Monday, May 22, 2017

Inspiring New Cookbook: My Kitchen in Rome

My Kitchen in Rome alongside artichoke a la Romana
I just finished reading Rachel Roddy's My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, which was reviewed in the latest issue of Edward Behr's always-thoughtful The Art of Eating. Roddy is an Englishwoman who discovered Rome in the course of her travels in Italy, fell in love with the city and never left. This book is a love letter to Roman cooking, celebrating its humble simplicity, seasonality, focus on good local ingredients and tradition, as well as the people involved in the food business in her neighborhood, Testaccio, a working class quarter that seems to be gentrifying.

The book has lots of good classic recipes, of which I have tried a couple (more on this later), but I already have so many good Italian cookbooks (from Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali and many others) that few were new to me. No, the great virtue of My Kitchen in Rome is rather that it makes you want, desperately, to be there. Roddy writes beautifully and lovingly about food, but also about the place where she lives and the people who inhabit it, and he book is an inspiration to eat, cook and feel Italian, either with her recipes or others that you might have been using for years. An example of Roddy's elegant prose:
     Whereas the food of Sicily had thrilled me, the food of Rome tripped me up and then pulled me to my feet, charming me with its simplicity, certainty and bold flavors -- notably the primi, or first courses. A deep bowl of pasta e ceci scented with rosemary, spaghetti coated with a seductive creamy sauce that's nothing more than eggs, cheese, and cured pork; more spaghetti, glistening with olive oil, flecked with parsley and clams, and tasting indignantly of the sea; a plate of stout potato gnocchi, no bigger than acorns, topped with bright red sauce and a blizzard of pecorino cheese. I quickly realized I didn't just want to eat these dishes, I wanted to understand them. I wanted to make them.
Don't you want to run out and get some indignant spaghetti with white clam sauce?

One of the most interesting and inviting sections is on pasta soups: pasta e patate, pasta e lenticchie, pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci and, finally, minestrone. A long explanation of "the big soup" is on point and useful, but again it is Roddy's gorgeous writing that seduces and inspires:
     When you get to the simmering, the heat should be low and the simmer tremulous, the kind that has you checking that the flame hasn't gone out because the pan looks so still, then you lift the lid, look closely, see that the surface is quivering and suddenly -- plop! -- a burp of a bubble breaks the surface of the soup, and you are reassured that all is well.
How can you not rush to the kitchen and make minestrone?

Carciofi alla romana
Ragù con le spuntature (pork rib ragù)
This is a cookbook,so what of the recipes? In general, they are somewhat sketchier than those to which I am accustomed. the ingredients and quantities are there (translated from metric so lots of odd measurement, but that's fine), but the techniques presuppose that the reader can cook. I made a dinner for my friend Cochonette, which started well with a plate of fava beans and pecorino, with a Negroni cocktail, both suggested by the book, while we waited for the trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe) to cook. The beans and Negroni were lovely, but the tripe was a disaster. I followed directions, washing the tripe in hot water, then plunging it into boiling water "for a few minutes." Well, my few minutes was probably an hour short, and I more or less gave up on this dish after adding a half hour to the actual cooking time; even reheated and braised for another half hour, it did not reach the desired tenderness.

But tripe is a specialty thing, and I am no expert on tripe, so I chalked that up to my lack of experience and moved on.

I then invited my friends M and V for dinner, and made Roddy's carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes), which strongly resemble those I have been making for years but in any event were a big hit, followed by her ragù con le spuntature (pork rib ragù) served over (unfortunately pasty store-bought) gnocchi. This sauce, which consists of onion, pork ribs, canned tomatoes and salt and pepper -- no garlic, rosemary, red peppers -- was wonderfully clean and complex, the pork mingling with the tomatoes to produce an unexpected symphony of flavors.

The book contains many other recipes that I plan to make, in various categories, although I would generally compare hers to my many other versions to see whether Roddy's diligent approach results in the most authentic recipes or ones that add to the already extensive literature. Surely she has a feel for Rome, so I am optimistic.

This should not be your first Italian cookbook, or even your third, but it certainly deserves a place on my shelf. More important, having read it, I WANT TO GO TO ROME!

Bobby Jay

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Syrian Cooking Lesson

Phyllo spinach triangles
One of my great joys is learning about the different cuisines and related food cultures in this world. I do this reading lots of cookbooks and by taking lessons at good cooking schools in Paris and New York. I enjoy getting to know different cultures by studying (and eating and cooking) their amazingly varied cuisines.

Last week I went with my friend Cochonette to an excellent cooking lesson on Syrian cooking at ICE Institute for Culinary Education, now located way downtown just across the street from the Freedom Tower. The teacher was Jennifer Abadi, who introduced me to Persian cooking at a lesson four years ago and kind of got me started on Middle Eastern Food. Jennifer is of Syrian Jewish heritage, and has written a wonderful book, A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen, and maintains a very interesting blog on related culinary matters, Too Good to Passover. I have used many recipes from both, and correspond with Jennifer from time to time.

The title of the lesson was "A Fistful of Lentils," and all the dishes we made were from recipes in the book. All were delicious and none was technically difficult, although we had to rush to make the many dishes covered by the lesson.

Jennifer started with an interesting explanation of Syrian (particularly Jewish) food culture and history, placing it into geographical context, and including the migration of Syrian Jews to America in the early 20th century. Then we cooked seven dishes, which I will describe in the order of a meal. We started with a series of maaze (small plates) (this and all references will use the Syrian spelling, although there are many variations in the region). First up was baba ganush:

Baba ganush
Next was im'warah b'sbanech (phyllo spinach triangles), made with no cheese or meat, and smaller and more delicate than the Turkish and Greek varieties. See picture above.

And cheeyar b'bandoorah sa'lata (chopped cucumber and tomato salad with dried mint) (no photo) that was pretty much what you'd find in a Turkish restaurant.

There followed two main courses. The first, kibbeh fil seeniyah b'lah'meh (meat-filled pie), is the cake-shaped version of kibbeh, balls of meat stuffed into a thin meat crust, that are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has the bonus of being much much easier to prepare than kibbeh balls, which are notoriously difficult. (For a wonderful digression on the mystique surrounding great kibbeh, see Claudia Roden's encyclopedic The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.)

Meat-filled bulgur pie
The other main dish was kibbeh m'geraz (meatballs and sour cherries), which showcased the Syrians' love for tart and sweet, very different from the Italians' agrodolce or the sweet and sour cabbage cooked by the Eastern European Jews . . .

Meatballs and cherries - my photo doesn't do it justice
. . .  accompanied by m'jedrah (rice with lentils) with yogurt-mint dressing: simple but delicious.

Rice with lentils
Finally, the pièce de résistance: knaffeh (shredded phyllo-ricotta pie), a  light, heavenly rose water-infused filling in a two-crust pie made with kataifi, shredded phyllo and covered with rose water syrup and chopped pistachios. I can't wait to have people to dinner to share this fabulous dessert, which has the subtle sweetness of an Italian cheesecake with a taste straight out of the Arabian Nights. In the word(s) of a late friend, FA-BU-LOUS!

Shredded phyllo-ricotta- pie
Get A Fistful of Lentils and try Syrian Jewish cuisine. Now.

Bobby Jay