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Archive for the ‘Wine’ Category

We’re so coddled here, with the wonderful food prepared for and served to us at the Academy.  So it was with real satisfaction last night that I prepared a meal requiring what felt like authentic labor: beheading fish and whisking for a good half hour.

The meal was utterly simple, and maybe that’s why it was so much fun to make.  I started in the morning at the open air market on Via Nicolini, where I bought a pile of fresh sardines.  The fishmonger threw in a handful of parsley too, which is one of the nice gestures these Roman vendors always make.  It’s both generous and bossy of them: “here, have some herbs” and “if you’re going to cook that, you really should have this.”  (This attitude actually seems to be a regional—or even national—trait.)  I bought lemons at another stall, mixed chicories at another, some apples, brocoletti, and then some pizza bianca at Pasticceria Beti.

Here are the fish, before their “dressing”:

There are a few ways to prepare sardines—going from minimally to maximally meticulous.  I chose the middle road.  The minimal would be just to clean the scales off and cook them whole.  The most thorough would be to cut the heads off, clean the guts out, and bone them before cooking.  The middle way, which Robinson Crusoe would have advised, is to break the heads off with your hands; the attached guts follow; and the boning is easier to do when the fish are cooked anyway.

Sardines are very nutritious, as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in the mercury and other contaminants that settle in the big fish higher up on the food chain. They are very high in selenium and vitamin B12 and high in calcium, niacin, and phosphorus.  Are these good reasons to feel virtuous even when you fry them in butter?

After a good descaling rinse, they’re ready to be dredged in salted flour and fried up in a mixture of butter and olive oil, at high heat.

Before doing that though, I made the aioli with a whisk—and with the assistance of Junior Wells’s Hoo Doo Man Blues, prosecco, and Peter.  I followed Alice Waters’s recipe from The Art of Simple Food.  Start with garlic and a pinch of salt mashed with a mortar-and-pestle; add a 1/4 tsp. of water and an egg yolk. Starting drop by drop, whisk in 1 c. extra virgin olive oil. (When you’re not working with the help of electricity, this takes a good long time.)

The resulting meal was simple, cheap, yummy, and fun.

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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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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

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Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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treviso

I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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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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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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Pane e Salute

A meal at this osteria is a total immersion experience.  It was a celebration for us, so we went all out, from the delicate prosecco to the late-night liqueurs: with wine pairings, sopressata, chanterelles and homemade papardelle, wild sockeye salmon, sour cherry cake, and espresso in between.   Everything about the restaurant is an expression of the passion Deirdre and Caleb, the owners, have for food and the kind of hospitality they’ve experienced in Italy.  They wanted to transport not only the recipes and cooking methods home with them, but also the culture of food.  They gave us a good taste of all three last night, during our long meal.  It was all wonderful, but the highlights for me were the antipasti (sopressata, fresh mozzarella dressed with a little olive oil, a crostini with chicken liver pate); the olive oil served with the aperitivo, which tasted like fresh olives and greenery; the chanterelles and pasta, which melted on my tongue; and the wine pairings, which were certainly the most thrilling experiences my palate has had in a long time.   The standouts were, with the antipasti, a blend in the Alsatian gewürztraminer style made by the winery Lincoln Peak in… yes… Vermont; with the chanterelles, “Delfino della Contessa” (the—whimsical and rich—countess’s dolphin), a blend of riesling, chardonnay, and some others, which was bright and full of surprises; and with the salmon, Rainoldo Roso del Valtellino, a medium-bodied red made with the nebbiolo grape, which didn’t overpower the fish with fruit but held its own alongside the walnut-pinenut-basil pesto.

Certainly the most interesting part of the meal, aside from the company of my husband after several weeks apart, was the last part.  Deirdre, in her perfectly natural yet both eccentric and sophisticated grace, brought over two cordial glasses containing two liqueurs she had made herself.  One was dark, and tasted of walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and ginger.  The other was the color of iced tea, but was a combination of two mints, lemongrass, stinging nettle, and lavender.  I look forward to reading her new book, Libation.

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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.

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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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Since this is a locavore blog, in some ways, I have to admit, I misrepresent myself.  For example: beer versus wine.  I’ve written more about beer, and expressed a lot of enthusiasm about local ales, but I’m really much more of a wine drinker.  Lately it’s been Spanish reds, and vinho verde.  I love the different tones of garnacha, and the refreshing effervescence of that Portuguese “green wine.”  I also love the whites of Alsace.  And the infinite varieties of rosé! From the elegant Tavel to the earthy South African pinotage rosé, I love them all.  If I still lived in Berkeley, there wouldn’t be the whiff of hypocrisy in calling myself a locavore eater and drinker, because I’d still be drinking those great Sonoma, Paso Robles, Santa Cruz, and Mendocino wines we could get in the grocery store.  I miss you, Bonny Doon.  Wish I could be there in the tasting room to try your new, more restrained bottlings, which I’ve now only read about, wistfully, in the New York Times. (Not to mention all the great things I could be eating: mission figs and meyer lemons from neglected trees on my block of Euclid Ave., for example….)

Enough gushing, now.  The reason I started writing this post has to do more with ale and my country-girl nostalgia.  In Burlington, at Greg and Patti’s, we started the evening with Otter Creek Copper Ale, which I love, and which brought back memories (not all pleasant) of my stint as an “environmental educator” at a school-trip camp near Middlebury, Vermont.  We slept in cabins so rustic, the frosty mid-March air gusted in the cracks between the aged two-by-fours during the night.  I slept in my -40 down “mummy” sleeping bag in long underwear, a sweater, and a wool cap.  The kids arrived on full school buses on Monday, we introduced them to things like recycling, organic carrots, and sphagnum moss, and they were gone by Friday.  And then, if it was sunny, we’d drag all of the Adirondack chairs out to the middle of the lawn at the camp’s center overlooking the lake, set a bunch of six-packs of all of the Otter Creek brews here and there, and sample them all afternoon.  Copper Ale, Pale Ale, Stovepipe Porter, Spring Ale, Mud Bock!  We were single, outdoorsy, and glad to be free.

Otter Creek Brewery is a family owned business in Middlebury, Vermont, which also makes certified organic beers under the Wolaver’s label.  They host a regular beer and cheese tasting, which at first glance smacks of wine-culture-imitation opportunism, but then I remember how good I think the sharp Vermont cheeses taste with beer.  Here’s how they advertise it:

Not only is Vermont home to 19 craft brewers (at last count), the most breweries per capita in the country, we also are lucky enough to have 35+ artisanal cheesemakers here, too!  This makes us arguably the best state for cheese and beer pairings in the country!

You know what else is good with beer?  Peanut butter.

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