I know that I am easily mistaken for Mr.Schwarzenegger if you squint, or possibly “Mama” from that Carol Burnett skit.
But the truth is, there is a list of things that scare the bejeezus out of me.
Wild boar when it is pitch black outside and I am walking on my own.
Any fish that brushes by me in the water—I don’t care if you are a minnow—stay on your side of the pond.
Taxes. I would rather give you all of my money than worry that I overlooked paying some tax, leaving myself wide open to jail time.
I am definitely afraid of jail time.
Love used to be on this list.
But it is not anymore.
Definitely cooking if I feel it involves a test, spoken or unspoken.
I am about to go to France, and France is a test. I know how to cook. I do not know all of the cheeses and all of the wines. I can not identify all the fish off the coast of Normandy, and I have never fattened a goose for its liver. And about one thousand other things. They would struggle to mistake me even for a minnow in a restaurant kitchen in Paris.
But I can make a boeuf bourguignon that you want more of. And a tender cheese soufflé. I am confident of my coq au vin and of my delicate whole fish stuffed with herbs and packed in a salt crust with a silky side of beurre blanc. I can make a rice pudding hum with the scent of vanilla bean and caramel.
Which isn’t much, none of it. Unless you are coming home. And it is waiting for you.
I just parallel parked in front of a packed house at the Fizz bar, in Lisciano Niccone. Lisciano Niccone has a total population of 64 people. Not that many, but a tough crowd to impress. Parallel parking is all I have got.
I have been coming to Lisciano for 25 years, but they don’t really believe I am an actual cook; I am an American.
I arrive to work in Italy without my child; never completely acceptable.
I speak Italian like a problematic car with a good paint job.
So, nothing. All I have got is the parking.
I did it in one fell swoop.
Unusual around these parts only because although they are only 64, they have a parking lot next to the bar for at least 100; more if people drove with a buddy. There is loads of parking around the fountain in the center and up the side streets you can park where you like. So there is absolutely never actually a need to parallel park.
There is no need to ride two ponies while standing up, wearing a pink tutu, but people do it.
I ate leftover osso bucco and risotto for dinner last night, with a side of fresh fennel. Dinner of champions.
I have decided on my days off between teaching, to go camping at the beach.
It is called Fiorentina della Pescaia.
There is an ancient fort at the top of the village and a row of restaurants along the shore below. My favorite is a place at the very beginning of the rocks that divide an inlet from the sea. The dining room is nothing but windows wide open to the water and salty air, and tables and chairs that look like they have been recycled at least twice. Fishing boats anchor alongside and the flapping and snapping catch is loaded directly into the kitchen. I don’t know what the kitchen looks like behind those swinging doors.
There can’t be much more than a massive bucket of teeny, tiny clams, a bucket of butter, a barrel of fresh parsley, one of garlic, a pasta pot loaded with baskets of spaghetti, a load of hot pans ready for the clams and somebody with a good arm and a loud mouth, for throwing everything together and then yelling that it is ready.
Unless you are allergic, there is no reason to get anything other than spaghetti alle vongole.
It is perfect every time. Along with, I get a half carafe of slightly fizzy white wine. No dessert. When I am done, I like to just sit for a minute with the tablespoon of espresso, heavy with sugar that sinks to the bottom of the cup and then get up and walk along the beach in the dark.
The ocean always brings me back; like they used to promise in those Calgonite commercials.
Next to where I sleep at home, under the lamp, there is a teeny, tiny little shell to remind me.
To get to the room where I sleep at La Macchia from the back door, you first pass through a small entry hall with a bathroom, then through the room where the riding equipment is kept, the walls lined with saddles, bridles, and whips, then through the hall with the winter kitchen to the right, and the main steps to the left. Keep walking straight on, to pass through the telephone room, where all the fencing gear hangs on three of the four walls, and where the door to the larder is all the way to the back and to the left. It is packed with homemade marinara, marmalade, beans, and pasta. Keep going, through the holding room, where platters are held for service in the dining room or great room, depending on the size of the crowd; those are the two doors to your left. The two doors to the right are my bedroom, and a tiny bath with a tinier tub. My room is huge. Massive wooden beams on the ceiling and a bed fitted with cotton sheets as heavy as wool blankets. The windows are eight feet high and even though they are on the first floor, they are twenty feet from the ground.
Below me is the cantina where the olive oil and wine is kept. There is a chariot down there as well and an old convertible Volkswagen bug. There is a press for olive oil, with massive stones and a hook up for the mule, but it is not used anymore.
There are guests visiting at La Macchia from England, and tonight is their last night. There are 36 rooms in this house, and even though they were sleeping directly above me, for their first four nights, I had no idea they were here. I have heard movement up there before when there was most definitely no one else in the house, so I don’t pay attention. The house was built in 1300; possibly before, but that is as far back as the family bible shows record of. If ghosts are going to rumble, this is the place.
I have the honor of being considered family, so as the rest of the family was off to the beach for the weekend, I was asked to look after the guests.
I will cook. I am going to make a mushroom risotto, osso bucco, and a salad of arugula, peaches, chive, red onion, and mozzarella. From there, I don’t know. I have to lift myself from this seat to have a look at what is left in the village market.
It has been sunny since I got here, with a thick fog in the morning that coats your arm hairs. Mountains of clouds wash through and occasionally drop rain, but never for more than an hour.
The group drove off to San Gimignano with a visit to a winery. They only stole one glass and bought enough wine to put in a few more rows of grapes.
Tonight: Chianina steaks and sausages. Roasted planked potatoes with a spill of cream, fresh sage and garlic baked covered, and then rip the foil off the pan and broil til crusty brown as soon as the meat is off the grill.
Until the steaks are ready: naked eggplant, and mozzarella with tagiasche olives and basil.
At the end, a chocolate flourless cake with a little espresso, covered with gently whipped cream with vin santo tipped in.
There is a kitten that jumps me every time I sit down by the stove to watch the eggplant under the broiler, and has taken ownership of my lap.
I used to carry home with me, like a turtle carries its shell. From one place to another. I was a human RV.
But today, as I was driving over the mountain to Camucia to buy more groceries, I got homesick. I had to pull over to the side of the road, because my eyes started to flood.
I rerouted up to Cortona for an ice cream cone for lunch at Snoopy’s. Then was back on track to get my 10 liters of wine pumped, a piece of Gorgonzola dolce for my pasta, and back over the mountain to Trabalza for pork chops, cut in front of me, the way they do.
Even though it is raining, if I shove the chimney of the grill just outside the overhang from the tobacco tower, I should be all right.
We are doing a lemon tart for dessert with just the tiniest bit of mascarpone stirred into the curd.
When I was 14, my chores included clearing the table, doing the dishes, laundry, dinner on Tuesdays and cleaning the upstairs bathroom. I earned 35 cents a week. To make up for what I considered not enough pay for hard labor, I babysat. I was fierce. I baked with toddlers and I took the big kids for field trips on the public bus. When the parents got home, everybody was sleeping and the house was clean. I couldn’t be touched. I owned Kenyon street, Oxford, and North Beacon, and worked an average of four nights a week. I spent next to nothing. I liked the feeling of money in the bank.
It made my step father nervous.
We were in direct competition for who was the boss of me.
He didn’t have a regular job and I assume he had no money in the bank. He knew he was losing. I bought my own clothes, my own shoes, shampoo and snacks. I could have bought my own food if I had to. I said nothing about school, and never had a complaint come back from the office. I left the house early and came home late. My mother was tired. She worked.
My total control lasted until my first kiss. It was at Jackie Maurer’s on Halloween night, and it was the best thing that had happened to me since my first grand jete. The feeling of flying through the air in a full split, had been replaced.
I was in a constant shudder of hope that it would happen again, right there in the middle of the day. School didn’t suffer, it just got harder to walk the hallways. Even after I accepted that the one who had kissed me would never look my way again.
Inside me though. Inside was a forest with no floor. I was devastated. I couldn’t understand it. How you could love someone from the truth of who you had never dared to share, and they were unmoved.
When you are 14, you don’t question the love you feel, only the love you don’t receive.
It shook the waters of me that had been previously undisturbed. I could think of nothing else but how undesirable I must be. Not in a sad way. I wasn’t sad about it, I was just trying to face the facts. There was something about me that must not be right.
I went shopping. I took the bus to the suburbs where I thought the answer might be. I poked around with my skinny butt and fat wallet in the Junior Miss section. Typically I bought stripes and solids. Painters pants or kakis. Work clothes from the Army/Navy. But I was on a mission for another kiss. I thought a maxi dress would be too much. I picked out a pair of blue grey thin wale corduroy flares and a peasant blouse sprayed with tiny flowers that oozed pink and satin ribbons. I matched it with my Frye boots and a lavender cream shadow for my eyes. I felt I might turn the world and Jacques Q. upside down.
I had forgotten though, about the in house contest. When I came down the stairs in the morning, I was unprepared for comment from the stands.
My stepfather could feel the weakness. He could feel it without touching, that my skin was thinner. I still have a fear of losing my callouses.
“Well you look like a whore in uniform.”
Coming from a God fearing man that believed in good manners.
I lost being the the boss only for a tsunami of seconds. And then I collected myself.
I stayed silent. I turned my left heel into my right arch and anchored my left hand to the same hip. I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. Then I left.
Every night that I was assigned dinner, I made a slightly underdone, barely warm, potato and cottage cheese casserole. And then I would catch the bus for the late class to grand jete across a solid linoleum floor.
It can be just one thing, that turns the whole kit and kaboodle around. It could be a song or a kiss or a bicycle; depends on what is happening I suppose.
I was standing in front of one the most boring pieces of poultry on the God given planet, vacuum packed skinless, boneless, chicken breasts. There is not one thing to get excited about. Not the plastic, not the pink, not even the price. Because I am 100% sure that I am going straight to Hell if I buy one more piece of chicken that is not organic for my son, the price is steep. I had already given him chicken for lunch and somehow, I was stuck standing in front of the chicken again. As if there was not one other thing that was possible to make. And then I remembered that I had a beautiful, blue and grey striped can of Spanish paprika. Flooding right behind that thought was butter and onions with a side of dirty rice and sautéed, garlicky, asparagus.
Mango for afters.
Once you find the NEW paprika, not pre war or pre 1999 paprika, get a hot, heavy pan going. Season the chicken breast well on both sides, with kosher salt. Pound them to level thickness with the side of your fist. Drop a little olive oil in the pan with some rough slices of yellow onion. Sear the breasts on one side until he edges have gone white. Flip. Sprinkle on some of your paprika, not buckets, just enough to make some magic; a dusting, and only on one side. Give it a knuckle of butter. Flip the chicken again and swirl it around with a few thyme sprigs and or a bay leaf until it is JUST cooked through. Serve with the dirty rice and asparagus and why not, poached marinated leeks with a grating of hard boiled egg.
One way to solve your menu problems: Have the same thing every Monday. Have the same thing every Tuesday. You can do it Wednesday and Thursday if you want to. There was this young guy Dominic I worked with once at a job, that had nothing to do with food, and we traveled. He was from deep in Queens. He lived at home and had never traveled before. He had never been on a plane. That wasn’t a big deal to me. He had white sneakers that shone like a beacon on the city streets and a coat with a collar big enough to lean on for a nap. He told me that his sister highlighted his hair for him. He highlighted his eyebrows. I had never seen that before. There are a lot of firsts in your twenties.
It was dinnertime, and I said, “what do you guys want for dinner, quiche?” I don’t know why I said quiche, probably because growing up, we ate it on the edge of too much; it was like anybody else asking if you want a ham sandwich. I couldn’t help it. I was raised vegetarian.
Dominic said, “a what?”
“Quiche. A piece of quiche. You don’t have to, we could get soup or something.”
“Soup. What is the matter with soup.?”
Now this threw me. I was in a land I knew nothing about.
“What do you mean, it is Tuesday?”
“What is quiche?”
“It is eggs. On a crust. With cheese.”
“So ask me if I want some eggs.”
“It is not eggs. It is quiche.”
“Why would you eat that?”
“We were vegetarian.”
“Kids don’t do that. You are kidding me.”
I remember I had had the same argument when it was decided that we weren’t going to have meat anymore.
“What did you eat?”
“Vegetables. Beans. Quiche. Waffles.”
“Waffles?! But no meat. Oh, man. I am sorry about that. That must have been rough.
Tuesday is meatloaf. Meatloaf, mashed potato, peas.”
“What is Wednesday?”
“Pork chop.” Then he needed to know.
“So on Monday, it could be anything. Could be waffles, could be peas.”
“First of all, no meat. Second of all, you don’t even know what is coming.”
Somehow I had become the poster child of all things unfair and uncertain in the world. Dominic much preferred dependability and meat. And now that I am old, I can see the point.
I am not saying give up being a vegetarian. I would never say that. It is just that in a way, a little piece of meat can make menu planning a little easier. He was right. As soon as you think, pork chops, roast potatoes with rosemary and garlic is right behind it. And if you love it and you know you always have it on a Wednesday, well Wednesday just got a whole lot dependably better.
In the world of Dominic with a little Faye love:
Turkey meatloaf stuffed with cream soaked crouton, garlic, fried sage and on the side, roasted cherry tomatoes and garlicky spinach
Pasta with meat sauce, string beans and salad of torn herbs and vinaigrette
Chicken pot pie with homemade biscuits, salad of Bibb lettuce, radicchio, blue cheese, and red onion
Fresh ricotta ravioli with fresh tomato sauce and basil served with broccoli rabe dish of radishes and green olives
Whole roasted fish with buttery, lemony rice, braised leek and peas with fresh mint
Lasagna, Caesar salad, OR cheese board and soup of choice.
How about that? Doesn’t feel so bad, does it.
I am not doing so great. Not terrible; no walls are falling down. It is just a weariness from putting my world in order, which has to be done.
You can, not go to the dentist, but it is not going to be pretty or make it any easier in the end. There is no way through but through.
I tell you this, not because I want to. I would rather tell you how to make a creme anglaise so good that there is no such thing as saying no thank you. The kind of creme anglaise you have to pull up a chair to and get serious with.
I tell you this, because if you are struggling with whatever is working your subterranean nerve, you are not alone.
Creme anglaise 1 cup cream, 1/2 vanilla bean, cut down center and scraped with all added to pot. bring cream and milk to a simmer. Whisk 3 egg yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until thick. Add a bit of cream to egg yolk, then a bit more, whisking constantly. Return to a simmer, never allowing to boil and always whisking. When it coats the back of a wooden spoon and your finger dragged through what is left on the spoon leaves a mark, it is done.
Serve it with an apple tart or just a spoon for direct dipping in.