I'm not quite sure where to begin today's post. Maybe it's best to start at the end? Let's try. By 11:30 on one of my last mornings in Rome I found myself walking down the Janiculum hill toward the Trastevere section of the city below. The view is expansive, and I would stop now and then to pick out buildings and landmarks, or take the occasional snapshot. My bag was heavy, and a glance inside revealed a just-picked pomegranate, two books and a kraft-paper bag filled with a toasty pepita and amaranth-flecked granola. I spent the morning visiting Mona Talbott at the American Academy in Rome, and I'm sure it is no surprise to those of you who know Mona or her work - it was one of the most inspiring mornings I've had in a long time.
The American Academy in Rome weaves itself into my life now and then. Years back, when I would help research potential speakers for TED, I would regularly spend time exploring the work of Rome Prize winners. And prior to that, I fell for this delightful little "insider" guidebook of must-visit places in Rome. It was compiled from the collective knowledge of many academy fellows and friends - a mix of writers, architects, designers, scholars, and the like. My copy is nearly ten years old, and it's the one book we still bring along whenever we pass through Rome.
But, back to the academy. There are some really cool things going on there. One of which is the Rome Sustainable Food Project. You can read about it in depth here, and here, and here. In a nutshell, it's one of the few places I've encountered where institutional dining is not only worth celebrating, but potentially worth emulating as well. Alice Waters and Mona Talbott have been successful in working within the academy to create a meaningful food culture meant to nourish and support individual well-being, scholarship, and conviviality. Amen. Maybe some of you will feel compelled to argue a counterpoint here, but my experience has been that institutional dining has much need for improvement. Inspiration is much needed, and it was great to encounter it so far from home.
Actually, another inspiring example of food being integrated into the fabric of an institution is at the Oxbow School in Napa, California. Here's a post I did in 2005 about their school lunch (under chef Tracy Bates). There's still no place I'd rather have lunch in Napa, alongside the kids, overlooking the river. And I don't think it's any coincidence that Mona and Tracy are friends, or that both of them are Chez Panisse alumni.
Mona showed me the kitchen, and the gardens, and the spot on the lawn where Galileo first demonstrated his telescope in Rome - the academy occupies the highest point inside the walls of historic Rome. The talented Elizabeth Minchilli joined us, I met the other academy cooks, had a perfect macchiato, and tasted a spicy little gem of a cookie baked by Mirella Misenti. Mirella's story is fascinating in it's own right. She was the dishwasher at the academy. She now spearheads pastry and has co-authored Biscotti with Mona. It's the just-published first book in a series of tiny, thoughtful books that we will see come out of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. It sounds like there there will be a volume on salads, and one on soup, and others beyond that. You can see some of the spreads from Biscotti here. I baked up Mirella's Sicilian pistachio cookies as soon as I got home. They look snow-dusted from a distance, but reveal dense, pistachio-green insides after a bite. I include the recipe down below.
I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better way to wrap up a three-week trip. Thank you Mona. I look forward to cooking with you someday, or washing dishes, or whatever it takes to hang out in your kitchen. In the meantime, I'm excited to bake more from Biscotti, and I'm always game for testing soup recipes. I imagine I'll also be busy trying to reverse-engineer your granola.
- If you're interested in having lunch at the academy, or if you just want to be more involved, there is a way to do it. Friends of the AAR have the ability to enjoy lunch at the American Academy in Rome with up to ten guests, by reservation. You also get the e-newsletter, and invitations to select AAR events. If you spend more time in Rome, or live there, some of the other options might appeal to you as well.
- American Academy in Rome Facebook page.
- Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of The American Academy in Rome, The Rome Sustainable Food Project.
- Mona was featured in Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs, I featured her Pounded Walnut Strozzapreti recipe here.
Biscotti al Pistacchio Recipe (Pistachio Cookies)
I used a fine, light-brown natural cane sugar here, because it is what I keep on hand. It makes the dough a bit darker, but worked nicely. Use whatever fine grain sugar you like. I also made a portion of my cookies extra tiny. For itty-bitty cookies, form not much more than a teaspoon of dough (1/4 oz / 6-8 g) into balls. Scale back the baking time to 8 - 10 minutes. I should also note, the first time I baked these I only had salted / lightly toasted pistachios on hand. Don't worry if you're in the same boat, the cookies are still delicious, but taste a bit more hearty and rustic. If you use raw, skinless pistachios you end up with an extra-vibrant green cookie underneath the powdered coating.
4 1/3 cups / 500 g raw pistachios
1 cup / 200 g granulated sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
scant 1/2 cup egg whites / 3 1/2 oz - from 3 large eggs
1 cup confectioners' sugar, for coating cookies
Preheat the oven to 350F / 180C.
Pulse the pistachios in a food processor with 1/2 cup / 100 g of the granulated sugar until the nuts are finely chopped. (Heidi note: I pulsed the nuts until they were the texture of chunky, gravelly sand / lightly pebbled.)
Combine the ground pistachio-sugar mixture with the honey, vanilla, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. Slowly add the egg white, mixing until the dough is well combined and soft. At this point, add the rest of the granulated sugar and mix gently.
Form the dough into small balls, 16 g / 12 oz, and roll them in the confectioners' sugar to coat well. Transfer the balls to cookies sheets lined with parchment paper, leaving at least an inch between each cookie.
Bake for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of each cookie are golden.
These cookies can be stores in a sealed container for up to 2 weeks.
Makes about 50 cookies.
Slightly adapted from the Biscotti al Pistacchio recipe in - Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of The American Academy in Rome, The Rome Sustainable Food Project.
- Cook time: 15 minutes