Cannoli Pepperoni

Est. 2013

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!

The New Normal

Posted on December 26, 2013

A funny thing happened when I wasn’t looking.

I don’t know when, exactly, this city started to feel like a place where I actually live. But it does.

photo 1A few weeks ago Peter asked me, “Do you still have those days when you can’t believe we live here?” We were making our way down the hill to Trastevere. I turned a corner and suddenly the city was in full view, lit with the golden late afternoon light that still makes my knees go weak. I thought, of course! Isn’t that what I’m supposed to feel? But then the real answer came to the surface. Actually, I do believe I live here. Feelings of awe still come over me, but I spend more time just enjoying a daily life. It only happened once I stopped over-thinking (like so many good things). Rome is my new normal.

I’m fascinated by this metamorphosis, this slow and silent process I’m barely aware of until it’s over.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve lived–Saint Paul, Spain, Chicago, New York City or Rome–my pattern of adapting has always been the same. The first stage is infatuation. Like the thrill of a freshly minted love affair, I’m enthralled with the very newness of it. I want to be close to my new city, get down to its roots and explore every inch. But the romantic patina eventually wears thin.

The next stage is a slow, but stubborn dawning of the realization that this new place is not like the old place. Not at all. It wouldn’t matter if I were just passing through with a tourist’s rose-colored glasses. When it dawns on me that this is the place where I live, the novelty morphs into a bad joke. The thought, What an adorable grocery store! Look at all these delicious meats and cheeses! becomes Why the hell can’t I find limes? What do Italians have against LIMES?  Basic things like navigating around the city or communicating with its residents are a challenge. And then there’s a supremely stupid rock-bottom moment (I’m trying so hard to remember what that moment was in Rome, but I honestly can’t recall. It must not be a very good story. Or, I’m too embarrassed to admit what it was that broke me, so I promptly forgot.). There’s no telling what it might be, but it’s guaranteed to be trivial. It’s the point where my struggles end in complete exhaustion and defeat. It’s the moment when I consider getting on a plane and going back home.

But then, just as quickly as it came on, the moment passes. Usually within a few days or a really good night’s sleep. I am realizing that I have to see the worst in a place before I can see the best. The struggle to assimilate is just a part of the process. After this it gets increasingly easier. The final stage is the best one. It’s where I realize that Rome is Rome. It will never be anything but Rome. So if I’m going to enjoy it, if I’m going to really experience being here, I need to accept the city on its own terms.

So what is this new normal?

There’s the city of Rome and then there’s the American Academy. The life I lead here is not at all like the life I had before. There are the obvious language and cultural differences. And then there’s a whole bunch of lifestyle changes. I went from living in a little house in a medium-sized city to living in a 15×12 bedroom inside a gated villa. I went from cooking dinner and lunch most days a week to eating meals served to me in a dining room with 50+ other people on a given night. I went from biking down Summit Avenue to my job at the Golden Fig to taking long walks twice a week past ancient Roman ruins en route to my Italian language classes. I went from a private life with a husband and some close friends to a community life of sharing meals, ideas and bottles of wine (plus the occasional grappa) most nights.

The Academy is described by people who live here as “Eden”, “The Golden Birdcage,”  or an “American cruise ship docked in Rome,” depending on who you ask.

It’s a shapeshifting, amorphous place that changes according to the season and the assortment of residents who call it home. Besides the 30 or so Fellows and their “Fellow Travelers” (yes, that’s me), there is a constant flow of visitors. We all have titles– Affiliated Fellows, Visiting Artists, Former Fellows, etc.–and we’re all here for different reasons and for varying lengths of time. One of the challenges (but also one of the thrills) to living here is adapting to each new wave of people that come through. Every night is like a dinner party where you may or may not be seated next to the mystery guest.
photo 2
There are so many lessons yet to learn, but this one I know already– you get what you give. The people who live here, and the people who pass through, are what give the Academy life. This place is a thought experiment. It’s a dream. But it only works if the people invited to stay here open up and share what they’re most passionate about. Painters, scholars, writers, poets, architects, sculptors, designers, historians, preservationists and so many others from different, equally fascinating fields, all gather here. The premise is that something great might happen once their ideas mingle. Some big spark, some life-changing thought, a new way of perceiving one’s work and the world we all live in. This may sound heady, but when it happens it feels nothing but organic. It’s usually over dinner. It’s usually with the help of some wine. But it won’t happen at all unless you’re willing to engage.

So, the new normal is this: Living with a bunch of people. Eschewing my introverted ways. Being okay with not having a plan. Being okay with spending a year learning things for no reason except my own enjoyment. And savoring this year like it’s my last. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Before I know it, I’ll be back in Saint Paul, trying to figure out what “normal” means all over again.

Natale is Near

Posted on December 7, 2013

Earlier today Peter and I were walking along Via del Corso at dusk. We had stayed out just a bit too long. The street was swollen with people walking in that over-shopped, dazed way that only seems to happen around Christmas. I was feeling tired and ready to be home. As if walking down the crowded street wasn’t difficult enough, a man in uniform darted in front of us and knelt down. He blocked our path, looking skyward with a pained expression on his face. He flipped a switch and we looked up. Suddenly the string of lights that span the entire street were all lit up.



The Bass Garden

Posted on December 2, 2013

In many ways, the American Academy is too improbable to take in on first sight. When my taxi pulled up to the front gate on the day I arrived, I thought I was having a fantastic jet lagged dream. And that’s the way I felt for days! I’m now approaching month three and the place still astounds me, but it’s starting to feel like home. Since the Academy is as important to my day-to-day life as the city of Rome, I think it’s time you were introduced.

Why don’t we start here? My backyard in Rome has a name.

In Saint Paul I never thought to call the 30×20′ plot behind our house anything special, although I love it all the same. The little vegetable garden, the patch of pink peonies and the hearty stalks of rhubarb that miraculously poke through the cold earth every spring are special to me. You can know a garden like this by heart. A name would be beside the point. But of course here everything is different.

The Bass Garden is an expanse of little hills behind the Academy enclosed on all sides by stone walls and a gate. It’s a place for sitting alone with your coffee and your thoughts, as much as it’s a place for meeting a friend (“Meet me at the back gate” is a common refrain.) There are olive and orange trees and a pebbled path lined with fragrant wild rosemary. There’s a bocce ball court and a wood-fired grill. And there’s a beautiful vegetable garden with raised brick beds that produces much of the salad greens (among other vegetables) that we eat.

I’ve loved seeing what the change of seasons brings to this glorious space. This is what the garden looked like on December 2nd. Can you imagine what’s to come this spring?

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The Boxer At Rest

Posted on November 25, 2013

Last Sunday Peter and I ventured off the Academy hill to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. We’ve been slowly building a list of museums and sights to see in Rome and just as slowly checking things off the list. The beauty of being here for almost a year is there’s no pressure–at least right now–to sightsee. We can drink in Rome’s history like a rich digestif, slowly sipping so that it settles nicely. I’ve never been so aware of stretching out an experience, but that’s what this year is like. It feels like the more gradually I take everything in, the longer the memories will last.

Palazzo Massimo is a gorgeous museum with a large collection of ancient mosaics, one of the most vividly-colored intact frescoes I’ve ever seen, and the haunting 4th century B.C. bronze sculpture, “Boxer at Rest.” Can you imagine what it would have been like to be the archeologist who discovered this wondrous object in 1885? You can see the scars etched on the boxer’s face. You can get so close that he almost looks real (until you set the sensors off, like I did, and are jarred out of your reverie). We wandered through the galleries, blissfully alone in most of them, until we’d had enough. How do you follow up an afternoon of beautiful art? With pastries of course. So we stopped at L’arte del Pane for a sweet nibble and then we got on the bus to go back home.