Category Archives: supper dishes

on red and white in Sicily

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There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

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Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

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When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

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As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

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Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

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And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

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Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

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Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

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Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

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Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes

a wink and a whorl

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I follow Jane Grigson’s advice I when I buy a cauliflower. ‘If the cauliflower looks back at you with a vigorous air, buy it; if it looks in need of a good nights sleep, leave it where it is.‘ Apart from the fact we could debate what vigorous looks like, it’s a good rule of thumb when choosing most fruit and vegetables. Except avocados that is, which taste better when they appear to have been on the razzle two nights in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that can also be applied to people, which in my case – sadly no razzle, just a wakeful toddler – means leaving me exactly where I am.

Rather confusingly Italians sometimes call winter cauliflower, broccolo. Not my fruttivendolo Gianluca though, he calls them cavolo, which usually means cabbage but is also an abbreviation of cavolfiore which literally means cabbage flower. To which we could reply ‘Che cavolo’ which beyond meaning ‘What cabbage’, is a response anything flummoxing or vexing, including cauliflower etymology. Rather than looking like flowers, I’ve always thought good cauliflowers with unblemished creamy-white whorls look like cumulus clouds, the ones that cluster in an otherwise blue sky.

If a cauliflower looks vigorous and its florets are tight and thick as thieves, then you need to be vigorous in your approach and armed with a sharp knife to cut away the outer leaves and thickest core before splitting the head into manageable florets. A good cauliflower should withstand a rolling boil. I am a big fan of boiled and braised vegetables and – with the exception of potatoes and parsnips – will take them over roasted almost every time, cauliflower, calm and creamy is no exception.

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Today’s recipe started life as another recipe, or part of one at least, the dressing for one of my favourite salads, puntarelle, the mere mention of which has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of wine that was two steps away from battery acid, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad with anchovy dressing.

I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad practically unknown outside Rome (this is nine years ago,) a salad of catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called punatelle that once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. Pale green curls that are then dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Neither the wine or waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad we had – in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome – so happily discovered.

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Nine years later, less proprietorial, happily faded and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during it’s winter season. I say prepare, curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my immersion blender, and not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge.

Having made too much dressing last week, and with a dish of cauliflower, eggs and aioli dressing I ate at 40 Maltby street a few weeks back still a pertinent food memory, I made an improvised lunch of boiled cauliflower, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and punterelle dressing.

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This the third platter of this assembly, which is on the one hand innocent: pale, creamy cauliflower and just boiled eggs, and on the other full of experience: dark olives, garlic, richly fishy anchovy, peppery olive oil and citrus. It is important the water you are going to cook the cauliflower in is well salted, as this is what is needed to bring out the otherwise shy flavors in the cauliflower. I used taggiasca olives that are district, chewy and taste somewhere between dried plums and the leather wristband I used to chew throughout double chemistry with Mrs Toomer (not unpleasant, the wristband that is). Try and find good quality olive oil packed anchovies, cheap anchovies, like cheap olive oil and cheap mascara are best avoided.

Innocence and experience, and a brilliant combination of favours that compliment, tussle and then compliment again before giving you the culinary equivalent of a wink. I think it is delicious. Eat while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Cauliflower with hard-boiled egg, black olives and anchovy-lemon dressing

  • a head of cauliflower
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 6 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • a handful of black olives (ideally taggiasca olives in extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4 eggs
  • black pepper

Pull away the tough outer leaves, cut away the hard central stem and then break the cauliflower into florets. Drop the florets into a large pan of well-salted boiling water and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside.

Make the dressing either in a pestle and mortar (in which case first pound the garlic, then add the anchovy fillets and grind into a rough paste before stirring in the olive oil and lemon) or with an immersion blender or small food processor (in which case add all the ingredients, pulse rather than blast into a consistent but slightly textured dressing.)

Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs. Once the eggs are done plunge them into cold water until they are cool enough to handle, tap the shells , peel them and then slice each egg in two.

Arrange the florets in a shallow dish (cutting any large ones in two), scatter over the olives, arrange the hard-boiled egg halves, grind over some black pepper before spooning over the dressing. Serve while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Filed under anchovies, cauliflower, food, lemons, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, Uncategorized, vegetables

everyday impasto

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There are few things I like more than freshly made, thinly cut egg pasta, cooked until al dente and then dressed with anchovies and butter.

The combination of the fresh pasta: light, silky and almost buoyant in your mouth, coated with a rich, salty, nut-brown sauce of melted butter and dissolved anchovies is an extremely delicious one. It’s a dish that manages to be gusty and  – like me after a few drinks – a little bit loud, but at the same time remain soft and rounded and to taste both luxurious and everyday.

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Tagliolini with butter and anchovies

serves 2

  • 200 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 6 – 8 best anchovy filets under oil
  • 75 – 100 g butter

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. 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.

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, so the piece is a third of its length, 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.

Attach the cutter to the pasta machine and the run the sheets of pasta through the cutter and lay the Tagliolini on a well floured board until you are ready to cook them.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta – it will take just a few minutes so keep tasting.

In a large saute pan, over a low flame melt the butter and the anchovies (drained from their oil), prodding the anchovies gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they dissolve into the butter. The butter should foam very slightly but no more.

Once the pasta is al dente (tender but with bite) drain it and add it to the sauté pan, stir so each strand is coated with anchovy butter and serve immediately.

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Filed under anchovies, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, recipes, supper dishes

losing my marbles

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Years ago I signed up for a book club. Not a book club as we know them nowadays, meaning a group of people who have ostensibly read the same book meeting to discuss it while drinking the same number of bottles as participants (or maybe that is just us), but a book sales club. This book sales club ran adverts in the Guardian newspaper and I, aged eighteen and in possession of my first cheque book and ignoring the suspicious mutterings of others, was seduced by the introductory offer of a free dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia of opera and two ‘beautifully bound‘ editions: Keat’s poetry and Jane Austen’s Emma. I signed up and sent off my subscription fee in the form of a cheque for a tiny sum.

My free books arrived and they were, as promised, beautifully bound. I spent an afternoon drunk on the smell of virgin books, plastic bubble wrap and youthful hubris. I also had a sip of the catalogue listing other beautifully bound books I might like to order. Which I set aside of course, I wasn’t about to be seduced by any of that! I’d paid my fee, I’d received my free books, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. There was a printed sheet at the bottom of the box, but I didn’t read it, after all, who needs small print when you have Ode to a Nightingale, Emma Woodhouse and a small reference library?

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A month later another box of books arrived and a letter congratulating me on my decision to keep the limited edition books along with a bill for said books and three new even more bloody beautifully bound volumes they thought I might be interested in. I panic opened the whole lot, popped an entire sheet of bubble wrap in record time, read the small print, panicked some more and then took drastic action and hid the box under the bed. I did the same with the box and bill a month later.

I can’t actually remember how everything was resolved, teary admissions, regression, trips to the post office, my dad and his cheque book. Why I bring this up today is because as I dug marbled beans from their equally marbled pods a few days ago and while Luca played with an electrical socket, I remembered the infamous book club and books, one of which is on my shelf here in Rome. Books whose outsides are cloth bound and inside covers are a double spread of marbled paper;  exquisite aqueous designs in ivory and crimson that mottle, swirl and swell and are reminiscent of borlotti beans. Books like beans, or beans like books, or simply a mottled and tenuous link.

I’ve cooked borlotti beans twice this week. The first batch was fresh and used to make pasta e fagioli. The second batch was dried Borlotto di Lamon from Veneto, more subdued in colour: beige and burgundy but almost as lovely as their fresh cousins. The name borlotti by the way, come from the verb borlare or tumble and evokes the way the oldest plants grow.

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Unlike fresh borlotti, dried beans need soaking for at least eight hours and ideally overnight before being brought to the boil in fresh water and then simmered until tender and, having lost their mottled charm, turned soft chestnut-brown. They are then ready to be simmered in tomato sauce: fagioli al pomodoro.

I’ve already sung the praises of my mouli/food mill/passa verdure, my favorite kitchen tool, more than once. I will again. Nothing, except maybe a fine sieve and some deft work with the back of a spoon, gives quite the same, smooth but distinct and grainy quality to plum tomatoes/soup/ poached fruit/ root vegetables as a food mill. For this recipe, the sophisticatedly named: beans in sauce, you need 500 g of milled plum tomatoes. Having milled, crushed or blended the tomatoes you then add them to a pan in which you have sautéed a small onion, a rib of celery and a some chopped flat leafed parsley in plenty of olive oil.

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Once you have united the beans with the sauce, you stir and let the pan bubble gently for another 10 minutes or so. You may need to add a little more water as the final dish should be fluid (but not thin and runny) and roll easily from the spoon. Be generous with the seasoning. The beans are good straight away, but even better after a few hours, better still the next day when the flavours have settled and the beans have absorbed even more of sauce.

Borlotti beans, cooked until tender, so creamy and nutty and tasting somewhere between a chestnut and a kidney bean, simmered in well-seasoned smooth tomato sauce are good, tasty and satisfying to both make and eat. This is food that pleases (rather than impresses), food that calms even the most hyperactive two-year old and a mother who keeps losing her marbles.

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Fagioli al pomodoro – beans with tomato

Adapted from The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen Fant. The original recipe is for fresh beans and also includes 50 g of prosciutto fat (or guanciale) which I am sure makes it even more delicious – not that it wasn’t delicious without. It really is worth seeking out best quality plum tomatoes and beans. Three sage leaves added to the beans while they cook gives a lovely musky flavour to the beans.

serves 4

  • 1 kg of fresh borlotti in their pods or 300 g dried borlotti beans soaked overnight
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or lard
  • a small onion
  • a small rib of celery
  • a few fat stalks of flat leaved parsley
  • 500 g best quality plum tomatoes, milled or crushed
  • salt and pepper

If you are using dried beans soak them in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours or overnight. Drain the soaked beans, put them back in a heavy- based pan, cover by at least two inches with fresh water, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the beans for one hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from an hour to three to cook. Have patience. Keep the beans at a simmer and taste as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally. Add a pinch of salt after an hour of cooking. Once the beans are cooked, pull them from the heat and leave them to cook in their cooking water.

If you are using fresh beans, shell them and then boil them in salted water for about 25 minutes or until tender.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Finely chop the celery and parsley – both stalk and leaf. Warm the olive oil in a deep saute pan and add the onion, celery and parsley then saute over a gentle flame unit soft and translucent.

Mill, crush or blend the tomatoes until they are smooth and add to the onion, celery and parsley. Stir and season with salt and pepper and leave the pan simmering for 15 minutes. Add the drained beans (keep the broth), stir and leave cooking for another 10 minutes, adding a little of the bean broth if nesseary. Check seasoning. Allow the beans to sit for 10 minutes (or for hours) or so before serving.

These beans are even better the next day, maybe even better the day after that. If your kitchen is cool you can leave them overnight in the coolest corner and then reheat them gently the next day before serving., If you keep them longer than a day, store them in the fridge but remember to pull them out an hour or so before you want to gently re-heat and then eat.

We had our beans with fried eggs and pizza bianca. I am sure they would also go well with sausages or pork chop.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, food, Roman food, supper dishes, tomato sauce

sage advice

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There is something forgotten and faded about sage, its musty nature reminiscent of somewhere that’s been shut up for too long, its dusty-green hue like something dulled by too much sunlight. Musty and dusty, lemon and camphour tinged, soft as moleskin yet rugged as my removal man, sage is one of my favourite herbs.

It had only been shuttered up for three months, but our new flat had a sage-like feel to it before I flung open the wooden shutters and windows on Saturday. I wonder if that was the reason I bought the plant? An unconscious herbal response to our new home! It’s the first of many pots that will eventually line our long, narrow balcony, providing me with kitchen herbs and Luca plenty of leaf-tugging and pot-pulling temptation.

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Ignorning all advice, sage and otherwise, opting instead for the furious adrenaline fueled frenzy that spontaneously erupts when you leave everything to the last-minute, meant the move was unpleasant. I’m not sure I have ever felt quite so frazzled and frothing. Luca on the other hand thought all the boxes, heaving, open windows, bottles of toxic cleaner and flapping lift doors were hilarious.

Four days later and although far from organized and still besieged by homeless items, we are relieved and happy to be in our new flat. It feels pleasant and absolutely right. You might remember that Testaccio is shaped like a quarter or – rather more memorably – a large wedge of parmesan cheese. Our old flat was on one cut side. We are now on the other, the arc of the wedge being the river. Our balcony hangs over busy, plain-tree lined Via Galvani. Bearably busy though and punctuated  – much to Luca’s delight – by the intermittent clip-clop clatter of the horses pulling carriages back to their home in the Ex-Mattaotio.

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I’ve had it in mind to batter and deep-fry sage leaves for months now, ever since eating rather more than my fair share at an aperitivo. The moorishly delicious leaves and my social ineptitude are to blame in equal measure for my disproportionate consumption. In possession of a sage plant, an ancient cooker positioned next to a blowy balcony door and flat to be warmed – I fried.

I’m sure we all have strong, possibly uncompromising views on batter. Where flowers and herbs are concerned I like mine light and delicate. Having whisked together 200 ml of warm water, 100 g of plain flour, 2 tbsp of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt, I leave my pale batter to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it’s the spoon-clinging consistency of thick cream, I fold in a couple of eggs whites beaten so vigorously they stand to attention in peaks.

I drag the leaves through the batter, this side and that, before lowering them into very hot oil. It takes just seconds, a nudge and a flip, for the soft battered leaves to puff and seize into crisp golden cocoons. A slotted spoon is needed to lift the leaves from the oil onto first: a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel and then: another a clean plate over which I launch a shower of fine salt. The crisp, golden batter shatters and gives way to a warm, musky leaf. A few battered leaves, a cold beer (in a Nutella glass no less) on a sun-drenched balcony and all was well and good.

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Talking of strong, uncompromising views, I have encountered many on the subject of the delightfully named saltimbocca – which literally translated means jump-in the-mouth – a most glorious combination of veal, prosciutto, sage, butter and wine. ‘Slice upon slice with the sage leaf pinned like a brooch‘ some say. ‘The veal dipped in flour‘ others cry. ‘Sage leaf under prosciutto’. ‘Sage leaf over prosciutto.‘A sprinkling of parmesan.’ Wine!’ ‘No no Marsala!’ ‘3 minutes.’ ‘7 minutes.’ 

Being, as I am, a saltimbocca novice, I was more than happy to let a friend who is staying take the lead. Alida learned from her father Adriano who in turn learned from his mother who in turn……. The veal must be best quality and thinly sliced. If it isn’t thin enough, a couple of rolls with a wooden pin should do the trick. There is no dusting in flour, no scattering of parmesan, simply a slice of veal, another of prosciutto, a single sage leaf, a flick of black pepper, a roll, a tuck and a strategic skewering with a toothpick

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As Alida cooked the saltimbocca: first warming butter and oil until smoking, then leaving the pale-pink rolls untouched in the hot fat until they formed a deep golden crust, she explained the reason for rolls as opposed to a flat, open saltimbocca. Rolled she noted, the veal retains an exquisite pink tenderness at its heart. There is also a sliver of sage, a musky note, in every bite. ‘Of course you could try the open saltimbocca or a sprinkling of flour or parmesan‘ she said as she lifted the edge of a roll with a fork. Her eyes however, lifted in much the same way as the corner of the veal roll suggested – in inimitable Italian style – otherwise.

Once the saltimbocca are cooked – which takes just a matter of minutes – you move them into a warm plate while you deglaze the pan. Alida did this by pouring some white wine into the pan and then using a wooden spoon to scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and golden crust from the bottom. Back over a lively the flame she added a generous nub of butter and allowed it to melt and thicken the dark and richly flavoured sauce before pouring it over the saltmibocca.

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For those of you with sage doubts, this is a dish that could well convince you otherwise. The domineering and bitter side of sage’s character is smothered, like gossip by silence, into something softer and more forgiving.

I rhapsodized over my meal – I had drunk rather a lot of wine – and finally understood others fervent devotion to this (near perfect) combination and timeless dish. Not so much a jump, more a languorous roll in the mouth. The combination of veal – golden and caramelized outside and tender within – fatty and salty prosciutto, darkly musty sage and a butter and wine sauce is a heady and purely pleasurable one. Unlike moving.

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Saltimbocca   Veal rolls with prosciutto and sage

Recipe from my friend Alida and her father Adriano Borgna

I haven’t given precise quantities for oil, butter and wine because it feels counter intuitive for dish like this. Taste, practice and a heavy hand with the butter and wine.

for 2 as a main course or 4 as small second dish.

  • 8 thin slices of veal
  • 8 slices of untrimmed prosciutto
  • 8 sage leaves
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • white wine

Over each slice of veal lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. Grind over a little black pepper and sprinkle over a little salt. Roll the veal into a neat log and then secure with a toothpick.

Warm a generous nub of butter and some olive oil in a good, heavy based pan. Once the fat is very hot and smoking add the rolls. Allow the rolls to sit untouched so a golden crust forms then turn them 90° and again allow a crust to form. Once the rolls are cooked and coloured evenly (this should take about 3 minutes) move them onto a warm plate.

Add some white wine to the pan and using and wooden spoon scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and crust from the base of the pan. Then back on the flame, add a generous nub of butter and allow it to melt and thicken the dark sauce which you then pour over your saltimbocca.

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Filed under antipasti, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, sage, supper dishes, Testaccio, veal

By eye not rule

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Since my late teens I’ve kept a kitchen notebook. It would be nice to tell you that these notebooks: a well-worn but pleasing collection of soft volumes sit cheek by jowl on my bookcase, that it’s a collection I treasure and refer to daily. They aren’t, they don’t and therefore I can’t. For apart from the five most recent notebooks and a green diary from 1997, my motley crew of dog-eared loose-leaf pads and leather effect WH Smith jotters have either been lost in migration or languish – damp and curling at the edges – in my parents garage. There are also six years worth of Italian notebooks getting dusty in a box at Vincenzo’s. So much unfinished business! But now’s not the time to talk about that.

I’ve mixed feelings about the 16 years worth of notebooks curling in England! Which is why, despite weary pleas from my parents and countless opportunities, they remain exactly where they are. For amongst the recipes written, sellotaped and glued to the pages, descriptions of meals eaten, brief notes about stove successes and long laments about kitchen failures, the to make lists and meticulous plans for suppers that may or may not have happened, is a painful (and tedious) account of my then life in food.

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Exuberantly documented periods of feast are all too often followed by tiresome accounts of restraint and abstinence. A pleasant seasonal list or carefully copied quote is probably followed by a raging diatribe about loathing food or myself for eating it. A fanfare to fruit cake is stifled by an ode to fasting. Twelve (very slim) notebooks dated from 2002 to 2004 chart – in painfully neat handwriting –  a joyless weighed and measured routine I’d rather forget. Notes about expansive meals are almost always followed by so much self-flagellation and malcontent it’s exhausting. Fad’s, fantastical allergies and fernickerty disordered eating is well documented.  Lost, forgotten, abandoned and curled. Quite right too.

Well almost. There were gems amongst the goulash of angst and self-flagellation. Real gems. Some of which I pulled, ripped and unstuck a couple of summers ago while sorting through the damp boxes. A series of recipes snipped from the Guardian in the late 90’s, handwritten recipes by Granny Alice and Grandma Phyllis, illustrated recipes for three almonds cakes from my Spanish neighbour, a pile of 1940’s pamphlets about herbs, three A4 pages of recipes from my time in India and the green notebook from 1997, they are all sitting here on my red table.

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And so the green notebook. The one I kept whilst living in Camden Town and going to drama school. An angst free notebook – I was, I note on more than one occasion, extremely happy – almost entirely given over to notes, thoughts and several comical accounts of making pasta. I wish I could remember what precipitated this rash of research, kneading and rolling? A dinner? A book? A friend?  It wasn’t a trip to Italy or a man. I wish I could remember from where I copied the most bizarre pasta making advice. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever or wherever, in the spring of 1997, when living in the small but well proportioned North London flat, the sound of evening trains through Camden cutting, I became temporarily obsessed with making pasta. I remember nothing about eating this pasta. I clearly did though! On many occasions, all of which are duly noted: Needs work! Dry dry dry! Rather hard and slightly indigestable! Try another flour!

Sixteen years later, in a small but well proportioned flat in South Rome, the green notebook – although providing entertainment – has been absolutely no help whatsoever in my latest attempt to learn to make pasta. Well except for one note that is. A note I’ve been given more times than I care to remember during my cooking life, and not only regarding pasta – by eye not rule.

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By eye not rule. Of course there are rules, like using best semolina flour, working on a clean dry surface and adding a whole egg to the flour before adding the cold water when making cavatelli pasta. ‘It’s an unconventional egg‘ my teacher Daria noted while working the yellow yolk expertly into the equally yellow flour ‘As cavatelli pasta is traditionally made just semolina flour and water.’ An egg however – a trick taught to her by her mother – wether working with 200 g or a kilo of flour helps with manageability and elasticity.

Once you have worked the egg into the flour you can start adding the water, little by little, by eye not rule. Time of year, temperature of your kitchen, the flour, the size of your egg, your mood, your husband’s mood, these variables will all affect the quantity of water you use. Which bring us neatly to Daria’s second piece of advice.: practica (practice.) You can only learn and truly understand how much water is required to bring the ingredients together into a soft, putty-like-dough by practicing.

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Our lesson took place a few weeks ago. Cavatelli is a traditional curled pasta shape from Daria’s home town in Puglia,where it’s also known as capunti. Having made a dough from grano duro (semolina flour), the unconventional egg and enough water, Daria taught me to knead. Did I mention how much I like being taught these days, I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to. The heel of your palm does most of the work: pushing the dough forward, folding it in half, turning and pressing again. You should knead for about 8 minutes – again eye not rule – until the dough is smooth and soft as putty.

Cutting and shaping the cavatelli is, despite appearances, pretty straightforward. You need to cut the dough into thick matchsticks. Daria did this by moulding the dough into a rough round, then cutting this round into first strips and then matchsticks. To shape the individual cavatelli  you place your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so the dough curls into a long arc with three in-dents. At every stage of the shaping, cutting and forming Daria launched a blizzard of semolina flour over proceedings to stop the dough sticking.

While I finished shaping the cavatelli, a deeply satisfying task once you master the press and flick required, Daria cooked some cauliflower until unfashionably soft. Having lifted the tender florets from their cooking water (which she left for the pasta) she then sautéed the cauliflower in an even more unfashionable quantity of olive oil before mashing it gently with the back of the wooden spoon until it surrendered into a soft, creamy sauce. A pinch of salt and a handful of chopped dusty-brown olives – surly and salty ones from Gaeta – finished the sauce off nicely.

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I’d just like to pause and note how delicious well-cooked cauliflower ripassata in extra virgin olive oil, well salted and studded with olives is. This has been our lunch – give or take a piece of bread and lump of cheese – once a week since my lesson. Noted? Good! But back to the cavatelli. Under supervision I cooked the pasta in the cloudy cauliflower water. It took just minutes, the indented curls bobbing excitedly to the surface. Once cooked, the cavatelli was slotted-spooned into the cauliflower pan – a little of the pasta cooking water still clinging to the curls – stirred and served.

Now as you may or may not have noticed, I am very fond of vegetables – broccoli, crema di rapa, zucchini, broccoletti - that are cooked until extremely soft, turned in olive oil and then stirred into pasta. Such dishes have become a cornerstone of my diet and the saviour of my purse strings. This dish Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive is my new favorite. The soft, somewhat shy sauce given courage by the feisty olives, collects in the curls and coats the tender pasta.

‘This is a good pasta for a complete beginner’ Daria noted. I felt myself bristle, the pride surge through my veins. ‘Well I’m not exactly a beginner.’ I was about to splutter.’ I’ve lived in Italy for 8 years now and I’ve been making pasta since 1997.’  Then I remembered. ‘Yes it is.’ I agreed while noting notes in my scruffy but almost angst free notebook. ‘It’s a perfect pasta for a beginner.’

Serve by eye not rule.

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Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive  Cavatelli pasta with cauliflower and olives

Enough for 4

  • 400 g farina di garno duro (semola)
  • 1 medium egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • filtered water – enough
  • 1 medium-sized cauliflower
  • Extra virgin olive oil – plenty
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • a handful of coarsely chopped black olives
  • salt – enough
  • black pepper – enough

Pour the flour into a mound on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break  the egg into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolk and start working the egg into the flour. Now add a little water and continue working the liquid into the dough. Keep adding water 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.

Divide the dough into quarters. Roll, mould and pat one-quarter into a circle about 5 ml thick. Cut the square into strips about 3 cm wide. Cut the strip into match sticks about 3 mm wide. The end epic of the circle which are too small can be set aside and worked back into the rest of the dough.

Work on  a well floored board. Position your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the dough matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so he dough curls onto a long arc with three in-dents. Move the cavatelli curl onto a tray or sheet dusted with semolina flour.

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and the cook the florets for about 1o minutes or until they are soft and very tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cauliflower out of the pan and into a colander to drain. In a saute pan warm the oil and then gently fry the garlic until it is golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and then add the cauliflower and olives. Stir well so both are coated with oil and gently mash the cauliflower with the back of the wooden spoon until you have a soft, creamy mixture. Add more oil if necessary. Turn of the heat

Cook the pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente which will only take a few minutes. Drain the pasta – reserving some cooking water – and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a little cooking water to loosen and emulsify the dish if necessary. Serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables

Part and parcel

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Lets just say they can come in very useful those tough, dark, crimpled and otherwise discardable outer leaves. Blanch until supple, pat dry, chill and apply as necessary. Brassica in brassiere – very effective. I also lay a well- chilled leaf across my forehead the other day! Vegetal relief after an infuriating hour of miscommunication at the commune and a series of thwarted attempts to get things done. I’m also convinced my forehead looks a little less lined now. Next time my whole face But enough of such talk.

I was, I’m told, an unfussy child when it came to food. Extremely unfussy and pretty voracious by all accounts! The child that ate everything, even cabbage. Especially cabbage. Unswayed by the pertinacious odour when boiled – hilarious – unphased by the anguish and ridicule of my friends, undeterred even by the attempts of the school dinner ladies to boil the brassica to death, I really liked cabbage. Plain boiled with masses of best butter, salt and pepper was how we ate it at home: a tasty, good-natured, only slightly sulphurous companion to the sausages, mash topped pie or meaty braise. Cabbage was the fourth player in a colcannonesque quartet along with mash, butter and bacon. There was a significant Chou farci in France when I was 14. Cabbage even survived the all or nothing years, the obsessive and disordered ones, when in an attempt to quash all voracious appetites I avoided, eliminated or forsake almost everything. But not cabbage. There was no butter of course, which meant the cabbage wasn’t nearly as much fun, but there was cabbage nonetheless.

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Gillian Riley notes that cabbage, cavolo, Brassica oleraccea has been around for thousands of years and that many of the types we recognise today were known by the Ancient Romans. She also reminds us that the vast Brassica family – which like most vast families is divided into many groups – includes cauliflower and broccoli. Modern Romans, at least the ones I know, not least this 77cm one, are devoted to broccoli particularly their prized broccolo romanesco. Cabbage, be it the handsome savoy, the darker, stronger cavolo nero or the tight, round white cabbage is cooked less in Rome. But when it is cooked, it’s done so with Gusto.

In Volpetti they cook dark, leafy cabbage as they do many of their green vegetables: twice! First boiled until tender but still resistant and then ripassato (re-passed) in a saute pan with a fearless quantity of olive oil infused with garlic.. Twice as nice. They also cook white cabbage in the pan with olive oil, braising it really, letting it cook slowly in the vapours from its own escaping moisture. Sometimes they add cooked cannellini beans – starchy and comely – to this smothered cabbage which is good and something I often make at home for lunch. Volpetti also does a nice farro and bean soup that includes plenty of sliced white cabbage. I’ve eaten more cabbage in Toscana. Most notably the dark, sultry, Javier Bardem of Brassica: cavolo nero, much-loved and a fundamental part of Ribollita, a substantial bean and vegetable soup, re-boiled and then served over the saltless bread of the region. Minestrone too, greatly benefits from a hefty handful of sliced savoy or cavolo nero. And then there’s stuffed cabbage.

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Not in Rome though, I’ve never had stuffed cabbage in Rome. I’ve never had stuffed cabbage in Italy as it happens! Which makes sense, as apparently it’s not really typical to any region!  Feel free to put me right?  That said, I have several recipes of Italian origin I’ve bookmarked over the years: a savoy cabbage and sausage bake from the Silver spoon, a recipe torn from a magazine for involtini, an intriguing Northern Italian recipe for cabbage loaf, Giorgio Locatelli’s Mondeghini. And then of course there is my brother’s advice

On Thursday morning having re-read the majestic oak tree cake post, missing my brother (what a dame) and with a longing for something warm, tasty and – to put it bluntly – porky,  I gathered together the various threads, books and pages and came up with savoy cabbage leaves stuffed with sausage et all and cooked in tomato sauce.

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You need a savoy cabbage, look for one whose dark wrinkled leaves are firm and pert and whose paler head is unblemished and solid. Having removed the very dark, tough outer leaves – discard them, braise them for six hours, fashion them into a scarf or use them for something else – carefully pull away nine very nice leaves. It may help to cut them away from the base with a small sharp knife. Blanch the nine leaves briefly in well-salted boiling water, just long enough to render then supple and mailable. You also need pork sausages, best quality ones. I use Italian Luganega which is particularly good, lean and accommodating. Bread soaked in milk, parmesan, finely chopped rosemary and sage are mixed with the sausage meat to make the stuffing. Hands are best.

There are entire web sites and weeklong summer schools dedicated to cabbage parcel rolling. Overwhelmed, I just made it up, basing my naive cabbage rolling on baby swaddling, which Luca wasn’t very keen on, which was probably something to do with my shoddy technique. I imagined the ball of stuffing was Luca and placed it in the bottom third of the blanched leaf. I then brought the sides of the leaf in and tucked them round the ball snugly. This – you might be relieved to learn – is where the baby swaddling parallels end! I didn’t (even in the most sleep deprived and peculiar moments ) roll my baby up as I did the cabbage leaf round the sausage ball, that is, into a completely sealed little parcel. I can hear you clicking away to those tutorials.

The sauce is simple, a large tin of peeled plum tomatoes, passed through the mouli! Have you bought one yet? You should, they are terrific and indispensable. A heavy-based pan with a well-fitting lid is important as the parcels cook in both the simmering sauce and the hot steamy vapors that rise seductively from below. Tuck the parcels sardine-like in the pan, there should be enough sauce to come about half way up the parcels. Cook the parcels gently for about 25 minus, turn them, replace the lid and let them cook for another 25 miners. I turned them again and then let them bubble for a final ten minutes without the lid.

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We ate our parcels with a half butter/ half olive oil mash which was pretty tasty. Tasty and complete. While helping myself to another parcel and another spoonful of mash, I noted that this is a meal in which my two kitchen worlds collide in a most gratifying way. Sausages, buttered cabbage, mash and tomato sauce (Heinz I’m afraid, it was England in 1979) reinterpreted in my Roman kitchen. Cavolo verza, lugagana, pane, latteParmigiano, salvia, rosemarino, sugo di pomodoro soaked, amassed, moulded, rolled and simmered into something I’ve called Mondeghini in sugo. Or should it be Mondeghini al sugo? Al or in ? Who knows? Certainly not me!  With our parcels, mash and sauce we had a glass of very average white. Red would have been better, but we’d polished off a whole bottle the night before and it seemed indecent to open a new bottle for Thursday lunch.

The two remaining parcels were even better that evening. The stuffing seemed to have come together. I noted more obvious things:  how the milk soaked bread gives the stuffing a soft, billowy quality, how well rosemary and sage flirt with pork, that the sauce was thicker and richer than at lunch time, what a good couple cabbage and sausage make. Next time I’ll make my parcels in the morning, let them rest and then re-heat them gently at lunchtime. I ate the two parcels leaning against the kitchen counter with the glass of wine I wish I’d had at lunch time – this. I am not sure it was entirely appropriate, I should ask my wise Friend. Damn nice though.  Have a good week.

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Stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce  Mondeghini in/al sugo*

Adapted from Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe in Made in Italy and Jane Grigson’s recipe in her Vegetable book

  • 1 large savoy cabbage
  • 200 g white bread, crusts cut away
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • 300 g good quality plain pork sausages, skins removed.
  • small sprig of sage, finely chopped
  • small sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • salt
  • 500 g peeled plum tomatoes
  • 30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
  • clove of garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife.

Discard the very tough outer cabbage leaves (or use them for something else) and choose 9 nice, large inner leaves. Blanch these leaves in boiling salted water for a few moments until supple. Drain the leaves, pat them dry and then spread them out on a clean tea towel.

Soak the bread in the milk – mashing it gently with a wooden spoon – until it forms a soft thick paste. Mix the bread paste with the sausage meat, finely chopped rosemary and sage, parmesan, a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt. Hands are best.

Make the parcels:  If necessary pare away some of the fat stalk so the leaf lies flat. Using your hands, make a ball of sausage mixture roughly the size of a golf-ball and sit it about a third of the way up from the base of the leaf. Bring the bottom third up and over the ball, tuck the two sides of the leaf in and then roll the sausage filled bottom third over the top two-thirds of the leaf tucking the leaf back around the whole parcel.  Secure with a toothpick.

Pass the tinned tomatoes through a mouli, sieve or simply chop them roughly while still in the tin with scissors. In a heavy- based saute pan with a lid, warm the oil and then saute the garlic until golden and fragrant (be very careful not to burn it.) Add the tomatoes, stir and bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Once boiling, lower the heat until the sauce simmers and place the parcels carefully into the sauce.

Cover the pan and gently simmer the parcels for 25 minutes, turn them, replace the lid and simmer for another 25 minutes.  Remove the lid and simmer for another 10 mines so the sauce reduces a little Let the parcels sit for 15 minutes before serving with mashed potato.

*Just to clarify –  As I noted in the post I have used Giorgio Locatelli’s rather unusual name for this recipe (and spelling) Mondeghini. This word is usually reserved for polpette (meatballs) in Lombardia as is the word mondeghili. But as I was pretty faithful to Giorgio’s recipe for stuffed cabbage from his book Made in Italy, it seemed appropriate I used his word. His Grandmothers actually, so possibly a a regional/dialect word from nearly 45 years ago! Any other information or thoughts about this word are very welcome. R 

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Filed under cabbage, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sausage, stuffed cabbage, supper dishes, tomato sauce, winter recipes

Fat chance

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So I’m back home in Rome. Home in Rome, even after eight years that still sounds strange. It doesn’t feel strange though, it feels just right. This is due in no small part to my son, my blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who looks decidedly English, but whose gestures, countenance and fervent, slightly comical mamma suggest otherwise and who is unmistakably content to be back.

Nearly three weeks in England was, as predicted, exactly what I needed. Long enough to immerse myself in the things I pine for – not least the beauty and beast that is family – quash the nostalgia and quietly notice the things I don’t miss one jot. Long enough also to miss Rome. To really miss Rome. Which may seem surprising given my exasperation before I left!  Or maybe it’s not so surprising! My exasperation at my adopted city was after all just that: exasperation, a familiar and relatively innocuous state. A state that’s quashed as quickly as my nostalgia for London when pitted against the things I truly, deeply like about the city that saved me, not least her sublime and shambolic beauty, her unexpectability and her infuriating but alluring attitude. And these three.

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From left to right, pancetta, guanciale and lardo. But more about these marbled slices in a moment. On arriving home in Rome, having pounded and weaved our way like territorial tom cats through Testaccio and having put the small tom cat to bed (I confess that by 7 30 I love bed time more than my son?) I settled down in front of my computer with an embarrassingly large glass of red to catch up on my reading. It’s January and there’s much talk of resolution, of greens, grains, gluten-less and guices, excuse me juices. Quite right too. And then there are the Italians (and converted Italians) who – almost without exception – are talking about lardo, lardo, guanciale, pancetta and salumi. In short cured pork products with a fearless, stupendous and delicious quantity of silky, milky-white fat. Superlative fat, now how about that!

Fully embracing the idea that January is the month to insulate and relish the fatted pig (It’s traditionally the month for slaughtering and then preserving) an almost empty fridge and a rude yearning for cured pork it seemed wholly appropriate that having bought my greens and grains I should visit a fine purveyor of all things cured: Volpetti. I explained my plans to Claudio who suggested pancetta and lardo from Toscana and an aged guanciale from Le Marche. The attention and care with which he handled the pieces, cut each slice and then wrapped it first in white paper then in brown was touching. Abandon preconceptions, this is good fat, the antitheses of insidious hidden fat. This is fat to be used (sparingly) with relish and to be celebrated. Lets start with Lardo.

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Not to be confused with English lard (struttoLardo – specifically lardo from the Tuscan hamlet tucked between two marble quarries: Colonnata – is pork back fat cured in white marble trough with salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs and garlic. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough. Eleonora and Emiko thank you. It’s a glorious, silken and deeply flavored delicacy that you eat as you would any other salumi, that is by the (very thin) slice. A delicacy that defies all expectations, dispels prejudice and should make Jack Sprats wives of us all.

I first ate lardo di colonnata a little under eight years ago in Tuscany. It was sliced extremely thinly and draped nonchalantly over a mound of puree di potato. I have to admit being a little bewildered when I first saw the plate. I was beautifully bewildered when I tasted the rich, silken, aromatic lardo melting – yielding really – into the soft, warm and accommodating mash: glorious and ambrosial, this is food that lingers in mouth and memory. Time has not faded or jaded, I still feel the same beautiful bewilderment when I eat lardo di colonnata on toasted bread. A few black olives, some radishes and a glass of prosecco and I have my perfect antipasto. And after the antipasto comes il primo so lets talk about guanciale. 

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Guanciale, which is cured pork jowl (guancia means cheek or jowl) is beloved by Romans and has changed the way I cook.  It has a sweet, delicate taste that is halfway between best bacon and proper well-rendered lard. It is an exceptional ingredient that imparts its distinct sweet flavour and rich fatty nature to whatever it is added too whether that be a soup, stew, pasta, torta or braise.

I use aged guanciale – sparingly, a little goes a long way – often. I adore the deep, rich, fatty, reassuring notes it imparts to whatever it touches. The Saul Berenson of cured pork.  Many Romans consider it fundamental to authentic All’amatriciana, Carbonara or to today’s recipe, another Roman classic and my favourite these days: Pasta or Spaghetti alla gricia.

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Pasta, guanciale, cooking water, pecorino romano and black pepper: Alla gricia. This much I know. Al dente spaghetti (or rigatoni, mezze maniche or tonnarelli ) is tossed with gently sautéed guanciale: the aim is to slowly soften the guanciale, keeping it translucent never brown and crisp which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls. Drained pasta is added to the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, this starchy water is a key to the dish, emulsifying the fat to create an almost creamy sauce for the pasta. The dish is finished with a fearless amount of bold, brazen, tangy and freshly grated pecorino romano and plenty of cracked black pepper. More pecorino scattered liberally from above is recommended. Eat.

Simple to make but – as is so often the case – practice is prudent. Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking of spoon and wrist partaking required to bring the ingredients together. It goes without saying the ingredients should be authentic and the very best you can lay your hands on. If you can’t find guanciale and pecorino (I know I know fat chance) pancetta, parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but an extremely tasty dish none the less. Ben, some guanciale in exchange for a jar of seville orange marmalade?

Home in Rome chewing the fat and the spaghetti.

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Spaghetti alla Gricia

Serves 4

  • 450 g spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp lard (strutto) or olive oil
  • 150 g aged guanciale
  • 150 g  aged pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted boiling water. Meanwhile place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the lard or olive oil and place over medium heat. Slowly sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale is soft, pink and translucent and rendered it’s fat, add a small splash of water from the cooking pasta

When the pasta is al dente, set aside a cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Remove the pan from the heat and add three quarters of the the grated pecorino romano cheese and the black pepper, toss vigorously, and add another splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring the ingredients together into a soft creamy muddle. Divide between four warm bowls, scatter over the rest of the pecorino and serve immediately.

Next week pancetta, oh and cabbage.

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Filed under antipasti, guanciale, lardo, pancetta, pasta and rice, primi, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

Takes me back

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At first at didn’t miss England at all. Quite the opposite in fact. For almost six and a half years I was happily engulfed by alternating waves of relief that I’d left (excuse me: fled) and contentment at my new (chaotic, often unfeasible and unexpected) Roman life. Then about a year and a half ago I was struck by a bolt(s) of missing. The list is predictable and clichéd I’m afraid: lawns like green baize, orderly queues, doors held open, brusque but cheery Goodmornings and Pardon mes, The Royal Mail, London Underground, John Lewis, BBC, ironic asides, Hackney cabs, well swept pavements, The Guardian Newspaper, eccentric and slightly inappropriate clothing, women going to work on the bus with damp hair. And the food! I was almost overwhelmed by waves of longing for glorious British food. Food that I’d spurned – somewhat disdainfully – in favour of glorious Italian food. But that’s another paragraph.

The problem with the missing was two-fold. First there was the missing itself – which felt a little like the hollow yawn in your stomach when you’re hungry or a persistent nagging sensation that something’s wrong  – and then there were the comparisons that inevitably accompany ‘missing’.  Now I think you know how much I truly, madly, deeply like my adopted city, but that period of missing and comparison was bloody hard. Longing for green lawns made Rome seem parched. Nostalgia for orderly queues accentuated the apparent inability of Romans to form any sort of even vaguely civil line. The metro seemed infuriatingly inefficient and Italian TV shockingly deficient. I felt exasperated by Taxis, bad service, triple parking, litter strewn public spaces, lack of irony, the postal service, doors in my face and obsessive dedication to blow-drying.

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Maybe it’s a sign you should go back‘ suggested a Roman acquaintance I shouldn’t have bothered confiding in. An acquaintance who then took umbrage at my suggestion Romans lack a sense of irony before proving my point by launching into a diatribe about cervicale and the merits of of blow-drying. ‘Maybe it’s because you’ve really decided to stay?‘ Suggested another, wiser Roman friend. She was right, the missing struck at exactly the same time circumstances in my life: an unexpected job with nice prospects at Teatro Verde, my writing, a man, confirmation of my official residenza in Rome and a half Italian baby growing inside me collided with my truly, madly, deeply. It was clear I was going to stay.

Of course you miss things about England‘ she reassured me before ordering another espresso. ‘It’s perfectly normal and damn healthy‘ She added while ripping and tipping the bag of sugar into her tiny cup and stirring an extraordinary number of times. ‘What do you English say: the grass is greener?’ She added while positioning her teaspoon back on her saucer. ‘It’s also healthy you’re finally seeing the deep, raging flaws in Rome and Romans‘ She noted before tossing back her hair, head and espresso. ‘Seeing the flaws and yet still wanting to stay!’  She paused. ‘You do need a good, long holiday in London to see what you are and aren’t missing though.’

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Of course it wasn’t quite as simple as that. But nearly. I’d been back countless times during the previous six years but that trip back about eighteen months ago, a trip full of missing, longing, a baby and guided by the words of my friend was different. I spent two weeks in England. Fourteen days in which I very consciously sought out and savored all the things I pined for: soft green lawns, orderly queues, even pavements, high quality costume drama, dirty low-brow comedy, The British Museum, Baker St station, Regents Park, Bloomsbury, Kew Gardens, Tate Modern, Propers pubs, Daunt Books and Boots the chemist. And I ate, for two: smoked fish, pork pies, icy white celery, Neals yard cheese, Sunday lunch, watercress, fruit fools, horseradish sauce, custard tarts, gooseberries, back bacon, pork chops, and cheeky fat sausages, raspberries, clotted cream, english peas and afternoon teas.

Then still acting on good advice from a my friend, I started noticing the things I didn’t miss about England – another predictable and clichéd list I’m afraid and one I will keep to myself – and quietly observing some of the things that led me to flee. I also noted the things, dozens and dozens of things, I missed about Rome! Rome my home.

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I’ve just spent another two weeks in England, it was long overdue and it was good to be back. There were generous doses of people and things I miss. There was also rather more of the things I don’t miss than anticipated! Which is fine, it’s good to be reminded. I also ate, cooked and shared plenty of really good English food, (and some not so good, but that’s fine, it’s good to be reminded.) One particularly nice, low-key supper was cooked by my mum last Monday.

Dad and I had been to Magic Voices, which is – and I quote – ‘a contemporary choir created by renowned Musical Director, Andy Rumble.’ It was the singularly most bizarre and joyful evening of my visit. Singing it seems, suits me. Happy, harmonized and humming ‘Bring him Home’ we arrived home to a blazing fire – gas I hasten to add, but blazing no less -and  mum bearing three glasses of Hugel Riesling and one of my favourite suppers waiting patiently on the AGA:, a truly, deeply good and nostalgic supper: Cauliflower cheese.

Now I imagine we are all well acquainted with cauliflower cheese! But just case you aren’t! Let me introduce you? Cauliflower florets are boiled until tender in well-salted water, arranged in a well-buttered baking dish, covered with a fearless quantity of well-made white sauce (béchamel) that has been enriched (even further) with cheese. The smooth glossy sauce is topped with breadcrumbs and more grated cheese and then baked until golden, blistered and bubbling at the edges. Well, well, well  it’s just delicious.

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I made it again two days later for lunch with Dad, my sister Rosie, nieces Beattie and Freya and my bonny and extremely dramatic son. I took time over the white sauce, infusing the milk with a bay leaf and a clove studded onion and then letting the it bubble and burp away contentedly for a good half hour. It was worth it. I remembered that when we were little my Mum sometimes scattered a tin of butter beans over the cauliflower florets. It’s an addition I can highly recommend: the soft, plump and nutty beans making the dish even more pleasing and substantial. Now about the cheese, most cheddar works well, but best of all is a mix of strong English cheddar and bold piquant Italian parmesan. Strong English and piquant Italian, ah yes, I know it well!  Remember, be generous with the salt and pepper.

I boiled some Curly Kale. Once it was tender but still as resistant as I am to life on a Monday Morning (quite), I drained it and tossed it with butter and coarse salt. It made a good, green and toothsome companion to an otherwise very beige lunch. I had a dollop of mango chutney beside my cauliflower cheese! Strange I know, but very nice.

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Cauliflower cheese

Adapted From Jane Grigson’s recipes in English Food and The Vegetable Book.

  • a large cauliflower
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • a bay leaf
  • a small onion peeled and studded with three cloves
  • 50 g butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50 g strong cheddar
  • 50 g parmesan
  • a tin of butter beans (drained)
  • breadcrumbs
  • more butter for dotting

Set the oven to 200°

In a small pan bring the milk, bay leaf and onion studded with cloves slowly to the boil. As soon as the milk starts to rise in the pan, turn it off and leave it to sit and infuse for 15 minutes.

Melt the butter in a heavy pan, stir in the flour and cook to a roux ( a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan) for two minutes, without browning.  Remove the bay leaf and onion and then over a very low flame pour the milk gradually into the roux whisking constantly. Raise the heat a little and bring the sauce to simmering point, whisking until the sauce thickens to the consistency of thick double cream. Turn down the heat and let the sauce simmer gently for twenty minutes. Stir in all but a small handful of the grated cheese, taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a rolling boil and then drop in the florets. Boil the florets for about 5 – 8 minutes or until they are tender to the point of a knife. Drain the florets carefully so as not to break them. Arrange the florets in a baking dish, scatter over the drained butter beans, pour over the cheese sauce and dust the surface with breadcrumbs, the remaining cheese and a few dots of butter.

Bake for twenty minutes or so or until the surface is blistered and golden and the sauce is bubbling at the edges.

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Filed under cauliflower, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables, winter recipes