Category Archives: cucina romana

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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and stomach support, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.

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Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti, a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.

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Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so I wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.

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I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least a minute, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good minute the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.

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Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.

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When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.

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Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.

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I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.

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True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.

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Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.

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There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, recipes, soup, Testaccio, Uncategorized, winter recipes

all mixed

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‘Eat your greens’ is something I’ve never needed to be told (cajoled or forced) to do. As a child I happily ploughed my way through large servings of cabbage, brussels sprouts, spinach, spring greens, chard and broccoli. If they were glistening with butter, all the better. I was one of the few who ate the ambiguous heap of so-called greens whose odor lingered (like us) in corners and corridors around the school and appeared on every school lunch plate. ‘What a good little eater‘ relatives and dinner ladies would say. Which confused me, surely they meant what a good big eater? Later I would become a bad little eater, which relatives and dinner ladies had lots to say about, mostly in hushed tones with rolling eyes; bad, sad, spoilt, neglected, attention seeking, perfectionist, pain in the bloody neck. But even during those years, when I had a reputation of restriction to uphold (I was the only one interested in this reputation) I ate my greens.

Lately we have been eating something called misticanza, a mix of leaves and greens prepared by my fruttivendolo Gianluca that is somewhere between delicious and effort. I will come back to this. Now traditionally misticanza, which means a mixture of things, is assortment of leaves, field herbs and aromatic shoots collected at the first signs of spring from the fields surrounding Rome and eaten as a salad. Gillian Riley reminds us this habit of collecting wild plants is a holdover from the days when the poor, unable to afford a doctor, were cared for by countrywomen and their collections of wild plants possessing medicinal qualities.

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Far from seeming medicinal, true misticanza, which often includes young borage, sorrel, wild chicory, dandelion, salad burnet and poppy greens is a flavoursome delight, sweet and bitter, mostly tender but occasionally robust and just a little hairy. Which far from being unattractive means it’s full of character and delicious, at least I think so (I feel much the same about several other things.) You could of course opt for a smoother, more clean-shaven misticanza, the gathering is up to you, whether it be in your garden, field, or in my case local market.

These days in Rome the term misticanza is also used for an assortment of wild and cultivated greens  that need to be boiled in order to be edible. The quality of the misticanza depends on the source. Kind and reliable Gianluca often has a opinionated mix of properly hairy, slightly prickly borage, sweet escarole and chard, dandelion, wild chicory and a woody green that I still don’t know the name of. Having plunged the well-washed rabble into a pan of well-salted fast boiling water for a few minutes, you then drain it and saute it in plenty of garlic scented extra virgin olive oil.

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Normally I eat this more substantial misticanza just so, I adore the deep-green engaging substance of it, a textured, oily tangle scented with garlic. In fact I often sport a tuft of chicory between my front teeth all afternoon to prove it.  Yesterday however, having bought a slice of pure white,  properly fresh ricotta di pecora from my norcineria, we ate the misticanza with pasta.

This dish is a nice illustration of three things I have learned since living in Italy. The first, is insaporire, to give flavor, which I have written about before. By cooking the peeled and gently crushed garlic in olive oil over a low flame until fragrant and just turning gold the olive oil is given the sweet and savory flavour of the garlic. The garlic is then removed. The second is ripassare, to re-cook, on this occasion the boiled, drained misticanza in the garlic scented olive oil so the soft, rag-like greens can absorb the olive oil hungrily. The third, is using a little of the pasta cooking water, cloudy and slightly thick with starch, to thin the ricotta, parmesan and black pepper mixture thus making a cream which coats and then brings the ingredients together into a soft but substantial and unified whole. Eat your white and greens…not that you need telling.

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Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

You can of course use whatever greens you like. I like the combination of sweet and bitter greens and the different textures they offer. You know your greens I’m sure. Keep in mind the greens are boiled,  so quite substantial leafy ones work well. Keep very tender, delicate greens and leaves for salad.

serves 4

  • 300 g mixed greens (borage, escarole, radish leaves, chicory, spinach, chard, rocket. sorrel, chervil)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 300 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)
  • 40 g freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper
  • 450 g rigatoni

Wash the greens thoroughly and then boil them for a few minutes in a large pan of well-salted boiling water. Use tongs to remove the greens from the pan into a colander. Keep the water for the pasta.

In a large warm bowl (I run mine under the hot tap and then dry it) mash the ricotta with the parmesan, plenty of black pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of the (slightly green) cooking water then beat it into a soft cream.

Bring the water back to a fast boil and add the pasta. Squeeze all the water from the greens and then chop them coarsely

Meanwhile in a frying pan over a low flame, saute the garlic – you have peeled and gently crushed with the back of a knife – in the olive oil until it is just turning golden and fragrant. Remove the garlic. Add the chopped greens and cook for a few minutes, stirring so each leaf is coated with oil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a cupful of the pasta cooking water and then tip it onto the ricotta, add the greens and then toss the ingredients together thoroughly, adding a splash more of the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems stiff. Serve.

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Filed under cucina romana, Eating In Testaccio, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, vegetables

what remains

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One morning at about 9 it crossed my mind that I might actually live at the noisiest point on one of the noisiest streets in Rome. A queue of morning traffic, engines low but persistent, crawled along via Galvani, horns sounding indignantly at roadworks, traffic lights and i motorini who seemed to taunt the crawl with their cheeky weaving. A fire engine, siren waling, burst from the station on the corner, split traffic and sped past our window, while a pair of road-sweeping-rubbish-crunching vehicles went about their daily business slowly and loudly. Inside, my son, incensed that he wasn’t allowed smarties for breakfast, lay on the floor howling.

Dressed hurriedly and still shuddering with the last gasping sobs, we joined the fray on Via Galvani, which now included some argy-bargy over double parking, blasphemous insults being thrown back and forth like a ball. We bought two squares of hot pizza bianca from Guerrini and then walked past the fire station, down via Marmorata and into the cemetery to visit a poet and count cats.

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In a crook of the ancient city wall, The Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery is an easy place to overlook. Which you might consider a good thing. But then you would miss the epitome of a secret garden just minutes from the chaos, a serene sanctuary of grass, gravel paths and graves, some of which rest under marbled-feathered angel wings. It’s a place that manages to be both bright and shady, overhung with umbrella pines and cypresses and heavy with the tangled scent of jasmine, oleander and plumbago.

Forbidden by catholic laws, protestants and other non-catholics have been buried on this site for hundreds of years. However the cemetery was only formally defined by the Holy See in 1821. It was also in 1821 that the young English poet John Keats, after three months in Rome seeking a better climate for his worsening tuberculosis, died and was buried in the cemetery. Two years later the reckless Percy Bysshe Shelley, having drowned at sea, was also buried in the cemetery, as was the son of Goethe;  the Russian painter Karl Brullov and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Here are the graves of protestants, orthodox christians, jews, muslims, atheists and agnostics, the graves of writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets whose tomb inscriptions are engraved in more than fifteen languages.

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Sitting on a bench, counting cats in the sweet calm and unlikely November sun, I realised it was the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead and I was in a cemetery. An egalitarian cemetery in which the most eclectic and creative, often young, sometimes reckless, occasionally revolutionary group of people are buried, many of them non-Italian’s (and often English) who made their home in Italy. We went to visit Keats where I managed four lines of Ode to Autumn, then Shelly, where I managed three of Ozymandias, before realising my son was attempting to climb on top of a tomb. We said goodbye to as many souls as we could, crunched through the gravel – which is hilarious if you are two – and left the calm for the noise – which had subsided – once more.

Later the same day baking fave dolci or sweet beans, felt appropriate too, after all, the ritual of offering fave (broad beans) as solace for visiting souls on the 2nd of November dates back to pre-christian times. Over time the fave offered evolved into sweet biscuits called fave dolci or fave dei morti. Which aren’t actually fave at all, but crisp almond biscuits, aromatised with citrus or cinnamon and dusted with icing sugar to look like fave, or little bones, hence the other name ossi di morti. A sweet treat for visiting souls and a reminder of family joy and sorrow.

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They are simple to make. Having pound almonds and fine sugar into dusty crumbs, you add butter, an egg, the zest of a lemon and just enough flour to bring everything together into a sticky dough. Very sticky, don’t worry! Then with well-floured hands you temper a spoonful of the dough first into a ball and then – on a well-floured board – a log. You then cut the log into short lengths, move them onto a lined baking tray and then press each piece gently in the center, ostensibly making it look like a fave. Once the fave dolci are baked, you dust them with icing sugar.

Fave dolci are crisp but with the soft, round flavour of toasted almond and the distinct note of citrus, from the, um, citrus zest. They are a little heavier than amaretti – which is the small quantity of flour – but are still light, brittle enough to shatter between your teeth and then melt in your mouth. They are good with an espresso and please – if not all – most souls on most days.

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Fave dolci (almond beans)

Adapted from The Brilliant Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini De Vita

  • 100 g almonds
  • 100g fine sugar
  • 80 g plain flour plus more for dusting
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 25 g butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 medium egg

Using a pestle and mortar or blender, crush or pulse the sugar and almond into a fine flour. Transfer to a bowl and then add the flour, butter, zest and eggs and using a spoon bring the mixture together into a sticky dough. Do not be tempted to add more flour at this point, the mixture should be sticky.

With well-floured hands break the dough into 6 pieces and then on a well floured board roll each piece into a 2 cm thick cylinder and then cut each cylinder into 2 cm long sections. Press each piece with the tip of your index finger so they look like fave and then arrange them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180° / 350F for 20 minutes or until the biscuits are just pale golden. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

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If you are coming to Rome, I highly recommend a visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Try and get there as early as possible (it opens at nine) and you could well have the place all to yourself. Also if you understand Italian, Alesandro Rubinetti and Teatro Reale organise excellent and evocative walking tours of the cemetery.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cucina romana, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

losing my marbles

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Years ago I signed up for a book club. Not a book club as we know them nowadays, meaning a group of people who have ostensibly read the same book meeting to discuss it while drinking the same number of bottles as participants (or maybe that is just us), but a book sales club. This book sales club ran adverts in the Guardian newspaper and I, aged eighteen and in possession of my first cheque book and ignoring the suspicious mutterings of others, was seduced by the introductory offer of a free dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia of opera and two ‘beautifully bound‘ editions: Keat’s poetry and Jane Austen’s Emma. I signed up and sent off my subscription fee in the form of a cheque for a tiny sum.

My free books arrived and they were, as promised, beautifully bound. I spent an afternoon drunk on the smell of virgin books, plastic bubble wrap and youthful hubris. I also had a sip of the catalogue listing other beautifully bound books I might like to order. Which I set aside of course, I wasn’t about to be seduced by any of that! I’d paid my fee, I’d received my free books, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. There was a printed sheet at the bottom of the box, but I didn’t read it, after all, who needs small print when you have Ode to a Nightingale, Emma Woodhouse and a small reference library?

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A month later another box of books arrived and a letter congratulating me on my decision to keep the limited edition books along with a bill for said books and three new even more bloody beautifully bound volumes they thought I might be interested in. I panic opened the whole lot, popped an entire sheet of bubble wrap in record time, read the small print, panicked some more and then took drastic action and hid the box under the bed. I did the same with the box and bill a month later.

I can’t actually remember how everything was resolved, teary admissions, regression, trips to the post office, my dad and his cheque book. Why I bring this up today is because as I dug marbled beans from their equally marbled pods a few days ago and while Luca played with an electrical socket, I remembered the infamous book club and books, one of which is on my shelf here in Rome. Books whose outsides are cloth bound and inside covers are a double spread of marbled paper;  exquisite aqueous designs in ivory and crimson that mottle, swirl and swell and are reminiscent of borlotti beans. Books like beans, or beans like books, or simply a mottled and tenuous link.

I’ve cooked borlotti beans twice this week. The first batch was fresh and used to make pasta e fagioli. The second batch was dried Borlotto di Lamon from Veneto, more subdued in colour: beige and burgundy but almost as lovely as their fresh cousins. The name borlotti by the way, come from the verb borlare or tumble and evokes the way the oldest plants grow.

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Unlike fresh borlotti, dried beans need soaking for at least eight hours and ideally overnight before being brought to the boil in fresh water and then simmered until tender and, having lost their mottled charm, turned soft chestnut-brown. They are then ready to be simmered in tomato sauce: fagioli al pomodoro.

I’ve already sung the praises of my mouli/food mill/passa verdure, my favorite kitchen tool, more than once. I will again. Nothing, except maybe a fine sieve and some deft work with the back of a spoon, gives quite the same, smooth but distinct and grainy quality to plum tomatoes/soup/ poached fruit/ root vegetables as a food mill. For this recipe, the sophisticatedly named: beans in sauce, you need 500 g of milled plum tomatoes. Having milled, crushed or blended the tomatoes you then add them to a pan in which you have sautéed a small onion, a rib of celery and a some chopped flat leafed parsley in plenty of olive oil.

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Once you have united the beans with the sauce, you stir and let the pan bubble gently for another 10 minutes or so. You may need to add a little more water as the final dish should be fluid (but not thin and runny) and roll easily from the spoon. Be generous with the seasoning. The beans are good straight away, but even better after a few hours, better still the next day when the flavours have settled and the beans have absorbed even more of sauce.

Borlotti beans, cooked until tender, so creamy and nutty and tasting somewhere between a chestnut and a kidney bean, simmered in well-seasoned smooth tomato sauce are good, tasty and satisfying to both make and eat. This is food that pleases (rather than impresses), food that calms even the most hyperactive two-year old and a mother who keeps losing her marbles.

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Fagioli al pomodoro – beans with tomato

Adapted from The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen Fant. The original recipe is for fresh beans and also includes 50 g of prosciutto fat (or guanciale) which I am sure makes it even more delicious – not that it wasn’t delicious without. It really is worth seeking out best quality plum tomatoes and beans. Three sage leaves added to the beans while they cook gives a lovely musky flavour to the beans.

serves 4

  • 1 kg of fresh borlotti in their pods or 300 g dried borlotti beans soaked overnight
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or lard
  • a small onion
  • a small rib of celery
  • a few fat stalks of flat leaved parsley
  • 500 g best quality plum tomatoes, milled or crushed
  • salt and pepper

If you are using dried beans soak them in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours or overnight. Drain the soaked beans, put them back in a heavy- based pan, cover by at least two inches with fresh water, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the beans for one hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from an hour to three to cook. Have patience. Keep the beans at a simmer and taste as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally. Add a pinch of salt after an hour of cooking. Once the beans are cooked, pull them from the heat and leave them to cook in their cooking water.

If you are using fresh beans, shell them and then boil them in salted water for about 25 minutes or until tender.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Finely chop the celery and parsley – both stalk and leaf. Warm the olive oil in a deep saute pan and add the onion, celery and parsley then saute over a gentle flame unit soft and translucent.

Mill, crush or blend the tomatoes until they are smooth and add to the onion, celery and parsley. Stir and season with salt and pepper and leave the pan simmering for 15 minutes. Add the drained beans (keep the broth), stir and leave cooking for another 10 minutes, adding a little of the bean broth if nesseary. Check seasoning. Allow the beans to sit for 10 minutes (or for hours) or so before serving.

These beans are even better the next day, maybe even better the day after that. If your kitchen is cool you can leave them overnight in the coolest corner and then reheat them gently the next day before serving., If you keep them longer than a day, store them in the fridge but remember to pull them out an hour or so before you want to gently re-heat and then eat.

We had our beans with fried eggs and pizza bianca. I am sure they would also go well with sausages or pork chop.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, food, Roman food, supper dishes, tomato sauce

the other quarter

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Now the leaves are falling, if I lean precariously from my balcony I can just about make out the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull through the branches of the trees that line Via Galvani. God and bull sit above the entrance of the Ex-mattatoio, Rome’s sprawling ex-slaughterhouse that closed for business in 1975 .

I stood looking up at the bull and the god, then down at the collage of cobblestones and cigarette butts, with my friend Joanna nearly nine years ago. The Ex-mattatoio was the one of the stops on Joanna’s self-styled architectural tour of Testaccio. A tour for which Joanna wore red and yellow high heels, with style it has to said, not a stumble, which is quite an achievement if you consider the cobblestones and libel worthy pavements. A tour that steered us from imperial ruins, domes and sepia-stained piazze down river to a quarter shaped like a quarter or a wedge of cheese. A quarter crisscrossed with streets filled with 19th century residential blocks, boasting a futurist post office, a boisterous market that smelt ripe and bosky, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a plethora of trattorie and bars I wanted to try and a charm I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In short: where I wanted to live.

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To understand something of Testaccio and the Ex-mattatoio is to understand something of Roman food – or one aspect of it at least – and therefore part of the story of Rome. Food as story or story as food or something akin to that. The area has been associated with food trading since ancient Roman times when it was a port and sprawl of warehouses. In fact Testaccio takes its name from an archeological site called Monte dei Cocci that rises somnolently at the bottom of the wedge, which is in fact a pile of broken but neatly stacked amphorae dating from the fourth century. The Monte is now the hub for a cluster of nightclubs that are burrowed into its base, meaning at night ancient amphorae jolt in time to drum and bass, latin jazz and eighties disco: ancient and everyday colliding with almost banal ease.

It was in a bar in the shadow of Monte dei Cocci, while her dog tried to avoid the shameless advances of my anarchic son, that my neighbour, sociologist and writer Irene Ranaldi talked to me about the part of Rome I have lived in for nearly nine years.

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Until it was developed in the late nineteenth century, Testaccio was an open space dotted with ruinous clues as to its ancient significance and vines producing wine grapes for industrious Romans. During and after 1873, a zoning plan turned the former port and open space into a quarter of public housing, factories and the slaughterhouse. It was supposed to be the ultimate in working class neighbourhoods where thousands of immigrants from all over Italy attracted by the promise of work and the metropolitan lifestyle Roman had to offer, could live.

For the next hundred years the slaughterhouse was quite literally the bloody, beating heart of the quarter, providing work and meat for those who could afford it. The workers of course couldn’t afford the meat (and little else, poverty was endemic), but were paid in kind with the bits nobody else wanted, meaning the offal that made up a fifth of the animal’s weight. It was this quinto quarto or fifth quarter that the workers took home to their wives or local trattoria owners, who in turn, inventively and resourcefully turned it into tasty, sustaining meals.

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This is the uncompromising and distinctive quinto quarto cooking, a style of cooking evolved through necessity but continued for posterity, taste and because the bits neglected became the bits selected (by some at least). A style of cooking you still find in trattorie and homes: ox tail cooked slowly with celery, tripe with tomato sauce and dusted with pecorino cheese, lamb’s offal with artichokes, grilled sweetbreads and intestines. These are dishes that merit attention and  – for some of us –  a leap beyond misconceptions, squeamishness and a possible moral crisis because they are tasty and good, because they are part of the animal we (may or may not) decide to eat, because they are dishes that tell a story.

Which is why I think it’s important I mention them here, after all, they are as much a part (albeit a less regular one) of this chaotic – and messy, so messy, I am a domestic disgrace – Roman-kitchen-of-sorts as freshly baked pizza bianca, battered courgette blossoms, pasta with beans, spaghetti al pomodoro, braised beef, artichokes, curls of puntarelle, tiny sweet peas, fave, ricotta, sour cherries, sweet-yeated buns, strawberry scented grapes, ugly hazelnut biscuits that taste buono and other good things.

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My grandpa Gerry would have loved today’s recipe: Coratella con carciofi , so would my Grandpa John, although the artichokes might have given him heartburn, but then most things gave him heartburn. All my grandparents knew the merits, both economically and gastronomically, of offal, that if you eat meat it is disingenuous and wasteful not to eat the whole animal. My brother does too, Ben this post is in no small part for you. Coratella is lambs offal: liver, lungs and heart, a beautiful, complex cluster – it is, it is I will hear no different –  of rosy-pink, coral and chestnut-brown. Cooked well, coratella is a textual and flavoursome delight, the liver is creamy and delicate, the lungs pillowy and tasting rather like pot-roasted pork and the heart rich and thick. Carciofi are artichokes, these are the first, long spindly things that really do remind me artichokes are wild thistles.

Probably the most difficult thing is finding some fresh lambs coratella from well-reared animals. Persistence with a good butcher should do the trick. You also need a keen hand to ease the lungs away from the membrane. You need a keen hand too, for trimming the artichokes, not that it is complicated, more finicky, I hope this is helpful. Once all the elements are prepared it is just a matter of frying them in the correct order.

First the onion and artichokes, adding a little white wine and then leaving the pan at a burping-bubble of a braise until the wedges are tender. Then in another pan you fry the coratella, adding the parts to the pan according to how quickly they cook, so first the lungs, then the heart and finally just for the last few minutes the liver. The coratella is cooked when the lungs whistle and all the parts are lightly browned and cooked through. To finish, you unite the meat and the artichokes, season with salt and pepper, lemon juice and maybe a little mint, then serve.

Food with a story, a story with food.

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Coratella con carciofi – lambs pluck with artichokes

Adapted  from a recipe in il talismano della Felicità  and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento

serves 4

  • 4 artichokes
  •  a lemon
  • a small onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil or 50 g butter or lard
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 5oo g lamb’s pluck (lung, heart and liver)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • fresh mint and another lemon

Trim the artichokes, rubbing them with the cut side of a lemon to stop them discolouring and then slice them into thin wedges. Keep the artichokes in a bowl acidulated with the juice of half a lemon until you are ready to use them.

Peel and dice the onion. Warm 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a saute pan and then fry the onion until soft and translucent. Add the drained artichoke wedges, stir well so each one is coated with oil, then pour over the white wine and reduce the heat so the pan bubbles gently. Allow the artichokes to cook/braise for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Add a little more wine or water if the pan looks dry. Set the artichokes aside.

Prepare the pluck by pulling the lungs away from the membrane and then cut all three parts into small pieces.

In another pan  warm the other 2 tbsp of olive oil and then add the lungs and cook for 10 minutes, then add the heart and cook for another 10 and finally the liver which should take another 5 or six minutes.

Put the other pan with the artichokes back on another flame and then once the meat is lightly browned and cooked through add it to the artichokes, season generously with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon, maybe some ripped mint and if you feel it needs it, another slosh of wine, cook for another few minutes, stirring every now and then. Serve immediately.

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Filed under artichokes, coratella, cucina romana, offal, quinto quarto, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food