Category Archives: Beans and pulses

bean eaters

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There used to be a pizzeria on Via Luca della Robbia whose sign said simply that, Pizzeria. However everyone called it il Toscano, the Tuscan, after the owner, whose name Fecini was engraved for the observant just above the door. In the mid 90’s Il Toscano was a regular haunt for Vincenzo and the rest of his misfit band as they rented a dungeon like rehearsal studio nearby. I’m told the pizzas, cooked in a wood oven, were good. Better though, were the specials that Il Toscano would reel off in such an uncompromising manner that not to order one was near impossible, even for a group of cocksure Romans, Sicilians and Calabrians. The tomatoes filled with rice were a favourite, as was the lasagna, but most beloved were the fagioli, or white cannellini beans, cooked for hours on end in a pot-bellied terra-cotta coccio (pot) in the pizza oven. The beans, fat and tender were served on a small white plate ready to be piled on bruschetta, or in a round terracotta bowl topped with a sausage.

When I arrived in Rome in 2005 Il Toscano had just closed, a fact I was in no danger of forgetting as every time we passed Vincenzo would go on about beans and how only Tuscans – known affectionately as mangia fagioli or bean eaters – knew how to cook them. Then a few years later, after a hasty kerfuffle of work, the Pizzeria reopened with a stark refit and new name; Bean, which suggested there would be cannellini.  There were, only without the brusque Tuscan, his wife, his oven and bean wisdom, the beans served were ordinary and sad. We weren’t the only ones to think so, Bean closed not that long after. Years later, my friend Laura who runs the spice shop and who used to take a bowl over to collect some beans from Il Toscano for her lunch, told me the tale. After 50 years of pizzas and convincing customers to eat beans,  il Toscano, suffering ill-health, was convinced by his family to retire. A few years later he was convinced again, this time to rent the neglected pizzeria out to the family that owns the expensive shoe shop nearby. The new owners had ideas as fancy as their Gucci and Prada shoes, but turned out to have absolutely no idea about how cook pizza or beans. ‘They even ripped out his beautiful oven‘ Laura told me while weighing out two etti of hazelnuts. ‘Idioti.’

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While all this convincing was taking place, we had begun visiting a part of southern Tuscany called Maremma for a few days each autumn. The plan was always the same; hot, sulfurous smelling springs, long walks and lunch at ordinary but good places in which we could eat acquacotta (a vegetable soup served over toasted bead and crowned with an egg) Pici all’agliata (fat hand rolled pasta with garlic and tomato sauce) and plate after plate of white beans.

Now I can understand why you might be underwhelmed at the thought of plate after plate of cannellini, after all they are only beans. However Tuscans have a way of preparing white beans that is nothing short of masterful; cooking them slowly, usually in terracotta, until their skins are imperceptible and their flesh tender but dense with an almost buttery texture. If you are lucky – as we were at La cantina in Scansano – you might come across a place that still cooks beans al fiasco, in a flask. A way that echoes the traditional habit of cooking fagioli in an old Chianti bottle; the beans dropped one by one through the narrow neck, followed by unpeeled garlic, sage leaves and olive oil before the bottle is plugged with a bit of cloth and then cooked through the night in the dying embers of the fire. Beans cooked this way sum up the Italian genius for making the simplest things simply delicious and the reason I’ll take beans, bread, local cheese and local wine over a fancy meal almost every time.

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Back from this years trip to Tuscany I decided I should at least try and cook beans like a Tuscan. So I called by Laura’s shop to buy a half kilo and asked her if she thought I could cook them without soaking. ‘Yes‘, was her reply ‘Just go slowly’. So I did, half a kilo of un-soaked beans, a good dose of extra virgin olive oil, some water, unpeeled garlic and sage in a pan at the sort of simmer that has you peering under the pan for fear the flame has gone out, for nearly four hours. While the beans simmered and the scent of garlic sage swirled around the flat, I cleaned the bathroom, folded three lots of washing, answered 27 E mails and then, most importantly, built a dinosaur out of toilet rolls.

The cooked beans, seemingly drunk on oil and water, were plump, extremely tasty and the nicest beans I have ever cooked. As a nod to the holiday and il Toscano we ate the beans with toasted bread and a glass of red for lunch. That night I re-heated another couple of ladelfuls which I topped with a sausage, Vincenzo with a lacy edged fried egg, which was, in retrospect, a little over enthusiastic, even for bean eaters like us. Good though.

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A pan of white beans to be eaten in various ways

It is not often practical or possible to cook beans for 4 hours, which is where soaking comes in; eight hours soaking in cold water and white beans will cook in about an hour. They won’t have the sultry tenderness of slow cooked beans, but they will still be delicious and another thing entirely from those tipped out of cans. Either way, a half kilo of beans yields eight portions, which for us, two adults and a little boy, means three meals. I have made some suggestions below. Try and avoid buying beans that are more than a year old by checking the harvest date. I season my beans once they are cooked. Lastly, what I understand to be the cardinal rule of cooking beans; never boil them! Bring the pan to a shuddering simmer slowly and then cook them at the lowest possible temp, so that the water barely simmers.

  • 500 g decent quality cannellini beans
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a sprig of sage leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Without soaking

I am conscious about proposing this method of cooking as I am sure I will get feedback about the need to soak (something about toxins that clearly Tuscans are immune to) flatulence and uneconomic cooking methods, However if you would like to try, put half a kilo of cannellini beans in a heavy based pan or terra-cotta pot, cover the beans with cold water, add a good glug of olive oil, two unpeeled cloves of garlic and a spring of sage and bring the pan slowly to the gentlest boil and then reduce to a barely perceptible simmer for 3 – 4 hours. Keep an eye on the water level and top it up if necessary – the water should come at least a cm above the beans until nearly the very end. The beans are ready when they are fat and tender but still holding their shape and virtually all the liquid has been absorbed. Season with salt and stir.

With soaking

Soak the beans in plenty of cold water for at 8 hours. Drain and rinse the beans, put them in a thick bottomed pan or terra-cotta pot along with the unpeeled garlic and sage and cover with cold water (it should come about 3 cm above the beans). Over a low flame, bring the pan to a simmer – skimming away any white froth – and continue cooking until the beans are tender, which will take anything from 1 – 1 /2 hours depending on the age, size and quality of the beans. Keep tasting, the beans should be tender and their skins soft but still hold their shape. Turn off the heat, season with salt, and let the beans cool in the cooking liquid.

Unless you are going to eat all the beans at once, keep the pan in the fridge, removing the beans with a slotted spoon and the broth with a ladle. Be careful not to touch the liquid with your hands as they will not keep as well.

To serve with bread or toast as starter or small meal or as a side dish

Using a slotted spoon, lift the beans you need into a small pan along with enough broth to moisten the beans. Re-heat gently over a low flame. Serve dressed with coarse salt and extra virgin olive oil.

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White beans with tuna, red onion and black olives.

Mixed some drained beans with some drained tuna (the sort conserved under olive oil is best), a little finely chopped parsley, a small red onion (if you find onion too strong, try soaking it in an inch of water with a few drops of red wine vinegar for 5 mins then draining) and a some black olives. Dress with good salt and best extra virgin, toss and serve.

White beans with garlic, sage and sausages

Warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan, add a peeled, gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and a few sage leaves and fry very gently until fragrant. Using a slotted spoon add some beans and the broth clinging to them and turn them until glistening with oil – if you like you can mash a few with the back of the spoon to make the texture creamier. Season with salt and then serve with grilled or pan-fried sausages.

White beans with tomatoes.

In a frying pan warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and fry gently until fragrant. Add three or four, peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until they are soft and a bit saucy. Using a slotted spoon, add as many white beans as you think fit, stir and cook until the beans are warmed through. Add salt and a little more oil for good measure. Eat with toasted garlic rubbed bread, or topped with a poached egg.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, winter recipes

tease out

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Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies. 

They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever – I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.

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With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.

Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion;  a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.

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I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.

Vignarola – spring vegetable stew

serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish

  • a bunch of spring onions
  • 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
  • a kilogram of peas in their pods
  • a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
  • water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed

Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.

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Filed under artichokes, Beans and pulses, fanfare, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

losing my marbles

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Years ago I signed up for a book club. Not a book club as we know them nowadays, meaning a group of people who have ostensibly read the same book meeting to discuss it while drinking the same number of bottles as participants (or maybe that is just us), but a book sales club. This book sales club ran adverts in the Guardian newspaper and I, aged eighteen and in possession of my first cheque book and ignoring the suspicious mutterings of others, was seduced by the introductory offer of a free dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia of opera and two ‘beautifully bound‘ editions: Keat’s poetry and Jane Austen’s Emma. I signed up and sent off my subscription fee in the form of a cheque for a tiny sum.

My free books arrived and they were, as promised, beautifully bound. I spent an afternoon drunk on the smell of virgin books, plastic bubble wrap and youthful hubris. I also had a sip of the catalogue listing other beautifully bound books I might like to order. Which I set aside of course, I wasn’t about to be seduced by any of that! I’d paid my fee, I’d received my free books, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. There was a printed sheet at the bottom of the box, but I didn’t read it, after all, who needs small print when you have Ode to a Nightingale, Emma Woodhouse and a small reference library?

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A month later another box of books arrived and a letter congratulating me on my decision to keep the limited edition books along with a bill for said books and three new even more bloody beautifully bound volumes they thought I might be interested in. I panic opened the whole lot, popped an entire sheet of bubble wrap in record time, read the small print, panicked some more and then took drastic action and hid the box under the bed. I did the same with the box and bill a month later.

I can’t actually remember how everything was resolved, teary admissions, regression, trips to the post office, my dad and his cheque book. Why I bring this up today is because as I dug marbled beans from their equally marbled pods a few days ago and while Luca played with an electrical socket, I remembered the infamous book club and books, one of which is on my shelf here in Rome. Books whose outsides are cloth bound and inside covers are a double spread of marbled paper;  exquisite aqueous designs in ivory and crimson that mottle, swirl and swell and are reminiscent of borlotti beans. Books like beans, or beans like books, or simply a mottled and tenuous link.

I’ve cooked borlotti beans twice this week. The first batch was fresh and used to make pasta e fagioli. The second batch was dried Borlotto di Lamon from Veneto, more subdued in colour: beige and burgundy but almost as lovely as their fresh cousins. The name borlotti by the way, come from the verb borlare or tumble and evokes the way the oldest plants grow.

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Unlike fresh borlotti, dried beans need soaking for at least eight hours and ideally overnight before being brought to the boil in fresh water and then simmered until tender and, having lost their mottled charm, turned soft chestnut-brown. They are then ready to be simmered in tomato sauce: fagioli al pomodoro.

I’ve already sung the praises of my mouli/food mill/passa verdure, my favorite kitchen tool, more than once. I will again. Nothing, except maybe a fine sieve and some deft work with the back of a spoon, gives quite the same, smooth but distinct and grainy quality to plum tomatoes/soup/ poached fruit/ root vegetables as a food mill. For this recipe, the sophisticatedly named: beans in sauce, you need 500 g of milled plum tomatoes. Having milled, crushed or blended the tomatoes you then add them to a pan in which you have sautéed a small onion, a rib of celery and a some chopped flat leafed parsley in plenty of olive oil.

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Once you have united the beans with the sauce, you stir and let the pan bubble gently for another 10 minutes or so. You may need to add a little more water as the final dish should be fluid (but not thin and runny) and roll easily from the spoon. Be generous with the seasoning. The beans are good straight away, but even better after a few hours, better still the next day when the flavours have settled and the beans have absorbed even more of sauce.

Borlotti beans, cooked until tender, so creamy and nutty and tasting somewhere between a chestnut and a kidney bean, simmered in well-seasoned smooth tomato sauce are good, tasty and satisfying to both make and eat. This is food that pleases (rather than impresses), food that calms even the most hyperactive two-year old and a mother who keeps losing her marbles.

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Fagioli al pomodoro – beans with tomato

Adapted from The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen Fant. The original recipe is for fresh beans and also includes 50 g of prosciutto fat (or guanciale) which I am sure makes it even more delicious – not that it wasn’t delicious without. It really is worth seeking out best quality plum tomatoes and beans. Three sage leaves added to the beans while they cook gives a lovely musky flavour to the beans.

serves 4

  • 1 kg of fresh borlotti in their pods or 300 g dried borlotti beans soaked overnight
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or lard
  • a small onion
  • a small rib of celery
  • a few fat stalks of flat leaved parsley
  • 500 g best quality plum tomatoes, milled or crushed
  • salt and pepper

If you are using dried beans soak them in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours or overnight. Drain the soaked beans, put them back in a heavy- based pan, cover by at least two inches with fresh water, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the beans for one hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from an hour to three to cook. Have patience. Keep the beans at a simmer and taste as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally. Add a pinch of salt after an hour of cooking. Once the beans are cooked, pull them from the heat and leave them to cook in their cooking water.

If you are using fresh beans, shell them and then boil them in salted water for about 25 minutes or until tender.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Finely chop the celery and parsley – both stalk and leaf. Warm the olive oil in a deep saute pan and add the onion, celery and parsley then saute over a gentle flame unit soft and translucent.

Mill, crush or blend the tomatoes until they are smooth and add to the onion, celery and parsley. Stir and season with salt and pepper and leave the pan simmering for 15 minutes. Add the drained beans (keep the broth), stir and leave cooking for another 10 minutes, adding a little of the bean broth if nesseary. Check seasoning. Allow the beans to sit for 10 minutes (or for hours) or so before serving.

These beans are even better the next day, maybe even better the day after that. If your kitchen is cool you can leave them overnight in the coolest corner and then reheat them gently the next day before serving., If you keep them longer than a day, store them in the fridge but remember to pull them out an hour or so before you want to gently re-heat and then eat.

We had our beans with fried eggs and pizza bianca. I am sure they would also go well with sausages or pork chop.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, food, Roman food, supper dishes, tomato sauce

it’s the key

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The Yale lock which opens the front door of our apartment block has been playing up for weeks. Some days it’s more exasperating than others. This morning being the most exasperating yet. As I wriggled and cursed my key, easing it in and then yanking it out, shoving then cajoling, and as my son lay spread-eagled on the pavement, three old men outside the bar next door provided a running commentary. ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ ‘Your son is lying on the pavement.’ ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ Sweat seeped from my brow, dislodging a contact lens on its descent to my chin. One last wiggle I decided, then I’m admitting defeat and joining the locals for an espresso with grappa. ‘Madam, your son is chewing on a cigarette butt.’ The key turned, the door opened and I grabbed Luca with one hand, the offending butt with the other and hurried inside to a chorus of disapproval.

Obviously the lift was jammed somewhere above, so we climbed. Which meant counting and sitting on every third step. Finally we reached the front door and I rummaged for the keys I had already rummaged for but then thrown back in my bagblackhole during our ascent. Keys found and duly untangled from my phone charger and miniature sheep, I pushed the odd one of the bunch into the keyhole. Or tried at least. I was cursed. It was blocked! It was the heat. My son was licking the hall floor. What’s more someone had stolen my doormat. Why would someone steal a doormat? At which point the unmistakable scent of roasting red peppers; sweet, smoky and singed, curled under the door. I looked at the flat number on the doorbell. It had seemed a rather long walk up, but what with all the sitting and counting, and it had crossed my mind the door seemed a peculiar colour, but I’d put it down to my dislodged lens. Clearly the heat was getting to me. We were on the fourth floor.

As I got lunch together and my son threw farmyard animals across the kitchen in our third floor flat, I wished we had some peppers. Surly red ones to char over a hob flame until their skins blistered and blackened and then – after a rest in a plastic bag – peeled away leaving soft, smoky-sweet and endearingly floppy pieces of pepper to be dressed with garlic and oil. We didn’t have any red peppers. Which was, on reflection, a good thing. After all it was extraordinarily hot, far too hot to be messing with hobs and flames and more importantly, we had a pan of beans, tomato and onions to eat.

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This may sound like an odd thing to eat – even crave – at this time of year, a full flavoured, slow-cooked, smothered stew of flat green beans, onion, tomato and basil. I promise you it isn’t. At least I don’t think so. Served at room temperature with a wedge of ricotta or weeping mozzarella, a slice of cold roast beef or a frilly-edged fried egg, this stew of tender beans, soft onion, fresh tomato sauce and peppery basil makes a lovely summer lunch.

It’s important to make the stew a few hours or better still the day before you want to eat it, so the flavours can settle and the sauce thicken and take hold of the beans. Ideally the green beans should be flat and so fresh they crack decisively when you break them. The tomatoes should be red, ripe but firm and with a lick of real sweetness (if they’re on the acidic side a pinch of sugar should do the trick). The key is to saute the onion until very soft in plenty of olive oil and then add the beans and stir until each piece glistens. Then you add the tomatoes and cover the pan. The steamy heat trapped under the pan lid helps the tomatoes relinquish their abundant juices at which point you remove the lid and the leave the beans to cook in this rich, red stock before it reduces into a dense sauce. The principle is much the same as peperonata.

This is a straightforward dish but one that requires attentive stirring and tasting, particularly towards the end of cooking when the beans are reaching that perfect point of tenderness and the sauce thickening and clinging. Watch the stew doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. If the sauce reduces too much before the beans are done, a spoonful or two of water should loosen things up. As I’ve already mentioned a rest is vital, ideally over night. Just remember to pull the pan from the fridge a couple of hours before lunch so the stew has time to reach room temperature and thus has that full, comely, and slightly jammy feel about it. Waiting as always is key.

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Flat green beans with tomatoes and onions

8 nice portions (it keeps beautifully for up to 3 days in the fridge)

  • A large (or two medium) white onions
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g flat green beans
  • 750 g ripe tomatoes (peeled if you wish and the chopped coarsely.)
  • a small handful of torn basil leaves

Peel and slice the onion finely. Over a medium-low flame warm the oil in a heavy-based pan (with a lid) and then sauté the onion with a pinch of salt until it is soft and translucent.

Cut or break the beans into into 2″ pieces. Add the beans to the pan and stir well until each piece is glistening with oil. Continue cooking and stirring for a few minutes.

Add the coarsely chopped tomatoes and another pinch of salt, stir and then cover the pan. After a couple of minutes uncover the pan and stir – the tomatoes should be relinquishing their juices. Cover the pan for another five minutes or so.

Once the tomatoes have given up their juice, uncover the pan and then allow it to simmer, uncovered – stirring every and then for 40 – 50 minutes or until the beans are tender and the tomatoes have reduced into a thick, rich sauce. During the last 10 minutes of cooking add the ripped basil leaves. Taste and season if necessary

Allow to sit for a couple of hours before serving. Even better made a day in advance, kept in the fridge over night and then brought to room temperature before serving.

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And after, quite along time after, two hours to be precise, the end of the ephemeral ricotta with peaches – pale, blushing ones that had been sitting on the extremely sunny balcony wall for an hour or so – and very runny honey.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, vegetables

blue book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chickpeas with greens

Adapted (slightly) from The River Cafe Cook Book.

serves 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

polish and scrub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patate e fagiolini condite  Potatoes and green beans (dressed)

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

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

Scrub the potatoes and top and tail the beans.

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

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

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

A suggestion.

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

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

Pleasingly bitter

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Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.

Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context!  I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.

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The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or –  for less tongue twisting – Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled?  I know!  This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.

Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicorya food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.

In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.

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Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.

And the meal?  It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.

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There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.

Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.

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The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria – sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local  oil.

The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.

This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil.  Now about that frolic!

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Fave e cicoria

serves 4

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale D’Italia,  Eleonora’s recipe, Elizabeth’s recipe and inspired by this

  • 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
  • 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain and rinse fave.  Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.

While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.

Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.  Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.

Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cicoria, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio