Hello. We are in Southeast Sicily in a town called Gela. I have written a piece about this for the FT Weekend magazine, which is beautifully illustrated by Luke Best. If you would like to read it, here is the link. More here soon – R
Hello. We are in Southeast Sicily in a town called Gela. I have written a piece about this for the FT Weekend magazine, which is beautifully illustrated by Luke Best. If you would like to read it, here is the link. More here soon – R
After seven weeks in England – the longest trip back since I came to Italy – it was good to come home. Even the relentless heat, which clung to our skin as we walked down the plane steps and has refused to let go ever since, hasn’t dented my relief at being back in Testaccio. Relief though, is one thing, settling back another. I have felt a bit like a snow-globe in the hands of a hyper-active toddler, thoughts about time away, work, writing a book, promoting a book, family, home in England which isn’t home anymore, and home in Rome, a city in profound crisis, all swirling around. Swirling which trips into surreal during restless nights in our small, hot flat, the droning urumm urumm urumm of the knackered floor fan offering a soundtrack to my anxious half-sleep. Of course everything with settle, eventually, somethings different, some the same.
If I have felt like a snow-globe, then writing here has felt trying to jump on a moving roundabout as a child. Wanting to, lurching forward, only to watch the handle rush past, Whoosh. The book launch dinner made by some of my favorite cooks in one of my favourite places, I tried to write about that. Whoosh. There was the trip within the trip to Sicily for the food writing course, from which I returned inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure, surely I would write about that? Whoosh. I’d write about cooking with my sister, one of the nicest things about my time in England, hours and hours spent in her kitchen, kids running riot in the garden, the two of us talking and drinking wine and talking as if to make up for lost time (which we were). Whoosh. I’d write a book review or something more sophisticated than a snow-shaker metaphor. Or maybe I wouldn’t, not yet at least. For now, in order to jump on, I will write about lunch.
Turn on the radio. Fill a big pan with water, light hob, plonk pan on the stove. Stop, first move the coffee stand from the hob and burn fingers, and then put the pan on the hob. Pull milled tomatoes from the fridge and wonder where the hell the water under the fridge is coming from. Cut aubergine into cubes, don’t worry about being too precise, no-one is watching and don’t bother salting unless you want to. Fry the aubergine in lots of extra virgin olive oil until tender and golden and sweat steams down the nape of your neck (it is 38° even without the boiling oil). Use a slotted spoon to lift the cubes into kitchen towel. Cooking can be lots of things, today it is a task, but a welcome one. Is the pasta water boiling? Yes, add salt, plenty, stir and throw in the pasta and stir again. Add garlic to the aubergine pan, then the tomatoes and cook until saucy (I like saucy, and find it a better note than specific timings), return aubergine to the pan and cook a minute longer. Add lots of torn basil (inhale deeply) and the drained pasta. Toss properly. Finish each plate with lots of ricotta salata. Simple, generous and richly flavoured: this is the sort of food I like to eat.
I am not going to call this pasta alla norma, a dish typical to Catania in Sicily. It is however very much inspired by it: short pasta mixed with fried aubergine, tomatoes, lots of fresh basil and topped with Ricotta salata. It is important that you use good extra virgin olive oil, and don’t skimp on the quantity, the pleasure is in the taste of properly fried aubergine, rich and plump, softened and sharpened by tomatoes, lifted by the fragrant basil and finished with the soft, salty-sharp ricotta. If you can’t find ricotta, parmesan or pecorino work well too.
It’s good to be back. More soon.
Pasta with aubergine, tomato, basil and salted ricotta.
Cut the spiky cap from the aubergine and then cut into 1cm square cubes. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with 1 cm of olive oil and warm over a medium/high flame. Once the oil is quite hot, add a single layer of aubergine and fry until tender and golden, then remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen towel. Continue frying the aubergine in batches until it is all done.
You should still have some olive oil in the pan, if not add some more (you want about 4 tablespoons). Once the olive oil has cooled significantly, add the peeled garlic and fry until lightly gold and fragrant – do not let it burn or it will be bitter. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often and pressing gently with the back of a wood spoon, until thick and saucy but not dry. Add salt to taste. Add the aubergine to the tomato, cook for another minute or so, then pull from the heat and add a handful of fresh torn basil leaves.
Meanwhile bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir and then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add to the sauce and stir. Divide between plates, top with plenty of grated salted ricotta and serve.
As many of you know, I have been happily contributing to the Guardian Cook Batch Cooking series and the latest one is all about tomato sauce.
I want to bring the warm and generous words about Five Quarters that have been written on personal blogs together in one place, here. Thank you so much Emiko Dan, Evie, Kath, Simon, India Knight, Margaret, Gemma, Molly, and the inimitable and wonderful Gareth Jones who very sadly passed away earlier this month and is missed terribly.
I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. If I have, please forgive me and send me a link so I can add it – R
I first ate pesto in St Albans. Years later, I would eat it in a rather sleek port side trattoria in Genova, the real deal, pesto alla Genovese, a bright green paste binding trofie pasta – a short twisted shape with tapered ends – with just a little collapsing potato and fine green beans. But the first time had been when I was 14, in a town five miles nearer to London than my town, called St Albans. It was the first real date with the boy who was to become my second real boyfriend, who would later, if not break, offhandedly hurt my heart (the git.)
I can still remember him, wearing blue acrylic Adidas shorts, scraping the contents of a small jar into flat spaghetti called Lin-gwee-knee. The stuff coming out of the jar was darkish green and smelt like dried herbs, cheese and mothballs. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. ‘It’s pesto‘ he said. I was given the job of mixing the pasta and pesto, which clumped into a large ball. It would be another 18 years until I learned the secret of pasta cooking water. Undeterred, we untangled the ball in two, then ate our supper listening to David Sandbourne’s 1980’s smooth sax. Even with the mustiness, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. As it got dark, I balanced on the cogs on the back of his BMX and he rode me up a very steep hill to the train station, a feat I read like tea leaves. It was meant to be. When we kissed goodbye, he tasted of pesto.
Pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare that means to pound or crush, a job best done with a pestle in a mortar. The most famous of the pesto family, pesto alla Genovese, a distant manufactured cousin of that which I ate all those years ago in St Albans was – and occasionally still is – made with a bulbous wooden pestle, in a heavyweight marble mortar. Watching someone with experience and skill make pesto with a pestle is as wonderful as the final dish. To start, the garlic (with a pinch of salt) is pounded and crushed against the sides of the mortar. Once the garlic is disciplined, the basil leaves are added – ideally the small and tender leaved Genevese variety – and pounded into a bright green paste, at which point the pine nuts are added and pounded too. To finish mix of grated pecorino and parmesan cheese is then added bit by bit, each addition helped with a little extra virgin olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved. I was once told pesto should be corposo(have body) , that it shouldn’t correre (run) like a naughty child (mine), but sit like an obedient one (not my child). Later the addition of pasta cooking water will help loosen the pesto into an accommodating pasta-clinging consistency. I should stop here though, there are experts and consortia of pesto alla Genovese. I am simply an enthusiastic fan.
I have made pesto alla Genovese with a pestle and mortar, or rather Vincenzo and I did together, me instructing, him pounding. It was a laborious task , but a satisfying one and the pesto was fragrant with real texture. Laborious though. Then I broke my mortar*. These days I make it less laboriously and much faster with my only electric kitchen tool – a faithful immersion blender. Like so many Italian recipes, pesto alle Genovese is one that needs no innovation (garlic, basil, pine-nuts, grated hard cheese and extra virgin olive oil are a brilliant combination) but demands your imprint as you make it your own by making it again and again finding best method and proportions. I put the garlic, basil and pine nuts and just a dash of olive oil in a tin bowl and then with short pressing pulses reduce everything to a paste. I stir in the grated cheese and olive oil bit by bit, with a spoon, as opposed to more pulses, as I prefer the texture that gives. This is known as green sauce in our house and it is an absolute favorite. I make it most weeks. If we don’t have the ingredients, well, that brings us to other sorts of pesto.
Pesto, a pounded sauce, can of course be made with many things. Pesto alla Genovese is a good template, establishing the garlic, herb (or leaf), nut, cheese, extra virgin olive oil formula which works so well. Once you have got the hang of this basic recipe, and found your preferred way of making it, be that pestle and mortar, immersion blender, food processor or magimix, you can improvise around this theme. Think of it as a set of pesto dance steps, that once mastered can be set to any ingredient tune. I make parsley, walnut and parmesan pesto, sage, almond and pecorino pesto, mint,almond and salted ricotta pesto (to which I often add some finely chopped tomato making it rather like pesto alla Trapanese), rocket, pine nut and parmesan pesto, pea shoot, mint and almond pesto (to which I add peas and sometimes a blob of ricotta or thick greek yogurt).
As for qualities, an initial template is useful too, until you get the hang of things and pesto becomes a pretty relaxed affair for the eye and not the scales, that comfortable q.b. My original template of quantities for pesto alla Genovese came from the same person who so expertly pounded the ingredients by hand: 2 small cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, 50 g basil leaves, 20 g pine nuts, 75 ml extra virgin olive oil, 30 g pecorino cheese, 70 g parmesan cheese. These days I have a pretty good sense of these quantities and I keep them in mind whatever pesto I am making.
The pot of pesto pictured in this post was a make-do pot. The the last two cloves of garlic (note to self – buy more garlic), basil and two neglected stalks of mint that might otherwise have just been binned, the only nuts I had in the house (almonds), parmesan alone as I had no pecorino. I feel reassured by a pot of pesto in the fridge so if I can, I try to make extra. It need to be covered with a thin layer of olive oil to stop discoloring. Pesto also freezes well if you are lucky enough to have a lot of something along with the wherewithal to stock pile.
So how to serve it. Pasta is our preferred way to eat all incarnations of pesto. I was taught to put a tablespoon per person of pesto in a warm bowl while the pasta is cooking then scoop 3 – 4 tablespoons of starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl to loosen the pesto into a creamy sauce. You then lift the pasta onto the pesto and toss, adding a little more water to loosen things further: the pasta should be silky and willing to curl around a fork, not clump together. I like pasta with pesto just so. I also like vegetables in the mix. With this basil, mint and almond I added some fine green beans and to the pan along with the pasta.
Pesto – despite what Vincenzo might tell you – is not just for pasta though. I used most of the rest of the jar as a dressing for warm boiled potatoes and green beans, and the last spoonful in a sandwich with some ricotta and mizuna. On other occasions I have used pesto at the bottom of a goats cheese tart thing, as a dressing for grated courgette salad, stirred into warm lentils. However you choose to use your potful, keep in mind that David Sanborn makes for a good and naff supper soundtrack and a bike ride (balancing and hills optional) is nice after.
basil, mint and almond pesto
makes that jar-full in the picture.
Wash and dry the basil and mint leaves and put them in a deep bowl. Add 1 or 2 peeled cloves of garlic (you know best), a pinch of salt, and the peeled almonds. Pulse – cautiously to start – with a stick blender until you have a rough paste. Add cheese bit by bit, with each addition adding some of the olive oil, stiring with spoon or pulsing with blender until you have a consistency and taste you like. This could of course be done with a pestle and mortar, or food processor.
Keep in a jar with layer of olive oil floating on the top to stop it discoloring.
*I am now the happy owner of new pestle and mortar, a gift from my wonderful publisher Elizabeth on publication of the book. Did I mention I wrote a book? I will be pounding pesto with a pestle just as soon as I get back in my Roman kitchen. I am – despite this misleading post that has taken me a month to finish – still in England, which is lovely, but I miss Rome and my kitchen and (slightly blocked) kitchen sink and all that represents. Thank you again and again for all your support and cheering along, for buying the book and then sending me such generous messages, for cooking and then sending me pictures, really it fills me with joy. R
Did it take you a very long time to write? Asked my four-year old niece while balancing the book on her upturned palms as if to really weigh it up. ‘About a year‘ I answered. ‘What a long time!’ She paused for a few seconds, then began turning the pages, her fingers moving like a pro. ‘I like that picture‘ she said before pausing again and staring at me hard. ‘I don’t need pictures now you know. Harry Potter doesn’t have pictures‘. She continued working her way through the book, her fingers and eyes moving from left to right. In that moment she looked about 10 years old.
‘Look, look there’s that building we drove past, the one you said looks like a cake, which means your flat is here!’ She was looking and pointing at one of Nick’s pictures, a sweeping shot of Rome, in which you can just about make out the Vittorio Emanuele monument. We passed that monument, once, at speed, a few weeks ago during Beattie’s first visit to Rome. My aunty awe at her memory and orientation were interrupted by ‘Tomato, tomato, pasta, pasta, pasta.’ The nearly five-year old was back, her eyes wide-hungry. ‘Is that a sticky bun aunty Rach, a really sticky bun?’ Then she slammed the book closed, leapt down from the chair and ran off. I thought that was that, but she turned. ‘Well done, Aunty Rach, it is a good book’.
I say it took me a year to write! Which it did, technically. A generous 12 months which allowed me to write, shop, cook, test, photograph and of course eat my way through the four seasons and as much as possible keep the process in tune with our everyday life (which is all too often far from melodic). But really, I started the book 10 years ago in April, when the 170 bus swerved into via Branca and I visited Testaccio for the first time. It was that day, as disorientation gave way to curiosity in a corner of Rome where ancient and modern collide with almost banal ease, and where food culture is woven into the very fabric of the place. I unknowingly began Five Quarters.
Many of you know the story. I didn’t intend to stay in Rome. I was set on returning to Sicily to finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted. Then I visited Testaccio, which – for want of a better description – tripped me up with its cocky charm. I decided to stay for a while and rented a flat above a breadshop, across a courtyard from boisterous trattoria and seconds from the burly old market. My front door, like the two dozen other front doors, opened onto a narrow balcony overlooking an internal courtyard which was sort of vortex of cooking smells and vigorous Roman life.
There is a wonderful Elizabeth Bowen quote (that we were given permission to use on page 252) pointing out the injunction to do when in Rome as the romans do is superfluous: what else is there to do? Of course I was going to eat pizza bianca just pulled from the mouth of a baker’s oven, flowers dipped in batter and fried until golden, carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole, gnocchi with tomato sauce, whole braised artichokes, bitter greens cooked with olive oil and garlic, wobbly cream puddings, wild cherry tart. Seasonal, uncomplicated, bold, and with flavours that are undisguised and definite: Roman food was a revelation. And I didn’t just want to eat these dishes, I wanted to try to understand them, to make them. I have always cooked and written, but the two met, collided really, in a small wind ventilated kitchen on Via Mastro Giorgio.
I’d left everything behind in order to travel. I adopted a similar approach to cooking, allowing myself to watch, taste, experiment and learn things all over again, especially the blindingly obvious things. Such as how to make a soffritto, the simplest tomato sauce and bean soup, how to braise vegetables and meat in wine and their own juices, to boil pasta and soak chickpeas, all things I ostensibly knew how to do, but then again didn’t. Things that, once re-learned and better understood changed the way I cook.
To start it was all about the new and different. But as a year became several, and recipes began to feel like my own, I began to observe similarities as well as differences. Roman food, I noticed, had much in common with traditional English food, particularly that of my northern relatives, the simplicity and straightforwardness of it (my grandfather would have said no fuss); the resourcefulness; the long slow braises using less popular cuts of meat; the battered cod; the love of peas, broad beans asparagus and mint; the jam tarts, stewed fruit and spiced fruit cakes. These connections were reassuring and made cooking even more of a new-found pleasure. There was another dimension too, the Sicilian food culture of Vincenzo, which felt like a bold and brilliant slap around the cooking face. I cooked and kept notes, and cooked and kept notes. In 2008 my notes found a home here on this blog, and now 7 years later a new home in a book.
Five Quarters; Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome is the title. Nick Seaton a photographer whose work I like very much, came and more-or-less lived with us – and our chaos – for a days at a time in order to capture Testaccio. His pictures, which feel like acute sideways glances at this distinct part of Rome, are honest and beautiful and add another dimension to the book. The rest of the pictures are mine, taken over the course of the year in our small kitchen as I cooked my way though the seasons and the 120 recipes.
I am now sitting at my desk holding the book, weighing it up if you like. It has a picture of my kitchen sink and a kitchen roll on the front and I can’t help but wonder what my grandma Roddy would have had to say about that. Plenty I imagine, including ‘A Kitchen Roll, by heck, you can’t put a kitchen roll…! The name on the front cover is mine, but this book is the work of many, most notably my commissioning editor Elizabeth Hallett and Kate Miles at Saltyard Books, editor Laura Gladwin, designer Myfanwy Vernon-Hunt and Dan Etherington. It is impossible to talk about Italian food without talking about wine, so I did, a lot, thanks to the advice of the woman who makes my drinking life better Hande Leimer. To everyone involved – thank you.
I also want to say thank you to you all for reading, commenting and for the real sense of community that exists here. Without you, this book would quite simply never have happened. Thank you, Grazie, cheers and more cheers. Many of you have already preordered I know – thank you. If not, and you would like to here is the link. Alternatively you go into your local bookshop and ask if they have it /order it, you could even suggest a book signing – I will try and come. The US edition is still a few month aways yet, February 2016 if all goes to plan. However and whenever you get the book, please do send me an email as in these days of fast mail I would like to return to slow mail and send you a post card with a picture from the book and two extra recipes. My e-mail is on my about page.
So to finish, a recipe. Or rather what we happened to have the day I wrote this post. An assembly I never seem to tire of: Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta. What I like most about this lunch, is what I like best about Roman food, it is robust, inviting and uncomplicated. Also it is very satisfying to toast some good bread and then rub it with a cut clove of garlic, to pile on tomatoes glistening with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil and then finish with a big fat blob of ricotta. Then what else is there to do? You eat.
Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta
Rince and cut away the tough stem from the tomatoes, then dice them roughly into a bowl, taking care to catch the juices. Add a pinch of salt, the basil leaves ripped into small pieces and a good amount of olive oil. Let the tomatoes sit for a 10 minutes.
Toast the bread (either under the grill, on a griddle or in a toaster). Cut the garlic in half lengthways and then use the cut side to rub the toast. Share the tomatoes and their oily juices between the four slices of bread, top with a spoonful of ricotta, a grind of black pepper and another thin drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
There was a particular moment as we drove back down the rough road from the stalls to the agriturismo for lunch. Against a backdrop of flint-grey mountain and low mist was a tree covered in buds, under it a fast running steam flanked by green. My camera was in its bag, which was twisted around the mechanism under the seat. Shit. Yanking was not the solution. It was too late anyway, the van had turned to cross a ramp over the steam and pit its Mercedes wheels against a slope covered with mountain coloured gravel.
There were plenty of particular moments last Sunday, some I caught with my camera, others I didn’t: mountains like giants either side of the narrow road, hundreds of sheep bolting around us, goats standing on sheep, the steam rising from a vat of almost ricotta. However it was the snapshot of a mountain, mist, tree, steam and green that stuck in my mind because it seemed to explain so much. It was like meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time. You understand the genetics: the gap in the teeth, the good metabolism, the nervous laugh. In that moment through a minivan window I understood something about the cheese I like to eat.
My dad would have called Sunday a beanday, which is his way of describing a day trip that involves a bloody good lunch. The story goes that when they were first married my dad arranged a surprise trip for my mum to an open day at a historic factory called Beanlands, which had nothing whatsoever to do with beans. On arriving at the factory my mum was less than impressed. However she was slowly drawn into what turned out to be a fascinating if eccentric day of local history. Then there was lunch. From that day on, a day trip arranged by dad for mum was called a beanday. Later, with three kids pre-seatbelt sliding across the backseat of the mustard Rover 3500, there was chanting as we set off on a beanday. As we turned into teenagers, chanting turned into moaning, which may or may not have ended by the time we sat down to lunch. By the time we were old enough to chant again we had left home, which meant my parents were – happily – back to beansdays for two.
In Rome a group of us have been on three beandays, which haven’t as yet involved beans, but aways involve food and then more food in the form of the good lunch. The first was south to Campania and a town called Grano to meet a man called Franco Pepe who makes pizza. The second was east across the Apennines then down to the coast and a town called Scerni to meet a man called Luigi Di Lello who makes a salame called ventricina. The third – Sunday – was east into Abruzzo again, up and up into the mountains and a town called Scanno meet a man called Gregorio Rotolo who makes cheese.
Actually we didn’t meet Gregorio. He was away, as he is every weekend, at a food and wine fair. Gregorio is a shepherd. During the week he works with his family, workers and pack of 40 white Pastori Maremmani sheepdogs tending to 1500 sheep, goats and cows high in the mountains. At the weekend he travels hard to promote and sell his cheese. At fairs he stands or sits (only occasionally dozing) behind a stall of his cheese: some wide and soft, others like big tear drops or stout ridged barrels the colour of sea-washed pebbles. He is a big man, as is his knife, the tip of which is pressed into the wooden board ready to cut slices of cheese with unnerving confidence. It was at fair of sorts in the old slaughterhouse in Testaccio I first encountered the man, his cheese and his knife. I tasted an aged pecorino, deep-yellow, crystalline with a sweet-sharp flavour that burrowed into my tongue. ‘Who is that man near the wine tasting’ I asked Francesca who brings her equally fine Abruzzese cheese to the farmers market each Sunday – a drive all the more impressive now we have done it. ‘Gregorio, mio zio‘ (my uncle)’ she replied. Francesca then went on to explain how they were an extended family of shepherds and cheese makers near Scanno on the edge of the Abruzzo national park. ‘You must visit‘ she said. ‘Then you will understand the cheese‘.
I guessed the girl who greeted us at the agriturismo was Francesca’s sister, so Gregorio’s niece, before she said so: the same brow and slant of a smile. She took us round to the room where her brother was about to finish the day’s cheese making. The white tiled room was small, clean, awash with whey and fuggy with milky steam. He had made Caciocavallo and Crescenza with cow’s milk. Pecorino made from sheep’s milk was sitting in perforated plastic baskets, alongside a cheese called Gregoriano. In metal vats whey from both milks was being re-cotto or re-cooked into ricotta. All the cheeses are made with their certified organic raw milk and rennet according to traditional methods. My camera lens steamed.
Have you ever been in a vast animal stall? I mean really in? In the middle of hundreds of sheep? They dash and swerve away from you, sheep displacement, and their breath and fleece brushes your arms as they do. The goats look nonplussed, pissed off even that you have displaced the sheep they were standing on. The air is filled with bleats that resonate up to the rafters. I was struck by the wholesomeness of it all. I imagined so many sheep, lambs, goats and kids would stink, but they didn’t. Of course they smelt, but nothing really untoward: hay, beast, wood, wool, proper manure. It felt thick and earthy. Fleeces were full, faces opinionated and healthy. I imagined this was what was good husbandry looks like. Outside in another vast enclosure were hundreds more sheep against a backdrop of mountains and mist. Once the mist lifts and spring really reaches this height the sheep will be free to roam on rock, to graze on grass and the dozens of wild herbs that grow in this area of national park.
I have often heard Abruzzo described as Forte e Gentile, strong and gentle. Forte and gentile was what – I imagined – I saw through the minivan window in that moment driving back. Mountain, mist, tree, steam and pasture, that snapshot seemed to sum up a strong, mysterious land. A land that if tended properly (and tenaciously) is generous to people and animals. Animals who then provide good milk that is turned into good cheese.
Lunch could have begun no other way. There was freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta that was almost grassy and wobbled tenderly, a soft, aromatic pecorino called Gregoriano, a cheese made from three milks, a decisive, aged caciocavollo that almost tasted of wine. My favourite was two-year pecorino that was almost gold in colour, sharp, insistent and tasted like bolting sheep. Stunning, This was the one I would take home. After the cheese came pasta: fluted ribbons with lamb ragu, ravioli with fresh ricotta, and potato gnocchi with the sauce made from melted Gregoriano cheese loosened by pasta cooking water (the secret is so often the pasta cooking water.) After the pasta came excellent meat that deserved better cooking, but we ate it none the less. Some of us finished with a digestivo made from a root called Gentiana that made my hairs stand on end. There were 10 or so people working in the large, functional dining room and kitchen, the family resemblance was striking, as was the good, wholesome hospitality.
As we drove away from the Agriturismo the mist was starting to lift allowing new perspectives. Mountains in the distance capped with the last snow or darkly-cloaked with forest, a road sign warning of bears, a town perched impossibly, a burst of wild poppies giving way to a steep verge. A herd of cows brought the minivan to an almost standstill then sauntered past. I grabbed for my camera. The strap was twisted under the seat.
Bio Agriturismo Valle Scannese and Azienda Agricola Biologica di Gregorio Rotolo & C. Località Le Prata, 60738, Scanno AQ, Italia.
In Rome it is traditional to eat the first fresh broad beans (fave) with young pecorino Romano cheese, especially on the first of May. Having brought back a small barrel of Gregorio’s pecorino we had some of our first fave with that. It is a lovely companionable thing to do, podding and chiseling cheese together, and the combination of tender, waxy beans with the sharp cheese is a brilliant one.
Another celebration of spring, and something I seem to write about every year is Vignarola, A spring vegetables stew that can only be made for a few weeks each year, when the last of the artichokes meet the first fresh peas, broad beans fave and spring onions at the market, It is one of my favorite things to eat, a true celebration of the changing seasons. There are of course as many versions of Vignarola as there are cooks. This is my version. I like vignarola with bread and some soft cheese, piled on garlic rubbed toast- I also like it stirred into pasta with grated pecorino cheese and just enough of the starchy pasta cooking water to bring it all together into slightly creamy whole. As I said, it is often all about the pasta cooking water. For me, this is a quintessential spring pasta dish.
Tagliatelle with Vignarola and pecorino serves 4
Prepare 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. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.
Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, tumbling whole. Let the vignarola rest. If you have one, Tip the vignarola into a wide, deep frying or sauté pan as it will be easier to mix with the pasta.
Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a fast boil, salt generously, stir and add pasta. Grate some pecorino (I’d say about 60g). Once the pasta is cooked, use tongs or a spider sieve to lift it into the vignarola (You want it to carry a little starchy pasta cooking water). Scatter over the cheese and toss everything together gently but firmly,. You want the cheese to melt and mix with the pasta cooking water to from a sort of cream which brings everything together – watch the edges of the pasta, you will see it happening. You might need to add a little more pasta cooking water and toss again. Divide between warm bowls and top with more freshly grated pecorino.
We live three floors above a Bar. A Bar in the Italian sense of the word, so a place with a bar at which you stand to drink coffee, or juice, or a fluorescent aperitivo. It is also a Latteria, so a place you can buy latte, milk. I tend not to drink coffee or buy milk at this Bar, which also has a disco ball. I won’t hear a word said against the place though, as the owner Franco, who leans up against the door or paces up and down the pavement in front, is very much part of our everyday life. He is friendly and weary, and I forgive him and his neglected coffee machine because I know he would rather be doing what he does after rolling down the metal blinds. I know because he tells me about his other life most days, I have even sat beside him and his co-producer helping them check the English lyrics to a new dance track. It was a surreal moment, sitting in a basement recording studio in Testaccio listening to the young winner of an Italian TV show I have never seen, record vocals. Dreams be shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah. As my temples thudded in time with the base line, I suggested are shattered instead of be shattered, and felt both old and useful. Take 9. Dreams are shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah.
A few weeks ago Franco was forced to move the tables from outside, new council rules in Rome, which are flexible if you are prepared to pay enough to bend them. No tables means the group of older signori who spent every morning sitting outside the Bar – as far as I could tell never actually buying anything – have migrated to the newly opened piazza. This means I no longer have a front door greek chorus. There is no-one to watch me and comment while I struggle with my warped key, or to tell me that they have just turned the water off in the entire building until 3. No-one to point out that Luca is under-dressed for the weather, or that I might need an umbrella as I walk out of the door. Last week, there was no-one to witness my bag slip from my shoulder and tomatoes spill all over the pavement.
Franco came to the door as I was picking up the last few and the first drops of rain hit my specs. ‘Marzo pazzerello, se c’è il sole, porta l’ombrello‘ he said. It means something like Crazy March, if there is sun, take an umbrella. Then he handed me a tomato that had rolled into the Bar. ‘Caffe?’ It was clearly an offer. I accepted, and drank it up against the bar below the disco ball. It was better than usual, but still made me shudder. I wondered if the free espresso was going to lead to a request for more lyric consultancy. But it didn’t, we just stood watching the rain batter against the window and on the empty pavement.
It was a Marzo pazzarello and not just the weather. Everything – it seemed – kept changing from one moment to the next: ideas, arrangements, moods, things spilling all over the place. It’s the book I told Vincenzo. ‘Yes‘ he replied with weary patience. ‘Your book’. I have a feeling April is going to be much the same. One thing however, regardless of sun, rain or in-between, is constant, my daily walk up Via Galvani, past the 200o year old hill of broken amphora, four mechanics and a wolf painted on the side of a block of flats, to the market.
Roots and winter cruciferous veg are now sharing the stalls with clear signs of spring: the first, straggly wild asparagus, a grass-like vegetable called agretti, which tastes somewhere between seaweed, asparagus and grass, which probably sounds odd, which it is, but also delicious, especially boiled and then dressed with anchovy butter. There are also fat bunches of rocket and the first peas and broad beans in their pods. Contrasting all the green are pinky-red radishes with fat bushels of leaves, strawberries from Terracina, and Sicilian tomatoes, some round and fluted like the columns of the pantheon, others plum-shaped and the first datterini, round to a point, thick-skinned, crisp and sweet.
I had planned to write about a post about Italian Easter customs, possibly with the recipe for a dove shaped yeasted cake, or three-day Neapolitan pastry. I also thought about an English post, Hot cross buns or a Simnel cake. I had ambitious plans. However with the exception of hot cross buns whose crosses disintegrated as they baked (but tasted smashing), I have made none of the above, never mind written about them. So here I am writing about salad.
A good salad, and one we have been eating often since rocket and tomatoes returned on such good form to the market. The tomatoes need to be firm and sweet enough to contrast with the peppery heat of the rocket. With good tomatoes and rocket and you only need extra virgin olive oil and salt, ideally the sort you crumble between your fingers, such as Malden, which is the box that always fills the gap in my hand luggage when I come back from London. The other day we had this salad with Broccoletti ripassati, so boiled, drained and then re-cooked with olive oil and garlic, a Mozzarella di bufala and some toast rubbed with garlic. It was a really good lunch, the sort that gets even better as the bits get muddled and you get better at assembling the ideal bite: crust of bread, a squashed tomato, bit of rocket and straggly broccoletti topped with strand of mozzarella given a swipe through oily juices yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rolling the tomatoes across a Bar floor before making this salad is optional.
Rocket and tomato salad, garlicky greens, bruschetta and mozzarella
Hardly a recipe, more an assembly. You hardly need instructions for this, but here they are anyway. Serves 2 greedy people well.
Ideally the mozzarella should not have been in the fridge. If it has, remove it an hour before. While you are at it, pull the tomatoes out of the fridge too.
To make the salad – wash the rocket and tomatoes then dry thoroughly. Arrange on a platter, sprinkle with salt, pour over some olive oil and then toss together properly.
To make the garlic greens. Trim and wash the broccoletti and then cook until tender in well- salted fast boiling water. Drain. In a large frying pan, warm the oil and add a peeled, gently crushed garlic clove. Gently fry the garlic until it is fragrant, but do not let it burn or it will turn bitter. Remove the garlic. Add the greens, sprinkle with salt and toss around the pan until warm and glistening with oil.
Make toast, rub with the cut side of a clove of garlic, zigzag with olive oil.
‘Oh dear‘ said a friend when I told her I was going to write about turnips. ‘Does anybody actually like them?’ I was about to say I do, but she was off on a beetroot and radish tangent before changing the subject entirely, so I just nodded. Afterwards it crossed my mind she was probably referring to the early winter variety, stout, purple-tinged turnips which, if left too long, can become stringy and harsh, which is where the ridicule comes in I suppose. ‘What is the difference between turnips and snot? Children will eat snot‘ was the joke David Stott told us in the playground. We rolled about laughing until our seven-year-old sides hurt. The giggles were carried into the school dining room where waterlogged turnips mashed with carrots and cheap margarine were shunted around our plates.
Catch them before they turn though, and winter turnips can be excellent, especially roasted, creamed with potatoes and butter or, as I once ate in France, glazed to serve with ham. It is not the early variety we are taking about today though, but late winter/early spring turnips, white spheres with a soft matt glow, bunched together by their bright green leaves.
‘Three more, bunches?’ checked my faithful fruit and veg man at my local market here in Testaccio in Rome. ‘What are you doing with all these turnips?’ Then he laughed as if there might be turnip funny business, in which moment he looked just like his heavy-browed, twinkly-eyed dad, my other fruit and veg man. ‘Don’t forget to eat the leaves‘ he said stuffing the bunches in a bag in the same way I shove laundry in the basket when I am cross, and before I could say please be careful I need to take a picture. ‘‘ ‘Ste cazzo de foto!’ he said laughing even harder.
Turnip leaves, or turnip tops as we call them in England, are an excellent green vegetable reminiscent of mild mustard greens with their slightly peppery warmth. Romans love them, particularly cooked twice, which we will come to shortly. The turnips themselves are crisp and sweetly peppery, and – as I have discovered in this last month of turnip cooking – are surprisingly adaptable, making wonderful soup, risotto and pickles. They are also good roasted, which prompted Vincenzo to remind me – for the umpteenth time – that turnips were one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, and an important food for the Ancient Romans. There is also the story of the Roman war hero Curius Dentatus who, at the start of the third century, refused a large amount of gold to defect to the side of Hostile Samnites because he was busy roasting turnips over a fire.
When choosing turnips look for bright, lively leaves and smallish white bulbs. Like people: avoid those that are too bloated, faded or smell too strongly. Young turnips only need a very thin layer peeling away. Their greens however are as good as three-year-old boys at hiding mud and grit, so give them a damn good wash. Now get cooking, and remember, turnips are no laughing matter. Snigger.
Pasta with turnip greens and ricotta
One of the most useful and delicious things I have learned since living in Rome is to ripassare greens. It means to cook twice, first boiling briefly and then re-cooking in a skillet with garlic scented olive oil. The greens can then be served as a side dish, or mixed with pasta for a quintessential southern Italian dish. Turnip greens, with their slight bitterness, work beautifully ripassata and mixed with pasta, especially orecchiette, or little ears. The key is a generous amount of good extra virgin olive oil, never letting the garlic burn and making sure the greens are glistening. I also like a blob of ricotta and a dusting of parmesan or pecorino on the finished dish.
Wash and dry the turnip greens. Roll them into a loose bundle and chop roughly.
Bring a large pot of water to a fast boil, salt generously (the rule of thumb is 1 litre of water/ 10 g salt for every 10o g of pasta) and stir. Add the greens, boil for a minute then use tongs or a slotted spoon to lift them from the water, drain and set aside.
Now tip the pasta to the pot, set the timer and cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, peel and gently crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife so they are split but still intact. Warm the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over a medium/low flame until the garlic is fragrant (be careful it doesn’t burn) add the greens and a pinch of salt and toss and turn until they are glistening with oil. Turn off the flame
Once the pasta is cooked, drain it – saving a little of the pasta cooking water – and tip onto the greens and toss. If it seems dry, add a spoonful of pasta cooking water, and toss again. Divide between warm bowls topping with a blob of ricotta if you wish and finishing with parmesan or pecorino.
Apparently my mum craved pickles when she was pregnant with me, which might explain my extreme enthusiasm. I only wish I had known sooner that DIY pickling was so easy. Since learning this simple technique I have pickled cauliflower, beets, carrots, radishes and – best of all – turnips. It is something about the crispy, peppery sweetness sharpened by spiced vinegar that hits the pickle spot. I am not very discerning and would eat these with anything, but particularly cured and boiled meat, strong cheese, savory tarts, in sandwiches like a sharp chutney and beside rice and beany concoctions. Some people like to add a beetroot to the mix to give a pleasing pink tint. I had intended to do this, but forgot to buy one.
Put the water, salt, sugar, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pan, over a medium flame and warm until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Add the vinegar to the pan. Wash a jar with very hot water and in a warm oven so it is sterilized.
Peel the turnips and beet, then cut into 3 mm or so wedges. Put the wedges in the jar, cover with the liquid. Seal and leave for at least a day and up to a week. Once opened, store in the fridge.
Turnip soup with garlicky turnip greens
I learned to write recipes whilst helping my friend and chef Mona Talbott with the American Academy in Rome soup book some years back. Every Sunday morning for seven months, we would meet in the Academy kitchen, drink coffee, then begin: Mona cooking, me noting quantities and details. Then we both ate soup. At the end of the day I would walk down the curving Gianicolo hill, several mason jars filled with soup clinking in time with my every step. This soup was one of my absolute favourites. It is a pure, simple and smooth soup which – to me – feels like the essence of turnip with a pleasing hint of aromatic, herbal bay. Into the pale soup, you swirl dark green turnip greens which have been wilted in olive oil and garlic, which elevates the soup to a whole new level of taste and texture. The key is patiently sweating the water out of the turnips before you add more liquid. If you like a more decisive stronger flavour use stock. Garlic rubbed/olive oil soaked toast is nice with this.
Strip the greens from the turnips and set aside. Peel the turnips, potato and onion and slice thinly.
Warm 3 tbps olive oil and the butter in a large, heavy based pot over a medium low heat. Add the onion and sweat until soft and translucent, about 5 mins. Add the turnips, potatoes and a pinch of salt to the pot, and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then, allowing the turnips to soften and sweat off some liquid.
Add the liquid and bay leaf to the pot, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 mins. Remove the bay leaf, the use an immersion blender to reduce the soup to a smooth puree. Season with salt as required.
Wash the turnip greens and dry them. Roll them into a bundle and then chop roughly. Peel and gently crush the garlic with the back of a knife.
Warm 3 tbsp olive oil and the clove of garlic in a sauté pan over a medium/low flame. Once the garlic is fragrant and just starting to colour (it must not brown or will be bitter) add the greens and sauté them until they are wilted and glistening with olive oil. Remove the garlic and then tip the greens into the soup and stir. Serve with a grind of black pepper and a swirl of olive oil.
Risotto was suggested by another stall holder at Testaccio market. I was wary. Then I tried, and was surprised and delighted by the delicate, vegetal and ever-so-slightly-peppery risotto that came together one grey Wednesday lunchtime in Rome in February. I suppose you could argue that any vegetable sautéed and oil and butter, given body by plump rice and whipped into creaminess by a mantecatura of butter and parmesan cheese is going to be good. As with the soup above, if you are worried about intensity of flavour, use stock. If you are just two, still make enough for four: the remaining risotto can be moulded into balls, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried to make arancine.
Strip the greens fron the turnips. Scrub the turnips (only peel them if you feel it is necessary) and dice them. Wash the greens, dry them, roll them into a loose bundle, then chop the roughly and set aside.
Warm the stock in a small pan and keep warm at the back of the stove. Peel and finely chop the onion. In a large, deep frying pan, warm the olive oil over a medium flame, add the onion and cook it for 3 minutes or so. Add the diced turnip and sauté for another 2 mines. Add the rice and stir until every grain is coated with oil, add the wine, which will woosh and evaporate.
Now look at the clock – this will take about 17 minutes so pour yourself a glass of wine – start adding the stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time, only adding the next when the previous one is absorbed. After 10 minutes add the turnip greens and then continue with the stock. Once all the stock is absorbed and the rice is plump and creamy, pull the pan from the heat and wait one minute. Then add the butter and parmesan and beat everything together with a wooden spoon (this beating is called the mantecatura and it is what makes a risotto so beautifully creamy).
Roasted turnips, carrots and red onions with farro
I am not sure if I would turn down a lots of gold for them, but I do like roasted turnips very much. As is the case with so many vegetables, roasting turnips means water evaporates and the natural sugars and flavours are concentrated. The turnips, red onion and carrots should shrivel slightly, crisping and curling at the edges. Farro, another ancient and modern Roman staple, provides a tasty, nutty, no-nonsense base. I feel as if I could march a very long way after eating this. It is also delicious. I have been known to top this with a poached egg or crumble over feta cheese. Ideally you want to keep a portion for the next day, when it is even better
This post was at the suggestion of the brilliant food community food52, where I am also sharing – a slightly shorter version – of this post. This final recipe will be on Food52 site in the next couple of weeks. I will put up the link as soon as I can. – R