Category Archives: summer food

bread, love and fantasy

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I wasn’t someone who fantasised about upping sticks and starting a new life somewhere else. Far from it in fact: there were dozens of things I wanted to change, but London wasn’t one of them. It suited me, I fit I’d think as I pounded its pavements, parks and up the left hand side of the escalator in Camden Town station, as I worshipped in its temples of art, books, music, theatre and beer. I grumbled of course, but then I grumble everywhere, only never for very long. There were bouts of wanderlust too. Nothing serious though and nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a nice, long holiday. From which I was always glad to get back, my faith and fancy for London renewed.

Then I upped sticks and started a new life in Rome. A long-short story I’ve told before and will probably tell again – more concisely – another time. Why I mention this today, is not to unravel anything, but because yesterday morning as I walked back home down Via Galvani, the market to my left, a two thousand-year old mound of broken terracotta pots to my right, bags cutting into the crook of my arm, the September sun searing my unmediterranean skin, unable to find the words in Italian to reprimand the man parking his car across the zebra crossing, I realised that Rome suits me, I fit.

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Which is surprising considering my reluctance at the start, the fact that Rome has made me acutely aware of other, outside and feel more English – which I can only describe as feeling straight only wonky – than I ever did in England, that I have struggled so inelegantly with language, culture and pasta cooking water. Or maybe it isn’t surprising, after all, there is love and work.

Love of Rome itself, glorious and grimy, particularly my wedge-shaped quarter Testaccio and the people in it. Of Roman food: bold, brash, genuine, simple, redolent of herbs, pulses, grains, pork, lamb, ricotta, olive oil, vegetables. A love for Luca – which I would have anywhere I know – that feels inextricably knotted with the city he was born in. Yesterday he swaggered along beside me, maritozzo (a sweet yeasted bun) in hand and cream on his face, looking as Roman as his papà, treading the pavement as if he owned it, which in a way he does. He is two this week. I am 41 next week, a number which seems to fit me too, in a comfortable, slightly crumpled way.

Then there is work, work I really like, as an English and theatre teacher, singing children’s books to life with my Brazilian guitar playing sidekick for a captive audience of five years olds. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist said Jack, let’s have a look in the patchwork sack? My former actress self would have shuddered, which says it all really, she was always getting her knickers in a twist. And now there is work that is muddled with love: writing a book with a British publishing house called Saltyard Books and a US one called Grand Central Publishing, a project so good and fitting it makes me want to open a bottle of wine, drink it all, dance on a table and then fall off.

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I have a nearly year to write the book, which is called Five Quarters, Recipes from a Roman kitchen. First and foremost it will be a recipe book, a distinctly Roman one, but one in which the recipes are woven together by stories, seasons, daily life, people, pictures and other pieces. In short it will be rather like my blog, only neater, with more rhyme and reason and edited by those who know how to use semicolons correctly and recognise when 800 words should be 400.

I plan to talk about the book here, not too much, but enough to make sense of what is happening in my life and more importantly in my kitchen. Keeping notes about the book here is also a way to include you all, after all you are as much a part of this book as the market, my butcher, my baker or my family. It is thanks to you all reading and cooking along that I am where I am now. I feel full of appreciation, thank you.

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And so the recipe,  panzanella, or bread salad, a Tuscan dish, but one also found on Roman tables, a dish it had taken me a while to understand. Which is slightly ridiculous considering how simple it is to make. My panzanella hesitation arose from my reluctance to acknowledge that panzanella is made from old bread dampened back to life with water. It was the dampening you see, the idea of wetting bread until soft and soggy then squeezing, it just seemed odd.

As so often the case I needed to watch someone else, something I am doing rather a lot these days. When I arrived at Jo’s house there were three or four hunks of old bread (excellent quality coarse country bread) sitting in a bowl of water, wallowing really. Once they were soft and soaked, she ripped the bread into rough pieces and then got me to squeeze away the excess water and then break the bread into soft crumbs in a large bowl.

Traditionally panzanella was little more than dampened bread, salt, oil, vinegar and fantasy, a dish born out of necessity and resourcefulness, something Romans were (and to a certain extent still are) very good at. If they were available, chopped tomatoes and their juices, ripped basil, cucumber, onion, olives or anchovy might be added to the unchanging foundation of damp bread, olive oil, salt and a sharpening douse of vinegar.

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Like Jo, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mild red onion and lots of ripped basil. I was generous with the olive oil and careful with the red wine vinegar (just enough to sharpen, not too much as to shock, which is obviously a matter of taste.)  I let the panzanella sit for an hour before serving, so the crumbs could soak up the flavours and then settle down again.

If like me you are used to rather more modern interpretations of panzanella, of bowls of toasted cubes, of garlic rubbed chunks, of pretty things with peaches, soft greens, and heirloom tomatoes, this might come as a bit of a surprise, being is it is a soft, sodden tumble, a damp salad more reminiscent of cous cous than bread, even though it is unmistakably bread.

However panzanella made this way makes more sense, it is also good, tasty, full and fitting for these last days of summer. Bread, love, fantasy, work, and lunch, what more could I want. A drink of course, make mine a prosecco.

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Panzanella   Bread salad

Jo’s recipe

serves 4 as lunch (with a chop or two) or six as part of an antipasti.

  • 6 thick slices of old (good quality) country bread. Sourdough works.
  • cold water
  • 6 ripe, flavoursome tomatoes
  • a small red onion
  • a small cucumber
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil as required
  • red wine vinegar

Put the slices of bread in a bowl, sprinkle generously with cold water and leave for 20 minutes.

Wash and small dice the tomatoes making sure to catch any juices. Peel and finely slice the red onion. Peel and dice the cucumber (cutting away the central seeds of you feel they are bitter.) Rip the basil leaves into small spices.

Using your hands tear and crumble the damp bread into rough crumbs and rags, squeezing it over the sink if it feel too damp. Put the bread back in the bowl. Add the chopped vegetables (and juices) to the bread. Sprinkle generously with salt, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar. Use your hands to mix and turn the salad. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Mix again and serve.

Notes.

Good bread is fundamental, coarse country bread or sourdough works well, bad bread will collapse into a gluey mess. It should be at least two days old, so firm, hard even. The way you wet the bread depends on how hard it is! Day old bread might only need a sprinkle – Vincenzo’s Nonna waved the slices under the tap, back and forth. Some people pour an inch of water into the bowl and then lay the slices in the water, like my child in a puddle. Really hard bread, might need a proper bath-like soak and then a blooming good squeeze, after all the salad should be damp but not wet. It is up to you if you rip the bread into rags or break it into crumbs. If you find the flavour of raw red onion too strong, soak the slices in a half water/half vinegar solution for 20 minutes before adding them to the salad, this will take away the onion punch but leave the savory- sweetness.

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Another note - I apologise if you are seeing an advert here, I had no idea, it is very annoying but the price you pay for an otherwise brilliant wordpress blog. I am getting them removed.

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Filed under antipasti, bread, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, salads, summer food, vegetables

give a fig

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We drove for miles – our faces tight with sea salt, our shoes full of sand – looking for figs. ‘This used to be marshland‘ I was told. ‘Uninhabitable and shrouded with mal aria (bad air) until Mussolini herded down thousand of workers from the north of Italy to bonificare or make good the land‘. Now the air smells of late summer, of sea and buffaloes. At least it did on Saturday as we scuttled along in the panda. ‘Buffalo, cow, mucca‘ Luca squealed as we passed another mudbath enclosure in which barely discernible black, horned creatures wallowed. Creatures whose rich morning milk would provide our supper, this is, after all, the land of mozzarella di Bufala. We flew past signs for Sabaudia, San Felice Circeo, Terracina; seaside towns punctuating the coast between Rome and Naples.

Figs.‘ An emergency foraging inversion was undertaken so we could pull up alongside the tree, and a fence. A woman lurking on the others side looked over, eyes narrow. ‘I thought the tree was on the road‘ I said as we pulled away. Then I ate my stolen fig, a drop of nectar at it’s eye, its flesh tasting somewhere between honey, sweet wine and ripe berries. ‘Buffalo’ said Luca. We drove some more, passing dozens of fig trees, their branches heavy with fruit, all behind fences of varying degrees of seriousness. More signs for Terracina, Sabaudia, San Felice Circeo, another field of wallowing buffaloes. It was all beginning to feel a little like dejavu. Which of course it was! We had been here before, fifteen minutes before. We were driving in circles. Maybe everyone was right, maybe I had imagined the roadside figs.

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Figs.’ This time there was no doubting the liberty of the tree. Nor its precarious position. Not that a bracken filled gully was about to stop me. I straddled the gap while wishing I was wearing trousers and had done some sort of stretching these last eight years. I grabbed a branch and tugged it down. Figs, dozens of them. Pause. Dozens of figs the size of grapes and as hard as acorns. At which point I let the branch ping upwards and admitted defeat. ‘I don’t understand, the trees in the gardens are full of ripe fruit!’ The stench of beast whipped through the car window and up our noses. ‘Buffalo’ said Luca. We pulled into a lay by farm shop-of-sorts, which rubbed salt into my failure. As she wrapped two trays of pale green figs and a bag of deep purple plums the woman told us it’s been a strange year for figs, what with the rain, which made me feel slightly better.

Half one tray was eaten on the way back to Rome, washed with bottled water out of the window while waiting in traffic just south of Pomezia. The other half was eaten the next day for lunch, with prosciutto, a superb combination of sweet and salty, soft and resistant. I started the second tray of figs at about 5 0 clock, with the last slice of prosciutto and a square of pizza bianca.

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Pizza bianca: a soft foccacia-like flat bread brushed with olive oil and strewn with salt that’s made in every breadshop, baker and pizza-by-the-slice establishment in the city, is an icon of Roman food so beloved by Romans it makes me jealous. At this time of year, when figs are ripe but sodi, vinous and sweet, Romans tear and tuck them along with a slice or two of prosciutto between the two ripped halves of pizza bianca. The salty prosciutto contrasts deliciously with the sweet, floral fig, the seeds grate gratifyingly against the smooth meat and get caught in your teeth, the pizza acts as slightly crisp, oiled and salted pillow enveloping everything. Tasty and good.

As is this tart, for which I used the last six figs. An almond and fig tart, a frangipane of sorts based on the River Cafe pear and almond tart on page 282 of the blue book I have been meaning to make for at least 15 years.

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Unlike my Granny Alice and Mum, I am not a natural pastry maker. I’m afraid you see, of puffing up and shrinking down, of cracked crusts and soggy bottoms. Especially soggy bottoms, as there has been quite enough of those these last two years. I like tarts though, and like is more powerful than fear. So with cold hands I rub cold butter into flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add some sugar – not too much as the filling will be sweet enough – then a whole egg and a yolk for good measure, bring everything together and then leave it to rest in the fridge.

Once the pastry is cold you roll it into a circle bigger than the tin - overlap is important – then maneuver it into the tin, patching and pressing as you go. Then you bake this scraggy-edged tart case, with or without baking beans (I prefer without, the sticking is another anxiety I’d rather avoid) until its pale gold or the colour of a rich tea biscuit. You can neaten the tart case if you like, by breaking off the scraggy edge, or you can leave it just so. Then you fill the tart case with a coarse ivory coloured-cream of ground almonds, butter, mascarpone, sugar and egg. To finish, you stud the cream with halved figs. The tart needs at least 45 minutes in a low oven. My tart was deeper than it should have been, so it took an  hour and five minutes at 160° for the filling to set into a soft, crumbling marzipan-like affair with a golden crust, and the figs to wrinkle into even sweeter, chewier things the colour of Chianti.

A damp, dense, richly flavored tart – figs and almonds have a nougat-like quality when combined – that manages to be both homely and exotic, here and there – wherever there may be. Even better the next day and mauybe even better the day after that. Serve in smallish slices with unsweetened espessso, black tea or a dry dessert wine.

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Fig and almond tart

Adapted from recipe for pear and almond tart in The River Cafe Cook Book.

For the tart shell

  • 250 g plain flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 125 g butter
  • 40 g icing sugar
  • 1 whole egg and one extra yolk

For the filling

  • 6 ripe figs
  • 125 g mascarpone cheese
  • 125 g butter
  • 200 g caster sugar
  • 200 g ground almonds
  • 2 whole eggs

Set the oven to 180° / 350 f. You need a 26cm / 10 inch tart tin. Loose bottomed is best (but not essential.)

In a large bowl rub the cold diced butter into the flour and pinch of salt with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, stir and then the egg and extra yolk. Bring the mixture together into a smooth, cohesive dough.  This can be done in a food processor. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill it for at least an hour

On a floured board roll the dough into a round at least an inch larger than your tin. Using the rolling-pin, maneuver the dough into the tin and then press it down carefully, patching any cracks. Leave the overhang. Bake blind for 20 minutes until very light brown. Reduce the oven to 160° / 300 f.

While the tart case cools a make the filling by mixing together the butter, mascarpone, sugar, almonds and eggs. Spoon this cream into the tart case, smooth it out a little with a fork and then stud the cream with fig halves – seeds to the sky.

Bake the tart for 45 – minutes to an hour or until  the filling has set firm and has a nice, golden crust and the figs are wrinkled and dark red.

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Filed under almonds, Eggs, figs, fruit, summer food, tarts, Uncategorized

a bit shallow

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I had plans to write about chicken cooked with rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and just enough red wine vinegar to sharpen nicely but not dominate. Then I was going to write about peaches, baked ones, a variation on these, the last of which is still sitting in the kitchen, slumped really in a pool of rose-coloured syrup, wrinkled and waiting for a heart-stopping blob of mascarpone. My next thought was beans. The white beans I soaked, simmered and then mixed while still warm with tuna and slivers of red onion last Friday. Another recipe I’ve written about before, but one that merits a few more words. No, no, I should buy figs, a whole crate of them, write a hilarious story about getting them home with a toddler and then take whimsical pictures of them in the dappled light of my kitchen. Better still, I should flipping forage. Forage purslane from the riverbank and between the cracks in the pavement near the slaughter-house then make something ancient and wild. I should, I could.

I feel a little like the weather; close, grumbling and liable to crack into a storm at any moment. As I write, the plane trees which usually strand to attention on either side of Via Galvani are swaying drunkenly from side to side. I can hear the rain hitting the iron griddle pan that’s balanced on the balcony wall – at least it’s getting a wash. My washing is outside. Maybe I should just tell you about the peaches, after all the pictures are lovely. No, I should have an espresso.  Wait, the rain has stopped, the sun is trying to come out, I should tell you about farinata.

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Farinata - a specially from Liguria and similar to Sicilian panelle and Tuscan cecina - is made from three things: chickpea flour, water and salt. After whisking the three ingredients together and letting them rest, you bake this sunshine-yellow batter in a shallow tin with plenty of oil until it’s firm, golden and slightly flaky on top. Once you’ve scored it and eased it out of the tin, it looks like a piece of fat, flaking pancake. You serve farinata dusted with good grind of black pepper or a spritz of lemon. It not only the nicest thing I have made all week, it’s the nicest and most surprising thing I have made for a while.

Chickpea flour is made from ground chickpeas so has the same, sweet, creamy, nutty flavor with a touch of bitterness about it that chickpeas have. Mixed with water into a worryingly thin batter, chickpea flour sets into the most lovely golden flatbread/pancake which when cut into endearingly floppy squares and given a dusting of black pepper and /or a squeeze of lemon juice is utterly delicious. If you like chickpeas that is. If not, may I suggest fiori di zucca.

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Delicious too, is how easy it is to make. Whisk, pour and bake. There is the rest for the batter of course, two hours at least, so this is no last-minute affair. As I have already mentioned the batter is disturbingly thin. The oil too is perplexing: the sheer quantity, the way it sits in golden bubbles in the batter. Don’t worry.

As is so often the case with Italian recipes, the baking time noted is q.b or quanto basta or how much is enough. Now I have never been good at judging how much is enough. On this occasion however, all was well with a guess and two investigative prods. In my cranky oven, in a shallow enamel baking tin, my batter took 30 minutes until settled and burnished. I’ve since read advice about non-stick pans and tins but I’m reluctant as I like the easing and scraping with wooden spatula, and I just adore the crispy, dark-gold bits that stick to the edges of the tin waiting to be chiseled away (privately) by the cook.

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Farinata – chickpea flatbread

Serves three or four as an antipasti. Also good as a main course with peperonata or green beans and tomatoes

Adapted from a recipe by Gianfranco Vissani 

  • 150 g chickpea flour
  • 450 ml water
  • salt
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper to serve

Using a balloon whisk mix together the chickpea flour, water and a good pinch of salt until you have a smooth batter. Allow the batter to rest at room temperature for two hours.

Preheat the oven to 180 ° / 350 F. Use a slotted spoon to skim away any froth that has risen to the surface and then whisk the batter again.

Pour the olive oil into a baking tray or dish. Tilt the dish so the base and sides are well coated with oil. Pour in the batter and then use a fork to distribute the oil into the batter. It will not incorporate entirely but look bubbly and a little like mottled paper.

Bake the batter for 20 – 30 minutes or until it is set firm and golden on top. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes before using a knife and spatula to ease it from the tin in squares or triangles. Grind over plenty of black pepper and eat immediately while still warm.

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Filed under antipasti, chickpea flour, food, odd posts, olive oil, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, summer food

agitate as necessary

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On Sunday we went for lunch on the other side of Rome. With the city seemingly empty of both Romans and tourists and every traffic light on our side, we flew from Testaccio to Piazza Bologna in record time in the invincible panda. We chuckled at the choice of parking spaces in an area notorious for none, before choosing the nearest and shadiest. We walked as briskly as is possible in nearly 40° both stopping short of the corner. Struck by the same thought in the same moment, our eyes conversed: it was August 18th, almost everyone was away, almost everything was closed, why hadn’t we thought to check?  We took the corner holding our breath until we saw the patchwork of plastic tables.

I knew we were going to a tavola calda - which literally means hot table – so I was expecting an informal, canteen-like place serving good (enough) food. I knew it was Sicilian, so I was expecting noise and good caponata. I wasn’t expecting ‘Mpare. My friend, a Sicilian, was immediately at ease. Me? Less so.

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Tavola calda in Rome are mostly spartan, functional places with white walls, glass-fronted counters, resistant glasses and even more resistant tables. ‘Mpare is the opposite. ‘This is what you call horror vacui or fear of the void‘ said the Sicilian as we entered the most elaborate tavola calda I’ve ever seen. Every wall, surface and corner was decorated with something tiled, embossed or Sicilian. Sorry, Catanese, I was reminded as we looked up at a golden mosaic of Catania’s patron saint Agata gazing down benevolently. Glass chandeliers chinked, cherubs winked, every chair was frocked, every shelf well-stocked and the three food counters a riot of colour where lines between sweet and savory were blurred. I turned to find my son up on a waiters’ shoulders eating a brioche. Everyone was shouting, apparently with a Sicilian accent. I was relieved to retreat to an outside table.

Peace was short-lived as I was joined by a significant proportion of Rome’s Sicilian community. The waiter with a jaunty black cap (now with my son over his shoulder fireman style) filled our table void with advert-heavy paper mats, orange envelopes full of cutlery, four tulip glasses, and menus as padded as Joan Collin’s shoulders in 1983. Another waiter, also with jaunty cap, whisked past with a plate of pasta con le sarde. ‘Due di quelle (two of those)’ we said in unison. ‘E per cominciare; una caponata, un arancino, e due birre.’

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The promise of pasta con le sarde was all I needed. An immoderate gulp of average beer (that was cold enough to be forgiven) and a forkful of caponata – a sweet and sour stew of celery, aubergine, tomato, pine nuts and on this occasion red pepper – and all was well. The tip of an arancino – a dome-shaped mound of risotto rice filed with ragu and sweet peas, dipped in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and then fried – and more beer and I was nearly as comfortable as the Sicilian. The pasta arrived;  a mound of spaghetti dressed with sardines, wild fennel, pine-nuts and toasted breadcrumbs, not the best I have ever eaten, but good, generous, full of flavour and just what I wanted.

Then to finish – not that we needed it – a glass of the simplest and nicest of icy treats: Sicilian granita. Which is best described a slightly slushy, grainy mass of sweetened, flavoured water, frozen and crushed to produce something between a drink and water ice. ‘What flavor shall we have‘ I asked. The reply was accompanied by a raised eyebrow that reminded me there is only one flavour to choose at a Catanese tavola calda under the watchful eye of Sant’Agata: mandorle. Which was a pure white, soft, granular, slush of frozen almond milk. Not entirely natural I’m sure, and probably too sweet, but still a glass of milky kindness if ever there was one. Due caffè, a reasonable bill (which took rather a long time to come,) a nod to Sant’Agata and we jumped back in the panda and flew.

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Which brings us – tenuously – to today’s recipe. Well not that tenuously if you consider that on Sunday I would have liked the granita al melone as well. I have been preoccupied with iced treats lately, mostly those of the grated-ice-drenched-with-fruit-syrup-sort from the kiosk the corner of my street. I’ve been enjoying making iced things at home too, especially those that don’t require mastery of custard or special equipment. I’ve made various granita type treats this summer, by freezing fruit puree, nut milk or strong coffee – which may or may not have sweetened – until softly frozen, then scraping and stirring intermittently until I have a soft ice to be eaten from a glass with a spoon.

This is the nicest of this summer’s experimentation, a recipe from Claudia Roden’s Food of Italy for granita al melone. A melon granita given welcome sharpness by the addition of lemon juice and a warm, floral note – one that mirrors and compliments the floral and persistent nature of cantaloupe melon – by a tablespoon or two of orange flower water.

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Simple to make but attention required. Once you have mixed the melon pulp with the sugar, lemon and orange flower water you slide the bowl in the freezer. After a couple of hours you need to move, stir – and for want of a better word - agitate the granita as it starts to freeze and seize. An hour later, you do it again, disturbing the surface of the granita again before sliding it back into the freezer. You repeat this process every hour or so (probably not more than 5 times in total) until you have a delightful icy slush – like the snow by noon – ready to spoon into glasses. In my freezer, in a medium-sized metal bowl, this took 6 hours and 4 agitations, which makes it sounds like a lot of bother – which it isn’t – or a 1980′s dance.

Alternately you can forget about the bowl for six hours or more and then break and blast your block of melon ice into granita with a blender. The result is more granular and sharper at the edges than the soft freeze and agitate method, but still good, still a fragrant and fresh icy crush, a fantastic floral slush puppy, a glass of orange snow, an icy treat to sooth even the most agitated soul (like me). Even better with a slosh of Campari, Martini, Vodka or all three – see below.

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Granita al melone – melon water ice

Adapted from a recipe by Claudia Roden in her brilliant (and soon to be re-issued) book ‘The Food of Italy’

  • 1 large or two small melons yielding 750 g melon flesh (ideally cantaloupe)
  • 50 g fine sugar
  • the juice of a large lemon
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons of orange – flower water

Quarter the melon, scoop out the seeds and then cut away the flesh from the skin. Cut the flesh into large chunks and then blend it into a pulp using a mouli, immersion blender or blender. Transfer the pulp into a bowl that can go into the freezer

Add the sugar, lemon juice and orange flower water to the pulp, stir and then slide the bowl into the freezer.

After a couple of hours, pull the bowl from the freezer and then break up the iced-fruit pulp with a fork before returning it to the freezer. Repeat this every hour for a couple more hours or until you have a soft, granular, slush. Serve in a glass.

Alternatively.

Leave the bowl in the freezer for 6 – 8 hours and then break the solid mass up with a fork and then blast into icy shards with an immersion or conventional blender.

Serve. If you like with Campari which works well, the bitter contrasting beautifully with the fragrant, floral sweetness of the melon. I bet a shot of vodka would work well too.

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Filed under fanfare, food, granita, ices, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sorbets and granita, summer food

the rough with the smooth

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Testaccio in August: hot, quiet, sleepy and slightly squalid, which I put down to the dust, heat and arbitrary rubbish collection. There is just enough life to reassure – including my preferred bar, market stall and forno - but no more. The whole quarter is behaving like a cat, that is lying low in the shade all day, rousing only when absolutely necessary (meaning meals) and then prowling at night. I like Testaccio in August.

Of course there have been moments when I wished we were guests in a fair Umbrian villa or yodellingly good mountain retreat rather than wilting within Rome’s ancient city wall. They have been rare moments though – after all both villa and mountains will come later this year – and almost invariably when we’d forgotten that come August in Testaccio, it’s best to behave like a cat.

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One reason to rouse is the market. Others are our own private Ex-Slaughterhouse and a daily Grattachecca: a Roman treat of roughly grated ice, fruit syrup and almost enough fruit decoration to bring out your inner Carmen Miranda. But I digress. Most of the market may be closed: grills pulled low, locked and emblazoned with luminous notices reminding us the stall is chiuso per ferie, but my favourite stall isn’t. What’s more, there is no queue, no argy bargy, plenty of time for idle chat and best of all, a small but lovely selection.

We have been eating peaches, mostly the flat, blushing ones that look as if they have been sat upon by a fat bottomed girl (or boy), nectarines, freckled apricots, white, bright-orange and icy-fleshed red melons, black cherries, flat and slim green beans, bunches of fragrant basil, golden flowered zucchini and of course, red as red can be: tomatoes.

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On Friday I made pomodori al riso, or tomatoes stuffed with rice. I have written about these simply stuffed tomatoes, a classic summer dish much-loved by Romans before. At great length I seem to remember. It seems appropriate to mention them again though – briefly – being as they are such a good, tasty, resourceful and appropriate dish for these slow, tomato heavy days. The recipe is here. Remember, they are best served just warm.

On Saturday I made sauce, a smooth simple one, some for lunch and some for the freezer. On Monday too. Each day buying two kilos of San Marzano tomatoes, the pale red, plum-shaped variety that collapse and reduce so well into a rich-red, well-balanced sauce.

For this sauce you need a passatutto, Mouli or food mill.  I apologize if you don’t have one, but also urge you to use this recipe as an excuse to buy one! It is a brilliantly simple (and cheap) device consisting of a bowl with a removable perforated plate and a crank with a curved metal paddle that forces the food through the holes as the crank is turned. It is a sort of cranked up sieve really, separating the rough from the smooth, the wanted from the unwanted, but one that also does the same work as a blender only leaving the sauce/soup/paste or mash in question with more character than an electric blast would. When it come to sauces like this, certain Italian soups, vegetable and fruit pureès a Mouli is indispensable.

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So the sauce. You need to wash and then cut your tomatoes in half before putting them in a large heavy-based pan – I use my Le Creuset – with nothing more than a generous pinch of salt. You cover the pan and then put it over a medium-flame for about 10 minutes, lifting the lid and prodding every now and then. Once the tomatoes have started to relinquish their juices, you remove the lid and let the tomatoes collapse and soften in their carmine broth for another few minutes.

You pass the collapsed tomatoes and their juices through the Mouli into a clean bowl. You will need to do this in batches. Once all your tomatoes are milled, you pour them back in the heavy-based pan with two peeled and smashed garlic cloves, a good slosh of olive oil and a few basil leaves, and put the pan back on the heat. Once it reaches an easy boil, you reduce the heat and then leave it to bubble and reduce into a thick sauce – that clings to the back of a wooden spoon. Once cool enough, you taste and season the sauce before ladling it into suitable containers for the fridge or freezer.

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Then yesterday, Tuesday, with two deceptively pale, creamy-fleshed cuore di bue tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella di bufala and a few large, floppy basil leaves I made another summer standard, the perfect plate when it is too damn hot, a combination I never seem to tire of: Insalata Caprese.

The truth of the matter is: both tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated, it changes the nature of their flesh, seizing and tightening it into something else. Like me on a beach in August. Of course this advice is all very well if you live within non-refrigeratation-is-a-possibility distance of both buffaloes and vines. Not so easy if you don’t. If your mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes have been refrigerated, then let then come to room temperature – to relax – for at least an hour before slicing.

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Slicing (ripping and pouring) is the only thing you have to do for this simple dish. In fact this dish is all about choosing well and temperature. The tomatoes should be ripe but firm and flavoursome. Rugged, ribbed cuore di bue (ox heart) with their thin skin and creamy flesh are ideal. As I’ve already mentioned, they should be as warm as the room you are sitting in. As for the mozzarella di bufala, this is no time for parsimony, use the best you can find, it should wobble and weep. Look for big, floppy basil leaves and tear them with your fingers, remembering to dab a little of their sweet, peppery scent behind your ears. The salt should be scattered prudently and the extra virgin olive oil poured generously.

Serve with bread to assist and then mop up one of the nicest dressings in the world: sweet-sour tomato juice scented with basil, mozzarella milk, extra virgin olive oil and tiny shards of salt.

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Insalata Caprese  Tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil.

serves 2

  • two large, ripe tomatoes
  • 250 g ball of mozzarella di bufala
  • a few basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Cut the tomato and mozzarella into 5 mm slices. Arrange them as you wish on a large plate or platter. Tear the basil leaves and slide them between the tomatoes and mozzarella. Sprinkle judiciously with salt. Pour over extra virgin olive oil. Serve.

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Filed under In praise of, mozzarella di bufala, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

it’s the key

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The Yale lock which opens the front door of our apartment block has been playing up for weeks. Some days it’s more exasperating than others. This morning being the most exasperating yet. As I wriggled and cursed my key, easing it in and then yanking it out, shoving then cajoling, and as my son lay spread-eagled on the pavement, three old men outside the bar next door provided a running commentary. ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ ‘Your son is lying on the pavement.’ ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ Sweat seeped from my brow, dislodging a contact lens on its descent to my chin. One last wiggle I decided, then I’m admitting defeat and joining the locals for an espresso with grappa. ‘Madam, your son is chewing on a cigarette butt.’ The key turned, the door opened and I grabbed Luca with one hand, the offending butt with the other and hurried inside to a chorus of disapproval.

Obviously the lift was jammed somewhere above, so we climbed. Which meant counting and sitting on every third step. Finally we reached the front door and I rummaged for the keys I had already rummaged for but then thrown back in my bagblackhole during our ascent. Keys found and duly untangled from my phone charger and miniature sheep, I pushed the odd one of the bunch into the keyhole. Or tried at least. I was cursed. It was blocked! It was the heat. My son was licking the hall floor. What’s more someone had stolen my doormat. Why would someone steal a doormat? At which point the unmistakable scent of roasting red peppers; sweet, smoky and singed, curled under the door. I looked at the flat number on the doorbell. It had seemed a rather long walk up, but what with all the sitting and counting, and it had crossed my mind the door seemed a peculiar colour, but I’d put it down to my dislodged lens. Clearly the heat was getting to me. We were on the fourth floor.

As I got lunch together and my son threw farmyard animals across the kitchen in our third floor flat, I wished we had some peppers. Surly red ones to char over a hob flame until their skins blistered and blackened and then – after a rest in a plastic bag – peeled away leaving soft, smoky-sweet and endearingly floppy pieces of pepper to be dressed with garlic and oil. We didn’t have any red peppers. Which was, on reflection, a good thing. After all it was extraordinarily hot, far too hot to be messing with hobs and flames and more importantly, we had a pan of beans, tomato and onions to eat.

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This may sound like an odd thing to eat – even crave – at this time of year, a full flavoured, slow-cooked, smothered stew of flat green beans, onion, tomato and basil. I promise you it isn’t. At least I don’t think so. Served at room temperature with a wedge of ricotta or weeping mozzarella, a slice of cold roast beef or a frilly-edged fried egg, this stew of tender beans, soft onion, fresh tomato sauce and peppery basil makes a lovely summer lunch.

It’s important to make the stew a few hours or better still the day before you want to eat it, so the flavours can settle and the sauce thicken and take hold of the beans. Ideally the green beans should be flat and so fresh they crack decisively when you break them. The tomatoes should be red, ripe but firm and with a lick of real sweetness (if they’re on the acidic side a pinch of sugar should do the trick). The key is to saute the onion until very soft in plenty of olive oil and then add the beans and stir until each piece glistens. Then you add the tomatoes and cover the pan. The steamy heat trapped under the pan lid helps the tomatoes relinquish their abundant juices at which point you remove the lid and the leave the beans to cook in this rich, red stock before it reduces into a dense sauce. The principle is much the same as peperonata.

This is a straightforward dish but one that requires attentive stirring and tasting, particularly towards the end of cooking when the beans are reaching that perfect point of tenderness and the sauce thickening and clinging. Watch the stew doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. If the sauce reduces too much before the beans are done, a spoonful or two of water should loosen things up. As I’ve already mentioned a rest is vital, ideally over night. Just remember to pull the pan from the fridge a couple of hours before lunch so the stew has time to reach room temperature and thus has that full, comely, and slightly jammy feel about it. Waiting as always is key.

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Flat green beans with tomatoes and onions

8 nice portions (it keeps beautifully for up to 3 days in the fridge)

  • A large (or two medium) white onions
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g flat green beans
  • 750 g ripe tomatoes (peeled if you wish and the chopped coarsely.)
  • a small handful of torn basil leaves

Peel and slice the onion finely. Over a medium-low flame warm the oil in a heavy-based pan (with a lid) and then sauté the onion with a pinch of salt until it is soft and translucent.

Cut or break the beans into into 2″ pieces. Add the beans to the pan and stir well until each piece is glistening with oil. Continue cooking and stirring for a few minutes.

Add the coarsely chopped tomatoes and another pinch of salt, stir and then cover the pan. After a couple of minutes uncover the pan and stir – the tomatoes should be relinquishing their juices. Cover the pan for another five minutes or so.

Once the tomatoes have given up their juice, uncover the pan and then allow it to simmer, uncovered – stirring every and then for 40 – 50 minutes or until the beans are tender and the tomatoes have reduced into a thick, rich sauce. During the last 10 minutes of cooking add the ripped basil leaves. Taste and season if necessary

Allow to sit for a couple of hours before serving. Even better made a day in advance, kept in the fridge over night and then brought to room temperature before serving.

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And after, quite along time after, two hours to be precise, the end of the ephemeral ricotta with peaches – pale, blushing ones that had been sitting on the extremely sunny balcony wall for an hour or so – and very runny honey.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, vegetables

blue book

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The first thing I made was the slow-cooked lamb shanks. It was 1996 and I was studying in Chalk Farm and living on Haverstock Hill, not quite opposite the Sir Richard Steele Pub, in a flat above a kebab shop. Not that we went to the Sir Richard Steele Pub. The grubby Fiddlers Elbow was the place in which we drowned our bruised or inflated egos each night after a day at The Drama Centre.

A couple of weeks previously I’d been for lunch at The River Cafe. A lunch that had spun an otherwise hopeless date into a spectacular (if futureless) one.  A char-grilled peppers with anchovies, deep-fried zucchini flower, linguine with crab, grilled sea bass, chocolate nemesis lunch that had left my date with an enormous hole in his pocket and me with both architectural and gastronomic goosebumps and the need to evangelise about a restaurant on Thames Wharf, Rainville road, London W6.

The day after lunch, knowing I would probably never have the good fortune – or indeed fortune – to eat there again, I bought a blue book with bold white font: The River Cafe Cook Book.  I spent the afternoon sitting on Primrose Hill (in the days when it wasn’t quite so fashionable) bookmarking everything before walking up and over the hill, skirting Regents Park and cutting down Parkway into Camden town to get 6 small lamb shanks, 6 red onions, red peppers, rosemary and a bottle of plonk and heading back to Haverstock Hill. I seem to remember the shanks were a tad on the dry side – a case of cooks at the cooking wine – but tasty nonetheless. The marinated grilled peppers however were superb. Which was everything to do with the recipe and very little to do with the (boozing) cooks. I made those peppers more times than I care to remember, as I did the bean soup, grilled squid, mussel soup, bread soup, raw fennel salad…..

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My copy of The River Cafe Cook Book has been sitting on my mum’s kitchen bookshelf for nearly nine years now, ever since I absconded to Italy with nothing more than the clothes I stood up in. I’ve been thumbing though it these last couple of weeks while here on a holiday of sorts. It remains – in my opinion –   along with Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, the English book that best captures the spirit and soul of Italian ingredients and cooking. It still looks as sharp and uncompromisingly good as it did 17 years ago. I still want to make everything.

Assisted by a post-it, the book fell open at page 172 and a recipe for something Rose and Ruth call Inzimonio di Ceci or Chickpeas with Swiss chard. As much as I like a nice food picture it is not usually the thing that inspires me to cook. Quite the opposite in fact. Pictures, especially if too pretty, styled or framed with incongruous bits of this and that, leave me cool.  On this occasion the picture, unstyled and unframed, made me eager to cook and eat. A women in a white apron is holding a platter on which there is a pile of glistening chickpeas and chard flecked with tiny nubs of carrot, red onion, parsley and chili sitting in generous, golden puddle of extra virgin olive oil.

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Having soaked the dried chickpeas overnight, you cook them until tender. If you have forgotten to soak your chickpeas: you open two tins. I forgot. You blanch your chard or greens in a large pan of fast boiling well-salted water, drain and then chop them coarsely. You sauté diced carrot and onion until soft in lots of olive oil before adding crumbled chili, white wine, tomato and letting everything bubble vigorously for a minute or two before adding the chickpeas and greens.

Another 10 minutes over a gentle flame with the occasional stir, a handful of parsley and the juice of half a lemon and lunch is nearly ready. Nearly. As is almost always the case with dishes like this, a rest in which the flavours can settle is wise. My mum has a large white plate with a little lip just like the one in the picture which was pleasing. She also has a white apron, but I resisted dressing up.

And to think I used to consider chickpeas the good Samaritan of the store cupboard, worthy but weary making hard work. No more. After pasta e ceci this is maybe my new preferred way to eat them. The combination of chickpeas, soft greens – offering as Fergus Henderson would say structural weave – sweet and tender nubs of carrot and onion, given heat by chilli and depth by the wine and tomato is a full and delicious one. Wholesome but generous. We had our chickpeas and greens with ricotta and bread.

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Chickpeas with greens

Adapted (slightly) from The River Cafe Cook Book.

serves 6

  • 800 g greens (ideally chard but spring greens work well)
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 2 medium carrots
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 dried chili, crumbled
  • 250 ml / 8 fl oz white wine
  • 2 tbsp of tomato sauce or passata or 1 tbsp concentrate
  • 400 g cooked chickpeas
  • a generous handful of chopped parsley
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • more extra virgin olive oil to serve

In a large pan of well salted fast boiling water, blanch the greens briefly. Drain them and then once they are cool enough to handle, chop them coarsely and set aside.

Warm the oil in a heavy based saute pan, add the onion, carrot and a pinch of salt and cook them slowly for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Season with a little more salt, pepper and the crumbled chili.

Add the wine to the pan and allow it to bubble away until it has almost completely reduced. Add the tomato sauce or concentrate, greens and chickpeas, stir and cook, stirring every couple of minutes for 10 minutes.

Add 3/4 of the chopped parsley and the lemon juice to the pan, stir, turn off the heat and allow the pan to sit for 10 minutes.

Transfer to a large platter or serving  plate, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and a little more extra virgin olive oil and serve.

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I’m not about about to deprive my Mum, so I have bought another blue book with bold white font to take back to Italy with me. Which says it all really. Now if you will excuse me, I really should go and pack, our flight is at 3.

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

outside in

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I have long accepted that in matters of Italian food I will always have a sense of being outside looking in. Outside peering in through a steamed-up kitchen window, rubbing it with my sleeve and then pressing my nose up against the pane, trying to understand what on earth is happening inside.

Of course I’m not outside. In some ways I am very much inside, settled in Rome, surrounded by Italians who cook and offer (endless) advice about how and why, and having become a capable cook of Italian food myself. But the sense of outside looking in, of being the English observer remains, possibly even more acutely than when I first arrived. A case of the more you learn the less you know, perhaps.

Not that I mind. Quite the opposite. I like this sense of being outside looking in. After all, it is how it is. I am an English woman with Northern roots, pastry making hands, a soft spot for potted shrimps and without even a distant whiff of Italian blood, living in Rome. It’s this inside outside dichotomy which fuels my curiosity and desire to learn. That’s not to say I can’t be a mardy student from time to time: proud, cross I have so much to learn and jealous of the omnipresent food culture and innate ability to cook and eat well that individual Italians (may or may not) possess.

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Which brings me to the recipe. Well nearly. As you may or may not have noticed, it has all been rather basic around here lately. This is mostly because it’s so hot, but also because having felt more outside than usual, I took some advice from a good cook and went back to basics. Not that I ever move much beyond them, but you get the idea. I’ve been frying garlic attentively (and obsessively,) drying salad and flowers thoroughly (it matters and I can be sloppy) searing chops briefly, making batter (I’d forgotten how) brushing up on my beans and greens, using pasta cooking water wisely (it’s the secret) and making spaghetti al pomodoro.

There are as many versions of spaghetti al pomodoro as there are cooks. This is a summer version, using the nicest, sweetest, plum or cherry tomatoes you can find: ripe, tight orbs that burst in your mouth. It was taught to me by the good cook, a Roman capable of great and gutsy culinary feats who tells me he would happily eat this everyday for the rest of his life give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli.

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You smash two cloves of garlic against the work surface with the palm of your hand meaning the skin comes away, the cloves split but remain whole and your hand could ward off vampires. You then fry these two cloves – gently – in far more extra virgin olive oil than is decent. An indecent amount. I like indecent. Once the garlic is just turning light gold and its fragrance swirling up your nose, you add some halved cherry or tiny plum tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. You let the halves sizzle for a minute or so. Once they start softening and releasing liquid you squash them with the back of a wooden spoon and watch their red juices spill into and then tint the oil bronze. You add a few torn basil leaves, stir the pan still over the flame for a minute or so longer. You inhale.

While you have been doing all this your spaghetti has been rolling around a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Your timing is good obviously and the spaghetti done (al dente, so tender but with bite) as you inhale and the tomatoes bubble ‘ready‘. You scoop the spaghetti from the boiling water straight into the tomato pan. I use tongs for this which means some of the pasta cooking water clings to the spaghetti. You stir with tongs and a spoon, the pasta cooking water – magical stuff that it is – mixing with the oily, tomatoey juices emulsifying and creating a thickened sauce that coats each strand.

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Spaghetti with tomatoes cooked in extra virgin olive oil, scented with garlic and basil: I too could eat this everyday for lunch give or take the occasional pot of potted shrimps on toast. Divide. Eat inside or outside.

Spaghetti al pomodoro  Spaghetti with tomatoes.

serves 3

  • extra virgin olive oil q.b.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 5oo g sweet cherry or tiny plum tomatoes
  • salt q.b.
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • 350 g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and set the timer for a two minutes less than the time on the packet

Warm the olive oil in large saute pan. Smash the garlic on the work surface or press it with the back of a knife so the skin comes away, it splits but remains whole. Fry the garlic gently in the oil until it is pale golden and fragrant.

Halve the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Once the tomatoes start softening and releasing their juices squash them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so their juices mingle with the oil.  This will take just a few minutes. Add the basil, stir, cook for another minute.

Test the spaghetti, once it is al dente, drain it and reserve some cooking water, or use tongs to lift it straight into the tomato pan. Lower the flame slightly. Stir until the oily, tomatoey juices, pasta and pasta cooking whiter come together into a well dressed whole. Pull from the flame and serve immediately.

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a suggestion.

This pasta needs nothing but an appreciative eater and a glass of something tasty but reasonable – a brilliant Lazio white called Capolemole Bianco from the maker Marco Carpineti for example. However, if you would like cheese, a little grated ricotta salata: soft, distinct but sheepish is nice.

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Filed under food, In praise of, olive oil, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

polish and scrub

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After two unsuccessful ventures, we finally found the marble man. He was in fact as promised, at the wrong end of Lungotevere Testaccio. The very endafter the Romany camp, behind an intimidating gate, tucked under the railway bridge. A machine screeched and then stopped abruptly as we entered the marble flanked workshop. The marmista turnedpulled down his goggles and stared hard. ‘We’ve been sent by Emanuela at Testaccio market‘ I garbled. At which suspicion faded into something cordial. Five minutes, a sketch, a sum and some marble stroking later and we laid a crisp deposit on the dusty workbench. ‘Lunedi’ he promised before lifting back his goggles and turning his attention to a sheet of pale grey marble streaked with deep blue veins.

A week later and my carrara marble table top is balanced, temporarily, on the odd pine table that came with the flat. The pine table is bigger, so it’s peeping out like a Tom.  I’m told there is a blacksmith who could make me a base near Monte Testaccio, but until we can get to the bottom of his idiosyncratic working hours, the balancing act and peeping will continue. I still amazed we got the marble back in one piece, driving as we did in an almost unsuspended car through Roman traffic.  It was only as we veered from Via Marmorata into Via Galvani that I noted the significance: Via Marmorata is called as such because it was the route along which enormous quantities of marble (marmo) passed into Rome in Antiquity. Two thousand years later and we too had passed along the marble route bearing marble. I am ridiculously happy with my 60 x 100 slab and keep polishing it.

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I have also been scrubbing. Not the marble obviously, nor the floor, even though it could do with a bloody good clean. I’ve been scrubbing new potatoes and top and tailing green beans, lots of them, in order to make Patate e fagiolini condite. Which I could translate as potato and green bean salad. Which it isn’t. Or is it? I’m not familiar with salad law. Eitherway, I prefer the literal translation - potatoes and green beans dressed. Simply dressed obviously, after all it’s 30° and the last thing we want is fussy or complicated. I’ve also been pulling leaves from the bedraggled mint plant that’s – despite my neglect and the searing heat – hanging on for mint life on the balcony. Mint, as we know, makes a good bedfellow for both potatoes and beans. But more about that in a paragraph.

This is barely a recipe. It is however a nice assembly and one of my favorites at the moment, just so, beside a lamb chop, next to a hard-boiled egg and some tuna, under a slice of pure white young sheep’s cheese such as primo sale. You need best, properly waxy new potatoes, ideally large ones that can be boiled in their skins and then peeled once cool enough to handle. You also need fine green beans: pert, sweet and nutty, salt and good extra virgin olive oil. Mint or vinegar is optional.

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There are five things to remember. Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes, then boil them whole. Cook the beans in well-salted fast-boiling water until they are tender with just the slightest bite but no absolutely no squeak. Tear the mint into tiny pieces with your fingers. Dress the vegetables while they are still warm with a hefty pinch of salt – launched from high above so evenly dispersed – and enough extra virgin olive oil to make a dietitian bristle and each chunk and bean glisten. Let your dressed vegetables sit – in a cool place but not the fridge – for a while before serving.

It should be a well-dressed tumble, the chunks of potatoes distinct but breaking gently at the edges, so blurring everything slightly. For me the optional mint – I adore the way mint manages to be both bright and moody in the same moment – is vital.  It lends something cool and herbal and renders a dish made with Italian ingredients on a humid and tempestuous Tuesday in Rome decidedly English and familiar. I don’t usually add vinegar. If I do, I don’t add mint and it’s a dash of red wine vinegar, sharp and pertinent. In my opinion balsamic vinegar - which generally seems to be both over and misused these days – isn’t right here. You may disagree.

A reminder that good ingredients, well-prepared, well-paired, well-dressed and served at the right temperature (that is just warm) are delicious.

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Patate e fagiolini condite  Potatoes and green beans (dressed)

Inspired by a comment from a Christine. Advice, as usual, from Jane Grigson.

  • 4 large waxy potatoes or many little ones
  • 500 g fine green beans
  • a few small fresh mint leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • red wine vinegar (if you like)

Scrub the potatoes and top and tail the beans.

Put the whole, scrubbed potatoes in a large pan, cover them with cold water, add salt and then bring the pan to the boil. Reduce to a lively simmer and cook the potatoes until they are tender to the point of a knife.

Tip the beans into a large pan half-full of salted water at a rolling boil and boil them uncovered hard and briefly – eight minutes should do the trick – until they are tender but still with the slightest bite. Drain the beans.

Wait until the beans and potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm. Put the beans in large bowl. Using a sharp knife pare away the potato skin and then roughly chop and break the potato over the beans. Tear the mint leaves into the bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and then pour over some olive oil and the vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to gently turn and mix the ingredients. Taste and add more salt and olive oil if necessary. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. Turn again before serving.

A suggestion.

Patate e fagiolini condite are delicious served with grilled lamb. Romans call young lamb cutlets cooked briefly so burnished outside but still pale pink and tender within: costolette di abbachio alla scottadito or simply abbachio a scottadito. Literally translated this means lamb cutlets to burn your fingers, reminding you they should be eaten as soon as possible from the grill or coals – so blisteringly hot – with your fingers.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, lamb, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, summer food, vegetables

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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