Category Archives: soup

on washing and lentils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

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

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

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

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

First meal

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

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Second meal.

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

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

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

tumble out

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It had been years since I’d made leek and potato soup. Years. At first I couldn’t remember if it was better with stock or water ? Not that stock was an option yesterday. If I added an onion along with the leek? If I used butter or olive oil? Leek and potato soup over-thinking while the rain battered against the kitchen window again – Rome is awash, the river is high  – and Luca shouted ‘I helpin you I do‘ sounding like Dick van Dyke as Bert.

There was a time growing up when I (we) ate leek and potato soup once a week. It was one of my Mum’s standards along with spaghetti Bolognese (the kind Italians remind you doesn’t exist in Italy) carrot and coriander soup, roast chicken (which meant chicken soup the day after) tatie hash, cottage pie, fish pie, ratatouille and more ratatouille. Mum seemed to chop, simmer and blend it out of almost nothing: 2 potatoes and a few leeks transformed into pan of soup while we watched an episode of Blue Peter. Often she would make it in the afternoon so it would be sitting there, savory, warm and the sort of green Ben couldn’t resist joking about when we got home from school. Sometimes it was tea, so with bread and butter, sometimes supper in which case there would be cheese and salad too, and my dad still in his work shirt, his tie slung over the back of the chair. My dad loves soup, which has much to do with the fact he loves bread and butter, bread and butter being inseparable from soup for Martin Roddy.

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I’m not sure why I bothered over-thinking, the soup tumbled out in much the same way words do when certain songs are on the radio. She walked up to me and she asked me to dance, I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola L-o-l-a Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola. The rain tumbled too, so much so that even the leafless trees in Via Galvani seemed soggy. I felt like my mum in about 1979 (but without the smock and headscarf)  shouting ‘Benjamin take that lego out of your nose immediately‘ peeling onions, then trimming leeks –  splitting them so as to wash away the grit – before cooking them slowly in a mix of butter and olive oil (a mix that sums up this English kitchen in Rome,) adding potatoes and water, simmering and then blending. Vegetables drawer to lunch in three episodes of Pimpa.

It hadn’t changed a bit, the soup that is, savory and satisfying, the potatoes providing starchy, soft substance and the leeks – like obedient onions – flavor and something silky (which could be slithery but isn’t). Two utterly dependable, utilitarian ingredients coming together into something delicious, simultaneously comforting and verdant. Satisfying too, how easy it is to make. Not that things always have be easy in the kitchen – far from it, but sometimes easy is called for, especially when it’s raining and everyone is hungry for something warm, good and now (give or take an episode of something.)

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Leek and potato soup

Some use stock for leek and potato soup, but if the vegetables are good, it is not necessary, some also add milk or cream. I don’t. I remove a third of the soup before blending the rest into a smooth cream, then returning the third to the pan. This way the texture is more interesting.

serves 4

  • a white onion
  • 3 – 4 leeks (once trimmed approx 500 g)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 2 potatoes (approx 500 g) ideally floury as they need to thicken the soup
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • more olive oil or a little cream to serve

Peel and small dice the onion. Trim the leeks so you just have the white and very pale green part, make two two inch cuts at the top of each leek so you can fan them open and rinse them thoroughly under the cold tap – there will be dirt hiding. Slice the leeks into slim rounds.

In a large soup pan, sauté the onion and leek with a pinch of salt in the oil and butter over a medium-low flame until very soft and floppy – this will take about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and chop the potato into inch cubes. Add the potato to the pan, stir so each cube is glistening with oil and cook for a couple more minutes.

Add a litre of water, stir, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the potato is tender and collapsing. Remove a third of the soup from the pan, blend the other two-thirds with an immersion blender until smooth and then return the third you removed back to the pan. Add salt and black pepper. Serve with a swirl of extra virgin  olive oil or cream.

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Oranges, dates and goats cheese. I am also on Instagram now.

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Filed under food, leeks, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup, Uncategorized, winter recipes

water everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

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

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid embellishments

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Phyllis Roddy, my paternal grandma, a good and gentle woman we miss greatly, had much to do with my liking for celery.  For amongst the sandwiches, sharp cheese, pickled vegetables, fruit cakes and sweet tarts there would always be English celery when Phyllis made Tea.  Tea the meal that is, the one served at 5 30 on special days in lieu of supper. Yorkshire tea: good and simple and not to be mistaken for the posher, highly creamed afternoon tea.

The icy-white, deeply ribbed stalks with soft feathery leaves would stand in a jug of very cold water – Phyllis knew this was the best way to keep them crisp and lively.  In turn, the jug would stand in the middle of the starched linen cloth covering the dining table in my grandparents house in Cleveland Avenue. How can you not like celery?  I might have thought, as I snapped yet another stalk between my teeth: cool and savory, the perfect foil for the soft sandwiches, rudely-pink beetroot, crumbling Cheshire cheese and dark fruit cake.

Started by Phyllis and then nurtured by my mum – who never condemned celery with must or good for you and had the extraordinary knack of making a celery baton nearly as appealing as a biscuit – my liking for stringy stalks withstood the sneers and earned me favour with other mothers.  I was after all, the only child eating the token vegetable batons at the Birthday tea.  A tasty and smart move I might have thought as I accepted another slice of cake while the mother of the birthday child told my mother what a good eater I was.

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I’m writing this from my parents house near – but not near enough – to London.  I’ve been eating, drinking and flicking through my Mum’s cook books while my son plays with inappropriate and slightly dangerous objects.  A few days ago I read this in Jane Grigson’s Good Things.  “Put on the table two or three heads of celery, outside stalks removed, and the inner stalks separated, washed and chilled.  Have a dish of unsalted butter at spreading temperature, and some sea salt. Each person puts butter fairly thickly into the channel of his celery sticks, then sprinkles a thin line of seas salt along it.  Simple and delicious.   Avoid embellishments.  A good way to start a meal.”

I need little convincing to either eat celery –  I’m talking about the good stuff here, commonplace but juicy and flavoursome – or to’ put butter fairly thickly‘ on anything.  I am also completely enamoured with Jane Grigson so before you can say celery, butter and sea salt they were on the table.

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Now it may sound odd to the uninitiated but I assure you celery, butter and salt is delicious.  Truly delicious: the celery crisp, savory and just a little bitter contrasting with the soft fattiness of the butter and shards of granular salt.  It goes without saying the celery must be good, the unsalted butter excellent and the salt best quality, unadulterated and reeking of the sea.  Maldon is ideal.  Don’t be shy with the butter, imagine you are plastering a deep hole in a particularly important wall.  As with life, avoid embellishments.

As for those outer stems!  We made Jane Grigson’s celery soup from Good Things, a simple soup that tastes – as she promises – exceptionally good. Standard practice here, onion and chopped celery sautéed in plenty of butter and a dash of olive oil.  You add chopped potato for body and a litre of chicken stock before leaving the soup to simmer gently for about 30 minutes.  To finish you blast the soup with the immersion blender before adding a little heavy cream and freshly grated black pepper.

Simple, savory and tasting as it should, most resolutely of celery.  It felt like the perfect antidote the excess of the past weeks but didn’t for a second feel anything but generous and good.

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Celery soup

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Good Things

  • 75 g / 3 oz butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 250g / 10 oz chopped celery
  • 100 g / 4 oz diced onion
  • 100 g / 4 oz diced potato
  • 1 litre /2 pints of light chicken/ turkey or ham stock
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • heavy or double cream

Stew the celery and onion gently in the butter and oil in a covered pan for 10 minutes.  Add the potato and stir to coat well with butter and oil.   Don’ let the vegetables brown.  Add the stock.  Bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes or until the celery is very tender.  Blend or pass the soup through a mouli. If the celery is particulary stringy you might like to pass it through a seive.  Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper as you see fit.  Ladle the soup into warm bowls,  spoon over a little double cream, swirl and eat.

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Happy New Year and wishing you all ‘Good things.’  Thank you for reading and thank you for your thoughtful, affectionate, funny, wise, frivolous, critical and honest comments.  Rach

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Filed under celery, food, rachel eats London, soup

Lucky strike

Lately I’ve been walking. Pounding really, most mornings, while I still can, before my teaching and work at Teatro Verde burst the weird and wondrous bubble that is maternity leave. Pounding the streets of this stupendous city with well-caffeinated blood, sensible shoes, a small and increasingly vocal half Roman strapped to my chest and no particular destination in mind. On Friday we followed the deep curves of the Tevere river from Ponte Sublico all the way to Ponte Cavour. We had our second breakfast at Antonini before weaving our way through the ochre and terracotta hued warren of medieval lanes and tiny piazzas: Via dei Coronari, Piazza della Pace, Via del Governo Vecchio. We paused to inhale the Pantheon and talk to a cheeky dog called Pio before striding across Largo Argentina, crossing the Ghetto and then crunching leaves all the way along Lungotevere. It was a pretty glorious morning. Then I made pasta e lenticchie for Lunch.

If you’d told me eight years ago that Pasta e lenticchie would become one of my preferred things to eat, I’d have sniffed and told you to pass me the spaghetti-pesto-torn chard-balsamico-mozzarella-ravioli-parmigiano-pizza-cosa immediately. For most of my first year in Rome I continued resisting and persisting! ‘Yes of course I’ve heard of pasta e lenticchie! It’s pasta mixed with lentils! Sounds a little dreary don’t you think?‘ I ignored, snubbed and slighted every suggestion of Pasta e lenticchie I encountered.

It was New Years Eve when I saw the lentil light. As the clock struck midnight I was presented with an auspicious Italian tradition, a plate of braised lentils crowned with three slices of such rudely pink, fat Cotechino sausage it almost made me blush. Words and excuses tumbled from my mouth! ‘It’s midnight! We’ve been eating and drinking and drinking and eating since six o clock! I can’t possibly eat another…..’ ‘But you must’ I was told earnestly. ‘It’s the lentils you see, like little coins, they’ll bring you luck. They’re delicious too. Mangia.’

They were indeed, properly delicious, soft, earthy little orbs. Full flavoured too – clearly cooked with a fearless quality of guanciale - and a perfect foil for the rich, glutenous Cotechino. For lunch on New Years Day the rest of the lentils were reheated with a little broth, fortified with pasta and served with a glug of raw olive oil and a blizzard of pecorino romano. Riches of the monetary kind may not have been forthcoming that particular year, but at least I’d understood.

Like the reigning king and queen of hearty minestrepasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, pasta e lenticchie is a dense, hearty, elemental soup with pasta. Most regions have a version of pasta e lenticchie and Lazio, more specifically Rome, is no exception. I’m reliably informed that the key to pasta e lenticchie Roman style is a serious battuto. Now battuto, which comes from the verb battere (to strike) describes the finely chopped rabble of ingredients produced by striking them on a chopping board with a knife. Like many Roman dishes the battuto for pasta e lenticchie is a mixture of guanciale, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley. Strike.

Having prepared your battuto you need to sauté it over a modest heat in a heavy based pan until the vegetables are extremely tender, golden and – with much of their water sautéed away – intensely flavoured. This is the soffritto. Some people like to add the battuto in stages: onion and guanciale first, carrot, celery and parsley a few minutes later and last, but by no means least, the delicate garlic. I don’t, I do however keep an eagle eye on the pan. Once the vegetables are soft and your kitchen is filled with the most tremendous heady scent, you add a couple of peeled plum tomatoes and let the contents of pan bubble a little longer. Now add the lentils – ideally the lovely browny-grey ones from Castelluccio di Norcia – nudge them round the pan so they are well coated with the fragrant fat. Next water, enough to cover the lentils by a couple of centimeters. Bring the soup to the boil and them reduce it to a trembling simmer – keeping a beady eye on the water level – for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Taste, season generously (remember you are going to add pasta) and taste again

To finish, you cook the pasta in the soup. The tiny tubes called ditalini are particularly nice. Bring the soup to a boil, making sure there are still a couple of centimeters of liquid above the lentils and tip in the pasta. Keep stirring attentively, nudging and adding more water if the soup becomes too thick or the pasta starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. Keep tasting too, lunch is ready when the pasta is tender but al dente and the soup is thick but eminently spoonable and rippling. Don’t be afraid to add a little more water, even just before serving! Just check the seasoning again.

Wait another five minutes or so for the flavours to settle. Serve your pasta e lenticchie with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a shower of freshly grated pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese. A tumbler of wine is advisable too – this is good – after all I’m not back at work until Thursday.

This is one of the most deeply satisfying bowls of food I know!  A judicious, delicious and auspicious one too. Also for someone like me, someone who lacks bean foresight and nearly always forgets to soak, lentils – which don’t require a long bath – are a precious kitchen staple.  As a guanciale devotee, I relish its presence and the deep fatty notes it bestows on this dish. That said, pasta e lenticchie is (almost) as good when made with pancetta or very fatty bacon. It is also – hello Rosie and my vegetarian friends – excellent when made without any meat at all! Just remember to add a  large parmesan crust to the pan at the same time as the water.

Eat.

Pasta e Lenticchie Pasta with lentils

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 75 g guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon
  • a medium-sized onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a medium-sized carrot
  • a stalk or two of leafy parsley
  • a stalk of celery
  • salt
  • 4 plum tomatoes (either fresh or tinned)
  • 300 g small brown/grey lentils
  • 350 g short tubular pasta
  • black pepper
  • parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil for serving

Very finely chop the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon. Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot, parsley and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then add the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon, diced vegetables and a pinch of salt. Saute the ingredients, stirring and turning them regularly, until they are very soft and golden which should take about 15 minutes.

If you are using fresh tomatoes peel them, cut them in half, scoop away most of the seeds and then chop them roughly. If you are using tinned plum tomatoes simply chop them roughly. Add the tomatoes to the pan, stir to coat them well and then cook for another few minutes.

Add the lentils to the pan, turning them two or three times to coat them well. Add enough water to cover the lentils by a couple of cm’s. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil and the reduce the heat so the lentils and vegetables simmer gently, stirring every now and then for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Make sure the level of water is always more or less  a couple of cm above the lentils, replenish with as much water as needed.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taste and season again if necessary. Add the pasta and raise the heat so the lentils and pasta boil gently. Keep stirring attentively as the pasta will stick to the base of the pan. Add more water if necessary. Once the pasta is cooked (tender but still with a slight bite) remove from the heat and let the pan sit for 5 minutes.

Serve with a little extra virgin olive oil poured on top and pass around a bowl of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano for those who wish.

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Filed under food, lentils, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, soup

Just right.

Things have shifted. I’m not talking about the big things, even though they too seem to be shuffling, extremely slowly into a different, more comfortable sort of order. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday things: the daily routine with my little boy, the state of my flat, my waxing and plucking (it was out of control) my writing here, my reading, my teaching and life in my small, oddly shaped Roman kitchen.

Unexpectedly, after a period of swatting days and meals away like flies and after a summer of feeling cross and impatient with my kitchen, my food and myself, I seem to have found a new rhythm. A nice, uncharacteristically steady (and slightly jaunty) rhythm.  I’m also managing better: the shopping, the fridge, the planning of meals, the process of cooking itself. I’ve stopped worrying about making something clever and out of character to write about here and focused instead on what suits me (and Luca) now, in September, in Rome. I’ve returned to habits that had slipped away, making do, making stock, making double, making triple (tomato sauce), of soaking beans, big bags of them, which means the base and a head start of two, three, maybe even four meals. I’ve been – for once – using my loaf.

So with another wedge of three-day-old-bread on the counter, ricotta salata in the fridge, tomato season sprinting to the finish line and with me bobbing along to this new, unexpected rhythm, there was no debate. No debate as to which recipe to make from Luisa’s book, the first book I have properly buried my head in and inhaled since Luca was born a year ago. It would be Tomato Bread Soup.

But before I talk about Luisa’s Tomato bread soup and the moment ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft’  I’d like to talk a little about her book, a memoir with recipes, My Berlin Kitchen.

Having followed her blog The Wednesday Chef for five years, I already knew Luisa was a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was a skilled and engaging recipe writer – she was of course a cookbook editor. I also knew she was charming, funny and generous – she was one of the first to give my blog a deep nod of approval. I had high hopes and hefty expectations. I was even a little nervous as I ripped open the grey bag from Viking press, smoothed the slightly matt cover, admired the boots and thought ‘I’ve got a bag like that‘ and opened the first inky smelling page.

It’s delicious. It’s a beautiful and intelligently written account of a young woman’s life so far. A life that weaves and navigates its way between three cultures: German, American and Italian. A life in which this necessary but often baffling weaving is understood and managed through food, through nourishing others and being nourished. It’s evocative writing that seizes all your senses: taste, smell, touch, sound and sight, but writing that manages to remain as sharp as a redcurrant, pertinent and never cloying. I particularly liked reading about Luisa’s early childhood in West Berlin in the late 1970’s. Fascinating stuff, especially when Luisa teetered on the edge of something much darker. I’d like to learn more. I loved reading about Luisa’s Italian family and her food education, an enlightenment of sorts, a process that resonated strongly with me and my own experiences here in Italy. I’m itching to visit Berlin now, next spring I think. I’ll hire a bike and pedal my way around the city before finding myself some pickled herrings, potato salad and plum-cake.

Then there are the recipes, of which there are more than 44, fitting neatly and beautifully into the narrative. Which of course is the point, a memoir with food! Food and recipes that help you understand and taste a life. Terrific stuff. And so to the recipe I had no difficulty in choosing, an Italian one on page 82, one of the simplest, one of Luisa’s favorites and one of mine too: Tomato and Bread Soup or Pappa al pomodoro.

Pappa means , quite literally, mush and pomodoro, as you know, tomato. Mush of tomatoes. Stay with me. Pappa al pomodoro is classic Italian comfort food, born out of necessity, thrift and good taste. Excellent tomatoes are cooked with a fearless quantity of extra virgin olive oil,  plump garlic and a hefty pinch of salt until they are soft and pulpy. Cubed stale bread from a coarse country loaf is then added to the pan and everything cooked for another 10 minutes. This is moment Luisa captures so well, the moment when ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft.’  The pan is then left to cool – as we know good things come to those who wait – and the flavors mellow. The Pappa al pomodoro is then served with grated ricotta salata and torn basil. Delicious and exquisite, a little like Luisa and her book which was released this week. Thank you for sending me a copy Vikings and tanti auguri to you Luisa.

Now I would happily eat pappa al pomodoro twice a week, every week, especially if every now and then it was topped with a lacy edged fried egg or quivering poached one. I can’t of course, eat it every week, what with it being such a strictly seasonal panful. Of course it’s this seasonality that makes Pappa al pomodoro even more of a pleasure, a treat.  Make it now while tomaotes are still in fine form.

Luca has never eaten so much lunch in his year-long life. Viva la pappa (thanks Jo.)

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Serves 2 hungry people. It could serve 4 at a push but who wants to push!

  • 3 llbs / 1.5 kg fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cubed, crustless sourdough or peasant bread
  • 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh basil leaves

Core and quarter the plum tomatoes. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor and pulse a few times to chop them coarsely, you don’t want tomato puree.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart / 4 litre saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, Add the tomatoes and their juices. season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

When the soup has simmered for 45 minute, add the cubed bread and simmer for another 10 minutes, Check seasoning and discard the garlic.

Serve slightly cooled or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn over each serving.

My notes.

I didn’t measure my oil but it was a mighty glug, I’d say about 5 tbsp. My tomatoes, a variety called Piccadilly had particularly thick skins so I peeled them. I don’t have a food processor so I chopped the tomatoes roughly by hand which seemed to work pretty well. I didn’t add onion. I left the garlic in the soup until I served it. My soup was fanatically thick by the end of cooking so I added a little water to loosen everything. I forgot the basil, there was something missing.

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Filed under Book review, books, bread, food, soup, summer food, The Wednesday Chef, tomatoes, vegetables

Soup baby

In January last year, two important things happened. Firstly I discovered I was pregnant and secondly, I began spending my Sundays with Mona.

I’d first met Mona a couple of years before. My friend and marvelous ice cream maker Kitty was doing an internship at the American Academy where Mona, guided by Alice Waters, had established the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program dedicated to slow food principles and to providing local, organic and sustainable meals for the community at the Academy. Kitty invited me for dinner and I, of course, accepted.

That first meal at the Academy made striking and lasting impression. Firstly because of the place, The Academy itself, whose arresting buildings with their courtyards, fountains and gracefully maintained gardens sit proudly atop the Janiculum Hill. Buildings and gardens I had passed curiously every week on my way to teach at the elementary school. Then there were the people, Academy fellows, scholars, artists and other clever looking folk with their families and guests all sitting round communal tables in the dining room. At first glance it appeared one of the more intimidating gatherings of my life – the kind in which I usually transform into walking social gaffe, develop a speech impediment, facial rash and fall over –  but in reality it was one of the nicest. And then of course their was the food. We ate Spaghetti with fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, roast pork with carrots and turnips, a green salad, and for dessert, panna cotta with a ruby colored grape syrup and little biscuits. Food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of the cooks and interns in the Academy kitchen, it was – as the project intended – seasonal, simple, elegant, delicious, and nourishing.

Kitty’s tales of life at the Academy, the RSFP project and the extraordinary Mona had already engaged me. By end of the dinner, deliciously sated and both blithe and bold from the copious red wine and a very nice herby Amaro at the Academy bar, I was convinced: I would apply for a 3 month internship. My speech impediment and facial rash threatened to flare as I thanked and made rather clumsy compliments to Mona before jumping on my bike and careering down Via Garibaldi contemplating roast pork, panna cotta, cooking and arriving home in record red wine speed

Talking of bikes, over the next couple of years I’d often see Mona flying fearlessly, joyously and perilously around the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere on her black bike. On each occasion I’d try, and fail, to flag her down and then I’d renew my vows to apply for the internship.  It took a return visit from Kitty to put an end to my procrastination and convince me to get in touch with Mona. Which I did. We met at one of the long tables set in the courtyard of the Academy and we talked about Rome, food, our mutual love of cicoria, Elizabeth David and writing. We talked about the RSFP and she promised she’d keep me in mind.

True to her word, she did, and a month or so later Mona sent me an E mail telling me that she was about to start work on the second book of recipes (the first is Biscotti) from The Academy kitchen. This one was to be about soup. She asked if I might be interested in helping her – an internship of sorts – with the initial stages of the book, assisting her while she tested recipes, started to put into words 50 of the RSFP soups and complied a comprehensive glossary. I, of course accepted.

Every Sunday morning I’d walk – and as the months passed waddle – up the winding Ginaicolo hill to the Academy, crunch my way across the gravel courtyard and enter the backdoor of the Academy kitchen. Mona was usually tapping quietly away at her laptop which she’d set up in front of the window overlooking the bass garden over when I arrived, already deep in soup thought and planning the days recipes. Some stock might be bubbling in anticipation on the stove, there were often bowls of beans or chickpeas that had been soaking patiently all night, and there were always crates of Bernabei’s glorious, vital vegetables waiting for attention. First we’d have coffee, maybe some moreishly good granola, then I’d take Mona’s place in front of the computer and she would begin making soup.

Let’s start with the Minestra di pomodoro e riso’ she would call across the kitchen.

Make a note of the ingredients, three medium yellow onions, two stalks of celery. Cut the onions and celery into small dice. Oh and maybe we should make a note for the glossary about soffritto.’

Then the sound of Mona’s neat rhythmic chopping and my rather less rhythmic, two-fingered, cack-handed typing. And so we worked, Mona cooking, me typing and sending recipes off to Mary-Pat or Lizzie for testing, stopping every now and then to watch closer, peer into a pan, pod peas or wash spinach. And then of course there was the tasting, for which we were often joined by an intern or Academy fellow irresistably called to the kitchen, the heart of the Academy. And so we’d sit, side by side, knees tucked under the work bench, looking out of the window, tasting, pondering, criticizing, praising bowl after bowl of soup.

And then there was the talking. While the soup bubbled we talked and talked. We talked about soup, about living in Rome, about cicoria, ceci and cotiche, we talked about my growing concern. You see Mona was one of the first people I told and she endured more pregnancy ruminating than is healthy. She is still, to this day, the person knows more about the whole complicated, messy but joyous situation than the rest of my friends put together and the person who sustained me most with her quiet sane wisdom. She also fed me and my growing soup baby, not only on Sundays but for much of the following week by sending me clattering and clinking back down the hill with vast mason jars filled with soup, bundles of biscotti and hunks of lariano bread.

A copy of Zuppe arrived in the post month, and as I’d hoped it’s – as I’d expected from Mona, Annie, Niki and the RSFP – a brilliant and perfectly formed little book; inspiring and straightforward, a book of quiet good taste. 50 recipes for soup from the Academy kitchen, the soups that are served from the large glazed terracotta zupppiera each lunchtime, soups inspired by the bold Roman cuisine, Bernabei’s vegetables, the spirit of Chez Panisse and the Academy community. For me they are the best kind of recipes, inviting and approachable, neither technique driven or complicated, recipes as good, honest and tasty as a bowl of Pasta e ceci on a blowy Tuesday in January.

I have many favorite recipes from the book: Pasta e ceci and Pasta e fagioli of course, Favata (dried fava bean and proscuitto soup), Passato di sedano rape (celery root soup), Minestra di lenticche riso e cicoria (lentil, rice and chicory soup) , Minestra piccante di carote (spicy carrot soup), Ribollita (twice boiled Tuscan bread soup), Zuppa di piselli e patate novelle (pea and new potato soup). But in the spirit of the RSFP, where each morning the interns begin their day by taking a thorough inventory of the fridge which informs the days lunch, I took an inventory of my own fridge and discovered that it not only needed taking in hand and giving a bloody good clean but contained all the ingredients for another of my favourites,  Zuppa di palate, cavolo verza and pancetta (potato, cabbage and bacon soup).

This was one of the soups Mona made on our first Soup Sunday. Even though I never doubted I would like it – a kind of soupy colcannon with possibly the worlds best flavoring; bacon – I remember being surprised at quite how delicious it was. It’s a simple and tasty soup, both savory and sweet from the onion and carrot, deeply flavored with bacon and bay leaves, given body by the collapsing potatoes and serious leafy depth from the limp and lovely cabbage. Given some nice bread and a lump of cheese I would happily eat this once a week for lunch.

It is – like most of the recipes in the  book – simple to make. You soften carrot and onion in olive oil and then add the pancetta (bacon) and continue coking until it has rendered its tasty fat. Next you add potatoes, bay leaves and water and cook until the potatoes are tender, Finally you add what seems like a mountain of cabbage and simmer for another fifteen minutes or so, or until the is cabbage too is tender. You season and serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and black pepper. .

The soup has a slightly Dickensian pottage look to it, a frugal simplicity that you might be tempted to tart up by adding stock, blending or adding and swirling. Don’t, the soup is prefect as it is, tasting as it should of potato, cabbage and bacon.  As always with such a simple soup, good ingredients that taste vitally as they should are fundamental.

Zuppa di patate, cavolo verza e pancetta

Potato, cabbage and bacon soup

From Zuppe by Mona Talbott

Serves 4 – 6

  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 75g / 3 oz pancetta
  • 30 ml / 1 fl oz olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g / 1 1/2 lb starchy potatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • small white or savoy cabbage
  • extra virgin olive oil and black pepper to serve

Peel and cut the carrots and onion  into small dice. Cut the pancetta into 1 cm /1/2 inch tiles.

Sweat the vegetables and pancetta in olive oil over a medium-low heat in a 6 litre /6 quart pot. Add a pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the pancetta has rendered it’s fat.

Peel and dice the potatoes into 2 cm/1 inch cubes. Add the potatoes and bay leaves to the cooked vegetables and stir well, coating the potatoes with the rendered fat. Add 2 litres/ 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil dn then reduce to  simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and then cut first in half and then into strips and finally 2 cm / 1 inch squares. Add the cabbage, a generous pinch off salt and another 0.5 litres / 0.5 quarts of water to he pot. Simmer for another 15 minutes or unit the cabbage is tender.

Remove the bay leaves, taste, re-season if necessary and serve with  drizzle of olive oil and a grind of black pepper.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, soup, vegetables