Italy time and why I love my job

It’s about that time when I have to get myself ready to go to a whole different kind of place. Instead of me cussing at people trying to squeeze me out at the wrong stop on the number 7 train, I get my car stuck in a pack of sheep on their way to fresher meadows. Instead of 7 million people out of 8 making a phone call for take-out or cooking frozen ready made in the microwave, I compete daily with the head of every dinner table in Mercatale di Cortona at the butcher, the baker, the grocery store the size of a postage stamp, and whenever he drives through–the fruit and vegetable truck. I have to get ready to overcome my fear of wild boar when my car won’t make it up the hill to my bed, and I have to prepare myself for watching the fog float away from the fields of poppies as the sun comes up.

I need to prepare for paper thin prosciutto on soft and sturdy bread with no salt, served with fruity, earthy single grape wine, bowls of strawberries that have been found in the woods, celestial coffee that is over in a minute, tiny grilled lamb chops with nothing more than a spill of olive oil, slowly simmered osso bucco, teeth cracking cookies to dip into sweet sherry and bite sized cream puffs anytime of day.

I have to get ready to be hugged.

Eat your vitamins!

I am the type that will wait until my leg feels like it is going to fall off before I go to the doctor. Why go to a professional who asks for money and makes you wait for an appointment when you can just suffer or ask random people in the park what they do for leg pain? I took a couple of tylenol and considered extra calcium.
Yesterday I was sure it was going to fall off.
The doctor told me to take a few tylenol and consider extra calcium.

Bok choy, broccoli, collards, spinach, swiss chard, molasses, tofu and of course milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, parmesan and ice cream are all good sources of calcium. I considered my list. To get all of the calcium you need you might feel like you have to eat enough to keep up with a large and hungry hump back whale. I have no problem with that.
I picked milk, (espresso with loads of hot late) and ricotta cheese for breakfast–a natural for me since I had a ricotta cheese cake in the fridge–and ice cream, which I ate some of while I was checking the calcium numbers on the label. For lunch I’ll have noodles with tofu, bok choy and green onions in a chicken broth with a little sesame oil, for snack, a yogurt smoothie with frozen bananas (good for muscle cramps), yogurt and frozen strawberries, and for dinner, cornbread (made with milk), black eyed peas and collards.

I will let you know if it works.

Teach me how to cook some fish, mama.

Listen, it’s a fish. It’s not an elephant, or even an octopus. And the truth is, that there aren’t a whole lot of people in the city or the suburbs who are out finding the worms, catching the fish, cleaning the fish, and then cooking the fish. All you have to do is get the nerve up to go over to the fish counter, have a conversation with the person behind the fish counter, and check out their goods. There should be some whole fish on display that have clear eyes and red gills and a sweet smell to them. If there is nothing around the fish counter that looks like it may have been alive in the past 24 hours or so–find yourself another fish counter. If the fish you are buying is already cut into steaks or filets, be sure it looks plump, tight, and without any sliminess or weird discoloration.
Try a little firm fleshed white fish–a seabass maybe. Buy yourself some potatoes, fresh rosemary and good olive oil.
When you get home, heat the oven to 450 degrees, and slice about 6 medium potatoes as thinly as possible. Oil a baking dish with the olive oil, and add the potates, giving them a little spill of olive, a small smashed and minced clove of garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper.
Toss them around and press them flat. Bake this uncovered until the potatoes are just about tender. Season 2 pounds of fish filets with a little salt and pepper on both sides, oil them up with your olive oil, and lay them on top of the potatotes, with a little sprig of fresh rosemary under each one. Back in the oven for 10 minutes. Baste with the pan juices, and then back in the oven for maybe another 4 minutes or just until the fish flakes with a fork.
Allow it to rest for a moment before serving with fresh lemon, and big bowl of garlicky string beans.

Easter Dinner

I like to plan around Easter candy. Why stress about what to make when you can just put a few big baskets of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans on the table? Only kidding. Hard boiled eggs and toast? Only kidding.

Asparagus Carabonara (9 ounces of pasta, 1 big handful of grana padano (parmesan) 9 egg yolks whisked together with a few spoons of heavy cream and a spoon of hot pasta water to temper it so it doesn’t scramble. Add salt and pepper.
Saute the asparagus in garlic, salt and pepper. Dump the hot pasta immediately into the bowl of eggs and stir with vigor. Rip in leaves of fresh basil and taste for salt, pepper and cheese.

Grilled lamb chops (just season with salt, grill til pink, and off the grill a drizzle of olive oil and squeeze of lemon.)

Roasted grape tomatoes

Salad of big garlic croutons that you make from day old baguette, olive oil garlic and salt in the frying pan or oven, tossed with nicoise olives and baby arugula leaves

Fennel gratin (just slice and season the fennel and set into a buttered dish. Cover with a pour of heavy cream and bake covered at 350 until soft.

For dessert a lemon tart (make a shortbread crust and a lemon curd. Bake the crust, make the curd, then pour the curd onto the baked crust and stick it in the oven for 3 minutes. Serve with raspberries and that have been tossed with sugar that has a little lemon zest added to it.

Hold on

Yesterday I could just feel it rising up in me like a slow and simmering volcano right before dinner. Even before I got the door to the fridge open. I’m sick and tired of cooking. I don’t feel like thinking of one more thing to make that is going to please a man, a five year old and a mean tempered, hot under the collar, hard to please on any front, mama.
I opened the door of the fridge, looked in there without caring if there was a turkey or an egg or a television show on the shelf, and closed it shut. I opened up the dry goods drawer–a big bunch of nothing. I was about to mention my feelings to those in the area, and instead I got out an onion and chopped it up. If you can just get the onion cut up and in the pan, it will be all right. Once the onion is going, there is nothing to do but help it out with a little olive oil, salt and if nothing else, a bay leaf. I gave it a few leaves of parsley–not cut up–just rinsed of their sand and patted dry and four whole cloves of uncut garlic.
I chopped up three carrots into a tiny dice and gave it to the saute pan to soften. A little more salt and just a tiny other drizzle of olive oil. Three big yukon potatoes peeled and chopped and thrown in there with the rest. Let them go until they start to stick to the pan. I had a few chicken bones in the freezer that I was making into my weekly stock. I added the liquid to the top of the potatoes with a good pour of the last bit of olive oil from Mr. Carlotti’s olive groves between Florence and Siena, and let them simmer under cover. When the whole lot was tender, I added four handfuls of Spring’s first baby arugula leaves and let them wilt. I like mine just like that with another drizzle of olive oil over the top and a few shavings of parmesan. For Jonathan I pureed it and gave it a double shower of cheese. I set Ferd’s bowl, smoothed out and unadorned on the table. He ATE it. That’s all I need.
I am back on the cooking train.

I’ll show you!!!

Make a little gnocchi tonight–there is nothin’ to it, and all you have to do is click on
to see how it’s done.

Start with 3 fist sized potatoes, about a cup of all purpose flour, salt and 1 egg.

See Sam sit. See Jane run. See kid tense.

Ferdinand was worried that he might not pass kindergarten. I told him not to stress–that when I was a kid, all we had to pass was no hitting, no biting, use the facilities, and if you were really smart you could say the alphabet and count to 20 by the time you left. He laughed at me. And then he said, “Mom, I’m serious.”

Along with reviewing Ferdinand’s first report card with his kindergarten teacher–math, reading, writing, science, technology, history and social skills–all of which he did pretty well in, we learned Ferdinand had convinced his teacher that he is a vegetarian. She said, “are your mom and dad vegetarians?” He said, “no, they’re vegans.”
Not true, but I am impressed with his ability to sway his audience.

In appreciation of the art of imagination I give you a lovely vegetarian selection:

Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes and String Beans

If you leave out the cheese, you can call it vegan.

For the pesto, in your mortar and pestle or food processer, combine 3 cups of fresh and unblemished basil leaves, 1 clove of garlic, the best olive oil you can find, a little salt, 1 cup of grated parmesan (that you have grated yourself), and handful of pignoli (or not if the price is killing you.) For the mortar, smash all the ingredients and add the olive oil a drop at a time until you have an emulsion, and then in a steady stream. For the food processor, get everything in there but the oil, and then the same–drip it in and then once you have an emulsion (like mayonnaise) you can go for a slow and steady stream. Taste it.

Peel and cube some yukon golds. (only 1 or 2 medium for 9 ounces of pasta) Add them to cold salted water that has a good drizzle of olive oil added. Take them out when they are just tender. Add string beans, whole, with just the stem end removed. Simmer, covered, til tender.

Boil the pasta, and when al dente, remove immediately, saving a few spoons of the pasta’s cooking water in a cup. Immediately toss everything together–using maybe 1/2 a cup of more of your pesto. Season the pasta with salt, add a tiny dash of your pasta water or even a spoon of heavy cream to smooth it out, and serve with extra parmesan.

It’s all in the shoes

The potato leek tart came out great, but I blew the being nice bit. It isn’t nine o’clock in the morning yet, and I have had a full scale, all red in the face, knock down drag out bust up (with myself, but facing Jonathan). Jonathan doesn’t yell or get upset really. It’s parent teacher conferences today for Ferdinand, which for no reason (except that I am afraid of teachers) gives me enough stress to pass around and still have extra for the whole school full of mothers. I could yell at an ant for leaving the house. Plan B: I could join an order of nuns that don’t speak. Plan C: I could make pulled taffy
Plan D: Pretend nothing happened, put on a respectable pair of shoes, a skirt suit, and a hair-do, and get out there and meet with the teacher like the rest of them.

Up, up and over

I could easily pass for an old truck tire, piled up and forgotten in the back of a dusty and disorganized used-car lot. I am beyond a trip to the dentist or a haircut.
Mama has a whole new agenda. I try to be friendly. I dim the lights. I buy good wine with the groceries. I cook to please. No more, “here honey, have some cheetos.” Snacks are hot tarts, and they are straight from the oven. To distract attention to the eruption of Spring, there is nothing like a good potato and leek tart with the crunch of cornmeal in the crust.
Combine 1 cup of all purpose flour with 1/4 cup of cornmeal, a good pinch of salt, and one of sugar. Cut up 7 tablespoons of cold butter. Work it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until you have nearly rubbed it in completely, with some lumps slightly larger than others, but no more flour visible. Mix 1 tablespoon of sour cream with 2 tablespoons of ice water. Sprinkle this in–just enough to make the dough hold together. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour.
Meanwhile, add about a cup of chopped leeks to a heavy saute pan, and over low heat stir occasionally, until softened. Season with salt. Boil 1 potato in just enough salted water to cover, until nearly tender, but not quite.
Cut the dough in half and roll out on a lightly floured board until very thin; season with a little salt and pepper. Lift them to a greased or papered sheet pan. Slice the potatoes very thinly. Spread leeks and potatoes on the dough, and fold the edges up about a 1/2 inch around the sides, creasing as you go. Bake at 400 degrees. When they come out, drizzle with your best olive oil, shower with a bit of pecorino or parmesan and shreds of fresh basil.
I am not saying I can keep this up.

Audience participation

Now that I am committed to the land of the organic, it is not uncommon to find me in front of the meat and poultry section calling out to anyone standing nearby, (just trying to get their meat and get home), “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Have you seen this? Who is going to pay $13.26 for a chicken breast? How’m I supposed to pay $13.26 for that? Where was that chicken living, in Manhattan?
So I have been trying out cheaper cousins–still organic, but instead of the breast, skinless thighs or instead of beef filet ($21.99 a pound), a shoulder steak ($6.29 a pound).
Jonathan, who decided he wanted to start cooking, was leafing through my Italian bible, The Silver Spoon. “You know”, he said, I would really like to make “Marchand de Vin”. “OK”, I said, trying to sound all relaxed. “What’s the matter,” he said?
“Nothing,” I said, “That’s great.”
“I’ll buy some steak” he said.
“I have a steak” I said. When are you going to make it?”
“Tonight?” I could feel my skin go tight. “OK.”
“OK,” he said, “I really like the idea of cooking.” I pulled out the shoulder steak and gave myself a lecture: “The kitchen does not belong to you. It’s nice to have a husband help. If he wants to cook, he should be able to cook.” None of it sank in or made sense. I told him he could make the sauce, but I would make the steak. He heat up the frying pan, and poured in a cup of wine. He brought it to a simmer. He added 2 finely chopped shallots, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and some salt and pepper. He let it simmer. I watched. He read the directions. “It says you are supposed to strain all this and then whisk in a half a stick of butter–I’ll have nothing left.” “It’s OK”, I said. He strained and whisked in the butter and a squeeze of lemon and tasted. “It doesn’t taste like anything.” A person who knows how to cook has a responsibility to encourage others. “It’s the pan”, I said. “You need to use a sauce pan when you want to reduce–otherwise, all the liquid goes flying out, without giving what you have a chance to absorb the flavors of all the stuff you put in there.”
“I get it.”
I could feel him moving in.
“Add a little more wine, and reduce it super slowly. Try salt.” I threw in a pinch.
“What about the juice from the meat?”
“What about it?”
“Can I use it?”
“You can use it.” I seared the steak (a little more than 1 inch thick) in a hot pan glazed with olive oil for 4 and a half minutes a side and then let it rest out of the pan for another five. I dripped in the juice from the steak, as I whisked, so the sauce wouldn’t break. We sliced it super thinly and dipped it into the Marchand de vin. It was delicious.