the zest of it

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It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

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As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

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I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

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The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

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Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

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Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

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This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

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49 Comments

Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

49 responses to “the zest of it

  1. Beautiful lentil dish. I found some small green ones recently (hard to find here in the Midwest sometimes) sooooo ready to make this dish, absolute perfect timing. Thank you for the beautiful photos.

  2. kamrynwhowanders

    I’m 15 and I get paid to cook meals for a family that is allergic to gluten and lactose intolerant, so I’m always looking for good, gluten/lactose free sides. The sweet and sour squash slices look delicious!

    https://kamrynthewanderer.wordpress.com/

    • rachel

      Hello there and yes this is all those things. You should consider getting Fabrizia’s book, many of the receipts are gluten and Lactose free and utterly delicious.

  3. Maria

    Oh lord, I remember your post about that place- it sounded amazing. I wish I could come to the workshop, I’m sure it will be great.

    PS a question – I note your ‘(not Puy)’ note on the lentils in the recipe. I’m not a connoisseur of lentils, so am wondering about the differences, and why Puy would not be suitable here? (too hard, too small?). Thanks!

    • rachel

      Hi There, good point, as I have mention to another reader, the no Puy is fabrizia’s note so I included it (she is generally very unpersciptive so a no seemed important). Maybe it is because puy are quite firm and absorb flavors less! Maybe! Not quite sure. I have tried it with both green and brown lentils now and it worked v v well – R

  4. Your writing about your (almost) daily sorties to the market made me nostalgic for that way of life in France, now we’re back in England. A few years ago, our local market here was a good and friendly place to get local food dispensed with humour and sound advice. Now it’s not so much frequented, and the produce isn’t very special. I wonder what’s happened? I can’t see that happening in Italy or France.

    • rachel

      Hi M, I am so out of touch – when did you move back? I spent a wonderful Christmas and new year in the Uk, but I did feel sad about the state of local markets: it isn’t as if good local produce is lacking. I hope I don’t idealize it too much here, the situation is far from perfect. the markets holders still survive though – just. Happy New Year again – R

  5. What a beautiful description of the joy (and sorrows) of returning to one’s routine. Thought the sink-full of dishes and the obligations and the chores may be piling up, there is always that vendor at the market who will welcome you like you are their own long-lost child. Wonderful – and the recipe certainly do the ingredients justice.

    • rachel

      There was more sorrow than joy at first (I have discovered pastry literally cements itself to a bowl if left for 3 weeks.) My market guys do make my life better, the market is still one of the (just) surviving italian traditions I love most. Happy New Year to you x

  6. This is going to be my dinner tonight. Yes!

  7. laura

    Ben tornata … Though re-entry always takes a bit of time and a lot of effort, not that your writing evinces either. Love the zest and the metaphor of the good tights but am sorry about the still-stuck sink.
    The workshop sounds brilliant … ‘Twould be lovely to meet you and Fabrizia Lanza.

    • rachel

      thanks L. I think there might be a bottle cap blocking the sink, Vincenzo is about to go and buy one of those long sink poking things. Would you consider coming? I know it is far from cheap, but it is a completely extraordinary place, enchanting really and more than being lessons it is is all about words and more and wine. If there is any way? xox

      • laura

        It would be such a glorious treat were it possible. I have no doubt that the place, the people, the food, the time and the memories will be worth every centesimo.
        Perhaps I shall just go place a bet and see if destiny favors me!🙂

  8. Christine

    Yes! Thank you for the zucca recipe as promised on Instagram. It looks with the wait! Tonight I’ll have to tackle that kabocha once and for all and hopefully get it on the grill before night falls.

    • rachel

      Hi C – hope you did it, and enjoyed it xox

      • Christine

        We did and we did! I ended up sautéing the squash in olive oil since it gets so dark here so early but it was really and truly delicious and came together in no time. (Well, other than cutting up the squash into thinnish slices. Kabocha does not mess around.)
        Thanks again.

  9. Good writing and good recipes.

  10. Eha

    What a simple but wonderful lentil salad: I can taste it now. [Yes, why not puy? Not that these are easily available Down Under!] Also love your pumpkin one – this may not be the season for it but methinks I shall use the lovely big grey zucchini in my vegetable crisper and also achieve a more than acceptable result!

    • Amy

      Eha, I buy my puy lentils at Woolworths near the soup and bean mix in the canned soup aisle. Hope that helps!

      • Eha

        Hello Amy, thanks!! Live semi-rurally and last time I looked etc🙂 ! Have mostly used the tinned ones which have far too much salt in them! At the moment hope Rachel has an opportunity to say why she does not use them in salads: being a far lesser cook, I have! Am smiling: we from Down Under do get about, don’t we!!!!!

    • rachel

      Hi there, It is such a lovely combination and so simple: i hope you try. The no Puy is fabrizia’s note so I included it (she is generally very unpersciptive so a no seemed important). Maybe it is because puy are quite firm and absorb flavors less! Maybe! Not quite sure. I have tried it with both green and brown lentils now and it worked v v well. have a good week Rx

  11. Amy

    I love lentil salads and I am always on the lookout for more to add to my rotation. I love the idea of griddled pumpkin with sweet and sour sauce. This is truly satisfying, savoury, soul-nourishing, welcome-home food.

  12. This cookbook is on my Amazon Wishlist. I need to just go ahead and buy it despite my pledge last year to ease up on all the books I buy.

    The way you describe your market is how I feel about the vendors at mine. It’s these little things that remind me why I love living here.

    • rachel

      ……shunt it up the list, it is a fab book, which really captures the flavors of a place I know you love very much. See you soon for lunch x

  13. I have been dreaming of making these ever since you published that first picture on IG. Quick question about the zucca in agrodolce: the only oil you use is the oil you caramelise the onions in? Planning to shop for these ingredients on the week end, can’t wait!

    • rachel

      Hi There, good point about the olive oil…in practice, yes….but I did add a little more at the end, which probably wasn’t actually needed, but nice for mopping up. _Rx

      • Thank you for the tip, I did add a little more oil than suggested. I ended up loving this as much, if not more, than I thought I would. I couldn’t resist spreading the word and posted about… just wanted you to know I linked back to you!

  14. Haha Rachel! I love the phrase “stinking of oranges.” I think I might go to the grocer’s after work, acquire a kilo of oranges, and smear the scent all over me! How about this – the new stink: ORANGES.

    Sending lots of love to u, Luca & the happy sicilian.

    p.s. good luck with removing the final needles from your rug & socks.

    • rachel

      hehehe, I think we could set a trend and who want scent, or gentle perfume when you can stink of orange. Pins are just about out, have a good week Rxx

  15. Fabrizia cooked a special Sicilian dinner at Rialto last year. Quite a treat. An acute, funny woman with a deep commitment to Sicilian traditions. I love her book, but I haven’t made this yet – thanks for drawing my attention to it. In my alternate life I’m cycling by her place when she invites me inside to photograph and eat for a week. Ken

  16. That squash looks wonderful – Sicilian heaven!

  17. Having your stall in order. Like good tights. I am suddenly longing to muck out a stall in supportive yet not restrictive tights. And trust me, this does not happen often.

    Also, may I please pull up a chair to partake of orange + mint lentils and agrodolce squash?

    Brilliant. The whole lot. Happy New Year to you, Rachel, dried pine needles and all.

    xx,
    Molly

  18. Love this, Rachel. I did an agrodolce delicata awhile back…butternut seems more substantial. Excited to try. xx

  19. Bea

    Good post. I just started reading your blog and it is lovely! The squash pictures look amazing!
    -bea
    http://www.musingsbybea.com

  20. Sandra

    Amazing zucca! Thanx for this recipe. Love your blog! Sandra (the Netherlands)

  21. This looks delicious! I definitely want to try out the squash recipe. And food does seem to taste better the next day. All the flavours seem to become just that little bit richer.

    http://www.meekio.com

  22. I love lentils and squash and as luck would have it I have both in the house at the moment, So that’s dinner for me sorted.. thanks very much for the inspirations

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  26. Niki

    Hi Rachel, I recently discovered your blog and tonight I made the zucca in agrodolce. So delicious! We loved the combination of the sweet and sour onions with the buttery squash! I love your blog, having lived in Rome for a few years, both the city and italian food have a special place in my heart!! Thank you!!

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