The first thing I made was the slow-cooked lamb shanks. It was 1996 and I was studying in Chalk Farm and living on Haverstock Hill, not quite opposite the Sir Richard Steele Pub, in a flat above a kebab shop. Not that we went to the Sir Richard Steele Pub. The grubby Fiddlers Elbow was the place in which we drowned our bruised or inflated egos each night after a day at The Drama Centre.
A couple of weeks previously I’d been for lunch at The River Cafe. A lunch that had spun an otherwise hopeless date into a spectacular (if futureless) one. A char-grilled peppers with anchovies, deep-fried zucchini flower, linguine with crab, grilled sea bass, chocolate nemesis lunch that had left my date with an enormous hole in his pocket and me with both architectural and gastronomic goosebumps and the need to evangelise about a restaurant on Thames Wharf, Rainville road, London W6.
The day after lunch, knowing I would probably never have the good fortune – or indeed fortune – to eat there again, I bought a blue book with bold white font: The River Cafe Cook Book. I spent the afternoon sitting on Primrose Hill (in the days when it wasn’t quite so fashionable) bookmarking everything before walking up and over the hill, skirting Regents Park and cutting down Parkway into Camden town to get 6 small lamb shanks, 6 red onions, red peppers, rosemary and a bottle of plonk and heading back to Haverstock Hill. I seem to remember the shanks were a tad on the dry side – a case of cooks at the cooking wine – but tasty nonetheless. The marinated grilled peppers however were superb. Which was everything to do with the recipe and very little to do with the (boozing) cooks. I made those peppers more times than I care to remember, as I did the bean soup, grilled squid, mussel soup, bread soup, raw fennel salad…..
My copy of The River Cafe Cook Book has been sitting on my mum’s kitchen bookshelf for nearly nine years now, ever since I absconded to Italy with nothing more than the clothes I stood up in. I’ve been thumbing though it these last couple of weeks while here on a holiday of sorts. It remains – in my opinion – along with Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, the English book that best captures the spirit and soul of Italian ingredients and cooking. It still looks as sharp and uncompromisingly good as it did 17 years ago. I still want to make everything.
Assisted by a post-it, the book fell open at page 172 and a recipe for something Rose and Ruth call Inzimonio di Ceci or Chickpeas with Swiss chard. As much as I like a nice food picture it is not usually the thing that inspires me to cook. Quite the opposite in fact. Pictures, especially if too pretty, styled or framed with incongruous bits of this and that, leave me cool. On this occasion the picture, unstyled and unframed, made me eager to cook and eat. A women in a white apron is holding a platter on which there is a pile of glistening chickpeas and chard flecked with tiny nubs of carrot, red onion, parsley and chili sitting in generous, golden puddle of extra virgin olive oil.
Having soaked the dried chickpeas overnight, you cook them until tender. If you have forgotten to soak your chickpeas: you open two tins. I forgot. You blanch your chard or greens in a large pan of fast boiling well-salted water, drain and then chop them coarsely. You sauté diced carrot and onion until soft in lots of olive oil before adding crumbled chili, white wine, tomato and letting everything bubble vigorously for a minute or two before adding the chickpeas and greens.
Another 10 minutes over a gentle flame with the occasional stir, a handful of parsley and the juice of half a lemon and lunch is nearly ready. Nearly. As is almost always the case with dishes like this, a rest in which the flavours can settle is wise. My mum has a large white plate with a little lip just like the one in the picture which was pleasing. She also has a white apron, but I resisted dressing up.
And to think I used to consider chickpeas the good Samaritan of the store cupboard, worthy but weary making hard work. No more. After pasta e ceci this is maybe my new preferred way to eat them. The combination of chickpeas, soft greens – offering as Fergus Henderson would say structural weave – sweet and tender nubs of carrot and onion, given heat by chilli and depth by the wine and tomato is a full and delicious one. Wholesome but generous. We had our chickpeas and greens with ricotta and bread.
Chickpeas with greens
Adapted (slightly) from The River Cafe Cook Book.
- 800 g greens (ideally chard but spring greens work well)
- 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium red onion
- 2 medium carrots
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 dried chili, crumbled
- 250 ml / 8 fl oz white wine
- 2 tbsp of tomato sauce or passata or 1 tbsp concentrate
- 400 g cooked chickpeas
- a generous handful of chopped parsley
- the juice of half a lemon
- more extra virgin olive oil to serve
In a large pan of well salted fast boiling water, blanch the greens briefly. Drain them and then once they are cool enough to handle, chop them coarsely and set aside.
Warm the oil in a heavy based saute pan, add the onion, carrot and a pinch of salt and cook them slowly for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Season with a little more salt, pepper and the crumbled chili.
Add the wine to the pan and allow it to bubble away until it has almost completely reduced. Add the tomato sauce or concentrate, greens and chickpeas, stir and cook, stirring every couple of minutes for 10 minutes.
Add 3/4 of the chopped parsley and the lemon juice to the pan, stir, turn off the heat and allow the pan to sit for 10 minutes.
Transfer to a large platter or serving plate, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and a little more extra virgin olive oil and serve.
I’m not about about to deprive my Mum, so I have bought another blue book with bold white font to take back to Italy with me. Which says it all really. Now if you will excuse me, I really should go and pack, our flight is at 3.