Six days a week, at about 10:30 a.m., the smell of roast chicken wafts through our first-floor bedroom window. A message from the back kitchen window of the tavola calda (canteen) on the ground floor. When we first moved in, I tried to remember to close the window, and if I forgot, chase the intruder away with a towel. Not because I don’t like the smell of fried chicken, but because it didn’t seem appropriate for the bedroom. Wafting was of course pointless, even closing the window was no guarantee. In fact, any resistance seemed to make the smell even stronger. So we stopped resisting, and the smell, as if he sensed our acceptance, softened as it drifted across the room.
Now, four years later, the scent is as much a part of the room as the sheets and coconut hair cream. I learn from food scientist Harold McGee that chicken fat, coconut, also pineapple, peaches and dairy products are rich in sympathetic molecules called lactones, which take their name from the Latin word for milk, and are immediately recognizable for a sweet-creamy quality enhanced by frying.
By noon the smell is gone. If I stick my head out of the kitchen window far enough I may be able to catch it again, as the now fully roasted chickens have been carried from the back kitchen and set up in the glass counter of the cafeteria. There is also the smell of baked potatoes and veal in gravy, lasagna, cannelloni, parmigiana, baked potatoes and, at this time of year, rice salad, roasted red peppers and rice-stuffed tomatoes. The lure of lunch is great.
Classic Roman-style rice stuffed tomatoes are generally made with uncooked rice, tomato pulp, olive oil, garlic, and basil, so they need to be baked for about 50 minutes to allow the rice to cook. For this alternative version, the rice is pre-cooked for a few minutes before being mixed with the other filling ingredients, resulting in a shorter cooking time. It is important that the tomatoes are ripe, but not mushy, and carefully hollowed out.
During the final minutes of cooking, the rice should swell and lift the lids, making them look like happy hats. Once out of the oven, let the tomatoes rest for about 15 minutes to a few hours for the flavors to infuse, then serve with salad, pickled or cooked vegetables, some yogurt, and cucumber if you like. If you also feel like a roast chicken, then of course they go well with that.
Tomatoes filled with rice, tuna, capers and anchovies
Preparation 30 minutes
Cook 40 minutes
8 ripe, medium-sized tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
200 g rice
150 g tunapacked in olive oil
1 tbsp capers
4 or 5 anchovy filletsground beef (or 1 heaped tablespoon Parmesan cheese)
2 tbsp chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, oregano)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oilplus more for the top and the dish
Cut the tops off the tomatoes with a sharp knife and use a teaspoon to scoop out the flesh and seeds and collect them in a bowl. Work carefully to remove as much as possible while keeping the tomato intact. Sprinkle the cavity of the tomatoes with salt and place cut-side down on kitchen paper for 20 minutes.
Press the tomato pulp and seeds through a sieve or pass through a food mill. Cook the rice in salted water for two minutes less than the recommended time, drain and toss with the tomato juice, tuna, capers, anchovies or parmesan, herbs, two tablespoons of olive oil and plenty of black pepper.
Put the rice mixture into the hollow tomatoes and fill them to the top. Place in an oiled baking dish and put the lids on. Bake at 200C (180C Fan)/390F/Gas 6 for 15 minutes, during which time the rice has finished cooking and swelled, lifting the lids slightly. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes — and up to a few hours — before serving.