no laughing matter

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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.

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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.

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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.

serves 4

  • The greens from two bunches of turnips
  • salt
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 450 g short pasta, ideally orecchiette
  • Ricotta (optional)
  • parmesan or pecorino

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.

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Pickled turnips

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.

  • 1 cup /250 ml water
  • 4 tbsp / 40 g coarse salt
  • 3 tbsp / 30 g sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 1 cup / 250 ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 llb / 500 g turnips (which is usually the bulbs of two bunches)
  • 1 small beetroot (optional)

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.

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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.

serves 4

  • 2 lb / 1 kg turnips with greens
  • a small potato
  • 2 medium onions
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a knob (2 tbsp) butter
  • 1 liter water, vegetable stock or light chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • for sautéing the greens  – 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic

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.

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Turnip risotto

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.

serves 4

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • a walnut sized knob of butter
  • a small onion
  • 3 turnips, ideally with greens
  • 400 g risotto rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 1 litre of water, veg or chicken stock
  • 50 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 30 g butter

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).

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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

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indignant crumbs

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The problem with breadcrumbs, is that they are breadcrumbs. They like to gather in the rubber seal at the top of the fridge door, and in between the tiles, meaning I crunch as I move around the kitchen. Most days I make some sort of attempt at sweeping them up, but it always feels as if I am simply shunting them around our small, awkward kitchen in much the same way you do coins in a shove penny machine: hopelessly. ‘Mum ants are taking our bread‘ Luca said as we pressed our chins to the crummy, sticky floor (the problem with squeezing orange juice is orange juice) in search of a lost car the other day. He was right, under the sink a trail of ants were carrying crumbs towards a hole in the wall. ‘Hungry ants‘ said Luca. Helpful ants I thought.

Our crummy kitchen isn’t just the result of everyday bread cutting and eating – although that plays a part, we are a messy lot. It is a result of cooking more and more with breadcrumbs, which means we are getting better and better at reducing old bread into various sorts of crumbs, in various ways, ready for whatever.

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This isn’t an entirely new thing, while I can be wasteful, I have alway been good at using up old bread. In England this mostly meant toast and more toast, then if I got my act together bread and butter pudding or crumbs for bread sauce (I adore bread sauce). Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen.

We make two sorts of crumbs. Softish ones from the inside of the bread, la mollica, which are ideal for adding to meatballs, or the various vegetable dumplings I chuck together on a weekly basis (the principle is always the same: boil a vegetable until soft, mash it, add crumbs and grated cheese, possibly herbs, an egg and mould into balls.) We also use the softer crumbs as a crust or sicilian-ish stuffing for fish, meat or vegetables and in various pesto-like sauces. Any soft crumbs I am not going to use straight away I put in small plastic bags that then get lost at the back of the freezer along with the end of a bag of ancient peas and single serving of tomato sauce. Having pulled out the soft crumbs, I then bake the crusts in the oven until crisp so I can smash/rolling-pin them into a fine breadcrumbs, or pan grattato – which is of course nothing like as fine as shop bought stuff, but that is fine by meI use these fine-ish crumbs to dust meat or vegetable balls that are going to be fried, and to coat meat or fish that is going to be shallow-fried or baked. I keep dry pan grattato in a jar, bringing it back to life and crunch with a little jig around a hot pan.

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If Vincenzo, a Sicilian, whose widowed grandmother Lilla ran a bakery (an extraordinary thing in profoundly traditional, rural Sicily in the 50’s and 60’s) had it his way, there would always be a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs on the table for sprinkling on wherever: pasta, veg, salad. I first I thought it a very odd habit, especially the crumbs on pasta, which felt somehow double. Then some crumbs that had been tossed around a hot pan in olive oil until golden and crisp were sprinkled on my pasta with greens and anchovies, others on my spaghetti with oil, garlic and chilli: I was won over. Then I discovered breadcrumbs and anchovies. Which brings us to today’s recipe, one of my absolute favourites, pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs.

Anchovy breadcrumbs are –  I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Unami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.

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This is one of those satisfyingly simple pasta dishes that comes together, with minimal effort, in minimal time. While the pasta rolls and steams the kitchen windows and your face, you warm the oil (I like a little butter too), add the anchovies and then nudge them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the anchovies have disintegrated and the edges of the oil and butter are just starting to foam, you add the crumbs, raise the heat and jig them around the pan until they are crisp and golden. Once the pasta is ready, you drain it, tip it into a bowl, tip over most of the crumbs and parsley if you fancy, toss properly and divide between bowls. You finish each serving with the last few crumbs from the pan, before you enjoy your tangle of spaghetti ensnaring an anchovy rubble –  delicious stuff.

Later that day you could well find anchovy crumbs in the seal of your fridge, don’t ask me how.

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Spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs

Most recipes – if you can call them that – call for soft breadcrumbs. We prefer an uneven rubble made from old crusts, baked until crisp them smashed with a rolling-pin. Drier crumbs need less time in the pan than soft crumbs. As with so many pasta recipes, you want a little residual pasta cooking water clinging to the pasta – not dripping wet – which lends moisture to the dish. This is why tongs are helpful, allowing you to lift the pasta from the pan into the bowl with water clinging to it. Like so many very simple dishes, the key is practice, once you have made this a couple of times you will get the knack.

serves 2

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small knob of butter
  • 6 – 8 oil packed anchovies drained or 4 salt packed anchovies, cleaned and de-boned
  • big handful breadcrumbs from good bread that is at least a day, ideally two old (appox 50 g /1 cup)
  • 300 g spaghetti or linguine
  • black pepper
  • a handful of finely chopped parsley (optional)

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil over a full flame. Salt the water, stir, the add the pasta and cook, storing from time to time, until al dente.

Warm the oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet over a medium-low heat. After a minute add the anchovies and nudge them gently around the pan until they disintegrate and dissolve into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, raise the heat a little and fry until the crumbs have absorbed all the anchovy infused fat and are golden and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Drain the pasta and tip into a bowl, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parsley if you are using it, grind over a little black pepper, toss and serve immediately with a glass of cold, white wine with enough acidity to hold its own against the anchovies.

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what is it like?

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 Writing and cooking – June 15th – 20th 2015 – Sicily

Ask anyone who has ever sat in the courtyard at Case Vecchie at dusk with a drink in one hand and a hot panella in the other, what Case Vecchie is like, and you could well be met with silence. Ask them about the valley that arches behind the house, that first crush of wild fennel, chamomile and mint underfoot, the feel of ancient twisted vines warm from the sun, or how Filippo stirs the vat of brilliant white ricotta. Ask them too about the table at the far end of the cobbled courtyard, and the food eaten at it. In fact ask them, demand even, that they tell you more about Sicilian food: fresh ricotta, sharp pecorino, dishes scented with mint and wild fennel, Fabrizia and Giovanna’s orange marmalade, artichokes, anchovies, lemons, capers, il timballo, freshly fried panelle, the majestic cassata. Now watch the stirring of memories and wait until – eventually –  the words and descriptions tumble out.

I’d encountered the silence, and then the words, many times over the years, from friends, from cooks and writers I admired. Everyone – it seemed to my envious ears –  had visited a cooking school in a valley in Sicily. So great and deep was the praise, that I wondered if it really could be so extraordinary, so beautiful, so enchanting. Then last year, I was to discover it was just as the silences and words had promised, and more. It is not simply another cooking school, but a place of edible education, a home to many, a farm that smells as it should, so of earth, sweat and damn hard labour, a historic winery, a place where Sicilian traditions are protected with fierce pride, it is both elegant and as comfortable as slippers, it is quite simply wonderful.

I can’t think of anywhere better to hold a food writing and food blogging workshop with my friend and fellow food writer Luisa Weiss ,and the inimitable owner of the school Fabrizia Lanza. For five days, immersed in life at Casa Vecchie, we will immerse ourselves in the language of food. There will be discussions, readings, lessons, advice and time to write. We will be cooking with Fabrizia and Giovanna, exploring, visiting Filippo the man who makes ricotta, and Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves. We are going to eat and drink and make merry until late each night. Of course there is no pressure to get up too early – this is a holiday after all –  but you will I promise, so you can see the sunrise over the valley and then take your coffee or tea into the garden, a haze of beauty, before you have breakfast.

I am now – in Rome on a Saturday morning in Feb – thinking about breakfast at the large square table at the end of the kitchen, the lip staining mulberry jam, the freshly made bread, yogurt and cake. I am thinking about flying to Palermo in June, meeting you all and taking our first hot gulps of Sicilian air before we drive, through breathtaking sicilian country side, to the school. I am imagining how you will feel when you first see Case Vecchie crested on the hill, when you walk through the blue gates into the cobbled courtyard, when you take the first sip of wine and taste of panelle at dusk, when you first bend down to smell the tangle of wild fennel and mint. It is going to be a good week.

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 The Language of Food.

Before the course, participants will receive six pieces of writing that we will be discussing, each one highlighting a various aspect of food writing. Three pieces have Sicilian roots—Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece about coming to Sicily to learn about wine, an excerpt from On Persephone’s Island by Mary Taylor – Simeti, and a selection by Simonetta Agnello Hornby—while the final three writers (MK Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Laurie Colwin) have their roots in other places.

The itinerary

Day 1: Monday, June 15
Arrive in late afternoon or early evening, for  a welcome dinner and introductory discussion over Sicilian aperitifs at Case Vecchie.

Day 2: Tuesday, June 16
Morning writing lesson followed by lunch at Case Vecchie

In the afternoon we will visit local shepherd and cheesemaker Filippo Privitera, where we will watch traditional ricotta production and sample both freshly produced cheeses and the family’s aged cheeses.

Cook together for dinner at Case Vecchie. • Post-dinner gathering and reading.

Day 3: Wednesday, June 17
A morning trip to Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves.

Afternoon writing lesson and free time for writing, resting, or exploring around Case Vecchie, followed by cooking lesson and dinner.

Day 4: Thursday, June 18
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

Afternoon free time for resting, writing, and exploring the vineyards.

Evening visit to the Case Grandi winery for a tasting workshop, where we will sample a variety of Tasca d’Almerita wines and learn a little about the language of wine. Dinner at Case Grandi.

Day 5: Friday, June 19
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

That afternoon, we’ll drive to the beautiful hillside village of Polizzi Generosa, with a chance to write in the scenic piazza, sample the local specialties, and visit one of the most ancient pottery producers in the area, before returning through the twilight hills for a farewell dinner at Case Vecchie, followed by a chance to share our work and reflect on the week.

Day 6: Saturday, June 20
• Departure after breakfast.

But we hope the conversation from our special writing community will continue through online discussion and continued feedback loops!

The cost

All-inclusive: 2,500 euros per person for single-occupancy, 2,300 euros per person for double occupancy.

Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be ace I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do.

And because I don’t want to write a post without a recipe, here is one from Fabrizia’s book, for lemon knot biscuits, which are just delicious – R

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Lemon knot biscuits with lemon glaze - Taralli

  • 2 cups / 250 g all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup 100 g granulated sugar
  • 100 g lard or butter, diced
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 125 ml lukewarm milk
  • 1.5 cups /200 g icing sugar

Sift the flour into a large bowl.  Add the diced lard or butter and using your fingertips rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the granulated sugar, cream of tartar, zest of both lemons and salt. In a small bowl beat together the egg and the lukewarm milk and then add them, bit by bit, to the flour mixture until the mixture comes together into a soft dough. Knead the dough vigorously until it is soft and smoothish but just a little bit tacky (but not sticky).

Preheat the oven to 350° /180F. Prepare two baking trays lined with baking parchment.

Working on a lightly floured board, pull away lumps of dough and roll them into 1/2 inch thick rope and then cut into 5 inch lengths . Shape each length into a looped knot and transfer to the baking tray. Bake the biscuits until they are golden brown which will take about 20 mins,

Make a glaze by adding lemon juice slowly to the icing sugar until you have a consistency thick enough to coat but not clot. Dip the top of each biscuit in the glaze and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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all the orange

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I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.

Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.

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Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel –  if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler –  and the flesh, firm and sweet.

A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.

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Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.

Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest,  pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.

Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).

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Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake

From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.

A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.

  • 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 6 free range eggs
  • 250 g ground almonds
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin

Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.

Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have  a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.

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We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R

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Filed under almonds, bitter oranges, cakes and baking, Fabrizia Lanza, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Sicily

a bittersweet and brillig tale

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It must have been 1996 when I first tried to make Seville orange marmalade. I was still at Drama school and living at the far end of Camden Town (which meant it was really Mornington Crescent) in a flat so near the railway line it seemed to lean slightly with every passing train. Other than the intrusion by the 5 32 from Euston (then the 6 02, the 6 32…) it was a great flat, small but well-formed, the top floor of a townhouse renovated by a young architect called Glynn. It was intended to be home, but then his new girlfriend refused to get used to the trains, or the stairs, or the backside of Camden, so they went to live at her flat. He didn’t want to rent it out properly, so the flat was sitting empty. Glynn worked with my best friend Joanna, and I just happened to pass by at the office at right moment. No contract, a promise I would move out if things changed and a gesture of a rent: the flat was mine.

The kitchen, which was in the corner of the living room, was small but extremely practical, as was a big table, that also functioned as a work surface. The table was surrounded by comfy but odd, ugly stacking chairs which looked like they would be more at home in a garden. ‘Bloody Hell, these are Birtoia chairs‘ said a friend’s older boyfriend one evening. He then went on to explain that the chair I was sitting on was one of the most recognized achievements of mid-century modern design. ‘Bloody beautiful‘ he said. I nodded in full agreement and served everyone more food, which was probably roasted vegetables with goats cheese –  from 95 – 99 I made a lot of roasted vegetables with goats cheese – the sound of trains cutting through the wrong end of Camden town..

I bought the 4 lb of Seville oranges from the market on Inverness street, a special order. ‘You know these aren’t eaters don’t you love? said the stall holder. I must have told him I was making marmalade, because he made me promise I would bring him a jar before he tipped the bright orange contents of the crate into two bags. I bought sugar from a shop nearby and then carried my 12 lb project back along Camden high street, past the tube, the Worlds End pub (which smelt like the world’s end), Woolworth’s, right into Mornington street so I could pass the coffee roasters and left into Mornington Terrace.

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My mum is a good and committed marmalade maker, principally because my dad is a good and committed marmalade eater. Of course she eats it too! But mostly she makes it for Dad. For as long as I can remember, at some point in January my mum processes enough Seville oranges for my dad to have a jar of marmalade a week plus more for us kids and guests. Growing up I watched and helped enough – stirring, testing, getting in the way, putting the waxy circle on each jar, sticking labels on the jars – to imagine the recipe would be absorbed as if by kitchen osmosis.

Alone in Camden town with 4 lbs of oranges and double the amount of sugar, it did cross my mind I should call mum. But these were the days before free minutes and Skype cook-alongs. I had no home phone and my heavy-weight Nokia was probably dead. I just bulldozed on, I don’t think I even had a proper recipe. The initial steps, came easily, like your fingers remembering all the scales even though it’s 18 years since you played the piano, or your lips the words to the first two verses of a poem you learned at junior school. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the… Halve, squeeze, remove pith and pips but reserve in a piece of muslin (or old tights), chop the peel into moons. Then came the soaking. But was it with or without the sugar? And was it really necessary?

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Patience is something I often lack in the kitchen. When I decide to make something, cake, soup, marmalade, pickles, three-day cured beef, I want immediate satisfaction and ideally to be eating whatever I’ve made for the next meal. This is fine when it comes to cake or soup, less so when it comes to recipes that involve the words soak for 24 hours, or leave covered or three days without touching. Without my mum or a recipe reminding me that there was a very good reason for the soaking and waiting, I just continued bulldozing. I boiled and boiled the contents of the pan it until it looked like angry lava and the flat felt like a citrus steam room that smelt of toffee orange.

I didn’t have nearly enough jars for the several liters of amber syrup I boiled up, so some was flushed away immediately, along with my guilt. The rest was poured into jars without a funnel which meant much of it dribbling down the counters and across the table of my well-formed kitchen. The jars were put in the cupboard.  I might have managed to use up one jar, pouring it over buttered toast and then watching it flood the plate, tipping it over yogurt and pretending marmalade syrup might become a thing. The jars got pushed to the very back of the cupboard. The girlfriend didn’t change her mind about the trains. She did however change her mind about Glynn, or Glynn changed his mind about her. Either way, I had to give up the flat.  The day I left, the jars left sticky rings in the cupboard. I then left the jars and another dose of shame, in a skip next to the railway line.

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For years I had absolutely no desire to make marmalade. I’d happily eat it at my parents – my dad keeping a possessive eye on his pot as it was passed around the table – but I didn’t want anything to do with citrus pips and pans. Even when I moved to Rome ten years ago and citrus trees became everyday (although far from ordinary to my northern european eyes) and bitter orange windfalls, squashed like citrus road kill, marked the streets near my flat, I wasn’t tempted.

Then a few years back, I was tempted again, and encouraged by Vincenzo, a Sicilian for whom citrus is ordinary and essential, and who loves bitter orange marmalade as much as my dad. This time I did have a recipe, but from a sugar cautious friend, which meant the marmalade was more of a compote. There was a slight sense of déjà vu as I poured the amber mixture into the jars. It was fine, nice even and we ate most of it. Later there was lemon marmalade, another recipe from a friend, the quantities of which got lost in translation which meant it didn’t really set properly either. This was fine too and it was poured valiantly over everything, especially lemon cake, which was good and made it all feel worth while.

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Then this time last week I walked up to the Giardino Degli Aranci, a small park shaded by orange trees on the Aventine hill. It is just minutes from our flat in Testaccio, but feels like another world: calm, shady and with an ideal viewpoint from which to observe this extraordinarily beautiful city. Turning away from the view, I noticed the dark green trees and the grass below were blobbed with orange. Marmalade crossed my mind.

Actually the seed had been planted at christmas, when I spent a nice part of one afternoon looking at a new cookbook of  mum’s all about marmalade. One picture in particular struck me, a big pan of bright orange chopped peel, in it suspended the muslin bag of pith and seeds, a practical and beautiful picture. It caught mum’s eye too, a serious marmalade maker swayed by a picture and new recipe (it is pretty much what she does anyway, give or take a very good tip.) Back in Rome I asked my fruit and veg guys to get me some bitter oranges, but there was always a good reason why they forgot. Then I went up to the orange garden and saw the oranges. We passed by the garden again few days later on our way back from somewhere, Vincenzo waiting in the stick- gear panda in the carpark, me with a big canvas bag. As I said, they were windfalls.

Sarah Randell’s recipe begins with an excellent instruction – put the radio on. Which I did. I would like to expand this instruction to: put the radio on (quietly) make a cup of tea, sit at the table and read through the recipe, twice. This is not because it is particularly difficult or complicated recipe, but because there are quite a few steps, each filled with tips and details which make all the difference. The sort of tips and details you could well miss if – like me – you tend to bulldoze through and next thing you know your hands are sticky with orange – which is a lovely way to be –  and your glasses are steamy and you can’t get a proper look and the recipe page or screen on the other side of the kitchen meaning you miss the most important word. Once you have read twice, turn the radio up, finish your cup of tea and begin.

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I haven’t enjoyed making something so much for ages. Oranges are inherently joyful, simply taking one in your hand, scratching the flesh so the scent is liberated and your nail oily, is a tonic – unless you are a girl I was at school with, who found even the thought of the smile of orange they used to make us suck on during half-time of Netball matches so horrendous she hid in the changing room toilets. For most though, washing, squeezing, chopping , slicing and cooking a large quality of oranges is a messy, laborious, sticky jolt of orange joy. Go and make marmalade should be written at the bottom of doctors prescriptions as a cure of sorts: marmalade against the strain of modern life, conserving for health, citrus therapy or some such thing.

As I poured the marmalade into the jars  – I still didn’t have enough jars – I was transported back to Mornington Terrace, and that January afternoon in 1996 and my 23 year old self, insecure yet full of myself, trying to get the sticky marmalade syrup into the damn jars without a proper ladle and it running down the counter and across the table surrounded by important chairs. Things got sticky here in Rome too, but then I wiped the jars and was transported back to Kirkwick avenue and helping mum in the chaotic, loving, bickering and sticky atmosphere of our family kitchen. Memory stirring English style marmalade, made with Roman oranges, for a Sicilian:  it felt like a sort of coming together, which is something  I have been thinking a lot about lately. But much more important than my amateur philosophizing, is the marmalade, which set perfectly and is delicious, especially on hot buttered toast.

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Seville Orange marmalade

Adapted from a recipe by Sarah Randell from her beautiful book Marmalade: a bittersweet cookbook

  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 1 fat lemon
  • 2 kg sugar

You need a big pan and a  30cm/ 30cm square of gauze or muslin and 6 or 7 340 ml jars

Put the radio on. Make a cup of tea and sit at the table and read through the recipe so you know exactly what lies ahead.

Cut the oranges in half, flicking obvious pips into the gauze. Squeeze the oranges and then put the juice into a large bowl or the pan you are going to use. Put and flesh or pips from the squeezer into the gauze.

Cut the orange halves into quarters – scraping any membrane away and putting it into the gauze – then cut the peel into uniform shreds – thin or chunky depending on your preference. Put the peel into the pan with the juice. Gather the gauze into a money bag pouch and tie with string (leaving a long end that will tie the gauze to the pan handle during cooking).  Add 2.25 litres of water to the pan and the gauze pouch. Cover the pan with cling film and leave in a cool place overnight.

The next day if you have used a bowl, tip everything into a pan. Tie the gauze pouch to the handle with the string so it hangs just submerged in the liquid. Bring everything to a simmer over a low – medium heat, then simmer until the pieces of orange is really soft – they should squash easily between two fingers – this should take about an hour and a half.

Once the peel is soft, remove the pouch, pressing it gently against the side of the pan first to extract as much juice as possible. Put the pouch into a bowl to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon juice into the pan, then add the sugar. Once the pouch is coolish, squeeze the last of the pectin rich juice from it and put it in the pan – you may need rubber gloves. You can now discard the pouch, it has done its job.

Preheat the oven to 140° put the – very clean – jars on a baking tray and then in the oven to sterilize for 20 minutes. Put a two saucers in the freezer.

Keep stirring the pan to help dissolve the sugar – this is an important stage, it will take about 15 mins. Once the sugar is dissolved bring the marmalade to a rolling boil and boil for 20 – 25 minutes or until it has reached the setting point for which you should use the wrinkle test. This means putting a blob of marmalade on a cold saucer, putting the saucer back in the freezer for a minute and then dragging your finger through the blob. The marmalade is ready when the blob wrinkles and remains pretty much split in two and doesn’t run back into a whole.

When the marmalade is ready, take the pan from the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes which will help the peel disperse more evenly. Use a measuring jug, ladle or funnel to transfer the marmalade into the warm jars. Seal the jars immediately and leave the to cool. Give the jars a final wipe before labeling. Keep the jars in a cool dry place, where it will keep for over a year.

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Filed under bitter oranges, conserves, marmalade, winter recipes

the zest of it

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It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

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As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

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I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

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The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

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Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

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Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

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This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

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Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

soft penguins and mushrooms.

 

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We thought they would never move. Even though Dad has been going on about living near the sea for the last twenty-five years and they both felt the small town they lived in for 35 years had sharpened into somewhere they hardly recognized, it seemed my parents would reluctantly stay put. Then they moved. It was family friend Joanna, a keen-eyed architect, who spotted the house while they were all on holiday nearby in Devon. A few days later I got a call in Rome telling me that they had put in an offer on a house in a village in West Dorset. Then it was us three kids proving the reluctant ones. ‘Were they sure they wanted to make this big move at this point in their lives?‘ ‘At which point was that‘ asked both parents before exchanging on the house.

Here I am two years later in Dad’s study in the new house looking through the window at Dad shifting things around the garden. It isn’t just a lovely house, but a house that feels lovely, and as much a home as the faithful one that was a family home for 35 years. Renovations are pretty much finished, except the kitchen, which feels a bit like camping, the floor marked with masking tape suggestions Joanna has told my parents to live with, trying out if you like, before making any final decisions. It is comfortable camping though, warmed by an AGA, home to the big table surrounded by the wicker backed chairs the grandkids are picking at in just the same way we used to, and a proper pantry. In the left hand corner sits the piano on which all three of us thrashed out arpeggios more than 25 years ago. Next to the piano sits a small temporary bookcase filled with Mum’s cookbooks.

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To be honest – and this may seem odd for a person who has just written and photographed a cook book – I often find cook books a bit overwhelming. This is mostly because I insist on flicking through new ones at the breakneck speed in bookshops I haven’t given myself enough time to linger in, pictures and recipes slapping me round the face. My mum’s books though, many of which I have myself, are nothing but reassuring. Above sit the hardbacks, which don’t feel hard at all, Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson, Ann and Franco Taruschio and the Silver Spoon, Below are the soft penguins and other paperbacks, which feel nice to hold. Books by Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Colin Spencer, Simon Hopkison and Joyce Molyneux their pages yellowed by time, their spines lined with wrinkles. These are books of good writing and good recipes that fall open into the splits at pages encrusted with specks of pastry, mincemeat and bread sauce. Most of the books have bookmark fringes, records of a time when supper was called a dinner party, years of kids teas, weekend lunches, meals celebrating, meals consoling.

We are all back for a week around New year along with our young kids and some of our friends too, which has meant the nicest sort of cooking: festive but functional. Tasty and accommodating food that pleases large groups, some of whom might roll up late. Food that will keep well enough if someone happens to need half an hour of breathing space before getting back stuck in. Jane Grigon has been consulted for braised beef, glazed ham, shepherds pie and mince pies, Elizabeth David for red cabbage, cod Portuguese and prunes in red wine, Nigel Slater for soup and biscuits, Josceline Dimbleby for herrings in soured cream (which we have made twice) and the AGA book for treacle tart. We have made Simon Hopkinson’s excellent Potato gratin and then today, from a book called Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, Funghi alla casalinga.

Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen is a book I don’t have in Rome, and won’t be allowed to borrow until I return the pudding book and fish book I borrowed for a few months four years ago. It is a charming book written by an English woman who lived in Tuscany in the late 1800’s and who noted down her recipes which were inspired by her Tuscan home. It was re-published by her great, great-nephew in the 1970’s. It is, I imagine, the kind of book that could be pulled by pieces by purists questioning authenticity, whatever the heck authentic means. I find the simple recipes – which are mostly for vegetables –  and engaging descriptions utterly appealing. Mum suggested we make a recipe she used to make a lot as a starter in the 1980’s, mushrooms cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, seasoned with anchovy and chopped mint and then sharpened with lemon juice.

It is a particular sounding recipe I know, but a plainly delicious one. The anchovy far from being fishy, acts as gutsy seasoning and, like all well-behaved seasonings, doesn’t dominate but simply coaxes the mushrooms into being, more, um, mushroomy. Mint, musty and warm, works surprisingly well, as does the lemon, which sharpens everything up nicely. We piled the mushrooms and their buttery juices on brown toast, even though my mum thought it would have been better served alongside crusty white bread for mopping up. I think these mushrooms would also be good with rare steak, piled on a baked potato or on top of some proper polenta.

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Funghi alla casalinga – Mushrooms in butter with anchovy, mint and lemon.

Adapted from Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross

  • 1kg mushrooms
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 tbps olive oil.
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 chopped anchovies
  • 2 sprigs of chopped mint.
  • juice of half a lemon.
  • a tablespoon of chopped parsley

If necessary wipe the mushrooms clean, then cup them into slices. In a wide frying pan, warm the butter and the oil and then fry the mushrooms gently until they are soft – which will take about 5 minutes.

Add a good pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, the chopped anchovy and mint and continue cooking for another minute or so.

Add the lemon juice, stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately.

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Cheers and Happy New year to you all. The book is coming along in the most lovely and reassuring way thanks to the happy team I have the privilege to work with. This week I am back in London to collect second page proofs which I will then take back to Rome to look over. Publishing day is June 4th for the UK and then March 2016 for the US, which seems both near and far. Until then I look forward to writing here as much as I can. Thanks as always for reading along – R.

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Filed under antipasti, books, mushrooms, Rachel's Diary, vegetables, winter recipes