Monthly Archives: November 2009

Monday 30th

Almond and pine nut biscotti

I don’t often make pudding or dessert. I am much more likely to buy a piece of cheese, a big bunch of grapes , a bar of dark chocolate (at present this) and make a batch of these crisp, double baked, almond and pine nut biscotti to be dipped or dunked in an espresso or even better in a glass of the Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo.

We always make sure to save a few for the next day. They are very good for breakfast dipped in milky coffee and maybe even better, at about 11 o clock with an injection of espresso.

I love the wave of aniseed the fennel seeds lend to these biscotti, but I know it’s a quite particular flavour that can provoke strong opinions and reactions. If you are not a fan, leave the fennel seeds out.

Almond and pinenut biscotti (cantucci)

Adapted from Rowley Leigh’s recipe in No place like home

makes about 25 biscotti

  • 250g plain flour
  • 2 large eggs beaten
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 100g blanched almonds chopped very coarsely
  • 75g Italian pine nuts
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 200°/400f

Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients except the eggs. Mix well.

Add the beaten eggs and using your hands bring all the ingredients together into a ball of firm dough making sure the nuts are well-distributed. Cut the ball in half.

Shape both halves into a roll of dough about 4cm in diameter and place them both on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake the rolls for 15 minutes by which time the dough will have spread and is still soft in the middle.

Take the biscuits out of the oven and lower the oven to 170°/330F

Let the rolls cool a little and then carefully lift/slide them onto a cutting board and with a sharp serrated knife cut them – on a slight diagonal if necessary – into roughly 8cm long 8mm wide slices.

Put the slices back, lined up like soldiers on the baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and put them back in the oven for 15 minutes. Turn them over and cook for a further 15 minutes. The biscuits will be dry, firm and crisp.

Cool the biscuits on a wire rack and then store them in an airtight tin.

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Roasted vegetable Lasagne

If you..

..turn left when you come out of our building and continue down via Mastro Giorgio, walk past the market and the flower stall, then turn right into via Allessandro Volta, just before you reach the junction with Via Mamorata you will find a tavola calda called Volpetti Più.

It’s a simple, self-service canteen-like-establishment, spartan and rather functional both inside and out. Misleadingly so, don’t be misled, the food is excellent, as simple and unpretentious as the place itself, but excellent nonetheless. It’s not really surprising, Volpetti Più is the little sister of the sublime temple of gastronomia, the delicatessen Volpetti which is just round the corner.

When you come to Rome we will go for lunch. We could have a bowl of thick minestrone or pasta e ceci topped with freshly grated parmesan and a little raw local olive oil accompanied by a slice of warm unctuous pizza bianca. We could have a spoonful of buttery polenta with some slow cooked ragu. If it’s Thursday we might have a whole artichoke cooked Roman style with wild mint followed by a plate of freshly made gnocchi with tomato sauce and yet more parmesan. You might like piece of chicken, rosemary scented with golden, crisp skin  – leg or breast you choose – beside it a few roast potatoes and a side order of slim green beans dressed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. We could choose a plate of 3 different vegetable dishes, I recommend the green beans cooked – stewed really - very slowly with onion and tomatoes, the roasted pumpkin and finally the creamy, pale-green Roman zucchini which are steamed and then ripassate in olive oil, salt and black olives…..Oh, or you could have the baccalà with tomatoes and olives and I – depending on the day – could have a slice of either classic lasagne alla Bolognese, spinach and ricotta lasagne or roasted vegetable lasagne…..

Now it took me a few months of weekly visits to try any of the lasagne in Volpetti. They all looked good, particularly the vegetable one with its pleasing harlequinesqse dots of colour studding the modest stripe of bechamel between the thin and obviously hand-made pasta, but I was distracted by other things. Also, I was still suffering from a hangover from the predominantly bad lasagne years I endured growing up in England, too much meat, too much badly made bechamel, thick stodgy pasta, a soggy unappealing mess..

Then one day a rather elegant looking signor sliding his tray along the Volpetti counter in front of me did an unlikely little skip of excitement and muttered something very enthusiastic in Italian as a new dish of roasted vegetable lasagne was brought to the counter. He promptly ordered a slice, a portion of green beans to be dressed with the new season olive oil and a glass of Soave.

I did the same and I was very glad I did.

Our (his) timing was perfect, the lasagne was warm but not hot. There were 6 very thin layers of excellent handmade egg pasta and between each a thin layer of bechamel sauce dotted with very finely diced mixed vegetables, a sprinkling of parmesan and tiny soft cubes of melted mozzarella. On top was a golden crust of more good parmesan. It was substantial yet delicate, sturdy, retaining its neat shape yet soft, creamy and just a little luxurious at the same time.

Delicious.

It was a little lasagne epiphany. The following week I had a slice of lasagne alla Bolognese and then the following week a slice of the spinach and ricotta one. Actually it’s unfair to say that my rediscovery of lasagne was entirely due to Volpetti. At about the same time – I must have been in Italy about 2 years – I was eating some superlative lasagne in peoples homes, with friends in Velletri, at my friend Andrea’s family home in Le Marche. Each delicious slice relegating my English lasagne horror further into the past.

Anyway the roasted vegetable lasagne

I’d had it in mind to make a Volpetti inspired roast vegetable lasagne for rather a long time, I just had one problem, I didn’t really have a recipe. I had plenty of advice, inspiration, other recipes. I even had a kind of recipe, a verbal one from the chef at Volpetti, the charming but not very specific one which involved more gesticulation than words

it’s easy….. make some pasta…..very thin thin thin….. make a good bechamel, keep stirring all the time, all the time…… roast the vegetables, many types, many, various vegetables, you know, you know……layers so and so and so and so and so…… then you need a oven, nice and hot”

Anyway the lasagne joined the list of things entitled Things I would like to make……Then The Italian dish posted a recipe for a roasted vegetable lasagne, I did a little leap of excitement just like the man in the queue. Finally. I gathered my bits and pieces of advice and inspiration, called my cooking consigliere to check her bechamel sauce recipe, went to the market and then made a lasagne.

It’s become a bit of a favourite.

I should probably mention that I don’t make my own pasta, I can – sort of – but I don’t because we live around the corner from one of the best pasta all’uovo in Rome, an old-fashioned, no-nonsense shop called Gatti that makes very traditional fresh egg pasta for locals and some of Romes best restaurants. If we didn’t live near Gatti I like to imagine I would make my own pasta, but if I didn’t I’d have no problem buying best quality dried durum wheat pasta sheets. I don’t bother with thoses no par boil nessesary dried pasta sheets – they are rubbish, thats not snobby, it’s just true.

Fresh pasta is best though….rolled into nice and thin sheets. The Italian Dish has some lovely advice and lessons on pasta making. I also highly recommend Marcella Hazan’s book The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking if you are serious about making your on pasta.

Now before I launch into the recipe I want to mention that even though this is an essentially simple recipe, it demands a bit of effort, a wedge of time and a little patience – nice food often does ! This is a recipe for a quiet morning, a morning with space, no urgency and room for a few pans and little temporary chaos. But once the cooking is done it is a beautifully uncomplicated supper. While the lasagne is cooking you make a big green salad of sweet and bitter leaves (this lasagna needs such a salad), wash some grapes, unwrap one nice piece of cheese and open a bottle of wine…….. a pretty damn fine, no worry supper indeed.

Ok as always these are guidelines. We all have different dishes, ovens, hands, taste buds and pasta…oh the pasta, now that varies wildly and I suppose it always will. I use a very old rectangular Pyrex dish for lasagne it’s about 11″ by 7″ and about 3″ deep. I like 6 layers of pasta in my lasagne and with this particular Pyrex thats 2 sheets of pasta for each layer……are you still with me……12 sheets of pasta.

Roasted vegetable lasagne

Inspired by Volpetti, Elaine, Marcella Hazan, and all the lasagne I have eaten here in Italy

serves 4 – 6

  • 2 medium carrots peeled and finely diced
  • 2 medium zucchini finely diced
  • 1 bulb of fennel, finely diced
  • 2 medium sweet red peppers, deseeded and finely diced
  • olive oil
  • coarse salt
  • 500ml whole milk
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g butter
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 250g ball of mozzarella, chopped or torn into little pieces
  • 85g freshly grated parmesan
  • butter for dish and dotting on top
  • Roughly 12 7″x 5″ sheets of fresh or dried lasagne

So as you may have gathered from all the photos dotted rather chaotically around the post you dice the vegetables, 2 carrots, 2 firm zucchini, the red peppers, and bulb of fennel into neat little cubes and put them in a nice wide baking tray. Sprinkle them with coarse salt and douse with oil (mix everything well with your hands) and roast the vegetables for about 10 minutes in a hot pre heated oven until they are soft, tender and just starting to turn golden.

You make your bechamel. Warm the milk in a small pan but don’t let it boil. in another pan melt the butter over a low flame and add the flour, cook, stirring with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes. Remove both pans from the heat and slowly pour the milk into the butter and flour pan a little at a time, mixing well between each addition. Place the sauce back on the heat, add salt and a grating of nutmeg and keep stirring without interruption until the sauce is dense like thick cream.

Grate your parmesan into little mountain.

Chop and tear the mozzarella into little pieces

Parboil your pasta……….bring a shallow pan of water to a fast boil and put 3 sheets of pasta in at a time. Fast boil for a minute with fresh pasta or as instructed by your packet for dried. Quickly lift the pasta onto a clean tea towels to dry….yes you need some space for this, have 2 or three towels laid out ready.

Now let the constructing commence.

Butter your dish tuck in a layer of pasta, spread a thin coating of bechamel on the pasta, sprinkle with 1/5 of the roasted vegetables, 1/5 of the grated parmesan, 1/5 of the mozzarella and a grind of black pepper.

Repeat this process 4 more times leaving yourself with just enough bechamel and parmesan for the final layer.

For the final layer spread the bechamel over the 6th layer of pasta and sprinkle with parmesan and dot with butter.

Allow the lasagne to rest for at least 2 hours and up to 12 (in which case in the fridge and covered with cling film and then brought back to room temperature)  before baking.

Preheat the oven to 200°/400f and bake the lasagne for about 20 minutes or until a light golden crust forms on top. If you like a very golden crust you can use a hot grill for about a minute rather than risking the lasagne becoming dy in the oven.

Let the lasagne sit for at least 15 minutes before serving in which time it will firm up nicely and reach the right mellow temperature.

My next post is going to be really short.

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Happy together

Olive oil, garlic, peperoncino, anchovies, tomatoes, capers, black olives, parsley and spaghetti.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca.

There are several stories and myths as to the origins of this happy combination of ingredients commonly known as spaghetti alla puttanesca which literally translated means ‘Whore’s spaghetti.’ Are you sitting uncomfortably?

One story, probably the one I have been told most often, suggests that the dish was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by the proprietor – lets call him Ciro and imagine he is very rotund and of kind and exuberant nature – of a brothel in the Spanish Quarter of Naples who would make this simple and tasty dish for his clients and his working girls between appointments. A smart flourish to the story is the suggestion that the colours of the sauce, the red of the tomatoes, the vibrant green of the parsley, the grey-green of the capers, the deep violet of the olives and the burgundy of the peperoncino mirrored the vibrant eye-catching colours of the clothes and undergarments of the girls working at the brothel…..

Some say a prostitute called Yvette la Francese originally from Provence created the sauce to ease her homesickness and longing for the Provencal flavours of her home…….olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes. With a delicious swipe of irony she named it after the oldest profession in the world

Others say the sauce was created just after the second world war on the Island of Ishia – which lies about 50km from the coast of Napoli – by an eccentric and notoriously hospitable painter called Eduardo Colucci. The story suggests that during one of his summer retreats to a tiny and simple cabin that nestled amongst the olive groves at Punta Molino he made an improvised supper for his various and very eclectic group of friends who lounged on the terrace. It was based on his speciality the classic marinara sauce but as it evolved he renamed it puttesesca…… the exact reason is not clear.

But who wants clear, this kind of story is much more interesting with a little ambiguity.

Another story is that the dish was invented in the 1950s by a certain Sandro Petti, co-owner of the famous restaurant and nightspot Rancio Fellone and proud owner of the best brill creamed quiff* on the island of Ishcia . One evening just as the restaurant was about to close Petti found a group of hungry friends sitting at one of his tables. He shrugged his shoulders, it was late, he was low on ingredients and he didn’t have enough to make them a meal. But they raised their hands in despair and cried “mamma mia abbiamo fame* facci una puttanata qualsiasi” or “ mamma mia we are hungry make us any kind of garbage.” Used like this puttanata is a noun meaning garbage or something worthless, even though it derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana. Petti, the story continues, had nothing more than four tomatoes, two olives and some capers; the basic ingredients for the sugo so he used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti.  From that day forth Petti included this dish on his menu as spaghetti alla puttanesca…..

It seems the last story is probably the most likely but I prefer the first one…..Or maybe the third one, Colucci and his eclectic friends.

I am undecided.

Anyway whatever the origins, it is a most delicious and happy combination of flavours.

We often have this for lunch; because it’s so delicious, because we always have the ingredients in the cupboard and because the sauce, the puttanesca, takes about the same amount of time to make as it takes to bring the pasta water to a fast boil and then to cook the pasta.

It’s like this.

While you bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil for the pasta you put the olive oil, minced garlic and peperoncino into a frying pan over a very gentle flame so the oil warms slowly and the garlic softens (but doesn’t brown) for about 5 – 10 minutes. Then add the anchovies to the pan and keeping the flame really low gently prod and stir them until they dissolve and ‘melt’ into the oil. Now you add the tomatoes to the pan and raise the heat a little so everything reaches a bubbling simmer. Then you add the capers, tomato puree, olives and stir.

By now the pasta water should have reached a fast boil so begin cooking the spaghetti.

Allow the sauce to bubble away and reduce a little and then add the parsley. Once the spaghetti is al dente – this will depend on your spaghetti, we use Garofalo and this takes about 8 minutes – drain it and then tip both the sauce and spaghetti into a warm serving bowl mix gently but firmly and the divide between warm bowls.

This was our lunch, we also had a salad of fennel and orange and some rather nice grapes, musky and sweet.

I know that this kind of pasta with such strong and particular flavours needs to be a very personal thing, the recipe is a loose guide and not a set of rules….you can experiment….if you like anchovies you might like to add more, if you find capers overwhelming, add less or leave them out, how salty are your olives ? how hot is your chilli?…you know better than me.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale Italiane

Serves 4

  • 6 tbsp of good olive oil
  • 1 plump clove of garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • 1 small fresh or dried peperoncino/ red chilli deseeded and chopped finely
  • 8 anchovy fillets (ideally preserved under salt but in oil are fine)
  • 350g red, ripe tomatoes. Skinned, deseeded and roughly chopped or 350g of tinned peeled plum tomatoes without the juice.
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 100g pitted black olives
  • 1 large tbsp capers (ideally preserved under salt but in brine are fine)
  • 2 tbsp of roughly chopped parsley
  • 400g best quality spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil for the pasta

If you are using capers preserved under salt soak them in warm water for 2 minutes and then rinse them very carefully. If you are using anchovies preserved under salt soak them in water for 15 minutes and then remove the backbone and rinse them very carefully

Put the olive oil, minced garlic and peperoncino into a frying pan over a very gentle flame and let the garlic soften (but not brown) and the flavours release into the oil – this should take about 10 minutes if the flame is gentle enough.

Peel, deseed and roughly chop the tomatoes.

Add the anchovies to the pan and keeping the flame really low gently prod and stir them until they dissolve into the oil. Now add the tomatoes to the pan and raise the heat a little so the pan reaches a bubbling simmer. Add the capers, tomato puree and the olives and stir.

By now the pasta water should have reached a fast boil so begin cooking the spaghetti.

Allow the sauce to bubble away and reduce a little and then add the parsley, stir.

Once the spaghetti is al dente – this will depend on your spaghetti, we use Garofalo and this takes about 8 minutes – drain it and then tip both the sauce and spaghetti into a warm serving bowl.

Mix gently but firmly and then divide between warm bowls.

* I made this up.

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Thick and thin

Slow roast pork, roast potatoes, braised red cabbage, apple sauce and bread sauce.

Bread sauce, I know, a little out-of-place, but someone insisted.

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It had been a while since I’d made a stoutly English Sunday lunch, roast meat heavy, roast potatoes, two vegetables, gravy, appropriate sauce and trimmings accompanied by plenty of red wine and eaten in good company. Best followed by a proper pudding with cream and permission to sidle sideways from the table into the nearest comfy chair with the Sunday newspaper from where you may slip into a postprandial nap with aforementioned paper over face at any given moment, low-level snoring allowed.

It’s one of my favourite meals, of which there are many, but one of my favourites nonetheless.

I didn’t grow up in a particularly traditional family and things were far from straightforward, but we did – through thick and very thin - have a traditional Sunday lunch ‘Sunday Roast‘ nearly every week. A meal as much about family, friends, home, and being together as the food.The food, a reassuring rotation of roasts – beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, duck – accompanied by the appropriate sauce – horseradish, mint, apple, bread, Cumberland, prune – the right vegetables, trimmings and stuffing, gravy and always lots of roast potatoes.

As a child I not only adored the lunch, I adored the ritual and routine of it all. Vegetables being peeled as the late Sunday breakfast things were being cleared away, the piece of meat perched on the counter. Setting the table with the nice plates and Grandma Roddy’s bone handle cutlery. The smell of roasting meat curling through the house and the heady whiff of my grandma’s sherry and my Mum’s Gin and it. The flurry of activity and hands needed in the last 10 minutes to drain vegetables, make gravy, decant sauce, warm plates, shout then howl up the stairs to gather everyone to the table. My Dad carving. My grandpa Roddy worried my Mum had undercooked the vegetables and that he may choke to death on a green bean, the clatter of serving spoons and bumping of elbows as everyone filled and the more pedantic arranged their plates. The silence that descended as everyone took the first few mouthfuls….

Ironically it was probably during my unhappy teenage years and the mess of my early twenties, when I struggled my way through such lunches, eating and contributing very little or simply avoided them, that I most valued Sunday lunch, the ritual, the routine, the solidity of it all.It was a fixed point, constant when I wasn’t.

Sunday lunch and all it stood for – good food warmly given – waited for me to come back. Which I did eventually, by which time our Sunday Lunches were broader and more expansive, we all had partners, extended families and homes of our own. The cooking was shared and the lunch eaten at various tables. Of course tensions sometimes bubbled and simmered away like the gravy, occasionally spitting to the surface like potatoes hitting hot fat in the meat tin, But the meal remained constant and at its heart the proud resolute roast, with potatoes, two vegetable and appropriate sauce and trimmings.

I suppose it makes sense that when I came to Italy a stout English Sunday lunch was one of the first things I really missed. Even amongst all the gloriously good Italian food and I mean gloriously good and the joys of I Pranzi di Domenica I missed it. Because it wasn’t just the food -although I missed that too, particularly rib of beef with horseradish – it was the tradition, ritual, family and friends being together however difficult, my other home in England.

I missed it all…

It’s strange but didn’t occur to me for quite some time that could make us an English Sunday lunch in Rome. I think that’s because said lunches had become all muddled up with nostalgia and my homesickness, the here and there, England and Italy which I’d polarized the idea that my life was like that and now it’s like this.  Anyway, it wasn’t as if I was completely bereft of English Sunday lunches, occasional trips back were tiding me over.

It was only when I realised that I was really putting down roots in Rome, slowly starting to assume very Italian eating habits and becoming part of an Italian family with its own deeply entrenched rituals and routines around food that I made a silent promise to myself to cook us English Sunday Lunch at least once a month.

I haven’t quite kept my promise

But nearly.

Last Sunday it was roast pork, roast potatoes, braised red cabbage, apple sauce and bread sauce. This is my second favourite Sunday lunch, just piped at the post by rib of beef with yorkshire pudding.

For this kind of lunch I like either a proper roast leg of pork or a shoulder of pork on the bone both cooked with the skin on for a carapace of amber crackling. This presents a problem here in Italy as meat is butchered differently and skin is more often than not removed. Luckily I have a very obliging butcher who will get me most things even strange English cuts if I ask him in advance. Unfortunately I forgot to ask in advance. Fortunately my butcher had a very nice shoulder of pork with no bone and no skin but a nice, thick layer of fat which could handle a slow roast.

Slow roasted shoulder of pork with potatoes

  • 2kg shoulder of pork with skin or a very good layer of fat.
  • salt and freshly round black pepper
  • 2 onions,peeled and halved
  • 6 whole peeled carrots
  • 1.5 potatoes peeled and cut into 4 or 6 depending on size
  • stick of celery
  • bay leaf

Dry the joint. If it has skin score the skin with a sharp knife. Rub the joint with salt and then put if fat/skin side up I put in a hot oven (220°/475f) for 30 minutes.

Cover the joint very snugly with a double layer of foil and put it back in the oven at 170°/325f for 3 hours.

Remove the joint and the foil. Lift the joint aside and pour off most of the meat juices and fat into a small pan leaving just enough to roast the coat the vegetables. Add all the vegetables to the tin. Using a wooden spoon nudge the vegetables around the tin so they are all well coated with fat and meat juices. Put the joint back on top of the vegetables, baste it with a little of the fat and juices you have poured off.

Put the joint back in the oven uncovered for another 45 minutes nudging and turning the potatoes every now and then.

Remove the joint from the oven and lift it onto a carving board and cover it with a layer of foil to rest for 15 minutes. Put the potatoes back in the oven for another 15 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon lift the potatoes and carrots to a warm serving dish.

By now in the little pan the fat should have separated from the meat juices and you should be able to pour the fat off into a little bowl use another day and you are then left with small quantity of intensely flavoured pork juice to use a gravy.

Braised red cabbage

I have a soft spot for this red cabbage, I can be funny and fussy about sweet and sour and too much jammy sweetness in my savory food, but this recipe works beautifully. It is best made a day in advance and gently reheated. I’ve posted about this before, the proper title is Braised red cabbage cooked in the Viennese fashion and you thicken the cabbage with cream and flour at the end of cooking. For a Sunday lunch like this – especially one with bread sauce – I don’t add the cream and flour but you might like to.

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s book How to Eat.

  • A large red cabbage
  • a large spanish onion
  • 50g butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of soft brown muscavado sugar
  • a large cooking apple
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 100ml red wine
  • 200ml water or beef stock

Cut the cabbage into quarters, discard the outer leaves, cut away the hard central core and shred each quarter finely. I prefer to do this by hand but then I have no alternative.

Peel and slice the onion finely. In a large, deep heavy based pan, gently melt the butter and oil over a moderate flame and add the sliced onion. Saute the onion until it is soft and translucent and just starting to colour.

Add the sugar to the onion and stir well. Add the cabbage to the pan and stir well to coat all the cabbage.

Quarter the apple, core but do not peel, chop it into little chunks and add to the pan, stir again.

Add the vinegar to the pan, stir, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, stir and cover. Cook over the moderate flame for 15 minutes.

Heat the oven to 150°

After 15 mins add the water or stock and red wine and put the pan in the oven to simmer away for for 2 hours.

Taste to check the sweet/ sour balance and add a little more vinegar or sugar – but go easy here

Jane Grigson’s Bread Sauce

Adapted from English food

I adore bread sauce but not quite as much as my little sister Rosie and now rather surprisingly Vincenzo. It’s a bit out-of-place with the Roast pork I know, a better partner for roast chicken or game. But Vincenzo doesn’t eat pork and loves bread sauce with his potatoes and I love him more than our family rules about sauce/meat pairings.

  • 1 small onion, peeled but left whole and stuck with six cloves
  • 500ml rich milk
  • 90 – 125g  fresh breadcrumbs from the soft inside of a very good loaf.
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • 50g  butter
  • 2 tbsp thick cream
  • cayenne pepper

Put the milk and clove studded onion into a basin balanced over a pan of simmering water on a low flame and bring to a just below boiling point. The idea is to infuse the milk with the flavour of onion and cloves so the longer the milk takes to come to the boil the better. ( about an hour).

Remove the onion and then keeping the basin over the water whisk in 3/4 of the breadcrumbs. Keep whisking gently until the sauce thickens. If it seems a little thin – bread sauce should not spread very much when spooned on to the plate – add more breadcrumbs. If it seems so firm that the spoon stands up in it, add a little more milk,

Season with nutmeg, salt and white pepper.

Stir in the butter and cream and put into a warm serving bowl or jug and then sprinkle a little cayenne pepper on top.

Put the cayenne pepper on the table for those who like their sauce fairly hot.

Nigella Lawson’s Apple sauce

Adapted from How to eat

  • 50g butter
  • 3 cooking apples (about 1kg) peeled, cored and cut into chunks
  • 75g sugar
  • 3 cloves
  • juice of half a lemon
  • good pinch of salt

Put all the ingredients in a heavy based saucepan and then cover the pan and cook over a medium heat for about 15 minutes – lifting the lid every now and then to prod and turn everything – when the apples should have collapsed into a soft, lumpy, heap.

Pass half the apple mixture through a fine sieve and then mix it back with the unsieved mixture.

Taste adding more sugar, lemon juice or salt of necessary. It should be sweet but not sickly so.

If you feel the mixture is too runny you can boil it down a little – like bread sauce, apple sauce shouldn’t spread too much when you spoon it on the plate, it should sit in a well-behaved little pile. If it seems to thick add more butter or lemon juice.

A note about pudding.

Bread and butter pudding made with panettone. To be continued……

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Filed under food, meat, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, vegetables

Yet again

Soup….

Potato soup this time or zuppa di patate if you like, with very large parmesan toasts.

P1050017

I know I swore off writing about soup and soup-like-things for a while.

Is two weeks a while?

Actually I’m not really sure what I was thinking anyway, not writing about soup! It wouldn’t feel right around here, it certainly wouldn’t feel as if I was sharing what we put on the table day in day out because very often – for either lunch or supper – we have soup, invariably hearty, often thickened with pasta and always accompanied by bread.

P1050023

I’d had my eye on this recipe from Elizabeth David’s Italian food for a while before I finally made it. It sounded like just the thing for one of our soup lunches…….if it worked? For I have to admit for all my curiosity and as much as I wanted it to work, I did wonder if the soup might be a little austere – olive oil, a large potato, an onion, bread, water – not that far removed from something out of a novel by Dickens’ thats simmered up in a vast pot then ladled out by Mr Bumble to dirty, misfortunate and undernourished orphans… I also imagined the soup to be very very beige………. beige, frugal, austere, undernourished……..

Am I winning you over here ?

Actually I’m not being fair, the recipe isn’t really that austere, there’s stock or a little bacon, olive oil, nutmeg, parmesan for goodness sake, I overlooked them in favour of my Dickensian exaggeration. A better description would be simple and quite humble, both good things in my book.

Anyway I was curious.

I probably wouldn’t have been if it hadn’t been Elizabeth David‘s recipe, because as you may have gathered – I can be very tedious about these things – I am quite devoted to both her writing and her recipes. She’s the person who has most inspired, influenced and educated my cooking and my eating habits and I trust her excellent taste.

Like any self-respecting devotee I have all her books – two editions of several – which I refer to as ‘my favourites’  either with the enthusiasm of a  7-year-old child talking about chocolate biscuits or with my earnest fervour usually reserved for paintings by old masters. I am slightly obsessive and possessive, I don’t believe anyone likes her quite as much as I do and I’m very put out if they do……

Following her recipes though….

For some reason I get anxious, the cooking equivalent of being tongue-tied and awkward in the presence of someone significant. Following her recipes matters, like trying to please your favourite teacher or attempting to make a cake just like your grandma did from her ancient illegible recipe…it really matters…. My anxiety is exacerbated because even though Elizabeth David describes things beautifully and with painstaking detail she can just as easily be laconic and impressionistic which can leave me – pedantically following her every word – a little lost.

The first time I make an Elizabeth David recipe is usually a rather emotional experience that sees much muttering to myself…..Take this soup for example, a very basic recipe of 6 sentences. The first sentence reads like this; ‘Cut the potatoes into thin strips, as if you were going to make very small chips.’ Easy…..Oh dear Elizabeth, I have fallen at the first hurdle, what kind of chips ? are we talking French or English fish’n’chip shop chips here, Thin, how thin, skinny, I fear this is fundamental. Next, ‘Chop the onion’. How Elizabeth, how ? diced, in two (you never know) half-moons, fine, rough and chunky, I wouldn’t care if this was anyone else but it’s you Elizabeth. I sometimes even imagine her voice – I’ve read she didn’t suffer fools gladly – ‘Oh for god’s sake just chop them you foolish girl, use your common sense’ she says disapprovingly before pulling on her slim cigarette.  Another one, ‘Brown the onion’ oh bloody hell, the onion, the one I have chopped incorrectly, I know this really matters, it’s a flavour thing which could make or break my soup… soft golden brown, chestnut-brown, dark french onion soup brown which I know from experience is a minefield, caramelized to carbonized before your very eyes.

I could go on, I could talk about other recipes that have left me paralysed with indecision..but won’t, needless to say this pantomime continues until whatever I am making is on the table.

This might all sound rather an unpleasant experience, it isn’t, I like it. I adore cooking from her books. First she captures me with her words and then leads me through each recipe, sometimes with exquisite detail, sometimes with sweeping brevity that encourages me to think and work with the ingredients, to struggle just a little, to mutter and talk to myself in a slightly deranged way and argue myself to various conclusions. In short to make the recipe my own.

So, the soup.

The zuppa di patate con crostini or the potato soup with very large parmesan toasts.

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It works.

It’s a lovely soup, the final bowlful is so much more than just a sum of the individual parts. Yes it’s quite frugal, but in a nice way, the flavours are lovely and pure, a soft, gentle potato and onion soup with body but not too much (you are going to add bread afterall, parmesan toasts no less) spiked with bacon, thyme and nutmeg…

Maybe it would help if you read the recipe

Zuppa di patate from Elizabeth David’s Italian food

For four people prepare 10oz (280g)potatoes, 1 medium-sized onion and 8 small slices of bread. You also need 2 pints (1.1litres) broth, 3 tbsp of olive oil, thyme, salt, pepper, grated cheese, nutmeg and 2oz (60g) butter.

Cut the potatoes in thin strips, as if you were going to make very small chips. Chop the onion. Heat the olive oil in the saucepan, brown the onion, then add the potatoes and season them with salt pepper, nutmeg and thyme. Pour over the boiling broth. In 15 minutes the soup will be ready.

To go with it, prepare the following crostini: saturate the slices of bread with melted butter; spread them thickly with grated parmesan and cook them in a moderate oven (180°/350F/gas mark 4) for 10 minutes.

This soup, which is good and so easy to cook, can be made with water instead of stock provided a little bacon or ham (about 2oz/60g) is cooked with the onion to give it flavour.

I expect you are wondering what on earth I was going on about, it all looks straightforward enough you are thinking…..she must be quite incapable.

I fear you may be right

Anyway. I have made this soup both ways, first with chicken stock and then with plain boiling water but adding some bacon to the onion. I liked both, but maybe the plain boiling water kept the flavours purer and simpler

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The parmesan toasts, These were a revelation – I like her description so much, particularly the use of the word saturate – I am going to type it out again.

Prepare the following crostini: saturate the slices of bread with melted butter; spread them thickly with grated parmesan and cook them in a moderate oven (180°/350F/gas mark 4) for 10 minutes.

They were as nice as they sound, I think I might be making these rather alot.

Just for the record, in case you were wondering, I cut my potatoes into 2″ long 5mm wide sticks, I diced the onion finely and my brown was golden, texture like sun. When the soup was cooked I also mashed some of the soft potato sticks against the side of the pan with a fork to thicken things up.

Pause for breath.

I am not really sure where all this came from today, can you find the recipe in today’s muddle? Do you want to? I fear this whole post is rather like the deranged muttering I do whilst cooking……… Anyway I hope have a good weekend wherever you are.

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Filed under food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup

Not quite wordless Wednesday

Saturday lunch

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and Sunday lunch

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I spent a nice chunk of last weekend reading and cooking from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food.

On Saturday we had Baked fish (sea bass) with potatoes and red onion. Then on Sunday Grape Harvesters Soup ( which is a simple onion soup really served over bread) followed by warm slices of potatoes and hard-boiled egg with shallot dressing and some very nice goats cheese.

We also ate a quite impresssive quantity of clementines and roasted chestnuts.

All of the above deserve more words…….they just haven’t come to me yet.

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Lunch

Spaghetti with braised cavolo nero and ricotta

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I shouldn’t really be here.

Sorry, let me rephrase that, I should be here, meaning I should be sitting on this wonky chair in front of this ancient computer tip typing away with 3 fingers, I just shouldn’t here here as in racheleats here talking to you about my lunch yesterday.

But I am.

Firstly because I need to puncture the tedium and frustration that is the task presently in my incapable hands and secondly because yesterday’s lunch of spaghetti with cavolo nero (Tuscan kale /black cabbage) and ricotta was so good.

This is the kind of of pasta lunch I like, simple, tasty and a clever combination of good ingredients. Spaghetti tossed with ribbons of cavolo nero -which have been braised into soft tenderness in olive oil, butter, garlic and a little water – to which you add a very large spoonful of ricotta and top with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

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I can’t wait to make it for Vincenzo, I can’t wait to make it again.

I have been meaning to make this for nearly a year now, 359 days to be exact, I know because I just checked, Luisa posted this recipe on the 19th November 2008.  I very nearly made it, it must have been late Jan or early Feb, I bought some cavolo nero and ricotta, I even scribbled – and I mean scribbled, my handwriting is worse than my doctors – the recipe down in my notebook. But with one thing and another it never got made, I seem to remember making a funny ricotta cake thing and we probably ate the cavolo nero braised.

It was nearly again last friday when I spied a very handsome bundle of the long dark green almost blue- black crinkled leaves of cavolo nero at the market. We had some very nice ricotta in the fridge, plenty of spaghetti, it was perfect……here we go I thought…. finally. Then Vincenzo reminded me we had already taken the pesto from the freezer for lunch – damn that pesto I thought – and that the fridge was full of green things that needed attention – damn those other green things, damn that Vincenzo I thought. Needless to say I didn’t buy the cavolo nero.

Until yesterday morning

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I’ve always liked kale – particularly cavolo nero – the robust, swarthy, bitter – sweet cousin of cabbage, the rogue cousin, the pirate of the cabbage world. If Johnny Depp* were a cabbage he would be cavolo nero whilst Jude Law would be an easier, accessable, sweeter but frankly rather boring round, smooth white one.

But even though liked it, I never really got to grips with cooking it before I came to Italy. Cavolo nero is hardy, strong in flavour and texture, don’t forget, it’s a cabbage pirate, it’s tough at times, even the smaller more delicate, sweeter central leaves. Cavolo doesn’t scream when it’s picked, it goes grrrrrr* m’ hearty. It needs cooking carefully and for some time if you really want to appreciate the wonderful texture and deep taste……. Italians know this.

In Tuscany it is paired with beans for the robustly delicious soup Ribollita so-called beacuse it is ribollita (reboiled) and eaten the day after being made which improves the flavour, especially of the cavolo. In the south cavolo nero is braised with oil, garlic, peperoncino, a little water and sometimes pancetta until it is soft.

Which brings us back to the recipe, the spaghetti, tossed with the braised cavolo nero and ricotta and topped with parmesan.

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There is nothing complicated about this recipe.

Wash and pick over the cavolo nero, discarding any leaves that are damaged or very very large. Then strip the dark leaves from their tough stems, cut them into ribbons and then wilt them down in plenty of olive oil, a knob of butter with garlic and peperoncino over a happy flame. You then add some water and leave the cavolo nero bubbling and braising away, half-covered over a very modest flame for about half an hour in which time it becomes soft and tender.

While you cook your pasta, you carefully mix the braised cavolo nero and the ricotta together in a large warm bowl. THEN you scoop ladleful of the well salted, starchy pasta water from the pan the pasta is rolling around in – the magic ingredient -to add to the cavolo nero/ricotta mixture to thin it into a looser, creamy paste which will coat the pasta.

Finally, drain and add the pasta to the sauce, toss carefully.

Serve in warm bowls, quickly grate over some parmesan, maybe a grind of black pepper, toss everything together again with your fork and EAT.

It’s really delicious by the way.

Spaghetti with Braised Cavolo Nero and Ricotta

Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as starter

Just slightly adapted but wholly inspired by Luisa

  • 1 big bunch of cavolo nero (Tuscan kale.Curly kale works well too)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • small knob of butter or lard
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole but squashed with the back of a knife
  • 1/2 a small fresh or dried peperoncino, chopped finely or if dried crushed
  • 150g /2/3 cup fresh ricotta
  • 300g dried spaghetti
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano

Wash the cavolo nero, strip the leaves from the ribs and then chop the leaves into thick ribbons.

Warm the olive oil, butter and garlic in heavy based frying pan, add the peperoncino and the cavolo nero and some salt. Cook over low heat, uncovered, for about 10 minutes by which point the cavolo nero should be good and wilted

Add a cup of water, partially cover the pot and let it cook for another half hour and the cavolo nero is very soft and tender.

In the meantime, put the ricotta in a serving dish and bring a big pan of well salted water to a fast boil for the pasta. When the cavolo nero is cooked, add it to the ricotta and mix well.

Put the pasta into the boiling water and cook until al dente. Spoon some of the  starchy pasta water from the boiling pan into the cavolo nero/ricotta mixture to thin it into a creamy, loose sauce (I used about 4 tbsp of pasta water)

Drain the pasta and toss with the cavolo nero and ricotta.

Grate a very generous amount of parmesan over the pasta and toss well before serving and eating immediately.

* thankyou for the spell check Elena and Tracy

* update. Deborah and Gemma have both pointed out that pirates say arrr not grrr. They are right.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, recipes, vegetables

Pears poached in red wine

A couple of weeks ago

I posted about prunes poached in Marsala and spices and I rambled on – again – about how much I like poached, gently stewed and baked fruit, especially quinces, those prunes and pears poached in red wine.

Then I realised it had been rather a too long…..So long in fact that I’d almost forgotten how simple they are to make and how handsome and proud they look with their deep burgundy curves, especially when perched on a white plate in a little pool of thick, sweet syrup.

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The pear above was my breakfast on Sunday morning. Lovely leftovers from Halloween supper on Saturday for which I crafted a very wonky pumpkin and we ate poached pears with a blob of marscapone after the main course of slow roasted pork – which was good but not as delicious as the smells rolling from the oven all afternoon had promised or as I had hoped  – and before the little chocolate puddings.

Vincenzo looked disapprovingly at at my deep red breakfast, ‘the alcohol has evaporated‘ I reassured him, he still looked confused and then proceeded to made some toast which meant I ate both pears.

Whilst eating breakfast and marvelling at how delicious the sweet, plump, dense graininess of wine doused pears is and trying not to marvel at the sheer quantity of washing up from the night before that awaited me, I realised that not only were these my first poached pears in ages but also my first pears in ages.

I have all but given up on fresh pears you see, which is rather sad as I know they can be delicious, luscious and sweet…. especially with cheese. It’s just that I’m bored of being disappointed by either rock hard bullets or mealy, mushy specimens, and frustrated that the ’10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat’ Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of continues to elude me.

I also have a nagging suspicion that many pears today, even those from the nicest trees don’t even have that particular 10 minutes in them, even at their best (which I miss obviously) they are decidedly average.

This recipe is perfect for a cynical pear lover like myself and an excellent way to render even the most average pear delicious, because lets face it, there are alot of average pears around. You don’t have to worry about finding perfect specimens, waiting for the perfect moment while wondering if the wait is in vain anyway and risking another pear death in your fruit bowl.

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You just need some firm dessert pears, really firm, the kind that look rather unyielding and missile- like, as if they could take a burglar out – temporarily of course – rather than just splat in his face if he were to surprise you in the kitchen one day. You peel them, leaving them whole but with stalks in tact. You simmer the pears in a whole bottle of red wine – whole bottle of wine, what a lovely group of words – some sugar with a stick of cinnamon until they are translucent, soft and tender.

You let the pears cool in the cooking liquid and once they are cool you lift them from the liquid and set them aside while you reduce the liquid by about half into a thick, dense syrup. You then reunite the pears with the syrup and allow them to sit for at least a day and preferably two or three. You can turn them in the syrup every now and then. While they rest all sorts of nice things happen as they soak up more of the syrup and their colour deepens.

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Serve cold with cream, marscapone or thick greek yogurt.

Pears poached in Red wine

Serves 6 or even better 4 so you have two extra for your breakfast

Inspired by Elizabeth David – who I do wish people would make as much fuss about as they do about Julia Child.

  • 6 firm medium-sized pears – Bartlett and Williams work well
  • A big bowl of cold water with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in.
  • 200ml water
  • a bottle of young red wine 8 (I like cote-du-rhone or Pinot noir)
  • 300g /2 1/2 cups of sugar
  • a stick of cinnamon
  • 2 cloves
  • a strip of lemon peel

Peel the pears leaving them whole with the stalk intact. Drop each pear into the lemon water while you peel the next to prevent discoloring.

Put the wine, water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and lemon peel into a large heavy based pan and over a gentle flame bring everything to a gentle boil. Keep stirring at the beginning until the sugar is dissolved.

Carefully lower the pears into the simmering water – Some people like to put a circle of baking parchment over the pears and liquid and then weight the pears with a plate so they stay submerged. I don’t as the pears bob around enough to cook evenly.

Cover the pan and allow the pears to simmer for 25 – 40 minutes (which will depend on how firm they were) until they are translucent and tender – but not soggy – when pierced with the point of a knife.

Remove the pan from the heat, leave it covered and let the pears cool in the cooking liquid.

Once the pears are cool lift them from the liquid and set them aside while you reduce the liquid by about half into a thick, dense syrup.

Reunite the pears with the syrup and allow them to sit for at least a day and preferably two or three – turning them every now and then.

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Filed under food, fruit, Puddings, Red Wine