Monthly Archives: April 2010

Pressing concerns.

It was meant to be a doorstop or a bookend, but this old iron, bought for three euros at Porta Portese market, has unexpectedly grafted itself on to our kitchen lives, become part of our unsophisticated but trusted batteria di cucina and proved itself to be extremely useful. It’s perfect for squashing and searing steak, chicken or slices of vegetable onto the griddle, it’s not half bad at pounding a slice of veal to a scaloppine and it’s better, and more entertaining, than a rolling-pin when it comes to smashing, crushing and reducing digestive biscuits to crumbs. When the nutcracker alluded us, it made short shift of shelling the walnuts, hazelnuts, and on another, rather messy occasion, this iron conquered a coconut. I have only dropped it on my foot once.

If you can stand the excitement of my iron tales, there’s more. You know how the greaseproof paper scuttles back into a roll as you try to draw a circle on it with a blunt pencil in an attempt to line the cake tin ? Well it doesn’t if this sturdy chap is holding down the corner, he does the same with cookbooks that might otherwise fan closed just at the crucial moment - I know, it’s rock and roll in our house. Last but not least, our iron, our ferro stiro is ready, waiting, like a cymbal player in an orchestra, for the moment when the recipe says….. ‘place a heavy weight on top.’

I know, I know, it’s not the most commonplace recipe instruction, but every now and then, heavy weights – like cymbals – are called up for their moment of glory, like now, for pressed potato.

‘Pressed potato is a very tasty and brilliantly simple idea. It is, as the name suggests, potato that’s pressed with said heavy weight. More specifically you boil good waxy potatoes until they’re tender, then you slice them into thick rounds and layer them in a clingfilm lined mould or bread tin, not forgetting to sprinkle each layer cautiously with good, plump capers and season prudently with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Average pictures of this on Flickr but I’m sure your imagination is better.

Once you’ve filled the mould, tin or in this case a rectangular Pyrex container to the top, you bring the cling film over the potatoes neatly, as if you were swaddling a baby – not that I’ve ever swaddled a baby but I’ve observed -  then you place your heavy weight on top and refrigerate overnight. The next day you invert the pressed potato onto a large plate and peel away the clingfilm so you can admire your curiously beautiful, patchwork potato loaf, flecked with green on the sides.

You can now slice your pressed potato with a sharp knife.

I’ve made two of these this week and we can now firmly agree with Fergus Henderson (this is his idea) that a slice of waxy pressed potato studded with salty, gutsy capers is a wonderful base for oily, salty things. Each slice dressed with anchovy fillets and more extra virgin oil is delicious, as is a slice beside two rashers of grilled bacon. On Tuesday Vincenzo had two slices topped with two frilly edged olive oil fried eggs. But our favorite was a slice of pressed potato with a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a very big dollop of one of the very nicest lotions, green sauce (salsa verde) made from masses of parsley, mint, capers, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. By the way, I am never using the mixer again for green sauce because it’s true, you end up with a pulp rather than the marvelous textural delight you get if you chop roughly by hand.

Green sauce is a wonderful thing, as is pressed potato and hard-boiled eggs for that matter.

This is a plateful that requires good bread, sourdough is particularly fine with this lot, and a serious amount of messing up – green sauce piled on potato and mashed into eggs, everything nudged and piled on bread, more oil, more bread to mop up more green sauce, another slice of pressed potato……you get the idea I hope . Bold and simple food.

You can of course use any heavy weight – before the iron I had a brick in the kitchen.

Pressed potato

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

Good waxy potatoes are important

  • 2kg waxy (cyprus or the likes) potatoes, peeled
  • a healthy handful of capers (extra fine if possible, if not roughly chopped)
  • salt and black pepper

Boil the potatoes in salted water, check for when they are done with a sharp knife in order to catch them before they fall apart, Drain.

Line a bread tin or mould with cling film. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, slice them into 1cm thick circles. Lay one layer of sliced potatoes at the bottom of the tin – don’t be afraid to patchwork this – sprinkle cautiously with some of the capers, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover with another layer of potatoes, more capers and salt and pepper. Repeat until the tin is full. cover with cling film and place a heavy weight on top.

Place in the refrigerator over night. The next day tip the pressed potato out of the mould and slice with a thin sharp knife.

Green sauce

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

  • Large bunch of flat leaved parsley
  • a small bunch of mint
  • a handful of dill
  • a small tin of anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped
  • 12 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped
  • a handful of capers, rinsed if under salt and roughly chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper

Chop your herbs finely but not too finely and mix with the anchovies and capers in a large bowl. Add the olive oil a bit at a time, you want to keep the consistency loose but still spoonable, not runny or too oily. Taste and season with black pepper, the anchovies and capers mean you probably won’t need extra salt. Serve in generous dollops.

I’m sure you can make a neater pressed potato than me, Vincenzo called my attempts pressed stressed potato, I was quite stressed at that particular moment so I wasn’t amused. I have another pressed potato in the fridge under the iron right now, we are going to have it tomorrow night with smoked eel and horseradish sauce which I’m hoping will be very tasty.

Other pressing concerns, yep, I have a few, mostly tedious and the reason I’m not here as much as I’d like to be. Thats life I suppose and it’s good to be here now. Have a really good (rest of the) weekend.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, sauces, vegetables

More peas please.

I always have a packet of peas in the freezer. For years they were Birds eye, then dubious buyouts, my conscience and an Italian address got the better of me and my allegiance was swapped to a small Italian brand called la via lattea. Tucked next to the ice cubes, on top of the tub of chicken stock – I’ll come to that uncharacteristically organised habit later – and squashed up against a couple of parmesan rinds which may or may not have adhered themselves to the freezer wall, this packet of peas is often the only thing in our tiny, icy, post-box-sized freezer.

My relationship with this packet of peas is much the same as the one I have with my tin of illy coffee, and very like the one I used to have with my packet of cigarettes – cue wave of guilty nostalgia. Meaning mild anxiety when I’m approaching the last few servings, proper twitchy anxiety at the thought I may run out prompting urgent trip to the shops, and great relief when a new packet is purchased and tucked away.

And what do I do with all these frozen peas you might – or might not – be asking? Well, rather too many of them are steamed back to life then mixed with rice, butter, black pepper, sometimes parmesan or a chopped hard-boiled egg, maybe some smoky fish for a rather unsophisticated but tasty and faithful solitary supper. If I’ve remembed to defrost the stock, I make Lindsey Bareham’s quick pea and mint soup, just-like-that as Tommy Cooper would say. Sometimes I feel very English and boil peas to death with fresh mint and then blast them with lots of butter into a green velvety puree for beside the roast chicken. We have them tossed with tiny farfalle pasta or rolling around beside mashed potato and fat sasauges. I could go on. As a rule I like peas at least once a week, did I mention I like peas?

But then, for about six weeks each year the packet sits patiently, and I like to think approvingly, in the freezer adhering itself to the bottom shelf, while it’s local, sweet, peak-of-season, freshly picked cousins in their smart, perky, bright green jackets, take center stage and roll around our kitchen.

Most of the first bagful is eaten raw and slightly compulsively, pods split, peas flicked from within straight into our mouths. on the way home from the market, if they’re particularly small and tender, pod and all. Vincenzo likes to eat them as Romans eat the first tiny broad beans, fave, meaning a big dish of peas in their pods is put in the middle of the table so everyone can peel their own to eat with hunks of salty, piquant, sheep’s milk cheese Pecorino Romano, sweet and salty mouthfuls, interspersed with sips and gulps of white wine. The second bagful is shelled, steamed with mint and doused with butter. The third is probably destined for frittedda and the fourth, the Venetian dish Risi e Bisi, Rice and peas.

Now before you are underwhelmed by the name, let me explain. Risi e Bisi is a quite delicious dish that I think epitomizes spring and the simple beauty of Italian food. Onion cooked in butter, some very fresh peas, homemade stock and Italian rice are simmered up into a soft, rippling, creamy mass, which is speckled with chopped flat leaf parsley and enriched with freshly grated parmesan.

Don’t be fooled or told otherwise – I was, before being corrected in no uncertain terms by a very knowledgable and bossy Venetian and Marcella Hazan – Risi e Bisi is not risotto with peas, it is a soup, albeit a very thick one, which you can eat with a fork, but the slightly runny consistency means a spoon is probably better. Its execution is similar to that of risotto, but the cooking time is slightly longer and you don’t need to stir so continuously, just the occasional nudge nudge.

My frozen pea dependency means I can make Rice and peas all year-long, but it should only – our friend, Marcella and Vincenzo are very clear about this – be called Risi e Bisi in spring, when it’s made with fresh peas, some of the empty pods which made the dish even sweeter and good homemade stock. Now this is where I could be accused of inauthenticity, Marcella and several other recipes insist on a beef stock, but I find that rather imposing and prefer a lighter chicken stock.

So this stock. Now, I am forever disappointing myself in the kitchen, full of good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects which remain, well, good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects (I never told you about most of the lemons did I!) However, I have finally got into the satisfying habit, it’s been a couple of years now, of making stock, mostly chicken, each week, half for the fridge and half for the freezer. Fergus Henderson is right, there is almost nothing as reassuring as having stock up your sleeve. I generally make it on a Monday with the carcass of the roast chicken from the weekend or chicken bones, neck and wings my butcher gives me for near to nothing. Please feel free to skip this next section if you are not bothered or in need of chicken stock advice

Fergus Henderson’s chicken stock

Onions (with skin on, chopped in half); a bulb of garlic (with skin on, chopped in half); carrots (peeled and slit lengthways); a leek (split lengthways and cleaned); celery with leaves; a bay leaf; herbs; a few peppercorns; chicken bones and wings with skin.

Cover your stock ingredients with enough water to allow for skimming (which is vital), but not so much as to drown any flavour. Bring the pan to a simmer, but not a rolling boil as this will boil the surface scum back into the stock. I shall say again SKIM. Simmer for about 2 hours. To know if the stock is ready taste and taste again. Strain the stock into a large bowl and allow to cool. Chill overnight.
Skim off any fat that has formed on the surface. Use within 3 days or freeze
.

What was I talking about? Ah yes, Risi e Bisi.

Once you have made your stock and podded your pea comes the tricky part, well, I say tricky it’s fiddly really, but very worth while. You take about ten of the nicest empty pods and pull away the clear inner membrane on the inside of each pod along with any stringy bits – I’ve explained it better below. You are going to add this sweet green flesh to the pan, it will sweeten and add flavour to proceedings and then dissolve. It is – my friend tells me – the secret of this dish. Now it’s all very straightforward, the chopped onion is sautéed in butter to which you add the peas, prepared pods and most of the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. You add the rice, the end of the stock and simmer covered for another 20 minutes with the occasional stir and nudge. Finish with parsley and freshly grated parmesan. Serve with more Parmesan.

The juxtaposition of sweet peas, starchy grains and the deeply savory parmesan, the contrast of textures, the absolute goodness and simplicity of it all, the fact we can only have it for a few weeks every year, it’s the sum of all these parts that make this the dish it is. It is one of our absolute favourites. Having said that, Vincenzo has firmly requested I don’t make it for a while having eaten it, what with leftovers, five times this week, thus proving you can have too much of a good thing.

You can of course use a very good, full flavoured homemade vegetable stock and yes, of course you can make this with frozen peas, after all some of the fresh ones leave alot to be desired, those mealy, out-of-town canonballs. Just remember to call call it rice and peas thats all.

Risi e Bisi

Apparently serves 4 but the two of us can polish off most of this leaving nice (very small portion of) leftovers for later. So lets say serves 4 as a modest primo and 2 as a main course for hungry (greedy) people.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

  • 1 kg young, sweet, peak of season unshelled peas (should yield about 300g of peas) or if you really can’t find them 300g of frozen peas.
  • 50g butter
  • 1 small white onion finely chopped
  • salt
  • 225g Italian rice (vialone nero or carnaroli rice)
  • 750ml homemade chicken or vegetable stock
  • a handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 50g freshly grated parmesan

Shell the peas and set them aside and reserve 10 of the nicest empty pods. Now on the inside of each pod is a thin, clear membrane which you can gently pull away (it is very thin so will break and you will need to pull it away in bits.) Cut away any bit you have been unable to skin. keep these skinned pods with the peas.

In a saute pan, deep frying pan or soup pot, saute the onion in the butter over a medium flame until it is soft and translucent. Add the peas and the skinned pods and a good pinch of salt. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and nudging.

Add about two-thirds of the broth, reduce the heat and cover the pot, allow it to cook gently for 10 minutes.

Add the rice and the rest of the broth, stir, then put the lid back on the pot and allow it to cook at a gentle but persistent simmer for about 20 minutes and the rice is cooked but still firm to the bite. I start tasting after 15 minutes.

Stir in the parsley and gated parmesan and then turn off the heat. Taste, add salt if you think it is necessary and then serve with a bowl of grated parmesan so people can help themselves.

Thank you for all your nice, supportive and not so supportive – I value criticism too, even if it is anonymous – comments and messages about my last post, the rather self-possessed one that felt nearly as messy as my departure. I will pick up where I left off at some point, I’m just not sure when. Hope you are having a good weekend wherever you are.

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Filed under food, grains, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, vegetables

Leaves, eats shoots and peas.

I fell out, flipped out of my life in London one miserable Sunday morning in March 2005. An hour later I found myself at Heathrow airport knowing only that I was going somewhere. After an oversized, overmilked coffee and a very odd tasting flapjack (I don’t even like flapjack) in a depressing airport eatery, I established the somewhere, by grabbing, as one would pull a name out of a hat, the nearest Lonely planet guide from the shelf in the bookshop. I stared at the book for some time not quite sure what to think, I had no designs on Italy, no romantic longings or yearnings, no distant relatives and barely a word of the language. Then I remembered that wasn’t the point and went to the ticket desk. I didn’t tell anyone I was going.

I remember very little about my arrival and the first week in Naples except walking and that the raucous, unruly, anarchic beauty of the city felt appropriate. I remember I didn’t lose my luggage because I didn’t have any, and that my room in the hostel ‘6 small rooms’ on the 6th floor of a venerable old building on Via Diodata, was, as my lonely planet promised, cheerful, clean, and as its name promised, small.

There are no stories about delicious meals in quaint trattoria, the authentic Ragù, perfect pizza, Sartù, baked anchovies, the polpo affogati and sublime buffalo mozzarella, not now, not this time, they all came later when I returned to Naples. That first week I was too busy walking, pounding the streets from early to late each day.

The dark, heady, intense espresso, I do remember that, tiny cup after tiny cup, maybe some of the best I have ever tasted and the babbà al rum, balls of sweet yeast dough studded with sultanas, baked then soaked in rum, both of which punctuated my days and fueled my pounding. I remember almost nothing of my day at Pompeii except that I felt comfortable in the ruins and in the company of strangers.

By the third day I ‘d managed to turn my phone on and tell my family and friends at least which country I was in, but no more, not yet, they might have come to scoop me up from my demented grand tour.

My first lucid memory is taking the boat from the glittering bay of Naples to Palermo late on the seventh day. The boat pulled into Palermo harbour at about six thirty the following morning, There were only handful of passengers and apparently no other foot passengers. If there were, then they’d all hidden in their cabins and disembarked from an exit that alluded me. I managed to get lost in the bowels of the boat, ending up on the growling, oily, car deck and making my escape by dodging lorries and running down the vast ramp to a chorus of bemused then angry shouts and energetic gesticulations from the boat and the quay side.

If Naples had felt appropriate, the dignified and decrepit beauty of Palermo at the beginning of spring felt right. I found a hotel just near Piazza Verdi and collapsed on the bed. I slept for 24 hours.

The following day I woke late, confused and ravenous and set off in search of food. Willful and hungry and with little sense of direction, I found myself near the, bustling, shrieking, Vucirria street market, a boisterous and crude place quite unlike the charming Sicilian markets I might have imagined. I avoided the extraordinarily noisy fish market and wandered between the vegetables stalls, many of which were selling just one or two things. It was chaotic, dark green blur, both exhilarating and a bit savage. I remember vast, unruly heaps of violet tinted artichokes, what seemed to be an entire lorry load of potatoes sitting in a vast mound with a boy sitting on top, wonderfully sinister looking fave (broad beans) like green fingers with black nails, piles of peas, gaudy gold zucchini flowers, clear sharp green lettuces, crates of forest green leaves with unruly roots I imagine were chicory, that strange vegetable that looks like coarse hairy celery, the one I still don’t know the name of.

I ate pane e panelle from a crowded stall for breakfast. Panelle are deep-fried chickpea flour fritters, which taste a little like particularly delicious, nutty, fat pancakes. The way I understand it, chickpea flour is cooked rather like polenta, with water, slowly until it is a thick paste. Coarsely chopped parsley is added, then the paste is spread thin, cut into pieces and deep-fried. You eat the golden fritters sandwiched between slices of bread, seasoned with a squeeze of lemon juice. Looking back, wandering around those streets alone, devouring breakfast hungrily, in that particular and notorious market, with barely a word of Italian was a bit reckless, careless and foolish. I suppose they were days that reflected how I felt.

I’ve written about my first proper meal in Palermo before, it was in a rough and tumble trattoria in a crumbling building in one of the shabby labyrinthine streets near Vucirria. The owners weren’t very friendly and the woman split water on my jacket, but I didn’t care, which isn’t like me at all. I was well guided by my guidebook, I ate caponata, the agrodolce (sweet and sour) Sicilian antipasti, which is rather like a loose chutney; cubes of deep-fried aubergine, fennel, onion, courgette and celery mixed with sultanas and pine-nuts and marinated in a palate startlingly agrodolce of oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar. I ate a very salty pasta con le sarde (I had a superb plateful the following day in another trattoria) and far too much wine for lunchtime.

To finish, I had the spring vegetable stew Frittedda, which is amongst one of the most delicious and evocative things I have eaten in the last few years.

I was fortunate, for 6 weeks or so in Spring, when the fresh broad beans, peas, artichokes and spring onions are young and tender enough, you can find this simple and sublime fresh vegetable stew in Palermo (there are variations of it all over Italy in Rome it is called vignarola). Spring or mild onions are cooked in olive oil, maybe with some wild fennel, the prepared artichokes are added and then finally the shelled peas and broad beans along with a little water or wine. The vegetables are then cooked briefly and gently. It is a simple and, when carefully made, sublime dish that tastes like spring, tender and sweet, popping and bursting with fresh flavour.

I finished my lunch, mopping up the last oily juices with more bread and paid. I remember feeling very sated, but for the first time in eight days, extremely sad, very alone and with an acute and swelling sense of panic ‘What the fuck was I doing in Palermo?’ I cried for the first time. I couldn’t walk any more so I went back to the hotel. I called my family, which hardly reassured them, but they were glad to hear my voice. It hardly reassured me either but by this point the panic and tears had subsided, and tucked underneath them was a strong, unshakable sense that however bizarre, rough and grey things felt, I was doing the right thing. I slept for another 12 hours.

Five Years on, I am sitting in our flat in Rome writing this and wondering if you’re still reading. This seems like a good place to stop for now and write out the recipes. I’m sure I’ll pick up where I’ve left off another day.

Today, as you’ve probably gathered, I live with Vincenzo, who, even though he has been in Rome for many years, is dark, proud and unmistakably Sicilian – I am very tall, pale and unmistakably English which makes for much affectionate and not so affectionate teasing. Being here with him has meant that Caponata, pasta con le sarde, frittedda, panelle, those first meals in Palermo, the full flavoured, tender, evocative dishes are now – adapted and shaped to Roman produce – happily part of our daily life.

The frittedda is Vincenzo’s family recipe, his Mum Carmella makes it beautifully. Putting the frittedda and the panelle together is not very traditional but it’s very delicious, the golden fritters make wonderful companions for the green shoots, bulbs, beans and peas.

A good way to celebrate spring.

On a practical note, I wonder if any Sicilians reading will gasp at this panelle recipe and method and then offer advice! Yes please. Until then, this is the way we make panelle. Now the mixture is rather sticky and getting the rumpled squares from the tray to the pan can be tricky, I use a spatula and a fish slice. Once in the pan and the hot oil they fry into neat golden square which are altogether more manageable. As for the frittedda, fresh, tender beans and peas in their pods and the nicest artichokes you can find are worth seeking out.

Last thing, if the broad beans are very young, tender and good you don’t need to pop them out them out of their little coats, but I leave that decision to you and your beans.

Le panelle

  • 300 g chickpea flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp coarsely chopped parsley
  • olive oil for frying

La Frittedda

  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 200g of spring onions or mild sweet white onions, finely sliced
  • 2 large or 3 medium artichokes
  • a lemon
  • 1kg broad beans in their pods which will yield about 300g of beans
  • 1kg peas in their pods which will yield about 300g of peas
  • a handful of finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • A handful of wispy fennel fronds
  • 100ml of water or wine

Serves 4

Shell the peas and broad beans and prepare the artichokes by snapping away the dark outer leaves until you get to the pale tender ones. Then using a small paring knife cut away the stringy outside of the stalk and work around the base of the artichoke trimming away the green. Trim the pointed tops of the remaining leaves and cut the artichoke in half. Using a spoon scoop out the hairy choke. Cut each half into 6 small wedges and rub them with lemon and submerge them in cold water with lemon juice to stop them discoloring.

To make the panelle, in a saucepan, whisk the chickpea flour with 500ml of water until smooth, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Really slowly bring the pan to a gentle boil, whisking all the time, and then cook, always whisking for 8-10 minutes until the mixture thickens, then stir in the parsley. Pour the thick mixture – it will be thick and sticky and you will need to help it along – onto an oiled baking sheet and using the back of a spoon spread and flatten it to a 1cm thickness using the back of a spoon dipped in hot water. Leave it to cool and set for a few hours.

Prepare the frittedda, Heat the olive oil in a large frying or saute pan and then cook the onions over a modest flame until they are soft and translucent. Add the artichoke hearts, 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 5 minutes. Then add the peas, and broad beans and another 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 10 minutes and the vegetables are soft. Stir in the parsley and fennel fronds. Taste and season accordingly. Let the frittedda settle for a few minutes which allows the flavours to emerge

Cut the chickpea mixture into rounds, square or diamonds – if it is sticky, don’t worry use a fish slice or spatula lift it from the tray – then shallow fry in olive oil until golden on each side.

Serve the panelle immediately with the frittedda and half a lemon.

Have a good week.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables

Oh crumbs

‘Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we’re all of us looking for the key..’ Alan Bennett.

Spaghetti with sardines, rocket, chilli, lemon and anchovy breadcrumbs.

I like everything about this dish of pasta. It’s such a delicious and clever combination of ingredients, flavours and textures. It’s judicious, speedy and thrifty, admirable qualities all of them. I like that it’s so accommodating and up for all sorts of variations. I like that you could make it with fresh sardines and finest salted anchovies, but that it’s just as delcious with the oily contents of rectangular tins. Tins with keys that you twist to pull the top off, the kind of sardines and anchovies, or makerel for that matter, we can all find in our cupboards or local shops, the ones that aren’t on any ‘unsustainable lists’ (yet) so can be consumed without guilt.

I like that it nods respectfully to its origins, the classic Sicilian dish Pasta con le sarde, but that it doesn’t pretend or want to be it. I like the rocket, the arugula to most of you, because, well, I really like rocket. Last but not least, I like the breadcrumbs, the anchovy ones, they turn something good, into something marvelous with a their crisp, heady, anchovy infused crunch.

Breadcrumbs sprinkled generously on pasta are not that new to me, it’s one of the nice Sicilian habits I’ve adopted from Vincenzo and his family. We often have a bowl of finely grated breadcrumbs sitting on the table for liberal sprinkling, Ones made from good, dry, stale bread which we’ve toasted with a little olive oil in the cast iron skillet. I’ve also been known to sprinkle these breadcrumbs on my salad after the pasta, a habit Vincenzo finds very odd and can provoke him into calling me an English barbarian. He often calls me an English barbarian, a peculiar term of endearment.

These anchovy crumbs however, are slightly different.

You want soft, fresh breadcrumbs from the heart of the loaf and you fry in them in anchovy spiked oil. Now, about the anchovies, you can use 4 or 5 of the wonderful fat Sicilian or Spanish ones that are preserved under salt or – like me for this recipe – a little tin of anchovies in oil which you drain and then melt in warm extra virgin olive oil over a very gentle flame.

Yes melt, that’s what happens to the delicate anchovy fillets in the warm oil, they disintegrate and dissolve, melt really, giving you a deeply flavoured, heady, very brown anchovy infused oil. This is the oil – if you crank up the flame a notch – in which you fry the breadcrumbs until they are deep golden brown, crisp and even more ragged at the edges.

These anchovy crumbs were, are, a revelation, crisp, with deep anchovy favour, seasalty, delicious and incredibly morerish, you might even mumble Umamanaiii or whatever that word is! You know the one! The 5th one. Making them for the first time I had a small eureka moments in the kitchen, a ‘ just look at this, its brilliant, why didn’t I know about these sooner‘  funny turn. It was the kind of happy discovery that makes me want to do an embarrassing little jig and make ‘said revelation’ again immediately, for lots of people. Not known for my restraint, I can see myself sprinkling these crumbs with abandon on many things this spring.

Breadcrumbs prepared, the rest of the dish is very straightforward. While the spaghetti is rolling around in plenty of fast boiling water you soften the garlic in oil over a gentle flame, then you add the chilli, followed by the sardines. Now you add the drained spaghetti, toss and finally in the heat and steam of it all, you add the rocket and lemon. The rocket withers accommodatingly in the heat and the lemon releases its glorious citrus contribution to proceedings.

You divide the contents of the pan between warm bowls and sprinkle the anchovy crumbs over the top

It’s a glorious combination, the spaghetti, the garlic, the heat of the chilli, the warm, spiciness of the rocket and the toothsome texture of its withered leaves, the meaty oily flesh of the sardines, the vitality of the lemon and finally the crunch, crunch, crunch the intense, oily, saltness of the anchovy crumbs.

I like everything about this plate of pasta.

I must give credit to my brother Ben- again, he is becoming invaluble- for suggesting I make this particular recipe. I’ve made various suppers and lunches like this before, but this precise recipe (with these particular proportions, quirks and the superlative anchovy crumbs) is Rowley Leigh’s contribution to the first (2007) Crisis Cookbook, which comprises 84 recipes donated by 28 superb chefs from around the world. A significant proportion of the proceeds from each book sold go directly to Crisis, the homelessness charity in the UK. It is a gem of a book, neat concise, totally unpretentious with really fantastic recipes from some of my very favourite chefs, I want to make almost everything. A highly recommended book which beats most of the fancy, expensive, coffee table cookbooks out there hands down.

Spaghetti with sardines, rocket, lemon, chilli and anchovy crumbs

Adapted from Rowley Leigh in the Crisis cookbook

  • 10 tinned anchovy fillets in oil (or 4 larger salted ones)
  • 50ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 400g spaghetti
  • 2 cloves of garlic (or 4 of wet, new season garlic)
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small hot chilli (or a pinch of chilli/pepperoncino flakes)
  • 200g tinned sardines in olive oil (or fresh sardines cooked simply)
  • Finely grated zest of a unwaxed lemon
  • 75g rocket (arugula)
  • salt

Drain the anchovy fillets and then put them in a frying pan with the 50ml of extra virgin olive oil over a gentle flame. Stir and nudge the anchovies until they disintegrate and literally melt into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs.

Turn up the heat and stir the breadcrumbs briskly as they fry and sizzle to a golden brown colour. Tip the breadcrumbs into a sieve, discard the oil and then drain them on some kitchen towel. Set them aside.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and drop the spaghetti into the boiling water.

Drain the sardines but save the oil. Break the sardines into small pieces with a fork. Peel and chop the garlic finely, then cook it gently in the frying pan with the 1 tbsp of olive oil over a gentle flame. Deseed and chop the chilli then add it to the frying pan along with the sardines.

As soon as the spaghetti is ready, drain it – reserving a little of the cooing water-and tip it into the frying pan.

Turn and toss the pasta, add the rocket and the lemon zest to the pan and moisten the pasta with a little of the reserved cooking water. Turn the mixture well and then remove from the heat. Add a little of the oil from the sardines if the spaghetti needs lubrication. Taste, check the seasoning and divide between warm serving dishes and serve sprinkling the anchovy crumbs on top.

It feels a bit odd to be here typing on a Tuesday morning, I’ve grown accustomed to the late night Thursday writing and Friday posting habit. Odd, but very nice too, I always like being here talking to you all. Hopefully this is the start of a new habit and more posts. No promises though, to myself or you, because as you know, I am rubbish at keeping those.

Have a really good week,

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Filed under fish, food, olive oil, pasta and rice, recipes

They call it bright yellow (quite rightly)

lemon Curd

A smooth, translucent semi solid preserve. Colour:  bright yellow. Flavour: aromatic, sharp-sweet. Composition: lemons, sugar, eggs, butter. My sister Rosie’s favourite.

This is where my love of all things sweet and lemony started.

When we were growing up either my mum would make lemon curd, or jars of it with jam pot hats – that circle of fabric secured by an elastic band covering the lid – would be brought back from visits to National Trust houses in Oxfordshire, English holidays or purchased from fragrant ladies wearing flowery skirts, white cardigans and pearl earings at garden fetes. The quivering canary- yellow curd, the unctuous elixir of lemon, butter, sugar and eggs, was one of our favourites, especially at teatime. We’d spread it greedily and extremely thickly on white bread, a combination designed to please, placate and muffle boistrous and noisy (occasionally horrid) kids. Spoon it on toast, dollop it on hot crumpets or eat it straight from the jar with a spoon, sweet and sharp, thick and luscious.

Somewhere along the way I must have heard that making lemon curd was rather tricky, that it’s a temperamental preserve. There were whispers about mishaps, pesky double boilers, stories of curdling and splitting, words like coagulation, emulsification, scrambling and I wasn’t about to have one of my favourites muddled up in any of that nonsense. My Mum wasn’t much help either because she’s always had a beautiful Aga cooker – which I vainly covet – and that’s a whole-different-lemon-curd-story. The long and short of it is, I avoided making lemon curd for many years. Not eating it I hasten to add, I never avoid that.

I should know better than to listen to whispers and stories. It turns out that even Nigel Slater was hoodwinked into believing the scare stories and that making two and a bit pots of lemon curd isn’t tricky at all, even for me, and I’m a master of making things complicated.

You take 4 lemons, unwaxed ones otherwise your lemon curd will be, well, waxy. Leave the lemons at room temperature so they are soft and juicy, then roll them around on the work surface a bit so they are even juicier. You zest them and then juice them. I suppose one of those fancy micro-thing-plane-hi-tec-graters would be perfect for the zesting, far superior to my faithful dinosaur grater which produces a rather chunky, coarse little pile (fortunately I like chunky zest, but I’m not sure Nigel would approve, ‘tut tut, this is not marmalade’ he might say). Whatever your grater and the consistency of your zest, cue glorious, vital, citrus smells around kitchen.

You also need 225g of sugar, 100g of butter, 3 eggs and an extra yolk, oh and a double boiler, which if you are anything like me is rather less intimidating when described as a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. You do need to make sure that the water never boils and the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

But once you’ve made sure all that is in order, it’s all very straightforward. You warm and occasionally whisk the lemon zest, juice, sugar and butter in the bowl suspended over the simmering water until the butter has melted. Then you stir the beaten eggs into the lemon mixture. Now you let the curd cook, tasting, whisking regularly, for about 15 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, feels heavy on the whisk and coats the back of a spoon. Taste.

Now you remove the pan from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools, then you pour it into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal. Once the jars are even cooler, refrigerate them for a few hours so the lemon curd is beautifully set, thick and luscious. Spread thickly on white or brown bread, hot toast with more butter, heap a spoonful on a hot crumpet. You can use the lemon curd to fill little tart cases or (thinking of my sister Rosie ) eat it straight from the pot.

Or very best of all, my favourite pudding of late, you can stir several large spoonfuls of lemon curd into a mixture of 200g of thick greek yogurt and 200g of  double cream. You then divide this thick, very pale yellow cream between little glasses and serve it chilled with shortbread biscuits or, even better, amaretti………. just delicious. I am going to make this tomorrow so maybe I will add another photo. Meanwhile lemon curd on bread for breakfast.

lemon Curd

Makes 2 and a half jars by my reckoning. Recipe adapted from Nigel Slater and Jill Norman and inspired by my friend Kath.

  • zest and juice of 4 medium-sized, unwaxed lemons
  • 225g fine sugar
  • 100g butter, diced
  • 3 medium-sized eggs plus one yolk

Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and butter, into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water – make sure that the bottom of the basin doesn’t touch the water. Stir with a whisk from time to time until the butter has melted.

In another bowl beat the eggs and egg yolk lightly with a fork.

Stir the eggs into the lemon mixture. Let the curd cook stirring regularly, for about 15 -18 minutes, until it is thick and custard-like, it should feel heavy on the whisk and coat the back of a spoon. Make sure the water never boils.

Remove from the heat and stir occasionally as the curd cools. Pour into very clean, warm, sterilized jars (I put mine in a hot oven for a few minutes) and seal.

It will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

Wishing you all a happy weekend, Easter, Pasqua, holiday, break……

It should of course be Mellow yellow (quite rightly)

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Filed under jams and preserves, lemons, preserves and conserves