Two years ago, on a sort of whim, and because we were lucky enough to have places to stay there, we spent the winter living in Italy. For the holidays, we stayed in Rome in Brendan’s friends’ apartment, a large aerie overlooking San Cosimato in Trastevere. We were dogsitting an ancient female yellow Lab. I don’t remember her name. We called her Mrs. Walrus because she was portly and philosophical — or (this was a popular theory) dumb. We took her down to the piazza in the creaky old elevator a few times a day and shuffled beside her as she made her lumbering but enthusiastic rounds. Her gnomic, sweet disposition struck me as something to emulate in old age.
On Christmas Eve, Brendan made a bollito di manzo, the traditional Italian Christmas meal, a shoulder roast boiled with vegetables and herbs for three hours. When it was done, he took the meat out and set it aside and cooked tortellini in the broth, soup to start. The meat was sliced and dressed in a salsa verde — a thick, savory sauce of blended hard boiled egg, anchovies, garlic, parsley, capers, and olive oil — and arranged on a plate with sliced boiled potatoes, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.
After dinner, we walked to midnight Mass at Santa Maria in Aracoeli to see the famed Gesu Bambino. It was a warm wet windy night. All the old cobblestones were gleaming, the river was wild and rushing, and everything was all lit up. In a tree by the Tiber, thousands of tiny birds crowded the branches, singing. We climbed a mountain of wet, slippery steps to the church and sat with a crowd of yuppified, bourgeois Roman families in the pews, all of us awaiting the Bambino. After the oddly cheesy, subdued Mass, he was finally released from his cabinet near the altar and grandly processed about the church. Brendan and I almost started giggling. He looked exactly like a dark, dried pineapple.
On New Year’s Eve, because we’d forgotten to make reservations, we landed in a cynical restaurant for an overpriced meal that gave us both intense stomach pains immediately afterwards – the condition of the kitchen and food-handling standards were nothing I cared to think too much about. Brendan had described the Roman New Year as a kind of Mardi Gras – wild decadence, fireworks everywhere, the city exploding with abandonment, people fucking in the streets, drunk and high and lost in pleasure. I had been understandably excited to see this, but we had to go straight to bed after that dinner; also, a thunderstorm with wind and rain competed with the fireworks, so being inside seemed doubly attractive. We crawled into bed, and the poor terrified Mrs. Walrus came with us. We fell asleep well before midnight and awoke the next day fully recovered, all three of us.
This year, because we spent Christmas in New York, we deferred the bollito until New Year’s Eve, which we spent in the New Hampshire farmhouse. We feasted as the sun set, and then we went to a bonfire in the woods and sat in the snow in wicker furniture talking to some neighbors. We came home and put Mississippi John Hurt on the record player over and over (and over; it’s a great album) as we shuffled together in ballroom stance by the revitalized fire. And we were asleep well before midnight. Traditions are important.
White Bean Dumpling Soup
Traditional or not, the tortellini soup was out, being loaded with dreaded gluten, so I made up a quick, easy substitute – most good inventions come on the fly, and this was as fast as it was good. I’m not a big tortellini fan – they’re too chewy, slimy, and dense. These dumplings are the opposite of those things.
In a Cuisinart, put 1 can rinsed white beans, 1/2 cup gluten free (or normal) herbed bread crumbs or plain bread crumbs plus dried or fresh rosemary, basil, and oregano, 1 cup flat-leaf parsley, 2 T olive oil, salt and pepper, and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese. Do it up till it’s a thick ground-up paste.
Put it into a bowl, add a beaten egg with ¼ cup half-and-half, mix well, then put a thick layer of (gluten-free or not) flour on a board and use the flour to help you mold it all into bite-sized little dumplings.
Bring a pot of fresh, hearty beef broth to a near-boil, then add the soft, pillowy little dumplings one by one. Simmer for 8 minutes. Scoop into shallow soup bowls and garnish each one with more parmesan cheese. Eat by a fire with Chianti, and follow with a bollito di manzo. (Serves 4-6 as a starter.)
Favorite factoid about Gregorian Chant and the Dies Irae from the Mass of the Dead. It was Mozart’s favorite melody. One of mine too.