vital signs


It was the wrong way round. I’d begin with a recipe. Then clinging onto my list and intent, I’d go to the shops. Other things might be bought – an irresistible this, an eye-catching if unnecessary that – but the focus was the list. Setbacks would merely reinforce my resolve and the lines on my forehead. ‘No spinach!’ ‘ No lamb chops!’ ‘No organic lemongrass!’ ‘No prepared pomegranate seeds for my meze’ I’d gasp before tearing around the shops as if my life (or lunch) depended on it, until I found the vital ingredient.

These days I begin at the market. There will probably be an idea or recipe drifting around, but nothing too specific and certainly no list. Well apart from the basic supplies, usually written on the torn lip of a bank statement envelope: washing powder, pan scrub, tea bags, plain flour, even plainer biscuits. A shabby list I retrieve from the bottom of my bag a few days later – along with half a lollypop, four stones, a topless lip salve, a car and an ounce of cracker crumbs – still with nothing to cross off.


I haven’t got time to wander aimlessly around the market like you’ said an acquaintance. ‘I’m so busy that I have to make lists! I have to shop once a week.’ I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer. We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter. The market matters to me. So I go most days, before or after work, in-between naps. I make detours and excuses in order to spend time – some days just minutes, other days just ages – looking and then buying what looks good. In the words of brilliant Simon Hopkinson ‘See good things, buy them. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have glass of wine. Cook the food and eat with more of the wine.’

At this time of year, the two Testaccio markets (as I’ve noted before we are not talking about two quaint Mediterranean idylls here, but ordinary, straightforward and good places to buy food) are the best source of inspiration  The splatters have spread like ink on blotting paper and now both markets are awash with red! Half a dozen types of tomato, cherries and berries, mottled red and white borlotti and pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush. On Monday I bought five peppers and a kilo of small tomatoes, each plum ending in a point which made it seem as if it was wearing an elfin hat. I came home. I pulled Jane Grigson from the bookshelf. I had a glass of wine. I made peperonata.


Peperonata is red peppers, onion and tomatoes stewed in olive oil and butter until they soften, collapse and thicken into a rich, vivid stew. It is one of the simplest and most delicious vegetable dishes I know.

There is a moment of stove top alchemy when you make peperonata. It’s when – having softened the sliced onion in butter and oil – you add the sliced red peppers and cover the pan. In just a matter of minutes the crisp, taut slices of pepper surrender their abundant juices and then proceed swim and soften in their own juices: a deep pool of cardinal red stock. After about 15 minutes you uncover the pan and add the peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes which also relinquish their juices. You let the peperonata cook uncovered for 30 minutes or so, simmering and reducing until almost all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with thick, vivid and vital stew. To finish, you season the stew vigorously with salt, pepper and even a little vinegar if you wish to sharpen things up a little.


Pepornata: thick, rich, silken and tasting of somewhere warm and brilliant, is delicious served warm with chicken, veal or fish. It makes a good bed for an egg: fried, poached or soft-boiled, the yolk spilling into the red stew and making your plate look like a desert sunrise. I like peperonata as part of an antipasti style lunch slithering seductively beside soft, sharp cheese, lean, pink lonzino and a few salty black olives. It is also nice stirred into pasta. It keeps well so make plenty and then spoon some into a clean jar and float enough olive oil on the surface to seal the contents.

Peperonata  Sweet pepper and tomato stew

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s recipe in her Vegetable book and Elizabeth David’s recipe in Mediterranean Food

  • a large white onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • a knob of butter
  • 5 large or 8 medium-sized red peppers
  • 6 good ripe tomatoes (or two dozen tiny plum ones)
  • salt

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith.

Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes.

Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich. vivid tomato stew. Season vigorously with salt, possibly black pepper and even a dash of vinegar if you see fit.




Filed under antipasti, food, peppers, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, summer food, vegetables

72 responses to “vital signs

  1. this is so easy
    my kind of recipe
    can make it smaller for one.
    the aroma has drifted
    clear to my cottage in the woods.
    thank you

    • rachel

      Your cottage in the woods – I like that. You can, but it keeps so beautifully and it so good, you might well want to make the full batch. Rx

  2. I keep trying to convince my mother to shop this way, but she is so dedicated to her lists. In my opinion, this is the only way to shop. Had to laugh at the contents of your purse, as mine is almost identical, the only difference being a princess bracelet or a my little pony stashed among the mix. And the half eaten lollypop! Invariably there is always a half eaten lollypop stuck to something in there! Thanks for helping me feel half normal 🙂 Have a lovely day! ~Rebecca

    • rachel

      What is it about the lollypop and where do they come from. Of course I know where they come from I thrust them in hand, a bribe for silence while I make a phone call, pay the cashier, check my E mail!

  3. orcagna

    I couldn’t agree more – let go of the lists and take it from what’s there.
    BTW, your blog is lovely, as are your insights on the Roman food scene.

  4. Susan

    I am making this. Very soon. Rachel I love the way you cook and thank you for always bringing inspiration.

    • rachel

      I hope you do, it is delicious! Thank you for reading, really, It it wasn’t for you all I wouldn’t be here.

  5. Losing the list is liberating.

  6. sarah

    Ditto Evie’s comment and well done on the move. I shall be making this over the weekend and serving rustically with orecchiette and fresh mons cheese.

    I am not familiar with many Jane Grigson recipes, though following this post and the Simon Hopkinson programme currently running on More4, I may do. Do you use her books often? Shamelessly I have only just purchased the new E David vegetable book, and it is wonderful. The fresh/raw tomato sauce, gnocchi (do you still use her recipe or a more modern one) and ricotta pudding are on my to do list. Re the last one, I have long admired your post on it…not being a rum connoisseur, shall I opt for dark rum? Is your recipe the E David one?

    Finally, I tend to purchase the books you suggest in your blog, do you have any modern ones on your wish list you care to share/any stand out favourites? I have the usual suspects, Simon Hopkinson, Nigel, Nigella, River Cafe, Hazan, del Conte (brilliant), Chez Panisse…could you suggest a dozen or so more you would recommend? (Birthday list)!

    • rachel

      I love Jane G – I highly highly recommend her Vegetable and Fruit books they are masterful. Dark rum – yes.
      I am devoted to E David and use her all the time. I also love and often use Claudia Roden’s Italian food. David Tanis’s a Platter of Figs is nice for inspiration but often leads me back to Jane. I love Rowley leigh’s Cooking at home (l love Rowley). Fergus Hendersons Nose to tail is one of my touchstones in terms of writing, style and recipes.

      Coming to E mail xx

  7. sara

    I can taste that oily, rich pepper goodness from looking at your photos. If only my partner in crime liked peppers! I’ll save this one for one of those home alone, eating at the sink days.
    xo from Paris,

    • rachel

      Poor partner, he doesn’t know what he is missing. But more for us. With bread and a glass of wine while standing up against the worksurface – yes yes.

  8. Hooray for list-less-ness! Hooray for market shopping! Those of us who can do so, and often, are so lucky. I love queuing for my turn. That’s the way I really have time to eye up the produce, and maybe someone in the queue will share her favourite recipe with me. Lucky you though that your peppers are already in season. We have a little longer to wait …

    • rachel

      Shame we aren’t nearer, I’d say see you in an hour for a wander at the market. Only just in season (it has been a strange year weather wise). Hope you are well? x

  9. laura

    “I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer.”
    I, too, love my mercato and love going there and finding things and learning things – all of which is only possible if one is a bit aimless.
    And I had peperonata on Saturday (one of the few times I’ve had a recipe you write about before I read about it. Usually, as soon as I read one of your posts, I want to try out whatever you’ve written about – and that’s when I go to the mercato with an aim!).
    Grazie di cuore!

    • rachel

      I get so cross with the I’m so busy, its just not interesting. We must go for a listless wander one day. We won’t buy anything though because we will then go out for lunch x

  10. Amy

    “I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer.” Haha! That made me smile. I shop and cook in perhaps the most inefficient and time-consuming way: I pretend to be confident enough to go to a store or market without any list or recipe in mind and end up buying a bunch of random things. I get home and scan recipes that match up with the food I bought for about an hour. Then I realize I am missing ingredients from the recipe, head back to the market and/or store and waste some more time. My problem is I actually enjoy the whole process so much! (efficiency has never been my strong suit.)

    and this looks so, so good. Simple and perfect. Your lunches always look so good!

    • rachel

      I think we have much in common. Even without the efficiency though, I’d still rather be list free. Have a good week x

  11. My grandfather recently shared a memory of making something similar while growing up on his farm in upstate New York (Rome, NY, actually!). I’m putting peppers on my list for the market this weekend.

  12. How I miss wandering Italian markets! Wander… and take lost of photos (please) so the rest of us can live vicariously – which I often do through your blog.

  13. Lauren

    We make time for things that matter – Is what I am saying all the time. We will always make the time for the things that matter to us, hence the half done housework and the carelessly put together outfits. But there is always good food (well mostly) on the table and an open bottle of wine!

  14. Unfortunately, most people these days – esp in the modern, industrialised, corporate-controlled world – don’t make time for food, yet food is one of the things that matters most. It’s nutrition, health, medicine, pleasure, social adhesive. So many people just rush around the supermarket buying corporate-industrial crap as if somehow longer hours sitting at a computer or in front of a TV matter more than longer hours thinking about, buying and prepping food. Madness. Rarr.

  15. Jessica

    I’m a fairly new reader of your blog, and first time commenter. I adore your recipes. You make them sound so seductive yet so simple at the same time. This is definitely one for the ‘to try out’ list 😉 Thank you.

    • rachel

      HI Jessica,
      It is a nice recipe (which of course is nothing to do with me and everything to do with the ingredients and cooking alchemy). i do hope you try

  16. Christine

    I bring a list of the things I must get, lest I forget again and go back to the grocer again – things like oil, vinegar, milk or garlic if I’m out, and always always cat supply stuff. The poor always forgotten cat.

    Otherwise, unless I’m baking my list goes along the lines of
    Veggies – we have onions! get something green
    Fruit – “———-” if it looks good

  17. I’m making this as soon as my tomatoes and peppers are ready.

    • rachel

      I hope you do, it is so delicious. Which of course is everything to with nice ingredients and the marvelous cooking moment.

  18. I am a list person. I always have a list or two or three floating about in my bag. Eventually everything gets crossed off. Eventually.

    I can see myself making this recipe. I will put red peppers and good tomatoes on my list(s).

  19. Thanks for sharing that quote by Hopkinson. It encapsulates everything good about cooking, except maybe the aspect of sharing all the delicious food and wine with loved ones!

  20. Aleph

    This post made me so homesick! Not just because I am Italian, not just because peperonata is a dish of my childhood, but because of the list… When I still lived in Rome, I would have never – ever! – thought of making a shopping list. I’d go to the market and buy what looked good, smelled great, was in season… That’s how you do in Italy. But… then I moved to the US. And – sadly – it seems that there is no way around the list. Nothing really charming about the supermarket and the tiny occasional markets around where I live are more like a cute, fashionable thing to do on a Saturday morning than what a market is really supposed to be. I occasionally go to the market to buy fresh herbs and flowers… But the produce is basically the same as the supermarket and twice the price. And, for the most part, there is no such thing as eating “di stagione.”
    So, lucky you! I’ll be in Rome over the summer and at least I can go back to my markets for a few weeks… 🙂

    • Hi Aleph,
      Thanks for this. I have thought a lot about this post since i wrote it! Wondering if I come across as a pretentious type, wandering fancifully with nothing better to do. I think you understand because you know Italy and that it is a bit foolish to be restrained by a list when the produce is so changeable and spontaneous. When it is nice to be inspired by the market rather than a book. That the markets are real places not fancy pants boutique ones. In Rome, great, let me know if you are in Testaccio and we can wander together.


      • Aleph

        I am sorry I saw this only yesterday, now that I am back to the States. Peccato! It would have been nice to wander together. I stayed in rione San Saba, so not far from Testaccio. Anyway it was good to be back to Italy for a while, with my American husband and half-American children. The trip was inspiring in many ways and now I feel less grumpy about the produce and markets in New England. I am going around local farms, enjoying peach picking season. By the way, I really love your insights on Italian culture and on being part of two cultures. We have a lot in common…

      • rachel

        San saba – yes just minutes from me – who knows maybe we passed in the street. I am enjoying peaches too, mostly just so but also baked and then served with cream, which isn’t very Italian I know, but nice nonetheless. All best R

  21. back in my catering life, the list was All, even though it was frequently misplaced. so freeing to be list-less, and directed by the bounty of the moment. tomatoes and red bell peppers will be in abundance here soon, summer sweetness! love your cardinal red.

  22. “pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush”- Oh, Rachel. My favorite thing is to wander “aimlessly” around the markets. 😉

  23. Your photos and words are so gorgeous, my mouth is watering as I type. Thank goodness I have peppers and tomatoes on hand!

  24. This might be sacrilege to ask, but do you think it would work with good canned tomatoes? Its winter down here in chilly Chile (-2C when I got up this morning) and this type of food is just what I feel like, even though its out of season. We have good peppers but no tomatoes!

  25. I, too, used to look for ingredients for a recipe and now I just wander around and see what is fresh and plan a meal around that. It is so much more fun and interesting to let the food come first as the inspiration isn’t it?

  26. “We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter.” So true, what you wrote.
    I love peperonata with a dash of very thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar as you suggest.

  27. Rachel, you know I’m going to rely totally on your recipes when I’m (sniff) back home. 🙂

  28. Aaaahhhh. The thought of Summer in southern Europe makes me just want to forget everything, pack a small bag (and then the family) and get on a train. My god I need a summer!

    • rachel

      We could do with a little less summer here – 90° and rising and so many mosquitos. lovely though. Oh go on, jump on a train

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  30. This is one of my favourites, so simple and tasty. I never would have thought of keeping it in jars, great idea!

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  33. I was sad to come home from holidays – until I went to my market. Immediately thought of you and Testaccio as I stocked up on apricots and melon and peppers. Now I have six little jars of jam, and best of all, some peperonata bubbling on the stove! Thanks!

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