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
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
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.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.