Category Archives: antipasti

Spring into lunch

P1150572

I feel like L.B Jefferies, sitting as I do, looking out of my rear window onto the courtyard. Lately I’ve been distracted by one window in particular. It starts early: rugs are beaten, sheets shaken and then throughout the day washing pegged, unpegged and pegged again on a line strung in a droopy grin from one window to the next. Yesterday two sets of curtains were washed and dried, as were three pairs of red slippers, a leopard-skin something and a tartan travel rug. As I write, slippers (still damp I imagine) have been pegged back out, various items shaken and some precarious window cleaning undertaken.

Unaccustomed as I am to spring cleaning (or cleaning in general for that matter, I’m a domestic disgrace) the activity across the courtyard almost propelled me into something yesterday. Then I remembered we’re moving in just over a month which will mean much shifting and sweeping. So much in fact, that I think I’m entitled to almost total domestic inertia until we bring in the boxes. By the way, I have no idea where we’re moving to, which is making me feel most peculiar.

P1150585

A year and a half ago I could well have sat, computer glowing with the suggestion of work, caffe in hand, worrying while watching out of my rear window for hours. I tried to do this the other day. It was all going well; caffe sipped and gaze fixed. Then my neglected eighteen month old son jolted me back into a noisy and messy reality that involved two pan lids and a family sized bottle of shampoo. I could have taken the soapy opportunity to do some sort of cleaning but didn’t. We went to the market instead.

Testaccio market has moved of course. The century old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations. We walk past the site of the old market – now bulldozed to the ground – on our way to the new market where neat rows of stalls sit subdued bearing neat piles of whatever. Not that this bright neatness has dissuaded us! If anything, we’re even more fiercely loyal to the displaced stall holders now they are at the mercy of a shiny but unfinished market, bureaucracy and ridiculous rents.

White and bright it may be, but Gianluca’s Stall was looking distinctly old-fashioned on Tuesday. A little more like it used to, piled high in an unruly manner as it was with the most glorious greens. Late April in Rome means an embarrassment of vegetable riches: peas and fave in their pods, grass like agretti, posies of broccoletti, rebellious spinach, wild and tame asparagus, wet garlic, spring onions. And of course the last of the tender-hearted warriors: artichokes, of which we bought three. A kilo of peas and fave both and a bunch of fat spring onions are we were set. For lunch that is.

P1150597

Vignarola is a stew of spring vegetables. A tender, tumbling dish of fresh peas, broad beans (fave), spring onions, artichokes and (possibly) soft lettuce. It is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. Made authentically, vignarola is an elusive dish, possible only for few weeks between April and May when there is overlap, a vegetable eclipse if you like, between the first tiny peas, fave and sweet bulbs and the last of the artichokes. Now is the time!

There is plenty of preparation: trimming of artichokes, podding of peas and fave, slicing of onion. But once the vegetables are sitting tamed and obedient in their bowls it’s all pretty straightforward. You fry the onion gently in olive oil. You add the artichoke wedges, a pinch of salt and stir until each wedge glistens with oil. Next a glass of wine for the pan (and another for the cook) before you cover the pan for 15 minutes or so. To finish, you add the peas and fave, stir and cover the pan for a few more minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the stew has come together into a moist, tumbling whole. Vignarola is best after a rest and served just warm.

P1150605

The flavours are wonderful together: artichokes tasting somewhere between best asparagus, the stem of steamed Calabrese broccoli and porcini, peas sweet and grassy, fave like buttered peas with a bitter afterthought and onions sweet and savory. But it’s the textures that really astound: the dense, velvety artichokes, the sweet explosion of pea, the smooth and waxy fave and the sly and slippery onion. Did I mention vignarola is one of my favourite things to eat?

We ate our vignarola with ricotta di pecora and bruschetta (that is toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with extra virgin olive oil) It was a good combination: the creamy, unmistakably sheepish cheese pairing well with the tender stew and the oily, garlic stroked toast.

The beauty of this dish is the cooking: part braise/part steamy simmer. The vegetables cook and roll round idly in their own juices meaning the flavours are kept as closely as guarded secrets, something Marcella Hazan calls smothered. It is – as you can probably imagine – impossible to give precise timings for vignarola as so much depends on your ingredients. Small tender artichokes may only need ten minutes, larger globes twenty. The tiniest peas may only need a minute or two, larger more mealy ones ten. Then there is the matter of taste! But isn’t there always? Do you want a brothy dish or something tumbling and moist? Adjust liquid accordingly. Do you like a lick of alcohol (I do) or would you prefer the pure taste of water?  Now I fear I have made it sound complicated! It isn’t. Best ingredients, instinct, lots of tasting and you can’t go wrong.

P1150608

I should note that a traditional Roman vignarola contains pancetta or guanciale and lettuce. I don’t generally add either but you might like to. Unless the fave are properly tender and tiny I remove their tough opaque jackets – I have noted this below – a faff I know, but a worthwhile faff. Have a glass of wine while you pop. Spring cooking in lieu of spring cleaning, Hurrah.

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, moist, tumbling whole.

Let the vignarola settle for a few minutes then serve just warm. It is also good at room temperature.

P1150611

68 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, Roman food, spring recipes, vegetables

Against the strain of modern life

P1140742

It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

P1140745

Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

P1140782

Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

P1140784

At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

P1140799

Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

P1140798

44 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes

Fat chance

P1140603

So I’m back home in Rome. Home in Rome, even after eight years that still sounds strange. It doesn’t feel strange though, it feels just right. This is due in no small part to my son, my blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who looks decidedly English, but whose gestures and slightly comical mamma suggest otherwise and who is unmistakably content to be back.

Nearly three weeks in England was, as predicted, exactly what I needed. Long enough to immerse myself in the things I miss ,quash the nostalgia and quietly notice the things I don’t miss one bit. Long enough too, to miss Rome. To really miss Rome. Which may seem surprising given my exasperation before I left!  Or maybe it’s not so surprising! My exasperation at my adopted city was after all just that: exasperation, a familiar and relatively innocuous state. A state that’s quashed as quickly as my nostalgia for London when pitted against the things I like about the city that has become home, not least her sublime and shambolic beauty and her infuriating but alluring attitude. And these three.

P1140605

From left to right, pancetta, guanciale and lardo. But more about these marbled slices in a moment. On arriving home in Rome, having pounded our way like territorial tom cats through Testaccio and having put the small tom cat to bedI settled down in front of my computer with a big glass of red to catch up on my reading. It’s January and there’s much talk of resolution, of greens and juices. Quite right too. And then there are the Italians (and converted Italians) who – almost without exception – are talking about lardo, lardo, guanciale, pancetta and salumi. In short cured pork products trimmed with silky, milky-white fat.

Fully embracing the idea that January is the month to insulate and relish the fatted pig (It’s traditionally the month for slaughtering and then preserving) an almost empty fridge and a rude yearning for cured pork it seemed wholly appropriate that having bought my greens I should visit Volpetti. I explained my plans to Claudio who suggested pancetta and lardo from Toscana and an aged guanciale from Le Marche. The attention and care with which he handled the pieces, cut each slice and then wrapped it first in white paper then in brown was touching. Abandon preconceptions, this is good fat, the antitheses of insidious hidden fat. This is fat to be used sparingly with relish and to be celebrated. Lets start with Lardo.

P1140615

Not to be confused with English lard (struttoLardo – specifically lardo from the Tuscan hamlet tucked between two marble quarries: Colonnata – is pork back fat cured in white marble trough with salt, black pepper, aromatic herbs and garlic. I’d like to be cured in white marble trough. Eleonora and Emiko thank you. It’s a glorious, silken and deeply flavored delicacy that you eat as you would any other salumi, that is by the (very thin) slice.

I first ate lardo di colonnata a little under eight years ago in Tuscany. It was sliced extremely thinly and draped over a mound of puree di potato. I have to admit being a little bewildered when I first saw the plate, less so when I tasted the rich, silken, aromatic lardo melting – yielding really – into the soft, warm and accommodating mash: glorious stuff, this is food that lingers in mouth and memory. Time has not faded anything, I still feel the same when I eat lardo di colonnata on toasted bread. A few black olives, some radishes and a glass of prosecco and I have my perfect antipasto. And after the antipasto comes il primo so lets talk about guanciale. 

P1140606

Guanciale, which is cured pork jowl (guancia means cheek or jowl) is beloved by Romans and has changed the way I cook.  It has a sweet, delicate taste that is halfway between best bacon and proper well-rendered lard. It is an exceptional ingredient that imparts its distinct sweet flavour and rich fatty nature to whatever it is added too whether that be a soup, stew, pasta, torta or braise.

I use aged guanciale – sparingly, a little goes a long way – often. I adore the deep, rich, fatty, reassuring notes it imparts to whatever it touches. The Saul Berenson of cured pork.  Many Romans consider it fundamental to authentic All’amatriciana, Carbonara or to today’s recipe, another Roman classic and my favourite these days: Pasta or Spaghetti alla gricia.

P1140617

Pasta, guanciale, cooking water, pecorino romano and black pepper: Alla gricia. This much I know. Al dente spaghetti (or rigatoni, mezze maniche or tonnarelli ) is tossed with gently sautéed guanciale: the aim is to slowly soften the guanciale, keeping it translucent never brown and crisp which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls. Drained pasta is added to the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, this starchy water is a key to the dish, emulsifying the fat to create an almost creamy sauce for the pasta. The dish is finished with a fearless amount of bold, brazen, tangy and freshly grated pecorino romano and plenty of cracked black pepper. More pecorino scattered liberally from above is recommended. Eat.

Simple to make but – as is so often the case – practice is prudent. Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking of spoon and wrist partaking required to bring the ingredients together. It goes without saying the ingredients should be authentic and the very best you can lay your hands on. If you can’t find guanciale and pecorino (I know I know fat chance) pancetta, parmesan and the same principles will make an extremely tasty dish, not gricia, but an extremely tasty dish none the less. Ben, some guanciale in exchange for a jar of seville orange marmalade?

Home in Rome chewing the fat and the spaghetti.

P1140622

Spaghetti alla Gricia

Serves 4

  • 450 g spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp lard (strutto) or olive oil
  • 150 g aged guanciale
  • 150 g  aged pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted boiling water. Meanwhile place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the lard or olive oil and place over medium heat. Slowly sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale is soft, pink and translucent and rendered it’s fat, add a small splash of water from the cooking pasta

When the pasta is al dente, set aside a cup of pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Remove the pan from the heat and add three quarters of the the grated pecorino romano cheese and the black pepper, toss vigorously, and add another splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring the ingredients together into a soft creamy muddle. Divide between four warm bowls, scatter over the rest of the pecorino and serve immediately.

Next week pancetta, oh and cabbage.

60 Comments

Filed under antipasti, guanciale, lardo, pancetta, pasta and rice, primi, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

The Other Half.

Always one for too much of a good thing, I was tempted to make another batch of gnocchi with the remaining half of my green mound. An absence of ricotta put an end to that idea. An absence of milk nearly put paid to my second spinach plan – a savory courgette and spinach cake – until I remembered the small stout carton of cream sitting, squatting really between the Campari and the Tanqueray in the door of the fridge. Surely something made with milk would be even nicer if made with cream? It is! But I will come to that presently.

The spinach and courgette cake I was plotting was to be a variation on David Tanis’s very good, very green spinach cake. Now the first time I made this spinach cake, it was rather disappointing. This had everything to do with a misreading of the recipe and my distracted, careless, scurrying execution of said cake and nothing to do with David Tanis’s recipe. Having learned my lesson, I made it a second time, reading diligently, sautéing attentively, seasoning the green batter generously, adjusting cooking times to compensate for my oven and keeping a watchful eye as my cake puffed up proudly in oven. My reward was, as promised, a quite lovely green round.

Like the song in which a love-sick teenager finds truth and solace, spinach cake was on heavy rotation for a while – I’m not sure why I didn’t tell you about it here – and I soon discovered that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Fortunately neither of us wanted things to turn nasty, so we agreed not to see each other for a while. Then last summer when we were all gathered  in Branscombe for the week of my best friend Joanna’s wedding, Joanna’s mum Rosamund made a delicious starter one evening, a pale green, delicate bake which seemed very like a slightly softer, creamier relative of my spinach cake, but made with courgettes. Nostalgia was felt, plans hatched and notes were scribbled.

As usual, I dragged my cooking heels and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, in possession of a half mound of spinach (of which I used only half, the post about the final quarter is still to come) that I finally deciphered my notes about Ros’s dish, grabbed two courgettes, a handsome leek and half a pint of cream and set about making a spinach and courgette cake.

As with David’s Tanis’s recipe, I began by softening leek in little oil and butter over a medium flame. Once the leek was suitably soft, I added rounds of courgette, nudged them around the pan until they were nicely coated with oil and butter before adding a little water, lowering the flame and then letting the leeks and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated the courgettes were tender and collapsing. Then I left the green panful to cool.

My spinach (as you know) was already cooked and well-drained (I repeat, water is the enemy) so once the courgette and leeks were cool and transferred to a bowl I added my pile of chopped spinach. Then using my trusty immersion blender, I blitzed the vegetables into a smooth green paste that begged both to be tasted and smeared upon my face. I resisted smearing and simply tasted before adding 5 eggs, cream, grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg, an equally good grinding of black pepper and a flick of salt. As I poured the pale creamy- green batter into my reliable non-stick pan I made a mental note  ‘This is the colour I’d like to paint the living room‘ before maneuvering the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes in which time the batter set and puffed gently into a very green cake.

I let the cake settle and cool for a while before cutting it into wedges and serving it with sliced tomatoes – the deeply ribbed ones with thick skins and sweet spicy flesh – and Roscioli bread.

I know I’m courgette biased, but they lend something lovely to this green cake, complimenting the deeply satisfying flavor of the spinach. Tanis’s recipe calls for milk! Cream, as you can probably imagine is another thing entirely, it’s a perfect foil for the green grassy vegetables. The cake is creamier obviously, deeply dairy, luscious and luxurious,. In using cream though, the nutmeg – maybe my favorite spice – becomes even more important, as not only does it perk up the greens no end, but cuts through the dairy, making it less cloying.

I think the cake really does need to rest for at least 40 minutes (and up to 5 hours) after coming out of the oven so it can firm up a little and it’s flavors settle. It is a most delicious wedge, the happy collision of a frittata (which is, as you probably know, an Italian open-faced omelette), a soufflé, a mousse and a savory custard. Lunch.

Last thing, regarding cooking times. David Tanis suggests 40 minutes at 200° for for his spinach cake. In my oven I found this too hot and too long for such a delicate egg and dairy laced thing. I find that 25 minutes or so at 170°is about right so your cake is  gently puffed up and set, but still tender and with a very slight wobble. I love a slight wobble.

Last last thing, a well buttered dish/pie plate will do but a non-stick ovenproof 12″/24cm frying pan is best (I find.)

Spinach and courgette cake

Inspired by Rosamund’s recipe and adapted liberally from David Tanis’s recipe in a Platter of figs – I can’t seem to find a site for the publisher and I am boycotting bloody monopolizing amazon, so please excuse the lack of a link.

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium-sized leek
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • salt
  • 100ml white wine/water
  • 300 g spinach
  • 5 eggs
  • 250 ml fresh cream
  • 50 g grated parmesan
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170°
 .
Trim the leek and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut the leek into small dice, fill a bowl with water and add the leeks. Agitate the leeks with your hand. Let the dirt and sand settle in the bowl and then scoop the leeks from the water and pat the dry in a clean tea towel. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan and then sauté the leek until it is soft and translucent.
 .
Top and tail the courgettes and then slice them into 1/2cm thick rounds. Add the courgette to the leek and stir so each round is well coated with butter.
 .
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine/water. Allow it to bubble enthusiastically. Now reduce the heat again and allow the onion and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
 .
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 low flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 2 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 cooled leek/ courgette mixture to the spinach and then using a hand blender blitz the mixture into a smooth green paste.

Add the cream and eggs to the bowl and blitz again before stirring in the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper.

Pour the batter into in ovenproof sauté pan, buttered baking dish or 10-12 inch deep-pie dish and then slide into the oven. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until the cake is set but still with a slight tremble/wobble at the center.

Allow the cake to sit, cool and settle for at least 40 minutes before serving in wedges.

I really should learn to not make promises I can’t keep! I apologise, It’s the optimist in me, she’s extremely unrealistic sometimes. A promise I am trying to keep though, is not inflicting too much babyboringness on you all! However as I write about what I’m cooking and eating, and now that Luca is my prefered lunch date, it feels appropriate to mention that alongside breastfeeding (we have surprised ourselves, we are total enthusiasts, quite boring proponents and in it for for the long haul) he’s started eating some proper food. Neither of us could face those purees and all that spoon-feeding and so following in the footsteps of my sister Rosie and my niece Beattie and properly inspired by this brilliant book and site we are having a lot of extremely messy fun

41 Comments

Filed under antipasti, courgettes, cream, Eggs, food, picnics, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

Just One

If I had to keep just one cookbook, it would be a red hardback wrapped in a bright blue sleeve with a lobster on the front, a single volume which comprises three of Elizabeth David’s classics of the kitchen; Book of Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I might have a moment of doubt and consider Jane Grigson’s ‘Good Things’ or my dog-eared copy of ‘English Food’. I may clutch my battered copy of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and Other Stories closely for a moment, but my definitive choice, my desert island trilogy, would be my crustacean adorned copy.

Elizabeth David is not just my favorite food writer, she’s one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I absconded to Italy. For years I’ve returned to at least one of her eight books or one of the two anthology’s of her articles, letters and notes – which are invariably scattered all over my flat – most days, be it in the kitchen, in a chair, writing here, or last thing at night in bed. Her introduction to Mediterranean food, description of Provence in French Provincial Cooking and anything from An omelette and a glass of wine are all favorites to fall asleep to.

She is a masterful writer: scholarly, witty, informative, elegant, fiercely opinionated, and the passion and enthusiasm with which she communicates her love of good food, well cooked is contagious. Her writing, essays, descriptions of weather, food, herbs, colours, smells, tastes, and of course her meticulously authentic recipes collected during her travels in France, Italy, Corsica, Malta, India, Eygpt and Greece are timeless (she began writing in the 1950’s) and as bright and brilliant as sunshine. But for all their bright brilliance, Elizabeth David’s books, illustrated with John Minton’s black and white drawings, are also a refuge, evoking a way of cooking and thinking about food so entirely different from the loud, fussy, over styled but often hollow food culture I can (and do) bombard myself with.

Over the last five months Elizabeth David has mostly been a bedside companion. But now I’m emerging – sleep deprived, disoriented, quite grumpy but uncharacteristically content – from my postnatal vortex and my very bonny five and a half month old son, if armed with a wooden spoon and a Tupperware lid, is happy to bounce away in the doorway, I’ve started working my way through the fringe of bookmarks. The first being Quiche Lorraine.

In truth, this particular recipe for Quiche Lorraine from French Country Cooking has been bookmarked for years rather than months and the food memory behind the bookmark is decades rather than years old. Two and a half decades to be precise, 25 years, since I ate a slice of Quiche Lorraine at the vast kitchen table of the Renault family during my traumatic but gastronomically revelatory French exchange with the horrid Carolyn I was 14. I even mentioned this recipe when I wrote about savory tarts a while back. But I never made it. Then the other week my friend Ruth came over for lunch and I wanted to make something tasty, simple and nice, a thank you of sorts for all the meals her and her husband have made for me. The bookmark for the Quiche was particularly prominent, a postcard from France no less, so I finally made this Quiche.

This is the Quiche Lorraine I ate in France all those years ago, simple, authentic, understated and very delicious. Short, crumbly, flaky pastry – made with plenty of good butter and some lard – encasing a delicate, quivering, softly set filling of fresh thick cream and eggs studded with chopped bacon. This is my Quiche touchstone, the example which shames all the crimes against Quiche I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, those heavy leaden triangles of heartburn inducing pastry filled with rubbery custard and stuffed to the gunnels with too much cheese, béchamel, three types of vegetable, pineapple, two paperclips and goodness knows what else.

This may seem a mere slip of a Quiche if you are used to heftier more elaborate things! But I assure you it’s a lovely slip of a Quiche.  Unfashionably rich and unhealthy by todays standards, what with all the butter, lard, bacon and cream and just my sort of thing. My sort of thing too I can hear you shouting, hooray for butter, lard, bacon and cream. And after all, there will be salad too, crisp and green, hopefully with some bitter leaves to contrast the soft dairy creaminess of the Quiche.

It is pretty straightforward to make and involves four nice kitchen tasks all of which I am happy to interpret as dance moves if given the appropriate quantity of alcohol; rolling, tucking, frying and whisking. First you make the pastry by rubbing butter and lard into flour (with a pinch of salt) until it reassembles breadcrumbs, adding some very cold water and bringing everything together into a ball. You chill the pastry for a while before rolling it out into a circle and tucking it into a tart tin, preferably one with a loose base.  Then the frying, of the diced bacon – the smell of which along with thoughts of roast beef brought was the smell that brought me back from the other side . Finally the whisking together of the thick, fresh cream – luscious and lovely – with two eggs. Once you have sprinkled your diced, fried and provocatively smelling bacon into the pastry case and poured over the pale yellow mixture you manoeuver your Quiche (set on a baking tray)  into the oven, bake it for 30 minutes for so or until it’s set but still with a slight wobble, blistered and golden.

The Quiche is best about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven, so it has time to settle and the filling firm up a little. Also the  texture and flavors – as is so often the case – are best appreciated when the Quiche is warm as opposed to hot.

It seems appropriate that I give you Elizabeth David’s recipe as she wrote it – word for word – in French Country Cooking. I have however added metric measurements and some of my own notes at the end.

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

  • 6oz / 180g flour
  • 2 oz /60g butter
  • 1 oz / 30g dripping / lard
  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 1/2 pint / 250 ml cream
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 gill / 75 ml of water

Make a pastry with the flour, butter, dripping, a pinch of salt and the water. Give it one or two turns and then roll it into a ball and leave it for 1 hour.

Line a flat buttered pie tin with the rolled out pastry. Onto the pastry spread the bacon cut into dice and previously fried for a minute. Now beat the eggs into the cream with a little salt and ground pepper; when they are well mixed, pour onto the pastry, put into a hot oven and bake for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

I only used 50ml of water. I think very very cold water (I add an ice-cube to the measuring jug) is best. I rest my pastry in the fridge. My tart tin has a loose bottom. I bought it here. It is a trusty tart tin. When I roll the pastry out and tuck it in the tin, I leave a pastry overlap which compensates for any pastry shrinkage when it cooks. I make sure I press the pastry firmly into the tin. I don’t worry about neat tart edges. I set my oven to 175°. I bake my tart case blind for 10 minutes before adding the filling. When I bake blind I don’t use baking beans, I simply pick the pastry with a fork – the pastry may well puff up but it quickly sinks down again. I use double, heavy cream. I think the tart is best eaten about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven.

46 Comments

Filed under antipasti, cream, Eggs, fanfare, food, pies and tarts, summer food, tarts

Frying again

One of my current edible preoccupations is with small oblong rolls of buttery mashed potato, dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, fried until golden brown texture like sun and consumed while extremely hot and crunchy. But before I ramble on – you know how I like to ramble on –  about potato croquettes, maybe it’s time we caught up, or started at least.

Don’t panic! I’m not about to come over all dramatic and toe curlingly revelatory – that post will hit your desktop sometime in mid March and will be accompanied by a free pocket pack of kleenex ultrasoft tissues and a miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Today I just want to let you know where I’m at, fill you in so to speak, explain my erratic presence here, the unfamiliar pictures and kitchen and reassure you that Rachel is – despite the tumbleweed around here – eating.

Since November last year, when Vincenzo and I separated, I’ve been staying on the other side of the Tevere River in a quarter called Trastevere with my friend Betta. It’s been a very strange, sad and difficult time, but I’ve had a pretty perfect place to take refuge in. Betta’s rather unusual but beautiful flat is on the first floor of an eighteenth century building opposite Villa Farnesina on the ancient and precariously cobbled Via della Lungara. As I type this, I’m watching someone – looking rather shifty it must be said – having a sneaky cigarette behind an orange tree in Villa garden. Beyond the garden, peeping above the row of impressive terraced houses on the other side of the river is the cuppola of the church on Via del Monserrato. If I were to stand on tip toes and lean right out of the front window – we’re talking extreme, quite dangerous leaning here – I think I could just about see the cuppola of San Pietro.  I do hope this sounds like an advert for my friends flat because it is. Not actually the flat itself, but the magnificent room, I mean suite, next- door which Betta runs as a bed and breakfast. Cue jaunty jingle, appropriate link, end of ad.

Despite my sporadic presence on these pages, I have been cooking. It’s been strange and unfamiliar, without the stupendous Vincenzo, shopping at a new market, cooking in a new kitchen with unfamiliar surfaces, knives, pans, without my table. But I have been cooking. You know about the carbonara and amatriciana, there have also been gallons of soup, slightly obsessive quantities of roast chicken and – quite uncharacteristically – several batches of biscuits (all thanks to this terrific book by the exceptional and wonderful Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti from the American Academy ) There have also been potato croquettes.

I’d never really considered the croquette before coming to Italy. I’d eaten them, primarily in St Georges school dining room between 1984 – 1989, providence – a Findus catering sized pack, fried two hours before consumption, floppy, sporting a soggy and suspiciously orange coat which concealed a gluey, unctuous filling that inevitably resulted in mild heartburn. Similar digestive challenges were presented by the potato croquettes I insisted on buying from dodgy fish and chip establishments in London after nights at the pub. It wasn’t all croquette horror though, I vaguely recall some rather good ones in France, Lyon I think, during the infamous exchange with Carolyn when I was 14. Unfortunately, the trauma of that particular trip rendered that particular food memory, along with several others: apricot tart, Toulouse sausage, partridge cooked with cabbage and croissant au beurre from Au Levain du Marais (I know, it’s a tragedy,) redundant.

I discovered the true potential of the potato croquettes in a pizzeria in Naples when one was hurled – think low flying and extremely well judged frisbee – onto my table along with a deep-fried zucchini flower: antipasti while I waited for my pizza to emerge from the oven. I knew straight away it wasn’t your average croquette, but even so, I still wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of a cylinder of deep-fried mashed potato however golden it looked. Then I tasted.  Hot, crisp, crunch. The shell shattered giving way to an extremely soft, light, well seasoned, parmesan spiked, parsley flecked cushion of mash. I ordered another one immediately.

The croquette high was followed by various lows as I ordered and encountered much croquette disappointment – it seems many of the pizzeria in Rome, even some of the best, aren’t much more discerning than St Georges school dining room. Then, just as I was about to give up all hope I went to La Gatta mangiona in Monteverde and there it was, the second, a modest little roll, reassuringly wonky (those extremely neat ones are deeply suspicious) golden brown texture like sun. Hot, crisp, crunch on the outside, then inside a soft cushion of mash with a sliver of mozzarella hiding in the center.

A few days later, still humming and clucking about my croquette high (and pizza high for that matter, la saporita at la Gatta – buffalo mozzarella, capers and anchovies – is divine) and in possession of some left- over mash I decided to make my own wonky little croquettes.  Simple to start, no parmesan, parsley or mozzarella, just the well- seasoned buttery mash shaped into dumpy little cylinders, rolled in beaten egg, coated in breadcrumbs and then fried in a couple of inches of oil until crisp.

As with most of my kitchen firsts I thought I might need a couple of attempts to make a decent croquette, but on this occasion it was a case of croquette bingo. I have subsequently made less successful batches – not enough oil, premature shaping when the mash was not cool enough, adding milk to the mash made it too soft to shape, even when cool. Now in possession of modest croquette experience, in the knowledge of both croquette success and croquette failure, may I offer you the following advice. You want to make a nice firm mash: floury potatoes mashed with butter and seasoned generously. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes.  Make sure you coat the rolls carefully and generously with beaten egg and then with breadcrumbs. Fry them two or three at a time in a good two inches of oil and most important of all, if you want the crisp crunch – croquette from the French croquer means “to crunch” after all –  having scooped them out of the oil, give them a them a brief drain on some kitchen towel and then eat as soon as possible.

I repeat, no faffing around now, gather guests around the stove and eat as soon as possible . Ideally with a cold beer and deep-fried zucchini flowers.

Please note my croquettes are wonky because, as everybody knows, very neat croquettes – like very neat people and houses – are very, very suspicious indeed.

Potato croquettes

  • 450g /1lb  potatoes
  • 45g butter
  • salt
  • whole nutmeg
  • 1 large egg
  • cup of fine breadcrumbs
  • vegetable or olive oil for frying (I use olive oil)

Peel and quarter the potatoes and then cover them with salted cold water in a large pot, bring to the boil and then simmer until tender which should take about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes.

While they are still warm, mash the potatoes (or pass them through a potato ricer) with the butter and then season with salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Using your hands, scoop out a small ball of mash and shape it into an oblong croquette. Repeat this until you have 12 croquettes. Lightly beat remaining egg in a shallow bowl and put bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Dip a croquette into egg, letting excess drip off, then roll it in the bread crumbs until well coated.  Sit the prepared croquettes on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.

Heat 2 inches of oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Fry croquettes in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown this will take 4 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately.

yield: approx 12 croquettes

Having mastered the basics you can now begin your variations on a potato croquette theme – hiding a sliver of mozzarella at the center of the roll, enriching the mash with grated parmesan or pecorino, lifting it with finely chopped parsley or mint, making a mash of parsnip and potato, adding some salt cod…..

Thank you so much for all your kind and supportive messages, E mails and advice over the last few weeks. A particular thank you to Vincenzo who despite everything, has kept telling me, keeps telling me, to pull my finger out and get back into the rhythm of cooking, writing, reading, to get back here. It’s good to be back.

63 Comments

Filed under antipasti, food, potatoes, recipes

Just call me anchovy.

My second name, after my granny, is Alice. The Italian for anchovy is acciuga or alice.

I was devoted to anchovies long before I came to Italy. When I say anchovies, I am of course talking about preserved ones – I was in England remember – fresh anchovies like the ones above, came much later. The anchovies I knew were imported from Italy or Spain, fresh from the sea once, but subsequntly gutted, brined, matured and the curious pinky-brown fillets packed in salt, or more commonly olive oil. We bought anchovies in olive oil, neatly tucked into slim, oblong tins with a key and a roll back top.

My devotion, my taste for little salty fish actually began a few years before the slim tins, when I was a small girl. It began with a pot, my Dad’s pot, of Gentlemen’s Relish. Gentlemen’s Relish for those of you who aren’t acquainted with this marvelous concoction, is a paste of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices also known as Patum Peperium. It was created in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn. It comes in a very particular round, squat pot – that used to be ceramic but sadly nowadays is made of plastic. The paste is a dull greyish brown but has the most wonderfully distinctive flavour; strong, salty and hardly surprisingly, a heady fishy taste. My Dad used to have it – he still does – on toast. Just as I write in my parents kitchen in London, my Dad, sitting across the kitchen doing the crossword, is peering over the top of the newspaper, brow furrowed and insisting in the same voice he adopts when talking about the perfect cup of tea or the best bitter orange marmalade. “Quite thin slices now, you don’t want great big thick doorsteps. no, no. You want thin slices of hot buttered toast onto which you spread a cautious layer of Gentlemans Relish“. Gentlemens Relish is also title of the terrific BBC drama about the Victorian painter, pornographer and photographer Kingdom Swann. But I digress.

When my first proper boyfriend pulled a face at the anchovy on his pizza, it cast a big black cloud over our future. Could I really go out, could I even like never mind love, a boy who didn’t like anchovies?  The relationship ended soon after, there were clearly irreconcilable differences. It was amicable but we haven’t remained friends.

I was thinking about this post as I walked across the park yesterday, on my way to teach small Italian children English songs. It stuck me that anchovies are indispensable, that they are the splendid and intensely savoury seasoning in many of our favourite things. Vincenzo calls them le palle (the balls). They appear in green sauce (salsa verde), on pizza marinara and pizza Napoli and in Salad Niçoise. Anchovies are the kick in the heady dressing for Puntarelle, the punch in tapenade and the oompapa in montpellier butter. Draped over hard-boiled eggs, melted into butter for bagna cauda, tucked into courgette flowers along with mozzarella, with roast lamb, squashed on bread and butter, great things all of them. Anchovies melted in olive oil provide the distinctive foundation for four of my favourite pastas; pasta e brocolli, Pasta alla puttanescaSpaghetti with tomato and anchovy sauce and Pasta with sardines and anchovy breadcrumbs.

And then there are fresh anchovies.

I’d never seen fresh anchovies until I came to Italy, or perhaps I had – after all they are not unheard of in The UK and we had enough French holidays –  I just hadn’t noticed. I spotted anchovies at the fish market in Naples first, it must have been my second or third day in Italy so everything was still a blur. I saw vast crates of them in Palermo and Messina, but it was in the fish market in Catania, early one morning, where I had my first close encounter of the fresh anchovy kind.

The fish market in Catania is a crude, noisy, rough and raw place. All my romantic notions about wandering through a Sicilian fish market at the crack of dawn were washed away with the bucket of bloody, murky fish water that was thrown, hurled rather, in front of my feet into a dark drain. But it’s an extraordinary place, full of life and soul, blood – and quite literally – guts. And of course, there is fish. There aren’t really stalls as such, a wooden bench here and another there. On one, a vast belly or side of tuna, beside it, a man brandishing a knife. On another table half a swordfish, sword skyward, as sharp as the knife hovering over it. There’s a man on a little stool, around him boxes of calamari and tiny neonati, like frogspawn and opposite him a woman with a baskets of tiny Calamaretti and moscardini. A very tall man presides over a table awash with sliver sardines, shining like newly minted coins. On a more orderly table sit lines of handsome, silver bream, Spigola, rose-red mullets and beside them, like something out of 2000 leagues under the sea, a disconcertingly large octopus. There are mysterious, foreboding but fascinating fish, unfamiliar to my English eyes. The curious, spiky, sea urchins ricci di mare make me shudder with delight. There are unruly piles of scampi, fat, grey and tempting but sallow next to piles of brilliantly coloured pinky-orange prawns. Nearby another man is crouched beside a plastic mat bestrewn with a vast, sprawling, shimmering heap of small, slender, slivery-blue anchovies.

Fresh anchovies have fragrant, delicately flavoured flesh. They are related to sardines and mackeral and have the same firm, slightly oily flesh but a notably milder flavour. Their size – they are generally about 3′ or 4″ long – means they are more tender and delicate. I have learned to prepare and cook anchovies with Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela. They are her speciality.

First the cleaning. Anchovies are a great way to get to grips with gutting and preparing fish if like me, you’re a novice. Along with artichoke taming and mixing the perfect batter, preparing these lovely little fish is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills I have acquired in the last couple of years. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Sleeves up and no fuss! Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish – fanning it out like a butterfly – ready for the next stage.

As with preserved anchovies, Italians love, respect and do marvelous things with fresh ones. They grill them just so, they coat them with batter and plunge them into hot oil, they dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs and shallow fry them until crisp and golden. Our friend stuffs them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs and parmesan, sprinkles them with olive oil and bakes them in the oven. Carmella fans them out; like the spokes of a wheel, in a shallow pan, sprinkles over olive oil and parsley, then cooks them very gently so they fry and steam at the same time. Delicious stuff.

But maybe one of the nicest ways to enjoy the delicate flesh of fresh anchovies is to marinade them in lemon juice, a slosh of red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped garlic for about 5 hours. The acid in the lemon and vinegar literally cooks the flesh, turning it opaque and rendering it firm, tender and sweet. To serve, you pour over more olive oil, sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley and maybe a little crushed chilli. They are best eaten as an antipasti or simple lunch, nudging the fillets onto the corner of some crusty bread, mopping up the oily juices with more bread as you go.

There are many ways to make alici marinate, which are worth exploring if you like anchovies. Meanwhile to begin, this is Carmela’s recipe adapted by me.

The anchovies will keep for a few days but they are best made in the morning for lunch, or early in the afternoon in time for supper. These are one of my favourite things.

Marinated anchovies (Alici marinati)

Serves 3 for a light lunch with plenty of bread and green salad or 5 as a starter.

  • 500g fresh anchovies
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • The juice of two lemons
  • A generous 1/2 cup or 150ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • a pinch of crushed dried peperoncino / chilli

First clean and prepare the anchovies; Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish ready for the next stage.

In a bowl mix the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic.

In a shallow glass or ceramic dish, large enough to accomodate half the anchovy fillets in a single layer, arrange half the anchovies – they will be quite delicate. Then pour over half the marinade. Arrange the second layer on top of the first and pour over the remaining marinade.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it sit for at least 5 hours before serving. This is best done at room temperature, but if it is very hot, slide the dish in the fridge for 4 1/2 hours and pull out for the last 30 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle over the parsley and pepperoncino (chilli) and pour over a little more oil. Bring the dish to the table and encourage people to serve themselves reminding them to spoon over some of the marinade to mop up with bread.

47 Comments

Filed under antipasti, fish, food, rachel eats Italy, recipes

I say tomato.

Vincenzo thinks I was a deprived child. He’s right of course, I was deprived – growing up, as I did, in a small town just outside London in the late 1970’s – of the full taste and perfume of good tomatoes. Tomatoes ripened on the vine under the sun that smell like the viney tangle that surrounds them. Fiery tomatoes, saturated with colour, their scent pungent, sometimes sour, almost grassy. Tomatoes with texture and flavour; some dry, meaty and acidic; others mild, soft-fleshed and plummy; some like tiny pendulous orbs, sharp, spicy and sweet.

We did have tomatoes in the home counties in 1979, but like Prime minister elected that same year, they were dreadful, depressing things grown under plastic in the suburbs of Chichester or imported from a hot houses in the Netherlands. I can only remember one type, standard sized, an unconvincing and weedy red. They were called all-purpose tomatoes. No purpose would have been a more appropriate. They generally tasted of nothing, and when they did it was insipid, rather like the white flesh next to the rind of an unripe melon. Their texture, well, two extremes here and seemingly nothing in-between; hard as a rock or unpleasantly soft, floury and mushy. Both good for hurling though!

So we avoided them. After all – despite popular belief – we had enough good things in England, even in 1979, to eat really well without tomatoes. In our family at least. And it wasn’t as if we were completely bereft! There was the annual summer holiday to the south of France, where along with Bonne maman jam, really smelly cheese, cheese with holes, long sticks of bread, tiny black olives, orange Fanta in a glass bottle with a straw, mussels and chocolate croissants, there would be good tomatoes. If we needed tomatoes back home, then it was probably for something hot and slowly cooked, in which case Mum bought tinned Italian plum tomatoes.

Vincenzo on the other hand, growing up in Sicily, Basilicata and then Rome, suffered no such tomato deprivation. He was however deprived of English peas, English apples, clotted cream, fish and chips eaten from newspaper at the seaside, London Pride, Pimms, watercress, full English breakfast and roast potatoes, but that’s anther post. His maternal grandparents had a farm in southern Sicily near Vittoria where they cultivated olives, almonds, cotton, grapes, artichokes and tomatoes. Even when his parents left Sicily, Vincenzo would return to spend the long school holidays there. Hardly surprisingly The Caristia Family – fortified by pasta and bread and lubricated by their wine and oil – lived, quite literally, on tomatoes. Straight from the vine in summer. Then sometime in late August, over a wood fire in the street in front of their house, in a pan large enough for Vincenzo and his cousin Orazio to hide in, his grandmother would bottle gallons and gallons of tomato sauce, salsa di pomodoro, to put away for the winter months.

There’ll be no talk of gallons in this very small, very hot Roman apartment. I do intend to preserve at least some salsa di pomodoro though, a modest batch, a bright taste of summer bottled and tucked away for the winter. We did a trial run last week, 3 kilos of San Marzano tomatoes – cooked until soft and then passed through the mouli – yielded 3 bottles, a small pot and only two small burns. Further bottling has been postoned until I get back from London though. For now we are enjoying tomatoes just so.

I was also hoping to write about the tomato and mozzarella salad, the lnsalata Caprese we had on Tuesday. I nearly did because the pictures are good and the mozzarella di bufala noteworthy, but if the truth be known, the tomatoes, cuore di bue, although handsome were really disappointing – not by England-in-1979 standards – but disappointing nonetheless. So I’ll just tell you about these tiny tomatoes, the ones in the pictures, i pomodori ciliegini, called maria vittoria I think, from near Naples. Perfect little things, clinging to the vine, slightly wrinkled, the skin thick, the flesh meaty, intense with flavour, sweet and spicy.

Having eaten at least a dozen straight from the paper bag – they literally pop in your mouth – we made bruschetta al pomodoro. Tomatoes on toast to me.

We cut the tomatoes in half, the larger ones in quarters, and put them in a bowl with first, a pinch of coarse salt, then after the salt, a few good glugs of extra virgin olive oil,  and some torn – not cut – basil leaves. Stir. We let the tomatoes sit, macerating, releasing their juices while we toasted two slices of sour dough bread – obviously in an ideal world we would have a grill over a wood fire. We rubbed the toast with half a clove of peeled garlic and then shared the tomatoes and their oily, tomatoey, salty, juices between the two slices. Vincenzo poured a little more oil over his.

There was some sheeps milk ricotta too, in case we wanted to squash some on top! But we ended up leaving it for supper. Bread, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt – what with all those years of deprivation –  I couldn’t ask for more. Good things indeed. We ate our bruschetta sitting by the front door. The heat spell has broken, and so as we ate a cool breeze whipped happily between our two rooms. Vincenzo was obsessed, as are all the Sicilians I know, that the breeze would give him a cramp. It did.

I must note that the tomato situation has improved vastly in the UK in the last 20 years – especially with trailblazing organic growers like Riverford farm.

48 Comments

Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomatoes, Uncategorized

Frying tonight

The golden, orange tipped flowers attached to the end of each courgette (zucchini) are female. The slightly smaller flowers with long, firm stems that grow directly, shooting really, from the main stem of the plant – like the ones in the jug above – are male. Both can be eaten.

At this time of year, when the market stalls in Testaccio are heavy with crates of pale green, blossom tipped zucchini Romano and bunches of their delicate flowers, we often have courgette flowers in salad. Torn into green leaves, or even better, into thin shavings of courgette dressed with olive oil and salt. I like a couple of bright yellow flowers tucked into some warm piazza bianca with milky mozzarella. We often add them – right at the end with a handful of basil – to courgette carbonara or fusilli with buttery courgettes. They are lovely in summer minestrone.

But maybe the nicest and most delicious way to eat courgette flowers, is to grab them by the tail, dip them in batter and fry them in very hot oil until they are crisp and golden.

Until this summer I busied myself with salad and Carbonara and left the dipping and frying to others, most notably the pizzeria Nuovo Mondo on Via Amerigo Vespucci. Once a week, usually Friday or Sunday, we make our familiar pizza pilgrimage; walking past the piazza and Marcello’s flower stall, crossing Via Branca and passing the old Testaccio football club – which is now a depressing betting shop – before turning into via Amerigo Vespucci. Sometime we pit stop at Giolitti for an apertivo; campari for Vincenzo, prosecco for me, before taking a table in our favourite pizzeria. Having worked our way through the menu we’re pretty set in our ways now. Medium birra alla spina and capricciosa for me, and small birra alla spina and marinara for the small Sicilian. And while we wait for the vast, thin crusted pizzas to be dragged from the red hot bowels of the wood oven, while we watch the expert hands of the pizzaroli spinning and shaping, a mozzarella filled rice coquette; suppli for Vincenzo and a deep-fried courgette flower; fiori di zucca for me.

The fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo, like those served at most pizzeria and many trattoria in Rome, are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy then dipped in batter and fried. They are quite delicious things usually served on a little white plate on top of a square of brown paper. They should be freshly fried, straight from the hot oil, so tongue scaldingly hot. You wait a few seconds and then grab the crisp golden cocoon with a paper napkin. You bite into the crisp batter which gives way to the soft forgiving flower petals – a nice contrast – and then finally a soft pool of anchovy infused mozzarella. For the fish and cheese together dubious among you I suggest you try these.

But as much as I adore the fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo and our other Roman haunts, the best fried courgette flowers I’ve ever eaten were in Puglia, during that hot, humid and delicious midnight feast at the Masseria. We were presented with a vast platter of golden cocoons, some were filled with mozzarella, other with ricotta I think, but the nicest were the simplest. The male flowers on long elegant stems just so, dipped in the lightest, batter and fried. Crisp and golden on the outside the batter puffed with pride, soft and forgiving within. The secret, the cook willingly – so willingly it was rather surprising after all the secret recipe moments – told us, was beaten egg whites folded into the flour, water and olive oil batter.

I blame Nuovo Mondo for my courgette flower frying procrastination, but then last week just before going to London, in the midst of much fried anchovy experimentation I decided it was time. In the absence of any real recipe or exact quantities, I anticipated lots of experimenting. But things were much simpler than expected.  It turns out that my basic batter recipe – 200ml warm water, 100g plain flour and 2 tbsp of olive oil – with the addition of two stiffy beaten egg whites is a pretty damn marvelous courgette flower batter. Delicate and light. But not too light, you want some body and substance. I have repeated this tasty excercise twice more, just to make sure it wasn’t a fantastic fluke.

It’s really important you allow the batter a nice long rest – at least two hours in the fridge (I also add a couple of ice cubes) before folding in the beaten egg whites. Oh, and it’s important you beat the egg whites until they are so stiff you can invert the bowl over your head – my sous chef does this. Once you have added the egg white, dip and then fry the courgette flowers immediately.

On a practical note remember to wash the flowers very carefully, they will probably be providing a pretty home for lots of little insects. Dry them gently with a soft clean cloth and remove the pistils from female flowers, and stamens from the male flowers.

The male flower is perfect because the stem provides a tail with which you can hold to dip the flower in the batter and then lower it gently into the pan. Make sure you coat each flower generously with batter. Fry in small batches, allowing the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a wooden fork so they cook evenly. Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them out using a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately.

If your eggs are large you will probably only need one.

Fried courgette flowers (fiori di zucca)

  • 15 courgette flowers
  • 200ml warm water
  • 100g plain flour (I used Italian 00)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 egg whites beaten until they form stiff peaks
  • vegetable oil for frying

Wash the zucchini/courgette flowers carefully and remove the pistils from female flowers and stamens from the male flowers. Pat them dry with a soft, clean cloth.

Using a balloon whisk mix the warm water and flour and then add the olive oil, it will have the consistency of single cream. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours – you can add a couple of icecubes.

Whisk the eggs whites until they form stiff peaks. The whites should be so stiff you should be able to invert the bowl over your head.

Using a metal spoon gently fold the whites into the batter. Add a pinch of salt.

Heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (but no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute or so then it’s ready.

Working in small batches dip the flowers in the batter and then gently lower them into a pan. Allow the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a fork so they cook evenly.

Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them our with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately with prosecco.

64 Comments

Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables

Tabbouleh

I had no intention of writing about parsley again and I should apologise to those of you who dislike the stuff, this rash of parsley recipes must be very tedious. I wasn’t even planning to post this week considering my imminent departure for a long weekend in London. But then on Wednesday night we jumped in the rusty, trusty red panda, scuttled across a very warm and humid city to go to a concert by the lake in Villa Ada. The concert was fantastic, front row no less – Vincenzo was all glassy eyed. this was proper hero stuff for a reggae drummer – as Toots and the Maytals reminded us all that Reggae’s got soul and that Kingston is Funky.

Just before the concert – it must have been about 9, the light soft and dusty, crickets clicking, mosquito’s anticipating we had food from one of the various stalls that are dotted around the lake. Vincenzo went Indian; rice, a tasty chickpea curry and some odd-looking but rather good Indian cheese balls. I was tempted by the steaming curry, dithered, changed my mind and back again, before deciding it was too warm for such hot food and had a plate of Middle Eastern meze.

I know my plateful was nothing special, it was good, tasty and fresh, but I’ve certainly eaten much better. But under the cypress trees, in the dusky light of Villa Ada, waiting for Toots while the bass player finished the sound check, a creamy blob of chickpea hummus, another of smoky creamed aubergine; baba ganoush, the heap of parsley flecked tabbouleh, all waiting to be scooped up by pitta bread, was just wonderful. More importantly the plateful reminded me of the delights of Middle Eastern food, how long it’s been and most importantly, that in all this parsley fuss, the soup, the pesto, the green sauce, I have overlooked one of my favourites, tabbouleh.

Before coming to Italy I used to cook, in a very niave way I’m sure – quite alot of Middle Eastern inspired food. My family has a flat on Paddington street in London and I lived there for several years. It is fantastically close to the cluster of middle eastern, the Lebanese, Arabic, Persian shops, emporiums and restaurants around Chiltern Street and Edgware Road. Living in the midst of this vibrant and delicious community, eating Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian or Arabic – please forgive my ignorance if it shows –  food at least once, often twice a week, I started to experiment at home. It was at this time my Mum suggested I bought Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food, a stunning and masterful book which although neglected since I moved to Italy, is and always will be one of my favourite food books. I found an original first edition, 1968, dusty, musty, the alluring scent of old pages, in a second-hand bookshop and then read it like a novel. The second thing I thing I made from it – the first was hummus – was rich, earthy and beautifully simple Lebanese tabbouleh.

I’d eaten plenty of tabbouleh before making it myself, delicious most of it, but often slightly wet with tomatoes or bulky with cucumber which seemed to unbalance the delicate seasoning of the dish. Claudia Roden’s recipe is beautifully simple, just soaked and carefully dried bulgur wheat mixed with finely chopped onion – you use you hands so you can squeeze the wheat and onion together so the juice of the onion infuses each grain – and a vast heap of parsley and mint. This green flecked mass- there is as much parsley as bulgur – is dressed simply with lots of olive and lemon juice. It is a marvelous dish, humble and elegant in the same moment, the earthy bulgur, the fragrant grassy parsley, the refreshing mint, the acidic bite of the lemon, the olive oil of course.

I think that tabbouleh is best in the company of others, in both senses. It’s best eaten amidst the chatter and clatter of people, hands, voices and a muddle of different dishes. My ideal plate would be a spoonful of thick yogurt laced with cucumber and mint, another of hummus creamy with tahini (my friend Daniela’s recipe. She is brilliant cook and I am trying to convince her to write in English more), maybe a stuffed vine leaf or a thick slice of grilled halloumi, some sultry baba ganoush . With all this in mind, I was tempted to dash to the shops for yogurt, chickpeas and aubergines. But thrift got the better of mefor a change– the only dash was for bulgur wheat, all the other ingredients were from the fridge. Pork kebabs, a-kind-of-Turkish-shish-kebab I suppose. We marinated the pork for a couple of hours in olive oil, lemon , garlic and crushed bay leaves, then threaded the cubes on skewers and grilled them. I also made a tomato, cucumber, red onion and black olive salad.

Tabbouleh

From Claudia Roden’s marvellous ‘Book of Middle Eastern Food‘ which has been recently updated. I will be keeping my dusty, fusty, beautiful 1968 copy though.

  • 25og Bulgar wheat
  • 5 tablespoons of very finely chopped spring or mild red onion
  • salt and black pepper
  • 50g ( about a cup and a half) of finely chopped parsley
  • 3 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus extra if necessary)
  • 5 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (plus extra if necessary)

Soak the Bulgar wheat in cold water for half and hour, it will expand enormously. Drain it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible with your hands, then spread it out on a clean dry tea towel to dry further.

In a large bowl mix the Bulgar with the onion squeezing it with your hands so the onion penetrates the Bulgar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon and mix well. taste and season, add more oil and lemon if you feel it is necessary, it should be distinctly lemony.

I am off to London tonight. I should really be packing and buying vast hunks of Pecorino Romano to tuck in my suitcases for my siblings or at least getting ready for my last lesson with the little monsters this afternoon. I shouldn’t be typing away. I am already thinking of lunch, the rest of the tabbouleh and the chickpeas that have soaked all night in preparation for some humus. We just need more olives and bread. I have a feeling this might be a bit of a Middle Eastern July here in Rome so I have left the Book of Middle Eastern Food open on the table ready for my return.

Now I am going to pack. Have a great weekend.

31 Comments

Filed under antipasti, food, grains, parsley, Rachel's Diary, recipes