Some years back I smashed a pile of bowls. The bowls, seven or eight of them, were stacked biggest to smallest on a shelf in my kitchen in London until, one day, I decided to lean a large plate against the wall behind the pleasing pile. As I turned away I sensed a movement and spun back just in time to watch the plate, like a coin in a shove ha’penny machine, slide down and push the entire pile onto the floor. The bowls, mostly terracotta yogurt pots brought back wrapped in damp beach towels from trips to Greece and two bowls from Italy bought from Camden market, remained more or less in a pile only smashed into fierce segments. I remember staring at the pile, like a crude un-grouted mosaic, and then up at the smooth shelf wondering why on earth I balanced the plate before picking up the pieces and wrapping them in newspaper. It was only later that day, when I noticed the large plate that had slipped sitting flat on the shelf nonplussed, that I cried.
On Sunday I bought three dishes from Porta Portese market here in Rome; wide creamy-white bowls from Puglia with what look like tiny blue paw prints around the thick lip. I thought I’d struck a good deal, haggling him down from the initial 30 for the largest plate and 40 for the two smaller ones to 50 for the lot. Vincenzo took one look at the chipped edges and told me I’d been robbed and that never mind the trio, I could buy an entire orchestra of plates and dishes for the same price in Puglia. This didn’t dampen my clunking satisfaction at the three dishes, two of which were just like the bowls I’d lost, now wrapped in newspaper and in a blue plastic bag suspended across the push chair handles. Luca, usurped from his chair, chose a disturbingly realistic plastic crocodile from a bric-a-brac stall which he then swung at passers-by all the way home.
The bowls, the largest of which is almost as big as the kitchen table, have dominated all week. They have sat, one on top of the other just so, then in turn been filled with lemons with leaves, the first apricot-coloured nespole, oranges, strawberries (the strawberries have been superb this year), beans with tuna and hard-boiled eggs and green salad. Then on Thursday night, wanting to do little more that open a bottle of wine and boil something, I filled one of the bowls with fine green beans, ripped basil, loads of freshly grated parmesan cheese and olive oil for a supper so tasty I made it again for lunch the next day.
The key is good beans. I used fine fagiolini al burro, crackingly good, bright green things that cook, as their name suggests, into almost butter like tenderness. Key too, is putting the olive oil, grated cheese and ripped basil in the bowl first so the warmth and weight of the just cooked beans release the rich, spicy scent of the basil and encourage the cheese to mingle with the olive oil creating a granular dressing, a lazy pesto really, which you then bring up and over the beans. You finish off with more cheese, grated on the finest holes so it is dusty rather than stringy. If you are generous enough with the cheese and olive oil this is a much more substantial dish than you’d imagine and far too good to be sidelined. On Thursday we had it with bread, more parmesan in craggy chunks and lots of wine. On Friday we had it with burrata, which is best described as a bag or purse fashioned from mozzarella filled with rags of mozzarella in cream.
The bowls are now in a pile, on a low shelf, with nothing balanced behind.
Green beans with basil, olive oil and parmesan
- 5oo g fine green beans
- extra virgin olive oil
- freshly grated parmesan
- a handful of fresh basil leaves
Top and tail the beans and then boil them in lots of fast-boiling, well-salted water until they are tender but still with a little resistance.
While the beans are cooking pour a some olive oil into a shallow dish, grate over lots of parmesan and add the basil leaves ripped into smallish pieces.
Once the beans are ready drain them, wait a minute and then tip them into the bowl and toss everything together. Grate some more parmesan over the top and serve immediately.