Category Archives: books

the same thing

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In the early 1980’s my grandparents decided to move from the North to the South of England. I loved Phyllis and John and was extremely happy – as we all were – that they were coming to live nearby. At the same time I felt real anxiety about my gentle Lancastrian grandpa and Yorkshire grandma moving from the reliable North Yorkshire market town they had lived in for 25 years, to our commuter town just North of London.

I remember the day they arrived for good, their mustard coloured car reversing up the drive, John in a tweed cap and driving gloves, the arm of his glasses dangling from his mouth, Phyllis hugging her handbag. Somewhere in the car there would have been a thermos flask, in it an inch of tea.

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I needn’t have worried, in no time they had established where to buy the cheapest petrol, Yorkshire tea, joined the library, several local associations and were on discussing-hiatus-hernia-terms with various neighbours over tea and fig rolls. They had also begun picking up my brother, sister and I from school once a week and then taking us to their garden flat where they would to give us tea then supervise homework until my Dad picked us up on the way home from work.

Running from Grandpa’s car up the garden path the smell of tea would greet us long before my grandma did at the front door. It was almost always the same: potatoes, carrots, onions and corned beef simmered into a stew called tattie hash which we would eat with buttered bread watching John Craven’s Newsround as the living room windows and my grandma’s specs steamed up in a comforting-claustrophobic way. My grandma would save a portion for my dad and it would sit, sweating under a plate hat, while we did our homework. When dad arrived he would balance his plate on his knee and watch the 7 o clock news. While he ate, my grandma would fuss, and Dad would tell her not to, even though I think he liked that she did.

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We loved all tattie hash as much as we loved our grandparents, and so when a school friend back for tea was rude about it, I was furious. As far as I was concerned it was beyond any sort of judgment, even less criticism. Tattie hash was like my grandma; comforting, straightforward, generous, warm and (most importantly) something you could count on.  It was also to be finished if you were to have pudding, which was mostly rice pudding or tinned peaches with evaporated milk, the fruit syrup curdling the milk, which sounds unsavory but isn’t. Or is it? Again, it was beyond criticism.

But then I did criticize. I was about 12 and in horrid mood the day I told my grandma that tattie hash was sloppy and boring, that only old people ate the same thing again and again. I wanted to take back the words as soon as they came out and I watched the hurt shoot across my grandma’s forehead like a crack. A few years earlier she would have said something sharp back, but not then. I said sorry many times, but it never felt enough.

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I still wish I could take the words back. While I was at it, I would also thank her for all the buttons sewn back on, holes in the elbows of jumpers darned, holes in knees plastered, purple fruit pastils saved and tell them both how important tattie hash Tuesdays were, those comforting-claustrophobic evenings in the maisonette flat on Cowper road. I would also tell them that after years of kicking against any sort of routine, I now like nothing more than making the same thing again and again; pasta and tomato sauce mondays, roast chicken tuesdays (which means chicken soup wednesdays). Pasta e fagioli Fridays.

Pasta and beans! Well that does sound exotic’  Phyllis might have said if she were still here.

That would give me heart burn‘ my grandpa might have said from the sofa (everything gave him heartburn).

Oh John, do give over! Pasta and beans sounds lovely Rach. Now lets have a cup of tea and you can tell me more about the part of Rome you live in, Testicles is it?’

‘Testaccio grandma, it’s called Testaccio. Well there is a market you would love and……’

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Pasta e fagioli too, is comforting, straightforward, generous, warm and (most importantly) food to be counted on. Which is why is I have written about it twice and mentioned it countless times here. This version is for fresh borlotti and fresh pasta and is one of my favorite things to eat.

Pasta e fagioli

400 g fresh borlotti beans (this about a kilo of beans in their pods)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
a sprig of fresh rosemary
500 g fresh tomatoes.
salt and pepper
300 g fresh egg pasta

Cover the beans with enough cold water that it comes at least 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a very gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer for 30 mins for until the beans are tender but still firm.

Meanwhile in a large, deep saute pan or casserole, warm the olive oil over a low flame, add the peeled and gently crushed garlic cloves and rosemary and fry them gently until fragrant. Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan, raise the flame just a little and cook the tomatoes for ten minutes until soft and saucy. Add beans and a ladleful of bean cooking water then let the pan bubble away for another 10 minutes. Season with salt generously.

Add another couple of ladleful of bean cooking water and then the pasta. Continue cooking, stirring pretty attentively until the pasta is tender. You may well need to add a little more water. Serve immediately and eat.

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Talking of Phyllis and John I wonder what they would have had to say about the cover of the book. Plenty, I imagine. It is – as you can see – a picture of my kitchen sink, a large quantity of apricots from my friend Jeannie’s tree, a scrubbing brush, a bottle opener, a bottle of limonata and a jam jar of parsley. Oh and a roll of kitchen towel, an enormous, useful thing that if I had thought twice about the picture, I might have moved. I am glad I didn’t. We looked at dozens of my pictures but this was the one –  snapped as I cooked one day – that we kept coming back to. Now cover chosen, writing done and pictures taken (all the food shots are mine taken in real time meaning meal time/ the beautiful and honest shots of Testaccio taken by brilliant Nick Seaton) the book just needs putting together. I say just! The publishing date in The UK is June next year but you can pre-order if you wish. The book will be published in the US in early 2016. Meanwhile I am looking forward to being back here a lot more.- R

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Filed under Beans and pulses, books, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, winter recipes

Thursday therefore

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Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not the most alluring start I know, but a sound start and one I’m sure Jocasta Innes, who died last week aged 78, would have approved of. This week I’ve found myself cooking from her Pauper’s cookbook and marveling anew at her thrifty flair and inventive recipes that prove you can eat extremely well for very little. Her carmine kitchen walls, well hung pans, black leather trousers and self-confessed ‘party slut’ years, I’ve been marveling at those too. What a woman!

Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not taut and waxy, full and blousey or tiny, soil-encrusted new potatoes though, save those for a well-dressed salad, a good mashing or as mint-scented chaperones for a pair of tender lamb chops. A bag of what my home economics teacher Mrs Carrington would have called boilers or everyday potatoes, the tuber equivalent of a reliable friend; neither waxing lyrical or liable to collapse into a mealy heap just when you need them. You will also need a large pan of cold water, salt, a food mill or potato ricer, plain flour, a knife and fork, and about an hour.

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In Rome it’s traditional to eat Gnocchi di patate on Thursdays. Press your nose up against a misted up window pane or peer round the door of any traditional trattoria on any given Thursday and will almost certainly see gnocchi di palate or gnocchi del Giovedi chalked up on the blackboard. Peer persistently and you might well catch sight of the Gnocchi being whisked from kitchen to table: steaming bowls of small, pale dumplings, forked on one side, thumb depressed on the other, sitting nonchalantly in simple sauce.

To add eggs, or not to add eggs: that is the question. In Rome the answer is – as far as I understand – resolutely yes. Eggs are mixed with floury (farinoso) potatoes and a generous amount of flour which produces stout, well-bound and thus well-behaved gnocchi. The kind of gnocchi that can withstand a rowdy, rollicking boil in an equally rowdy trattoria kitchen. 1 kg potatoes, two whole eggs and 300 g of flour seems more or less the general Roman consensus, give or take a very strong opinion.

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Then there are the gnocchi di patate of the north, made with just potato and the scantest amount of flour. Tender, billowy gnocchi. Gnocchi that wouldn’t stand a chance up against a couple of Roman dumplings in a dark pan. I like gnocchi di patate made both with and without eggs, but last Thursday, in the mood for something delicate and channeling Jocasta (about time too, these are lean times and my domestic management is appalling) I pulled Marcella Hazan from the shelf.

I had several disheartening experiences before finding my way with gnocchi di patate. The key, according to Marcella, is what she too calls boilers, trustworthy potatoes that are neither too waxy nor – and this is important – too floury which all too often means the eggless, scantily floured gnocchi disintegrate and disappear like so many ships into the rolling salted water.

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Having scrubbed your potatoes, you boil them whole in their skins until tender. As soon they are cool enough to handle you peel them and then press them through the food mill or potato ricer and into butter-coloured heap of tiny potato threads on the work surface. Working quickly while the mixture is still warm, you start by adding salt and just three-quarters of the flour, hoping it is enough to bring the potato into a delicate but workable dough. If necessary, you cautiously add the rest of the flour. You divide and roll the dough into five, fat sausages which you then cut into small pieces. A light touch is required.

To finish, you gently gently press each gnoccho against the inside of a fork with your thumb. This way, one side is branded with four prongs, the other a thumb sized indent, all intended to help the sauce gather and cling obediently. Keep the work surface, your hands, your child and the gnocchi well dusted with a (fine) blizzard of flour. The water must be plentiful, as salty as the sea and boiling steadily but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi in at a time. Once they bob like excited children to the surface, let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them gently from the water to a warm serving plate onto which you have spooned a little sauce.

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And the sauce. Browned butter: comely, rich and reminiscent of hazelnuts, is just delicious (isn’t it always) with gnocchi di patate, especially if scented with some musty, camphorous sage. However keeping Jocasta in mind and using what I had, I decided a large tin of plum tomatoes that had, been sitting neglected behind the beans should be milled and simmered with a few leaves of basil into a smooth, dense sauce.

It was a good lunch, the gnocchi tender and tasting so purely of potato, the tomato and basil sauce simple and clinging faithfully. Even with a (frugal) dust of parmesan, – granular, salty cheese makes a particularly heavenly contrast with the humble sweetness of potato – I estimate gnocchi di patate al sugo for four costs under €3, a true pauper’s lunch, which is something I have thinking about lately. I didn’t have any wine, which was appropriate but disappointing, so I raised a forkful of gnocchi to Jocasta instead. The beauty of modest resourcefulness. I think she would have approved. Thursday therefore gnocchi.

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Gnocchi di patate al sugo    Potato gnocchi with tomato sauce

Adapted from recipes in Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’ arte di mangiar bene and Marcella Hazan’s The essentials of classic Italian cooking and the ever trustworthy Le ricette regionali Italiane.

Adding eggs to the dough does make it more manageable, especially if your potatoes are very floury. It also makes the gnocchi more substantial, which many people (Romans) prefer. I leave that decision to you, your potatoes and gnocchi experimenting. If you do decide to add eggs, add two for every kg of flour. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the food mill or potato ricer – both indispensable for gnocchi. Both indispensable in the kitchen per se, particularly the food mill. It is my favourite kitchen tool.

serves 4

  • 800 g boiling potatoes (medium-sized and all more or less the same size)
  • 150 g plain, unbleached flour (plus more for sprinkling and dusting)
  • salt
  • a large tin (580 ml) of best quality Italian plum tomatoes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a clove of garlic
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • freshly grated parmesan

Scrub (but don’t peel) the potatoes. Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, well-salted water and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes then once cool enough to handle peel them. Pass the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer onto the work surface. Add a pinch of salt and three-quarters of the flour to the potatoes and bring them together into a dough. The dough should be very soft and smooth – you may or may not need the final quarter of flour. A light touch is required.

Divide the dough into quarters. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour and roll the quarters into long sausage-like rolls about 2cm/ 1″ thick. Cut the roll into pieces 2cm long. Using your thumb gently press each piece with the back of a fork which will mean you have fork indents on one side and a small thumb depression on the other. Sprinkle the pieces very lightly with flour.

Make the sauce. Pass the tin of tomatoes through a food mill or blast with an immersion blender. Warm some olive oil in heavy-based pan and saute the garlic until fragrant and golden. Add the tomato and basil, bring to the boil and the reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or so or until the tomato has reduced significantly into a dense, spoon coating sauce. Taste and season with salt. Spread a little of the sauce in the bottom of the warm serving dish or bowl.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a gentle rolling boil, but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi into the pan. Once they bob back to the surface let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them from the water and onto the serving dish. Spread a little more sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. Repeat with the next 15 gnocchi.

When all the gnocchi are cooked and on the serving dish, pour over the remaining sauce, sprinkle with more parmesan and serve immediately.

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Filed under books, gnocchi, potatoes, primi, recipes, Roman food, tomato sauce

Plan for a flan

As a rule I like my spinach served simply. That is: washed and then cooked in a heavy pan under an equally heavy lid with nothing more than the water that still clings to its crinkled leaves, drained (well,) cooled (slightly) and served just warm on a white plate. I’ll dress it myself if you don’t mind, with extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon.

The dapper Signore sitting at the other end of our long table in the trattoria Sostanza likes his spinach this way too. Having finished his bistecca alla fiorentina he turned his attention to the small, oval dish of dark-green leaves, dressing them as stylishly as he had himself that morning – scatter, drip, flick, squeeze, twist. Then – having adjusted his napkin and sipped his red wine – he took his fork in one hand and a nub of bread in the other and ate his green mound.  As his plates were lifted away our elegant table companion caught the waiters eye, murmured il solito (the usual) and seconds later was presented with five almond cantuccini and a small glass of vin santo. He ate and sipped and ate and sipped. Then, fingers dusted, mouth dapped and napkin folded, il signore made his way to the marble counter, exchanged intimate words with both waiters, paid, raised his hand to the kitchen and left leaving domani (tomorrow) echoing around the small white-tiled trattoria.

It was during that same stay in Florence that I came across a book containing a spinach recipe enticing enough to make another exception to the rule. Luca and I were visiting my London friends Kitty, Cicely and Laura who were staying just outside the city. Lunch at Trattoria Sostanza – a clatter of plates to share: Sopressata, tortellini in brodo, penne al ragu, bistecca alla fiorentina, pollo al burro, tartino di carciofi, bollito with salsa verde, stracotto di manzo, porcini and copious red wine – followed by gelato had left us jocund and well sated. We really didn’t need any supper.

No supper that is, apart from the globe artichokes Laura simmered in a lemon scented bouillon, the arcs of fennel, curls of radicchio, new season olive oil, slices of glistening lardo on toast and squares of Kitty’s walnut studded Castagnaccio. We ate, drank vino novello and talked about food, tights and other people’s business. Then something in the conversation prompted Laura to pull a book from the shelf.

Now this is probably going to seem contradictory considering what I do and write here, but I have an odd relationship with recipe and food books these days, finding that most of them – however beautifully composed, photographed and styled – leave me both over and underwhelmed, stuffed, starved and strangely uninspired. That said – as with spinach – there are exceptions.

One such exception is the red book pulled from the shelf. A book I now possess. A book called Beaneaters and bread soup written by Laura’s friends (and employers at the Towpath in London) food writer Lori di Mori and photographer Jason Lowe. The book is a collection of evocatively written portraits of Tuscan food producers and craftsman whose work relates to the culinary arts, including a beekeeper, a shepherd and cheesemaker, a tripe vendor, a knife maker, a cook, a winemaker, a coffee roaster and a Lardo di Colonnata producer. Each portrait is followed by several appropriate recipes. The writing is exquisite and compelling, the photography stunning but utterly unpretentious and the food producers inspiring. I’ve decided I want to keep bees. And then there are the recipes: bean and bread soups aplenty, braises, intriguing pasta, plump grains, game, dark green vegetables, marvels with chestnuts, figs, apricots, almonds, chocolate and of course lashings of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. I want to make everything.

Lately I’ve become a little obsessed with boiled beef so I began with the bollito di manzo. I served it, as suggested with mayonnaise and salsa verde! It was the best I’ve ever made! At least I think it was, I’d consumed rather a lot of red wine so it’s possible my judgement was impaired. It was also far too dark to even consider taking pictures. I plan to make it again next week. I’ve also made the olive oil cake and the sformato di spinaci or spinach flan.

Actually this is my third in 10 days. It’s quite simply brilliant and delicious. How to describe it? Well, it’s a sort of superlative constructed creamed spinach. Or you could describe it as bed whose base is crisp breadcrumbs, whose mattress is a plump spinach soufflé and whose cover is a soft, warm, quivering blanket of béchamel. Does that make any sense?  Maybe it’s best I explain how you make it.

First you make your béchamel: A good pan with a heavy base is important, remember the butter and flour roux should cook until thick without turning brown! Also keep whisking and whisking. Then while your béchamel is cooling you cook the spinach as usual – that is in heavy pan under a heavy lid with only the washing water still clinging to the leaves – until completely wilted. Once the spinach is cool enough, you squeeze out the access water, chop it coarsely and then mix it with 3 egg yolks, freshly grated parmesan, a dollop of the bechamel and season with salt and pepper before folding in the egg whites you have patiently mounted.

Now the layers. First the butter, smeared generously on the base and sides of your baking tin. Then a layer of fine breadcrumbs scattered on the butter. Next a layer of spinach on the breadcrumbs and after that a (glorious) layer of béchamel. To finish, a shower of grated parmesan. The flan needs about 25 minutes in the oven. It then needs – as so many dishes do – a rest, lets say 15 minutes, so the flavors can settle, the crumbs tighten, the egg-bound-spinach firm slightly and the bechamel settle into a soft but significant layer.

And to drink, the end of a very nice bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti.

The first of my three flans was made for an unpredictable supper with my parents two weeks ago. I prepared the flan in the afternoon. Then once I’d heard the plane had landed I slid the pale, slightly wobbly tinful into the oven and opened the wine. The airport pantomime and train journey from the airport to my flat took longer than expected, meaning the flan sat on top of the (still slightly warm) stove for 40 minutes and I drank rather too much of the wine. I considered warming the flan again, but I’m glad I didn’t as it was a just right and a pretty perfect supper with a fennel salad. Last thing – I am going to sing the praises of my enamel baking tin once again, it is the best kitchen purchase I have made in a long time. Romans we have Emanuela. Otherwise here.

Sformato di spinaci Spinach flan

Serves 4 (6 at a push but who the heck wants to push) as a main course.

Adapted from  a recipe in Beaneaters and breadsoup by Lori di Mori and Jason Lowe

  • 1.5 kg spinach
  • 3 large eggs
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 50 g parmesan
  • nutmeg
  • 1 litre / 2 pints whole milk
  • bay leaf
  • 80 g butter plus more for smearing the dish
  • 80 g plain flour
  • fine breadcrumbs for dusting the tin.

Set the oven to 180°

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt and black pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick. Allow the sauce to sit for 10 minutes.

Pick over the spinach, discarding withered or discoloured leaves and particularly tough stalks. Wash it in several changes of cold water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no extra water (enough will be clinging to the leaves to stop it burning until the leaves start giving out their juice.) Put a heavy lid on the pan and then stand over a low/moderate flame. After about five minutes, give the leaves a prod and a stir. Raise the heat so the spinach cooks more rapidly. Continue cooking 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.

Put the spinach in a large bowl and then chop it roughly with scissors. In a small bowl beat the three egg yolks lightly with a fork and then stir them into the spinach. Add 30 g of parmesan, 3 tablespoons of béchamel, salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. In a clean dry bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the spinach mixture.

Smear your (23 x 30cm) baking tin generously with butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the breadcrumbs. Pour the béchamel evenly over the spinach. Scatter the remaining parmesan on top of the béchamel.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese golden. Let the flan rest for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour before serving.

Update – there have been a couple of helpful comments about the quantity of béchamel. There is a lot – 1 litre – which I think works with a large tin. I suggest you pour the béchamel cautiously, and don’t use it all if your dish is smaller or you feel it might be too much. Also the béchamel should be thick (but not stiff) and coating the back of a spoon (you know the way) so make sure you cook it enough.

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Filed under Book review, books, Eggs, flans, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, spinach

Just right.

Things have shifted. I’m not talking about the big things, even though they too seem to be shuffling, extremely slowly into a different, more comfortable sort of order. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday things: the daily routine with my little boy, the state of my flat, my waxing and plucking (it was out of control) my writing here, my reading, my teaching and life in my small, oddly shaped Roman kitchen.

Unexpectedly, after a period of swatting days and meals away like flies and after a summer of feeling cross and impatient with my kitchen, my food and myself, I seem to have found a new rhythm. A nice, uncharacteristically steady (and slightly jaunty) rhythm.  I’m also managing better: the shopping, the fridge, the planning of meals, the process of cooking itself. I’ve stopped worrying about making something clever and out of character to write about here and focused instead on what suits me (and Luca) now, in September, in Rome. I’ve returned to habits that had slipped away, making do, making stock, making double, making triple (tomato sauce), of soaking beans, big bags of them, which means the base and a head start of two, three, maybe even four meals. I’ve been – for once – using my loaf.

So with another wedge of three-day-old-bread on the counter, ricotta salata in the fridge, tomato season sprinting to the finish line and with me bobbing along to this new, unexpected rhythm, there was no debate. No debate as to which recipe to make from Luisa’s book, the first book I have properly buried my head in and inhaled since Luca was born a year ago. It would be Tomato Bread Soup.

But before I talk about Luisa’s Tomato bread soup and the moment ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft’  I’d like to talk a little about her book, a memoir with recipes, My Berlin Kitchen.

Having followed her blog The Wednesday Chef for five years, I already knew Luisa was a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was a skilled and engaging recipe writer – she was of course a cookbook editor. I also knew she was charming, funny and generous – she was one of the first to give my blog a deep nod of approval. I had high hopes and hefty expectations. I was even a little nervous as I ripped open the grey bag from Viking press, smoothed the slightly matt cover, admired the boots and thought ‘I’ve got a bag like that‘ and opened the first inky smelling page.

It’s delicious. It’s a beautiful and intelligently written account of a young woman’s life so far. A life that weaves and navigates its way between three cultures: German, American and Italian. A life in which this necessary but often baffling weaving is understood and managed through food, through nourishing others and being nourished. It’s evocative writing that seizes all your senses: taste, smell, touch, sound and sight, but writing that manages to remain as sharp as a redcurrant, pertinent and never cloying. I particularly liked reading about Luisa’s early childhood in West Berlin in the late 1970’s. Fascinating stuff, especially when Luisa teetered on the edge of something much darker. I’d like to learn more. I loved reading about Luisa’s Italian family and her food education, an enlightenment of sorts, a process that resonated strongly with me and my own experiences here in Italy. I’m itching to visit Berlin now, next spring I think. I’ll hire a bike and pedal my way around the city before finding myself some pickled herrings, potato salad and plum-cake.

Then there are the recipes, of which there are more than 44, fitting neatly and beautifully into the narrative. Which of course is the point, a memoir with food! Food and recipes that help you understand and taste a life. Terrific stuff. And so to the recipe I had no difficulty in choosing, an Italian one on page 82, one of the simplest, one of Luisa’s favorites and one of mine too: Tomato and Bread Soup or Pappa al pomodoro.

Pappa means , quite literally, mush and pomodoro, as you know, tomato. Mush of tomatoes. Stay with me. Pappa al pomodoro is classic Italian comfort food, born out of necessity, thrift and good taste. Excellent tomatoes are cooked with a fearless quantity of extra virgin olive oil,  plump garlic and a hefty pinch of salt until they are soft and pulpy. Cubed stale bread from a coarse country loaf is then added to the pan and everything cooked for another 10 minutes. This is moment Luisa captures so well, the moment when ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft.’  The pan is then left to cool – as we know good things come to those who wait – and the flavors mellow. The Pappa al pomodoro is then served with grated ricotta salata and torn basil. Delicious and exquisite, a little like Luisa and her book which was released this week. Thank you for sending me a copy Vikings and tanti auguri to you Luisa.

Now I would happily eat pappa al pomodoro twice a week, every week, especially if every now and then it was topped with a lacy edged fried egg or quivering poached one. I can’t of course, eat it every week, what with it being such a strictly seasonal panful. Of course it’s this seasonality that makes Pappa al pomodoro even more of a pleasure, a treat.  Make it now while tomaotes are still in fine form.

Luca has never eaten so much lunch in his year-long life. Viva la pappa (thanks Jo.)

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Serves 2 hungry people. It could serve 4 at a push but who wants to push!

  • 3 llbs / 1.5 kg fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cubed, crustless sourdough or peasant bread
  • 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh basil leaves

Core and quarter the plum tomatoes. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor and pulse a few times to chop them coarsely, you don’t want tomato puree.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart / 4 litre saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, Add the tomatoes and their juices. season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

When the soup has simmered for 45 minute, add the cubed bread and simmer for another 10 minutes, Check seasoning and discard the garlic.

Serve slightly cooled or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn over each serving.

My notes.

I didn’t measure my oil but it was a mighty glug, I’d say about 5 tbsp. My tomatoes, a variety called Piccadilly had particularly thick skins so I peeled them. I don’t have a food processor so I chopped the tomatoes roughly by hand which seemed to work pretty well. I didn’t add onion. I left the garlic in the soup until I served it. My soup was fanatically thick by the end of cooking so I added a little water to loosen everything. I forgot the basil, there was something missing.

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Filed under Book review, books, bread, food, soup, summer food, The Wednesday Chef, tomatoes, vegetables

Fergus Henderson’s Salt cod, Potato and Tomato.

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I have been mulling over how to write this post for 3 days now, I have started it at least 5 times only to delete everything, put the computer to sleep and mull some more. You see, I just can’t seem to find the appropriate and fitting words to pay tribute to a chef , a restaurant, a book and a recipe.

The 4 objects of my procrastination are chef, Fergus Henderson, his restaurant St John, his book, Nose to tail eating and his recipe, salt cod, potato and Tomato.

My usual list of superlatives and excessive adjectives for praise just don’t seem right for the above 4, even though many of them are bouncing around in my mouth like a class of unsupervised over excited, hyperactive 5 year olds when I think of any one of this quartet - brilliant, inspiring, cult, classic, tour di force, awesome (did I ever say that, ok, slap my face and wash my mouth out with salt water). I would like to write something that at least vaguely honours the style of all 4, unpretentious, straightforward, without an ounce of hyperbole. So, how about, just great, oh, and considering this is all about food, lets put the emphasis on the latter part of the word, as in grEAT.

To write something I am vaguely happy with, maybe I need to take myself back to when I first encountered Fergus Henderson’s cooking about 8 years ago. My  friend Joanna took me to St John. It had been open about a year, we ate in the bar, anchovy toast, welsh rarebit, hard boiled eggs with celery salt, a salad with crispy pigs tails, roast bone marrow with parsley salad. I knew nothing about the fast growing fervour for this white, cavernous, ex- smokehouse of a restaurant, even less about the man at the stove with a penchant for cooking way beyond the fillet. I just knew the place was wonderful, the food simple, honest, original and utterly delicious, the staff really nice and the experience, well great.

Lots of visits ensued, usually with Joanna, occasionally in the restaurant but mostly in the bar, each experience like the first, great. I bought the book, I took it home, its great. The recipes, to make that simple, honest, original and utterly delicious food are, yes, GREAT.

That’s it, that’s what I wanted to say, the aforementioned 4 I have been mulling over are, well great. My over excited, hyperactive 5 year old words are bouncing again, stop it Rachel, you have said enough.

Now, the book. Much has been written, feverish admiration, squeals, commotion about FH’s masterful way with lesser used cuts and bits of beasts, noses, tails, spleens, hearts and feet. FH’s reclaiming the inspired use everything, of nose to tail – something French an Italian mothers have never forgotten, that the trotters, necks, kidneys, intestines and to put it bluntly, blood and guts, in the hands of a thoughtful and gentle cook are some of the most delicious, flavoursome morsels you can eat (if meat is your thing.)

The book is nose to tail of the beast heavy, 73 of the 139 recipes. But just say I developed a life threatening allergy to all things beast, (which would be a terrible thing) I would still prize and return joyfully to this book for the fish, vegetable, salad and sweet recipes which are every bit as wonderful as the rest.

Finally to the recipe.

No, I have not developed a life threatening allergy to all things beast, I just fancied some salt cod when I thumbed through Nose to Tail last Wednesday. Actually it wasn’t entirely by chance I chose something starring salt cod, it had been on my mind ever since the day before, when I read that one of FH’s favorite cooking play-lists includes the soundtrack of Zorba the greek and that he fell in love with his wife while dancing to it and discussing salt cod.

Yes, lets discuss salt cod, not in great detail I hasten to add, I will leave that to wikipedia. I know this is another ingredient which provokes delight or revulsion rather than indifference, the particular smelling salted and preserved pieces of cod which when carefully soaked can produce the most delicious platefuls – I should just add that salt cod if different to stock fish which is dried cod.

I fall onto the delight side of the fence and I consider myself lucky – you may say unlucky I suppose, if you fall onto the revulsion side – because Italians are lovers and masters of cooking salt cod, known as Baccalà. You can buy it everywhere here in Rome, where the cooking of salted and preserved cod (the worlds oldest method of food preserving) is shrouded in history, religion and faith, politics and commerce and for many, the weekly ritual of eating it.

baccala

You can buy salt cod ready soaked, but I prefer to soak it myself because its cheaper and if its over salted or over soaked and fuzzy, I am to blame, not left cursing somebody else. There is some soaking time involved, any thing from 14 – 48 hours and about 8 water changes depending on the size of the piece – are you gasping, ok, buy the ready soaked.

So this fine recipe is as I promised before, simple. honest, and utterly delicious.

Flakes of salt cod, its robust yet delicate and pleasingly chewy texture quite unlike fresh cod tossed with roasted small tomatoes, garlic, and pebble like cubes of boiled potatoes. The 4 are dressed simply with the sticky, oily, tomato and garlic juices which collected in the roasting tin and a big handful of chopped parsley.

We ate in warm for lunch with some Focaccia to mop up the juices.

Vincenzo declared it delicious and we raised our glasses to the fine Quartet of chef, restaurant, book and recipe.

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Fergus Henderson’s Salt cod, Potato and Tomato.

Adapted from Fergus Hendersons Nose to tail eating.

  • 8oog vine tomatoes
  • 12 cloves of garlic, peeled.
  • sea salt and pepper
  • about 200ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1kg flavoursome potatoes
  • 1kg salt cod, soaked as required,carefully patted dry, skinned, small bones picked out and cut into 3cm chunks
  • a big handful of parsley roughly chopped

Chop your tomatoes in half and place them with the peeled garlic in a oven dish, sprinkle with salt and dribble over the oil.

Roast in a medium oven, about an hour, until the tomatoes are soft and giving and just a little caramelized at the edges,

Peel the potatoes and boil under tender. Drain and allow to cool enough to handle and then chop into rough chunks.

Gentle poach the cod pieces in a shallow pan of simmering water for 5 minutes and then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen towel.

In a large bowl mix the tomatoes, garlic, potato chunks, poached cod. Tip over the sticky, tomatoey, juices from the roasting tin and another glug of oil if you think it needs it. Add the roughly chopped parsley, season carefully with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Mix the ingredients together gently but firmly so the flavours mingle, the cod will crumble, this is good.

Serve just so with good bread.

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A passion for cookbooks

I know I am not alone in my love, and that is what it is, love, for cookbooks. I know many many others live like me, with an urgent need to read, use, touch, flick through, idle over, buy, collect, protect, refer to, take to bed and hoard cookbooks.

It started when I was very little indeed gazing up at my Mums small but perfectly formed and beloved collection sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. I knew they were important, I knew inside those well thumbed volumes lay the secrets of all the delicious things we ate. They were also out of reach and thus all the more intriguing. I quickly discovered the clambering and balancing act required to reach them and my inquisitiveness was rewarded with my very own cookbook, my first, a small penguin hardback which I seem to remember had a recipe for cheese and pineapple hedgehog. Now I too could take my cookbook, choose a recipe and open out the page on the work surface before commencing the cooking,  just like my Mum.

Looking back my Mum almost always had a cookbook open in front of her even when she knew the recipe backwards, reassurance I suppose, a friend. As I grew older and taller and having donated the penguin book to my little sister ‘this is for babies’ I probably said scornfully. I began to frequent my mums cookbooks and my passion really began. I entered a world of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food, French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food, Bread, and her glorious essays in An omelette and a glass of Wine. I encountered Jane Grigson’s masterful books on English Food, Good Things, her Vegetable book, Fruit book, Fish book. I was enchanted by Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. I met Eliza Acton and Mary Berry. It didn’t matter that the books were maybe too sophisticated for a pretentious teenager, reading the recipes was almost hypnotic. I loved the way the books, many of which were penguin paperbacks, fell open at certain pages. The way English food page 323 bore the evidence of many Christmas cakes made with love and eaten by my Dad for weeks after Christmas. I learned to cook with my mum and these where the books that guided and comforted us.

Some where around seventeen I lost my way, for a long time. During these years I had books, cooked…… but it was not very happy.

It was only a few years ago, three and a half to be exact when I had moved to Rome, happier and healthier that I reacquainted myself with the books the cooking and eating I had loved so much. My cookbooks were some of the only things I brought with me. I began to read and use and appreciate them as I had as a teenager, but now with adults eyes. Of all the books it was those by Elizabeth David’s and Jane Grigson’s that really recaptured me. Of course it was the glorious recipes, but more than that, it was the way in which both women wrote, it  enchanted me, masterful, scholarly but at the same time utterly engaging, honest and enticing food writing of the very highest quality.

Reacquainted with cookbooks and eagerly cooking I began seeking out copies of the Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson books I didn’t have. Then through these books I was inspired to seek out Auguste Escoffier, Antonin Carème, Robert May, Ambrose Heath, Dorothy Hartley, Hannah Glasse, Patience Grey and Primrose Boyd, Richard Olney. It didn’t stop there, after alI was living in Italy in a sort of gastronomic frenzy, I needed some Italian cookbooks. I began buying, borrowing, furrowing in markets for Italian cookbooks Artusi, Marcella Hazan, Ada Boni, a 1964 and a 1979 copy of il Cucchiaio d’Argento with tenicolour photography vivid enough to make your eyes water…….. I was in heaven. But, I reasoned with myself, all these Italian cook books, I really mustn’t let go of my English roots. Severals trips to London and Daunt Books saw the purchase of books by Simon Hopkinson, Furgus Henderson, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley – Whittingstall, Colin Spenser, Alan Davidson and Gillian Riley.

After my London book buying sprees and the hefty assess baggage charges I paid to heave them back to Rome I did pause for breath and then I slowed down and then I stopped for a while. Stopped buying that is, not reading, using, touching, flicking through, idling over, taking to bed, protecting, referring to and hoarding.

I do still have a list of books I really do need though.

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The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, Second Edition edited by Tom Jaine

Considered by many to be the best food reference book ever to appear in the English language, The Oxford Companion to Food is a magnificent and unique repertory of food, food history and culinary expertise. The inimitable and extraordinary Alan Davidson compiled and famously wrote over eighty percent of the first edition over a twenty year period producing a work of breathtaking wisdom, exquisite detail of the foods which nourish mankind and one touched magically by his erudite charm and wit. The second edition retains almost every word he wrote and is beautifully and thoughtfully updated by Tom Jaine and Alan’s wife Jane Davidson.

I never tire of reading, referring, flicking, protecting and appreciating this book

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