Category Archives: Uncategorized

do choke

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They are only thistles, but what beautiful thistles, weighty with purple tips and ribbed stems. I set the artichoke alarm this morning and was at the market before 8, on a Saturday and without the assistance of caffeine or a hairbrush, which meant I wasn’t really awake and my shadow had a fuzzy halo. Even when it’s early and quiet the market rushes at you, a blur of leaves and rounds, gleaming fish scales, marbled meat, cheap shoes, Roma scarves and banter. Shoppers are earnest at that hour, no amateurs, except me. My fruttivendolo took control and  picked me 15 of the nicest globes and offered to buy me a caffè. He also found me a box for my thistles, which I carried back down Via Galvani, artichokes jolting in time with my steps towards breakfast.

Tomorrow my friend Elizabeth and I are going to fry seven trimmed artichokes until they look like bronze flowers and stuff and braise seven more until they are drab green (but taste anything but) and look like wind inverted umbrellas. Well, that is the plan. 7 plus 7 is 14, which means there was one extra for lunch.

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It may seem unusual for a vegetable associated with slow braises, bakes and long steamy boils, but very thin slices of raw globe artichoke tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and paper-thin wisps of parmesan cheese make a superb and surprising salad that seizes every taste bud. The crisp slices of artichoke, bitter with curious sweetness contrast brilliantly with the salty, granular cheese, the lemon softens the rawness but sharpens the edges and the olive oil envelops everything.

It is not an obedient salad, you need a crust of bread and a fork to maneuver and eat, and then another crust to mop up the leftover dressing and chase the tiny flakes of cheese marooned on the side of the plate.

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Artichoke and parmesan salad

Trimming artichokes can make you feel rather like Edward Scissorhands when you start out and your first artichoke will look a little like a two-year old who has cut his own hair (which is no bad thing for this salad.) Persevere, it is more fiddly than anything and worth it. The younger and more tender the artichokes the better.

serves 2

  • 2 lemons
  • 2 large or even better 6 – 8 baby globe artichoke
  •  4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • parmesan cheese

Prepare a bowl of cold water acidulated with the juice of a lemon. Trim the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Lop about an inch off the top of the central cone, As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with the squeezed half of the lemon. Working quickly, cut the chokes first into quarters (and pull away away hairy choke) then thin slices and put them in the acidulated water.

In another bowl whisk together a tablespoon of lemon juice and the olive oil. Drain and dry the artichoke slices then toss them in the dressing. Pile the dressed artichokes on a plate, pour over any remaining dressing and scatter over some thin slices of parmesan, eat immediately.

Note – As my friend Valeria notes below, it is extremely hard to pair artichokes with wine as they contain a chemical compound called cynarin which has the bizarre effect of of making everything you eat or drink after taste oddly sweet. Which is bad news for wine, and bad news for wine is bad news for me. The parmesan and bread though, redress the balance enough to make a glass enjoyable. Valeria suggests following the what grows to together goes together rule, meaning a wine from the region the artichokes were grown in. I ate my artichokes from lazio with a malvasia from Lazio.

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Filed under artichokes, cheese, salads, Uncategorized

two things

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1.

Nine years ago today, March 8th 2005, I didn’t pack anything and went to Gatwick airport. I picked a destination from the departure board in much the same way that you might grab the first book off a shelf. A few hours later I boarded a flight to Naples; a city that invaded all my senses and slapped me in the face – I needed it –  and a week later I took a nightboat to Sicily. Two months later I arrived in Rome. It remains the most impulsive and disorienting thing I have ever done, also one of the best, give or take a cliché. Over the years I have talked and written, been earnest and irreverent about this moment in my life. Today I am simply noting it, and later, toasting it with a negroni.

2.

Good bread, spread thickly with fresh ricotta and then finished with extra virgin olive oil, salt (ideally flakes with sharp edges that crumble into tiny shards) and some black pepper is mysteriously more delicious and satisfying than the sum of its parts.

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Bread, ricotta, olive oil and salt

serves 1

  • a slice of good bread
  • some ricotta
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Spread the ricotta on the bread thickly, crumble over some salt, pour over some olive oil and grind over a little black pepper. Eat.

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Filed under bread and pizza, food, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, ricotta, Uncategorized

well-framed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peperonata tart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumble out

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It had been years since I’d made leek and potato soup. Years. At first I couldn’t remember if it was better with stock or water ? Not that stock was an option yesterday. If I added an onion along with the leek? If I used butter or olive oil? Leek and potato soup over-thinking while the rain battered against the kitchen window again – Rome is awash, the river is high  - and Luca shouted ‘I helpin you I do‘ sounding like Dick van Dyke as Bert.

There was a time growing up when I (we) ate leek and potato soup once a week. It was one of my Mum’s standards along with spaghetti Bolognese (the kind Italians remind you doesn’t exist in Italy) carrot and coriander soup, roast chicken (which meant chicken soup the day after) tatie hash, cottage pie, fish pie, ratatouille and more ratatouille. Mum seemed to chop, simmer and blend it out of almost nothing: 2 potatoes and a few leeks transformed into pan of soup while we watched an episode of Blue Peter. Often she would make it in the afternoon so it would be sitting there, savory, warm and the sort of green Ben couldn’t resist joking about when we got home from school. Sometimes it was tea, so with bread and butter, sometimes supper in which case there would be cheese and salad too, and my dad still in his work shirt, his tie slung over the back of the chair. My dad loves soup, which has much to do with the fact he loves bread and butter, bread and butter being inseparable from soup for Martin Roddy.

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I’m not sure why I bothered over-thinking, the soup tumbled out in much the same way words do when certain songs are on the radio. She walked up to me and she asked me to dance, I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola L-o-l-a Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola. The rain tumbled too, so much so that even the leafless trees in Via Galvani seemed soggy. I felt like my mum in about 1979 (but without the smock and headscarf)  shouting ‘Benjamin take that lego out of your nose immediately‘ peeling onions, then trimming leeks –  splitting them so as to wash away the grit – before cooking them slowly in a mix of butter and olive oil (a mix that sums up this English kitchen in Rome,) adding potatoes and water, simmering and then blending. Vegetables drawer to lunch in three episodes of Pimpa.

It hadn’t changed a bit, the soup that is, savory and satisfying, the potatoes providing starchy, soft substance and the leeks – like obedient onions – flavor and something silky (which could be slithery but isn’t). Two utterly dependable, utilitarian ingredients coming together into something delicious, simultaneously comforting and verdant. Satisfying too, how easy it is to make. Not that things always have be easy in the kitchen – far from it, but sometimes easy is called for, especially when it’s raining and everyone is hungry for something warm, good and now (give or take an episode of something.)

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Leek and potato soup

Some use stock for leek and potato soup, but if the vegetables are good, it is not necessary, some also add milk or cream. I don’t. I remove a third of the soup before blending the rest into a smooth cream, then returning the third to the pan. This way the texture is more interesting.

serves 4

  • a white onion
  • 3 – 4 leeks (once trimmed approx 500 g)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 2 potatoes (approx 500 g) ideally floury as they need to thicken the soup
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • more olive oil or a little cream to serve

Peel and small dice the onion. Trim the leeks so you just have the white and very pale green part, make two two inch cuts at the top of each leek so you can fan them open and rinse them thoroughly under the cold tap – there will be dirt hiding. Slice the leeks into slim rounds.

In a large soup pan, sauté the onion and leek with a pinch of salt in the oil and butter over a medium-low flame until very soft and floppy – this will take about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and chop the potato into inch cubes. Add the potato to the pan, stir so each cube is glistening with oil and cook for a couple more minutes.

Add a litre of water, stir, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the potato is tender and collapsing. Remove a third of the soup from the pan, blend the other two-thirds with an immersion blender until smooth and then return the third you removed back to the pan. Add salt and black pepper. Serve with a swirl of extra virgin  olive oil or cream.

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Oranges, dates and goats cheese. I am also on Instagram now.

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Filed under food, leeks, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup, Uncategorized, winter recipes

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

a sort of plan

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It’s Christmas eve, Luca is asleep on the sofa, both the flat and via Galvani are disconcertingly quiet and still. It’s not quite dark enough to turn the lights on, but nearly. The half light is rather nice, as is the scent of the clementine leaves and the curls of peel on a plate on the table . The pears poached in red wine are a bit soft and the herring patè is a bit salty, which isn’t actually a bad thing as I inadvertently bought unsalted bread which Romans call sciocco, which means without salt or stupid, pane sciocco, stupid bread. Good bread though, particularly with salty things.

Having changed my mind back and forth at least a dozen times: ambivalence always lingers at this time of year, I didn’t actually book our flights to London until the day before yesterday, which means I didn’t make any real plans, food or otherwise. Fortunately I am surrounded by people who do, not only that, they are accommodating and willing to adapt them. Tonight we are going to the other side of Rome to my friend Elizabeth’s for dinner, tomorrow I will cook an elemental christmas lunch for four, then on Thursday we fly from Rome to Bristol and then head down to my parents new house in Symondsbury in Dorset for the week in-between and New Year. The plan is that I write as much as I can while Luca goes feral in the garden with his cousins.

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Turkeys should have been ordered by the end of last week, fortunately my butchers are as accommodating as my friends. The eldest son negotiated me half an eight kilogram bird, then the mother of the family, on the busiest day of the year, boned it – making a series of nifty cuts inside to catch the stuffing, then deftly eased the skin away from the flesh so it will wrap its way back around the entire roll. Tacchino ripieno, at least this is the plan. I felt wholly confident as she explained how I should season the bird, her certain hands miming the postion of the sausage and chestnut stuffing and demonstrating how I should roll and tuck the turkey into a tight log and secure it with cooking twine. I am feeling significantly less confident now. I also don’t have any twine, or, come to think of it, sage. At least the chestnuts are peeled.

I’ve turned the light on, the fairy lights on the wall too, which have a fade in and out effect which make them seem malfunctional, or eccentric, or both, and me slightly woozy, but not in a bad way. I really should go and peel potatoes, top and tail turnips or sort out the giblets, or maybe I’ll do everything the morning after drinking too much coffee and eating more than my fair share of panetone. Happy Christmas and I wish you all, whatever plans you may or may not have, peace (even if it’s the noisy kind) and good things.

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well-dressed

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If you’d told me writing a book involved so much not-writing and staring blankly, I’m not sure I would have believed you. At least there is the cooking, lots of it, although not in the way I imagined. Which was rambling, recipe testing sessions during which friends dropped in and out, alternating with quiet radio four filled days of experimentation. The reality is (mostly) me with wild eyes, cooking and photographing two diametrically opposed dishes on a small stove, Vincenzo commenting on the pasta and Luca standing on a chair with no trousers and his socks at half-mast shouting ‘What doin? I help knife it mamma‘. Not that I would have it any other way.

Yesterday, having done more than enough not-writing, Luca and I went for a walk. Our usual route, along via Galvani,  through the market (buying soft, sweet, yeasted buns from Costanza and a head of broad, pale escarole from Mario) across the cobblestones and into the Ex-Mattatoio, where the big bambu, a 25 meter high sculpture made from thousands of bamboo poles ingeniously bound and jointed, is dressed as a christmas tree. I’m not sure who was more delighted. Back home, even though Luca stood on a chair brandishing a wooden spoon, I didn’t get wild-eyed, I made pasta with ricotta and lots of black pepper, thinning the cheese with a little pasta cooking water, and then this salad.

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The key to this salad of escarole, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear, is making sure the foundations, the structural weave of leaves, are well dressed. The best way to do this is with your – scrupulously clean – hands, rubbing, almost massaging the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Over the glistening leaves, you break the cheese, crumble the nuts, slice the pear and then gently turn the salad again.

I am generally wary of busy salads and however attractive and potentially tasty, feel disappointed, cheated even if they are called lunch. I felt neither wary nor cheated yesterday. While the pasta eaters ploughed, I ate two plates of bitter/sweet leaves in the folds and creases of which hid nubs of creamy, heady gorgonzola, milky, musty walnuts and arcs of sweet pear. Impertinent flavors and textures playing off against each other and then harmonizing cleverly. There was of course bread. I did feel a little cheated of my inch or two of wine (I am great believer in drinking – just a little – at lunchtime) but there was yellow bread making and non-writing to be done.

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Escarole, gorgonzola, walnut and pear salad

serves two

  • a small head of escarole
  • a ripe but firm pear
  • 100 g gorgonzola
  • a handful of walnuts or hazelnuts
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a few drops of good balsamic or sweet sherry vinegar (optional)

Wash and then dry the escarole before ripping it into approachable pieces. Peel and core the pear, rubbing the outside with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discoloring. Shell the walnuts and break them into small pieces. Using the point of a sharp knife and your hands break the cheese into smallish pieces.

Put the leaves in a bowl or serving dish, sprinkle over a little salt, pour over some olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to rub, the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Slice the pear over the leaves, add the cheese and nuts and again – gently – use your hands to toss the salad. Serve.

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Filed under cheese, Rachel's Diary, salads, Testaccio, Uncategorized

give a fig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fig and almond tart

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

For the tart shell

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

For the filling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a little discretion

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During the last two weeks I’ve watched four cooks in four kitchens do exactly the same thing. That is, pull two cloves from a bulb of garlic, peel them, fry them gently whole in plenty of olive oil until soft, golden and fragrant, then remove them. The answer as to why was – give or take a gesture – exactly the same: insaporire. Which literally translated means to flavour or make tasty. Which on these four occasions meant allowing the garlic to impart its savory and earthy perfume into the oil then – like a good guest, neither dominating or outstaying his welcome – take leave.

I’ve come to understand – finally – that this process, insaporire, is key to countless Italian dishes. The process can be more involved: garlic, herbs, spices, vegetables and cured meat, but mostly it’s as simple as garlic cooked until mild, fragrant and sweet in olive oil. Of course there are occasions when a potent roar of chopped, smashed or crushed garlic is required. Rarely though! Most of the time it’s this attentive sizzle of garlic in olive oil that provides the deeply but discreetly flavoured start to a dish.

Of course opinions differ as to the precise moment you should remove the garlic, the ideal shade of golden and if it’s appropriate to return the cloves to the pan (as was the case with the third cook and her pan of fresh tomato sauce in which the returned clove; soft and sweet provided a prize on one plate.) But the principle remains the same and one thing absolutely clear: never burn the garlic or it will be bitter.

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We are staying in an agriturismo in the Sabine hills just of north of Rome. I know the area relatively well having spent lots of time with my friends Ezio and Ruth, their house being situated just a few curves of the road and an olive grove away. In fact we walk the curved road each morning at about 7 30, the sun already omnipotent, the air thick with the scent of honeysuckle, the peace interrupted only by three horrid little dogs snarling and snapping at our ankles on the first curve. Having run the gauntlet of the canine onslaught and in the safety of the second curve, I’ve been trying to teach Luca to say cock-a-doodle-doo. Chicchirichi he squeals. I’ve tried to explain that cocks go cock-a-doodle-doo not chicchirichi to which he replies chicchirichi.

Ezio was the fourth of the four cooks. Making lunch for Ruth, Daisy, Felix, Luca and me while we cleared up wearily after a hot and hectic morning in the English garden: our rogue English summer school, he poured far more extra virgin olive oil than any recipe would dare to suggest – cold pressed from their own olives – into the bottom of the well seasoned pan. He then put the pan over a medium flame and added two peeled cloves. The cloves sizzled gently – shimmied really, in their coats of tiny bubbles –  for the whole of our conversation. So, about five minutes. The kitchen smelt of good things. He then removed the garlic.

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For this particular lunch Ezio first added cooked chickpeas and their broth to the garlic infused oil, then pasta, for an elemental pasta e ceci of sorts. It was simple, satisfying and delicious, the garlic, like well-chosen background music, enhancing but never intruding.

Then back at the agriturismo, eager to practice my attentive sizzle in Mario and Beatrice’s golden olive oil, I did as Ezio and the three cooks before him had done; I took two cloves. To my well-flavoured oil I added local courgettes cut into thick coins. I let them fry for ages, until they were golden, unfashionably soft and oil sodden. I added courgette flowers and several basil leaves (torn not chopped) to the pan before pulling it from the heat so the leaves and flowers wilted – like an English woman in the Sabine hills in June –  and their sweet, spicy scent bloomed in the residual heat.

I left them to sit for a while so the flavors could settle and the oily juices thicken. I ate them just warm with a ball of weeping mozzarella di bufala and bread, a supper so nice it made up for the unilateral mosquito attack.

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Not really a recipe rather a way to cook. Practice and then apply as you feel fit.

Courgettes cooked in olive oil

serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter.

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or three small cloves of garlic
  • 6 – 8 courgettes (ideally the pale creamy green and ribbed variety with flowers still attached)
  • salt
  • basil leaves

Pour a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil into a heavy based sauté pan. Peel and add the whole cloves of garlic to the pan. Warm the olive oil over a medium flame allowing the garlic to sizzle gently – turning the cloves every now and then – for about 5 minutes or until it is soft, golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic.

Remove the flowers and set them aside and then slice the courgettes into thick coins. Add the courgettes to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt. Turn the courgettes in the oil until each coin is glistening with oil. Allow the courgettes to sizzle gently – turning them occasionally – over a medium low flame until they are very soft and just a little golden. This will take about 15  – 25 minutes depending on the courgettes.

Tear the basil and the courgette flowers into small pieces and add them to the pan. Pull the pan from the heat and stir, allowing the flowers and basil to wilt in the residual heat.

Season and serve as a antipasto with mozzarella, stirred into pasta or as a vegetable side dish.

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Filed under courgettes, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, Uncategorized, vegetables

Layer upon layer

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

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

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

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

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

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

serves 6

for the pasta

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

for the artichoke layer

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

for the bèchamel sauce

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

For the ricotta layer

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

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

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

Eat layer upon layer.

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Filed under artichokes, food, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, ricotta, spring recipes, Uncategorized