Monthly Archives: February 2010

Crackers.

I knew I’d like making and eating these olive oil crackers Lucy wrote about last week.

You roll out walnut sized nuggets of flour, water and olive oil dough really really thinly until you have these opaque, almost transparent, long, thin, beautifully misshapen things. You brush each one very generously with olive oil and sprinkle it with coarse salt before you bake them until they are pale gold, crisp, blistered and curling at the edges

I have made these crackers three times this last week and we (with lots of nice company) have been eating most of them straight from the oven, brushed with more olive oil while they are still warm, crack, crunch, warm oily shards. Especially delicious with black olives, red radishes, very white ricotta and a glass of this.

You will know how thin ‘thin is‘ after a few goes (my first batch were a bit chunky – we still ate them) and if like me you have a small oven, a small baking tray and therefore no choice but to cook the crackers in small batches, you will quickly get the hang of cooking times.

Olive oil crackers

From Ottolengi via Lucy’s Nourish Me, one of my favourite blog haunts

Sift 250g of plain flour a teaspoon of baking powder into a large bowl and make a well in the center and pour in 125ml of water and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then using your hands bring the ingredients together into a dough and knead it until it is smooth. Wrap the dough in a tea towel and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or so.

Set the oven to 220°/ and line a baking tray with grease-proof paper.

Lightly dust your work surface and hands with flour. Pull off a walnut sized lump of dough and roll it into little sausage between your palms, then dusting with more flour as you work, roll the dough into a long, very thin, misshapen tongue on the floured board before laying it onto the lined baking tray.

Brush each length of dough generously with olive oil and sprinkle with some coarse sea salt like Maldon.

Put the tray in the preheated oven for 6 – 8 minutes. You need to keep an sharp eye on the timer and the crackers as they cook. They will, crisp, blister, curl at the edges and go very a pale golden colour (deep golden brown is too much). When they are ready, pull the tray from the oven and slide the crackers onto a wire rack. Cook the next batch.

The crackers will keep in a tin for a couple of days but I think they are best eaten still warm and brushed with more olive oil.

Last thing

As you can see, I didn’t finish that post, and after that rather grand announcement too, I feel a bit foolish. I am going to make the same recipe again on Saturday so we will see. Come to think of it I haven’t really finished anything this week, it’s been a tricky one and I am certainly not writing and posting as much I’d like too, I hope that will change in the coming weeks.

It feels a bit like spring in Rome and tomorrow I’m going to collect lots and lots of lemons; which is wonderful but quite ironic considering my recent procrastination and inability to finish anything except plates of crackers, a cute reminder to be careful what you wish for ! We will see.

Happy weekend to everyone.


48 Comments

Filed under biscuits and biscotti, cakes and baking, food, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Red roots and leaves.

This Radicchio di Treviso; some ruby beetroot; a red cabbage which was more purple than red – ‘tyrian purple’ our friend announced, the colour of the imperial robes of roman emperors, which somehow made the lunch grander and might be useful for trivial pursuit one day; two red onions and lots of scarlet fleshed oranges. It has been a week of red roots, food, hands, tempers for an hour or so (mine, very petty, I blame the rain) and bay leaves,

Monday

My favourite, the radicchio di Treviso sitting at the top next to the chair, is a extraordinary leaf chicory from Teviso near Venice in northeast Italy that has alluring deep red leaves and very thick white veins. Radicchio di treviso has a bold character, it’s the epitome of a bitter-sweet leaf, with a warm, spicy peppery aftertaste. We don’t find it in Rome very often and when we do we usually eat it just so, as a flaming salad leaf. But occasionally, if I find more at the market, we bake it.

Baking softens the flavours of radicchio, taking some of the edge off the bitterness and encouraging its sweetness and it’s curious and distinct flavour. The leaves collapse and wither like old rags which sounds terrible, actually it’s quite charming. Well I think it is charming, but then I think the delicious insides of a baked aubergine, which look like an old dirty dishcloth slumped the colander, are charming!

We baked two of the four bulbs to go beside a very plain risotto for lunch on Monday, a delcious combination. I cut each long bulb in quarters lengthways, then tucked the eight wedges into a well oiled oven dish. Salt and freshly ground black pepper, more olive oil and a bay leaf, before I covered the dish tightly with tin foil and baked it for about 30 minutes in a medium oven.

Tuesday

I bought beetroot, a small red cabbage and some really big, plump, Sicilian salted capers to make a Fergus Henderson’s Red salad.

I have been promising myself this ever since I read Ruth Reichl’s post back in December, the ‘kind of deconstructed borscht.’ It is a most striking scarlet salad of raw grated beetroot, red onion, red cabbage and caper dressing which you top with a big blob of creme fraiche. You then proceed to jumble the whole thing up into a delicious pink mess.

I misplaced the creme fraiche ignoring maybe one the most wonderful recipe instruction I have ever read – nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers.

A red salad.

2 raw beetroot, peeled and finely grated
¼ raw red cabbage with its core cut out, very finely sliced
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half from top to bottom and finely sliced
6 healthy dollops of crème fraîche

Dressing
Healthy splashes of extra virgin olive oil
A little gesture of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
A small handful of extra-fine capers
Sea salt and black pepper

Mix everything together for the dressing. Toss all your raw red vegetables in the dressing, then on six plates place a bushel of this red mixture. Next to this, nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers. A very striking salad ready for the eater to mess up.

I think will be making this salad alot, it will be delicious with pickled herrings and vodka.

Thursday

I must admit that I still am extremely fond of beetroot that come in families of four. Ones that have been boiled to near death and preserved in a rather solid, surprisingly heavy, thick moulded plastic vacuum pack. Do you know the ones? My feelings are largely sentimental, this was the beetroot my grandma Roddy used to buy in west yorkshire when we were young. She would cut each ruby ball in very thick slices and then douse them with lots of very strong English malt vinegar and serve it for tea with corned beef. We would shudder, eat and laugh at our very very red mouths and beetroot juice speckled clothes.

I am however even fonder of slightly shriveled, sweet, intensely flavoured, roasted beetroot with garlic and bay leaves.

I first had this roasted beetroot when I worked as a waitress at the Duke of Cambridge pub and it’s sister pub the Crown in London. There was a fantastic chef called Caroline who would roast vast trays of these wonderful English organic beetroot. Each bulb was cut in two, put face down in a very well oiled baking tray with lots of whole but squashed cloves of garlic, some bay leaves and probably more olive oil. The tray was covered snugly with tin foil and then put in a hot oven for about 50 minutes when the bulbs are very tender to the point of a knife. Caroline would serve the beetroot with a dressing made from olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the soft baked garlic squeezed from the skin.

I got very red hands paring away the skin from the beetroot for lunch, plastic gloves would have been sensible but of course I didn’t have any. I separated another head of raddichio into curls and hard-boiled four eggs before arranging everything on a big plate along with the garlic from the roasted beetroot.

I made mayonnaise too – following Elizabeth Davids recipe – for the first time in ages and promised myself I will make it more often. I stirred a spoonful of very hot horseradish in the creme fraiche and cut the sour dough bread from the bakery Passi.

Another deconstructed lunch which required a certain amount of messing up, mayonnaise on eggs, creme fraiche on the beetroot, more mayonnaise scooped up in the curl of the radicchio, garlic squeezed out of its skin, everything squashed on the bread, more olive oil ( I was sorry we didn’t have any sweet-cured herring fillets, next time!). A rather mad looking plateful by the end, all pink and cream coloured and very very tasty.

Note

I had hoped to have finished a post about the rabbit I cooked last weekend by today……. but I haven’t, which is rather frustrating, hence this rather ad hoc, bits and pieces red week post……..Oh yes, maybe we are thinking the same thing, if you prefer to pet rather than eat rabbit you will probably want to ignore my next post. Have a good weekend.

53 Comments

Filed under food, odd posts, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables

Oranges and a lemon lunch

We have been buying, eating and squeezing citrus fruit rather compulsively of late, gloriously good and beautiful oranges, lemons, mandarins, grapefruits and clementines, lots and lots of clementines. Orange and yellow alternatives to one of those lamps for seasonal affective disorder, a citrus antidote to the dreary, damp and frankly miserable weather we are enduring.

I have also become rather obsessive about a certain lemon tree, the one with bright yellow fruit that sits in the neglected garden of a block of flats I pass at least once a day. Lately it always seems to be raining and very grey when I walk past this particular block and then blink, there it is! through the drizzle, startling and seemingly unfeasible, a tree heavy with sunny yellow lemons at this dark, damp time. For the last three years I have watched this tree, first the blossom; the delicate, pale, fragrant flowers and then after, later, the glowing fruit. Then for three years I’ve looked on in despair and frustration, through gaps in the flimsy but high fence, as the fruit shrivels, or falls and then lies abandoned on the ground. Last year I tried to enlist Vincenzo in a commandoesque plan to scale the fence late one night. But a reconnaissance mission and an assessment of the fence one afternoon confirmed his suspicions that we would bring the whole rickety thing down if we tried to go over.

Fence aside, I suspect Vincenzo was still reluctant to participate in any clandestine fruit collecting after a misguided afternoon of fig and blackberry foraging ended rather badly – insane dog, a weird rash and mild concussion – the year before,

A year on and the tree is full of yellow fruit again. Knowing I was going to write some sort of citrus post this week helped end my procrastination. On Tuesday I left a note (and a nice tip) with the porter of the building addressed to the owner of the lemon tree – who I am informed is rarely in Rome and is therefore partly forgiven for lemon neglect -  offering a home for the lemons and some lemon marmalade in return. We will see.

But now back to the plentiful citrus we already have, the ones sitting in the vast basket at the top of this post and the lemons sitting below, on the usual chair.

I bought these handsome Sicilian lemons at Testaccio market today, it was impossible not to, three vast crates of them sat at the front of the stall, big and heavily scented with bright shiny leaves and knobbly, lively, unwaxed skins. They are incredibly thick-skinned with powerful but slighty sweet juice which makes them seem much less aggressive than other lemons I’ve known. These are the kind of lemons that Vincenzo’s grandfather used to eat in Sicily, one each day, sometimes two, whole, as you would an apple, skin, pith, fruit, the whole lemon lot. These are lemons to make this one day.

Such nice lemons deserved some undivided attention so I made the lemon jelly I have been promsising myself – I am, as you may remember, extraordinarily fond of jelly -  then we decided on a lemon scented lunch, something we haven’t had for ages, tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan.

This is inspired by Nigel Slater’s recipe for linguine with basil and lemon and a lovely dish of pappardelle ( thick ribbons of fresh pasta) with lemon sauce we once ate in Sorrento. Both recipes are based on the premise that if you whisk lemon juice with plenty of olive oil and lots of freshly grated parmesan you create a thick, grainy, deeply flavoured lemon and cheese ‘sauce’ which you toss with hot pasta.

The flavours work beautifully together, the sharp, lip pucking acidity of the lemon is tempered by the parmesan and the olive oil lends it a silky glossy texture. All the ingredients come together into a surprising sauce which clings to each strand of pasta, creamy and delicious, a sauce which manages to be both soothing and vital in the same moment.

It is important you whisk the ingredients together in a warm bowl. especially on these cold days, the modest heat helps the ingredients come together and the flavours emerge.

The hot pasta continues what the warm bowl started and brings out the heady scent of the lemon juice, zest and the salty sweetness of the parmesan.

A lemon scented lunch, simple and deicious, just the thing for jaded spirits comforting but bright and vital food for grey days.

As usual I am very cautious about giving you exact quantities here and suggest some tentative experimentation, especially with the lemon juice. I say this from experience, the first time I ever made this I used (as Nigel suggests) the juice of a large lemon and even though we both liked it, there was quite alot of lemon shuddering. We now use the juice of a medium lemon (and our lemons are mild-mannered and sweet compared to the really aggressive ones I used to buy in London) slightly more parmesan and a pinch of the zest. Even though Vincenzo nods approvingly I know he would use even less lemon juice and more zest if he was as bossy as I am.

In summer a handful of torn basil leaves makes a lovely addition to this sauce.

Tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan

Serves 2

  • A pinch of zest and roughly the juice of a medium lemon
  • 80g freshly grated parmesan plus more for sprinkling
  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 220g dried or 350g fresh tagliatelle or linguine

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil.

If you are using dried pasta which takes about 8 minutes to cook then add that to the water now, If however, you are using fresh pasta which only takes 2 or 3 minutes then start making the sauce first.

Grate the cheese.

Warm a large bowl (warmed under a running hot water tap, then dried) and add the olive oil, some of the lemon juice, the zest and beat briefly with a little whisk until it emulsifies, Now add the parmesan, beat again, taste, add more lemon, taste and whisk again until you have a thick, grainy cream. Taste again, you probably won’t need salt with all the parmesan but if you feel the need add some

Once the pasta is ready (still al dente which means to the tooth and suggests the pasta still has bite and isn’t soggy) drain it and quickly toss it with the lemon and parmesan sauce.

Divide the pasta between two warm bowls, sprinkle with more (unnecessary but nice) parmesan and a grind of black pepper.

Update

We made this again the night after posting this adding a big healthy tablespoon of crème fraîche to the lemon, parmesan and oil cream. Vincenzo really liked it, saying the cream tempered the acidity, I did too but I liked the simplicity of the sauce before. It was certainly more indulgent and a bit more special….anyway just thought I would let you know.

Have a good weekend wherever you are

72 Comments

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

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi

The irony is that I didn’t have a problem with the word gnocchi until I moved to Italy. Apart from the English accent, there will always be the English accent, I had the pronunciation down, gnocchi, the silent g, n as in new, o as in octopus, cch pronounced k as in key, i pronounced ee as in tree, nyokee, nyokee, nyokee. Gnocchi was one of the fifty-one Italian words – 36 of which were food and wine related – I actually knew when I arrived in Italy five years ago. The other 15? Well, if I remember correctly; four were Sicilian swear words, not sure where I picked those up; 7, the first line of the chorus of volare; the rest, a smattering of random musical terms – the sad legacy of a decade of piano lessons and the weekly pleas of my weary teacher Mrs Isabel Beyer, ‘pianissimo e grazioso, soft and elegant Rachel, soft and elegant’ as I thrashed and bashed out another sonata.

I’m not sure quite how it happened, but somewhere along my rather steep Italian learning curve, somewhere amongst the chi pronounced key and the che pronounced kay, the befuddling gli’s and gno‘s and the perplexing Italian grammar, I managed to mislay the pronunciation of gnocchi, rather like a sock. I think it was a case of word overboard, there was only so much room, I could cram the past tense of the verb morire into my saturated memory but there was a price and that was gnocchi pronunciation amnesia . One day it was there, gnocchi, rolling off my tongue like a Roman with a very English accent, the next I was frowning at the menu thinking knocky, G-nokey, nokay feeling confused, pink of face and pointing at the menu.

I managed to avoid actually saying the word gnocchi for about two years. I pointed, I nodded, on one occasion I managed to sustain an intense, merry and lengthy conversation about making gnocchi without actually naming it once. Vincenzo, between his taunting – which is justified retaliation, I am merciless and regularly need to lie on the floor laughing at some of his English constructions – did try to tutor me, n-y-o-k-e-e, which would help and I would say it correctly. But then a few days later, faced with a menu, it had gone again, knowkey, nochee.

Anyway, after all that, the end of the gnocchi saga is rather lame really, like finding the sock you mislaid two years ago, behind the radiator. I was in Volpetti one day for lunch and I ordered the gnocchi, I didn’t point or gesture, I didn’t say ‘questi‘ (those) I just said it, ‘gnocchi’ and that was that, I was passed the plate of steaming little dumplings with tomato sauce and lots of parmesan. I ordered it the following week just to be certain, and sure enough, there it was again, gnocchi. Vincenzo said brava and then laughed at my accent.

The recipe.

Gnocchi, as I’m sure you know, are little dumplings. Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump, rather like the one that appears when you bump your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing, so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful gnocchi, especially from potatoes, sometimes breadcrumbs, semolina or vegetables and they often flavour them with herbs and cheese. Gnocchi are cooked like pasta, but very gently, in plenty of boiling water and then dressed with the appropriate sauce or simply lots and lots of sage infused melted butter.

We are still learning to make soft, light and fluffy ‘cloud like’ potato gnocchi (practice practice practice was my Friends advice, the friend who makes the ‘cloud like gnocchi’) and I still haven’t attempted the traditional Roman semolina gnocchi or a nice sounding Tuscan recipe for walnut gnocchi. But we can make a very nice spinach and ricotta gnocchi.

So far, I think theses are maybe my favourite and certainly the most lovely of all the gnocchi family, light and delicate but surprisingly satisfying without being dumpy heavy or stout, the curse of many- a- dumpling. They are known as ravioli verdi or ravioli nudi (nude ravioli) in Tuscany, which is the most charming name because thats exactly what they are, nude ravioli, no pasta just the loose, quite delicious filling of spinach and ricotta ravioli (which is simply spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan and spiked with nutmeg) shaped into little lumps. The gnocchi are then dusted with flour to hold them together.

They very pleasing to make and quite straightforward. You cook some spinach with no water but a little salt, drain it, press it absolutely dry, then chop it. You sauté an onion in some butter and add the spinach and cook it gently for a couple of minutes. Next you add the ricotta, parmesan, beaten egg, flour, and nutmeg, stir and let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Then with a teaspoon and well floured hands, working on a well floured board you form little lumps or pellets of the mixture, rolling them in the palm of your hand, dusting each one with a little more flour before spreading them out on a flour dusted baking tray.

You bring a big pan of well salted water to a gentle boil and lower in the green gnocchi a few at a time. You poach them gently for a few minutes until they come bobbing happily – all puffed up and proud – to the surface. Then you fish them out with a slotted spoon.

You serve the gnocchi immediately on a warm serving plate with lots of sage butter and more freshly grated parmesan.

I adore these little green dumplings, light and delicate but surprisingly substancial without being heavy, Like little green pillows, or clouds,  floating in a pool of sage infused butter. Really nice food.

I made a plate of sliced oranges and slivers of dates for pudding.

Oh last thing, the 50g of flour in the ingredients is optional, it makes the gnocchi easier to handle and acts a little like glue keeping the gnocchi together while they cook…. but does make them slightly heavier. Once you get the hang of making these gnocchi and more confident about cooking times you can leave the flour out just rely on the little flour you use to dust them, the gnocchi will be even lighter and more lovely.

Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi with sage and butter sauce

Inspired by Elizabeth David’s recipe in Italian food but adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe in The Essentials of classic Italian cooking

serves 4

For the gnocchi:

  • 450g /llb  very fresh, bouncy, lively spinach
  • salt
  • 25g butter
  • 1 tablespoon very finely chopped onion
  • 150g Ricotta (cows or goats milk ricotta is great but sheeps milk ricotta is perfect)
  • 50g plain flour (optional, see note above)
  • 2 egg yolks gently beaten
  • 115g freshly grated parmesan cheese plus more for serving
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • More plain flour for dusting

for the butter and sage sauce:

  • 50g best butter
  • 10 fresh sage leaves

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, add a heaped teaspoon of salt, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and set it aside.

Warm the butter in frying pan then add the onion and sauté it over a medium flame until it is soft, transparent and golden. Add the chopped spinach to the pan with a pinch of salt and then cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often.

Tip the spinach and onion mixture into a bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Add the ricotta and the flour to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add the egg yolks, the grated parmesan and a tiny pinch of nutmeg. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste, add salt if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Dust your hands with flour and working quickly makes small nuggets/pellets of the mixture – about 2cm across (even smaller if you have the patience) and sit them on a tray dusted with flour.

Bring a large pan a well salted water to a gentle boil, not too hard or the gnocchi will disintegrate.

Drop in about 15 gnocchi at a time, when the water comes back to the boil, cook them for 3 – 4 minutes.

While the gnocchi are cooking make the sage butter…..

Put the butter in a small frying pan and turn the heat to medium. When the butter stops foaming and it starts turning tawny but not brown, add the sage leaves. Cook for a few seconds, turning the leaves once and then remove from the heat

Now back to the gnocchi, they will be puffy, soft and have floated to the surface. Using a with slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sauce, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan.

42 Comments

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