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
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.