Monthly Archives: July 2010

I say tomato.

Vincenzo thinks I was a deprived child. He’s right of course, I was deprived – growing up, as I did, in a small town just outside London in the late 1970’s – of the full taste and perfume of good tomatoes. Tomatoes ripened on the vine under the sun that smell like the viney tangle that surrounds them. Fiery tomatoes, saturated with colour, their scent pungent, sometimes sour, almost grassy. Tomatoes with texture and flavour; some dry, meaty and acidic; others mild, soft-fleshed and plummy; some like tiny pendulous orbs, sharp, spicy and sweet.

We did have tomatoes in the home counties in 1979, but like Prime minister elected that same year, they were dreadful, depressing things grown under plastic in the suburbs of Chichester or imported from a hot houses in the Netherlands. I can only remember one type, standard sized, an unconvincing and weedy red. They were called all-purpose tomatoes. No purpose would have been a more appropriate. They generally tasted of nothing, and when they did it was insipid, rather like the white flesh next to the rind of an unripe melon. Their texture, well, two extremes here and seemingly nothing in-between; hard as a rock or unpleasantly soft, floury and mushy. Both good for hurling though!

So we avoided them. After all – despite popular belief – we had enough good things in England, even in 1979, to eat really well without tomatoes. In our family at least. And it wasn’t as if we were completely bereft! There was the annual summer holiday to the south of France, where along with Bonne maman jam, really smelly cheese, cheese with holes, long sticks of bread, tiny black olives, orange Fanta in a glass bottle with a straw, mussels and chocolate croissants, there would be good tomatoes. If we needed tomatoes back home, then it was probably for something hot and slowly cooked, in which case Mum bought tinned Italian plum tomatoes.

Vincenzo on the other hand, growing up in Sicily, Basilicata and then Rome, suffered no such tomato deprivation. He was however deprived of English peas, English apples, clotted cream, fish and chips eaten from newspaper at the seaside, London Pride, Pimms, watercress, full English breakfast and roast potatoes, but that’s anther post. His maternal grandparents had a farm in southern Sicily near Vittoria where they cultivated olives, almonds, cotton, grapes, artichokes and tomatoes. Even when his parents left Sicily, Vincenzo would return to spend the long school holidays there. Hardly surprisingly The Caristia Family – fortified by pasta and bread and lubricated by their wine and oil – lived, quite literally, on tomatoes. Straight from the vine in summer. Then sometime in late August, over a wood fire in the street in front of their house, in a pan large enough for Vincenzo and his cousin Orazio to hide in, his grandmother would bottle gallons and gallons of tomato sauce, salsa di pomodoro, to put away for the winter months.

There’ll be no talk of gallons in this very small, very hot Roman apartment. I do intend to preserve at least some salsa di pomodoro though, a modest batch, a bright taste of summer bottled and tucked away for the winter. We did a trial run last week, 3 kilos of San Marzano tomatoes – cooked until soft and then passed through the mouli – yielded 3 bottles, a small pot and only two small burns. Further bottling has been postoned until I get back from London though. For now we are enjoying tomatoes just so.

I was also hoping to write about the tomato and mozzarella salad, the lnsalata Caprese we had on Tuesday. I nearly did because the pictures are good and the mozzarella di bufala noteworthy, but if the truth be known, the tomatoes, cuore di bue, although handsome were really disappointing – not by England-in-1979 standards – but disappointing nonetheless. So I’ll just tell you about these tiny tomatoes, the ones in the pictures, i pomodori ciliegini, called maria vittoria I think, from near Naples. Perfect little things, clinging to the vine, slightly wrinkled, the skin thick, the flesh meaty, intense with flavour, sweet and spicy.

Having eaten at least a dozen straight from the paper bag – they literally pop in your mouth – we made bruschetta al pomodoro. Tomatoes on toast to me.

We cut the tomatoes in half, the larger ones in quarters, and put them in a bowl with first, a pinch of coarse salt, then after the salt, a few good glugs of extra virgin olive oil,  and some torn – not cut – basil leaves. Stir. We let the tomatoes sit, macerating, releasing their juices while we toasted two slices of sour dough bread – obviously in an ideal world we would have a grill over a wood fire. We rubbed the toast with half a clove of peeled garlic and then shared the tomatoes and their oily, tomatoey, salty, juices between the two slices. Vincenzo poured a little more oil over his.

There was some sheeps milk ricotta too, in case we wanted to squash some on top! But we ended up leaving it for supper. Bread, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt – what with all those years of deprivation –  I couldn’t ask for more. Good things indeed. We ate our bruschetta sitting by the front door. The heat spell has broken, and so as we ate a cool breeze whipped happily between our two rooms. Vincenzo was obsessed, as are all the Sicilians I know, that the breeze would give him a cramp. It did.

I must note that the tomato situation has improved vastly in the UK in the last 20 years – especially with trailblazing organic growers like Riverford farm.


Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomatoes, Uncategorized

Friends, Crème fraîche hurling and poached apricots.

I have a great friend called Romla. We’ve known each other 15 years now. Since the day she roared into the forecourt of The Drama Center London on monster sports bike in full, skin-tight leathers and pulled off her helmet to reveal a mop of rumpled peroxide-blonde hair. It was my first day and I assumed she was a third year. But then, as all the new students gathered, quietly, nervously for the introductory talk, in strode the blonde on the bike and sat in the circle. I decided I really didn’t like her.

This feeling incubated for the whole of the first term. Then for the second term production, an obsure German play called The Rats by Gerhart Hauptmann, Romla was cast as the formidable Housekeeper – obviously – and I, the lowly maid. Most of our scenes involved her mistreating, berating and generally slapping me around. I assumed this would nudge dislike towards loathing. But ironically the hours of rehearsal and the endless slapping – proper hand to cheek stuff, all very earnest, this was The Drama Center afterall – had the reverse effect. We became great friends.

Romla is very good at lots of things. ‘Shes a bloody polymath!‘ A mutual friend once noted. She is also a mean poker player and a superb cook. While we were studying, I spent far too much time at her house – we were students, we all had motley accommodation, all, except Romla. Most days involved her cooking. I’d play sous chef and our friend Tom would camp up proceedings until the usual suspects arrived for a big dinner. Over one such (particularly boozy) dinner soon after we’d graduated, we hatched a plan to subsidize our precarious acting careers by setting up a catering company. Now, if it had been down to me, this idea would have remained exactly that, an idea. But Rom being Rom, and her father’s daughter, meant Romla and Rachel Catering – R&R catering – was established. I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about R&R, because although we were actually quite good, and surprisingly successful to boot, it was all incredibly dodgy, we broke several laws and breached just about every health and safety regulation going.

Amid all the cooking and pirate catering, we all went to stay at Rom’s family house in the south of France, a staggeringly beautiful place, perched on the hillside above Monaco. We ate at the house most nights, sitting on the terrace looking past the glittering lights of Villefranche-sur-Mer at the Ligurian sea, drinking wine worth more than our monthly pay cheques. We felt like Grace Kelly, Joan Collins, F Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Douglas all rolled into one.

Even polymath cooks need a night off; so one evening we went out for dinner. I’d been waiting to go to this particular restaurant. Firstly because the food was famously good and secondly, because this was the place, a few years earlier, that Rom’s ex boyfriend had infamously scooped a ladelful of thick, white, crème fraîche from the vast pot and hurled it, clown style, in her face.

The meal was as promised, terrific. Beautifully simple food, prepared with great care but no fuss, from really good local ingredients. First a vast bowl of raw vegetables; radishes, slim carrots, fennel, artichokes, broad beans and whole hard-boiled eggs to be eaten with aioli. There was a terrine, rabbit I think, little dishes of mushrooms cooked in butter and another of tiny preserved onions, sweet, sharp and delicious. For the main course, we choose between chicken, beef or lamb, which was then cooked on the grill over a wood fire in the center of the restaurant and served with baked potatoes and butter. Next a green salad. To finish, a vast jar of poached apricots and another of peaches was set in the middle of the table, and beside them a large metal pail of the most exquisitely thick, unctuous crème fraîche I’ve ever seen. The infamous crème fraîche. Large serving spoons and bowls were passed around so we could help ourselves.

After the first delicious mouthful, I turned to Romla, I wanted to exchange knowing glances about the crème fraîche, I was wondering if she remembered that she’d told me the story?  She had, and in case I hadn’t, she was poised, ladle in hand and in the middle of a rustic but very fashionable restaurant, with the same force that the housekeeper slapped the maid, she splattered the crème fraîche in my face. Silence descended, thud! I don’t think anyone else at the table knew the story. Everyone looked shocked and uncomfortable, someone gasped, someone else handed me a napkin.  Several people jumped to my defence in a ‘Oh my god, poor little Rachel; big, horrid Romla‘ manner. Romla and I proceeded to laugh for the next two days.

I still think the big jar of poached apricots and the pail of crème fraîche is one of the best and most wonderful puddings I have ever been served. So good and simple, so much nicer than a million fussy things. I often stew fruit – I think we’ve established I have a thing for it – Pears in red wine, prunes in spices and my favourite, Quince with black pepper. But apart from the odd little panful, I have never seriously poached apricots.

Until last weekend. Inspired by Robin at Codfish and Caviar – one of my favouries and one of the first food blogs I ever read – and with advice from Elizabeth David, I put apricots in jars. Apricots are lovely at the moment, they have been for a while, soft, downy, peachy-orange orbs, some of them flushed with pink. We have been eating them just so, splitting them in two at the seam, pulling away the stone and biting into the soft, tender, flesh. Then on Saturday my fruttivendolo, my other Vincenzo, gave me a cracking deal on 3 kilos.

You make a simple sugar syrup by dissolving 450g of fine sugar with 6 cups of water, you add strips of lemon zest, vanilla, whole black peppercorn, cloves and a stick of cinnamon. You poach halved apricots for a few minutes until they are tender but still holding their shape. Finally you divide the apricots between your preserving jars and then reduce the syrup a little before pouring it over the fruit.

As with pears and quinces, a gentle, brief poaching – brief being the operative word, just a few minutes or they will collapse and become mushy – does something wonderful to the flesh of apricots, the texture changes, becoming both firm and tender. After a few days macerating in the light lemon syrup, along with the cloves, vanilla, black peppercorns and the cinnamon, the become heavy and infused with the warm, spicy flavours.

We have been having poached apricots for breakfast this week, 6 or 7 halves each with a big blob of Greek yogurt. Even Vincenzo – who is usually resentful of fruit for breakfast, especially if it the only option – approves. Last night. after supper, we had some with mascarpone which is another thing altogether, indulgent and quite delicious. But, I know crème fraîche is the best partner for poached apricots, the thick, rich, weight of it, the slight sourness. On Saturday when I plonk the nicer of the two big jars in the middle of the table, it will be alongside a big bowl of crème fraîche. Crème fraîche hurling will be optional.

On a practical note, I’d cut some of the larger apricots in quarters. It was a mistake, they don’t hold their shape as well. Halves are best. When buying fresh apricots, look for fruit that is plump, fragrant, and gives a little when squeezed. Poaching time depends on the ripeness of the fruit. My ripe, but firm, apricots took 4 minutes.

Poached apricots in spiced syrup

Adapted from Robin and Gourmet. Advice from Elizabeth David

Fills 2 1.5 litre or preserving jars.

  • 6 cups /1.5 litres filtered water
  • 2 generous cups /450g caster sugar
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 15 thick strips of unwaxed lemon rind (you will need 2 or 3 lemons)
  • 8 cloves
  • vanilla pod
  • 65 ripe but firm apricots

Wash and then cut the apricots in two and remove the stone.

Scrape seeds from vanilla bean with tip of a sharp knife into large heavy based saucepan and add pod, water, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns.

Very gently bring the contents of the pan to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

Now you are going to cook the apricots in two or three batches depending on the size of your pan. Add the first batch of the apricot halves and simmer, stirring once or twice, until tender, 2 to 6 minutes (depending on ripeness).

Using a slotted spoon lift the apricots out of the syrup and into very clean preserving jars. Put the next batch in the syrup, poach and lift into the jars, Repeat, if necessary with the third batch.

Then scoop out the lemon, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon and divide them between the jars. Now bring the syrup to a fast rolling boil and leave it rolling energetically until the syrup has reduced by about a third. Divide the syrup between the jars.

Keep the jars for a few days in the fridge before serving the apricots cold or a room temperature with a dollop of crème fraîche, fresh unsalted cream cheese (homemade or Isigny) mascarpone or thick greek yogurt.


Filed under food, fruit, preserves and conserves, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food

Wilting in Rome.

It’s too darn hot. At least it is for me. Vincenzo on the other hand is delighted by the soaring temperatures and assumes the Gecko position whenever possible. Such unreasonable weather however, like having your tonsils out, has a gastronomic benefit. Namely, that you can – with absolutely no need for justification or adherence to acknowledged meal times – consume as much ice-cream, sorbet, granita, jelly, ice-cold blancmange and panna cotta as you wish. In such weather it’s also permissable, advisable even when you feel the wilt, to stop whatever you are doing, roll up your sleeves and cut yourself a vast wedge – this is no time for dainty slices – of ice-cold watermelon. Vincenzo likes to squeeze some lemon juice over his. Shun all offers of cutlery and approach the eating of your wedge with slightly aggressive relish.

Until last year I’d never done anything with watermelon other than eat it in the manner described above. Then last year in Umbria my brother Ben and I made watermelon juice and then watermelon granita. Both were a great success, and thus my watermelon repertoire broadened from one to three; the wedge, the juice and the granita,

I’d read about watermelon and feta salad and watermelon and toasted haloumi salad and I’d been mildly interested but not convinced. Then a couple of weeks ago my Mum, Jenifer, rang with important news. Her voice was slightly urgent, and the line wasn’t terribly good. I felt the surge of panic that’s becoming more frequent and familiar as my parents get older and I stay in Italy.

It subsided as she proceeded to tell me with infectious enthusiasm the important news, green fingered news, the news about her garden. First the broad beans, and how they would be ready by the time I came back. ‘Don’t forget the pecorino when you come’ she said. ‘A nice big piece from Volpetti to eat with the broad beans.’ Then she talked about the gooseberries, the baby lettuces, the chard, courgettes, the rocket. Once I was fully up-to-date with garden progress, we talked about this, that, and a surprising and very good salad she had eaten at the Chelsea Physic Garden restaurant during her gardening course.

There were big pieces of ripe, sweet watermelon‘ she explained. ‘Surprisingly big pieces, with cubes of feta cheese, good feta, and some of those really wrinkled black olives, you know the sort?’

I think so‘ I replied. ‘You mean the wrinkled, very black, oven baked ones you used to buy from the Athenian grocer in Bayswater?

Exactly‘ said Mum. ‘There was some red onion, sliced very finely’ another long pause. ‘Oh and parsley, lots of parsley, chopped very roughly so you could really see the leaves.

Lemon juice? Olive oil?’

Of course‘ she said.

My Mum was right – she usually is when it comes to food related matters – it’s a surprisingly good salad. It’s delicious actually, good food for these searingly hot days. The crisp, cool, sweetness of the melon, the dark, briny olives, the creamy, salty feta, fragrant parsley, mild onion and the bright citrus make for a wonderful combination. I have made it several times now, tweaking and testing. Fresh mint makes an excellent addition, as many of you have already discovered, after all. this salad is well documented. On this occasion I added some cucumber which was nice, but mainly because it was such a tasty cucumber which is a rare thing these days. I suggest adding cucumber if you really like it – I do – otherwise it’s superfluous.

The watermelon should be ripe, sweet and well chilled, the onion red and mild. Toss the salad gently with your hands, it’s the best way. Serve immediately.

I have been eating this for lunch with bread, but I imagine it could be a good starter for a summer supper or part of a rambling BBQ.

Watermelon, cucumber, feta and black olive salad

Inspired by Mum’s Lunch at the Chelsea physic garden

Serves 2 as lunch, 4 as a starter. If this was a starter for supper I’d serve it alongside a plate of prosciutto.

  • a small, mild red onion
  • A handful of parsley
  • A sprig of mint
  • a few black olives (I use greek Kalamata or ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones)
  • 600g ripe, red, juicy watermelon
  • a small cucumber (optional)
  • 100g feta cheese
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • lemon or lime juice to taste
  • black pepper

Peel and chop the onion in two and slice each half carefully into slim half moons.

Pull the parsley leaves from the stalks, wash and pat them dry. Then chop the parsley very coarsely, you want nice leafy pieces. Do the same with the mint

Remove the rind and pips from the watermelon, and cut into approximately 2cm chunks.

Peel the cucumber and cut it into 2cm cubes.

Cut the feta into rough 2cm cubes. Stone the olives.

Put the watermelon, cucumber, feta, parsley, mint, onion and black olives into a shallow bowl. Then spoon over the olive oil, add a good squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of black pepper. Then using your hands toss the salad very gently so that the feta and melon don’t lose their shape.

Taste, and add more lemon or lime juice, olive oil or pepper if you think necessary.

Serve immediately.


Filed under food, fruit, parsley, recipes, salads, summer food, watermelon

Frying tonight

The golden, orange tipped flowers attached to the end of each courgette (zucchini) are female. The slightly smaller flowers with long, firm stems that grow directly, shooting really, from the main stem of the plant – like the ones in the jug above – are male. Both can be eaten.

At this time of year, when the market stalls in Testaccio are heavy with crates of pale green, blossom tipped zucchini Romano and bunches of their delicate flowers, we often have courgette flowers in salad. Torn into green leaves, or even better, into thin shavings of courgette dressed with olive oil and salt. I like a couple of bright yellow flowers tucked into some warm piazza bianca with milky mozzarella. We often add them – right at the end with a handful of basil – to courgette carbonara or fusilli with buttery courgettes. They are lovely in summer minestrone.

But maybe the nicest and most delicious way to eat courgette flowers, is to grab them by the tail, dip them in batter and fry them in very hot oil until they are crisp and golden.

Until this summer I busied myself with salad and Carbonara and left the dipping and frying to others, most notably the pizzeria Nuovo Mondo on Via Amerigo Vespucci. Once a week, usually Friday or Sunday, we make our familiar pizza pilgrimage; walking past the piazza and Marcello’s flower stall, crossing Via Branca and passing the old Testaccio football club – which is now a depressing betting shop – before turning into via Amerigo Vespucci. Sometime we pit stop at Giolitti for an apertivo; campari for Vincenzo, prosecco for me, before taking a table in our favourite pizzeria. Having worked our way through the menu we’re pretty set in our ways now. Medium birra alla spina and capricciosa for me, and small birra alla spina and marinara for the small Sicilian. And while we wait for the vast, thin crusted pizzas to be dragged from the red hot bowels of the wood oven, while we watch the expert hands of the pizzaroli spinning and shaping, a mozzarella filled rice coquette; suppli for Vincenzo and a deep-fried courgette flower; fiori di zucca for me.

The fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo, like those served at most pizzeria and many trattoria in Rome, are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy then dipped in batter and fried. They are quite delicious things usually served on a little white plate on top of a square of brown paper. They should be freshly fried, straight from the hot oil, so tongue scaldingly hot. You wait a few seconds and then grab the crisp golden cocoon with a paper napkin. You bite into the crisp batter which gives way to the soft forgiving flower petals – a nice contrast – and then finally a soft pool of anchovy infused mozzarella. For the fish and cheese together dubious among you I suggest you try these.

But as much as I adore the fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo and our other Roman haunts, the best fried courgette flowers I’ve ever eaten were in Puglia, during that hot, humid and delicious midnight feast at the Masseria. We were presented with a vast platter of golden cocoons, some were filled with mozzarella, other with ricotta I think, but the nicest were the simplest. The male flowers on long elegant stems just so, dipped in the lightest, batter and fried. Crisp and golden on the outside the batter puffed with pride, soft and forgiving within. The secret, the cook willingly – so willingly it was rather surprising after all the secret recipe moments – told us, was beaten egg whites folded into the flour, water and olive oil batter.

I blame Nuovo Mondo for my courgette flower frying procrastination, but then last week just before going to London, in the midst of much fried anchovy experimentation I decided it was time. In the absence of any real recipe or exact quantities, I anticipated lots of experimenting. But things were much simpler than expected.  It turns out that my basic batter recipe – 200ml warm water, 100g plain flour and 2 tbsp of olive oil – with the addition of two stiffy beaten egg whites is a pretty damn marvelous courgette flower batter. Delicate and light. But not too light, you want some body and substance. I have repeated this tasty excercise twice more, just to make sure it wasn’t a fantastic fluke.

It’s really important you allow the batter a nice long rest – at least two hours in the fridge (I also add a couple of ice cubes) before folding in the beaten egg whites. Oh, and it’s important you beat the egg whites until they are so stiff you can invert the bowl over your head – my sous chef does this. Once you have added the egg white, dip and then fry the courgette flowers immediately.

On a practical note remember to wash the flowers very carefully, they will probably be providing a pretty home for lots of little insects. Dry them gently with a soft clean cloth and remove the pistils from female flowers, and stamens from the male flowers.

The male flower is perfect because the stem provides a tail with which you can hold to dip the flower in the batter and then lower it gently into the pan. Make sure you coat each flower generously with batter. Fry in small batches, allowing the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a wooden fork so they cook evenly. Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them out using a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately.

If your eggs are large you will probably only need one.

Fried courgette flowers (fiori di zucca)

  • 15 courgette flowers
  • 200ml warm water
  • 100g plain flour (I used Italian 00)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 egg whites beaten until they form stiff peaks
  • vegetable oil for frying

Wash the zucchini/courgette flowers carefully and remove the pistils from female flowers and stamens from the male flowers. Pat them dry with a soft, clean cloth.

Using a balloon whisk mix the warm water and flour and then add the olive oil, it will have the consistency of single cream. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours – you can add a couple of icecubes.

Whisk the eggs whites until they form stiff peaks. The whites should be so stiff you should be able to invert the bowl over your head.

Using a metal spoon gently fold the whites into the batter. Add a pinch of salt.

Heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (but no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute or so then it’s ready.

Working in small batches dip the flowers in the batter and then gently lower them into a pan. Allow the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a fork so they cook evenly.

Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them our with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately with prosecco.


Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables


I had no intention of writing about parsley again and I should apologise to those of you who dislike the stuff, this rash of parsley recipes must be very tedious. I wasn’t even planning to post this week considering my imminent departure for a long weekend in London. But then on Wednesday night we jumped in the rusty, trusty red panda, scuttled across a very warm and humid city to go to a concert by the lake in Villa Ada. The concert was fantastic, front row no less – Vincenzo was all glassy eyed. this was proper hero stuff for a reggae drummer – as Toots and the Maytals reminded us all that Reggae’s got soul and that Kingston is Funky.

Just before the concert – it must have been about 9, the light soft and dusty, crickets clicking, mosquito’s anticipating we had food from one of the various stalls that are dotted around the lake. Vincenzo went Indian; rice, a tasty chickpea curry and some odd-looking but rather good Indian cheese balls. I was tempted by the steaming curry, dithered, changed my mind and back again, before deciding it was too warm for such hot food and had a plate of Middle Eastern meze.

I know my plateful was nothing special, it was good, tasty and fresh, but I’ve certainly eaten much better. But under the cypress trees, in the dusky light of Villa Ada, waiting for Toots while the bass player finished the sound check, a creamy blob of chickpea hummus, another of smoky creamed aubergine; baba ganoush, the heap of parsley flecked tabbouleh, all waiting to be scooped up by pitta bread, was just wonderful. More importantly the plateful reminded me of the delights of Middle Eastern food, how long it’s been and most importantly, that in all this parsley fuss, the soup, the pesto, the green sauce, I have overlooked one of my favourites, tabbouleh.

Before coming to Italy I used to cook, in a very niave way I’m sure – quite alot of Middle Eastern inspired food. My family has a flat on Paddington street in London and I lived there for several years. It is fantastically close to the cluster of middle eastern, the Lebanese, Arabic, Persian shops, emporiums and restaurants around Chiltern Street and Edgware Road. Living in the midst of this vibrant and delicious community, eating Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian or Arabic – please forgive my ignorance if it shows –  food at least once, often twice a week, I started to experiment at home. It was at this time my Mum suggested I bought Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food, a stunning and masterful book which although neglected since I moved to Italy, is and always will be one of my favourite food books. I found an original first edition, 1968, dusty, musty, the alluring scent of old pages, in a second-hand bookshop and then read it like a novel. The second thing I thing I made from it – the first was hummus – was rich, earthy and beautifully simple Lebanese tabbouleh.

I’d eaten plenty of tabbouleh before making it myself, delicious most of it, but often slightly wet with tomatoes or bulky with cucumber which seemed to unbalance the delicate seasoning of the dish. Claudia Roden’s recipe is beautifully simple, just soaked and carefully dried bulgur wheat mixed with finely chopped onion – you use you hands so you can squeeze the wheat and onion together so the juice of the onion infuses each grain – and a vast heap of parsley and mint. This green flecked mass- there is as much parsley as bulgur – is dressed simply with lots of olive and lemon juice. It is a marvelous dish, humble and elegant in the same moment, the earthy bulgur, the fragrant grassy parsley, the refreshing mint, the acidic bite of the lemon, the olive oil of course.

I think that tabbouleh is best in the company of others, in both senses. It’s best eaten amidst the chatter and clatter of people, hands, voices and a muddle of different dishes. My ideal plate would be a spoonful of thick yogurt laced with cucumber and mint, another of hummus creamy with tahini (my friend Daniela’s recipe. She is brilliant cook and I am trying to convince her to write in English more), maybe a stuffed vine leaf or a thick slice of grilled halloumi, some sultry baba ganoush . With all this in mind, I was tempted to dash to the shops for yogurt, chickpeas and aubergines. But thrift got the better of mefor a change– the only dash was for bulgur wheat, all the other ingredients were from the fridge. Pork kebabs, a-kind-of-Turkish-shish-kebab I suppose. We marinated the pork for a couple of hours in olive oil, lemon , garlic and crushed bay leaves, then threaded the cubes on skewers and grilled them. I also made a tomato, cucumber, red onion and black olive salad.


From Claudia Roden’s marvellous ‘Book of Middle Eastern Food‘ which has been recently updated. I will be keeping my dusty, fusty, beautiful 1968 copy though.

  • 25og Bulgar wheat
  • 5 tablespoons of very finely chopped spring or mild red onion
  • salt and black pepper
  • 50g ( about a cup and a half) of finely chopped parsley
  • 3 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus extra if necessary)
  • 5 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (plus extra if necessary)

Soak the Bulgar wheat in cold water for half and hour, it will expand enormously. Drain it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible with your hands, then spread it out on a clean dry tea towel to dry further.

In a large bowl mix the Bulgar with the onion squeezing it with your hands so the onion penetrates the Bulgar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon and mix well. taste and season, add more oil and lemon if you feel it is necessary, it should be distinctly lemony.

I am off to London tonight. I should really be packing and buying vast hunks of Pecorino Romano to tuck in my suitcases for my siblings or at least getting ready for my last lesson with the little monsters this afternoon. I shouldn’t be typing away. I am already thinking of lunch, the rest of the tabbouleh and the chickpeas that have soaked all night in preparation for some humus. We just need more olives and bread. I have a feeling this might be a bit of a Middle Eastern July here in Rome so I have left the Book of Middle Eastern Food open on the table ready for my return.

Now I am going to pack. Have a great weekend.


Filed under antipasti, food, grains, parsley, Rachel's Diary, recipes