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September 2012

Dispatch from Italy: Pork Chops

I realize that upon reading Dispatch from Italy you might be expecting something, let's say, more sophisticated than pork chops. Whenever I hear the word dispatch, I think of George Orwell in the 1920's being all down and outy, for some reason. But this is where I am for the next two weeks, decamped at my mother's house with Hugo for a vacation of sorts where other people cook me lunch and soothe the baby and let me take forty thousand photographs of this view which never grows old:


Here's some lavender to set the scene for you:


This morning I picked figs, all hot and soft in the summer sun. This afternoon we'll go to town to run some errands and eat gelato, as it is my goal to work my way through the flavors in the case of the gelateria before we leave. (Yesterday: peach and watermelon. Today: chocolate and pistachio.) And at lunch today, Maurizio, my mother's cousin, made pork chops so good that I must must must tell you about them. I've never seen pork chops cooked this way before and I've never eaten pork chops this good, so I have to share. Isn't this what blogs were invented for?

(Is this the right moment to say that I'm really not a meat person? I mean, I'm really not. Give me a bowl of boiled green beans with olive oil and vinegar over a steak any day. But put Maurizio in a kitchen with a stack of meat and a hot pan and and suddenly I'm tearing into pork chops like some prehistoric cavewoman.)

The first thing you need to do is gather your ingredients. Watch out, it's not a long list:

Good-quality pork chops, one per person (if I had to guess, around 1/2 an inch thick)
Coarse sea salt (do not use fine, no matter what)
A lemon and that is it.

Crazy, right? 

Now take a heavy frying pan and put it over medium-high heat. (I'll bet a cast-iron pan would be best, but Maurizio used a nonstick one.) Coat one side of each pork chop evenly with one or two teaspoons of coarse salt. That's PER CHOP, people. They should look like this:


Lay the pork chops, unsalted side down, in the hot pan. There's no oil or anything to coat the pan. Let the chops fry until, Maurizio says, the salt on top starts to go clear, meaning they've absorbed the liquid from the meat (this takes a little less than ten minutes). Your kitchen will smell like browning pork fat, which is indescribably delicious. Flip the chops to the salted side. The browned side should look like this:


Now fry this side for just a few minutes, until the salt sticks to the pan. Remove the chops to the serving plates and, using a spoon, scrape off the coarse salt and discard. Flip the chop again, so that the nicely browned side is facing up. After all, your eyes are eating, too, as the Germans would say.


Serve everyone their pork chop and then, at the table, squeeze a good amount of lemon juice over each one and tuck in: 


I find it difficult not to tear into the hot, salty chop with my bare hands, but I do my best to restrain myself and use a fork and knife because just because I can eat figs straight off of trees right now doesn't mean I've turned into a total animal, you know? The chop is all juicy and wonderful and the lemon juice cuts through the richness of the pork and wouldn't you know, I even eat the bit of fat edging the meat because it's so darn good.

(Ha! I just realized Hugo's pacifier is lying next to my plate there. Poor Hugo, no pork chops for him.)

Next up for Dispatch from Italy, if I can get my mother to cooperate: pickled eggplant. Yes? Yes! And an update on which gelato flavors I've worked through. I know you're all on the edge of your seats. Now go forth and fry chops!

A Little Sneak Preview


Last fall, I was thrilled to record a piece for NPR's Berlin Stories series. Berlin Stories are "short, personal pieces" about Berlin that are broadcast on NPR's Berlin station. (By the way, did you know that Berlin is the only city outside the US with an NPR station?) For my piece, I adapted a chapter from My Berlin Kitchen, telling the story of how my mother, when she first moved to Berlin in the 1970's, got a German tradition involving doughnuts, mustard and New Year's Eve very, very wrong indeed.

At the time of the recording, Berlin Stories didn't have a recording studio yet, so we met at my friend Anna Winger's house to record the piece in her basement! (It's really, really quiet down there.) I had originally planned to simply read the chapter into the microphone, but it turns out that radio writing is quite different from book writing. So the producers and I sat around the kitchen table for a while working on the piece and eating salad until we were all happy with it. (The hideous nausea from the beginning of my pregnancy had just subsided and I was able to expand my diet beyond pretzels and potato chips. Lettuce never tasted so good!)

To get a little sneak preview of the book, you can listen to the piece here. I hope you like it.

(P.S. We buy our New Year's Eve doughnuts at this legendary bakery in Berlin. They're glorious.)

My Berlin Kitchen - The Book Tour!


I was informed last night by my agent, via this hastily snapped cellphone photo, that the first actual copies of My Berlin Kitchen have arrived in New York. (!) Which means that it's only a matter of time now before I get to hold a copy myself. (!!) I imagine it will be a little different than when I first held Hugo, a little less soft and deliciously scented, probably. But in its own way, no less monumental. (!!!) Right? If you had told me four years ago that one far-off summer, I would have two babies, one flesh, one paper, to my name, I would not have believed you. Oh, life. You can be so good sometimes.


And to make things even better, we're going on tour. Yes, folks, me and the baby and Max are getting on an airplane in late September and heading to the States to see you all and I am so stinking excited I can hardly stand it. I can't believe how lucky I am that I get to do this. (Also, terrified. Will anyone show up? Furthermore, are we out of our minds to attempt this thing with a three-month old baby?)

The tour schedule is as follows (I'll have more precise details, like addresses or other salient information posted in a soon-to-be-formatted link in the sidebar):

Friday, September 21st, 7:00 pm:
LOS ANGELES, CA - Vroman's Bookstore

Saturday, September 22nd, 2:30 pm:
SAN DIEGO, CA - Adventures by the Book, Westgate Hotel

Monday, September 24, 7:00 pm:
SEATTLE, WA - University Bookstore

Tuesday, September 25th, 7:30 pm:
PORTLAND, OR - Powell's Books

Wednesday, September 26th, 6:00 pm:
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Book Passage

Thursday, September 27, 12:00 pm
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Rakestraw Books

Thursday, September 27, 7:00 pm:
SANTA CRUZ, CA - Bookshop Santa Cruz

Sunday, September 30, 5:00 pm:
WASHINGTON, DC - Politics & Prose

Monday, October 1, 7:00 pm:
NEW YORK, NY - Powerhouse Arena

Tuesday, October 2, 7:00 pm:
BOSTON, MA - Harvard Book Store

Will you come, will you be there? I cannot wait to see your faces, my dream come true.


Meatballs for New Mothers


Hugo will be eight weeks old this week. Eight whole weeks! In the past two weeks, he has started smiling at us, big, toothless grins that I have decided are the best thing since sliced bread, the steam engine and the birth of Steve Jobs put together. He stares at us in wonder when we speak, uttering little coos like he's trying to answer our absolutely inane questions, eats like a champ (and, for that matter, sleeps like a champ, unless the hubris of putting this down in type damns me forever) and is an absolute delight.

I have always wanted to be a mother. I've had baby fever my whole life, at least as far back as I can remember. I babysat avidly as a teenager, nannied as a young woman and fawned over my friends' babies when they were born. I very, very much looked forward to becoming a mother myself one day. And yet, still, the first three weeks of Hugo's life were a kick in the teeth. I don't want to say they were the hardest days of my life, because they were bound up with the wonder of Hugo - the boy who made us family - but they were hard.

(Proof? This tweet, in that wretched third week, was totally, completely, wholly unrhetorical in nature.)

Our culture, our society, prepares us endlessly for birth. But no one prepares you for what comes next. It's because, of course, there is no preparation. The sleep deprivation, the hormones (the hormones!), the terror of realizing in one split second that you are this little person's caretaker, its most important person, for the rest of your life, man, it is seriously heavy stuff that is very difficult to handle, much less prepare for. I realize now how right other societies have it when their new mothers are surrounded by their community for the weeks following birth, caring for her, washing and feeding her. A new baby doesn't really need much, but a new mother needs everything.

If you're a cook and you know a new mother or a woman who will be one soon, these meatballs can be your contribution to the cause of keeping that woman fed and sane (sort of). They're easy to make, they freeze well, they are nourishing and the new parents can even use the leftover sauce for a separate meal (we don't eat meatballs on spaghetti in Italy*) - a boon for those weary souls who will probably find it difficult even just to boil water at first.


My mother doesn't consider herself much of a cook. (More on that in the book. And more on the book next time! Whee!) She only uses one cookbook, Ada Boni's Il Talismano della Felicità and even that one she only uses for inspiration, shall we say. (She takes a rather loose approach to following recipes, which irritates me to no end, but that's my cross to bear.) These meatballs come from there, but with one crucial difference: instead of frying the meatballs, she plonks them raw into a simple tomato sauce, eliminating a messy step and creating meltingly tender meatballs. (I think she got this idea from me? I'm not sure. I hate frying meatballs with a passion.)


To make the meatballs, gather up the following:

1/2 pound of ground beef, 1/2 pound of ground pork, two eggs, 2 slices of white bread, the crusts cut off, enough milk to soak the bread, a bunch of parsley, a nutmeg for grating, salt, pepper, and, er, that's it.

Put the meat and eggs in a bowl. Tear the bread into little pieces, then soak them in the milk and squeeze them out, adding them to the bowl. Mince up the parsley and add it to the bowl. Grate a bit of nutmeg into the bowl. (30 strokes? To taste.) And salt and pepper the mixture. (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. I think.)

Then, using your hands, mix all of this together until it's a smooth, uniform mass. Cover the bowl with a plate or some plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. When you're ready to cook, form the meatballs. I like smaller-sized meatballs, about the size of a small plum, two inches at most in diameter. Put them on a plate.


Next you have to make your tomato sauce. Which is as easy as browning a clove of garlic in olive oil and then dumping a 28-ounce can of good-quality tomatoes (puréed, chopped, whatever) and their juices into the pot and cooking this over medium-low heat for about 25 minutes (don't forget to salt the sauce). When the sauce tastes good and cooked, for lack of a better descriptor, gently plop the meatballs into the sauce like so:


Then put the lid on and let the sauce and meatballs simmer slowly away. Resist the urge to stir the pot; if you are concerned, shake the pot a little. 25 minutes later, turn off the heat. Let the pot sit there until fully cooled. At that point, you may freeze the meatballs or package them up to take to the new mother who needs feeding. This recipes makes enough for at least two meals for two people.

(*Are you asking yourself what on earth do Italians eat meatballs with, if not spaghetti? Well, this Italian likes serving them with polenta (also because leftover polenta fried in butter and doused with maple syrup is a prairie breakfast of the gods) or steamed rice, the better to soak up the sauce with.)

Meatballs may seem like a pretty humble offering, but to a hungry, bleary-eyed, frightened new mother, they can be deeply comforting. Especially if you tell her that I promise that whether she believes it or not, one day, not so far off in the future, she'll be feeling capable enough of making those meatballs herself.