Photos above the book are of the Villa Aurelia and the Mercedes and Sid R. Bass Gardens, American Academy in Rome, taken from the AAR website, http://www.aarome.org/.
At the end of March, I was invited to a swell party to launch a terrific little book, Zuppe: Soups From the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome by Mona Talbott with photographs by Annie Schlechter. This volume is actually the second in a series which is devoted to the Rome Sustainable Food Project, published by The Little Bookroom – you may remember that I kvelled about the first book, Biscotti, when it was published in the fall of 2010.
Though the festa for the book was almost three months ago, I have waited to post anything about it because I wanted to make enough of the recipes so I could accurately talk about it (though for the record, my aim is not to post about stuff I don’t like, which seems wasteful and mean spirited, so if it’s on my blog it’s something I want to enthuse about). Oddly perhaps, since everyone loves soup and soup recipes are very forgiving, I love the Biscotti book a little more than Zuppe, but that’s because I’m a baker and I am crazy for biscotti. However, Zuppe is a keeper and has earned a deserved spot on my (crowded) kitchen bookshelves.
At the American Academy (more about this below), soup is served every day. As Talbott writes in her Introduction, “we fill a large glazed terracotta zuppiera at the very last possible minute and carry it out to the lunch table…The vast Italian vocabulary for soup – aquacotta, brodo, crema, minestra, minestrina, minestrone, pappa, passata, ribollita, vellutata, zuppa – has become part of daily life here on the Janiculum Hill.” Some of these recipes are also found in other Italian cookbooks (though they are not identical) but most are original to the Academy’s cucina. Here are the soups I have made:
Spicy Carrot Soup (simple but quite delicious)
Lentil, Rice, and Chicory Soup (really good; I substituted Grana Padana for Pecorino Romano)
Potato and Fennel Soup (great combination of ingredients)
Chicken and Farro Soup (my husband and I love farro, and this one is a winner)
Chickpea, Pumpkin, and Farro Soup (another no-brainer; I used butternut squash)
Tomato and Rice Soup (I’ve always liked this minestra but this is a better version than the recipe I’d been making)
Chickpea and Pasta Soup (again, this version is far better than my former go-to one)
Soups I’m trying over the next few weeks: Fava Bean, English Pea, and Chicken Meatball Soup, Asparagus and Small Pasta Soup, Very Green Spring Vegetable Soup, Pureed Pea Soup with Mint, Pea and New Potato Soup.
In my house, my husband, daughter, and I have a lot of meals that are soup and salad, year-round. If some recipes are time consuming to make and eat on the same weeknight, it’s completely doable to make a soup for the next night’s dinner, or to make soup on Sunday night and eat it one night over the next few days. With Zuppe in hand you will not lack choices, and a bonus I didn’t expect is that the majority of these recipes feature inexpensive ingredients, and when you consider that soups typically provide more than one meal they are quite economical indeed. I also really like that the recipes are arranged by season, and honestly, I believe I will work my way through every single recipe in this book. (And by the way, what appear to be food stains on the book jacket really aren’t – they’re supposed to be there, I like to think because it’s an indication that this book will be a well-used volume in anyone’s kitchen.)
Author Mona Talbott was at the Zuppe book party, and though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet her, I enjoyed her remarks to the gathered guests. She’s certainly had some of the best jobs I can think of: working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and at Eli’s Vinegar Factory and E.A.T. in New York; consulting for Hillary Clinton at her home in Chappaqua, New York; chef for photographer Annie Leibovitz; and designing a children’s gardening and cooking program for Bette Midler’s Restoration Project in New York. Since 2007, Talbott has been Executive Chef at the Rome Sustainable Food Project (her best job yet in my opinion!), a fabulous idea that was envisioned by Alice Waters in 2006. According to Talbott, the food served at the American Academy had traditionally been fairly mediocre; but according to the Academy’s website, now the RSFP “has transformed the community of the American Academy in Rome…Our food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of those working in the AAR kitchen, has created an edible narrative in our communal meals.” RSFP is a member of Rome’s Slow Food Community, and its menus reflect inspiration from the history of food in the Lazio region as well as from the culture of the AAR.
I am dying to visit the AAR (via Angelo Masina 5), and yes, I’m also dreaming about applying for the Visiting Artist and Scholars program so I may live there while working on a book about Rome. (There are tours of the Academy, by appointment, Monday through Friday; and there are lots of events that are open to the public – check the site, and note there are also events in its New York office, 7 East 60th Street / (212) 751.7200 / email@example.com.) Founded in 1894, the AAR is my kind of paradiso: officially, the mission of the Academy is to “foster the pursuit of advanced research and independent study in the fine arts and humanities” and it was chartered as a private institution by an act of Congress in 1905. But more appealingly the AAR offers a chance for American artists and scholars “to spend significant time interacting and working in one of the oldest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The richness of Rome’s artistic and cultural legacy and its power to stimulate creative thinking served as the initial impetus for the Academy’s founding.” In addition to the beautiful Villa Aurelia and its surrounding gardens pictured above, there is the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library and the Photo Archive, plus there are more gardens – about eight additional acres – on the property.
Additionally, the opportunity to share RSFP meals from the Academy’s kitchen is enormously appealing. Brad Kessler, an AAR Fellow in 2009, wrote on the AAR site that “today in Rome, one never feels far removed from Latium’s agricultural roots. Shepherds still graze their sheep along the airport road in Ostia. Wild arugula and fennel thrive in the city parks. Capers spill and bloom from the Aurelian walls. The kitchen at the academy knits together the seemingly disparate worlds of scholarship and eating. Culture and agriculture. Art on the page (canvas or mosaics) and art on the table. In Rome these arts have never been far removed.” Kessler concludes by noting that every meal at the Academy was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the Roman Campagna, and “we learned to live there, as we did back home, inside a landscape.” Positively the next best thing to being at the Academy (or anyplace you’re dreaming about) is to eat like you’re there, and Zuppe, like Biscotti, will transport you to the top of the second-highest hill in Rome. (Stay tuned for the next book in the series: Pasta!)