Category Archives: tomatoes

water everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

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

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing red

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It was all so green when I left. A week away –  a bonny wedding weekend on an island in the Scottish Hebrides called Tanera Mòr and then a few days slightly too far outside London with my family – and Testaccio market is splattered, like a Cy Twombly canvas, with red. There is still green of course, a market patchwork of asparagus, peas, spinach, slim beans, forest green chard and soft heads of spring lettuce. But it’s the startling splatters: tomatoes, strawberries, crimson cherries and bunches of blushing radishes that are catching my eye.

I’ve never found peeling tomatoes a faff. Quite the opposite in fact, I find the spa-esque process – a hot plunge, a nick with a sharp knife, a cold plunge before peeling –  thoroughly pleasing. Maybe I should get out more? My carelessness with a handful of tomato skins once blocked the sink in the smart kitchen Romla and I were doing some rogue catering in. Fortunately the husband of the house, a man so handsome I turned the same colour as the tomatoes, happened to be in the kitchen while our twenty-three year old selves were peering anxiously into the blocked Belfast. He strode over (I think he might even have been wearing buff riding breeches) plunged his aristocratic hand down the plughole, scooped out the offending red skins and complimented us on the suggestive smell of dinner.

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These are Sicilian pomodori Piccadilly. They are fleshy, flavoursome things the size of small plums that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. Tomatoes like this make me forget my jaded self who has shaken off much of her Roman romanticism, and remember the Rachel who first arrived in Italy nine springs ago. The woman who stood staring in gastronomic awe at the mounds of red: tiny orbs, beefy cow hearts, fat fluted saucers, pendulous plums and who ate them chopped, sliced or simply squashed idly onto bread with a careless quality of olive oil and too much salt day after day after day just because she could.

Having sung the praises of Italian pomodori when I know full well many of you might not be able to find such full hipped and red lipped tomatoes, I should hasten to add today’s recipe is a forgiving one. Extremely forgiving, as it involves the saving grace of many-a-mediocre tomato: a flesh shriveling, flavour intensifying roast.

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Having peeled your tomatoes, sliced them in two and set them cut-side-up in a well-oiled baking dish, you tuck a thin sliver of garlic into the soft pulp and place a quarter of anchovy filet on top of each half. You then scatter some soft, craggy breadcrumbs, a little finely chopped fresh rosemary, salt and black pepper over the upturned faces before dousing the whole tray, fearlesslessly and drunkenly with extra virgin olive oil. I find a glass of wine is helpful when a reckless olive oil hand is called for.

You bake your well-seasoned tomatoes at 180° for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely soft, collapsing, curling sweetly at the edges and starting to suggest sauce. Until the anchovies have dissolved into the tender tomato flesh and the olive oil inebriated breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

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The combination of roasted tomato: sweet and savory with the intense, salty fishiness of the anchovy, a warm notes of tomato smothered garlic, the smoky, floral rosemary and crisp olive oil soaked breadcrumbs is a mighty good one. A mighty good one that sings. I agree with the brilliant Niki SegnitIf you have ever wondered what Unami is, a mouthful of tomato and anchovy should settle the matter.’ I’d go one step further and say a mouthful of roasted tomato with anchovies (the fat, plump Sicilian ones preserved under coarse salt that you need to soak and then de-bone) rosemary and olive oil breadcrumbs and the Unami matter is settled and some.

You could eat your tumbling mess of anchovy, rosemary and breadcrumbed tomatoes with a grilled lamb chop, pork chop or slice of roast chicken. Alternatively – and I appreciate the suggestion of breadcrumbs on bread might sound odd –  they are excellent smeared on toast. Or you could do as I did today.

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That is mash your baking tray of warm tomatoes clumsily into a rough sauce with the back of a wooden spoon and then stir this sauce into some al dente linguine or spaghetti. Don’t worry about serving bowls or dishes, mix the pasta with the sauce directly in the baking tray, making sure you diligently scrape and stir every sticky, oily morsel and crumb. Someone will also have to take a crust of bread to the tin once all the pasta is served-up.

This is how I (we) like to eat: pasta with a sauce that both strokes and punches. A green salad of lettuce, lovage and wild rocket and then a dozen crimson cherries made a nice finish to a Wednesday lunch.  Now about that flat hunting.

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Linguine with oven roasted tomatoes, anchovies, rosemary and breadcrumbs

Serves 4

  • 1 kg ripe but firm and flavoursome tomatoes (plum-shaped Piccadilly work particularly well)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 plump cloves of garlic
  • 6 large or 8 small anchovy filets (preserved under oil or better still under salt)
  • 60 g soft, craggy breadcrumbs
  • a little finely chopped rosemary
  • salt and black pepper
  • 450 g linguine

Set the oven to 180°

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for 60 seconds and then very cold water. The skins should slip and pull away easily.

Half the tomatoes and sit them – cut side up –  in an oiled baking tin. Peel and slice the garlic very thinly. Tuck a sliver of garlic into the fleshy pulp of each half. Using scissors, snip the anchovy fillets into quarters and sit a quarter on each cut tomato. Scatter the breadcrumbs and chopped rosemary over the tomatoes. Sprinkle and grind a little salt and black pepper then douse everything very generously with olive oil.

Bake the tomatoes for 20 minutes or so or until the tomatoes are very soft and starting to collapse and the breadcrumbs are golden and crisp. You need to keep a beady eye on them.

Cook the linguine in a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Using a wooden spoon, gently mash the tomatoes into a very crude, rough sauce, add the drained pasta, stir and serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

Roll with it

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The number eight tram rolls a good route. At least I think so. Starting in Largo di Torre Argentina, it cuts straight and then crosses the bridge, runs the entire length of Viale Trastevere before curving its way along Gianicolense and sliding into the terminus at Casaletto. On a good day; clear and avoiding the rush, top to tail takes about 22 minutes. On a bad day; rain and rush, it takes 35.

I don’t very often top to tail or tail to top on the number eight. Most days I’ll ride a section though: The Ministry of Education up to work at the children’s theatre, the theatre up to the park, purveyors of fine pizza bianca back to The Ministry, my biscuit shop up to Stazione Trastevere. Come to think of it, of all my routes – there are many, I’m both dedicated and dependent on the exasperating Roman public transport system – this is the one I ride the most.

Then every so often, last Saturday for example, we roll the whole line and are not only reminded what good curved cut the N° 8 makes through the city, but what a good destination awaits at the end of the line.

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Occupying the ground floor of a nondescript modern building just yards from the tram terminus and identifiable only by a small yellow sign, the trattoria Cesare al Casaletto is, from the outside, unremarkable. I’d passed by, at first oblivious and then dismissive, dozens and dozens of times. Then, on advice from Katie, we went for lunch. The best lunch we’d had in a long time. And so we went back, again and again, each visit reaffirming our conviction.

Bright and luminous, da Cesare is the antitheses of the archetypal shadowy and surly Roman Trattoria – I should add I like shadowy and surly from time to time. It’s quietly elegant yet cordial and comfortable. On Saturday we were given a table in the nicest corner with plenty of space for a high chair. Da Cesare is a family trattoria in the truest sense and this is personified by the owner’s bold little girl who marches up to your table to say ciao.

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To start, we divided a portion of plump, preserved anchovies: oily, fiendishly fishy filets to be squashed onto bread and polpette di bollito misto; delicate, fragile, deep-fried spheres of breaded shredded veal served with a spoonful of pesto. Then we shared a primo of fresh egg pasta with vignarola (braised artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions) and pecorino romano cheese. We paused. For secondo my companion had baccalà alla Romana (salt cod with tomatoes) and I had involtini al sugo, two quietly delicious beef rolls in a rich tomato sauce. There were also side dishes, one a tangle of dark-green ragged cicioria ripassata and another of chips. Such good chips. We finished with coffee and biscuits that had not long been pulled from the oven.

It took me a few visits to understand what makes the Food at da Cesare so special. Of course it’s the excellent ingredients, the skill and a lightness of touch that transforms traditional Roman food – the menu is much the same as any menu you might find in any trattoria – into something so vital and impressive. Then, after the fourth or fifth meal, I understood. It’s the care taken that sets da Cesare apart. Real care without pretense or fuss, without swagger or caricature. The food makes even more sense when you talk to the owner, Leonardo Vignoli or his wife. Both are gentle, modest, passionate, attentive: a rare combination in Rome.  The wine list is as splendid as the food. As is the advice to help you navigate it.

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As I paid the bill I asked Leonardo about the involtini, the two unassuming beef rolls that had been simmered tenderly in tomato sauce, maybe the nicest I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a few.) ‘Thin slices of good beef, well seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic wrapped around impossibly thin batons of carrot and celery and then simmered gently in tomato for an hour and a half‘ was his advice. ‘How would I know they were done?’ I asked. ‘Touch and taste‘ was his reply. Then he was gone – politely of course – back into the kitchen and I was left with a queue of questions trailing down my throat.

My first attempt was acceptable. My second very reasonable. My third attempt at involtini however, was a resounding success. Not quite reaching the benchmark set by Da Cesare, but nearly. Ask your butcher to cut you 10 thin slices of beef – rump or chuck is ideal. Season the slices prudently with fine salt, freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you so wish (I don’t.) Position a fat bundle of painfully thin carrot and celery batons at the bottom of the slice and then roll, tuck and roll until you have a neat parcel. Secure the roll lengthways with a toothpick. You brown your involtini in hot oil, nudging and turning, until they are evenly coloured and then you cover them with wine and tomato and simmer for a good long while.

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The tomato reduces into a dense, flavoursome sauce and the beef rolls – with their neat bundle of savory – are simmered into tenderness. I wouldn’t have given these involtini a thought (never mind a second glance) before coming to live in Rome. Old-fashioned, boring and just damn fuddy-duddy I might have mumbled. Little did I know. Made carefully with good ingredients, they are simply delicious, richly favoured and well, very Roman. And the word involtini? It comes form the verb avvolgere (to wrap) so literally translated means, a little thing that has been wrapped.

Of course involtini work well as part of a Roman-style lunch. That is; a tasty antipasti, a modest portion of pasta and then a roll (or two) served alone on a white plate with nothing more than a crust of bread to scoop up the sauce. They are also good in a more English manner, that is beside a pile of extremely buttery mashed potato (what isn’t?) Roll with it.

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Involtini al sugo  Beef rolls in tomato sauce

Inspired by the involtini at  Cesare al Casaletto with advice from my butchers at Sartor.

serves 4 (two each with two extra to squabble over)

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 1 large stick of celery cut into extremely thin batons  (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 10 thin slices of beef (3mm or so) – rump or chuck is ideal
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a clove of garlic, finely chopped (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • a small glass of white wine or red wine
  • 500 g tinned plum tomatoes coarsely chopped or passed through the food mill

Peel and then cut the carrot and celery into extremely thin batons roughly the same length as the beef slice is wide.

Take a slice of beef, lay it flat on the work surface, season with salt, pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you are using it. Again, I don’t use garlic. Place a bundle of carrot and celery at the bottom of the beef slice and then roll the beef around the batons, tucking the sides in if you can, until you have a neat cylinder. Secure the roll with a toothpick along its length.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy based saute pan. Add beef rolls, and cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes.

Add the glass of wine to the pan, raise the heat so the wine sizzles and evaporates. Add the tomatoes and stirring and nudging the rolls so they are evenly spaced and well coated with tomato. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the rolls covered partially – gently stirring and turning the rolls a couple of times – until meat is cooked through and tender which will take about 1 and a half – 2 hours. Add a little more wine or water if the sauce seems to be drying out during the cooking.

Lets the rolls rest for at least 15 minutes before serving with a spoonful of sauce and some bread.

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Filed under beef, Da Cesare al Casaletto, food, In praise of, meat, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, tomatoes

Reliable

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The daily act of turning raw ingredients into good food not only gives me great pleasure, it gives me a sense of purpose and place. Purpose, because this daily act and the sequence of tasks that sustain it: planning, shopping, sorting, washing, soaking, prepping, tasks which can occupy a scant 30 minutes of one day and then eight hours of the next, give structure and sense to my day. Place, because good food requires good ingredients and sourcing good ingredients makes you acutely aware of where, of here and there.

This daily act can also leave me floundering, frantic and furious! When this is the case it’s almost always because I’ve mislayed my sense of purpose, that is structure, common sense and good taste, or my sense of place. By place I don’t just mean my physical place, that is Rome in early December (quince, potatoes, pumpkins, celery root, artichokes, kale, carrots, porcini, olives, grapes, winter melon) but my place as a cook. A home cook with strengths but also limits, a small child and a propensity for mess, tears and very bad language when things go squew-wiff.

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I get most pleasure and have the greatest sense of purpose and when I’m turning raw ingredients into the habitual dishes that sustain me, my family and my friends week after week, year after year. I am – as you’ve probably noticed – extremely habitual. The bean soups, sauces, pastas and risottos that are the cornerstones of my diet. The roasts, pans of beans, trusted cakes, jams, salads (usually green) and vegetables (often boiled until unfashionably soft) that nourish me so often and so well.

I love the familiar and reassuring sequence of movements required for these dishes. Pasta and beans comes to mind: podding, chopping, the execution of the soffritto – a task repaid with both deep flavour and a glorious smell wisping around the kitchen, the reassuring rumble and occasional burp from the simmering beans and then the thick bean soup, the engaging and amusing stir-squeeze-squelch-stir as you pass some of the soup through the food mill. Or roast chicken, which I talked about the other week! The mere thought of cold hands and colder water, patting dry, slathering butter recklessly all over a good bird, shoving a lemon up its bottom and then roasting it’s until burnished makes me feel sanguine. Or salad: green leaves swirling in cold water, the spinning, tearing and dressing (with my hands.) Eating it with my hands too, but only when I’m alone.  And then there’s tomato sauce.

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I make six different types of tomato sauce all of which have numerous variations. The sauce I make depends on the time of year, wether I’m using fresh or tinned tomatoes, what type of pasta I fancy eating, who I am cooking for and my (wholly unpredictable) state of mind.  Today’s panful is a stout but handsome winter sauce made with a deeply flavored soffritto of onion, carrot and celery, tinned plum tomatoes and a glug of red wine. A rich, thick and almost burgundy coloured sauce which can be served with just about any shape of pasta or with a gently poached egg and some bread.

This sauce is decidedly Italian, but I learned to make it in decidedly unItalian circumstances. That is in the old kitchen in my parents house in Harpenden (a suffocating provincial town in the home counties.) I imagine my mum drew original inspiration from a recipe by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson but the need for the printed page had long passed. I’d love to tell you that as a little girl I stood on a stool and stirred the sauce with a battered and charred wooden spoon! But I didn’t. I watched keenly though, as my Mum chopped the vegetables, then sautéed the harlequin heap in an ungodly quantity of olive oil, added a big tin of imported plum tomatoes and slug of wine and then let the sauce bubble away on the cooler plate of the AGA for a good long while.

I spurned this sauce when I first came to Italy, enchanted by simpler, fresher ways and sheepish about my anglicized Italian cooking. It took a few years and much obsessive questioning about how Italians make their tomato sauce to discover this sort of hearty tomato sauce made with a soffritto is typical all over Italy in these darker months. One difference though, Italians (at least the ones I know) nearly always pass this sort of sauce through a food mill so the texture is smooth. I rather like it chunky – you could say that makes it more of a ragù than a sauce – but I’m extremely happy to go smooth if that’s the general consensus.

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I imagine you know the routine as well as I do: peel and chop, the long slow sauté in as much oil as you dare, the sizzle as the tomatoes hit the pan and the deep glug as the wine meets the tomatoes. The slow, burping simmer. Stir from time to time and don’t be afraid to add a little more wine or plain water if the sauce is looking dense but still needs cooking a little longer. If you prefer a smoother sauce (all the Italians in my life prefer a smoother sauce) pass it through a food mill or a sieve.

Rich Tomato sauce

4 generous portions

  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small white onion.
  • stick of celery
  • 1 small carrot
  • 500 g / ml / 1lb 2 oz tinned plum tomatoes, chopped.
  • red wine (optional)
  • salt
  • a pinch of sugar (optional if the sauce is very acidic)

Peel and then very small dice the onion, celery and carrot. In a heavy based pan over a medium/low flame warm the oil. Saute the onion until it’s soft and translucent then add the celery, carrot and a pinch of salt. Stir well so all the vegetables are well coated with oil. Reduce the heat and keep sautéing, stirring every now and then, until the vegetables are soft, lightly golden and – with much of the water evaporated away – richly flavored. This should take about 8- 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and a healthy glug of wine if you are using it, stir and then raise the heat so the sauce comes to a gentle boil. Then reduce the heat and leave the sauce to simmer very gently uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes or until it is dense (but still saucy) and dark red. Taste and season as you see fit. Pass the sauce through a food mill you prefer a smoother texture.

So lunch

We had the sauce with spaghetti and parmesan. Then broccolo romanesco cooked until unfashionably soft dressed with grassy new season extra virgin olive oil and fat anchovies. To finish, an apple and more parmesan. Pleasure, purpose and place.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces, tomato sauce, tomatoes, winter recipes

Just right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

My notes.

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

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