One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball.
As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it’s likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy’s lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
Rachel Roddy is an English food writer that now lives in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome and is the voice behind A Kitchen in Rome, her column for The Guardian, as well as her own blog, Rachel Eats. What I love about Rachel’s column is she often features humble, delicious recipes that need very few superlatives to entice. While the internet is busting at the seams with food writers and bloggers trying to convince you to try their famous version of (fill in the blank) with as many fancy adjectives as can be mustered, it never takes a lot to sell me on Rachel’s food. And probably much like you, I absolutely gain inspiration from creative and innovative recipes and flavor combinations, but sometimes … it just feels like a lot. Sometimes I don’t want to think about how to use black sesame seeds, walnut oil, supremed cara cara oranges and tahini in my salad. Sometimes I just want a plate of something simple and delicious.
In the introduction to her book, Rachel notes, “Roman food, I noticed, had much in common with traditional English food, particularly that of my northern relatives: the simplicity and straightforwardness of it (my grandfather would have said ‘no fuss’); the resourcefulness; the use of offal; the long, slow braises using less popular cuts of meat; the battered cod; the love of peas and potatoes, asparagus and mint; the jam tarts, stewed fruit, and spiced fruit cakes.” When we were in Rome before we ventured on to Sardinia, I noticed this simplicity and straightforwardness on most menus. We were often ordering dishes like “white beans in oil” or, yes, “asparagus and mint.” There wasn’t much posturing or showiness. There wasn’t a need to prove how uber-local the cut of meat might be or where exactly the baby gem lettuces came from. It was just a given that the food was largely local and was prepared in just the right way.
In talking about settling into her life in Rome, Rachel writes “I took pleasure, too, in taking the photographs that became central to the story, always taken in my flat, always in real time — which means meal times.” In the sea of glossy, beautifully-styled food photos out there, Rachel’s images are refreshing: you see the actual table where she’s making lunch, herbs strewn about, little hunk of butter awaiting a warm piece of bread. It’s easy to get lost in her world.
The first recipe I chose to make is the Pasta e Ceci 2, or Pasta and Chickpea Soup 2 (Version 1 is essentially the same but not pureed so it’s brothier). This is simple, straightforward soup at its best: the ingredient list is comprised of pantry items you may have already: an onion, a stalk of celery, a carrot, olive oil, a bit of Parmesan. Throw in a few cans of chickpeas, tomato paste and pasta and you’re well on your way.
There’s no need to futz with a recipe like this but I did end up adding a little more garlic and I did something that was very much in the spirit of Rachel’s cooking (use scraps!) but was very much not in her recipe: I added cauliflower. We had a head of cauliflower leftover and I thought I’d cook it down with the onion, carrot and celery and puree it with the other vegetables and perhaps it would make for an even silkier soup. Since I haven’t tried the soup without the cauliflower, I can’t speak to its original, unadulterated version but I have to say that this soup was everything I hoped it would be and it went very, very quickly in our house. The first night we had it with hunks of bread and butter and the second night a friend from San Francisco was in town and we had bowls or soup with a simple arugula salad dressed with olive oil and flaky salt. It will be in constant rotation during these still chilly early spring (almost spring?) months. I think you’re going to like it, too.
Photo note: The few pictures of Rome in this post were taken on ambling walks during our honeymoon two Septembers ago. I can’t wait to return.
If you have fresh rosemary, Rachel calls for a sprig; I used dried because it was more convenient for me, and my proportions are noted below. As mentioned above, the cauliflower is my addition and the trick is to dice it quite fine so it cooks at the same time as the other vegetables. If you’d prefer, you can leave it out altogether although I think it makes for a super flavorful, chunky soup that will sustain you all afternoon — or evening, whatever the case may be.
Ever so slightly adapted from My Kitchen in Rome
Finely dice the onion with the garlic, celery, carrot and cauliflower. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil; add the vegetables and cook gently until soft and fragrant. Add the tomato paste and rosemary, stir, and cook for a few minutes, or until the rosemary is fragrant. Add the drained chickpeas and stir. Then add 5 cups hot water, a pinch of salt and the Parmesan rind. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and leave the soup to simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
Remove half the soup and pass it through a food mill or blend with an immersion blender until smooth and creamy. Return it to the pan. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Bring the soup back to a boil, add the pasta, and then, stirring fairly attentively, cook until the pasta is tender, adding more boiling water if necessary (I ended up adding a good 1 1/2 cups extra). Taste to check the seasoning and serve with a little oil oil poured on top
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.