Monthly Archives: July 2013

blue book

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The first thing I made was the slow-cooked lamb shanks. It was 1996 and I was studying in Chalk Farm and living on Haverstock Hill, not quite opposite the Sir Richard Steele Pub, in a flat above a kebab shop. Not that we went to the Sir Richard Steele Pub. The grubby Fiddlers Elbow was the place in which we drowned our bruised or inflated egos each night after a day at The Drama Centre.

A couple of weeks previously I’d been for lunch at The River Cafe. A lunch that had spun an otherwise hopeless date into a spectacular (if futureless) one.  A char-grilled peppers with anchovies, deep-fried zucchini flower, linguine with crab, grilled sea bass, chocolate nemesis lunch that had left my date with an enormous hole in his pocket and me with both architectural and gastronomic goosebumps and the need to evangelise about a restaurant on Thames Wharf, Rainville road, London W6.

The day after lunch, knowing I would probably never have the good fortune – or indeed fortune – to eat there again, I bought a blue book with bold white font: The River Cafe Cook Book.  I spent the afternoon sitting on Primrose Hill (in the days when it wasn’t quite so fashionable) bookmarking everything before walking up and over the hill, skirting Regents Park and cutting down Parkway into Camden town to get 6 small lamb shanks, 6 red onions, red peppers, rosemary and a bottle of plonk and heading back to Haverstock Hill. I seem to remember the shanks were a tad on the dry side – a case of cooks at the cooking wine – but tasty nonetheless. The marinated grilled peppers however were superb. Which was everything to do with the recipe and very little to do with the (boozing) cooks. I made those peppers more times than I care to remember, as I did the bean soup, grilled squid, mussel soup, bread soup, raw fennel salad…..

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My copy of The River Cafe Cook Book has been sitting on my mum’s kitchen bookshelf for nearly nine years now, ever since I absconded to Italy with nothing more than the clothes I stood up in. I’ve been thumbing though it these last couple of weeks while here on a holiday of sorts. It remains – in my opinion –   along with Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, the English book that best captures the spirit and soul of Italian ingredients and cooking. It still looks as sharp and uncompromisingly good as it did 17 years ago. I still want to make everything.

Assisted by a post-it, the book fell open at page 172 and a recipe for something Rose and Ruth call Inzimonio di Ceci or Chickpeas with Swiss chard. As much as I like a nice food picture it is not usually the thing that inspires me to cook. Quite the opposite in fact. Pictures, especially if too pretty, styled or framed with incongruous bits of this and that, leave me cool.  On this occasion the picture, unstyled and unframed, made me eager to cook and eat. A women in a white apron is holding a platter on which there is a pile of glistening chickpeas and chard flecked with tiny nubs of carrot, red onion, parsley and chili sitting in generous, golden puddle of extra virgin olive oil.

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Having soaked the dried chickpeas overnight, you cook them until tender. If you have forgotten to soak your chickpeas: you open two tins. I forgot. You blanch your chard or greens in a large pan of fast boiling well-salted water, drain and then chop them coarsely. You sauté diced carrot and onion until soft in lots of olive oil before adding crumbled chili, white wine, tomato and letting everything bubble vigorously for a minute or two before adding the chickpeas and greens.

Another 10 minutes over a gentle flame with the occasional stir, a handful of parsley and the juice of half a lemon and lunch is nearly ready. Nearly. As is almost always the case with dishes like this, a rest in which the flavours can settle is wise. My mum has a large white plate with a little lip just like the one in the picture which was pleasing. She also has a white apron, but I resisted dressing up.

And to think I used to consider chickpeas the good Samaritan of the store cupboard, worthy but weary making hard work. No more. After pasta e ceci this is maybe my new preferred way to eat them. The combination of chickpeas, soft greens – offering as Fergus Henderson would say structural weave – sweet and tender nubs of carrot and onion, given heat by chilli and depth by the wine and tomato is a full and delicious one. Wholesome but generous. We had our chickpeas and greens with ricotta and bread.

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Chickpeas with greens

Adapted (slightly) from The River Cafe Cook Book.

serves 6

  • 800 g greens (ideally chard but spring greens work well)
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 2 medium carrots
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 dried chili, crumbled
  • 250 ml / 8 fl oz white wine
  • 2 tbsp of tomato sauce or passata or 1 tbsp concentrate
  • 400 g cooked chickpeas
  • a generous handful of chopped parsley
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • more extra virgin olive oil to serve

In a large pan of well salted fast boiling water, blanch the greens briefly. Drain them and then once they are cool enough to handle, chop them coarsely and set aside.

Warm the oil in a heavy based saute pan, add the onion, carrot and a pinch of salt and cook them slowly for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Season with a little more salt, pepper and the crumbled chili.

Add the wine to the pan and allow it to bubble away until it has almost completely reduced. Add the tomato sauce or concentrate, greens and chickpeas, stir and cook, stirring every couple of minutes for 10 minutes.

Add 3/4 of the chopped parsley and the lemon juice to the pan, stir, turn off the heat and allow the pan to sit for 10 minutes.

Transfer to a large platter or serving  plate, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and a little more extra virgin olive oil and serve.

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I’m not about about to deprive my Mum, so I have bought another blue book with bold white font to take back to Italy with me. Which says it all really. Now if you will excuse me, I really should go and pack, our flight is at 3.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, olive oil, parsley, rachel eats London, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, summer food, vegetables

outside in

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I have long accepted that in matters of Italian food I will always have a sense of being outside looking in. Outside peering in through a steamed-up kitchen window, rubbing it with my sleeve and then pressing my nose up against the pane, trying to understand what on earth is happening inside.

Of course I’m not outside. In some ways I am very much inside, settled in Rome, surrounded by Italians who cook and offer (endless) advice about how and why, and having become a capable cook of Italian food myself. But the sense of outside looking in, of being the English observer remains, possibly even more acutely than when I first arrived. A case of the more you learn the less you know, perhaps.

Not that I mind. Quite the opposite. I like this sense of being outside looking in. After all, it is how it is. I am an English woman with Northern roots, pastry making hands, a soft spot for potted shrimps and without even a distant whiff of Italian blood, living in Rome. It’s this inside outside dichotomy which fuels my curiosity and desire to learn. That’s not to say I can’t be a mardy student from time to time: proud, cross I have so much to learn and jealous of the omnipresent food culture and innate ability to cook and eat well that individual Italians (may or may not) possess.

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Which brings me to the recipe. Well nearly. As you may or may not have noticed, it has all been rather basic around here lately. This is mostly because it’s so hot, but also because having felt more outside than usual, I took some advice from a good cook and went back to basics. Not that I ever move much beyond them, but you get the idea. I’ve been frying garlic attentively (and obsessively,) drying salad and flowers thoroughly (it matters and I can be sloppy) searing chops briefly, making batter (I’d forgotten how) brushing up on my beans and greens, using pasta cooking water wisely (it’s the secret) and making spaghetti al pomodoro.

There are as many versions of spaghetti al pomodoro as there are cooks. This is a summer version, using the nicest, sweetest, plum or cherry tomatoes you can find: ripe, tight orbs that burst in your mouth. It was taught to me by the good cook, a Roman capable of great and gutsy culinary feats who tells me he would happily eat this everyday for the rest of his life give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli.

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You smash two cloves of garlic against the work surface with the palm of your hand meaning the skin comes away, the cloves split but remain whole and your hand could ward off vampires. You then fry these two cloves – gently – in far more extra virgin olive oil than is decent. An indecent amount. I like indecent. Once the garlic is just turning light gold and its fragrance swirling up your nose, you add some halved cherry or tiny plum tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. You let the halves sizzle for a minute or so. Once they start softening and releasing liquid you squash them with the back of a wooden spoon and watch their red juices spill into and then tint the oil bronze. You add a few torn basil leaves, stir the pan still over the flame for a minute or so longer. You inhale.

While you have been doing all this your spaghetti has been rolling around a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Your timing is good obviously and the spaghetti done (al dente, so tender but with bite) as you inhale and the tomatoes bubble ‘ready‘. You scoop the spaghetti from the boiling water straight into the tomato pan. I use tongs for this which means some of the pasta cooking water clings to the spaghetti. You stir with tongs and a spoon, the pasta cooking water – magical stuff that it is – mixing with the oily, tomatoey juices emulsifying and creating a thickened sauce that coats each strand.

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Spaghetti with tomatoes cooked in extra virgin olive oil, scented with garlic and basil: I too could eat this everyday for lunch give or take the occasional pot of potted shrimps on toast. Divide. Eat inside or outside.

Spaghetti al pomodoro  Spaghetti with tomatoes.

serves 3

  • extra virgin olive oil q.b.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 5oo g sweet cherry or tiny plum tomatoes
  • salt q.b.
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • 350 g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and set the timer for a two minutes less than the time on the packet

Warm the olive oil in large saute pan. Smash the garlic on the work surface or press it with the back of a knife so the skin comes away, it splits but remains whole. Fry the garlic gently in the oil until it is pale golden and fragrant.

Halve the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Once the tomatoes start softening and releasing their juices squash them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so their juices mingle with the oil.  This will take just a few minutes. Add the basil, stir, cook for another minute.

Test the spaghetti, once it is al dente, drain it and reserve some cooking water, or use tongs to lift it straight into the tomato pan. Lower the flame slightly. Stir until the oily, tomatoey juices, pasta and pasta cooking whiter come together into a well dressed whole. Pull from the flame and serve immediately.

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a suggestion.

This pasta needs nothing but an appreciative eater and a glass of something tasty but reasonable – a brilliant Lazio white called Capolemole Bianco from the maker Marco Carpineti for example. However, if you would like cheese, a little grated ricotta salata: soft, distinct but sheepish is nice.

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Filed under food, In praise of, olive oil, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

polish and scrub

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After two unsuccessful ventures, we finally found the marble man. He was in fact as promised, at the wrong end of Lungotevere Testaccio. The very endafter the Romany camp, behind an intimidating gate, tucked under the railway bridge. A machine screeched and then stopped abruptly as we entered the marble flanked workshop. The marmista turnedpulled down his goggles and stared hard. ‘We’ve been sent by Emanuela at Testaccio market‘ I garbled. At which suspicion faded into something cordial. Five minutes, a sketch, a sum and some marble stroking later and we laid a crisp deposit on the dusty workbench. ‘Lunedi’ he promised before lifting back his goggles and turning his attention to a sheet of pale grey marble streaked with deep blue veins.

A week later and my carrara marble table top is balanced, temporarily, on the odd pine table that came with the flat. The pine table is bigger, so it’s peeping out like a Tom.  I’m told there is a blacksmith who could make me a base near Monte Testaccio, but until we can get to the bottom of his idiosyncratic working hours, the balancing act and peeping will continue. I still amazed we got the marble back in one piece, driving as we did in an almost unsuspended car through Roman traffic.  It was only as we veered from Via Marmorata into Via Galvani that I noted the significance: Via Marmorata is called as such because it was the route along which enormous quantities of marble (marmo) passed into Rome in Antiquity. Two thousand years later and we too had passed along the marble route bearing marble. I am ridiculously happy with my 60 x 100 slab and keep polishing it.

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I have also been scrubbing. Not the marble obviously, nor the floor, even though it could do with a bloody good clean. I’ve been scrubbing new potatoes and top and tailing green beans, lots of them, in order to make Patate e fagiolini condite. Which I could translate as potato and green bean salad. Which it isn’t. Or is it? I’m not familiar with salad law. Eitherway, I prefer the literal translation - potatoes and green beans dressed. Simply dressed obviously, after all it’s 30° and the last thing we want is fussy or complicated. I’ve also been pulling leaves from the bedraggled mint plant that’s – despite my neglect and the searing heat – hanging on for mint life on the balcony. Mint, as we know, makes a good bedfellow for both potatoes and beans. But more about that in a paragraph.

This is barely a recipe. It is however a nice assembly and one of my favorites at the moment, just so, beside a lamb chop, next to a hard-boiled egg and some tuna, under a slice of pure white young sheep’s cheese such as primo sale. You need best, properly waxy new potatoes, ideally large ones that can be boiled in their skins and then peeled once cool enough to handle. You also need fine green beans: pert, sweet and nutty, salt and good extra virgin olive oil. Mint or vinegar is optional.

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There are five things to remember. Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes, then boil them whole. Cook the beans in well-salted fast-boiling water until they are tender with just the slightest bite but no absolutely no squeak. Tear the mint into tiny pieces with your fingers. Dress the vegetables while they are still warm with a hefty pinch of salt – launched from high above so evenly dispersed – and enough extra virgin olive oil to make a dietitian bristle and each chunk and bean glisten. Let your dressed vegetables sit – in a cool place but not the fridge – for a while before serving.

It should be a well-dressed tumble, the chunks of potatoes distinct but breaking gently at the edges, so blurring everything slightly. For me the optional mint – I adore the way mint manages to be both bright and moody in the same moment – is vital.  It lends something cool and herbal and renders a dish made with Italian ingredients on a humid and tempestuous Tuesday in Rome decidedly English and familiar. I don’t usually add vinegar. If I do, I don’t add mint and it’s a dash of red wine vinegar, sharp and pertinent. In my opinion balsamic vinegar - which generally seems to be both over and misused these days – isn’t right here. You may disagree.

A reminder that good ingredients, well-prepared, well-paired, well-dressed and served at the right temperature (that is just warm) are delicious.

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Patate e fagiolini condite  Potatoes and green beans (dressed)

Inspired by a comment from a Christine. Advice, as usual, from Jane Grigson.

  • 4 large waxy potatoes or many little ones
  • 500 g fine green beans
  • a few small fresh mint leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • red wine vinegar (if you like)

Scrub the potatoes and top and tail the beans.

Put the whole, scrubbed potatoes in a large pan, cover them with cold water, add salt and then bring the pan to the boil. Reduce to a lively simmer and cook the potatoes until they are tender to the point of a knife.

Tip the beans into a large pan half-full of salted water at a rolling boil and boil them uncovered hard and briefly – eight minutes should do the trick – until they are tender but still with the slightest bite. Drain the beans.

Wait until the beans and potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm. Put the beans in large bowl. Using a sharp knife pare away the potato skin and then roughly chop and break the potato over the beans. Tear the mint leaves into the bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and then pour over some olive oil and the vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to gently turn and mix the ingredients. Taste and add more salt and olive oil if necessary. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. Turn again before serving.

A suggestion.

Patate e fagiolini condite are delicious served with grilled lamb. Romans call young lamb cutlets cooked briefly so burnished outside but still pale pink and tender within: costolette di abbachio alla scottadito or simply abbachio a scottadito. Literally translated this means lamb cutlets to burn your fingers, reminding you they should be eaten as soon as possible from the grill or coals – so blisteringly hot – with your fingers.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, lamb, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, summer food, vegetables

q.b.

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I was too confused and cross to appreciate anything. It was Monday at 6 o’clock and I was late and lost, fooled again by the exaggerated curves of the Tevere river, staggering with an oversized child in an undersized sling down another cobbled street, in the shadow of another cupola, past another ancient fountain. The man at the bus stop shook his head and made a gesture that confirmed I was – as suspected – a long way from where I wanted to be. No directions were forthcoming. Mad dog Englishwoman tourist his eyes seemed to snigger. ‘I’ve lived here for nearly nine years‘ I wanted to tell him, only every single word of Italian eluded me.

Relief at finding myself on Via del Corso was short-lived. In front of me was the bus stop from which I’d caught the first of two ill-advised buses an hour before. The sun beat down and Luca beat his hot little hands on my chest. So we walked some more, wading really, against a tide of shoppers and tourists. ‘You want the 116‘ said a kind woman at another bus stop. ‘I know, I’ve lived here for nine years, I take buses everyday.‘ I wanted to tell her, but grazie was all I could manage.

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The 116, a dwarf bus, bumped along Via del Babuino, women with expensive shoes and immaculate toe nails teetered on so I tucked my shabby ones under the seat. We stopped just after Piazza di Spagna and there it was, Europe’s broadest staircase and another mass of bodies, shopping bags and blinking cameras. ‘Get off here‘ said the kind woman. ‘But walk up the other staircase just behind. Which we did, and at last I appreciated something. That was the cool, quiet, stone steps and the fact that we, just meters away from busiest staircase in Europe, had our own private one. Not as marvelous obviously, but in that moment nearly. Villa Medici took me by surprise, looming grandly as it does over Viale Trinità dei Monti. As did the deep purple blossoms pouring over walls and then, as we walked a little further, the view.

Nearly nine years ago on a similar evening the view from the Pincio had made my heart swell and skin flush. It had also made me cry. It happened again yesterday. Which was partly the sense of relief that we were no longer lost, that I was no longer flipping furious. But mostly it was because the view across Rome from that particular point at that particular hour : a hazy patchwork of terracotta, brown and gold, of gleaming cupolas, uneven tiles, fading palazzi, hidden roof gardens and the distant plateau of Janiculum with its shadowed umbrella pines is so sublime.  ‘Mamma, mummy, mamma, look, look!‘ Luca insisted while tugging at my shirt, his eyes full of wonder. ‘Look mamma, dog!‘ A large dog, leg cocked, was relieving himself against the kerb. At which we turned and walked briskly – our Tupperware box of biscuits keeping time – across Villa Borghese to the picnic party.

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Fortunately Ciambelline al vino are hardy biscuits that happily withstand hours of inept traveling and a brisk jolt across the park. They are also particular – as only a biscuit made with olive oil with fennel seeds can be – and delicious – as only a biscuit made with wine intended to be dipped in wine can be. Last but not least, they are quintessentially Roman (which is my preoccupation these days) and a good recipe with which to mention q.b.

Q.b. means quantobasta which literally translated means how much is enough. Or as Vincenzo puts it: what you think is the right quantity. You find q.b. dotted liberally throughout Italian recipes, the older your book or more southern your travels the more you encounter it. It isn’t a question, but an assumption that you know how much whatever – salt, pepper, flour, oil, wine, sugar, fennel seeds, salt – is enough for the recipe concerned according to your particular taste. It’s an assumption that you have good taste, good instincts and/or that the recipe is good enough for you to make it again and again until q.b is second nature.

Unlike some recipes I’ve bookmarked in which every single ingredient is followed by q.b. at least today’s recipe has measurements of sorts. That is: a glass of wine (red, white or fortified), a glass of extra virgin olive oil and a glass of sugar. The size of the glass is – of course – the one you think is right. I used my trusty 100ml duralex. To your pool of sugar, wine and oil you add salt and fennel seeds. A pinch and a teaspoon seemed the right quantity to me. Then you add the flour q.b. , little by little, working it in with your hands until the dough has come together into a manageable mass that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. You will know.

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You let the dough rest – an hour or so – then you pull away walnut sized balls, roll them into a slim logs which you then curl into rings. A pinch helps seal the circle. You dip your rings in sugar before arranging them on a baking tray and sliding them into the oven until they are done. That is crisp and golden. In my oven (which of course is different to your oven) this took 25 minutes. I then took my friend Anna’s advice turned the oven off , opened the door a crack but left the Ciambelline al vino to harden in the cooling oven. All the better for dipping in wine she noted.

I am not going to try and convince you otherwise, if you don’t like the distinctive taste of fennel seeds you won’t like these Ciambelline. Of course you can leave the seeds out! But without the sweet, grassy, anise whiplash they are – in my opinion – as lost as I was on Monday at 6 o’clock. I’ve heard you can substitute wine with milk! But why would you want to do that?

Somewhere between utterly sweet and charming, and hard work and curious, ciambelline al vino are ring biscuits made with wine to dip in wine – I think this just about sums it up. Unsurprisingly I adore them. They keep brilliantly in a tin or box.

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Ciambelline al vino Ring biscuits with wine and fennel seeds

Adapted from various recipes but most notably one by the brilliant cucina di calycanthus

makes about 20 biscuits

  • 1 glass of sugar
  • 1 glass of wine (white, red or fortified wine such as Madeira)
  • 1 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt q.b
  • fennel seeds q.b
  • plain flour q.b
  • sugar for finishing q.b

In a bowl mix together the sugar, olive oil and wine. Add the salt and fennel seeds and then flour q.b a little at a time, mixing with your hands, until you have a soft but manageable dough that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.

Move the dough onto a board dusted lightly with flour and then work until smooth. Cover and leave the dough to rest for an hour.

Pull walnut sized pieces from the dough and then on a floured board, with floured hands, roll the balls into slim logs that are roughly 8 – 10 cm long.  Curl each log into a round and pinch the ends so you have a ring. Invert and dip the top of each ring into a dish of sugar so it is well coated.

Arrange the rings on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake at 180° for 25 – 30 minutes or until the rings are golden and crisp.  Allow to cool.

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Filed under biscuits and biscotti, cakes and baking, fennel seeds, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, wine