On the Road: The Drive from Rome to Naples

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 11.57.57 AMNote: In March Christina and I spent about two weeks in Rome and Naples. A principal reason for our trip was the impending opening of the One Day in Pompeii exhibit at The Franklin Institute where we provide food services. Ours was a journey to understand the culinary context of Pompeii today and be able to present that at The Franklin Institute during the run of the exhibit. Pompeii is located in Italy’s Campania region. It sits at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, across the bay from Naples. One Day in Pompeii opens today, November 9th and will run through April 27th. I began this series of posts in Rome and there is more to come of that part of our trip. But I wanted to skip ahead to catch up with the exhibit opening. At the bottom of this post you can see the result of our trip — the menu for the VIP opening of the exhibit.

As Christina and I bid adieu to our feathered neighbor across the narrow alley from the window of our lovely Roman Hotel Raphael, we hit the road south to Naples in March with a plan to return to Rome six days hence.

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First, a word about driving in Italy. If you were a traveler simply visiting Philadelphia, there would be no reason to rent a car. Likewise Rome. And if your plans included travel from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. you could easily take the train. But if you were in no rush and wanted to catch the beauty and spirit of the Chesapeake, maybe with a stop for lunch along the way, then renting a car would be the way to go. Our travel plan was to punctuate our extended visit to Rome with a trip to Naples and Pompeii. Naples sits across the Bay of Naples, nearly in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that rained destruction and death on Pompeii that fateful day in  79 AD. In addition, Christina had long wanted to visit Nusco, the ancestral home of her grandmother, in the mountains about two hours east of Naples.

Prior to leaving for Italy, many a person had counseled me to avoid driving in Italy. Despite being a confident driver, I had modest concern about our road trip. Maybe the counsel I received was the result of their Italian driving experiences prior to the ubiquitous GPS. I found that with a GPS, driving, even within the challenging environs of Rome and Naples, was eminently manageable.

Now for the trip to Naples.

It is said that all roads lead to Rome. Conversely, lots of roads lead out of Rome, Italy’s largest city, to Naples, its third largest. There is the A1 autostrada that takes about 2 1/2 hours, depending on traffic out of Rome and into Naples. We took the decidedly slower — about four plus hours driving time — but more interesting route the runs mostly along the Mediterranean coast. Despite efforts to arrange to have our car rental delivered to our hotel, the pick-up of our Audi turned out to be at the airport. (There are less costly — fifty bucks to the airport, and more convenient pick-ups but that’s a long story.) We set our GPS for Naples and were off.

Rome itself is situated about twenty miles west and up river from its harbor city of Ostia. Ostia is Latin for “mouth” and it is the mouth of the Tiber River that links Rome to the sea. Ancient Rome’s location on hills well-inland from the sea was a strategic response to insulate itself from sea-prowling marauders.

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The first hour or so of our journey was interesting in a non-scenic way as it took us through the extended suburbs and exurbs of modern metropolitan Rome. It was not until Terracine that we got our first full bore view of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

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I had forgotten how mountainous Italy is. Perched high about Terracina is the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter Anxur, built in the 1st century BCE. At the time of the building of the temple, Rome had already dominated the region for four hundred years. Towns like Terracina that dotted the coast moving out from Rome were integral to Rome’s “necklace” of strategic protection from hostile invaders.

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Italy is divided into twenty administrative regions — somewhat akin to our states. Lazio, where our journey began, is bordered on the north by Tuscany, Umbria and Marche and to the east by Abruzzo and Molise. To the south is Campania. Rome is the capital of Lazio and Naples the capital of Campania.

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The Tyrrhenian Sea is the body of water that separates long portions of coastal Italy from the Mediterranean. It is nestled between the west coast of Italy, and the islands of Corsica on the north, Sardina in the center and Sicily. The eastern sides of these islands sit on the Mediterranean.

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By mid-afternoon we arrived, hungry, to Gaeta, a small city that sits at the southern end of Lazio, 75 miles from Rome and 50 miles from Naples. Gaeta sits on a promontory surrounded by water on three sides and mountains on its fourth. Like Terracina, Gaeta played an important military role for ancient Rome. Gaeta’s culinary distinction is that it has given its name to the small, distinctive dark, oval olives — Italy’s black pearls — cultivated in olive groves stretching out from the port city. Gaeta olives are brine-cured and have a pleasantly bitter taste.

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Gaeta thrives as a summer destination for Italians. In mid-March it felt nearly deserted. Absent any forethought as to where to eat, we wandered into an empty and unpretentious restaurant located along the boulevard that separates the harbor from the city. We were greeted by the proprietor who brought us a generous bowl of the eponymous olives and menus. In the distance was a lone elderly gentleman watching TV.

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Before long we were joined by a young Italian with skateboard in hand. He sat at the far end of  long table across from a middle-aged women engaged in some sort of bookkeeping. Out of the kitchen came an older, apron-clad woman who spoke to him, naturally, in Italian. As time passed we came to understand that grandpa was watching TV, grandma was cooking, mother was doing the books, dad was our waiter and the young skateboarder, their son.

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Our simple lunch included a shallow bowl of steamed seafood — mussels, clams, shrimp and squid — in a tasty broth.

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A lightly dressed salad of tender lettuce and radicchio, tomatoes, roasted peppers and, of course, Gaeta olives.

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Grilled vegetables sparely presented.

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And crisp-fired calamari with a squeeze of lemon. Nothing remarkable. But totally enjoyable…especially given that we were hungry!

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Leaving Gaeta, the sky resembled one you might find in 14th Century Italian painting of the apocalypse.

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Campania is the ancestral home of buffalo mozzarella — produced from the milk of domesticated water buffalo. Compared to cow’s milk mozzarella, its flavor is not as sweet, more tangy — slightly sour — and stronger — still creamy and delicious.

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About twenty-five miles north of Naples, Madrogone is smack in the heart of buffalo mozzarella country and its streets are lined with shops proudly advertising their local culinary triumph.

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With the aid of our GPS, we arrived in Naples late in the day to a traffic jam typical of rush hour in many cities throughout the world and worked our way to our harbor-front hotel, Hotel Romeo.

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No Roman Legionnaires here. Instead, we were greeted at the hotel entrance by samurai warriors! Hotel Romeo was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese modernist architect,  Kenzo Tange and developed by his son Paul. Counted among Tange’s works of distinction is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hotel Romeo will likely not be counted among Tange’s works of distinction.

The days ahead in gritty, crowded, graffiti-covered, littered and wonderful Naples would add to the dystopian feel of our sleekly modern hotel more comfortably nested in Tokyo than Naples. More about Hotel Romeo in a future post.

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After our day-long trip, it was thrilling to arrive to our room overlooking the bustling Naples harbor and the darkness beyond.

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Past ready for dinner, the hotel recommended a bustling restaurant a few blocks away — Ristorante Europeo di. A. Mattozzi. While Naples gets its share of tourists, it is nothing like Rome and this restaurant would not likely find its way on to many a tourists “must-dine” locations. But it was fine in the way that it’s hard to get a bad meal in Naples.

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A central joy of travel is discovery, of art and architecture, history and culture…and, of course, wine and food. The universe of Italian wine is confusing with a cacophony of grapes and place names.  Rome has its native wines, but nothing distinctively special. Campania has a richer cellar. We settled in to dinner with a locally produced falanghina, named for its grape. Falanghina is an ancient grape that today produces a crisp and aromatic wine with excellent acidity and ideal accompaniment to the sea’s bounty that figures prominently in Neapolitan foods.

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We began with a generous antipasti of assorted salamis, meatballs, sun-dried tomatoes & a ricotta torta and a classic Insalata Caprese made with little balls of creamy, fresh local mozzarella, tomatoes and sweet lamb’s lettuce. Pasta e Ceci, pictured above, included assorted shapes of dried pasta and smashed and whole chickpeas in a simple sauce made with olive oil and the cooking liquid of the chickpeas.

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I enjoyed a hearty Polipetti affogati in cassuola — octopus stewed with tomatoes.

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Christina took a lighter route with a simple grilled local sea bass served with thin-sliced potatoes.

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A short walk back to our hotel and a last look at Naples harbor by night before drawing the curtains and settling into a well-earned sleep. Naples awaits.

The following is the menu we served Thursday evening at the VIP opening of One Day in Pompeii.

A Neapolitan Feast in Celebration of the Opening of One Day in Pompeii

Il Positano – Prosecco with a touch of rum, honey & lime
Wines from Campania • Greco & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
• Italian beers, sodas & San Pelligrino
Roasted Olives  • Toasted Hazelnuts with Sea Salt

Butlered Hors d’oeuvres
Arancini with roasted sweet pepper mayonnaise
Wild mushroom polenta “croquettes” with gorgonzola
Salsify with prosciutto & Reggiano Parmesan
Bruschetta with grilled radicchio, house-made ricotta,
spiced walnuts & fried rosemary
Neapolitan meatballs

Butlered “Small Plate”
Salted cod, whipped potatoes, roasted garlic & olive oil
Black olive tapenade  • Served in egg shell

Small Plate Stations

Margherita Pizza
Thin-crusted pizza with San Marzano tomatoes,
fresh Buffalo mozzarella & basil
Tri-color chopped salad with anchovy aioli

Braciole di Pollo
Pancetta-crusted chicken, chard, sun-dried tomato
& pecorino with polenta

Melanzane a Beccafico
Grilled eggplant stuffed with sweet peppers,
grated lemon peel, pickled eggplant, raisins & rice
Topped with almonds, breadcrumbs, lemon, parsley

Fruiti di Mare
Gemilli with mixed seafood, artichokes,fennel,
green onions, olives, chilies & capers

Sweet & Coffee
Butterscotch budino with caramel & sea salt
Biscotti with dried figs • Pinenut cookies
Pumpkin-date tarts  • Lemon bites with fennel pollen
Ricotta cheesecakes with candied orange peel

Vesuvio
Chocolate “volcano” torta stuffed with
hazelnut mousse, hazelnut praline & black currant sauce

Dessert Station
Sfinci — Sweet fritters with citrus syrup
Italian roast coffee – regular & decaf

Next: The Amazing Streets and Back Alleys of Naples (We’re not in Rome anymore.) Plus Pizza!

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On the Road: Rome & Naples II — The Coliseum & Forum and Porta Portese Market

Since this day’s highlight was an afternoon visit to the Coliseum and Forum and a guided introduction to Ancient Rome, I thought I would start off with a little background information.

A Brief History of Ancient Civilization

As far as ancient civilizations go, Rome is a relative newcomer.

Our universe emerged from its Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. From there it took about 10 billion years for our Earth to cool and form. Primitive primates emerged from the primordial ooze about 55 million years ago with our distant ancestors walking around Africa on two legs about 5.8 million years ago.

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Anatomically modern homo sapiens – that’s us – actually emerged about 200,000 years ago. Complex human activity began only about 50,000 years ago. Civilization really started heating up about 12,000 years ago with the practice of sedentary agriculture.  The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, with the ability to make more complex tools, about 5,500 years ago. The first significant gathering of humans were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. On the other side of the world, Asian civilizations began to emerge but they are a story for another trip. It’s Rome that we are interested in.

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Which actually brings us to Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Egypt began to emerge as one of the great early civilizations around 3000 BC. Ramesses II — aka Ramesses the Great, lived from 1303 to 1213 BC — a pretty ripe old age in a time when thirty-something was like today’s one hundred-something. This was also the time of the Biblical Moses and the Exodus. King Solomon’s First Temple in Jerusalem dates to 957 BC.

In here came Greek civilization — an important influence on Rome. Greek civilization traces its roots to the 8th Century BC, reaching its territorial pinnacle with Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC. A year later founded the eponymous Alexandria  – a city that reached a population of 500,000 within 100 years, second in size in the Western world only to Rome. Alexander the Great also installed a new line of Greek-descended Egyptian rulers — the Ptolemies. Cleopatra – Queen of the Nile and Egypt’s final pharaoh, was the end of this line.

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For nearly 500 years Rome had been governed as a Republic with shared institutional powers and checks and balances. In 48 BC, the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar, intent on annexing Egypt to the vast Roman empire, met Cleopatra in Alexandria. There she convinced him to take a much friendlier approach. Julius Caesar lingered with Cleopatra in Egypt through 46 BC. On his triumphant return to Rome, with Cleopatra in tow, he was declared dictator of the Roman Republic by the Roman Senate. The Senate took that as an honorific title but became concerned that Julius had other ideas. On the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus as in “Et tu, Brute?” Cleopatra joined with Roman Mark Anthony to fight Egypt’s final battle against Rome’s Octavius in 30 BC. The victorious Octavius returned to Rome assuming the title of Caesar Augustus — the first and considered perhaps the greatest of Rome’s autocratic rulers who would lead Rome through a period of great growth and prosperity and ultimate ruin. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had less glorious ends.

Which brings us to the Forum.

The Coliseum & Forum

Our guide met us at our hotel at 2PM. A brief cab ride took us to the Coliseum. Despite Rome’s size, historic Rome and the Vatican are all within a fairly narrow area of just a few square miles.

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The Coliseum is massive. The three story structure was started in 70 AD and completed eight years later — nearly 2,000 years ago and as Rome approached the height of its power. The Romans were first and foremost master builders. While they used carved tufa, travertine and marble, they never became the great carvers that the Greeks were. In fact, much of Rome’s carved stones were carved by Greek slaves. What made the Romans great builders was their development in the use of concrete. While the Coliseum was clad in marble, the underlying structure was concrete and that is mostly what you see today. Most of the marble was re-purposed through the ages.

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Photos cannot adequately convey the scale of the structure. Elliptical in plan, the Coliseum is about 600 feet long by 500 feet wide and fifteen stories high — nearly two football fields in length and nearly as wide. With 80 entrances to the seats, you are still able to make-out the section designations carved above the entrances. The upper exterior arches housed more than 160 larger than life marble statutes. Below grade was a complex of paths and chambers that enabled the channeling of various and sundry gladiators and beasts on to the floor of the Coliseum for the spectacle which typically ended in multiple deaths of said gladiators and beasts. Because Rome had more than a million citizens and the Coliseum could seat “only” 55,000, spectacles lasted for days, weeks and months in order to accommodate the demand for seats.

Of note, the Coliseum was not the location of the great chariot races of Ben Hur fame as it was not large enough for that. Those races typically took place at the nearby Circus Maximus. Circus Maximus was about 2,000 feet long, 400 feet wide and could seat 150,000! Rome’s Nascar.

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A short walk from the Coliseum brought us to the Forum. The Forum was the civic, social, spiritual and commercial heart of ancient Rome. It was as if in Philadelphia one site housed City Hall, Rittenhouse Square, the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul and the Reading Terminal Market. Though it was eventually superseded by grander forums, this is where it all began. To stand there is a transcendent experience, in part, because you have a sense that you know the characters who walked here so many years ago. While literature and Hollywood have certainly glamorized and distorted our vision of Rome and Romans, it has enabled a certain familiarity.

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The overall scale is stunning when you consider when this was built.

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The elaborate triumphant Arch of Septimius Severus is made entirely of carved travertine and marble and is six stories high. Through this arch marched Rome’s legions upon return from battles near and far. The city of Rome was built and sustained by conquest and its harvest of slaves and the bounty of its colonies. Estimates are that between 25 and 40% of Rome’s population were slaves. At one point Rome considered dressing slaves – who performed all manner of tasks — in a uniform, as slaves dressed no differently from non-slaves of the lower class. But it was decided that if slaves realized their numerical advantage they would rise up and revolt against their masters. Rome’s citizens were divided between the plebians — the lower caste and the patricians, the upper class. In early Rome the patricians — descendents of 100 “fathers” of Rome appointed by Romulus — had all of the power. As time passed and Rome democratized, the power of the plebians increased and diluted the power of the patricians.

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In the distance is a three story shopping mall. That’s right, a multi-level shopping mall predating our modern shopping malls by nearly 2,000 years. As Rome grew in size, this forum was replaced or augmented by a near-by larger forum not preserved. In the end what is remarkable about walking in the forum are the ghosts. You get a palpable sense of people walking here two millennium ago — of what took place here — the daily life of Rome, haggling over the price of wheat, the courtroom drama, hanging out on a cool spring day, acts of kindness and barbarism, of triumph and tragedy.

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Departing the forum, we headed up the back side of the Monument of Victorio Emanuelle (see photo above) with a bit of the forum in the mid-ground. Beyond you get a sense of the color and scale of Rome. In the foreground are the iconographic Pines of Rome — a tree that you see throughout the city. Respighi’s symphonic poem depicts the so-called umbrella pines in different locations in Rome at four different times of the day.

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The gargantuan modern monument to Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel, sits at the nexus of Capitoline Hill — one of Rome’s seven — and the large Piazza Venezia. The monument is 443 feet wide and about half again as high. Dubbed “the Wedding Cake” because of its stark white marble and elaborate decoration, its official name is Altar of the Fatherland. Until 1861 when the King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was named King of Italy, Italy consisted of a series of small and independent and often quarreling city-states. The monument was designed in 1885 with construction beginning in 1911 and completed in 1925. The white marble of ancient Rome was mined in quarries primarily from Luni — what is today Carrara, in Tuscany. Ancient Roman marble had a creamy warm tone. The colder, bright white marble of Victor Emanuelle was mined in Brescia.

Sunday Morning — Porta Portese Outdoor Flea Market

On a two-week trip you get two Sundays. And since the following Sunday we planned to be in Naples and since Rome’s largest outdoor flea market is a Sunday-only event, I needed to drag my jet-lagged body out of a very comfortable hotel bed and make my way to the 7AM to 2 PM Porta Portese Market. Like a kid in a candy store  – outdoor markets are my candy — and I did not want to miss the chance to visit this largest of Rome’s outdoor markets.

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From our hotel, I worked my way through historic Rome’s ancient streets and across the Tiber River.

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The Tiber is a modest river — murky and of indeterminate color. Rome itself is strategically located about twenty miles from its port city of Ostia and connected by the Tiber. Ostia is Latin for mouth and it was located at the mouth of  the river.

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The Tiber is named for the ancient king Tiberinus Silvius. According to myth, this king urinated in what was then called the Albula River and, in his honor, the river was renamed. This may be more than you want to know. The key is that the Tiber provided convenient access to the sea but also enabled Rome an in-land domain protected from ill-spirited seafaring enemies looking for settlements to sack.

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It is also of note that the seven hills of Rome provided not just nice views for Rome’s first residents, but the strategic high ground and protection from threats — be they human or the flooding Tiber.

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The market is located at the southern end of the Trastevere neighborhood. As with any city, Rome is a collection of neighborhoods. Unlike nearly every city, Rome’s neighborhoods date back more than 2000 years!

Trastevere is located on the west side of the Tiber River and roughly translates as “across the river.”  As such, the neighborhood stands outside the original area of Rome enclosed by the Servian Wall. The Servian Wall was built in the 4th Century BC to prevent a repeat of the sacking of Rome by the Gauls some years earlier.  That wall  served Rome well including frustrating  Hannibal, his elephants and his Carthaginian army around 210 AD. Nearly 700 years after construction of the Servian Wall,  a much larger wall — the Aurelian Wall was completed in  275 AD to encircle a much larger Rome and prevent new threats from the Germanic tribes. A gate in a section of the Aurelian Wall  — Porta Portese — pictured above, provides the entrance to the market. The wall ultimately proved no match for the Visigoths, who in 410AD, succeeded in sacking Rome and ushering in the long so-called Dark Ages. Some of the Servian Wall and much of the Aurelian Wall exists in today’s Rome.

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The walk was much longer than I expected. I just didn’t look so far on the map!

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And what I found when I got to the market was not what I expected.

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There was almost no food at the market and food is my holy grail. The market was a nearly endless line of stalls on both sides of a wide aisle. The stalls’ wares consisted mostly of clothing — from inner ware to outer ware — and accessories for bargain-hunting Romans. Lots of shoes. My guess is that 95% of what was sold in the market was made in China.

What was most interesting at the market were the faces of Rome — not the stuff, but the people wandering through the stuff. Overwhelmingly Romans have shades of dark hair and generous facial features. The vendors themselves tend toward darker skinned with the darkest skinned Africans improvising little retail islands of cardboard specializing in counterfeit premium products.

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With spring in the air, the seed stand was doing a brisk business.

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The ceramic fruits and vegetables were non-seeded varieties.

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Thinking that I might find a pot of gold — as in some fresh produce — at the market’s end, I kept drudging along to no avail. Just more of the same. When you finely reach the end of the market there is no way out so all you can do is turn around and retrace your weary steps out. I was disappointed but not entirely sorry for my effort. Had I lingered in bed I would have been certain that skipping the Porta Portese Sunday market would have been a fatal lapse in tourist judgment. But knowing this, my counsel to you would be to roll over and sleep in.

Graffiti Along The Tiber

When I travel I am always on the lookout for interesting street art — aka graffiti. Unlike many other European cities, central Rome is largely devoid of graffiti.

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However, along the wide walking path adjacent to the Tiber — a path that sits well below the street level, the retaining wall is lined with graffiti.

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The path itself is generous for the occasional walker, jogger and bikers early Sunday afternoon as I returned from the Porta Portese market.

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A large wall makes for a generous artist’s canvas.

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Some images of faded mirth.

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While others vivid menace…perhaps a Visigoth?

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… or exuberance.

Sunday Dinner at Fortunato

At the end of our first full day in Rome my wife Christina and I were tired. Very tired. (Having been wise enough to skip Porta Portese, Christina was perhaps a touch less tired.) We asked our hotel for a restaurant recommendation not too far a walk. They they suggested Fortunato. There is a maxim that one should be suspicious of restaurants that have a wall of framed photos of famous people who have dined there and so the photos of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton should have been a tip that Fortunato was one of those places. One wonders the numbers of times unsuspecting visitors to Philadelphia were directed to Bookbinders?

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Other than the aforementioned photos, Fortunato’s decor was perfectly warm and charming though its service was less so.

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Dinner was very traditional — all fine and good, and uninspiring — not so good.  Our dinner included Fried Anchovies, Gnocchi with Ragu, Spaghetti Carbonara (above), Meatballs with Artichokes, and Tongue with Green Sauce. Despite our determination to drink local wines, we had to settle for a Gavi di Gavi from the Piedmont and and Montepulicano from Tuscany.

While dinner was nothing special, as our first full day in Rome ended I began to have an idea of the feast that awaited us in the days ahead.

Next up: The Church of Rome and the Vatican Museum. A wonderful dinner at Fiametta.

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On the Road: Rome & Naples I.

SP Flying over ShanghaiPreface

I am a serial blogger. By that, I mean, that on occasion I find something about which I have the combination of a passion to share and time in my life to write. Dining at home. Farm stands. Lisbon. And so I write. And write.  I am sort of an all-in kinda’ guy. It’s hard for me to do blog-light. As sometimes happens with passion, you get burned out by it. That leads to long periods of no blogging. Plus blogging is a curious activity. No one has asked me to blog. I push the “Publish” button on my computer and off it goes — exactly to where it’s hard to know. So here we are, you and I, at the beginning of a blogging journey about Rome and Naples. I enjoyed the journey immensely and I hope you do too. If you know others who might want to tag along, please invite them. Grazie.

Buongiorno Roma

I have traveled a lot. Not everywhere, but I have seen some things. I was not prepared for Rome. In March, Christina and I spent eight days in Rome, punctuated by a six day visit to Naples. Periodically over the next weeks I will share daily images and impressions with you.

Our first night in Rome, we dined at Grano — a small restaurant about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel in central Rome. IMG_5610

The dinner itself was the first in a parade of soul-satisfying meals in Rome and Naples. What struck me this night was Grano’s floor. Once the floor was freshly painted pristine white to match the walls of this warmly contemporary restaurant. Fresh white tablecloths cover painted white tables and painted white chairs hold rustic cane seats. But what gave Grano its particular patina — its sense of time and place, was the etched path of honey-brown wood beneath the white paint — a path worn into the floor by Grano’s waiters ferrying bread baskets and wine glasses and countless plates laden with lovely food — waiters with pasts and triumphs and disappointments, with loving mothers and fathers, or not, and wives and children and children who had children. And in the kitchen cooks doing what they love to do, or what they have to do to pay the bills. If you look for it, it’s all there in that floor. Grano, today, is the sum of all that went before and so is Rome.

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In Rome’s case, it is a present that reflects the wear of nearly 2800 years. According to legend, Rome’s founding involves infant twins named Romulus and Remus abandoned by the Tiber River, a nurturing she-wolf, and fratricide. Rome was founded in 753 BC by the avenging twin — Romulus. That’s 2,766 years ago or about 140 generations of Romans! During the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century AD, Rome’s population surpassed one million. It would not be until the later part of the 18th Century that a Western city would again reach one million — London. By the mid-6th Century Rome’s population had dropped to as low as 30,000 as the Empire that sustained Rome collapsed. Today Rome’s population is 2.8 million making it the fourth largest city in the European Union after London (8 million), Berlin (3.5 million) and Madrid (3.3 million). Paris is fifth at 2.3 million.

Day 1: Rome – Arrival, Sant’ Eustachio, Campo di Fiero, Hotel Raphael, Grano Restaurante

It is a continued source of amazement that you can get on a plane in Philadelphia or wherever your home may be, and before too many hours, step into a different world. My only previous visit to Rome was forty-five years ago. I was on a summer’s long world-expanding seven week trip around Europe between my junior and senior years at Penn. Overall, the trip would alter the course of my life. But my recollections of Rome were a larcenous cab driver, an over-priced hotel and an overwhelming city. We left for points north as quickly as we arrived. The bitter aftertaste of that brief stop cast a shadow on a return to Rome. But Christina had fond memories of a long student stay in Rome and numerous professional visits in her capacity as Managing Director of Baryshnikov Productions. In addition, she had recently kindled an interest in her Italian ancestry and wanted to visit Nusco, the mountain-top birthplace of her maternal grandmother. Nusco is in the province of Campania and about two hours from Naples.

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This time Rome was different.

The overnight flight landed us in Rome Saturday morning. We had arranged to be picked up at the airport for no more than the 48 Euro cab fare from the airport to our hotel near the Piazza Navona. (Note: The current exchange rate is 1.28 Euros to the dollar. So, something that cost 10 Euros — aka E10,00 costs $12.80. The E48,00 cab fare is about $61. A E100 dinner costs $128.)

I do not speak Italian. Nor does Christina (though she has an excellent accent with the words she knows). So I seized the opportunity to listen to our driver’s halting English about her life in Rome during the 25 minute or so ride from the airport to the area of Rome known as Centro Storico — the city’s historic center. She was in her fifties and unusual as a women to be a driver. Her husband died some years ago and left her with two growing children and without pension or financial support. He had worked hard but not for the government or company with a retirement program. Her working daughter is thirty and lives with her boyfriend. Her son lives with his mother and goes to university in economics. He is anxious to leave Italy for the United States where he and his mother believe that people advance based on their merit rather than in Italy where they believe advancement is based on who you know in the domains of government or the Catholic church. It is a somewhat ironic notion given that on a list of the 134 major countries in the world, Italy ranks 32nd in equitable wealth distribution compared to the US rank of #93. Statistics on wealth distribution are not necessarily a reflection of social mobility. In Italy, the United States continues to be perceived as the land of opportunity as it has been for generations of Italians including Christina’s maternal grandparents who came to the United States in the early 1900′s.

We arrived in Rome at an interesting time. Italy today faces great social and political turmoil. A recent national election proved indecisive with three political factions splitting the vote. The leading vote getter was the incumbent party associated with recent attempts to accommodate to the fiscal demands of the EU. This party was followed by the party of the scandalized and discredited Silvio Berlusconi of bunga-bunga fame. Berlisconi is a media mogul and among Italy’s richest citizens who has thrice served as Prime Minister. An insurgent “none-of-the-above” party, lead by a comedian who had been convicted of manslaughter and is adept in the use of social media, received 25% of the vote. No party received enough votes to form a government in Italy’s parliamentary system. So, despite the need for leadership and decisive action, the country is at a political standstill. In addition, our arrival in Rome coincided with the conclave to elect a new Pope under a vast cloud of intrigue, corruption and the stench of conspiracy and pedophilia.  It’s a mess!

Sant’ Eustachio – Rome’s Classic Espresso Bar

As it was too early to check into our hotel, we set-out to wander through the remarkable back streets of central Rome.

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In Italy, espresso is the beverage of choice. Espresso bars line the streets and neighborhoods of Rome. Our circuitous walk lead us to the legendary espresso bar, Sant’ Eustachio where a secret technique yields an espresso head worthy of an extra thick milkshake. Sant’ Estachio is named for the church that sits across the small piazza from the bar. Sant’ Estachio, the church, dates to the 8th century and was restored in the 12th century. As we continued to stroll our new Rome neighborhood, we bumped into a couple who live in an apartment eight floors above ours in Philadelphia and are spending three months in Rome. Go figure.

Campo di’ Fiori Market, Punterelle and Forno Campo di’ Fiori

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My pre-Rome reading consisted primarily of Robert Hughes’ epic art history aptly named Rome. A modest amount of food-focused research placed the Campo di’ Fiori outdoor market within the general neighborhood of our hotel. One would think that a food-famous city like Rome is crawling with sprawling outdoor markets but such is not the case. As Campo di’ Fiori is located in a touristy area, the market is a modest mix of food stalls and tourist-focused merchandise set in the middle of a small piazza surrounded by shops, restaurants and palazzi.

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Tucked in amongst stacks of fresh produce from near and far was a plastic-lined crate of unfamiliar squiggly greens labeled punterelle. Through the wonders of my iPhone I quickly determined that punterelle is a variety of chicory behind whose tight head of feathery greens lay stalks. These stalks, when shredded with an ingenious tool produces a green that, as I was soon to learn, yields a salad of almost indescribable pleasure when paired with anchovies, red wine vinegar and olive oil.

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Camp di’ Fiero translates as Field of Flowers and in the northeast corner a series of picturesque flower stalls are located. But the real treasure of Campo di’ Fiero lies just beyond the flower stalls.

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When I grew up, our kitchen was adorned by murals my mother had a muralist copy from James Beard’s Fireside Cookbook.  One of those murals was captioned, “‘Tis not the food but ’tis the appetite that makes eating a delight.” Granted a long plane flight that offered tired airplane food left us with an appetite’s edge, but we maintained our sufficient culinary integrity to discriminate terrific street food. A long line snaking from a modest storefront lead us to Forno Campo di Fiori. Forno means oven and out of the oven with fifteen vertical racks — pictured in the background — a continuous flow of sizzling, thin-crusted rectangular pizzas slid onto a wooden counter to be sliced, folded over and delivered into the hungry waiting hands of expectant diners.

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I selected the mushroom pizza above and Christina a prosciutto and mozzarella. The pizzas cost E5,00 each. While the appetite may have added to the pleasure of devouring, fond memory of these pizzas linger today.

Hotel Raphael

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The Piazza Navona is one of the world’s friendliest great public spaces and the center of the first of two neighborhoods in which we stayed in Rome. More on Piazza Navona in a later post.

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By mid-afternoon, with a mix of tired and elation, we were ready for our hotel and our hotel was now ready for us. On a narrow street tucked directly behind the northwest corner of Piazza Navona is the vine-covered facade of a lovely, small and elegant hotel — Hotel Raphael. (Spoiler alert: This is quite a pricey hotel.) As we were there in the tail end of winter, the vine-covered facade was barren of leaves. You can click on the link above to get a photo gallery of the hotel including stunning photos of its green-wrapped facade.

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We are greeted by a neatly tailored and professionally reserved staff who, when engaged were friendly and easy to smile. With fifty rooms and suites, the hotel combines the patina of age with a modern but still warm and comfortable interior. There are traditional rooms and a series of rooms and suites designed by renowned architect Richard Meier. Two now weary travelers settled into our a lovely room with blond woods, sleek cream-colored waxed walls, high-style bathroom and all the standard comforts of a luxury hotel. (Life is good.)

We asked the desk clerk who showed us to our room whether he was from Rome. He told us that he was from Tuscany. He worked in Rome half the year, but that it was too expensive — OK for tourists but very difficult financially for Romans. He returned to Tuscany the other half of the year where life was easier.

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A lovely buffet breakfast served in the Hotel Raphael’s elegant dining room is included in the room price.

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The hotel fronted on a charming mini-piazza and if you have a room facing on to the piazza you get a nice view through the vines. Our room faced the aging building across the alley where a neighboring pigeon lived.

Hotel Raphael, Largo Febo, 2

Dinner at Grano

Selecting restaurants in Rome is a challenge. While it is true that it may be hard to get a bad meal in Rome, there is no shortage of ordinary restaurants. And with so many really good restaurants lurking amongst the ordinary, it’s a shame to waste a meal on ordinary. The challenge comes from the vast quantity of restaurants and how little unanimity there is on restaurants that are special. My selection approach was to catalogue restaurants from review sources with the goal of finding those that appeared on more than one list. My list did not include the crowd-sourced Trip Advisor that is ubiquitous on the internet and suffers from common denominator. Rather I consulted sources ranging from the New York Times to food blogs about Rome to articles in food-oriented publications. It was rare that I found a restaurant appearing on more than one list. At a point we connected with a foodie-friend who lives in Rome and he helped with additional names and editorial guidance. Left with more restaurants than meals, we did our best to make selections with nearly all being really good, some being excellent and a few just ordinary. If you follow along in the blog I will help you compile a list. I am sure there are many other restaurants that could appear on such a list.

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Our hotel was about a fifteen minute walk in the rain from Grano  — one small piazza behind the piazza on which sits one of the seminal buildings in the history of the world architecture  – the Pantheon. We will return to the Pantheon in a future post. Grano translates in English as wheat.

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It is paradox that a tourist regards a good restaurant find as one that has few, if any, tourists. A fair assumption is that locals know best where to eat so a restaurant loaded with locals is an affirmation of your choice.  So when you go to a restaurant you play a little mind game of “identify the tourists.” If you identify many you think that maybe you made a bad choice. Romans generally look different from tourists and if you are unsure, check out the shoes where differences are most readily revealed. On the other hand, despite a quest for tourist-free restaurants,  it helps that someone working in the restaurant speaks some menu English. So your ideal goal is a largely tourist-free restaurant that has someone who can speak to you about food in your native language. A menu in English makes ordering easier but is also a troubling sign as it suggests an overly tourist-friendly place. Oh, it’s such a delicate balance.

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Grano’s three small warmly modern rooms provided seating for about fifty guests.

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Saturday night at 9PM it was full. Quirky contemporary art adorned white-painted walls. It’s approach to food echoed its decor — clean, simple, uncomplicated – no contrivances or fussiness.

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Our English-able waiter brought us a basket of assorted house-made rolls — always a good sign when a restaurant makes its own rolls. Restaurants charge for bread and bring it to your table without asking. Here bread was E1,50. Bottled water is also offered for a small price with a choice of with or without gas — called frizzante which is a fun word to say. Most restaurants filter and carbonate their own water. Non-bottled water is perfectly safe to drink. Grano offered an English menu. We were, after all, in the middle of one of the most tourist-dense areas in the entire world!

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Rome’s province of Lazio is not known for its wine and little of it is found exported to the United States. Yet, as it’s said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Throughout our trip we drank mostly local wines — from Lazio and then from the province of Campania of which Naples is capital. The wines were uniformly enjoyable and in several instances — especially in Campania, we discovered wines that we will seek out at home. As we considered our menus, we enjoyed a Franciacorta Rose, a dry rose with a slight sparkle from Lombardy. Our dinner wine was a Cesanese, from Lazio – a very old red grape that may have been used in ancient Roman wine making.

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For starters: Three fish tartares – tuna, grouper, something else — coarsely chopped fish, not much else with a little olive oil. The clean taste of the fresh fish shinned through.

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Anchovies “in carozza” was alternating layers of mozzarella and anchovies in a light batter fried with leek sauce. Nothing special — too much breading obscured the cheese and anchovy.

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Paccheri de gragnano with codfish was big, fat, perfectly chewy pasta tubes with tomato, cod and an occasional raisin.

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Squid poached and breaded with aromatic herbs & marinated tomatoes.

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A seared sea bass with “rice” potatoes . The potato actually had the appearance of rice with the texture of potato. Thin slices of green olives finished the simple and straightforward dish. For dessert we enjoyed Zeppole, a warm, just-fried donut with vanilla ice cream and a touch of vanilla custard on bottom and a small serving of house-made pistachio gelato.

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After dessert we enjoyed a Hauner Malvasia della Lipari, a light sweet wine from Sicily. Finally, we sipped espresso that arrived with chocolate-covered orange peel. Dinner at Grano came to E145 — about $185 for  perfect first evening in Rome. A service charge is not added as it is said that service is included in the price of the food. In general, we added a 10% tip.

Grano, Piazza Rondanini, 53

Tired, thrilled with our first day, we headed back to our hotel in a light rain. Our plan for tomorrow was to meet a guide at our hotel at 2PM who would introduce us to ancient Rome at the Colosseum and Forum.

Buona notte.

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Thanksgiving House Cocktail: Bourbon-Rosemary Sour

Serving a “House Cocktail” as guests arrive sets a welcome and festive tone. Bourbon is the quintessential American liquor and the perfect complement to Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday! Rosemary provides a seasonally appropriate fall accent. Best of all, it’s an easy and delicious start to Thanksgiving. If you are a guest this Thanksgiving, consider providing this House Cocktail for your host because easy home entertaining is a team sport. You can mix it all ahead of time and bring in a pitcher along with some rosemary sprigs and lemon slices. All your host needs to provide are the glasses and ice.

There is no real substitute for fresh lemon juice though Whole Foods carries a jarred Lemon Juice product in the juice aisle that is acceptable. Under no circumstances use jarred Real Lemon available in standard supermarkets. Typically lemonade is made with equal parts lemon juice and simple syrup but this recipe backs off some of the syrup, thus the “sour.”  Caution: This spiked “lemonade” goes down very easily.

Thanksgiving Bourbon-Rosemary Sour

2 cups fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups rosemary syrup (See recipe below)
1 1/2 cups bourbon
Rosemary sprigs for garnish plus for rosemary syrup recipe below
8 lemon slices — seeds removed
Serves 8

Note: The juiciness of lemons is very variable. As a result, it is difficult to tell you exactly how many lemons you will need to make 2 cups of fresh lemon juice. I needed 8 lemons. They were unusually juicy. You may need more.

In a pitcher or other convenient pouring container, combine lemon juice, rosemary syrup and bourbon. Mix well. Fill glass with ice. Pour 1/2 cup mix into each glass. Stir well. Garnish with rosemary sprig and lemon slice. The half cup of mix per drink includes 1 1/2 ounces of bourbon so do not over-pour. Encourage your guests to savor and not slug.

Rosemary Simple Syrup
1 cup + 2 Tb sugar
1 cup + 1 oz water
4 sprigs rosemary
Yield 1 1/2 cups syrup

In a small pot, combine sugar and water. Simmer over moderate heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally, about 1–2 minutes. Add rosemary. Simmer for 3 — 5  minutes until rosemary wilts and gives up its color, then remove from heat. Cool for at least one hour or overnight. Strain out rosemary before using. Store in refrigerator.

There are six syrup recipes in At Home on Page 44 along with a tip on using Simple Syrups. One Thanksgiving dessert we are serving on Thursday is roasted pears basted with a syrup sweetened with honey as well as sugar and spiced with star anise, cardamom and coriander seed. See our complete menu below.

Five or six rosemary sprigs, about 20 to 25 total inches of rosemary. You will also need rosemary sprigs to garnish the drink.

When you start, the rosemary will be stiff and the leaves a strong green as pictured above. Simmer sprigs in syrup until they wilt and give up their bright color and turn somewhat khaki-colored. Take care to just simmer slowly. Leave the sprigs in syrup until ready to use. Strain out sprigs before using syrup.

Our 2012 Thanksgiving
Lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving — not the least of which is the recent election result. We are enjoying Thanksgiving at home with our extended family. Christina’s brother Larry and my son Noah will help with selected dishes and pitch-in with turn-out. Christina will take care of  getting our apartment ready and setting our table. We still have to do our wine shopping. I will do the flowers on Wednesday.

I am in good shape with my advance preparation — confident I will get at least one relaxed hour before guests arrive Thanksgiving Day. Probably more. Saturday I finished most of my shopping at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market and made cornbread. Since for me shopping is a pleasure, I started my Sunday at the Headhouse Farmers’ Market. Sunday is my watch football while preparing my gravy day. I prepare my do-ahead gravy with turkey legs and finish it with the pan juices after the “real turkey” comes out of the oven on Thursday.  (The food prep part was infinitely more fun than watching the Eagles!)

On Sunday, I also made the base for the ice cream that I will freeze Monday, the syrup for the roasted pears, peeled the celery root and sliced and rinsed the leeks for the gratin, prepped the turnips and carrots, peeled and sliced the kohlrabi, toasted the pinenuts for the kale, grated the cheese for the gratin, as well as made the sausage and vegetable components for the cornbread stuffing that I will combine on Wednesday. One last thing: I crumbled and toasted the cornbread to give it a nuttier flavor than simply baked cornbread.

Our At Home Thanksgiving 2012 Menu

House Cocktail
Bourbon-Rosemary Sour

Hors d’oeuvres
Larry’s Gougere
Oysters Rockefeller
Shaved Cauliflower & Fennel Salad
Diver Scallops “Sashimi” with Confetti of Granny Smith Apples
Roasted Baby Carrots & Hakurei Turnips
Raw Kohlrabi

Dinner Buffet
Roast Turkey
Tarragon Gravy
Gingered Cranberry-Onions Relish
Renaissance Chicken Sausage, Chanterelle & Cornbread Stuffing
Smashed Kubocha Squash with Confit of Onions — Larry is making this from last week’s NY Times Food Section
Gratin of Leeks & Celery Root
Sautéed Dinosaur Kale with Pinenuts & Raisins

Desserts
Ginny’s Pumpkin Pie
Commissary Pecan Pie
Roasted Pears with Star Anise, Cardamom & Coriander Seed
Burndt Orange-Caramel Ice Cream with Sea Salt

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Happy Thanksgiving 2012

At Home has been lying dormant for some time. But with start of the holiday season and Thanksgiving just a few days away, I thought it would be useful to re-post one in a series of Thanksgiving and holiday entertaining installments as a re-introduction to the timeless and useful at home entertaining information available here. This is one of my favorite posts as it applies to far more people than the people who cook and host Thanksgiving dinner…

Thanksgiving: At Guide for Guests  Pass it on!

A sweet Thanksgiving illustration — Apple & Cranberries — to make you smile from my friend Pascal Lemaitre.

The At Home website is currently not functioning due to a dispute that I am having with the web-host over a long-ago invoice. (Not very nice hosts.) Hopefully, we will resolve the dispute soon. If you want to purchase At Home as a gift to yourself or others, you may still do so by going to our At Home shop on Amazon.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

Your Home Entertaining Coach,

Steve

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A Summer Dinner At Home for a Good Cause and Guests We Don’t Know

Early in my wife Christina’s career she was the Managing Director of The Philadelphia Theater Company and worked alongside then and now Artistic Director Sara Garonzik. We donated a Dinner for Six in our home to their annual auction to support their continued efforts to produce, develop and present “entertaining and imaginative contemporary theater focused on the American experience that ignites the intellect and touches the soul.” (From PTC’s Artistic Mission Statement.)  Tonight  six folks we have never met are coming to dinner.

It is pleasure for me to cook for others — especially so when I am able to live by what I preach… plan ahead and spread your tasks over time. So two weeks ago after my regular Saturday stroll through the Rittenhouse Square Farmer’s Market, I came up with my initial menu plan. I think of it as seasonal and smart.  Seasonal of course. Smart because I want to enjoy my guests as well as cook for my guests. My goal in planning tonight’s menu is to serve a ridiculously elaborate and beautifully seasonal dinner and minimize what I had to do when guests were at the table. I also wanted a menu that allowed me to maximize what I could do well in advance and especially what I had to do the day of the dinner. I was going for not just one relaxed hour before guests arrive — what I believe all hosts deserve, but the better part of a reasonably relaxed and enjoyable day.

Here’s the final menu that I printed for our guests.

The Philadelphia Theater Company
Auction Dinner
Hors d’oeuvres
Squash blossoms stuffed with Hillacres Pride ricotta
Blini with crème fraiche & California hackleback caviar
Grilled Renaissance sausage with garlic scape pesto
Fire-roasted sweet peppers & white anchovy crostini
Jersey tomatoes & fresh chickpeas with crabmeat
Chinon “La Cravantine” Domaine Gasnier

Dinner
Ceviche of Barnegat scallops
Orange essence & pink peppercorns
Z Food Farm pickled beets & chilled ginger-beet soup
Arneis “Bricco delle Ciliegie” Giovanni Almondo 2011

Seared  Atlantic tuna taco
Sesame-cucumber relish
Shiso aioli
Nahe Riesling “Lenz” Weingut Emrich-Schönleber 2011

Charcoal-grilled Griggstown Farm quail
Lemongrass & coriander
Green papaya salad
“Becco Rosso” Corte Gardoni 2010

Braised veal cheeks
Ratatouille & corn cake
Morgon “Côte de Puy” Domaine de Robert

Local artisanal cheeses
Birchrun Hills Fat Cat (Chester Springs, PA)
Birchrun Hills Blue (Chester Springs, PA)
De Glae Lanchego (Lancaster, PA)
Valley Sheperd Crontin de Chevre  (Long Valley, NJ)
Shellbark Hollow Sharp Chevre (West Chester, PA)
Local honey • Apricot butter • Candied walnuts
Metropolitan Bakery breads
Terres de Fagayra Maury Blanc 2009

Cardamom-poached Three Springs Fruit Farm Peaches
Biddle Woods lavender ice cream
Gooseberries & blackberries

French Press Espresso
Saturday, July 14, 2014

What follows is a kind of home entertaining case study. I am not suggesting that you attempt to replicate this exact menu in your home. I have been doing this professionally and recreationally for more than forty years. But I do suggest that you use this as a model of planning ahead and spreading tasks over time so that you too can have at least one relaxed our before guests arrive.

Early Saturday Morning
It’s about ten hours until guests arrive. All is well. I began planning and preparation two full weeks in advance by planning the menu, scheduling my shopping and food preparation tasks. My very first task was pickling the beets that I bought two weeks ago from my friend, farmer Dave at his Z Food Farm stand in Rittenhouse Square. Z Food Farm is located in Lawrenceville, NJ. On my stroll through the market that Saturday, in addition to pink Chioggia and golden beets, I noted garlic scapes, squash blossoms, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash, early corn, the first apricots of the season, and beautiful scallops and tuna. So, my menu plan began with essentially a list of seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. Since shopping in a farmer’s market is a pleasure, I looked forward to this morning’s trip to pick-up “day of” ingredients as well as flowers.

Why is it that it’s hot and sunny all week without quenching rain to water thirsty crops and on Saturday when farmers have a single day to sell the fruit and vegetables of their labors, it rains? Why in the wealthiest country in the history of civilization do 43 million people not have health insurance? These and other questions about life will be left to ponder. (Actually for more on the one about health insurance see the postscript at the end of this post.)

Suffice it to say that the best laid plans of spontaneity cooking oft go astray. No golden raspberries so I switch to blackberries. Renaissance Sausage’s stand re-emerged after a few weeks absence with no fennel-pork sausage. But the tuna is gorgeous, the scallops plump and the flowers spectacular.

Dave’s first crop of exotic cucumbers appeared today even though Dave did not. Dave left the stand to his mom and dad as he tended a fresh crop of field volunteers. That’s Dave’s stand and his mom and dad.

Late Saturday Morning
There are now about eight hours to guests. My primary tasks are to do the things I could not do days ahead — prepare the  corn cakes, the cucumber relish, the squash blossoms, slice the scallops and the various herb leaves I plan to use to garnish courses. I also make a few made a few minor revisions to the menu.

The first order of business was doing the flowers. I have been arranging flowers since 1972 when I was a busboy at La Panetiere. The late proprietor Peter von Starck, who prior to my arrival did all of La Panetiere’s arrangements, gradually taught me the art of flower arranging and so began my love affair with flowers.

Soaking wet from the Saturday down-pour, I arrived home armed — literally — with flowers. The Rittenhouse Square Farmer’s Market includes two flower stands including one with farm fresh flowers from an Amish farm in Lancaster.

We were given a wonderful wedding gift some years ago — about twenty-four narrow tubes, flexibly joined together a bit like a snake so that you can shape your arrangement many different ways. The tubes hold the flower stems erect and make for very easy arranging. We were using a round table for our dinner instead of our standard rectangular dining room table. A round arrangement was in order — low so people could easily see and talk over it. Since Christina wanted candles on the table, first I tried placing the candle holders and candles in the hollow center. But I didn’t want the candles too high either. The right height candles were too low to work in the center. That’s when I had the bright idea of putting votive candles in the hollow center so that they would candlelight would shine through the glass tubes. This worked to magnificent affect.

Sometimes flower arrangements are meant to be looked at from only one direction so you can make the arrangement looking at it from that direction. But often arrangements are meant to be looked at from all around including the centerpiece for our table. Here was my second bright idea. As long as I have been arranging flowers, it never occurred to me place the evolving arrangement on to a revolving platform.  There are cake decorating stands that rotate. Our bakers use them all the time to decorate cakes in the round. In preparation of making as much empty counter space as possible for dinner turn-out, I had done some re-arranging. This resulted in an empty Lazy Susan sitting on the counter. Suddenly it occurred to me to pick-up my vase and plop it on the the Lazy Susan. Viola!

So at the tender age of 65+ and feeling like a reasonably smart fellow, I discover that I’m not so smart after all. For how many years have I been walking around my flower arrangements to get an all around view or carefully turning the vase occasionally to get a different vantage point? Now, with my arrangement smartly placed on my Lazy Susan, a simple spin enabled me to simply and constantly look at my developing arrangement in the round. I assume “real florists.” like real bakers have been doing this for years. Who knew?

The finished arrangement placed on the set table.

Here are a collection of arrangements I made for the dining room breakfront, the coffee table and the bathroom. In total the flowers cost just under $50 and I thoroughly enjoyed making the arrangements.

Friday Evening
Entertaining at home is a team sport and Christina and I make-up the team. She handles, in restaurant parlance, the “front of the house” while I handle the back of the house…aka, the kitchen. Early in the week Christina began “de-cluttering” as she calls it. A ‘de-cluttered’ apartment turns out to be a residual benifit of home entertaining. People who are familiar with my At Home blog and book — At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining — know that I utilize repositionable address labels for organizing my tasks. This is something I developed many years ago for Frog Commissary Catering. So when time comes for Christina to get to work, I give her a sheet of these labels on which I have indicated everything that we will need for each course. She uses these to pull what we need and the label gets affixed. So, for instance, we needed a platter for the crostini hors d’oeuvres. Christina knows that from the label. She picks the platter and places it in the kitchen with its label so I know what it’s for. Organization is the foundation of enjoyable home entertaining and the more organized the hosts, the more enjoyable it is for both hosts and guests.

By Friday evening the table was set and plates, flatware and glassware organized for our six-course dinner.

Friday Afternoon
Shopping is certainly a big part of home entertaining, but if you don’t feel rushed, shopping can be a pleasure and not a chore. My Friday afternoon shopping objectives included picking up the wine from Moore Brothers, trying to track down a better small container for the first course’s cold gingered-beet soup than the ceramic sake cups that we had, buying the green papaya at my favorite Asian market and the fresh-made corn tortillas from Tortilleria San Roman.

Earlier in the week I had emailed the menu to Greg Moore – a Moore brother — with the request to pick a sparkling wine for cocktails and pair wines for dinner. I gave Greg a budget range of no more that $20-$25 a bottle. An email a few days later included Greg’s recommendations. While I knew of none of the wines, I knew that Greg and Moore Brothers have a deep knowledge of the wines they carefully select for their stores.

I had looked online for small glasses with a base that would fit into the cut-out in the little plate I planned to use for the first course. It was there that I discovered  Gourmet of Old City right here at 26 North 3rd Street in Philadelphia. The shop had exactly what I needed — a clear glass sake cup with a small foot.

After swinging by San Roman at 9th & Carpenter to get the best of Philly (at least I think so) fresh corn tortillas,  it was off to Hung Vuong Asian Market on the 1100 block of Washington Avenue. It is in the same shopping center as our favorite Vietnamese restaurant — Nam Phuong. (My second date with Christina some seven years ago was dinner at Nam Phuong and a tour of Hung Voung! Tres romatic.) Hung Voung carries the green papaya I needed for the green papaya slaw that would  accompany the quail and they have it and carrots pre-shredded that makes preparing this salad a snap. I shop at Hung Voung regularly and a week earlier I picked up kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass that I needed for marinating the quail. (Restaurant alert: The grilled quail that I planned to serve was inspired by the roasted quail that Nam Phuong serves.)

Friday Morning
My stroll through the farmer’s market nearly two weeks ago inspired me to serve ratatouille with the veal cheeks. Last Saturday I purchased the requisite ingredients — zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes (I decided to use little orange Sungolds), onion and garlic. They sat quietly in my refrigerator. I didn’t want to make the ratatouille too far in advance, but Friday morning seemed perfectly fine.

I also removed the quail from the marinade and carefully scraped off the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. I dried the quail and stored them between paper towels to remove any residual moisture.

Thursday Afternoon
I had a long-scheduled meeting at Reading Terminal Market on Thursday afternoon so I knew that I could pick-up cheeses from the Fair Food Farm Stand’s. Fair Food is a pioneer in championing the growing bounty of locally-sourced farm products. The prior Sunday I had picked up at the Head House Farmer’s Market a Fat Cat from Birchrun Hills. That was a start, but I had my eye on a selection of five cheese. If you have not yet discovered the world-class quality of local cheeses, Fair Food is the place to start as well as at farmer’s markets throughout the Delaware Valley.

Thursday morning
I skimmed off the fat from the veal cheek braising liquid and reduced the liquid by about two thirds until it was very concentrated. Yum.

Wednesday
I trimmed the quail and marinated them. I removed the braised veal cheeks from their braising liquid and strained the liquid and refrigerated.

Tuesday
I chopped the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass for the quail and made the marinade. I made the dressing – essentially the same as the marinade –  for the green papaya salad.

I removed the veal cheeks from their white wine marinade, patted them dry, lightly floured and carefully browned. I divided the cheeks between two pans over a layer of chopped carrots, celery and onion, peeled garlic cloves and  parsley, rosemary and thyme. I added the wine marinade and some additional wine. Next I covered the pans with foil, poked some holes in the foil so the cheeks would braise and not steam and placed in a 250 degree oven. When finished six hours later, the cheeks had shrunk to a little more than half their former size and plumped up. After they cooled in the braising liquid, I transferred the cheeks to a smaller refrigerator-friendly container and strained the braising liquid and refrigerated.

Monday
I chopped the kaffir lime leaves and lemongraas for the quail, made the gingered-beet soup, roasted. peeled, julienned and marinated the sweet peppers for the crostini, chopped the onions, carrot and celery and peeled the garlic for braising the veal cheeks.

The Prior Weekend
I bought the peaches several days ago so that they could ripen. By Saturday weekend they were ripe. I peeled the peaches. As these were the first crop of summer peaches, they are what are called “cling” meaning that the peach flesh clings to the pit. Later in the summer “freestones” arrive. Because these were cling peaches, I had to take particular care  freeing them from their pits without bruising by cutting small wedges and nudging them. Once freed from the pits the peaches were poached in a cardamom-infused syrup. I removed the peaches when they were not quite done as they would continue to cook and I did not want them to become too soft. Once the peaches and liquid had cooled combined and refrigerated.

Sunday began with a trip to the Head House Farmer’s Market where I purchased frozen Griggstown quail. I would have preferred fresh, but practicality took hold as fresh would have required a two plus hour round trip to the Griggstown Farm above Princeton. I picked up the fresh ricotta from Hillacres Pride and found shiso leaves.

The Week Before
Of the six dinner courses, only two curses were hot and only one required actual last-minute cooking. The other could be prepared entirely in advance and just reheated. Before planning the menu I had checked with our dinner guests as to whether there were any food issues. Veal cheeks fit the in advance bill. I first prepared braised veal cheeks some three and a half years ago when I was working on the menu for Christina’s and my wedding at The Franklin Institute.

Unfortunately it is not easy to find veal cheeks. Calling around, I located them at Esposito’s on 9th Street — across from San Roman on Carpenter. Though veal checks are small, I needed only one per person as all the courses in the multi-course meal were meant to be small. The problem is that Esposito’s only sold veal cheeks by the 10-pound case — about 32 veal cheeks for $129. I was mentally committed so I purchased the case, reasoning that I would braise them all and freeze what I did not need for another time.

Preparing veal cheeks is a simple process. The most difficult part is trimming away the “silver skin” that covers the entire of the top side and some of bottom. It takes a very sharp knife, patience and about an hour.  with that accomplished, I rubbed the cheeks with a mixture of toasted crushed fennel and coriander seed and let it sit for two days. Next I added a white Rhone — a viognier — and let them sit another two days.  Veal cheeks are typically marinated and braised in red wine. But I wanted a light summer version. At this point I had been “working on” my veal cheeks for four days, but only about an hour and a half.

One Relaxed Hour
I enjoyed my Saturday. Inevitably there was more to do than I had anticipated but at no point did I feel hassled, out of control and resentful — all feelings that I have known when I have entertained at home without adequate planning and spreading tasks over time. Paul, our wonderful Frog Commissary waiter had arrived. Christina went over the plan for the evening, the wines and I reviewed the menu and the plating plan. By 5:30 I was taking a nap.

A Half Hour Before Guests Arrive
About a half hour before guests arrived I arranged the cold hors d’oeuvre platters, pulled things from the refrigerator, reviewed my course labels and set the charcoal in the grill. Christina appeared in the kitchen with a glass of sparkling wine to get the evening started. Shortly after seven the guests arrived. Christina and I were looking forward to an enjoyable evening.

Hors d’oeuvres and Cocktails
I have two principal dictums for guests. One is do not arrive early. Despite my pleas to plan ahead and spread tasks over time, there are still last minute things for hosts to do so one thing they don’t need to do is to begin entertaining you before the appointed hour. My second dictum is for guests to stay out of the kitchen unless invited.

Our evening began in our living room with the coffee table was invitingly set with champagne glasses, small plates, cocktail napkins and a few cold hors d’oeuvres. As guests arrived we poured the Chinon La Cravantine Vignoble Gasnier Non-vintage, a sparkling French wine (it was Bastille Day) from the Loire with a slightly pink cast. (Note: The two red velvet covered chairs in the photo background come from the Orchestra Boxes of the Academy of Music — a fundraising benefit in return for a contribution Christina made to the Academy some time ago.)

Roasted sweet peppers, marinated in olive oil and garlic on top of a small crostini cut from a ficelle (essentially a small baguette) and topped with white anchovies. White anchovies are available in specialty food stores such as DiBruno’s and online. A little sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley added some color.

Squash blossoms are a beautiful and edible by-product of growing zucchini and other summer squash. Here they are stuffed with a mix of Hillacres Pride ricotta that I picked up at the Head House Farmers Market and mascarpone with some chopped basil, mint, salt and pepper. I used a pastry bag to stuff the flowers.


Last Sunday at Head House I bought a pint of fresh chickpeas. These have a very short local season. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them and they just sat in my refrigerator. I was uninspired. As the dinner approached it was now or never. I blanched the chickpeas and removed them from their pods. This is a slow and tedious process and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert help get this done. I peeled two ripe red tomatoes, seeded and removed the juice and diced. I threw a little olive oil and garlic into a pan, lightly browned the garlic, added the chickpeas and Allepo pepper, cooking until the tomatoes broke down and thickened. I served this cold with a little fresh crab meat and some cooked tomato on top. It sits on a platter on a bed of dried beans to stabilize the little porcelain spoons.

This hors d’oeuvres’s origin was my love of the early summer arrival of garlic scapes — the long green shoots that emanate from hardneck Rocombole garlic. Garlic scapes appear for about a month beginning in late Spring. Usually I just grill them  – sometimes blanching first. But garlic scapes also lend themselves to garlic scape pesto. Ah, but what to put the pesto on? I am a big fan of our local Renaissance Sausage. I was first introduced to them when they operated a truck at Head House where their Breakfast Sausage Sandwich was a Sunday highlight for scores of Society Hill and Queen Village shoppers. I had trouble tracking down the sausage — only able to find vegetarian sausage at Green Aisle Grocery in South Philadelphia. They often have a retail stand in the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market but they had been AWOL for the past several weeks. I sent an email to them and learned that they would indeed return on Saturday as they did. But they had no Italian style pork sausage. I had to settle for their Country Pork Sausage, laden with herbs that were going to compete with my basil-infused garlic scape pesto. Not ideal, but good enough.

Caviar is always a treat. Here I serve it on blini that I had in the freezer — leftover from a Frog Commissary catered event and creme fraiche. The caviar is a California Hackelback — the best barely affordable domestic caviar. With mostly cold hors d’oeuvres, my kitchen time was kept to a minimum. We also had Paul, a wonderful Frog Commissary waiter to help with service. I fully understand that you likely will not have a waiter for your dinner for eight, but the principles of do ahead and lots of room temperature items stand. Having a waiter enabled Christina to hold down the fort with our guests while I was in the kitchen. If were were serving dinner to friends and family Christina would be more able to help serve as would friends and family!

Dinner is served
Shortly before calling guests to dinner I retreated to the kitchen where the elements of each course — what is called mis en place in kitchen parlance — were carefully arranged on an otherwise clear counter. Affixed to the cabinet above the mis en place was a little label that reminded me what went with what. My experience is that the more I have written down the less I have to remember and the more likely I am  do what I planned. (My otherwise marvelously capable late mother was known to find the salad she had prepared for guests still in the refrigerator long after the last guest departed. I am sure had she written down “serve salad she would have avoided this sad outcome.) I started the fire in the little Japanese grill that sits on our fire escape so the charcoal would be ready to grill the quail about an hour into the dinner. I removed the quail from the refrigerator. I dressed the green papaya salad. Removed the cheese from the refrigerator to temper. Placed the veal cheeks and ratatouille in a 300 degree oven to slowly warm. I quickly seared and sliced the tuna for the taco.

Our first course — preset and on the table as guests sat — was inspired by a recent trip to Berlin where at a restaurant named Bandol we had a wonderful dinner and encountered the plate pictured above. (Not that exact plate!) It is hard to understand scale in the photo. The plate, which looks like slate but is actually porcelain, is only slightly bigger than a 3 x 5 card. Upon returning home I tracked them down online at Chef’s Arsenal and ordered ten. This was my first chance to use them. The course included little wedges of pickled — the predominant pickling flavor being star anise – thin-sliced pristine sea scallops that sat for a few hours in fresh orange juice. I dressed the scallops with a little lime juice, a drizzle of peppery olive oil, fresh chives, a crunchy pink sea salt and a few pink peppercorns. The soup was a gingered red beet puree with a tiny chive blossom. All pretty as a picture.

Our wine was a 2011 Roero Arneis “Bricco delle Ciliegie” Giovanni Almonde. From the Piedmont area of Italy, it paired perfectly with the little study in beets and scallops.

I have come to love little tacos. This one was inspired by the shiso leaves that I found at Head House last Sunday. The taco is cut to about a 3 3/4″ size with a circle cutter and lightly warmed in a dry pan to soften. Next a large shiso leaf. Next a relish of two types of cucumbers from Z Food Farm dressed with rice vinegar, a little olive oil and soy sauce. On top of that was the Atlantic tuna that had been cut into 3/4″ square logs and very quickly seared, sliced and arranged on a platter into eight portions. The tuna was topped with a shiso aioli — essentially a garlicky mayonnaise with lots of crushed shiso leaves and finally topped with a  chiffonade of  and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. I know this sounds fabulously complicated but everything was prepared ahead and it took maybe two minutes to assemble these on to waiting plates.

Greg Moore suggested a Nahe Riesling “Lenz” Weingut Emrich-Schönleber 2011. In Germany we came to appreciate Reislings and loved that Greg introduced one for our dinner.

On to the Griggstown Farm quail. As noted above, these had been marinated for two days in a marinade of chopped kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, rice vinegar, palm sugar, fish sauce and a little chili garlic sauce. The green papaya slaw was dressed and ready to go. I just had to grill the quail which took about three minutes. I brush the quail with a little olive oil. In grilling I had to be careful with the quail because the sugar from the marinade which helps color the skin when it caramelizes over the coals, can easily go too far and burn. The cilantro leaves had been picked during the afternoon. To assemble a small mound of green papaya slaw went down on the plate, topped with some crushed peanuts, then the quail and a few cilantro leaves. One hot item and a simple plate.

For the quail Greg suggested a Bardolino, a light fowl-friendly Italian red  — “Becco Rosso” Corte Gardoni 2010

Here are the veal cheeks, set on a small bed of ratatouille with a little corn cake. When I served the quail I had popped the corn cakes into a 350 degree toaster oven. The veal cheeks and ratatouille were hot and sitting happily in a 200 degree oven. I had a very concentrated reduction of the braising liquid that went into the microwave for a minute just before serving. I small spoon of that glazed the veal cheeks just before serving. A few flat leaf parsley leaves — pre-picked from their stems and stored between two damp layers of paper towel — added a touch of color. The veal cheeks were meltingly soft and carried the flavor of the coriander and fennel seed rub beautifully. The plate was 12″ in diameter and had a little “belly” for the food to sit. Nice.

In keeping with the light preparation of the veal cheeks, we served a light French cru BeaujolaisMorgon “Côte de Puy” Domaine de Robert. Perfect.

Our guests loved the cheeses, all produced within fifty miles of where we were sitting. Accompanying the cheeses were Metropolitan Bakery breads, lightly toasted, candied walnuts, a few flatbreads from DiBruno’s and a wonderful apricot butter that I made from local apricots.

For a wine Greg bypassed the obvious third red in favor or a light fortified white that he suggested would work wonderfully for both the cheese and dessert course. Of course, he was right. The wine was a Terres de Fagayra Maury Blanc 2009 from the Languedoc region of southern France. It was uncanny how Greg seemed to channel the menu and select really delightful and interesting wines, perfectly complimenting the food and adding immeasurably to our dining experience.

On our very first date I made lavender ice cream for Christina and it’s always been a favorite of hers. Dessert on a triangular plate included the cardamom-poached peaches, just-picked fat and juicy blackberries from Beechwood Orchards, a gooseberry split in half and, of course, the lavender ice cream. To add a touch of chocolate, I picked up Saturday from DiBruno’s chocolate-covered figs — an unnecessary addition, but what the heck!

The Party’s Over

We certainly had lots of food and wine, but the portions were all quite small and the dinner itself paced over about three plus hours. And here’s the very best part. Having six people to your home (three couples) who you have never met is like a blind date in which you skip the part about having coffee first and go straight to a long evening with no graceful exit if the chemistry isn’t right. Well, the chemistry was as good as the food and wine. Our guests were warm, interesting and engaged. When all was said and done, six strangers who came to our home for dinner in support of a good cause left as our friends.

Election Postscript
I am devoting much of my time between now and November 6th to the Obama Campaign. I am what is called an Obama Fellow — a nice title for “very serious volunteer.” I have some time and made the decision that when I wake up on November 7th I want to feel as though I did all that I could to re-elect President Obama. While I do not agree with everything he has done, I believe the choice is simple and binary — Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Obama needs 270 electoral votes to be re-elected. Pennsylvania is one of a dozen critical battleground states that will determine the outcome of the election. With 20 votes, Pennsylvania has more electoral votes than any of the battleground states other than Florida which has 29. It is difficult to see a path to winning for Obama without winning Pennsylvania.

My focus is the area of Philadelphia called Center City West — where I have lived and worked for more than forty years. I know many blog readers live in Center City West and/or know people who do. The campaign needs volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering in Center City West or know of others, you can email me at steve@athomebysteveposes.com. Otherwise, go to barackobama.com.

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Filed under Entertaining at Home, Family and Friends, Menus, My Life, On the Table

A Tale of Three Cities

It has been quite a while since my last post. To some degree I got a bit burned out on blogging and other priorities surfaced in my life — like having a less food-centered life. With regard to the latter, I have been reasonably successful having maintained a weight loss of sixty pounds for about a year. I had lost more than sixty pounds and simple math will quickly reveal that I have put some back on. In the spirit of the glass half full (or half empty in this case) I am trying to stay focused on how much I successfully have kept off rather than the “paltry amount” that I regained. I wake up each morning with the intention of continuing to lose and getting to the gym more often. Some days are more successful than others. I am committed to lose more weight and get healthier. But first…

Christina and I leave tomorrow for a two-week trip that will take us to three great cities — Berlin, Prague and Amsterdam. We did go to Paris for five days in the Fall (I know I have a very nice life. I feel very lucky). But somehow the arc of that trip did not lend itself to blogging. I am thinking that I will blog — perhaps some during the trip — and also upon return as I did with our trip to Lisbon last summer.

In the meantime, by way of an appetizer, I want to share a few images from an event Frog Commissary catered this past Saturday. (Yes, I do still do work.)

This is tiny Banh Mi. A Banh Mi is a “Vietnamese baguette.” For this miniature version, Frog Commissary’s bakery made tiny rolls about 2/12″ long. We cut a wedge out of the top of the roll. Next we squirted some Cilantro Aioli. Then came alternating layers of marinated and grilled skinless chicken thighs (See At Home by Steve Poses Thai Thighs on Page 190.) and Pickled Carrot and Daikon (Page 219) and a garnish of a cilantro leaf.

This is my translation of my mother’s recipe for sweet and sour stuffed cabbage (See Page 234) into Sweet and Sour Meatballs. It’s sort of stuffed cabbage without the cabbage. The container was 3 ounces and it held three half-ounce meatballs plus sauce. (We shared leftovers at home the next day — Mother’s Day — with Christina’s mother.)

There were twenty seven separate menu items, each served in or on a tiny container. Here are golden beet stars and red beet hearts dressed with a ginger vinaigrette, topped with Shellbark Hollow Sharp Chevre (available at the Fair Food Farm Stand at Reading Terminal and the Head House Square Farmer’s Market that opened two Sunday’s ago), crystalized wasabi and a leaf of microgreens. Crystalized wasabi is made with wasabi powder, sugar and water. As the paste dries you break it into small “crystals.” It adds a wonderful accent to beets.

The party included a Tri-color Caviar Station with black Hackelback, green wasabi and red tobiko and a Korean Barbecue Beef Taco. This is the taco.(See At Home Page 94 for a recipe similar to the party’s.) I braised boneless beef short ribs at 200 degrees for eighteen hours. This beef was shredded and a reduction of the braising liquid was added back. The tortillas came from Tortilleria San Romano in the Italian Market. We used a circle cutter to reduce their size to four inches. (Tortillaria San Roman, 915 South 9th Street at Carpenter. They sell corn tortillas by the kilo — about 50 per kilo for $2 –  and they are the best. If you go and buy them, please encourage them to raise the price as I think they are worth far more than they are charging.)

To assemble:
1. Warm corn tortillas on flat griddle to soften and make more pliable. Place two side-by-side in small wooden “boat.”
2. Place a scant ounce of shredded beef on each taco.
3. Add green papaya slaw
4. Add kim chee mayonnaise
5. Add toasted sesame seeds
6. Add a few leaves of ciliantro
7. Garnish wtih lime wedge.

There was some “controversy” that we did not offer forks for the taco at this fancy soiree. But these delectable tacos are meant to be consumed as a piece so you get all of these amazing flavors tumbling in your mouth and not picked at with a fork.

The party was all quite mad and wonderful. We are working on lots more photos from the event to post on Frog Commissary’s website. I will let you know when they appear.

Next stop Berlin. More to follow.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve

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