Category Archives: In praise of

everyday impasto

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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.

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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.

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

chasing crisp

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

water everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

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

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the rough with the smooth

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Spring into lunch

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Roll with it

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Layer upon layer

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Lately I’ve been thinking about layers. Mostly mundane ones: clothes, coats and covers, the management of which occupies a ridiculous amount of my time, what with a child and March’s capricious climate. Not that this ridiculous amount of time ever seems to pay off. I am, it seems, destined to always get it wrong and we end up either hot and bothered, cold and cantankerous or simply soaking wet.

My almost impressive ability to misjudge meteorological matters was less important when it was just me. But now I have a small boy clamped to my chest or clutching my hand, a small inappropriately dressed 18 month-old boy whose every sniff and sneeze precipitates a chorus of street tutting and disapproval –  ‘Non si fa cosi signora! Povero bambino‘ –  I wish I could judge the layers better! At least once in a while.

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Inappropriately dressed we’ve been walking in search of less mundane and more intriguing layers. Armed with Elizabeth Speller’s book of ten guided walks – of which we have now completed seven –  we’ve been discovering Rome anew, observing layer upon layer of her glorious and inglorious past and her shambolic and sublime present. Of course the great baroque facades, imperial ruins and palazzi of renaissance princes are stupendous. As are the tiny piazze, labyrinthine cobbled alleys and half forgotten fountains. But it’s the unexpected and incongruous that really arrests me, when fragments, as ES puts it, ‘burst forth.’

A single arch of an ancient edifice rising forlornly between two 19th century apartment blocks, a 2000 year old column holding up a tenement kitchen, a routine hole for a routine check by the Roman water board that has been appropriated by archeologists, a mechanics workshop built into an ancient pile of broken pots, an ancient arch – onto which an unsupervised dog is relieving himself – marooned in the middle of the pavement beside a busy road. Antiquity bursting forth and then just sitting there nonchalantly while perfectly modern lives roar or meander by. Layer upon layer.

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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It has taken me a year to lift the pasta maker out of its box and clamp it to the work surface. I’m as proficient at procrastination as I am meteorological misjudgment. If the truth be known the chrome plated steel Imperia would still be languishing in cardboard at the bottom of the cupboard were it not for Paola: my friend and lasagne teacher. I met Paola a few years ago when she hosted a party for our mutual friend Sergio in her garden. It had been noted that we’d get on and that Paola was an excellent cook, We did and she is, particularly when it comes to la lasagna.

Before coming to Italy I was deeply suspicious of lasagna, traumatized by too many encounters with thick yellow sheets that managed  - quite impressively – to be both over and undercooked, big bulging layers of very busy ragu, floods of floury white sauce and cheddar crusts. Thud, squelch, indigestion. It was awful. I was scarred for lasagna life. So scarred, that even the more refined, relatively well executed lasagna left me unmoved. I decided it was best that I just let lasagna lie.

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I almost spurned the slice Vincenzo brought over to me during the party. Then I realised it was unlike any lasagna I’d ever seen. Paola rolls her fresh handmade egg pasta as thin as thin can be, which renders it light, extremely delicate and allows it to be the absolute protagonist, appearing in eight or nine layers. The sauces and others layers. whether they be a rich ragu, sautéed vegetables, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, a limpid white sauce are all merely supporting artists. Very important supporting artists mind: proud, present and bestowing deep flavour, but never swamping or overwhelming the star: the almost transparent leaves of pasta. The slice looked a little like a closed accordion, it managed to be delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. I ate three slices. I then lay in a somnolent posture under a tree.

Some years later I’m standing in Paola’s kitchen in her house near Velletri, a town about an hour south of Rome. It is a vast enviable space, with a pale marble-topped work surface, wood burning stove and wooden table long enough for twelve. It’s a comfortable and unpretentious space though, with nothing twee or themed about it, no suggestions of whimsical rustic. I note that I could spend a lot of time in this kitchen. We drink coffee and then roll up our sleeves, tie on our aprons and make lasagne.

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First we make our dough, kneading methodically and rhythmically until it’s smooth and soft as putty. Then we position ourselves bedside Paola’s chrome Imperia, launch a blizzard of flour over the worksuface and then begin passing the pieces of pasta between the metal rollers.  9 pieces, passed one by one through the six settings. That’s 54 rounds. 54 raptious rounds as rolling pasta is one of the nicest kitchen tasks I’ve undertaken in a very long time.

It never ceases to amaze me how a good and patient teacher can make even the most complicated of tasks seem entirely manageable and you – the student – feel capable and just a little chuffed. Not that rolling pasta is particularly complicated. You do need guidance though and some sound counsel about cutting, folding, feeding, dusting with flour and how to manage the ever-increasing lengths of soft, egg lasagne. I’ve tried as best I can to include Paola’s guidance in the recipe below. I do hope it is helpful. I would encourage you to find a teacher too, a patient and capable one.

And so the filling.  Being, as it is, the season for the tender-hearted warrior of the vegetable world, Rome’s glorious globe, a lasagna with artichokes and ricotta seems appropriate, at least it did in our flat last Monday. Having made your pasta and set it aside to rest, you set about preparing your other layers. First the artichokes, which need trimming, slicing and then cooking in olive oil and wine – a slow sauté/braise really until they are extremely tender. Extremely tender: a soft, creamy mush really but with some discernible pieces.

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Next you make a panful of béchamel, which needs to be loose, fluid and pourable. And finally you whip the ricotta into a light, lactic cream with whole milk and season it prudently. It’s also important to eat at a little of your ricotta cream on toast while you watch your son putting oranges and your purse in the washing machine.

Having rolled the pasta as thin as you dare, you need to par-boil it. A vast pan of well salted, fast boiling water is important, as is an equally large bowl of cold water and plenty of clean dry tea towels arranged strategically all over your kitchen  - which will make it feel a little like a chinese laundry. Bold and brave moves are best. Drop five sheets of lasagne into the water. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the sheets lumber and roll for a minute before scooping them out as you would a slippy, wriggling toddler from a bath tub, plunging them into the cold water (to halt the cooking and prevent sticking, the curse of long, exquisitely thin lasagne) and then spreading them out on the tea towels.

Now is all that’s left is to assemble, to put layer upon layer. A layer of Pasta, a layer of artichokes, béchamel and parmesan, another of pasta, the next of artichokes, ricotta and parmesan, another of pasta and so and so and so. Use scissors to snip the pasta into shape and do not be afraid of patches. Keep in mind the layers of artichoke, ricotta and bèchamel should be scarce and subtle sploges rather than a dense layer, supporting, bestowing flavour but never dominating. 15 minutes in the oven and then a 15 minute rest.

Layer upon layer for lunch. And what a good lunch: delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. A lunch during which I felt proud as punch. Paola ti voglio bene. This is may well become my Sunday best.

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This recipe is – like most of my posts – long and possibly rather daunting (and/or trying.)  The length is due to all the simple but numerous phases, please don’t let it deter you. Of course time, effort and organisation are required! But it is undeniably, irrefutably, assolutamente worth every minute, knead, rock and roll, chop, whisk and blooming-lovely layer.

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

Inspired by Paola, with sound advice from Marcella Hazan and Franco and Ann Taruschio

serves 6

for the pasta

  • 300 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 3 medium-sized free range eggs
  • a pinch of salt

for the artichoke layer

  • 8 large /10 medium globe artichokes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine

for the bèchamel sauce

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black or white pepper
  • nutmeg

For the ricotta layer

  • 300 g ricotta
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black pepper

and

  • 100 g parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Begin the pasta.  Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. 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. Cover the pasta with cling film and set it aside.

Prepare the artichokes. Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, tugging 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. As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water. Slice away the stem and cut it into thick match sticks and then cut the bulb into 8 wedges. In a heavy based pan, warm the olive oil and then saute the artichoke pieces briefly. Add a pinch of salt and the wine, stir and reduce the flame so the artichokes bubble gently. Cover the pan and allow the artichokes to steam/braise for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely tender. The artichokes must not dry out, but stay extremely moist so add more water if necessary. Mash the artichokes gently with the back of the wooden spoon so they collapse into a creamy mush but with some discernible chunks.

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

Prepare the ricotta. Using a fork beat and whip the ricotta with the milk until you have a soft, light paste, season with salt and  black pepper.

Roll and cook pasta. Cut the ball of pasta into 9 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 3 eggs = 9 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 8 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. Paola rolls her pasta through all six settings so it is impressively thin. You may need to cut the pieces in half.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil. Prepare a large bowl of cold water. On your largest work surface spread out clean tea towels. Lower 5 sheets at a time into the water. Once the water has come back to a fast boil allow the sheets to cook for 1 minute before scooping them out, plunging them into the cold water and then laying them out on the clean tea towels. Repeat until all the sheets are cooked.

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

Assemble la lasagna. Rub a little olive oil and a smear of béchamel over the base of the tin ( a 34 cm tin is ideal). Arrange a layer of lasagne first, try not to have more than 6 mm of overlap, use scissors to cut the lasagne. Spread a thin layer of artichoke on the pasta, then a layer of béchamel and sprinkle over a little parmesan. Now another layer of pasta, another (thin) layer of artichoke and one of ricotta, more parmesan and a little olive oil. Repeat putting artichokes and parmesan in each layer but alternating bèchamel and ricotta. You should finish with the eighth layer of pasta. Spread over the last of the béchamel, sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Bake the lasagna in the pre heated oven for 15 minutes by which time it should have a golden crust and bubble at the edges, Allow the lasagna to rest for at least 15 minutes before bringing to the table and serving directly from the dish.

Eat layer upon layer.

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Against the strain of modern life

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It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

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Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

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Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

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At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

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Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

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 sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

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Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes