Category Archives: pasta and rice

all mixed

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‘Eat your greens’ is something I’ve never needed to be told (cajoled or forced) to do. As a child I happily ploughed my way through large servings of cabbage, brussels sprouts, spinach, spring greens, chard and broccoli. If they were glistening with butter, all the better. I was one of the few who ate the ambiguous heap of so-called greens whose odor lingered (like us) in corners and corridors around the school and appeared on every school lunch plate. ‘What a good little eater‘ relatives and dinner ladies would say. Which confused me, surely they meant what a good big eater? Later I would become a bad little eater, which relatives and dinner ladies had lots to say about, mostly in hushed tones with rolling eyes; bad, sad, spoilt, neglected, attention seeking, perfectionist, pain in the bloody neck. But even during those years, when I had a reputation of restriction to uphold (I was the only one interested in this reputation) I ate my greens.

Lately we have been eating something called misticanza, a mix of leaves and greens prepared by my fruttivendolo Gianluca that is somewhere between delicious and effort. I will come back to this. Now traditionally misticanza, which means a mixture of things, is assortment of leaves, field herbs and aromatic shoots collected at the first signs of spring from the fields surrounding Rome and eaten as a salad. Gillian Riley reminds us this habit of collecting wild plants is a holdover from the days when the poor, unable to afford a doctor, were cared for by countrywomen and their collections of wild plants possessing medicinal qualities.

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Far from seeming medicinal, true misticanza, which often includes young borage, sorrel, wild chicory, dandelion, salad burnet and poppy greens is a flavoursome delight, sweet and bitter, mostly tender but occasionally robust and just a little hairy. Which far from being unattractive means it’s full of character and delicious, at least I think so (I feel much the same about several other things.) You could of course opt for a smoother, more clean-shaven misticanza, the gathering is up to you, whether it be in your garden, field, or in my case local market.

These days in Rome the term misticanza is also used for an assortment of wild and cultivated greens  that need to be boiled in order to be edible. The quality of the misticanza depends on the source. Kind and reliable Gianluca often has a opinionated mix of properly hairy, slightly prickly borage, sweet escarole and chard, dandelion, wild chicory and a woody green that I still don’t know the name of. Having plunged the well-washed rabble into a pan of well-salted fast boiling water for a few minutes, you then drain it and saute it in plenty of garlic scented extra virgin olive oil.

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Normally I eat this more substantial misticanza just so, I adore the deep-green engaging substance of it, a textured, oily tangle scented with garlic. In fact I often sport a tuft of chicory between my front teeth all afternoon to prove it.  Yesterday however, having bought a slice of pure white,  properly fresh ricotta di pecora from my norcineria, we ate the misticanza with pasta.

This dish is a nice illustration of three things I have learned since living in Italy. The first, is insaporire, to give flavor, which I have written about before. By cooking the peeled and gently crushed garlic in olive oil over a low flame until fragrant and just turning gold the olive oil is given the sweet and savory flavour of the garlic. The garlic is then removed. The second is ripassare, to re-cook, on this occasion the boiled, drained misticanza in the garlic scented olive oil so the soft, rag-like greens can absorb the olive oil hungrily. The third, is using a little of the pasta cooking water, cloudy and slightly thick with starch, to thin the ricotta, parmesan and black pepper mixture thus making a cream which coats and then brings the ingredients together into a soft but substantial and unified whole. Eat your white and greens…not that you need telling.

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Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

You can of course use whatever greens you like. I like the combination of sweet and bitter greens and the different textures they offer. You know your greens I’m sure. Keep in mind the greens are boiled,  so quite substantial leafy ones work well. Keep very tender, delicate greens and leaves for salad.

serves 4

  • 300 g mixed greens (borage, escarole, radish leaves, chicory, spinach, chard, rocket. sorrel, chervil)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 300 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)
  • 40 g freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper
  • 450 g rigatoni

Wash the greens thoroughly and then boil them for a few minutes in a large pan of well-salted boiling water. Use tongs to remove the greens from the pan into a colander. Keep the water for the pasta.

In a large warm bowl (I run mine under the hot tap and then dry it) mash the ricotta with the parmesan, plenty of black pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of the (slightly green) cooking water then beat it into a soft cream.

Bring the water back to a fast boil and add the pasta. Squeeze all the water from the greens and then chop them coarsely

Meanwhile in a frying pan over a low flame, saute the garlic – you have peeled and gently crushed with the back of a knife – in the olive oil until it is just turning golden and fragrant. Remove the garlic. Add the chopped greens and cook for a few minutes, stirring so each leaf is coated with oil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a cupful of the pasta cooking water and then tip it onto the ricotta, add the greens and then toss the ingredients together thoroughly, adding a splash more of the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems stiff. Serve.

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Filed under cucina romana, Eating In Testaccio, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, vegetables

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

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

Seeing red

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It was all so green when I left. A week away –  a bonny wedding weekend on an island in the Scottish Hebrides called Tanera Mòr and then a few days slightly too far outside London with my family – and Testaccio market is splattered, like a Cy Twombly canvas, with red. There is still green of course, a market patchwork of asparagus, peas, spinach, slim beans, forest green chard and soft heads of spring lettuce. But it’s the startling splatters: tomatoes, strawberries, crimson cherries and bunches of blushing radishes that are catching my eye.

I’ve never found peeling tomatoes a faff. Quite the opposite in fact, I find the spa-esque process – a hot plunge, a nick with a sharp knife, a cold plunge before peeling –  thoroughly pleasing. Maybe I should get out more? My carelessness with a handful of tomato skins once blocked the sink in the smart kitchen Romla and I were doing some rogue catering in. Fortunately the husband of the house, a man so handsome I turned the same colour as the tomatoes, happened to be in the kitchen while our twenty-three year old selves were peering anxiously into the blocked Belfast. He strode over (I think he might even have been wearing buff riding breeches) plunged his aristocratic hand down the plughole, scooped out the offending red skins and complimented us on the suggestive smell of dinner.

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These are Sicilian pomodori Piccadilly. They are fleshy, flavoursome things the size of small plums that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. Tomatoes like this make me forget my jaded self who has shaken off much of her Roman romanticism, and remember the Rachel who first arrived in Italy nine springs ago. The woman who stood staring in gastronomic awe at the mounds of red: tiny orbs, beefy cow hearts, fat fluted saucers, pendulous plums and who ate them chopped, sliced or simply squashed idly onto bread with a careless quality of olive oil and too much salt day after day after day just because she could.

Having sung the praises of Italian pomodori when I know full well many of you might not be able to find such full hipped and red lipped tomatoes, I should hasten to add today’s recipe is a forgiving one. Extremely forgiving, as it involves the saving grace of many-a-mediocre tomato: a flesh shriveling, flavour intensifying roast.

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Having peeled your tomatoes, sliced them in two and set them cut-side-up in a well-oiled baking dish, you tuck a thin sliver of garlic into the soft pulp and place a quarter of anchovy filet on top of each half. You then scatter some soft, craggy breadcrumbs, a little finely chopped fresh rosemary, salt and black pepper over the upturned faces before dousing the whole tray, fearlesslessly and drunkenly with extra virgin olive oil. I find a glass of wine is helpful when a reckless olive oil hand is called for.

You bake your well-seasoned tomatoes at 180° for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely soft, collapsing, curling sweetly at the edges and starting to suggest sauce. Until the anchovies have dissolved into the tender tomato flesh and the olive oil inebriated breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

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The combination of roasted tomato: sweet and savory with the intense, salty fishiness of the anchovy, a warm notes of tomato smothered garlic, the smoky, floral rosemary and crisp olive oil soaked breadcrumbs is a mighty good one. A mighty good one that sings. I agree with the brilliant Niki SegnitIf you have ever wondered what Unami is, a mouthful of tomato and anchovy should settle the matter.’ I’d go one step further and say a mouthful of roasted tomato with anchovies (the fat, plump Sicilian ones preserved under coarse salt that you need to soak and then de-bone) rosemary and olive oil breadcrumbs and the Unami matter is settled and some.

You could eat your tumbling mess of anchovy, rosemary and breadcrumbed tomatoes with a grilled lamb chop, pork chop or slice of roast chicken. Alternatively – and I appreciate the suggestion of breadcrumbs on bread might sound odd –  they are excellent smeared on toast. Or you could do as I did today.

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That is mash your baking tray of warm tomatoes clumsily into a rough sauce with the back of a wooden spoon and then stir this sauce into some al dente linguine or spaghetti. Don’t worry about serving bowls or dishes, mix the pasta with the sauce directly in the baking tray, making sure you diligently scrape and stir every sticky, oily morsel and crumb. Someone will also have to take a crust of bread to the tin once all the pasta is served-up.

This is how I (we) like to eat: pasta with a sauce that both strokes and punches. A green salad of lettuce, lovage and wild rocket and then a dozen crimson cherries made a nice finish to a Wednesday lunch.  Now about that flat hunting.

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Linguine with oven roasted tomatoes, anchovies, rosemary and breadcrumbs

Serves 4

  • 1 kg ripe but firm and flavoursome tomatoes (plum-shaped Piccadilly work particularly well)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 plump cloves of garlic
  • 6 large or 8 small anchovy filets (preserved under oil or better still under salt)
  • 60 g soft, craggy breadcrumbs
  • a little finely chopped rosemary
  • salt and black pepper
  • 450 g linguine

Set the oven to 180°

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for 60 seconds and then very cold water. The skins should slip and pull away easily.

Half the tomatoes and sit them – cut side up –  in an oiled baking tin. Peel and slice the garlic very thinly. Tuck a sliver of garlic into the fleshy pulp of each half. Using scissors, snip the anchovy fillets into quarters and sit a quarter on each cut tomato. Scatter the breadcrumbs and chopped rosemary over the tomatoes. Sprinkle and grind a little salt and black pepper then douse everything very generously with olive oil.

Bake the tomatoes for 20 minutes or so or until the tomatoes are very soft and starting to collapse and the breadcrumbs are golden and crisp. You need to keep a beady eye on them.

Cook the linguine in a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Using a wooden spoon, gently mash the tomatoes into a very crude, rough sauce, add the drained pasta, stir and serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

Pod and pinch

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I nearly postponed lunch last Sunday. I’d forgotten something that put the kibosh on the pottering, cooking and mild house straightening I had planned for the morning before the lunch after. A well-meaning friend (with a kitchen the size of my flat and a similarly sized ability to rustle up a lunch for twelve) suggested I made something in advance and set the dining table the night before. I nodded politely and didn’t remind her I can barely keep up with basic never mind advanced at the moment, and that I only have one table, which also functions as my desk. As I said, I nearly postponed lunch last Sunday. Then I didn’t. For which I’m glad, as it turned out to be a nice lunch.

I’d barely taken my coat off when the first guest arrived. Late and ill-prepared I should have been flustered. Come to think of it I was. But then she opened a well-chilled bottle and poured me some dark inky-red wine that fizzed and frothed as it settled in my glass. Good Lambrusco I’ve discovered, is not an oxymoron. It was crisp, bone dry and tasted of bitter cherries, blackberries and burdock, a delicious way to lift my tardy spirits. Then while I trimmed artichokes, Cameron rolled up her sleeves and started podding peas.

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It had been a while since I’d had kitchen company, cooking having been a pretty solitary pursuit lately. I was reminded how much – when I let it happen –  I love the chatter and the convivial, consuming bustle of shared kitchen enterprise. I don’t know Cameron well, but we were soon comfortable in companionable activity. It helped that she is a chef from San Francisco, capable and laid back in equal measure, a pretty perfect kitchen companion. As was the Lambrusco.

Another friend arrived and joined the podding while I sautéed curls of spring onion and fat wedges of artichoke for a spring vegetable stew. I had done a smidgen of early morning preparation, which meant the potatoes only needed boiling and the mayonnaise stirring. I abandoned plans for chickpea fritters, then while the podders progressed from peas to fave and the sun turned it’s shining up a notch, I made a fennel and orange salad (again.)

Dan and Fran arrived with more wine and salami. Kitchen mess was managed, the table set and then we ate – in no particular order - vignarola piled on bruschetta with ricotta di pecora, salami, waxy new potatoes with home-made mayonnaise, fennel and orange salad with more Lariano bread. To finish, Dan had made biscuits, superlative chocolate ones sandwiched together with dark chocolate granache. We all drank rather too much wine. It all felt comfortably chaotic, ad hoc and lovely.

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None of which has anything to do with today’s recipe! Well except the peas, which I podded alone and observed it is a task best done in company while drinking Lambrusco. The peas I podded and then cooked in much the same way as the Vignarola, the stew of spring vegetables I wrote about last week and made for the nearly postponed lunch. That is a gentle saute with some spring onion in extra virgin olive oil. Then – with the help of a glass of wine (what and who isn’t helped by a glass of wine? ) part braise /part steamy simmer which means the vegetables cook in their own juices and all the flavors: sweet and savory, grassy and buttery are kept closely.

I removed half the braised peas from the pan, reduced them to a paste with the immersion blender before returning them to rest of the peas and stirring until I had a soft, textured cream the colour of which seemed a fitting hue for a boat an owl and a pussy cat might set sail in. A generous spoonful of ricotta, a pinch of coarse salt and three grinds of black pepper and lunch was well underway.

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As I suspected, pea and ricotta cream: a gentle muddle of sweet grassy peas, savory onion and quivering ricotta is good on toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with olive oil. A pretty perfect spring antipasti in fact, especially on Tuesday while you are making farfalle pasta.

You can of course use dried farfalle (farfalle means butterflies which obviously refers to the shape). Or you could make them. Which really isn’t difficult! Believe me, I managed and although enthusiastic I’m hardly the most skilled pasta maker. Standard pasta dough, kneaded prudently and rolled thinly – notes below. Then the particularly nice bit: you cut the pasta into smallish squares – I did this by hand which meant rather idiosyncratic squares – and then you pinch.

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Once your pasta is pinched, you just need to cook it in large pan of water that is boiling and rolling around like a tempestuous sea. The water should taste like the sea too, so salt it generously. Fresh egg pasta cooks relatively quickly, keep tasting. Once the pasta is cooked but still slightly al-dente (literally translated this means to the tooth and refers to the fact the pasta still has bite) use a slotted spoon to lift your butterflies onto the pea and ricotta sauce. Turn the pasta in the sauce making sure each pinched piece is coated. Divide the pasta between two bowls and finish with a spoonful of ricotta.

Short of eating them straight from their pods while walking back from the market along the Tevere river in the sunshine, this is one of nicest ways to eat tender spring peas. As nice as vignarola, as nice even – and I can’t really believe I am saying this – as the gloriously good Venetian pea and rice soup you eat with a fork – risi e bisi. Peas and butterflies, pod and pinch.

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Farfalle con piselli e ricotta  Farfalle pasta with peas and ricotta cheese

serves 2

  • 200 g semolina or plain flour suitable for pasta
  • 2 eggs
  • salt
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or 4 small spring onions
  • a  small glass of dry white wine
  • 200 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk ricotta) plus more for serving
  • freshly ground black pepper.

Make 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 for a full eight minutes by which time it 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 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.

Using a sharp knife or pasta cutter, cut the pasta into 1 1/2″ by 1 1/2″ squares and pinch (hard) in middle of the square, squeezing the top and bottom together so you have a butterfly / bow tie.

Make the sauce

Pod the peas. Peel and finely slice the spring onion. Warm the olive oil  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 peas, stir, add the wine and then let the peas cook for a few minutes or until they are tender. Older, larger peas will take longer.

Remove half the pea mixture, puree with an immersion blender and return to the pan. Season the mixture generously with salt and black pepper. Add the ricotta and stir until you have a pale, textured cream.

Cook the farfalle in well-salted fast boiling water. It will take about 6 minutes. Once cooked, use a slotted spoon to lift the pasta from the water and onto the sauce. Stir, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if the sauce seems a little stiff.

Serve immediately with another spoonful of ricotta on top and freshly grated parmesan for those wish.

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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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Filed under artichokes, food, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, ricotta, spring recipes, Uncategorized

By eye not rule

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Since my late teens I’ve kept a kitchen notebook. It would be nice to tell you that these notebooks: a well-worn but pleasing collection of soft volumes sit cheek by jowl on my bookcase, that it’s a collection I treasure and refer to daily. They aren’t, they don’t and therefore I can’t. For apart from the five most recent notebooks and a green diary from 1997, my motley crew of dog-eared loose-leaf pads and leather effect WH Smith jotters have either been lost in migration or languish – damp and curling at the edges – in my parents garage. There are also six years worth of Italian notebooks getting dusty in a box at Vincenzo’s. So much unfinished business! But now’s not the time to talk about that.

I’ve mixed feelings about the 16 years worth of notebooks curling in England! Which is why, despite weary pleas from my parents and countless opportunities, they remain exactly where they are. For amongst the recipes written, sellotaped and glued to the pages, descriptions of meals eaten, brief notes about stove successes and long laments about kitchen failures, the to make lists and meticulous plans for suppers that may or may not have happened, is a painful (and tedious) account of my then life in food.

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Exuberantly documented periods of feast are all too often followed by tiresome accounts of restraint and abstinence. A pleasant seasonal list or carefully copied quote is probably followed by a raging diatribe about loathing food or myself for eating it. A fanfare to fruit cake is stifled by an ode to fasting. Twelve (very slim) notebooks dated from 2002 to 2004 chart – in painfully neat handwriting –  a joyless weighed and measured routine I’d rather forget. Notes about expansive meals are almost always followed by so much self-flagellation and malcontent it’s exhausting. Fad’s, fantastical allergies and fernickerty disordered eating is well documented.  Lost, forgotten, abandoned and curled. Quite right too.

Well almost. There were gems amongst the goulash of angst and self-flagellation. Real gems. Some of which I pulled, ripped and unstuck a couple of summers ago while sorting through the damp boxes. A series of recipes snipped from the Guardian in the late 90′s, handwritten recipes by Granny Alice and Grandma Phyllis, illustrated recipes for three almonds cakes from my Spanish neighbour, a pile of 1940′s pamphlets about herbs, three A4 pages of recipes from my time in India and the green notebook from 1997, they are all sitting here on my red table.

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And so the green notebook. The one I kept whilst living in Camden Town and going to drama school. An angst free notebook – I was, I note on more than one occasion, extremely happy – almost entirely given over to notes, thoughts and several comical accounts of making pasta. I wish I could remember what precipitated this rash of research, kneading and rolling? A dinner? A book? A friend?  It wasn’t a trip to Italy or a man. I wish I could remember from where I copied the most bizarre pasta making advice. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever or wherever, in the spring of 1997, when living in the small but well proportioned North London flat, the sound of evening trains through Camden cutting, I became temporarily obsessed with making pasta. I remember nothing about eating this pasta. I clearly did though! On many occasions, all of which are duly noted: Needs work! Dry dry dry! Rather hard and slightly indigestable! Try another flour!

Sixteen years later, in a small but well proportioned flat in South Rome, the green notebook – although providing entertainment – has been absolutely no help whatsoever in my latest attempt to learn to make pasta. Well except for one note that is. A note I’ve been given more times than I care to remember during my cooking life, and not only regarding pasta – by eye not rule.

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By eye not rule. Of course there are rules, like using best semolina flour, working on a clean dry surface and adding a whole egg to the flour before adding the cold water when making cavatelli pasta. ‘It’s an unconventional egg‘ my teacher Daria noted while working the yellow yolk expertly into the equally yellow flour ‘As cavatelli pasta is traditionally made just semolina flour and water.’ An egg however – a trick taught to her by her mother – wether working with 200 g or a kilo of flour helps with manageability and elasticity.

Once you have worked the egg into the flour you can start adding the water, little by little, by eye not rule. Time of year, temperature of your kitchen, the flour, the size of your egg, your mood, your husband’s mood, these variables will all affect the quantity of water you use. Which bring us neatly to Daria’s second piece of advice.: practica (practice.) You can only learn and truly understand how much water is required to bring the ingredients together into a soft, putty-like-dough by practicing.

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Our lesson took place a few weeks ago. Cavatelli is a traditional curled pasta shape from Daria’s home town in Puglia,where it’s also known as capunti. Having made a dough from grano duro (semolina flour), the unconventional egg and enough water, Daria taught me to knead. Did I mention how much I like being taught these days, I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to. The heel of your palm does most of the work: pushing the dough forward, folding it in half, turning and pressing again. You should knead for about 8 minutes – again eye not rule – until the dough is smooth and soft as putty.

Cutting and shaping the cavatelli is, despite appearances, pretty straightforward. You need to cut the dough into thick matchsticks. Daria did this by moulding the dough into a rough round, then cutting this round into first strips and then matchsticks. To shape the individual cavatelli  you place your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so the dough curls into a long arc with three in-dents. At every stage of the shaping, cutting and forming Daria launched a blizzard of semolina flour over proceedings to stop the dough sticking.

While I finished shaping the cavatelli, a deeply satisfying task once you master the press and flick required, Daria cooked some cauliflower until unfashionably soft. Having lifted the tender florets from their cooking water (which she left for the pasta) she then sautéed the cauliflower in an even more unfashionable quantity of olive oil before mashing it gently with the back of the wooden spoon until it surrendered into a soft, creamy sauce. A pinch of salt and a handful of chopped dusty-brown olives – surly and salty ones from Gaeta - finished the sauce off nicely.

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I’d just like to pause and note how delicious well-cooked cauliflower ripassata in extra virgin olive oil, well salted and studded with olives is. This has been our lunch – give or take a piece of bread and lump of cheese – once a week since my lesson. Noted? Good! But back to the cavatelli. Under supervision I cooked the pasta in the cloudy cauliflower water. It took just minutes, the indented curls bobbing excitedly to the surface. Once cooked, the cavatelli was slotted-spooned into the cauliflower pan – a little of the pasta cooking water still clinging to the curls – stirred and served.

Now as you may or may not have noticed, I am very fond of vegetables – broccoli, crema di rapa, zucchini, broccoletti - that are cooked until extremely soft, turned in olive oil and then stirred into pasta. Such dishes have become a cornerstone of my diet and the saviour of my purse strings. This dish Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive is my new favorite. The soft, somewhat shy sauce given courage by the feisty olives, collects in the curls and coats the tender pasta.

‘This is a good pasta for a complete beginner’ Daria noted. I felt myself bristle, the pride surge through my veins. ‘Well I’m not exactly a beginner.’ I was about to splutter.’ I’ve lived in Italy for 8 years now and I’ve been making pasta since 1997.’  Then I remembered. ‘Yes it is.’ I agreed while noting notes in my scruffy but almost angst free notebook. ‘It’s a perfect pasta for a beginner.’

Serve by eye not rule.

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Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive  Cavatelli pasta with cauliflower and olives

Enough for 4

  • 400 g farina di garno duro (semola)
  • 1 medium egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • filtered water – enough
  • 1 medium-sized cauliflower
  • Extra virgin olive oil – plenty
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • a handful of coarsely chopped black olives
  • salt – enough
  • black pepper – enough

Pour the flour into a mound on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break  the egg into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolk and start working the egg into the flour. Now add a little water and continue working the liquid into the dough. Keep adding water 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.

Divide the dough into quarters. Roll, mould and pat one-quarter into a circle about 5 ml thick. Cut the square into strips about 3 cm wide. Cut the strip into match sticks about 3 mm wide. The end epic of the circle which are too small can be set aside and worked back into the rest of the dough.

Work on  a well floored board. Position your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the dough matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so he dough curls onto a long arc with three in-dents. Move the cavatelli curl onto a tray or sheet dusted with semolina flour.

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and the cook the florets for about 1o minutes or until they are soft and very tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cauliflower out of the pan and into a colander to drain. In a saute pan warm the oil and then gently fry the garlic until it is golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and then add the cauliflower and olives. Stir well so both are coated with oil and gently mash the cauliflower with the back of the wooden spoon until you have a soft, creamy mixture. Add more oil if necessary. Turn of the heat

Cook the pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente which will only take a few minutes. Drain the pasta – reserving some cooking water – and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a little cooking water to loosen and emulsify the dish if necessary. Serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables

Fat chance

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So I’m back home in Rome. Home in Rome, even after eight years that still sounds strange. It doesn’t feel strange though, it feels just right. This is due in no small part to my son, my blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who looks decidedly English, but whose gestures, countenance and fervent, slightly comical mamma suggest otherwise and who is unmistakably content to be back.

Nearly three weeks in England was, as predicted, exactly what I needed. Long enough to immerse myself in the things I pine for – not least the beauty and beast that is family – quash the nostalgia and quietly notice the things I don’t miss one jot. Long enough also to miss Rome. To really miss Rome. Which may seem surprising given my exasperation before I left!  Or maybe it’s not so surprising! My exasperation at my adopted city was after all just that: exasperation, a familiar and relatively innocuous state. A state that’s quashed as quickly as my nostalgia for London when pitted against the things I truly, deeply like about the city that saved me, not least her sublime and shambolic beauty, her unexpectability and her infuriating but alluring attitude. And these three.

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From left to right, pancetta, guanciale and lardo. But more about these marbled slices in a moment. On arriving home in Rome, having pounded and weaved our way like territorial tom cats through Testaccio and having put the small tom cat to bed (I confess that by 7 30 I love bed time more than my son?) I settled down in front of my computer with an embarrassingly large glass of red to catch up on my reading. It’s January and there’s much talk of resolution, of greens, grains, gluten-less and guices, excuse me juices. Quite right too. And then there are the Italians (and converted Italians) who – almost without exception – are talking about lardo, lardo, guanciale, pancetta and salumi. In short cured pork products with a fearless, stupendous and delicious quantity of silky, milky-white fat. Superlative fat, now how about that!

Fully embracing the idea that January is the month to insulate and relish the fatted pig (It’s traditionally the month for slaughtering and then preserving) an almost empty fridge and a rude yearning for cured pork it seemed wholly appropriate that having bought my greens and grains I should visit a fine purveyor of all things cured: Volpetti. I explained my plans to Claudio who suggested pancetta and lardo from Toscana and an aged guanciale from Le Marche. The attention and care with which he handled the pieces, cut each slice and then wrapped it first in white paper then in brown was touching. Abandon preconceptions, this is good fat, the antitheses of insidious hidden fat. This is fat to be used (sparingly) with relish and to be celebrated. Lets start with Lardo.

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Not to be confused with English lard (struttoLardo - specifically lardo from the Tuscan hamlet tucked between two marble quarries: Colonnata - is pork back fat cured in white marble trough with salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs and garlic. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough. Eleonora and Emiko thank you. It’s a glorious, silken and deeply flavored delicacy that you eat as you would any other salumi, that is by the (very thin) slice. A delicacy that defies all expectations, dispels prejudice and should make Jack Sprats wives of us all.

I first ate lardo di colonnata a little under eight years ago in Tuscany. It was sliced extremely thinly and draped nonchalantly over a mound of puree di potato. I have to admit being a little bewildered when I first saw the plate. I was beautifully bewildered when I tasted the rich, silken, aromatic lardo melting – yielding really – into the soft, warm and accommodating mash: glorious and ambrosial, this is food that lingers in mouth and memory. Time has not faded or jaded, I still feel the same beautiful bewilderment when I eat lardo di colonnata on toasted bread. A few black olives, some radishes and a glass of prosecco and I have my perfect antipasto. And after the antipasto comes il primo so lets talk about guanciale. 

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Guanciale, which is cured pork jowl (guancia means cheek or jowl) is beloved by Romans and has changed the way I cook.  It has a sweet, delicate taste that is halfway between best bacon and proper well-rendered lard. It is an exceptional ingredient that imparts its distinct sweet flavour and rich fatty nature to whatever it is added too whether that be a soup, stew, pasta, torta or braise.

I use aged guanciale – sparingly, a little goes a long way – often. I adore the deep, rich, fatty, reassuring notes it imparts to whatever it touches. The Saul Berenson of cured pork.  Many Romans consider it fundamental to authentic All’amatriciana, Carbonara or to today’s recipe, another Roman classic and my favourite these days: Pasta or Spaghetti alla gricia.

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Pasta, guanciale, cooking water, pecorino romano and black pepper: Alla gricia. This much I know. Al dente spaghetti (or rigatoni, mezze maniche or tonnarelli ) is tossed with gently sautéed guanciale: the aim is to slowly soften the guanciale, keeping it translucent never brown and crisp which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls. Drained pasta is added to the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, this starchy water is a key to the dish, emulsifying the fat to create an almost creamy sauce for the pasta. The dish is finished with a fearless amount of bold, brazen, tangy and freshly grated pecorino romano and plenty of cracked black pepper. More pecorino scattered liberally from above is recommended. Eat.

Simple to make but – as is so often the case – practice is prudent. Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking of spoon and wrist partaking required to bring the ingredients together. It goes without saying the ingredients should be authentic and the very best you can lay your hands on. If you can’t find guanciale and pecorino (I know I know fat chance) pancetta, parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but an extremely tasty dish none the less. Ben, some guanciale in exchange for a jar of seville orange marmalade?

Home in Rome chewing the fat and the spaghetti.

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Spaghetti alla Gricia

Serves 4

  • 450 g spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp lard (strutto) or olive oil
  • 150 g aged guanciale
  • 150 g  aged pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted boiling water. Meanwhile place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the lard or olive oil and place over medium heat. Slowly sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale is soft, pink and translucent and rendered it’s fat, add a small splash of water from the cooking pasta

When the pasta is al dente, set aside a cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Remove the pan from the heat and add three quarters of the the grated pecorino romano cheese and the black pepper, toss vigorously, and add another splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring the ingredients together into a soft creamy muddle. Divide between four warm bowls, scatter over the rest of the pecorino and serve immediately.

Next week pancetta, oh and cabbage.

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Filed under antipasti, guanciale, lardo, pancetta, pasta and rice, primi, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

Reliable

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The daily act of turning raw ingredients into good food not only gives me great pleasure, it gives me a sense of purpose and place. Purpose, because this daily act and the sequence of tasks that sustain it: planning, shopping, sorting, washing, soaking, prepping, tasks which can occupy a scant 30 minutes of one day and then eight hours of the next, give structure and sense to my day. Place, because good food requires good ingredients and sourcing good ingredients makes you acutely aware of where, of here and there.

This daily act can also leave me floundering, frantic and furious! When this is the case it’s almost always because I’ve mislayed my sense of purpose, that is structure, common sense and good taste, or my sense of place. By place I don’t just mean my physical place, that is Rome in early December (quince, potatoes, pumpkins, celery root, artichokes, kale, carrots, porcini, olives, grapes, winter melon) but my place as a cook. A home cook with strengths but also limits, a small child and a propensity for mess, tears and very bad language when things go squew-wiff.

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I get most pleasure and have the greatest sense of purpose and when I’m turning raw ingredients into the habitual dishes that sustain me, my family and my friends week after week, year after year. I am – as you’ve probably noticed – extremely habitual. The bean soups, sauces, pastas and risottos that are the cornerstones of my diet. The roasts, pans of beans, trusted cakes, jams, salads (usually green) and vegetables (often boiled until unfashionably soft) that nourish me so often and so well.

I love the familiar and reassuring sequence of movements required for these dishes. Pasta and beans comes to mind: podding, chopping, the execution of the soffritto – a task repaid with both deep flavour and a glorious smell wisping around the kitchen, the reassuring rumble and occasional burp from the simmering beans and then the thick bean soup, the engaging and amusing stir-squeeze-squelch-stir as you pass some of the soup through the food mill. Or roast chicken, which I talked about the other week! The mere thought of cold hands and colder water, patting dry, slathering butter recklessly all over a good bird, shoving a lemon up its bottom and then roasting it’s until burnished makes me feel sanguine. Or salad: green leaves swirling in cold water, the spinning, tearing and dressing (with my hands.) Eating it with my hands too, but only when I’m alone.  And then there’s tomato sauce.

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I make six different types of tomato sauce all of which have numerous variations. The sauce I make depends on the time of year, wether I’m using fresh or tinned tomatoes, what type of pasta I fancy eating, who I am cooking for and my (wholly unpredictable) state of mind.  Today’s panful is a stout but handsome winter sauce made with a deeply flavored soffritto of onion, carrot and celery, tinned plum tomatoes and a glug of red wine. A rich, thick and almost burgundy coloured sauce which can be served with just about any shape of pasta or with a gently poached egg and some bread.

This sauce is decidedly Italian, but I learned to make it in decidedly unItalian circumstances. That is in the old kitchen in my parents house in Harpenden (a suffocating provincial town in the home counties.) I imagine my mum drew original inspiration from a recipe by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson but the need for the printed page had long passed. I’d love to tell you that as a little girl I stood on a stool and stirred the sauce with a battered and charred wooden spoon! But I didn’t. I watched keenly though, as my Mum chopped the vegetables, then sautéed the harlequin heap in an ungodly quantity of olive oil, added a big tin of imported plum tomatoes and slug of wine and then let the sauce bubble away on the cooler plate of the AGA for a good long while.

I spurned this sauce when I first came to Italy, enchanted by simpler, fresher ways and sheepish about my anglicized Italian cooking. It took a few years and much obsessive questioning about how Italians make their tomato sauce to discover this sort of hearty tomato sauce made with a soffritto is typical all over Italy in these darker months. One difference though, Italians (at least the ones I know) nearly always pass this sort of sauce through a food mill so the texture is smooth. I rather like it chunky – you could say that makes it more of a ragù than a sauce – but I’m extremely happy to go smooth if that’s the general consensus.

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I imagine you know the routine as well as I do: peel and chop, the long slow sauté in as much oil as you dare, the sizzle as the tomatoes hit the pan and the deep glug as the wine meets the tomatoes. The slow, burping simmer. Stir from time to time and don’t be afraid to add a little more wine or plain water if the sauce is looking dense but still needs cooking a little longer. If you prefer a smoother sauce (all the Italians in my life prefer a smoother sauce) pass it through a food mill or a sieve.

Rich Tomato sauce

4 generous portions

  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small white onion.
  • stick of celery
  • 1 small carrot
  • 500 g / ml / 1lb 2 oz tinned plum tomatoes, chopped.
  • red wine (optional)
  • salt
  • a pinch of sugar (optional if the sauce is very acidic)

Peel and then very small dice the onion, celery and carrot. In a heavy based pan over a medium/low flame warm the oil. Saute the onion until it’s soft and translucent then add the celery, carrot and a pinch of salt. Stir well so all the vegetables are well coated with oil. Reduce the heat and keep sautéing, stirring every now and then, until the vegetables are soft, lightly golden and – with much of the water evaporated away – richly flavored. This should take about 8- 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and a healthy glug of wine if you are using it, stir and then raise the heat so the sauce comes to a gentle boil. Then reduce the heat and leave the sauce to simmer very gently uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes or until it is dense (but still saucy) and dark red. Taste and season as you see fit. Pass the sauce through a food mill you prefer a smoother texture.

So lunch

We had the sauce with spaghetti and parmesan. Then broccolo romanesco cooked until unfashionably soft dressed with grassy new season extra virgin olive oil and fat anchovies. To finish, an apple and more parmesan. Pleasure, purpose and place.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, tomato sauce, tomatoes, winter recipes

A bit sheepish

And on the third day I ate ricotta di pecora. At least I think it was the third day! I can confirm this when I collect my diary and moleskin from Vincenzo’s flat. The accordian-like moleskin containing the unruly horde of tickets, receipts and other keepsakes from those first weeks in Naples and Sicily. I ate my soft, ephemeral slice of pure-white sheep’s milk ricotta with bread sitting on the grubby steps of a fountain near Quattro canti in Palermo. It was, like me, a messy affair. The ricotta, just hours young and wrapped in waxed-paper rather like the wedge of ricotta romana above, was extremely soft and sitting in a puddle of whey. Speed, slurping and strategic bread sopping were no match for the ricotta, a large proportion of which ended up down my t-shirt and on my Jeans. A not insignificant occurrence for a someone travelling with only the clothes they stood up in.

I’d eaten ricotta many times before, but it had always been made from cows milk, inevitably undergone UHT treatment and restrained neatly in a squat tub. The slice on the fountain steps was another thing entirely: a quivering mass of lactic loveliness with an unmistakably sheepish nature. Made that morning, it seemed the epitome of purity and freshness. And so began my affair with ricotta di pecora. As is so often the case, those first weeks were intense and slightly compulsive. I ate slice after slice, usually with bread, possibly a tomato or maybe a few dark salty olives. If I’d remembered to swipe a couple of sachets from the bar I had breakfast in, I ate my white slice dribbled with runny honey. I pointed to pasta con la ricotta (pasta with ricotta and a fearless quantity of black pepper) whenever I spied it on the menu. I ate cannolicassata and cuccia.

What began in Sicily continued in Rome. Ricotta genuina romana made from sheep’s milk (pecora) is highly prized and every bit as delicious as it’s slightly soupier Sicilian cousin. I buy it by weight from Volpetti, watching through the glass counter as one of the white coated assistants – usually Roberto – cuts me a Testaccio shaped wedge from the white dome crosshatched with the marks of the plastic basket it was turned out from. I eat it squashed on toast topped with salt, black pepper and olive oil. I’ll have a spoonful or six for breakfast with honey and nuts. Ricotta di pecora makes a good addition to tomato sauce, a perfect layer in lasagna and a fine (if rather unnecessary) companion for Pomodoro col riso. Stirred with chopped spinach it produces (with a little practice) stupendous gnocchi. Then lately, inspired by Lucio Sforza, I’ve been mixing ricotta di pecora with lemon zest and parmesan.

Lucio Sforza is the chef and owner of possibly my favorite place to eat lunch in Rome these days: L’Asino d’Oro in Monti. He makes an amazingly good value set lunch ‘il Pranzetto‘ for those lucky enough to secure a reservation. For 12 euro’s you are brought a bottle of mineral water, a glass of wine and good bread before being presented with a small but perfectly formed taster, starter, first and second course. His food is loyal to his Umbrian Roots and the way he ate as a boy. It’s traditional but at the same time truly innovative (he used the word transformative when we talked and Luca crawled manically around the empty restaurant) and youthful. He’s a stickler for excellent ingredients, a firm believer that you can eat very well without spending a fortune and has a masterful touch when it comes to pork, game, mushrooms, lentils, pulses, wild herbs (particularly sage) and ricotta di pecora.

A few weeks ago the taster or assagio –  the amuse bouche if you will – was a little mound of ricotta di pecora speckled with lemon zest, grated parmesan and what I assume was Umbrian olive oil (green, light, full of flavor and highly scented.) It was barely more than a mouthful, three if you shared it between three nubs of bread. But what a mouthful.

I’ve been making it at home, mashing and creaming the ricotta di pecora with a fork or –  if I have time – pressing it through a sieve. I’ve been topping my mound of white cream as Lucio does, with a shower of grated lemon zest, some coarsely grated parmesan and a little extra virgin olive oil. I’ve been eating this extremely tasty taster with good bread, smearing it liberally on hot toast, nudging it onto boiled potatoes and then the other day having been given some particularly nice thick ribbons of pappardelle, I decided to try this lemon scented, parmesan spiked ricotta cream with pasta.

While a large pan of well salted water lumbered to the boil, I mashed and then beat 250 g of ricotta di pecora with the zest and a little of the juice of a large unwaxed lemon, a hefty handful of grated parmesan, a good pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper. Once the water was rolling like a stormy ocean, I slid the pappardelle into the pan and pushed it down with a wooden spoon.

When the pasta was nearly ready – and this is important –  I ladled a little of the pasta cooking water – cloudy with starch – from the pasta pan into the ricotta cream in order to loosen it a little. I also set another cupful aside in case further loosening was necessary. I drained the pasta before tipping it on top of the ricotta cream and tossing the wide ribbons in the thick white paste. The egg pappardelle was surprisingly absorbent and so a little more pasta water was needed! After all this is a dish that should be moist! The ribbons of pasta should slip and slide not clump and stick. I served my pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream with a little extra virgin olive oil poured over the top.

We both agreed it was lovely and Luca smeared enthusiastically. The ricotta di pecora provides a seductive creamy coat. The mood lifting citrus lends freshness and cuts through even the slightest suggestion that lunch might be cloying.  The pepper adds heat and the parmesan its soft, granular, savory umami.

pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream

And for dessert – not the same day I hasten to add – a variation on our theme, a ricotta heavy, lemon scented, almond flecked, egg laced, rum spiked, oven baked Budino.

Now literally translated budino means pudding, so we could translate budino di ricotta as pudding of ricotta or, better still. ricotta pudding,  We could just as easily call it a ricotta cake, a baked cheese cake or a baked ricotta pudding.

The procedure is nice and straightforward. You sieve the ricotta and then beat it first with the egg yolks and then with the ground almonds or flour, sugar, lemon zest, salt and rum. Keep beating until you have a smooth, consistent cream that begs – for the raw egg fearless among us – to be tasted repeatedly. To finish you fold in the egg whites you’ve whisked so vigorously they’ve formed – giggle – stiff peaks and then scrape this thick batter into tin brushed with melted butter and dusted with fine breadcrumbs. You bake. The cake that is, until it’s firm, puffed with price and just a little golden on top.

Now if you are a fan of delicate puds and pretty cakes, this probably isn’t for you. If however you think you might like a dense (but not heavy), lemon scented, rum laced pudding that is all at once a rather sophisticated fat pancake, a fruitless bread and butter pudding, a baked custard and the inside of a Jewish baked cheesecake I suggest you try this recipe. I adore it.

I probably should have noted that ricotta (which literally translated mean re-cooked) is a milk product, usually described as cheese, made by re-cooking the whey left over from cheese making. Now I have been rambling on about ricotta di pecora which is sheep’s milk ricotta, a glorious, ephemeral product, that is almost impossible to find if you are not In Italy. Of course you can use cow milk ricotta! Just look for the best quality available. When you come to visit – which you should – we will go ricotta di pecora hunting together.

Budino di Ricotta

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s Budino di ricotta in Italian food and Roberto and Rosa D’Ancona’s Budino di ricotta in the superlative La Cucina Romana.

  • 5 eggs
  • 500 g ricotta
  • 150 g fine sugar
  • 3 heaped tablespoons ground almonds or plain flour
  • grated zest of two unwaxed lemons
  • 3 – 5 tbsp rum
  • a pinch of salt
  • a little melted butter and fine breadcrumbs for the tin

Set the oven to 180°. Brush a 25cm / 10 inch cake tin with melted butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs.

Separate the eggs putting the whites in one large bowl and the yolks in another. Sieve or mash the ricotta and beat it together with the eggs yolks. Add the sugar, almonds/ flour, lemon zest, rum and salt and beat again

Whisk the eggs white vigorously until they are mounted and form soft peaks. Using a metal spoon gently fold the eggs whites into the ricotta mixture. Pour the thick batter into the buttered and crumbed tin. Bake for 40 minutes or until the cake is firm, puffy and slightly golden  on top.

Serve just warm, at room temperature or cold. You can dust it with icing sugar if you like.

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Filed under food, fresh egg pasta, lemons, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Roman food, sauces