Category Archives: spring recipes

tease out

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Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies. 

They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever - I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.

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With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.

Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion;  a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.

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I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.

Vignarola – spring vegetable stew

serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish

  • a bunch of spring onions
  • 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
  • a kilogram of peas in their pods
  • a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
  • water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed

Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.

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Filed under artichokes, Beans and pulses, fanfare, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

well-framed

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We’ve driven out of Rome on three half-day trips this week; along the ancient Appia Antica to the hills, to the sea and to a town called Campagnano, small escapes providing space and an outside view. I remember a Drama tutor once asking how on earth can you comprehend what is on top of you, I think this is especially true of Rome and writing a book, both of which can loom so large and feel so claustrophobic that you need to take a step back to have any sort of perspective. Three trips meant three lunches.

One lunch was no more than fine, the other two though, well they seemed sent to remind my lately cynical self of the unique brilliance of Italian food and wine and the kaleidoscopic connection with place, history and tradition that can pass nonchalantly through a meal. I am still thinking about an antipasto of pear dipped in polenta and then deep-fried until golden and served with a dusting of pecorino cheese, abbacchio brodettato, lamb with egg and lemon sauce, and a dish of salt cod, tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, all three of which may well sound unlikely, but were superb.

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I’ve written about peperonata before and I will probably write about it again. It will also be in the book, with a hilarious (or not so hilarious) story to justify its place. It is a recipe that falls into my extremely useful and delicious category. I first made it fifteen years, transported by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and a scarlet stew to Italy long before I moved here, I have made it constantly ever since. So many things about peperonata are good. It is simple and relatively quick to make: onions, red peppers, tomatoes smothered and simmered in olive and butter into a thick, vivid, full- flavored stew that is at once silky, sweet and savory. It is forgiving, proportions can be varied, tomatoes fresh or tinned. It’s generous, bringing the best out in peppers and tomatoes, even the underprivileged sort, making them the tastiest they can be.  It keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and it freezes well. Peperonata is also, like my friend Tom, the most accommodating dish ever, it quite simply goes with everything.

It is excellent served hot with chicken, pork, lamb, beef and my favorite, topped with a  poached egg. It can be stirred into pasta or rice. It’s jammy almost chutney-like-nature makes it good in sandwiches, on toast or crostini. It is lovely as a salad or part of an antipasto like supper, sprinkled with parsley or dotted with black olives. It good too – as I discovered a couple of days ago – made into tart.

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I make the pastry ridiculously quickly – 120 g plain four, 50 g cold diced butter, salt, a little grated parmesan, iced water - and rolled it thinly, lifted it into the tin, pricked it and then sat the tin in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill. I then baked it until it was the colour of a walnut, before spooning in the peperonata and sliding it back in the oven for 5 minutes. I’m not sure this was entirely necessary.

For a moment I felt as though I had inherited my mum and granny Alice’s knack for pastry: a thin, buttery crust, slightly crumbly at the edges but holding firm underneath. The parmesan was a random impulse that works well, giving the pastry a sharp, salty edge. It is important your peperonata is (as Jane Grigson puts it) moistly juicy, even a little dry, never sloppy. We had the tart – the peperonata framed neatly by the pastry – with thinly sliced fennel with olive oil and salt, a lunch that made me nearly as happy as slamming shut those books.

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Peperonata tart

Note – this makes enough peperonata for two 21 – 24 cm tarts – you can never have too much peperonata. You can of course use fresh tomatoes. I’d make double if I were you.

  • a large white or yellow onion
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 3 large red peppers
  • a tin of tinned plum tomatoes or 6 good ripe tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped
  • salt and black pepper
  • 120 g plain flour
  • 50 g butter
  • 20 g freshly grated parmesan
  • salt and black pepper
  • cold water
  • You need at 21 cm – 24 cm tart or flan tin (ideally with a loose base)

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into short strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith. Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes. Lift the lid once or twice to stir.

Add the tomatoes to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich, thick, vivid tomato stew. It should be not be sloppy.  Season vigorously with salt.

Rub the diced butter into the flour with your fingertips until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add the parmesan, a pinch of salt, some black pepper and enough iced water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth ball. On a lightly floured board roll the pastry into a round an inch larger than the tin. Lift the dough carefully into the tin, press it into the corners. Leave the pastry overhang. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and then put it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

Bake the pastry case blind for 15 minutes (or until it is pale gold and firm) at 180°. You can break off the pastry overhang or leave it be. Fill the tart case with peperonata and then return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature with salad.

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Filed under peppers, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes, tarts, Uncategorized

vital signs

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It was the wrong way round. I’d begin with a recipe. Then clinging onto my list and intent, I’d go to the shops. Other things might be bought – an irresistible this, an eye-catching if unnecessary that – but the focus was the list. Setbacks would merely reinforce my resolve and the lines on my forehead. ‘No spinach!’ ‘ No lamb chops!’ ‘No organic lemongrass!’ ‘No prepared pomegranate seeds for my meze’ I’d gasp before tearing around the shops as if my life (or lunch) depended on it, until I found the vital ingredient.

These days I begin at the market. There will probably be an idea or recipe drifting around, but nothing too specific and certainly no list. Well apart from the basic supplies, usually written on the torn lip of a bank statement envelope: washing powder, pan scrub, tea bags, plain flour, even plainer biscuits. A shabby list I retrieve from the bottom of my bag a few days later – along with half a lollypop, four stones, a topless lip salve, a car and an ounce of cracker crumbs – still with nothing to cross off.

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I haven’t got time to wander aimlessly around the market like you’ said an acquaintance. ‘I’m so busy that I have to make lists! I have to shop once a week.’ I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer. We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter. The market matters to me. So I go most days, before or after work, in-between naps. I make detours and excuses in order to spend time – some days just minutes, other days just ages – looking and then buying what looks good. In the words of brilliant Simon Hopkinson ‘See good things, buy them. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have glass of wine. Cook the food and eat with more of the wine.’

At this time of year, the two Testaccio markets (as I’ve noted before we are not talking about two quaint Mediterranean idylls here, but ordinary, straightforward and good places to buy food) are the best source of inspiration  The splatters have spread like ink on blotting paper and now both markets are awash with red! Half a dozen types of tomato, cherries and berries, mottled red and white borlotti and pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush. On Monday I bought five peppers and a kilo of small tomatoes, each plum ending in a point which made it seem as if it was wearing an elfin hat. I came home. I pulled Jane Grigson from the bookshelf. I had a glass of wine. I made peperonata.

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Peperonata is red peppers, onion and tomatoes stewed in olive oil and butter until they soften, collapse and thicken into a rich, vivid stew. It is one of the simplest and most delicious vegetable dishes I know.

There is a moment of stove top alchemy when you make peperonata. It’s when – having softened the sliced onion in butter and oil – you add the sliced red peppers and cover the pan. In just a matter of minutes the crisp, taut slices of pepper surrender their abundant juices and then proceed swim and soften in their own juices: a deep pool of cardinal red stock. After about 15 minutes you uncover the pan and add the peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes which also relinquish their juices. You let the peperonata cook uncovered for 30 minutes or so, simmering and reducing until almost all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with thick, vivid and vital stew. To finish, you season the stew vigorously with salt, pepper and even a little vinegar if you wish to sharpen things up a little.

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Pepornata: thick, rich, silken and tasting of somewhere warm and brilliant, is delicious served warm with chicken, veal or fish. It makes a good bed for an egg: fried, poached or soft-boiled, the yolk spilling into the red stew and making your plate look like a desert sunrise. I like peperonata as part of an antipasti style lunch slithering seductively beside soft, sharp cheese, lean, pink lonzino and a few salty black olives. It is also nice stirred into pasta. It keeps well so make plenty and then spoon some into a clean jar and float enough olive oil on the surface to seal the contents.

Peperonata  Sweet pepper and tomato stew

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s recipe in her Vegetable book and Elizabeth David’s recipe in Mediterranean Food

  • a large white onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • a knob of butter
  • 5 large or 8 medium-sized red peppers
  • 6 good ripe tomatoes (or two dozen tiny plum ones)
  • salt

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith.

Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes.

Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich. vivid tomato stew. Season vigorously with salt, possibly black pepper and even a dash of vinegar if you see fit.

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Filed under antipasti, food, peppers, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, summer food, vegetables

On avoiding and cherries

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At eight years old I thought the height of sophistication was a Snowball in a champagne saucer topped with a cocktail cherry. I’d sit up at the bar sipping my frothy yellow drink, my feet swinging limply from the high stool, my shoulders twitching in time with the jukebox. I knew full well my cocktail had barely a wiff of alcohol – just enough Advocaat to tinge the lemonade pale-yolk-yellow – that I’d be whisked off to bed just as soon as the pub got busy. But that didn’t bridle my joy at sitting up at the bar, Snowball in one hand, cheese and onion crisp in the other listening to the Kinks.

My granny ran a pub on Durham street in Oldham called the Gardeners Arms, a traditional free house serving Robinson’s ale, bitter and stout. It was an almost handsome, heavy-set place, with patterned carpets, brass topped tables and a curved wooden bar. Two or three times a year we’d surge – my parents and three small children – up the M1 motorway to Oldham. Arriving late, besieged by over-tiredness and over-excitement, there was invariably whining and weeping. So my dad would scoop us out of the car, whisk us through the bar, up the stairs and straight into bed above the pub. We’d resist sleep with all our might, before falling deeply, the faint pulse of the jukebox below, the smell of clean sheets not quite masking that of park drive cigarettes, Robinson’s bitter and my grannies Lancôme face cream faint on our just kissed cheeks.

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The next morning we’d charge down the stairs. The air thick with Brasso and the howl of the Hoover, my aunty May and granny – all slippers and house coats – would already be hard at work. While barrels of beer rolled off the brewery lorry, down the hatch and into the beer cellar, and crates of stout and Schweppes were brought clinking-in to replenish the shelves, we’d eat bacon butties with Uncle Colin. Thick slices of white cottage loaf and best back bacon. The trick was to squash the sandwich between both palms to make it manageable. Then we’d run, like excited terriers, around the pub, brandishing pool cues, pestering for jukebox coins.

In the days before continual everything, English pubs would open for lunch and then from 7 until 11 20 with last orders at 11. When the Gardener’s Arms opened it’s doors at 11, my brother, sister and I would scramble up onto bar stools and pummel our fists, as thirsty regulars do, on the bar. Until the age of ten I thought anything in an individual bottle was exciting. Add a straw and it was even better. Add cocktail cherry on a stick and I was beside myself. So we would sit, Rosie with orange, Ben with Cola and me with my Schweppes ginger ale, our bottles spouting straws, umbrellas and sticks on which flourescent cherries were impaled. We’d slurp and crunch, we’d put another coin in the jukebox and sing along to songs we didn’t really understand.

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Although I’m still partial to a cocktail cherry or three – ideally the real thing but I’ll happily gobble a luminous one for old times sake – these days I prefer my cherries warm from my friends tree, straight from the brown paper bag on the way home from the market or chilled until they’re so cold and taut they burst between your teeth. Then once I’ve had my fill of cherries hand to mouth, I poach a few, soak a few in alcohol and make some jam.

Given the choice between boxes and jam, I’ll take the jam. I am also genetically opposed to moving house in an organised fashion. Rogue packing fueled by anxiety and too much caffeine is more my style. Also I’d run out of jam and was eating chestnut honey on toast. Which was fine for a day or two, but by the third day breakfast was disappointing, which isn’t a good start.

Satisfyingly simple jam. Having washed, stalked and stoned your cherries, you leave them to macerate with sugar and curls of lemon peel for a few hours. You then bring the fruit to the boil, skim away the purple tinged froth – that reminds me of my aunty May’s purple rinse, then lower the heat and leave the deep purple jam to bubble and burp quietly for just over an hour. Your jam is ready when it is thick, clinging to the back of the spoon and decidedly sticky. We had it for breakfast, on toast primed with almost white butter made with cream I really can’t afford. Dark, intensely cherry-sweet and lemon edged, we were not disappointed.

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Then seeking further avoidance, I made a cherry jam tart or Crostata di ciliegie. My granny Alice was not only a good landlady, one who kept an immaculate beer cellar and pulled a good pint while looking rather lovely, she was also a deft pastry maker. Cold hands, cold butter and iced water she would remind me. I can picture her cold, clean hands with neat well-scrubbed nails rubbing the diced butter into the flour, the fine breadcrumbs spilling back through her fingers into the bowl. I can also picture her behind the bar, making pint pulling seem effortless – which it isn’t – her hair set and secured with lacquer, her girlish smile.

Back to Rome and my avoidance tart. I put barely any sugar in my pastry yesterday knowing the jam was sweet enough. After leaving it to rest for an hour in the fridge, I rolled the pastry thinly and then manoeuvred it into my tin pie plate. Which again made think of Alice, and in turn my Mum, both fond of a tin pie plates. Having spooned the jam into the case I then crisscrossed the top with pastry strips. Egg yolk glue and a firm hand ensured sure they stayed in place even in the oven.

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A tart like this needs 35 minutes or so in the oven. You need to keep an eagle eye on it, especially during the last five minutes. You also need to let the tart rest for 30 minutes or so, longer if possible, so it settles and slices neatly. Some very cold, thick cream would have been nice, but we ate it just so, the buttery scantly sweetened pastry at that nice point between crisp and flaky (but not crumbly, I’m not a fan of crumbly when it come to pastry) and contrasting nicely with the sticky, sweet, lemon-edged cherry jam. It was even better this morning.

Now I think I have well and truly run this to the wall, I have to be out of here the day after tomorrow, I haven’t even collected enough boxes and my removal man has disappeared again. It’s ridiculous, even for me! I am not sure what’s going to happen about the internet, I didn’t fully understand what the operator was saying, but it sounded complicated. Which means I can’t be sure when I will next be here. I could do with a snowball or a pint, but I’ll make do with another piece of tart.

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Marmalata di ciliegie  Cherry Jam

Adapted from the Silver Spoon

The addition of lemon peel gives the cherry jam a sharp-lemon edge which is reminiscent of sour cherries. I love this, you may not, in which case omit the lemon peel and be frugal with the lemon juice.

Makes 2 jars.

  • 1.5 kg cherries, washed with stalks and stones removed.
  • 750 g fine sugar
  • a unwaxed lemon

Put the washed, stoned and stalked cherries in a heavy-based pan suitable for jam. Pare away five thick strips of lemon peel with as little pith as possible attached. Add the strips of lemon peel to the pan. Cover the fruit with sugar, stir and leave to sit in a cool place for 3 hours.

Squeeze the lemon juice over the cherries. Stir and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the jam is thick, coating the back of the spoon and of an even consistency. I also do a saucer test to see if the jam has set. That is: put a saucer in the freezer for a few minutes, then put a spoonful of jam on the cold saucer, wait a minute and then run your finger through the jam. If the jam wrinkles, remains in two parts and doesn’t run back into a single puddle it is set.

Ladle the jam into warm sterilized jam while still hot. Screw on lids immediately and then leave the jars to cool upside down which creates a seal.

Crostata di ciliegie  cherry tart

Adapted from the Silver Spoon and inspired by Emiko

  • 200 g plain flour
  • 100 g cold butter, cold and cut into 1 cm dice
  • 20 g icing sugar (optional)
  • 1 small egg
  • a glass of iced water acidulated with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
  • pot of cherry jam
  • 1 egg yolk for sticking egg white for glazing

You will need a shallow 20 cm flan tin or pie plate.

Put the flour and cold, diced butter in a large bowl, With cold hands, using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add sugar.

Beat the egg in a small bowl and add to the flour and butter breadcrumbs. Add the teaspoon of iced water. Using first a metal spoon and then your (cold) hands to bring the ingredients together into a smooth even dough. Add more iced water if nesseasry. Cover the dough with cling film and chill for at least an hour in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180°. Set aside a third of the pastry. Flour the work surface. Sprinkle the rolling-pin with flour. Roll the other two-thirds into a round just larger than the tin or pie plate. Use the rolling pint to lift the pastry over to the tin or plate. Leave a small overhang as the pastry will shrink. Spoon the jam into the pastry shell. Roll the remaining third of pastry out, then cut it into thick strips and criss-cross them across the tart painting the ends with egg yolk and pressing them firmly into the pastry case. Paint the criss-cross strips with egg white. Bake the tart for 30 – 40 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

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Filed under cherries, jams and preserves, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, tarts

Happy as leaves

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Last night I shook hands on a new flat. There is still Italian paperwork to puzzle over and a dotted line to sign (on), but a 3rd floor flat with a small kitchen balcony is more or less ours. We’re not moving far, 600 meters give or take a corner, from one side of Testaccio to the other, from the via Marmorata edge of the wedge to tree-lined via Galvani.

We will miss our calm, cavernous courtyard with its palm trees and blooming oleander, our olive-green door and kitchen window. However I’m pretty sure this missing will be appeased by the balcony and the flats judicious position. That is: a corner away from my preferred bar for breakfast and few long strides from Monte dei cocci and the new Testaccio market. There is also a forno within sniffing distance and another bar directly underneath our future flat that’s run by a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice Cooper. I am relieved, excited and as happy as these radish leaves.

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It is the inimitable Fergus Henderson that reminds us to seek out radishes with happy leaves. Pert, frisky leafage that reassures, that speaks of recent picking, thoughtful bundling and minimal travel. Having spotted both happy leaves and bright, unblemished bulbs at the market, I bought three bunches. My sling suspended son managed to tug a red bulb from the bunch lolling from the top of the shopping bag as we walked home. Delight was soon replaced by confusion and then measures taken. I walked the length of via Marmorata with pieces of radish suspended – like the old, unidentifiable christmas tree decorations you feel obliged to hang year after year – in my frizzy hair.

Having washed the radishes and their happy tufts in plenty of very cold water, I set two bunches aside for today’s recipe and put the third on a plate on the table. There was also butter – long enough from the fridge to be forgiving but not too long as to lose opaque resistance – the stone jar of malden salt and slices of sourdough bread. The idea is to butter the radish rather than the bread and then sprinkle it with salt. I also butter my bread, thickly, as if plastering a particularly potholed wall and then take alternate bites of buttered and salted radish, happy leaves and buttered bread. The combination of radish: crisp and clean, warm peppery leaves, good butter, tiny shards of salt and best bread is one to relish and excite the most languid of stomachs.

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With our San Bartolomeo chicken roasting and filling the flat with a familiar and reassuring smell, I separated the leaves from the bulbs of the two remaining bunches. As you might remember I roast my chicken according to Simon Hopkinson, that is a hot blast for twenty minutes or so, a slightly cooler roast for about an hour and then a rest in the cooling oven with the door open-a-jar for 20 minutes. When I have radishes – after the roast but before the rest – I tip and scrape some of the sticky juices and fat from the chicken roasting pan into a frying pan.

Then while the chicken rests, I fry the radish bulbs the hot, sticky fat for about five minutes, in which time their colour changes from that of an old English telephone box to that of a climbing rose: the most lovely blushing pink.  I then add the happy leaves to the hot pan along with a pinch of salt, a grind or two of black pepper and pull the pan from the heat. A gentle stir and the leaves wither and wane in the residual heat and settle in the tasty, fatty juices.

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I carve my chicken in the roasting tin. In truth, it’s more pulling and tearing than carving, then remembering to roll each piece in the juices collected at the bottom of the pan before putting it on the plate. A round white plate. I am resolute about this and remain unswayed by any patterned or pretty plate propaganda. Braised radishes, still crisp but with a hint of giving, make a perfect fresh and sharp foil for a roasted bird wether it be duck, goose or an excellent chicken. Particularly Duck.

Not only are the withered leaves: peppery and sodden with rich meaty juices wonderfully tasty, they provide what Fergus Henderson calls structural weave, a tangled green bedpreventing your blushing radishes from rolling all over the plate. Come to think of it, I could do with a little more structural weave in my life. Now bring in the boxes and let the packing commence.

Happy food.

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Braised radishes for with Roast Duck, goose or chicken

From the blooming brilliant Nose to tail eating by Fergus Hendserson

  • 3 bunches of radishes with happy leaves
  • juices from the roasting pan or duck, goose or good chicken or duck fat with a splash of chicken stock
  • sea salt and black pepper.

Wash the radishes in cold water. Remove the leaves from the bulbs.

Heat up your roasting juices or fat and stock and add the radish bulbs. Allow the bulbs to sizzle vivaciously, stirring attentively. After about five minutes the bulbs will have turned from red to blushing pink orbs, still crisp but with a hint of giving. Add the leaves and then remove the pan from the heat.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and stir allowing the leave to wilt in the residual heat. Serve with slices of duck, goose or chicken making sure you spoon over the juices from both the meat and the radishes.

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Filed under antipasti, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, radishes, recipes, spring recipes

The same but different

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I feel lucky to have both: Italy and England, Rome and London. Of course there is the missing, the often exasperating toing and froing, the grass is greener and bouts of in-between when I’m not sure where I belong. But mostly I feel lucky and glad to have two countries, two cities and that in different ways I belong to both.

The day before I left I had my first Roman asparagus, long thin sprue, finer than a pencil, part boiled-part steamed under a tea towel turban until tender enough to bend but not flop with olive oil, lemon and parchment thin slivers of pecorino that swooned and wilted in the presence of such splendid warm spears. Then today, back at my parents house just outside London, I had my first English asparagus.

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As you can see they are plumpish spears, which needed just a little whittling with a peeler to remove the not-too-woody tougher end. We steamed them, sitting on a nifty implement that looks rather like a perforated metallic flower, in Mum’s largest lidded sauté pan. I tried and failed abysmally to make hollandaise sauce, so we settled for melted butter instead.

It was such a nice lunch: new potatoes: taut, waxy and flecked with snipped chives and tender asparagus spears – like sweet slightly sulphurous peas – fearlessly doused with melted butter. There were hard-boiled eggs too. Not too hard-boiled though, more like tender-boiled eggs and sourdough bread. There were things to celebrate so I had a glass of Hugel muscat. The same but different.

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Asparagus, new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and melted butter.

This is hardly a recipe, more an assembly. Serves 3 and a quarter (Luca)

  • 2 bunches of asparagus
  • 4 good eggs
  • 8 new potatoes
  • a very fat slice of best butter
  • chives
  • salt and pepper.

Prepare the asparagus by either breaking off the tough woody end or using a peeler to carefully whittle it away. Scrub and boil the new potatoes in well salted water until tender. Hard boil the eggs. Cook the asparagus until tender enough to bend but not flop. Melt the butter.

Dress the potatoes with melted butter and snipped chives and the asparagus with the remaining melted butter. Give everyone a hard-boiled egg to peel and remind them to roll the asparagus and potatoes in the puddle of melted butter as they serve themselves. Obviously white wine and good bread wouldn’t go amiss.

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I’m back in Rome on Sunday so hope to be back here with plumper post late next week.

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Filed under asparagus, Eggs, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes

Pod and pinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

serves 2

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

Make the pasta.

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

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

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

Make the sauce

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

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

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

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

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

Spring into lunch

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I feel like L.B Jefferies, sitting as I do, looking out of my rear window onto the courtyard. Lately I’ve been distracted by one window in particular. It starts early: rugs are beaten, sheets shaken and then throughout the day washing pegged, unpegged and pegged again on a line strung in a droopy grin from one window to the next. Yesterday two sets of curtains were washed and dried, as were three pairs of red slippers, a leopard-skin something and a tartan travel rug. As I write, slippers (still damp I imagine) have been pegged back out, various items shaken and some precarious window cleaning undertaken.

Unaccustomed as I am to spring cleaning (or cleaning in general for that matter, I’m a domestic disgrace) the activity across the courtyard almost propelled me into something yesterday. Then I remembered we’re moving in just over a month which will mean much shifting and sweeping. So much in fact, that I think I’m entitled to almost total domestic inertia until we bring in the boxes. By the way, I have no idea where we’re moving to, which is making me feel most peculiar.

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A year and a half ago I could well have sat, computer glowing with the suggestion of work, caffe in hand, worrying while watching out of my rear window for hours. I tried to do this the other day. It was all going well; caffe sipped and gaze fixed. Then my neglected eighteen month old son jolted me back into a noisy and messy reality that involved two pan lids and a family sized bottle of shampoo. I could have taken the soapy opportunity to do some sort of cleaning but didn’t. We went to the market instead.

Testaccio market has moved of course. The century old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations. We walk past the site of the old market – now bulldozed to the ground – on our way to the new market where neat rows of stalls sit subdued bearing neat piles of whatever. Not that this bright neatness has dissuaded us! If anything, we’re even more fiercely loyal to the displaced stall holders now they are at the mercy of a shiny but unfinished market, bureaucracy and ridiculous rents.

White and bright it may be, but Gianluca’s Stall was looking distinctly old-fashioned on Tuesday. A little more like it used to, piled high in an unruly manner as it was with the most glorious greens. Late April in Rome means an embarrassment of vegetable riches: peas and fave in their pods, grass like agretti, posies of broccoletti, rebellious spinach, wild and tame asparagus, wet garlic, spring onions. And of course the last of the tender-hearted warriors: artichokes, of which we bought three. A kilo of peas and fave both and a bunch of fat spring onions are we were set. For lunch that is.

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Vignarola is a stew of spring vegetables. A tender, tumbling dish of fresh peas, broad beans (fave), spring onions, artichokes and (possibly) soft lettuce. It is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. Made authentically, vignarola is an elusive dish, possible only for few weeks between April and May when there is overlap, a vegetable eclipse if you like, between the first tiny peas, fave and sweet bulbs and the last of the artichokes. Now is the time!

There is plenty of preparation: trimming of artichokes, podding of peas and fave, slicing of onion. But once the vegetables are sitting tamed and obedient in their bowls it’s all pretty straightforward. You fry the onion gently in olive oil. You add the artichoke wedges, a pinch of salt and stir until each wedge glistens with oil. Next a glass of wine for the pan (and another for the cook) before you cover the pan for 15 minutes or so. To finish, you add the peas and fave, stir and cover the pan for a few more minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the stew has come together into a moist, tumbling whole. Vignarola is best after a rest and served just warm.

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The flavours are wonderful together: artichokes tasting somewhere between best asparagus, the stem of steamed Calabrese broccoli and porcini, peas sweet and grassy, fave like buttered peas with a bitter afterthought and onions sweet and savory. But it’s the textures that really astound: the dense, velvety artichokes, the sweet explosion of pea, the smooth and waxy fave and the sly and slippery onion. Did I mention vignarola is one of my favourite things to eat?

We ate our vignarola with ricotta di pecora and bruschetta (that is toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with extra virgin olive oil) It was a good combination: the creamy, unmistakably sheepish cheese pairing well with the tender stew and the oily, garlic stroked toast.

The beauty of this dish is the cooking: part braise/part steamy simmer. The vegetables cook and roll round idly in their own juices meaning the flavours are kept as closely as guarded secrets, something Marcella Hazan calls smothered. It is – as you can probably imagine – impossible to give precise timings for vignarola as so much depends on your ingredients. Small tender artichokes may only need ten minutes, larger globes twenty. The tiniest peas may only need a minute or two, larger more mealy ones ten. Then there is the matter of taste! But isn’t there always? Do you want a brothy dish or something tumbling and moist? Adjust liquid accordingly. Do you like a lick of alcohol (I do) or would you prefer the pure taste of water?  Now I fear I have made it sound complicated! It isn’t. Best ingredients, instinct, lots of tasting and you can’t go wrong.

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I should note that a traditional Roman vignarola contains pancetta or guanciale and lettuce. I don’t generally add either but you might like to. Unless the fave are properly tender and tiny I remove their tough opaque jackets – I have noted this below – a faff I know, but a worthwhile faff. Have a glass of wine while you pop. Spring cooking in lieu of spring cleaning, Hurrah.

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, moist, tumbling whole.

Let the vignarola settle for a few minutes then serve just warm. It is also good at room temperature.

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Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, Roman food, spring recipes, vegetables

What a nice pair

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It was a good and unmistakably Roman start to the meal: crisp, bitter curls of puntarelle (chicory) dressed with olive oil, garlic and anchovy, braised globe artichokes and slices of toasted bread zigzagged with olive oil and strewn with salt. The serving dishes were large, the table long and narrow and a lackadaisical mother allowing her child to crawl everywhere, so a fair amount of passing, negotiating and cooperation was required.

Just when it seemed we’d all helped ourselves to everything, and the dishes had found places between the bottles and the bread, Alessandro (sporting his signature chef bandana) brought an almost whole wheel of pecorino romano to the table. My friend Mauro grinned and made it clear where the cheese should be deposited by drumming his fingers on the table before him. He then took the stumpy cheese knife, impaled it, hewed off a lump of pecorino and began eating. We were in Agustarello obviously.

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It took me a while to come around to pecorino romano, the ewes milk cheese so beloved of the Romans. It’s a distinctive and surly cheese: strong and with a semi-sharp almost muttony taste about it. If parmigiano reggiano is a smooth sophisticated type with a history of art degree and a flat in Kensington, then pecorino romano is a bit of a rogue with an accent as thick as treacle, superlative record collection and oodles of charm

Most pecorino romano is aged from 8 months to a year and then considered a grating cheese. Once grated, it’s launched liberally, lending its distinctive nature and a salty wink to some of Rome’s most prized dishes: pasta alla gricia, all’amatriciana, carbonara, angry arrabbiata, cacio e pepe and the aromatic trippa alla romana.

Some pecorino romano however, is eaten young, at around about five months – I believe semi-aged is the correct term  - which means it’s less pungent, that it’s softer and milder mannered and makes a good table cheese. A very good table cheese, especially with first fave, the first tender broad beans of the spring.

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It’s one of the nicest Roman rituals, one traditionally enjoyed during the symbolic trip to the countryside after winter. A big dish of broad beans still in their pods so that you may peel them yourself is served with a piece of young pecorino romano and a glass of local wine.

Of course fave demand attention! The long, fingerlike pods need to be split down the seam and then the tough opaque coats eased away from each bean before the bright green slivers, tasting somewhere between a buttered pea and asparagus can be eaten with a nub of cheese. Weather permitting we will enjoy this ritual on Monday – otherwise known as Pasquetta or little Easter – in Villa Celimontana. Come! Bring something for the picnic table, a bottle or two and suitable shoes for football. I won’t play football obviously, I’ll sit podding fave and drinking the wine you brought.

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Or – but hush and don’t tell the farmer – you could eat your pecorino romano with pear. But I probably don’t need to tell you that! You know perfectly well what good partners hard cheese and pears make ? How nicely the sweet, buttery, vinous character of pear marries with a hunk of sharp, salty pecorino? The pear should be ripe, but not too ripe! An elusive moment I know, but one well worth waiting for. At least I think so.

This week all my pears, that is the bowlful above and a bag full sitting under the counter, reached that elusive moment simultaneously. Having been almost comically enthusiastic, my son promptly decided he didn’t like chair and shouted every time I presented him with a slice, chunk or puree. Determined the pears shouldn’t suffer the all too common fate in this flat, that is deterioration into a soft, sleepy mush that ends up (shamefully) in the bin, I took charge.

There was pear and pecorino romano just so. A salad of thinly sliced fennel, pear and pecorino was good (the faint liquorice nip of the fennel working well with the sweet and sharp) and a pear and prosciutto sandwich excellent. Then, at the eleventh hour, as the remaining pears appeared to give me the same look my son gives me when I’m typing on the computer: that is hopeful but mournful and resigned to my neglect, I made chutney.

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Pear and date chutney. I’ve had this recipe in mind for weeks, ever since spying it on a new to me blog called Life in Abruzzo. I have a weakness for chutney, for rich, sweet and sharp concoctions to be smeared onto bread, spooned next to curry or nudged onto cheese, scotch egg, pressed potato or a fat wedge of potato frittata. This recipe is a good as it sounds: a dark, sticky muddle of pear (the chunks of which retain something of their shape and shine through the glass jar) and dates, with a nip of aniseed, a pinch of fragrant and feminine coriander and warm undertones from the teaspoon of pepperoncino. Yes please.

It’s pleasingly straightforward. You chop the pears and dates and then macerate them - or whatever the verb is – for an hour or so in cider vinegar and sugar. Seeds are fried in hot oil until they’re fragrant and your kitchen smells like somewhere else. Onion is added to the seeds and then once it’s soft and translucent you add the fruit et al, bring the chutney to the boil and then reduce it to a burping simmer for nearly an hour. You ladle your dark, sticky, spoon-coating chutney into scrupulously clean jars. I find boiling water and a warm oven does the trick but don’t tell the earnest canners that, they will have me up in front of the preserving judge before you can say not hermetically sealed. But really, around here chutney is kept in the fridge and eaten long before any unsavory types have time to even think about visiting, never mind moving in.

Pear and date chutney and pecorino romano, what a nice pair, and one that fits neatly into a Roman life with English undertones. Just perfect for a picnic (in the kitchen.) Have a good (and long) weekend.

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Pear and date chutney

Adapted from Sammy Dunham’s recipe in Life in Abruzzo which was in turn adapted from Lucinda’s recipe. With advice (as is so often the case) from Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Did I mention how much I like Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Two practical notes. Firstly, stir and scrape attentively during the simmering, chutney can be terrible sticker if left to its own devices. Secondly this chutney – like most chutneys –  is best when cooked to a moderate set: jammy and coating the back of the spoon, but still a little runny; if too thick and solid it will dry out. I halved the quantities suggested by Sammy. The recipe below makes three jars

  • 750 g pears
  • 250 g dates (ideally Medjool)
  • 325 g demerara or soft brown sugar
  • 250 ml cider or apple vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped pepperoncino or cayenne pepper
  • 50 ml olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • 1 scarse teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 large red or white onion (yielding about 300 g when diced)
  • salt and black pepper

Wash, core and chop the pears into small chunks. remove the stones from the dates and chop them roughly. In a large bowl mix the pear, dates, sugar, vinegar, and pepperoncino and mix thoroughly (hands are best). Leave to sit for an hour or so, stirring every so often.

In a heavy based pan, heat the oil and then add the seeds and fry (vigorously but not aggressively) for 30 seconds or so or until the seeds are fragrant. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, lower the heat and then saute the onion until it is soft and translucent.

Add the pear mixture, a pinch of salt a several grinds of black pepper to the pan. Stir, bring chutney to the boil and then reduce to a bubbling simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so scraping well round sides and bottom of pan.

The chutney is ready when it is dark, thickish, sticky and coating the back of the spoon.

Ladle the chutney into warm sterilized jars (I wash mine in boiling water and then sit them in a warm oven to dry.) Screw on lids and leave jars to cool. Store somewhere cool and dark. Ready to eat straight away, but better after a week and better still after three (according to Sammy.) Once opened, keeps in fridge for up to a month.

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Filed under cheese, chutney, dates, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Rome, Roman food, spring recipes

Layer upon layer

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

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

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

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

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

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

serves 6

for the pasta

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

for the artichoke layer

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

for the bèchamel sauce

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

For the ricotta layer

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

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

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

Eat layer upon layer.

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