Category Archives: winter recipes

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

the whole triangle

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Even a tiny triangle of lemon embellishing a drink was enough to make my grandpa shudder and suck his breath. Vincenzo’s grandfather on the other hand ate a lemon a day, skin, pith and flesh all. Now to be fair, there was a continent of difference between the two lemons. Between the heavily waxed, leather-skinned, shockingly sharp ones my grandpa might have found a triangle of in his drink in an Northern English pub in 1980 (my other granny had one such pub and I was a deft hand at slicing lemons and pulling pints by the age of 8) and the pale, fragrant, almost sweet lemons Vincenzo’s grandfather grew on his farm in Sicily.

That said, I still like the (unfair) comparison between the two; John Roddy grimacing at the sight of a small yellow triangle in a pub near Sheffield, Orazio D’Aleo eating the whole fruit in a field in southern Sicily. Apart from the citrus difference and the language, we think our Lancastrian and Sicilian grandfathers would have got on well, in an awkward, silent way.

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Lemons are important in this house, Vincenzo doesn’t eat them whole, but almost. He squeezes them in and on the obvious: fish, salad, vegetables, tea, and the less obvious; strawberries, watermelon, bread, potatoes, espresso. He also washes the dishes with the squeezed out halves. Although less exuberant with my squeezing and still trying to get in the washing up-habit, I am – and this is might sound like pseuds corner – devoted to Italian lemons, delighted by their pale, unwaxed skins and oily spritz, gentle pith that’s as thick as a thumb and flesh that tastes clean and citric.

Rainy days and the fact everyone has been under the weather has made the bowl of lemons even more imperative, and not just for their suggestion of sunshine. Lemons have been lifting, cutting, sharpening, encouraging and brightening. They’ve been squeezed with blood oranges to make juice the colour of a desert sunrise, spritzed on greens, fat fringed pork chops and into my eyes, twisted into dressing for salad and vegetables and then – for the third time this week – grated into batter for a cake.

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I’ve written about this cake before and I’m sure I will again. It’a actually the only cake I can make with any sort of ease, which has much to do with the inclusion of olive oil which renders everything, including cake batter, sleeker and more effortless. I think I could make it blindfolded, although it’s probably best I don’t try. Three cups of flour, one of olive oil, one and a half of sugar, another of yogurt, some baking powder and the zest of two lemons (which also clears your sinuses and lifts your spirits, although not as effectively as a gin and tonic with a curl of lemon peel) all whisked (energetically) together into a pale, creamy batter which you bake in ring-tin until firm and golden.

Simple and good, an everyday cake with a dose of mood lifting citrus. An accomadating cake that is as comfortable on a breakfast table as it is wrapped in a paper napkin and stuffed in a pocket for a morning snack, as good beside a cup of tea at about 4 as it is with a beaker of hot milk (with a nip) at about 9. I think both grandfathers would have approved. Serve in wedges or eat the whole thing, it is entirely up to you.

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

You need a ring-tin. I used a 100 ml glass as my measuring cup which worked well. Many people use a small yogurt pot (100-125 ml) as the measuring cup, which works well too. This is a small cake, which I’m sure many of you may like to double, which means adjusting cooking times accordingly. I have not tried this yet, so would appreciate feedback from anyone who does. Update from my friend Elizabeth – my cup, or a small yogurt pot (100 – 125ml) is a half US cup. The cake can also be baked in a loaf tin, small loaf tins or doubled to fill a bundt tin.

  • 3 cups of 00 or plain flour
  • a cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • a cup and a half of sugar
  • a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 3 large eggs
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking power or half a packet of Italian lievito
  • the zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

Set the oven to 180°

Whisk together the flour, olive oil, sugar, yogurt, eggs and baking powder in a large bowl. Grate over the lemon zest and whisk again (vigorously.) Pour the batter into a greased and floured ring tin and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until the cake is golden and cooked through (I test with a stand of spaghetti). Allow to cool before turning onto a plate.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruit, lemons, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, winter recipes

soak, score and slump

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There comes a point when, having asked for more advice than you know what to do with, and having followed more recipes than is necessary (some so brief that cooking feels like an abstract painting, all sweeps and suggestion, and others so detailed you feel as if you are caught up in advanced painting by numbers that requires a calculator) you need to stop making pasta e fagioli 

The irony is, that of all the recipes I could have chosen to get lost in for the book, I chose one I was suposedley confident about. Pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans, is something I know how to make, something I like to make, one (almost) instinctive movement following another, a dish that pleases not just me but others. Or do I, does it? Doubt crept in as I began to write, and then before I know it I’m freewheeling ingredients one minute, then measuring them meticulously the next, feeling upright and English (an Italian woman, one with passion, probable curves and an innate sense of q.b, would surely have no such doubts) listening to everyone but myself.

Neat endings are a bit boring, but so it was. Having walked and shaken off the doubt about more than just pasta e fagioli (leaving them flapping in a tree by the river just past Ponte Testaccio) and taking a pinch of advice from both the reckless and the meticulous recipes, I returned to the recipe taught to me by Carmela and then – in her words – made it my own. Borlotti beans soaked for 12 hours then cooked with a couple of bay leaves, celery and onion cooked in lots of olive oil, a little tomato, bean cooking water…….. I could have added a bit more salt, but otherwise I am pretty sure we are there.

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If not quite reckless, then slaphappy is probably the best way to describe the way I approached baked apples. No recipe, a vague recollection of my mum stuffing bramley apples from the tree in the garden with butter, sugar and raisins, flimsy ideas about temperature and timing.

In the absence of raisins I used dates, one per apple, although Luca must have eaten at least one while I mashed. The slice of butter looked about 60 g (but I have never been very good at judging butter, even in my most puritanical phases I had a buttercup yellow patch under my chin) I measured the sugar with a scoop I once established held 70 g. I used rennete apples, their russeted, mottled skin and slightly dry flesh with good, sharp flavor ideal for baking.

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I don’t remember my mum scoring round the circumference of the apples to stop them splitting, but I think she must have done. All six of my non-scored apples split, two so dramatically so that they looked like they were inside out. It didn’t stop them being delicious though, slumped, split, spilling and wrinkled as they were in a puddle of sweet melted butter. Dates work brilliantly, the tip exposed at the top of the apple darkening into a chewy tap, the rest surrounded by the ever softening apple providing a sweet, thick core. The apples themselves bake into a soft, grainy almost-puree and the skins (with the help of heat, sugar and butter) shrivel into full-flavored jackets . That said, I am sure some people will leave the skin, the same people who leave jacket potato skins maybe?

The key is to wait about ten minutes so some of the copious buttery juices are absorbed back into the fruit. We ate them with very cold, quite-thick unsweetened cream. Soaked and slumped, good things both. Talking of slumped – not that I have ever been slumped – I bet a dose of calvados over the apples before they go into the oven would work well. As is so often the case, the last apple, eaten for breakfast the next day, was the one I enjoyed most. Happy New Year again.

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Baked apples with butter and dates

  • 6 medium-sized baking apples (bramley or rennet ideally)
  • 6 medjool dates
  • about 60 g butter plus extra for buttering the dish
  • about 70 g soft brown sugar

Set the oven to 180°

Core the apples and score them around the circumference so they don’t split (I forgot to do this obviously and they didn’t just split but explode)  Remove the stones from the dates and then mash them with the butter and sugar. Lightly butter a ovenproof dish and then arrange the apples in the dish. Fill the hollow cavities with the date, butter and sugar mixture. Bake the apples for 30 – 40 minutes, until they are very soft and surrounded by sticky buttery juices. Allow the apples to sit for at least 10 minutes before serving so some of the juices are absorbed back into the soft fruit. Serve warm with cold cream.

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Filed under apples, cream, food, fruit, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, winter recipes

what’s in a jar

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My mum makes mincemeat every single year. For years I helped, stirring the ever darkening mass of dried fruit, candied peel, apples, nuts and suet, then squashing it into jars.  I liked the way the house smelt, a spiced and boozy fanfare for festive things to come. We’d have the first batch of mince pies in mid December, the pastry scented with orange zest, still warm from the oven.

My dad would eat whole pies in one gulp, which we thought was hilarious and my mum would say ‘Martin really, you’ll just encourage them‘ Which of course he did. Jar after jar was spooned into round after round of pastry, warm pies presented at every opportunity, to postmen and neighbours, callers, and us, especially us. Of course a mince-pie was always left for father christmas on christmas eve. The next morning we’d find it half eaten and Ben would say ‘It’s icing sugar and Dad did it‘ while Rosie stared at Father Christmas’s snowy footprints.

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Then for years I didn’t help. I didn’t eat the pies either. I’d eat a whole jar of mincemeat though, crouched on the cellar stairs when everyone else was in bed. Then I’d feel as dark as the contents of the jar I’d just eaten and furious. Furious with the mincemeat, my with mum for making the bloody stuff, with myself.

It went on for years, mincemeat, like so many things, was something to be battled with, first with steely resistance, then otherwise. Later, it was on a list, two actually, to avoid and gratitude. I can’t remember exactly how it worked? Avoiding things but being grateful for them at the same time maybe! Looking back it all seems so absolutely absurd, comical even, that it’s hard to remember it made absolute sense at the time.

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I don’t make mincemeat every single year. However when I do, everything is there, swirling around in the spiced and boozy scent, 41 years of mincemeat, of pans stirred and pans not stirred. I could get absorbed in detail, nostalgic or absurd, but I don’t, enjoying instead the heady vapours and a nip of brandy.

Luca clambers up on chair and demands a stir. His little hands clasp the wooden spoon and flick it upwards and then downwards splattering the stove, an amber fleck handing on his wrist ‘ It’s hot meat’ he tells me.  I feel relieved Luca is a boy and yearn to talk to my mum.  As I spoon stuff into jars and screw on the lids, I remind myself it’s only mincemeat.

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Usually I make Jane Grigsons mincemeat (which is turn Mrs Beeton) from English Food. Not having found suet, I made Gloria Nicol’s apple and quince mincemeat, two batches actually, the first back in October. Unlike JG’s recipe the mincemeat is cooked, in cider no less, for about an hour, the result is glorious, thick, rich, fragrant, well-spiced mincemeat to which you add (plenty of) brandy. Purist will not agree, but I think it is just as good as mincemeat with suet.

Apple and Quince mincemeat

Adapted from Gloria Nicols recipe in the Guardian.

Gloria notes this makes 1.75 g of mincemeat. Both my batches filled 3 standard jars and one smaller jar. For those in Rome I bought all the Ingredients from Emporio delle Spezie in Testaccio, it is an Aladdin’s cave of spices, herbs, seasonings, dried fruit, nuts, grains and tea – all sold by weight.

  • 500ml cider
  • 225 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 kg Bramley apples (or mixture of quince and apples), peeled and cored
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100 g dates
  • 100 g currants
  • 150 g raisins
  • 150 g sultanas
  • 100 g candied peel, chopped
  • 50 chopped almonds
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 150ml brandy

Put 3 scrupulously clean standard jars and a smaller one with lids in a low oven to sterilize for 10 minutes.

In a large heavy based pan warm the cider and sugar, stirring to until the sugar has dissolved. Peel, core and chop the apples and grate the quince if using them. Add all ingredients except the brandy, to the pan. Over a low flame let the mincemeat simmer and bubble gently for around 1 hour – stirring every now and then – until the apples have turned into puree and the mixture looks rich and thickened.

Remove from the heat, allow the mincemeat to cool and then stir in the brandy. Spoon the mincemeat into the sterilised jars and seal immediately. Leave for a month – and up to a year – to mature before opening.

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Mincemeat tart

Why wait until christmas ? I like my pastry plain, unsweetened and more crisp than crumbly. My tin is a fluted and measures 8″ across.

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g cold butter (or a mix of butter and lard)
  • a pinch of salt
  • iced water
  • a jar of mincemeat

In a bowl rub the fat into the pastry with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and then enough water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth soft dough.

On a floured board roll the dough into a round a little large than the tin. Carefully lift the dough into the tin and press it gently into the base and the edges. Trim the overlapping pastry and set the scraps aside. Leave the pastry case the fridge for 30 minutes.

Spoon the mincemeat into the case and then decorate the top with lattice or a pattern. Brush the pasty with beaten egg and bake at 180° for 30 minutes.

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Filed under almonds, candied fruit, christmas, jams and preserves, preserves and conserves, Puddings, recipes, tarts, winter recipes

chasing crisp

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Rather like remembering not to rant or let fury at things beyond your control ruin your day, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. I even bought a nearly-cashmere cardigan, a pair of jade tights and rearranged the living room around a new striped rug that matches – quite incidentally – both cardigan and tights. I’ve tried to knit. I have crunched more leaves than my son. I have roasted chestnuts, smashed pumpkins and sliced porcini with stems the size of a babies leg for risotto, I even claimed ‘Autumn is my time of  year‘ in a proprietorial way while tossing my autumnal hair. But the truth is, I keep wanting to shout.

Not at the cold, I don’t mind that a jot, nor the drizzle – although the drizzle and anoraks are a pain –  but at the light, or lack of it. By 4 o clock as Luca wakes from his afternoon nap, the light is slipping away. We dress as hastily as is possible with a two-year old and then run, trying to catch the last hour, only to watch it being swallowed by dark. The park we used to run around until eight, is locked at five. The kiosk with it’s woven plastic chairs and memories of icy, sticky drinks and salty snacks, is empty. We adjust our jumpers and try to make the best of it, after all shops are starting to glitter and groan with christmas promise and cakes laced with dried figs and black pepper: this is no year for bah humbug, but the dark chases us home.

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Back home by 6 with a long evening ahead – we seem to have adopted a southern European bedtime – I swing between attentive mother:  a book called ballata, board games and baking biscuits and absent mother: Disney babysitter, smarties and a very large glass of wine while I read blogs about craft activities I could be doing and dipping (Molly I adore you), mothers who have their children in bed by 7 and how to host the perfect cocktail party. Then I make supper.

Autumn nights call for stout sustenance, ideally with butter or fringed with fat, food that satisfies and reassures. Well mostly! They also call for bright and crisp from time to time, something to slow the slide onto the rug, to offer contrast and just a little resistance. Two things provide this, the first is puntarelle: a relative of chicory that twists into crisp, sweet but bitter curls, that you dress with anchovy and garlic dressing, the second is a salad of orange, fennel and autumn’s most precious fruit: pomegranate.

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I like the mess: tiles and wood splattered with crimson. When we were little we would eat pomegranates that my Mum brought back from the Athenian Grocer on Moscow Road with a toothpick, impaling the little red jewels and pricking them into our mouths. I thought pomegranates were the most exotic fruit. I still do. When I go to live in Sicily – which I will – I will eat pomegranates every day I can.

Fennel: clean, crisp and with a bracing aniseed bite, slivers of orange, sweet and slightly acerbic pomegranate seeds, the right amount of salt and lots of best extra virgin olive oil makes a brilliant salad, one that manages to be both cool and warm, that provides brightness on dark days.  Especially good after a bowl of pasta e patate. Did I mention how much I like pasta e patate? Yes, good.

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This is fact the fourth time I have written about this sort of salad. It is based on the classic Sicilian salad of orange, fennel, black olives and possibly onion. You could of course add olives to this version, ideally the inky-black, wrinkled, oven-baked ones that taste somewhere between dried plum, leather and liquorice. You really do need to be generous with salt – sprinkle from high above so the salt is evenly distributed – and even more generous with the olive oil.

Fennel, orange and pomegranate salad

Serves 4

  • a large or two small bulbs of fennel
  • 2 oranges
  • a ripe pomegranate
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil

Remove the tough outer layers from the fennel setting aside a few feathery fronds and slice a few millimetres from the base. Cut the bulb in two and then slice it as thinly as possible.

Cut the bottom from the orange so it sits flat on the work surface and then pare away the skin and pith carefully with a sharp knife. Working carefully, again with a sharp knife, cut the flesh away from the membrane on each side of each segment so you have soft, pith-less arc of orange. Work over a plate to catch juices

Cut the pomegranate in half and gently break the fruit open to expose the seeds and pull them away from the membrane and onto a plate.

Arrange the sliced fennel and orange segments on a large plate, scatter with pomegranate seeds and fennel fronds. Pour over any orange or pomegranate juice that collected on the plates. Sprinkle with salt and zigzag generously with olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving

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Filed under fennel, In praise of, oranges, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables, winter recipes

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

Bright bulb

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Yesterday it poured in Rome, rain and black smoke both, reminding us there was pontificating in progress. Then at about eight, the black smoke gave way to white and la fumata bianca poured from the copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel, meaning the scarlet clad cardinals had chosen their new pope. It never stopped raining. Unaccustomed as I am to either watching Italian TV or considering catholic concerns I did both. Even I was moved by the sea of jubilant humanity in piazza San Pietro and the roaring cheer as a pensive Papa Francesco uttered buona sera. 

There’s been more than enough pontificating about conclaves, cardinals and commanding! I’m not about to do any more of it here. Well apart from noting that although we’re diametrically opposed on countless matters, I’m glad to hear Papa Francesco’s views on single mothers, papel footwear and taking the bus, and that I just hope he’s given the space and opportunity to exercise his reputed political canniness and reforming drive. Dog knows they need it.

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Oranges and fennel however, there hasn’t been nearly enough pontificating about either around here! So if you don’t mind I’ll do some today. If I was quicker and sharper I’d have bought blood oranges, their scarlet juice – reminiscent of the cardinals cassocks and conviction – bleeding and staining the wooden work surface. I am neither quick, sharp or inclined to scrub so orange oranges it is.

Lately I’ve been buying my greens and citrus from the local farmers market that takes place every weekends in the Ex-Mattatoio. This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting my market: the recently relocated but still thriving Testaccio mercato! We still go there faithfully. What can I say, semi-maternity-leave and an excuse to eat warm brioche whilst admiring artichokes and listening to market banter spliced with profanities: we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, the day Testaccio market rests, we walk that little bit further, curving our way along the river to The Farmers Market occupying one of the buildings in the vast sprawling complex that is the Ex-Mattatoio.

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I’ve talked about the Ex -Mattaotio before. Once the principle slaughter-house for the whole of Rome, it’s an expansive patchwork of buildings, enclosures, thoroughfares and vast open spaces where animals once roamed. A place all the more extraordinary for being in the middle of a city like Rome. Closed for butchery business since 1975 it’s now part modern art gallery, organic supermarket, social club, concert venue, music school, shelter for the (poor) horses that drag Rome’s carriages, gypsy camp, stark wasteland and at the weekend, farmers market.

You’d be advised to arrive early, especially on Sundays. Naturally leavened bread, salumi, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, nuts, eggs, pasta, beans and grains, mushrooms, organic meat and the nicest, freshest produce you could hope to find all direct from bona-fide local producers is gathered under the high-pitched roof of the atmospheric pavilion. The air is always slightly damp, bosky and full of gastronomic promise. On Sunday I bought a piece of aged pecorino, a slice of guanciale, a kilo of cicoria selvatica: a dark green tangle of wild leaves, four artichokes, two deeply curved bulbs of fennel and a dozen matt-skinned, bright leaved oranges.

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Which brings us to todays recipe, an assembly really, one of my favorites, a wisp of Sicily: oranges, fennel and black olives. Now they may seem an unlikely trio, but fennel, orange and olives go together so well, the Ahmad Jamel Trio of insalata. The crisp, clean and sweet tasting bulb with its faintly anise perfume and liquorice nip seems to enhance the sweet/sharp juiciness of the citrus, it’s flesh: firm and creamy contrasting with the soft languorous segments. The dark, baked olives: bitter, meaty and leathery compliment and contrast both orange and fennel.

The key is to pare away every trace of peel and pith from the oranges before cutting then into slender rounds and slicing the fennel lengthways as thin as thin can be into almost transparent arcs. Once cut, you arrange your orange rounds and paper-thin slices of fennel on a plate or platter. You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully. To finish you punctuate your orange and white assembly with black olives – the coal-black slightly wrinkled oven baked ones work well – sprinkle with coarse salt and then dress with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil.

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We had our salad of sorts with chickpeas – just cooked so still warm - dressed with coarse salt and an embarrassing amount of olive oil. There was bread too, obviously, how else would you mop up the puddle of olive oil and salty citrus, how else would you nudge the ill-behaved chickpeas onto your fork.

Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel. Fennel with deep curves. Fat bottomed fennel. You may well come across flatter elongated bulbs, save them for braising or slow cooking. As for the oranges: sweet, really juicy naval are ideal. Pare away the peel carefully and set it aside for an appealing project.

The perfect antidote to downpours of rain or other bothersomeness. I also like this salad with grilled chicken or fish.

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Orange, fennel and black olive salad. 

serves 2

  • 2 large, very juicy oranges
  • 1 large bulb of fennel
  • a handful of black olives, ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones
  • salt
  • black pepper (optional)
  • best extra virgin olive oil

Using a sharp knife, slice away the very top and bottom from the oranges so they sit flat. Then following the contours of the fruit carefully pare away the peel and pith. Using a serrated knife, slice the oranges crosswise into 1/4 rounds.

Cut away the stems, remove any damaged or particularly tough layers and trim the base of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and then cut each half – again lengthways - into paper-thin slices .

Arrange the arcs of fennel and rounds of orange on a large plate. Dot the salad with either whole or slivers of black olives. Using scissors snip over the feathery fronds. Sprinkle with coarse salt (black pepper too if you so wish) and then dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.

Eat.

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Filed under fennel, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, winter recipes

Part and parcel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce  Mondeghini in/al sugo*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takes me back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cauliflower cheese

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

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

Set the oven to 200°

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

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

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

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

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

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