the rough with the smooth


Testaccio in August: hot, quiet, sleepy and slightly squalid, which I put down to the dust, heat and arbitrary rubbish collection. There is just enough life to reassure – including my preferred bar, market stall and forno – but no more. The whole quarter is behaving like a cat, that is lying low in the shade all day, rousing only when absolutely necessary (meaning meals) and then prowling at night. I like Testaccio in August.

Of course there have been moments when I wished we were guests in a fair Umbrian villa or yodellingly good mountain retreat rather than wilting within Rome’s ancient city wall. They have been rare moments though – after all both villa and mountains will come later this year – and almost invariably when we’d forgotten that come August in Testaccio, it’s best to behave like a cat.


One reason to rouse is the market. Others are our own private Ex-Slaughterhouse and a daily Grattachecca: a Roman treat of roughly grated ice, fruit syrup and almost enough fruit decoration to bring out your inner Carmen Miranda. But I digress. Most of the market may be closed: grills pulled low, locked and emblazoned with luminous notices reminding us the stall is chiuso per ferie, but my favourite stall isn’t. What’s more, there is no queue, no argy bargy, plenty of time for idle chat and best of all, a small but lovely selection.

We have been eating peaches, mostly the flat, blushing ones that look as if they have been sat upon by a fat bottomed girl (or boy), nectarines, freckled apricots, white, bright-orange and icy-fleshed red melons, black cherries, flat and slim green beans, bunches of fragrant basil, golden flowered zucchini and of course, red as red can be: tomatoes.


On Friday I made pomodori al riso, or tomatoes stuffed with rice. I have written about these simply stuffed tomatoes, a classic summer dish much-loved by Romans before. At great length I seem to remember. It seems appropriate to mention them again though – briefly – being as they are such a good, tasty, resourceful and appropriate dish for these slow, tomato heavy days. The recipe is here. Remember, they are best served just warm.

On Saturday I made sauce, a smooth simple one, some for lunch and some for the freezer. On Monday too. Each day buying two kilos of San Marzano tomatoes, the pale red, plum-shaped variety that collapse and reduce so well into a rich-red, well-balanced sauce.

For this sauce you need a passatutto, Mouli or food mill.  I apologize if you don’t have one, but also urge you to use this recipe as an excuse to buy one! It is a brilliantly simple (and cheap) device consisting of a bowl with a removable perforated plate and a crank with a curved metal paddle that forces the food through the holes as the crank is turned. It is a sort of cranked up sieve really, separating the rough from the smooth, the wanted from the unwanted, but one that also does the same work as a blender only leaving the sauce/soup/paste or mash in question with more character than an electric blast would. When it come to sauces like this, certain Italian soups, vegetable and fruit pureès a Mouli is indispensable.


So the sauce. You need to wash and then cut your tomatoes in half before putting them in a large heavy-based pan – I use my Le Creuset – with nothing more than a generous pinch of salt. You cover the pan and then put it over a medium-flame for about 10 minutes, lifting the lid and prodding every now and then. Once the tomatoes have started to relinquish their juices, you remove the lid and let the tomatoes collapse and soften in their carmine broth for another few minutes.

You pass the collapsed tomatoes and their juices through the Mouli into a clean bowl. You will need to do this in batches. Once all your tomatoes are milled, you pour them back in the heavy-based pan with two peeled and smashed garlic cloves, a good slosh of olive oil and a few basil leaves, and put the pan back on the heat. Once it reaches an easy boil, you reduce the heat and then leave it to bubble and reduce into a thick sauce – that clings to the back of a wooden spoon. Once cool enough, you taste and season the sauce before ladling it into suitable containers for the fridge or freezer.


Then yesterday, Tuesday, with two deceptively pale, creamy-fleshed cuore di bue tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella di bufala and a few large, floppy basil leaves I made another summer standard, the perfect plate when it is too damn hot, a combination I never seem to tire of: Insalata Caprese.

The truth of the matter is: both tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated, it changes the nature of their flesh, seizing and tightening it into something else. Like me on a beach in August. Of course this advice is all very well if you live within non-refrigeratation-is-a-possibility distance of both buffaloes and vines. Not so easy if you don’t. If your mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes have been refrigerated, then let then come to room temperature – to relax – for at least an hour before slicing.


Slicing (ripping and pouring) is the only thing you have to do for this simple dish. In fact this dish is all about choosing well and temperature. The tomatoes should be ripe but firm and flavoursome. Rugged, ribbed cuore di bue (ox heart) with their thin skin and creamy flesh are ideal. As I’ve already mentioned, they should be as warm as the room you are sitting in. As for the mozzarella di bufala, this is no time for parsimony, use the best you can find, it should wobble and weep. Look for big, floppy basil leaves and tear them with your fingers, remembering to dab a little of their sweet, peppery scent behind your ears. The salt should be scattered prudently and the extra virgin olive oil poured generously.

Serve with bread to assist and then mop up one of the nicest dressings in the world: sweet-sour tomato juice scented with basil, mozzarella milk, extra virgin olive oil and tiny shards of salt.


Insalata Caprese  Tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil.

serves 2

  • two large, ripe tomatoes
  • 250 g ball of mozzarella di bufala
  • a few basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Cut the tomato and mozzarella into 5 mm slices. Arrange them as you wish on a large plate or platter. Tear the basil leaves and slide them between the tomatoes and mozzarella. Sprinkle judiciously with salt. Pour over extra virgin olive oil. Serve.




Filed under In praise of, mozzarella di bufala, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

43 responses to “the rough with the smooth

  1. Those look fabulous! I love tomatoes.

  2. Jacqui

    Yet again – such a delight to read this – I am transported from here to there by a few words about food, which kick-start my imagination, put into gear my over-active minds-eye and add fuel to my never decreasing greed for delicious food. Inspirational – thank you

  3. I discovered my love of insalate caprese in Sicily earlier this summer, but haven’t got round the recreating it back home yet, most probably due to a fear of disappointment. Does food ever taste as good as when you’re on holiday and looking out at the sea? You have inspired me to head to borough market and fish out the best tomatoes and mozzarella for a recreation!

    • rachel

      I’m not sure it does. That said, you can create a nice Caprese at home. The key is the best tomatoes you can find (and you can find some really tasty ones in the UK now) and then leaving them at room temperature. Same with the mozzarella. Best Olive oil too. Let me know

  4. victoria2nyc

    Now I know what’s next, and I’m with you all the way. I found out about stuffing tomatoes with rice and cooking them with potatoes from Luisa. Delish. Something I dream of in the winter. I expect the tomatoes to be great upstate when I get there today; I will make these tomorrow. The best – the ABSOLUTE best – part of this is not eating them piping hot.

  5. When I left Florence, I had a horrible time packing and ruthlessly choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. I always regret not packing the passaverdura with us – I figured we could get one here, and we can, but what I didn’t know was that they are ridiculously expensive, making it somewhat of a luxury item that I just never seem to be able to afford! Now I am not only wishing I had my passaverdura but also wishing for summer so I can eat tomatoes again – this is my ideal summer dinner, usually made in a very unglamorous way, out of heat-induced laziness more than anything.

    • rachel

      But you have pici (loved it, very proud.) How annoying, they are more expensive in The UK but not that expensive! Maybe importing them to Australia costs more. Next time you come back you need to tuck one in your suitcase.

  6. What a delightful post to read. Such descriptive words that I can now feel and taste Testaccio in August.

  7. Susan

    Dab the basil scent behind your ears….you are hilarious. Love it!

  8. As beautiful and evocative as ever. And I love my passatutto, too.

  9. Another great post Rach! Loved how your took all of us to hot and sleepy Testaccio in August..and then gave us an informal lecture on how to choose tomatoes & basil leaves, and then how to use them at the right temperature and firmness. You know, I really have a dream to live in Tuscany one day (or maybe just any part of Italy – even if it were for a short few months), and your blog is always nudging me closer in that direction!

    • rachel

      It is not an easy country to live it, but an extraordinary one. And the food! Not that it’s some romantic idyl where everything is gastronomically perfect (what is) but the produce, passion and food culture here is just wonderful. I nudge you.

  10. It takes guts to make a proper caprese … and Madame Rachel definitely, most definitely, has guts. Brava! no embellishments and furbelows or nonsense. Proper, un-cooled tomatoes, wobbling and weeping real mozzarella, re-al olive oil, basil and salt and that’s it. Honest and real. Thank you Signora Roddy!

  11. I loved being transported to Testaccio in August, if just for a moment. And the caprese–ah, the caprese!

    • rachel

      At this moment it is particulary hot and smelly. I still love it. Wish I could send you a ball of mozzarella for your new kitchen

  12. Oh my gosh, Rachel! I am such a fan. Every time I visit I learn so much and yearn to be in Rome ( I’ve never visited that lovely part of the world). Thank you for the great directions for your sauce. Thank you for making every part of your food adventure beautiful and doable.

  13. Fiona

    I too am wilting in the August heat of Rome, but enjoying the tomatoes. Want to call in at mine for a coffee and a dip in our oversized paddling pool? May help cool you, and Luca, down.
    inbox me…

  14. laura

    “the flat, blushing ones” … “carmine broth” … and so much more. Love it!
    And LOVE tomatoes … practically the only reason summer is bearable to me. Was wanting a good recipe for stuffed tomatoes, so thank you for that link, too.
    I “inherited” a passatutto years ago and my first few attempts to use it were frustrating: the crank and paddle kept popping out on me, spraying the contents everywhere. I put it away but a few years ago I tried again and the moment was right and now I use it happily, sort of like what happened with the mezzaluna.
    Thank you for reminding people about not refrigerating mozzarellas (or at least bringing them to room temperature before consumption); tomatoes should never be refrigerated either.

    • rachel

      It took me a while too…now I am a convert and would choose it over an electric blender every time. I always knew about Mozzarella but it was recent with toms, it really does change them. Hope you are well? Xr

  15. Your stories always make me hungry. And inspired.

  16. Hilary

    ooh, new kitchen kit alert!! I had forgotten moulis had an Italian equivalent! Better add kitchen supplies shop to the list!! xx

  17. Carolle

    I’m jealous, I want peaches, nectarines & apricots, those that are wonderfully tasty & sweet -yes i know I can get them in Tesco but they are just tasteless so I have stopped wasting my money. Every time I read you inspire me to cook something so thank you, my vegetarian Dad is coming for dinner tomorrow so tomatoes & rice will be on the menu & we ate your pasta & broccoli earlier this week.

    • rachel

      I wish i could send you some fruit. I hope you do try the tomatoes and rice, remember to be bold with the seasoning and oil R

  18. Pingback: Speed Reading on the Beach, and Peaches | Susie Meserve

  19. Oh, those gorgeous cuore!
    summer kitchen life was immediately elevated when I at last purchased a food mill, just a few short summers ago. why I had waited so long, I can’t say.
    beautiful food, engaging writing-I especially
    love your description of the heat and squalor of August in Testaccio.

    • rachel

      They were such good cuore (I did doubt at seeing how pale and green at the edges they were, but my fruit and veg man convinced me.) I imagine you are on final edits and the like – did I mention I can’t wait for your book xR

  20. oh yes indeed, this caprese — right down to the buffalo and excellent tepid temperature — is one of our favorites. tough to come by, here in the states, but we nab it by the pound when we can. then inhale it, immoderately. most recently, two evenings past. (slurp!)

  21. Nice. And do I also see some prosciutto and melon. Even better.

  22. You know, Rachel, I’ve put off buying a food mill for years because we have a blender, standing mixers in two sizes, and a Cuisinart, but it’s always nagged at the back of my mind–the texture from a food mill isn’t the same. I think you’ve convinced me. Damn the space–I’ll find somewhere to put it. Ken

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