Just right.

Things have shifted. I’m not talking about the big things, even though they too seem to be shuffling, extremely slowly into a different, more comfortable sort of order. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday things: the daily routine with my little boy, the state of my flat, my waxing and plucking (it was out of control) my writing here, my reading, my teaching and life in my small, oddly shaped Roman kitchen.

Unexpectedly, after a period of swatting days and meals away like flies and after a summer of feeling cross and impatient with my kitchen, my food and myself, I seem to have found a new rhythm. A nice, uncharacteristically steady (and slightly jaunty) rhythm.  I’m also managing better: the shopping, the fridge, the planning of meals, the process of cooking itself. I’ve stopped worrying about making something clever and out of character to write about here and focused instead on what suits me (and Luca) now, in September, in Rome. I’ve returned to habits that had slipped away, making do, making stock, making double, making triple (tomato sauce), of soaking beans, big bags of them, which means the base and a head start of two, three, maybe even four meals. I’ve been – for once – using my loaf.

So with another wedge of three-day-old-bread on the counter, ricotta salata in the fridge, tomato season sprinting to the finish line and with me bobbing along to this new, unexpected rhythm, there was no debate. No debate as to which recipe to make from Luisa’s book, the first book I have properly buried my head in and inhaled since Luca was born a year ago. It would be Tomato Bread Soup.

But before I talk about Luisa’s Tomato bread soup and the moment ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft’  I’d like to talk a little about her book, a memoir with recipes, My Berlin Kitchen.

Having followed her blog The Wednesday Chef for five years, I already knew Luisa was a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was a skilled and engaging recipe writer – she was of course a cookbook editor. I also knew she was charming, funny and generous – she was one of the first to give my blog a deep nod of approval. I had high hopes and hefty expectations. I was even a little nervous as I ripped open the grey bag from Viking press, smoothed the slightly matt cover, admired the boots and thought ‘I’ve got a bag like that‘ and opened the first inky smelling page.

It’s delicious. It’s a beautiful and intelligently written account of a young woman’s life so far. A life that weaves and navigates its way between three cultures: German, American and Italian. A life in which this necessary but often baffling weaving is understood and managed through food, through nourishing others and being nourished. It’s evocative writing that seizes all your senses: taste, smell, touch, sound and sight, but writing that manages to remain as sharp as a redcurrant, pertinent and never cloying. I particularly liked reading about Luisa’s early childhood in West Berlin in the late 1970’s. Fascinating stuff, especially when Luisa teetered on the edge of something much darker. I’d like to learn more. I loved reading about Luisa’s Italian family and her food education, an enlightenment of sorts, a process that resonated strongly with me and my own experiences here in Italy. I’m itching to visit Berlin now, next spring I think. I’ll hire a bike and pedal my way around the city before finding myself some pickled herrings, potato salad and plum-cake.

Then there are the recipes, of which there are more than 44, fitting neatly and beautifully into the narrative. Which of course is the point, a memoir with food! Food and recipes that help you understand and taste a life. Terrific stuff. And so to the recipe I had no difficulty in choosing, an Italian one on page 82, one of the simplest, one of Luisa’s favorites and one of mine too: Tomato and Bread Soup or Pappa al pomodoro.

Pappa means , quite literally, mush and pomodoro, as you know, tomato. Mush of tomatoes. Stay with me. Pappa al pomodoro is classic Italian comfort food, born out of necessity, thrift and good taste. Excellent tomatoes are cooked with a fearless quantity of extra virgin olive oil,  plump garlic and a hefty pinch of salt until they are soft and pulpy. Cubed stale bread from a coarse country loaf is then added to the pan and everything cooked for another 10 minutes. This is moment Luisa captures so well, the moment when ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft.’  The pan is then left to cool – as we know good things come to those who wait – and the flavors mellow. The Pappa al pomodoro is then served with grated ricotta salata and torn basil. Delicious and exquisite, a little like Luisa and her book which was released this week. Thank you for sending me a copy Vikings and tanti auguri to you Luisa.

Now I would happily eat pappa al pomodoro twice a week, every week, especially if every now and then it was topped with a lacy edged fried egg or quivering poached one. I can’t of course, eat it every week, what with it being such a strictly seasonal panful. Of course it’s this seasonality that makes Pappa al pomodoro even more of a pleasure, a treat.  Make it now while tomaotes are still in fine form.

Luca has never eaten so much lunch in his year-long life. Viva la pappa (thanks Jo.)

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Serves 2 hungry people. It could serve 4 at a push but who wants to push!

  • 3 llbs / 1.5 kg fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cubed, crustless sourdough or peasant bread
  • 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh basil leaves

Core and quarter the plum tomatoes. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor and pulse a few times to chop them coarsely, you don’t want tomato puree.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart / 4 litre saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, Add the tomatoes and their juices. season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

When the soup has simmered for 45 minute, add the cubed bread and simmer for another 10 minutes, Check seasoning and discard the garlic.

Serve slightly cooled or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn over each serving.

My notes.

I didn’t measure my oil but it was a mighty glug, I’d say about 5 tbsp. My tomatoes, a variety called Piccadilly had particularly thick skins so I peeled them. I don’t have a food processor so I chopped the tomatoes roughly by hand which seemed to work pretty well. I didn’t add onion. I left the garlic in the soup until I served it. My soup was fanatically thick by the end of cooking so I added a little water to loosen everything. I forgot the basil, there was something missing.


Filed under Book review, books, bread, food, soup, summer food, The Wednesday Chef, tomatoes, vegetables

31 responses to “Just right.

  1. You write so beautifully yourself – I love reading your posts! Re the tomatoes and food processor. I am only writing this because I think you might be interested and not to ‘berate’ you or anything but … but it is NOT a good idea to use a food processor or an immersion blender when it comes to tomatoes because … for some reason, they get oxidised or whatever and their colour changes … it goes slightly orange. Far far better to do what you did (because thankfully in this case you didn’t have a food processor) and chop the tomatoes by hand with a knife … or pass them through a food mill, like the one in the first photo of this blog.

    • rachel

      Jo – I am interested, extremely interested in your kitchen wisdom. I did wonder about the food processor actually, but as I don’t have one I didn’t pursue these doubts. So thank you. I will try the food mill – almost my favorite kitchen tool – next time.

  2. When my generation was growing up, there was a TV weekly programme based on a famous children’s book called “Gian Burrasca”. Rita Pavone the actress played the part of the naughty boy Gian Burrasca and the theme music of the programme was called “Viva La Pappa col Pomodoro”. here is a youtube version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAaFJEbDqzU&feature=related

    • rachel

      I have seen Gian Burrasca with my students but never this – brilliant and I have added it to the post. I think Luca will adore Gian B one day.

  3. I love nothing more than when a child eats a big helping of proper food. It happens so rarely in this house. A few gulps and then queries about whether they have eaten enough to warrant a sweet. Harumph. Perhaps I should try them with Luisa’s soup.

    • rachel

      Kath – I have only just entered the world of La Pappa (the food for the little one) but I can see it is a big, complicated – much negotiating needed – world. This soup though was a big hit, not as big as gelato, but big. Maybe you should! x

  4. Betta

    thanks to your post I’m listening to all of rita pavone ‘s songs on youtube 😉

  5. Tomatoes are peaking here in Colorado, and I’ve been making sauce every week. For the last hurrah I think I’ll make this pappa al pomodoro.

  6. Lovely review and lovely stories. For what it’s worth, I eagerly anticipate the day you publish a book yourself, lady. I’ll be first in line.

  7. jo

    i eagerly anticipate a cookbook-memoir by you, too! soup looks great.

  8. reading your blog makes me want to learn to be a better writer Rachel. I’m gonna keep at it so one day I can make people feel the way your blog makes me feel. Also, your blog makes me salivate, but maybe that’s a whole other story…
    Hope you’re well Rachel.

  9. Rachel,
    I love reading your posts… they are full of flavors and sweetness.
    Thank you for such lovely stories and photos.

    • rachel

      We are going to make a salted caramel sauce this weekend (it is my birthday and pudding will be vanilla ice-cream and above sauce). My pleasure, it is good to have you reading

  10. Amy

    The Wednesday Chef was the first blog I started following. It just doesn’t get much better than Luisa, does it? I still have to pick up my own copy of her book, but I am so, so excited to read it. You’ve made me that much more excited! Lovely review.

  11. laura

    I echo Josephine’s “you write so beautifully yourself” and Shanna’s eager anticipation of the day your first book comes out.
    I think Luca, when a bit older, might thoroughly enjoy Vamba’s (actually, Luigi Bertelli’s) “Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca” … even – if not much! – more than the Rita Pavone tv version of the book. The illustrations alone are magnificent:
    You can listen to it here:
    I’d never heard of “pappa al pomodoro” with ricotta before but there are literally hundreds of variations on a theme for this recipe, as for most Italian recipes. Here in Tuscany it is of course obligatory to use the Tuscan unsalted bread.
    Thank you for another brilliant post.

    • rachel

      Thanks sweet Laura and a massive thank you for these links, which we will be following. I have a feeling Gian Burrasca will be playing an important role in both our lives. Tuscan unsalted bread, yes of course, I will try asap.

  12. Hi Rach, I so enjoyed reading this post, as we unwittingly, concurrently posted our impressions of My Berlin Kitchen from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Like you, I was especially drawn in by her stories of being a small child in West Berlin. Her recipes, of course, are super. While I was reading her narrative, I couldn’t help but think of you, and your bold, brash move to Rome, eight-plus years ago, and the life you have made for yourself–and Luca—there. I’m happy for you that things have settled into a manageable sort of rhythm. and, happy birthday.
    x N

    • rachel

      HI Nancy, I like our synchronicity almost as much as I like this soup and your apple tart – a perfect lunch don’t you think? Bold and Brash, also impulsive and irresponsible, but as you say the start of this life which is now pretty good and includes – of course – Luca. A little uncertain about being 40 but I am trying to embrace it with enthusiasm. Rx

  13. “cross and impatient” …
    “a mighty glug”…
    reading, here, Rachel, is always and ever like settling into the loveliest of old armchairs, familiar, welcoming, warm, exactly right. something you are loathe to leave, and eager to return to, just as soon as you’re able.
    and yes, belatedly, bonne maman jam jars are the very best.
    cheers to you and impending autumn,

    • rachel

      Thanks Molly – I am in the Uk as I read this and it feels very much like Autumn. Back to Rome tonight so hoping for another couple of weeks of Sun and warm evenings that beg outdoor eating. That you feel comfortable here makes me feel extremely happy, I feel much the same about coming over to see you and your creative kids. Rx

  14. Rosamund Sutherland

    Rachel – I am going to make this tomorrow in Devon, where I am thinking about you and remembering all the jelly experimenting last year, when Luca was still being imagined. Happy birthday to both of you. Rosamund

  15. I can’t get that song out of my head and I really enjoyed the jump over to Jo’s site—seeing Testaccio Market was a bit thrilling.

    • rachel

      We will be wandering the market together next spring! We can also go and visit the old one, before they completely dismantle it. x

  16. I just got My Berlin Kitchen after reading Nancy’s blog…wonderful in all ways. Your dish is a beautiful ode to this book.

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