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Est. 2013

Pasta all’Amatriciana

Posted on June 9, 2014

Day Eleven of my internship with the Rome Sustainable Food Project was a very good day.

I know this, because I kept a diary. There were many days I came home exhausted, the kind of fatigue that makes you forget hunger ironically enough, but still I managed to type out something to mark each shift. Sometimes it was just a sentence, sometimes it was several paragraphs. It’s amusing to me now to go back and see which days made the biggest impact. This one was one of them, the day I made my first pasta.

Pasta all'Amatriciana

Pasta all’Amatriciana

I loved eating Amatriciana before I ever cooked it, but now I adore it. It’s part of the holy trinity of Roman pastas (in my opinion) that includes Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe. Imagine a sauce that hits all the flavor pulse points of your tongue at once– sweet, salty and spicy– with the bonus of guanciale, Italy’s badass answer to bacon, studded throughout. Add to that perfectly cooked pasta, along with a generous sprinkling of pecorino cheese and life is complete.

Yes, this was a day worth remembering. So here you go, an excerpt from my RSFP diary:
January 13, 2014
Day Eleven
It was a GOOD DAY! I made my first PASTA!

I knew when we sat down for the menu meeting and I heard the words “Amatriciana” that it was mine.

How can I express the terror of making pasta for an Academy lunch? As someone who used to regularly attend lunch, I know it’s the most important thing on the table. Sure, there are crazy dieters who skip the starch, but almost everyone takes a little, because it’s pasta… and it’s always good. You don’t want to be the person who makes bad pasta. Or worse, no pasta, because it’s late. Or even worse, no pasta because while tossing it, you tossed it right out of the bowl and onto the floor.

These were my fears. But inspired by Vanessa’s [a former intern] parting words (“Just throw yourself into it and don’t be afraid. Make the pasta.”) and by Anna’s [an intern in my cohort] brava performance last week, I let that little voice in my head say YES–out loud. And so I was on pasta duty.

Here’s what I learned:

Amatriciana is a very Roman pasta. It’s not actually from the town called Amatriciana, it’s from the capital city. The ingredients are simple and few: guanciale, tomato and pepperoncini. Chris [the head chef] likes to add red onion, too. The traditional pasta pairing is buccatini.

To make it, you pour a couple jars of whole San Marzano tomatoes through a food mill. You chop thick slices of guanciale (unsmoked, cured pork jowl) into batons. And optionally you slice red onions into thin half moons. Pour a little oil in a large pot, then add the guanciale. Fat renders fat. The oil helps the guanciale to get going. Sautee until the guanciale is rendered and browned, then add the onions and pepperoncino. Cook until onions are transluscent, then add the tomatoes. Bring the heat up to almost a boil, then simmer sauce for 45 min to an hour until the bright red color turns a rusty red and the sauce has thickened.

Now comes the hard part. Cooking the pasta. The water must be very, very salty. The kind of salty that makes your mouth pucker. So get your salty water boiling, then drop the pasta. Let it cook until it’s al dente, then drain and add it directly to the sauce. Stir. You may need to add some pasta water to help the sauce come together. Once the sauce looks shiny and glistening, add some grated pecorino romano cheese and stir. Then, toss. Toss the pasta in a bowl so the sauce completely coats it. This is by far the hardest part. I did one tiny toss and then lost my will [I was making pasta for fifty and the pan was quite heavy… and okay, my upper body strength sucks]. Ross [RSFP cook and passionate pasta aficionado] had to help me finish it. But I will be braver next time! When the pasta is completely coated, pour into serving bowls and then top with a little more pecorino cheese.

I am tired. Time for bed.

But one last thing: Peter. My sweet, dear, wonderful husband. He bought me flowers to celebrate my first pasta. Red tulips. And a suppli [fried rice ball stuffed with cheese] on the side. I love him so much.
Pasta all’Amatriciana
One 28-oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
6-8oz Guanciale (pancetta or bacon can be used as a substitute)
1 Small red onion, optional
1-2 teaspoons Red pepper flake
12oz Pasta, preferably Bucatini
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
Olive oil
1. Pass tomatoes through a food mill. Chop guanciale into thick baton-shaped pieces. [Optional: Slice red onion into thin half-moons.]
2. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the guanciale and cook over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the guanciale has browned. [Optional: Once the guanciale has browned, add onions to the pan and cook until translucent.]
3. Add 1-2 teaspoons red pepper flake. Add more if you like it spicy.
4. Add the milled tomatoes. Simmer the sauce for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it has thickened and turned a rusty red color.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it heavily.
6. When the water is at a rolling boil, cook the pasta for the amount of time indicated on the package. Start checking a few minutes before, to see if it’s al dente. Reserve some water before draining the pasta.
7. Ladle some of the sauce into a large bowl. Once the pasta has cooked, add it to the bowl. Toss the pasta in the sauce to coat it well—you may not use all of the sauce. If needed, add some pasta water to help it all come together. Toss the pasta in the sauce until it’s shiny and glistening. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt or red pepper flake, as needed.
8. Top the pasta with grated pecorino cheese.

La Pioggia di Rose

Posted on June 8, 2014

La Piogga di Rose
Today is Pentecost Sunday. Fifty days after Easter, the holiday commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles. Step inside the Pantheon around noon and you will witness what I just did. Religious allegory transformed into art.  After a traditional mass, firefighters stationed above toss thousands of rose petals into the oculus. This “Pioggia di Rose”, or rain of roses, represents the flames of the Holy Spirit that showered down upon the believers below. Oh, Rome. Sometimes you’re so beautiful I could cry.

The Menu Meeting

Posted on May 12, 2014

Before I started interning for the Rome Sustainable Food Project, I spent a saturday in the kitchen as a volunteer. I remember it was a crisp fall morning. Curious and ready, I reported for my shift at 8am, prepared to be swept up into a busy day. But first it was time for the Menu Meeting. A twice-daily ritual (held once before the start of the morning shift and once in the afternoon), the meeting is a sit-down exchange between the Chef and the interns on duty. Like a captain before an armada prepared to set sail, the Chef lays forth a plan of action for his ships. The waters may be rough (i.e. the head count may be high), but together we’ll make it through (i.e. dinner is going to be awesome).

We sat outside in the cortile, cappuccinos close at hand, as the Chef described how to make the dishes of the day. Twelve of them, detailed in rapid-fire succesion. The interns all kept pace, scribbling indecipherable shorthand in their tiny notebooks. I tried to keep up too, in my own tiny book, until someone gently suggested that wouldn’t be necessary (Which was true. They don’t often throw volunteers straight into the fire. Mine was a day of picking parsley and making applesauce). So I mostly listened.

I was amazed. There were no recipes. No hard and fast quantities. Each intern would have to scale their dish up or down, depending on the final head count, which we wouldn’t know for a couple hours. Coming from a background in pastry where recipes are essential, this meeting was crazy talk. It felt like a glimpse into a whole new world–and it was–savory cooking; where you must rely on your senses, your palate and a battery of basic cooking techniques in order to thrive.

My little notebook

My little notebook

My first Menu Meeting bewildered me, but once I joined the kitchen as an intern, I grew to love the ritual. I relished having such a potent, concentrated start to the day. And a mission. A clear goal. During those first few weeks, the morning meetings were a respite from the uncertainty that consumed me most of the time. During them, I had the chance to visualize a dish in its perfect form. No question went unanswered. Patience was plentiful. I tried my best to internalize the Chef’s instructions, so I could work as efficiently as possible once I stepped into the kitchen. We were assigned multiple dishes per shift, so I would try to chart out a choreography in my head. Which actions take precedence and which should follow? Months later I still found myself trying to perfect this ballet of cooking decisions. I think it only comes with practice.

photo 2


Taking part in these meetings made me understand something very important about cooking. I realized that this way of describing a dish makes it possible to cook almost anything. No recipe = no problem, if you use common sense and some basic cooking techniques. I should offer a slight disclaimer, here: this is true for the food I like to cook. I prefer simple dishes with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, not molecular gastronomic creations that are more magic trick than real food.

To further illustrate the RSFP no-recipe method, here you go. A “recipe” from day six of my internship:
Zuppa con Broccoli Siciliani

  • Clean and cut broccoli (including stems and leaves).
  • Boil broccoli in small batches in rapidly boiling, salted water; until still green, but really cooked.
  • Put cooked broccoli in an ice bath to stop the cooking.
  • Don’t throw out the blanching water! It’s the base of your soup.
  • Take broccoli water in pot, throw in strained broccoli and stems, then blend with immersion blender.
  • Start out really thick, then use ice to thin soup.
  • Soup stays off heat until 20 minutes before service.
  • Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Note: This method makes a vividly green soup that tastes just like… broccoli. Imagine that! It’s a really simple, beautiful way to highlight the flavor of the vegetable. Two things to be careful of: over-salting the blanching water in the beginning and over-cooking the broccoli.

I Said Yes

Posted on April 1, 2014

I have so much to say that I have nothing to say.

Do you know that feeling when you’re with a friend who you haven’t seen for a long time, and you just don’t know where to start? You want to perform a feat of magic– bundle up three months into something articulate. Meaningful, but not boring. Inclusive, but not exhaustive. You want to give a real sense of what has gone on in your life. But sometimes it’s best to skip ahead and just order another round of drinks. There are plenty of things happening right now worth sharing.

I want to tell you more about my experience with the Rome Sustainable Food Project. The internship seriously altered my ideas about cooking and eating, as well as my perception of the American Academy. It would be much easier to, say, write about my upcoming trip to Sicily (I leave on Thursday and am over-the-moon excited), but I have unfinished business here. I have stories to tell! Good ones, some funny ones, a couple bad ones, plus a lot more recipes to share.

So, let’s start with a deep, dark confession: I almost didn’t accept the internship. I almost said no.

I was scared.

I applied for the winter internship in early September, before I came to the Academy. During the first few weeks after my arrival, I felt like a starstruck fan. I’d step up to the lunch buffet and marvel at how gorgeous the composed salads were, how perfect the pasta, and how expertly the kitchen staff ferried new dishes in and cleared the old ones out. Everything was seamless. At dinner the food was even more show-stopping. Three-course meals by candlelight in the outdoor courtyard. Baked ricotta with wild herbs and pickled beets. Pappardelle with wild boar ragù. A rosemary pine nut tart. I was in awe of the food, therefore intimidated by the people making it. Instead of stepping inside the kitchen and introducing myself, I hung back. I started to ignore the fact that I’d applied for the RSFP internship, as getting it seemed like a long shot. I was also occupied by the whirlwind of Academy life, and, you know… Rome. The weeks went by, the food continued to wow me, and then one day I received an email.

Spotted this graffiti the day after my internship ended. Kinda says it all.

Spotted this graffiti the day after my internship ended. Kinda says it all.

The message was from the manager of the RSFP, Laura, inviting me to meet with her and the head chef. Our conversation went something like this (and of course I’m paraphrasing):

Chef: The internship is really hard work.

Me: {nodding enthusiastically}

Laura: Does your husband understand you’ll never see him?

Me: I think so. I’ll check.

Chef: But it might be the best thing you’ve ever done.

I left the meeting feeling charged with excitement. The internship was mine if I accepted. This experience I wasn’t sure I’d have was there for the taking… so why didn’t I just say yes? Herein lies the guilty confession: I was reluctant to give up the life I’d finally adjusted to. And I didn’t feel up for another change (a common theme, you may have noticed). But a nagging feeling lingered. A voice  that annoyingly asked, If you’re scared of something, doesn’t that mean it’s a thing worth doing?

Goddamn it, the voice was right.

The Best Roasted Potatoes*

Posted on February 2, 2014

I learned the secret to the Best Roasted Potatoes on day three of my internship. Believe me, a chorus of angels sang from on high when this secret was revealed. Over the last few months of living at the Academy I’ve noticed that if roasted potatoes are a component of dinner, it doesn’t matter how delicious the braised pork cheeks were. People will fight to the death for the last potato. They are that good.
As promised, here is the recipe:

  1. Clean and peel potatoes. If you’re not using them immediately, store in cold water so they don’t discolor.
  2. Cut potatoes into wedges.
  3. [The secret part!!!] Blanch potatoes in boiling water for a few minutes. Drop them in the water and let them sit just until the water comes back up to a boil. This creates a fat and starch paste, visible on the outside of the potato. It’s what makes them crispy, but soft on the inside. It’s what makes them so incredibly good!
  4. Drain potatoes well and toss in a bowl with salt. Toss with salt first. If you add olive oil first, it impedes the salt from flavoring the potato. Break off a piece of potato and taste it to make sure it’s the way you want it.
  5. Toss with olive oil and some garlic cloves in their “jackets” (skins), as well as herbs, if desired.
  6. Roast on a parchment-lined sheet tray at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 C) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until potatoes are browned and crispy.

Buon Appetito!
*There is only one way to improve these potatoes. They taste even better if, after blanching, you were to roast them on a sheet tray with some kind of delicious meat. The juices from the meat get absorbed into the potatoes, until you have the most decadent way to consume carbs known to man.

The Rome Sustainable Food Project

Posted on January 21, 2014

Shortly after Peter’s magical letter came in the mail, I discovered the Rome Sustainable Food Project. It is exactly what it sounds like. A sincere, passionate mission to source the best seasonal food within a small radius of Rome and transform it into a week’s worth of delicious meals for the Fellows of the American Academy. This excellent video will fill you in on the rest:

The RSFP is a teaching kitchen, staffed by three chefs and a crop of rotating interns. Yes, interns. Can you guess where there is going?

There’s a reason you haven’t heard  much from me. I’m living in two worlds right now– I’m an RSFP intern and a “fellow traveler”– and somewhere there’s regular old Junita, too. My internship started on December 30 and will last until March 8.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the last three weeks:

  1. There’s no getting around awkward beginnings (for me). I was intimidated by the community of Fellows when I first arrived in Rome and I was even more intimidated by the Chefs in the RSFP kitchen. I wish I had a fast forward button I could press to advance past all my silly nerves, because I always feel better after the first few days.
  2. The beautiful food the RSFP creates is deceptively simple. In reality, it’s a lot of hard work. They take what are essentially the same seasonal vegetables–right now we’re using a lot of fennel, artichokes, greens and root vegetables–and make them taste and look wildly different. Every single day.
  3. The mind of a Chef is an awe-inspiring thing. Every morning they take a look at what’s on hand and devise an incredible lunch menu… in minutes (see above). And they’re experts at creatively incorporating leftovers.
  4. Four hours seems likes a long time to cook a meal. But when you’re cooking for 50+, it’s not. Cleaning, trimming and chopping a case of fennel is not something I ever thought I’d time myself on. But I’m going to have to start.
  5. I now know the secret to the best roasted potatoes. Ever. I’ll share it with you in my next post.

If 2014 is to be the year of new challenges, I’m off to a good start!