The story of my summer vacation:
One girl, one grill, several pounds of costoluto tomatoes and a tableful of happy eaters, contentedly rubbing crusty grilled bread with cloves of garlic, papery shreds falling away hither and thither, then squashing the herbed, bubbling tomatoes into the crumb, with a drizzle of olive oil on top for good measure. One of my friends visiting from England had a notebook by the ready at each meal: "How do you make this (jam crostata)?" "And this (fresh tomato sauce)?" "And that (bandiera, the Italian version of ratatouille)?" But for this treat, there is no recipe. Just good ingredients and some hot coals. We could have eaten the blistered tomatoes every day.
In return for our recipes, they gave us their expertise with fire. Ian, my Scottish friend, manned the grill ably while he was there, taming the flames just so, dousing with beer when the coals required it, keeping us flush with wine and good humor. We bought plump orata at the market in Urbino on Saturday morning, from a fishmonger uncommonly happy to see us, I thought, until I realized hours later that I'd forgotten to ask her to clean the fish. That's why she was so happy, I thought. An easy sale.
Florence Fabricant, always uncannily on my recipe wavelength, provided the recipe: grilled onions and fresh thyme stuffed into a gutted, oiled fish, which was then grilled until flaky over hot coals. We grilled in the semi-dark, sun long gone, citronella candles providing light and scent and protection against marauding mosquitos, drunk on us. The fish was delicious, the herby onions even more so, the lemon dressing on top a must. We prepared more fish than we thought necessary and ate almost all of it, with just one little fillet remaining. It went to the cats.
I was going to post a whole lot of photos again, as I do each time I travel, but there was something about this trip that nagged at me, something about the unhappiness and hopelessness in the people I spoke to about the political situation in Italy that left me feeling a little sad and angry, too. Italy has so much physical beauty, and you could surely stare at images of its old stone houses and rolling hills until your hair went gray. But the truth is that there is a lot of ugliness hidden behind that picturesque scenery. A lot of ignorance and racism and shortsightedness and intolerance. That country is slipping rather tragically, in so many different ways, and it is a shame, or worse, that not more people in Italy and outside of it are aware of what is actually happening there, what is being lost.
I came back to Queens today, grateful for the throngs of people around me in the streets, in the stores, the languages around me building another veritable tower of Babel; faces smiling, frowning, simply being - black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Bukharian, South Indian, Polish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Orthodox Jewish, and little half-It-with-a-German-American-soul-me.
I know no place is perfect. But this American experiment, this incredible city, just fills me up with pride. Some days it practically brings tears to my eyes.
(Of course I took pictures, though. I practically slept with the camera under my pillow. Photos here.)
Grilled Orata and Onions
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for grill
2 whole orata or porgies, 2 pounds each, cleaned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium-large onions, in slices 1/2-inch thick
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Heat grill to very hot. Oil the grates. While grill heats, use 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to rub fish inside and out. Season generously with salt and pepper inside and out.
2. Using a grill pan, sear onion slices until lightly charred on grill, or cook them in a dry skillet on top of stove. Stuff fish cavities with onions and thyme. Grill both fish close to source of heat, turning once, until skin is nicely charred and fish are cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes a side, depending on heat of grill. While fish are grilling, mix lemon juice with remaining oil.
3. Transfer both fish to large platter or board. Remove onions and thyme and set aside. Fillet fish by first cutting along the top and bottom edges and just below the head. Lift off top fillet and place on serving dish. Remove skeleton, head and tail. Transfer bottom fillet to platter. Repeat with second fish and arrange on platter. Scatter onions and thyme over fillets and drizzle with lemon oil. Serve.