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
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.