Category Archives: food

progress and polpette

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It has been nearly two years since the market moved. Two years since the stall holders shifted to the luminous and angular new market on the other side of Testaccio, and the weary iron and glass structure that housed the atmospheric old market was pulled to the ground. Two years that piazza Testaccio, retired from the responsibility of being a market square, has remained in a sort of building site purgatory, netted-off on all four sides while work didn’t take place inside. “Che fanno là dentro?” “What are they doing in there?” a little girl asked her mum, words tugging in much the same way that she tugged at her sleeve. “Niente di niente” “Nothing of nothing” replied the mum tugging the little girl away from the hole in the net.

Then three months ago, in a moment that reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate factory when after a long silence the factory chimneys start pumping smoke and mysterious figures are seen at the windows, work on the piazza began again. Not oompa loompas, but men in white protective clothing that looked rather like bee keeping suits, bringing first pieces of La Fontana delle Anfore, The Fountain of Amphorae, back to the place for which it was intended: the center of piazza Testaccio.

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Testaccio may be a quarter in the heart of a big city, but living here is like living in a village: a small, involved, mostly reassuring but occasionally claustrophobic village. The lack of work and now work  has – quite rightly – been the subject of opinionated discussion conducted in the piazza, over small cups of strong coffee in the local bars and in front of the school gates I now stand at each day at 4. “Would it ever be finished?” “Was such a laborious and expensive project realistic for a city whose finances were ruinous?” “How many benches would there be?”

Our flat is right next to the piazza, and I am the mum of a little boy who finds both holes and diggers irresistible, so each day for the last three months we have chosen a hole ripped in the thick, green netting and watched the reconstruction of the fountain. For weeks the dozens of carefully numbered pieces were laid-out as you would a jigsaw when you are starting out: with splattered logic. The splattered pieces made sense though: the fountain is familiar, having spent the last 80 years a couple of hundred meters away just near the river. It is an elegant and functional fountain consisting of four bowls at the base which rise into a column like cluster of slender travertine amphorae. It was designed by Pietro Lombardi,  inaugurated in piazza Testaccio in 1927, but then moved in 1935.

The motif of an amphora, Testaccio’s symbol, reminds us this part of Rome was the ancient Roman port. It was here amphorae, vast terra-cotta containers filled with olive oil, wine and grain were docked, unloaded and the goods decanted into smaller containers. Once emptied the amphorae that had contained oil couldn’t be used again, so were smashed and piled nearby in quite an extraordinary way. Two thousand years later this 35 meter high, kilometer round mound of shards (cocci) known as Monte die cocci  (Hill of shards) gave this relatively recently constructed part of the city its name: Testaccio. The mound still rises nonchalantly in the heart of Testaccio just seconds from our flat, into its broad base burrowed some of the cities most famous and infamous trattorie and nightclubs. Ancient and modern coexisting in the most brilliantly ordinary way.

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Yesterday morning, as December sun flooded via Mastro Giorgio and the piazza, we found our hole in the net. We were joined by Antonio the owner of the bar opposite and two ladies from our building. We all stood like linesmen observing the significant progress. “I remember when the fountain was moved from here” said one of the ladies in thick Roman. “I was 7 years old.”  There was a minute of silence as some of us did the maths. The fountain was moved in 1935, so 79 years ago, plus 7: the lady smoking a cigarette next to us was 86. “E’ giusto che la fontana stia qua, verrà proprio una bella piazza” “It’s right that the fountain is coming back here, we’re going to have a beautiful piazza.” said Antonio as a crane lifted a piece of fountain into position.

Antonio is right, it is going to be beautiful. It is also beautiful to see something being re-constructed so meticulously in a city that so often feels neglected, corrupted and as if it’s falling apart. It does look as if it might to be finished in time for Christmas, an elegant and functional heart for a handsome tree-lined piazza. Suddenly the older woman turned to me. “Ma tu sei straniera?“”But are you a foreigner?” she asked in a way I am familiar with: a question that feels like an accusation. “Yes” I replied. “My son Luca was born here though, and his dad is Roman” At which her face changed completely. “Ecco un  piccolo testaccino!” (Here’s a little testaccio boy) She then turned to Luca and asked him if he would like to play in the piazza as she did 79 years ago. He replied with suspicious narrow eyes and go away which made me feel like a crap mother. Not that the signora seemed bothered, she simply sent a curl of smoke into the cold sunny sky. We watched a while longer before saying goodbye to the Signora and the digger then walking from the old to the new market to get the ingredients for lunch.

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Which brings us to today’s ingredients and recipe, for polpette, or meatballs, again. Again, because since observing in my last recipe that when you ask an Italian about meatballs one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother or their aunt made the best polpette, I have been (happily) inundated with polpette advice. Most advice concerned meatballs in tomato sauce. However this recipe, from my friend and excellent cook Eleonora is distinct and to put it bluntly: bloody marvelous. Over the last two-weeks I have followed this recipe in much the same way they we have been following progress of the fountain: often and with dedication.

These are small walnut sized polpette made from a mixture of twice ground beef and pork, fine breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, grated parmesan, two eggs, salt and pepper. Having kneaded the ingredients together vigorously, formed and rolled, you then roll the polpette in fine breadcrumbs. These are polpette in bianco, which means meatballs in white as opposed to red (meaning tomato). They are fried first in olive oil scented with garlic and then sizzled with white wine. Being small they don’t take long to cook: a few minutes in olive oil and then about 5 -7 more with the wine, which sends the most delicious savory scent swirling up and around the kitchen. There is a moment of stove alchemy when the escaped breadcrumbs, meat juices, wine and olive oil come together into a thickish gravy that clings to the tiny meatballs. Served just so on a wide platter, the gravy poured over the top, possibly a handful of parsley, they make for an immensely pleasing dish.

The day Eleonora came round and taught me how to make them, we ate our Polpette with leafy broccoletti dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon and topped with ruby-red pomegranate seeds that matched Eleonora’s dress and flaked almonds – another dish I have been making repeatedly. It was such a good lunch.

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Eleonora’s Polpette – serves 4 

Here is a taste of Eleonora’s childhood and summers spent in Puglia where her grandmother would pile platters high with these polpette. The recipe was a family one, until she shared with me, then in this lovely post on her blog. As she suggested, I have tried the recipe several times and made it my own, which is what I suggest you do too. A few notes – if possible, mince the meat twice. The breadcrumbs need to be fine, dry ones. Eleonora suggests removing the meatballs from the pan after frying them, blotting away excess oil and then returning them to the pan after adding the wine. I found it easier not to do this as there didn’t seem to be too much oil and it was so tasty, but you might like to.

  • 250 g ground beef
  • 350 g ground pork
  • 75 g fine, dry breadcrumbs plus more for rolling
  • 75 g finely grated parmesan
  • a heaped tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • salt and black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 200 ml white wine – you may need a little more.

Knead together the meat, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, eggs, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Work the mixture, kneading and then squeezing the ingredients together into a soft, consistent mass.

Pour more breadcrumbs on a plate. Take walnut sized balls of meat mixture and then roll them firmly between your palms into a small, neat balls. Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and sit them on a clean wooden board.

Warm the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan. Add the peeled, gently crushed but still intact garlic to the pan and fry gently until  it is golden and fragrant which should take a minute or so. Remove the garlic and then add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs, increasing the heat a little, moving them with a fork and spoon until they are brown on all sides. This will take about 6 minutes.

Add the wine – which will sizzle vigorously – and a good pinch of salt. Continue to cook the meatballs, nudging them around with a wooden spoon. As the wine reduces into a thickish gravy, scape it down from the sides of the pan and keep the meatballs moving so they cook evenly. You may need to add more wine, After about 5 mins taste a meatball to see how it is cooking. You may need to cook a little longer, you may not. Adjust seasoning if necessary and stir again.

Once cooked, turn the meatballs onto a warm platter, scrape over the gravy from the pan and sprinkle over a little more finely chopped parsley. Serve just so, with greens, salad, rice or mashed potato and a glass of wine.

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Filed under beef, food, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Testaccio, wine, winter recipes

best shown

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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and stomach support, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.

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Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti, a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.

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Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so I wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.

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I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least a minute, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good minute the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.

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Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

of course you can

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.

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It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’

A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.

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When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,

Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.

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Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.

Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.

Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.

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Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways

These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.

  • 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
  • 60 ml whole milk
  • 400 g minced beef
  • 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g grated Parmesan
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 g fresh tomatoes
  • 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.

After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

First meal

Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.

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Second meal

Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.

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Link to the Guardian article

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Filed under beef, food, parmesan cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

bean eaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A pan of white beans to be eaten in various ways

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

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

Without soaking

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

With soaking

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

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

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

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

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White beans with tuna, red onion and black olives.

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

White beans with garlic, sage and sausages

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

White beans with tomatoes.

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

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

two things

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1.

Nine years ago today, March 8th 2005, I didn’t pack anything and went to Gatwick airport. I picked a destination from the departure board in much the same way that you might grab the first book off a shelf. A few hours later I boarded a flight to Naples; a city that invaded all my senses and slapped me in the face – I needed it –  and a week later I took a nightboat to Sicily. Two months later I arrived in Rome. It remains the most impulsive and disorienting thing I have ever done, also one of the best, give or take a cliché. Over the years I have talked and written, been earnest and irreverent about this moment in my life. Today I am simply noting it, and later, toasting it with a negroni.

2.

Good bread, spread thickly with fresh ricotta and then finished with extra virgin olive oil, salt (ideally flakes with sharp edges that crumble into tiny shards) and some black pepper is mysteriously more delicious and satisfying than the sum of its parts.

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Bread, ricotta, olive oil and salt

serves 1

  • a slice of good bread
  • some ricotta
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Spread the ricotta on the bread thickly, crumble over some salt, pour over some olive oil and grind over a little black pepper. Eat.

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Filed under bread and pizza, food, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, ricotta, Uncategorized

tumble out

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It had been years since I’d made leek and potato soup. Years. At first I couldn’t remember if it was better with stock or water ? Not that stock was an option yesterday. If I added an onion along with the leek? If I used butter or olive oil? Leek and potato soup over-thinking while the rain battered against the kitchen window again – Rome is awash, the river is high  – and Luca shouted ‘I helpin you I do‘ sounding like Dick van Dyke as Bert.

There was a time growing up when I (we) ate leek and potato soup once a week. It was one of my Mum’s standards along with spaghetti Bolognese (the kind Italians remind you doesn’t exist in Italy) carrot and coriander soup, roast chicken (which meant chicken soup the day after) tatie hash, cottage pie, fish pie, ratatouille and more ratatouille. Mum seemed to chop, simmer and blend it out of almost nothing: 2 potatoes and a few leeks transformed into pan of soup while we watched an episode of Blue Peter. Often she would make it in the afternoon so it would be sitting there, savory, warm and the sort of green Ben couldn’t resist joking about when we got home from school. Sometimes it was tea, so with bread and butter, sometimes supper in which case there would be cheese and salad too, and my dad still in his work shirt, his tie slung over the back of the chair. My dad loves soup, which has much to do with the fact he loves bread and butter, bread and butter being inseparable from soup for Martin Roddy.

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I’m not sure why I bothered over-thinking, the soup tumbled out in much the same way words do when certain songs are on the radio. She walked up to me and she asked me to dance, I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola L-o-l-a Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola. The rain tumbled too, so much so that even the leafless trees in Via Galvani seemed soggy. I felt like my mum in about 1979 (but without the smock and headscarf)  shouting ‘Benjamin take that lego out of your nose immediately‘ peeling onions, then trimming leeks –  splitting them so as to wash away the grit – before cooking them slowly in a mix of butter and olive oil (a mix that sums up this English kitchen in Rome,) adding potatoes and water, simmering and then blending. Vegetables drawer to lunch in three episodes of Pimpa.

It hadn’t changed a bit, the soup that is, savory and satisfying, the potatoes providing starchy, soft substance and the leeks – like obedient onions – flavor and something silky (which could be slithery but isn’t). Two utterly dependable, utilitarian ingredients coming together into something delicious, simultaneously comforting and verdant. Satisfying too, how easy it is to make. Not that things always have be easy in the kitchen – far from it, but sometimes easy is called for, especially when it’s raining and everyone is hungry for something warm, good and now (give or take an episode of something.)

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Leek and potato soup

Some use stock for leek and potato soup, but if the vegetables are good, it is not necessary, some also add milk or cream. I don’t. I remove a third of the soup before blending the rest into a smooth cream, then returning the third to the pan. This way the texture is more interesting.

serves 4

  • a white onion
  • 3 – 4 leeks (once trimmed approx 500 g)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 2 potatoes (approx 500 g) ideally floury as they need to thicken the soup
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • more olive oil or a little cream to serve

Peel and small dice the onion. Trim the leeks so you just have the white and very pale green part, make two two inch cuts at the top of each leek so you can fan them open and rinse them thoroughly under the cold tap – there will be dirt hiding. Slice the leeks into slim rounds.

In a large soup pan, sauté the onion and leek with a pinch of salt in the oil and butter over a medium-low flame until very soft and floppy – this will take about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and chop the potato into inch cubes. Add the potato to the pan, stir so each cube is glistening with oil and cook for a couple more minutes.

Add a litre of water, stir, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the potato is tender and collapsing. Remove a third of the soup from the pan, blend the other two-thirds with an immersion blender until smooth and then return the third you removed back to the pan. Add salt and black pepper. Serve with a swirl of extra virgin  olive oil or cream.

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Oranges, dates and goats cheese. I am also on Instagram now.

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Filed under food, leeks, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup, Uncategorized, winter recipes

a wink and a whorl

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I follow Jane Grigson’s advice I when I buy a cauliflower. ‘If the cauliflower looks back at you with a vigorous air, buy it; if it looks in need of a good nights sleep, leave it where it is.‘ Apart from the fact we could debate what vigorous looks like, it’s a good rule of thumb when choosing most fruit and vegetables. Except avocados that is, which taste better when they appear to have been on the razzle two nights in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that can also be applied to people, which in my case – sadly no razzle, just a wakeful toddler – means leaving me exactly where I am.

Rather confusingly Italians sometimes call winter cauliflower, broccolo. Not my fruttivendolo Gianluca though, he calls them cavolo, which usually means cabbage but is also an abbreviation of cavolfiore which literally means cabbage flower. To which we could reply ‘Che cavolo’ which beyond meaning ‘What cabbage’, is a response anything flummoxing or vexing, including cauliflower etymology. Rather than looking like flowers, I’ve always thought good cauliflowers with unblemished creamy-white whorls look like cumulus clouds, the ones that cluster in an otherwise blue sky.

If a cauliflower looks vigorous and its florets are tight and thick as thieves, then you need to be vigorous in your approach and armed with a sharp knife to cut away the outer leaves and thickest core before splitting the head into manageable florets. A good cauliflower should withstand a rolling boil. I am a big fan of boiled and braised vegetables and – with the exception of potatoes and parsnips – will take them over roasted almost every time, cauliflower, calm and creamy is no exception.

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Today’s recipe started life as another recipe, or part of one at least, the dressing for one of my favourite salads, puntarelle, the mere mention of which has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of wine that was two steps away from battery acid, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad with anchovy dressing.

I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad practically unknown outside Rome (this is nine years ago,) a salad of catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called punatelle that once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. Pale green curls that are then dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Neither the wine or waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad we had – in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome – so happily discovered.

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Nine years later, less proprietorial, happily faded and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during it’s winter season. I say prepare, curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my immersion blender, and not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge.

Having made too much dressing last week, and with a dish of cauliflower, eggs and aioli dressing I ate at 40 Maltby street a few weeks back still a pertinent food memory, I made an improvised lunch of boiled cauliflower, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and punterelle dressing.

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This the third platter of this assembly, which is on the one hand innocent: pale, creamy cauliflower and just boiled eggs, and on the other full of experience: dark olives, garlic, richly fishy anchovy, peppery olive oil and citrus. It is important the water you are going to cook the cauliflower in is well salted, as this is what is needed to bring out the otherwise shy flavors in the cauliflower. I used taggiasca olives that are district, chewy and taste somewhere between dried plums and the leather wristband I used to chew throughout double chemistry with Mrs Toomer (not unpleasant, the wristband that is). Try and find good quality olive oil packed anchovies, cheap anchovies, like cheap olive oil and cheap mascara are best avoided.

Innocence and experience, and a brilliant combination of favours that compliment, tussle and then compliment again before giving you the culinary equivalent of a wink. I think it is delicious. Eat while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Cauliflower with hard-boiled egg, black olives and anchovy-lemon dressing

  • a head of cauliflower
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 6 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • a handful of black olives (ideally taggiasca olives in extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4 eggs
  • black pepper

Pull away the tough outer leaves, cut away the hard central stem and then break the cauliflower into florets. Drop the florets into a large pan of well-salted boiling water and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside.

Make the dressing either in a pestle and mortar (in which case first pound the garlic, then add the anchovy fillets and grind into a rough paste before stirring in the olive oil and lemon) or with an immersion blender or small food processor (in which case add all the ingredients, pulse rather than blast into a consistent but slightly textured dressing.)

Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs. Once the eggs are done plunge them into cold water until they are cool enough to handle, tap the shells , peel them and then slice each egg in two.

Arrange the florets in a shallow dish (cutting any large ones in two), scatter over the olives, arrange the hard-boiled egg halves, grind over some black pepper before spooning over the dressing. Serve while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Filed under anchovies, cauliflower, food, lemons, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, Uncategorized, vegetables