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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and sheerness, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.

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Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti,  a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly, utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.

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Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.

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I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least two minutes, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good two minutes the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.

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Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

of course you can

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.

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It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’

A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.

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When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,

Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.

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Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.

Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.

Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.

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Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways

These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.

  • 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
  • 60 ml whole milk
  • 400 g minced beef
  • 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g grated Parmesan
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 g fresh tomatoes
  • 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.

After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

First meal

Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.

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Second meal

Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.

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Link to the Guardian article

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Filed under beef, food, parmesan cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.

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When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.

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Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.

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I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.

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True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.

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Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.

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There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, recipes, soup, Testaccio, Uncategorized, winter recipes

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

an eye on a fruity loaf

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It started off as one cake a week, usually on a friday, something to go with the builders last cup of tea before they packed up for the weekend. Then it was two. ‘After all, They’re all working so hard and Tim loves a slice of cake ‘ my mum said sounding just like her mum. Now, as house renovations come to an end and my Mum and Dad contemplate life without Tim the kindest and hardest working builder in Dorset, Tim’s brother-in-law, Matt and his son Sam, the electrician Glen, the plumber Richard and Linda the painter, mum is making almost a-cake-a-day. Two cakes a day once my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband and I all descended on my parents with all our kids. The kettle didn’t know what had hit it. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?‘ has chimed as reliably as a chiming clock these last two weeks. The answer is almost always yes to the offer of tea in the Roddy house, even from me, the only member of the family to properly defect to the coffee side. ‘Would you like a bit of cake too‘ my mum asks, now sounding like aunty May.

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The house my parents are renting is opposite the house being worked on, so there is an almost endless steam of back and forth, of cake and cake compliments being passed across the road that divides the two houses in Symondsbury village. We were all sitting around the kitchen table of the rented house drinking tea, eating cake, bickering mildly and doing the quick crossword when Tim popped his head round the low kitchen door – ‘It’s a house for bloody hobbits’ my tall dad keeps saying, often while rubbing a bump on his head. Once the query about the brickwork had been resolved, I asked Tim which was his favorite cake. ‘I like them all’ he said diplomatically. I persisted. ‘If you had to pick one?’  He paused as if he had all the time in the world, clearly thinking hard about cake. ‘That lemon drizzle cake was lovely, but then again, so was the Bakewell tart.’  There was yet another longish pause in which Tim turned to say hello to a woman walking up the hill, before he turned back. ‘My favorite is the fruity loaf your mum made today’  he said while eyeing up another fruity loaf in the middle of the table.

The fruity loaf was my favourite too, full of fruit that’s plump and drunk on tea scented with orange zest, sweet but not overly so. The final cake is softly crumbly, but squishes together beautifully between your fingers. Mum made three during the two weeks I was in Dorset and I ate slice after slice with sharp, smooth Godminster cheddar and cups of English breakfast tea at my parent’s kitchen table during book editing breaks (I am nearly there, nearly).

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Fruity teacake

300 g mixed dried fruit, berries and cherries
225 ml hot tea ( we used English breakfast)
the zest and juice of a large unwaxed orange
50 g butter
100 g light brown sugar
1 large egg
225 g self-raising flour
4 tablespoons of demerara sugar.

You will need a 2 lb loaf tin.

Put the dried fruit, hot tea, orange juice and zest in a large bowl, cover with cling film and leave for at least 4 hours or, even better, over night.

Heat the oven to 180°/350 F and line a 2 lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper. Beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat the egg into the butter and sugar mixture one by one and then add the flour and finally fold in the fruit mixture. Scrape the mixture into the lined loaf tin and sprinkle over the demerara sugar. Bake for an hour or until a skewer come out cleanly. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so, before turning into a wire each to cool. Serve alone or with sharp cheese such as cheddar.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruitcake, Rachel's Diary, recipes

on red and white in Sicily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

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

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

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

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

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

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

rags and rocket

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*note

I have just spent the last hour on my knees using every towel in the bathroom, my dressing gown and the entire pile of stracci to sop-up the many litres of washing machine water that erupted out of the sink while I was at the market buying Mr Musculo to unblock the U-bend. Of course a mop would have been more effective, but it was out on the balcony and Luca was already jumping in the puddle in the hall. I just grabbed the first things that came to hand, threw them on the wet floor and then shuffled around on my knees feeling punished but also amazed at the dust and objects that had been washed by the tide of grey water from under the furniture. Just when I thought I had sopped up every drop, water, coming from god knows where, filled the cracks in the tiles once again and I spent the next 10 minutes feeling as if I was playing a labyrinthian computer game in which the quicker you sop the faster and cleverer the water becomes. I eventually found the puddle, under the fridge and I killed it. An hour later, as I type, the sink is still blocked and the washing machine full of soaking clothes but the floor is cleaner than it has been for months.

I didn’t intend to write about sopping today, I wanted to talk about a keyhole and small park called the Giardino degli Aranci, the Orange Tree Garden, which is just minutes from our flat but feels like another world, especially in spring when you can smell the garden long before you see it. But damp knees and the smell of damp cloths are mocking thoughts of blossom and ironically stracci make a much more appropriate introduction than oranges for todays recipe .

Straccio which comes from the verb stracciare, to rip, was traditionally a rag cloth made from old clothes or sheets. I have inherited my granny’s and mum’s habit for rags: old  T-shirts for the windows, a silk shirt streaked with rioja for polishing, threadbare cotton sheets ripped into squares for everything else. Today the word straccio is also used for kitchen cloths, particularly the coarse cotton ones for the kitchen floor eight of which are dripping onto the balcony. Straccetti are little rags and so to make straccetti di manzo, you rip very thin pieces of lean beef into rag-like-pieces, rub them with olive oil and the cook them swiftly in a hot pan until they curl and shrink and look even more like old rags, but taste anything but, especially when eaten with rocket – surely the best name for a salad leaf – and curls of parmesan cheese.

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Pan-fried beef apart from being, um, beefy, has a salty, unami-ish quality, good parmesan does too, making them a charismatic pair. Lay rags of beef and curls of parmesan on a grass-green weave of peppery rocket leaves – the juices from the meat pan providing dressing – and you have the most ridiculously delicious plateful of food. I love the way the rocket begins like a teenager, offering resistance and kick, but then as the warmth of beef sets in and you muddle everything with your knife and fork, the leaves start co-operating enough to wrap themselves around the rags of beef catching warm curls of cheese as they go. By the time you reach the last few mouthfuls and you are torn in the same way as when reading the last pages of a good book: the greedy gallop to the finish or the rein-in to savour every last bit, the last few leaves should have collapsed into a pile to be scooped up with your fingers.

Ridiculously delicious food and real fast food too which makes it my favorite solo supper after sourdough toast, butter and anchovies. I am also happy to share, I made straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano for my mum and dad the evening of the day we’d walked up the orange garden. Rags and rocket.

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Straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano – sauteed beef with rocket and parmesan

Obviously there are lots of way to make this, some people dip the rags in flour, others add wine or herbs to the pan. I’ve eaten this dish specked with aged balsamic vinegar which was delicious but didn’t convert me from lemon. The steak needs to be sliced thinly enough to tear – so as thin as carpaccio – something Roman butchers do as a matter of course. If you are buying a thick steak, I have a friend who swears by putting the steak in the freezer and then slicing it when it is frozen to get the required thinness. I still have to try this.

serves 2

  • 300 – 400 g lean streak, very thinly sliced. I ask my butcher to do this.
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a bunch of rocket
  • parmesan cheese
  • wedges of lemon

Tear the steak into smallish pieces ‘rags’ and put them in a bowl. Pour over a couple of tablespoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, toss well with your hands and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Wash and dry the rocket then divide between two plates.

Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium/high flame, add the meat and the oily juices from the bowl into the pan and sauté briskly until just coloured but still a little pink in places. Divide the meat between the plates, spooning over any juices, then use a vegetable peeler to pare curls of parmesan over the meat and rocket. Pour over a little more olive oil if you think it need it and serve with a wedge of lemon.

*I pressed publish on this before a final spell check by me and, more importantly, Vincenzo for the Italian…..so sorry to those of you who linked from an E mail, the spelling was comical. I hope it is all sorted now. I need a proofreader. R

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Filed under beef, cheese, parmesan cheese, Rachel's Diary, recipes, rocket