Leaves, eats shoots and peas.

I fell out, flipped out of my life in London one miserable Sunday morning in March 2005. An hour later I found myself at Heathrow airport knowing only that I was going somewhere. After an oversized, overmilked coffee and a very odd tasting flapjack (I don’t even like flapjack) in a depressing airport eatery, I established the somewhere, by grabbing, as one would pull a name out of a hat, the nearest Lonely planet guide from the shelf in the bookshop. I stared at the book for some time not quite sure what to think, I had no designs on Italy, no romantic longings or yearnings, no distant relatives and barely a word of the language. Then I remembered that wasn’t the point and went to the ticket desk. I didn’t tell anyone I was going.

I remember very little about my arrival and the first week in Naples except walking and that the raucous, unruly, anarchic beauty of the city felt appropriate. I remember I didn’t lose my luggage because I didn’t have any, and that my room in the hostel ‘6 small rooms’ on the 6th floor of a venerable old building on Via Diodata, was, as my lonely planet promised, cheerful, clean, and as its name promised, small.

There are no stories about delicious meals in quaint trattoria, the authentic Ragù, perfect pizza, Sartù, baked anchovies, the polpo affogati and sublime buffalo mozzarella, not now, not this time, they all came later when I returned to Naples. That first week I was too busy walking, pounding the streets from early to late each day.

The dark, heady, intense espresso, I do remember that, tiny cup after tiny cup, maybe some of the best I have ever tasted and the babbà al rum, balls of sweet yeast dough studded with sultanas, baked then soaked in rum, both of which punctuated my days and fueled my pounding. I remember almost nothing of my day at Pompeii except that I felt comfortable in the ruins and in the company of strangers.

By the third day I ‘d managed to turn my phone on and tell my family and friends at least which country I was in, but no more, not yet, they might have come to scoop me up from my demented grand tour.

My first lucid memory is taking the boat from the glittering bay of Naples to Palermo late on the seventh day. The boat pulled into Palermo harbour at about six thirty the following morning, There were only handful of passengers and apparently no other foot passengers. If there were, then they’d all hidden in their cabins and disembarked from an exit that alluded me. I managed to get lost in the bowels of the boat, ending up on the growling, oily, car deck and making my escape by dodging lorries and running down the vast ramp to a chorus of bemused then angry shouts and energetic gesticulations from the boat and the quay side.

If Naples had felt appropriate, the dignified and decrepit beauty of Palermo at the beginning of spring felt right. I found a hotel just near Piazza Verdi and collapsed on the bed. I slept for 24 hours.

The following day I woke late, confused and ravenous and set off in search of food. Willful and hungry and with little sense of direction, I found myself near the, bustling, shrieking, Vucirria street market, a boisterous and crude place quite unlike the charming Sicilian markets I might have imagined. I avoided the extraordinarily noisy fish market and wandered between the vegetables stalls, many of which were selling just one or two things. It was chaotic, dark green blur, both exhilarating and a bit savage. I remember vast, unruly heaps of violet tinted artichokes, what seemed to be an entire lorry load of potatoes sitting in a vast mound with a boy sitting on top, wonderfully sinister looking fave (broad beans) like green fingers with black nails, piles of peas, gaudy gold zucchini flowers, clear sharp green lettuces, crates of forest green leaves with unruly roots I imagine were chicory, that strange vegetable that looks like coarse hairy celery, the one I still don’t know the name of.

I ate pane e panelle from a crowded stall for breakfast. Panelle are deep-fried chickpea flour fritters, which taste a little like particularly delicious, nutty, fat pancakes. The way I understand it, chickpea flour is cooked rather like polenta, with water, slowly until it is a thick paste. Coarsely chopped parsley is added, then the paste is spread thin, cut into pieces and deep-fried. You eat the golden fritters sandwiched between slices of bread, seasoned with a squeeze of lemon juice. Looking back, wandering around those streets alone, devouring breakfast hungrily, in that particular and notorious market, with barely a word of Italian was a bit reckless, careless and foolish. I suppose they were days that reflected how I felt.

I’ve written about my first proper meal in Palermo before, it was in a rough and tumble trattoria in a crumbling building in one of the shabby labyrinthine streets near Vucirria. The owners weren’t very friendly and the woman split water on my jacket, but I didn’t care, which isn’t like me at all. I was well guided by my guidebook, I ate caponata, the agrodolce (sweet and sour) Sicilian antipasti, which is rather like a loose chutney; cubes of deep-fried aubergine, fennel, onion, courgette and celery mixed with sultanas and pine-nuts and marinated in a palate startlingly agrodolce of oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar. I ate a very salty pasta con le sarde (I had a superb plateful the following day in another trattoria) and far too much wine for lunchtime.

To finish, I had the spring vegetable stew Frittedda, which is amongst one of the most delicious and evocative things I have eaten in the last few years.

I was fortunate, for 6 weeks or so in Spring, when the fresh broad beans, peas, artichokes and spring onions are young and tender enough, you can find this simple and sublime fresh vegetable stew in Palermo (there are variations of it all over Italy in Rome it is called vignarola). Spring or mild onions are cooked in olive oil, maybe with some wild fennel, the prepared artichokes are added and then finally the shelled peas and broad beans along with a little water or wine. The vegetables are then cooked briefly and gently. It is a simple and, when carefully made, sublime dish that tastes like spring, tender and sweet, popping and bursting with fresh flavour.

I finished my lunch, mopping up the last oily juices with more bread and paid. I remember feeling very sated, but for the first time in eight days, extremely sad, very alone and with an acute and swelling sense of panic ‘What the fuck was I doing in Palermo?’ I cried for the first time. I couldn’t walk any more so I went back to the hotel. I called my family, which hardly reassured them, but they were glad to hear my voice. It hardly reassured me either but by this point the panic and tears had subsided, and tucked underneath them was a strong, unshakable sense that however bizarre, rough and grey things felt, I was doing the right thing. I slept for another 12 hours.

Five Years on, I am sitting in our flat in Rome writing this and wondering if you’re still reading. This seems like a good place to stop for now and write out the recipes. I’m sure I’ll pick up where I’ve left off another day.

Today, as you’ve probably gathered, I live with Vincenzo, who, even though he has been in Rome for many years, is dark, proud and unmistakably Sicilian – I am very tall, pale and unmistakably English which makes for much affectionate and not so affectionate teasing. Being here with him has meant that Caponata, pasta con le sarde, frittedda, panelle, those first meals in Palermo, the full flavoured, tender, evocative dishes are now – adapted and shaped to Roman produce – happily part of our daily life.

The frittedda is Vincenzo’s family recipe, his Mum Carmella makes it beautifully. Putting the frittedda and the panelle together is not very traditional but it’s very delicious, the golden fritters make wonderful companions for the green shoots, bulbs, beans and peas.

A good way to celebrate spring.

On a practical note, I wonder if any Sicilians reading will gasp at this panelle recipe and method and then offer advice! Yes please. Until then, this is the way we make panelle. Now the mixture is rather sticky and getting the rumpled squares from the tray to the pan can be tricky, I use a spatula and a fish slice. Once in the pan and the hot oil they fry into neat golden square which are altogether more manageable. As for the frittedda, fresh, tender beans and peas in their pods and the nicest artichokes you can find are worth seeking out.

Last thing, if the broad beans are very young, tender and good you don’t need to pop them out them out of their little coats, but I leave that decision to you and your beans.

Le panelle

  • 300 g chickpea flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp coarsely chopped parsley
  • olive oil for frying

La Frittedda

  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 200g of spring onions or mild sweet white onions, finely sliced
  • 2 large or 3 medium artichokes
  • a lemon
  • 1kg broad beans in their pods which will yield about 300g of beans
  • 1kg peas in their pods which will yield about 300g of peas
  • a handful of finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • A handful of wispy fennel fronds
  • 100ml of water or wine

Serves 4

Shell the peas and broad beans and prepare the artichokes by snapping away the dark outer leaves until you get to the pale tender ones. Then using a small paring knife cut away the stringy outside of the stalk and work around the base of the artichoke trimming away the green. Trim the pointed tops of the remaining leaves and cut the artichoke in half. Using a spoon scoop out the hairy choke. Cut each half into 6 small wedges and rub them with lemon and submerge them in cold water with lemon juice to stop them discoloring.

To make the panelle, in a saucepan, whisk the chickpea flour with 500ml of water until smooth, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Really slowly bring the pan to a gentle boil, whisking all the time, and then cook, always whisking for 8-10 minutes until the mixture thickens, then stir in the parsley. Pour the thick mixture – it will be thick and sticky and you will need to help it along – onto an oiled baking sheet and using the back of a spoon spread and flatten it to a 1cm thickness using the back of a spoon dipped in hot water. Leave it to cool and set for a few hours.

Prepare the frittedda, Heat the olive oil in a large frying or saute pan and then cook the onions over a modest flame until they are soft and translucent. Add the artichoke hearts, 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 5 minutes. Then add the peas, and broad beans and another 50ml of white wine or plain water. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle flame for 10 minutes and the vegetables are soft. Stir in the parsley and fennel fronds. Taste and season accordingly. Let the frittedda settle for a few minutes which allows the flavours to emerge

Cut the chickpea mixture into rounds, square or diamonds – if it is sticky, don’t worry use a fish slice or spatula lift it from the tray – then shallow fry in olive oil until golden on each side.

Serve the panelle immediately with the frittedda and half a lemon.

Have a good week.


Filed under Beans and pulses, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables

76 responses to “Leaves, eats shoots and peas.

  1. this recipe makes me think of spring and spring is slowly making it’s appearance here, so i will make this soon for sure!

  2. This was easy to keep reading. I so enjoyed hearing your experience… I imagine a number of us have had a time where we have “flipped out…of life,” only to emerge some time down the road with a degree of perspective gained, and as it seems in your case, a serendipitous ending. I would love to hear more.

    This recipe looks beautiful, as usual (I pretty much want to fix everything you post).

    Thanks again for the lemon curd recipe/inspiration. It really is delicious. My little 19 month old boy starts crying and reaching for the jar when I take it out of the fridge – my fault for giving him the first taste, I suppose.

    • rachel

      Thank you laura.
      So glad the lemon curd worked out and that we have a new covert. You will have to make him little lemon curd jam tarts.

  3. I’ve been wondering about this transition of yours–keep writing it!!!

  4. suz

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and, while this is probably a bit presumptuous, learning a bit more about you as I read. Thanks for sharing a bit about yourself and your background. And for recognizing that most of us go through some sort of drop out period, whether we recognize it or not. It’s nice to see that you were able to not only acknowledge your need, but come out on the other side as the wonderful woman you are (seem to be, I continuously remind myself that I don’t really know the bloggers I read, I just think I do!).

    Thanks for all the yummy food and gorgeous pictures.

    • suz

      I’ve also just realized that my comment above has a startling amount of grammatical mistakes! I should really re-read things before I hit submit! I’m certain this is why I read blogs instead of writing one.

  5. Put the camera down and eat, Rachel. 😉

  6. stunning, this, the words, the story, the gorgeous greens and browns. i’ve been meaning to make panelle for eons, but this frittedda is new to me (though not unlike a spring braise i often ad hoc.) thank you, so, for sharing.

    • rachel

      I waited too long to make panelle and then kicked myself because it is all very simple (quite sticky too) and very tasty.

  7. really beautiful photos. a wonderful choice you made to have taken this path- at least that’s what we can see from your lovely blog. x shayma
    ps love lynne truss 🙂

  8. I love reading your story. You are so brave and adventurous. Very inspiring.

  9. such a fabulous post. you have some guts, lady, to recognize something in your life wasn’t quite right and to just go forth boldly and make a change!

    as always, I want to devour everything on the screen. even more excited about my upcoming (5 week!) trip to Italy!

  10. karen

    thank you for telling your story rachel. making, sharing and eating food is so personal and intimate. i think pairing your blog with stories of life is like pairing wine with food – makes it all taste better!

  11. excellent post. can’t wait to read more. but that panelle, not sure what’s more captivating… your story or that freaking panelle.

  12. Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading this, and most definitely could relate to it. Though for me, my change in location was not as extreme or abrupt, or as self-directed!

  13. Hi,

    I’ve been a quiet reader of this blog for the last few months. I’m not sure how I found it but it’s been on my Google reader and I always check updates. Love how you are revealing yourself slowly. This is a lovely post.

  14. your most compelling post yet, Rachel. Such a good read, your story, and the spring vegetable stew—I want to make right now.

    • rachel

      Nancy I highly recommend the stew, a perfect horray for spring recipe (spring is decidedly inconsistent around here though)

  15. coconutandquinoa

    Yum, this is my kind of ideal spring meal, I LOVE chickpea flour and have never added parsley…looking forward to trying it, thanks!


    • rachel

      Yes, the parsley is really nice, my friend also puts a bit of very finely chopped rosemary in hers which is really good too.

  16. Rachel, it was easy to keep reading! In fact, this was a beautiful piece of writing.

    Panelle is one of my very favorite things. When my family wasn’t spread across the US, we would have it on New Year’s Eve. And always in Sicily. Such great street food. I have never had frittedda, but I might have to change that! (I guess never being in Sicily in the spring, or even Italy much for that matter, would do it.)

    As to the name of the hairy, celery like vegetable, I’m guessing cardoons (or cardune in Italian). They’re artichoke stalks. My family cooks them down in a little water with olive oil and lots of garlic until tender. Yum.

  17. After googling cardoons, I stand corrected, they are artichoke relatives. Also known as artichoke thistle. Who knew?

    • rachel

      Thank you christine, brilliant thats it,, the hairy wierd celery is cardoon.
      I have also seen it in Rome, so now I need to cook some.

  18. What a beautiful post, full of almost edible images. Your life sounds like my wildest daydreams.

  19. first before i forget, a very funny title. i’ve been thinking about this post for a bit, and it was very easy to read and I’d like to hear more. i think it takes a LOT of courage to do what you did. happy week rachel. x

    • rachel

      I am so happy you like the title, you are the only one who picked up on that (oh and my best mate.) Ummmm courage, thats a really nice thing to say but I am not sure there was much of that !

  20. Molly

    I have been reading your recipes for so long, and this post was so revealing and personal. It really reminded me of when I was living abroad alone.

  21. Wonderful Rachel. I think we have all dreamt of just going, packing up and rushing away and your story shows that sometimes, just sometimes, it is absolutely the right choice no matter how crazy it may seem at the time. I would love to hear more. And your recipes, as always, both sound and look delicious, the perfect welcome to Spring. Gx

    • rachel

      Gemma – I have to say I miss English peas with new potatoes and english mint, they are
      wonderful but not the same here !

  22. Excellent writing Rachel, the way you weave your story with the food, local color and recipes. It’s a common fantasy I think – picking up, leaving and telling nobody where. And, you lived it out in a marvelous way.

  23. makingromaroma

    Rachel, that was a lovely post and so nice to learn more about you.

  24. rosemary

    i’ve just found your blog and i have to tell you that i think it is absolutely the best thing on the whole entire internet. good god, your writing is beautiful, touching and evocative, your pictures are stunning, and i want to cook every single thing on here.

    well done!

  25. Dea

    Hi Rachel,
    I think its adorable that you actually respond to almost every comment, not many bloggers do.
    I will make your fiancè’s mom’s Frittatedda recipe, we have all these ingredients here in Marsala.
    I did the same thing btw, after 9/11 with Bushie jr in power DC (Washington DC) became unbearable, the steady war drum beat, the bombings, my felllow countrymen crowing unseamingly with pride as Iraqi and Afgan civilians died by the hundreds, I had to get out. And I did, I found an old school friend, to whom I am now happily married, he helped me find a job and I relocated. A bit less daring than you, as I lined up a job and had a friend set up a flat and everything, but I flipped out of my life as well.
    I go home twice a year, love DC always will and I adore the Obamas and even campaigned for them in 2008. All is well, but I wouldn’t trade the soft sea breezes of western Sicily for anything, I love how we eat seasonally here, I love the 250 days of sunshine, I love all of it. Thank you so much for sharing more of your story with us, you write beautifully 🙂

  26. Great blog, Rachel. I was looking for a photo or
    idea of a sinister looking vegetable for an art project.


  27. Oh my, your writing. It just grabs me. So beautiful and evocative. And I so much want to know more, I cannot wait for your story to pick up where you left off….

  28. Rachel, I save your posts for quiet weekend mornings in bed with coffee- quiet, peaceful. Best to savor your delicious written and pictorial imagery.

    Substitute the the south of France for Naples and Palermo and our past stories are not so wildly dissimilar.

  29. Pingback: More peas please. « rachel eats

  30. i love it – rather like back in the day when novels used to be serialized in the paper – I’ll have to tune in next time for more of the story. Can’t wait for more similes like (no syntactical pun intended): “wonderfully sinister-looking fave like green fingers with black nails”.

    I’ve often wondered how panelle (never having eaten them) can be so good and not totally chalky and mouth-drying, especially when served in bread rolls. I’ve still never eaten them, but having stuffed myself with baked chickpea-flour farinata in Genoa and its South American cognate, faina, in Argentina (the latter often served on top of pizza!), I can completely see the attraction of the carb-on-carb action. In that context, and thanks to this post, panelle is now very much on my list of make-this-soon/don’t waste any more of your life wondering. There’s also a famous Sicilian (stewed?) spleen sandwich – the name of which i forget – that I’m also jonesing to try.

    • rachel

      Pane ca meusa Vincenzo is telling me (pane con la milza) – I did eat it and quite liked it but I will leave the making and writing of that particular sandwich to you two – I am far too much of a girl.

  31. Oh, Rachel, you write so beautifully. I applaud you for your courageous vulnerability. Know that it is savored and admired. I’ve always thought your musings share that same (rare) whimsical quality with Luisa Weiss’ and Molly Wizenberg’s writings…and I thought it was quite interesting to note that both of them have commented on this post! If you ever decide to (als0) put your thoughts into print, know that I’ll be the first in line on that Amazon pre-order 😉

    And thank you for being so lovely as to reply to your admiring commenters. It is most courteous!

  32. Rachel, what a lovely post. I just found your blog via smitten kitchen. I’ve never heard of either recipe (but do eat the first of the season’s peas straight out of the pod – sadly I must wait for a bit longer for them in my neck of the woods). I don’t know yet whether I’m brave enought to try them (I just recently started making my own polenta vs buying it in the tube – so much better). Your Italian adventure sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read more. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • rachel

      Peas from the pod are really as good as it gets but when you have had enough of them try the fritedda it is
      lovely and simple and very very tasty.

  33. You see what you miss when stranded by volcanoes! I am glad I looked back on missed posts. I love this post. I do admire you so very much, grabbing the first plane out and surviving those weeks alone, but I am also very glad I am not your mum! It seems like you definitely did the right thing and I bet you never thought you would still be in Italy five years on, ensconced with Vincenzo and writing a wonderful, wonderful blog.

  34. Lindie

    I envy you so much! Iwant to live there for a year at least! Your stories and your recipes are the next best thing.

  35. Peg

    It’s amazing how one can find blogs skipping off another. I’ve been reading Our Italian Table (a friend of my daughter) for some time now which skipped off to Bleeding Espresso that skipped off to you. Your story touched me in a way no other has. I’ve often wanted to run away from my life to see what I have missed. My pull to Italy is especially strong. My Grandfather immigrated from Italy & that’s all we know. I’d so much like to experience the country he called home. I’ll keep reading so I can catch up to your most current blogs. Keep them coming and wow me with the traditions of my Grandfathers country.

    • rachel

      Thank you for such a nice and thoughtful comment Peg. I really appreciate it. I just hope I do justice to some of the wonderful traditions of this (beautiful and often tricky) country.

  36. Crystal

    I just have to tell you how inspiring your story is. I hope one day, in the not-too-distant future, I will have the courage t flip out of my life, and into a new one. I’ve dreamed for years of just up and moving abroad. Italy in particular is calling to me – and for no logical reason at all. Thank you for this post. It truly helps to know that others have made the leap I so desperately want to make!!

  37. Pingback: A bit sheepish | rachel eats

  38. Pingback: Nothing, all and some | rachel eats

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s