Category Archives: antipasti

when it was march

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We live three floors above a Bar. A Bar in the Italian sense of the word, so a place with a bar at which you stand to drink coffee, or juice, or a fluorescent aperitivo. It is also a Latteria, so a place you can buy latte, milk. I tend not to drink coffee or buy milk at this Bar, which also has a disco ball. I won’t hear a word said against the place though, as the owner Franco, who leans up against the door or paces up and down the pavement in front, is very much part of our everyday life. He is friendly and weary, and I forgive him and his neglected coffee machine because I know he would rather be doing what he does after rolling down the metal blinds. I know because he tells me about his other life most days, I have even sat beside him and his co-producer helping them check the English lyrics to a new dance track. It was a surreal moment, sitting in a basement recording studio in Testaccio listening to the young winner of an Italian TV show I have never seen, record vocals. Dreams be shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah. As my temples thudded in time with the base line, I suggested are shattered instead of be shattered, and felt both old and useful. Take 9. Dreams are shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah.

A few weeks ago Franco was forced to move the tables from outside, new council rules in Rome, which are flexible if you are prepared to pay enough to bend them. No tables means the group of older signori who spent every morning sitting outside the Bar – as far as I could tell never actually buying anything –  have migrated to the newly opened piazza. This means I no longer have a front door greek chorus. There is no-one to watch me and comment while I struggle with my warped key, or to tell me that they have just turned the water off in the entire building until 3. No-one to point out that Luca is under-dressed for the weather, or that I might need an umbrella as I walk out of the door. Last week, there was no-one to witness my bag slip from my shoulder and tomatoes spill all over the pavement.

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Franco came to the door as I was picking up the last few and the first drops of rain hit my specs. ‘Marzo pazzerello, se c’è il sole, porta l’ombrello‘ he said. It means something like Crazy March, if there is sun, take an umbrella. Then he handed me a tomato that had rolled into the Bar. ‘Caffe?’ It was clearly an offer. I accepted, and drank it up against the bar below the disco ball. It was better than usual, but still made me shudder. I wondered if the free espresso was going to lead to a request for more lyric consultancy. But it didn’t, we just stood watching the rain batter against the window and on the empty pavement.

It was a Marzo pazzarello and not just the weather. Everything – it seemed – kept changing from one moment to the next: ideas, arrangements, moods, things spilling all over the place. It’s the book I told Vincenzo. ‘Yes‘ he replied with weary patience. ‘Your book’. I have a feeling April is going to be much the sameOne thing however, regardless of sun, rain or in-between, is constant, my daily walk up Via Galvani, past the 200o year old hill of broken amphora, four mechanics and a wolf painted on the side of a block of flats, to the market.

Roots and winter cruciferous veg are now sharing the stalls with clear signs of spring: the first, straggly wild asparagus, a grass-like vegetable called agretti, which tastes somewhere between seaweed, asparagus and grass, which probably sounds odd, which it is, but also delicious, especially boiled and then dressed with anchovy butter. There are also fat bunches of rocket and the first peas and broad beans in their pods. Contrasting all the green are pinky-red radishes with fat bushels of leaves, strawberries from Terracina, and Sicilian tomatoes, some round and fluted like the columns of the pantheon, others plum-shaped and the first datterini, round to a point, thick-skinned, crisp and sweet.

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I had planned to write about a post about Italian Easter customs, possibly with the recipe for a dove shaped yeasted cake, or three-day Neapolitan pastry. I also thought about an English post, Hot cross buns or a Simnel cake. I had ambitious plans. However with the exception of hot cross buns whose crosses disintegrated as they baked (but tasted smashing), I have made none of the above, never mind written about them. So here I am writing about salad.

A good salad, and one we have been eating often since rocket and tomatoes returned on such good form to the market. The tomatoes need to be firm and sweet enough to contrast with the peppery heat of the rocket. With good tomatoes and rocket and you only need extra virgin olive oil and salt, ideally the sort you crumble between your fingers, such as Malden, which is the box that always fills the gap in my hand luggage when I come back from London. The other day we had this salad with Broccoletti ripassati, so boiled, drained and then re-cooked with olive oil and garlic, a Mozzarella di bufala and some toast rubbed with garlic. It was a really good lunch, the sort that gets even better as the bits get muddled and you get better at assembling the ideal bite: crust of bread, a squashed tomato, bit of rocket and straggly broccoletti topped with strand of mozzarella given a swipe through oily juices yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rolling the tomatoes across a Bar floor before making this salad is optional.

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Rocket and tomato salad, garlicky greens, bruschetta and mozzarella

Hardly a recipe, more an assembly. You hardly need instructions for this, but here they are anyway. Serves 2 greedy people well.

  • a bunch of rocket
  • some sweet cherry tomatoes
  • a bunch of broccoletti, rapini or sprouting broccoli
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • a clove of garlic
  •  4 – 6 slices of good bread
  • a good mozzarella

Ideally the mozzarella should not have been in the fridge. If it has, remove it an hour before. While you are at it, pull the tomatoes out of the fridge too.

To make the salad – wash the rocket and tomatoes then dry thoroughly. Arrange on a platter, sprinkle with salt, pour over some olive oil and then toss together properly.

To make the garlic greens. Trim and wash the broccoletti and then cook until tender in well- salted fast boiling water. Drain. In a large frying pan, warm the oil and add a peeled, gently crushed garlic clove. Gently fry the garlic until it is fragrant, but do not let it burn or it will turn bitter. Remove the garlic. Add the greens, sprinkle with salt and toss around the pan until warm and glistening with oil.

Make toast, rub with the cut side of a clove of garlic, zigzag with olive oil.

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Filed under antipasti, food, In praise of, odd posts, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, salads, spring recipes, Testaccio

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

soft penguins and mushrooms.

 

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We thought they would never move. Even though Dad has been going on about living near the sea for the last twenty-five years and they both felt the small town they lived in for 35 years had sharpened into somewhere they hardly recognized, it seemed my parents would reluctantly stay put. Then they moved. It was family friend Joanna, a keen-eyed architect, who spotted the house while they were all on holiday nearby in Devon. A few days later I got a call in Rome telling me that they had put in an offer on a house in a village in West Dorset. Then it was us three kids proving the reluctant ones. ‘Were they sure they wanted to make this big move at this point in their lives?‘ ‘At which point was that‘ asked both parents before exchanging on the house.

Here I am two years later in Dad’s study in the new house looking through the window at Dad shifting things around the garden. It isn’t just a lovely house, but a house that feels lovely, and as much a home as the faithful one that was a family home for 35 years. Renovations are pretty much finished, except the kitchen, which feels a bit like camping, the floor marked with masking tape suggestions Joanna has told my parents to live with, trying out if you like, before making any final decisions. It is comfortable camping though, warmed by an AGA, home to the big table surrounded by the wicker backed chairs the grandkids are picking at in just the same way we used to, and a proper pantry. In the left hand corner sits the piano on which all three of us thrashed out arpeggios more than 25 years ago. Next to the piano sits a small temporary bookcase filled with Mum’s cookbooks.

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To be honest – and this may seem odd for a person who has just written and photographed a cook book – I often find cook books a bit overwhelming. This is mostly because I insist on flicking through new ones at the breakneck speed in bookshops I haven’t given myself enough time to linger in, pictures and recipes slapping me round the face. My mum’s books though, many of which I have myself, are nothing but reassuring. Above sit the hardbacks, which don’t feel hard at all, Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson, Ann and Franco Taruschio and the Silver Spoon, Below are the soft penguins and other paperbacks, which feel nice to hold. Books by Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Colin Spencer, Simon Hopkison and Joyce Molyneux their pages yellowed by time, their spines lined with wrinkles. These are books of good writing and good recipes that fall open into the splits at pages encrusted with specks of pastry, mincemeat and bread sauce. Most of the books have bookmark fringes, records of a time when supper was called a dinner party, years of kids teas, weekend lunches, meals celebrating, meals consoling.

We are all back for a week around New year along with our young kids and some of our friends too, which has meant the nicest sort of cooking: festive but functional. Tasty and accommodating food that pleases large groups, some of whom might roll up late. Food that will keep well enough if someone happens to need half an hour of breathing space before getting back stuck in. Jane Grigon has been consulted for braised beef, glazed ham, shepherds pie and mince pies, Elizabeth David for red cabbage, cod Portuguese and prunes in red wine, Nigel Slater for soup and biscuits, Josceline Dimbleby for herrings in soured cream (which we have made twice) and the AGA book for treacle tart. We have made Simon Hopkinson’s excellent Potato gratin and then today, from a book called Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, Funghi alla casalinga.

Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen is a book I don’t have in Rome, and won’t be allowed to borrow until I return the pudding book and fish book I borrowed for a few months four years ago. It is a charming book written by an English woman who lived in Tuscany in the late 1800’s and who noted down her recipes which were inspired by her Tuscan home. It was re-published by her great, great-nephew in the 1970’s. It is, I imagine, the kind of book that could be pulled by pieces by purists questioning authenticity, whatever the heck authentic means. I find the simple recipes – which are mostly for vegetables –  and engaging descriptions utterly appealing. Mum suggested we make a recipe she used to make a lot as a starter in the 1980’s, mushrooms cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, seasoned with anchovy and chopped mint and then sharpened with lemon juice.

It is a particular sounding recipe I know, but a plainly delicious one. The anchovy far from being fishy, acts as gutsy seasoning and, like all well-behaved seasonings, doesn’t dominate but simply coaxes the mushrooms into being, more, um, mushroomy. Mint, musty and warm, works surprisingly well, as does the lemon, which sharpens everything up nicely. We piled the mushrooms and their buttery juices on brown toast, even though my mum thought it would have been better served alongside crusty white bread for mopping up. I think these mushrooms would also be good with rare steak, piled on a baked potato or on top of some proper polenta.

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Funghi alla casalinga – Mushrooms in butter with anchovy, mint and lemon.

Adapted from Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross

  • 1kg mushrooms
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 tbps olive oil.
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 chopped anchovies
  • 2 sprigs of chopped mint.
  • juice of half a lemon.
  • a tablespoon of chopped parsley

If necessary wipe the mushrooms clean, then cup them into slices. In a wide frying pan, warm the butter and the oil and then fry the mushrooms gently until they are soft – which will take about 5 minutes.

Add a good pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, the chopped anchovy and mint and continue cooking for another minute or so.

Add the lemon juice, stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately.

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Cheers and Happy New year to you all. The book is coming along in the most lovely and reassuring way thanks to the happy team I have the privilege to work with. This week I am back in London to collect second page proofs which I will then take back to Rome to look over. Publishing day is June 4th for the UK and then March 2016 for the US, which seems both near and far. Until then I look forward to writing here as much as I can. Thanks as always for reading along – R.

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Filed under antipasti, books, mushrooms, Rachel's Diary, vegetables, winter recipes

a family affair

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I may only have moved 400 meters, from one side of Testaccio to the other, but everything is different. Even things that have remained the exactly the same – like the bar in which I have my third coffee and the stall at which I buy my fruit and veg – feel different now I approach them from another direction. Streets I never usually walked are now familiar. Courtyards always peered into from one side appear entirely different from the other. A drinking fountain I’d only drunk from a handful of times is now my local. A bakery, a launderette, a minuscule sewing shop, a pet shop whose window we need to spend at least 10 minutes a day peering through whilst barking and a Norcineria I’d never even noticed are now part of my daily patter or grind depending on the day.

It’s not surprising I’d never noticed the Norcineria, as we both moved to Via Galvani at more or less the same time. The shop used to be about a mile away before the two brothers decided to come back to Testaccio. A Norcineria is a shop specialising in cured pork products which may also sell cheese, salame and other dried goods. The name derives from the town of Norcia in Umbria whose inhabitants (or some of them at least) are historically renowned and much sought after for their meat curing skills. Norcineria are places of pink flesh and seasoned fat, of pancetta, guanciale, lonzino, coppa, ciauscolo, shoulder steaks, loins, fillets and air-dried delights.

Norcineria Martelli on Via Galvani is a neat, pleasing place with meat counter to the left, dried goods to the right and the altar to porchetta – roasted suckling pig with salt, black pepper, garlic rosemary and spices – straight ahead as you come through the door. Which I do most days, my son in tow shouting loudly enough to arouse concern. Brothers Bruno and Sergio are amicable and honest, as are their pork and products. What’s more, on Tuesdays and Saturdays they also have bread from Velletri and a dome or two of best sheep’s milk ricotta.

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I am disproportionately fond of ricotta di pecora: brilliant white, compact but wobbly enough to remind you not be so serious and embossed with the ridges of the cone it was moulded in. We eat ricotta several times a week, its creamy, sweet but sharp and sheepish nature indispensable in both sweet and savory. I shape it into lumps, stir it into pasta, smear it on bread (which I then finish with lots of salt, black pepper and olive oil), slice it over beans, spoon it beside fruit, nuts and honey, whip it into puddings or bake it into tarts and cakes.

Then this week I mixed my ricotta with wilted spinach – I never failed to be impressed by the way disobedient spinach once disiplined into a pan wilts so obediently – lots of freshly grated parmesan, an egg, a nip of nutmeg, salt and plenty of black pepper.

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Today recipe is inspired by the polpette di ricotta e spinach we eat as often as possible at another favorite place and one of the best tavola calda in Rome these days: C’è pasta e pasta, another family affair – in this case a brother and sister – just the other side of ponte Testaccio on Via Ettore Rolli.

The key is making a relatively firm mixture of ricotta and spinach and the key to a firm mixture is making sure you drain the spinach meticulously. Drain, then squeeze and press until you have an almost dry green ball. The ricotta too should be drained of any excess liquid. If the mixture is firm you shouldn’t have any problems shaping it into golf ball sized polpette you then flatten slightly with the palm of you hand. Why is this so satisfying I’m not sure, but it is. Squash.

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Then the double roll: first in flour, then after a bath in beaten egg, fine breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs come from Guerrini, another Galvani institution I’d previously ignored, a family run forno or bakery just next to our flat that is providing me with more soapoperaesque drama, pizza bianca, sugar-coated, doughnut like ciambelle and breadcrumbs than I really need.

Once double rolled, you fry the polpette in hot oil. I use sunflower oil (as do C’è pasta e pasta) but some of my Roman friends prefer olive oil. They take just minutes shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles until they are deep gold and crisp. Polpette di ricotta e spinaci are best eaten while they are still finger and tongue scaldingly hot, while their coating is sharp, decisive and shatters between your teeth before giving way to a soft, warm filling of cheese and spinach.

Thank you for all your kind messages and comments about the book, they mean a lot and have made me feel as golden (but not quite as crisp and decisive) as a freshly fried polpette.

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Polpette di ricotta e spinaci – Ricotta and spinach patties (or fritters, balls, nuggets, croquettes, cakes or thingamajigs*)

makes about 15

  • 500 g spinach
  • 400 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk but cow’s milk works beautifully too)
  • 50 g parmesan or pecorino
  • 3 large eggs
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • flour
  • breadcrumbs
  • oil for frying

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add 1 egg, the grated parmesan,   flour, a grating of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Prepare three dishes, one containing the two beaten eggs, one of seasoned flour and one of breadcrumbs. Using a teaspoon scoop out a golf ball sized lump of the spinach and ricotta mixture. Shape it onto a ball and then flatten it into a patty. Dip it in flour, then egg and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs until evenly coated. Put the polpette on a plate lined with baking parchment while you prepare the rest of the polpette.

In a deep frying pan or saucepan, the oil to 190° and then carefully lower in three or four polpette at a time. Allow them to cook for about two minutes or until they are crisp and deep gold. Use a slotted spoon to lift them onto another plate lined with kitchen towel. Once blotted, slide the polpette onto the serving plate, sprinkle with salt and eat immediately.

*I have called these patties, which sounds comical and /or ridiculous I know, but then so does balls. Suggestions are welcome. Update, thank you for all your advice and I have taken it all.

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Filed under antipasti, cheese, fanfare, fritti, ices, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, spinach, vegetables

bread, love and fantasy

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I wasn’t someone who fantasised about upping sticks and starting a new life somewhere else. Far from it in fact: there were dozens of things I wanted to change, but London wasn’t one of them. It suited me, I fit I’d think as I pounded its pavements, parks and up the left hand side of the escalator in Camden Town station, as I worshipped in its temples of art, books, music, theatre and beer. I grumbled of course, but then I grumble everywhere, only never for very long. There were bouts of wanderlust too. Nothing serious though and nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a nice, long holiday. From which I was always glad to get back, my faith and fancy for London renewed.

Then I upped sticks and started a new life in Rome. A long-short story I’ve told before and will probably tell again – more concisely – another time. Why I mention this today, is not to unravel anything, but because yesterday morning as I walked back home down Via Galvani, the market to my left, a two thousand-year old mound of broken terracotta pots to my right, bags cutting into the crook of my arm, the September sun searing my unmediterranean skin, unable to find the words in Italian to reprimand the man parking his car across the zebra crossing, I realised that Rome suits me, I fit.

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Which is surprising considering my reluctance at the start, the fact that Rome has made me acutely aware of other, outside and feel more English – which I can only describe as feeling straight only wonky – than I ever did in England, that I have struggled so inelegantly with language, culture and pasta cooking water. Or maybe it isn’t surprising, after all, there is love and work.

Love of Rome itself, glorious and grimy, particularly my wedge-shaped quarter Testaccio and the people in it. Of Roman food: bold, brash, genuine, simple, redolent of herbs, pulses, grains, pork, lamb, ricotta, olive oil, vegetables. A love for Luca – which I would have anywhere I know – that feels inextricably knotted with the city he was born in. Yesterday he swaggered along beside me, maritozzo (a sweet yeasted bun) in hand and cream on his face, looking as Roman as his papà, treading the pavement as if he owned it, which in a way he does. He is two this week. I am 41 next week, a number which seems to fit me too, in a comfortable, slightly crumpled way.

Then there is work, work I really like, as an English and theatre teacher, singing children’s books to life with my Brazilian guitar playing sidekick for a captive audience of five years olds. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist said Jack, let’s have a look in the patchwork sack? My former actress self would have shuddered, which says it all really, she was always getting her knickers in a twist. And now there is work that is muddled with love: writing a book with a British publishing house called Saltyard Books and a US one called Grand Central Publishing, a project so good and fitting it makes me want to open a bottle of wine, drink it all, dance on a table and then fall off.

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I have a nearly year to write the book, which is called Five Quarters, Recipes from a Roman kitchen. First and foremost it will be a recipe book, a distinctly Roman one, but one in which the recipes are woven together by stories, seasons, daily life, people, pictures and other pieces. In short it will be rather like my blog, only neater, with more rhyme and reason and edited by those who know how to use semicolons correctly and recognise when 800 words should be 400.

I plan to talk about the book here, not too much, but enough to make sense of what is happening in my life and more importantly in my kitchen. Keeping notes about the book here is also a way to include you all, after all you are as much a part of this book as the market, my butcher, my baker or my family. It is thanks to you all reading and cooking along that I am where I am now. I feel full of appreciation, thank you.

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And so the recipe,  panzanella, or bread salad, a Tuscan dish, but one also found on Roman tables, a dish it had taken me a while to understand. Which is slightly ridiculous considering how simple it is to make. My panzanella hesitation arose from my reluctance to acknowledge that panzanella is made from old bread dampened back to life with water. It was the dampening you see, the idea of wetting bread until soft and soggy then squeezing, it just seemed odd.

As so often the case I needed to watch someone else, something I am doing rather a lot these days. When I arrived at Jo’s house there were three or four hunks of old bread (excellent quality coarse country bread) sitting in a bowl of water, wallowing really. Once they were soft and soaked, she ripped the bread into rough pieces and then got me to squeeze away the excess water and then break the bread into soft crumbs in a large bowl.

Traditionally panzanella was little more than dampened bread, salt, oil, vinegar and fantasy, a dish born out of necessity and resourcefulness, something Romans were (and to a certain extent still are) very good at. If they were available, chopped tomatoes and their juices, ripped basil, cucumber, onion, olives or anchovy might be added to the unchanging foundation of damp bread, olive oil, salt and a sharpening douse of vinegar.

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Like Jo, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mild red onion and lots of ripped basil. I was generous with the olive oil and careful with the red wine vinegar (just enough to sharpen, not too much as to shock, which is obviously a matter of taste.)  I let the panzanella sit for an hour before serving, so the crumbs could soak up the flavours and then settle down again.

If like me you are used to rather more modern interpretations of panzanella, of bowls of toasted cubes, of garlic rubbed chunks, of pretty things with peaches, soft greens, and heirloom tomatoes, this might come as a bit of a surprise, being is it is a soft, sodden tumble, a damp salad more reminiscent of cous cous than bread, even though it is unmistakably bread.

However panzanella made this way makes more sense, it is also good, tasty, full and fitting for these last days of summer. Bread, love, fantasy, work, and lunch, what more could I want. A drink of course, make mine a prosecco.

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Panzanella   Bread salad

Jo’s recipe

serves 4 as lunch (with a chop or two) or six as part of an antipasti.

  • 6 thick slices of old (good quality) country bread. Sourdough works.
  • cold water
  • 6 ripe, flavoursome tomatoes
  • a small red onion
  • a small cucumber
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil as required
  • red wine vinegar

Put the slices of bread in a bowl, sprinkle generously with cold water and leave for 20 minutes.

Wash and small dice the tomatoes making sure to catch any juices. Peel and finely slice the red onion. Peel and dice the cucumber (cutting away the central seeds of you feel they are bitter.) Rip the basil leaves into small spices.

Using your hands tear and crumble the damp bread into rough crumbs and rags, squeezing it over the sink if it feel too damp. Put the bread back in the bowl. Add the chopped vegetables (and juices) to the bread. Sprinkle generously with salt, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar. Use your hands to mix and turn the salad. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Mix again and serve.

Notes.

Good bread is fundamental, coarse country bread or sourdough works well, bad bread will collapse into a gluey mess. It should be at least two days old, so firm, hard even. The way you wet the bread depends on how hard it is! Day old bread might only need a sprinkle – Vincenzo’s Nonna waved the slices under the tap, back and forth. Some people pour an inch of water into the bowl and then lay the slices in the water, like my child in a puddle. Really hard bread, might need a proper bath-like soak and then a blooming good squeeze, after all the salad should be damp but not wet. It is up to you if you rip the bread into rags or break it into crumbs. If you find the flavour of raw red onion too strong, soak the slices in a half water/half vinegar solution for 20 minutes before adding them to the salad, this will take away the onion punch but leave the savory- sweetness.

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Another note – I apologise if you are seeing an advert here, I had no idea, it is very annoying but the price you pay for an otherwise brilliant wordpress blog. I am getting them removed.

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Filed under antipasti, bread, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, salads, summer food, vegetables

a bit shallow

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I had plans to write about chicken cooked with rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and just enough red wine vinegar to sharpen nicely but not dominate. Then I was going to write about peaches, baked ones, a variation on these, the last of which is still sitting in the kitchen, slumped really in a pool of rose-coloured syrup, wrinkled and waiting for a heart-stopping blob of mascarpone. My next thought was beans. The white beans I soaked, simmered and then mixed while still warm with tuna and slivers of red onion last Friday. Another recipe I’ve written about before, but one that merits a few more words. No, no, I should buy figs, a whole crate of them, write a hilarious story about getting them home with a toddler and then take whimsical pictures of them in the dappled light of my kitchen. Better still, I should flipping forage. Forage purslane from the riverbank and between the cracks in the pavement near the slaughter-house then make something ancient and wild. I should, I could.

I feel a little like the weather; close, grumbling and liable to crack into a storm at any moment. As I write, the plane trees which usually strand to attention on either side of Via Galvani are swaying drunkenly from side to side. I can hear the rain hitting the iron griddle pan that’s balanced on the balcony wall – at least it’s getting a wash. My washing is outside. Maybe I should just tell you about the peaches, after all the pictures are lovely. No, I should have an espresso.  Wait, the rain has stopped, the sun is trying to come out, I should tell you about farinata.

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Farinata – a specially from Liguria and similar to Sicilian panelle and Tuscan cecina – is made from three things: chickpea flour, water and salt. After whisking the three ingredients together and letting them rest, you bake this sunshine-yellow batter in a shallow tin with plenty of oil until it’s firm, golden and slightly flaky on top. Once you’ve scored it and eased it out of the tin, it looks like a piece of fat, flaking pancake. You serve farinata dusted with good grind of black pepper or a spritz of lemon. It not only the nicest thing I have made all week, it’s the nicest and most surprising thing I have made for a while.

Chickpea flour is made from ground chickpeas so has the same, sweet, creamy, nutty flavor with a touch of bitterness about it that chickpeas have. Mixed with water into a worryingly thin batter, chickpea flour sets into the most lovely golden flatbread/pancake which when cut into endearingly floppy squares and given a dusting of black pepper and /or a squeeze of lemon juice is utterly delicious. If you like chickpeas that is. If not, may I suggest fiori di zucca.

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Delicious too, is how easy it is to make. Whisk, pour and bake. There is the rest for the batter of course, two hours at least, so this is no last-minute affair. As I have already mentioned the batter is disturbingly thin. The oil too is perplexing: the sheer quantity, the way it sits in golden bubbles in the batter. Don’t worry.

As is so often the case with Italian recipes, the baking time noted is q.b or quanto basta or how much is enough. Now I have never been good at judging how much is enough. On this occasion however, all was well with a guess and two investigative prods. In my cranky oven, in a shallow enamel baking tin, my batter took 30 minutes until settled and burnished. I’ve since read advice about non-stick pans and tins but I’m reluctant as I like the easing and scraping with wooden spatula, and I just adore the crispy, dark-gold bits that stick to the edges of the tin waiting to be chiseled away (privately) by the cook.

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Farinata – chickpea flatbread

Serves three or four as an antipasti. Also good as a main course with peperonata or green beans and tomatoes

Adapted from a recipe by Gianfranco Vissani 

  • 150 g chickpea flour
  • 450 ml water
  • salt
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper to serve

Using a balloon whisk mix together the chickpea flour, water and a good pinch of salt until you have a smooth batter. Allow the batter to rest at room temperature for two hours.

Preheat the oven to 180 ° / 350 F. Use a slotted spoon to skim away any froth that has risen to the surface and then whisk the batter again.

Pour the olive oil into a baking tray or dish. Tilt the dish so the base and sides are well coated with oil. Pour in the batter and then use a fork to distribute the oil into the batter. It will not incorporate entirely but look bubbly and a little like mottled paper.

Bake the batter for 20 – 30 minutes or until it is set firm and golden on top. Allow to cool for about 5 minutes before using a knife and spatula to ease it from the tin in squares or triangles. Grind over plenty of black pepper and eat immediately while still warm.

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Filed under antipasti, chickpea flour, food, odd posts, olive oil, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, summer food

on a whim

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I’m not sure how best to translate sfizi. For the sake of straightforwardness and my index, I could suggest they are snacks or appetizers; something tasty to fill a gap or begin a meal. Fine, but both words miss the point. Treat is another translation I’ve come across. But that too doesn’t quite capture the nature of sfizi and their cheeky, uncompromising nature.

If we look at the dictionary we find sfizi is the plural of sfizio which isn’t a thing at all, but a whim or fancy that may or may not be related to food. It’s an urge, want or craving that simply has to be satisfied. Sfizi then is the informal, colloquial term for the things you eat when struck by a craving, whim or fancy. It’s a term that comes from Naples I think, but one often adopted by Romans. Sfizi are delicious things that are mostly fried until golden, or leavened until plump. There are also sweet sfizi, but more about that another day. Savory sfizi were one of first (food) things I loved about Rome.

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I’d only been in a Rome a few months. I’d already fallen foul of every tourist trap an English woman with almost no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday might encounter. I’d already discovered that despite popular belief, it’s all too easy to eat badly in Rome, especially if you are an English woman with no Italian, an out of date guide-book and the habit of visiting major tourist sites at midday. I was also keeping quite particular and solitary hours, so not searching for long lunches and memorable suppers. At least not most of the time. It was also hot, the kind of beating, seething hot that makes meals less appealing and the succumbing to whims and fancies more so. I stumbled inadvertently into a life of sfizi.

It started with a slice of pizza bianca at an unassuming bakery called Guerrini on the corner of Galvani and Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. A bakery I now – eight years later  – live more or less above. A slice of pizza bianca (which is best described as a soft foccacia or flat bread that is baked, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served still hot in squares) which was split and then filled with a slice of prosciutto and a ripe fig. A combination of soft, crisp, oily, salty and sweet that should be tasted at least once.

I gestured that I wanted my pizza left open, to eat straight away. I took a bite before I’d even paid. ‘Finalmente, ti sei levata lo sfizio di mangiare una bella pizza’ said the man behind the counter. Which I now understand as ‘Finally, you’ve satisfied a whim to eat a good pizza.’ Of course back then, I didn’t really understand. I got the jist though. Which wasn’t surprising, after all I was full of whim and fancy and clearly sfizi were the answer.

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A suppli: a croquette of tomato flavoured risotto rice and with a piece of mozzarella at its heart, egged, breadcrumbed and then fried, eaten while walking along Lungotevere Testaccio, looking at the river and wondering how such a glorious city became so litter-ridden and skanky. Two polpette di ricotta; deep-fried balls of soft cheese flecked with spinach and mint from the Jewish tavola calda. A slice of pizza bianca here, another of pizza rosso there. Panzarotti: fried turnovers with prosciutto and mozzarella while walking from one ruin to another. A deep-fried, battered filet of salt cod consumed on the grubby steps of a church near Campo di Fiori. I still have the stained shirt to prove it. There were also zucchini flowers, dozens of them – the ephemeral golden things you find in bunches at the market at this time of year – stuffed with a piece of mozzarella and a sliver of anchovy dipped in batter and then fried.

Of course these aren’t just sfizi, they are snacks, merende, intermezzi (in-betweens) stuzzichini and of course antipasti, which literally translated means before the meal, a tasty morsel or five that pleases and paves the way for the food to follow. In fact nowadays – give or take the odd whim –   I mostly eat the above as antipasti and only at places that really know how to bake or fry. Here for example, or here. Or now I have the courage, here at home.

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I’m not sure what on earth possessed me to fry on possibly the hottest day of the year so far! What am I saying, of course I do! It was a sfizio, a fancy, a whim for something. A something that just happened to be fiori di zucca. It was hours before my favorite places started frying. But not too late to zigzag my way – dodging the late morning sun –  along via Galvani to the market to buy myself two bunches of golden flowers, a ball of mozzarella and a bottle of oil.

In truth my sfizio had been rumbling for days, ever since reading my friend Jo’s post about batter. Batter matters. In truth, I thought I’d settled on a batter for fiori di zucca, a light and lovely one made with just egg whites that produces crisp cocoons that shatter and then melt. Jo’s batter is a softer more comely affair which – if fried correctly – produces properly crisp fiori but with something forgiving about them. Like a sharp, handsome man with a slight belly. A fitting contrast with the melted cheese and salty fish within. Jo’s batter has the same amount of flour as water and one egg for every 100 g / 100 ml. There is no yeast, beer or fizzy water. In fact it is as simple as batter can be, and so good. At least I think so.

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It’s all very straightforward, you beat the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (Jo used an electric one but I used my balloon.) Then in a large clean bowl you beat the egg whites so vigorously they look like Mont Blanc before folding them into the pale cream. Then a rest – both you and the batter – for at least an hour, as this will do you the world of good and chill the batter enough to really contrast with the hot oil which will give you a crisp finish.

Of course you have prudently washed and dried your zucchini flowers. Once dry, you trim away some of the green tendrils, tuck a little piece of mozzarella and sliver of anchovy inside each flower then pinch and twirl the tip so it closes. Your hot oil must be ready as the stuffed flowers need to be fried quick haste. Using the stem of the flower as a handle, you drag the flower through the batter this way and that. Then still using the stem, you drop your battered flowers into the hot oil and fry them until golden and crisp. I wish I could give you a temperature for this, but I can’t as I don’t even possess a thermometer.

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Once the flowers look like puffy, golden cocoons and are bobbing excitedly, you lift them from the hot oil – with a slotted spoon – onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Once blotted, slide the fried flowers onto another plate and sprinkle with salt. Call your companions into the kitchen and – while you get on with frying the next batch – dispatch any whims or fancies by eating the first fiori while they are still tongue scaldingly hot.

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Fiori di zucca   Deep-fried zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and anchovy

Adapted from Jo’s recipe.

serves 4 people (so three each) with a craving for something tasty.

  • 200 g plain flour (Jo suggests that 50 g of this is corn starch)
  • 2 eggs (separated)
  • 200 ml cold water
  • salt
  • 12 fresh and pert zucchini flowers with stems
  • 250 g mozzarella
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • Sunflower or peanut oil for frying

Make the batter by beating the flour, salt, water and egg yolks into a smooth, thick cream with a whisk (electric or hand.)  In a large clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them into the rest of the batter. Allow the batter to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Soak the flowers in cool water for a minute. Remove them, blot them gently and then leave them to dry completely on a clean tea towel.

Once the  batter is chilled, start heating the oil and stuff each flower with a piece of mozzarella and half an anchovy. Pinch and twist the flowers so they close.

Using the stem of the flower as a handle, drag a flower through the batter so it is well-coated and then drop it into the hot oil. Depending on the size of your pan fry the flowers in batches of 2, 3, 4 even five but ideally no more.

Nudge and turn the flowers with wooden fork or spoon so they fry evenly. Once crisp and golden scoop the flowers from the oil onto a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel using a slotted spoon. Once blotted, slide the flowers onto a clean plate, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

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Filed under antipasti, courgettes, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food