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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68 Comments

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

68 responses to “blue book

  1. christin

    cant wait to try this- i wonder if spinich will work as well- its growing in my garden………..

    • rachel

      Hi Christin, I’m not sure blanched spinach will work, a bit floppy. I wonder if raw spinach might though, chopped and then stirred in so it wilts. let me know x

    • Graham Jepson

      Hi christin, I’ve been making dishes based on this recipe for a few years and vary the greens depending on what is available. As Rachel says, with spinach you don’t need to blanch it first, just chop and add at the very end – it will wilt quickly.
      As you vary the greens, I think it is necessary to vary other things as well in order to keep it all in balance. Since spinach is not so bitter, I think you need less acidity and I would be careful with the white wine and lemon juice. (In fact you always need to careful with white wine and lemon because there are big variation in their acidity.) Tomato might also add acidity. The other component is sweetness which comes from the onions and carrots. So, the trick is to balance the three dimensions to your liking.
      The chickpeas (Italian tinned organic are very good) add texture and a chestnut-like flavour but can be a little bland. If your vegetable combination is on the light, mild side, then use less chickpeas. Again, it is about balance.
      As regards tomato puree, I find it often has a metallic taste which I suppose comes from the tannins in the skins. You can get rid of it by adding the puree to the frying vegetables before you add any other liquid and working it into the oil with the back of a spoon. A few minutes frying gently will do the trick.

  2. Anna Noble

    Hello Rachel. How clever to have been in England when summer arrived here at last! You have become an important part of my “getting used to being back in England” but unfortunately I disagree with you for the first time! Anna Del Conte and even Antonio Carluccio, offer far more reliable recipes, that are true to genuine Italian cooking…that’s my opinion.

    If you have ever eaten at the River Cafe you will know that the place can be full of those that want to be seen eating there and many have little interest in the food they are eating. For us it was a heartbreaking experience and a VERY expensive one too.

    • rachel

      Hi Anna, yes the weather has been lovely. I haven’t eaten at the RC since that meal 17 years ago. It was exepensive then (I didn’t pay) but not disappointing. I’m glad you left this comment for others to read. I have no Anna del Conte books, it sounds like I should Rach

  3. You had a slightly different student existence to mine. I lived on lentil stew – made on a Sunday, lasted till Thursday, and the occasional Sara Lee Pecan Pastry (which my flat mates were not allowed to look at, never mind share). Safe journey back to Italy.

    • rachel

      Hi Kath,

      There were a lot of lentils in my life too. That said I did have a lot of nice food living as i lived with working girls (not students) with their generous friends. I was older too, mature I think is the word and had been living and working in London for a few years before. I am wondering how I come across in this post? OH well! I bet you are all enjoying this weather Rx

      • Oooh nooo I didn’t mean it in that way. Just that I didn’t do lamb shanks. You come across as you always do, as a wise and wonderful person. I have neither your class or sophistication. Working girls eh? I do hope you mean girls that were working rather than any other meaning that might have. ;) x

        Hehe – no working working. That said they were in TV, young and swedish! It was ridiculous and quite hedonistic. back in Rome and missing English milk already. RXx

  4. Pls unsubscribe me. Thx.

    rmbr: brvty s the sol of wt.

    • rachel

      Hello Sally, I think you can unsubscribe yourself as you set up the subscripton. But I will check and do so if I can. Note about brevity taken and obviously I’m sorry that you want to unsubscribe. All best Rachel

      • Kit

        What an odd comment! Ignore the (annoyingly vowel-free) line about brevity – if someone wants brevity, send them to Twitter! Keep writing as you have been, and/or as you want to. It’s what makes us come back time and again.

    • Mary

      Brevity may be the soul of wit (sometimes) but text abbreviations are irritating in the texting context and unacceptable anwhere else.

      And Rachel, don’t even dream of condensing your posts – striving for wittiness would be pointless and your writing gives real pleasure.

  5. I wonder if rather than blanching the greens and having to wash yet another rather large pot, you couldn’t just sautée th chopped greens with the onions and carrots for a bit until the wilt…? It looks great and I look forward to trying it! And I disagree with Sally above – I love your writing and the way you use the English language, please don’t change a thing. If I don’t enjoy someone’s writing I just skip to the recipe! Safe travels!

    • rachel

      Good idea and yes, I am sure it would work. I suppose it does depend on how tender the green are though. Back safely in hot and sticky Rome and feeling glad to have such a lovely bunch of readers.

    • Christine

      Late, but you can absolutely saute chard directly – just note that if you have the white and green variety as opposed to rainbow or red chard, the stems may oxidize and blacken a little which is why I think so many blanch it first, to prevent that. I usually do my blanching in the same pot I’m going to cook in, and just drain out the water and dry before cooking the rest.

  6. Susan

    Hi Rachel, another beautiful post in every way. The way you choose to cook and eat so reminds me of my aunt who comes from Italy….walking into her kitchen and always seeing and smelling the amazing pans of vegetable mixtures cooking away that tasted unlike any other food I’d had. I’ve been trying to cook and eat this way as well as much as possible and your posts are always inspiration for that. On another note, your writing is so beautiful and poetic that I always want it to go on and on… was very upset by Sally’s comment about brevity. Please ignore!

  7. I lived in Gospel Oak from 2001. Beautiful part of the world. I’m going to buy that book now. I love River Cafe books and I don’t have that one and I need it now. Is that the one with the amazing lemon tart?

    • rachel

      It is a nice part of the world and yes, it is the one with the tart. I have never made the tart. Nor the recipe for pears in marsala. To make. I am planning the ravioli this week.

  8. I had this for my birthday there in November! I was turning 25, and so were they. very auspicious. Also delicious!

    You are a wonderfully evocative writer, obviously. Please carry on.

  9. In the U. S. this book is called Italian Country. What I like about this beautiful recipe is how versatile it is. I sometimes invite a couple for dinner where one is a vegetarian, and the other is not. So I always try to treat them both. This is a perfect dish to make for them because everyone else can eat it with meat or fish, and the vegetarian can eat it alone or with vegetables and/or a salad!

    When you used canned ceci, do you peel them or is this a task for the truly neurotic cook?

    I have made your Spaghetti al Pomodoro at least four times now. It is better than delicious. I doubt there will ever be a boiling hot day that it’s not on the menu here.

    • rachel

      I love that you are making the sauce – I am too, in England too, with local tomatoes and it was super. I don’t peel but have a friend that does – she swears by it. Yes, this is a great vegetarian option with ricotta, hard boiled eggs, haloumi! xx

  10. P.S. In my house the “Blue Book” is the battered original New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne.

    • rachel

      It is worth seeking out?

      • Rach,

        I don’t think it is. It was published in 1961, and the only thing I still make from it is the Linzertorte. When I got married in 1968, a friend gave me a copy with the inscription “There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than than of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves.” Thomas Wolfe.

        That’s why I prize it so much.

        Vic – That is the best reason in the world to love that book – beautiful, I’ve made a note.

  11. Ok, so the lady who gave two thirds of her cook book collection to charity on Saturday has just ordered this book.

  12. You studied drama. This I did not know. Still interested, at all? You’d be so charming on the red carpet. But you must always cook and write to us about it. Promise?

    • rachel

      I did, I worked, then didn’t work, then worked again and then gave it up when I came to Italy. I used to think I it would be the worst thing in the world to be a drama teacher! I am now happier teaching little ones music, theater and drama than I ever was acting. Promise.

  13. My favourite recipe in that book.

    I spent 6 weeks as a stagiaire in that kitchen. Loved every minute of it – Ruth & Rose were divine. You’re bang on in your assessment of the book.

    Thanks for the delicious memory.

    Deborah

    • rachel

      Deborah, That kitchen, it must have been extraordinary. I love the pictures of the working kitchen in the book, black and white documentary style really, capturing the speed and spirit of the place. I am so happy this is your favourite recipe in the book – it is one of mine too. Rx

  14. Wow, Rachel. Once again I am mesmerized by your writing, pics, and your recipe! Only you have made me want to run out and purchase chickpeas as I have never liked them. Thank you for continuing to broaden my horizons in the kitchen. Lovely post.

    • rachel

      Thank you. I used to think Cp’s were worthy and boring until I came to live in Italy. Now they are one of the cornerstones of my diet. This is a nice recipe, I do hope you try.

  15. Shopafrolic

    Rach – another thing we have in common – fond memories of meals at the River Cafe. I worked with a marketing agency just down the road from there and was lucky enough to have frequent lunches there when Jamie O was still a chef there and filming his first TV series. I had fabulous meals there and loved that lots of food was grown at their doors. Over the years I think it’s become more of a place to be seen, back then it was simply a place to enjoy fabulous food.
    Give that little man a hug from a little boy in the UK who’d love to meet him one day.
    Sal & lil Chris
    x

    • rachel

      Sally – You really did eat at the River Cafe, makes my one visit look a bit lame – lucky you. And yes, I think you are right, from what I hear it’s prices and customers have changed in recent years. I saw your mum, it was so good to chat. I am back again in Aug so lets try and meet with C and L too. i am still waiting for you to come and visit Rome Love R xx

  16. I feel abit jealous that you have “your” recipe book. I’ve never found one recipe book that I’ve loved so much – mostly i jump from food blogs, to recipe notes passed to me by my mum, or something I’ve learnt from cooking class – although I’d very much like to have a go-to book which makes me want to cook everything printed on it.

    Enjoy your blue book, and hope u had a safe flight!

    • rachel

      I highly recommend The River Cafe books – all of them – they are delicious, straightforward and beautiful. They are rather uncompromising about ingredients and assume you are deft in the kitchen and are willing to practice: good things in my book. I did have a safe if rather noisy flight with my little boy. I am now back in hot and steamy Rome craving nothing but gelato and watermelon.

  17. laura

    Ciao, Rachel, e ben tornata! May I iterate how very much I admire your beautiful writing; it never disappoints. And your photos always inspire me to cook and eat.
    p.s. I think that SS post in “txtspk” was just Stupid Spam.

    • rachel

      Hi L, On reflection, I do too. I didn’t at first though and felt quite rubbish that someone thought I was so long winded they wanted to cancel. Ho hum. Blimey it’s hot in Rome and we are doing little but mainlining watermelon. Hope you are keeping cool x

      • laura

        Aren’t we all so very silly! We can get ten compliments and one criticism (though in your case not even one real one!) and yet our brains focus on the one criticism and not the ten compliments!
        Miserably hot and miserably humid in Florence, as usual … but we put a couple of AC units with dehumidifiers in and are just using the dehumidifier part – which has made a world of difference.

  18. Hi dear Rachel,
    I’ve had this book for ages and that chickpea recipe is one of my favorites. It’s such a beautifully designed book. The lemon spaghetti is startlingly good too. Recently made the red peppers for a handsome man- he declared them the best he’d ever had. Just tonight ( before reading your post) I made the zucchini trifolati with a big handful of torn cherry toms added in. Sending a hug from Oregon! I adore your posts friend. Ps thank you for giving me permission to make this one with tinned chickpeas. I trust you and it means ill probably make it more often now. X

    • rachel

      Hello Elena, How lovely to hear from you, I hope you are well ? (I will come over virtually to say hello.) They are beautiful books (I have blue and green back in Rome now) and they haven’t dated at all, which is testament to the timeless nature of good food and design. Again, nice to hear from you, hug to you in Oregon from me in (blooming boiling) Rome x

  19. Vanessa

    Rachel – I love your posts – the recipes always look so delicious. I was lucky to have a couple of wonderful lunches at River Cafe – great food with lovely friends, very special days (literally :-)).

    • rachel

      Hi Vanessa, it’s always nice to hear people enjoy reading – thank you v much. Good food (and good wine, ideally Italian) with good friends: it doesn’t get much better than that.

  20. how lovely that your mum had the round white platter with the lip; your version looks very like the River Cafe version. I am especially drawn to the picture with the entire meal–your mum scooping the ricotta. It’s one of the big differences I’ve been thinking about: the perfect styled food photo vs. capturing the real moment. We prefer the pictures that tell a story, too.

    • rachel

      I agree wholeheartedly. Pictures that capture real food about to be eaten are the ones that inspire me. It’s hard though, especially when there is a recipe to be illustrated and light and time in play. I wonder how you are all going! I really can’t wait. xR

  21. I am a huge fan of chickpeas and I have yet to come across a leafy green I don’t like so this recipe has been mentally bookmarked to make as soon as Rome cools down enough for me to want anything other than watermelon and gelato for lunch.

    I really enjoyed the glimpse into your past life and your trip to the River Cafe years ago as well – while I have not been to the River Cafe I have only heard wonderful things about the food and spent many hours on the sofa perusing the books which my flatmate at law school owned. To me, stories like this one and the fact you remember it after so many years really underline the role food can play in our life and the memories it can build – it doesnt always have to be a fancy and expensive meal in a famous restaurant, but the act of enjoying some really good food, whether with loved ones and prepared at home or indeed in a fancy schmanzy restaurant when, ideally, you aren’t paying yourself, to me is one of life’s ultimate pleasures. When I was in London in June, my parents, my sister and I went to the Wild Honey restaurant for my sister’s 30th birthday celebration. All of the food was outstanding but one of the highlights was their custard tart, the best custard tart I have ever eaten and a dessert I think all of us will remember for years to come.

    • rachel

      I am with you on the gelato and watermelon. I heard someone say 35° this morning. I ignored them hoping that might make me feel cooler. WIld Honey sounds like a place to bookmark, custard tart is one of my favourite things. Keep cool (as is humanly possible) Rx

  22. I, too, have a copy of The River Cafe Cookbook that is still one of my go to cooking books just for inspiration. It was a book before its time…the photos and recipes are what newer books aspire too. I shall get it down from my shelf and peruse it once again and maybe cook a recipe or two. Lovely post as usual.

    • rachel

      I agree, it was before it’s time and as I’ve said before hasn’t dated, which is quite a feat for a cookbook. I was reading that both Rose and Ruth went to art school and has very clear (almost obsessive) ideas about the way the book should look. I imagine you are steaming in nashville too – keep cool and happy (low level, minimal heat) cooking

  23. Christine

    This seems like such a lovely dish! It will be perfect for when things start to cool up around here. The 90-100 degree days (32-37 Celsius) have me much less inclined to cook up a big batch of beans.

    Please don’t ever change, no matter what the Sallys may say.

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  25. I’ve never tried this recipe but now I just might. My copy of this book |(plus their green, seasonal one) is worn and battered, one of the few recipe books that made it into my case to Italy. I agree they just ‘get’ Italian food… many other ‘Italian’ recipes are just too fussy, and invariably rejected by my Italian partner… these are authentic enough to convince la suocera.

    • rachel

      I hope you do, it is a lovely one and ripe for lots of variations. I brought my green book back too (finally) and I’m loving cooking for it .Yes, they do get it, a rare thing I think for italian recipe books written by non Italians.

  26. Emily

    Just made this for dinner—perfect timing as I was wondering what to do with the chickpeas I’d cooked up a few days ago and the beautiful dark green lacinato kale from the market! I didn’t have white wine (added an extra squeeze of lemon to compensate) or parsley, but it was still divine on hearty whole grain bread. Thank you! And Rachel, I’m not sure you realize this, but you just happen to make excellent vegan recipes, in the style I aspire towards—hearty, whole food, olive-oil-celebrating satisfying food. I also love that you don’t rely on cheese for flavor, as many of the conventional Italian (read: Italian-American) recipes I see do—so many creative tastes besides that to be explored. Thank you so much!

    • rachel

      Hi Emily, thanks for taking the time to write. It is one of the things I love about Italian food: Rich in pulses, grains, vegetables, oil – it is so often vegetarian and vegan (or easily becomes so.) R

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