Category Archives: sauces

Reliable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich Tomato sauce

4 generous portions

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

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

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

So lunch

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

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

A bit sheepish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pasta with ricotta, lemon and parmesan cream

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

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

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

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

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

Budino di Ricotta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use your loaf

For a woman like me, who struggles with bread management, Italy has been good. In part because bread is still bought daily from the local forno by weight: un mezzo filone, un quarto di pagnotta, un pezzo, un po, cosi, a way of shopping that, although no guarantee of perfect daily bread estimation, encourages bread thoughtfulness. But principally because if there is any old, stale bread in the kitchen, it’s not perceived as a problem, a doorstop or a guilty reminder of culinary mismanagement and wastefulness, but as an ingredient.

Old, stale bread is moistened back to life with a little cold water, squeezed dry, torn and then tossed with coarsely chopped tomatoes - fruity, fleshy and flavorsome ones, torn basil, maybe a little sliced red onion and then dressed with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and salt. This marvelous muddle known as Panzanella is then left to sit – so the bread absorbs the tomato juice and dressing – before being served. For the Tuscan specialty Ribollita (which means re-boiled) a thick bean and vegetable soup prepared the day before is recooked, then served spooned over slices of stale bread – toasted or hardened in the oven – and blessed with extra virgin olive oil. In the case of Pappa al pomodoro (papa means mush, pomodoro, of course, tomato) ‘Mature’ bread is toasted and then cooked gently with garlic and excellent tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to make a gloriously good soup/mush. Every night in thousands of Italian kitchens stale bread is dampened with milk and then mixed with ground beef, parsley, parmesan and a grating of nutmeg to make Polpette (meatballs) to be simmered in rich tomato sauce.

And in Liguria, the narrow arc of a region on the coast below Piemonte, the Riviera di Fiori, stale bread is soaked in whole milk and then mixed with pounded walnuts, garlic, olive oil and freshly grated parmesan to make quite possibly my favourite (new) recipe this year, a glorious cream the colour of my Burbury trench coat, salsa di noci or walnut sauce.

I’d made walnut sauce before, I’ve posted about it in fact, but it didn’t involve stale bread and you see, stale bread is the key. As are good walnuts, the wrinkly lobes of the kitchen, the curious shaped King of nuts (the Queen of course is almond and the Prince, hazelnut but I digress.) Stale bread, from a coarse, country loaf and good walnuts, like those from Sorrento in Campania, creamy and with a wonderful oily, sweet, waxy texture but also slight bitterness and mild astringent nature. Curious nuts that look a little like something out of a specimen jar in a biology lab.

You can of course make your walnut sauce in a food processor. However, when it comes to this kind of sauce /pesto, the machine that has revolutionized our kitchens, lives and timing, can’t help but obliterates all the ingredients into a monotonous, textureless whole, the sauce equivalent of an airbrushed photo of, lets say Nicole Kidman: smooth as can be, but really rather boring.

I’d suggest using a pestle and mortar, or the plastic bag/ rolling-pin /think of someone immensely irritating technique to pound the walnuts into a coarse powder. Then use an immersion blender, for as briefly as possible, to blitz the pounded walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a rough paste. Finally stir in the olive oil and freshly grated parmesan by hand with a wooden spoon. The combination of hand and machine produces a properly creamy sauce but one with real texture and personality. A sauce that is ready to be spooned into a jar.

And what good and surprising sauce. Well surprising to me at least! After a little reading it seems I am the last walnut lover to discover what the French (aillade), Italians, Turks (tarator) and Giorgians have known for centuries, the charm of walnuts, olive oil, garlic, usually bread and possibly cheese reduced a creamy, nutty, soft, intriguing and rounded sauce.

It may seem a little odd to smear bread on bread, but I like salsa di noci on hot toast or rounds of ciabatta (crostini) baked until crisp and golden in the oven. A great antipasti,  best served with a glass of chilled white wine or in the coming months a glass of full-bodied, room temperature red. Walnut sauce goes brilliantly with roast meat, particularly roast chicken, a sort of nutty Ligurian take on one of my favorites: English bread sauce. But best of all is salsa di noci with pasta, ideally Pansoti – which literally means pot-bellied – triangular wild herb ravioli from Liguria. But until we learn to make Pansoti, we shall eat our salsa di noci tossed with al dente spaghetti, tagliatelle or thick ribbons of fettucine cooked with some fine green beans.

I think it goes without saying we are talking about good bread here, a coarse, country-style loaf, one which ages decently and gracefully. Ideally the olive oil should be a light and delicately flavored variety. Last thing, I have given specific quantities, but they are merely guidelines, use your loaf, keeping in mind the sauce should be creamy and thick enough to stand a spoon up in, but still soft and spoonable.

Salsa di noci  Walnut sauce.

Makes a jar of sauce. More than enough to dress pasta for four and some left over for on toast the next day.

  • 80 g of crustless, coarse country bread
  • 200 ml whole milk (plus a little extra to loosen sauce if necessary)
  • 150 g shelled walnuts
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 40 g grated parmesan
  • 5 – 7 tablespoons light extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

In a small pan warm the milk gently until it is tepid and then remove it from the heat. Tear the bread into smallish pieces and add it to the pan. Leave to soak for 10 minutes.

In a pestle and mortar crush the walnuts. Peel the garlic and crush it with the back of a knife.

Tip the crushed walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a bowl. Using an immersion/stick blender blitz everything into a thick coarse cream.

Add the olive oil and gated parmesan to the bowl and then – using a wooden spoon – beat the mixture firmly. Taste and season to taste with salt and freshly grated black pepper.

With pasta and green beans

For four people as a main course, I’d suggest 500 g of pasta  (spaghetti, tagliatelle or fettuccine) and 300 g of fine green beans. Bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil. Add the beans and pasta to the pan and cook until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile put roughly 3/4 of your jar of walnut sauce in a warm bowl and thin it slightly with a little of the pasta cooking water (use a ladle to scoop some out while the pasta is cooking). Drain the pasta and beans, saving a little more of the cooking water. Mix the pasta and beans with the walnut sauce, adding a little more cooking water if you feel it need loosening even more. Divide between four warm bowls and serve with more freshly grated parmesan and a glass of Pigato.

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Filed under food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, walnuts

The sauce is greener

Windowsill in Rome at about 4pm on Saturday 18th August – a dog day if ever there was one. From left to right, parsley, basil and (despite dastardly heat) a very perky mint plant.

I’ve recently rediscovered green sauce. I’ve reembraced this gloriously good, gorgeous green amalgam of herbs, capers, anchovies, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. This piquant, salty, fresh, grassy, sour, oily, punchy, slap of a sauce  I’ve been spooning it over (almost) everything. I’ve been eating it straight from the jar. I’m considering tucking a small tub of it in my handbag, a culinary first aid kit so to speak, in case I encounter any comestible blandness that needs remedying. I’ve decided upon my epitaph: She – after experimentation and sound advice – made a good green sauce.

I used to call my green sauce by its Italian name, Salsa verde, which literally translated means sauce green. ‘This is sauce green madam, with tongue of veal’ declared the waiter at the Trattoria near Ferrara as he presented me with my lingua con salsa verde a few years backAnd very good lingua it was too (tongue is a dish deserving of our culinary courage, one that – quite literally – sticks its tongue out at you and your squeamishness and whispers I dare you!) But it was the Salsa verde that really got me going, the chaotic tumble of parsley, capers, onion, anchovies, breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil.

Following that meal in Ferrara  I started making Salsa Verde at home. At first I was faithful, reverential even, to the parsley-breadcrumb-onion-garlic-caper-anchovy-olive oil salsa I’d enjoyed so much. Then, feeling a little frisky about my salsa skills and with sound advice from Marcella Hazan, Giorgio Locatelli and Fergus Henderson, I began to experiment. I discovered that I’m partial to a little mint and basil alongside my parsley, that onion isn’t (always) necessary, nor for that matter are breadcrumbs, that a heavy hand with the anchovies is no bad thing.

I shared my Salsa Verde observations with a man from Milan over an aperitivo in an odd bar near Piazza Navona. I wish I hadn’t! He shook his head violently as I spoke of herbs other than parsley. He snorted when I suggested omitting the breadcrumbs and winced at the mention of garlic. ‘Non è Salsa Verde‘ he replied disapprovingly before saying something rude and clichéd about the English and their food. I wasn’t in the mood for gastronomic argy bargy with a possibly knowledgable but properly pompous old fart . ‘How right he was‘ I conceded ‘It wasn’t!  It was green sauce.’

I’m never very precise when I make green sauce, a bunch of this, a handful of that, a bit more of that. But then last Saturday – the dog day – in an uncharacteristic fit of pedantry and a sleeping child I counted the leaves.. Well the basil and mint leaves at least! So I can confirm that to my big bunch of parsley I add 25 leaves of both basil and mint. And how big is big? Well once I’d pulled the parsley leaves from the stalks I had a bulging fistful of leaves! Is that helpful? Not really!

You can of course make you green sauce in a food processor! However, I’d like – if you don’t mind – to give you three good reasons to make your green sauce with a sharp knife. Firstly, because only by chopping will you achieve the chaotic, tumbling more-salad-than-sauce textual delight. A food processor – bless – can’t help but obliterate all the ingredients into a bit of a pulpy slurry. Secondly, for the stupendous heady aroma that pervades your kitchen when your knife hits the parsley, mint and basil. If I ever faint in your presence, please waft a board of chopped herbs under my nose. Thirdly, when chopped rather than blitzed, your green sauce will be greener.

Having chopped your herbs, do the same with your capers and anchovies. The capers can be very roughly chopped but you need to reduce the anchovies to a creamy consistency, almost a paste really. Almost. So some serious chopping and squashing with the edge of the knife is in order. Did I mention how much I like anchovies? Yes! Good. The garlic too needs reducing to a paste! I use a pestle and mortar. Meeting a nice chunk of caper in your sauce is one thing, a chunk of garlic is quite another!

Having chopped all the components, scrape them into a bowl, add the vinegar or lemon juice mix everything together thoroughly and energetically with a fork. Then add the olive oil in a thin stream – another pair of hands is useful here – beating the mixture sharply so as to amalgamate the oil with the other ingredients. You are looking for a loose still spoonable  - but not runny or oily – consistency, a thick, gloopy, snooker-baize colored pond. Taste, season with black pepper and add a little more lemon juice or vinegar if you feel it needs it (the anchovies should negate any necessity for salt.)

Green sauce

Makes a jarful.

  • a big bunch of flat leaved parsley (leaves only)
  • 25 basil leaves
  • 25 mint leaves
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
  • a small tin of anchovy fillets (8 fillets)
  • 2 tablespoons capers (in brine)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar
  • 200 ml extra virgin olive oil (you may not need it all)
  • black pepper

Chop your herbs finely with a knife or mezzaluna.

Peel the garlic and then crush it in a pestle and mortar or with the back of a large knife before chopping it very finely.

Drain the capers and then chop them roughly. Chop the anchovy fillets.

In a bowl, mix together the herbs, garlic, capers, anchovy, lemon juice/vinegar and enough olive oil to reach a loose, still spoonable –  but not runny or oily – consistency.

Taste, season with black pepper and add more vinegar or lemon if you think it needs it ( the anchovies should negate any necessity for salt.)

How to eat it

Straight from the jar. Otherwise with just about everything! Green sauce is outrageously social (some would say undiscriminating but they’re just jealous) and its companions know no bounds. It goes brilliantly with meat cooked in almost every manner! I adore it with poached chicken, pork chops and cold roast beef. The same for fish! Cod with lentils and green sauce please! It is terrific with potatoes, sliced tomatoes, steamed and raw vegetables, on sandwiches and with eggs (next to omelets, under poached) especially hard-boiled ones.

It was a good lunch. Hope summer is treating you well.

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Filed under food, olive oil, parsley, rachel eats Italy, sauces, summer food

About time

After my three-month hiatus: an overcooked goulash of endings, beginnings and strange middles over seasoned with excuses, sabotage and a big glug of procrastination, I think I owe it to you, and myself for that matter, to get on with it. Please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.

At least I haven’t had to procrastinate over which recipe to share with you. Watermelon, ice cream and insalata caprese season combined with the fact I’ve been even more habitual than usual in the kitchen, seeking reassurance from the goulash with faithful recipes and my fallback: bread and cheese, has meant I’ve barely made anything I haven’t already written about! Except the pesto that is, or more precisely pesto alla trapanese.

The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or grind, and is used to describe a thick raw sauce made by pounding a mass of aromatic herbs in a pestle and mortar with salt, garlic and perhaps nuts and cheese. Pesto can be stirred into pasta, spooned over soup or fish, or spread liberally over bread, pastry or pizza. The most famous pesto – excuse me if I avoid the words invented, original, authentic or perfect, I find they can cause problems - is pesto alla genovese, a glorious green amalgam of genovese basil, pine nuts, parmesan or pecorino sardo, ligurian olive oil and salt. I’m extremely fond of pesto alla genovese and I’ve written it about before.

Pesto alla trapaneze, which I’d heard of but never made until I opened this beautiful book, is a sauce made by pounding almonds, garlic and basil in a mortar and then adding olive oil, maybe cheese, salt and finely peeled, deseeded and chopped tomato. I suppose you could crudely translate it as Pesto Trapani style  (Trapani being a city on the west coast of Sicily that I’d very much like to visit) but why would you when it sounds so much nicer in Italian. It sounds better still in Sicilian, pasta cull’agghia. Apparently the genovese sailors who steered their ships in Trapani’s sickle-shaped port on the way to the orient brought the tradition of pesto to Sicilian shores, the local sailors then adopted and adapted the recipe using local ingredients, namely almonds instead of pine nuts and tomatoes

Considering tomatoes affinity with basil, cheese and garlic, and knowing what a good and handsome couple the soft sweet and sour flesh of tomatoes and pesto alla genovese make – neatly illustrated by another of my fallbacks, toast spread with pesto and topped with two half moons of grilled tomato – it’s hardly surprising pesto alla trapanese, which is essentially pesto alla genovese made with almonds and the addition of tomato, is quite delicious. You’ll discover how well almonds work in pesto, lending their milky, almost grassy nature and hint of bitterness to proceedings. You’ll see the way they pound into a soft nutty cream with the garlic, which provides a perfect base for the fragrant, spicy, most irritatingly likable of herbs: basil and its loyal comrades olive oil, tomatoes and cheese.

Ah yes, the cheese. The first recipe I found, and the one I follow pretty faithfully doesn’t include cheese. The absence of cheese means you can really taste the almonds and appreciate the way they temper and compliment the volatile garlic (much in the same way as in the Spanish ajo blanco, the excellent almond and garlic soup). Omitting the cheese also allows the spicy warmth of the basil to come through. Having said that, I also really like pesto alla trapanese made with cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan and pecorino), it’s a bolder, saltier sauce, richer and rounder. The nice thing is, you can choose! I suggest experimenting, the recipe is worth it. You could of course simply offer a bowl of freshly grated cheese at the table and people can add it if they wish.

I make pesto in a pestle and mortar. It’s not about being a purist or extremely authentic, it’s because I enjoy the pounding and grinding, in much the same way that I like whisking egg whites till my arms hurt, kneading bread dough with slightly demented enthusiasm and smashing ice cubes for cocktails with a rolling-pin while laughing hysterically and thinking of the woman who works behind the cheese counter – one of these is not true! Having boasted about my elbow grease I should probably note that there are many kitchen tasks I happily delegate to a clever tool or machine, just not pesto.  You can of course make pesto alla trapanese in a food processor. The method is pretty much the same for both man and machine.

First you pound or pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Then you add the washed and dried basil leaves. If you’re using a pestle and mortar, you want to work the leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you rub a tender leaf between your fingertips. Once the basil is incorporated, you stir in the cheese if you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon.

Pesto made in a pestle and mortar will always have a much coarser texture than pesto made with a machine, think rough as opposed to fine sandpaper, five o’ clock shadow as opposed to super clean shaved. I know what I prefer. If you are working in a food processor, add the olive oil at the same time as the basil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand. Now you turn your attention to the tomatoes.

While your spaghetti in rolling around in plenty of well salted boiling water, you peel, deseed and roughly chop the tomatoes. It may seem like a bit of a bother to peel the tomatoes, well it can to me anyway, but I assure you it really isn’t and it’s an important step in this recipe! Skip it and you’ll end up with tough little red chunks and a rather watery sauce. Just before you drain the pasta you mix the tomatoes and the pesto together in a large serving bowl. When the spaghetti is ready - al dente as the Italian say, which means’ to the tooth’ and describes the point when the pasta is cooked and tender but still with a slight chewy bite – drain and then stir it into the pesto alla trapanese, adding a little of the pasta cooking water you have set aside if you feel the mixture needs loosening slightly, then you serve

The warmth of the pasta brings everything together,  heightening the nature of each ingredient and uniting them further into a harmonious tumble. A very good lunch, so much nicer than my goulash.

Spaghetti con pesto alla Trapanese

Adapted from a recipe in La cucina Siciliana by Maria Teresa di Marco e Marie Cecile Ferrè

Serves 4

  • 50g skinned almonds
  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic
  • 35 tender basil leaves
  • 50g parmesan or pecorino (or a mix of both) – this is optional
  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes
  • 450g spaghetti (or di mafadine or orrichiette)
In a pestle and mortar:

Pound the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and carefully dried basil leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you press a tender leaf between your fingertips.

Once the basil is incorporated, stir in the cheese if  you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.

In a food processor:

Pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and dried basil leaves along with the olive oil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand if you are adding it. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.

Continue both methods as follows:

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them into a bowl of boiling water for 60 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into a bowl of iced water for 30 seconds – the skins should slip away. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds and cut away the hard central core. Rough chop the tomatoes.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and then cook the spaghetti until al dente.

While the spaghetti is cooking mix the tomatoes with the pesto in a large serving bowl. Drain the spaghetti – reserving some of the cooking water – and mix with the pesto. Add a little of the cooking water to loosen the pasta if you feel it is necessary. Serve immediately.

I can’t really believe I’ve written, never mind finished a post, I was starting to believe I would never come back! But I did, which has probably surprised me more than it will you. It will certainly surprise my brother Ben who took great pleasure in telling me he was so bored of waiting that he has deleted me from his favorites, bookmarks and at this point probably his computer. I think it will take more than one post to be reinstated.

I don’t intend to present you with the whole messy goulash, but the nature of the blog means we probably have some catching up to do. I promise rambling will always be accompanied by suggestions for a good lunch, or supper, or – if all goes according to plan – almond cake and lemonade. As always thank you very much for all your kind and thoughtful messages and patience. I hope you are having a good summer wherever you are.

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Filed under almonds, food, pasta and rice, recipes, sauces, summer food

Pulling mussels

I first ate fave e pecorino – young broad beans still in their pods so you can peel them yourself and chunks of the salty, robust ewes milk cheese Pecorino Romano – at the trattoria Augustarello in Testaccio. It was May 2005 and I’d been in Italy for nearly two months. Following my impulsive, slightly demented, not-very-grand tour of Southern Italy, I’d paused for breath, admitted my travels might be easier with more than twenty words of comedy Italian and enrolled myself at a language school here in Rome. The school had found me a gloomy, fusty, extremely odd apartment near piazza Bologna which although detrimental for both my spirits and my sinuses, was bearable because I knew I was moving to Testaccio.

Actually I knew I wanted to move to Testaccio, having spent the day exploring this unexpectedly alluring and although fashionable, resolutely authentic quarter of Rome with my friend and curious architect Joanna. During her visit, Joanna was as eager for us to visit Testaccio’s abandoned slaughterhouse, its austere yet beautiful futurist post office, the slightly grimy but busy and dynamic iron and glass food market and the courtyards and stairwells of its public housing as she was the fountains, domes and palaces of the eternal City. This is where I want to live I decided – as Joanna urged me to enter yet another (clearly private) courtyard to take pictures of another ingenious stairwell – I just had to find a flat.

I’d go to school each morning, then most lunchtimes, head spinning with verb conjugations and the knowledge I was the bottom of the class again, I’d take the metro from piazza Bologna to Pyramide, walk up via Marmorata, turn left into via Galvani and then right into via mastro Giorgio and the heart of Testaccio. Before any serious flat hunting could be embarked upon lunch was required. It was during these slightly lonely but good days, in search of lunch, that I discovered many of the shops, stalls, bars, osteria, trattoria that I still go to everyday.

The tomato stall at the back of the market for sweet, spicy, thick-skinned pachino tomatoes which I’d wash under the drinking fountain and then eat with bread and mozzarella in the park. Vincenzo and Rita’s stall for strawberries and peas in their pods. Panifico Passi for hot pizza bianca and Foccacia. Volpetti for a piece of cheese and a slice of torta salata, Volpetti Più for a seat, a bowl of pasta e fagioli and a plate of cicoria with olive oil and lemon. The bar Linari for two cornetti and a cappuccino – I’m a great believer in breakfast for lunch every now and then. The bar Giolitti for an ice-cream and a tub of zabaione – I also believe in double pudding for lunch. Il Bucatino for spaghetti con le vongole, Da Felice for Cacio e pepe and Augustarello for my favourite lunches and lessons in Roman kitchen.

I probably leaned more Italian at Augustarello that at school, and what I learned was certainly more useful. It was here, in this simple, archetypal Testaccio trattoria, at one of the 10 or so tables that I also learned and really tasted distinct, deliciously robust, gutsy Roman cooking; carciofi alla Romanabucatini all’amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe. It was at Augustarello I encountered the bold, offal based cooking from the slaughterhouse days: animelle (sweetbreads), coda alla vacinara, pajata. It was at Augustarello that a tumble of long spindly fave fresco were brought to the table along with a hunk of Pecorino Romano, a stubby little cheese knife, a glass of Malvasia and I made my acquaintance with the simple, unadulterated joy that is fave e pecorino.

I consider myself quite devoted to antipasti and this is one of my favourites, both for its ritual and its unique taste. The ritual: running your finger down the side of the fave and feeling the velvety lining of the pod, popping out the first fave, easing away it’s tough outer jacket to reveal the tender, brilliant green bean, chiseling away a little hunk of pecorino. The taste of the two together: the tender, bittersweet, soft waxy bean contrasted with the salty, grainy cheese.

Talking of antipasti, all these words are a long rambling antipasti – I’m also a believer in long rambling antipasti – tasty morsels in preparation for il primo, todays recipe, a particularly good one, the one Vincenzo and I ate yesterday, Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels.

I’ve had it in mind to make spaghetti with a tomato and mussel sauce for some time now, ever since eating a really excellent plateful at La Torricella late last summer. I’ve daydreamed of that bowl of al-dente spaghetti coated with a soft, sweet, fresh tomato sauce and studded with tender mussels, with a sea-salty kick of shellfish liquor and heat of peperoncino, the grassy flecks of parsley and oregano. It has only taken me 8 months. Actually in Rachel terms 8 months is relatively snappy.  My procrastination however, has not been such a bad thing, I don’t think this sauce would be as deliciously soft and sweet made with the tinned tomatoes that sustain us through the winter. Now’s the time, late April, early May as the first truly deep-red tomatoes with their tangle of vines appear at the market. ‘Le cozze sono buone in Aprile, il migliore’ – ‘the mussels are good in April, the best‘ promises my fishmonger smoothing down his unruly handlebar moustache. He always makes such promises. On this occasion he’s right though, inside each curved inky blue-black shell we find a curious orange creature, plump, juicy and tender.

If like me, you have mussel anxiety – I speak of shell-fish not triceps although I have anxiety about them too, although not enough to actually do anything about their decline – I have some advice. It’s good advice, from my friend Saverio: occasional fisherman, fish market pro and excellent cook.  Advice #1  – Having established a good relationship with your reputable fish monger, establish the best time of year and day of the week to buy mussels. Go early in the morning to buy them and eat them that same day. #2 – Throw away any that have a broken shell, or remain closed even after being tapped sharply with the handle of a knife. #3 – Be fearless when cleaning, soak them in plenty of cold water for an hour, then go on, pull away that funny beard, scrub away any sand or barnacles. #4 – Cook the mussels in a single layer in large, flat-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid. #5 – Enlist the help of an assistant to pull the mussels from the shells.

While your assistant is plucking mussels from shells and you can get on with the business of making a very simple, fresh tomato sauce. You skin the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for a few seconds, before draining them. The skins should then peel away easily. You rough chop the tomatoes. Then you sizzle some chopped garlic, chili and oregano in a little olive oil, add a glug of wine, let this bubble away before adding the tomatoes and letting things reduce and thicken for 15 minutes or so. Then you add the mussels and their intense salty liquor to the sauce.

Now all’s that left is to cook some pasta, spaghetti or linguine, in a big pan of well-salted, fast boiling water until it’s al-dente, then mix the drained pasta with the sauce and a handful of roughly chopped parsley. You serve, drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over each bowl, you grab a fork and a corner of bread and eat.

I’ve been out-of-sorts on the kitchen lately, the imminent move and separation, so making something really good and tasty – because this is really good and extremely tasty – was especially nice. A reassuring nod from my kitchen, an affirmation from  my lunch, a humm of approval from Vincenzo.  There are countless recipes for spaghetti with tomato and mussel sauce, but this one, from The River Cafe Cookbook is, like most things from the River Cafe kitchen and the hands of Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers, truly excellent.

As we ate I muttered earnest things like ‘Mussels are lovely and not expensive‘ or ‘I don’t know why I ever worried about cleaning or cooking mussels‘ and Vincenzo nodded. We decided Spaghetti with fresh tomato and mussel sauce tastes of springtime, of warmth, of the mediterranean and the salty lick of the sea, that its a delicious whole much greater than the sum of its parts. We decided to make it again next week, our last week together in this flat.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels

Adapted from the River Cafe Cookbook Two by Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers

serves 4

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1.5 – 2 kg mussels in shell, cleaned (discard any that remain open)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small red chilli, crumbled
  • 1 tbsp chopped oregano
  • 150 ml dry white wine
  • 1 kg ripe tomatoes
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 400g dried spaghetti

Heat half the olive oil in a large, wide saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the mussels in one layer – this will probably mean 2 or 3 batches – cover and cook briefly over a high heat until they all open. Discard any mussels that remain closed. Drain, keeping the liquid. When the mussels are cool, remove from the shells and chop. In a small pan reduce the mussel liquid by half, strain through a fine sieve and add to the mussels.

In another pan, heat the rest of the olive oil and add the garlic, chilli and oregano. Cook for a couple of minutes, until the garlic begins to turn gently golden then add the wine and reduce for a minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 15 minutes, until reduced. Add the mussels, juice, salt – be cautious, the mussel juice will be salty - pepper and parsley. Keep sauce warm.

Cook the spaghetti in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water until al-dente. Drain. Add mussel sauce and stir.

Divide between 4 warm serving plates drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over the top. Eat.

If all goes well, I will get the keys to my new flat on the 2nd of May. I will then pull other mussels as I heave my large, confusing muddle of belongs across Testaccio and up two flights of stairs. It’s a nice flat, on via Marmorata with windows opening onto via Antonio Cecchi. It’s filled with light. Me, I’m filled with excitement and terror, great sadness and hope at the thought of moving. As always, thank you very much for the companionship here.

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Filed under pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, sauces, Shell fish, spring recipes, tomatoes

No fear, less tears and more beers.

You’ve probably noticed I’m limping along here! Or maybe you haven’t. Either way, a rather belated but heartfelt Happy New Year to you all. In the words of John Lennon Lets hope it’s a good one without any fear. Or as I as sang incorrectly for years, ‘Lets hope it’s a good one without any tears‘ Or my friend Andy’s alternative pub lyrics  ‘Lets hope it’s a good one with plenty of beers. Personally I’m hoping for all three;  no fear, less tears and more beers. Oh and plenty of parmesan. Talking of parmesan, there isn’t any in today’s recipe. There is pecorino though – in this case pecorino romano; the hard, sharp, pungent, sheep’s milk cheese -  and plenty of it, added to the hot sauce just before you add it to the pasta. The sauce is question is a particularly good one, a classic and one of my favourites, sugo all’ amatriciana or alla matriciana in Roman dialect.

Sugo all’ amatriciana is a traditional Italian pasta sauce made with guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl or cheeks) tomato and pecorino cheese. The sauce originates from Amatrice, a town in the mountainous Province of Rieti, about 75 kilometres from Rome. There ‘s much heated debate about the precise origins of sugo all’ amatriciana and even more heated debate about the truly authentic recipe – of course there is we cry, this is Italy – particularly the inclusion of onion (gasp), peperoncino and black pepper. There are also rather strong opinions about the shape of pasta best suited to this excellent sauce: spaghetti (the traditional pasta in Amatrice), unruly bucatini – a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through the center, or my favourite, the mighty ridged tubes; rigatoni.

I’d been making a kind of sugo all’ amatriciana long before I came to Italy, long before I could say alla matriciana like a true Roman! I didn’t know it was sugo all’ amatriciana though, it was simply my take on a kind-of-Italian-spicy-tomato-sauce-with-bacon, best served with spaghetti and crowned with a vast heap of parmesan. I’m joking of course, about the pronunciation that is not the sauce, even after 6 years I still have deeply average and often embarrassing grasp of the Italian language and sound about as Roman as the Queen quoting Jane Austen.

My kind-of-Italian-spicy-tomato-sauce-with-bacon, well that was standard fare, perfectly acceptable, but generally very average and often a bit on the crude side! Actually it was often crude because it was one of my post pub repertoire and generally executed while I was under the influence of a large quantity of alcohol and hardly at my most lucid and precise. But since being in Rome, visiting Amatrice, eating my own body weight in sugo all’ amatriciana (I live above the trattoria Il Bucatino whose signature dish is, hardly surprisingly, Bucatini all’amatriciana) and a fair bit of kitchen experimentation, I think my sauce has improved, tightened up. In keeping with todays Beatles theme I could say my sauce, my sugo, has ‘Come together’ and I’d go as far as saying I make a pretty good alla matriciana.

I’m sure purists will gasp, but I like onion – preferably white and mild flavoured, chopped really finely and sautéed gently in a little oil – at the base of my sugo all’ amatriciana.

I generally use guanciale, I adore its glistening, deeply flavoured fat, but I’m happy with pancetta. I’m partial to a deep kick of peperoncino and lashings of black pepper. I use plenty of tomatoes – a whole tin of pelati (peeled whole san marzano tomatoes – like the tin under the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band phase in the first picture). I chop the pelati coarsely with a pair of scissors while they are still in the tin. I cook my sauce for a modest 15 minutes, but in a shallow pan so it reduces and thickens willingly (today the blip blip boil splattered the white cover of my friend Betta’s cooker so dramatically it ended up loooking like a tomato sauce massacre). I mix the pecorino with the pasta at the same time as the sauce in the pan and stir energetically so the cheese becomes part of the sauce. Oh, and talking of cheese, I know this is stating the obvious, but pecorino is king here, parmesan just doesn’t hit the spot, too refined, you need the rough, coarse, piquant nature of pecorino Romano. As for the pasta, I often use spaghetti or bucatini but Rigatoni is my prefered pasta for sugo all’ amatriciana, I love the way the thick, richly flavoured tomato and cheese enriched sauce clings to the ridged tubes, the way a little sauce hides inside each tube, if you’re lucky alongside a matchstick of guanciale.

I know it would have looked so much nicer on my table, you know the one. I miss my table. I will be eating at it again soon. Great lunch though, captured on camera by my friend – and supplier of extremely potent Calabrese peperoncino – Pietro.

Pasta all’amatriciana

For 4

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small mild onion very finely chopped
  • 100g guanciale or pancetta cut into thick match sticks
  • 1 small peperoncino (red-hot chilli pepper) crushed or finely chopped
  • 350g tinned plum tomatoes (chopped)/tomato passata
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 75g freshly grated pecorino plus more for serving
  • 450g pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni)

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil for the pasta.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy based frying or saute pan over a medium flame, add the onion and saute it gently until it becomes coloured pale gold. Add the pancetta and fry gently until the fat is translucent and the edges are just starting to turn golden.

Add the peperoncino and tomato to the pan, stir, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and then cook uncovered over a modest flame for 15 minutes.

When the sauce has about 10 minutes of cooking time left, add the pasta to the fast boiling water and cook (according to the instructions on the packet) until al dente.

Darin the pasta (reserving a little cooking water in case you need to loosen the sauce) and toss with the sauce in the frying pan, add the cheese and more freshly ground black pepper and toss again. Serve immediately with more cheese and a glass of wine.

When I started this blog I didn’t imagine it would evolve into something quite so personal, so revealing and involve so many of the people in my life. I know this and my style of writing has both lost and found me readers (and friends). I wouldn’t have it any other way! But at a time in which my life has changed quite dramatically, I find myself flailing and quite unable to find the right words to share things in a way that feels appropriate. I do know I need time, otherwise I’m in danger of coming across as a dreadful and doomed character in a chickerflicker of novel. Ok, ok, not doomed – see I told you I love the drama and smattering of careless exaggeration – I am most definitely not doomed, just at a very particular moment in my life.  Yes, I most defiantly need time and a large gin and tonic in hand when the time is right. Meanwhile, for the second time, Happy New year to you all and ‘Lets hope it’s a good one without any fear and tears, more beers, lashings of parmesan and large portions of pasta all’amatriciana for us all’.

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