Monthly Archives: June 2013

a little discretion

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During the last two weeks I’ve watched four cooks in four kitchens do exactly the same thing. That is, pull two cloves from a bulb of garlic, peel them, fry them gently whole in plenty of olive oil until soft, golden and fragrant, then remove them. The answer as to why was – give or take a gesture – exactly the same: insaporire. Which literally translated means to flavour or make tasty. Which on these four occasions meant allowing the garlic to impart its savory and earthy perfume into the oil then – like a good guest, neither dominating or outstaying his welcome – take leave.

I’ve come to understand – finally – that this process, insaporire, is key to countless Italian dishes. The process can be more involved: garlic, herbs, spices, vegetables and cured meat, but mostly it’s as simple as garlic cooked until mild, fragrant and sweet in olive oil. Of course there are occasions when a potent roar of chopped, smashed or crushed garlic is required. Rarely though! Most of the time it’s this attentive sizzle of garlic in olive oil that provides the deeply but discreetly flavoured start to a dish.

Of course opinions differ as to the precise moment you should remove the garlic, the ideal shade of golden and if it’s appropriate to return the cloves to the pan (as was the case with the third cook and her pan of fresh tomato sauce in which the returned clove; soft and sweet provided a prize on one plate.) But the principle remains the same and one thing absolutely clear: never burn the garlic or it will be bitter.

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We are staying in an agriturismo in the Sabine hills just of north of Rome. I know the area relatively well having spent lots of time with my friends Ezio and Ruth, their house being situated just a few curves of the road and an olive grove away. In fact we walk the curved road each morning at about 7 30, the sun already omnipotent, the air thick with the scent of honeysuckle, the peace interrupted only by three horrid little dogs snarling and snapping at our ankles on the first curve. Having run the gauntlet of the canine onslaught and in the safety of the second curve, I’ve been trying to teach Luca to say cock-a-doodle-doo. Chicchirichi he squeals. I’ve tried to explain that cocks go cock-a-doodle-doo not chicchirichi to which he replies chicchirichi.

Ezio was the fourth of the four cooks. Making lunch for Ruth, Daisy, Felix, Luca and me while we cleared up wearily after a hot and hectic morning in the English garden: our rogue English summer school, he poured far more extra virgin olive oil than any recipe would dare to suggest – cold pressed from their own olives – into the bottom of the well seasoned pan. He then put the pan over a medium flame and added two peeled cloves. The cloves sizzled gently – shimmied really, in their coats of tiny bubbles –  for the whole of our conversation. So, about five minutes. The kitchen smelt of good things. He then removed the garlic.

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For this particular lunch Ezio first added cooked chickpeas and their broth to the garlic infused oil, then pasta, for an elemental pasta e ceci of sorts. It was simple, satisfying and delicious, the garlic, like well-chosen background music, enhancing but never intruding.

Then back at the agriturismo, eager to practice my attentive sizzle in Mario and Beatrice’s golden olive oil, I did as Ezio and the three cooks before him had done; I took two cloves. To my well-flavoured oil I added local courgettes cut into thick coins. I let them fry for ages, until they were golden, unfashionably soft and oil sodden. I added courgette flowers and several basil leaves (torn not chopped) to the pan before pulling it from the heat so the leaves and flowers wilted – like an English woman in the Sabine hills in June –  and their sweet, spicy scent bloomed in the residual heat.

I left them to sit for a while so the flavors could settle and the oily juices thicken. I ate them just warm with a ball of weeping mozzarella di bufala and bread, a supper so nice it made up for the unilateral mosquito attack.

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Not really a recipe rather a way to cook. Practice and then apply as you feel fit.

Courgettes cooked in olive oil

serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter.

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or three small cloves of garlic
  • 6 – 8 courgettes (ideally the pale creamy green and ribbed variety with flowers still attached)
  • salt
  • basil leaves

Pour a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil into a heavy based sauté pan. Peel and add the whole cloves of garlic to the pan. Warm the olive oil over a medium flame allowing the garlic to sizzle gently – turning the cloves every now and then – for about 5 minutes or until it is soft, golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic.

Remove the flowers and set them aside and then slice the courgettes into thick coins. Add the courgettes to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt. Turn the courgettes in the oil until each coin is glistening with oil. Allow the courgettes to sizzle gently – turning them occasionally – over a medium low flame until they are very soft and just a little golden. This will take about 15  – 25 minutes depending on the courgettes.

Tear the basil and the courgette flowers into small pieces and add them to the pan. Pull the pan from the heat and stir, allowing the flowers and basil to wilt in the residual heat.

Season and serve as a antipasto with mozzarella, stirred into pasta or as a vegetable side dish.

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Filed under courgettes, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, Uncategorized, vegetables

vital signs

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It was the wrong way round. I’d begin with a recipe. Then clinging onto my list and intent, I’d go to the shops. Other things might be bought – an irresistible this, an eye-catching if unnecessary that – but the focus was the list. Setbacks would merely reinforce my resolve and the lines on my forehead. ‘No spinach!’ ‘ No lamb chops!’ ‘No organic lemongrass!’ ‘No prepared pomegranate seeds for my meze’ I’d gasp before tearing around the shops as if my life (or lunch) depended on it, until I found the vital ingredient.

These days I begin at the market. There will probably be an idea or recipe drifting around, but nothing too specific and certainly no list. Well apart from the basic supplies, usually written on the torn lip of a bank statement envelope: washing powder, pan scrub, tea bags, plain flour, even plainer biscuits. A shabby list I retrieve from the bottom of my bag a few days later – along with half a lollypop, four stones, a topless lip salve, a car and an ounce of cracker crumbs – still with nothing to cross off.

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I haven’t got time to wander aimlessly around the market like you’ said an acquaintance. ‘I’m so busy that I have to make lists! I have to shop once a week.’ I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer. We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter. The market matters to me. So I go most days, before or after work, in-between naps. I make detours and excuses in order to spend time – some days just minutes, other days just ages – looking and then buying what looks good. In the words of brilliant Simon Hopkinson ‘See good things, buy them. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have glass of wine. Cook the food and eat with more of the wine.’

At this time of year, the two Testaccio markets (as I’ve noted before we are not talking about two quaint Mediterranean idylls here, but ordinary, straightforward and good places to buy food) are the best source of inspiration  The splatters have spread like ink on blotting paper and now both markets are awash with red! Half a dozen types of tomato, cherries and berries, mottled red and white borlotti and pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush. On Monday I bought five peppers and a kilo of small tomatoes, each plum ending in a point which made it seem as if it was wearing an elfin hat. I came home. I pulled Jane Grigson from the bookshelf. I had a glass of wine. I made peperonata.

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Peperonata is red peppers, onion and tomatoes stewed in olive oil and butter until they soften, collapse and thicken into a rich, vivid stew. It is one of the simplest and most delicious vegetable dishes I know.

There is a moment of stove top alchemy when you make peperonata. It’s when – having softened the sliced onion in butter and oil – you add the sliced red peppers and cover the pan. In just a matter of minutes the crisp, taut slices of pepper surrender their abundant juices and then proceed swim and soften in their own juices: a deep pool of cardinal red stock. After about 15 minutes you uncover the pan and add the peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes which also relinquish their juices. You let the peperonata cook uncovered for 30 minutes or so, simmering and reducing until almost all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with thick, vivid and vital stew. To finish, you season the stew vigorously with salt, pepper and even a little vinegar if you wish to sharpen things up a little.

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Pepornata: thick, rich, silken and tasting of somewhere warm and brilliant, is delicious served warm with chicken, veal or fish. It makes a good bed for an egg: fried, poached or soft-boiled, the yolk spilling into the red stew and making your plate look like a desert sunrise. I like peperonata as part of an antipasti style lunch slithering seductively beside soft, sharp cheese, lean, pink lonzino and a few salty black olives. It is also nice stirred into pasta. It keeps well so make plenty and then spoon some into a clean jar and float enough olive oil on the surface to seal the contents.

Peperonata  Sweet pepper and tomato stew

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s recipe in her Vegetable book and Elizabeth David’s recipe in Mediterranean Food

  • a large white onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • a knob of butter
  • 5 large or 8 medium-sized red peppers
  • 6 good ripe tomatoes (or two dozen tiny plum ones)
  • salt

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith.

Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes.

Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich. vivid tomato stew. Season vigorously with salt, possibly black pepper and even a dash of vinegar if you see fit.

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Filed under antipasti, food, peppers, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, summer food, vegetables

sage advice

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There is something forgotten and faded about sage, its musty nature reminiscent of somewhere that’s been shut up for too long, its dusty-green hue like something dulled by too much sunlight. Musty and dusty, lemon and camphour tinged, soft as moleskin yet rugged as my removal man, sage is one of my favourite herbs.

It had only been shuttered up for three months, but our new flat had a sage-like feel to it before I flung open the wooden shutters and windows on Saturday. I wonder if that was the reason I bought the plant? An unconscious herbal response to our new home! It’s the first of many pots that will eventually line our long, narrow balcony, providing me with kitchen herbs and Luca plenty of leaf-tugging and pot-pulling temptation.

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Ignorning all advice, sage and otherwise, opting instead for the furious adrenaline fueled frenzy that spontaneously erupts when you leave everything to the last-minute, meant the move was unpleasant. I’m not sure I have ever felt quite so frazzled and frothing. Luca on the other hand thought all the boxes, heaving, open windows, bottles of toxic cleaner and flapping lift doors were hilarious.

Four days later and although far from organized and still besieged by homeless items, we are relieved and happy to be in our new flat. It feels pleasant and absolutely right. You might remember that Testaccio is shaped like a quarter or – rather more memorably – a large wedge of parmesan cheese. Our old flat was on one cut side. We are now on the other, the arc of the wedge being the river. Our balcony hangs over busy, plain-tree lined Via Galvani. Bearably busy though and punctuated  - much to Luca’s delight – by the intermittent clip-clop clatter of the horses pulling carriages back to their home in the Ex-Mattaotio.

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I’ve had it in mind to batter and deep-fry sage leaves for months now, ever since eating rather more than my fair share at an aperitivo. The moorishly delicious leaves and my social ineptitude are to blame in equal measure for my disproportionate consumption. In possession of a sage plant, an ancient cooker positioned next to a blowy balcony door and flat to be warmed – I fried.

I’m sure we all have strong, possibly uncompromising views on batter. Where flowers and herbs are concerned I like mine light and delicate. Having whisked together 200 ml of warm water, 100 g of plain flour, 2 tbsp of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt, I leave my pale batter to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it’s the spoon-clinging consistency of thick cream, I fold in a couple of eggs whites beaten so vigorously they stand to attention in peaks.

I drag the leaves through the batter, this side and that, before lowering them into very hot oil. It takes just seconds, a nudge and a flip, for the soft battered leaves to puff and seize into crisp golden cocoons. A slotted spoon is needed to lift the leaves from the oil onto first: a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel and then: another a clean plate over which I launch a shower of fine salt. The crisp, golden batter shatters and gives way to a warm, musky leaf. A few battered leaves, a cold beer (in a Nutella glass no less) on a sun-drenched balcony and all was well and good.

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Talking of strong, uncompromising views, I have encountered many on the subject of the delightfully named saltimbocca – which literally translated means jump-in the-mouth – a most glorious combination of veal, prosciutto, sage, butter and wine. ‘Slice upon slice with the sage leaf pinned like a brooch‘ some say. ‘The veal dipped in flour‘ others cry. ‘Sage leaf under prosciutto’. ‘Sage leaf over prosciutto.‘A sprinkling of parmesan.’ Wine!’ ‘No no Marsala!’ ’3 minutes.’ ’7 minutes.’ 

Being, as I am, a saltimbocca novice, I was more than happy to let a friend who is staying take the lead. Alida learned from her father Adriano who in turn learned from his mother who in turn……. The veal must be best quality and thinly sliced. If it isn’t thin enough, a couple of rolls with a wooden pin should do the trick. There is no dusting in flour, no scattering of parmesan, simply a slice of veal, another of prosciutto, a single sage leaf, a flick of black pepper, a roll, a tuck and a strategic skewering with a toothpick

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As Alida cooked the saltimbocca: first warming butter and oil until smoking, then leaving the pale-pink rolls untouched in the hot fat until they formed a deep golden crust, she explained the reason for rolls as opposed to a flat, open saltimbocca. Rolled she noted, the veal retains an exquisite pink tenderness at its heart. There is also a sliver of sage, a musky note, in every bite. ‘Of course you could try the open saltimbocca or a sprinkling of flour or parmesan‘ she said as she lifted the edge of a roll with a fork. Her eyes however, lifted in much the same way as the corner of the veal roll suggested – in inimitable Italian style – otherwise.

Once the saltimbocca are cooked – which takes just a matter of minutes – you move them into a warm plate while you deglaze the pan. Alida did this by pouring some white wine into the pan and then using a wooden spoon to scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and golden crust from the bottom. Back over a lively the flame she added a generous nub of butter and allowed it to melt and thicken the dark and richly flavoured sauce before pouring it over the saltmibocca.

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For those of you with sage doubts, this is a dish that could well convince you otherwise. The domineering and bitter side of sage’s character is smothered, like gossip by silence, into something softer and more forgiving.

I rhapsodized over my meal – I had drunk rather a lot of wine – and finally understood others fervent devotion to this (near perfect) combination and timeless dish. Not so much a jump, more a languorous roll in the mouth. The combination of veal – golden and caramelized outside and tender within – fatty and salty prosciutto, darkly musty sage and a butter and wine sauce is a heady and purely pleasurable one. Unlike moving.

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Saltimbocca   Veal rolls with prosciutto and sage

Recipe from my friend Alida and her father Adriano Borgna

I haven’t given precise quantities for oil, butter and wine because it feels counter intuitive for dish like this. Taste, practice and a heavy hand with the butter and wine.

for 2 as a main course or 4 as small second dish.

  • 8 thin slices of veal
  • 8 slices of untrimmed prosciutto
  • 8 sage leaves
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • white wine

Over each slice of veal lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. Grind over a little black pepper and sprinkle over a little salt. Roll the veal into a neat log and then secure with a toothpick.

Warm a generous nub of butter and some olive oil in a good, heavy based pan. Once the fat is very hot and smoking add the rolls. Allow the rolls to sit untouched so a golden crust forms then turn them 90° and again allow a crust to form. Once the rolls are cooked and coloured evenly (this should take about 3 minutes) move them onto a warm plate.

Add some white wine to the pan and using and wooden spoon scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and crust from the base of the pan. Then back on the flame, add a generous nub of butter and allow it to melt and thicken the dark sauce which you then pour over your saltimbocca.

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Filed under antipasti, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, sage, supper dishes, Testaccio, veal