Monthly Archives: March 2010

A phase

Keeping this blog seems to have both exacerbated and validated my already well established habit of getting preoccupied, you could say slightly fixated, with one ingredient or a particular recipe. At present its leeks. It’s very late in the season I know, but there’s still time for a brief fling.

This Allium porrum phase began at my parents house near London a couple of weeks ago. My Mum has a vegetable garden which despite a hard, very cold and long English winter yielded a pretty fine crop of leeks this year. On the Saturday night – post large gin and tonic – Mum suddenly pulled on her gardening gloves and grabbed a small shovel and disappeared out of the back door. She was swallowed up the dark garden only to reappear a few minutes later beaming and brandishing a big bunch of long, slim leeks with bow-legged curves, scraggly roots and deep green tops. For part of supper she made a warm salad of leeks, cannellini beans, parsley and olive oil. We all agreed it was delicious. It was nice to see leeks taking center stage as opposed to hiding in the chorus. The recipe was jotted down in the notebook along with a general note to cook more leeks.

Back in Rome, where despite the occasional relapse, spring has most definitely sprung, I did just that. First I made the salad my mum had made. You cook three or four slim leeks – which have been halved lengthways and sliced thinly across – gently in plenty of butter, about 15 minutes or until they are soft and deliciously mushy. Then you mix them with some cooked cannellini beans, some lightly cooked peas if you like, a handful of finely chopped parsley, some coarse salt and a few glugs of good olive oil. We also had some goats cheese crumbled on top which is delicious.

But the salad aside it was the gently cooked leeks that really captured me, the ones cooked slowly in plenty of butter. Cooked this way leeks collapse into a soft, pale green, creamy mess, their already mild flavour is even softer and sweeter. On Monday I discovered leeks cooked this way are delicious  just so. Scooped straight from the pan and squashed onto warm toast and seasoned with lots of freshly ground back pepper. On Tuesday I cooked more leeks in this way, really slowly, probably for about 40 minutes. I added a handful of fresh peas in the last five minutes, goats cheese and then stirred in some pasta. Vincenzo declared this his favourite, but he is pasta biased,

Then on Wednesday, yesterday, I made a leek and goats cheese frittata.

A frittata, which I’m sure you know, is a thick, flat and substantial Italian omelette. Like a French omelette a frittata is made with lightly beaten eggs – often enriched with various fillings – cooked in butter. But unlike an omelette, which is soft and runny, a frittata is firm and set – but never dry or rubbery – and never folded

I am very fond of a well made frittata and this one is especially nice. It’s the same gently cooked leeks, stirred with 6 lightly beaten eggs and topped with crumbled goats cheese, cooked on the hob and then finished briefly under the grill. A perfect trio really, simple and understated, the pools of soft, creamy, slightly acidic goats cheese are a perfect foil for the soft mild leeks in a bed of gently cooked eggs.

First prepare the leeks, you need about 250g to make the frittata. Cut off the base and the roots and most of the green top, I leave about 2″ of the pale green part. The darker green part of the leek which has a coarse flavour and a tough texture is very good for the stockpot. Insert a knife just above the base and slice up to the top, thereby splitting the leek in two with the halves still attached at the base. Rinse the leeks carefully under fast running water. Finally slice the leeks thinly across so you have slim half moons.

For this particular frittata you melt a generous slice of butter in a frying pan or skillet and add about 250g of sliced leeks. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally until the leeks have collapse into a soft, rumpled mess. Allow them to cool a little.

In a large bowl beat 6 – 8 large eggs with a fork until they are evenly mixed and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tip the soft leek mixture in with the eggs and stir gently until the ingredients are combined. Turn on your grill. Melt a knob of butter in the non stick pan or skillet over a medium heat. Pour the eggs and leek mixture into the pan and turn the heat to low. Crumble and scatter about 100g of goats cheese over the top. When the eggs have set and only the surface of the frittata is runny put the frying pan/skillet under the grill for a minute or two (keep an eagle eye on it) until the surface is golden and slightly puffed up and proud and the cheese has melted into little white pools.

Serve with a leaf salad (Romane lettuce and deep red raddichio) dressed with coarse salt, extra virgin olive oil, We also had warm pizza bianca.

So there you have it a week of leeks. There have been lemons too but more about that another day.

I hope you are all well and spring has sprung for you too, Have a good weekend.

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Second nature

It seems that making and eating Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino is second nature to most Italians I know. Everyone seems to nod in agreement about this very simple, classic, thrifty and delicious combination of four ingredients; spaghetti, aglio (garlic), olio (oil), e peperoncino (chill) which can be five if you choose to include prezzemolo (parsley) and six if you count the salt. It is a dish many people love like an old friend, one who is always there and has seen you through thick and thin, a friend who regardless of time, fashion, fads and the weather just is.

I’ve probably watched spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino being made more than any other dish of pasta over the last five years. I ‘ve watched various hands in various kitchens, the familiar sequence of movements with idiosyncratic variations, the flurry of spaghetti, boiling water, steam, generous glugs of olive oil, flecks of white, red and green which rather patriotically echo the colours of the Italian flag. I’ve watched spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino made with great precision, relaxed ease and on one blurry occasion, seen it flung together chaotically and noisily (but ultimately very successfully) by an impressively inebriated Neapolitan, a friend of a friend, who then proceeded to topple off his chair into a rumpled heap before he managed to get the first forkful into his mouth. This is the dish, along with pasta e pomodoro that has been described to me most often, and with most affection by my students during our lessons.

Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino might not be second nature to me but I have fallen for its charms. I have grown accustomed and extremely fond of a plate of good spaghetti, one with body and texture, doused with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, heavily scented with garlic, leant heat and kicks by the bright red chilli and then soothed by the grassy green nature of the flat leaved parsley.

This is a recipe that manages to be both specific, it is what it is – spaghetti, garlic, oil and chilli - and more often than not very non-specific, a broad-sweeping brush-stroke, an idea rather than a recipe. You cook as much garlic as you choose in as much olive oil as you choose (this is no time for measuring glug, glug glug), you add hot chilies to taste before stirring this into as much spaghetti as you feel like eating cooked in the way you like. Finally, if you fancy, you can add some chopped parsley and some of the cooking water to loosen everything. You eat.

Of course there are more exact recipes with very precise quantities written in knowledgable books by wise people, but most of them, even the most prescriptive, will suggest that this has, by its very nature, to be a very personal recipe as far as quantities go. Experimenting, being sensitive to the age and the strength of the garlic and chilli, tasting, doing it differently the following time, finding the proportions that suit you. Having said that, I am going to give you the quite specific quantities and instructions that were given to me by my ex- student Lucia, who is a superb cook, as loose guidelines. They can be a fixed point around which you (as I did and do) can improvise.

Really good food, deeply satisfying, bold, tasty and without a doubt one of my favourite pasta dishes. Real fast food to boot, about 9 minutes if you don’t include bringing the water for the pasta to the boil. I am wondering if you have all the ingredients in your kitchen now, I think you just might.

I often make this for lunch when I’m on my own. I tend to be very slap-dash with the olive oil and salt and probably overly generous with the chilli and parsley – Vincenzo says there should only be a suggestion of parsley and that I am heavyhanded. When I have no lessons straight after lunch I am also garlic happy, especially at this time of year when it is young and mild. Fortunately these guidelines from Lucia are rather more precise, modest and helpful than my slap-dash measuring, they are also reassuringly similar to those given by the extremely good and reliable Marcella Hazan.

Seek out good quality spaghetti ( to my friends and family in England, I have noticed the excellent Garofalo pasta in several shops in London), decent extra virgin olive oil, plump pearly white garlic, scarlet chilli’s, fresh vibrantly green parsley……

Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino or Spaghetti with garlic. oil and chilli.

serves 2

  • 200g spaghetti
  • 4-6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 or 2 plump cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed with the back of a heavy knife then very finely chopped
  • 1 modest sized fresh red-hot chilli pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil, salt generously and put in the spaghetti.

During the last 5 minutes of the spaghetti cooking time put the olive oil, garlic and fresh chilli in a frying pan. Over a medium-low flame heat the oil and allow the garlic and chilli to warm and then gently sizzle – turning golden but not brown – until the spaghetti is ready. Add the dried chilli and a little salt to the pan.

Drain the spaghetti and reserve a little of the cooking water.

Tip the spaghetti into the frying pan, turn off the heat. Then carefully turn the pasta over and over in the oil, garlic and chilli so every strand is coated. If you like, add a tablespoon of the pasta cooking water to moisten everything and then add the parsley before turning the pasta over and over again.

Divide the spaghetti between two warm plates and eat immediately.

Serve with bread to mop up the oil at the end.

Have a good weekend my friends.

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5 years and a jelly

I have just spent a few days at my parents house near London. That’s my mum, well part of her, sitting at her kitchen table on Tuesday with oranges and pomegranates which I’ll come to later. Yes, more oranges, it must feel like citrus dèjà vu every time you come here.

It was a significant trip because last Sunday it was exactly five years since I took flight, in both senses of the word, from England to Italy. My departure on 6th March 2005 was a snap, a ping, a spontaneous decision that caused chaos at the time, but one that after much twisting, turning and the necessary amends, has led me to a very different, much happier and unexpected life here in Rome.

I’m not going to dwell on this, but it seemed important to mark the date with you all. Had it not been for that particular Sunday, I wouldn’t be in living in Rome teaching, cooking and writing in the way I do now, I wouldn’t have started this blog, I wouldn’t have become part of all this and met all of you. Good and happy things all of them.

The jelly

We are a family of Jelly dessert lovers, especially my Dad. I am not talking about the highly artificial, rubbery, lurid stuff that’s called jell-O or jelli and comes in gels, powders or ready- set in small tubs, boasting ‘only four ingredients; gelatin, water, artificial flavour and artificial colour’ – actually I do have a sentimental weakness for packet jelly so I shouldn’t sniff, especailly Rountree’s mandarin flavour with tinned mandarin segments that sit suspended in the rubbery gel like goldfish with rigamortis. I am talking about ephemeral, wibbly wobbly fresh fruit juice or alcohol jellies, ones scented with spices and softly set with gelatin or agar agar flakes, jellies which at least a nod to their honourable and intriguing history that dates back to medieval times.

My mum made such a jelly on Saturday night, a particularly wonderful and delicious one of oranges, pomegranates and cardamom.

A softly set, cloudy pink dessert, light, sweet and nicely sharp with the warm, fragrant, spicy undertones of the cardamom. Elegant but inherently amusing because jelly always is. Wobble wobble.

On Sunday I sat at the kitchen table copying the jelly recipe into my notebook, it is one of Nigel Slater’s that my Mum snipped from the Guardian back in December last year – an alternative christmas pudding, he also suggests prunes with chocolate and creme fraiche or a chocolate and chestnut terrine which were also duly noted down. Then Mum and I sat talking about jelly, agreeing it is abused, misunderstood, overlooked and discussing the endless possibilities.  Suddenly Mum leapt up excitedly and pulled a book off the shelf, a slim, hardback volume – with a lovely painting of summer pudding and a custard tart on the cover – called English puddings sweet and savory by Mary Norwalk. She turned to chapter two; Jellies, blancmanges and Flummeries.

A flummery indeed, more about that another day. First the jellies, after a fascinating introduction and insight into the history of jelly, there are recipes for lemon jelly, cider jelly, port wine jelly, Victorian apple jelly, milk jelly, little orange jellies served in orange skin baskets which were a favourite of Charles II apparently…… I scribbled so frantically my mum gave me the book to bring back to Rome. For a jelly lover like myself it was bewitching, the possibilities, in possession of gelatin and maybe some sugar you can set just about anything, into a quivering, delicate dessert.

It all very fanciful, jelly daydreaming.

Anyway back to the orange, pomegranate and cardamom jelly, which I made again on Tuesday the day before I left.

Basically you make some fruit juice (it could be alcohol or any flavoured solution for that matter)and set it with gelatin or agar agar. In this case it is orange and pomegranate juice, oh and a lemon too, to which you add some finely chopped zest. You don’t have to worry about stray pomegranate seeds or orange pulp, it can be a messy lumpy mass, you will strain it later. My mum has this cunning little tool called a lemon reamer which is well, cunning and I wish I had thought of it.

Then you crush 6 pretty papery grey- green cardomens pods with the back of a heavy knife so they split revealing the neat rows of jet black seeds, and then you scoop up pods and seeds and add them along with a little sugar to the pink juice. Now you warm the juice until it is just, but not quite boiling, you cover it and leave it to sit and the sultry cardomen infuse the fruit juice for about 15 minutes

While the juice is sitting quietly you soak 5 leaves of gelatin in cold water. You stain the juice into a clean jug (reserving the cardamom pods) and you slip the now floppy, gooey gelatin leaves into the just warm juice

You return the reserved cardamom pods into the juice – they will float around, apparently pointlessly, but will in fact discreetly give some of their flavour to the jelly as it sets. Finally you divide the juice between 6 or 8 little glasses and refrigerate them for a good 4 or 5 hours or overnight.

On Saturday night my Mum took Nigel’s advice and broke open the remaining pomegranate, separated the fruit and served each tumbler of jelly with a crown of deep red jewel like pomegranate seeds piled on top which was delicious and very beautiful.

Back in Rome and in my kitchen which seems very small, I have all the ingredients and my new lemon reamer. I will make this for supper on Saturday for after main course (beef, I think) and before the chocolate.

Last thing, if you are vegetarian (Gelatin is a protein produced by partial hydrolysis of collagen extracted from the bones and connective tissues of animals) and using agar agar or vege -gel follow the instructions and quantities on the packet, then please let me know, I am really really interested in the results.

Orange, pomegranate and cardamom jelly

Adapted from Nigel Slater’s recipe in the Guardian

serves 6 or 8

  • 6 or 7 large, juice oranges (to give about 750ml juice)
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 2 pomegranates plus another for serving
  • 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 6 green cardamom pods
  • 5 sheets of gelatine or agar agar powder or

Cut few strips of oranges and lemon zest with a sharp knife and set aside then squeeze the oranges (you should have about 750ml of orange juice) and then the two pomegranates and the lemon.

Put the juice and the orange and lemon zest into a stainless steel pan along with the 6 cardamom pods you have split open by pressing them with the back of a heavy knife – add both pods and seeds – and the sugar.

Warm the pan gently over a low flame until the juice is bubbling and nearly but not quite boiling. Cover the pan, turn of the flame and leave it to sit for 15 minutes.

Once the pan has been sitting for about 10 minutes slide the gelatine sheets into a bowl of cold water to soften for 5 minutes.

Stain the now just warm juice into a clean jug (reserving the cardamom pods)

While the juice is sitting quietly you soak 5 leaves of gelatin in cold water. You stain the juice into a clean jug (reserving the cardomen pods) and you slip the now floppy, transparent gelatin into the just warm juice and stir them carefully and thoroughly into warm juice, the gelatine sheets will melt in seconds.

Add the reserved cardamom pods into the juice – they will float around, apparently pointlessly, but will in fact discreetly give some of their flavour to the jelly as it sets. Finally you divide the juice between 6 or 8 little glasses and refrigerate them for a good 4 or 5 hours or overnight.

IF you like you can break open the remaining pomegranate, remove the seeds and pile on top of the jellies.

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A chocolate tart

Pies have a top and tarts have a bottom.’

Harold Goodyer to my grandpa, but overheard by my Mum in about 1956.

I have to confess that when I was about 10 years old tarts became infinitely more interesting and even more delicious, when I, like my Mum, began to understand the other meaning of the word tart! An inadvertant lesson from my aunty May.

May, my granny’s sister, had a very orange rinse, a big and generous heart and a sharp often wicked tongue. She always worked hard but liked nothing more than putting her feet up with a nice strong cup of tea, maybe a custard tart and having a good gossip and gasp about this and that, a tut and ‘have you heard?‘ Mostly it was talk of births, illness – lots about illness – and death, but occasionally there was news of ‘them,‘ people who ‘aired their dirty laundry in public or ‘That blousey tart who lives at No 16 Turner street.‘ My granny used to blush and giggle with encouragement at such conversations before remembering herself and whispering disapprovingly ‘Our May really! Not in front of the children.

I would concentrate on biting the crimped edges off my individual custard tart, stare at my tea or busy myself with something or other and pretend my ears weren’t flapping madly. Which of course they were, ‘dirty washing, Blousey tart, blousey tart’ I turned the words over in my head, negotiating them, putting two and two together, a delicate, frilly edged custard tart and the tart at No 16. I may not have understood the full implications of it all, but I got the drift. I even fancied that I knew who they were talking about. My ears burned, my mind raced.

I also knew it was all terrible gossip, that custard tarts would never be the same again and that – rather naively – I’d rather be called a tart than a pie. Maybe it wasn’t so naive after all, I’d still rather be called a tart than a pie, or a crumble for that matter, who wants to be called a crumble?

So tarts,

I am extremely fond of them; a slice of my Granny’s quivering egg custard tart dusted with nutmeg; a wedge of treacle tart, which is not treacle at all but Lyles golden syrup spiked with lemon and thickened with breadcrumbs; a piece of the apricot tart my mum used to make for ‘Dinner parties’!, the one with apricot halves nestled in a pale custard; an individual Bakewell tart, Bakewell pudding really, from the bakery in Bakewell; a thin, rumpled, glazed slice of fanned apple tart; a bright yellow triangle of lemon tart; an individual jam tart made from the scraps of pastry; quince Crostata from the bakery in Trastevere; a simple, elegant, dark chocolate tart.

For all my talk and gossip of tarts, I have only started making them recently, since the beginning of January actually, when I finally overcame my phobia of making (not eating I should hasten to add) sweet pastry. Since then, being mildly obsessive and convinced making double quantities of pastry is easier, I have been making a tart a week. Lemon ones to start, then two ricotta ones which were good but need practice and then for the last three weeks, three chocolate tarts.

The first chocolate tart I made was Simon Hopkinson’ recipe from ‘Roast chicken and other stories’ the book I might choose to ‘cook my way through from start to finish in the julie and julia sense‘ if I was so inclined, which I’m not. It is a lovely recipe, a sweet – but not overly so – pastry case filled with a wonderfully rich and intense dark chocolate, butter, egg and sugar filling. I liked it very much, we all did, but I’d imagined something a bit more velvety, a filling rather like another Simon Hopkinson recipe, quite possibly the richest and most delicious little pot of chocolate cream you will ever eat, his dark elixir of heavy cream, dark chocolate, sugar and eggs, his Petit pot au chocolat.

I kept looking at the two recipes which are just a page apart, back and forth, back and forth, thinking if only and what a shame. This continued for about a week – rather like our now deceased cat Oswald when he sat staring blankly at the cat flap waiting for someone to open the door- until it finally dawned on me that I could try using recipe for the petit pot au chocolat as a filling for the pastry case of his chocolate tart.

It works beautifully.

You make your pastry case and bake it blind until it is pale biscuit-coloured and cooked through – Simon Hopkinson doesn’t suggest using any baking weights or greaseproof paper topped with butter beans so I didn’t and it worked perfectly, three times!. Next you make your filling, the petit pot recipe; you warm the milk and cream (or mascarpone if – like me – you can’t find good heavy cream) gently and then add the chopped chocolate and sugar and stir until you have a thick, glorious shiny, dark, gloop not unlike the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the one Augustus Gloop falls into. You let the mixture cool a little before stirring in a beaten egg

You pour the dark cream into the tart case and bake it for about 15 – 20 mins minutes until the filling has set but with a slight wobble at the center. Then you let the tart sit for at least a couple of hours when it will settle and firms up into a delicious velvety fudge.

A dark, rich, delicious tart which invites gossip.

If you do keep the tart in the fridge bring it out an hour or so before you want to eat it.

Notes;, Do roll the pastry thinly, which I know can be a fuss if your pastry decides to misbehave, it makes all the difference when you have a thin, delicate, golden crust. The tart will puff up in the oven, do not be alarmed, it is ok and the tart with sink back down when it cools. Very last thing, I think (finally) having a good, basic, loose bottomed tart tin is great.

Chocolate tart

Adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s recipes for Chocolate tart and petit pot au chocolat inRoast chicken and other stories

8 generous slices or 12 modest ones,

For the pastry

  • 130g butter (at room temperature)
  • 65g icing sugar
  • 1 medium-sized egg
  • 225g plain flour

For the filling

  • 250g mascarpone cheese or heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp whole milk
  • 200g dark, high quality, cocoa butter rich bitter chocolate. chopped.
  • 40g caster sugar
  • I medium-sized egg

To make the pastry; put the butter, icing sugar and egg in a bowl (or food processor) and work together quickly. Blend in the flour and work together into a homogenous paste. Wrap the dough in cling film or a tea towel and chill for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°/350F

Roll out the pastry on a well floured board as thinly as you can and then carefully lift and tuck it into an 8″ tart tin (ideally with a loose base), the pastry will be delicate, don’t panic if you need to press and patch it a bit. Bake the tart case blind for about 20 minutes, until it is cooked through and a pale golden biscuit colour.

To make the filling;  In a small pan, warm the mascarpone/cream and the milk gently over a gentle flame and then add the chopped chocolate and sugar and stir until the chocolate has melted and the sugar dissolved and you have a dark thick, silky mixture.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool a little before adding and carefully incorporating the beaten egg. Pour the mixture into the tart case.

Carefully slide the filled tart back into the oven for 15 minutes or until the tart has set but still had slight wobble in the center.

Allow the tart to sit for a couple of hours before serving.


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