This week I closed two books I felt I should have spreadeagled on my writing desk (which is actually a chest of drawers offering no leg room whatsoever) for the last time. Definitive and essential they may be, they also made my heart sink; quite an achievement for a recipe book and a book about Roman food. As is so often the case, it took me ages to realize and I kept doggedly referring, until finally, slam shut. The relief was disproportionate and also liberated the books suffocating underneath the two. Of course this is nothing about books, but everything about books, and not wasting your time with things that make your heart sink.
We’ve also driven out of Rome on three half-day trips, along the ancient Appia Antica to the hills, to the sea and to a town called Campagnano, small escapes providing space and an outside view. I remember a Drama tutor once asking how on earth can you comprehend what is on top of you, I think this is especially true of Rome and writing a book, both of which can loom so large and feel so claustrophobic that you need to take a step back to have any sort of perspective. Three trips meant three lunches. One was fine, the other two though, well they seemed sent to remind my lately cynical self of the unique brilliance of Italian food and wine and the kaleidoscopic connection with place, history and tradition that can pass nonchalantly through a meal. I am still thinking about an antipasto of pear dipped in polenta and then deep-fried until golden and served with a dusting of pecorino cheese, abbacchio brodettato, lamb with egg and lemon sauce, and a dish of salt cod, tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, all three of which may well sound unlikely, but were superb.
I’ve written about peperonata before and I will probably write about it again. It will also be in the book, with a hilarious (or not so hilarious) story to justify its place. It is a recipe that falls into my extremely useful and delicious category. I first made it fifteen years, transported by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and a scarlet stew to Italy long before I moved here, I have made it constantly ever since. So many things about peperonata are good. It is simple and relatively quick to make: onions, red peppers, tomatoes smothered and simmered in olive and butter into a thick, vivid, full- flavored stew that is at once silky, sweet and savory. It is forgiving, proportions can be varied, tomatoes fresh or tinned. It’s generous, bringing the best out in peppers and tomatoes, even the underprivileged sort, making them the tastiest they can be. It keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and it freezes well. Peperonata is also, like my friend Tom, the most accommodating dish ever, it quite simply goes with everything.
It is excellent served hot with chicken, pork, lamb, beef and my favorite, topped with a poached egg. It can be stirred into pasta or rice. It’s jammy almost chutney-like-nature makes it good in sandwiches, on toast or crostini. It is lovely as a salad or part of an antipasto like supper, sprinkled with parsley or dotted with black olives. It good too – as I discovered a couple of days ago – made into tart.
I make the pastry ridiculously quickly – 120 g plain four, 50 g cold diced butter, salt, a little grated parmesan, iced water - and rolled it thinly, lifted it into the tin, pricked it and then sat the tin in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill. I then baked it until it was the colour of a walnut, before spooning in the peperonata and sliding it back in the oven for 5 minutes. I’m not sure this was entirely necessary.
For a moment I felt as though I had inherited my mum and granny Alice’s knack for pastry: a thin, buttery crust, slightly crumbly at the edges but holding firm underneath. The parmesan was a random impulse that works well, giving the pastry a sharp, salty edge. It is important your peperonata is (as Jane Grigson puts it) moistly juicy, even a little dry, never sloppy. We had the tart – the peperonata framed neatly by the pastry – with thinly sliced fennel with olive oil and salt, a lunch that made me nearly as happy as slamming shut those books.
Note – this makes enough peperonata for two 21 – 24 cm tarts – you can never have too much peperonata. You can of course use fresh tomatoes. I’d make double if I were you.
- a large white or yellow onion
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 25 g butter
- 3 large red peppers
- a tin of tinned plum tomatoes or 6 good ripe tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped
- salt and black pepper
- 120 g plain flour
- 50 g butter
- 20 g freshly grated parmesan
- salt and black pepper
- cold water
- You need at 21 cm – 24 cm tart or flan tin (ideally with a loose base)
Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into short strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith. Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes. Lift the lid once or twice to stir.
Add the tomatoes to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich, thick, vivid tomato stew. It should be not be sloppy. Season vigorously with salt.
Rub the diced butter into the flour with your fingertips until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add the parmesan, a pinch of salt, some black pepper and enough iced water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth ball. On a lightly floured board roll the pastry into a round an inch larger than the tin. Lift the dough carefully into the tin, press it into the corners. Leave the pastry overhang. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and then put it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.
Bake the pastry case blind for 15 minutes (or until it is pale gold and firm) at 180°. You can break off the pastry overhang or leave it be. Fill the tart case with peperonata and then return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature with salad.