Category Archives: rachel eats Italy

bean eaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A pan of white beans to be eaten in various ways

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

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

Without soaking

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

With soaking

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

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

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

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

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White beans with tuna, red onion and black olives.

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

White beans with garlic, sage and sausages

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

White beans with tomatoes.

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

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

tease out

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Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies. 

They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever – I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.

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With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.

Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion;  a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.

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I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.

Vignarola – spring vegetable stew

serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish

  • a bunch of spring onions
  • 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
  • a kilogram of peas in their pods
  • a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
  • water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed

Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.

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Filed under artichokes, Beans and pulses, fanfare, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

well-framed

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We’ve driven out of Rome on three half-day trips this week; along the ancient Appia Antica to the hills, to the sea and to a town called Campagnano, small escapes providing space and an outside view. I remember a Drama tutor once asking how on earth can you comprehend what is on top of you, I think this is especially true of Rome and writing a book, both of which can loom so large and feel so claustrophobic that you need to take a step back to have any sort of perspective. Three trips meant three lunches.

One lunch was no more than fine, the other two though, well they seemed sent to remind my lately cynical self of the unique brilliance of Italian food and wine and the kaleidoscopic connection with place, history and tradition that can pass nonchalantly through a meal. I am still thinking about an antipasto of pear dipped in polenta and then deep-fried until golden and served with a dusting of pecorino cheese, abbacchio brodettato, lamb with egg and lemon sauce, and a dish of salt cod, tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, all three of which may well sound unlikely, but were superb.

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I’ve written about peperonata before and I will probably write about it again. It will also be in the book, with a hilarious (or not so hilarious) story to justify its place. It is a recipe that falls into my extremely useful and delicious category. I first made it fifteen years, transported by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and a scarlet stew to Italy long before I moved here, I have made it constantly ever since. So many things about peperonata are good. It is simple and relatively quick to make: onions, red peppers, tomatoes smothered and simmered in olive and butter into a thick, vivid, full- flavored stew that is at once silky, sweet and savory. It is forgiving, proportions can be varied, tomatoes fresh or tinned. It’s generous, bringing the best out in peppers and tomatoes, even the underprivileged sort, making them the tastiest they can be.  It keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and it freezes well. Peperonata is also, like my friend Tom, the most accommodating dish ever, it quite simply goes with everything.

It is excellent served hot with chicken, pork, lamb, beef and my favorite, topped with a  poached egg. It can be stirred into pasta or rice. It’s jammy almost chutney-like-nature makes it good in sandwiches, on toast or crostini. It is lovely as a salad or part of an antipasto like supper, sprinkled with parsley or dotted with black olives. It good too – as I discovered a couple of days ago – made into tart.

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I make the pastry ridiculously quickly – 120 g plain four, 50 g cold diced butter, salt, a little grated parmesan, iced water – and rolled it thinly, lifted it into the tin, pricked it and then sat the tin in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill. I then baked it until it was the colour of a walnut, before spooning in the peperonata and sliding it back in the oven for 5 minutes. I’m not sure this was entirely necessary.

For a moment I felt as though I had inherited my mum and granny Alice’s knack for pastry: a thin, buttery crust, slightly crumbly at the edges but holding firm underneath. The parmesan was a random impulse that works well, giving the pastry a sharp, salty edge. It is important your peperonata is (as Jane Grigson puts it) moistly juicy, even a little dry, never sloppy. We had the tart – the peperonata framed neatly by the pastry – with thinly sliced fennel with olive oil and salt, a lunch that made me nearly as happy as slamming shut those books.

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Peperonata tart

Note – this makes enough peperonata for two 21 – 24 cm tarts – you can never have too much peperonata. You can of course use fresh tomatoes. I’d make double if I were you.

  • a large white or yellow onion
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 3 large red peppers
  • a tin of tinned plum tomatoes or 6 good ripe tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped
  • salt and black pepper
  • 120 g plain flour
  • 50 g butter
  • 20 g freshly grated parmesan
  • salt and black pepper
  • cold water
  • You need at 21 cm – 24 cm tart or flan tin (ideally with a loose base)

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into short strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith. Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes. Lift the lid once or twice to stir.

Add the tomatoes to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich, thick, vivid tomato stew. It should be not be sloppy.  Season vigorously with salt.

Rub the diced butter into the flour with your fingertips until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add the parmesan, a pinch of salt, some black pepper and enough iced water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth ball. On a lightly floured board roll the pastry into a round an inch larger than the tin. Lift the dough carefully into the tin, press it into the corners. Leave the pastry overhang. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and then put it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

Bake the pastry case blind for 15 minutes (or until it is pale gold and firm) at 180°. You can break off the pastry overhang or leave it be. Fill the tart case with peperonata and then return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature with salad.

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Filed under peppers, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes, tarts, Uncategorized

the whole triangle

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Even a tiny triangle of lemon embellishing a drink was enough to make my grandpa shudder and suck his breath. Vincenzo’s grandfather on the other hand ate a lemon a day, skin, pith and flesh all. Now to be fair, there was a continent of difference between the two lemons. Between the heavily waxed, leather-skinned, shockingly sharp ones my grandpa might have found a triangle of in his drink in an Northern English pub in 1980 (my other granny had one such pub and I was a deft hand at slicing lemons and pulling pints by the age of 8) and the pale, fragrant, almost sweet lemons Vincenzo’s grandfather grew on his farm in Sicily.

That said, I still like the (unfair) comparison between the two; John Roddy grimacing at the sight of a small yellow triangle in a pub near Sheffield, Orazio D’Aleo eating the whole fruit in a field in southern Sicily. Apart from the citrus difference and the language, we think our Lancastrian and Sicilian grandfathers would have got on well, in an awkward, silent way.

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Lemons are important in this house, Vincenzo doesn’t eat them whole, but almost. He squeezes them in and on the obvious: fish, salad, vegetables, tea, and the less obvious; strawberries, watermelon, bread, potatoes, espresso. He also washes the dishes with the squeezed out halves. Although less exuberant with my squeezing and still trying to get in the washing up-habit, I am – and this is might sound like pseuds corner – devoted to Italian lemons, delighted by their pale, unwaxed skins and oily spritz, gentle pith that’s as thick as a thumb and flesh that tastes clean and citric.

Rainy days and the fact everyone has been under the weather has made the bowl of lemons even more imperative, and not just for their suggestion of sunshine. Lemons have been lifting, cutting, sharpening, encouraging and brightening. They’ve been squeezed with blood oranges to make juice the colour of a desert sunrise, spritzed on greens, fat fringed pork chops and into my eyes, twisted into dressing for salad and vegetables and then – for the third time this week – grated into batter for a cake.

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I’ve written about this cake before and I’m sure I will again. It’a actually the only cake I can make with any sort of ease, which has much to do with the inclusion of olive oil which renders everything, including cake batter, sleeker and more effortless. I think I could make it blindfolded, although it’s probably best I don’t try. Three cups of flour, one of olive oil, one and a half of sugar, another of yogurt, some baking powder and the zest of two lemons (which also clears your sinuses and lifts your spirits, although not as effectively as a gin and tonic with a curl of lemon peel) all whisked (energetically) together into a pale, creamy batter which you bake in ring-tin until firm and golden.

Simple and good, an everyday cake with a dose of mood lifting citrus. An accomadating cake that is as comfortable on a breakfast table as it is wrapped in a paper napkin and stuffed in a pocket for a morning snack, as good beside a cup of tea at about 4 as it is with a beaker of hot milk (with a nip) at about 9. I think both grandfathers would have approved. Serve in wedges or eat the whole thing, it is entirely up to you.

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

You need a ring-tin. I used a 100 ml glass as my measuring cup which worked well. Many people use a small yogurt pot (100-125 ml) as the measuring cup, which works well too. This is a small cake, which I’m sure many of you may like to double, which means adjusting cooking times accordingly. I have not tried this yet, so would appreciate feedback from anyone who does. Update from my friend Elizabeth – my cup, or a small yogurt pot (100 – 125ml) is a half US cup. The cake can also be baked in a loaf tin, small loaf tins or doubled to fill a bundt tin.

  • 3 cups of 00 or plain flour
  • a cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • a cup and a half of sugar
  • a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 3 large eggs
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking power or half a packet of Italian lievito
  • the zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

Set the oven to 180°

Whisk together the flour, olive oil, sugar, yogurt, eggs and baking powder in a large bowl. Grate over the lemon zest and whisk again (vigorously.) Pour the batter into a greased and floured ring tin and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until the cake is golden and cooked through (I test with a stand of spaghetti). Allow to cool before turning onto a plate.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruit, lemons, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, winter recipes

the other quarter

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Now the leaves are falling, if I lean precariously from my balcony I can just about make out the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull through the branches of the trees that line Via Galvani. God and bull sit above the entrance of the Ex-mattatoio, Rome’s sprawling ex-slaughterhouse that closed for business in 1975 .

I stood looking up at the bull and the god, then down at the collage of cobblestones and cigarette butts, with my friend Joanna nearly nine years ago. The Ex-mattatoio was the one of the stops on Joanna’s self-styled architectural tour of Testaccio. A tour for which Joanna wore red and yellow high heels, with style it has to said, not a stumble, which is quite an achievement if you consider the cobblestones and libel worthy pavements. A tour that steered us from imperial ruins, domes and sepia-stained piazze down river to a quarter shaped like a quarter or a wedge of cheese. A quarter crisscrossed with streets filled with 19th century residential blocks, boasting a futurist post office, a boisterous market that smelt ripe and bosky, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a plethora of trattorie and bars I wanted to try and a charm I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In short: where I wanted to live.

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To understand something of Testaccio and the Ex-mattatoio is to understand something of Roman food – or one aspect of it at least – and therefore part of the story of Rome. Food as story or story as food or something akin to that. The area has been associated with food trading since ancient Roman times when it was a port and sprawl of warehouses. In fact Testaccio takes its name from an archeological site called Monte dei Cocci that rises somnolently at the bottom of the wedge, which is in fact a pile of broken but neatly stacked amphorae dating from the fourth century. The Monte is now the hub for a cluster of nightclubs that are burrowed into its base, meaning at night ancient amphorae jolt in time to drum and bass, latin jazz and eighties disco: ancient and everyday colliding with almost banal ease.

It was in a bar in the shadow of Monte dei Cocci, while her dog tried to avoid the shameless advances of my anarchic son, that my neighbour, sociologist and writer Irene Ranaldi talked to me about the part of Rome I have lived in for nearly nine years.

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Until it was developed in the late nineteenth century, Testaccio was an open space dotted with ruinous clues as to its ancient significance and vines producing wine grapes for industrious Romans. During and after 1873, a zoning plan turned the former port and open space into a quarter of public housing, factories and the slaughterhouse. It was supposed to be the ultimate in working class neighbourhoods where thousands of immigrants from all over Italy attracted by the promise of work and the metropolitan lifestyle Roman had to offer, could live.

For the next hundred years the slaughterhouse was quite literally the bloody, beating heart of the quarter, providing work and meat for those who could afford it. The workers of course couldn’t afford the meat (and little else, poverty was endemic), but were paid in kind with the bits nobody else wanted, meaning the offal that made up a fifth of the animal’s weight. It was this quinto quarto or fifth quarter that the workers took home to their wives or local trattoria owners, who in turn, inventively and resourcefully turned it into tasty, sustaining meals.

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This is the uncompromising and distinctive quinto quarto cooking, a style of cooking evolved through necessity but continued for posterity, taste and because the bits neglected became the bits selected (by some at least). A style of cooking you still find in trattorie and homes: ox tail cooked slowly with celery, tripe with tomato sauce and dusted with pecorino cheese, lamb’s offal with artichokes, grilled sweetbreads and intestines. These are dishes that merit attention and  – for some of us –  a leap beyond misconceptions, squeamishness and a possible moral crisis because they are tasty and good, because they are part of the animal we (may or may not) decide to eat, because they are dishes that tell a story.

Which is why I think it’s important I mention them here, after all, they are as much a part (albeit a less regular one) of this chaotic – and messy, so messy, I am a domestic disgrace – Roman-kitchen-of-sorts as freshly baked pizza bianca, battered courgette blossoms, pasta with beans, spaghetti al pomodoro, braised beef, artichokes, curls of puntarelle, tiny sweet peas, fave, ricotta, sour cherries, sweet-yeated buns, strawberry scented grapes, ugly hazelnut biscuits that taste buono and other good things.

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My grandpa Gerry would have loved today’s recipe: Coratella con carciofi , so would my Grandpa John, although the artichokes might have given him heartburn, but then most things gave him heartburn. All my grandparents knew the merits, both economically and gastronomically, of offal, that if you eat meat it is disingenuous and wasteful not to eat the whole animal. My brother does too, Ben this post is in no small part for you. Coratella is lambs offal: liver, lungs and heart, a beautiful, complex cluster - it is, it is I will hear no different –  of rosy-pink, coral and chestnut-brown. Cooked well, coratella is a textual and flavoursome delight, the liver is creamy and delicate, the lungs pillowy and tasting rather like pot-roasted pork and the heart rich and thick. Carciofi are artichokes, these are the first, long spindly things that really do remind me artichokes are wild thistles.

Probably the most difficult thing is finding some fresh lambs coratella from well-reared animals. Persistence with a good butcher should do the trick. You also need a keen hand to ease the lungs away from the membrane. You need a keen hand too, for trimming the artichokes, not that it is complicated, more finicky, I hope this is helpful. Once all the elements are prepared it is just a matter of frying them in the correct order.

First the onion and artichokes, adding a little white wine and then leaving the pan at a burping-bubble of a braise until the wedges are tender. Then in another pan you fry the coratella, adding the parts to the pan according to how quickly they cook, so first the lungs, then the heart and finally just for the last few minutes the liver. The coratella is cooked when the lungs whistle and all the parts are lightly browned and cooked through. To finish, you unite the meat and the artichokes, season with salt and pepper, lemon juice and maybe a little mint, then serve.

Food with a story, a story with food.

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Coratella con carciofi - lambs pluck with artichokes

Adapted  from a recipe in il talismano della Felicità  and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento

serves 4

  • 4 artichokes
  •  a lemon
  • a small onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil or 50 g butter or lard
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 5oo g lamb’s pluck (lung, heart and liver)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • fresh mint and another lemon

Trim the artichokes, rubbing them with the cut side of a lemon to stop them discolouring and then slice them into thin wedges. Keep the artichokes in a bowl acidulated with the juice of half a lemon until you are ready to use them.

Peel and dice the onion. Warm 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a saute pan and then fry the onion until soft and translucent. Add the drained artichoke wedges, stir well so each one is coated with oil, then pour over the white wine and reduce the heat so the pan bubbles gently. Allow the artichokes to cook/braise for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Add a little more wine or water if the pan looks dry. Set the artichokes aside.

Prepare the pluck by pulling the lungs away from the membrane and then cut all three parts into small pieces.

In another pan  warm the other 2 tbsp of olive oil and then add the lungs and cook for 10 minutes, then add the heart and cook for another 10 and finally the liver which should take another 5 or six minutes.

Put the other pan with the artichokes back on another flame and then once the meat is lightly browned and cooked through add it to the artichokes, season generously with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon, maybe some ripped mint and if you feel it needs it, another slosh of wine, cook for another few minutes, stirring every now and then. Serve immediately.

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Filed under artichokes, coratella, cucina romana, offal, quinto quarto, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food

water everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

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

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the slow rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pizza bianca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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