

water fountain

Jack and Lulu also floated things down the irrigation canal—something of a mini Roman aqueduct for their world of miniature boats and barges:

waiting for boats

The water flows into a basin with a drain and a spigot.  To turn on the water at this end, you twist the little quail pictured above.

Our tour concluded when we saw a thunderhead approaching, above the umbrella pines:

thunderhead

This post is just an appreciation of beauty….   Soon, though, I’d like to address some questions—hinted at above—that I’ve been looking into about what local eating means in Rome, about pesticides and organics in Italy, and about farm sizes and types.  Stay tuned.

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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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wall

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:

grill

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

carrying

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:

lamb

It was a good spread:

the table

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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:

figgi

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:

melone

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:

weathervane

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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:

peppers

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

melon

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:

biscotti

Oh, boy, were they good.

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umrella hat

The other rainy night, we had a little casual dinner party with my parents’ best friends of four decades, who happen now to live on the same long dirt driveway in Norwich, Vermont.  I’d been wanting to make a recipe from one of my favorite bloggers, Tribeca Yummy Mummy, for roasted tomato pasta with scallops.  It was amazingly delicious, especially with picked-that-day organic sungolds and grape tomatoes and basil.  Here are the tomatoes, slicked with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, ready to get roasty:

roast tomat

We had spicy greens in a salad, and then a berry crumble.  I like making crumble, because it’s so easy.  You don’t even need to look at a recipe for the topping if you just remember “it’s all 1.”

Mixed Berry Crumble

Topping:
1 c. flour
1 c. sugar (mix brown and white)
1 stick butter, cut into small nobs
1 tsp. salt
1 handful sliced almonds (or walnuts, or oats)

Filling:

3-4 c. mixed berries (I used blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries)
1/3 c. sugar
a sprinkle of almond extract

Preheat oven to 400.  Mix the filling in the baking pan. Frozen berries are ok.

With your fingertips, blend the topping until it all clings together in clumps.  Sprinkle the topping evenly over the filling. Bake for 40 minutes or so.

berry crumble

Get it before it’s gone!

crumble

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Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

pie

For the crust, check out my post of June 7, 2009, but make a double portion, since you’ll need extra pastry for the lattice. Make the pastry, shape into two discs, and chill for several hours.

For the filling, you’ll need 3 cups fresh cut strawberries and 2 cups fresh or frozen chopped rhubarb.  Mix these with 1/2 c. flour, 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 tsp. corn starch.

Preheat oven to 375.  Roll out two 11-inch rounds of pastry, put one in a 9-inch pie plate, and cut the other into strips.  Pour in filling, and construct an over-under lattice with the pastry strips.  Bake (with a cookie sheet underneath in case of drips) for 45 or so minutes, until the crust is golden.

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It’s summer.  It’s hot.  The fruit is ripe.  But what the heck, let’s fire up the oven.

We have Shiro plums, the mild little yellow variety which grew originally in Japan, and now grows all over the place here.

shiso

These plums are from Dummerston, Vermont.  (The name brings to mind Fort Dummer, near Brattleboro, where we used to go cross country skiing, and where my Dad would release the squirrels he’d caught in his “Have-a-Heart” trap.  These were crazed, ferocious squirrels that chewed our wooden siding and clung to the screens of our dining room windows while we ate dinner.)

Back on topic here… plums make a scrumptious rustic galette.  I had a helper this morning making pastry.  A pinch of salt:

J baking

And a demonstration of the frissage technique, which spreads and flattens those yummy bits of butter, providing the basis for flakiness (push with the heels, fold with the fingertips, repeat):

frissage

We also have chopped rhubarb and strawberries in the freezer–remains from an earlier season.  My sister, Bridget, has always loved strawberry-rhubarb pie.  We always thought her red hair and freckles predestined her to be a strawberry lover: strawberry ice cream, strawberry shortcake, strawberry-rhubarb pie, strawberries on cereal, strawberry lip balm, the list goes on.  She’s moving to North Carolina this week, where strawberries and rhubarb will be distant memories.  I think I’ll make her that pie.

And serve it warm with local vanilla ice cream, of course.

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We drove to Cedar Circle Farm, in Thetford, Vermont, this morning, to pick raspberries and blueberries.  The bushes were lush.

J picking

The best strategy for finding juicy berries, we found, was to mimic Jack’s height: crouch down, go in deep, and look up.

rasp. bush

Many of the blueberries were just getting blue.  The season is late this year, because of all the rain.  We picked three pints, though,

Cedar C. blues

and found a little nest in one of the bushes.

nest

Cedar Circle operates their self-service picking patch on the honor system.  There is a sign with the prices per pint, and a little money slot in the wall of the the shed, where pickers can deposit their bills or a check.  Jack loved watching the money disappear…

money slot

Jack's cousin, Jeremiah

Jack's cousin, Jeremiah

Now, it’s raining again, and I’ve been making buckle.  What is it that happens to blueberries when you warm them up?  They become gorgeous taste-bud luxuries.  I guess this is the season for this luxury, though, because I had blueberry pancakes for breakfast, and a piece of buckle for snack.  I’d better not start thinking about dessert…

buckle

Blueberry Buckle
from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion

Batter
¾ c. sugar
4 tbs. butter
1 lg. egg
½ c. milk
2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cardamom
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. blueberries

Streusel
¾ c. sugar
¾ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 tsp. lemon zest
½ tsp. salt
5 1/3 tbs. soft butter

Grease and flour a 9-inch round (or square) pan and preheat the oven to 375°.

Cream together the sugar and butter, then add the egg and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.  Whisk together the dry ingredients.  Stir in the milk alternately with the dry ingredients and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl.  Gently fold in the blueberries.  Spread the batter in the prepared pan.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, lemon, and salt.  Add the butter, mixing to make medium-sized crumbs.  Sprinkle the streusel evenly over the batter.

Bake the buckle for about 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.  Remove from the oven, and cool it (in the pan) on a rack.  Serve the buckle with coffee in the morning, or with whipped cream for dessert.

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Catskills

After spending the weekend driving up and down mountains in the Catskills, crossing rivers with names like Beaverkill and Deepkill, where flyfishermen waded in the sparkling water, and eating a late breakfast at Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia—a destination breakfast spot for Brooklynites, where we had inch-thick mixed berry pancakes with maple syrup, poppyseed swirled challah French toast, lox-scrambled eggs, bacon, and iced lattes out at a sunny streetside table with Chris and Kate and baby Chloe—the day before Aaron and Kelly’s pastoral wedding, we drove east through the Berkshires to Boston.

the ring bearer

the ring bearer

me & J
The roadsign names and route numbers flashed childhood drives through my memory: visits to the grandparents outside Hartford, field trips to time-capsuled Sturbridge Village, highschool jaunts to the thrift stores and coffee shops of Northampton.

We stopped at a rest area on the Mass Pike, which was having a small farmers’ market.  There were two tables: one full of odd pesto medleys, soaps, and knick-nacks, the other stocked with blueberries and strawberries.  I bought some blueberries, and we snacked on them for the rest of the drive.  (Not organic, but infinitely better than anything else at the rest area.)

rest stop berries

We still had a container of Deborah’s berries, too, so that night I decided to throw together a blueberry dessert of some sort.  I was dreaming of buckle, but felt far too unmotivated to make a multi-step cake.    The solution for a last minute, lazy sweet-tooth? Clafoutis!

The dessert from the Limousin region of France is traditionally made with fresh unpitted cherries, (which reminds me of a trip Peter and I took to the Dordogne region of France, where we stopped at the most amazing country restaurant, Le Temps des Cerises…) but it lends itself well to fruit substitutions.  This recipe is an adaptation of Julia Child’s.  The combination of big cultivated blueberries, the small ones from Kenoza Lake, and the more tart huckleberries was delicious, and pretty, too.

Blueberry Clafoutis

3 eggs
1/3 c. sugar
¾ c. milk
¾ c. cream
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract
1/8 tsp. salt
½ c. flour
3 c. blueberries
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter a 10-inch tart pan or cast iron pan, and sprinkle sugar to coat.  Pour in blueberries, in one layer.  With an electric mixer, beat eggs until foamy, then add sugar and continue mixing until thick and foamy.  Gradually add the flour.  Meanwhile, combine cream, vanilla, almond extract, and salt in a small bowl.  Mix these ingredients with the egg mixture.  Pour over the blueberries.  Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until it sets and is golden brown.  Dust with powdered sugar, and serve.

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