Loving, leaving and schedule problems

I am not always good at my job, like today for instance. The group went off to Deruta with Lois as they nearly always do on a Monday, but the truth is, they were supposed to be in Assisi where Marco was patiently waiting for them. I had everything written down, exactly as it should have been, but I never looked at what I wrote, and so off they went to Deruta. I have a fantastic job, traveling to Italy, cooking with some of the best ingredients that the earth has to offer, spending the week with people who make me laugh, who love to eat and and learn, and my heart beats and lives. Then they leave. It as if the ocean has left the shore, and then a new group comes that same night and I tell you if you don’t write things down on your hand it is a challenge to remember your name even. I am not positive this group knows I am Faye. I may have told them Celeste or Rocky. I can cook, I can teach, but separation, transition, not so much.

Andiamo avanti. Keep going. Make something simple like asparagus roasted in the oven with an olive oil that you treasure and a little sea salt. The temperature should be 400 degrees, and keep them just until they are beginning to sear a little and are still bright green. Toast or grill your bread with nothing on it, and when it comes out from the oven, rub it with the cut side of a raw piece of garlic, sprinkle with salt, drizzle with olive oil, and over the asparagus, squeeze a bit of lemon juice. Rest them on the bruschetta, and over that a few chunks of sweet gorgonzola. If you have some torn basil to put on top, it only gets better.

Or, if you have made this already this week, because now of course I am convinced that my whole and entire memory has left now, then have a pasta instead of olive oil, heated in the pan, lots of chopped garlic, heated through only until just going golden, finely chopped basil, thrown in after the garlic golden, and a few red pepper flakes. When the pasta is al dente, drain well, reserve a few drops of the pasta water, and drop the pasta into the oil. Toss to combine, season with salt, a bit of lemon zest, and grated
Parmigiano Reggiano, or don’t grate on any cheese at all and eat the cheese on the side.

Be careful what you eat

When I first heard my husband’s voice on the answering machine, it was the first time that I heard his voice after we had met on the plane.  I was already in love with him, and I wanted nothing to do with him.  After the message finished, I sat next to the machine for half an hour, too afraid to get up even.  I knew he loved me–I could hear it and feel it, even after it had crossed an ocean, vibrating through electric wires and imprinted on a tape.  If you are not familiar with the idea that someone can love you without hesitation and with no fear of declaring it without even saying the words, it can be hell to take on.  Like a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a tornado.  The tendency is to hammer great big pieces of wood on the windows and then run for the basement.  But as it is just like that, it is at the same time the opposite, as if the worst of the storm and the calm afterwards happen at once.

 I am addicted now, and I look for love every time I make dinner even, or a cup of coffee.

When you eat sausage that is made by hand and fruits and vegetables that were picked yesterday, a parmigiano reggiano that is tended to daily until it is ready to be tasted, and oil that was pressed with the attention normally reserved for a birth, it can be nearly too much.  You can’t just eat food like that and walk away.  It speaks to you, it wakes you, and you find yourself lighting candles and listening to music that moves you and at the table for hours afterwards, talking and laughing.  Precious time slips away that was meant for errands and responsibilities and your heart is on the table, and all is turned upside down and absolutely fantastic.

For the love of even better

Sarah says that the reason that I am a good cook is because I pay attention. You can think that there is no need really to think about the artichoke or the risotto, to just focus on the pain in your knee joints or your Christmas list, but the truth is like a child or a lover–when you take the time to take them in–to consider their shape and smell and being, then the thing between you goes beyond the chore of getting them dressed for school or making love before you sleep.  When you take the time to consider the thing in front of you, the thing between you lives and breathes.

If you really know someone, or an artichoke, you will know how to challenge them to do great things, and you will sense what they need to be at their best. And in return, ahhh the love and the food you will have.

Tonight we will have risotto with dried porcini mushrooms, string beans with grilled onions and a roast chicken stuffed with masacarpone. Sear the whole bird off in a hot and heavy pan that has been glazed with olive oil, seasoning first with salt all over, inside and out. When the chicken is beautifully browned, let it cool for a moment, then shove in a whole head of garlic cut in half crosswise, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, some of rosemary, and some of parsley. Prepare a 1/2 cup of mascarpone with finely diced lemon zest, pith removed, maybe a 1/2 teaspoon, a little torn basil, or minced fresh rosemary, but not so much that the herb takes over the mascarpone. Smash a clove of garlic and cut it into a paste. Add that as well, and season with salt and black pepper. Roast at 350 degrees for an hour and a half for a 3 pound chicken, but 20 minutes or so before you think it is done, make a slit in the skin on the breast on both sides of the breast bone, and engineer in about a quarter cup of mascarpone where you have made your cuts so that underneath the skin, the whole breast is covered.

For dessert, I will cut pears in half, crank up the oven to 425, toss them with sugar, and set them onto a well buttered sheet pan, cut side down. You are looking to caramelize them and soften them. Make a shortbread crust, bake it off, and when it is golden, slice the pears into eighths and arrange over the crust. Serve with ever so lightly whipped cream.

Nap time

There is a breeze that blows around the house of my friend Caroline,up in the hills above Mercatale that can be just enough to stir the leaves from sunning themselves and like the soft breath that a mother blows across her baby’s forhead. I am having lunch here this afternoon while my group rests after so many days and nights of hard cooking, eating, and drinking red wine from a ceramic rooster.

There was talk of lunching in Castel Riggone and then touring through Preggio to look across the valleys of all the hills that you can see from there, but I think they just might round themselves up for a snooze in the grass. It is important to look out at the world from a high place for as far as the eye can see, but it is a whole other kind of traveling to feel the blades of grass bruising under the backs of your arms with nothing to do but lie there and consider the ants.

The news of fruit

The market was on today in Mercatale, and normally it’s on a Wednesday, but tomorrow is liberation day, so all the strawberries and asparagus and artichokes were piled up in the piazza a day early. I was so unconvinced that it was possible that there might be a change in schedule that when I saw the clothes hanging from the awnings of the R.V.’s that follow the fruit and vegetable trucks, I thought, wow, the guy who sells shirts and underpants is certainly getting to be all about business showing up a day early. I didn’t even bother to stretch my eyes just that much further to take in the explosion of summer’s bounty, (summer has been liberated as well) that was being pinched and squeezed down the other end of the piazza. I was in the back of the bakery having a chat about the the buying and selling of Bar Centrale when it was confirmed that it was in fact market day by Monica, who knows everything about what goes on the five mile radius of the center of town because of the girl she has working out front, who is extremely well connected.

I went back to buy only a few string beans, but every single thing on offer was the essence of itself and impossible to refuse. I came out loaded with enough to make lunch for my friend Caroline and dinner for my people when they return tonight for Montepulciano, Montalcino, Val D’orcia and Pienza.

I am going to make a quick pasta of garlic cream (1 pint of heavy cream reduced by half with two whole cloves , a sprig of thyme and a peppercorn, then salted to taste). I strain the cream, pushing the softened garlic cloves right through the sieve. Drain the pasta well (about 9 ounces) and once the cream is off the heat, whisk in few globs of sweet gorgonzola and some grated parmesan. Immediatly stir around with the pasta and tear in some fresh basil.

Serve it with red wine and fine, thin slices of prosciutto beforehand that are no bother to wait for at the butcher.  He has got really comfortable chairs.

The beauty of sugar

We had an early morning lesson at Dolce Forno, and so for breakfast we started with cornetti (croissant) and moved from there to a tray of chocolates, licking the bowl of the cake batter for Mantovana, tasting a pure nocciola (chocolate and hazlenut butter) with massive spoons that were closer to small shovels, some crunchy cantucci and a pastry cream infused with a few coffee beans and a strip of fresh lemon zest; Monica’s nonna’s secret of how to add a little love.

The beautiful thing about eating sugar is that you are hungry in a minute and you can eat all over again.

For dinner we’ll have pasta with fresh arugula, garlic, fresh ricotta, a little lemon and toasted croutons, all added after the pasta has been drained, then eggplant al forno with fresh tomato and mozzarella di bufala, and pork chops grilled over a wood fire, and artichokes sliced ever so thinly and sauted with the oil from this November. For dessert, the infamous chocolate Jonty.

Last night I fed them too much; I went right over the top; I have to remind myself to slow down, that there is a week to get through, it’s just that what is a week, a week is nothing, no time at all to taste all the miracles that lay in wait.

Whaterver you do, don’t go to Orte

Whatever you do when you get off the plane at Fiumicino and you are trying to get yourself to Terontola, don’t let them send you via Orte instead of Roma Termini.  It will take four extra hours, and when you get to Orte starving, because there is nothing to be had worth eating at the train station bar at Fiumicino, you will be cursing the overfilled, overprocessed piece of dough that they have no right calling a cornetto.  Go to Roma Termini.  If you have a few minutes to spare between trains, exit the station on the left before entering the bit with the shops (tracks behind you).  Cross the crazy street, and on the right corner there is a bar that will give you a cornetto flaky on the outside, creamy on the inside and a cappuccino that will pour Italy back into your wanting heart. 

It is hot and beautiful here and there are strawberries in full bloom this morning when I went out to check the garden, the world once more witness to my legs after a long hibernation. 

Away, away

There is nothing left in the fridge, but Jonathan is waiting until tomorrow to do the shopping, so that he and Ferdinand will have something to keep them busy. I am leaving tonight for Italy. They will get pizza for dinner.
It is one of the hardest things about going away, about leaving Ferdinand–not being able to feed him, to see with my own eyes what he eats, that he is eating, that he is fed. It has nothing to do with reality, because of course he is fed and loved and taken care of every minute that I am away. It’s just what happens in my head.
Make a lovely cake. Soft and absolutely tender and flakes of coconut falling wherever they will on top. Fill it with lemon curd and serve it with tea in china cups. I always think of coconut cake as a gentle kind of dream that steals a mind away if only for a minute.

Broccoli and pasta and how to make it work

I love to make things that I don’t have to think about, and I hate it when I make something that I don’t have to think about, and it comes out tasting like I should have thought about it. For a while now I have been hooked on pasta and broccoli made by cooking the pasta, and right before the pasta is done, throwing the broccoli into the same pan. On the side I have a pan of olive oil, chopped garlic, fried basil, pepperoncino and lemon zest, and when the pasta and broccoli are done, I drain them, reserve a little of the liquid on the side, drop the noodles and broccoli into the olive oil and toss them around with a few drops of the reserved pasta water, tasting for salt and black pepper. Grate in the cheese and it’s done. Except last night it came out tasting like heated up leftovers. The noodles were oily and the broccoli was wet and I had to control myself from sweeping the whole thing off the table, and thowing it under the sink and starting from the beginning. I would have, except I am trying to teach Ferdinand to let things roll off his shoulders and go with the flow and not get all worked up into freight train of a frenzy when something doesn’t go his way. And so when Jonathan said “I don’t think I can eat these olives that you put in here; do you think it intensifies their flavor when you saute them?”, I answered, “gee, I don’t know honey”.
(Flavor is intensified by direct heat, but it was not the time to answer; I was self torturing myself about why then didn’t the broccoli intensify from the direct heat? Why was it soggy and lifeless even after draining and tossing and letting it sit in the pan with all of that flavorfull stuff; I knew there was just so much I could talk about it and still keep up my happy kind of relaxed person model.) The truth is, I don’t think that cooking method is entirely dependable. I think that you have to cook the broccoli (one head of just the tops) separately, which you could do easily enough in the salted water, before you put the pasta in, and get it out before the pasta hits the water. Take the broccoli out when it is still green and just a bit of a bite left to it, with a slotted spoon or colander. Drain super well and let it rest on a clean towel to absorb all the extra liquid in. Get your pan going with 5 cloves of chopped garlic, a half teaspoon of red pepper flakes, a few torn leaves of basil and your best olive oil. Add the broccoli once the garlic is golden, with salt to taste and toss it around until it tastes delicious. Turn off the heat. Get the pasta cooked, on its own, but in the same pan of water that the broccoli cooked in. Drain well and toss with the broccoli. If you like a good Romano, it’s excellent with this. You can also add the olives, on or off the heat (if you like olives and you don’t think that they will cause you any undue stress.)
You can also add a few few anchovies (packed in salt are best; rinse before using) to the garlic getting golden in the pan before the broccoli goes in, but just two or three.
Or, (and now we are talking about a whole different dish), you can have a pan of hot chicken stock on the stove that you add to the broccoli and garlic a ladeful at a time, stirring every once in a while, and keeping on with the stock until the broccoli becomes a mush and has not bite left to it whatsoever–more of a broccoli sauce. It takes about thirty minutes. You add a nob of butter when it comes off the heat and a big handful of finely grated parmesan cheese.

Breakfast for dinner

I am like a loose planet at the moment, so I am eating foods that will weigh me down. Grits with sharp cheddar cheese and fried slab bacon and eggs with milky coffee and biscuits. Get the kind of grits that take half an hour to stir around in the pot before they’re done; it gives your mind something to work on. Use a cheese that’s serious. A cheddar that stands up and says “I AM CHEDDAR!” I need clarity. No cheap bacon and if you can get someone else to make the biscuits for you, even better, because it takes love to make good biscuits and a love like that love will keep your feet on the ground and only do you good.