Monthly Archives: January 2010

A walnut lunch with an orange finish

For the first 32 years of my life, walnuts, along with mince pies, brandy butter, figgy pudding, and the Queen’s speech, meant Christmas. A large bowl of them with an ancient nutcracker would appear on the slightly oppressive sideboard around the 15th of December. The bowl would then sit there, rather like the Queen herself, familiar, mildly depressing and collecting dust. From time to time my Mum would proffer it enthusiastically,’ walnut anyone‘ and crack one open. Occasionally the bowl would be brought to the table for with the cheese and someone, probably my Mum, would have one or two, and I remember my Dad juggling with walnuts. But mostly the bowl and its beige contents would sit there neglected, gathering more dust, and generally outstaying its welcome until it disappeared on about the 15th of February.

Every now and then I did crack one open, but that was only because our friend Misou had taught us the cracking one nut open by pressing the seam of it against the seam of another nut trick. Done correctly the shell would split neatly in two and if you were lucky you could pull out two perfect curious butterfly like halves. But what’s strange, is that even though I vividly remember cracking them open and the bowl perched on the sideboard getting dusty, I can’t for the life of me remember eating any walnuts, I’m sure I did, I know I did, I just don’t remember.

Vincenzo on the other hand is an experienced walnut (noci) eater, he is extremely proud of his capacity and speedy cracking skills. Up until the age of 12 he honed his skills eating almonds in Sicily, his maternal grandparents had a farm in Gelà where they grew tomatoes, artichokes, cotton and tended almond trees. Vincenzo and the cousins would position themselves under a vast sack of almonds stored on the raised wooden platform in the barn, poke a hole in the bottom of the coarse sacking and wheedle out almond after almond, cracking open the nuts a hammer. But then things changed, the family removed to Rome and soon after his grandparents left the farm, it was harder to find good almonds and Vincenzo shifted his allegiance to walnuts.

When we first met he was disturbed and perturbed that I didn’t touch the walnuts he bought, ‘Non ti piace i noci‘ ‘ you don’t like walnuts‘ he would ask with a quizzical expression and that slight air of superiority Italians often have when they talk about food (the superiority which used to drive me mad but I now nearly understand.)  I told him the story of the dusty nuts and showed him my cracking skills, which I think impressed him nearly as much as me recognising Lee Morgan playing the Trumpet on Art Blakey’s recording of A night in Tunisia (a guess and a gazillion points.)

At first I wondered if ignoring them had been the sensible choice. Even with the wonderful Walnuts we find here in Rome, the very best Noce di sorrento that arrive from Sorrento in Campania. it took me a while. Walnuts are particular things, creamy and with that wonderful oily, sweet, waxy texture but also slightly bitter and mildly astringent. Like meeting unexpected tannins in a glass of red wine, the puckery feeling, the slightly dry mouth, not unpleasant, just surprising, something I needed to get used to before I could really appreciate walnuts.

Which I did, not only becoming extremely fond of walnuts and the ritual of cracking a couple open after a meal, but also becoming nearly as diligent as Vincenzo at keeping the walnut bowl full.

And then I discovered walnut pesto a soft, delicate, nutty paste – cream if you like –  of walnuts, olive oil, butter and aged parmesan and I really fell for walnuts.

Our walnut pesto started life as an almost classic basil pesto using walnuts instead of pine nuts. We both liked the sweet, creamy, slight bitterness of the walnuts so much, we tried it again without the basil. During our third or fourth attempt Vincenzo suggested we added some butter, I was sceptical at first, but it works beautifully, the pesto is softer and creamier, which makes sense really, especially to the nut butter lover in me. I have since noticed Marcella Hazans suggests adding butter to her classic basil pesto.

We continued to tweak and try, and I kept illegible notes; a bit more oil; more cheese, parmesan and pecorino, just parmesan; more walnuts, less walnuts; blanching and peeling the nuts if they are older so darker and thus rather bitter. Until we arrived here, eccoci as Vincenzo would say, walnut pesto, pale and unassuming but a just delicious delicate, nutty walnut cream we spread on warm toast or stir into soft ribbons of fresh egg tagliatelle.

Of course there is nothing original about our recipe, walnut pesto and all the various walnut sauces (salsa di noci),- I have since found dozens of recipes some with parsley and basil, some with breadcrumbs, others with a little cream or yogurthave been around for centuries. I’m told they make some wonderful walnut sauces in Liguria, especially Genoa where it is called tocco di noxe and eaten with a wonderful sounding herb filled ravioli called pansôti, but that’s another post.

I’m cautious about writing exact measurements for this recipe, walnuts vary from sweet to bitter depending on their age, as we know olive oil can be pungent and peppery or light and delicate, parmesan can be piquant, aged and seasoned or mild and soft, even butter is unpredictable. Suggestions rather than instructions feel more appropriate for this recipe. My advice is that you use my measurements as a loose template, that you start with 100g of walnuts halves and then experiment and balance your ingredients, adding a knob of butter, some oil, some cheese, tasting, added some more of something, tasting again, trying it on the pasta, making it again a week later and adjusting something.

I think this sauce works well with most long pasta but it is really wonderful with fresh egg pasta, its softer more absorbent texture holds the flavour of this delicate walnut pesto better. We like tagliatelle or fettuccine.

So there you have it, dusty and neglected to one of my favourites (and his too.)

Tagliatelle with Walnut pesto (or walnut cream)

We start making walnut pesto in June after summer solstice and the walnut harvest, the nuts are young, pale, still soft and just delicious. Later in the year. like now, when the nuts are older and maybe bitter, I blanche them in boiling water and peel them  – which is a right old faff but worth it, I’d say it’s pretty essential you blanche and peel packeted walnuts and walnuts in their shell really are best.

Last thing, this is another recipe in which you need to add some of the salty, cloudy pasta cooking water to the walnut pesto to loosen and thin it a little so it coats each strand of pasta. I scoop out a cupful just before I drain the pasta so don’t forget and pour it all way.

Serves 2 really generously with some pesto left over to have on toast.

  • 100g shelled walnuts halves or pieces.
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil olive oil
  • A walnut sized knob (About 25g) of butter softened to room temperature
  • 50g finely grated good (aged if possible) parmesan plus more to serve
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • 200g dried or 300g fresh tagliatelle

Making it by hand with a pestle and mortar

Crack the walnuts open

Unless they are very young and very fresh, drop the walnuts in boiling water, remove with a slotted spoon and quickly pull away the dark skin. Dry the nuts.

Crush and pound the nuts in the mortar with the pestle until they look like coarse sand. Now add the butter and work it into the nutty powder using the pestle, then add the cheese and grind into the mixture evenly using the pestle. Add the olive oil and beat with a wooden spoon. Taste, add more oil or cheese if you think fit, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Making it with a food processor

Crack the walnuts open

Unless they are very young and very fresh, drop the walnuts in boiling water, remove with a slotted spoon and quickly pull away the dark skin. Dry the nuts.

Put the nuts, butter, olive oil in the food processor and process to a uniform, creamy consistency. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the cheese. Taste, season, add more oil or cheese if you think fit, taste etc……

Now

While you are cooking the pasta in lots of well salted, fast boiling water, put a nice big dollop (about 2/3 ) of the walnut pesto in the bottom of a warm serving bowl and dilute it with a couple of tablespoons of the water the pasta is cooking in.

Once the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the bowl, toss the pasta with the sauce carefully (add a little more pasta water or walnut pesto if you think its necessary) the pasta should be loose and slippery and every strand well coated with the creamy sauce.

Divide between warm serving bowl with serve with more freshly grated parmesan on top and a good grind of black pepper.

After a beige meal, however good, we needed a bright finish.

A salad of sliced oranges, fennel, red onion and black olives dressed with salt and olive oil.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces

There on the chair

December 30 2009 – January 28th 2010

I am trying and failing to finish a post about walnuts. Until I do, here are the there on the chair pictures from the last month. Ridiculous? Nice? Ridiculous and nice at the same time? I’m not really sure. The photo’s do make us look like vegans, which we aren’t (although many of our meals are almost vegan because thats the nature of much of the southern Italian food we love) Next month I might snap some trippa, lardo and gorgonzola on the chair just to balance things out.

For me, it’s the oranges from Sicily. January you give us post-Christmas slumps, tight purse strings, short days and long cold nights, oh yes, and rain too, this year lots of rain, but you also give us oranges. January all is forgiven.

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At last, lemon tart.

You might remember a couple of months ago I wrote about little pots of lemon cream, rather seductive little puddings made from mascarpone (the extremely nice triple cream cheese from Italy), eggs, sugar and lemon. The ones that taste  somewhere in-between the soft quivering center of a classic tarte au citron and a very good, very creamy, baked lemon cheesecake.

I’m extremely fond of these little pots just as they are, but I have to admit that for years now I’ve fancied this luscious lemon cream in a tart, a thick, fat layer of it on thin base of delicate and buttery pastry.

Just one problem! Tarts, as we all know, involve pastry and I don’t, if at all possible, involve myself or get involved with pastry (the making of it that is, eating it is another matter entirely and one in which I’m very involved.) I suffer from pastry making anxiety you see, the conseqence of various pastry traumas; dry, cracked, shruken, heavy and leaden, heartburn inducing ones;  wet, damp, soggy, cloggy indigestion inducing ones . Despite lots of wonderful advice, I still practice heavy avoidance techniques where pastry is concerned. The mere sight of the words… pate…brisee…sucrèe…rich or shortcrust will still see me hastily turning the page.

Well they did, it did, I did, until 3 weeks ago, when I decided enough was enough. I gathered together the ingredients for the lemon cream and called upon my clever friend for moral support, a sweet pastry recipe and triple advice. Then rather like a certain afternoon about 25 years ago, after months of trepidation, hovering, perched on the edge and the inevitable sheepish, shivering retreats back down the ladder, I scrambled up to the second highest diving board, marched to the end and flung myself with abandon into the deep end of St Alban’s swimming pool.

The recipe my friend suggested turned out to be from a book I had on my shelf, Made in Italy, a book I like very much but whose entire dessert chapter I’d dismissed as too restauranty and fussy. A recipe chapter which includes, of all things -my clever clever friend – a rather delicious sounding lemon and mascarpone tart, the filling of which was pretty much identical to my (oops, Nigella’s) lemon cream.

A little bit of recipe serendipity.

So, first the pastry, which Giorgio reassures us is  ‘a very good, very easy sweet pastry that isn’t difficult to work with and won’t break if you roll it‘. He is right you know, even in my doomed pastry hands, I’d say it’s a bloody marvelous pastry. I was anxious to start, knowing another failure could nudge my pastry anxiety into pastry phobia, but once I got going; beating the butter and sugar adding the eggs and flour; bringing everything into a ball with cold hands and it feeling as reassuring as play dough, not too sticky not too dry; rolling it out without the dreaded cracks; lifting it into the tin without a shaggy tear, baking it blind and watching it turn golden brown, it was as nearly as exciting as flinging myself into the deep end! Ok, not quite as exhilarating but certainly as satisfying in a ‘what on earth have I been waiting for, just look what I did’ kind of way.

Making the filling, mixing the mascarpone, cream, milk, sugar, lemon and then whisking in the eggs yolks felt familiar and comfortable after all my lemon cream practice. Pouring this disconcertingly liquid mixture into the tart case is a little nerve-wracking as is the instruction ‘cook till the center is set but still the slightest bit wobbly’ suggesting a crucial moment you need to catch, rather like a ball. I needn’t have worried about either, my pouring hand was surprisingly steady and the tart was set but still wobbly (a nudge of the tin ascertained this) after the suggested 30 minutes.

So, the tart, which I have made three times now – I thought I should before I started enthusing and prothlesizing about it here – is as lovely as I hoped it would be. The pastry is delicate and buttery, the pale yellow filling soft and creamy, sharpened and lifted by a lip puckering tartness of the lemon. I like the intense satiny lemoniness of it all, the way it trembles and wobbles ever so slightly as you cut a slice

I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of the whole tart, but in the rush and tumble of an afternoons cooking and a messy rabble of friends for supper photo’s were forgotten. It was pretty – a little bit wonky but most things I make are a little bit wonky – and it was a good end to a supper of spinach and ricotta lasagna followed by thin slices of rare roast beef with potatoes.

The pictures here are the morning after the night before, Sunday at about midday when we had a sweet second breakfast of the last three slices with more coffee. I know the tart looks rumpled (rather like us, we’d all had a big night) the icing sugar has dissolved away, cracks have appeared like they do, but you get the idea I hope. I think it was actually more delicious the morning after.

Last things, these instructions look quite complicated and long-winded, they’re not really, just heavy on the pastry and blind baking advice which I for one really appreciated. Once you have made and blind baked the pastry it’s all very straightforward, probably a breeze for you seasoned tart makers.

Lemon and mascarpone tart

From Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy

For the pastry.

This will make a double quantity, enough for 2 tarts but apparently a larger volume mixes better and you can freeze the other half.

  • 220g grams butter
  • 150g icing sugar
  • 2 medium-sized eggs
  • 450g plain flour (Italian 00 is perfect but not necessary any plain flour will do)
  • another 2 egg yolks to glaze tart

For the filling

  • 300g mascarpone cheese
  • 50ml whipping cream
  • 50ml whole milk
  • zest of two large unwaxed lemons
  • 100ml lemon juice
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 120g egg yolks
  • icing sugar, to finish

You need a 28″ non stick tart tin, loose based is really best.

First make the pastry;

Food prosessor method; Put the butter in the food mixer with a paddle and whiz until soft. Add the sugar and keep mixing until the mixture is pale and very creamy. Add the eggs and then whiz again until they are incorporated. then add the flour. Continue to mix until the flour is incorporated and you have a neat ball of dough. Divide into 2 balls and put one in the fridge or freezer for another day

Or

By hand method;  Leave the butter out of the fridge for a few hours so it is nice and soft. Beat the soft butter with a wooden spoon in a large bowl until it is creamy and then add the sugar. Keep beating and stirring with the wooden spoon until you have a soft fluffy, mixture. Add the eggs and beat until they are incorporated. Gradually add the flour and first using the spoon and then your (cold) hands bring the mixture into a ball. Divide into 2 balls and put one in the fridge or freezer for another day.

Preheat the oven to 170°Roll out one of the balls of the pastry into a large circle on a well floured surface – use the tart tin in as rough template, the circle should be large enough that the pastry will hang over the edges of the tin by about 1 cm and can be easily lifted out

If it is non stick, butter and flour the inside of the tin. Carefully lower the pastry into the ring, press it down gently, making sure it fits into the corners. Line the pastry case with circle of greaseproof paper and weight it down with dried or baking beans.

Bake the case for 5 minutes then take it out of the oven, remove the beans and the paper and put it back in the oven for 10-12 minutes until golden.

Take the tart out of the oven and while it is still hot brush it with the beaten egg yolk. Put the case back the oven for another 2 minutes. This forms a skin so even if there are tiny holes the filling won’t seep through and burn.

Allow the tart to cool a little then very gently cut off the overhang with a serrated knife. Set the tart case aside, lower the oven to 150°C while you…

Make the filling

Mix together the mascarpone, cream, milk, lemon juice and sugar in a bowl. Whisk the egg yolks separately then add to the mascarpone mixture and incorporate quickly with a hand blender.

Very carefully pour the mixture into the tart case and then carefully slide it onto the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes until the center is set but still the slightest bit wobbly. Leave to cool by which time the topping will have firmed up.

Dust with icing sugar

Note

A day after posting this Wonderful Jordan noticed that I had omitted the rather key word Flour from the ingredients list and I then realised I had also written the wrong measure of flour – unforgivable really. I’ve now amended the recipe so it is proper and correct, 450g plain flour (Italian 00 is perfect but not necessary.) I do hope nobody tried this with the old measurements beacause I will have given you serious pastry trauma. Sorry, I will be more attentive in future.

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Filed under cakes and baking, food, lemons, Puddings, recipes

Feeling Thrifty

I never thought I would learn to love old, stale, bread. I never thought I’d get excited about a rumpled paper bag, a brown one that we keep in the basket under the work table to collect the bread orphans, the neglected and badly cut slices, the crusty ends of loaves which Italians call i culi ( the arses !) But I have and I do.

It is because of Vincenzo, the man is as obsessed with using up every slice, crust and fragment of bread as he is with its daily acquisition and the bit of bread balanced on the edge of his plate at every meal. If he doesn’t finish his piece of bread at a meal, it goes in the paper bag. His paternal grandparents had a forno (oven, bakery) in Messina in Sicily. His grandmother Lila in particular, worked very hard and the most extraordinary hours to keep – quite literally – bread on many tables. Bread, was a serious matter and I suppose Vincenzo couldn’t help but grow up knowing the value and importance of it. Bread was never wasted in his family, fresh daily bread may have been a given, but so was the thrifty use of every scrap.

He calls me a wasteful English barbarian by the way.

Vincenzo has brought some of this thrift into our – increasingly nightmarish and desperately in need of attention – kitchen. In summer we often make panzanella, we soak the leftover bread in water, squeeze it dry, tear it into pieces and then toss it with very red ripe tomatoes, onion, basil, a little vinegar and lots of peppery olive oil. We sometimes make Pappa al pomodoro or pancotto both comforting and delicious soft paps of tomatoes, stale bread maybe onion or herbs which have been simmered together until they form a soft creamy mass. We often make breadcrumbs for liberal sprinkling on whatever and then in Autumn and winter we toast slices of stale bread, tear them and put them in the bottom of a shallow bowl and ladle over Ribollita.

Ribollita is a Tuscan speciality, it means reboiled. This hearty soup-stew – of which there are as many versions and variations as there are cooks – is thought to have been traditionally made and eaten on Saturday, a way of using up the left-over white beans from Friday, a lean day. The beans were recooked (hence the ribollita) with lots of onion, often cavolo nero (black cabbage) and vegetables, then served over slices of toasted stale bread (pane raffermo) Each bowlful was then doused very generously with bright green, rich, peppery, Tuscan olive oil.

Ribollita is still made in much the same way today, but now that it is less common to make it out of necessity with the leftovers from religious fast days, the name ribollita is more likely to refer to the fact that this soup – like most minestrone – is unquestionably better when it is made in advance, left to cool, preferably overnight, and then ribollita or reboiled and reheated.

This is a practical, down to earth soup to both make and eat. First a soffritto of onion, carrot, celery and olive oil, then some diced potatoes, a few tomatoes, thyme, your soaked white beans, an uncontrollable little mountain of cavolo nero which withers down obligingly, water, salt. You bring the pan to the boil and lower the heat to a slow simmer for at least two hours, remove, taste, season, taste.

Now a nice long rest, preferably overnight so the flavours can mature and develop and the soup can thicken. When it’s time you gently reheat it and then ladle the soup over toasted stale bread (rubbed with garlic if you like), anoint with lots of extra virgin olive oil a grind of black pepper. Then you wait like a Tuscan for about 5 even 10 minutes before you eats so the bread soaks up the broth, swells under the thick dense soup and becomes so thick you can stand your spoon up in it.

Then you eat, thrifty and delicious I’d say.

A note about the kale – I do hope you can find it, I don’t want to seem annoyingly exclusive about Italian ingredients. If you can’t, you can make a really nice ribollita with ordinary kale or savoy cabbage, but I should say there is nothing like the deep, toothsome, slightly peppery flavour of its blue-black cousin cavolo nero (black cabbage) for this particular soup.

Oh, one more thing, a final note about the bread, it should be stale, two or three or four days old, depending on the type of bread. Italians call stale toasted bread pane raffermo which does not have the negative connotations of our word stale. Pane raffermo means firmed up, hardened, matured which makes the bread ideal for soaking up broth whilst keeping its shape and texture. Good stale bread from comes good bread, bread with texture, flavour and body. Poor quality bread is even poorer stale and will be even nastier and a tragic soggy, gluey, mess under this serious soup.

Umm goodness, I am so long-winded sometimes, you get the picture I hope.

The recipe.

Ribollita

serves 6

  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • onion, peeled and finely diced
  • a large carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • a stick of celery, finely diced
  • 3 whole plum tomatoes, fresh or canned.
  • 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 medium potatoes. peeled and coarsely diced
  • 500g cavolo nero, shredded
  • 160g dried white beans like cannelini soaked overnight and drained
  • 8 slices or crusts of stale country bread with a firm crust and dense crumb
  • salt and pepper

In a large heavy based pan (one with at 4 liter capacity is ideal) warm the olive oil over a medium heat and then add the diced onion, celery and carrot and cook gently for about 15 minutes until they are very soft and translucent and floppy.

Add the potatoes to the pan, stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and the thyme, stir and cook for another couple of minutes.

Add the beans, stir and then add the vast pile of cavolo nero and try to stir to coat (The cavolo will feel rather unmanageable at this point, the sheer bouncy volume of it, try to turn as best you can and rest assured it will wither down soon)

Pour in 2 litres/ 3 1/2 pints of water, season with salt and then bring the pan to the boil, stirring and turning occasionally. Once the pan has reached a lively boil. turn the heat down to low, cover the pan and leave to simmer for two hours.

Remove from the heat, taste season and leave to sit for at least 6 hours or better, over night.

Once you are ready to serve gently reheat the soup in the pan. Toast the bread lightly, rub it with garlic if you like and then you have two options; You can just lay slice of bread into the bottom of an individual serving bowl and ladle over the soup, dribble with more oil and serve just so; You can do as our friends do in Tuscany. You set the oven to 180°/350F, Lay the slices crusts of toasted bread at the bottom of a large earthenware dish and the pour over the soup. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then serve into individual bowls making sure everyone gets some of the bread at the bottom, dribble with more extra virgin olive oil, a grind of black pepper and freshly grated parmesan..

You often find ribollita served tepid or just warm here in Italy as the flavours are more pronounced that way.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, bread, food, olive oil, soup, vegetables

Taking my brother’s advice

About a week before Christmas I made an improvised, ad hoc, but really tasty supper of buttery braised cabbage, chestnuts and crispy pancetta. Enlightened and wanting to experiment more, I furrowed around in my favourite books and found many of my favourite writers singing the praises of similar combinations and more importantly, sharing all these delicious sounding recipes; A recipe from Auverge in France for cabbage, chestnuts and crispy bacon; Another for cabbage and pork cooked really slowly so the flavours melt together; Madame Glon’s recipe for chou farci, stuffed cabbage; An intriguing Northern Italian recipe for cabbage loaf.

Then Christmas and New Year interrupted everything, as did a happy, indulgent long weekend with old friends here in Rome for a wedding and the inevitable trudge back to school that followed. My bookmarks and my cabbage and bacon shaped plans were sidelined and somewhat forgotten in the flurry and then slump that is this time of year

Then last Thursday my brother Ben called me from London. Ben and I invariably talk about food and Thursday was no exception. First he asked eager questions about broccolo romanesco and got excited – as only family members can – about my post for pasta e broccoli. He raved about a dinner at Le cafè Anglais and last but not least, he recounted with the enthusiasm of a labrador puppy that had just found a very large bone about making a chou farci or stuffed cabbage, better still, a sausage and cabbage cake.

A sausage and cabbage cake indeed !

I’m sure if I hadn’t had my pre christmas experience with the braised cabbage or it hadn’t been Rowley Leigh’s recipe via my brother, Good taste both of them, I might have been less enthusiastic. But I had and it was, so it seemed like fate. To top it all,  I’d just bought the rather handsome savoy cabbage at the market, the one above, perched on the chair in the precious winter light.

So I made it. Then I made it again on Saturday, just to be sure.

I have to say this is one of the most surprising and satisfying things I’ve made in a while. It is, as the name suggests, a cake of cabbage and sausage. You could call it a cabbage and sausage pie I suppose, the cabbage leaves in lieu of pastry and a layered filling of sausage meat and cabbage. Maybe it will help if I explain how you make it.

You choose about 7 of the larger outer cabbage leaves and blanche them in boiling water for a couple of minutes so they are floppy and wonderfully accommodating. Then you lay the largest and most handsome leaf in the bottom of a round well-buttered oven dish and then arrange the other 6 leaves so they cover the sides of the dish, they should be fanned out, really overlapping and hanging over the edges. I remember Molly once suggesting you could wear blanched kale leaves as a cape, I think you could make a rather wonderful, very eccentric skirt from these gloriously, floppy green leaves.

You chop and cook the rest of the cabbage, season it with salt, pepper, fennel seeds and olive oil. Now you make a bed of this seasoned cabbage at the bottom of your rather charming cabbage lined dish.

Now the nice bit, you squeeze the sausage meat out of its casing and press half of it into the dish, it is of course easily moulded. Now another layer of cabbage, then another of sausage meat and a last of one of cabbage, you press the mixture down with your hands. Finally you bring across the overhanging cabbage leaves to cover the top and make a neat parcel and press again.

You dot the top with butter and slide it into the oven for an hour. In the oven the cake cooks into a wonderfully compact and tidy parcel, solid and firm. You might want to woop with joy, it is so perfect and unexpected, You let it cool a little and then invert it onto a plate, no fear of sticking, and you have a savory cake topped with a leaf pattern, rather like an old, majestic oak tree.

You slice into the cake, each neat slice is rather pleasing with its stripes green, pink, green, pink, green, playful really, I made some very creamy buttery mashed potato to go beside it, just right for a very cold friday night.

The taste, well, its strange that an unexpected shape seems to change the taste of something very familiar. Yes, it is only buttery cabbage and sausage meat, but the cake shape with a tree on top, the happy striped wedge on the plate somehow makes it all the more delicious.

‘This is real comfort food’, I found myself muttering, ‘elegant too’. I might have even said ‘What a wonderful play on a classic supper of sausages, mash and buttered cabbage’, or something like ‘So very clever, so very simple, why didn’t I think of this’.

And then I cut myself another slice.

I called Ben, who was even more enthusiastic than usual. Now, we could really talk about this simple and curiously beautiful dish. ‘You could add a layer of chestnuts too‘ he suggested ‘we had it with homemade tomato sauce, you have to try that‘  he added, ‘When are you coming back to london?  want to take you to Le café Anglais, sausage and cabbage cake is on the menu.

So to the recipe which is Rowley Leigh’s very simple way of making, moulding and serving chou farci (stuffed cabbage,) a much loved but rarely seen piece of French peasant cookery. Quality of sausage meat is really important: a good Toulouse sausage or the Italian luganega both work well as does lean English Cumberland sausage, you simply squeeze the meat out of the casing. Ask your butcher for advice. The fennel seeds are optional, I love the hint of aniseed in this dish (I am normally notoriously funny about aniseed) you may not.

Cabbage and sausage cake

Adapted from Rowley Leigh in the FT

Serves 6

  • 1 large savoy cabbage
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 500g very lean, well seasoned sausage meat
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 30ml olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove 7 of the large, handsome outer leaves (discard any that are discoloured or damaged) and wash them carefully. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop in the 7 leaves. Wait for the water to come back to the boil and then blanche the leaves for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the leaves to a colander in the sink, rinse with very cold water to fix the colour, drain and then spread out, flatten and dry the leaves carefully on kitchen towel. Set them aside.

Cut the rest of the cabbage (the heart) into quarters and bring the same pan of water back to the boil, Drop the four quarters into the boiling water for 5 minutes by which time the cabbage should be tender but the stems still firm. Drain the cabbage quarters, rinse with cold water, drain again and squeeze out access water. Cut away the hard central stem and separate the leaves into  bowl and dress with the olive oil, fennel seeds, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Squeeze out the sausage meat from the casing.

Take a round, flat, 20cm oven proof dish and smear it with half the butter. Choose the largest and most handsome leaf from the 7 you have set aside and place it in the bottom of the dish, it should fill the base of the dish and come up the sides. Arrange the other 6 leaves so they cover the sides of the dish, they should be fanned out, really overlapping and hanging over the edges.

Using a third of the seasoned cabbage make a layer at the bottom of the dish and cover with half the sausage meat, pressing it down so it moulds in the dish. Repeat the process, ending with a third layer of cabbage leaves. Press everything into the dish.

Fold and bring in the overlapping leaves to cover the top and make a neat parcel, dot with the remaining butter.

Bake in a medium oven  (180°/ 350F) for an hour.

Remove from the oven and the allow the cake to sit for 5 minutes before inverting a plate on top of the dish and turning it on to a plate. Be careful and do this over the sink as there will be hot juices.

Serve with creamy mashed potato and a dab of strong mustard if you like.

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This week

You already know about Monday’s lunch, the pasta e broccoli followed by three clementines each; Tuesday’s solitary one, an rumpled omelette (they should never be neat I am told) with a large blob of ricotta di pecora and my new favourite, fennel and orange salad; Wednesday, more pasta e broccoli with the rest of the ricotta stirred in, a delicious revelation which I may need to write more about; Thursday, Vincenzo made gnocchi which we ate with tomato and butter sauce and lots of parmesan; Today, Friday we had a potato and wild mint frittata with some nice bread from Passi and another fennel salad.

Oranges on a chair.

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Pasta e broccoli

In Rome it is still common to follow an informal, unscientific weekly recipe calendar which was established centuries ago based on religious tenets. Romans call the food served following this calendar piatti canonici – Canonical dishes. The wonderfully rowdy trattoria il Bucatino, the one that inhabits the right hand corner of the ground floor of our palazzo, follows this weekly calendar. Each day the appropriate smells curl through the kitchen window of il Bucatino across the courtyard, up two floors and if it is open, which it often is, into our front door.

Saturday is the day for trippa alla romana (tripe with mint and pecorino romano); Sunday is Fettuccine alla romana followed by abbacchio (fettucine pasta with a hearty meat, chicken liver and tomato sauce followed by roast suckling lamb); Monday is the day for riso e indivia in brodo (rice and curly indivia in chicken broth); Tuesday is pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas) pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) or fish; Wednesday, anything goes; Thursday is gnocchi di patate (potato gnocchi); Friday, it is Traditional to eat pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas again), baccalà (salt cod) or pasta e broccoli (pasta with broccoli).

Vincenzo, who equilibrates his very erratic life as a musician by keeping a steady routine of three proper- knees-tucked-under-the-table-and-pasta-at-lunchtime meals a day, would love to adopt this weekly calendar and have pasta e broccoli every friday. I’m not against the idea, after years of avoiding any kind of routine and up turning tables of familiarity, I’ve embraced lots of both since living in Rome. I would happily eat pasta e ceci every Tuesday.

We don’t of course, I haven’t embraced that much routine and I don’t think we are actually capable. We do however have our own, very loose, extremely flexible weekly calender inspired by the wonderful Roman one. No fixed days, but most weeks, at some point we will have pasta e ceci, baccalà (salt cod) cooked in one way or another, maybe some gnocchi with tomato sauce and almost always a dish of pasta e broccoli.

Pasta e broccoli, as the name suggests, is pasta mixed with broccoli. While the pasta is cooking, the broccoli, which has been parboiled, is tossed and gently panfried (braised really) with plenty of olive oil, garlic, chilli and sometimes melted anchovies before being mixed with the al dente pasta. If anchovies are not included, each bowlful is topped with lots of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Pasta e broccoli is best made with the curiously beautiful broccolo romanesco. The strange, bewitching, lime green vegetable with its intricate clusters of closely packed florets which one of my books describe as architectonic spirals and another, the aggressively brassiered breasts of Madonna in her Boadicea phase. Cooked romanesco has the texture and feel of good cauliflower but the taste of broccoli.

The reason broccoli romanesco works so wonderfully is because if it is cooked until very tender (this is no time for al dente) and then tossed with enough olive oil, it creates a wonderful, soft, creamy, almost sauce like coating for the pasta which is then spiked with the heat of the chilli and the warmth of the garlic. As much as I love anchovies, I tend not to add then to our pasta e broccoli beacause we like lots of freshly grated parmesan on top and I don’t like fish and cheese together.

If we are having pasta e broccoli for lunch I generally cook more broccoli than we need so we have another portion for another time, topped with more raw olive oil or some anchovy spiked dressing.

So, to the recipe, traditionally eaten on Fridays but delicious any day.

Serves 6 as a starter and 4 as a main course

  • 1 large broccolo romanesco divided into small florets and washed
  • 400g short tubular pasta such as penne or rigatoni
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole but crushed with the back of a heavy knife
  • 1 small red chilli or pepperoncino (fresh or dried) deseeded and finely chopped)
  • salt
  • lots of freshly grated parmesan to serve

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and then add the broccoli florets and cook for 6 – 8 minutes or until they are just tender, this will depend on how fresh the broccoli is. Using a slotted spoon remove the florets to a colander.

Meanwhile In a separate frying pan gently warm the olive oil on a low flame and then add the garlic and chilli and cook them gently for about five minutes. Do not allow the garlic to brown or really fry because it will go bitter and ruin.

Bring the same water you cooked the brocolli in back to a fast boil and add the pasta. Follow the instructions on the packet, our rigatoni from Garofalo takes 9 minutes but we cook it for 8 and it is al dente as we like it.

Add the broccoli to the frying pan, stir so the each floret is coated with the garlic and chilli infused oil, cover and cook gently for another 5 minutes, mash the florets roughly with a fork. Taste and add salt accordingly, bearing in mind you will add parmesan later.

Drain the Pasta and save a bit of the cooking water and then mix it with the broccoli in a large warm serving bowl. Add a spoonful of cooking water if you feel the mixture needs loosening up.

Bring the pasta to the table, divide it between the individual bowls and allow everyone to help themselves to plenty of freshly grated parmesan, a grind of black pepper and more oil if you like.

Two things

Firstly and most importantly, Are you all keeping warm? We are very cold and rather damp with occasional downpours here in Rome, I know my family and friends are all battling with snow and impressive temperatures near London. Soup, slow cooked anything, porridge with cream, hot chocolate, whisky, Wellington boots, clementines, hot water bottles all feel very appropriate at present.

Secondly, I am happy and proud to be contributing to the food and drink section of the online Spectator magazine SpectatorScoff. My contributions aside,  Scoff is well worth a visit for it’s wonderful food writing, recipes and opinions. I think (hope) you might like it.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables