Category Archives: antipasti

a family affair

DSC_2326

I may only have moved 400 meters, from one side of Testaccio to the other, but everything is different. Even things that have remained the exactly the same – like the bar in which I have my third coffee and the stall at which I buy my fruit and veg – feel different now I approach them from another direction. Streets I never usually walked are now familiar. Courtyards always peered into from one side appear entirely different from the other. A drinking fountain I’d only drunk from a handful of times is now my local. A bakery, a launderette, a minuscule sewing shop, a pet shop whose window we need to spend at least 10 minutes a day peering through whilst barking and a Norcineria I’d never even noticed are now part of my daily patter or grind depending on the day.

It’s not surprising I’d never noticed the Norcineria, as we both moved to Via Galvani at more or less the same time. The shop used to be about a mile away before the two brothers decided to come back to Testaccio. A Norcineria is a shop specialising in cured pork products which may also sell cheese, salame and other dried goods. The name derives from the town of Norcia in Umbria whose inhabitants (or some of them at least) are historically renowned and much sought after for their meat curing skills. Norcineria are places of pink flesh and seasoned fat, of pancetta, guanciale, lonzino, coppa, ciauscolo, shoulder steaks, loins, fillets and air-dried delights.

Norcineria Martelli on Via Galvani is a neat, pleasing place with meat counter to the left, dried goods to the right and the altar to porchetta – roasted suckling pig with salt, black pepper, garlic rosemary and spices – straight ahead as you come through the door. Which I do most days, my son in tow shouting loudly enough to arouse concern. Brothers Bruno and Sergio are amicable and honest, as are their pork and products. What’s more, on Tuesdays and Saturdays they also have bread from Velletri and a dome or two of best sheep’s milk ricotta.

DSC_2305

I am disproportionately fond of ricotta di pecora: brilliant white, compact but wobbly enough to remind you not be so serious and embossed with the ridges of the cone it was moulded in. We eat ricotta several times a week, its creamy, sweet but sharp and sheepish nature indispensable in both sweet and savory. I shape it into lumps, stir it into pasta, smear it on bread (which I then finish with lots of salt, black pepper and olive oil), slice it over beans, spoon it beside fruit, nuts and honey, whip it into puddings or bake it into tarts and cakes.

Then this week I mixed my ricotta with wilted spinach – I never failed to be impressed by the way disobedient spinach once disiplined into a pan wilts so obediently – lots of freshly grated parmesan, an egg, a nip of nutmeg, salt and plenty of black pepper.

DSC_2321

Today recipe is inspired by the polpette di ricotta e spinach we eat as often as possible at another favorite place and one of the best tavola calda in Rome these days: C’è pasta e pasta, another family affair – in this case a brother and sister – just the other side of ponte Testaccio on Via Ettore Rolli.

The key is making a relatively firm mixture of ricotta and spinach and the key to a firm mixture is making sure you drain the spinach meticulously. Drain, then squeeze and press until you have an almost dry green ball. The ricotta too should be drained of any excess liquid. If the mixture is firm you shouldn’t have any problems shaping it into golf ball sized polpette you then flatten slightly with the palm of you hand. Why is this so satisfying I’m not sure, but it is. Squash.

DSC_2327

Then the double roll: first in flour, then after a bath in beaten egg, fine breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs come from Guerrini, another Galvani institution I’d previously ignored, a family run forno or bakery just next to our flat that is providing me with more soapoperaesque drama, pizza bianca, sugar-coated, doughnut like ciambelle and breadcrumbs than I really need.

Once double rolled, you fry the polpette in hot oil. I use sunflower oil (as do C’è pasta e pasta) but some of my Roman friends prefer olive oil. They take just minutes shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles until they are deep gold and crisp. Polpette di ricotta e spinaci are best eaten while they are still finger and tongue scaldingly hot, while their coating is sharp, decisive and shatters between your teeth before giving way to a soft, warm filling of cheese and spinach.

Thank you for all your kind messages and comments about the book, they mean a lot and have made me feel as golden (but not quite as crisp and decisive) as a freshly fried polpette.

DSC_2364

Polpette di ricotta e spinaci - Ricotta and spinach patties (or fritters, balls, nuggets, croquettes, cakes or thingamajigs*)

makes about 15

  • 500 g spinach
  • 400 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk but cow’s milk works beautifully too)
  • 50 g parmesan or pecorino
  • 3 large eggs
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • flour
  • breadcrumbs
  • oil for frying

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add 1 egg, the grated parmesan,   flour, a grating of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Prepare three dishes, one containing the two beaten eggs, one of seasoned flour and one of breadcrumbs. Using a teaspoon scoop out a golf ball sized lump of the spinach and ricotta mixture. Shape it onto a ball and then flatten it into a patty. Dip it in flour, then egg and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs until evenly coated. Put the polpette on a plate lined with baking parchment while you prepare the rest of the polpette.

In a deep frying pan or saucepan, the oil to 190° and then carefully lower in three or four polpette at a time. Allow them to cook for about two minutes or until they are crisp and deep gold. Use a slotted spoon to lift them onto another plate lined with kitchen towel. Once blotted, slide the polpette onto the serving plate, sprinkle with salt and eat immediately.

*I have called these patties, which sounds comical and /or ridiculous I know, but then so does balls. Suggestions are welcome. Update, thank you for all your advice and I have taken it all.

DSC_2360

56 Comments

Filed under antipasti, cheese, fanfare, fritti, ices, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, spinach, vegetables

bread, love and fantasy

DSC_2187

I wasn’t someone who fantasised about upping sticks and starting a new life somewhere else. Far from it in fact: there were dozens of things I wanted to change, but London wasn’t one of them. It suited me, I fit I’d think as I pounded its pavements, parks and up the left hand side of the escalator in Camden Town station, as I worshipped in its temples of art, books, music, theatre and beer. I grumbled of course, but then I grumble everywhere, only never for very long. There were bouts of wanderlust too. Nothing serious though and nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a nice, long holiday. From which I was always glad to get back, my faith and fancy for London renewed.

Then I upped sticks and started a new life in Rome. A long-short story I’ve told before and will probably tell again – more concisely – another time. Why I mention this today, is not to unravel anything, but because yesterday morning as I walked back home down Via Galvani, the market to my left, a two thousand-year old mound of broken terracotta pots to my right, bags cutting into the crook of my arm, the September sun searing my unmediterranean skin, unable to find the words in Italian to reprimand the man parking his car across the zebra crossing, I realised that Rome suits me, I fit.

DSC_2057

Which is surprising considering my reluctance at the start, the fact that Rome has made me acutely aware of other, outside and feel more English – which I can only describe as feeling straight only wonky – than I ever did in England, that I have struggled so inelegantly with language, culture and pasta cooking water. Or maybe it isn’t surprising, after all, there is love and work.

Love of Rome itself, glorious and grimy, particularly my wedge-shaped quarter Testaccio and the people in it. Of Roman food: bold, brash, genuine, simple, redolent of herbs, pulses, grains, pork, lamb, ricotta, olive oil, vegetables. A love for Luca – which I would have anywhere I know – that feels inextricably knotted with the city he was born in. Yesterday he swaggered along beside me, maritozzo (a sweet yeasted bun) in hand and cream on his face, looking as Roman as his papà, treading the pavement as if he owned it, which in a way he does. He is two this week. I am 41 next week, a number which seems to fit me too, in a comfortable, slightly crumpled way.

Then there is work, work I really like, as an English and theatre teacher, singing children’s books to life with my Brazilian guitar playing sidekick for a captive audience of five years olds. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist said Jack, let’s have a look in the patchwork sack? My former actress self would have shuddered, which says it all really, she was always getting her knickers in a twist. And now there is work that is muddled with love: writing a book with a British publishing house called Saltyard Books and a US one called Grand Central Publishing, a project so good and fitting it makes me want to open a bottle of wine, drink it all, dance on a table and then fall off.

DSC_2060

I have a nearly year to write the book, which is called Five Quarters, Recipes from a Roman kitchen. First and foremost it will be a recipe book, a distinctly Roman one, but one in which the recipes are woven together by stories, seasons, daily life, people, pictures and other pieces. In short it will be rather like my blog, only neater, with more rhyme and reason and edited by those who know how to use semicolons correctly and recognise when 800 words should be 400.

I plan to talk about the book here, not too much, but enough to make sense of what is happening in my life and more importantly in my kitchen. Keeping notes about the book here is also a way to include you all, after all you are as much a part of this book as the market, my butcher, my baker or my family. It is thanks to you all reading and cooking along that I am where I am now. I feel full of appreciation, thank you.

DSC_0981

And so the recipe,  panzanella, or bread salad, a Tuscan dish, but one also found on Roman tables, a dish it had taken me a while to understand. Which is slightly ridiculous considering how simple it is to make. My panzanella hesitation arose from my reluctance to acknowledge that panzanella is made from old bread dampened back to life with water. It was the dampening you see, the idea of wetting bread until soft and soggy then squeezing, it just seemed odd.

As so often the case I needed to watch someone else, something I am doing rather a lot these days. When I arrived at Jo’s house there were three or four hunks of old bread (excellent quality coarse country bread) sitting in a bowl of water, wallowing really. Once they were soft and soaked, she ripped the bread into rough pieces and then got me to squeeze away the excess water and then break the bread into soft crumbs in a large bowl.

Traditionally panzanella was little more than dampened bread, salt, oil, vinegar and fantasy, a dish born out of necessity and resourcefulness, something Romans were (and to a certain extent still are) very good at. If they were available, chopped tomatoes and their juices, ripped basil, cucumber, onion, olives or anchovy might be added to the unchanging foundation of damp bread, olive oil, salt and a sharpening douse of vinegar.

DSC_2219

Like Jo, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mild red onion and lots of ripped basil. I was generous with the olive oil and careful with the red wine vinegar (just enough to sharpen, not too much as to shock, which is obviously a matter of taste.)  I let the panzanella sit for an hour before serving, so the crumbs could soak up the flavours and then settle down again.

If like me you are used to rather more modern interpretations of panzanella, of bowls of toasted cubes, of garlic rubbed chunks, of pretty things with peaches, soft greens, and heirloom tomatoes, this might come as a bit of a surprise, being is it is a soft, sodden tumble, a damp salad more reminiscent of cous cous than bread, even though it is unmistakably bread.

However panzanella made this way makes more sense, it is also good, tasty, full and fitting for these last days of summer. Bread, love, fantasy, work, and lunch, what more could I want. A drink of course, make mine a prosecco.

DSC_2228

Panzanella   Bread salad

Jo’s recipe

serves 4 as lunch (with a chop or two) or six as part of an antipasti.

  • 6 thick slices of old (good quality) country bread. Sourdough works.
  • cold water
  • 6 ripe, flavoursome tomatoes
  • a small red onion
  • a small cucumber
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil as required
  • red wine vinegar

Put the slices of bread in a bowl, sprinkle generously with cold water and leave for 20 minutes.

Wash and small dice the tomatoes making sure to catch any juices. Peel and finely slice the red onion. Peel and dice the cucumber (cutting away the central seeds of you feel they are bitter.) Rip the basil leaves into small spices.

Using your hands tear and crumble the damp bread into rough crumbs and rags, squeezing it over the sink if it feel too damp. Put the bread back in the bowl. Add the chopped vegetables (and juices) to the bread. Sprinkle generously with salt, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar. Use your hands to mix and turn the salad. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Mix again and serve.

Notes.

Good bread is fundamental, coarse country bread or sourdough works well, bad bread will collapse into a gluey mess. It should be at least two days old, so firm, hard even. The way you wet the bread depends on how hard it is! Day old bread might only need a sprinkle – Vincenzo’s Nonna waved the slices under the tap, back and forth. Some people pour an inch of water into the bowl and then lay the slices in the water, like my child in a puddle. Really hard bread, might need a proper bath-like soak and then a blooming good squeeze, after all the salad should be damp but not wet. It is up to you if you rip the bread into rags or break it into crumbs. If you find the flavour of raw red onion too strong, soak the slices in a half water/half vinegar solution for 20 minutes before adding them to the salad, this will take away the onion punch but leave the savory- sweetness.

DSC_2276

Another note - I apologise if you are seeing an advert here, I had no idea, it is very annoying but the price you pay for an otherwise brilliant wordpress blog. I am getting them removed.

162 Comments

Filed under antipasti, bread, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, salads, summer food, vegetables

a bit shallow

DSC_1319

I had plans to write about chicken cooked with rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and just enough red wine vinegar to sharpen nicely but not dominate. Then I was going to write about peaches, baked ones, a variation on these, the last of which is still sitting in the kitchen, slumped really in a pool of rose-coloured syrup, wrinkled and waiting for a heart-stopping blob of mascarpone. My next thought was beans. The white beans I soaked, simmered and then mixed while still warm with tuna and slivers of red onion last Friday. Another recipe I’ve written about before, but one that merits a few more words. No, no, I should buy figs, a whole crate of them, write a hilarious story about getting them home with a toddler and then take whimsical pictures of them in the dappled light of my kitchen. Better still, I should flipping forage. Forage purslane from the riverbank and between the cracks in the pavement near the slaughter-house then make something ancient and wild. I should, I could.

I feel a little like the weather; close, grumbling and liable to crack into a storm at any moment. As I write, the plane trees which usually strand to attention on either side of Via Galvani are swaying drunkenly from side to side. I can hear the rain hitting the iron griddle pan that’s balanced on the balcony wall – at least it’s getting a wash. My washing is outside. Maybe I should just tell you about the peaches, after all the pictures are lovely. No, I should have an espresso.  Wait, the rain has stopped, the sun is trying to come out, I should tell you about farinata.

DSC_1322

Farinata - a specially from Liguria and similar to Sicilian panelle and Tuscan cecina - is made from three things: chickpea flour, water and salt. After whisking the three ingredients together and letting them rest, you bake this sunshine-yellow batter in a shallow tin with plenty of oil until it’s firm, golden and slightly flaky on top. Once you’ve scored it and eased it out of the tin, it looks like a piece of fat, flaking pancake. You serve farinata dusted with good grind of black pepper or a spritz of lemon. It not only the nicest thing I have made all week, it’s the nicest and most surprising thing I have made for a while.

Chickpea flour is made from ground chickpeas so has the same, sweet, creamy, nutty flavor with a touch of bitterness about it that chickpeas have. Mixed with water into a worryingly thin batter, chickpea flour sets into the most lovely golden flatbread/pancake which when cut into endearingly floppy squares and given a dusting of black pepper and /or a squeeze of lemon juice is utterly delicious. If you like chickpeas that is. If not, may I suggest fiori di zucca.

DSC_1344

Delicious too, is how easy it is to make. Whisk, pour and bake. There is the rest for the batter of course, two hours at least, so this is no last-minute affair. As I have already mentioned the batter is disturbingly thin. The oil too is perplexing: the sheer quantity, the way it sits in golden bubbles in the batter. Don’t worry.

As is so often the case with Italian recipes, the baking time noted is q.b or quanto basta or how much is enough. Now I have never been good at judging how much is enough. On this occasion however, all was well with a guess and two investigative prods. In my cranky oven, in a shallow enamel baking tin, my batter took 30 minutes until settled and burnished. I’ve since read advice about non-stick pans and tins but I’m reluctant as I like the easing and scraping with wooden spatula, and I just adore the crispy, dark-gold bits that stick to the edges of the tin waiting to be chiseled away (privately) by the cook.

DSC_1361

Farinata – chickpea flatbread

Serves three or four as an antipasti. Also good as a main course with peperonata or green beans and tomatoes

Adapted from a recipe by Gianfranco Vissani 

  • 150 g chickpea flour
  • 450 ml water
  • salt
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper to serve

Using a balloon whisk mix together the chickpea flour, water and a good pinch of salt until you have a smooth batter. Allow the batter to rest at room temperature for two hours.

Preheat the oven to 180 ° / 350 F. Use a slotted spoon to skim away any froth that has risen to the surface and then whisk the batter again.

Pour the olive oil into a baking tray or dish. Tilt the dish so the base and sides are well coated with oil. Pour in the batter and then use a fork to distribute the oil into the batter. It will not incorporate entirely but look bubbly and a little like mottled paper.

Bake the batter for 20 – 30 minutes or until it is set firm and golden on top. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes before using a knife and spatula to ease it from the tin in squares or triangles. Grind over plenty of black pepper and eat immediately while still warm.

DSC_1358

50 Comments

Filed under antipasti, chickpea flour, food, odd posts, olive oil, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, summer food

on a whim

DSC_0462

I’m not sure how best to translate sfizi. For the sake of straightforwardness and my index, I could suggest they are snacks or appetizers; something tasty to fill a gap or begin a meal. Fine, but both words miss the point. Treat is another translation I’ve come across. But that too doesn’t quite capture the nature of sfizi and their cheeky, uncompromising nature.

If we look at the dictionary we find sfizi is the plural of sfizio which isn’t a thing at all, but a whim or fancy that may or may not be related to food. It’s an urge, want or craving that simply has to be satisfied. Sfizi then is the informal, colloquial term for the things you eat when struck by a craving, whim or fancy. It’s a term that comes from Naples I think, but one often adopted by Romans. Sfizi are delicious things that are mostly fried until golden, or leavened until plump. There are also sweet sfizi, but more about that another day. Savory sfizi were one of first (food) things I loved about Rome.

DSC_0474

I’d only been in a Rome a few months. I’d already fallen foul of every tourist trap an English woman with almost no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday might encounter. I’d already discovered that despite popular belief, it’s all too easy to eat badly in Rome, especially if you are an English woman with no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday. I was also keeping quite particular and solitary hours, so not searching for long lunches and memorable suppers. At least not most of the time. It was also hot, the kind of beating, seething hot that makes meals less appealing and the succumbing to whims and fancies more so. I stumbled inadvertently into a life of sfizi.

It started with a slice of pizza bianca at an unassuming bakery called Guerrini on the corner of Galvani and Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. A bakery I now – eight years later  - live more or less above. A slice of pizza bianca (which is best described as a soft foccacia or flat bread that is baked, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served still hot in squares) which was split and then filled with a slice of prosciutto and a ripe fig. A combination of soft, crisp, oily, salty and sweet that should be tasted at least once.

I gestured that I wanted my pizza left open, to eat straight away. I took a bite before I’d even paid. ‘Finalmente, ti sei levata lo sfizio di mangiare una bella pizza’ said the man behind the counter. Which I now understand as ‘Finally, you’ve satisfied a whim to eat a good pizza.’ Of course back then, I didn’t really understand. I got the jist though. Which wasn’t surprising, after all I was full of whim and fancy and clearly sfizi were the answer.

DSC_0338

A suppli: a croquette of tomato flavoured risotto rice and with a piece of mozzarella at its heart, egged, breadcrumbed and then fried, eaten while walking along Lungotevere Testaccio, looking at the river and wondering how such a glorious city became so litter-ridden and skanky. Two polpette di ricotta; deep-fried balls of soft cheese flecked with spinach and mint from the Jewish tavola calda. A slice of pizza bianca here, another of pizza rosso there. Panzarotti: fried turnovers with prosciutto and mozzarella while walking from one ruin to another. A deep-fried, battered filet of salt cod consumed on the grubby steps of a church near Campo di Fiori. I still have the stained shirt to prove it. There were also zucchini flowers, dozens of them – the ephemeral golden things you find in bunches at the market at this time of year – stuffed with a piece of mozzarella and a sliver of anchovy dipped in batter and then fried.

Of course these aren’t just sfizi, they are snacks, merende, intermezzi (in-betweens) stuzzichini and of course antipasti, which literally translated means before the meal, a tasty morsel or five that pleases and paves the way for the food to follow. In fact nowadays – give or take the odd whim –   I mostly eat the above as antipasti and only at places that really know how to bake or fry. Here for example, or here. Or now I have the courage, here at home.

DSC_0345

I’m not sure what on earth possessed me to fry on possibly the hottest day of the year so far! What am I saying, of course I do! It was a sfizio, a fancy, a whim for something. A something that just happened to be fiori di zucca. It was hours before my favorite places started frying. But not too late to zigzag my way – dodging the late morning sun -  along via Galvani to the market to buy myself two bunches of golden flowers, a ball of mozzarella and a bottle of oil.

In truth my sfizio had been rumbling for days, ever since reading my friend Jo’s post about batter. Batter matters. In truth, I thought I’d settled on a batter for fiori di zucca, a light and lovely one made with just egg whites that produces crisp cocoons that shatter and then melt. Jo’s batter is a softer more comely affair which – if fried correctly – produces properly crisp fiori but with something forgiving about them. Like a sharp, handsome man with a slight belly. A fitting contrast with the melted cheese and salty fish within. Jo’s batter has the same amount of flour as water and one egg for every 100 g / 100 ml. There is no yeast, beer or fizzy water. In fact it is as simple as batter can be, and so good. At least I think so.

DSC_0346

It’s all very straightforward, you beat the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (Jo used an electric one but I used my balloon.) Then in a large clean bowl you beat the egg whites so vigorously they look like Mont Blanc before folding them into the pale cream. Then a rest – both you and the batter – for at least an hour, as this will do you the world of good and chill the batter enough to really contrast with the hot oil which will give you a crisp finish.

Of course you have prudently washed and dried your zucchini flowers. Once dry, you trim away some of the green tendrils, tuck a little piece of mozzarella and sliver of anchovy inside each flower then pinch and twirl the tip so it closes. Your hot oil must be ready as the stuffed flowers need to be fried quick haste. Using the stem of the flower as a handle, you drag the flower through the batter this way and that. Then still using the stem, you drop your battered flowers into the hot oil and fry them until golden and crisp. I wish I could give you a temperature for this, but I can’t as I don’t even possess a thermometer.

DSC_0349

Once the flowers look like puffy, golden cocoons and are bobbing excitedly, you lift them from the hot oil – with a slotted spoon – onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Once blotted, slide the fried flowers onto another plate and sprinkle with salt. Call your companions into the kitchen and – while you get on with frying the next batch – dispatch any whims or fancies by eating the first fiori while they are still tongue scaldingly hot.

DSC_0354

Fiori di zucca   Deep-fried zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and anchovy

Adapted from Jo’s recipe.

serves 4 people (so three each) with a craving for something tasty.

  • 200 g plain flour (Jo suggests that 50 g of this is corn starch)
  • 2 eggs (separated)
  • 200 ml cold water
  • salt
  • 12 fresh and pert zucchini flowers with stems
  • 250 g mozzarella
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • Sunflower or peanut oil for frying

Make the batter by beating the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (electric or hand.)  In a large clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them into the rest of the batter. Allow the batter to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Soak the flowers in cool water for a minute. Remove them, blot them gently and then leave them to dry completely on a clean tea towel.

Once the  batter is chilled, start heating the oil and stuff each flower with a piece of mozzarella and half an anchovy. Pinch and twist the flowers so they close.

Using the stem of the flower as a handle, drag a flower through the batter so it is well-coated and then drop it into the hot oil. Depending on the size of your pan fry the flowers in batches of 2, 3, 4 even five but ideally no more.

Nudge and turn the flowers with wooden fork or spoon so they fry evenly. Once crisp and golden scoop the flowers from the oil onto a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel using a slotted spoon. Once blotted, slide the flowers onto a clean plate, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

DSC_0351

48 Comments

Filed under antipasti, courgettes, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food

vital signs

P1160195

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.

P1160254

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.

P1160222

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.

P1160268

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.

P1160278

70 Comments

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

sage advice

P1160118

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.

P1160123

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.

P1160344

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.

P1160188

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

P1160156

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.

P1160143

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.

P1160152

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.

P1160174

48 Comments

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

Happy as leaves

P1150928

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.

P1150949

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.

P1150941

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.

P1150955

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.

P1150958

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.

P1150960

63 Comments

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

Spring into lunch

P1150572

I feel like L.B Jefferies, sitting as I do, looking out of my rear window onto the courtyard. Lately I’ve been distracted by one window in particular. It starts early: rugs are beaten, sheets shaken and then throughout the day washing pegged, unpegged and pegged again on a line strung in a droopy grin from one window to the next. Yesterday two sets of curtains were washed and dried, as were three pairs of red slippers, a leopard-skin something and a tartan travel rug. As I write, slippers (still damp I imagine) have been pegged back out, various items shaken and some precarious window cleaning undertaken.

Unaccustomed as I am to spring cleaning (or cleaning in general for that matter, I’m a domestic disgrace) the activity across the courtyard almost propelled me into something yesterday. Then I remembered we’re moving in just over a month which will mean much shifting and sweeping. So much in fact, that I think I’m entitled to almost total domestic inertia until we bring in the boxes. By the way, I have no idea where we’re moving to, which is making me feel most peculiar.

P1150585

A year and a half ago I could well have sat, computer glowing with the suggestion of work, caffe in hand, worrying while watching out of my rear window for hours. I tried to do this the other day. It was all going well; caffe sipped and gaze fixed. Then my neglected eighteen month old son jolted me back into a noisy and messy reality that involved two pan lids and a family sized bottle of shampoo. I could have taken the soapy opportunity to do some sort of cleaning but didn’t. We went to the market instead.

Testaccio market has moved of course. The century old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations. We walk past the site of the old market – now bulldozed to the ground – on our way to the new market where neat rows of stalls sit subdued bearing neat piles of whatever. Not that this bright neatness has dissuaded us! If anything, we’re even more fiercely loyal to the displaced stall holders now they are at the mercy of a shiny but unfinished market, bureaucracy and ridiculous rents.

White and bright it may be, but Gianluca’s Stall was looking distinctly old-fashioned on Tuesday. A little more like it used to, piled high in an unruly manner as it was with the most glorious greens. Late April in Rome means an embarrassment of vegetable riches: peas and fave in their pods, grass like agretti, posies of broccoletti, rebellious spinach, wild and tame asparagus, wet garlic, spring onions. And of course the last of the tender-hearted warriors: artichokes, of which we bought three. A kilo of peas and fave both and a bunch of fat spring onions are we were set. For lunch that is.

P1150597

Vignarola is a stew of spring vegetables. A tender, tumbling dish of fresh peas, broad beans (fave), spring onions, artichokes and (possibly) soft lettuce. It is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. Made authentically, vignarola is an elusive dish, possible only for few weeks between April and May when there is overlap, a vegetable eclipse if you like, between the first tiny peas, fave and sweet bulbs and the last of the artichokes. Now is the time!

There is plenty of preparation: trimming of artichokes, podding of peas and fave, slicing of onion. But once the vegetables are sitting tamed and obedient in their bowls it’s all pretty straightforward. You fry the onion gently in olive oil. You add the artichoke wedges, a pinch of salt and stir until each wedge glistens with oil. Next a glass of wine for the pan (and another for the cook) before you cover the pan for 15 minutes or so. To finish, you add the peas and fave, stir and cover the pan for a few more minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the stew has come together into a moist, tumbling whole. Vignarola is best after a rest and served just warm.

P1150605

The flavours are wonderful together: artichokes tasting somewhere between best asparagus, the stem of steamed Calabrese broccoli and porcini, peas sweet and grassy, fave like buttered peas with a bitter afterthought and onions sweet and savory. But it’s the textures that really astound: the dense, velvety artichokes, the sweet explosion of pea, the smooth and waxy fave and the sly and slippery onion. Did I mention vignarola is one of my favourite things to eat?

We ate our vignarola with ricotta di pecora and bruschetta (that is toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with extra virgin olive oil) It was a good combination: the creamy, unmistakably sheepish cheese pairing well with the tender stew and the oily, garlic stroked toast.

The beauty of this dish is the cooking: part braise/part steamy simmer. The vegetables cook and roll round idly in their own juices meaning the flavours are kept as closely as guarded secrets, something Marcella Hazan calls smothered. It is – as you can probably imagine – impossible to give precise timings for vignarola as so much depends on your ingredients. Small tender artichokes may only need ten minutes, larger globes twenty. The tiniest peas may only need a minute or two, larger more mealy ones ten. Then there is the matter of taste! But isn’t there always? Do you want a brothy dish or something tumbling and moist? Adjust liquid accordingly. Do you like a lick of alcohol (I do) or would you prefer the pure taste of water?  Now I fear I have made it sound complicated! It isn’t. Best ingredients, instinct, lots of tasting and you can’t go wrong.

P1150608

I should note that a traditional Roman vignarola contains pancetta or guanciale and lettuce. I don’t generally add either but you might like to. Unless the fave are properly tender and tiny I remove their tough opaque jackets – I have noted this below – a faff I know, but a worthwhile faff. Have a glass of wine while you pop. Spring cooking in lieu of spring cleaning, Hurrah.

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, moist, tumbling whole.

Let the vignarola settle for a few minutes then serve just warm. It is also good at room temperature.

P1150611

67 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, Roman food, spring recipes, vegetables

Against the strain of modern life

P1140742

It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

P1140745

Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

P1140782

Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

P1140784

At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

P1140799

Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

P1140798

43 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes

Fat chance

P1140603

So I’m back home in Rome. Home in Rome, even after eight years that still sounds strange. It doesn’t feel strange though, it feels just right. This is due in no small part to my son, my blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who looks decidedly English, but whose gestures, countenance and fervent, slightly comical mamma suggest otherwise and who is unmistakably content to be back.

Nearly three weeks in England was, as predicted, exactly what I needed. Long enough to immerse myself in the things I pine for – not least the beauty and beast that is family – quash the nostalgia and quietly notice the things I don’t miss one jot. Long enough also to miss Rome. To really miss Rome. Which may seem surprising given my exasperation before I left!  Or maybe it’s not so surprising! My exasperation at my adopted city was after all just that: exasperation, a familiar and relatively innocuous state. A state that’s quashed as quickly as my nostalgia for London when pitted against the things I truly, deeply like about the city that saved me, not least her sublime and shambolic beauty, her unexpectability and her infuriating but alluring attitude. And these three.

P1140605

From left to right, pancetta, guanciale and lardo. But more about these marbled slices in a moment. On arriving home in Rome, having pounded and weaved our way like territorial tom cats through Testaccio and having put the small tom cat to bed (I confess that by 7 30 I love bed time more than my son?) I settled down in front of my computer with an embarrassingly large glass of red to catch up on my reading. It’s January and there’s much talk of resolution, of greens, grains, gluten-less and guices, excuse me juices. Quite right too. And then there are the Italians (and converted Italians) who – almost without exception – are talking about lardo, lardo, guanciale, pancetta and salumi. In short cured pork products with a fearless, stupendous and delicious quantity of silky, milky-white fat. Superlative fat, now how about that!

Fully embracing the idea that January is the month to insulate and relish the fatted pig (It’s traditionally the month for slaughtering and then preserving) an almost empty fridge and a rude yearning for cured pork it seemed wholly appropriate that having bought my greens and grains I should visit a fine purveyor of all things cured: Volpetti. I explained my plans to Claudio who suggested pancetta and lardo from Toscana and an aged guanciale from Le Marche. The attention and care with which he handled the pieces, cut each slice and then wrapped it first in white paper then in brown was touching. Abandon preconceptions, this is good fat, the antitheses of insidious hidden fat. This is fat to be used (sparingly) with relish and to be celebrated. Lets start with Lardo.

P1140615

Not to be confused with English lard (struttoLardo - specifically lardo from the Tuscan hamlet tucked between two marble quarries: Colonnata - is pork back fat cured in white marble trough with salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs and garlic. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough. Eleonora and Emiko thank you. It’s a glorious, silken and deeply flavored delicacy that you eat as you would any other salumi, that is by the (very thin) slice. A delicacy that defies all expectations, dispels prejudice and should make Jack Sprats wives of us all.

I first ate lardo di colonnata a little under eight years ago in Tuscany. It was sliced extremely thinly and draped nonchalantly over a mound of puree di potato. I have to admit being a little bewildered when I first saw the plate. I was beautifully bewildered when I tasted the rich, silken, aromatic lardo melting – yielding really – into the soft, warm and accommodating mash: glorious and ambrosial, this is food that lingers in mouth and memory. Time has not faded or jaded, I still feel the same beautiful bewilderment when I eat lardo di colonnata on toasted bread. A few black olives, some radishes and a glass of prosecco and I have my perfect antipasto. And after the antipasto comes il primo so lets talk about guanciale. 

P1140606

Guanciale, which is cured pork jowl (guancia means cheek or jowl) is beloved by Romans and has changed the way I cook.  It has a sweet, delicate taste that is halfway between best bacon and proper well-rendered lard. It is an exceptional ingredient that imparts its distinct sweet flavour and rich fatty nature to whatever it is added too whether that be a soup, stew, pasta, torta or braise.

I use aged guanciale – sparingly, a little goes a long way – often. I adore the deep, rich, fatty, reassuring notes it imparts to whatever it touches. The Saul Berenson of cured pork.  Many Romans consider it fundamental to authentic All’amatriciana, Carbonara or to today’s recipe, another Roman classic and my favourite these days: Pasta or Spaghetti alla gricia.

P1140617

Pasta, guanciale, cooking water, pecorino romano and black pepper: Alla gricia. This much I know. Al dente spaghetti (or rigatoni, mezze maniche or tonnarelli ) is tossed with gently sautéed guanciale: the aim is to slowly soften the guanciale, keeping it translucent never brown and crisp which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls. Drained pasta is added to the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, this starchy water is a key to the dish, emulsifying the fat to create an almost creamy sauce for the pasta. The dish is finished with a fearless amount of bold, brazen, tangy and freshly grated pecorino romano and plenty of cracked black pepper. More pecorino scattered liberally from above is recommended. Eat.

Simple to make but – as is so often the case – practice is prudent. Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking of spoon and wrist partaking required to bring the ingredients together. It goes without saying the ingredients should be authentic and the very best you can lay your hands on. If you can’t find guanciale and pecorino (I know I know fat chance) pancetta, parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but an extremely tasty dish none the less. Ben, some guanciale in exchange for a jar of seville orange marmalade?

Home in Rome chewing the fat and the spaghetti.

P1140622

Spaghetti alla Gricia

Serves 4

  • 450 g spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp lard (strutto) or olive oil
  • 150 g aged guanciale
  • 150 g  aged pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted boiling water. Meanwhile place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the lard or olive oil and place over medium heat. Slowly sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale is soft, pink and translucent and rendered it’s fat, add a small splash of water from the cooking pasta

When the pasta is al dente, set aside a cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Remove the pan from the heat and add three quarters of the the grated pecorino romano cheese and the black pepper, toss vigorously, and add another splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring the ingredients together into a soft creamy muddle. Divide between four warm bowls, scatter over the rest of the pecorino and serve immediately.

Next week pancetta, oh and cabbage.

58 Comments

Filed under antipasti, guanciale, lardo, pancetta, pasta and rice, primi, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes