Maria’s Plum Jam

I live a luxuriously slow life.  Don’t get me wrong; you will see me puttering around Rome as fast as my short legs will carry me and I will screen your calls when I am overwhelmed with work and frantic emails.  Still, generally speaking, my days begin with a warm cup of delicious coffee sipped slowly as I browse celebrity gossip websites and listen to FM 105.6 Rete Sport, humming along to the Infissi Nettunense theme song (don’t you just love that song?!).  Also, most recently, FB and I have become proud parents to a tiny green caterpillar (more specifically, Cabbage Looper or Trichoplusia ni) who has eaten her way through my window sill shiso plant and bed of celery leaves which I laid out for her.  Every morning and afternoon for the past five days, I have spent a good few minutes observing her busy munching and my heart swells with pride for little Catherine the Caterpillar, who we expect will become a gorgeous hairy moth in a week or so.  And thus is my luxurious slow-life.

As an extension of this, I’ve recently taken to making jam on the weekends.  I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of marmalade myself, but there is something so soothing and calming about cooking fruit in sugar that I just can’t help myself.  Plums, kaki, oranges – you name it.

My first go at jam-making (jamming?) was with plums from Maria’s stand.  Very nice.  I found the easiest recipe I could online that doesn’t require pectin – I’ve also since discovered that plums, like apples, contain a lot of natural pectin – and laughed with glee (glee!) as my kitchen quickly was engulfed in a sultry cloud of fruity-sugary goodness. Voilà!


2 cups chopped plums

3/4 cup sugar

1 tbsp lemon juice

Cook plums and lemon juice on medium heat for about 5 minutes, add sugar and stir.  Cook for another 15-20 minutes until the consistency of the jam resembles thick honey.  Skim off the foam, remove from heat, and let cool.

Home Food

Ever since this NYTimes article hit the cyber waves last April, there has been a low rumbling buzz about Home Food twitching at the lips of many of my hungry comrades.  I signed up immediately and dragged my friend, MH, along for the ride.

This October, we finally managed to attend a Home Food evening at the lovely home of C and E.  We really had no idea what to expect and chatted excitedly on the bus as we headed up north-east from Testaccio.  Our excited chitty chattys were quickly muffled as we were pressed against angry, smelly commuters.  Uff. The joys of public transportation in Rome. Still, our enthusiasm and anticipation of the night quickly rose again when we approached the quaint and quiet neighborhood of C and E.

The concept of Home Food is really, quite lovely.  For a minimal fee, members have the opportunity to be invited into the homes of Italians throughout the peninsula and taste their regional “home” recipes.  It is not your normal home dinner party, nor is it a restaurant.  The beauty of this program lies within the delicate and almost surreal experience of being in a stranger’s home, with a group of others, and enjoy a family-style meal of delicious food over fun conversation and discoveries.

Menus, which are pre-approved by the organization, represent traditional cuisine of the region, with a personal touch, such as a grandmother’s recipe or home-made liquor.  The menu must also include at least two certified DOP products from the region. 

Menu Profonda romanità

Sardines marinated in white wine and fennel
Gaeta olives
Endive “risotto”
Cuttlefish with peas
Chard with tomatoes and sardines
Ricotta and sambuca tart
Wine: White wine with sage aperitif, Est Est Est di Montefiascone

E, a former professional basketball player, was a relaxed spirit with a quick smile and gentle hand movements.  C is an illustrator whose passion for cooking surpasses just puttering around the kitchen.  Their shelves are lined with endless cookbooks and empty jars.  Their kitchen is a beautiful, warm room with spices from the Middle East, pots and pans from the Japan, restaurant guides and knife sharpeners.  E and C have traveled extensively, their curious minds absorbing all the world has to offer.  And yet, with both their roots deeply seated in Rome, they exude the spirits of true Romans and embrace their cultural heritage with a quiet, but unmistakable pride.We began the evening with a quick introduction of the other eight guests, all folks on vacation from the US and Canada, including real estate brokers, chefs, and publishers.  We nibbled on gaeta olives and sipped a delicious sage wine which is nothing more than sage leaves soaked in a dry white wine for a week, filtered, then mixed with a small amount of honey.  The end product is a refreshing, simple drink with a lovely aroma, perfect for an aperitif. Hey, the Romans have been doing it for centuries.

For starters, we had marinated sardines.  Unlike the average marinated sardine you will find in a trattoria, C’s sardines were very delicate without an overbearing flavor of the vinegar.  The trick? 50% wine vinegar, 50% dry white wine.  Dressed and marinated in olive oil, garlic, and fennel seeds for 24 hours.

Our first course was an old family recipe from C’s grandmother.  A thick tomato and endive “risotto”.  The quotations are there because it wasn’t a risotto in the traditional toasting-of-the-rice-adding-the-butter sense.  Instead, once the brothy sauce is made, C pours the rice into the pan and cooks it all together until it reaches a very thick consistency.  As so. I think this dish was the perfect example of a nonna-recipe.  There was something so accessible and warm about it.

Our main course was a Roman classic, cuttlefish with peas.  Normally, this is cooked in a tomato sauce but C opted to add diced tomatoes at the end as he prefers to not mask entirely the flavor of the cuttlefish. Another hit.

Just as I was patting my tummy in sheer satisfaction (though MH whisperred to me that she could totally go for thirds of the marinated sardines…) they brought out another Roman classic of (swiss) chard cooked with garlic, anchovies, and tomatoes.  The anchovies are completely dissolved in the oil and garlic, leaving only a hint of the salty aroma.  A hit and a hit.

E is in charge of desserts.  She made a beautiful ricotta and chocolate chip tart with hints of sambuca.  The crust was so good, MH asked if she could have mine.  I asked if she had eaten lunch.  She had.  “I don’t know what it is, Tina, but I can eat SO much when I’m at another person’s home! Buuuooono!” Ha.

As we passed the guest book around the table, C brought out the final ooh-aah homerun of the evening.  A series of home-made liquors bottled lovingly in gorgeous glass bottles, labeled beautifully in E’s elegant handwriting.  My favorite was the cherry liquor which is actually a fortified wine made with cherry leaves.  A generous C shared this special recipe, which we fervently scribbled in our menus, and I can only imagine how many more magical recipes and family secrets are stored in that treasure of a book.

We blew kisses to our wonderful hosts way past by bedtime and our cab ride back was a quiet meditation of the fabulous experience of the evening.  I yawned and a contact lense popped out.  I barely noticed this as I slowly drifted into a blissful food coma.  Squinting into the night, MH and I parted ways with a sleepy wave and a final “buooono”.

For more information on Home Food, click here

Sagra della Ciammaruca

Yep, that’s right. A snail fest.

And before you all squeal with disgust, let me preface this by saying that lumache (ciammaruca, in the ciociara dialect) al sugo is a time-honored traditional cuisine in central Italy. Why, Grandma Iole used to make it when FB was but a wee child racing the streets of Testaccio.

We coaxed my car, La Musette, out of her comfortable parking space on Sunday morning and took off to the quaint little town of Sambuci, less than an hour away from Rome, nestled atop a hill off the A24 highway.  My friend SI was my co-captain in this mission; he is my favorite sagra (festival) companion (this is our fourth sagra together) for various reasons. 1) He loves road trips, 2) we have the same taste in music and he makes the best bubble-gum-pop playlists, 3) he is our designated sober driver when we all have one too many glasses of wine, and 4) he has the most soothing, calming, air about him that any worry, stress, or sadness magically disappears when you see his smile and bop your head in time together to The Mickey Mouse Club.

The town of Sambuci, located about 35km east of Rome, has a population of 962, who are dear and kind, and all who were curious about the random Asian lady eating a plate of snails and snapping pictures of townsfolk.  The town boasts a gorgeous castle and garden, Castello Theodoli, built in the 13th century, and this was the site of the festival.  FB and I opted for the traditional fettucine con ciammaruche with pecorino cheese, and a bowl of ciammaruche al sugo (made with tomatoes, white wine, onions, peperoncino, and mint).  The lumache were both extremely delicate and superbly tasty – reminiscent of wild mushrooms.  The marriage of the snails with the sauce was excellent, with a consistency similar to vongole or other shellfish.

For the squeamish, no fear.  SI was hesitant to try to snails but the sagra also had delicious home-made fettucine with simple tomato sauce or pesto – made by the lovely signore of the village – and wonderful bbq-ed sausages and porchetta sandwiches.     We sat in the shade of the beautiful castle grounds, sipping our wine, our eyes lazily drooping.

On our way back to Rome, we decided to take a mini detour/adventure to the hilltop town of Saracinesco.  This was SI’s ingenious idea.  None of us had heard of this place and we had no idea where it was or what kind of surprises it would bring.

As it turns out, Saracinesco is the cutest little place you can ever imagine. 40km north-east of Rome, the teeny-tiny town of 170 inhabitants towers 900m above the Aniene river valley.

We huffed and puffed to the top of the town, oohing and aahing at the pretty little houses, colorfully dressed with flowers and bright laundry.  We felt a little like the Pied Piper, when the local kids followed us up the hill, abandoning their street-side card game, and marveled at the sheer gorgeousness of the town.

I was especially touched by the teeny tiny doors of all the houses; none measuring more than 1.5 meters in height.  In short (literally), smaller than me!

We slowly hiked down back to Musette, popped in The Hazey Janes, and quietly rumbled back to our city homes in Rome.    I’ve been particularly pensive lately about life stuff and a day trip get-away with my favorite sagra companion, breathing delicious clean air, living the slowlife and sipping my ice-cold beer in a piazza filled with children playing cards instead of video games finally put my crowded mind at ease; even if only for a moment.


I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Y’know, life stuff. Thankfully, I’m the kind of simpleton who easily finds solace in the little things like a good cocktail, trashy TV (My Life on the D-List, anyone?), dancing to Michael Jackson on rooftops, and well, cooking.  On this particularly pensive day, I decided I needed a good long cooking project.

While running a steady playlist of Kathy Griffin on YouTube, I rolled up my sleeves, clipped my fingernails, and set about making home-made gyoza, skins and all.  I’d forgotten that making these wonderful pot stickers from scratch was actually one of my new year’s resolutions (oh how soon we forget!) and I figured it would be a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.  I needed a distraction from life stuff and fulfill that damn resolution.

I tied my blue vestaglia tight around my waist lest construction workers next door sneak a peak into my kitchen and gathered the ingredients.  I hadn’t planned on making gyoza when I went to the market last weekend, but luckily, I had just about all the necessary ingredients, which goes to show that as long as you have the time and arm-muscle to spare, anyone can whip up these dumplings on a whim.



2 cups flour

1/2 cup boiling water

1 pinch salt


200g minced pork

400g chopped cabbage or lettuce

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 clove chopped garlic

1 tbsp chopped ginger

1 tsp salt

3 tsp sake

1 tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp oyster sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

To make the gyoza skins:

Slowly add hot water to a bowl of flour, stirring gently with chopsticks until you get lots of little clumps. Knead gently into a rough ball, cover with a damp cloth, and set aside for 1 hour.

In the meantime, make the filling (B) and watch an episode of Will & Grace, Season 3.  Cocktail optional.

When you hear Karen’s last zinger and the hour is up, generously sprinkle flour on the cutting board and continue to knead the dough for approx 10 minutes, or until the ball is smooth.   Divide in four pieces.  Roll out into four long “snakes” and cut 10 pieces per “snake”.  This recipe was supposed to make 40 skins, but I think I must have made about 50 or so.  I don’t know, I lost count after that episode where Kathy goes to Iraq.

Put Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA” on full blast.  And begin rolling out each “gnoccho” into approx. 8cm in diameter circles.  If you’re a perfectionist, use a circular cookie cutter (or in my case, a lid of a tea can).

Roll, sing, drink, repeat.  Remember to dust each skin with plenty of flour to avoid sticking.  You can also freeze these babies for a rainy day.

To make the filling:

Simply mix all (B) ingredients in a bowl.

You can change the recipe as you wish by adding nira or kimchi, mushrooms, tofu, carrots, shrimps, what-have-you.  Feel free to add some lard or extra sesame oil to give it some juicy fat.  Honestly? I didn’t really measure the ingredients out for this so the measurements above are a little wishy-washy.

Wrap ’em up and cook ’em:

Again, dust a plate or pan with plenty of flour to avoid sticking.

Place a skin on the palm of your hand, dollop a teaspoon of filling, wet the edges of the skin with water, and squeeze them shut.  There are many ways of wrapping up the pot stickers so please find whatever method that works best for you.

Tonight, I both grilled and boiled the gyoza.  Boiling them is a cinch.

Grilling (and steaming), however, takes an inch bit more finesse.

First, heat and oil well a non-stick pan.  Place the gyoza evenly and cook on high flame until the bottom turns a lovely brown.  Pour 1/2 cup boiling water over the dumplings and immediately cover, let them steam under medium-low flame until almost all the water evaporates.  As a final touch, drizzle a tablespoon of sesame oil to enhance the aroma.  Serve while steaming hot with a soy sauce-rice vinegar-rayu dunking sauce.

I also prepared a little cucumber kimchi and a simple Chinese-esque broth with green onions, bell peppers, and egg.  Kathy was ranting about Tom’s Ambien sleep-eating but I was oblivious to all that besides FB’s frantic chewing and intermittent “Mamma mia che buonoooo–!” and suddenly, life stuff didn’t seem that terrible anymore.

Who needs career counseling or therapy when you’ve got home-made gyoza?

Did I mention how much I love peas?

No, there is nothing obsessive about this.  Really.  Anyways, here is a spread of our pea-tastic Japanese meal from a few weeks ago.

Teriyaki Chicken Tsukune

250g minced chicken
4 tbsp finely chopped green onions
1/2 tsp chopped ginger
1 tbsp sake
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp katakuriko (corn starch)
as many peas as you want

1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp mirin
1/2 tbsp sugar

Mix (A) in a bowl and shape into 8 small patties.
Mix (B) in a small bowl an set aside
Coat a non-stick pan with 1 tsp vegetable oil and cook chicken patties until brown on both sides
Pour 1 tbsp sake, cover, and steam for a few minutes
Pour (B) over patties, cook until reduced and the chicken is evenly coated with a deliciously dribbly teriyaki sauce

Simmered Hijiki Seaweed

30g dried hijiki
1/2 carrot, sliced
3 tbsp chopped green onions
3/4 cup dashi stock
1 tbsp sake
2 1/2 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp soy sauce
pinch of salt
as many peas as you want

Immerse hijiki in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes
Drain, cook in oiled pan, add all ingredients, and let simmer

Pickled Cucumber and Wakame

1 cucumber
10g wakame
pinch of salt
as many peas as you want
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp dashi stock
pinch of salt

Immerse wakame in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes
Salt cucumber and thinly slice. Squeeze out excess water with hands
Prepare (A) marinade, and pour over cucumber and wakame

Steamed Rice with Peas

Soak 1 cup rice in water for 30 min. Then steam with 1 cup water and a pinch of salt

Miso Soup with Leeks, Potatoes, and Peas

400ml dashi stock
2 tbsp miso
1 small potato
1/2 leek
as many peas as you want

Dissolve miso in stock, add chopped potatoes and leeks

The truly wonderful thing about peas, especially cooked with a Japanese-y meal is that it adds wonderful color to a cuisine where appearance is (almost) everything.  They also add incredible sexy texture to everything, as well as a delicate sweetness.  Inspiring.  Japanese food can be rather mild, contrary to popular horror stories of wasabi and fried fish heads, so The Pea engages in perfect harmony with mirin, sake, soy sauce, and sugar.

I’m mildly horrified that Pea Season is quickly winding to an end. But that only means, Figs are around the corner.  And thus, another obsession begins.


I am of the irrational opinion that the pea is the cutest vegetable  (well, legume)  in the world.

Artichokes are stubborn, cucumbers are diplomatic, tomatoes are – a fruit, yes – but they are also whimsical, eggplants are snobs, cavolo nero are beautiful, and turnips are wise.  But peas? Oh, they are just so CUTE! I mean, c’mon. Just look at them:

Also, whoever first came up with the saying, “two peas in a pod” clearly had never seen two peas in a pod because as a pea-shelling-enthusiast, I can say without a doubt that each and every single pea is different.

Peas are in season this time of year and they are juicy as they are snappy, sweet as they are adorable.  Most days I simply simmer them in salt water for just under a minute, admire the gorgeous shades of young, spring green, and dress them with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and a splash of lemon.  Then I coo and aww at their utter cuteness and proceed to mercilessly shove them into my mouth, feeling quite like a Godzilla-esque monster devouring innocent civilians.  Muwahaha.

Mrs. Potts

This was a birthday present from my dear friend MS.  Those familiar with the 1991 Disney now-classic “Beauty and the Beast” will recognize this character as the sweet and lovable Mrs. Potts, voiced by the one-and-only Ms. Angela Lansbury.

See, MS is just that kind of friend.  She gets me.  Who else would spend a day at Tokyo Disney Land and come home with a bag full of porcelain tea paraphernalia?  Only the kind of friend who would drive up against a one-way street in Greenwich CT, teach me to moonwalk, cook me my first home-made takoyaki, and live on a street actually called Tina Drive.

She is also the only person I know in the entire world who would open a brand new bag of potato chips, eat one or two chips, then promptly clothes-pin the bag shut, proceed to open another bag of different flavored chips, have just one of these, and again, clothes-pin the bag shut.   She’d savor one and every single chip (incidentally, also the name of the little tea cup kid).  Her desk drawer in college was filled to the brim with such bags of snacks and junk food, all fastened with either a clothes pin or a rubber band.  Sometimes, she would even put a few last crumbs in a Ziploc bag.  This method of eating junk food is true zen-like connoisseur territory.

Anyways, I love to think of MS, her sparkly nails and her loud laugh every time I make tea.  And whenever I brew a pot(t), I catch myself singing, “tale as old as time…” with a little too much feeling.  Whether its apple cinnamon, or hojicha, I always feel if I strain my ears hard enough I can hear the sound of a new bag of chips being opened in return.