Monthly Archives: March 2013

What a nice pair

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It was a good and unmistakably Roman start to the meal: crisp, bitter curls of puntarelle (chicory) dressed with olive oil, garlic and anchovy, braised globe artichokes and slices of toasted bread zigzagged with olive oil and strewn with salt. The serving dishes were large, the table long and narrow and a lackadaisical mother allowing her child to crawl everywhere, so a fair amount of passing, negotiating and cooperation was required.

Just when it seemed we’d all helped ourselves to everything, and the dishes had found places between the bottles and the bread, Alessandro (sporting his signature chef bandana) brought an almost whole wheel of pecorino romano to the table. My friend Mauro grinned and made it clear where the cheese should be deposited by drumming his fingers on the table before him. He then took the stumpy cheese knife, impaled it, hewed off a lump of pecorino and began eating. We were in Agustarello obviously.

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It took me a while to come around to pecorino romano, the ewes milk cheese so beloved of the Romans. It’s a distinctive and surly cheese: strong and with a semi-sharp almost muttony taste about it. If parmigiano reggiano is a smooth sophisticated type with a history of art degree and a flat in Kensington, then pecorino romano is a bit of a rogue with an accent as thick as treacle, superlative record collection and oodles of charm

Most pecorino romano is aged from 8 months to a year and then considered a grating cheese. Once grated, it’s launched liberally, lending its distinctive nature and a salty wink to some of Rome’s most prized dishes: pasta alla gricia, all’amatriciana, carbonara, angry arrabbiata, cacio e pepe and the aromatic trippa alla romana.

Some pecorino romano however, is eaten young, at around about five months – I believe semi-aged is the correct term  - which means it’s less pungent, that it’s softer and milder mannered and makes a good table cheese. A very good table cheese, especially with first fave, the first tender broad beans of the spring.

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It’s one of the nicest Roman rituals, one traditionally enjoyed during the symbolic trip to the countryside after winter. A big dish of broad beans still in their pods so that you may peel them yourself is served with a piece of young pecorino romano and a glass of local wine.

Of course fave demand attention! The long, fingerlike pods need to be split down the seam and then the tough opaque coats eased away from each bean before the bright green slivers, tasting somewhere between a buttered pea and asparagus can be eaten with a nub of cheese. Weather permitting we will enjoy this ritual on Monday – otherwise known as Pasquetta or little Easter – in Villa Celimontana. Come! Bring something for the picnic table, a bottle or two and suitable shoes for football. I won’t play football obviously, I’ll sit podding fave and drinking the wine you brought.

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Or – but hush and don’t tell the farmer – you could eat your pecorino romano with pear. But I probably don’t need to tell you that! You know perfectly well what good partners hard cheese and pears make ? How nicely the sweet, buttery, vinous character of pear marries with a hunk of sharp, salty pecorino? The pear should be ripe, but not too ripe! An elusive moment I know, but one well worth waiting for. At least I think so.

This week all my pears, that is the bowlful above and a bag full sitting under the counter, reached that elusive moment simultaneously. Having been almost comically enthusiastic, my son promptly decided he didn’t like chair and shouted every time I presented him with a slice, chunk or puree. Determined the pears shouldn’t suffer the all too common fate in this flat, that is deterioration into a soft, sleepy mush that ends up (shamefully) in the bin, I took charge.

There was pear and pecorino romano just so. A salad of thinly sliced fennel, pear and pecorino was good (the faint liquorice nip of the fennel working well with the sweet and sharp) and a pear and prosciutto sandwich excellent. Then, at the eleventh hour, as the remaining pears appeared to give me the same look my son gives me when I’m typing on the computer: that is hopeful but mournful and resigned to my neglect, I made chutney.

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Pear and date chutney. I’ve had this recipe in mind for weeks, ever since spying it on a new to me blog called Life in Abruzzo. I have a weakness for chutney, for rich, sweet and sharp concoctions to be smeared onto bread, spooned next to curry or nudged onto cheese, scotch egg, pressed potato or a fat wedge of potato frittata. This recipe is a good as it sounds: a dark, sticky muddle of pear (the chunks of which retain something of their shape and shine through the glass jar) and dates, with a nip of aniseed, a pinch of fragrant and feminine coriander and warm undertones from the teaspoon of pepperoncino. Yes please.

It’s pleasingly straightforward. You chop the pears and dates and then macerate them - or whatever the verb is – for an hour or so in cider vinegar and sugar. Seeds are fried in hot oil until they’re fragrant and your kitchen smells like somewhere else. Onion is added to the seeds and then once it’s soft and translucent you add the fruit et al, bring the chutney to the boil and then reduce it to a burping simmer for nearly an hour. You ladle your dark, sticky, spoon-coating chutney into scrupulously clean jars. I find boiling water and a warm oven does the trick but don’t tell the earnest canners that, they will have me up in front of the preserving judge before you can say not hermetically sealed. But really, around here chutney is kept in the fridge and eaten long before any unsavory types have time to even think about visiting, never mind moving in.

Pear and date chutney and pecorino romano, what a nice pair, and one that fits neatly into a Roman life with English undertones. Just perfect for a picnic (in the kitchen.) Have a good (and long) weekend.

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Pear and date chutney

Adapted from Sammy Dunham’s recipe in Life in Abruzzo which was in turn adapted from Lucinda’s recipe. With advice (as is so often the case) from Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Did I mention how much I like Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Two practical notes. Firstly, stir and scrape attentively during the simmering, chutney can be terrible sticker if left to its own devices. Secondly this chutney – like most chutneys –  is best when cooked to a moderate set: jammy and coating the back of the spoon, but still a little runny; if too thick and solid it will dry out. I halved the quantities suggested by Sammy. The recipe below makes three jars

  • 750 g pears
  • 250 g dates (ideally Medjool)
  • 325 g demerara or soft brown sugar
  • 250 ml cider or apple vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped pepperoncino or cayenne pepper
  • 50 ml olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • 1 scarse teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 large red or white onion (yielding about 300 g when diced)
  • salt and black pepper

Wash, core and chop the pears into small chunks. remove the stones from the dates and chop them roughly. In a large bowl mix the pear, dates, sugar, vinegar, and pepperoncino and mix thoroughly (hands are best). Leave to sit for an hour or so, stirring every so often.

In a heavy based pan, heat the oil and then add the seeds and fry (vigorously but not aggressively) for 30 seconds or so or until the seeds are fragrant. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, lower the heat and then saute the onion until it is soft and translucent.

Add the pear mixture, a pinch of salt a several grinds of black pepper to the pan. Stir, bring chutney to the boil and then reduce to a bubbling simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so scraping well round sides and bottom of pan.

The chutney is ready when it is dark, thickish, sticky and coating the back of the spoon.

Ladle the chutney into warm sterilized jars (I wash mine in boiling water and then sit them in a warm oven to dry.) Screw on lids and leave jars to cool. Store somewhere cool and dark. Ready to eat straight away, but better after a week and better still after three (according to Sammy.) Once opened, keeps in fridge for up to a month.

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Filed under cheese, chutney, dates, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Rome, Roman food, spring recipes

Reciprocal roasting

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Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn’t want to stay. A month, three at most, then I’d take a train back to Sicily, finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted, before moving even further southwards-somewhere. Then about halfway through that first reluctant month, April 2005 to be precise, urged by my architect friend Joanna, we visited possibly the most Roman of Roman quarters: Testaccio

Approaching Testaccio for the first time as we did by bus, lurching from Lungotevere into via Marmorata then swinging sharply into Via G. Branca, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished looking 19th-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the delectable warren of terra-cotta hued medieval alleys, the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins and the curves, courtyards and staircases of Borromini we’d been lost in.

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Disoriented, we stepped off the bus into broad and busy Via G. Branca. Joanna was already engaged, her eyes darting eagerly, words like ‘Public housing, elevations, detail, brickwork, internal courtyard, community, fascinating’ tumbling from her lips. We walked, wandered really – the best way and invariably a happy adventure in Rome – down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, peering into vast internal courtyards, sneaking up well ventilated stairwells, pressing our noses up against the frosted glass windows of local tratorrie, all the time Joanna mumbling and making notes.

The hard lines seemed to soften and the streets – although always neatly aligned – narrowed and relaxed as we moved into the heart of Testaccio. We watched a wicker basket being lowered from a fifth floor window, shopping deposited within, before the basket was hauled back up and swallowed by lace curtains. Just as our eyes were becoming accustomed to the distinguished late 19th century architecture, four arches of an ancient edifice, as if forlorn giants, loomed up before us. We gazed upwards at the sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the defunct slaughter-house and downwards at the expanse of cobble stones between which were wedged innumerable cigarette butts. We were jostled and elbowed, awkward tourists we, by the commotion and the rowdy market life of Testaccio. We sat at one of the small round tables outside Zia Elena and drank ill-timed cappuccini while Joanna confirmed what I was starting to suspect, Testaccio was charismatic and captivating, rudely real and remarkable, that I should find a flat here.

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I’m still here of course. Once that English girl, now very much (and quite happily) that English woman, less idealistic and romantic but no less enamoured with my adopted home. My mum is visiting this week and at this very moment pushing my small boy, a half Testaccino, around the same streets Joanna and I pounded. Meanwhile I sit here at my red table looking out onto the cavernous courtyard of my building, which just happens to be the first building I noted as the bus swerved into Testaccio almost eight years ago to the day.

Lately I’ve been having nice conversations about why I came to Rome, why I stayed and why I cook and write in the way I do. My answer is almost invariably, Testaccio. I stayed in Rome even though I’d no intention of doing so because of Testaccio, a quarter with an identity and character stronger than anyone I know. Of course I’d cook wherever I was, but I cook in the way I do because I’m here and influenced by the very particular cooking of this very particular area, by the local market and the shops I visit every day. Before you roll your eyes at this, I should note that many of the shops and most certainly the market itself – which has recently moved – are a far cry from any rustic, whimsical or mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming, they are straightforward, traditional, ordinary.

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Straightforward, traditional, ordinary, such pleasing words and appropriate ones too when it comes to describing Roman food. Another thing that’s kept coming up in our conversations this week, is how aspects of Roman food have much in common with northern English food, the food my parents were raised on and an important part of my kitchen heritage. Both are straightforward, traditional, ordinary. I like ordinary. Homely cooking rooted in tradition. Cooking that makes good use of lesser cuts which require thought, resourcefulness and skill if they are to be transformed into something sustaining and satisfying. The enterprising use of the other parts of the animal, parts that would otherwise be wastefully and scornfully discarded: tripe, tails, feet, sweetbreads, liver, lungs (don’t squirm they are absolutely delicious if cooked well.) There is a nice symmetry for me that the iconic Roman dish: Coda alla vaccinara, braised ox tail with celery, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lancastrian dish, a taste of my childhood and culinary heritage: ox tail stew.

I am waiting to make Coda  alla vaccinara with Leonardo so that was out. We considered boiled beef, one of my favourites and another dish with which to observe this Roman / northern English connection – cooking for me is all about making connections. Do you know the recipe I have for Roman Lesso is almost identical to the recipe for boiled beef and carrots my northern family would make? Then the sun came out and the discussions turned to spring, Easter, and celebratory lunches in both Rome and Manchester. Not that it was Sunday. Mum reminisced and I ruminated while we walked from my flat in via Marmorata to the market. By the time we reached my butcher we had decided: roast lamb with potatoes on Wednesday it would be.

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Alice would have roasted half a leg or half a shoulder, English lamb being older, bolder and larger. In Rome the lamb roasted with potatoes is – more often than not - abbacchio or suckling lamb. A small, slim leg with ribs and kidneys attached is perfumed with fresh rosemary and garlic, then cooked in slow oven with pieces of potato anointed with strutto (lard) or olive oil until the potatoes are golden and crisp, the meat tender and falling from the bone.

We English are mocked for our plate piling and tempestuous sea of gravy, especially on Sundays. My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, was not a fan of such plate chaos. She would have served her lamb as they do in Rome, a nice slice or two, beside it a couple of burnished potatoes, over it a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.

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I’m almost certain you have your own recipe for roast lamb with potatoes, this post is nothing more than a long-winded reminder. Below is the way I cook lamb, that is: in a rather Roman manner with distinctly British sensibilities. On Easter Sunday we will start with fave e pecorino followed by a modest slice of lasagne ai carciofi and then, for secondo, this simply roasted lamb. We will then adopt somnolent postures on the nearest soft furnishing, cover our faces with the Observer and doze.

Abbachio al forno con le patate    Roast lamb with potatoes

Adapted from the recipe in La Cucina Romana by Roberta e Rosa D’Ancona and Jane Grigson’s recipe in English food and Simon Hopkinson’s sage advice.

serves 4

  • 2 kg very young, lamb. Ideally leg with ribs and kidneys
  • lard or extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • several sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1k g potatoes

In Rome they slash the leg of lamb deeply (but not cutting through entirely) creating thick slices.

Lay the lamb in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate it with the potatoes. Peel and slice the garlic and break the rosemary into small sprigs. Rub your hands with lard or olive oil and then massage the lamb inserting the slivers of garlic and sprigs into the slashes as you go. By the time you’ve finished the lamb should be glistening and scented with garlic and rosemary.

Smear a little lard or oil on the base of the tin and then lay the leg skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper leave to rest for 30 minutes or so.

Set the oven to 180° / 350F.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, rub them with lard or olive oil (hands are best) and then arrange them around the lamb. Season the potatoes with a little salt.

Slide the lamb into the oven. Cook for about an hour – basting every so often and turning the leg twice – or until the meat is very tender when prodded with a fork. Very young lamb might need less, older lamb more. Some people like to pour a glass of white wine over the lamb half way through the cooking time, In this case I don’t

Allow the meat to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 10 minutes before serving in thick slices with a potato or two and a spoonful of the sticky juices from the bottom of the pan.

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Filed under Eating In Testaccio, food, lamb, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Bright bulb

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Yesterday it poured in Rome, rain and black smoke both, reminding us there was pontificating in progress. Then at about eight, the black smoke gave way to white and la fumata bianca poured from the copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel, meaning the scarlet clad cardinals had chosen their new pope. It never stopped raining. Unaccustomed as I am to either watching Italian TV or considering catholic concerns I did both. Even I was moved by the sea of jubilant humanity in piazza San Pietro and the roaring cheer as a pensive Papa Francesco uttered buona sera. 

There’s been more than enough pontificating about conclaves, cardinals and commanding! I’m not about to do any more of it here. Well apart from noting that although we’re diametrically opposed on countless matters, I’m glad to hear Papa Francesco’s views on single mothers, papel footwear and taking the bus, and that I just hope he’s given the space and opportunity to exercise his reputed political canniness and reforming drive. Dog knows they need it.

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Oranges and fennel however, there hasn’t been nearly enough pontificating about either around here! So if you don’t mind I’ll do some today. If I was quicker and sharper I’d have bought blood oranges, their scarlet juice – reminiscent of the cardinals cassocks and conviction – bleeding and staining the wooden work surface. I am neither quick, sharp or inclined to scrub so orange oranges it is.

Lately I’ve been buying my greens and citrus from the local farmers market that takes place every weekends in the Ex-Mattatoio. This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting my market: the recently relocated but still thriving Testaccio mercato! We still go there faithfully. What can I say, semi-maternity-leave and an excuse to eat warm brioche whilst admiring artichokes and listening to market banter spliced with profanities: we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, the day Testaccio market rests, we walk that little bit further, curving our way along the river to The Farmers Market occupying one of the buildings in the vast sprawling complex that is the Ex-Mattatoio.

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I’ve talked about the Ex -Mattaotio before. Once the principle slaughter-house for the whole of Rome, it’s an expansive patchwork of buildings, enclosures, thoroughfares and vast open spaces where animals once roamed. A place all the more extraordinary for being in the middle of a city like Rome. Closed for butchery business since 1975 it’s now part modern art gallery, organic supermarket, social club, concert venue, music school, shelter for the (poor) horses that drag Rome’s carriages, gypsy camp, stark wasteland and at the weekend, farmers market.

You’d be advised to arrive early, especially on Sundays. Naturally leavened bread, salumi, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, nuts, eggs, pasta, beans and grains, mushrooms, organic meat and the nicest, freshest produce you could hope to find all direct from bona-fide local producers is gathered under the high-pitched roof of the atmospheric pavilion. The air is always slightly damp, bosky and full of gastronomic promise. On Sunday I bought a piece of aged pecorino, a slice of guanciale, a kilo of cicoria selvatica: a dark green tangle of wild leaves, four artichokes, two deeply curved bulbs of fennel and a dozen matt-skinned, bright leaved oranges.

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Which brings us to todays recipe, an assembly really, one of my favorites, a wisp of Sicily: oranges, fennel and black olives. Now they may seem an unlikely trio, but fennel, orange and olives go together so well, the Ahmad Jamel Trio of insalata. The crisp, clean and sweet tasting bulb with its faintly anise perfume and liquorice nip seems to enhance the sweet/sharp juiciness of the citrus, it’s flesh: firm and creamy contrasting with the soft languorous segments. The dark, baked olives: bitter, meaty and leathery compliment and contrast both orange and fennel.

The key is to pare away every trace of peel and pith from the oranges before cutting then into slender rounds and slicing the fennel lengthways as thin as thin can be into almost transparent arcs. Once cut, you arrange your orange rounds and paper-thin slices of fennel on a plate or platter. You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully. To finish you punctuate your orange and white assembly with black olives – the coal-black slightly wrinkled oven baked ones work well – sprinkle with coarse salt and then dress with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil.

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We had our salad of sorts with chickpeas – just cooked so still warm - dressed with coarse salt and an embarrassing amount of olive oil. There was bread too, obviously, how else would you mop up the puddle of olive oil and salty citrus, how else would you nudge the ill-behaved chickpeas onto your fork.

Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel. Fennel with deep curves. Fat bottomed fennel. You may well come across flatter elongated bulbs, save them for braising or slow cooking. As for the oranges: sweet, really juicy naval are ideal. Pare away the peel carefully and set it aside for an appealing project.

The perfect antidote to downpours of rain or other bothersomeness. I also like this salad with grilled chicken or fish.

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Orange, fennel and black olive salad. 

serves 2

  • 2 large, very juicy oranges
  • 1 large bulb of fennel
  • a handful of black olives, ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones
  • salt
  • black pepper (optional)
  • best extra virgin olive oil

Using a sharp knife, slice away the very top and bottom from the oranges so they sit flat. Then following the contours of the fruit carefully pare away the peel and pith. Using a serrated knife, slice the oranges crosswise into 1/4 rounds.

Cut away the stems, remove any damaged or particularly tough layers and trim the base of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and then cut each half – again lengthways - into paper-thin slices .

Arrange the arcs of fennel and rounds of orange on a large plate. Dot the salad with either whole or slivers of black olives. Using scissors snip over the feathery fronds. Sprinkle with coarse salt (black pepper too if you so wish) and then dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.

Eat.

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Filed under fennel, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, winter recipes

Layer upon layer

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Lately I’ve been thinking about layers. Mostly mundane ones: clothes, coats and covers, the management of which occupies a ridiculous amount of my time, what with a child and March’s capricious climate. Not that this ridiculous amount of time ever seems to pay off. I am, it seems, destined to always get it wrong and we end up either hot and bothered, cold and cantankerous or simply soaking wet.

My almost impressive ability to misjudge meteorological matters was less important when it was just me. But now I have a small boy clamped to my chest or clutching my hand, a small inappropriately dressed 18 month-old boy whose every sniff and sneeze precipitates a chorus of street tutting and disapproval –  ‘Non si fa cosi signora! Povero bambino‘ –  I wish I could judge the layers better! At least once in a while.

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Inappropriately dressed we’ve been walking in search of less mundane and more intriguing layers. Armed with Elizabeth Speller’s book of ten guided walks – of which we have now completed seven –  we’ve been discovering Rome anew, observing layer upon layer of her glorious and inglorious past and her shambolic and sublime present. Of course the great baroque facades, imperial ruins and palazzi of renaissance princes are stupendous. As are the tiny piazze, labyrinthine cobbled alleys and half forgotten fountains. But it’s the unexpected and incongruous that really arrests me, when fragments, as ES puts it, ‘burst forth.’

A single arch of an ancient edifice rising forlornly between two 19th century apartment blocks, a 2000 year old column holding up a tenement kitchen, a routine hole for a routine check by the Roman water board that has been appropriated by archeologists, a mechanics workshop built into an ancient pile of broken pots, an ancient arch – onto which an unsupervised dog is relieving himself – marooned in the middle of the pavement beside a busy road. Antiquity bursting forth and then just sitting there nonchalantly while perfectly modern lives roar or meander by. Layer upon layer.

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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It has taken me a year to lift the pasta maker out of its box and clamp it to the work surface. I’m as proficient at procrastination as I am meteorological misjudgment. If the truth be known the chrome plated steel Imperia would still be languishing in cardboard at the bottom of the cupboard were it not for Paola: my friend and lasagne teacher. I met Paola a few years ago when she hosted a party for our mutual friend Sergio in her garden. It had been noted that we’d get on and that Paola was an excellent cook, We did and she is, particularly when it comes to la lasagna.

Before coming to Italy I was deeply suspicious of lasagna, traumatized by too many encounters with thick yellow sheets that managed  - quite impressively – to be both over and undercooked, big bulging layers of very busy ragu, floods of floury white sauce and cheddar crusts. Thud, squelch, indigestion. It was awful. I was scarred for lasagna life. So scarred, that even the more refined, relatively well executed lasagna left me unmoved. I decided it was best that I just let lasagna lie.

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I almost spurned the slice Vincenzo brought over to me during the party. Then I realised it was unlike any lasagna I’d ever seen. Paola rolls her fresh handmade egg pasta as thin as thin can be, which renders it light, extremely delicate and allows it to be the absolute protagonist, appearing in eight or nine layers. The sauces and others layers. whether they be a rich ragu, sautéed vegetables, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, a limpid white sauce are all merely supporting artists. Very important supporting artists mind: proud, present and bestowing deep flavour, but never swamping or overwhelming the star: the almost transparent leaves of pasta. The slice looked a little like a closed accordion, it managed to be delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. I ate three slices. I then lay in a somnolent posture under a tree.

Some years later I’m standing in Paola’s kitchen in her house near Velletri, a town about an hour south of Rome. It is a vast enviable space, with a pale marble-topped work surface, wood burning stove and wooden table long enough for twelve. It’s a comfortable and unpretentious space though, with nothing twee or themed about it, no suggestions of whimsical rustic. I note that I could spend a lot of time in this kitchen. We drink coffee and then roll up our sleeves, tie on our aprons and make lasagne.

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First we make our dough, kneading methodically and rhythmically until it’s smooth and soft as putty. Then we position ourselves bedside Paola’s chrome Imperia, launch a blizzard of flour over the worksuface and then begin passing the pieces of pasta between the metal rollers.  9 pieces, passed one by one through the six settings. That’s 54 rounds. 54 raptious rounds as rolling pasta is one of the nicest kitchen tasks I’ve undertaken in a very long time.

It never ceases to amaze me how a good and patient teacher can make even the most complicated of tasks seem entirely manageable and you – the student – feel capable and just a little chuffed. Not that rolling pasta is particularly complicated. You do need guidance though and some sound counsel about cutting, folding, feeding, dusting with flour and how to manage the ever-increasing lengths of soft, egg lasagne. I’ve tried as best I can to include Paola’s guidance in the recipe below. I do hope it is helpful. I would encourage you to find a teacher too, a patient and capable one.

And so the filling.  Being, as it is, the season for the tender-hearted warrior of the vegetable world, Rome’s glorious globe, a lasagna with artichokes and ricotta seems appropriate, at least it did in our flat last Monday. Having made your pasta and set it aside to rest, you set about preparing your other layers. First the artichokes, which need trimming, slicing and then cooking in olive oil and wine – a slow sauté/braise really until they are extremely tender. Extremely tender: a soft, creamy mush really but with some discernible pieces.

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Next you make a panful of béchamel, which needs to be loose, fluid and pourable. And finally you whip the ricotta into a light, lactic cream with whole milk and season it prudently. It’s also important to eat at a little of your ricotta cream on toast while you watch your son putting oranges and your purse in the washing machine.

Having rolled the pasta as thin as you dare, you need to par-boil it. A vast pan of well salted, fast boiling water is important, as is an equally large bowl of cold water and plenty of clean dry tea towels arranged strategically all over your kitchen  - which will make it feel a little like a chinese laundry. Bold and brave moves are best. Drop five sheets of lasagne into the water. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the sheets lumber and roll for a minute before scooping them out as you would a slippy, wriggling toddler from a bath tub, plunging them into the cold water (to halt the cooking and prevent sticking, the curse of long, exquisitely thin lasagne) and then spreading them out on the tea towels.

Now is all that’s left is to assemble, to put layer upon layer. A layer of Pasta, a layer of artichokes, béchamel and parmesan, another of pasta, the next of artichokes, ricotta and parmesan, another of pasta and so and so and so. Use scissors to snip the pasta into shape and do not be afraid of patches. Keep in mind the layers of artichoke, ricotta and bèchamel should be scarce and subtle sploges rather than a dense layer, supporting, bestowing flavour but never dominating. 15 minutes in the oven and then a 15 minute rest.

Layer upon layer for lunch. And what a good lunch: delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. A lunch during which I felt proud as punch. Paola ti voglio bene. This is may well become my Sunday best.

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This recipe is – like most of my posts – long and possibly rather daunting (and/or trying.)  The length is due to all the simple but numerous phases, please don’t let it deter you. Of course time, effort and organisation are required! But it is undeniably, irrefutably, assolutamente worth every minute, knead, rock and roll, chop, whisk and blooming-lovely layer.

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

Inspired by Paola, with sound advice from Marcella Hazan and Franco and Ann Taruschio

serves 6

for the pasta

  • 300 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 3 medium-sized free range eggs
  • a pinch of salt

for the artichoke layer

  • 8 large /10 medium globe artichokes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine

for the bèchamel sauce

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black or white pepper
  • nutmeg

For the ricotta layer

  • 300 g ricotta
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black pepper

and

  • 100 g parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Begin the pasta.  Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty. Cover the pasta with cling film and set it aside.

Prepare the artichokes. Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, tugging them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water. Slice away the stem and cut it into thick match sticks and then cut the bulb into 8 wedges. In a heavy based pan, warm the olive oil and then saute the artichoke pieces briefly. Add a pinch of salt and the wine, stir and reduce the flame so the artichokes bubble gently. Cover the pan and allow the artichokes to steam/braise for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely tender. The artichokes must not dry out, but stay extremely moist so add more water if necessary. Mash the artichokes gently with the back of the wooden spoon so they collapse into a creamy mush but with some discernible chunks.

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick.

Prepare the ricotta. Using a fork beat and whip the ricotta with the milk until you have a soft, light paste, season with salt and  black pepper.

Roll and cook pasta. Cut the ball of pasta into 9 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 3 eggs = 9 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 8 pieces.

Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it. Paola rolls her pasta through all six settings so it is impressively thin. You may need to cut the pieces in half.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil. Prepare a large bowl of cold water. On your largest work surface spread out clean tea towels. Lower 5 sheets at a time into the water. Once the water has come back to a fast boil allow the sheets to cook for 1 minute before scooping them out, plunging them into the cold water and then laying them out on the clean tea towels. Repeat until all the sheets are cooked.

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

Assemble la lasagna. Rub a little olive oil and a smear of béchamel over the base of the tin ( a 34 cm tin is ideal). Arrange a layer of lasagne first, try not to have more than 6 mm of overlap, use scissors to cut the lasagne. Spread a thin layer of artichoke on the pasta, then a layer of béchamel and sprinkle over a little parmesan. Now another layer of pasta, another (thin) layer of artichoke and one of ricotta, more parmesan and a little olive oil. Repeat putting artichokes and parmesan in each layer but alternating bèchamel and ricotta. You should finish with the eighth layer of pasta. Spread over the last of the béchamel, sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Bake the lasagna in the pre heated oven for 15 minutes by which time it should have a golden crust and bubble at the edges, Allow the lasagna to rest for at least 15 minutes before bringing to the table and serving directly from the dish.

Eat layer upon layer.

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Filed under artichokes, food, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, ricotta, spring recipes, Uncategorized

Pleasingly bitter

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Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.

Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context!  I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.

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The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or –  for less tongue twisting - Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled?  I know!  This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.

Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicorya food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.

In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.

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Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.

And the meal?  It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.

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There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.

Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.

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The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria - sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local  oil.

The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.

This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil.  Now about that frolic!

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Fave e cicoria

serves 4

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale D’Italia,  Eleonora’s recipe, Elizabeth’s recipe and inspired by this

  • 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
  • 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain and rinse fave.  Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.

While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.

Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.  Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.

Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cicoria, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio