Category Archives: fanfare

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

water everywhere

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The first time I visited Saturnia I didn’t even go and look at the thermal springs. My reluctance was a combination of a flying visit, overcast skies, an overcast state of mind and the impression I was being asked to visit a muggy stream. The muggy, foul-smelling steam flanked with giant cane that ran across the ploughed fields and under the road we had just argued our way down. I spent the afternoon at the agriturismo reading, feeling overcast but stubbornly righteous as the rest of the group disappeared into the mist armed with costumes and towels.

Three years later and I now know what other (wiser, less stubborn) people have known for thousands of years; there is stream, only it isn’t muggy. It is a fast, foaming torrent of warm water, appearing milky-blue against the calcium-coated rock, its sulphurous vapours entirely forgivable. It is a source that erupts from deep within the volcanic earth – at which point a clever man built a spa – before surging across a field and then bursting into an almost unreal cascade by an old mill. A cascade reminiscent of a champagne fountain, the smooth, shallow travertine pools like a cluster of old-fashioned saucer glasses, the foaming water flowing like formula 1 spumante. It is a startling place of natural beauty.

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Our Hotel was just meters from the cascade. Consequently – come rain or more rain or shine – we spent much of our time in the water, arms wide on the curved lip of our chosen pool, water pummeling our necks, cleansing, exfoliating, softening, circulation stirring while we watched the most fantastically eclectic, occasionally bonkers, crowd do exactly the same thing. For the rest, we explored a part of Maremma.

Maremma is a large territory that saddles lower Tuscany and higher Lazio. It is a variegated place; vast flat plains fit for cowboys (Butteri), bleak cities, coniferous and metalliferous hills, exquisite hill-top towns, swampy natural park and coastal retreats: some craggy, others sandy. We were in Fiora Valley, five minutes from Saturnia, a rich, deep-green land of dense forest, undulating hills covered with vines, olive groves, oaks and chestnuts, of medieval hill-top towns their fortified walls rising like stone crowns.

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I read so obsessively about the food before the holiday I was almost weary of it by the time we arrived (a sharp editing lesson that too much suggestion of delicious, hearty, rustic, humble and bumble can leave people cool). I was jolted out my weariness short sharp.

Most of the places at which we ate were in small towns in the midst of groves and vines, meaning the oil and wine was produced just meters away. Sulphurous soil and thermal springs reap full-flavoured things, and so our meals were rich with excellent local produce; game, cured meat, sheep’s cheese, wild herbs, pulses, recently bottled fruit and vegetables. You can quite literally taste the land. Local salame with unsalted bread and pecorino with local honey, crostini topped olive paste, rosemary scented lardo and herb pesto, hand rolled pici pasta with garlic and tomato sauce, ravioli filled with ricotta and wild herbs, pappardelle with wild boar, white beans cooked in a flask and then dressed with olive oil, slow cooked meat with olives and fast seared steaks, grilled porcini mushrooms and of course acquacotta.

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Literally translated acquacotta means cooked water, it is – broadly speaking – a simple vegetable soup, served over day old bread and topped with an egg. Over 6 days we ate eight bowls of acquacotta, in six different places, each one different, each one good. Everyone I asked about the recipe said bread and water are fundamental, that onion and celery are important, but then it depends what you have; tomatoes, carrot, spinach, chard, herbs. The three best acquacotta were acutely different, one deep-red and tomato heavy, another brothy with spinach and wild mint, the third (my favourite) a dense stew of celery and onion with just a little tomato.

These days my holiday souvenirs are usually an injury, something to eat and a recipe. This holiday was no exception. I came home to Rome with a nasty scratch and three large bruises (my fault, do not enter the cascade after drinking more than your fair share of a bottle of Bianco di Pitigliano) a loaf of tuscan bread and this recipe for acquacotta.

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Acquacotta, is to my mind, a particularly satisfying and complete dish. Made well, it is pure tasting and savory (that will be the onion and celery) given warmth and rosy cheeks by tomato, body by celery leaves and something wild by the herbs if you choose to add them. The bread at the bottom ensures it is a dish with its feet firmly on the ground and the egg, well what doesn’t taste better with an egg on top?

As much as I liked the addition of chard and mint in the acquacotta at Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano, I have stayed true to Graziella’s recipe which was the closest to my favourite bowlful. You chop and then saute a weepingly large quality of red, white and yellow onion and lots of celery (the tender stems and their soft pale leaves) in plenty – this is no time for parsimony – of extra virgin olive oil. Once the onion and celery are soft you add some chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, possibly a little chilli and let everything cook a few minutes longer. Then you add boiling water a ladelful at a time, so the pan never stops bubbling, until the vegetables are covered by a few inches of water. You leave the pan to bubble away for 40 minutes.

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While the acquacotta is bubbling you prepare the bowls by pitting a  slice of day old lightly toasted bread at the bottom of each, sprinkling it with a little grated pecorino or parmesan if you like. Once the acquacotta is ready you divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan. Into this remaining broth you break four eggs, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. You use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. You eat.

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

Everyone I asked, including Graziella, was reluctant to give very specific quantities, preferring instead q.b or quantobasta, or how much is enough. After all they assured me acquacotta is good enough to merit experimentation – amount of water, choice of vegetables, herbs ‘Yes or absolutely not‘, to toast or not to toast the bread and other points of contention – and adjusting according to season, place and taste. However based on the few measurements I was given and the two panfuls I have made at home, I have noted my measurements.

Adapted from a recipe given to me by Graziella Tanturli At Hotel La Fonte del Cerro

serves 4

  • 3 medium onions (one red, one white, one yellow)
  • 4 pale stems of celery heart with pale leaves
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 small plum tomatoes – ideally de-seeded.
  • salt and pepper (a little chill if you wish)
  • four slices of day old bread (ideally Tuscan bread, otherwise sourdough or a good quality compact country bread)
  • pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 4 eggs

Bring a pan of water to the boil as you will need it shortly.

Peel and very thinly slice the onions. Chop the celery into thin arcs (cut any particularly wide stems in two lengthways). Warm the olive oil in large heavy-based pan and add the onion and celery. Saute the vegetables over low heat until soft and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, a good pinch of salt, a grind of pepper and the chilli if you are using it and cook for another few minutes.

Add the boiling water a ladleful at a time, so the vegetables never stop bubbling. Once the vegetables are covered by 3 inches of water, lower the flame and leave the acquacotta to simmer for 40 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Prepare the bowls by putting a slice of toasted day-old bread at the bottom of each and sprinkling it with a little cheese.

Once the acquacotta is ready, divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan.

Break four eggs into the remaining broth, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. Eat and imagine you are in Pitigliano.

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I am always wary of recommending places as other people do it so much better than me and things change and we all have different ideas and well, um, what if you were to go to a place I’d recommended and it turned out to be.….. However on this occasion I would like to mention:

Da Paolino, via Marsala 41, Manciano. Notably the cinghiale in umido (slow cooked wild boar), baccalà alla maremmana (salt cod with tomatoes and onion) and acquacotta. Moderately priced and attentive, friendly service.

Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano. We ate here twice, both meals were superb in every respect. The surroundings are stylish but warm in an ancient, warren-like building in the Jewish quarter of staggeringly beautiful Pitigliano (pictured above).  Notably: aquacotta with spinach, mint and quail’s eggs, pici all’agliata (thick spaghetti-like-pasta with tomato and garlic sauce), grilled porcini, cinghiale with fennel, tagliata di manzo and a gorgeous pudding of creamed ricotta, grilled, caramelized pear and warm chocolate sauce that almost made me sing (I had drunk rather a lot of wine). Expensive but offers a good value set lunch. Slick service. We drank wines from Sassotondo.

We stayed at La Fonte del Cerro. A beautifully situated, extremely well and thoughtfully tended family-run hotel with an almost private entrance to the Cascades (pictured below). Almost everyone we met was returning. We will too.

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Filed under Eggs, fanfare, In praise of, Maremma, rachel eats Italy, soup, tomatoes, vegetables, winter recipes

the slow rise

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I keep writing good with pizza bianca, serve with pizza bianca, eat with pizza bianca in recipe notes for the book. Which is all very well for readers living in Rome, therefore within shouting distance of one of the countless forno daily paddling hot pizza bianca from the gaping mouths of ovens, brushing them with olive oil, strewing them with salt and then slicing them just for you. Less so, much less so, for everyone else. ‘You will just have to do a pizza bianca recipe for the book‘ said my Mum, who is here for the week and being the best baby sitter I could ask for. ‘But I can’t even make bread, never mind pizza bianca and while we’re at it, I can’t write a book, I can’t even write E mails and I hate my hair and all my clothes’  I said in a grown up way.

Then I read a recipe in a book I received for my birthday. A book about pizza by a maestro, the so-called Michelangelo of Pizza (although I don’t think he was the one who coined that immodest soubriquet, he prefers Re or king) a man of broad shoulders and impressive hands; Gabriele Bonci.

I can I told Laura as I paid for a bag of 0f Mulino Marino flour from her Emporio delle spezie. I can I told myself as I weighed out the ingredients. I can I muttered as I mixed the flour with the yeast, the salt, the water and then a dram of extra virgin olive oil. I can’t I thought as I surveyed the wet, sticky, mass clinging like particularly adhesive putty to my spoon, my fingers and the sides of my tin bowl. I covered it hastily with clean cloth for its first rising and took empty solace in social media.

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At which point Dan arrived. Dan is my all baking, beering friend who just happens to have done a Bonci pizza-making workshop. ‘It’s the 70% hydration, it should be sticky’ he explained in a bakers tone before tying on my apron and setting to work. It’s a properly sticky affair, you do this wonderful, gentle pull and fold motion, the Piegature di rinforzo which means folding to reinforce. By stretching and folding the dough gently, developing the gluten and incorporating air into it you render it altogether more manageable. The joy of watching.

The dough then sits in the bottom of the fridge, balanced on the vegetable box and beside the dubious bottle of dessert wine for 24 hours. It’s a slow, steady swell, a true lunga lievitazione that reminds you dough is a living thing. I kept peeping at my pale dejeuner sur l’herbe bottom-like dough all day. I woke up at 3 am sweating and fretting about the gas bill and other animals and was reassured by my ever-increasing bowlful. By (late) breakfast the next day, 23 hours after Dan’s Piegature di rinforzo my bowl was full.

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I’m not sure why handling freshly risen dough is so nice, but it is. The key is being as gentle as possible as you cut the mass into 350 g pieces (5), fold and shape them into a balls (and leave them to rest for another half hour.) Once rested you massage and very gently – this is all about the lightest, pattering touch –  press the dough into a tin-shaped form on an evenly floured surface before lifting this soft cloth-like rectangle into an oiled tin.

I particularly like Bonci’s note that in his experience the cheaper the tin the better it cooks. My tin is a bog standard 30 cm x 30 cm one with a thin base that I inherited with the flat. You pour a thin stream of olive oil over the surface of your dimpled dough.  You have preheated the oven to 250° or 480F.

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My Pizza took 25 minutes (15 on the floor of the oven then 10 on the middle shelf) until it had the requisite characteristics: a firm bottom, full-bodied, tender center punctuated with pockets of air and a burnished crust. I brushed the top with a little more olive and was generous with the salt. It was nearly as good as the pizza I’ve eaten standing on the pavement outside Bonci’s small but perfectly formed Pizzarium. Well. Nearly.

In a world where we are often told we don’t need to fold, or rise, or wait, that we can just fling things together in a jiffy and making too much of an effort is fussy, this way of making pizza might take you aback. It did me at least. But then it didn’t. It makes absolute sense that to make something so good from very basic ingredients – flour, water, yeast, oil and salt – you need something else, two things actually; not a little effort and time.

I am not sure there are many things tastier than freshly baked pizza bianca, warm, crisp at first but then giving way to a proper mouth arresting chew, oil and salt clinging your lips.  This is one of the best things I have ever made. The end. Or the beginning.

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Pizza bianca

I may have eaten more Pizza than is decent and watched it being made many times, but this is the first time I have made it at home. I am pretty damn happy with the results – horray for Gabriele Bonci and long slow rising. I hope I have made things clear below. Elizabeth’s blog post and video are very helpful. If you are serious about pizza, I recommend Bonci’s book, which is now available in English.

Makes 5 square pizza which each divides into four nice slices.

Adapted from Gabriels Bonci’s – Gioco della Pizza with help from Dan and Elizabeth Minchilli

  • 1 kg flour (Italian farina 0. Try hard to find this. Or strong white bread flour)
  • 10 g active dried yeast (Lievito di birra)
  • 7oo g water
  • 20 g salt
  • 40 g  extra virgin olive oil

You will need a standard, square or rectangular, thin based lipped tin /baking tray or pizza stone. I used a bog standard 30 cm x 30 cm lipped baking tray.

In a large bowl using a wooden spoon mix together the flour and the yeast. Then add the water, gradually, once it is incorporated add the salt and the oil. Mix until you have a pale, sticky, putty-like mixture. Cover with a clean cloth or cling-film and leave to rest for an hour at room temperature in draught-free part of the kitchen.

Scrape the mixture onto a lightly floured board. It will still be sticky. This stage is called the Piegature di rinforzo which means folding to reinforce. With lightly floured hands gently stretch and pull the edges of the dough and fold them back over themselves. Try as best as possible to turn the dough 90° (it will stick) by using a dough scape or spatula and repeat the pull and fold. With this repeated pulling and folding, the incorporation of air and the residual flour from your hands and the dough will get drier and become like a soft and manageable. Bonci suggest you repeat this pulling and folding motion three times, pause for 20 minutes, repeat, pause for 20 minutes and then repeat.

Put the soft dough into an oiled bowl and cover it (cloth or clingfilm) then leave it for 18 – 24 hours at the lower half of the fridge.

You pull the bowl from the fridge and leave it to it for 10 minutes. Carefully lift the dough from the bowl and cut it into 5 pieces of more or less 350 g – you can use a scale. Working piece by piece, shape the dough into a ball, fold it over once as you did for the Piegature di rinforzo and leave it to sit for another 30 minutes at room tempertaure away from draughts. Set the oven to 250°c/ 480F.

The final stage needs to be done with a delicate touch – you don’t want to squash out the air you have so patiently incorporated. On an evenly floured board, using your finger tips and starting from the borders and then working up the center of the dough, push and massage it into a square the size of the tin. Once it is more or less the right size, drape it over your arm and then lift it into a the well oiled 30 cm x 30 cm lipped tin /baking tray or pizza sheet. Zig-zag the dough with a thin stream of olive oil.

Bake on the floor of the oven for 15 minutes, check the pizza by lifting up the corner and looking underneath – it should be firm and golden. If it seems nearly done, move it to the middle shelf of the oven for 10 more minutes. Pull from the oven. Brush with more olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Slice and eat.

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Filed under Book review, bread and pizza, fanfare, food, grains, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food

a family affair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

makes about 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

agitate as necessary

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On Sunday we went for lunch on the other side of Rome. With the city seemingly empty of both Romans and tourists and every traffic light on our side, we flew from Testaccio to Piazza Bologna in record time in the invincible panda. We chuckled at the choice of parking spaces in an area notorious for none, before choosing the nearest and shadiest. We walked as briskly as is possible in nearly 40° both stopping short of the corner. Struck by the same thought in the same moment, our eyes conversed: it was August 18th, almost everyone was away, almost everything was closed, why hadn’t we thought to check?  We took the corner holding our breath until we saw the patchwork of plastic tables.

I knew we were going to a tavola calda – which literally means hot table – so I was expecting an informal, canteen-like place serving good (enough) food. I knew it was Sicilian, so I was expecting noise and good caponata. I wasn’t expecting ‘Mpare. My friend, a Sicilian, was immediately at ease. Me? Less so.

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Tavola calda in Rome are mostly spartan, functional places with white walls, glass-fronted counters, resistant glasses and even more resistant tables. ‘Mpare is the opposite. ‘This is what you call horror vacui or fear of the void‘ said the Sicilian as we entered the most elaborate tavola calda I’ve ever seen. Every wall, surface and corner was decorated with something tiled, embossed or Sicilian. Sorry, Catanese, I was reminded as we looked up at a golden mosaic of Catania’s patron saint Agata gazing down benevolently. Glass chandeliers chinked, cherubs winked, every chair was frocked, every shelf well-stocked and the three food counters a riot of colour where lines between sweet and savory were blurred. I turned to find my son up on a waiters’ shoulders eating a brioche. Everyone was shouting, apparently with a Sicilian accent. I was relieved to retreat to an outside table.

Peace was short-lived as I was joined by a significant proportion of Rome’s Sicilian community. The waiter with a jaunty black cap (now with my son over his shoulder fireman style) filled our table void with advert-heavy paper mats, orange envelopes full of cutlery, four tulip glasses, and menus as padded as Joan Collin’s shoulders in 1983. Another waiter, also with jaunty cap, whisked past with a plate of pasta con le sarde. ‘Due di quelle (two of those)’ we said in unison. ‘E per cominciare; una caponata, un arancino, e due birre.’

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The promise of pasta con le sarde was all I needed. An immoderate gulp of average beer (that was cold enough to be forgiven) and a forkful of caponata – a sweet and sour stew of celery, aubergine, tomato, pine nuts and on this occasion red pepper – and all was well. The tip of an arancino – a dome-shaped mound of risotto rice filed with ragu and sweet peas, dipped in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and then fried – and more beer and I was nearly as comfortable as the Sicilian. The pasta arrived;  a mound of spaghetti dressed with sardines, wild fennel, pine-nuts and toasted breadcrumbs, not the best I have ever eaten, but good, generous, full of flavour and just what I wanted.

Then to finish – not that we needed it – a glass of the simplest and nicest of icy treats: Sicilian granita. Which is best described a slightly slushy, grainy mass of sweetened, flavoured water, frozen and crushed to produce something between a drink and water ice. ‘What flavor shall we have‘ I asked. The reply was accompanied by a raised eyebrow that reminded me there is only one flavour to choose at a Catanese tavola calda under the watchful eye of Sant’Agata: mandorle. Which was a pure white, soft, granular, slush of frozen almond milk. Not entirely natural I’m sure, and probably too sweet, but still a glass of milky kindness if ever there was one. Due caffè, a reasonable bill (which took rather a long time to come,) a nod to Sant’Agata and we jumped back in the panda and flew.

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Which brings us – tenuously – to today’s recipe. Well not that tenuously if you consider that on Sunday I would have liked the granita al melone as well. I have been preoccupied with iced treats lately, mostly those of the grated-ice-drenched-with-fruit-syrup-sort from the kiosk the corner of my street. I’ve been enjoying making iced things at home too, especially those that don’t require mastery of custard or special equipment. I’ve made various granita type treats this summer, by freezing fruit puree, nut milk or strong coffee – which may or may not have sweetened – until softly frozen, then scraping and stirring intermittently until I have a soft ice to be eaten from a glass with a spoon.

This is the nicest of this summer’s experimentation, a recipe from Claudia Roden’s Food of Italy for granita al melone. A melon granita given welcome sharpness by the addition of lemon juice and a warm, floral note – one that mirrors and compliments the floral and persistent nature of cantaloupe melon – by a tablespoon or two of orange flower water.

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Simple to make but attention required. Once you have mixed the melon pulp with the sugar, lemon and orange flower water you slide the bowl in the freezer. After a couple of hours you need to move, stir – and for want of a better word – agitate the granita as it starts to freeze and seize. An hour later, you do it again, disturbing the surface of the granita again before sliding it back into the freezer. You repeat this process every hour or so (probably not more than 5 times in total) until you have a delightful icy slush – like the snow by noon – ready to spoon into glasses. In my freezer, in a medium-sized metal bowl, this took 6 hours and 4 agitations, which makes it sounds like a lot of bother – which it isn’t – or a 1980’s dance.

Alternately you can forget about the bowl for six hours or more and then break and blast your block of melon ice into granita with a blender. The result is more granular and sharper at the edges than the soft freeze and agitate method, but still good, still a fragrant and fresh icy crush, a fantastic floral slush puppy, a glass of orange snow, an icy treat to sooth even the most agitated soul (like me). Even better with a slosh of Campari, Martini, Vodka or all three – see below.

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Granita al melone – melon water ice

Adapted from a recipe by Claudia Roden in her brilliant (and soon to be re-issued) book ‘The Food of Italy’

  • 1 large or two small melons yielding 750 g melon flesh (ideally cantaloupe)
  • 50 g fine sugar
  • the juice of a large lemon
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons of orange – flower water

Quarter the melon, scoop out the seeds and then cut away the flesh from the skin. Cut the flesh into large chunks and then blend it into a pulp using a mouli, immersion blender or blender. Transfer the pulp into a bowl that can go into the freezer

Add the sugar, lemon juice and orange flower water to the pulp, stir and then slide the bowl into the freezer.

After a couple of hours, pull the bowl from the freezer and then break up the iced-fruit pulp with a fork before returning it to the freezer. Repeat this every hour for a couple more hours or until you have a soft, granular, slush. Serve in a glass.

Alternatively.

Leave the bowl in the freezer for 6 – 8 hours and then break the solid mass up with a fork and then blast into icy shards with an immersion or conventional blender.

Serve. If you like with Campari which works well, the bitter contrasting beautifully with the fragrant, floral sweetness of the melon. I bet a shot of vodka would work well too.

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Filed under fanfare, food, granita, ices, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sorbets and granita, summer food

This is the way.

Good chickens are – like true love, reliable plumbers and excellent espresso – hard to find. They are also, when you finally get your hands on one, costly things! Quite right too! We should be deeply suspicious of cheap (even modestly priced) chickens, they almost certainly have the darkest, dirtiest story etched into their tragic flesh. The chicken above, the one sitting in my new enamel roasting tin from Emanuela, is a good chicken. A blooming good chicken in fact, from my butcher Marco who in turn procured it from the blazing beacon of conscientious husbandry: Azienda San Bartolomeo. Having parted with the best part of 16€ (an investment in our sustenance for the next three days) and taken possession of our bird, we – that is Luca and I – also picked up half a dozen San Bartolomeo eggs, a fat pat of butter, five lemons, some bitter salad leaves and a piece of Lariano bread. After all, good chicken deserves good company.

We walked home the long way, following the deep arc of the river, which meant there were leaves to crunch and dogs to bark at! I crunched and Luca barked. We stopped, as we usually do, at Giolitti for an espresso before crossing our vast echoing courtyard and barking some more. Time was taken climbing the stairs, after all it’s important to peer between every other railing. It’s also important to ring the doorbell 17 times, especially when there is nobody at home. Then while Luca played with something inappropriate and slightly dangerous, I set about roasting.

Roast chicken is one of my favourite things both to make and eat. It’s also a significant meal for me, maybe the most significant. We ate roast chicken and then soup made from the leftovers and carcass, at least once a week when I was growing up. It’s a meal evocative of home, the kitchen in Kirkwick Avenue, my family and the meals we shared. Over the years roast chicken has bought us – parents, relatives and three Roddy kids in turn doe eyed bundles, eager fat-fingered toddlers, grasping children, grubby rascals, sullen teenagers and floundering/flourishing adults – together again and again and again. A burnished bird has the capacity to stir deep (food) memories, some crisp and golden, others as dark and sticky as the juices stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.

I think of my mum and my granny Alice when I roast a chicken, especially at the beginning when I wash it in very cold water and then pat it absolutely dry with a clean cloth. My granny was – and my mum still is – a great believer in very cold water, clean cotton cloths and patting things absolutely dry. I rub my chicken, as my mum does, with butter. Butter I’ve remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s smearble. I’m as liberal with the salt and freshly milled black pepper as I am with the gin in a Gin and tonic: very.

I put a lemon up my chicken’s bottom (that was for you Ben) long before I came to Italy. However it was cut in two so the juice could be squeezed over the chicken and the hollow halves tucked inside. Now, as taught by my old neighbor Mima and guided by Marcella Hazan, I roll a lemon vigorously around the kitchen counter so it is soft. I prick it 37 times with a toothpick and then stick it up my chicken’s bottom just so.

I roast my lemon filled chicken with its breast down for 20 minutes. I then turn it breast up, crank up the oven a notch and roast it for another 40 minutes. I don’t baste. Then  – as taught by Simon Hopkinson in his aptly named book Roast chicken and other stories – I turn the oven off, open the door a jar and leave the chicken sitting in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes. These twenty minutes are vital. It is during this time, the cooking equivalent of a perfect vinyl fadeout, that the cooking finishes, the skin dries and flesh relaxes but clings to the precious juices making for a roast with properly crisp skin, succulent, tender flesh and easy carving

Actually carve is not the right word for a bird like this – a bird with runner’s legs and a lean breast – pull and tear is more appropriate. Using my hands, a knife and my poultry shears, I pull and tear my chicken to pieces. I do this in the roasting tin and then roll the pieces in the best sort of gravy: the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices that have collected at the bottom of the tin.

Did I mention how I feel about the smell of roasting chicken? Oh you know! Of course you do, because you feel the same way! Excellent. Today we ate our chicken with mayonnaise (see below), a mixture of bitter and sweeter salad leaves and bread. What a good lunch! I had some wine too, an inch, maybe two and raised my glass to us, to my family – who seem a long way away these days – the whole delicious, tender, dark, messy, sticky lot of us.

Roast chicken with lemon

With advice from Granny, Mum, Simon Hopkinson and Marcella Hazan

Notes. A good roasting tin of the right size is pretty vital. It should be large enough to accommodate the chicken comfortably but small enough to contain the precious juices. I like, really like, this tin. You do not need to baste the chicken.

Serves 4 or in my case serves 1 and a quarter (Luca) for 3 days.

  • 1.5 – 2 kg / 3 – 4 lb chicken at room temperature
  • 50 g / 2 oz good butter at room temperature
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large unwaxed lemon

Set the oven to 180° / 350 F.

Wash the chicken both inside and out with cold water. Leave it sitting on a slightly tilted plate for 10 minutes or so, to let all the water drain away. Pat the chicken absolutely dry with a clean cloth.

Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird and then season it liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, dry and then soften the lemon by rolling it back and forth across the kitchen counter while applying pressure with your palm. Prick the lemon 37 times with a cocktail stick or trussing needle.

Tuck the lemon in the chicken cavity and then close the opening with two cocktail sticks. Don’t make an expert job of closing the opening or the chicken might just puff up and burst.

Turn the chicken beast side down in the roasting tin and place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 20 minutes turn the chicken the right way up. Do not baste.

Turn the oven up to 200° / 400 F and continue roasting the chicken for another 40 minutes. Turn the oven off, leaving the door ajar and let the chicken rest in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes.

Before carving tilt the chicken slightly so all the juices run into the tin. Stir the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices  – scraping the thick dark ones from the bottom of the tin – with a wooden spoon. Carve, rip, tear, pull the chicken in the roasting tin letting the pieces and joints roll in the juices.

And may I suggest you make some mayonnaise!

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 150 ml sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the sunflower oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Eat.

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Filed under chicken, Eggs, fanfare, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Just One

If I had to keep just one cookbook, it would be a red hardback wrapped in a bright blue sleeve with a lobster on the front, a single volume which comprises three of Elizabeth David’s classics of the kitchen; Book of Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I might have a moment of doubt and consider Jane Grigson’s ‘Good Things’ or my dog-eared copy of ‘English Food’. I may clutch my battered copy of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and Other Stories closely for a moment, but my definitive choice, my desert island trilogy, would be my crustacean adorned copy.

Elizabeth David is not just my favorite food writer, she’s one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I absconded to Italy. For years I’ve returned to at least one of her eight books or one of the two anthology’s of her articles, letters and notes – which are invariably scattered all over my flat – most days, be it in the kitchen, in a chair, writing here, or last thing at night in bed. Her introduction to Mediterranean food, description of Provence in French Provincial Cooking and anything from An omelette and a glass of wine are all favorites to fall asleep to.

She is a masterful writer: scholarly, witty, informative, elegant, fiercely opinionated, and the passion and enthusiasm with which she communicates her love of good food, well cooked is contagious. Her writing, essays, descriptions of weather, food, herbs, colours, smells, tastes, and of course her meticulously authentic recipes collected during her travels in France, Italy, Corsica, Malta, India, Eygpt and Greece are timeless (she began writing in the 1950’s) and as bright and brilliant as sunshine. But for all their bright brilliance, Elizabeth David’s books, illustrated with John Minton’s black and white drawings, are also a refuge, evoking a way of cooking and thinking about food so entirely different from the loud, fussy, over styled but often hollow food culture I can (and do) bombard myself with.

Over the last five months Elizabeth David has mostly been a bedside companion. But now I’m emerging – sleep deprived, disoriented, quite grumpy but uncharacteristically content – from my postnatal vortex and my very bonny five and a half month old son, if armed with a wooden spoon and a Tupperware lid, is happy to bounce away in the doorway, I’ve started working my way through the fringe of bookmarks. The first being Quiche Lorraine.

In truth, this particular recipe for Quiche Lorraine from French Country Cooking has been bookmarked for years rather than months and the food memory behind the bookmark is decades rather than years old. Two and a half decades to be precise, 25 years, since I ate a slice of Quiche Lorraine at the vast kitchen table of the Renault family during my traumatic but gastronomically revelatory French exchange with the horrid Carolyn I was 14. I even mentioned this recipe when I wrote about savory tarts a while back. But I never made it. Then the other week my friend Ruth came over for lunch and I wanted to make something tasty, simple and nice, a thank you of sorts for all the meals her and her husband have made for me. The bookmark for the Quiche was particularly prominent, a postcard from France no less, so I finally made this Quiche.

This is the Quiche Lorraine I ate in France all those years ago, simple, authentic, understated and very delicious. Short, crumbly, flaky pastry – made with plenty of good butter and some lard – encasing a delicate, quivering, softly set filling of fresh thick cream and eggs studded with chopped bacon. This is my Quiche touchstone, the example which shames all the crimes against Quiche I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, those heavy leaden triangles of heartburn inducing pastry filled with rubbery custard and stuffed to the gunnels with too much cheese, béchamel, three types of vegetable, pineapple, two paperclips and goodness knows what else.

This may seem a mere slip of a Quiche if you are used to heftier more elaborate things! But I assure you it’s a lovely slip of a Quiche.  Unfashionably rich and unhealthy by todays standards, what with all the butter, lard, bacon and cream and just my sort of thing. My sort of thing too I can hear you shouting, hooray for butter, lard, bacon and cream. And after all, there will be salad too, crisp and green, hopefully with some bitter leaves to contrast the soft dairy creaminess of the Quiche.

It is pretty straightforward to make and involves four nice kitchen tasks all of which I am happy to interpret as dance moves if given the appropriate quantity of alcohol; rolling, tucking, frying and whisking. First you make the pastry by rubbing butter and lard into flour (with a pinch of salt) until it reassembles breadcrumbs, adding some very cold water and bringing everything together into a ball. You chill the pastry for a while before rolling it out into a circle and tucking it into a tart tin, preferably one with a loose base.  Then the frying, of the diced bacon – the smell of which along with thoughts of roast beef brought was the smell that brought me back from the other side . Finally the whisking together of the thick, fresh cream – luscious and lovely – with two eggs. Once you have sprinkled your diced, fried and provocatively smelling bacon into the pastry case and poured over the pale yellow mixture you manoeuver your Quiche (set on a baking tray)  into the oven, bake it for 30 minutes for so or until it’s set but still with a slight wobble, blistered and golden.

The Quiche is best about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven, so it has time to settle and the filling firm up a little. Also the  texture and flavors – as is so often the case – are best appreciated when the Quiche is warm as opposed to hot.

It seems appropriate that I give you Elizabeth David’s recipe as she wrote it – word for word – in French Country Cooking. I have however added metric measurements and some of my own notes at the end.

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

  • 6oz / 180g flour
  • 2 oz /60g butter
  • 1 oz / 30g dripping / lard
  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 1/2 pint / 250 ml cream
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 gill / 75 ml of water

Make a pastry with the flour, butter, dripping, a pinch of salt and the water. Give it one or two turns and then roll it into a ball and leave it for 1 hour.

Line a flat buttered pie tin with the rolled out pastry. Onto the pastry spread the bacon cut into dice and previously fried for a minute. Now beat the eggs into the cream with a little salt and ground pepper; when they are well mixed, pour onto the pastry, put into a hot oven and bake for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

I only used 50ml of water. I think very very cold water (I add an ice-cube to the measuring jug) is best. I rest my pastry in the fridge. My tart tin has a loose bottom. I bought it here. It is a trusty tart tin. When I roll the pastry out and tuck it in the tin, I leave a pastry overlap which compensates for any pastry shrinkage when it cooks. I make sure I press the pastry firmly into the tin. I don’t worry about neat tart edges. I set my oven to 175°. I bake my tart case blind for 10 minutes before adding the filling. When I bake blind I don’t use baking beans, I simply pick the pastry with a fork – the pastry may well puff up but it quickly sinks down again. I use double, heavy cream. I think the tart is best eaten about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven.

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Filed under antipasti, cream, Eggs, fanfare, food, pies and tarts, summer food, tarts