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Posts Tagged ‘locavore Rome’

I haven’t actually been making or eating as many meatballs as it may seem from the frequency of their appearance in these posts.  But last night I did make a new (for me) variation on an old theme: meatballs that were halfway between Lions Heads from Shanghai cuisine and Milanese, with some of my favorite flavorings thrown in.  The dish was inspired by a cabbage-wrapped meatball meal the RSFP kitchen cooked for us about a month ago.

In the morning, at the market, I bought some pork which the butcher ground on the spot.  I love that they do this.  Then they show it to you, as if to say, “is this to your liking?”  I bought a big cabbage and some parsley, and started to plan the process in my head.

While shopping, I also bought a city bus and admired some chocolate tools:

Harry, Jack, and a serious toy

Dolce Desideri has fun with chocolate

Prep:

Then, the meatballs: ground pork, breadcrumbs, 1 egg, salt and pepper, a generous pinch of freshly crushed coriander seeds, and small pinches each of ground cumin and cinnamon. I rolled them into a generous size—something between a golf ball and a billiard ball.  I browned them in the pan, while the cabbage leaves blanched.  Then, when all was cool enough to handle, I wrapped each ball in a leaf and set them on a plate while I deglazed the pan, randomly, with sweet vermouth.  (It was the only non-quaffable alcohol in the pantry, and turned out to be the best secret ingredient!)  Then, I put in the meatballs and poured in some stock, covered them, and simmered for 15 or so minutes.  Meanwhile, I cooked some pasta and tossed it with olive oil and parsley.

We took a break from mask-making to eat.

Jack & Felix

swaddled polpette

Then, we got ready for dancing.

Felix, Jack, Pio

Who are these masked dancers?

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Another winding walk today—this time down the stairs rather than up to the park.  I had a few various goals: to see the turtle fountain Jim Ackerman told us about the other night; to buy some whole-grain flour and some nuts at Canestro; to see some new narrow streets; and, if possible, to find chocolate chips for cookies.

When I stepped out onto Via Angelo Masina, our street, I saw a bunch of men way up high in the trees.  It was a tree-trimming class!  (Later, all fifteen or so of them were packed into the little Academy bar smelling of beer and sweat and sap—quite a different crowd from the usual.)

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I walked the now-familiar route down the two sets of steps to Trastevere, and then across Ponte Garibaldi and off to the right, into the Ghetto.  I found the turtle fountain—a beautiful, delicate image of humans helping animals—or doing something balletic with them, anyway.

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Here was a little, covered-over door.  Why was it made so small?

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There are mysteries here in this city.  Often, there are explanations, but often, those explanations present more mysteries, or at least curiosities.

I never found any chocolate chips—after looking and asking in four stores!

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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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This was one of our most fun Halloweens, because of the bustling community of kids who live here in 5B, the family ghetto, the building adjacent to the main American Academy building, (where the best unkept secret is that we have the best apartments).  Halloween really started on Friday, before dinner.  The kitchen staff had prepared trays of bat- and ghost-shaped sugar cookies, icing, chocolate cupcakes, and frosting for a big decorating party.  (Knowing the kitchen-witches here, the ingredients were as local as could be.)

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The cupcakes were so crumbly that they required adult hands, so the Roving Locavore got to work:

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Cheers, Aurelia & Lisa!

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Mid-day on Saturday, Halloween proper, Jack and Lulu got to work on the papier-mache components of their costumes.  Lulu’s parrot head paint was drying, so she helped Jack paint his fireman’s helmet:

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After we returned from Halloween party #1, at Nico’s house at 4:00 (boy, was it a heavy candy-eating day!), the Academy kids paraded and trick-or-treated around the apartments and studios of the Academy building, where the fellows were dressed as witches, death in various forms, Bacchus, a princess, John the Baptist, devil & angel, and a fortune teller.

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the tube is for the milk-bottle O2 tank on Jack's back

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who knew that Dante had hooked up with a gondoliera?

Later, when the kids were spinning and running and staggering from their sugar overdoses, we had a potluck dinner.  Everyone loved the meatballs, sangria, and the zucca lasagna.  I made a pear-apple-almond crumble with mostly local or at least organic ingredients.

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farroGarfagnana1

Farro.  It is one of the oldest domesticated crops.  One of its varieties, emmer wheat, has been found in archeological sites dating back 15,000 years.  For millenia, farro fed the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Near East as a daily staple.

What is it?  The short answer is that farro is a variety of wheat.  The long answer is botanical and semantic.  Farro’s difference from modern, commonly grown wheat, is that it has a strong hull that doesn’t just fall off during threshing.  This makes farro require extra work in processing, but it also relates to farro’s hardiness.  Farro has survived so long, and continues to be cultivated, because of its reliable yields in the mountainous regions of Italy.  The name farro is translated variously into English as einkor, emmer, or spelt because it generally signifies all of these varieties of hulled wheat.

The Italians use the dried, oblong, amber-brown grains in a variety of food preparations—from minestrone, to cold grain salads, or breads and pastas after the grains have been ground into flour.  When eaten whole, in soups or salads, farro is cooked al dente, so that it has a toothsome springiness.

This springiness is one of the reasons I love it.  I love it for its versatility, its deep nutty, wheaty flavor, and its incredible nutritional punch (it has more than twice the protein and fiber of the most common wheat, which loses even more in refinement).  I love farro, too, for the role it could play in a future of sustainable agriculture.  It is a low-yielding crop that likes craggy hillsides, and arid spots, in addition to sun-and-rain-drenched fields.  That first characteristic is why it is virtually unknown in factory-farm-happy places like the Midwest U.S., where high yielding crops rule (but not for long, we fear, because of their reliance on costly inputs and/or bioengineering).  These latter characteristics, and its nutritional content, are what have made it a staple crop in the past and what may make it a necessary crop in the future, when climate change forces us to use these hardy ancient crops that can survive where g.m.o.s can’t.

I’m going to quote a long Wikipedia paragraph, because I like the description.  Even more, though, I love the vocabulary lesson:

Like einkorn and spelt wheats, emmer is a hulled wheat. In other words, it has strong glumes (husks) that enclose the grains, and a semi-brittle rachis. On threshing, a hulled wheat spike breaks up into spikelets. These require milling or pounding to release the grains from the glumes.

Wild emmer wheat spikelets effectively self-cultivate by propelling themselves mechanically into soils with their awns. During a period of increased humidity during the night, the awns of the spikelet become erect and draw together, and in the process push the grain into the soil. During the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; however fine silica hairs on the awns act as hooks in the soil and prevent the spikelets from reversing back out again. During the course of alternating stages of daytime and nighttime humidity, the awns’ pumping movements, which resemble a swimming frog kick, will drill the spikelet as much as an inch or more into the soil.

Fascinating.  But what’s to be done with this clever grain?  Tonight I cooked some soup, the basis of which was farro mixed with green and red lentils.  I especially love a lentil soup jazzed up with lemon, sweetened with carrots, and spiced with cumin.  Mona and Chris and their crew in the Rome Sustainable Food Project kitchen have been making some amazing salads with farro.  My favorite, so far, included fennel roasted with chopped whole lemons (rind and all) and tossed with some chopped bitter green, farro, salt and pepper, and plenty of flavorful olive oil.  At a potluck at one of Jack’s school friend’s apartments, I tasted a warm farro salad featuring roasted, nicely caramelized chunks of zucca, the ubiquitous big orange squash in the Roman markets all fall.  This cool Halloween weekend calls for farro with something orange….

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Tomorrow morning, transit workers are striking across Italy, but we have 9:50 tickets to Venice.  Word on the street is that we’ll be fine.  Eight of us from the Academy are renting an apartment for the weekend.  I won’t be bringing my computer, and will probably not be blogging.  But not to worry!  I’ll be keeping a food diary—and not one in the style of a dieter.

Other tidbits of interest?  I just cooked a simple dinner for myself and Jack made of mostly local things purchased around the neighborhood.  I sauteed peppers, onion, rosemary, and proscuitto.  I scrambled local organic eggs.  We ate warm pizza bianca from Panificio Beti.  I like that they put coarse salt on top. I opened some Lazio wine, but it was corked.

For dessert, Jack ate Greek yogurt with honey, and I ate a ciambellina vino rosso.

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I also started working on a new project today, as a volunteer for the Diversity for Life campaign.  In order to promote knowledge of the importance of agricultural biodiversity for the health of people, cultures, and the planet, they are launching an oral history project in Kenya and Italy this year.  (Other places will follow.)  For these oral history archives, school children will record interviews with their grandparents about what foods they used to grow, cook, and eat.  The aims are to foster an interest in old food traditions and in the foods themselves, to help the kind of agricultural biodiversity that’s been almost lost to monocultures and convenience food continue to thrive, and to encourage a reliance on varied diets which are more nutritious and can be grown in ways that are healthier for the planet.  I’ll be writing the pamphlet that will be distributed to school children in rural and urban Kenya, and which explains the project and the value of maintaining both agricultural biodiversity and continuity in the regional culture as it relates to food.  A lot of American school children could benefit from a similar campaign!

This weekend, though, I’ll be walking around beautiful Venice, taking notes about a very different kind of food culture.

Ciao!

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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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