18 February, 2006

back home again

Before I tell you about our sojourn in Rome, which already feels like a dream, I have to report the ultimate comfort food dinner.  And it's EASY.  Allow 2 1/2 hours start to finish, and the beauty of it is, most of the time you don't have to do anything! 

First, get a good large roasting chicken, around 4-5 pounds.  Buy four or so good big boiling potatoes, a bunch of broccoli, two lemons, a head of garlic and two large onions (this is for two adults and a child, you can imagine why my proportions are such).  A bunch of rosemary, some grated parmesan cheese, about six strips of bacon, some rough salt, some not-great white wine, a half pint of half and half and two sticks of butter.  Make sure you have some olive oil, and enough aluminum (or aluminium, as they say here) foil to cover two oven-proof dishes.  Preheat your oven to 425.

Now is the easy part.  You line a dish big enough for your chicken with foil.  Lay down some sprigs of rosemary.  Put the chicken on top and sprinkle liberally with salt.  Drape with the bacon.  Cut the lemons in quarters and stuff one whole lemon into the chicken.  Pour some white wine around the chicken and stick it in the oven.  It's done for 2 solid hours, nothing to do with it AT ALL.  While it's cooking, peel your potatoes and put them in salted water on the stove.  Cut the broccoli in florets and throw them in a skillet with olive oil and salt.  Don't turn it on.  Now, cut the top half off your two onions.  Peel off the skin from the tops and chop the onion bits.  Chop three cloves of garlic too and saute the two chopped bits in some olive oil.  Add some chopped rosemary.  When they're soft, add maybe a third of a cup of half and half, and a good handful of parmesan cheese and let them melt.  Take it off the stove, and with a spoon scoop out most of the insides of the onions.  Save for something else.  Spoon the cheesy stuff into the onions and put them in a dish lined with foil.  Now you have a good hour and a half or so to watch curling on the Olympics and hope your child's college education results in something a bit less... absurd.

Half an hour before the chicken's done, turn on the potatoes and put the onions in the oven.  While they cook, saute the broccoli really slowly.  Melt a good stick of butter with hot milk.  Now you need somebody to help you.  While you mash the potatoes, the helper can take the chicken out of the oven and carve it up.  You can be stirring the broccoli.  As everything else is on the table, take the onions out, which will be bubbly and brown.  IMPORTANT: eat at least one bite of EVERYTHING together.  A bite of chicken, a bite of broccoli, spearing some cheesy onion and dipping it all in mashed potato as you go. 


We had this tonight with some really awful red wine, sorry, while Avery's friend Anna was here spending the night.  We decided to spare them the wine.  Last I saw they were playing some elaborate game that involved Avery crawling on all fours with a long scarf around her neck as a leash, barking.  The cats are intrigued to say the least.

Rome.  What to say?  We arrived around dusk, Avery had her first enormous gelato, a creme caramel, and was an instant convert.  Fueled by sugar, we decided to walk to the Vatican, since we could see it from the river's edge so close to our little albergo.  It was quite a walk!  Close to two miles, I'd say, but it set the tone for what Avery feels was our Marathon Trip to Rome, since we walked probably six miles a day each day.  The Vatican was only tantalizing in the darkness, albeit lit up, so we determined to go back the next day and went back to our cute little neighborhood, Campo dei Fiori, to get a perfectly adequate but average pasta dinner out and be grateful for food.  Avery got super tired and I made the colossal error of believing that she could find the way home, so we left John to settle the bill with whatever the waiter's equivalent opposite of "eyes in the back of his head" is, as in, he could see nothing of our attempts to get the bill!  She and I ventured out and promptly had no idea where we were, so we clung to each other like babes in the forest, finally asking directions from a nice taxi guy, just as John walked up to us resignedly, knowing we had got completely lost.  Incredible but true.

Thursday we had a lovely breakfast at the hotel, and then we did everything!  It was alternately raining a lot, and raining a little, but since we're from London this seemed perfectly normal, so we persevered.  We were absolutely determined, after the evening before, to go to the Vatican and see what all the fuss was about, so off we went.  A surprisingly quick very long queue, and then to the Basilica, about which I knew embarrassingly little considering that only 15 years ago I was deep in a PhD in art history, a good part of which was to be on the Italian Renaissance.  I excuse myself on the grounds that everything I knew about Michelangelo has been replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of children's picture books and cookery principles.  We took the lift (so funny, the ticket specified "round trip"!!) and then walked the supplementary 320 steps after that.  I think the warning that people with heart conditions should "consider" whether they want to make the trip is completely inadequate!  Anyone not really, really fit and THIN would be challenged by the teeny tiny winding staircase that leaned precipitously toward what I realized, with huge fright, was the inside of the DOME itself.  Eeek!  We made it to the top and Avery's claustrophobia and my fear of heights were conquered by the luscious view of Rome.  Stunning.  Avery was amused to see the backs of the sculptures we had seen from the ground, complete with a pigeon on every head.  Lovely.

We were gutted, as the English would say, to find that the Sistine Chapel was "chiuso" on Thursdays, but the upshot of my excellent Italian accent was that the rest of the guard's explanation was completely a mystery.  Possibly it will open again someday in the future, but his comments were far too extensive to be of any help.  I should have been flattered that he thought I could understand.  Whew.  From there, we headed close to home for more gelato for Avery and a nap for John.  I realized I was peckish myself, and ventured for a snack I had seen from the window of a cute wine bar: tiny little tartlets filled with everything under the sun, each for a euro!  I chose a crabmeat with lemon and mayonnaise, and a langoustine with aioli and parsley.  Heavenly, could have eaten twenty of them, with caviar (OK, maybe not that), eggplant, roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, prawns in lemon mousseline.  MMMmmm!  We went back and woke up John and headed out to try to find two major sights, both from "Roman Holiday" and on the must-see list from my mother and sister.  We found the Trevi Fountain without too much trouble, and it was worth the trip.  A grey, heavy, leaden sky, with the marble horses rearing and the mist from the fountain soaking the tourists, of whom there were a surprising number given the season and the rain.  Lovely.  Then to the Spanish Steps, YAWN!  So much smaller than I expected!  But we got a picture of Avery to rival anything Audrey Hepburn had to offer, and decided to call it a day.  However, on the way home we stumbled on the Pantheon, which set off all sorts of examination alarms in my post-graduate head, and the glorious Piazza Navonna, such gorgeous fountains.  The find of the day: a leather good store where for about 25 dollars, John got his birthday present, a black wallet of buttery softness with his initials stamped on it, and I got a black belt with a silver buckle, and Avery got a tiny little backpack to clip onto her backpack from school, as all the girls do.  I committed my usual error of figuring out how to ask a really complex question, and then not having the language skills to understand the answer!  "Should we wait for the engraving, or come back for it?" I asked, all full of myself and my linguisitic aplomb.  "Blah blah blah blah!" was the response, only in Italian, and I was lost!

After a welcome cocktail and hot water bottle break at the hotel, we dashed out to meet my friend Michele Bambling and her family at their apartment near the Colosseum.  Her husband Bill is the Wall Street Journal bureau chief for Europe and Africa and was full of alarming and entertaining stories about his work.  Their two children, Jackson and Adele, are just younger than Avery and she was happy to relax in a Roman apartment and play dollhouse while we adults had a drink and caught up.  Michele and I used to talk "nihonga," a Japanese painting technique that she was studying for her PhD and which was the lynchpin of my wonderful gallery painter Makoto Fujimura's style.  We repaired to a pizzeria that simply defies description in any American context.  Filled to capacity with Roman natives, it was warm and spicy on a rainy night.  We settled for a selection of four pizzas and pounced on them all, as the children had basic margheritas (tomato and mozzarella).  Our choices were all piled on the thinnest and crispiest of crusts.  We had funghi and porcini with provolone, carciofini (the tiny Roman baby artichokes), beef carpaccio (although I think it was aged rather than simply raw) with argula and parmesan, and my personal favorite, a very unusual combination of radicchio, anchovy cream and shaved grana padano (a superior parmesan).  Quite easily the most stimulating and enjoyable combination of tastes I have ever had.  Glorious!  Lots of fun to catch up with the family and imagine what's happening in Tribeca, which feels a million miles away.  Dropoff and pickup at PS 234 together is like a dream that happened to someone else.  Their apartment is a glory of simplicity: old, old tiles on the floor, carved plaster mouldings on the ceiling, floor to ceiling windows.  It's tempting to chuck it all here and join them.  Home exhausted!

Friday we decided to tackle the Colosseum, but we had asked Bill the night before to point out on a map how to find my sister's other must-do, the "Mouth of Truth."  It took some doing to find under scaffolding, but we found it.  John was disbelieving that we were going to brave the enormous tourist line to put out hands in a dumb stone mouth, but we were adamant.  My single favorite photograph of my mother is of her about to do just that, at age 20 or so, so sweet.  So we waited, and in the end, the sight of Avery faking her bitten-off hand inside her sweater cuff is the best photo of the trip.  Hilarious!  From there to the Colosseum, which just amazed us all with its scale, of course.  Avery was quite able to regale us with the complete story of Romulus and Remus, and lots of other Roman trivia.  And thank goodness, there were KITTIES.  Jill told us there would be! 

We were all wilting, so we repaired after some wrong turns to the restaurant Michele had wanted to take us to but was full: the Trattoria La Domenica, a tucked-away glory no one would find without knowing, where the menu was entirely in Italian as was the staff, so Avery went for safety and ordered fettucine alla ragu, I convinced John to go for something alla calamaretti, which I was pretty sure was baby calamari, and I myself ordered something bearing the word "vitello", and since nothing with veal can be bad, I felt pretty secure.  Luckily, I like liver, because it was that of a calf!  Lovely, though, grilled with lemon.  Such fun to find a little unknown neighborhood place.  Across the street was the glorious Basilica San Clemente, where you can descend, if you're brave enough, deep, DEEP into the ground to see early Roman frescoes and columns and fresh water springs.   A bit of a diversion, in its cold dampness, to the hot sunshine outside. 

From there, we headed across the river to the little neighborhood of Trastavere, where I had thought our hotel was to be, to find a darling bookstore Avery desperately needed, the Almost Corner Bookshop, for supplies to get her though the trip home.  This place is an ivy-covered oasis in the twisting, mossy, slightly menacing but tempting streets of this artsy area, owned by a man of indeterminate accent (maybe South African?  maybe New Zealand?) who told us who he had come upon the shop six years ago and fallen in love with it.  Shortly after his visit, back home in Saudi Arabia (?) he received a phone call that the owner wanted to sell.  Can you imagine simply lifting up your life and moving to Rome to run a bookstore?  I have to remind myself that this is a rhetorical question.  Avery came away with a huge pile of books, and then we visited the gorgeous church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and sat in the piazza listening to a guitarist and tambourine player, and then realized we needed to head to the airport. 

What a whirlwind.  We walked, talked (I so enjoyed airing my bad Italian!), ate our heads off, enjoyed each other's company enormously, and realized that we've got to do this a lot while we're here.  Within a two-hour radius by plane we can hear 10 languages at least being spoken, and I for one would like to join them, however badly.


Library Lover said...

Not a guitarist, an accordionist!

Kristen In London said...

OK, OK, Detail Woman! You're too perfect. xoxo Mommy