Monthly Archives: August 2010

And we’re off

To France. We plan to stop in Pisa for Cecina and then Genova to eat Le Trofie al Pesto Genovese with Matteo before hitting the Cote d’Azur on Thursday, in time for my best friends wedding. Meanwhile I’d like to leave you with this. Now it’s hardly a recipe, it’s more of an idea, an introduction really, to an ingredient that seems to be rivalling a long-standing chickpea supremacy in our kitchen: Fave secche (dried broad beans).

They need soaking back to life and then cooking, like chickpeas, gently at a happy simmer for an hour or so until they are soft and tender. Once the fave are cooked they have a distinctive flavour, nutty, creamy, rather like cannellini beans crossed with chestnuts but with a slight – but pleasing – bitter edge. You can use them to make a humus-like pureè which goes beautifully with a pile of bittersweet cicoria or as we’ve taken to doing this summer, the simplest soup. We do this by passing both the fave and their cooking water through the food mill, seasoning this pale creamy puree generously with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serving it with garlic croutons and lots of raw extra virgin olive oil. Simple and just delicious.

Back at the end of next week.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, recipes, soup

One way of looking at a tomato.

If you approach Testaccio market from Via Aldo Manuzio and enter through the large gap – it’s not really an entrance as such, more an opening – opposite La Bottega delle idee and between the back of two fish stalls, you’ll happen upon a stall that just sells tomatoes.

The stall trades all year! But now, in late August, it’s at it’s most impressive and for the tomato ardent, mesmerizing, with all three sloping sides and the back wall stacked high with dozens and dozens of shallow boxes and crates filled with the most fantastic red fruit. The pungent, sweet-sour scent of tomatoes – some so ripe the uninitiated would think them done for – and the grassy scent of tangled vines hangs thickly in the August air.

Yesterday for example, at the front of the stall, were some impressively large, fleshy, lustrous orange-red Cuore di bue (oxhearts), bottom heavy, their curious shape reminiscent of a pouch with a gathered top. Not quite as large, but a similar colour, were a round, fleshy variety called Salamone I think, and beside them several boxes of ruby-red San marzano, like long plums, meaty and robust. There were crates of dark-red Datterini, pendulous orbs, some the size of fresh dates others like almonds, clinging to their tangle of vine. Some of the Datterini were as shrivelled as prunes – their thick skins as deeply wrinkled as my Aunt Edith who smoked 30 a day and worshipped the sun. Quite intentionally wrinkled I should add – the tomatoes that is, not my Aunt – so as to intensify their sweet and spicy flavour. There were slightly paler postbox-red cherry-sized Ciliegino, slightly larger pendulous Lancelot and slighly redder Piccadilly, as well as boxes of green, variegated Camone.

There were more, but the heat, the confusion of tomato names in Roman dialect and a rumbling stomach was compromising my research. The arrival of six boxes of Casolino Spagnoletto – the tomatoes on the far right of the next pictureand the offer of a tasting was timely. These are tremendous tomatoes, so deeply ribbed they appear fluted, and pretty enough to be worn as an Isabella Blow – esque head-piece. They have thick almost purple-red skin and meaty, intensely favoured flesh.

The tomato stall is more expensive than most of the other banchi, and quite rightly so, but it means we only visit occasionally. Yesterday being one of those occasions, for advice, and to buy the tomatoes above, one kilogram a piece of Salmone, Datterino and Casolino. You see I’ve just finished reading the third chapter of Paul Bertolli’s book; Made by hand, it’s called Twelve ways of looking at a tomato. It examines, looks, at the tomato in 12 ways: colour, juice, essence, shape, sauce, conserva, complement, braise, container, condiment, side dish and fruit. The chapter is beautifully written, poetic, inspiring, and technically brilliant. Maybe a little too technically brilliant for me at times, but fascinating and utterly engaging nonetheless. The chapter also includes 18 recipes, the first of which punctuates the sections on tomato colour and juice, a beautifully simple idea: a chilled three tomato soup. Bertolli calls it a Tricolour Gazpacho. My soup was not tricolour, but I’ll come deviation later.

This isn’t just soup, this is a tomato education! Well it was for me at least. You pulp three diverse varieties of tomato – variety by variety – in a paddle blender or (like me) with your hands which is much more fun. Then you pass the pulpy masses in turn through the mouli/food mill or sieve to produce three bowls of different tomato pureès. Bertolli call them soups, so I will too. You have three different tomato soups.

The soup of the round, soft, fleshly Salamone was the thickest, with a soft grainy texture and a mild – neither particularly sweet nor acidic – plummy taste. You could add it was a bit flabby, pudgy, but that wasn’t a terrible thing. The soup of the lovely ridged Casolino Spagoletto on the other hand, was thinner but more intensely flavoured; bright, minerally, sharp and nicely acidic. The juice of the small oval Datterini was the thinnest – all that thick tasty skin and very little flesh -  but by far the most intensely flavoured; concentrated, pungent, sweet and spicy, a tomato punch.

It’s fascinating stuff. Of course, I already knew different varieties of tomatoes have wildly differing characteristics: texture, flavour, sweetness, acidity, but having them before me like this, being able to taste, examine and compare was truly illuminating. Later I made three simple tomato sauces with the remaining tomatoes and produced three such radically diffrent sugi that we were, for want of a better word, gobsmacked. But I’ll talk about the sauce another day.

Now Bertolli does something very clever: he dilutes the soups accordingly so the consistency and thickness are all different, chills them, and then to serve he pours the three different soups over the back of a ladle into a bowl so they remain separate, like a layered cocktail. I have to admit glazing over slightly while reading this section of the recipe, and in light of the fact that two of my soups seemed far too thin to dilute, the colours were all rather similar and well, to be frank, it all sounded far too complicated for such a hot day, I didn’t even attempt ladle trick. After my tasting, I simply mixed the three soups together and added – as Bertolli suggests – some very finely chopped sweet red onion, cucumber, red pepper and herbs, a little more salt and chilled the soup for 4 hours.

The soup. Well, it’s a pretty marvelous elixir, the three varieties coming together into a terrific, very red whole. Having been worried about the texture, it turned out to be spot on: the pulpy grainy Salamone providing body and proving a bit of flab is a good thing, the Casolini lending brightness and acidity and the Datterini an intense sweet and spicy punch. The very finely diced salsa is a lovely addition, augmenting the soups flavour and texture.

We liked the simplicity of this soup, especially in late August when tomatoes are so good and kitchen activity is at a minimum, it seems such a fitting way, maybe the most fitting way – after bruschetta that is – to appreciate pure, simple, tomato goodness, their very essence if you like. I have a soft spot for chilled soup; vichyssoise, cucumber, almond and this is maybe the nicest bowlful I have tasted for a while.

I’ve included the Bertolli version in full if you’d like to try the clever ladling. But first, my slightly shabby adaptation. You still pulp the tomatoes separately – so you can have a tasting. Earnest face, clipboard and note taking is optional  – but then you mix all three soups together into a slightly less unsophisticated, but equally delicious, multi dimensional, bowl of tomato joy.

Last thing – sorry this is all so long-winded already – if you are considering the clever layered cocktail idea, Bertolli suggests you use diffrent coloured tomatoes so the contrast between the three soups is even more apparent. I suggest you talk to your fruit and veg man or woman and ask which three varieties they think would work best. There is not a profusion of coloured varieties here in Rome and my tomato man – whose face suggested he wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the Technicolor varieties -  didn’t think that green tomatoes would work, so we opted for red, red and red tomatoes. If you are going for my all in option, bear in mind you want one variety to be fleshy and pulpy, another with good acidity and the third with an intense spicy sweetness if possible.

After so many words, it seems almost comical that this is such a simple recipe.

Chilled three tomato soup

Adapted from Paul Bertolli’s Made by Hand

Serves 4

  • 1.5kg Ripe, tasty, tomatoes (0,5 kg each of three varieties each with different aroma’s, texture, acidity, sweetness and colour)
  • Salt
  • For the salsa -3 tablespoons of each of the following very very finely diced: cucumber, sweet red onion, sweet red pepper. 1 tablespoon of each of the following finely chopped: chives, parsley, basil.
  • extra virgin olive oil.

Core and quarter the three types of tomatoes and place them, one type at a time, in an electric mixer with a paddle with a little salt and process until pulpy. You can also do this with your hands but do not use a blender or food processor you will end up with foam as rigid as cotton candy.

Pass the pulp through a food mill set with a plate that is sized smaller than the tomato seeds, or sieve it into a clean bowl. Rinse the mixer and food mill and proceed with the second variety in the exactly the same way. When all three varieties are pureèd and in three separate bowls, taste, season with a little salt and taste again.

Now you have two options

1 – Having tasted the three soups, mix them together, check and adjust the seasoning if necessary and then add the salsa of finely chopped vegetables and herbs. Now chill the soup for at least four hours. Serve with some raw Extra virgin olive oil poured judiciously on top.

2 – If you would like to try the Bertolli tricolour method, it is as follows.

When all three types are pureèd, check the consistency. Tomatoes of diffrent types will inevitable produce thicker or thinner pureès relative to one another. In order that the soups greet rather than invade, each other in the bowl, you may need to adjust them with a little cold water so as to achieve a liquid that is pourable without being runny.

To start season each soup with salt. If you find the flavour of the soups to be satisfying as is, refrigerate them until fully chilled – at least 4 hours. If you would like to augment the texture add the salsa described above before chilling for at least four hours.

To serve the soup, use two ladles and scoop up about 1/3 cup of two of the pureès. Pour the soups simultaneously into the backside of the bowl and allow them to flow forward to meet you. Ladle an equal amount of the third soup in the front of the bowl and at the line where the first two meet.

My next post is going to be so short you might even miss it.

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Filed under food, rachel eats Rome, recipes, soup, summer food, tomatoes

A suggestion

As I write this, I’m thinking about my sister Rosie and my brother-in-law Paul, who thanks to Paul’s metamorphosis into a veritable Monty Don, have a vegetable patch brimming with the most lovely, pale-green courgettes, each one crowned, like a Las Vegas show girl, with a golden-yellow flower. They’re excellent courgettes, quite unlike the dark-green spongy fleshed specimens you find in English supermarkets. As a matter of fact, they’re very like the courgettes, le zucchine romane, we find here in Rome, sweet, with tender flesh and an almost creamy texture when cooked.

Hardy surprisingly, there have been rather a lot of courgettes consumed in a certain house in West London this summer. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, Rosie and Paul were still enjoying their home-grown bounty, there was soup I think, pasta with buttery courgettes, courgette fritters, courgette carbonara, delicious stuff all of it. But there were also telling signs: a look, a sigh, a slightly weary ‘Oh really, again, lovely’. Saturation point was clearly not far off. After I left, courgette plants thriving, the situation assumed slightly comic proportions as Paul – who has taken on all garden and cooking duties since their little girl arrived – trapped in a sort of courgette groundhog day, continued to produce a succession of courgette themed suppers until eventually – we’d seen the signs – my sister snapped. The inevitable courgette meltdown. I can’t be sure, but I fear long green vegetables may have been sacrificed. A break from homegrown produce, and a real holiday, ensued.

I’m glad to report that it was only a temporary courgette hiatus, and that Rosie, Paul and Beattie are now back home with renewed enthusiasm for their garden bounty. So this is for them, a suggestion, a large open faced Italian omelette with vegetables and cheese: a Courgette and Ricotta Frittata. I was all set to E mail my sister, but then it occurred to me that some of you might like this recipe. It’s hardly groundbreaking I know, but it’s a useful and tasty one. It also crossed my mind that I’m in the middle of an extremely long and rambling post about tomatoes which I’m not sure anyone is actually going to read and that this might provide some light relief before I press publish on that tomato epic.

We make a frittata of one sort or another most weeks: Onion and potato, Leek and goats cheese, Asparagus, Salt cod -I must write about this frittata one day because it’s delicious, Pea, potato and spring onion (any more than three ingredients in a frittata and Vincenzo looks puzzled) and now this, a discovery this summer, Courgette and ricotta frittata. I’ve made various courgette frittatas in the past, but I’ve always found them to be rather watery, even when I’ve sautéed the courgette slowly and patiently to try and evaporate some of the water away.

This recipe was, this recipe is, a little revelation: you grate the courgette into a clean teatowel or cheese cloth and then you squeeze out – really squeeze – as much water as you can. This means the courgette is drier when you saute it, more flavoursome and more inclined to absorb the butter infused with savory spring onion. In short, it makes for a much tastier frittata. The addition of ricotta – the soft, white, granular cheese made by re-cooking the watery residue left over from cheese making – makes for a nice addition to proceedings. The slightly tart sheep’s milk ricotta  – ricotta di pecora is especially good if you can find it. We like this ricotta on hot toast with chestnut honey.

Back to the fittata. It’s all very straightforward, I’m sure you know how to make a frittata, but just in case: you soften the spring onion in butter and olive oil, then you add the grated courgette and saute it gently until it’s wilted, tender, and any water that wasn’t squeezed away has evaporated. Now you mix the courgette and onion mixture with beaten eggs and ricotta. Now you pour the mixture back into the frying pan and cook the frittata gently over a low flame until it is nearly set. You finish the fritatta under the grill (if you don’t have a grill you can invert in onto a plate and then slide it back into the pan.

Now as much as I like carefully made frittata/ frittate – pesky plurals, I do tend to think of them rather dismissively; a kitchen standby, a Tuesday lunch, oh that old thing. Well. I did. A month or so ago we went to a pretty formal celebration lunch where, amongst other things, we were served a fantastic antipasti, simple, delicious and in such good taste. There were plates of bruschetta di pomodori -  toasted bread rubbed with garlic, topped with chopped cuore di bue tomatoes, basil and extra virgin olive oil, vast platters of home cured prosciutto and last but not least, six Courgette and sheep’s milk ricotta frittate  – deep, yellow circles flecked with green – punctuating the long tables. Delicious stuff. We helped ourselves to a slice of bruschetta, a curl of prosciutto, a wedge of frittata. I made a mental note: do not underestimate the frittata.

Last thing, I’m sure you know, it’s really important you season this frittata properly,  both the courgettes and the ricotta are mild tasting: they need seasoning. A good pinch of salt in with the courgettes when they are cooking with the spring onions, and another generous pinch – along with a good grind of black pepper – to the egg and ricotta mixture. Remember, ‘Where would we be without salt.’ James Beard.

Courgette and ricotta frittata

  • 200g courgettes – the pale, slim zucchine romane are particularly good
  • 3 or 4 (about 150g) spring onions
  • knob of butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 large free range eggs
  • 120g of ricotta (sheep’s milk ricotta is ideal but cow’s milk ricotta is fine)
  • more butter for cooking the frittata

Wash the courgettes really throughly – they have a habit of collecting grit in the ridges, Then top and tail them saving the flowers for a salad or to fry in batter. Now grate the courgette on the coarse side of your grater into a very clean, linen teatowel.

Now twist the ends of the tea towel, creating a ball of courgette and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the courgettes into a bowl. I think some people might recommend drinking this disturbing green juice, advocating its heath giving properties, I didn’t.

Wash the spring onions and slice them into fine rings. Melt a small knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in your non-stick frying pan and saute the spring onion over a gentle flame until it’s soft and translucent. Add the grated courgette and a pinch of salt and saute gently for about 4 – 6 minutes or until the courgette is soft and very tender. Meanwhile in a large bowl gently beat the 7 large eggs.

Now gently whisk in the ricotta into the eggs – it will be lumpy, this is fine – and generously season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. By now the courgette should be ready, so tip them into the bowl with the egg mixture and stir. Put the frying pan back on the heat – a low flame – add another very small knob of butter and once it has melted roll the melted butter around the pan before pouring in the egg and courgette mixture. Use a fork to even out the surface a little and then allow the frittata to cook gently for 6 – 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the grill. By now the frittata will have set underneath – you can see when you shake the pan from side to side very gently – but will still be runny on top. Put the frittata under the hot grill for about a minute – keep an eagle eye – it will puff up slightly, set firm and turn golden brown on top. Pull the frittata from under the grill and slide it onto a serving plate

Wait at least 15 minutes before serving the frittata so the flavours can settle.

Serve with sliced tomatoes dressed with salt and olive oil or a green salad. We ate the second half of our frittata for lunch with Bruschetta di pomodori.

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Filed under courgettes, Eggs, food, Frittate, recipes, summer food, vegetables

Ladle into clean jars

I am my father’s daughter when it comes to breakfast. We both like the exceptions: a croissant, steaming porridge, full English, a bacon butty with brown sauce, two boiled eggs with Marmite soldiers, Birchermüesli in Switzerland, kippers, a southern Indian thali eaten from a banana leaf in the Nandi Hills, a cappuccino and cornetto leaning up against the bar in Rome, we’ll even tolerate cereal if we really must. But most of the time, most mornings, we’re happy with the rule: Toast with butter and either marmalade or jam.

Actually my Dad prefers marmalade to jam, preferably orange, spread thickly on hot buttered toast. Luckily for him, my mum boils up at least 52 pots of Seville orange marmalade every January, meaning Martin Roddy can, and does – with only modest assistance from my Mum – polish off a jar a week. When we all get together at my parents house, the Roddy progeny with husband, wife and Vincenzo, when we all pounce on the pot of marmalade at breakfast, my Dad’s forehead twitches involuntarily as he watches that weeks pot disappear before his eyes.

I, on the other hand, am a jam and marmalade egalitarian, there’s no real favouritism on my part when it come to conserves, preserves and jellies. If they’re well made with good ingredients, if there is good bread and nice butter, I’m content: orange, lemon, lime, strawberry – especially the tiny wild ones, raspberry, apricot, blackcurrant, blackberry, crabapple, gooseberry, fig, quince, apple, pear, peach, plum and cherry, I like them all.

Making my own jam and marmalade though: that’s a fairly recent habit. Even though I’d watched my Mum for years, even though I’d been the one to put the blob of marmalade or strawberry jam on the cold saucer to see if it had set, the one press to the waxy circle onto the jam before twisting on the lid, I was anxious about doing it all alone. My first proper attempt at orange marmalade didn’t do much for my confidence. I was living in east London at the time and carried 10 lb of Seville oranges home from west London on the bus during rush hour. I boiled the bloody stuff, my glorious deep, golden orange marmalade liquid, for hours and hours, it just wouldn’t set. We ate it like syrup, stoically pouring it over anything vaguely appropriate.

Then I moved to Italy! Oh dear, are you getting bored with me saying that yet? I imagine you very well might be, ‘Then I moved to Italy. When I moved to Italy‘ – to be honest, I bore myself sometimes! Anyway, during those first months in Rome, when I wasn’t working, living right next to a terrific market with the nicest produce I could hope for, inspired by everything and everyone around me, I began putting fruit in jars.

My learning curve has been steep, I’ve made lot’s of syrup and there are seven pots of 2008 marmalade on top of the cabinet that I’d rather ignore. But I’m getting better. This year particularly. Bolstered by my lemon curd, strawberry jam, lemon jelly and the fact we haven’t bought a single pot of jam since January, I’m really enjoying putting food in jars and hoping to make enough jam to see us through the winter. Just back from 10 days in London and still thinking about the peaches from my parents garden, my next project had to be peach jam. My chance to preserve some quintessential summer fruit for dark days in December.

I bought these peaches from the market at Sabaudia which is about 40 minutes south of Rome. As you can see, they’re handsome fruits, their downy skin flushed with pink, their flesh golden-yellow, firm, but tender and sweet. They’re more robust than the tiny white fleshed peaches I picked from my parents garden, meaty really. Bolder in flavour too, heady and exotic to my English taste buds, with a hint of vanilla and almond.

I was almost defeated at the first hurdle. I’ve never made peach jam before, so I consulted all my books and typed various combination of words into google. I found surprisingly few recipes, and those I did mostly appeared rather complicated, requiring pectin and thermometers, orange zest, lemon pips and eagle-eyed timings, there were almonds, Amaretto and other fussy additions. I wasn’t in the mood. I began thinking about other ways to use 2 kilo’s of peaches: straight, salad, tart, compote, facemask. Then, peach in hand, I remembered the tome of Italian cooking; Il cucchiaio dargento (The silver spoon) a well-loved book, but a somewhat neglected one since it’s been moonlighting as a paper weight on the shelf near the window. Sure enough, at the bottom of page 1118, there’s a recipe for Marmellata di pesche, peach jam. It’s fantastically straightforward – the recipes in classic Italian cookbooks usually are – peeled, sliced peaches and sugar cooked over a gentle flame for a couple of hours.

My joy at finding something so simple was almost immediately dampened by  doubt, my enthusiasm fizzing out like a dodgy sparkler on Bonfire Night. The cooking time was two or three times longer than any other recipe I’d found! Having been exasperated by their presence before, I now found myself wondering anxiously about the lack of pectin, thermometers or cryptic testing times. It was just too simple I thought! There had to be something more complicated!

In such situations, I generally find a cup of tea is helpful. As I sat at the kitchen table, mug in hand, I realised it could well be that simple, that the nicest things often are! My jam sparkler reignited, I poured myself another cup of tea before rolling up my sleeves and following the recipe.

I think this might be the best jam I’ve ever made. You don’t need to fret about setting times or thermometers beacause the jam is cooked for so long, so gently, that it reduces into a wonderfully thick, dense consistency in the pan. It’s darker, stickier, more intense than todays bright, barely cooked jams, and all the nicer for it. That said, if I’d been more confident and a little more experienced, I probably could have pulled it of the flame twenty minutes earlier, so it was a little less dense. I will next time, because there will be a next time.

For a first attempt It’s pretty damn delicious though, and Vincenzo – whose coterie of Sicilian aunties were formidable jam makers – thinks its admirable jam. Even though it’s not orange marmalade, my wonderful Dad would thoroughly approve too. I’m making another batch tomorrow.

Excellent on slice of freshly cut, generously buttered  white bread.

This is the recipe (pretty much verbatim) from Il cucchiaio dargento. The only adjustments I made were to peel the peaches and make a smaller quality. If you are an experienced jam maker I’m sure you’ll make more adjustments. If, on the other hand. you’re a novice I suggest trying this recipe as written. Don’t panic about the lack of great detail, procure some beautiful peaches, keep the flame low, stir intermittently and trust in all the Italian mothers and grandmothers who evolved – Il cucchiaio dargento is a rigorously tested compendium of Italian home cooking – this very simple technique.

Peach jam (Marmellata di pesche)

Adapted from Il cucchiaio dargento (The silver spoon)

Smaller quantity : yield 3 – 4 jars.

  • 1.2kg/ 2 lb 10 oz ripe peaches
  • 500g / 1 lb 2 oz sugar

Larger quantity : yield 5 – 7 jars I imagine

  • 2kg / 4 1/2 Ib Ripe peaches
  • 8oog / 1 3/4 Ib sugar

Peel the peaches (as you would tomatoes) by putting them in a large bowl and covering them with boiling water. After a minute, using a slotted spoon. scoop the peaches out of the boiling water and lower them into another bowl of cold water. After 30 seconds scoop the peaches out of the cold water and working quickly with your hands or a sharp knife, skin the peaches.

Cut the skinned peaches in half, pull away the stone and then slice each half thinly and place in a large, heavy based saucepan. If the peaches are very ripe and juicy, it is not necessary to add extra water, otherwise add 5 tablespoons. Cook the peaches over a low flame until they start to become mushy, the add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Bring the jam to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook the jam over a low flame, stirring occasionally for about 2 1/2 hours. The jam will reduce significantly, darken and caramelize, it should be dense, coating the back of your wooden spoon.

Ladle the jam into warm, clean (sterilized) jars and then seal tightly while they are still hot, label once they are cool and store in a cool dry place.

Eat for breakfast on hot buttered toast or at about 4 o clock spread thickly on a slice of freshly cut, generously buttered, white bread.

This Sunday, the 15th, is Ferragosto, a national holiday in Italy. Originally Ferragosto or Feriae Augusti (Festivals Holidays of the Emperor Augustus) was a celebration to honor the gods—in particular Diana—and the cycle of fertility and ripening. Ferragosto was related to the celebration of the middle of the summer and the end of the hard labour in the fields. I like this. We will be celebrating the middle of summer and our moderate labour in the city by lying on the beach, eating local mozzarella di bufala and then – if all goes to plan, which things often don’t – making jam and bottling tomatoes at Vincenzo’s parents house by the sea. I hope you are having a good summer wherever you are.

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Filed under food, fruit, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Italy

Peaches in white wine

My reward for assuming gardening duties while my parents are away hiking enthusiastically over Swiss mountains, is the little feast I’m entitled, that I’m positively urged – ‘Oh and Rachel last thing, please don’t forget the beans!‘ concludes every phone conversation -  to gather each day. I say gardening duties, that’s probably misleading, suggesting that I’m digging, planting, pruning or doing something vaguely green fingered or energetic! Which I’m not. Official waterer – a job which involves standing in the corner of the garden with an open hose pipe and pointing it in the direction of wilting plants, ideally with an alcoholic drink in the other hand – and sprinkler supervisor with deadheading duties, is probably a more accurate job description.

My reward this morning was pretty generous considering my slapdash work; about two pounds of runner beans, six rotund courgettes all with marvelous golden flowers – one of which, for some bizarre reason, reminded me of my secondary school counsellor Mrs Richards, a big handful of ruby chard, another of sultry dark green cavolo nero, three tomatoes (next week there will be three dozen), five figs and last but not least, the quintessential fruit of summer, seven blushing white peaches.

There were actually nine peaches ripe for picking this morning, but the first two were so soft and delicate they barely survived being twisted from the branch. I promptly ate them. Which turned out to be a luscious but rather messy process, so I leaned over the marigolds and the fragrant juice, sweet and reminiscent of roses, ran down my chin into the flower bed. Then I plonked myself on the wall, ate two figs, thought about how nice it was to be back in England and prepared myself for the next garden duty; cosmos and marigold dead heading. All quite charming until a formidably large bee, drunk on lavender, swerved in to see what was going on and I, in a slightly hysterical attempt to stop the striped chap landing on my sticky chin, also swerved, which meant I tripped and proceeded to fall over the sprinkler.

Damp, cursing the bloody sprinkler and nursing my first gardening injury, I abandoned my gardening duties for the day and read the newspaper under the fig tree. For a very late lunch/early dinner – a meal my batty friend calls lunner, she is convinced it is the new brunch – I made Pasta with courgettes followed by green romano beans dressed with salt and plenty of olive oil. To finish, an excellent Italian habit which is nicely and succinctly described by Elizabeth David in her book Italian Food.

Into your last glass of wine after lunch slice a (ripe) peeled yellow peach. Leave it a minute or two. Eat the peach and then drink the wine’

Delicious, the slices of peach become plump and heavy, the wine – in this case a pretty wonderful William Fèvre Chablis, another reward for gardening duties -  subtly infused with sweet and fragrant peach juice. So much nicer than any number of fussy puddings I thought – as you’ve probably noticed, I’m never very interested in fussy puddings – before turning my attention to the exhausting holiday dilemma that is;  should I doze in sun, read in the shade, attack the crossword or simply have another drink?

Vincenzo calls these pesche ubriache or drunk peaches, he prefers to slice his peach into red wine though. I’m very partial to white peaches in Prosecco too.

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Filed under fruit, rachel eats London, summer food

Just call me anchovy.

My second name, after my granny, is Alice. The Italian for anchovy is acciuga or alice.

I was devoted to anchovies long before I came to Italy. When I say anchovies, I am of course talking about preserved ones – I was in England remember – fresh anchovies like the ones above, came much later. The anchovies I knew were imported from Italy or Spain, fresh from the sea once, but subsequntly gutted, brined, matured and the curious pinky-brown fillets packed in salt, or more commonly olive oil. We bought anchovies in olive oil, neatly tucked into slim, oblong tins with a key and a roll back top.

My devotion, my taste for little salty fish actually began a few years before the slim tins, when I was a small girl. It began with a pot, my Dad’s pot, of Gentlemen’s Relish. Gentlemen’s Relish for those of you who aren’t acquainted with this marvelous concoction, is a paste of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices also known as Patum Peperium. It was created in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn. It comes in a very particular round, squat pot – that used to be ceramic but sadly nowadays is made of plastic. The paste is a dull greyish brown but has the most wonderfully distinctive flavour; strong, salty and hardly surprisingly, a heady fishy taste. My Dad used to have it – he still does – on toast. Just as I write in my parents kitchen in London, my Dad, sitting across the kitchen doing the crossword, is peering over the top of the newspaper, brow furrowed and insisting in the same voice he adopts when talking about the perfect cup of tea or the best bitter orange marmalade. “Quite thin slices now, you don’t want great big thick doorsteps. no, no. You want thin slices of hot buttered toast onto which you spread a cautious layer of Gentlemans Relish“. Gentlemens Relish is also title of the terrific BBC drama about the Victorian painter, pornographer and photographer Kingdom Swann. But I digress.

When my first proper boyfriend pulled a face at the anchovy on his pizza, it cast a big black cloud over our future. Could I really go out, could I even like never mind love, a boy who didn’t like anchovies?  The relationship ended soon after, there were clearly irreconcilable differences. It was amicable but we haven’t remained friends.

I was thinking about this post as I walked across the park yesterday, on my way to teach small Italian children English songs. It stuck me that anchovies are indispensable, that they are the splendid and intensely savoury seasoning in many of our favourite things. Vincenzo calls them le palle (the balls). They appear in green sauce (salsa verde), on pizza marinara and pizza Napoli and in Salad Niçoise. Anchovies are the kick in the heady dressing for Puntarelle, the punch in tapenade and the oompapa in montpellier butter. Draped over hard-boiled eggs, melted into butter for bagna cauda, tucked into courgette flowers along with mozzarella, with roast lamb, squashed on bread and butter, great things all of them. Anchovies melted in olive oil provide the distinctive foundation for four of my favourite pastas; pasta e brocolli, Pasta alla puttanescaSpaghetti with tomato and anchovy sauce and Pasta with sardines and anchovy breadcrumbs.

And then there are fresh anchovies.

I’d never seen fresh anchovies until I came to Italy, or perhaps I had – after all they are not unheard of in The UK and we had enough French holidays –  I just hadn’t noticed. I spotted anchovies at the fish market in Naples first, it must have been my second or third day in Italy so everything was still a blur. I saw vast crates of them in Palermo and Messina, but it was in the fish market in Catania, early one morning, where I had my first close encounter of the fresh anchovy kind.

The fish market in Catania is a crude, noisy, rough and raw place. All my romantic notions about wandering through a Sicilian fish market at the crack of dawn were washed away with the bucket of bloody, murky fish water that was thrown, hurled rather, in front of my feet into a dark drain. But it’s an extraordinary place, full of life and soul, blood – and quite literally – guts. And of course, there is fish. There aren’t really stalls as such, a wooden bench here and another there. On one, a vast belly or side of tuna, beside it, a man brandishing a knife. On another table half a swordfish, sword skyward, as sharp as the knife hovering over it. There’s a man on a little stool, around him boxes of calamari and tiny neonati, like frogspawn and opposite him a woman with a baskets of tiny Calamaretti and moscardini. A very tall man presides over a table awash with sliver sardines, shining like newly minted coins. On a more orderly table sit lines of handsome, silver bream, Spigola, rose-red mullets and beside them, like something out of 2000 leagues under the sea, a disconcertingly large octopus. There are mysterious, foreboding but fascinating fish, unfamiliar to my English eyes. The curious, spiky, sea urchins ricci di mare make me shudder with delight. There are unruly piles of scampi, fat, grey and tempting but sallow next to piles of brilliantly coloured pinky-orange prawns. Nearby another man is crouched beside a plastic mat bestrewn with a vast, sprawling, shimmering heap of small, slender, slivery-blue anchovies.

Fresh anchovies have fragrant, delicately flavoured flesh. They are related to sardines and mackeral and have the same firm, slightly oily flesh but a notably milder flavour. Their size – they are generally about 3′ or 4″ long – means they are more tender and delicate. I have learned to prepare and cook anchovies with Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela. They are her speciality.

First the cleaning. Anchovies are a great way to get to grips with gutting and preparing fish if like me, you’re a novice. Along with artichoke taming and mixing the perfect batter, preparing these lovely little fish is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills I have acquired in the last couple of years. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Sleeves up and no fuss! Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish – fanning it out like a butterfly – ready for the next stage.

As with preserved anchovies, Italians love, respect and do marvelous things with fresh ones. They grill them just so, they coat them with batter and plunge them into hot oil, they dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs and shallow fry them until crisp and golden. Our friend stuffs them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs and parmesan, sprinkles them with olive oil and bakes them in the oven. Carmella fans them out; like the spokes of a wheel, in a shallow pan, sprinkles over olive oil and parsley, then cooks them very gently so they fry and steam at the same time. Delicious stuff.

But maybe one of the nicest ways to enjoy the delicate flesh of fresh anchovies is to marinade them in lemon juice, a slosh of red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped garlic for about 5 hours. The acid in the lemon and vinegar literally cooks the flesh, turning it opaque and rendering it firm, tender and sweet. To serve, you pour over more olive oil, sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley and maybe a little crushed chilli. They are best eaten as an antipasti or simple lunch, nudging the fillets onto the corner of some crusty bread, mopping up the oily juices with more bread as you go.

There are many ways to make alici marinate, which are worth exploring if you like anchovies. Meanwhile to begin, this is Carmela’s recipe adapted by me.

The anchovies will keep for a few days but they are best made in the morning for lunch, or early in the afternoon in time for supper. These are one of my favourite things.

Marinated anchovies (Alici marinati)

Serves 3 for a light lunch with plenty of bread and green salad or 5 as a starter.

  • 500g fresh anchovies
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • The juice of two lemons
  • A generous 1/2 cup or 150ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • a pinch of crushed dried peperoncino / chilli

First clean and prepare the anchovies; Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish ready for the next stage.

In a bowl mix the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic.

In a shallow glass or ceramic dish, large enough to accomodate half the anchovy fillets in a single layer, arrange half the anchovies – they will be quite delicate. Then pour over half the marinade. Arrange the second layer on top of the first and pour over the remaining marinade.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it sit for at least 5 hours before serving. This is best done at room temperature, but if it is very hot, slide the dish in the fridge for 4 1/2 hours and pull out for the last 30 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle over the parsley and pepperoncino (chilli) and pour over a little more oil. Bring the dish to the table and encourage people to serve themselves reminding them to spoon over some of the marinade to mop up with bread.

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