Monthly Archives: November 2012

Next of kin.

Another week another pumpkin. That said, I think the squat and lopsided vegetable above is technically a squash! A kabocha maybe, which means I really should burst into Kate Bush. Or is it a Turban squash?  I did ask the girl in the canestro, but the all too familiar combination of queer Italian (mine,) apathy and complete disinterest (hers) meant vegetable enlightenment wasn’t to be. Let’s call it a zucca.

Yet again, I’m not entirely sure how we all made it home;  la zucca, Luca, 2 bags of flour, a large bottle of detergent, an even larger bottle of Campari and I. Actually that’s not true, I do know, we staggered. At the corner of Via Bodini I undertook an emergency transfer and put the zucca and Campari in the baby sling and slung the wriggling, yelping 14 month old over my shoulder fireman style. Luca thought this was excellent. I did too when I realised that the position of the bottle in the sling was such that I could (if necessary) unscrew the cap with my teeth and take a swig of Campari en route.

Weighing significantly less than last week’s heavyweight, this week’s zucca tipped the scales at a rather more modest 1.8 kg. Once the fiendishly tough rind was carved away I was left – quite astoundingly considering my technique – with all eight fingers, both thumbs and 1.2 kg’s of startlingly orange, dense, sweet and almost velvety flesh. Perfect for my fit of kitchen management and orange plans. That is 300 g for another breakfast cake, 400 g for soup and 500 g for lunch. Lunch being risotto con la zucca.

You need good rice, a simmering panful, a firm hand and 18 minutes of undivided attention to make a risotto my Venetian student Andrea once told me. He was right. By good rice he meant good quality Italian risotto rice such as carnaroli, vialone nano or arborio. Rice that – as Elizabeth David reminds us – can be ‘cooked slowly in a small amount of liquid, and emerge in a perfect state of creaminess with a very slightly resistant core in each grain.’ By simmering panful, he meant the pan of stock you are going to add to the rice. The panful of good stock that should be poised, ladle within, on the back burner of your stove. The firm hand (clasping a wooden spoon) is what’s required to release the all important starch and the essential creaminess of the rice. And the 18 minutes of undivided attention! Well that’s what’s required from the cook.

Before starting the risotto you need to make a puree. You do this by cooking your diced pumpkin/squash/ zucca in milk until it  is very tender, lifting it from the milk then mashing it with butter, salt and pepper and a shower of nutmeg. Remember to cover the puree with tin foil to keep it warm. The leftover milk, gently flavored and the colour of a desert sunset will become the base of your stock. You can add either light chicken stock or plain water to the milk to make it up to a litre. The back burner over a low flame is the best place for your stock pan. Position your ladle nearby and then set about making the risotto.

A heavy based saute pan is ideal. Open the wine, pour a glass for yourself, set the bottle on the work surface and note the time. First peel, dice and then saute the onion in a mixture of butter and oil until soft and translucent. Then add the rice and stir until every grain is glistening with butter and oil. Next the wine, it should sizzle and seethe before being absorbed and evaporating away. Now you can start adding the stock, a ladeful at a time, always stirring firmly and continuously. When the previous addition is nearly absorbed, add another ladelful. Each addition will take longer to be absorbed as the rice works stoically, its starchy coat being steadily eroded by you and your wooden spoon. Remember it is you and your feverish spoon work that is going to agitate the starch in the rice and coax the essential creaminess out.

After about sixteen minutes of adding stock, stir in your pumpkin/squash/zucca puree and start tasting. The rice is ready when it’s tender and creamy but still with a slight resistance at the center of each grain. Resistant not chalky. The consistency of your risotto should be thick and slightly sticky but not stiff. It should roll slowly off the spoon. You may or may not need to use all the stock. Once the rice is done, pull the pan from the heat and then let the risotto rest, covered, for a minute or so to enjoy a quiet swell. To finish – the mantecatura – beat the remaining butter and grated parmesan vigorously into the rice which should render it sleek and glossy.

Lately I’ve been roasting slices of well olive-oiled and generously salted zucca until they are very soft, wrinkled and slightly golden at the edges to put on top of my risotto. You may or may not like to do this. Either way, serve immediately.

For someone like me, someone who can always find a reason not to give undivided attention, making risotto, like Luca’s bedtime, fussing with my eyebrows or making my morning coffee is true solace. It’s one of the occasions in which I allow myself to become entirely absorbed in a task. Good job too, a lazily or distractedly executed risotto will almost certainly be a disappointing puddle of rice and juice. Whereas a well made risotto, one made with good rice, a firm hand, trembling stock and undivided attention is a glorious, complete thing: creamy and starchy, tenacious yet relaxed. For me it’s the ultimate in deeply satisfying comfort food. The zucca works beautifully, both savory and sweet. Don’t forget the nutmeg, just a grating, it lends a nice, slightly exotic, warm, dusty note.

Rachel eats her lunch.

Risotto con la zucca Pumpkin risotto

Adapted from Claudia Roden’s recipe (which in turn comes from the Jolanda and Valentino Migliorini’s restaurant in Caorso near Cremona) in The Food of Italy

Technically serves 4 but I’d make this for two (and Luca) for lunch.

  • 350 g pumpkin / squash flesh, diced.
  • 250 ml /8 fl oz whole milk
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 medium-sized onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 60 g butter – divided in three
  • nutmeg
  • 350 g / 11 oz risotto rice
  • 80 ml white wine or vermouth
  • 1 litre light chicken stock, vegetable stock or plain water
  • 50 g freshly grated parmesan
  • 150 g roasted pumpkin to serve

In a small pan cover the diced pumpkin /squash flesh with the milk.  Simmer the milk gently until the pumpkin /squash is tender (from 6 – 15 minutes depending on the age and type of pumpkin /squash.)

Using a slotted spoon lift the pumpkin from the milk into a small bowl and set aside. Mash the pumpkin pieces with a fork, masher or immersion blender into to a smooth (ish) puree. Add a third of the butter, salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Add the stock or water to the leftover milk and set over a low flame.

Peel and small dice the onion. In a large heavy-based pan warm the olive oil and another third of the butter. Add the onion to the pan and sauté it gently over a medium flame until soft and translucent. Add the rice to the pan and stir well so it is completely coated with butter and oil.

Add the wine or vermouth to the pan and let it bubble away and absorb. Set your timer to 16 minutes. Start adding the milk/stock, ladleful by ladleful, stirring the risotto as you do so. Add a little more every three minutes or so, once the previous ladelful has been absorbed.

When the timer rings, stir the pumpkin /squash puree into the risotto and then start tasting. The rice is cooked when it is tender and creamy but still with a slightly resistant core in each grain. You may or may not use all the stock. Pull the pan from the heat and then leave the risotto to sit, covered for one minute.

Beat the last third of the butter and the parmesan vigorously into the risotto. Taste, season with salt if necessary and then serve with a slice of roasted pumpkin on top.

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Filed under food, pumpkin and squash, Rachel's Diary, rice, risotto

Nothing, all and some

For almost a third of my life if I made a cake, it was nothing, or all. Nothing, not even a wisp of batter or a wayward crumb, only the purposeful sliding of slices onto other people’s plates, their appetite nourishing my steely abstinence. All, meaning I ate it all, then felt wretched and furious. Lashing feelings assuaged only by renewed vows of temperance.

At the time all felt monstrous and much harder to bear than none. I now understand none was the uglier face of my symptoms: tight, calculated and superior, the antithesis of the generous, cake bearing hostess I fantasized I was being. The all, the part of myself I loathed and feared the most: the greedy, needy, messy part was in fact my salvation. For it was this grabbing, gorging Rachel that begged desperately for help.

And help would come, again, gallons of it,  So too would terror and denial, that familiar and toxic pair, surging through my veins. Deadlock.

I come from a family who can talk as intently (and obsessively) about our behavior as we do our food. A family whose fingers reek of garlic and who talk endlessly of behavior and food over food, which can make for terrible table manners. We all knew perfectly well my nothing or all behavior was perverse. But we were helpless in the face of insidious and entrenched habits that had – and I know this may sound absurd –  become my way of surviving.

I was 30 when things began to shift. A fierce period of nothing, sustained by a conveniently abstemious few months in India doing Yoga, was followed, unsurprisingly, by an even fiercer period of all. The beginning of the end of a relationship I thought would last forever and the uncomfortable truth about my acting career collided with all. I was, quite literally, on my knees.

Until that point I’d frantically avoided practical help – the make a list, make a plan, keep a diary, avoid that shop, avoid that food, count to three, make a phone call sort of help. What’s more I’d jeered and sneered at it, believing it pathetic and useless in the face of the complex deep-rooted problems I’d been burrowing for with at least six different therapists since the age of 16. Then just after my thirtieth birthday, drowning in all, I sat down and made a list. A list of the all the advice I’d been offered, given, thrown, administered, heard and read over the years. I still have it somewhere. Third or fourth on the list was: stop making cakes until. Until what?  I’m not sure.  Just until.

I stopped.  I stopped other things too, dozens of them. My symptoms roared, subsided and roared again. I started going to groups I swore I’d never go to. I stopped more things and started others. There was talking and more talking and sharing and counting the days, months and years. I weighed the beans. Symptoms subsided and people rushed over to tell me how well I was doing and I knew they were right. But I felt like a zombie. ‘It’s normal‘, they cried. ‘Remember what it was like.‘ But I still felt like a zombie. ‘Don’t go back‘ they cried with terror in their eyes, as if my doubt was contagious. ‘I don’t want to go back ‘ I replied. ‘I also don’t want to stay here‘ I thought as I drank my fucking herbal tea.

I took flight.  I drank more coffee during that first week in Naples than in the entire two and a half years following the list. I also ate Rum baba and drank red wine. I pounded the streets of Naples, fueled by caffeine, sugar and a lick of alcohol wondering if I might topple back into something terrible. Then on the third or fourth day, as I walked – yet again – along the sea front eating yet another booze laced confection I realised that everything, the all and the nothing, my families uncompromising tenet that we eat and talk, the medical, the philosophical, the analytical, the practical, the blasted steps, my list and my impulsive flight to Naples had all clotted together. I was alright.

Of course my moment of realisation was followed by a more sober reality as I built a new life. But I didn’t topple back.  I picked up habits I’d stopped. Feelings roared, subsided and roared, but I didn’t topple back. I cried and raged and stood panic-stricken on the top of Mount Etna in the snow for three hours. But I didn’t topple back. In fact as far as my food was concerned – to put it clumsily –  I toppled forward, somersaulted really, into what was to become a pretty sane and often joyous way of eating. I never, even for a moment, doubted that leaving England was the right thing to do.

It took me a couple of years to make a cake. I’m not really sure why, I’d returned to habits that were historically more threatening than sponge. The first cake was a madeira cake. Which come to think of it, was a toppling back of sorts! Toppling way back, to my perfectly imperfect childhood and the years before eating twisted into something distorted and peculiar.

The memory is sharp as a red currant, I’m standing by the kitchen door in the flat in Via Mastro Giorgio creaming the butter and sugar, noting how perfectly right making a cake felt and that, more importantly, the doorstep needed a bloody good scrub. The cake was pretty lame, but that didn’t matter. I slid a sunken slice onto Vincenzo’s plate and another on to mine. We ate. The next day I did the same thing. Then later that same day I cut myself another thick slice, tucked the foil back round the cake, ate and marvelled at the beauty of some.

Breath.

I’ve just bombarded you all with that in much the same way as I’ve lined the cake tin above: clumsily, quickly and carelessly. I apologize. It’s just that when I sat down to write about today recipe, sat down at my red table and thought about how best to talk about the cake, this is what tumbled out. At first I tried to stuff it back in: surely an ode to blazing pumpkins or quaint Roman markets would be more appropriate! After all that’s what you come here for. Then I realized I couldn’t stuff it back anywhere and that maybe it was important. After all cake matters.

On Sunday, in a fit of kitchen management, I bought pumpkin the size of my son 14 months ago – that is 3.850kg precisely – and set about planning a series of very orange meals. There would be a risotto of course – which I am going to write about. There would be soup, gnocchi, puree and if I could find the right recipe a cake. Jess had planted a seed you see. I wasn’t actually recipe hunting in the Guardian newspaper, but there it was. A seed, a pumpkin, a recipe, a sleeping baby, a cake.

The ingredient list is promising: grated pumpkin, grounds almonds, raisins, lemon, nutmeg – there is always a nutmeg in my house – eggs, flour, sugar. The procedure is straightforward and the cake excellent: properly moist (but not soggy) richly flavored and absolutely delicious. Hugh describes it better than I ever could.

Good with milky coffee and Earl Grey tea. Also being the sort of damp cake that’s happy to help the puddings out every now and then, I imagine it would be a fine finish to a meal, especially if topped with a spoonful of very cold, very thick cream. Would you like some?

Pumpkin, raisin and nutmeg loaf (cake)

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe in this weeks Guardian

  • 200 g soft brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 200 g of raw pumpkin flesh, grated coarsely
  • zest and juice of a unwaxed lemon
  • 100 g ground almonds
  • 100 g raisins
  • 200 g self-raising flour or 200 g plain flour and 1 tbsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • nutmeg

Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3 and line a 10cm x 20cm loaf tin or with baking parchment.

Beat together the brown sugar and egg yolks for two to three minutes – using a hand or electric whisk – until they are pale and creamy. Gently stir the grated pumpkin, lemon zest and juice, raisins and almonds into the egg and sugar mixture. Sift the flour into the mixture and the add the salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Stir.

Whisk the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Then using a metal spoon fold the mounted egg whites into the rest of the mixture.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin. Bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tin, than invert to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

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Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, food, pumpkin, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Don’t forget to soak

It is almost always the case that I’m wearing my dressing gown and one-armed – therefore lopsided – glasses when I put my beans to soak. This is because the beans are slumped next to the coffee, tea, neglected herbal bags (mango passionfruit and vanilla – as hideous as it sounds,) a very peculiar chicory drink I bought when I was pregnant and not thinking straight and the Green and Blacks hot chocolate in the kitchen cupboard. I’m probably slumped up against the kitchen counter in much the same way as my legumes are against the tin of Earl Grey tea when I catch sight of the beans. They stare back, both appealing and reproaching. ‘Two months woman, two months and without so much as a dusting!’ And so as the Moka rattles to its delicious climax and the milk warms in the pan, I tip my white, brown or mottled beans into my largest tin bowl and then cover them with water.

On Monday morning it was pearly white coco beans that skittled into the bowl. Coco beans bought from Giovanni and Assunta Bernabei’s Stall at Testaccio farmers market with Mona. The stall with the sign that reads ‘My name is Giovanni Bernabei.  Ever since 1983, I made a pact with myself to touch no longer with my hands any fodder, fertilizer or any chemical products whatsoever.  So long as I have the strength to raise a hoe, I will labor for those who believe in me and appreciate my produce.’ Needless to say, Giovanni is one of my food heroes.

On Monday afternoon I cooked the beans, letting them lumber to the boil and then shudder away burping every now and then for about 4o minutes until they were soft, tender and surrounded by an opaque pool of unassuming bean broth.

Unassuming but inimitable. This cloudy spoonful is the other reason I buy fresh beans or good dried ones and then soak and cook them myself. This cloudy, starchy, richly flavored liquid is the ingredient that makes bean soups, stews and dishes like pasta e fagioli taste so good. I learned the hard way. Vincenzo made a very odd noise and then buried his head in his hands for some time on observing me slosh the bean water down the plug-hole and then rinse the beans. I think he might have called me a barbarian. He shook his head repeatedly during lunch. I’ve never made the same mistake again.

I used a slotted spoon to remove the first meal’s worth of beans. They were still warm with just enough of the bean water clinging to them to keep them moist. Olive oil, crumbled salt and a twist of black pepper were all they needed. Beside my heap of soft white beans, I had seven black olives, half a small ball of mozzarella and three radishes.

Then yesterday – Tuesday – having been struck by an uncharacteristic but almost overwhelming desire for plump, pink sausages – I think one of my neighbours early morning cooking sessions might have curled up my noise and into my food consciousness or maybe it was just my hormones – I decided a thick bean braise, a bed of beans if you like for under my bangers was in order.

I took, as I often do, a well trodden path. Please forgive me if this blog is starting to feel a little a like a bean deja vu! I took an onion, a clove of garlic, a carrot and a stick of celery. I peeled, diced and then sautéed my harlequin heap in extra virgin olive oil until it was extremely tender, golden and – with much of the water sautéed away – intensely flavoured.  I added the beans and their precious broth, a generous pinch of salt and three twists of black pepper. I let the pan bubble and burp discretely for about 15 minutes.

The beans were ready long before my fat, cheeky-pink sausages from Sartor were. Fortunately for me, beans are forgiving things and perfect for someone with shoddy kitchen manners and awful timing. Both the beans and sautéed vegetable benefited no end – rather like me at about 3 0 clock – from a little rest. I cooked my sausages in the oven, pricking them with a fork first and then roasting them for about 40 minutes or so.

Once my sausages were burnished and smelling pretty irresistible, I pulled them from the oven. I gently warmed the beans, noting they needed another ladle of bean broth in order to achieve the right consistency. That is: thick enough to provide a comfortable bed, but still soft and very spoonable.

Warm bowl, a bed of beans and two fat sausages, Lunch. Now you may well note the absence of half a sausage on my plate. Three slices were eaten whilst plating up – yes I did work in the hospitality industry, 1988 – 90 at Harpenden Moat House: grim weddings, depressing family gatherings and budget Sunday roasts were a speciality – and yes I did burn my tongue.

Sausages and beans, how do I like thee? Let me count the ways. This is such a good plateful: the soft, nutty beans contrasting brilliantly with the fat pork sausages. Ben, Dan W, Harriet and C°, Dan Gunn in Berlin this is one for you.

The beans I used were this season’s, so only semi dried. I probably could have got away with not soaking them, However Assunta suggested I soaked them in cold water, drained them and then simmered them gently for just 40 minutes. Older, drier beans might have needed and longer soak and boil. As beans vary so dramatically, it’s difficult to give definitive advice! I suggest some experimentation, after all, the quest for good beans/ well cooked and a fine bean broth is one well worth undertaking.

A big pan of beans in bean broth will keep happily in the fridge for three days. Just make sure the beans are submerged under their broth. Remove beans with a clean spoon so as not to disturb the clever self-preservation that is occurring in the pan

White beans and sausages.

Serves 2.

  • 4 best quality pork sausages
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • a plump clove of garlic
  • 1 medium carrot
  • a stick of celery
  • salt
  • 300 – 400 g cooked white beans in their broth (cannellini or coco beans)
  • freshly ground black pepper

Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then the 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.

Add the beans and their broth to the pan, stir and then – still over a gentle flame – let the beans bubble away gently for another 10 or 15 minutes. You may need to add a little more bean water/broth. Taste and season again if necessary.

Serve the beans in a shallow bowl topped with two sausages. Eat.

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Filed under bean broth, Beans and pulses, food, In praise of, recipes, sausages