Category Archives: ricotta

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

two things

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1.

Nine years ago today, March 8th 2005, I didn’t pack anything and went to Gatwick airport. I picked a destination from the departure board in much the same way that you might grab the first book off a shelf. A few hours later I boarded a flight to Naples; a city that invaded all my senses and slapped me in the face – I needed it –  and a week later I took a nightboat to Sicily. Two months later I arrived in Rome. It remains the most impulsive and disorienting thing I have ever done, also one of the best, give or take a cliché. Over the years I have talked and written, been earnest and irreverent about this moment in my life. Today I am simply noting it, and later, toasting it with a negroni.

2.

Good bread, spread thickly with fresh ricotta and then finished with extra virgin olive oil, salt (ideally flakes with sharp edges that crumble into tiny shards) and some black pepper is mysteriously more delicious and satisfying than the sum of its parts.

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Bread, ricotta, olive oil and salt

serves 1

  • a slice of good bread
  • some ricotta
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Spread the ricotta on the bread thickly, crumble over some salt, pour over some olive oil and grind over a little black pepper. Eat.

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Filed under bread and pizza, food, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, ricotta, Uncategorized

all mixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a family affair

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I may only have moved 400 meters, from one side of Testaccio to the other, but everything is different. Even things that have remained the exactly the same – like the bar in which I have my third coffee and the stall at which I buy my fruit and veg – feel different now I approach them from another direction. Streets I never usually walked are now familiar. Courtyards always peered into from one side appear entirely different from the other. A drinking fountain I’d only drunk from a handful of times is now my local. A bakery, a launderette, a minuscule sewing shop, a pet shop whose window we need to spend at least 10 minutes a day peering through whilst barking and a Norcineria I’d never even noticed are now part of my daily patter or grind depending on the day.

It’s not surprising I’d never noticed the Norcineria, as we both moved to Via Galvani at more or less the same time. The shop used to be about a mile away before the two brothers decided to come back to Testaccio. A Norcineria is a shop specialising in cured pork products which may also sell cheese, salame and other dried goods. The name derives from the town of Norcia in Umbria whose inhabitants (or some of them at least) are historically renowned and much sought after for their meat curing skills. Norcineria are places of pink flesh and seasoned fat, of pancetta, guanciale, lonzino, coppa, ciauscolo, shoulder steaks, loins, fillets and air-dried delights.

Norcineria Martelli on Via Galvani is a neat, pleasing place with meat counter to the left, dried goods to the right and the altar to porchetta – roasted suckling pig with salt, black pepper, garlic rosemary and spices – straight ahead as you come through the door. Which I do most days, my son in tow shouting loudly enough to arouse concern. Brothers Bruno and Sergio are amicable and honest, as are their pork and products. What’s more, on Tuesdays and Saturdays they also have bread from Velletri and a dome or two of best sheep’s milk ricotta.

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I am disproportionately fond of ricotta di pecora: brilliant white, compact but wobbly enough to remind you not be so serious and embossed with the ridges of the cone it was moulded in. We eat ricotta several times a week, its creamy, sweet but sharp and sheepish nature indispensable in both sweet and savory. I shape it into lumps, stir it into pasta, smear it on bread (which I then finish with lots of salt, black pepper and olive oil), slice it over beans, spoon it beside fruit, nuts and honey, whip it into puddings or bake it into tarts and cakes.

Then this week I mixed my ricotta with wilted spinach – I never failed to be impressed by the way disobedient spinach once disiplined into a pan wilts so obediently – lots of freshly grated parmesan, an egg, a nip of nutmeg, salt and plenty of black pepper.

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Today recipe is inspired by the polpette di ricotta e spinach we eat as often as possible at another favorite place and one of the best tavola calda in Rome these days: C’è pasta e pasta, another family affair – in this case a brother and sister – just the other side of ponte Testaccio on Via Ettore Rolli.

The key is making a relatively firm mixture of ricotta and spinach and the key to a firm mixture is making sure you drain the spinach meticulously. Drain, then squeeze and press until you have an almost dry green ball. The ricotta too should be drained of any excess liquid. If the mixture is firm you shouldn’t have any problems shaping it into golf ball sized polpette you then flatten slightly with the palm of you hand. Why is this so satisfying I’m not sure, but it is. Squash.

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Then the double roll: first in flour, then after a bath in beaten egg, fine breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs come from Guerrini, another Galvani institution I’d previously ignored, a family run forno or bakery just next to our flat that is providing me with more soapoperaesque drama, pizza bianca, sugar-coated, doughnut like ciambelle and breadcrumbs than I really need.

Once double rolled, you fry the polpette in hot oil. I use sunflower oil (as do C’è pasta e pasta) but some of my Roman friends prefer olive oil. They take just minutes shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles until they are deep gold and crisp. Polpette di ricotta e spinaci are best eaten while they are still finger and tongue scaldingly hot, while their coating is sharp, decisive and shatters between your teeth before giving way to a soft, warm filling of cheese and spinach.

Thank you for all your kind messages and comments about the book, they mean a lot and have made me feel as golden (but not quite as crisp and decisive) as a freshly fried polpette.

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Polpette di ricotta e spinaci - Ricotta and spinach patties (or fritters, balls, nuggets, croquettes, cakes or thingamajigs*)

makes about 15

  • 500 g spinach
  • 400 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk but cow’s milk works beautifully too)
  • 50 g parmesan or pecorino
  • 3 large eggs
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • flour
  • breadcrumbs
  • oil for frying

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add 1 egg, the grated parmesan,   flour, a grating of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Prepare three dishes, one containing the two beaten eggs, one of seasoned flour and one of breadcrumbs. Using a teaspoon scoop out a golf ball sized lump of the spinach and ricotta mixture. Shape it onto a ball and then flatten it into a patty. Dip it in flour, then egg and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs until evenly coated. Put the polpette on a plate lined with baking parchment while you prepare the rest of the polpette.

In a deep frying pan or saucepan, the oil to 190° and then carefully lower in three or four polpette at a time. Allow them to cook for about two minutes or until they are crisp and deep gold. Use a slotted spoon to lift them onto another plate lined with kitchen towel. Once blotted, slide the polpette onto the serving plate, sprinkle with salt and eat immediately.

*I have called these patties, which sounds comical and /or ridiculous I know, but then so does balls. Suggestions are welcome. Update, thank you for all your advice and I have taken it all.

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Filed under antipasti, cheese, fanfare, fritti, ices, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, spinach, vegetables

blue book

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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…..

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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.

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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.

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Chickpeas with greens

Adapted (slightly) from The River Cafe Cook Book.

serves 6

  • 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.

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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.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, olive oil, parsley, rachel eats London, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, summer food, vegetables

Pod and pinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

serves 2

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

Make the pasta.

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture. Knead the dough for a full eight minutes by which time it should be smooth and soft as putty.

Cut the ball of pasta into 6 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 2 eggs = 6 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 5 pieces. Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it.

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

Make the sauce

Pod the peas. Peel and finely slice the spring onion. Warm the olive oil  heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the peas, stir, add the wine and then let the peas cook for a few minutes or until they are tender. Older, larger peas will take longer.

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

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

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

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Filed under pasta and rice, peas, ricotta, spring recipes, vegetables

Layer upon layer

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

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

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

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

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

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

serves 6

for the pasta

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

for the artichoke layer

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

for the bèchamel sauce

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

For the ricotta layer

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

and

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

Begin the pasta.  Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty. Cover the pasta with cling film and set it aside.

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

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

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

Roll and cook pasta. Cut the ball of pasta into 9 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 3 eggs = 9 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 8 pieces.

Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it. Paola rolls her pasta through all six settings so it is impressively thin. You may need to cut the pieces in half.

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

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

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

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

Eat layer upon layer.

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

A bit sheepish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream

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

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

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

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

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

Budino di Ricotta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bag of green.

When buying spinach‘ Jane Grigson reminds us ‘Assess its liveliness, it should have a bouncing, bright appearance‘ and ‘As you stuff it into your bag or basket it should crunch and squeak’

The spinach above, a generous kilo procured from my trusted fruttivendolo Vincenzo, would have pleased Jane Grigson I think, dark forest green, crimped of leaf, plump stemmed, bright and bouncy. Misbehaving and uncooperative, it squeaked and squealed as I squashed it into the bag, an experience not dissimilar to dressing my 7 month old.

Having picked over my green bagful, I gave it a good soak in a sinkful of cold water and then an overenthusiastic rinse before wrestling it, water still clinging to the leaves, into my biggest, heaviest pot – my orange le creuset – disciplining it with the equally heavy lid and putting it over a modest flame.

I never cease to be impressed by the way spinach, if cooked in a heavy pan over a modest flame with no more water than that which still clings to its leaves after a good wash, wilts and collapses into such a neat, obedient pile.

Having admired, washed, wilted and carefully drained your spinach (wateriness is the enemy) the possibilities for your green ball are countless. As a rule I like my spinach with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon. I’m also very fond of  wilted spinach reheated with a very very large knob of butter (spinach, like me, absorbs massive quantities of butter and becomes all the more delicious for doing so). I then eat my extremely buttery greens with grilled meat or piled on toast and topped with a poached egg and – if I’m feeling frisky – some hollandaise.

This week however, or last week by the time I post this, I cut my ball in two (later three) and made three green meals: spinach and ricotta gnocchi, a very green pie and a (splendid) tart.

I’ve decided to risk spinach saturation as I think all three green recipes: gnocchi, pie and tart, deserve their own post. I don’t intend to drag things out too much though, a spinach stampede is the plan, all three posts this week! Optimistic and unrealistic am I! We will see. First the gnocchi.

Gnocchi as you know ‘Are little dumplings.” Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump – rather like the one that appears when you bash your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing – so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful little lumps, especially from potatoes, sometimes breadcrumbs, semolina or vegetables and they often flavour them with herbs and cheese. Gnocchi are cooked like pasta, but very gently, in plenty of boiling water and then dressed with the appropriate sauce or simply lots and lots of sage infused melted butter.’

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi are, as their name suggests, little dumplings made from spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan, spiked with nutmeg and dusted with just enough flour to mould them into shape. I’ve written about spinach and ricotta gnocchi before, a recipe that I’ve known and trusted for years. But a couple of weeks ago my friend and cooking companion Alice showed me how she makes gnocchi, a version she learned from Lizzie Cinati at the Winterhaven in Falls Creek. At first glance Alice’s recipe not so very different from the recipe I have made mine! But look closely and you’ll notice very different proportions, an omission, a couple of tweaks and some sage advice about shape and cooking which produces the best spinach and ricotta gnocchi I have ever eaten. I have eaten many.

Alice’s recipe uses the same quantity of ricotta as spinach, so 500g of spinach is mixed with an impressive 500g of ricotta. There is no sautéed onion, just a whole egg, a tablespoon of flour, 100g of grated parmesan and a generous grating of nutmeg to be mixed with the speckled green cream. You let the mixture chill for a couple for hours and then as lunchtime approaches you enlist the help of a fellow gnocchi maker (and a glass of campari on ice) as it’s best if you work swiftly and cook the gnocchi as soon as you possibly can.

The mixture is extremely soft, sticky and seemingly uncontrollable! Have no fear and resist adding more flour. Well floured hands, patience and practice and you will find a way to mould and shape the mixture into imprecise lozenges roughly the size of a brazil nut. There are two ways to work. Either using two teaspoons to form the mixture into lozenges and then rolling them immediately in flour. Alternatively you can dust your work-suface with flour, scoop out a generous handful of pale green mixture and with very well- floured hands roll it into a log, flatten it slightly and then cut the log into slices before tweaking the shape of each slice into the requisite form. Sit the gnocchi on a tray dusted with flour.

To cook the gnocchi you bring a large pan of well salted water to a very gentle boil. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, proud as punch, soft and have bobbed to the surface. Using a slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process. When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sage butter, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan

I needed no convincing about spinach and ricotta gnocchi, 12 or 14 freshly poached morsels, like green speckled pillows sitting in a pool of sage butter and dusted with parmesan, were already amongst my favorite things to eat. This recipe which produces some of the lightest, plumpest, most delicate and softly textured gnocchi I have ever eaten has simply fortified that conviction and nudged spinach and ricotta gnocchi even higher up my list. The key I think is the impressive quality of ricotta, the whisper of flour, the pleasing shape and reminder about cooking as soon as you can after making your gnocchi.

One of the nicest ways to eat your greens.

Gnocchi are usually eaten as a primo piatto (first course) but they make a fine main course especially if served with a sliced tomato salad, piedmontese peppers and some nice bread to mop up the sage butter. It is worth seeking out the best ricotta – ideally Ricotta di pecora (sheeps milk ricotta).

Spinach and Ricotta gnocchi

serves 4 (6 at push but who likes to push!)

  • 5oog / 1 lb fresh spinach
  • 500g / 1 llb ricotta
  • large egg
  • 100g freshly grated parmesan
  • 1 tbsp flour and more for dusting
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt
For the sage butter
  • 100g best butter
  • 10 fresh sage leaves

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add the egg, the grated parmesan,   flour and a grating of nutmeg. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste, add salt if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Dust your hands and a work surface with flour and working quickly shape the gnocchi into lozenges the size of a brazil nut and sit them on a tray dusted with flour.

Bring a large pan a well salted water to a gentle boil, not too hard or the gnocchi will disintegrate.

Put the butter in a small frying pan and turn the heat to medium. When the butter stops foaming and it starts turning tawny but not brown, add the sage leaves. Cook for a few seconds, turning the leaves once and then remove from the heat

Now begin cooking the gnocchi. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the gently boiling water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, soft and have floated to the surface. Using a with slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sauce, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan.

‘A bag of green – the second half’ coming soon.

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Filed under food, gnocchi, rachel eats Italy, ricotta, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables