Americana in Roma

Long time, no blog! School has been all-consuming, but even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been eating. I promise to fill you in. Food in London continues to surprise me, and I will write more on my culinary adventures here soon enough. But for now, Rome has my heart (and pen).

Salty, Cured Pork Hocks hang heavily at a small deli near the Pantheon

Being in Rome gave me the same feeling as lying on the beach in the late afternoon hours, skin still tingling from the early morning sun. Rome enveloped me, wrapped me in a warm towel. And it fed me. If I could chose only one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would hands-down be Italian.

It isn’t just about the pasta (oh, the pasta), or about the unpretentious commitment to cooking seasonal, fresh food, or even about the breathtaking and historically rich settings in which all this delicious food is being consumed.There is a food philosophy and culinary culture that permeates all reaches of Italian life, and the soul of that ethos is what inspires me to cook. And to eat.

Fresh Spaghetti with Chicory and Pecorino at La Fraschetta di Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio.

TRATTORIA di ROMA

Regional cuisine throughout Italy varies considerably (and I love it all), but here I’ll focus predominantly on the glory that Roman food brings to the table. As Anthony Bourdain so aptly put it: “In France, the chef is the star. In Italy, the food is.” Right on.

"Strangled Priest" pasta at the phenomenal Der Bruttone trattoria in Re di Roma

There are many new players on the Roman culinary scene reconceptualizing classic dishes, and I have no doubt their food is inventive and tremendously tasty. What compels me, however, about Italian food is how sumptuously delicious it is in all its natural glory.

On this trip, I sought inter-generational, family-run Trattorias. The kind where the Nonna-I-never-had leaves thumbprints in the pasta dough—where the meal comes with a jug of red wine and is served on wooden tables that splinter your elbows if you’re not careful.

Our meal at Der Pallaro encompassed all of these qualities. No menu, no fuss, minimal tourists, and nonna herself—apron clad and sharp as a tack—wobbling between tables to greet her most loyal customers while her son sliced fresh prosciutto and grated parmesan at the front of the house.

A Hearty First Course at Der Pallaro: Stewed Lentils, Pork Meatballs, Proscuitto, Salami, Fennel Salad, Olives, and Suppli

The only question the waiter asked at Der Pallaro: "Do you like Cheese?"
We got Pasta Two Ways:
1) Cheesy, pancetta-laden cream sauce
2) Full-bodied tomato and cheese sauce

The robust Trattoria tradition in Italy means that recipes aren’t written, they are taught with care, between family and friends. Therefore, food is absolutely integral to family life. I firmly believe that if people ate more family meals, we would be healthier, smarter, and more engaged human beings.

PIZZA MIA!

I can indulge in pasta talk for ages, but I can’t forget to mention the pizza. Rome is a major Italian metropolis, packed with hungry tourists looking for a quick bite. Pizza-by-the-slice outposts have sprung up on most street corners. As with all Italian food, the quality of the ingredients is what dictates the quality of the pizza. So, I simply wasn’t willing to eat a mediocre slice of pizza knowing the best of the best may be three doors down. 00100 Pizza is tucked away in a quiet corner of Testaccio and its pizza, trapazzini, and suppli selection blew the other shops out of the water.

A Trapizzini, I learned, is like a crusty bread version of pita, which can be stuffed with any assortment of tasty treats, like braised goat or stewed chicken. I chose the pillowy pork and beef meatball and was not disappointed.

The tomato sauce was just puckeringly fresh, and was scooped straight from a simmering pot—no doubt prepared hours prior, its sweetness and complexity of flavor developing over time. The initial crunch and subsequent tenderness of the freshly baked pizza and trapizzini crusts actually recalibrated my dough/crust standards .

00100 Pizza slice drizzled with Sweet and Tangy Balsamic Reduction. The balsamic was offered as a condiment in a plastic squirt bottle alongside the standard crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. Brilliant.

DOLCE, DOLCE

Gelato at San Crispino, our overall favorite. The basic chocolate was out of this world.

I also love, love Italian sweets. Their egregious use of nuts (often pine nuts, pistachios, or almonds) lends their desserts a hearty and almost savory quality. (Note: Cannoli is my all-time favorite Italian dessert. It is Sicilian, not Roman, so was hard to find. Even cannoli uses almond and sometimes pistachio)
The highlight of my ventures into sweet Italian treats was gelato. More specifically, pistachio gelato. Gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream and is churned at a lower speed, so it has a denser consistency, almost like taffy (or clotted cream). Because it is less rich than ice cream, the fresh, nutty pistachio flavor brings a heartiness and mouthfeel that was positively delightful.

Out of all the pistachio gelato I consumed--and I won't admit how much--this was my favorite. Knibbly bits of pistachio lent amazing texture to the creamy, milky gelato.

Crunchy, Toasted Almond slices packed into a butter Cookie. Flawless.

This Pistachio Biscotti was crunchy, crumbly, and spot on.

MY BABY’S GOT SAUCE
I know it’s strange, but I just can’t end on dessert. Back to pasta! Pasta and its accompanying sauces can come in seemingly infinite combinations. I have no doubt there are purists out there who insist, for example, that bolognese be served only with spaghetti, but I contend that when pasta is as fresh as it was served in Rome, and the sauces as flavor-rich, it’s hard to go wrong.

Perfectly rich, creamy and decadent Carbonara at Dar Bruttone. Oh, and it was topped with shaved truffles.

From the near bitter chicory sauce (pictured earlier), which was so fresh it was almost palatte-cleansing, to the sultry, rib-sticking carbonara above, Romans have truly perfected their sauciness, and I salute them.
The ultimate dish that encompasses the pure simplicity yet awesomeness of Roman pasta is Cacio e Pepe. I have to thank my friend Christina, my wonderful travel companion, for bringing it into my life. It sounds simple enough: olive oil, cracked black pepper, pasta water, cheese. Yet, when not executed perfectly, it can be watery, gummy, and downright disappointing.
When it’s done right, I can’t get enough of the stuff, and have been determined to recreate it in my own kitchen. It’s cheap, hearty, and feels special–plus, even the pickiest eaters will gobble it up. After sampling a few recipes (yes, a few, over the course of only a week), and testing them on willing subjects, I came up with my own recipe mostly drawn from this Saveur recipe. Give it a try at home and let me know how it goes!
Cacio e Pepe

Homemade Cacio e Pepe using both regular and spinach Tagliatelle (it's what I had on hand and I think it adds some flare 🙂

Ingredients:

Kosher salt, to taste
1 lb. pasta, preferably tagliatelle or spaghetti
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, plus more
to taste
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
3⁄4 cup finely grated Cacio de Roma
1 tbsp good quality Butter (I use the most spectacularly fresh and rich butter from my favorite London dairy outpost: Neal’s Dairy Yard)

Note: If you can’t find Cacio de Roma cheese, substitute Parmesano Reggiano instead. I promise it will taste good!

Preparation:

Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta; cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta. When the pasta has about 3-4 minutes left to cook, heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Ladle 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet; bring to a boil. Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet; spread it evenly. Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma over pasta; toss vigorously to combine until sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes, adding some pasta water if necessary. Melt in the butter until the pasta has a glistening sheen.

Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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A Little Bit Country

London is a city with seemingly endless corners to explore–store openings, constant festivals and food markets, and of course new restaurants to try. I’ve lived in New York City, so I’m somewhat accustomed to the fast-paced, feel-like-I-can-never-keep up phenomenon that characterizes city life. For the most part, given my more adventurous tendencies, I’m invigorated by this steadfast vitality. Other times, I feel like I’m on an urban treadmill–awkwardly sweaty and just trying not to fall off.

Enter The Cotswolds.

The Burford Butcher

One of the best parts about living in a cosmopolitan epicenter is the rare opportunity to escape it for a weekend. The Cotswolds are what I would consider quintessential English countryside–quaint stone buildings set against a sprawling green backdrop. If you’ve seen the movie, The Holiday (classic film, I know), then you have an idea of what The Cotswolds look like, because that’s where it was shot.

Delightful Herb Garden behind The Queen's Head

Each town that makes up the Cotswolds maintains its own unique quality, yet I was amazed to see how, just hours outside of bustling and modern London, these villages have retained their old world feel. The architecture in many of these towns dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries–the type of history that, as an American, it’s often hard to wrap my noggin around. The depth of history also, of course, extends to the food…so let me get down to it.

LARDY, HAVE MERCY

Our first stop on The Cotswolds tour was Burford. After viewing the 13th century church, we made our way down the one-street town. It was there that we discovered Lardy Cake.

Lardy Cake: up close and personal

What is Lardy Cake you might ask? Lardy Cake, also known as lardy bread, is a sweet, sticky, cinnamon-bun-like creation that originated in Southwest England. Its main ingredients are: rendered lard (naturally), flour, sugar, spices, currants, and raisins. Lardy Cake is both buttery and sweet, with dynamic layers of flavor that mirror the layers of its snail shell form. I’m not such a sweet tooth, but man-oh-man was this delicious.

Indulging outside of Huffkins

The best place to get Lardy Cakes is at Huffkins, the preeminent bakery of The Cotswolds. Huffkins opened its doors in 1890, and by the judge of it, has perfected the art of making scrumptious Lardy Cakes ever since.

THERE’S NO “I” IN CREAM

After eating our fair share of Lardy Cake, we rolled our way through Stow on the Wold and into Broadway (two other Cotswold towns). All the sightseeing made us stone thirsty, and there is nothing more appropriate as a thirst quencher than afternoon tea.

Fruit Scone, Fresh Strawberry Jam, Clotted Cream, Home-brewed Bergamot Tea at Tissanes

Cream Tea is the tradition of taking your afternoon tea with a scone, fresh strawberry jam, and clotted cream. There is evidence to suggest that this teatime tradition dates all the way back to the 11th century. There may be a lot of other things that the British didn’t get right, but this culinary combination is absolutely spot on.

Though you can get Cream Tea pretty much anywhere in The Cotswolds (or in England), the teashop, Tissanes, prepared an exceptional spread. The scone, as per tradition, was served warm alongside piping hot, home-brewed, bergamot tea. The strawberry jam, also homemade, was a punchy and fresh partner to the rich, full-bodied clotted cream. A friend described the cream’s texture as something like taffy–perhaps not so sticky, but with a mouthfeel that lingers for hours. Cream Tea is best enjoyed in the company of friends, just don’t forget to order your own personal scone, or you’ll regret it.

Clotted Cream = The Bee's Knees

ONE POT WONDER

One of the savory highlights of my Cotswolds trip was the homemade chicken and mushroom pot pie I ate at The Queen’s Head Pub in Stow on the Wold. I was hungry upon arrival, and was getting rather testy 30 minutes into the wait for my food. Alas, the wait was well worth it.

Home-baked Chicken and Mushroom Pot Pie at The Queen's Head

The pie was unreal: perfectly creamy without being too heavy, hearty chunks of roasted chicken tossed with nutty brown mushrooms. There was no doubt in my mind this was prepared to order with great tenderness and care. Sure, I could have done without the bland green peas and boiled carrots, but the mashed potatoes were to die for when used to sop up any extra pot pie juices!

Inspired by what felt like the most delicious taste of fall, I immediately went home to bake up my very own (healthier) pot pie concoction. I decided to make a vegetarian pot pie, but if you can’t live without the chicken, I recommend buying a rotisserie one, shredding the meat, then tossing it into the pot before baking. Also, feel free to add any additional veggies you may have in your fridge–anything goes (just season accordingly)! This pot pie recipe is perfect for portioning out and freezing, then reheating whenever you’re craving some serious comfort food.

Very Tasty Veggie Pot Pie
adapted from recipe by Aida Mollenkamp

My very own Veggie Pot Pie

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted Butter
  • 2 small heads Fennel, finely chopped (about 3 cups)
  • 1/2 medium yellow Onion, finely chopped
  • 2 medium Carrots, peeled and finely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
  • 12 ounces white button Mushrooms, sliced (about 5 cups)
  • 1 small Sweet Potato, peeled and diced small (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 1 large head of Broccoli, chopped into bite-sized pieces, including stems
  • 1/4 cup all purpose Flour
  • 1 cup low-sodium Chicken Broth (or mushroom broth, to keep it vegetarian)
  • 1 cup 1% or 2% Milk
  • 1 cup frozen baby Green Peas
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced Fresh Chives
  • 1/4 cup Fresh Parsley
  • 1 tablespoon White Vinegar
  • 1 large Egg Yolk
  • 7 ounces store-bought Puff Pastry, defrosted if frozen
  • Kosher Salt
  • Ground White Pepper (if you don’t have this on hand, you can use Black Pepper)

Preparation:
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle.

Melt butter over medium heat in a 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven or heavy bottomed saucepan. When it foams, add fennel, onions, and carrots, and cook until just soft and onions are translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add mushrooms and potato, season well with salt and freshly ground white pepper, and stir to coat. Cook, stirring rarely, until mushrooms have let off water and are shrunken, about 6 minutes. Add Broccoli. Season again and stir.

Sprinkle flour over vegetables, stir to coat, and cook until raw flavor is gone, about 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully add broth and milk, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat, add peas, herbs, and vinegar, and stir to coat. Season well with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Turn filling into an 8 by 8-inch casserole dish.

Whisk egg together with 2 teaspoons water and a pinch of salt until evenly mixed. Set aside.

With kitchen shears, cut dough to fit over the baking dish. Place dough over filling and tuck into the edges of the dish. Brush dough with egg wash and cut slits in the top to vent. Place on a baking sheet and bake until crust is golden brown and mixture is bubbling, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let sit at least 5 minutes before serving.

A Late Summer Night’s Meal

I love Labor Day weekend. Even though it’s always slightly heartbreaking to see Summer go, I consider Fall the most energized season, especially this year as I embark upon my big journey across the pond.

Mostly what I miss about summer is cooking on the grill. Over the weekend, I planned this meal with the intention of packing it up for a picnic down on the Mall. Unfortunately, weather was not on my side, but this meal tasted just as delicious eaten at home.

I like to think these recipes honor a summer full of colorful fresh flavors. Among the tastes I’ll miss most: perfectly ripened tomatoes, sweet buttery corn, fresh herbs from the garden, and the crusty char goodness you get from grill cooking. Alas, there is no reason that despite the change in season that these recipes can’t be enjoyed year round.

Grilled Chicken Gyros
with homemade Tzatziki and fresh Tomato-Cucumber Salad

Big Bite o' Grilled Chicken Gyro

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups 2% Greek Yogurt (3/4 pounds)
  • ¼ cup crumbled Feta cheese
  • 2 large seedless Cucumbers, divided
  • 2 Lemons, zested and juiced, divided
  • 4 Garlic cloves, minced, divided
  • 3 vine-ripened or heirloom Tomatoes
  • 1 small Red Onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh Mint
  • ⅛ cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil plus 2 tbsps
  • 1 teaspoon Honey
  • 1 teaspoon dried Oregano, divided
  • ½ teaspoon dried Rosemary
  • 1 pound skinless, boneless Chicken Breast, butterflied
  • 4-6 large Pita Rounds, halved
  • Kosher Salt
  • Crushed Black Pepper
Preparation:
For the Chicken, combine the olive oil, honey, juice and zest of 1 lemon, 2 minced garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon oregano, and rosemary into a large Ziploc bag. Generously season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper, then toss into the bag. Mix well until the chicken is thoroughly coated with the marinade. Refrigerate anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Once the tzatziki and salad are prepared (see below), remove the marinaded chicken from its bag and place on a medium hot grill. If you want grill marks, don’t touch for about 4 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Depending on thickness of chicken, the timing can vary, so slice open the thickest part of the fattest piece and make sure it’s cooked through and the juices run clear.

Remove the chicken from the grill and let rest for about 5 minutes. Then, thinly slice on an angle and set aside on a platter covered with tin foil.

Before turning off the grill, brush the pita bread with a bit of olive oil and flash grill until it’s warmed through on both sides.

Homemade Tzatziki

For the Tzatziki, combine 1 minced garlic clove, 1 roughly chopped cucumber, ½ teaspoon oregano, and juice of ½ a lemon in a food processor and lightly chop. Add the yogurt and pulse until the ingredients are well incorporated. Add kosher salt to taste. Garnish with freshly chopped mint or a mint sprig.

For the Tomato-Cucumber Salad, chop the remaining cucumber and tomatoes into equal-sized, bite-friendly pieces.

Tomato-Cucumber Salad aside Lemony Whole Wheat Cous Cous

Combine with the thinly sliced red onion, the remaining lemon and its zest, 1 clove minced garlic, 2 tbsp olive oil, a large pinch of salt and give it all a good toss. Add the feta cheese and the freshly chopped mint and gently mix.

This salad can be stuffed in the pita (as I like it), or can be served alongside the gyro.

Assembling the Gyros is easy. Create an assembly line that includes the warm pita bread, the sliced chicken, the tzatziki, and the salad. For those who don’t want to stuff the salad into the pita, you can also lay out a platter of whole mint leaves, extra cucumber slices, red onion and tomato.

Fixing Platter for the Gyros

Get creative with your gyro stuffings–if you happen to have garbanzo beans in your cabinet, those would make a delicious addition as would artichoke hearts or thinly sliced radishes!

SWEET TALK

Let’s talk dessert, which is something I’ll admit is neither my specialty nor my favorite part of a meal. I’m just not really a sweet tooth. Give me a bag of Cape Cod potato chips, on the other hand, and I could put it away in minutes. Still, there’s absolutely something about a summer meal that demands a tasty-sweet finale.

I found inspiration for this dish at Trader Joe’s, where they sell miniature peanut butter cups. Initially, I planned to just mix these precious little cups into a bowl of vanilla ice cream, but then it struck me. Why not use these cups in place of chocolate chips in my favorite cookie recipe, then sandwich those cookies around a luscious scoop of ‘scream? I always loved a Chipwich from the ice cream man, and this summertime treat is both nostalgic and really delicious. One bite manages to encompass those mixed end-of-summer emotions that always accompany my Labor Day weekend.
Peanut Butter Cup Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches
cookie recipe adapted from Bobby Flay’s chocolate chip cookie recipe

Peanut Butter Cup Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups plus 3 tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
  • ¾-1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
  • ¾  teaspoon Baking Soda
  • 2 sticks Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated Sugar
  • ⅓ cup Dark Brown Sugar
  • ⅓ cup Light Brown Sugar
  • 2 large Eggs
  • 1 ½ teaspoons pure Vanilla Extract
  • 1 cup of Miniature Peanut Butter Cups–the diameter shouldn’t be more than a couple of centimeters (recommended: Trader Joe’s Super Mini Peanut Butter Cups). Of course, you can always substitute a cup of regular semi-sweet chocolate chips if you’re not into peanuts.
  • 1 quart Vanilla Ice Cream (recommended: Moorenko’s if you live in the DC area, otherwise Haagan Dazs is always quality)

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.

Place the butter in the bowl and beat with a hand mixer, electric mixer, or arm muscle until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sugars and continue mixing, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes longer. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and the vanilla extract, beating until incorporated.

Add half of the flour and mix until just incorporated. Add the remaining flour, again mixing until just combined. Remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the chocolate peanut butter chunks.

Using a round tablespoon measurer, spoon the dough onto a baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches between each cookie and bake on the middle rack until the cookies are lightly golden brown and still soft in the middle, about 9 ½ minutes. Let cookies rest for 2 minutes on the baking sheet before removing them to a baking rack with a wide metal spatula.

Let the cookies cool on the baking rack for a few minutes until they are solidified, but still a tad warm. Grab two cookies and with an ice scream scoop, simply take a scoopful of vanilla and place gently between the two cookies. Smoosh the cookies together until the ice cream oozes between the cookies.

Eat right away and enjoy!