rags and rocket



I have just spent the last hour on my knees using every towel in the bathroom, my dressing gown and the entire pile of stracci to sop-up the many litres of washing machine water that erupted out of the sink while I was at the market buying Mr Musculo to unblock the U-bend. Of course a mop would have been more effective, but it was out on the balcony and Luca was already jumping in the puddle in the hall. I just grabbed the first things that came to hand, threw them on the wet floor and then shuffled around on my knees feeling punished but also amazed at the dust and objects that had been washed by the tide of grey water from under the furniture. Just when I thought I had sopped up every drop, water, coming from god knows where, filled the cracks in the tiles once again and I spent the next 10 minutes feeling as if I was playing a labyrinthian computer game in which the quicker you sop the faster and cleverer the water becomes. I eventually found the puddle, under the fridge and I killed it. An hour later, as I type, the sink is still blocked and the washing machine full of soaking clothes but the floor is cleaner than it has been for months.

I didn’t intend to write about sopping today, I wanted to talk about a keyhole and small park called the Giardino degli Aranci, the Orange Tree Garden, which is just minutes from our flat but feels like another world, especially in spring when you can smell the garden long before you see it. But damp knees and the smell of damp cloths are mocking thoughts of blossom and ironically stracci make a much more appropriate introduction than oranges for todays recipe .

Straccio which comes from the verb stracciare, to rip, was traditionally a rag cloth made from old clothes or sheets. I have inherited my granny’s and mum’s habit for rags: old  T-shirts for the windows, a silk shirt streaked with rioja for polishing, threadbare cotton sheets ripped into squares for everything else. Today the word straccio is also used for kitchen cloths, particularly the coarse cotton ones for the kitchen floor eight of which are dripping onto the balcony. Straccetti are little rags and so to make straccetti di manzo, you rip very thin pieces of lean beef into rag-like-pieces, rub them with olive oil and the cook them swiftly in a hot pan until they curl and shrink and look even more like old rags, but taste anything but, especially when eaten with rocket – surely the best name for a salad leaf – and curls of parmesan cheese.


Pan-fried beef apart from being, um, beefy, has a salty, unami-ish quality, good parmesan does too, making them a charismatic pair. Lay rags of beef and curls of parmesan on a grass-green weave of peppery rocket leaves – the juices from the meat pan providing dressing – and you have the most ridiculously delicious plateful of food. I love the way the rocket begins like a teenager, offering resistance and kick, but then as the warmth of beef sets in and you muddle everything with your knife and fork, the leaves start co-operating enough to wrap themselves around the rags of beef catching warm curls of cheese as they go. By the time you reach the last few mouthfuls and you are torn in the same way as when reading the last pages of a good book: the greedy gallop to the finish or the rein-in to savour every last bit, the last few leaves should have collapsed into a pile to be scooped up with your fingers.

Ridiculously delicious food and real fast food too which makes it my favorite solo supper after sourdough toast, butter and anchovies. I am also happy to share, I made straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano for my mum and dad the evening of the day we’d walked up the orange garden. Rags and rocket.


Straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano – sauteed beef with rocket and parmesan

Obviously there are lots of way to make this, some people dip the rags in flour, others add wine or herbs to the pan. I’ve eaten this dish specked with aged balsamic vinegar which was delicious but didn’t convert me from lemon. The steak needs to be sliced thinly enough to tear – so as thin as carpaccio – something Roman butchers do as a matter of course. If you are buying a thick steak, I have a friend who swears by putting the steak in the freezer and then slicing it when it is frozen to get the required thinness. I still have to try this.

serves 2

  • 300 – 400 g lean streak, very thinly sliced. I ask my butcher to do this.
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a bunch of rocket
  • parmesan cheese
  • wedges of lemon

Tear the steak into smallish pieces ‘rags’ and put them in a bowl. Pour over a couple of tablespoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, toss well with your hands and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Wash and dry the rocket then divide between two plates.

Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium/high flame, add the meat and the oily juices from the bowl into the pan and sauté briskly until just coloured but still a little pink in places. Divide the meat between the plates, spooning over any juices, then use a vegetable peeler to pare curls of parmesan over the meat and rocket. Pour over a little more olive oil if you think it need it and serve with a wedge of lemon.

*I pressed publish on this before a final spell check by me and, more importantly, Vincenzo for the Italian…..so sorry to those of you who linked from an E mail, the spelling was comical. I hope it is all sorted now. I need a proofreader. R


Filed under beef, cheese, parmesan cheese, Rachel's Diary, recipes, rocket

63 responses to “rags and rocket

  1. It sounds like an eventful day. At least you get a delicious meal out of it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Anna

    You poor girl….But no H Rachel in straccio! English speaking people may not pronounce the word correctly…so perhaps that’s why you added the H?

    • rachel

      Hi Anna, yes thank you I did just add a note (which E mail readers will not get, which defeats the object) that I hadn’t done a spell check (nor vincenzo who checks my dreadful Italian) so the article is riddled with mistakes…which should be corrected now Rx

  3. Sounds delicious. The food part, I mean. The flooding part, not so much 😉

  4. Fiona

    Rachel – my favourite dish too – discovered in Rome. I have been waiting for you to post it over the years – thanks xx

    • rachel

      I’m sure you make a wonderful plate of rags and rocket…hope all is going smoothly and that we bump into each other at the market at least once before you go xoxo

  5. This dish is one of my most favorite and comforting food memories from Rome! Thank you for this, and the real life real mess story to accompany it!

  6. I saw it on the menu at Cesare and was so so tempted to get it, but then I thought it is such a nice dish to make and enjoy at home…On the long list of dished to try, now with your recipe as a reference!

    I did walk up to see the key hole and the Orange Garden, and it was one of the most amazing moments in the whole Roman holiday…Such a beautiful hidden gem to have only a few steps away.

    • rachel

      Cesare makes it beautifully….next time we go. It was so good to spend time with you and to meet Jesse, I want more wine and endless talking soon xoxo

  7. Jasmine

    How do you go about “tearing” the steak?

    • rachel

      Hi Jasmine, they need to be cut very very thinly, which Roman butchers do as a matter of course, then they just rip. If you are buying a thick steak, I have a friend who swears by putting the steak in the freezer and then slicing it when it is frozen to get the required thinness. I still have to try this.

  8. Love that special keyhole and the gardini, we went there during our first stay in Testaccio those few years ago. We managed to even squeeze in a taste of straccetti in that panino at Mordi e Vai – but I love the sound of this quick, tasty dish. Will try. I’ve heard about the frozen steak method too and I think it sounds pretty clever! x

    • rachel

      Luca and I decided we would like to have you around the corner all the time, But we will make do with a few days every now and then. I need to try that method xox

  9. Il giardino degli aranci … so wonderful. As are the little rags, “straccetti” … with rocket and parmesan,or with slivers of pan-fried artichokes…

  10. Eha

    Oh, this story of rags and rocket unfortunately does the person not there burst into warm and comfortable laughter! Especially the ‘rags’ bit in this house!! OK – your unctuous beef dish we would call a ‘stir-fry’ here and I enjoy it 3-4 times a week!! Enjoy!!!!!!

    • rachel

      Luca thought the whole thing was hilarious as he jumped and then tried to swim in the water….my english-part would call it a stir-fry too and yes, unctuous and delicious x

  11. Hilary

    oh, the orange tree garden is one of our favourite Roman spots!
    Ahem – proofreader, reporting for duty!! 🙂

    • rachel

      DId you come from E mail? did you see the mistakes?….You are amazing and I am lucky to have such patient readers who tolerate the outrageous spelling and grammar at times. Thank goodness the publishing house will help me deal with the proofreading there. I hope you are well? xox

      • Hilary

        no, I would not have been able to resist correcting them! I was just acknowledging that I have been a little slack on the edits lately (busy time of the year, now settling down). I’d put my hand up for proofing the book in a heart beat!!

        all well, nice and rested after 2 weeks in the South Island. Looking forward to eating puntarelle soon – how do I know when it’s big enough to harvest? xx

  12. I will gladly be your proofreader, for both English and Italian. I’m American but lived in Italy for 17 years (4 in Rome) and spent many days roaming the Giardino degli Aranci. Reading your blog takes me back to the good old times. Let me know if you are interested! Sara

    • rachel

      Sara, you have the most reassuring name….and clearly the credentials to match…Thank you for the offer I probably will take you up one day…As far as the book goes, the publishing house are dealing with the proofreading (thank goodness). If you are ever wandering the garden again, let me know, I will join you x

  13. laura

    How in the world did you have the energy or willpower to make poetry out of your soggy plight? Not to mention the burden of a stopped-up sink and sodden clothes still to be dealt with. A delicious dish beautifully explained and the prospect of your tale of Piranesi’s keyhole and the Orange Garden to look forward to. Thank you!
    PS I, too, most willingly and once again offer my services as proofreader.

    • rachel

      Come and visit and we can walk around the garden while luca throws sticks at old ladies and then I have to spend the next 10 minutes apologising for my naughtily son….thank you for offer I may well take you up one day xo

      • laura

        I was in Rome for a day a couple of weeks ago and thought about contacting you to see if you had time for a coffee but then figured you are already so busy that … 🙂
        I lived in Rome for four years AGES ago and it’s always nice to go back for a visit and travel down memory lane.
        There are so many of us offering our services that you had better start planning interviews and practice tests! It’s clear that we would all be honored to be able to participate in The Book.

  14. victoria2nyc

    I made this for dinner last night, and it was SCRUMPTIOUS – another great dish from you to add to my repertoire. Many, many thanks.

  15. “By the time you reach the last few mouthfuls and you are torn in the same way as when reading the last pages of a good book: the greedy gallop to the finish or the rein-in to savour every last bit…”

    Bloody brilliant!

  16. I’m am very sorry about the overflowing water but so happy that you shared rags and rockets with us. I can just taste this dish in my imagination and it is wonderful.

  17. I just love the word “sopping” or as we say here in the South, “soppin'”. It is ironic that my blog post this week also has the word “soppin'” in it!…as in the juices from a roasted chicken. The other irony is that this week our dishwasher ran over into the floor…lots of suds…human error we figured out and not our dishwasher’s fault! Wrong soap! So we were doing our own soppin’ of the kitchen floor.
    So thousands of miles apart in different kitchens some of the same things were happening.
    I love your recipe..the simplicity and ease. Have a good week.

    • rachel

      Soppin is even better that sopping….soap too, even harder to sop, but then an even cleaner floor. I think I caught a glimpse of the chicken and the sauce to sop….I need to come over and read closer (sorry I am lost in book land and not good at keeping up with all my favorite writers)….You and nancy must be full of excitement….I am so looking forward to the book, hope the release day goes well? xox

  18. Yeap, the frozen meat slices easily. I use this for cutting meat for stir-fries.

    Your solo supper sounds fab. I was thinking lemon, even before reading you put it in.

  19. Arugula as the teenage component–ha! The freeze-the-steak technique works like a charm, by the way. Easy for carpaccio. Ah, to gallop or not, would that all dilemma were so difficult. Really exquisite fast food. Ken

    • rachel

      I am hoping Luca is like the rocket when he is a teenager…easily tamed. I am a terrible galloper, I wish I could rein.-in from time to time. Thanks for the thumbs-up, I need to try the technique x

  20. christin

    apart from the eating- which must be delicious- this is just a brilliant inspired piece of writing- rachel…………

  21. Oh no. The sopping up was unfortunate, but the meal sounds delicious.

  22. Rags of beef and curls of rocket – lovely. And where does the name rocket spring from, I wonder. And I love the way the story wrote you. It always feels a very happy accident when that happens x

    • rachel

      I have always wondered about the word rocket too and yes a happy, if slightly damp accident, hope you are well? xoxox

      • Back in La La land, with a lot of extreme heat and mad people. I miss cold windy England and the sea but that sounds incredibly ungrateful and there is much to enjoy here (once you get over the above). Really wishing you huge luck and fanfare with the book – nearly there I think? xxx

  23. Hi Rachel

    Massive fan of the blog – really readable, i love it. The tone, the ideas and lets not even mention the food! Youre in my favourites list now!

  24. Graham Jepson

    In my view, this is the very best way to eat beef. It is well worth having to clean my glasses (i.e. eye-glasses) and re-wash my face after being splattered from the cooking. (And best not to wear a clean shirt.)

  25. christin

    yes putting the steak in the freezer is good- i do it when i want to cut very thinly- not exactely hard *frozen but almost ! C

  26. Rach, I gotta say–your writing just gets better and better–and that’s saying a lot. I love the rag weaving of the soggy event and the beef dish.

  27. Poverina! That sounds like a nightmare (and I can just imagine Luca finding it all hilarious – my sisters’ kids were the same at that age). Love straccetti di manzi – such a nice meal when you don’t fancy putting on a pot of water to make some pasta.

    I remember being intrigued how thin the butchers in Rome cut the steaks (meaning it is almost impossible to cook a steak al sangue) but it’s just perfect for making straccetti!

  28. Amber

    I can imagine that leftovers (if any!) would be very tasty stuffed into a good, crusty bread roll…

  29. zeiserl (@daszeiserl)

    After three days of almost Roman heat, we just had this for dinner and feel very pampered. By the way, my butcher didn’t feel up to slicing the beef thinly without its being semi-frozen, so I took it home and tried the freezer method, which worked like a charm. It did help that I’d just got the good knife back from being sharpened, however.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s