Category Archives: In praise of

on red and white in Sicily

IMG_3973

There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

IMG_4219

Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

IMG_4139

When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

IMG_4058

IMG_4319

As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

IMG_3998

Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

IMG_4027

And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

IMG_4304

Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

IMG_4294

Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

IMG_4301

Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

IMG_4089

42 Comments

Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes

an inch of purple

DSC_7333

There is always a chance it will explode‘  Gabriella said almost smiling, suggesting that this was all part of the process, that the possibility of cherries, wine and sugar seeping between the terra-cotta tiles and dripping from her roof was a risk she was prepared to take. We were in Abruzzo, sitting at Gabriella and Mario’s table after a very long, very good dinner at their agriturismo in the hills near Loreto Aprutino, the kind of dinner that renews your faith in food, before us a small glass of inky-purple liquid. ‘Sour cherries, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and sugar are macerated in a large, teardrop shaped glass bottle that sits on the roof in high summer for 40 days and 40 nights‘ Gabriella explained. As we tried not to slide under the table, she talked about the science or magic of the process, how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. Or at least it should, hence the possible, if extremely rare, explosion. It crossed my mind I should be concentrating more, taking notes even, but that thought slipped away as easily as the lip staining elixir slipped down my throat. The taste lingered, I wondered what Gabriella did with the cherries seeped in wine, how they got the bottle on the roof, how they got the cherries out of the bottle, if we could have another glass?

Nine months later in Rome the first of the cherries, some crimson, others deep purple, are splattering the market with colour. We have been eating them by the kilo, greedily, spitting stones into our fists and grabbing another handful in a sort of cherry race. Then on Sunday at the small but great farmers market in the old slaughterhouse I found the first of the sour cherries, paler than usual, sweet as much as sour, reminiscent of almonds and almost the wrong side of perfect ripeness. They spent the night in the colander while I changed my mind about what to do with them which meant by the following morning there was no time to think or waste. I put them in a pan along with a few sweet cherries too, bay leaves, big lazy curls of lemon peel, some sugar and then let it all bubble into a fragrant, syrupy, shirt staining stew.

DSC_7356

I like cherries cooked in this way with plain yogurt or creme fraiche, something so sweet and aromatic needs a sharp and plain partner, otherwise it is all too cloying. Both Luca and Vincenzo turned their nose up at the offer of fruit for breakfast, which was a relief, more for me. Then last night, I spooned a few cherries and their syrup into my last inch of red wine, which happened to be Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and convinced Vincenzo to do the same. Then rather than continuing our argument disguised as a discussion we talked about Abruzzo and that small glass of inky elixir. Granted ours was hardly Gabriella’s cherry and wine alchemy, but it was reminiscent of it, the poached cherries and syrup mingling with the bold wine into some thing between a pudding and a liquer. It was a dark, sweet, boozy and fragrant finish a meal, the sort of finish I like best.

I am going to make these cherries the next time we have friends over for supper and then get people to put them in their wine‘ I said, at which Vincenzo rolled his eyes so intently they almost disappeared into his head. So we both had another inch of wine, another spoonful of cherries, decided to go back to Abruzzo this autumn, forget about the argument and any plans for supper guests until Luca isn’t a terrible toddler and I have finished the book, cleared up and went to fall asleep in front of the telly.

DSC_7441

Poached cherries with lemon and bay leaves (which you can put in wine if you like)

When I first wrote this post there was no recipe as it had all been so flippant and the nature of the recipe is one of tasting and judging by eye. However I have now added this, which is still imprecise, which I hope you will forgive me for. The amount of sugar here depends on the cherries and your taste. For a mixture of sweet and sour cherries I use about 150 – 200g of sugar. I suggest adding 100 g for every kg but then tasting and adding more if you feel it needs it. Cooking times depends: you want to fruit to be soft and the syrup full-bodied. You do not need to add more liquid as the cherries have enough of their own.

  • 1 kg cherries ideally a mixture of sour and sweet cherries but just sweet will do
  • 4 or 5 strips of lemon peel with as little white pith as possible
  • sugar to taste
  • 3 bay leaves

Pit the cherries and then put them in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and sit over a low flame, stir until the sugar has dissolved and the cherries released plentiful juice and then simmer for 5 – 8 minutes or so or until the cherries are soft and the syrup richly flavored – Taste after about 3 minutes and add more sugar if necessary. Some people then remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then reduce the syrup until it is thick before uniting the two again in a jar. I don’t do this. Serve with plain thick yogurt, mascarpone, quark, over chocolate cake or into the end of your wine. Keep in a jar in the fridge.

DSC_7475

41 Comments

Filed under cherries, fruit, In praise of, jams and preserves, wine

everyday impasto

DSC_4996

There are few things I like more than freshly made, thinly cut egg pasta, cooked until al dente and then dressed with anchovies and butter.

The combination of the fresh pasta: light, silky and almost buoyant in your mouth, coated with a rich, salty, nut-brown sauce of melted butter and dissolved anchovies is an extremely delicious one. It’s a dish that manages to be gusty and  - like me after a few drinks – a little bit loud, but at the same time remain soft and rounded and to taste both luxurious and everyday.

DSC_5019

DSC_5024

Tagliolini with butter and anchovies

serves 2

  • 200 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 6 – 8 best anchovy filets under oil
  • 75 – 100 g butter

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty.

Cut the ball of pasta into 6 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 2 eggs = 6 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 5 pieces. Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it.

Attach the cutter to the pasta machine and the run the sheets of pasta through the cutter and lay the Tagliolini on a well floured board until you are ready to cook them.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta – it will take just a few minutes so keep tasting.

In a large saute pan, over a low flame melt the butter and the anchovies (drained from their oil), prodding the anchovies gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they dissolve into the butter. The butter should foam very slightly but no more.

Once the pasta is al dente (tender but with bite) drain it and add it to the sauté pan, stir so each strand is coated with anchovy butter and serve immediately.

DSC_5037

DSC_5058

38 Comments

Filed under anchovies, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, recipes, supper dishes

chasing crisp

DSC_4081

Rather like remembering not to rant or let fury at things beyond your control ruin your day, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. I even bought a nearly-cashmere cardigan, a pair of jade tights and rearranged the living room around a new striped rug that matches – quite incidentally – both cardigan and tights. I’ve tried to knit. I have crunched more leaves than my son. I have roasted chestnuts, smashed pumpkins and sliced porcini with stems the size of a babies leg for risotto, I even claimed ‘Autumn is my time of  year‘ in a proprietorial way while tossing my autumnal hair. But the truth is, I keep wanting to shout.

Not at the cold, I don’t mind that a jot, nor the drizzle – although the drizzle and anoraks are a pain –  but at the light, or lack of it. By 4 o clock as Luca wakes from his afternoon nap, the light is slipping away. We dress as hastily as is possible with a two-year old and then run, trying to catch the last hour, only to watch it being swallowed by dark. The park we used to run around until eight, is locked at five. The kiosk with it’s woven plastic chairs and memories of icy, sticky drinks and salty snacks, is empty. We adjust our jumpers and try to make the best of it, after all shops are starting to glitter and groan with christmas promise and cakes laced with dried figs and black pepper: this is no year for bah humbug, but the dark chases us home.

DSC_4084

Back home by 6 with a long evening ahead – we seem to have adopted a southern European bedtime – I swing between attentive mother:  a book called ballata, board games and baking biscuits and absent mother: Disney babysitter, smarties and a very large glass of wine while I read blogs about craft activities I could be doing and dipping (Molly I adore you), mothers who have their children in bed by 7 and how to host the perfect cocktail party. Then I make supper.

Autumn nights call for stout sustenance, ideally with butter or fringed with fat, food that satisfies and reassures. Well mostly! They also call for bright and crisp from time to time, something to slow the slide onto the rug, to offer contrast and just a little resistance. Two things provide this, the first is puntarelle: a relative of chicory that twists into crisp, sweet but bitter curls, that you dress with anchovy and garlic dressing, the second is a salad of orange, fennel and autumn’s most precious fruit: pomegranate.

DSC_4089

I like the mess: tiles and wood splattered with crimson. When we were little we would eat pomegranates that my Mum brought back from the Athenian Grocer on Moscow Road with a toothpick, impaling the little red jewels and pricking them into our mouths. I thought pomegranates were the most exotic fruit. I still do. When I go to live in Sicily – which I will – I will eat pomegranates every day I can.

Fennel: clean, crisp and with a bracing aniseed bite, slivers of orange, sweet and slightly acerbic pomegranate seeds, the right amount of salt and lots of best extra virgin olive oil makes a brilliant salad, one that manages to be both cool and warm, that provides brightness on dark days.  Especially good after a bowl of pasta e patate. Did I mention how much I like pasta e patate? Yes, good.

DSC_4106

This is fact the fourth time I have written about this sort of salad. It is based on the classic Sicilian salad of orange, fennel, black olives and possibly onion. You could of course add olives to this version, ideally the inky-black, wrinkled, oven-baked ones that taste somewhere between dried plum, leather and liquorice. You really do need to be generous with salt – sprinkle from high above so the salt is evenly distributed – and even more generous with the olive oil.

Fennel, orange and pomegranate salad

Serves 4

  • a large or two small bulbs of fennel
  • 2 oranges
  • a ripe pomegranate
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil

Remove the tough outer layers from the fennel setting aside a few feathery fronds and slice a few millimetres from the base. Cut the bulb in two and then slice it as thinly as possible.

Cut the bottom from the orange so it sits flat on the work surface and then pare away the skin and pith carefully with a sharp knife. Working carefully, again with a sharp knife, cut the flesh away from the membrane on each side of each segment so you have soft, pith-less arc of orange. Work over a plate to catch juices

Cut the pomegranate in half and gently break the fruit open to expose the seeds and pull them away from the membrane and onto a plate.

Arrange the sliced fennel and orange segments on a large plate, scatter with pomegranate seeds and fennel fronds. Pour over any orange or pomegranate juice that collected on the plates. Sprinkle with salt and zigzag generously with olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving

DSC_4112

65 Comments

Filed under fennel, In praise of, oranges, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables, winter recipes

water everywhere

DSC_3532

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.

DSC_3205

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.

DSC_3206

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.

DSC_3267

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.

DSC_3279

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.

DSC_3282

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.

DSC_3290

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.

DSC_3063

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.

DSC_2979

38 Comments

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

the rough with the smooth

DSC_0895

Testaccio in August: hot, quiet, sleepy and slightly squalid, which I put down to the dust, heat and arbitrary rubbish collection. There is just enough life to reassure – including my preferred bar, market stall and forno - but no more. The whole quarter is behaving like a cat, that is lying low in the shade all day, rousing only when absolutely necessary (meaning meals) and then prowling at night. I like Testaccio in August.

Of course there have been moments when I wished we were guests in a fair Umbrian villa or yodellingly good mountain retreat rather than wilting within Rome’s ancient city wall. They have been rare moments though – after all both villa and mountains will come later this year – and almost invariably when we’d forgotten that come August in Testaccio, it’s best to behave like a cat.

DSC_0899

One reason to rouse is the market. Others are our own private Ex-Slaughterhouse and a daily Grattachecca: a Roman treat of roughly grated ice, fruit syrup and almost enough fruit decoration to bring out your inner Carmen Miranda. But I digress. Most of the market may be closed: grills pulled low, locked and emblazoned with luminous notices reminding us the stall is chiuso per ferie, but my favourite stall isn’t. What’s more, there is no queue, no argy bargy, plenty of time for idle chat and best of all, a small but lovely selection.

We have been eating peaches, mostly the flat, blushing ones that look as if they have been sat upon by a fat bottomed girl (or boy), nectarines, freckled apricots, white, bright-orange and icy-fleshed red melons, black cherries, flat and slim green beans, bunches of fragrant basil, golden flowered zucchini and of course, red as red can be: tomatoes.

DSC_0881

On Friday I made pomodori al riso, or tomatoes stuffed with rice. I have written about these simply stuffed tomatoes, a classic summer dish much-loved by Romans before. At great length I seem to remember. It seems appropriate to mention them again though – briefly – being as they are such a good, tasty, resourceful and appropriate dish for these slow, tomato heavy days. The recipe is here. Remember, they are best served just warm.

On Saturday I made sauce, a smooth simple one, some for lunch and some for the freezer. On Monday too. Each day buying two kilos of San Marzano tomatoes, the pale red, plum-shaped variety that collapse and reduce so well into a rich-red, well-balanced sauce.

For this sauce you need a passatutto, Mouli or food mill.  I apologize if you don’t have one, but also urge you to use this recipe as an excuse to buy one! It is a brilliantly simple (and cheap) device consisting of a bowl with a removable perforated plate and a crank with a curved metal paddle that forces the food through the holes as the crank is turned. It is a sort of cranked up sieve really, separating the rough from the smooth, the wanted from the unwanted, but one that also does the same work as a blender only leaving the sauce/soup/paste or mash in question with more character than an electric blast would. When it come to sauces like this, certain Italian soups, vegetable and fruit pureès a Mouli is indispensable.

DSC_0932

So the sauce. You need to wash and then cut your tomatoes in half before putting them in a large heavy-based pan – I use my Le Creuset – with nothing more than a generous pinch of salt. You cover the pan and then put it over a medium-flame for about 10 minutes, lifting the lid and prodding every now and then. Once the tomatoes have started to relinquish their juices, you remove the lid and let the tomatoes collapse and soften in their carmine broth for another few minutes.

You pass the collapsed tomatoes and their juices through the Mouli into a clean bowl. You will need to do this in batches. Once all your tomatoes are milled, you pour them back in the heavy-based pan with two peeled and smashed garlic cloves, a good slosh of olive oil and a few basil leaves, and put the pan back on the heat. Once it reaches an easy boil, you reduce the heat and then leave it to bubble and reduce into a thick sauce – that clings to the back of a wooden spoon. Once cool enough, you taste and season the sauce before ladling it into suitable containers for the fridge or freezer.

DSC_0964

Then yesterday, Tuesday, with two deceptively pale, creamy-fleshed cuore di bue tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella di bufala and a few large, floppy basil leaves I made another summer standard, the perfect plate when it is too damn hot, a combination I never seem to tire of: Insalata Caprese.

The truth of the matter is: both tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated, it changes the nature of their flesh, seizing and tightening it into something else. Like me on a beach in August. Of course this advice is all very well if you live within non-refrigeratation-is-a-possibility distance of both buffaloes and vines. Not so easy if you don’t. If your mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes have been refrigerated, then let then come to room temperature – to relax – for at least an hour before slicing.

DSC_0920

Slicing (ripping and pouring) is the only thing you have to do for this simple dish. In fact this dish is all about choosing well and temperature. The tomatoes should be ripe but firm and flavoursome. Rugged, ribbed cuore di bue (ox heart) with their thin skin and creamy flesh are ideal. As I’ve already mentioned, they should be as warm as the room you are sitting in. As for the mozzarella di bufala, this is no time for parsimony, use the best you can find, it should wobble and weep. Look for big, floppy basil leaves and tear them with your fingers, remembering to dab a little of their sweet, peppery scent behind your ears. The salt should be scattered prudently and the extra virgin olive oil poured generously.

Serve with bread to assist and then mop up one of the nicest dressings in the world: sweet-sour tomato juice scented with basil, mozzarella milk, extra virgin olive oil and tiny shards of salt.

DSC_0944

Insalata Caprese  Tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil.

serves 2

  • two large, ripe tomatoes
  • 250 g ball of mozzarella di bufala
  • a few basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Cut the tomato and mozzarella into 5 mm slices. Arrange them as you wish on a large plate or platter. Tear the basil leaves and slide them between the tomatoes and mozzarella. Sprinkle judiciously with salt. Pour over extra virgin olive oil. Serve.

DSC_0968

43 Comments

Filed under In praise of, mozzarella di bufala, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

outside in

P1160770

I have long accepted that in matters of Italian food I will always have a sense of being outside looking in. Outside peering in through a steamed-up kitchen window, rubbing it with my sleeve and then pressing my nose up against the pane, trying to understand what on earth is happening inside.

Of course I’m not outside. In some ways I am very much inside, settled in Rome, surrounded by Italians who cook and offer (endless) advice about how and why, and having become a capable cook of Italian food myself. But the sense of outside looking in, of being the English observer remains, possibly even more acutely than when I first arrived. A case of the more you learn the less you know, perhaps.

Not that I mind. Quite the opposite. I like this sense of being outside looking in. After all, it is how it is. I am an English woman with Northern roots, pastry making hands, a soft spot for potted shrimps and without even a distant whiff of Italian blood, living in Rome. It’s this inside outside dichotomy which fuels my curiosity and desire to learn. That’s not to say I can’t be a mardy student from time to time: proud, cross I have so much to learn and jealous of the omnipresent food culture and innate ability to cook and eat well that individual Italians (may or may not) possess.

P1160763

Which brings me to the recipe. Well nearly. As you may or may not have noticed, it has all been rather basic around here lately. This is mostly because it’s so hot, but also because having felt more outside than usual, I took some advice from a good cook and went back to basics. Not that I ever move much beyond them, but you get the idea. I’ve been frying garlic attentively (and obsessively,) drying salad and flowers thoroughly (it matters and I can be sloppy) searing chops briefly, making batter (I’d forgotten how) brushing up on my beans and greens, using pasta cooking water wisely (it’s the secret) and making spaghetti al pomodoro.

There are as many versions of spaghetti al pomodoro as there are cooks. This is a summer version, using the nicest, sweetest, plum or cherry tomatoes you can find: ripe, tight orbs that burst in your mouth. It was taught to me by the good cook, a Roman capable of great and gutsy culinary feats who tells me he would happily eat this everyday for the rest of his life give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli.

P1160771

You smash two cloves of garlic against the work surface with the palm of your hand meaning the skin comes away, the cloves split but remain whole and your hand could ward off vampires. You then fry these two cloves – gently – in far more extra virgin olive oil than is decent. An indecent amount. I like indecent. Once the garlic is just turning light gold and its fragrance swirling up your nose, you add some halved cherry or tiny plum tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. You let the halves sizzle for a minute or so. Once they start softening and releasing liquid you squash them with the back of a wooden spoon and watch their red juices spill into and then tint the oil bronze. You add a few torn basil leaves, stir the pan still over the flame for a minute or so longer. You inhale.

While you have been doing all this your spaghetti has been rolling around a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Your timing is good obviously and the spaghetti done (al dente, so tender but with bite) as you inhale and the tomatoes bubble ‘ready‘. You scoop the spaghetti from the boiling water straight into the tomato pan. I use tongs for this which means some of the pasta cooking water clings to the spaghetti. You stir with tongs and a spoon, the pasta cooking water – magical stuff that it is – mixing with the oily, tomatoey juices emulsifying and creating a thickened sauce that coats each strand.

P1160782

Spaghetti with tomatoes cooked in extra virgin olive oil, scented with garlic and basil: I too could eat this everyday for lunch give or take the occasional pot of potted shrimps on toast. Divide. Eat inside or outside.

Spaghetti al pomodoro  Spaghetti with tomatoes.

serves 3

  • extra virgin olive oil q.b.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 5oo g sweet cherry or tiny plum tomatoes
  • salt q.b.
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • 350 g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and set the timer for a two minutes less than the time on the packet

Warm the olive oil in large saute pan. Smash the garlic on the work surface or press it with the back of a knife so the skin comes away, it splits but remains whole. Fry the garlic gently in the oil until it is pale golden and fragrant.

Halve the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Once the tomatoes start softening and releasing their juices squash them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so their juices mingle with the oil.  This will take just a few minutes. Add the basil, stir, cook for another minute.

Test the spaghetti, once it is al dente, drain it and reserve some cooking water, or use tongs to lift it straight into the tomato pan. Lower the flame slightly. Stir until the oily, tomatoey juices, pasta and pasta cooking whiter come together into a well dressed whole. Pull from the flame and serve immediately.

P1160784

a suggestion.

This pasta needs nothing but an appreciative eater and a glass of something tasty but reasonable – a brilliant Lazio white called Capolemole Bianco from the maker Marco Carpineti for example. However, if you would like cheese, a little grated ricotta salata: soft, distinct but sheepish is nice.

P1160787

68 Comments

Filed under food, In praise of, olive oil, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

Happy as leaves

P1150928

Last night I shook hands on a new flat. There is still Italian paperwork to puzzle over and a dotted line to sign (on), but a 3rd floor flat with a small kitchen balcony is more or less ours. We’re not moving far, 600 meters give or take a corner, from one side of Testaccio to the other, from the via Marmorata edge of the wedge to tree-lined via Galvani.

We will miss our calm, cavernous courtyard with its palm trees and blooming oleander, our olive-green door and kitchen window. However I’m pretty sure this missing will be appeased by the balcony and the flats judicious position. That is: a corner away from my preferred bar for breakfast and few long strides from Monte dei cocci and the new Testaccio market. There is also a forno within sniffing distance and another bar directly underneath our future flat that’s run by a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice Cooper. I am relieved, excited and as happy as these radish leaves.

P1150949

It is the inimitable Fergus Henderson that reminds us to seek out radishes with happy leaves. Pert, frisky leafage that reassures, that speaks of recent picking, thoughtful bundling and minimal travel. Having spotted both happy leaves and bright, unblemished bulbs at the market, I bought three bunches. My sling suspended son managed to tug a red bulb from the bunch lolling from the top of the shopping bag as we walked home. Delight was soon replaced by confusion and then measures taken. I walked the length of via Marmorata with pieces of radish suspended – like the old, unidentifiable christmas tree decorations you feel obliged to hang year after year – in my frizzy hair.

Having washed the radishes and their happy tufts in plenty of very cold water, I set two bunches aside for today’s recipe and put the third on a plate on the table. There was also butter – long enough from the fridge to be forgiving but not too long as to lose opaque resistance – the stone jar of malden salt and slices of sourdough bread. The idea is to butter the radish rather than the bread and then sprinkle it with salt. I also butter my bread, thickly, as if plastering a particularly potholed wall and then take alternate bites of buttered and salted radish, happy leaves and buttered bread. The combination of radish: crisp and clean, warm peppery leaves, good butter, tiny shards of salt and best bread is one to relish and excite the most languid of stomachs.

P1150941

With our San Bartolomeo chicken roasting and filling the flat with a familiar and reassuring smell, I separated the leaves from the bulbs of the two remaining bunches. As you might remember I roast my chicken according to Simon Hopkinson, that is a hot blast for twenty minutes or so, a slightly cooler roast for about an hour and then a rest in the cooling oven with the door open-a-jar for 20 minutes. When I have radishes – after the roast but before the rest – I tip and scrape some of the sticky juices and fat from the chicken roasting pan into a frying pan.

Then while the chicken rests, I fry the radish bulbs the hot, sticky fat for about five minutes, in which time their colour changes from that of an old English telephone box to that of a climbing rose: the most lovely blushing pink.  I then add the happy leaves to the hot pan along with a pinch of salt, a grind or two of black pepper and pull the pan from the heat. A gentle stir and the leaves wither and wane in the residual heat and settle in the tasty, fatty juices.

P1150955

I carve my chicken in the roasting tin. In truth, it’s more pulling and tearing than carving, then remembering to roll each piece in the juices collected at the bottom of the pan before putting it on the plate. A round white plate. I am resolute about this and remain unswayed by any patterned or pretty plate propaganda. Braised radishes, still crisp but with a hint of giving, make a perfect fresh and sharp foil for a roasted bird wether it be duck, goose or an excellent chicken. Particularly Duck.

Not only are the withered leaves: peppery and sodden with rich meaty juices wonderfully tasty, they provide what Fergus Henderson calls structural weave, a tangled green bedpreventing your blushing radishes from rolling all over the plate. Come to think of it, I could do with a little more structural weave in my life. Now bring in the boxes and let the packing commence.

Happy food.

P1150958

Braised radishes for with Roast Duck, goose or chicken

From the blooming brilliant Nose to tail eating by Fergus Hendserson

  • 3 bunches of radishes with happy leaves
  • juices from the roasting pan or duck, goose or good chicken or duck fat with a splash of chicken stock
  • sea salt and black pepper.

Wash the radishes in cold water. Remove the leaves from the bulbs.

Heat up your roasting juices or fat and stock and add the radish bulbs. Allow the bulbs to sizzle vivaciously, stirring attentively. After about five minutes the bulbs will have turned from red to blushing pink orbs, still crisp but with a hint of giving. Add the leaves and then remove the pan from the heat.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and stir allowing the leave to wilt in the residual heat. Serve with slices of duck, goose or chicken making sure you spoon over the juices from both the meat and the radishes.

P1150960

63 Comments

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

Spring into lunch

P1150572

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

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

P1150585

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

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

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

P1150597

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

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

P1150605

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

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

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

P1150608

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

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

P1150611

67 Comments

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

Roll with it

P1150469

The number eight tram rolls a good route. At least I think so. Starting in Largo di Torre Argentina, it cuts straight and then crosses the bridge, runs the entire length of Viale Trastevere before curving its way along Gianicolense and sliding into the terminus at Casaletto. On a good day; clear and avoiding the rush, top to tail takes about 22 minutes. On a bad day; rain and rush, it takes 35.

I don’t very often top to tail or tail to top on the number eight. Most days I’ll ride a section though: The Ministry of Education up to work at the children’s theatre, the theatre up to the park, purveyors of fine pizza bianca back to The Ministry, my biscuit shop up to Stazione Trastevere. Come to think of it, of all my routes – there are many, I’m both dedicated and dependent on the exasperating Roman public transport system – this is the one I ride the most.

Then every so often, last Saturday for example, we roll the whole line and are not only reminded what good curved cut the N° 8 makes through the city, but what a good destination awaits at the end of the line.

P1150477

Occupying the ground floor of a nondescript modern building just yards from the tram terminus and identifiable only by a small yellow sign, the trattoria Cesare al Casaletto is, from the outside, unremarkable. I’d passed by, at first oblivious and then dismissive, dozens and dozens of times. Then, on advice from Katie, we went for lunch. The best lunch we’d had in a long time. And so we went back, again and again, each visit reaffirming our conviction.

Bright and luminous, da Cesare is the antitheses of the archetypal shadowy and surly Roman Trattoria - I should add I like shadowy and surly from time to time. It’s quietly elegant yet cordial and comfortable. On Saturday we were given a table in the nicest corner with plenty of space for a high chair. Da Cesare is a family trattoria in the truest sense and this is personified by the owner’s bold little girl who marches up to your table to say ciao.

P1150478

To start, we divided a portion of plump, preserved anchovies: oily, fiendishly fishy filets to be squashed onto bread and polpette di bollito misto; delicate, fragile, deep-fried spheres of breaded shredded veal served with a spoonful of pesto. Then we shared a primo of fresh egg pasta with vignarola (braised artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions) and pecorino romano cheese. We paused. For secondo my companion had baccalà alla Romana (salt cod with tomatoes) and I had involtini al sugo, two quietly delicious beef rolls in a rich tomato sauce. There were also side dishes, one a tangle of dark-green ragged cicioria ripassata and another of chips. Such good chips. We finished with coffee and biscuits that had not long been pulled from the oven.

It took me a few visits to understand what makes the Food at da Cesare so special. Of course it’s the excellent ingredients, the skill and a lightness of touch that transforms traditional Roman food – the menu is much the same as any menu you might find in any trattoria – into something so vital and impressive. Then, after the fourth or fifth meal, I understood. It’s the care taken that sets da Cesare apart. Real care without pretense or fuss, without swagger or caricature. The food makes even more sense when you talk to the owner, Leonardo Vignoli or his wife. Both are gentle, modest, passionate, attentive: a rare combination in Rome.  The wine list is as splendid as the food. As is the advice to help you navigate it.

P1150482

As I paid the bill I asked Leonardo about the involtini, the two unassuming beef rolls that had been simmered tenderly in tomato sauce, maybe the nicest I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a few.) ‘Thin slices of good beef, well seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic wrapped around impossibly thin batons of carrot and celery and then simmered gently in tomato for an hour and a half‘ was his advice. ‘How would I know they were done?’ I asked. ‘Touch and taste‘ was his reply. Then he was gone – politely of course – back into the kitchen and I was left with a queue of questions trailing down my throat.

My first attempt was acceptable. My second very reasonable. My third attempt at involtini however, was a resounding success. Not quite reaching the benchmark set by Da Cesare, but nearly. Ask your butcher to cut you 10 thin slices of beef – rump or chuck is ideal. Season the slices prudently with fine salt, freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you so wish (I don’t.) Position a fat bundle of painfully thin carrot and celery batons at the bottom of the slice and then roll, tuck and roll until you have a neat parcel. Secure the roll lengthways with a toothpick. You brown your involtini in hot oil, nudging and turning, until they are evenly coloured and then you cover them with wine and tomato and simmer for a good long while.

P1150488

The tomato reduces into a dense, flavoursome sauce and the beef rolls – with their neat bundle of savory – are simmered into tenderness. I wouldn’t have given these involtini a thought (never mind a second glance) before coming to live in Rome. Old-fashioned, boring and just damn fuddy-duddy I might have mumbled. Little did I know. Made carefully with good ingredients, they are simply delicious, richly favoured and well, very Roman. And the word involtini? It comes form the verb avvolgere (to wrap) so literally translated means, a little thing that has been wrapped.

Of course involtini work well as part of a Roman-style lunch. That is; a tasty antipasti, a modest portion of pasta and then a roll (or two) served alone on a white plate with nothing more than a crust of bread to scoop up the sauce. They are also good in a more English manner, that is beside a pile of extremely buttery mashed potato (what isn’t?) Roll with it.

P1150492

Involtini al sugo  Beef rolls in tomato sauce

Inspired by the involtini at  Cesare al Casaletto with advice from my butchers at Sartor.

serves 4 (two each with two extra to squabble over)

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 1 large stick of celery cut into extremely thin batons  (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 10 thin slices of beef (3mm or so) – rump or chuck is ideal
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a clove of garlic, finely chopped (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • a small glass of white wine or red wine
  • 500 g tinned plum tomatoes coarsely chopped or passed through the food mill

Peel and then cut the carrot and celery into extremely thin batons roughly the same length as the beef slice is wide.

Take a slice of beef, lay it flat on the work surface, season with salt, pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you are using it. Again, I don’t use garlic. Place a bundle of carrot and celery at the bottom of the beef slice and then roll the beef around the batons, tucking the sides in if you can, until you have a neat cylinder. Secure the roll with a toothpick along its length.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy based saute pan. Add beef rolls, and cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes.

Add the glass of wine to the pan, raise the heat so the wine sizzles and evaporates. Add the tomatoes and stirring and nudging the rolls so they are evenly spaced and well coated with tomato. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the rolls covered partially – gently stirring and turning the rolls a couple of times – until meat is cooked through and tender which will take about 1 and a half – 2 hours. Add a little more wine or water if the sauce seems to be drying out during the cooking.

Lets the rolls rest for at least 15 minutes before serving with a spoonful of sauce and some bread.

P1150494

43 Comments

Filed under beef, Da Cesare al Casaletto, food, In praise of, meat, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, tomatoes