Dateline: Rome

Rome the week before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking? Mostly, it was a great idea; gorgeous weather and no crowds. But between vacation, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I basically ate my way through two straight months.

The problem with vacationing in a spot where food is practically a national sport is that you feel like you have to eat everything. You want to try everything. I could have eaten pizza twice a day. I should have indulged in more panini. I didn’t eat nearly as many curious cuts as I would have liked, and truffles were grossly underrepresented. I didn’t ever find the pannacotta I was searching for, nor did I eat any cannoli or gelato. Crazy, right? Because in spite of all that, I managed to eat an extraordinary amount.

I think I managed to drink at least two Negroni everyday. The Italians tend to skimp on the gin, and play up the vermouth, but I still had some very, very fine ones. Generally, the more upscale the place the better the Negroni. I also ate some pretty spectacular pasta. Spaghetti cacio e pepe is the unofficial official dish of Rome; I loved the combination of black pepper and cheese so much that I had it for dinner two days in a row. I would have had it a third, but I felt like I needed to branch out and try something else.

Rome is a somewhat difficult city, I think. While I loved getting lost strolling through the tiny alleys, it was a huge challenge to get beyond the tourist traps to anything authentic. Perhaps it’s because we stayed in the heart of the city, but the good food I ate was more the result of dogged research than simply stumbling upon a good spot. That said, I did eat at two great places, both of which I’d highly recommend to fellow travelers.

1. Ditirombo in Campo de ‘Fiore. Located in an old wine cellar, this cozy restaurant relies on the freshest seasonal ingredients. The menu changes often, but I was enamored with their fried zucchini blossoms and pasta (cacio e pepe), while my companion had a suckling pig roasted in salt crust that was absolutely amazing. And while the food was outstanding, the prices were reasonable, with entrees around 15 euro.

2. Ristorante al 34 right near the Spanish Steps. I was actually kind of sad that I found this place on my last night in Rome because I would have liked to go back again. The menu is extensive, with lots of offal and traditional pastas. I thought my squid-ink tagliatelle was wonderful until I tried my companion’s truffled gnocchi. Wow. Just that dish is worth going back for: pillowy pasta baked in a light and earthy truffle cheese sauce. Also, the house wine goes for 11 euro a litre and is delicious.

The kicker at 34 was my main course: sweetbreads sautéed with artichokes. “You know what they are?” the waiter asked when I ordered. I nodded, at once insulted and then slightly worried. Never mind though, because they were some of the best sweetbreads I’ve ever eaten. The tender meat was offset by artichoke leaves that were fried until crunchy, an earthy ethereal experience that had me wishing my stomach was bigger. I had to give up after half the plate. (The waiter later redeemed himself by bringing us complimentary limoncellos.)

Know a spot in Rome that shouldn’t be missed? Please leave it in the comments below.

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
(Adapted from Saveur)

1 lb dried spaghetti
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until 8 to 10 minutes until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet and bring to a boil. Transfer pasta to skillet, spreading evenly over the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each cheese over pasta and toss vigorously. Combine until the  sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes (Add additional pasta water if necessary). Transfer to plates and sprinkle with remaining cheese and more pepper.

Serves 4.


Papardelle, boar and two bad jokes

When writing blog posts, I usually aim to give readers a recipe, so they can go forth and create with the assurance that they’ll get similar results to what I have here. But the truth is, when I’m not cooking for the blog, I’m not much of a recipe gal. You might have gathered that from the posts where I advise you to use a glug of this or a pinch of that, or “whatever’s in the fridge.”

This is one of those days and one of those recipes. It started with a cold afternoon that begged for something braised. I had some boar tenderloins in the freezer, and a hankering for papardelle. Unfortunately, I had no tomatoes. Not in a can. Not on the vine. No tomatoes.

Which reminds me of a joke I once heard: What’s red and invisible? No tomatoes. Haha. I have the worst taste in jokes. You want another one? Ok. What do you get hanging out of a banana tree? Bananas? Nope. Sore arms! I crack myself up.

Anyway, despite the lack of tomatoes, I decided that I’d make a boar ragu of sorts. I didn’t know where I’d end up, but I didn’t mind the idea of a Sunday afternoon spent in a warm kitchen. What’s that they say about joy being in the journey, not the destination? This was that kind of endeavor. So, I turned the oven on to 350 and cleaned out my veggie drawer, chopping up some carrots, celery and onions. I also diced up five large cloves of garlic.

Then, I took about a half pound of Irish bacon (it was in the freezer, begging to be used) and cut that into lardons a half an inch long. I threw the bacon into a big Le Creuset and let it fry up and added the veggies and garlic. While those cooked, I got out a big frying pan and browned the tenderloins for a few minutes until they were seared all around.

When the veggies were soft (after about three minutes) I added a bottle of white wine and a dash of tomato paste. And when the tenderloins were browned, I put them in the pot too. I added the cover and put the whole thing in the oven for two hours, checking on it occasionally.

While the boar braised, I made papardelle. Homemade pasta is like heroin to me. I can never get enough. I love the tender, delicate mouthfeel, the slightly sweet egginess, the chewiness of the whole thing. Heaven.

I taught myself to make pasta by reading a Jamie Oliver cookbook, which assured me that pasta would be “dead simple.” I fell in love with Jamie Oliver back in college, when he was the Naked Chef, not the preachy chef. I don’t watch his shows anymore, but those old cookbooks are still some of my favorites.

Anyway, Jamie was kind of right. Pasta is pretty easy, but I think that having a Kitchen Aid makes it about a million times easier. I mix the dough using the dough hook, and then roll out using the pasta roller attachment. I’ve been thinking lately that I should take a pasta class and learn to do this properly, as I feel like I’m stumbling through the process. There’s been a lot of trial and error pasta in my kitchen, and I still don’t feel like I’m doing it totally right.

Basically, I just take a half pound of flour and two eggs and mix it in a bowl with a dough hook. The I add two more eggs and a little more flour until the dough is elastic and not sticking all over the place. I shape the dough into a ball (floured hands make this much easier) and then wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.

While the dough chilled, I checked on that ragu. Pulled it out of the oven and used two forks to shred up the tenderloin. gave it a quick stir and popped it back in the oven.

When the dough was ready,  I kneaded it for a few minutes and then cut it into four equal parts, formed them into semi-flat ovals and put them through the pasta roller on the widest setting. Then, I turned the pasta roller down to “5” and put the pasta sheet through again, so it came out thinner and longer.I put the sheets on a floured counter (you’ll need quite a bit of space for this) and used a paring knife to first cut them in half (so they are half as long) and then cut them into 1-inch wide strips. I hung the noodles on coat hangers and then hung them from my bike, which hangs from the ceiling of my kitchen (lots oh hanging going on here). I’ve learned from trial and error that using a clothes drying rack for this is a BAD idea. Don’t try it.

While the pasta dried, I boiled up a big pot of water. And pulled the ragu out of the oven. Gave it a stir. Grated some Parmesan cheese into a bowl.

Once the water was boiling it only took about two minutes to cook the pasta. Drained it well, and served it on a plate, smothered in sauce, topped with cheese and paired with wine.

Fortunately, this was one of those journeys that ended happily, with a delicious meal and a full belly. I’m curious about the rest of you: do you ever just cook mindlessly, not really knowing if your final dish will be edible/good? What are your best successes? Failures?

Unlikely pairings

We here in The Musing Bouche household aren’t huge pasta-eaters. We’ll have it on occasion, but the fact is that we despise jarred sauce and boxed noodles too much for pasta to ever be a quick meal (mac n’ cheese, however, is another story).  When we do have pasta,  I usually try and keep it simple- some butter and truffled cheese, anchovies or simple tomato sauce. What can I say? I don’t have a drop of Italian in me.

That said, a few weeks ago, Chicky and I were messing around with some pheasants. Wanting something flavorful, but simple, Chicky suggested that we copy one of our favorite dishes at Tapeo– the Cordoniz de Castilla, a broiled herb and garlic quail stuffed with grapes and bacon. (Side note: this dish is also on the menu at Tapeo’s sister restaurant Dali in Cambridge.) Pheasants are rather larger than quail though, and after stuffing and cooking the birds, we found ourselves with substantially more bacony-garlicky-grapey goodness than you get in the tapa-sized version. It was, however, delicious, cooking down into a lovely brown sauce that was sweet and salty at the same time.

It wasn’t long before I wanted some more of that sauce. Without a game bird on hand, I decided to make it and serve it over homemade peppered pappardelle. It was very nearly perfect. The oil from the bacon (and a little extra olive oil) soaks up the grape and garlic flavors and coats the pasta, ensuring that every bite is delicious. It is dead simple to make, and would probably liven up boxed noodles enough to be worth making as a “quick” meal.  I also imagine this would be good over roast (skin on) chicken thighs.

We’ll call this one “Pasta Castilla” after the quail dish at Tapeo.
Serves 4

4 TB olive oil
1/2 lb bacon, sliced into lardons
1 head of garlic, peeled and separated into cloves
10 oz grapes, sliced in half

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add bacon and stir. When the bacon started to go limp and sweat its fat, add the garlic. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until the garlic starts to turn brown and caramelize. Add the grapes and stir to combine. Cook until garlic is browned through and grapes are limp.

Serve over pasta or chicken or whatever else you think would be tasty.