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A rebel cook

For years I’ve hated the idea of a slow cooker, or worse yet, a “Crock Pot”. Even when I saw legions of fans posting almost religiously on iVillage’s most popular message boards, I just kept thinking of steamy, mushy, un-delicious foods and wondered why anyone would subject themselves to this form of cooking. So snobby right? Yeesh.

But something happened a few months ago, and I think it was O Magazine. (I know, too cool for a Crock Pot but Oprah’s magazine is fine?) I came across an article, ironically written by the former Editor in Chief of House & Garden, the now defunct Conde Nast shelter magazine. I say ironically because of the magazine’s highbrow tone  but also because I have a particular history there. I was once offered a job at House & Garden. Not a good job, but a great salary. I nearly took it, as a chance to escape life in Tennessee, but ultimately stuck with HGTV when they finally agreed to let me move back to New York. Anyway, it didn’t end well with House & Garden. It ended terribly. And I still feel bad about it.

When I saw Dominique’s article about slow cooking of all things, I was intrigued. After the magazine folded, she’d actually gotten two cookers, each a gift, and started to transform herself into a bit of an aficionado. (She’s also written a book about this time in her life, cutely called Slow Love). So it seems that slow cooking is actually cool now. Maybe not among foodies, but I dare say…it’s the new knitting. And I’m in.

The problem is, Italy.

Italians don’t do slow cookers. There aren’t any to buy and believe me I’ve tried. Every time I’ve gone to a home appliance store of any kind I always seek out the gizmo section, the one with microwaves, mixers and in Italy, a million kinds of deep fryers. Only once have I seen an actual slow cooker for sale. On an email tip from a friend of a friend, I went down into the historical center to a specialty cooking store. And there it was, nestled among several types of steamers, the only slow cooker in Italy. It was 145 euros. That’s about $200+.  Too much for a tool that I had so much disdain for, so recently. For an experimental piece of equipment, something in the 50 euro range is more appropriate. Oh well.

So, time went by until Paul went on a trip to the UK this past weekend. Off to celebrate a buddy’s upcoming wedding–you know, a Stag Do–he was in Manchester for a few days. Just long enough to hit the pubs, have a curry and run into *Marks & Sparks to pick up a slow cooker!  It’s on my table right now and I’m totally thrilled. But I can’t decide which part tickles me most: the idea of him slinking off to a huge department store in the middle of the bachelor party (to buy the least sexy appliance of all time) or trying to cram it into the overhead bin of the discount airline airplane.

To celebrate our first meal (and possibly appease the Karma gods), I’ll try Dominique’s delicious sounding recipe. I’m substituting chicken for lamb though. That’s an idea that I just haven’t converted to yet. Maybe someday another former colleague/boss/amazing woman of publishing, say Martha, will write a book about lamb and I’ll see it in a new light.

But I doubt it.

In the meantime, here’s to our own version of slow love, Italian style.

* And special thanks again, to the lovely friends (and mom) who gave us this gift certificate way back during the “Lunchorette” party before our wedding. We’re using it, one slow cooker at a time!

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Easter Sunday

Fountain

Our day started a dawn. The Covers invited us to a sunrise church service to celebrate Easter. Perched high above Piazza Del Popolo, we were treated to a morning full of gorgeous views, hymns and a lovely little service.

Piazza Del Popolo at Dawn

CCM Easter

Then it was back to our place for breakfast. Knowing we’d be gone first thing in the morning, I tried a new recipe for a baked french toast. The dish calls for a large loaf of bread to be sliced and soaked overnight in a custard of eggs, cream, milk and little vanilla. Just pop it in the oven in the morning and 40 minutes later…breakfast!

Package

I’d been eyeing the special occasion breads I’d seen in bakeries all over town for the last few weeks and thought, this is the perfect chance to try it.

Sliced

It turned out pretty well. I’d make it again but adjust the custard to bread ratio: more custard, less bread.

In the pot

I also tried a caramel/baked apple side sauce instead of the praline topping suggested in the recipe  since our breakfast guests included little tykes and I wasn’t sure if they ate nuts. This wasn’t a recipe as much as an experiment. I’d try it again but also make some changes here.

The apples would be better slowly sauteed in a sauce pan with a little juice plus apple pie spices–cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg–for about an hour, like a faster version of apple butter. And home made caramel doesn’t really work for this recipe unless you make it in the pan that you’re cooking the french toast in, layering the bread and custard on top. That way it melts all throughout the dish instead of hardening as it cools–though this is only effective if you’re prepping and baking in the same day.

So, the verdict is this: baked french toast is a great make-ahead dish, especially served with apple butter. Easter 2010 here we come!

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Terror in the kitchen

I touched a chicken head today. And I didn’t like it.

On Thursday I stocked up on groceries for the long weekend, following Dan’s advice that everything would be closed on Easter Sunday and Monday. Maybe even Saturday. (You have to hand it to the Italians, they’ve got a knack for stretching out a holiday. Here in Rome, Paul will have a four-day weekend in honor of the occasion.) Strolling through the aisles, the usual suspects made their way into my cart: pasta, fruit, milk. When I saw the fresh chickens on special, I thought of a delicious dinner ahead, roasted chicken. Plus the leftovers: sandwiches and maybe a cold chicken salad with ginger dressing.  So I put the bird–shrink-wrapped and lying on a bed of styrofoam, just as it would be in the US–in with the other fixins.

Now for a recipe. I love the Food Network, I just do. Since we arrived in Italy I’ve been trying to branch out but on this day, I settled on a Giada De Laurentiis recipe for Garlic and Citrus Chicken. She’s Italian, she’s got a show or two on the blessed network and Paul loves garlic. Perfect. I began slicing lemons, mincing garlic and finally unwrapping the roasting pan that Paul and I received as a wedding gift from friends Marie and Andrea (thanks again!)

Now every cook knows that you have to be careful with raw poultry. Don’t touch it, then handle other raw foods. Avoid dripping juices all over the counter. And above all, wash your hands before and after touching the dirty little beast. With these safety precautions in mind, I  sliced open the cellophane. Lifting up the bird, I started to rinse it clean when I felt something  underneath that I expected to be the neck and giblets. I was half right.

With my hand firmly grasping the mystery part (why so firm I’ll never know, but deeply regret), I flipped the bird over to find that I was indeed holding the neck…which was still attached to the head.

Yes, a dead chicken head.

With a beak.

And that little red wobbly thing.

In my hand.

As I let out a horrified gasp, another surprise: the feet were also included. I screamed and dropped the chicken.

Drawing a ragged breath I called for help, “Paul! I need you.” As I explained the situation, he chuckled but dutifully removed the offending parts from the carcass.  “It’s ready now,” he said as I cowered from the comfort of the living room. “Ok, but where is the head?,” I asked. “And the feet?” He’d put them safely in a plastic bag, with a paper towel on top so as to spare me from any further accidental exposure.

I know, it sounds pathetic but the combination of carnage, and my surprise contact with it, just proved too much. Even for someone who grew up on a farm as I did. But in my defense, we didn’t kill chickens at our little place. We collected their eggs. And actually we didn’t butcher anything. The good people from Willis Brothers came every spring to take care of that year’s pig and cow; butchering the entire animal before wrapping and labeling specific cuts of meat to keep in our locker, at their store. All I saw was a wax paper package with a sticker on it. And there certainly weren’t any chickens involved. That would be gross.

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