Monthly Archives: March 2012

Soup baby

In January last year, two important things happened. Firstly I discovered I was pregnant and secondly, I began spending my Sundays with Mona.

I’d first met Mona a couple of years before. My friend and marvelous ice cream maker Kitty was doing an internship at the American Academy where Mona, guided by Alice Waters, had established the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program dedicated to slow food principles and to providing local, organic and sustainable meals for the community at the Academy. Kitty invited me for dinner and I, of course, accepted.

That first meal at the Academy made striking and lasting impression. Firstly because of the place, The Academy itself, whose arresting buildings with their courtyards, fountains and gracefully maintained gardens sit proudly atop the Janiculum Hill. Buildings and gardens I had passed curiously every week on my way to teach at the elementary school. Then there were the people, Academy fellows, scholars, artists and other clever looking folk with their families and guests all sitting round communal tables in the dining room. At first glance it appeared one of the more intimidating gatherings of my life – the kind in which I usually transform into walking social gaffe, develop a speech impediment, facial rash and fall over –  but in reality it was one of the nicest. And then of course their was the food. We ate Spaghetti with fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, roast pork with carrots and turnips, a green salad, and for dessert, panna cotta with a ruby colored grape syrup and little biscuits. Food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of the cooks and interns in the Academy kitchen, it was – as the project intended – seasonal, simple, elegant, delicious, and nourishing.

Kitty’s tales of life at the Academy, the RSFP project and the extraordinary Mona had already engaged me. By end of the dinner, deliciously sated and both blithe and bold from the copious red wine and a very nice herby Amaro at the Academy bar, I was convinced: I would apply for a 3 month internship. My speech impediment and facial rash threatened to flare as I thanked and made rather clumsy compliments to Mona before jumping on my bike and careering down Via Garibaldi contemplating roast pork, panna cotta, cooking and arriving home in record red wine speed

Talking of bikes, over the next couple of years I’d often see Mona flying fearlessly, joyously and perilously around the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere on her black bike. On each occasion I’d try, and fail, to flag her down and then I’d renew my vows to apply for the internship.  It took a return visit from Kitty to put an end to my procrastination and convince me to get in touch with Mona. Which I did. We met at one of the long tables set in the courtyard of the Academy and we talked about Rome, food, our mutual love of cicoria, Elizabeth David and writing. We talked about the RSFP and she promised she’d keep me in mind.

True to her word, she did, and a month or so later Mona sent me an E mail telling me that she was about to start work on the second book of recipes (the first is Biscotti) from The Academy kitchen. This one was to be about soup. She asked if I might be interested in helping her – an internship of sorts – with the initial stages of the book, assisting her while she tested recipes, started to put into words 50 of the RSFP soups and complied a comprehensive glossary. I, of course accepted.

Every Sunday morning I’d walk – and as the months passed waddle – up the winding Ginaicolo hill to the Academy, crunch my way across the gravel courtyard and enter the backdoor of the Academy kitchen. Mona was usually tapping quietly away at her laptop which she’d set up in front of the window overlooking the bass garden over when I arrived, already deep in soup thought and planning the days recipes. Some stock might be bubbling in anticipation on the stove, there were often bowls of beans or chickpeas that had been soaking patiently all night, and there were always crates of Bernabei’s glorious, vital vegetables waiting for attention. First we’d have coffee, maybe some moreishly good granola, then I’d take Mona’s place in front of the computer and she would begin making soup.

Let’s start with the Minestra di pomodoro e riso’ she would call across the kitchen.

Make a note of the ingredients, three medium yellow onions, two stalks of celery. Cut the onions and celery into small dice. Oh and maybe we should make a note for the glossary about soffritto.’

Then the sound of Mona’s neat rhythmic chopping and my rather less rhythmic, two-fingered, cack-handed typing. And so we worked, Mona cooking, me typing and sending recipes off to Mary-Pat or Lizzie for testing, stopping every now and then to watch closer, peer into a pan, pod peas or wash spinach. And then of course there was the tasting, for which we were often joined by an intern or Academy fellow irresistably called to the kitchen, the heart of the Academy. And so we’d sit, side by side, knees tucked under the work bench, looking out of the window, tasting, pondering, criticizing, praising bowl after bowl of soup.

And then there was the talking. While the soup bubbled we talked and talked. We talked about soup, about living in Rome, about cicoria, ceci and cotiche, we talked about my growing concern. You see Mona was one of the first people I told and she endured more pregnancy ruminating than is healthy. She is still, to this day, the person knows more about the whole complicated, messy but joyous situation than the rest of my friends put together and the person who sustained me most with her quiet sane wisdom. She also fed me and my growing soup baby, not only on Sundays but for much of the following week by sending me clattering and clinking back down the hill with vast mason jars filled with soup, bundles of biscotti and hunks of lariano bread.

A copy of Zuppe arrived in the post month, and as I’d hoped it’s – as I’d expected from Mona, Annie, Niki and the RSFP – a brilliant and perfectly formed little book; inspiring and straightforward, a book of quiet good taste. 50 recipes for soup from the Academy kitchen, the soups that are served from the large glazed terracotta zupppiera each lunchtime, soups inspired by the bold Roman cuisine, Bernabei’s vegetables, the spirit of Chez Panisse and the Academy community. For me they are the best kind of recipes, inviting and approachable, neither technique driven or complicated, recipes as good, honest and tasty as a bowl of Pasta e ceci on a blowy Tuesday in January.

I have many favorite recipes from the book: Pasta e ceci and Pasta e fagioli of course, Favata (dried fava bean and proscuitto soup), Passato di sedano rape (celery root soup), Minestra di lenticche riso e cicoria (lentil, rice and chicory soup) , Minestra piccante di carote (spicy carrot soup), Ribollita (twice boiled Tuscan bread soup), Zuppa di piselli e patate novelle (pea and new potato soup). But in the spirit of the RSFP, where each morning the interns begin their day by taking a thorough inventory of the fridge which informs the days lunch, I took an inventory of my own fridge and discovered that it not only needed taking in hand and giving a bloody good clean but contained all the ingredients for another of my favourites,  Zuppa di palate, cavolo verza and pancetta (potato, cabbage and bacon soup).

This was one of the soups Mona made on our first Soup Sunday. Even though I never doubted I would like it – a kind of soupy colcannon with possibly the worlds best flavoring; bacon – I remember being surprised at quite how delicious it was. It’s a simple and tasty soup, both savory and sweet from the onion and carrot, deeply flavored with bacon and bay leaves, given body by the collapsing potatoes and serious leafy depth from the limp and lovely cabbage. Given some nice bread and a lump of cheese I would happily eat this once a week for lunch.

It is – like most of the recipes in the  book – simple to make. You soften carrot and onion in olive oil and then add the pancetta (bacon) and continue coking until it has rendered its tasty fat. Next you add potatoes, bay leaves and water and cook until the potatoes are tender, Finally you add what seems like a mountain of cabbage and simmer for another fifteen minutes or so, or until the is cabbage too is tender. You season and serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and black pepper. .

The soup has a slightly Dickensian pottage look to it, a frugal simplicity that you might be tempted to tart up by adding stock, blending or adding and swirling. Don’t, the soup is prefect as it is, tasting as it should of potato, cabbage and bacon.  As always with such a simple soup, good ingredients that taste vitally as they should are fundamental.

Zuppa di patate, cavolo verza e pancetta

Potato, cabbage and bacon soup

From Zuppe by Mona Talbott

Serves 4 – 6

  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 75g / 3 oz pancetta
  • 30 ml / 1 fl oz olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g / 1 1/2 lb starchy potatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • small white or savoy cabbage
  • extra virgin olive oil and black pepper to serve

Peel and cut the carrots and onion  into small dice. Cut the pancetta into 1 cm /1/2 inch tiles.

Sweat the vegetables and pancetta in olive oil over a medium-low heat in a 6 litre /6 quart pot. Add a pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the pancetta has rendered it’s fat.

Peel and dice the potatoes into 2 cm/1 inch cubes. Add the potatoes and bay leaves to the cooked vegetables and stir well, coating the potatoes with the rendered fat. Add 2 litres/ 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil dn then reduce to  simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and then cut first in half and then into strips and finally 2 cm / 1 inch squares. Add the cabbage, a generous pinch off salt and another 0.5 litres / 0.5 quarts of water to he pot. Simmer for another 15 minutes or unit the cabbage is tender.

Remove the bay leaves, taste, re-season if necessary and serve with  drizzle of olive oil and a grind of black pepper.


Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, soup, vegetables

7 years and lunch

It’s been seven years, almost to the day, since I absconded to Italy. Rash, wayward and troubling it may have been, but my departure in March 2005 was, and remains, one of the better decisions of my life. After all, if I hadn’t come to Italy I might never have discovered (that amongst other things) I like, with a certain passion, courgettes. Which are zucchini to many of you,  and indeed me after seven years. It wasn’t that I disliked zucchini before arriving in Italy! Dislike suggests strong feelings, judgment and an opinion, whereas my feelings about the tubular baby marrow Cucurbita pepo were – like football, most gadgets, inner soles and Celine Dion – those of indifference.

I’d spied vast, tumbling heaps of zucchini most a familiar forest green either shaped like baby zeppelins or stout grenades, some bright yellow, others golden, many a seductive pale green – at markets on my chaotic travels round southern Italy and Sicily, most notably at the notorious and fascinating La Vuccaria market in Palermo. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Rome, settled comfortably in Testaccio and began going to the Market each day that I really took note, particularly the striking zucchine romanesche.

Zucchine romanesche are pale creamy-green mottled with white. They are slim, elegant things that often curve this way and that and are fluted like the Corinthian columns inside the Pantheon. If they are properly fresh they come crowned with a golden headdress, a fragile, rich-yellow flame-like flower.  Their creamy white flesh is compact with tiny seeds, sweetly tender, seemingly the collision of a good cucumber, the sweet stem of brocoli, a piece of pumpkin and yellow melon. When cooked, the flesh is even more delicious, tender, sweet – but undeniably savory – and beguilingly creamy.

My zucchini indifference was short-lived once I settled in Rome. Romans prize their zucchini especially zucchine romanesche and do marvelous things with them. Cut into rounds, slices, diced or grated they are sautéed lightly in olive oil until tender and served just so or used as a sauce for pasta. Fat match sticks of zucchini are dipped in batter or flour and then fried until tantalizingly crisp in hot oil and served like potato chips in waxed paper bags, a clandestine snack best eaten with your fingers: soon shiny with oil, while walking in the sun along via Galvani. Zucchini are grilled, baked, braised, make a fitting filling for a frittata or ideal ingredient in risotto. Long thin strips are roasted and charred on a griddle pan then left to lounge in olive oil with fresh basil leaves before being served as an antipasti.

At many of our lunches at Volpetti Alice and I have eaten zucchini stewed gently with fresh tomatoes and basil, mopping up the juices with crusty bread. Left whole, zucchini are stuffed with seasoned meat or breadcrumbs and then baked, or better still,  braised in tomato sauce. Small, particularly tender specimens are boiled or steamed and then served with good olive oil, salt and maybe a little lemon juice or sliced as thin as paper and the tucked in warm pizza bianca with mozzarella. Thinly sliced zucchini are also dressed with oil and lemon and served as a salad. And then there are the flowers, i fiori di zucca. I fell for the flowers first, beautiful to look upon but even better to eat: torn into a salad, snipped into an omelette, stuffed with ricotta or best of all, with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then fried until crisp and golden in very hot oil and eaten while tongue scaldingly hot with a glass of prosecco.

Having fallen for its charms, I took to cooking zucchini with a degree of over enthusiasm which is well documented here, in a kind of cabonara, Fusilli with courgettes,  Frittata, Fiori di zucca, and now this Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta – Pasta with courgette sauce and bacon. A particularly clumsy name in English I know, but don’t let that deter you.

This recipe has much in common with both Fusilli with courgettes and another of my favorites, a weekly lunch and fixed point in my otherwise chaotic routine: pasta e broccoli. Like broccoli, zucchini when cooked until extremely tender in garlic infused olive oil – collapse, and with a little assistance from a fork, potato masher or cautious blitz with an immersion blender, create a soft creamy sauce for the pasta. This sauce also happens to be my favorite colour.

I am very happy to eat my pasta wearing just a green coat. The pasta that is, not me, unfortunately I don’t possess a green coat. But lunch is even more delicious when the green sauce is dotted with some diced pancetta or prosciutto that has been fried until tantalizingly crisp: the salty pork giving a kick to the good but undeniably mild and gentle (arguably insipid if not seasoned correctly) zucchini sauce.

This recipe, like so many of the nicest everyday pastas is pleasingly straightforward to make, but depends on good ingredients: nice olive oil, plump garlic and young, fresh zucchini are key. You could, as with pasta and broccoli, boil or steam the zucchini until soft, drain them and then finish them off in a frying pan with olive oil and garlic before mashing them. However as zucchini have a tendency to become water-logged and soggy especially when boiled, I think it’s best that you cook the zucchini in a frying pan, first with oil and butter before adding a little wine and water, This way the zucchini half fry/half braise and by the end of the cooking time are beautifully tender and much of the excess water has evaporated away.

I use an immersion blender – cautiously – to reduce the zucchini to a creamy sauce, but if you prefer a coarser more textured sauce I suggest using a fork. Is there anything else I need to tell you? Probably, but this post is already far too long for such a simple recipe and my son is eating the computer cable.

True to the Oxford English dictionary, my roots and as so as not to confuse my brother, I have referred to zucchini as courgettes in the recipe below. Best served with a glass of white wine obviously.

Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta

Pasta with Courgettes and bacon

Serves 4

  • 6 medium / 9 small young, fresh, firm courgettes (about 800g)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • A small knob of butter
  • salt
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 100ml water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 100g pancetta or bacon
  • 500g spaghetti, penne, fusilli or pappardelle
Wash the courgettes thoroughly in cold water. Drain them, trim away both ends (saving the flowers!) and cut the courgettes into  rounds a little less than a cm thick and pat them dry.
Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan over a medium-low flame. Peel the garlic then squash each clove with back of a knife, add to the frying pan and sauté gently until the garlic is fragrant and just – but only just – starting to colour. Add the courgettes and a pinch of salt to the pan, moving and turning them so each piece is coated with oil and butter.
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine. Allow it to sizzle and evaporate a little before adding the water. Now reduce the heat again and allow the courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving the courgettes a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta.
Tip the courgettes into a bowl – remove the garlic if you like – and then using a fork, potato masher or immersion blender (cautiously) mash the courgettes into a rough sauce.
Dice the pancetta.I n the frying pan you cooked the courgettes in, warm the oil and then fry the pancetta until it is crisp. Add the courgette sauce to the pancetta, stir, check seasoning.
When the pasta is al dente, drain – reserving a little of the cooking water – and tip into the pan with sauce. Toss the pasta and sauce together adding a little of the reserved cooking water if you think the sauce needs loosening.
Serve immediately with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.


Filed under courgettes, food, pasta and rice, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables