Monthly Archives: May 2010

May 24th

It seems fitting that this post should be as succinct, straightforward and swift – three admirable qualities I’m not generally noted for – as this lunch. It could of course be supper.

Fat, tender white beans, cannellini or haricot, drained and mixed with the best tuna packed in oil you can afford (look for tuna belly which is called ventresca, good Italian grocery shops will sell it by weight from a large round tin), thin slices of spring or red onion, a flick of coarse salt and plentiful extra virgin olive oil.  Serve with bread – or toast if your bread is a little jaded – and the bottle of olive oil nearby in case you need another glug. Fork in one hand, bread in the other, I particulary like the scoop, squash and mop involved in this meal.  Needless to say, a glass of wine would be nice.

The artichokes I preserved under oil are ready, so I popped open the first jar and sliced three of the pale hearts into the deliciously oily heap the Italians call fagioli toscani col tonno.

Lunch. One of my favourites.

This is also a fine antipasti. I’d double the quantities for 4 – 6 people, afterall  leftovers, if there are any, are always welcome. Perfect alongside a dish of olives, a few red radishes and some good bread.

White beans with tuna and onion

Serves 2 (technically !)

  • 6oz/150g best quality tuna packed in oil, lightly drained.
  • 15oz/400g of white beans (cannellini or haricot) drained – you can of course soak and cook your own.
  • a small red onion or 2 or 3 spring onions finely sliced.
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • coarse salt like Maldon
  • freshly ground black pepper.

Put the beans, onion and tuna in a bowl, then using a wooden spoon gently stir and break up the tuna into nice fat flakes. Sprinkle over a little salt, season with black pepper and pour over the olive oil liberally – quite how liberally is entirely up to you. Serve with bread.


Filed under antipasti, Beans and pulses, food, recipes, salads

First things first

Pellegrino Artusi the Italian buongustaio and one of the first food writers to gather together recipes from all over Italy, describes antipasti – which literally translated means before (anti) the meals (pasti) – as cosette appetitose, appetising little things to be eaten before the first course.

I’ve seen and tasted wonderfully clever and complicated antipasti, but generally this nice habit appears to be a simple, unfussy and local affair for most Italians. There is always bread, maybe a bowl of olives and probably a few slices of local salami or cured meat. Around Rome at this time of year, you may be presented with a dish of broad beans fave, still in their pods so you can peel them yourself to eat with hunks of salty Pecorino Romano.

Sometimes there’s a local cheese or some vegetables preserved under oil. There might be a dish of fat white beans sitting in a puddle of good olive oil or some marinated anchovies. I’ve often had fried delights, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then plunged into hot oil, or olives stuffed with seasoned sausage meat, breaded and fried until crisp. A favourite antipasti is crostini, small toasts spread with coarse patè, or bruschetta, bread warmed on a charcoal grill (or toaster if you live in an extremely small inner city apartment) heaped with roughly chopped tomatoes or – one of my favourites – simply rubbed with garlic and anointed with olive oil.

I’m immensely fond of such cosette appetitose. On more than one occasion a lack of control and foresight in their presence, nearly sabotaged the rest of the meal. I am an English barbarian afterall.

Three years ago, Vincenzo and the motley crew he drums with, played a concert in Supersano, a town in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It was past midnight when we followed one of the young organisers in a fuel injected panda with a penchant for formula one corners, through the Puglian countryside in search of our post concert supper. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another hairpin bend in a sweaty tour van, we swerved into the forecourt of a Masseria – dictionary definition; a fortified farmhouse or manor farm with a large agricultural estate – which had been converted into an agriturismo and restaurant.

It was an extraordinary, vast, sprawling 16th century stone building, a proud, labyrinthine place. The hour, heat, humidity and our growling hunger were not particularly condusive to thoughtful reflection of the places austere beauty, but it was quietly acknowledged. We were led into paved courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall, then seated at a round table, large enough to accommodate all ten of us.

The meal that followed was one of the most memorable and delicious I have ever eaten.

First the bread, typical of the area, made from semolina flour, firm with an almost yellow crumb, bowls of olives and a salami called capacollo. There were various dishes of preserved and pickled vegetables sitting in pools of golden olive oil; sweet and sour small onion-like lampascioni, purple edged slices of grilled aubergine, soft, sweet red peppers and my favourite, tiny walnut sized artichokes. Then came the deep-fried zucchini flowers, some filled with mozzarella and anchovy, others with sheeps milk ricotta, and the rest just so, crisp and golden on the ouside, soft and forgiving within. That my friends, was the antipasti. It was clear to us all it was going to be a long night.

Next, i primi, two vast platters of home-made pasta, one with cime di rapa the other with a piquant ragu. As we helped ourselves then ate the pasta, they stoked up the charcoal grill in the corner of the courtyard ready to cook lamb, pancetta and fat sausages – I think, by this point everything was blurred at the edges. After the meat came green salad dressed with salt and extra virgin olive oil. To finish we slurped vast half moons of soft, sweet, white melon and bit into soft almond biscuits. We drank wine, lots of it, a Primitivo I think, water from the well in the centre of the courtyard and we ended proceedings with a strictly medicinal amaro.

Almost everything we were served was sown, grown, produced, pickled. preserved, fermented, brewed, baked, cooked at the Masseria.

At some point I (apparently) asked a formidable signora from the kitchen how to prepare the onions, the artichokes, the ragu and the biscuits. I say apparently because I don’t really remember this particular conversation, but I do have the notes to prove it took place. My handwriting, an unruly scrawl, suggests rather a lot of wine had been consumed by that particular point. We finished eating at 3 in the morning. I don’t remember leaving.

So, the first recipe, the carciofi sott’olio (artichokes preserved under oil.)

It’s hard not to admire the vast, unruly heaps of small, purple tipped, baby globe artichokes (carciofi) at Testaccio market. Every year I buy a few to eat raw in salad and every year I promise myself I will set some time aside, buy a few kilo’s to prepare and preserve under oil. This year I finally did. I’ve made two batches. The first was rather straightforward because Vincenzo my faithful fruttivendolo prepared the artichokes. I watched attentively because the next 3kg, the second batch were down to me.

Sleeves up, radio on. Working with half a lemon and a bowl of cold water acidulated with plenty of lemon juice. You take the artichoke in one hand and snap away the outside leaves until you reach the tender pale leaves which are only green/purple at the top. Then with a small paring knife you cut away the small stem and then scrape and cut away tough green from the base exposing the white heart – rub the exposed surface with lemon. Finally cut away the pointed tops and put the prepared artichoke in the lemon water.

You plunge the prepared artichokes (in batches to avoid over crowding) into a fast boiling solution of white wine, white wine vinegar, water and a little salt. Once the water cames back to the boil you let the artichokes roll around for three minutes before lifting them out with a slotted spoon, draining them and lining them up on a clean tea towel to dry for 24 hours.

The following day you tuck the artichokes neatly into scrupulously clean jars, not forgetting to punctuate each layer with a black peppercorn. You fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil so the artichokes are absolutely covered. ‘Cosi‘ said Vincenzo the fruttivendolo as he explained the procedure, holding his fingers about 3mm apart.

Finally you put the lids on the jars – tightly, then hide them away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Carciofi sott’olio (Artichokes preserved under oil)

  • 3 kg small artichokes
  • 500ml white wine
  • 500ml white wine vinegar
  • 200ml water
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • whole black peppercorns
  • a selection of clean sterilized jars with lids

Prepare your artichokes – see above.

In a large pan bring the wine, vinegar and water to a fast boil. Then working in batches so the pan is not overcrowded, add some of the artichokes. Once the water comes back up to a fast boil, cook the artichokes for 3 minutes.

Lift the artichokes out of the pan with a slotted spoon, drain them, squeeze the excess water out of each one and the line them up – with the beautiful side facing upwards – on a clean tea towel to dry out for 24 hours.

The following day tuck the artichokes into scrupulously clean jars in neat, tightly packed layers, punctuating each layer with black peppercorn. Fill the jars to the top with extra virgin olive oil, making sure the artichokes are absolutely covered by at least 3mm of oil.

Put the lids on tightly, then hide the jars away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Once the artichokes are ready, spoon them and some of the oil into a small dish (try not to put your fingers in jar) and serve them as part of your antipasti. They are also wonderful on pizza, tossed with pasta, in a salad, or sliced thinly to tuck in a sandwich

Have a really good week.


Filed under antipasti, olive oil, preserves and conserves, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Guitar lessons

I’m now the proud owner of a guitar. It’s not a guitar in the chordophone sense, which is a shame because I’ve wanted one, a black and white fender, since I was twelve. It was 1984 and my dad clunked the cassette of Dire Straits Alchemy Live into the car stereo for the first time and Mark Knofler’s Sultans of swing guitar solo curled seductively from the back speakers. This was followed by The Wall, Dave Gilmour on guitar and an excuse to howl ‘We don’t need no education’ until our lungs hurt. Dad encouraged our over excitement, Mum tried to contain it while Ben and Rosie and took up our air guitars, pulled on imaginary sweat bands and performed boisterously (it would ultimately deteriorate into provoking, pushing, fighting, car sickness and hot tears) on the backseat of the car as we hurtled up the M1 motorway to Manchester.

My new guitar is una chitarra, a gift from my student Lidia, her extremely nice parents and her grandma, Nonna Jolanda, who bought la chittara in her suitcase from Abruzzo to Rome for me. It’s the curious square object in the first photo, a wooden frame tightly strung with fine music wire that actually looks more like a harp than a guitar. It’s for making the Abbruzzese speciality, a thick square spaghetti called spaghetti alla chitarra.

I’ve coveted una chitarra since last summer. My parents were in Rome for a long weekend and we all went for Sunday lunch with Lidia and her parents Sergio and Maria Teresa on their sun drenched terrace in San Giovanni. Nonna Jolander, who is Maria Theresa’s mum, had got up early that morning to make fresh egg spaghetti alla chitarra with her chitarra before she returned home to Abruzzo. We ate the great golden mound of square spaghetti with a rich beef ragu, plenty of freshly grated parmesan, each mouthful punctuated by rather too much wine for such a hot day.

This wooden gift has been the impetus, the spark if you like, I needed to start making my own pasta. Jolander laughed when I told her I was nervous, the secret she said, was practice, lots and lots of practice. She was unequivocal about the ingredients, the flour for spaghetti alla chittara should be semolina flour or farina grano duro (which is hard durum wheat four, not the soft 00 flour, although that is the best second choice) and the eggs should be very fresh with rich orange, almost red yolks. I should start with very manageable quantities, 200g of flour, a pinch of salt and two large eggs which would make enough pasta for two people.

She tutted and ticked her finger from side to side when asked about using a food processor or pasta machine – not that I have either. ‘I must start making and rolling pasta by hand, I should feel the dough‘ she said.

She began, I scribbled and watched; First you sieve the flour into a bowl, then you turn it out onto a clean wooden board and make a well in the middle, this is the fontana di farina, fountain of flour. You sprinkle the salt and crack the eggs into the crater of your flour volcano.

Working with a small bowl of water beside you in case the dough is awkward. You begin by breaking the yolks with your fingertips and then gently, moving your fingers in a circular motion, you stir the eggs and then slowly start to incorporate the flour, eventually bringing the mixture together into a ball. Things may all get very messy and sticky for a while  be patient, this is all part of the process – apparently, many people work with one hand at the beginning. You may need to add a little more flour or water she warned earnestly. I wrote equally earnest notes which made her laugh.

Next you knead the dough, pushing it will the heel of the hand, then folding it back on its self, rotating it clockwise and repeating this action again and again for about 10 minutes until the dough stops feeling rough and floury but is smooth, tender and elastic. My ball reminded me of play dough by the end but I resisted the urge to sculpt a small animal. Leave the dough covered with a clean damp cloth or cling film for 20 minutes.

Now the rolling. Now this is the part I was rather afraid of. I’ve read extraordinarily complicated instructions about this process, the inimitable Marcella Hazan’s directions for hand rolling fresh egg pasta suggestions are over 4 pages long and full of must nots and for goodness sake don’t which left me baffled and defeated before I’d even started. Jolander laughed when I tried to explain what I’d read. She shook her head and wagged her finger again, ‘Roll‘ she said ‘cosi” and she held her fingers about 3mm apart  ‘non ti preoccupare‘ (don’t worry too much). So I rolled.

Spaghetti alla chitarra is good choice for a pasta novice because you roll the dough a little thicker than normal, after all, you’re aiming for a chunky square spaghetti. I rolled my piece of dough before cutting it in half and rolling it a little more, then I placed it on top of the chitarra. I am sure seasoned pasta makers with wince at my inaccuracy. I was quite pleased.

The nicest part is rolling the pin over the pasta, pressing the soft yellow dough into the wires that cut it into long thin strips and watching them tumble onto the board below. Finally you gently separate the strands, unfurling any that are stuck together and lay them on a cloth or a board and sprinkle them with a shower of fine semolina. I’d made pasta. We both stood admiring the fruits of my labour for some time and then Vincenzo tried playing la chitarra. It was like a drunk person playing an out-of-tune harp.

Our pasta needed sauce. Actually, it didn’t need sauce, I imagine it would have been perfectly delicious tossed with nice extra virgin olive oil, black pepper, maybe some pecorino. We needed some sauce. There was no time for a long-winded ragù (although I have plans) so I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato and anchovy sauce which is my red sauce of choice at present. It’s a particularly tasty deep red elixir and might redeem this post if you are feeling all these words about pasta making with an obscure implement you don’t have – or want – are pretty useless. By the way, you can of course cut spaghetti all chitarra on your pasta machine – it’s the tonnarelli setting, or if you are very patient and steady of hand, you could cut it by hand I suppose. I would like video evidence of you doing this.

So this sauce. You saute some finely chopped garlic gently in extra virgin olive oil before adding some anchovy fillets which you prod and nudge until they melt and dissolve. Then you add some chopped tomatoes or passata, a pinch of salt and some black pepper and let the all bubble and burp away for about 25 minutes. A deep, dark, anchovy infused tomato sauce perfect for spaghetti alla chitarra, spaghetti, spaghettini, linguine……..

Tomato and anchovy sauce

Adapated From Marcella Hazan

  • 1 plump clove of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 anchovy fillets
  • 600g tomato passata or chopped tinned plum tomatoes (san marzano are good)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently warm the oil in a frying or saute pan, add the garlic and allow it to cook very gently for a few minutes – it should not brown or it will taste bitter.

Add the anchovy fillets to the pan and gently prod and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon until they dissolve and melt.

Add the tomatoes, salt and a few grindings of black pepper to the pan and adjust the heat so the sauce cooks at a gentle but steady simmer for 25 minutes or until the oil floats free from the sauce.

Serve with dried or fresh spaghetti or spaghetti alla chitarra. Fresh spaghetti alla chitarra takes about 3 minutes to cook in fast boiling, well salted water.

It was very good.

I made pasta, I may well print a T-shirt or a badge at least. I’d love to know about your pasta tales. Have a really good week.


Filed under Eggs, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, recipes, sauces

The best laid plans and eggs

I’d laid slightly rose-tinted plans to go to Testaccio market extremely early on Saturday morning with a wicker shopping basket tucked under one arm – I don’t actually own a wicker shopping basket but you get the idea. I’d go to the bar for breakfast and then I’d join the earnest calm of the market as it stirred to life. I’d bussle with discerning Roman housewives and trattoria owners sniffing lemons, tasting bitter leaves, demanding the nicest rib of beef, the pinkest veal ossobuco and the brightest eyed fish. I would thoughtfully gather the items on my carefully written list. It would be charming! The best laid plans, serves me right.

At about 1 50 on Friday, just as I was about to start teaching until tediously late, my neighbour reminded me that Saturday was a national holiday ‘la festa di lavoratori’ and that everything, including our faithful market would be closed. I had no option but to tear desperately around the seriously depleted market as it was closing. I got extremely hot and bothered, cursed, grabbed, shoved old ladies out of my way trying to gather our contributions for a picnic, ingredients for Saturday’s supper for 6, a Sunday roast with all the trimmings for 7 and a motley crew of household basics organised people never run out of. Not a pleasant way to shop.

All things considered I didn’t do that badly. Actually, as far as the meat was concerned I did pretty well! Fortunately for me, someone had neglected to collect the beef they’d ordered, Sunday Lunch was saved! I was also just in time to procure the last four sausages. I wanted eight, but four was better than nothing, because as far as I’m concerned, a picnic isn’t a picnic without proper Scotch eggs.

Supermarkets and the villanous manufacturers of nasty food have tried to blacken the good name and reputation of Scotch eggs with their shameful offerings. They’d have you believe that Scotch eggs are slightly sweaty, oversized orange balls that come in individual plastic bags and consist of suspicious, rubbery grey meat loosely enveloping a slightly shriveled green tinged hard-boiled egg – we know better.

A well made Scotch egg is a delicious thing; a peeled hard-boiled egg, wrapped in very good sausage meat, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in fine breadcrumbs and then deep-fried until dark golden brown.

Made properly with good ingredients, a Scotch egg is a perfectly formed savory delight; a crisp, dark crust, the succulent seasoned sausage meat and then the egg, the surprise, in the middle. My friend calls Scotch eggs a ball of breakfast. What’s more, they are neat, compact and will travel beautifully to your favourite picnic spot or table.

I made Scotch eggs a couple of times last week, dusting off my Scotch egg skills to speak, in time for picnic season. They are nice and simple to make, but you do need to be diligent about wrapping the sausage meat around the eggs. This task is made easier by using cling film, which I explain below and is pictured here, a cunning trick picked up from one of my new favourite London based blogs Food stories. When you have pulled away the clingfilm, double-check there are no holes and that the seams are really closed, if not, you might find the sausage coat bursts open in the pan – a scotch egg flasher. You may also need to be flexible and experiment with the cooking times to make sure the meat is cooked through but the crust is not too dark. Fortunately Scotch eggs are delicious enough to warrant experimentation.

Scotch egg with lemon chutney

I have to say that even though I adore Scotch eggs for picnics, there is nothing like a freshly fried one, just wait about 10 minutes, it will still be crisp, and then eat it with your hands and maybe a blob of chutney. Once cooked they will keep brilliantly for up to 8 hours – even though they will lose their crisp crunch – time for you to get to the picnic. They also keep until the next day, some say for two days, but they fade in my opinion.

Scotch eggs

  • 4 medium-sized eggs – very fresh and very organic/free range obviously
  • 350g good sausage meat (about 4 fat sausages squeezed out of casing)
  • 75g plain flour, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • another egg – beaten
  • breadcrumbs
  • vegetable oil for deep frying

Put the eggs in a pan of cold salted water and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for exactly nine minutes. Drain and cool the eggs under cold running water and then peel them.

Tear off 4 squares of cling film and lay them out on the work surface. Divide the sausage meat into quarters and put each quarter on one of the four squares. Now flatten each ball of sausage meat into an ovals about 12.5cm/5in long and 7.5cm/3in at its widest point.

Place the seasoned flour onto a plate, then dredge each boiled egg in the flour.

One by one, place the peeled, floured eggs on the sausage meat oval, then bringing the clingfilm up round the sides squash, mould and wrap the sausage meat around each egg. Once the eggs is covered ease pull away the cling film and continue to mould the sausage meat until it is compact and completely covers each egg – make sure the seams are well sealed.

Dip and roll each sausage meat-coated egg in the beaten egg, then dip and roll into the breadcrumbs..

Heat the oil in a deep heavy-bottomed pan – it should be at least 4 ” deep as you are going to deep fry – until a bread crumb sizzles and turns brown when dropped into it.

Using a slotted spoon gently lower each scotch egg into the hot oil and deep-fry for about 8 – 11 minutes until deep golden and crisp and the sausage meat is completely cooked. Carefully remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Wait at least 10 minutes (and up to 8 hours) before eating. Pack in a greaseproof paper lined box to take on your picnic or if you are staying at home have one with a dab of strong mustard, optional green leaves, bread and a beer.

It seems that Scotch eggs are not Scottish at all, but English, created by the high-class London food shop Fortnum & Mason in 1738 as a portable snack for coach travellers heading west from London along Piccadilly.


Filed under Eggs, food, meat, picnics, recipes