Monthly Archives: October 2012

This is the way.

Good chickens are – like true love, reliable plumbers and excellent espresso – hard to find. They are also, when you finally get your hands on one, costly things! Quite right too! We should be deeply suspicious of cheap (even modestly priced) chickens, they almost certainly have the darkest, dirtiest story etched into their tragic flesh. The chicken above, the one sitting in my new enamel roasting tin from Emanuela, is a good chicken. A blooming good chicken in fact, from my butcher Marco who in turn procured it from the blazing beacon of conscientious husbandry: Azienda San Bartolomeo. Having parted with the best part of 16€ (an investment in our sustenance for the next three days) and taken possession of our bird, we – that is Luca and I – also picked up half a dozen San Bartolomeo eggs, a fat pat of butter, five lemons, some bitter salad leaves and a piece of Lariano bread. After all, good chicken deserves good company.

We walked home the long way, following the deep arc of the river, which meant there were leaves to crunch and dogs to bark at! I crunched and Luca barked. We stopped, as we usually do, at Giolitti for an espresso before crossing our vast echoing courtyard and barking some more. Time was taken climbing the stairs, after all it’s important to peer between every other railing. It’s also important to ring the doorbell 17 times, especially when there is nobody at home. Then while Luca played with something inappropriate and slightly dangerous, I set about roasting.

Roast chicken is one of my favourite things both to make and eat. It’s also a significant meal for me, maybe the most significant. We ate roast chicken and then soup made from the leftovers and carcass, at least once a week when I was growing up. It’s a meal evocative of home, the kitchen in Kirkwick Avenue, my family and the meals we shared. Over the years roast chicken has bought us – parents, relatives and three Roddy kids in turn doe eyed bundles, eager fat-fingered toddlers, grasping children, grubby rascals, sullen teenagers and floundering/flourishing adults – together again and again and again. A burnished bird has the capacity to stir deep (food) memories, some crisp and golden, others as dark and sticky as the juices stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.

I think of my mum and my granny Alice when I roast a chicken, especially at the beginning when I wash it in very cold water and then pat it absolutely dry with a clean cloth. My granny was – and my mum still is – a great believer in very cold water, clean cotton cloths and patting things absolutely dry. I rub my chicken, as my mum does, with butter. Butter I’ve remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s smearble. I’m as liberal with the salt and freshly milled black pepper as I am with the gin in a Gin and tonic: very.

I put a lemon up my chicken’s bottom (that was for you Ben) long before I came to Italy. However it was cut in two so the juice could be squeezed over the chicken and the hollow halves tucked inside. Now, as taught by my old neighbor Mima and guided by Marcella Hazan, I roll a lemon vigorously around the kitchen counter so it is soft. I prick it 37 times with a toothpick and then stick it up my chicken’s bottom just so.

I roast my lemon filled chicken with its breast down for 20 minutes. I then turn it breast up, crank up the oven a notch and roast it for another 40 minutes. I don’t baste. Then  - as taught by Simon Hopkinson in his aptly named book Roast chicken and other stories – I turn the oven off, open the door a jar and leave the chicken sitting in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes. These twenty minutes are vital. It is during this time, the cooking equivalent of a perfect vinyl fadeout, that the cooking finishes, the skin dries and flesh relaxes but clings to the precious juices making for a roast with properly crisp skin, succulent, tender flesh and easy carving

Actually carve is not the right word for a bird like this – a bird with runner’s legs and a lean breast – pull and tear is more appropriate. Using my hands, a knife and my poultry shears, I pull and tear my chicken to pieces. I do this in the roasting tin and then roll the pieces in the best sort of gravy: the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices that have collected at the bottom of the tin.

Did I mention how I feel about the smell of roasting chicken? Oh you know! Of course you do, because you feel the same way! Excellent. Today we ate our chicken with mayonnaise (see below), a mixture of bitter and sweeter salad leaves and bread. What a good lunch! I had some wine too, an inch, maybe two and raised my glass to us, to my family – who seem a long way away these days – the whole delicious, tender, dark, messy, sticky lot of us.

Roast chicken with lemon

With advice from Granny, Mum, Simon Hopkinson and Marcella Hazan

Notes. A good roasting tin of the right size is pretty vital. It should be large enough to accommodate the chicken comfortably but small enough to contain the precious juices. I like, really like, this tin. You do not need to baste the chicken.

Serves 4 or in my case serves 1 and a quarter (Luca) for 3 days.

  • 1.5 – 2 kg / 3 – 4 lb chicken at room temperature
  • 50 g / 2 oz good butter at room temperature
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large unwaxed lemon

Set the oven to 180° / 350 F.

Wash the chicken both inside and out with cold water. Leave it sitting on a slightly tilted plate for 10 minutes or so, to let all the water drain away. Pat the chicken absolutely dry with a clean cloth.

Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird and then season it liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, dry and then soften the lemon by rolling it back and forth across the kitchen counter while applying pressure with your palm. Prick the lemon 37 times with a cocktail stick or trussing needle.

Tuck the lemon in the chicken cavity and then close the opening with two cocktail sticks. Don’t make an expert job of closing the opening or the chicken might just puff up and burst.

Turn the chicken beast side down in the roasting tin and place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 20 minutes turn the chicken the right way up. Do not baste.

Turn the oven up to 200° / 400 F and continue roasting the chicken for another 40 minutes. Turn the oven off, leaving the door ajar and let the chicken rest in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes.

Before carving tilt the chicken slightly so all the juices run into the tin. Stir the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices  – scraping the thick dark ones from the bottom of the tin – with a wooden spoon. Carve, rip, tear, pull the chicken in the roasting tin letting the pieces and joints roll in the juices.

And may I suggest you make some mayonnaise!

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 150 ml sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the sunflower oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Eat.

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Filed under chicken, Eggs, fanfare, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, recipes

A bit sheepish

And on the third day I ate ricotta di pecora. At least I think it was the third day! I can confirm this when I collect my diary and moleskin from Vincenzo’s flat. The accordian-like moleskin containing the unruly horde of tickets, receipts and other keepsakes from those first weeks in Naples and Sicily. I ate my soft, ephemeral slice of pure-white sheep’s milk ricotta with bread sitting on the grubby steps of a fountain near Quattro canti in Palermo. It was, like me, a messy affair. The ricotta, just hours young and wrapped in waxed-paper rather like the wedge of ricotta romana above, was extremely soft and sitting in a puddle of whey. Speed, slurping and strategic bread sopping were no match for the ricotta, a large proportion of which ended up down my t-shirt and on my Jeans. A not insignificant occurrence for a someone travelling with only the clothes they stood up in.

I’d eaten ricotta many times before, but it had always been made from cows milk, inevitably undergone UHT treatment and restrained neatly in a squat tub. The slice on the fountain steps was another thing entirely: a quivering mass of lactic loveliness with an unmistakably sheepish nature. Made that morning, it seemed the epitome of purity and freshness. And so began my affair with ricotta di pecora. As is so often the case, those first weeks were intense and slightly compulsive. I ate slice after slice, usually with bread, possibly a tomato or maybe a few dark salty olives. If I’d remembered to swipe a couple of sachets from the bar I had breakfast in, I ate my white slice dribbled with runny honey. I pointed to pasta con la ricotta (pasta with ricotta and a fearless quantity of black pepper) whenever I spied it on the menu. I ate cannolicassata and cuccia.

What began in Sicily continued in Rome. Ricotta genuina romana made from sheep’s milk (pecora) is highly prized and every bit as delicious as it’s slightly soupier Sicilian cousin. I buy it by weight from Volpetti, watching through the glass counter as one of the white coated assistants – usually Roberto – cuts me a Testaccio shaped wedge from the white dome crosshatched with the marks of the plastic basket it was turned out from. I eat it squashed on toast topped with salt, black pepper and olive oil. I’ll have a spoonful or six for breakfast with honey and nuts. Ricotta di pecora makes a good addition to tomato sauce, a perfect layer in lasagna and a fine (if rather unnecessary) companion for Pomodoro col riso. Stirred with chopped spinach it produces (with a little practice) stupendous gnocchi. Then lately, inspired by Lucio Sforza, I’ve been mixing ricotta di pecora with lemon zest and parmesan.

Lucio Sforza is the chef and owner of possibly my favorite place to eat lunch in Rome these days: L’Asino d’Oro in Monti. He makes an amazingly good value set lunch ‘il Pranzetto‘ for those lucky enough to secure a reservation. For 12 euro’s you are brought a bottle of mineral water, a glass of wine and good bread before being presented with a small but perfectly formed taster, starter, first and second course. His food is loyal to his Umbrian Roots and the way he ate as a boy. It’s traditional but at the same time truly innovative (he used the word transformative when we talked and Luca crawled manically around the empty restaurant) and youthful. He’s a stickler for excellent ingredients, a firm believer that you can eat very well without spending a fortune and has a masterful touch when it comes to pork, game, mushrooms, lentils, pulses, wild herbs (particularly sage) and ricotta di pecora.

A few weeks ago the taster or assagio –  the amuse bouche if you will – was a little mound of ricotta di pecora speckled with lemon zest, grated parmesan and what I assume was Umbrian olive oil (green, light, full of flavor and highly scented.) It was barely more than a mouthful, three if you shared it between three nubs of bread. But what a mouthful.

I’ve been making it at home, mashing and creaming the ricotta di pecora with a fork or –  if I have time – pressing it through a sieve. I’ve been topping my mound of white cream as Lucio does, with a shower of grated lemon zest, some coarsely grated parmesan and a little extra virgin olive oil. I’ve been eating this extremely tasty taster with good bread, smearing it liberally on hot toast, nudging it onto boiled potatoes and then the other day having been given some particularly nice thick ribbons of pappardelle, I decided to try this lemon scented, parmesan spiked ricotta cream with pasta.

While a large pan of well salted water lumbered to the boil, I mashed and then beat 250 g of ricotta di pecora with the zest and a little of the juice of a large unwaxed lemon, a hefty handful of grated parmesan, a good pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper. Once the water was rolling like a stormy ocean, I slid the pappardelle into the pan and pushed it down with a wooden spoon.

When the pasta was nearly ready – and this is important –  I ladled a little of the pasta cooking water – cloudy with starch – from the pasta pan into the ricotta cream in order to loosen it a little. I also set another cupful aside in case further loosening was necessary. I drained the pasta before tipping it on top of the ricotta cream and tossing the wide ribbons in the thick white paste. The egg pappardelle was surprisingly absorbent and so a little more pasta water was needed! After all this is a dish that should be moist! The ribbons of pasta should slip and slide not clump and stick. I served my pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream with a little extra virgin olive oil poured over the top.

We both agreed it was lovely and Luca smeared enthusiastically. The ricotta di pecora provides a seductive creamy coat. The mood lifting citrus lends freshness and cuts through even the slightest suggestion that lunch might be cloying.  The pepper adds heat and the parmesan its soft, granular, savory umami.

pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream

And for dessert – not the same day I hasten to add – a variation on our theme, a ricotta heavy, lemon scented, almond flecked, egg laced, rum spiked, oven baked Budino.

Now literally translated budino means pudding, so we could translate budino di ricotta as pudding of ricotta or, better still. ricotta pudding,  We could just as easily call it a ricotta cake, a baked cheese cake or a baked ricotta pudding.

The procedure is nice and straightforward. You sieve the ricotta and then beat it first with the egg yolks and then with the ground almonds or flour, sugar, lemon zest, salt and rum. Keep beating until you have a smooth, consistent cream that begs – for the raw egg fearless among us – to be tasted repeatedly. To finish you fold in the egg whites you’ve whisked so vigorously they’ve formed – giggle – stiff peaks and then scrape this thick batter into tin brushed with melted butter and dusted with fine breadcrumbs. You bake. The cake that is, until it’s firm, puffed with price and just a little golden on top.

Now if you are a fan of delicate puds and pretty cakes, this probably isn’t for you. If however you think you might like a dense (but not heavy), lemon scented, rum laced pudding that is all at once a rather sophisticated fat pancake, a fruitless bread and butter pudding, a baked custard and the inside of a Jewish baked cheesecake I suggest you try this recipe. I adore it.

I probably should have noted that ricotta (which literally translated mean re-cooked) is a milk product, usually described as cheese, made by re-cooking the whey left over from cheese making. Now I have been rambling on about ricotta di pecora which is sheep’s milk ricotta, a glorious, ephemeral product, that is almost impossible to find if you are not In Italy. Of course you can use cow milk ricotta! Just look for the best quality available. When you come to visit – which you should – we will go ricotta di pecora hunting together.

Budino di Ricotta

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s Budino di ricotta in Italian food and Roberto and Rosa D’Ancona’s Budino di ricotta in the superlative La Cucina Romana.

  • 5 eggs
  • 500 g ricotta
  • 150 g fine sugar
  • 3 heaped tablespoons ground almonds or plain flour
  • grated zest of two unwaxed lemons
  • 3 – 5 tbsp rum
  • a pinch of salt
  • a little melted butter and fine breadcrumbs for the tin

Set the oven to 180°. Brush a 25cm / 10 inch cake tin with melted butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs.

Separate the eggs putting the whites in one large bowl and the yolks in another. Sieve or mash the ricotta and beat it together with the eggs yolks. Add the sugar, almonds/ flour, lemon zest, rum and salt and beat again

Whisk the eggs white vigorously until they are mounted and form soft peaks. Using a metal spoon gently fold the eggs whites into the ricotta mixture. Pour the thick batter into the buttered and crumbed tin. Bake for 40 minutes or until the cake is firm, puffy and slightly golden  on top.

Serve just warm, at room temperature or cold. You can dust it with icing sugar if you like.

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Filed under food, fresh egg pasta, lemons, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Roman food, sauces

Lucky strike

Lately I’ve been walking. Pounding really, most mornings, while I still can, before my teaching and work at Teatro Verde burst the weird and wondrous bubble that is maternity leave. Pounding the streets of this stupendous city with well-caffeinated blood, sensible shoes, a small and increasingly vocal half Roman strapped to my chest and no particular destination in mind. On Friday we followed the deep curves of the Tevere river from Ponte Sublico all the way to Ponte Cavour. We had our second breakfast at Antonini before weaving our way through the ochre and terracotta hued warren of medieval lanes and tiny piazzas: Via dei Coronari, Piazza della Pace, Via del Governo Vecchio. We paused to inhale the Pantheon and talk to a cheeky dog called Pio before striding across Largo Argentina, crossing the Ghetto and then crunching leaves all the way along Lungotevere. It was a pretty glorious morning. Then I made pasta e lenticchie for Lunch.

If you’d told me eight years ago that Pasta e lenticchie would become one of my preferred things to eat, I’d have sniffed and told you to pass me the spaghetti-pesto-torn chard-balsamico-mozzarella-ravioli-parmigiano-pizza-cosa immediately. For most of my first year in Rome I continued resisting and persisting! ‘Yes of course I’ve heard of pasta e lenticchie! It’s pasta mixed with lentils! Sounds a little dreary don’t you think?‘ I ignored, snubbed and slighted every suggestion of Pasta e lenticchie I encountered.

It was New Years Eve when I saw the lentil light. As the clock struck midnight I was presented with an auspicious Italian tradition, a plate of braised lentils crowned with three slices of such rudely pink, fat Cotechino sausage it almost made me blush. Words and excuses tumbled from my mouth! ‘It’s midnight! We’ve been eating and drinking and drinking and eating since six o clock! I can’t possibly eat another…..’ ‘But you must’ I was told earnestly. ‘It’s the lentils you see, like little coins, they’ll bring you luck. They’re delicious too. Mangia.’

They were indeed, properly delicious, soft, earthy little orbs. Full flavoured too – clearly cooked with a fearless quality of guanciale - and a perfect foil for the rich, glutenous Cotechino. For lunch on New Years Day the rest of the lentils were reheated with a little broth, fortified with pasta and served with a glug of raw olive oil and a blizzard of pecorino romano. Riches of the monetary kind may not have been forthcoming that particular year, but at least I’d understood.

Like the reigning king and queen of hearty minestrepasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, pasta e lenticchie is a dense, hearty, elemental soup with pasta. Most regions have a version of pasta e lenticchie and Lazio, more specifically Rome, is no exception. I’m reliably informed that the key to pasta e lenticchie Roman style is a serious battuto. Now battuto, which comes from the verb battere (to strike) describes the finely chopped rabble of ingredients produced by striking them on a chopping board with a knife. Like many Roman dishes the battuto for pasta e lenticchie is a mixture of guanciale, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley. Strike.

Having prepared your battuto you need to sauté it over a modest heat in a heavy based pan until the vegetables are extremely tender, golden and – with much of their water sautéed away – intensely flavoured. This is the soffritto. Some people like to add the battuto in stages: onion and guanciale first, carrot, celery and parsley a few minutes later and last, but by no means least, the delicate garlic. I don’t, I do however keep an eagle eye on the pan. Once the vegetables are soft and your kitchen is filled with the most tremendous heady scent, you add a couple of peeled plum tomatoes and let the contents of pan bubble a little longer. Now add the lentils – ideally the lovely browny-grey ones from Castelluccio di Norcia - nudge them round the pan so they are well coated with the fragrant fat. Next water, enough to cover the lentils by a couple of centimeters. Bring the soup to the boil and them reduce it to a trembling simmer – keeping a beady eye on the water level – for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Taste, season generously (remember you are going to add pasta) and taste again

To finish, you cook the pasta in the soup. The tiny tubes called ditalini are particularly nice. Bring the soup to a boil, making sure there are still a couple of centimeters of liquid above the lentils and tip in the pasta. Keep stirring attentively, nudging and adding more water if the soup becomes too thick or the pasta starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. Keep tasting too, lunch is ready when the pasta is tender but al dente and the soup is thick but eminently spoonable and rippling. Don’t be afraid to add a little more water, even just before serving! Just check the seasoning again.

Wait another five minutes or so for the flavours to settle. Serve your pasta e lenticchie with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a shower of freshly grated pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese. A tumbler of wine is advisable too – this is good – after all I’m not back at work until Thursday.

This is one of the most deeply satisfying bowls of food I know!  A judicious, delicious and auspicious one too. Also for someone like me, someone who lacks bean foresight and nearly always forgets to soak, lentils – which don’t require a long bath – are a precious kitchen staple.  As a guanciale devotee, I relish its presence and the deep fatty notes it bestows on this dish. That said, pasta e lenticchie is (almost) as good when made with pancetta or very fatty bacon. It is also – hello Rosie and my vegetarian friends – excellent when made without any meat at all! Just remember to add a  large parmesan crust to the pan at the same time as the water.

Eat.

Pasta e Lenticchie Pasta with lentils

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 75 g guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon
  • a medium-sized onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a medium-sized carrot
  • a stalk or two of leafy parsley
  • a stalk of celery
  • salt
  • 4 plum tomatoes (either fresh or tinned)
  • 300 g small brown/grey lentils
  • 350 g short tubular pasta
  • black pepper
  • parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil for serving

Very finely chop the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon. Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot, parsley and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then add the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon, diced vegetables and a pinch of salt. Saute the ingredients, stirring and turning them regularly, until they are very soft and golden which should take about 15 minutes.

If you are using fresh tomatoes peel them, cut them in half, scoop away most of the seeds and then chop them roughly. If you are using tinned plum tomatoes simply chop them roughly. Add the tomatoes to the pan, stir to coat them well and then cook for another few minutes.

Add the lentils to the pan, turning them two or three times to coat them well. Add enough water to cover the lentils by a couple of cm’s. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil and the reduce the heat so the lentils and vegetables simmer gently, stirring every now and then for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Make sure the level of water is always more or less  a couple of cm above the lentils, replenish with as much water as needed.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taste and season again if necessary. Add the pasta and raise the heat so the lentils and pasta boil gently. Keep stirring attentively as the pasta will stick to the base of the pan. Add more water if necessary. Once the pasta is cooked (tender but still with a slight bite) remove from the heat and let the pan sit for 5 minutes.

Serve with a little extra virgin olive oil poured on top and pass around a bowl of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano for those who wish.

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Filed under food, lentils, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, soup