Monthly Archives: May 2013

On avoiding and cherries

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At eight years old I thought the height of sophistication was a Snowball in a champagne saucer topped with a cocktail cherry. I’d sit up at the bar sipping my frothy yellow drink, my feet swinging limply from the high stool, my shoulders twitching in time with the jukebox. I knew full well my cocktail had barely a wiff of alcohol – just enough Advocaat to tinge the lemonade pale-yolk-yellow – that I’d be whisked off to bed just as soon as the pub got busy. But that didn’t bridle my joy at sitting up at the bar, Snowball in one hand, cheese and onion crisp in the other listening to the Kinks.

My granny ran a pub on Durham street in Oldham called the Gardeners Arms, a traditional free house serving Robinson’s ale, bitter and stout. It was an almost handsome, heavy-set place, with patterned carpets, brass topped tables and a curved wooden bar. Two or three times a year we’d surge – my parents and three small children – up the M1 motorway to Oldham. Arriving late, besieged by over-tiredness and over-excitement, there was invariably whining and weeping. So my dad would scoop us out of the car, whisk us through the bar, up the stairs and straight into bed above the pub. We’d resist sleep with all our might, before falling deeply, the faint pulse of the jukebox below, the smell of clean sheets not quite masking that of park drive cigarettes, Robinson’s bitter and my grannies Lancôme face cream faint on our just kissed cheeks.

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The next morning we’d charge down the stairs. The air thick with Brasso and the howl of the Hoover, my aunty May and granny – all slippers and house coats – would already be hard at work. While barrels of beer rolled off the brewery lorry, down the hatch and into the beer cellar, and crates of stout and Schweppes were brought clinking-in to replenish the shelves, we’d eat bacon butties with Uncle Colin. Thick slices of white cottage loaf and best back bacon. The trick was to squash the sandwich between both palms to make it manageable. Then we’d run, like excited terriers, around the pub, brandishing pool cues, pestering for jukebox coins.

In the days before continual everything, English pubs would open for lunch and then from 7 until 11 20 with last orders at 11. When the Gardener’s Arms opened it’s doors at 11, my brother, sister and I would scramble up onto bar stools and pummel our fists, as thirsty regulars do, on the bar. Until the age of ten I thought anything in an individual bottle was exciting. Add a straw and it was even better. Add cocktail cherry on a stick and I was beside myself. So we would sit, Rosie with orange, Ben with Cola and me with my Schweppes ginger ale, our bottles spouting straws, umbrellas and sticks on which flourescent cherries were impaled. We’d slurp and crunch, we’d put another coin in the jukebox and sing along to songs we didn’t really understand.

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Although I’m still partial to a cocktail cherry or three – ideally the real thing but I’ll happily gobble a luminous one for old times sake – these days I prefer my cherries warm from my friends tree, straight from the brown paper bag on the way home from the market or chilled until they’re so cold and taut they burst between your teeth. Then once I’ve had my fill of cherries hand to mouth, I poach a few, soak a few in alcohol and make some jam.

Given the choice between boxes and jam, I’ll take the jam. I am also genetically opposed to moving house in an organised fashion. Rogue packing fueled by anxiety and too much caffeine is more my style. Also I’d run out of jam and was eating chestnut honey on toast. Which was fine for a day or two, but by the third day breakfast was disappointing, which isn’t a good start.

Satisfyingly simple jam. Having washed, stalked and stoned your cherries, you leave them to macerate with sugar and curls of lemon peel for a few hours. You then bring the fruit to the boil, skim away the purple tinged froth – that reminds me of my aunty May’s purple rinse, then lower the heat and leave the deep purple jam to bubble and burp quietly for just over an hour. Your jam is ready when it is thick, clinging to the back of the spoon and decidedly sticky. We had it for breakfast, on toast primed with almost white butter made with cream I really can’t afford. Dark, intensely cherry-sweet and lemon edged, we were not disappointed.

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Then seeking further avoidance, I made a cherry jam tart or Crostata di ciliegie. My granny Alice was not only a good landlady, one who kept an immaculate beer cellar and pulled a good pint while looking rather lovely, she was also a deft pastry maker. Cold hands, cold butter and iced water she would remind me. I can picture her cold, clean hands with neat well-scrubbed nails rubbing the diced butter into the flour, the fine breadcrumbs spilling back through her fingers into the bowl. I can also picture her behind the bar, making pint pulling seem effortless – which it isn’t – her hair set and secured with lacquer, her girlish smile.

Back to Rome and my avoidance tart. I put barely any sugar in my pastry yesterday knowing the jam was sweet enough. After leaving it to rest for an hour in the fridge, I rolled the pastry thinly and then manoeuvred it into my tin pie plate. Which again made think of Alice, and in turn my Mum, both fond of a tin pie plates. Having spooned the jam into the case I then crisscrossed the top with pastry strips. Egg yolk glue and a firm hand ensured sure they stayed in place even in the oven.

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A tart like this needs 35 minutes or so in the oven. You need to keep an eagle eye on it, especially during the last five minutes. You also need to let the tart rest for 30 minutes or so, longer if possible, so it settles and slices neatly. Some very cold, thick cream would have been nice, but we ate it just so, the buttery scantly sweetened pastry at that nice point between crisp and flaky (but not crumbly, I’m not a fan of crumbly when it come to pastry) and contrasting nicely with the sticky, sweet, lemon-edged cherry jam. It was even better this morning.

Now I think I have well and truly run this to the wall, I have to be out of here the day after tomorrow, I haven’t even collected enough boxes and my removal man has disappeared again. It’s ridiculous, even for me! I am not sure what’s going to happen about the internet, I didn’t fully understand what the operator was saying, but it sounded complicated. Which means I can’t be sure when I will next be here. I could do with a snowball or a pint, but I’ll make do with another piece of tart.

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Marmalata di ciliegie  Cherry Jam

Adapted from the Silver Spoon

The addition of lemon peel gives the cherry jam a sharp-lemon edge which is reminiscent of sour cherries. I love this, you may not, in which case omit the lemon peel and be frugal with the lemon juice.

Makes 2 jars.

  • 1.5 kg cherries, washed with stalks and stones removed.
  • 750 g fine sugar
  • a unwaxed lemon

Put the washed, stoned and stalked cherries in a heavy-based pan suitable for jam. Pare away five thick strips of lemon peel with as little pith as possible attached. Add the strips of lemon peel to the pan. Cover the fruit with sugar, stir and leave to sit in a cool place for 3 hours.

Squeeze the lemon juice over the cherries. Stir and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the jam is thick, coating the back of the spoon and of an even consistency. I also do a saucer test to see if the jam has set. That is: put a saucer in the freezer for a few minutes, then put a spoonful of jam on the cold saucer, wait a minute and then run your finger through the jam. If the jam wrinkles, remains in two parts and doesn’t run back into a single puddle it is set.

Ladle the jam into warm sterilized jam while still hot. Screw on lids immediately and then leave the jars to cool upside down which creates a seal.

Crostata di ciliegie  cherry tart

Adapted from the Silver Spoon and inspired by Emiko

  • 200 g plain flour
  • 100 g cold butter, cold and cut into 1 cm dice
  • 20 g icing sugar (optional)
  • 1 small egg
  • a glass of iced water acidulated with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
  • pot of cherry jam
  • 1 egg yolk for sticking egg white for glazing

You will need a shallow 20 cm flan tin or pie plate.

Put the flour and cold, diced butter in a large bowl, With cold hands, using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add sugar.

Beat the egg in a small bowl and add to the flour and butter breadcrumbs. Add the teaspoon of iced water. Using first a metal spoon and then your (cold) hands to bring the ingredients together into a smooth even dough. Add more iced water if nesseasry. Cover the dough with cling film and chill for at least an hour in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180°. Set aside a third of the pastry. Flour the work surface. Sprinkle the rolling-pin with flour. Roll the other two-thirds into a round just larger than the tin or pie plate. Use the rolling pint to lift the pastry over to the tin or plate. Leave a small overhang as the pastry will shrink. Spoon the jam into the pastry shell. Roll the remaining third of pastry out, then cut it into thick strips and criss-cross them across the tart painting the ends with egg yolk and pressing them firmly into the pastry case. Paint the criss-cross strips with egg white. Bake the tart for 30 – 40 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

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Filed under cherries, jams and preserves, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, tarts

Happy as leaves

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Last night I shook hands on a new flat. There is still Italian paperwork to puzzle over and a dotted line to sign (on), but a 3rd floor flat with a small kitchen balcony is more or less ours. We’re not moving far, 600 meters give or take a corner, from one side of Testaccio to the other, from the via Marmorata edge of the wedge to tree-lined via Galvani.

We will miss our calm, cavernous courtyard with its palm trees and blooming oleander, our olive-green door and kitchen window. However I’m pretty sure this missing will be appeased by the balcony and the flats judicious position. That is: a corner away from my preferred bar for breakfast and few long strides from Monte dei cocci and the new Testaccio market. There is also a forno within sniffing distance and another bar directly underneath our future flat that’s run by a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice Cooper. I am relieved, excited and as happy as these radish leaves.

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It is the inimitable Fergus Henderson that reminds us to seek out radishes with happy leaves. Pert, frisky leafage that reassures, that speaks of recent picking, thoughtful bundling and minimal travel. Having spotted both happy leaves and bright, unblemished bulbs at the market, I bought three bunches. My sling suspended son managed to tug a red bulb from the bunch lolling from the top of the shopping bag as we walked home. Delight was soon replaced by confusion and then measures taken. I walked the length of via Marmorata with pieces of radish suspended – like the old, unidentifiable christmas tree decorations you feel obliged to hang year after year – in my frizzy hair.

Having washed the radishes and their happy tufts in plenty of very cold water, I set two bunches aside for today’s recipe and put the third on a plate on the table. There was also butter – long enough from the fridge to be forgiving but not too long as to lose opaque resistance – the stone jar of malden salt and slices of sourdough bread. The idea is to butter the radish rather than the bread and then sprinkle it with salt. I also butter my bread, thickly, as if plastering a particularly potholed wall and then take alternate bites of buttered and salted radish, happy leaves and buttered bread. The combination of radish: crisp and clean, warm peppery leaves, good butter, tiny shards of salt and best bread is one to relish and excite the most languid of stomachs.

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With our San Bartolomeo chicken roasting and filling the flat with a familiar and reassuring smell, I separated the leaves from the bulbs of the two remaining bunches. As you might remember I roast my chicken according to Simon Hopkinson, that is a hot blast for twenty minutes or so, a slightly cooler roast for about an hour and then a rest in the cooling oven with the door open-a-jar for 20 minutes. When I have radishes – after the roast but before the rest – I tip and scrape some of the sticky juices and fat from the chicken roasting pan into a frying pan.

Then while the chicken rests, I fry the radish bulbs the hot, sticky fat for about five minutes, in which time their colour changes from that of an old English telephone box to that of a climbing rose: the most lovely blushing pink.  I then add the happy leaves to the hot pan along with a pinch of salt, a grind or two of black pepper and pull the pan from the heat. A gentle stir and the leaves wither and wane in the residual heat and settle in the tasty, fatty juices.

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I carve my chicken in the roasting tin. In truth, it’s more pulling and tearing than carving, then remembering to roll each piece in the juices collected at the bottom of the pan before putting it on the plate. A round white plate. I am resolute about this and remain unswayed by any patterned or pretty plate propaganda. Braised radishes, still crisp but with a hint of giving, make a perfect fresh and sharp foil for a roasted bird wether it be duck, goose or an excellent chicken. Particularly Duck.

Not only are the withered leaves: peppery and sodden with rich meaty juices wonderfully tasty, they provide what Fergus Henderson calls structural weave, a tangled green bedpreventing your blushing radishes from rolling all over the plate. Come to think of it, I could do with a little more structural weave in my life. Now bring in the boxes and let the packing commence.

Happy food.

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Braised radishes for with Roast Duck, goose or chicken

From the blooming brilliant Nose to tail eating by Fergus Hendserson

  • 3 bunches of radishes with happy leaves
  • juices from the roasting pan or duck, goose or good chicken or duck fat with a splash of chicken stock
  • sea salt and black pepper.

Wash the radishes in cold water. Remove the leaves from the bulbs.

Heat up your roasting juices or fat and stock and add the radish bulbs. Allow the bulbs to sizzle vivaciously, stirring attentively. After about five minutes the bulbs will have turned from red to blushing pink orbs, still crisp but with a hint of giving. Add the leaves and then remove the pan from the heat.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and stir allowing the leave to wilt in the residual heat. Serve with slices of duck, goose or chicken making sure you spoon over the juices from both the meat and the radishes.

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Filed under antipasti, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, radishes, recipes, spring recipes

Seeing red

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It was all so green when I left. A week away –  a bonny wedding weekend on an island in the Scottish Hebrides called Tanera Mòr and then a few days slightly too far outside London with my family – and Testaccio market is splattered, like a Cy Twombly canvas, with red. There is still green of course, a market patchwork of asparagus, peas, spinach, slim beans, forest green chard and soft heads of spring lettuce. But it’s the startling splatters: tomatoes, strawberries, crimson cherries and bunches of blushing radishes that are catching my eye.

I’ve never found peeling tomatoes a faff. Quite the opposite in fact, I find the spa-esque process – a hot plunge, a nick with a sharp knife, a cold plunge before peeling –  thoroughly pleasing. Maybe I should get out more? My carelessness with a handful of tomato skins once blocked the sink in the smart kitchen Romla and I were doing some rogue catering in. Fortunately the husband of the house, a man so handsome I turned the same colour as the tomatoes, happened to be in the kitchen while our twenty-three year old selves were peering anxiously into the blocked Belfast. He strode over (I think he might even have been wearing buff riding breeches) plunged his aristocratic hand down the plughole, scooped out the offending red skins and complimented us on the suggestive smell of dinner.

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These are Sicilian pomodori Piccadilly. They are fleshy, flavoursome things the size of small plums that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. Tomatoes like this make me forget my jaded self who has shaken off much of her Roman romanticism, and remember the Rachel who first arrived in Italy nine springs ago. The woman who stood staring in gastronomic awe at the mounds of red: tiny orbs, beefy cow hearts, fat fluted saucers, pendulous plums and who ate them chopped, sliced or simply squashed idly onto bread with a careless quality of olive oil and too much salt day after day after day just because she could.

Having sung the praises of Italian pomodori when I know full well many of you might not be able to find such full hipped and red lipped tomatoes, I should hasten to add today’s recipe is a forgiving one. Extremely forgiving, as it involves the saving grace of many-a-mediocre tomato: a flesh shriveling, flavour intensifying roast.

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Having peeled your tomatoes, sliced them in two and set them cut-side-up in a well-oiled baking dish, you tuck a thin sliver of garlic into the soft pulp and place a quarter of anchovy filet on top of each half. You then scatter some soft, craggy breadcrumbs, a little finely chopped fresh rosemary, salt and black pepper over the upturned faces before dousing the whole tray, fearlesslessly and drunkenly with extra virgin olive oil. I find a glass of wine is helpful when a reckless olive oil hand is called for.

You bake your well-seasoned tomatoes at 180° for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely soft, collapsing, curling sweetly at the edges and starting to suggest sauce. Until the anchovies have dissolved into the tender tomato flesh and the olive oil inebriated breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

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The combination of roasted tomato: sweet and savory with the intense, salty fishiness of the anchovy, a warm notes of tomato smothered garlic, the smoky, floral rosemary and crisp olive oil soaked breadcrumbs is a mighty good one. A mighty good one that sings. I agree with the brilliant Niki SegnitIf you have ever wondered what Unami is, a mouthful of tomato and anchovy should settle the matter.’ I’d go one step further and say a mouthful of roasted tomato with anchovies (the fat, plump Sicilian ones preserved under coarse salt that you need to soak and then de-bone) rosemary and olive oil breadcrumbs and the Unami matter is settled and some.

You could eat your tumbling mess of anchovy, rosemary and breadcrumbed tomatoes with a grilled lamb chop, pork chop or slice of roast chicken. Alternatively – and I appreciate the suggestion of breadcrumbs on bread might sound odd –  they are excellent smeared on toast. Or you could do as I did today.

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That is mash your baking tray of warm tomatoes clumsily into a rough sauce with the back of a wooden spoon and then stir this sauce into some al dente linguine or spaghetti. Don’t worry about serving bowls or dishes, mix the pasta with the sauce directly in the baking tray, making sure you diligently scrape and stir every sticky, oily morsel and crumb. Someone will also have to take a crust of bread to the tin once all the pasta is served-up.

This is how I (we) like to eat: pasta with a sauce that both strokes and punches. A green salad of lettuce, lovage and wild rocket and then a dozen crimson cherries made a nice finish to a Wednesday lunch.  Now about that flat hunting.

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Linguine with oven roasted tomatoes, anchovies, rosemary and breadcrumbs

Serves 4

  • 1 kg ripe but firm and flavoursome tomatoes (plum-shaped Piccadilly work particularly well)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 plump cloves of garlic
  • 6 large or 8 small anchovy filets (preserved under oil or better still under salt)
  • 60 g soft, craggy breadcrumbs
  • a little finely chopped rosemary
  • salt and black pepper
  • 450 g linguine

Set the oven to 180°

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for 60 seconds and then very cold water. The skins should slip and pull away easily.

Half the tomatoes and sit them – cut side up –  in an oiled baking tin. Peel and slice the garlic very thinly. Tuck a sliver of garlic into the fleshy pulp of each half. Using scissors, snip the anchovy fillets into quarters and sit a quarter on each cut tomato. Scatter the breadcrumbs and chopped rosemary over the tomatoes. Sprinkle and grind a little salt and black pepper then douse everything very generously with olive oil.

Bake the tomatoes for 20 minutes or so or until the tomatoes are very soft and starting to collapse and the breadcrumbs are golden and crisp. You need to keep a beady eye on them.

Cook the linguine in a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Using a wooden spoon, gently mash the tomatoes into a very crude, rough sauce, add the drained pasta, stir and serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

The same but different

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I feel lucky to have both: Italy and England, Rome and London. Of course there is the missing, the often exasperating toing and froing, the grass is greener and bouts of in-between when I’m not sure where I belong. But mostly I feel lucky and glad to have two countries, two cities and that in different ways I belong to both.

The day before I left I had my first Roman asparagus, long thin sprue, finer than a pencil, part boiled-part steamed under a tea towel turban until tender enough to bend but not flop with olive oil, lemon and parchment thin slivers of pecorino that swooned and wilted in the presence of such splendid warm spears. Then today, back at my parents house just outside London, I had my first English asparagus.

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As you can see they are plumpish spears, which needed just a little whittling with a peeler to remove the not-too-woody tougher end. We steamed them, sitting on a nifty implement that looks rather like a perforated metallic flower, in Mum’s largest lidded sauté pan. I tried and failed abysmally to make hollandaise sauce, so we settled for melted butter instead.

It was such a nice lunch: new potatoes: taut, waxy and flecked with snipped chives and tender asparagus spears – like sweet slightly sulphurous peas – fearlessly doused with melted butter. There were hard-boiled eggs too. Not too hard-boiled though, more like tender-boiled eggs and sourdough bread. There were things to celebrate so I had a glass of Hugel muscat. The same but different.

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Asparagus, new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and melted butter.

This is hardly a recipe, more an assembly. Serves 3 and a quarter (Luca)

  • 2 bunches of asparagus
  • 4 good eggs
  • 8 new potatoes
  • a very fat slice of best butter
  • chives
  • salt and pepper.

Prepare the asparagus by either breaking off the tough woody end or using a peeler to carefully whittle it away. Scrub and boil the new potatoes in well salted water until tender. Hard boil the eggs. Cook the asparagus until tender enough to bend but not flop. Melt the butter.

Dress the potatoes with melted butter and snipped chives and the asparagus with the remaining melted butter. Give everyone a hard-boiled egg to peel and remind them to roll the asparagus and potatoes in the puddle of melted butter as they serve themselves. Obviously white wine and good bread wouldn’t go amiss.

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I’m back in Rome on Sunday so hope to be back here with plumper post late next week.

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Filed under asparagus, Eggs, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes

Thursday therefore

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Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not the most alluring start I know, but a sound start and one I’m sure Jocasta Innes, who died last week aged 78, would have approved of. This week I’ve found myself cooking from her Pauper’s cookbook and marveling anew at her thrifty flair and inventive recipes that prove you can eat extremely well for very little. Her carmine kitchen walls, well hung pans, black leather trousers and self-confessed ‘party slut’ years, I’ve been marveling at those too. What a woman!

Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not taut and waxy, full and blousey or tiny, soil-encrusted new potatoes though, save those for a well-dressed salad, a good mashing or as mint-scented chaperones for a pair of tender lamb chops. A bag of what my home economics teacher Mrs Carrington would have called boilers or everyday potatoes, the tuber equivalent of a reliable friend; neither waxing lyrical or liable to collapse into a mealy heap just when you need them. You will also need a large pan of cold water, salt, a food mill or potato ricer, plain flour, a knife and fork, and about an hour.

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In Rome it’s traditional to eat Gnocchi di patate on Thursdays. Press your nose up against a misted up window pane or peer round the door of any traditional trattoria on any given Thursday and will almost certainly see gnocchi di palate or gnocchi del Giovedi chalked up on the blackboard. Peer persistently and you might well catch sight of the Gnocchi being whisked from kitchen to table: steaming bowls of small, pale dumplings, forked on one side, thumb depressed on the other, sitting nonchalantly in simple sauce.

To add eggs, or not to add eggs: that is the question. In Rome the answer is – as far as I understand – resolutely yes. Eggs are mixed with floury (farinoso) potatoes and a generous amount of flour which produces stout, well-bound and thus well-behaved gnocchi. The kind of gnocchi that can withstand a rowdy, rollicking boil in an equally rowdy trattoria kitchen. 1 kg potatoes, two whole eggs and 300 g of flour seems more or less the general Roman consensus, give or take a very strong opinion.

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Then there are the gnocchi di patate of the north, made with just potato and the scantest amount of flour. Tender, billowy gnocchi. Gnocchi that wouldn’t stand a chance up against a couple of Roman dumplings in a dark pan. I like gnocchi di patate made both with and without eggs, but last Thursday, in the mood for something delicate and channeling Jocasta (about time too, these are lean times and my domestic management is appalling) I pulled Marcella Hazan from the shelf.

I had several disheartening experiences before finding my way with gnocchi di patate. The key, according to Marcella, is what she too calls boilers, trustworthy potatoes that are neither too waxy nor – and this is important – too floury which all too often means the eggless, scantily floured gnocchi disintegrate and disappear like so many ships into the rolling salted water.

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Having scrubbed your potatoes, you boil them whole in their skins until tender. As soon they are cool enough to handle you peel them and then press them through the food mill or potato ricer and into butter-coloured heap of tiny potato threads on the work surface. Working quickly while the mixture is still warm, you start by adding salt and just three-quarters of the flour, hoping it is enough to bring the potato into a delicate but workable dough. If necessary, you cautiously add the rest of the flour. You divide and roll the dough into five, fat sausages which you then cut into small pieces. A light touch is required.

To finish, you gently gently press each gnoccho against the inside of a fork with your thumb. This way, one side is branded with four prongs, the other a thumb sized indent, all intended to help the sauce gather and cling obediently. Keep the work surface, your hands, your child and the gnocchi well dusted with a (fine) blizzard of flour. The water must be plentiful, as salty as the sea and boiling steadily but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi in at a time. Once they bob like excited children to the surface, let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them gently from the water to a warm serving plate onto which you have spooned a little sauce.

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And the sauce. Browned butter: comely, rich and reminiscent of hazelnuts, is just delicious (isn’t it always) with gnocchi di patate, especially if scented with some musty, camphorous sage. However keeping Jocasta in mind and using what I had, I decided a large tin of plum tomatoes that had, been sitting neglected behind the beans should be milled and simmered with a few leaves of basil into a smooth, dense sauce.

It was a good lunch, the gnocchi tender and tasting so purely of potato, the tomato and basil sauce simple and clinging faithfully. Even with a (frugal) dust of parmesan, – granular, salty cheese makes a particularly heavenly contrast with the humble sweetness of potato – I estimate gnocchi di patate al sugo for four costs under €3, a true pauper’s lunch, which is something I have thinking about lately. I didn’t have any wine, which was appropriate but disappointing, so I raised a forkful of gnocchi to Jocasta instead. The beauty of modest resourcefulness. I think she would have approved. Thursday therefore gnocchi.

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Gnocchi di patate al sugo    Potato gnocchi with tomato sauce

Adapted from recipes in Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’ arte di mangiar bene and Marcella Hazan’s The essentials of classic Italian cooking and the ever trustworthy Le ricette regionali Italiane.

Adding eggs to the dough does make it more manageable, especially if your potatoes are very floury. It also makes the gnocchi more substantial, which many people (Romans) prefer. I leave that decision to you, your potatoes and gnocchi experimenting. If you do decide to add eggs, add two for every kg of flour. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the food mill or potato ricer – both indispensable for gnocchi. Both indispensable in the kitchen per se, particularly the food mill. It is my favourite kitchen tool.

serves 4

  • 800 g boiling potatoes (medium-sized and all more or less the same size)
  • 150 g plain, unbleached flour (plus more for sprinkling and dusting)
  • salt
  • a large tin (580 ml) of best quality Italian plum tomatoes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a clove of garlic
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • freshly grated parmesan

Scrub (but don’t peel) the potatoes. Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, well-salted water and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes then once cool enough to handle peel them. Pass the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer onto the work surface. Add a pinch of salt and three-quarters of the flour to the potatoes and bring them together into a dough. The dough should be very soft and smooth – you may or may not need the final quarter of flour. A light touch is required.

Divide the dough into quarters. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour and roll the quarters into long sausage-like rolls about 2cm/ 1″ thick. Cut the roll into pieces 2cm long. Using your thumb gently press each piece with the back of a fork which will mean you have fork indents on one side and a small thumb depression on the other. Sprinkle the pieces very lightly with flour.

Make the sauce. Pass the tin of tomatoes through a food mill or blast with an immersion blender. Warm some olive oil in heavy-based pan and saute the garlic until fragrant and golden. Add the tomato and basil, bring to the boil and the reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or so or until the tomato has reduced significantly into a dense, spoon coating sauce. Taste and season with salt. Spread a little of the sauce in the bottom of the warm serving dish or bowl.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a gentle rolling boil, but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi into the pan. Once they bob back to the surface let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them from the water and onto the serving dish. Spread a little more sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. Repeat with the next 15 gnocchi.

When all the gnocchi are cooked and on the serving dish, pour over the remaining sauce, sprinkle with more parmesan and serve immediately.

P1150706

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